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October 30, 2006

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Welcome to the October 30, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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U.S. Investigates Voting Machines' Venezuela Ties
New York Times (10/29/06) P. 1; Golden, Tim

The federal government is looking into last year's takeover of an American electronic voting machine manufacturer by a Venezuelan company. Smartmatic Corporation was a fledgling firm before being chosen by the Venezuelan government to handle the country's election machinery. Several months before this decision, another small voting machine company, owned by some of the same people as Smartmatic, received a $200,000 investment from a government agency and joined Smartmatic in its bid for Venezuela's electronic voting contract. Smartmatic then acquired Sequoia Voting Systems, which has voting equipment in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Recent public documents do not clearly show involvement of the young engineers who started Smartmatic, and the company has been restructured into an intricate web of offshore companies and foreign trusts. Carolyn B. Maloney, congresswoman from New York said, "The government should know who owns our voting machines; that is a national security concern...There seems to have been an obvious attempt to obscure the ownership of the company." The Miami Herald revealed that Bitza, the company that received a $200,000 investment from the government, was inactive before receiving the money from the Venezuelan Finance Ministry, which took a 27 percent stake in the company. Only weeks before Bitza and Smartmatic won their contract, Omar Montilla, former adviser to Chavez on election technology, was appointed to Bitza's board. Sequoia's Mitch Stoller insists that "no foreign government or entity, including Venezuela, has ever held any stake in Smartmatic." Some Sequoia voting machines experienced delays and irregularities in Chicago during the March primary. Some of these problems were due to a software component that transmits results to a central computer that was developed in Venezuela. For information on ACM's many e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Nanotube Computing Breakthrough
Technology Review (10/30/06) Bullis, Kevin

A major hurdle to the development of ultrafast computers that use carbon nanotubes has been overcome. Researchers at Northwestern University have found a way to take material that contains batches of nanotubes and segregate the nanotubes into groups having the exact specifications needed for high-performance electronics. While computers that utilize nanotubes are still many years away, high-definition displays, solar cells, and devices for nanotoxicity testing are among short-term applications for the technology. Using this new technique, nanotubes are separated by metallic or semiconducting properties, and by diameter. Sorting by diameter was expected by the researchers, but the ability to sort by electronic type surprised them. Techniques used to accomplish these distinctions and create logic circuits from carbon nanotubes are "all pretty tedious," according to Mildred Dresselhaus, professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. It is not yet possible to increase the scale of production to manufacture chips with millions of transistors to compete with present computers. The breakthrough occurred when surfactants were added to a batch of nanotubes and were found to assemble in different concentrations, creating density differences that could be measured. Densities could then be sorted out using ultra-centrifugation. Andrew Rinzler, professor of physics at the University of Florida at Gainesville, says this method has produced "the best data I've seen so far," resulting in batches that are sufficiently pure for high-performance applications. The ultra-centrifugation process could theoretically be scaled up for industrial production, says Mark Hersham, materials-science and engineering professor and one of the Northwestern researchers. Hersham claims to have developed transistors using thin-film meshes of semiconducting nanotubes, the type that could be used in controlling pixels in flat screen TVs.
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Researchers Trying to Make Control Systems More Reliable, Autonomous
News-Gazette (10/29/06) Kline, Greg

University of Illinois researchers have put together the Center for Autonomous Engineering Systems and Robotics (CAESAR) in order to encourage research across fields, with the goal of making progress in the reliability of autonomous systems. By bringing together various areas of research under one umbrella, "all the good problems these days [that] are at the boundaries between disciplines" can be addressed, according to Mark Spong, a University of Illinois electrical and computer engineering professor. Today, autonomy is being incorporated into embedded systems, surgical procedures, and even household chores; experiencing progress both theoretically and functionally. The UI center will be part of the trust institute, which is comprised of 60 faculty and staff members and more than 200 graduate students collaborating to create essential systems that are verifiably trustworthy and resistant to accidental malfunction or attack. UI professor Bill Sanders, director of the trust institute, says the center will broaden our idea of what autonomous systems, including robots, can accomplish in fields once considered too critical for them. CASEAR will take on issues such as interaction between one autonomous system and another, or between an autonomous system and a human, and even who would prevail in the case of conflicting assessment. One of the first projects being carried out under the umbrella is that of UI math professor Robert Ghrist, computer science professor Steven LaValle, and colleagues. They are developing methods to get networks of simple sensors, such as motion detectors, to cooperate in assembling the smaller pieces of data each gathers into a larger picture of their environment. Their results could be used by the military to monitor troop movements, or by civilians for assessing agricultural or weather conditions.
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'Gambits' Are a Risk to Internet Domain System
International Herald Tribune (10/29/06) Shannon, Victoria

ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf is cautioning against undue haste in integrating non-Latin characters within the Domain Name System. Not pointing a finger at anybody, but mentioning China and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Cerf says that politics and allegations that the U.S. has too much control of the DNS could lead to a splintering of the World Wide Web. "My concern is the potential for suddenly choosing another path after ICANN has already put in six years of work on this," says Cerf. "Either they will fail, or they will break the Internet." Presently, only 37 Western characters can be used in Internet addresses. ICANN has begun to implement a plan that would allow tens of thousands of other characters from the world's various languages to be used, but testing has shown the potential for problems. "It is turning out to be quite difficult to integrate this very large character set in a way that is safe and stable and will work with many applications for many decades to come - to future-proof it," says Cerf. The comments come on the eve of the first ever U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum in Athens and a week before the ITU will open a three-week conference in Turkey in which the internationalization of Internet governance is sure to be a key topic.
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Semantic-Web Technologies for Enhanced Knowledge Maintenance
IST Results (10/30/06)

An IST project known as SEKT has set out to achieve greater effectiveness in the knowledge management that is critical to navigating the growing amount of information available through Internet technologies. In order to lay the groundwork for Semantic Web development, SEKT has named its three objectives: ontology and metadata technology, knowledge discovery, and human language technology. Semantic Web software is being created to semi-automatically learn ontology and extract metadata, and perform upkeep on both. Middleware will allow integration of all SEKT machines and development of methodology for using semantically-based knowledge management. "The ontology-learning software--which is based on knowledge discovery techniques--will develop ontologies populated with metadata, by using software employing human-language technology," says project coordinator John Davies of British Telecommunications (BT). Three case studies are being used to evaluate the software components and methodology, and feedback has been "very positive," says Davies. Newly appointed judges in Spain employ the SEKT technology to gain assistance from more experienced judges. BT employees can utilize a more powerful window when accessing the company's digital library using SEKT, which allows them to share information in a common framework. "It is clear that Semantic technologies can help address the challenges that knowledge workers face in accessing the right information at the right time," Davies says. While SEKT ends in December 2006, several initiatives are in the early stages of exploiting its results, in fields such as law and bid management.
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At 30, Crypto Still Lacks Usability, Experts Say
CNet (10/28/06) Evers, Joris

Thirty years of public key cryptography were recently celebrated and remembered by experts in Mountain View, Calif. Much of the discussion centered on the obstacles presented by the U.S. government, which were lifted in 1996. Brian Snow, a retired technical director at the National Security Agency, was present to provide the government's perspective. "This, for us, was a weapon," Snow said. "And this was possible free release of weapons and we needed to defend the nation to other nations who could be opponents at the time." Jim Bidzos, who was chief executive of RSA in 1986, recalled the difficulty presented by the NSA in moving cryptography out of the research stage and into development: "We found ourselves competing with NSA, especially in the 90s." One of RSA's first customers, Ray Ozzie, currently chief software architect at Microsoft, was working on securing what would become Lotus Notes in 1986 when he ran into government restrictions. "I had no clue," he said. "Initially we had wanted to use hefty keys...We had spent years working on it, and after the third meeting (with the government), I thought we were dead." With the rise of Web 1994, borders were eliminated and the need for secure electronic commerce arose. Government export regulations were eased by 1996, allowing widespread adoption of cryptography. While the government has taken a completely opposite view on cryptography, often requiring it, "the remaining issue that is big today on the plate is lack of quality on the products," said Snow. With Microsoft, Ozzie plans to incorporate encryption into products, taking compliance issues into consideration. "In early years, we as an industry could blame the system for controlling the pace of innovation because the government was throwing up roadblocks," explained Ozzie. "At this moment in time, it's laziness on the part of the industry in terms of not embracing architecture and the importance of human interface in design of secure systems."
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Embedded Microprocessor Design Required System-Level Approach
Electronic News (10/27/06) Steffora-Mutscher, Ann

Advancements in software-rich embedded systems and the changing relationship between hardware and software were the topics of discussion when Electronic News sat down with leading executives of companies in the field at the Design Automation Conference in July. Serge Leef, general manager of the system level engineering group at Mentor Graphics spoke of "a design community that is partitioned between hardware and software teams that don't really communicate all that well and their design flows are completely disjointed." VaST Systems CEO Alain Labat claimed that "we are facing an inflection point...where for the first time the ability for traditional EDA to move out from the traditional hardware/shrinking marketplace...and we have to realize that we have an enormous opportunity to actually address the needs of the embedded software design community." National Instruments CEO Dr. James Truchard says, "The idea is to create a development environment that can do both design and the test that goes with it." His approach aims to improve embedded systems the way the PC improved the desktop: by developing standard platforms with substantial capability that run the same software development tools in order to do away with the present, difficult integration. A major problem has been that software development occurs much faster than hardware development, so a completed IC will have to sit and wait for appropriate software. Hardware/software concurrence has been discussed for years, and the recent changes in software content is coming from an increasing cost of hardware design. IC designers no longer handle SoCs, software designers have taken over this role. According to Truchard, "fundamentally, you're building a framework or platform for the software then defining the hardware to match it. In my mind, the hardware is what's left over when you finish the software."
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Vision-Body Link Tested in Robot Experiments
New Scientist (10/27/06) Simonite, Tom

More robotics researchers are conducting experiments that combine motor activity and sensory input with hopes of gaining new insight into how to build more life-like machines. Researchers say physical movement factors into what one senses from the environment, and that interaction is a key to intelligence. Indiana University neuroscientist Olaf Sporns is pursuing "embodied cognition" research with Tokyo University roboticist Max Lungarella that involves a four-legged walking robot, a humanoid torso, and a simulated wheeled robot, each with a computer vision system that is designed to focus on red objects. The walking and wheeled robots head toward nearby red blocks, while the humanoid robot clutches the red objects and brings them closer to its eyes for a better view. Information is gathered from the joints and field of vision in order to measure movement and vision, and a mathematical technique is applied to discover whether there is a causal relationship between sensory input and physical movement. "Information flows from sensory events to motor events and also from motor events to sensory events," says Sporns, who adds that taking advantage of the information flow could allow researchers to develop better robots. "Using similar approaches, it should be possible to produce more efficient cognitive systems, like those in nature, without specializing on a particular task," says Daniel Polani, an artificial intelligence expert at Hertfordshire University in the United Kingdom.
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Rutkowska: Anti-Virus Software Is Ineffective
eWeek (10/26/06) Naraine, Ryan

Stealth malware researcher Joanna Rutkowska recently demonstrated a way to infect Windows Vista with a rootkit and introduced Blue Pill, a new concept that uses AMD's SVM/Pacifica virtualization technology to create "100 percent undetectable malware." Hardware virtualization, in her opinion, "has been introduced a little bit too early; before the major operating system venders were able to redesign their systems so that they could make a conscious use of this technology, hopefully preventing its abuse." Blue Pill operates by creating a hardware virtual machine and moves the native operating system to this virtual machine, becoming a "hypervisor" itself. The native system doesn't even realize it's been moved to a virtual machine. Rutkowska explains that operating systems need to be aware of such virtualization and have their own hypervisor. In her opinion, "we need at least two to three years to implement a foolproof protection against hardware virtualization-based malware." Her ideal solution would be "integrity checking of all system components," but she realizes the difficulties involved. Blue Pill is an example of this undetectable, Type III, malware, which "does not introduce a single byte modification into kernel, or other processes' memory." The only chance for detection would be finding side effects. Rutkowska believes it is better to have "a good integrity-based scanner, even if it's not capable of detecting Type III malware, rather than having a classic anti-virus product which only tries to find the known 'bad things.'" Stealth malware can silently subvert an operating system without being noticed, so to Rutkowska, the most pressing concern is not the complete prevention of malware infections, but the ability to detect them.
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Motorola Shows Off Future Tech
PC Magazine (10/23/06) Segan, Sascha

Motorola's "Technology Innovation Showcase" in Chicago offered a first look at what the company has been working on. Motorola sees the cell phone at the center the next generation of computing. "We're taking a broader view of the cell phone...finally, the Internet business models, the experimental lab of the Internet can come to mobile devices. The technology world is beginning to get the protocols and standards together for this," says Motorola CTO Rob Shaddock. A customer service avatar was on display, which uses a camera for facial recognition that identifies repeat customers. Retail shelves of the future may be filled with boxes that illuminate when picked up, and are able to track how many times, and for how long, they are picked up by customers, thanks to an RFID chip. Motorola has decided to comply with a European Union directive to make electronics more recyclable, and will create phone casings made from recycled and biodegradable materials as part of its ECOMOTO initiative. Motorola also plans to release TV set-top cable boxes, as part of its Connected Home project, since the FCC has mandates a new standard for CableCard that will force cable providers to more high-tech boxes. Social TV, also being developed, is a way for people to talk about a TV show they are watching from different locations, utilizing a technology similar to instant messaging. Also on display was "Motorola Messenger Modem," a PC-to-phone system that uses a PC's modem to route VoIP calls over a land line to your cell phone.
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World Wide Web Consortium Releases First Version of GRDDL Specification
Business Wire (10/24/06)

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) new Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages (GRDDL) specification will enable software to automatically extract information from structured Web pages to make it part of the Semantic Web. GRDDL will allow those accustomed to expressing structured data with microformats in XHTML to increase the value of their existing data by porting it to the Semantic Web, at a very low cost. The recent wave of Web 2.0 activity involves applications known as mash-ups that combine different types of information. GRDDL is an answer to the demands of the Semantic Web-based communities that have been searching for a way to increase quality and availability of data on the Web, which makes way for a higher level of data integration and diversity of applications that can scale to the dimensions of the Web, making more powerful mash-ups possible. The basis of the Semantic Web stack, which the set of standards that supports this work is based on, comply with formality requirements of applications such as managing bank statements or combining volumes of medical data. GRDDL allows microformat users to take advantage of their existing data in more formal applications as they consider more uses that require data modeling or validation. The recently published GRDDL Uses Bases presents scenarios such as scheduling a meeting, comparing information from various retailers, and extracting information from wikis to facilitate e-learning. Data that has been made part of the Semantic Web can then be merged with other data. W3C says that the changes to existing documents required by GRDDL are minimal.
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Planning for US Science Policy in 2009
Nature (10/19/06) Vol. 443, No. 7113, P. 751; Kalil, Thomas

Since the next president will begin creating his or her initial policy priorities in early 2009, the science and technology community should begin devising a plan to garner the financial attention, and resources, it sees appropriate, writes former Clinton administration science and technology policy advisor Thomas Kalil. Becoming part of the initial fiscal policy laid down by an administration is very important, because as time passes it is a more difficult task. Both political parties have shown concern for U.S. economic competitiveness and look to investment in science and technology as a remedy. However, simply asking for more money than was previously granted is not as effective as having an organized approach. One example of the effectiveness of a concerted effort is support for nanoscale science and engineering technology that will benefit many disciplines, through wider-ranging increases in the budgets of key science agencies. Rather than policy makers setting a goal and deciding how to reach it, they should leave the decision as to how the goal can be reached to scientific research. The scientific community should identify a number of candidate topics for new or expanded research initiatives, and fill in agendas for each of these as necessary. Next, recommendations should be created on issues affecting science and technology across the board, specifically, how the major agencies can reverse the trend in which researchers feel that a grant can only be written once the research is done, or how the peer-review system can be tweaked to encourage riskier proposals. The Department of Defense (DOD) currently allocates 0.3 percent of its annual $1.5 billion budget for basic research, which means that the next president could very possibly request this portion to be increased, at least to an equal degree as that which is requested and subsequently "earmarked" by Congress. A doubling in finances could be achieved over a five-year period with such presidential support.
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The Economics of Information Security
Science (10/27/06) Vol. 314, No. 5799, P. 610; Anderson, Ross; Moore, Tyler

The economics of information security has recently emerged as a field characterized by prosperity and rapid momentum, write University of Cambridge researchers Ross Anderson and Tyler Moore. The assembly of distributed systems from machines owned by principals with different interests demonstrates the increasing value of incentives in assuring reliability. Indeed, incentives are coming close to equaling technical design in importance. Anderson and Moore note, for instance, that public disclosure of vulnerabilities gives vendors an incentive to correct bugs in subsequent product releases. "Consumers generally reward vendors for adding features, for being first to market, or for being dominant in the existing market--and especially so in platform markets with network externalities," the authors write. "These motivations clash with the task of writing more secure software, which requires time-consuming testing and a focus on simplicity." The new information security economics discipline offers key insights into general topics as well as into specific security issues such as bugs, phishing, spam, and law enforcement strategy. General issues include peer-to-peer system design, the best balance of effort by programmers and testers, the reasons behind the erosion of privacy, and the politics of digital rights management. Anderson and Moore point out that the work of information security economics researchers has begun to reach into other disciplines, including general security economics and dependability economics.
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The Next Voting Debacle?
IEEE Spectrum (10/06) Vol. 43, No. 10, P. 12; Cherry, Steven

Help America Vote Act (HAVA) guidelines disqualify people from voting in all but one of the 50 states if they are not on the voting rolls, and this could disrupt the November elections because the databases that contain the rolls have been around for a short time and were not all built in compliance with best database industry practices. The HAVA rules were set up to address the lack of coordination between state and county governments in maintaining voter rolls. HAVA gives states a variety of options in responding to mismatches between a voter's registration information in the database and the data in other databases, and state officials in Texas, Washington, California, South Dakota, and Iowa have used this latitude to jettison many registrants, according to the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice. Most mismatches are related to new voters, voters who change their name, and those who relocate; typos made by election officials can also cause mismatches, which is frustrating to people such as the Brennan Center's Wendy Weiser, who says such errors could be avoided through automated techniques developed by database experts that many states did not use. States are required by law to "verify" the voter rolls, but they do not have to necessarily take action against registrants whose names or addresses are unverifiable. The massive mismatch purges in California and elsewhere may have been partly stimulated by the opinion of a lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, who told Maryland officials that mismatches between a registration application and motor vehicle or Social Security records should make the applicant ineligible for addition to the voter rolls. The final decree over a mismatch highlights a basic problem in terms of voter eligibility as well as HAVA: An excessively simple, law-mandated way to register and vote makes it easy to cast multiple ballots and commit other forms of voter fraud, while an overly difficult registration process results in voter disenfranchisement. To view ACM's report on "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters," visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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The Internet Sucks
Maclean's (10/30/06) Vol. 119, No. 43, P. 44; Maich, Steve

The Internet was envisioned as a free and universally accessible repository of knowledge, but that idealistic vision has not been realized. Instead, the Web is rife with scammers, pornographers, sexual predators, and misinformation, which sadly comprise the tip of the iceberg. Northwestern University economics professor Robert Gordon puts the state of the Internet in perspective, commenting that, while useful, the Net has not produced much of anything that is authentically novel or as far-reaching as earlier innovations, such as the telegraph. It is a little known fact that the Internet boom of the late 1990s--which was followed by an equally precipitous implosion--was fueled by a widely propagated myth that Internet traffic was growing twofold every 100 days between 1997 and 2000. Rapidly improving connection speeds and computer storage capacity--and some enterprising entrepreneurs--have cultivated rampant online piracy of copyrighted material, while the accuracy of information on the Web ranges from genuine to exaggerated to outright fabrication because people prefer cheap and convenient answers. Hard journalism is being devalued and undermined by an army of biased, amateur commentators and reporters. According to experts, the majority of information people are looking up on the Web ranges from salacious (porn, gambling, extra-marital affairs) to trivial (celebrity gossip, consumer products, TV shows), and evidence suggests that the Internet's anonymity and lack of consequence is encouraging such behavior. But garden-variety gamblers, porn addicts, and plagiarists barely scratch the surface: The Internet has also become a sanctuary for criminals such as pedophiles, con artists, hackers, and terrorists.
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P2P: The Next Wave of Internet Evolution
Business Communications Review (10/06) Vol. 36, No. 10, P. 48; Waclawsky, John G.

Motorola chief software architect John Waclawsky writes that future Web-based innovation and development will center around peer-to-peer (P2P) overlays. With P2P, new services and technology-facilitated experiences can be quickly, easily, and cheaply delivered to edge devices on a wide array of networks across the globe, and the opportunity is immense when one considers that there could be a personal area network (PAC) for every person on Earth, in addition to the number of edge devices that might cooperate. Waclawsky thinks small-scale P2P environments might develop into larger and more powerful overlay networks once users start playing around with them at home or the office and investors start producing new services and devices. Among the online benefits that can be delivered via P2P are faster connectivity and development, more creative product differentiation, and more potential for e-commerce. E-commerce may perhaps emerge as the most promising area for P2P overlays because P2P will permit producers and consumers to connect without the need for intermediaries such as distributors. "Not only will P2P overlays bring new features and services far faster than traditional service providers will be able to deliver, but edge device manufacturers that exploit overlays also will beat core equipment suppliers to new service functionality," Waclawsky predicts. "P2P changes everything."
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A Case for Peering of Content Delivery Networks
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (10/06) Vol. 7, No. 10, Buyya, Rajkumar; Pathan, Al-Mukaddim Khan; Broberg, James

Open Content and Service Delivery Networks (CSDNs) that can scale well and share resources with other CSDNs are possible through a system based on an open, scalable, and service-oriented architecture presented by University of Melbourne and RMIT University researchers. By teaming up, Content Delivery Network (CDN) providers can slash costs and avoid negative business consequences resulting from Service Level Agreement violations, and this can be done when a provider establishes peering with other providers that have caching servers near its client. The researchers offer a Virtual Organization (VO) model for assembling CSDNs that share Web servers with other CSDNs in addition to within their own networks. They also suggest the use of market-based models in resource allocation and management to stimulate sustained resource sharing and peering schemes between different CDN providers at a global level. Web servers are most critical to CSDNs, as they store content and value-added services as infrastructure services and reliably and supportively deliver them. With a service registry, VO providers can register and publish their resources and service details, while a policy repository is used for the storage of policies generated by administrators. Another important element for the CSDN is the coordinated VO scheduler, which guarantees collaboration and coordination with other CSDNs via policy exchange and scheduling of content and services.
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