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Google Doodle homage to the spring equinox and Marimekko. (Google )

Nothing says spring equinox like Marimekko

By Michail VafeiadisContributor / 03.20.12

Google celebrates the spring equinox – the  first day of spring – with a splash of colors and designs by Marimekko, the Finnish design house.

If you are a fan of "Sex and the City," shop at Crate & Barrel, or remember the 1960 sartorial choices of Jacqueline Kennedy, you will recognize Marimekko's distinctive patterns.   

Marimekko embrace of bold colors and design began in 1951. It was the middle of the post-World War II reconstruction, and founders Vilio and Armi Ratia tapped into Finland's longing for a fresh start and brighter colors.

Marimekko products – the name literally means "Mary’s dress" in Finnish –  first gained fame beyond Scandinavia in 1957 when the company was invited to to a fashion exhibition in Milan, Italy. The show was cancelled, but the garments were showcased by Giorgio Armani, then store manager of Rinascente, a luxury department store in Milan. 

Ratia’s entrepreneur acuteness combined with bold textile designs would transform the company into  “one of the true icons of a very particular era: the idealistic, vibrant days of the 1960s” wrote Ivar Ekman in the New York Times.

With the vision of pioneering Finnish textile designers Maija Isola and Vuokko Nurmesniemi, Marimekko introduced bold fabrics that revolutionized the industry and became synonymous with dynamic women.

Ms. Isola designed the famous Unikko (poppy) print pattern in bold red, pink, and black on white, a pattern still in production.  Nurmesniemi created the red-and-white striped Jokapoika shirt, a landmark product in the company’s history.

Marimekko entered the American market via its exclusive commercial representative, architect Benjamin C. Thompson, who displayed Marimekko products prominently in his Design Research retail stores.  However, it was Jacqueline Kennedy who gave them nationwide fame during the 1960 presidential campaign when she was featured in a Life magazine cover wearing a Marimekko dress.   

The company’s expansion continued and Crate and Barrel established a lasting business relationship with Marimekko that goes back in 1966.

Marimekko's own catalogue consists of clothing, interior decoration textiles, bags, and other accessories. 

During the 1990s, the company experienced financial woes that brought it one step short of bankruptcy. But under the strong stewardship of Kirsti Paakkanen, Marimekko regained financial footing and its brand momentum. 

In the late 1990s, the company resurged in popularity in the US with the help of the TV series "Sex and the City" when the main character, Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), repeatedly wore Marimekko clothes.

These days, with the rediscovery of the 1960s and 1970s fashion, Marimekko is again in the spotlight.  “We have realized that hard-edged modernism needs softening, so that it gets a human feel. Marimekko does that very well," said design historian Charlotte Fiell, according to the New York Times.

The Helsinki-headquartered company has 90 stores around the globe. 

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Britain's Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) makes her first public speech during a visit to The Treehouse a charity in Ipswich, England March 19, 2012. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Reuters)

Kate Middleton delivers first speech, but media focus on blue dress (+video)

By Contributor / 03.19.12

Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, made her first public speech as a royal Monday in Ipswich at the opening of a facility called the Treehouse, part of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices.

The hospice is one of several British charities or non profit groups, including the Scouts and the National Gallery, that the Dutchess has identified as the focus of her attention.  

British media praised her speech Monday, for which the Duchess used notes but which she delivered slowly and clearly. 

 “The Duchess of Cambridge looked calm and confident as she gave her first public address today,” Daily Mail writer Rebecca English wrote. “Kate[‘s] three-minute speech was faultless -  made with a slow but measured delivery.”

 The Telegraph noted that the Duchess “appear[ed] understandably nervous at first,” but that she “delivered her maiden speech slowly and carefully, sticking precisely to her script, without any ad-libs.”

It was reported that she penned the speech herself

The speech made headlines in some British newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, for the dress the Duchess wore to the event, which reporters noted is one she bought in 2008 and appeared to be the same one worn by her mother in 2010 when Carole Middleton went to Ascot. The British media has been fascinated by Kate Middleton's, and her sister Pippa's, fashion choices. 

 During the Duchess’s speech, she said she regretted the absence of her husband, Prince William, who is finishing military training in the Falkland Islands.

 “What you have all achieved here is extraordinary," the Duchess said during her speech. "You as a community have built the Treehouse -- a group of people who have made every effort to support and help each other.”

 She noted the support the Treehouse and other East Anglia Children’s Hospices (EACH) facilities offer for families.

 “For many this is a home from home - a lifeline enabling families to live as normally as possible during a very precious period of time,” the Duchess said.

The Duchess is the royal patron of the Hospices, which helps families with children who have a life-endangering sickness. The organization provides therapy for the children, support for parents and family members and other services, offered at their centers or in the family’s home. The Treehouse will be the service center for Suffolk and Essex.

During her visit, she received a tour of the building and met children and their families who receive services from EACH, including 10-year-old Bethany Woods, who has been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Woods performed the song “Rainbow Connection” for the Duchess, who congratulated Woods after her rendition, according to the Daily Mail.

 A reception was held for EACH staff members and those who have supported the organization. According to the Daily Mail, the Duchess told another person attending the reception, “I find doing speeches nerve-wracking.”

 She also planted a tree at the facility in commemoration of her visit.

The Duchess has been the royal patron of EACH since January and is also a supporter of the Scouts organization, planning to attend camps with the Girl Scout troops in north Wales and London and assist with games. The royal family has traditionally been a supporter of the Scouts, and Queen Elizabeth serves as the association’s current president. The Duke of Kent, the queen’s cousin, is its patron.

 The Duchess also serves as a patron for the National Gallery, the organization Action Through Addiction, which helps those with a drug addiction and their loved ones, and the Art Room, a charity which attempts to help children’s self-image through art.

RECOMMENDED: How well do you know the Duchess of Cambridge? A quiz

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Rialto Bridge, with Fondaco dei Tedeschi behind it. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Famed Venice view goes commercial

By Correspondent / 03.16.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Immortalized by Venetian painter Cana­letto, it forms the graceful backdrop to a million tourist snaps of Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge. But a plan to convert a 500-year-old palazzo into a department store has met with hostility here.

The Renaissance building, known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, overlooks the Grand Canal and was built in the early 16th century as the headquarters for German merchants. In the 20th century it became Venice’s main post office, but has stood empty and unused for several years.

Now there are plans to refurbish the building and slice off part of its roof to form a terrace with a panoramic view.

Italia Nostra (Our Italy), a heritage group, says the “very serious alterations” will gravely compromise the architectural integrity and historical identity of the building. Nonsense, says the mayor of Venice, who is backing the plan. The project is due to begin by December 2012.

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A secret hero in Germany

By Contributor / 03.15.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

 The Hospice Am Hohen Tore in Braunschweig is an unusually cheerful place these days.

“Maybe it’s a kind of Robin Hood,” says Michael Knobel, the manager. “Or someone with no family who wants to give something back to society – that would be the romantic interpretation.”

Mr. Knobel is engaged in a game that all of Braunschweig is currently playing: Guess who? “Who” has for several weeks been placing envelopes containing €10,000 (more than $13,000) each at various places around town. A church, a kindergarten, and a soup kitchen have all received the unmarked envelopes filled with 500-euro notes. In all, €200,000, or close to $260,000, has been given away.

In some instances, a clipping from Braunschweiger Zeitung, the local newspaper, referring to the recipient accompanies the money. “Of course, this is great for us as well,” says Henning Noske, who edits the local news at Braunschweiger Zeitung. “People love mystery, secrecy, fairy tales. They love to read about it, and we can give it to them.” The fact that he now receives dozens of e-mails with requests by organizations and individuals to be reported on is a small price to pay, he adds.

Donating is less established in Germany than it is in the United States. People pay high taxes and in return expect the state to spend money on welfare, culture, and other causes.

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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gestures during a press conference after the closing session of the annual National People's Congress held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, in China, Wednesday. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

How to ask China's prime minister a question - and get a real answer

By Staff writer / 03.14.12

There is no better measure of Chinese officialdom’s control-freakery than Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s encounter with the press at the close of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China’s ersatz parliament.

This year’s performance, like last year, and the year before, was a grand set-piece event. Several hundred journalists gathered in a gaudily pillared reception room in the Great Hall of the People, photographers clicked madly whenever Mr. Wen made a photogenic gesture, and we all went through the motions of a press conference.

But if you thought the rubber-stamp National Press Club sessions were scripted, you should have been at the press event. Every question asked had been solicited, negotiated, and approved by Chinese officials. If you had not been through that process, there was no point in putting your hand up.

Chinese state-run media, whose reporters always get a chance to ask a question, can be trusted to serve up softballs. The official news agency Xinhua, for example, opened the proceedings today with a less-than-challenging request that Wen “evaluate your work” since he took office nine years ago.

Foreign reporters generally make more of an effort to elicit something other than pabulum, but they can do so only if they play by the rules. And that means submitting questions in advance and negotiating their wording so as not to give offense. 

This can take several days of back and forth, and frankly I wonder whether it is worth it.

Foreign journalists asked Wen questions on sensitive topics such as when China would allow direct competitive elections to its national leadership, the recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetan monks, and China’s controversial refusal to back Western policies toward Syria.

But since the prime minister had seen the questions in advance, he and his aides had had plenty of time to formulate bland and unexceptional answers to all of them.

Luckily for us, though, at the end of the three-hour press conference at which the didactic Wen took an average of 13 minutes to answer a question, a cheeky Reuters correspondent ducked the rules. He asked the question that he had flagged in advance – an anodyne inquiry about the level of local government debt – and then snuck in a second question about a disgraced police chief who has sparked a scandal that has embroiled one of China’s most high-profile politicians, Bo Xilai.( read more about that here)

Wen took the question, and he gave a newsworthy answer. It did not seem that hard, or painful for him. Why, we were left wondering, can he not do that all the time? 

Think you know China? Take our quiz.

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A culinary union flourishes in South Korea

By Bryan KayCorrespondent / 03.14.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

As the mists lift, a hint of the forbidden comes into view just 10 miles across the rough coastal seas. This is one of South Korea’s frontline outposts, located in the Yellow Sea near the Northern Limit Line, the very edge that divides blood brother and political foe North Korea.

But it was not always this way – before the partition of North and South, the island group was one of four that belonged to the mainland province visible through the mists to the north, now part of an enemy state.

Though cut off from their brethren for six decades, some older island residents still recall a time when they could cross freely. On a cultural level, they carry on a culinary legacy by hosting some of the most authentic versions of a cold noodle dish that also belongs squarely to the North: mul naengmyeon.

On Baengnyeong, in simple restaurants, this icy concoction of buckwheat noodles, beef broth, thinly sliced radishes, and half a boiled egg, is served to a steady stream of island residents, tourists, and South Korean soldiers.

While many visitors are eager to catch a glimpse of the forbidden through binoculars, vestiges of lasting ties lurk beneath the surface of life here. Until relatively recently, visitors from North Korea were said to regularly drift across the precarious waters.

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A laborer works at the site of a rare earth metals mine at Nancheng county, Jiangxi province, China in this 2010 file photo. (REUTERS)

US, EU, and Japan challenge China’s rare earth export restrictions

By Michail VafeiadisContributor / 03.13.12

The United States, the European Union and Japan, lodged a joint complaint at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Tuesday regarding China’s export restrictions on rare earth exports, materials critical for the production of numerous high-tech products. 

The three trade powers aim to increase the pressure on Beijing’s export quotas of raw materials, asking the WTO for dispute settlement consultations, which is the first step in a longer process.

The US, EU, and Japan argue that by setting export restrictions such as quotas and taxes, China artificially lowers domestic prices and boosts domestic supply, thus granting local manufacturers an advantage against foreign competition. As a result, Chinese companies have access to more and cheaper rare earth materials, and foreign firms have to grapple with smaller and more expensive supplies.

"China's restrictions on rare earths and other products violate international trade rules and must be removed," said EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Guchtin a EU statement.

Rare earth minerals consist of a group of 17 elements with widespread applications in hi-tech businesses, cell phones, computers, light bulbs, and green products such as wind turbines and hybrid cars. 

China currently monopolizes the rare earths trade, holding approximately 30 percent of the global reserves and producing 97 percent share of the world supply, according to the ruling Chinese Communist party's official organ, the People’s Daily.  For instance, China accounts for 91 percent of the world production of Tungsten, a chemical element used in the electronics, aerospace, medical, and automotive sectors.  

Pressure within the US

Facing re-election later in the year, and with the US economy already dominating the campaign, the Obama administration seems to assume a more confrontational stance on Beijing’s trade policies amid Republican accusations of being too soft with China.

"America's workers and manufacturers are being hurt in both established and budding industrial sectors by these policies. China continues to make its export restraints more restrictive, resulting in massive distortions and harmful disruptions in supply chains for these materials throughout the global marketplace," said US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, according to Reuters.

'We think our policy is in line with WTO'

China rejects such criticism, saying that the country had imposed the quotas due to concerns of possible environmental damages excessive mining can generate.

"We think the policy is in line with WTO rules," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, according to the BBC.

"Exports have been stable. China will continue to export, and will manage rare earths based on WTO rules," Mr. Liu said.

The WTO recently ruled in favor of a joint complaint by the EU, US, and Mexico in another challenge against China’s restrictions on similar export materials. But China has neither responded to nor accepted the ruling, raising concerns over the country’s genuine intentions and validating those who warn over the adverse economic impact Chinese trade protectionism has on a crumbling world economy.

“Despite the clear ruling of the WTO in our first dispute on raw materials, China has made no attempt to remove the other export restrictions,” said EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht.

Security issue?

In the past, the United States was self-sufficient in terms of rare earth materials. But after the 2002 closure of its main mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., the country started depending on imports. Defense analysts say this dependence might compromise the country’s security capabilities since some materials are hard to replace.  

“The lack of a domestic supply of rare earth minerals could severely affect the US's ability to manufacture advanced-technology products. A rare earth supply shortage would present a threat notably to the emerging clean energy industry but also to the telecommunications and defense sectors,” reported, a think tank that analyzes security challenges.

Rare earth minerals: What are they? 

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French far-right leader and National Front Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen (c.) waves to supporters, during a campaign meeting, in Marseille, southern France, March 4. (Claude Paris/AP)

France's far-right presidential hopeful Le Pen clears crucial election hurdle

By Staff writer / 03.13.12

The far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen today qualified to be on the ballot, just ahead of a deadline that would have shut her out.  

Ms. Le Pen, who has castigated immigration and the growing presence of Islam in France and wants France to leave the eurozone, has been a volatile and popular candidate here, whose attack-style is admired by many French. 

As of yesterday she was 15 signatures shy of the 500 necessary to stand for French high office in the first round of elections on April 22. Today, Le Pen said she had reached 500.

Although Le Pen has steadily polled in third place, between 15 and 19 percent, she struggled to obtain the necessary number of signatures because they must come from local elected officials. 

The French far right has always exerted more influence than its results at the ballot box suggest. Polls aired in Paris last month had nearly 30 percent of French considering Le Pen as a candidate or at least agreeing with her views. Mainstream politics in France, as in the rest of Europe, have shifted to the right for at least a half-decade.

Le Pen's National Front party is perceived as siphoning off votes from center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is fighting hard to be re-elected. 

But today, polls for the first time showed Mr. Sarkozy outscoring Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the first round of elections, although he remains 9 points behind Hollande in an expected runoff on May 5. Under French election rules, a candidate that does not reach 50 percent in the initial election faces a second round run off.

Sarkozy forces may have hoped privately that Le Pen would not reach the 500 mark, but many consider the failure of a candidate running third in the polls to reach the ballot box an embarrassment to French democracy.

Under French election rules, the 500 signatures must come from some 41,000 local mayors and town officials. Le Pen struggled to gain their support because officials do not wish to be associated with her lightening rod name and extreme views since the signatures are made public.

Blonde and telegenic, Le Pen is the daughter of Europe’s most famous nationalist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose popular, blunt, and folksy style were matched by what was often seen as a racist and sometimes anti-Semetic French nationalism.

Le Pen fille has taken a different strategy. She presents herself as a softer nationalist: friendly to Jews and homosexuals, savvy and more ardently patriotic – more a Joan of Arc than an Orthodox hardliner.

However, she has also compared Muslims praying on Paris streets to a Nazi occupation, ardently opposed the European Union (“Brussels is destroying Greece. It will next ravage Italy and Spain, and eventually... us,” she said about the euro crisis this month), and heaped scorn on Sarkozy, sharing her father’s skill with the satirical political barb.

Le Pen pere regularly struggled to reach 500 signatures, even though in 2002 he won a place in the second round of French elections, astounding the international community and the Parisian intelligentsia. He lost to former President Jacques Chirac in the final runoff.

With dozens of candidates on a broad left-right spectrum – from Trotskyites on the left to a hunting and fishing party on the traditional right – an outright first round win has never happened in French politics. In 1965, not even Charles de Gaulle, father of modern France, made 50 percent in the first round. 

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Ali Yakasar, a fruit and vegetable vendor in Istanbul. (Alexander Christie-Miller)

Silence in the souk: Turkey muzzles outdoor vendors

By Alexander Christie-MillerContributor / 03.13.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The smells, colors, and crush of people in the bazaars of Istanbul draw tourists and locals alike, but this year one element is under threat: the cries of the sellers.

On Jan. 1, a new law banning vendors from crying their wares came into force in Turkey’s largest city.

“It’s the business of a bazaar to shout, to tell your prices, and to show your products are beautiful,” says Ali Yakasar, who has worked at a vegetable stall in Üsküdar on the city’s Asian side since he was 8 years old.

“As sellers, we keep our spirits up by shouting. It makes us happy, and it makes our customers happy.”

Penalties vary between different municipalities, but in Üsküdar, stallholders like Mr. Yakasar now face a fine of 55 Turkish lira ($31) if caught by the police who patrol the market. On the third offense they may be banned from selling altogether.

Authorities have remained tight-lipped on the reasons behind the ban, but it is part of a broader raft of legislation intended to bring order to the city’s often chaotic markets. Some vendors believe that the effort to tame the bazaars is part of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.

But for the time being, although authorities allow for some rule bending, stallholders are keeping their voices down and wrestling with determining when talking becomes shouting.

“We shouldn’t shout too loud, but at least at a medium level,” says vendor Ibrahim Avinc. “We need to introduce ourselves to our customers.”

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France's President and candidate for the upcoming elections, Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his speech during a meeting in Villepinte, north of Paris, France, as part of his electoral campaign, Sunday, March 11. (Francois Mori/AP)

Sarkozy pledges to 'save European way of life'

By Staff writer / 03.12.12

So now, Nicolas Sarkozy is – maybe – going to close France to the rest of Europe.

In a grand reelection rally last night, the French president threatened last night to end French participation in Europe's free travel zone should the continent fail to tighten its borders. Lax controls and illegal immigrants threaten an “implosion of Europe” Mr. Sarkozy said, only days after saying France has too many foreigners.

Last night’s cry from the president at a rally of more than 50,000 was to “save the European way of life” threatened by illegals and globalization. Both themes are the chief points of the far right nationalist Marine Le Pen; at one point Sarkozy beseeched the crowd to "help" save a France in crisis. He also proposed a protectionist “buy European” plan that would allow only European contractors to bid for European infrastructure building, and said that if it failed, he would make it apply only to France. 

Sarkozy, who lags behind socialist candidate Francois Hollande, is seeking to capture the votes of Ms. Le Pen's supporters while keeping the faith of France's political center, six weeks ahead of the April 22 national elections. 

Sarkozy warned that if the EU doesn't deal with illegal immigration, France may leave the Schengen zone, the 25-nation free-travel area that is considered a crowning achievement of the post-war European project. In the past two years, France has pushed Italy and Spain to more closely guard their borders from illegals. 

Sarkozy has played this card before

In election-season France, the question may not be whether anyone is listening, but whether anyone is believing.

“This is not serious; he’s not going to do this Schengen proposal. It’s his [Sarkozy’s] last chance to raise his poll numbers,” says Arun Kapil, a political scientist at Catholic University in Paris. “This is another play for the extreme right. He’s gone for anti-immigration and now the anti-Europe wing of Le Pen. If he’s elected this will all be forgotten.” 

In his triumphant election bid five years ago, Sarkozy, then interior minister, made it sound like France was going to lock its borders and toss the keys into the Mediterranean. The rhetoric was new, sharp, and strict, giving an impression that few Africans or Arabs seeking to feast on social security and health benefits would be able to get their papers for a French work visa. Amid a small firestorm, a controversial "ministry for national identity" was formed, seen as a sop to the far right. 

Yet studies and statistics show that immigration to France has remained steady at 180,000 to 200,000 new immigrants a year, similar to figures in 2007. Under Sarkozy, the rapid rise in French immigration during the 1980s and 1990s leveled out, but did not lessen. He also brought an end to the impression that France is an easy migration destination paved with golden streets.

In 2010, without much comment, the ministry for national identity was folded into the immigration and integration office after an effort by the ruling party to spark a debate on "national identity" generated little public enthusiasm. 

A pastor at a Protestant church in Paris who has seen a rise in African members said yesterday ahead of the Sarkozy rally, “Immigrants come here with dreams. But those are quickly lost. Life here is hard. There are few jobs. Migrants find themselves in the same kind of poverty they thought they were escaping, and sometimes it is worse. That’s one reason they come to us."

Lackluster response in the polls

The Sarkozy plan for "buy European" is inspired by a US "buy American" plan first proposed by former president Herbert Hoover that American politicians have periodically revived.

Sarkozy’s decision to play the right-wing or nationalist card is widely perceived as a vote-generating tactic ahead of the election. He is running behind Mr. Hollande, but ahead of Le Pen. As a result, he is attacking the left, saying Hollande is a lightweight who doesn’t love France, and appealing to the right, claiming his ruling party is the party of Joan of Arc, the symbol of the National Front.

Meanwhile, Le Pen is mercilessly attacking, laughing at, and scorning the president in a tone and language that the French president is unaccustomed to in the French mainstream media. 

In the last two weeks, as most of Europe worried about the euro crisis and unemployment, the biggest subject in French media was "halal" meat. Le Pen said that Paris shops carried only meat ritually slaughtered for Muslims. This was untrue, and Sarkozy at first duly corrected it, stating that only 2.5 percent of the bovine fruits were halal. But as the issue got traction, Sarkozy suddenly called for laws governing all meat to be butchered transparently. Then his aides blew the issue into a tempest by saying that should Hollande be elected, all local municipalities in France would force schoolchildren to eat halal meat. 

Still, for all his vote-garnering messages, Sarkozy is not appreciably rising in the polls, at least not yet. He is expected to defeat Le Pen in round one of the elections, but in the second round on May 5, polls show Sarkozy 10 to 11 points behind Hollande. 

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