… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

September 17, 2007

Closing thoughts on Idea Festival

Filed under: IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 5:27 pm

It must be fascinating to be as well known as physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. He’s had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on theories that unify gravity, the strong nuclear and electro-weak forces through string field theory. But he’s also well known as a science populizer, and his talk at Idea Festival begins with a clip from a Discovery documentary, “2057: The City” in which he’s the futurist narrator.

This means that when he takes questions at the end of his talk, one of his interlocutors asks, “Can you explain crop circles? And, I’ve been through a wormhole – who can I talk to?”

Dr. Kaku deals with these questions quite graciously – he acknowledges that there are phenomena not well explained by conventional scientific thought, though stresses that they are fairly rare. And many of the questions come from people who seem genuinely intrigued by questions of big physics, like whether the large hadron collider is likely to make discoveries that could lead to weapons.

But I found Dr. Kaku’s talk disappointing. He told some excellent jokes – including the Einstein and his driver joke – and hit on some of my favorite sci-fi fantasies (glasses that recognize who people are and brief you on them, so you don’t have to guess at their names). But he didn’t tell me a great deal about physics and certainly not about the branch he’s known for.

This may simply be that because string theory is such an abstract, mathematical discipline that explaining what scientists are hoping to find out of the Large Hadron Collider is beyond the scope of an amateur talk. Or it may be, as some critics argue, that supersymmetry isn’t really a predictive theory in the way that quantum theory or special relativity were, and that it may be untestable and unfalsifiable, which means that a certain amount of handwaving is always going to be a characteristic of talks about string theory. While I was frustrated, as were some folks sitting near me, most of the audience appeared to enjoy hearing a funny and smart man talk, and gave him a standing ovation.

I should note, this was literally the only talk I was disappointed by over the course of 2.5 days, which is pretty impressive for any festival.


Putting my frustration with this one talk aside, I had a blast at Idea Festival. Last year, I observed that IF’s organizer, Kris Kimel, is a man who’s not afraid to take risks and break the rules of futurism and ideas conferences. IF isn’t a big ticket event – you could buy a pass to all events for $260, less than a tenth of the cost of other conferences I attend and blog. And 70% of the events, including my talk (blogged by Evgeny Morozov, who does an incredible job of making the talk make sense) were free and open to the general public, which meant we had a far more diverse mix of people than I usually encounter at these events.

It struck me this year that one of the innovations Kris is experimenting with is giving a conference a decidedly local feel. The first night of the conference invited attendees to sample food from restaurants throughout the city, which was a great introduction to local cuisine and culture. There was a mix of local and global talent on stage, which was a great introduction to some of the work being done in local academe and helped give a sense for local priorities. I walked away this year wondering why every community of a certain size seems to run a local arts festival, and why so few run Idea Festivals.

Thanks to everyone involved for a good time at this year’s gathering, and thanks to everyone who’s enjoyed and commented on the talks I was able to cover. Sorry I wasn’t able to cover more.

September 14, 2007

Idea Festival: Woz. Wow.

Filed under: Geekery,IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 9:23 pm

Steve Wozniak is the featured speaker at the second night of the Idea Festival. After a long introduction, he takes the stage and tries to debunk a small part of the Woz myth, saying, “I wasn’t a college dropout. I was just broke, and had to take a work year, which turned into Apple and to so many other things.” He explains that he returned to college post-Apple, under a fake name: “Rocky Raccoon Clark”.

Woz was “an electronics kid”. “I was lucky. Electronics was my passion, and I was living in the Santa Clara valley, which became the Silicon valley.” He and other electronics kids wired their houses, builing intercoms that they could use to signal each other in the middle of the night. They’d do yardwork for neighbors and ask to be paid, not in money, but by being given the opportunity to search their garages for interesting electronics. This spirit of exploration in the valley turned into the spirit of starting your own company, Woz argues.

His path to computer design began with soldering a ham radio out of tubes – he refers to the process as “getting online”, and says that the radio made him “feel like a Superman – an unknown at school, but I was reaching out to other states. I was more powerful than the other kids at school.” Once he got a transistor radio, it felt like a personal technology – “it feels like yours, you can sleep next to it.” His father mentioned that Lockheed, where he worked, was putting six transistors on a chip to make missles lighter. Woz argued that this would make better radios – his father said, “Well, eventually, but it could take years.” Woz thought “I hope that eventually the push for technology would come from consumer products, not from the military.” And that’s certainly the case today.

Educators had a huge effect on Woz’s life, and he decided he wanted to be “an engineer first (like his father) and then a 5th grade teacher.” And indeed he did, teaching fifth grade for eight years after a plane crash gave him amnesia and changed his life. “You end up with a bigger family than your own – you go to their college graduations and realize you were part of their lives, getting there.”

In sixth grade, he built a tic-tac-toe computer from transistors – the game is just a series of rules, perhaps a hundred, perhaps 20 if you’re very clever – which means it can be implemented in a complex circuit. At an eight grade science fair, he saw a computer that did instructions at one per second using a stepper motor. But the real breakthrough was when his high school engineering teacher, realizing how much electronics Woz already knew, let him go to a company in Sunnyvale and learn to program Fortran. The machine was amazing – it ran a million instructions per second! He wrote a program to solve the knight’s tour chess problem, and started it, wondering if it worked. It did, but it was a backtracking algorithm – when it didn’t solve the problem, it backtracked and tried another solution. He realized that it would take 10^25 years to solve the problem this way – longer than the existence of the universe. He realized, “With all this power, I wasn’t going to be able to solve this problem that human beings could solve.”

Woz turned his attention to designing the computers he loved so dearly. He began building a PDP-8 on paper – “the way that, with the knowledge of lumber and glass, you could design and build a builing.” These machines didn’t exist in the real world – he couldn’t afford any of the computer parts. The reason for building these machines was for the intrinsic reward. “Extrinsic rewards are the ones people see – your title, your salary, the grade you get in a class, what you wear, how many yachts you have. But the intrinsic rewards – something that’s very satisfactory to you, watching certain movies, doing crossword puzzles, can be much more powerful.”

To learn more about microcomputers, Woz and another friend began visiting the Stanford Linear Accelerator center, showing up on Sundays and looking for open doors. He’d break into the library, read computer magazines and the manuals in the library, and sending away for his copies of computer magazines. In reading these magazines, he discovered the Data General Nova, a machine that dealt with instructions radically differently. Woz thought it was very strange at first, but discovered that designing the machine this way required roughly half as many chips. “I realized that someone who knew the construction materials had designed the architecture of the computer.” The design philosophy he learned from this experience was to make technology “short, simple and direct”.

Woz told his father “I’m going to own a 4k Nova some day.” 4k was the minimum needed to run a computer language, not just program in assembler. His father pointed out that this sort of computer cost as much as a house. “Well, I’m going to have an apartment,” Woz responded.

He headed to the University of Colorado as an undergrad and began taking a graduate school design course as a freshman. He got an A+, but found himself in great trouble. “Just because you were in a computer class doesn’t mean you can run all the programs you wanted. They had a budget. And they made it sounds like they might charge me more than annual tuition to go back to school.” As he reminisces about the machine – a CDC 6400 – he sounds as if he still misses it today.

When he moved to UC Berkeley, Woz became a prankster. He wired a coil to a high-speed transistor and discovered he could jam a color TV. His friends would hit the TV to “fix” it, and he’d stop jamming. He discovered that he could force friends into strange configurations, spending an hour standing on one foot to see a show. “I should have gotten a psych degree.”

Around this time, his friends introduced him to Steve Jobs, who’d gone to the same high school. They sized each other up based on the pranks they’d executed, and then with the electronics projects they’d implemented. In the process, “we became best friends for eight years.” Woz offers some interesting psychological insights on Jobs – “He believed in ‘precious people’, sages who really made the world work.” This contrasted to Woz’s view of the world and his enthusiasm for “ordinary engineers” like his father.

Woz seemed determined to go down the path of the “ordinary engineer”. He began working at HP to support his education and found himself working on the team that had built his precious HP35 programmable calculator, “the hottest things in the world.” He loved HP, a company where engineers were the very heart of the organization. Seeing a world filled with greying engineers, he realised, “My god, I could be an engineer for life.”

He continued to hack in his free time, playing with satellite TV, an early VCR and building an early video on demand system. And he built the Bay area’s first dial-a-joke service, which was quite a hack, as it involved renting equipment from the phone company designed for movie theatres, as you couldn’t legally own your own phone or answering machine. The service specialized in Polish jokes, which Woz figured were safe, until he got threatened with lawsuits for defaming the Polish people. But what was most important was that the joke line let him talk to other people – “it was like chatting online”, he remembers, and it led him to meet his first wife.

Woz became obsessed with Pong, which he saw for the first time in a bowling alley. “Who would have imagined that a television set would play a game.” He wanted one, and started working on a system to output graphics to a TV. HP supported the work, giving him access to free chips, and he built a pong clone that flashed a four-letter word on the screen every time you lost.

Steve Jobs came back from college and took a job with Atari, designing hard-wired videogames. He secured a job offer for Woz, but Woz was loyal to HP. But he did agree to help design a “one-person pong”, a game that became known as Breakout. “I would like nothing more than to design a game that people played in a bowling alley,” Woz remembered as motivation. He thought it would be a six man-month job, “but Steve said we had to do it in four days.” They did it, and both got mono in the process.

Visiting John Draper – the infamous Cap’n Crunch, who used a cereal toy whistle to get free phonecalls – he saw a teletype machine, a device that cost as much as a car, but which let him log onto computers across the country. Like with Pong, he wanted one, and he began to adapt his video output circutry to output letters on a TV screen. The challenge was entering input, which required a keyboard. He finally found a keyboard for $60 – perhaps $500 in today’s dollars – and had a usable timesharing terminal… which Jobs immediately began marketing to the local computing community.

The next breakthrough for Woz was attending meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, where local geeks had become microprocessor enthusiasts. Once Woz realized that these inexpensive chips were basically the machines he’d designed in high school, he knew he was close to building the 4k machine he’d dreamed of in high school. As he built the machines, Jobs kept pressuring him for features – could it have a floppy drive? Could more than one person use it?

Woz circulated his design and schematics to Club members, which proved a very satisfying way to make social connections. He realized that people knew Bill Gates’s name and thought that, if he built a BASIC the way Gates had, perhaps people would know his name as well. Jobs realized that the boards Woz had designed, plus a BASIC, was a marketable commodity, and worked out a plan to build boards cheap and sell for twice the cost.

Ever loyal to HP, Woz went to his bosses and begged them to build am $800 computer based on this design. But the corporate culture wasn’t right. He finally met with the legal department, and every department on HP signed off that they wanted nothing to do with his computer design… including the Capricorn team, which was building a similar computer using similar technology. So he was free to start Apple. Jobs bought parts on 30 days credit, they assembled machines, delivered them to the local computer shop and used the proceeds to pay off the creditors.

As the machines sold, Woz aimed his sights higher – a machine with color graphics at the core. He engineered a computer with half the chips of the Apple 1 and ten times the power. “You could put a six into a location in memory, and a blue box appeared on the TV. You put a seven in another and got purple. And you could do animations. No one imagined color would come to low cost computing.” Woz realized he could program Breakout for the machine. When he did it – in about half an hour – he found himself literally shaking with excitement that something that would have required years in hardware – trying hundreds of colors and configurations – took seconds in software.

In his last story, Woz tells us that he discovered the Apple II was going to be shown at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, and wanted to see the city, but only marketing guys were going, and he was an engineer. He realized that if he designed a floppy drive, they’d have to bring him. So he did. In two weeks, using five controller chips instead of fifty. And they took him to Vegas.


Woz has a reputation of being a shy man, not accustomed to the spotlight, and I expected a somewhat reluctant talk. But his speech was basically a torrent of stories and enthusiasm, boundless self-confidence and geeky desire to make cool stuff. It was a real inspiration for me, someone who well remembers that beautiful moment when I figured out how to make colored pixels appear on an Apple II screen.

Idea Festival: Swarmed by Robots

Filed under: Geekery,IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 5:18 pm

James McLurkin‘s talk is titled “Dances with Robots”. He’s a researcher at MIT studying distributed algorithms for multi-robot systems, a former engineer with iRobot. He offers the observation that Hollywood portrayals of robots fall into three basic categories – frankenstein (robot alienated from society), the tin man (robot wants to be human) and terminator (giant killer robots. It’s the last scenario that freaks people out. Isaac Asimov suggested a series of laws that should prevent robots from killing humanity, as in Will Smith vehicle “I Robot” – a robot must not injure a human, must obey orders, and may protect it’s own existence so long as that doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. (Yes, I know the laws are significantly more careful than that, but there’s no connectivity in the room right now…)

But it’s hard in real life to get these laws to apply because no robot in real life can read these laws, none can reliably tell you what’s a human being, and, frankly, can’t prevent themselves from driving off stage and falling to their death. “Your average squirrel can run through trees at eight miles an hour. A honeybee can fly at 20 miles an hour, avoiding obstacles. That’s something no robot can do.”

McLurkin offers three deep philosophical problems associated with robotics:
– What’s intelligence? (He argues that the Turing test doesn’t test intelligence, but demonstrates a failure in intelligence, a test for non-intelligence.)
– Can intelligence emerge from the interaction of unintelligent components? (Sure – atoms aren’t very smart, but pretty smart engineers are built out of atoms.)
– Does intellect need a body, and does a body effect the type in intelligence we have? (It seems likely, but we only know of one type of intelligence and one body. Perhaps we’ve just met only the dumb dolphins, he posits.)

We should contrast the scary Hollywood robots with realworld helpful robots. iRobot’s Roomba is useful to us not because it’s smart, but because it’s “very cleverly stupid”. Rather than calculating an ideal path to vacuum a floor, it simply vacuums enough to probabilisticly cover the entire floor. He shows the Honda ASIMO, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers, and iRobot’s Packbot, a $65,000 robot designed to probe dangerous situations to keep humans away from booby traps.

But McLurkin’s research isn’t on single robots, but on swarms. He mentions that “robots are best at tasks that are dangerous, dirty and dull”, and that these tasks are often solved best in swarms. For instance, you’d love to send 20 robots into a forest fire and detect hotspots that could explode into more serious fires. You’d love to have a swarm of robots that could look for survivors of an earthquake. In fact, you might do even better with 20,000 cockroach-sized robots who could search for humans, then rat-sized robots who could analyze the structures the people are stuck in, then huge robots that could move away debris.

But programming lots of robots – 112, in his current research set – or thousands, as he’d like to work with – requires some very different techniques than writing conventional software. He shows off some of the techniques by demonstrating a small fleet of robots. They organize themselves into a line, swarm to a location, orbit a goal, and sort themselves by their unique identity. The communication between the robots is via IR – each robot has four IR transmitters and sensors. Communication throughout the network happens via mesh networking – robots propogate a signal from one to the next, looking for a robot that’s closest to the goal.

(One of the loveliest things about his robots is that they communicate surprisingly well with humans – they blink blue and red to reveal their identity and status, and each features a 1.1 watt audio system, which plays appropriate videogame music to accompany behaviors – the Pac-Man ghost music when the robots swarm, for instance.)

As cool as this is, McLurkin points out that ants do this all the time, and frequently do it better than his robots do. Ants appear to solve extremely complex problems through what seems to be extremely intelligent behavior, dedicating resources to searching for close food sources instead of far ones. But ants are solving this problem through a very simple algorithm – they’re simply following the stinkiest scent trails. Because ants visiting a nearby food source oscilate between the food and the nest more quickly, they end up creating a more stable trail, which other ants end up following.

Programming robots to exhibit this behavior requires you to determine the group behavior you’d like, then figure out how what simple robot behavior would be required to emerge into this group behavior, then figure out how robots real-world interactions require modifications to the programming. It’s really, really hard, but quite impressive when it works. He shows a demo of a swarm of 112 robots searching a room, where robots search for goals, send themselves back to base to recharge when neccesary, and send guides to bring a human to a goal. From his swarm, only one failed to return home, well within his acceptable tolerances for failure.

To give us an example for how these algorithms get written, he invites eight people to the stage, assigns them each a unique number and a calculator. He then asks everyone to find a partner and average their numbers. After three iterations, almost everyone in the group has converged on the average of the entire set of numbers. (McLurkin tells us that, in simulation, it should take about 12 cycles to converge on the average.) He shows us that each pairwise averaging should decrease variation, moving people closer to the mean. He offers the observation that this averaging behavior is roughly how honeybees find food. (He also offers the intriguing insight that honeybees have the highest neural density of any creature – they’re not very smart, but in terms of their size, they’re Einsteins.

McLurkin’s path to robotics is a clear geek path – he walks us through his personal history, from model trains to legos, to BMX biking, to RC cars, to homemade robots. He’s got a real flair for making these machines as magical to an audience as they obviously are to him.

Idea Festival: Barrington Irving, flying solo

Filed under: IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 3:52 pm

Barrington Irving has seen a lot more of the world than most college students. What’s more impressive is that he was the one flying. Earlier this year, Barrington completed a round-the-world solo flight, taking 97 days to travel 27,000 miles. He’s (unofficially) the youngest person to make a round the world solo flight and the first person of African descent to do so. The trip involved visits to Newfoundland, the Azores, Spain, Egypt, UAE, Hong Kong and crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Irving was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in inner-city Miami. He attended Northwestern Senior High, one of the great football powers in America. (Northwestern is the second ranked football school in the nation, facing off against a major football power in Dallas tomorrow.) He was a star football player, heading towards a scholarship at a Division I college. But a mentor put him on a different path – Captain Gary Robinson, who flies for United, met Irving as he was considering his college and career prospects. Irving admits that one of the first questions he asked his mentor was “How much money can you make doing this?” The answer – $117 dollars an hour – helped convince him to consider a career outside of football.

It was difficult, though, at a football-mad high school to pass up “signing day”, and “sign with me, myself and I”. And it required a huge amount of work washing airplanes on the tarmac for Irving to earn $6000 he needed to earn his first pilot’s license.

Early in his aviation career, Irving decided he wanted to achieve a major goal – a round-the-world flight. The challenge started well before he got in the air – he needed to find a plane capable of long-distance flights, which meant getting a custom-built single engine plane assembled by Columbia Aircraft. The deal he struck with Columbia was that, if he was able to get all the appropriate parts donated, they’d build his craft. He solicited parts one vendor at a time, getting a $30,000 set of seats from one vendor, the engine from another. To get the engine, he drove from Florida to Alabama, and took a tour of Continental Aviation, pretending “to be a spoiled rich kid, trying to find out whether these engines were good enough for his plane.” He talked his way into the president’s office, gave a five minute pitch, and was rewarded a few weeks later with a commitment to donate a $83,000 engine.

In total, the airplane cost $300,000, entirely built by sponsors. It took two and a half years simply to line up the sponsors. Major support from Chevron, to provide fuel, and Universal Weather, a flight planning firm, made the trip possible. It took more than a year to gain all the permits neccesary to fly over countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Irving’s team for planning and executing the event was his best friend, Juan Rivera, and a volunteer PR person. The aircraft lacked some basic gear you might expect for an around-the-world flight – it had no deicing system, and outside of the US, no radar. As he puts it, “outside the US, I was flying Lindberg style.”

Irving’s point in executing the project was to call attention to the possibility of careers in aviation for youth, especially inner city youth. He points out that the aviation industry is ageing very quickly – the average age for an aviation engineer is 54. There’s a need to hire 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade. He points out that many of the world’s major airports are located in “the backyard of inner cities” – inner-city kids should be training for these sorts of careers. Irving now runs a program called Experience Aviation which is designed to train kids for careers in aviation.

Before he could complete his flight, Irving points out, he had experiences of rejection, of ridicule, of disappointment. He keeps these rejection letters as a reminder of what’s required to live your dream, to follow your vision and persist. It’s an impressive achievement and an amazing story to hear from a 23-year old – the work required to make the trip possible is at least as impressive to me as Irving’s stories about landing on a tiny island in the Bering Straits in a terrible summer storm.

In fielding questions, Irving admits how close to failure he came in executing his project. Early in his trip, he was grounded for two weeks in snowstorms in St. John, Newfoundland. When he took off for the Azores and flew nine hours over unfamiliar ocean, he freaked out, and seriously considered ditching his airplane. Fortunately, he realized that he was simply responding badly to the stress of the event, and brought the craft in safely. But the experience caused him to realize how important mental preparation was before flying any leg of the trip.

It’s likely that you’ll hear Irving’s story in the near future – he’s producing a book and a documentary, designed to support his work with an educational center. And he admits that he’s intrigued by the idea of private space flight, if only he can persuade his mother that those plans aren’t even crazier than his round-the-world flight.

Idea Festival: Tiffany Shlain’s web of ideas

Filed under: IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 11:29 am

While Idea Festival isn’t quite the blogger gathering that many tech conferences are, there are a couple of us liveblogging here. Check out Evgeny Morozov, who just posted a great summary of Craig Nevill-Manning’s talk, and Wayne Hall, who’s done a great job blogging both the Festival and the run-up to the event on the official IF blog.


Tiffany Shlain, an independent filmmaker, titles her talk “A Declaration of Interdependence”. She notes that American history is built in part on a declaration of independence, but that the 21st century is going to require us to recognize our interdependence. “The 21st century will be about linking the dots”. She suggests that we might need more than carbon offsets – “we may need to think about karmic offsets”.

She outlines her forthcoming film, a project that connects “the disappearance of honeybees, travel and the effects of Federal Express, connections through China”, toxins, Crime, the focus on youth in ideas of beauty, and reproduction. She admits that it can be hard to understand how these ideas fit together, but her films are hypertextual, built on links.

Shlain tells us her life story to contextualize her work. She’s from the Bay Area, and grew up in Marin in the 1970s, the daughter of author, surgeon and innovator Leonard Shlain. She’s been fascinated with technology from early on, including early PCs like the Apple II. In 1988, she and a friend proposed a computer network that would allow people from different cultures to communicate.

As she moved into adulthood, she turned to filmmaking, and to interactive media. She built an early CDRom for Sting and a website associated with it. This led her towards building the Webby awards, which have run for 12 years and established wonderful traditions, like the five word acceptance speech. (Al Gore was awarded a lifetime achievement award and offered his speech:”Please don’t recount this vote.”)

Shlain suggests that people feel a need to be connected by technology “because in the womb, we’re connected to an umbilical cord. We spend the rest of our lives trying to get connected to something larger.” The something larger Shlain found herself looking for, after the stock market crash and 9/11, was a way to talk about women’s rights and reproduction.

The film Shlain shows the audience at Idea Festival is about judaism, and specifically about Jewish tribal identity. She uses the Barbie doll as a way of exploring Jewish identity, assimilation and insider/outsider status. Barbie was created by Jewish toy desiger Ruth Handler, who based the toy on a German doll marketed to adults. (The film explains that Shlain designed Barbie for Mattel and left the company to wrestle with breast cancer. After recovering, she built a company building prosthetic breasts, thus making a fortune twice from plastic boobs.) The film is a statement of tribal identity for a generation of jews raised on assimilated Barbie dolls, an identity which might have more to do with a Hollywood picture of judaism than with ancient practices.

Shlain explains that she rarely shoots original footage – she searches the Internet for footage rather than picking up a camera. The films, she tells us, are designed to spark conversation, encourage people to jump on the Internet and research the details. She’s experimenting with new ideas for how to release these films, and will be releasing some of the past films on iTunes.

For the new film, the honeybee, not the Barbie doll, is the way to discuss interdependence. Honeybees pollinate a third of the food on the planet, and the collapse of bee colonies around the world is a huge concern. Is the cause cellphones? Pesticides? The overwork of bees, behing shipped from farm to farm? She analogizes bees to sex workers – “they’re taken all over the world and put to work.” The film ends up with an Einstein quote to the effect that, without honeybees, there’s no human civilization within four years.

From honeybees, Shlain quickly connects Federal Express and the volume of eggs and sperm exported from Los Angeles; the connection between youth and beauty, between botox injections and honeybee stings; between burqas and beekeeper outfits, between plastic bottles and reproductive chemicals; crime and access to abortion; in-virto fertilization and China’s one child policy. It’s hard to imagine a film coming from this odd web of ideas, but anyone who can connect Barbie and contemporary Judaism is well positioned to try. The sheer non-linearity of Shlain’s talk makes it very hard to blog, but I suspect it makes for some very compelling cinema. And it’s hardly a surprise that – as she shows off to us at the end of her talk – she’s a power user of mind mapping tools as there’s little else that could represent these complex webs of ideas.

Idea Festival: Craig Nevill-Manning and the secrets of Google’s success

Filed under: Geekery,IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 10:15 am

Craig Nevill-Manning is Google’s engineering director and senior research scientist. He’s also a very good computer science teacher. In a talk at Idea Festival about what Google has learned about innovation, he offers an excellent introduction to computer science for non-programmers.

His first lesson is “Think Broadly”. He introduces this concept by telling us “computer science is not just programming.” (He writes it as “computer science != programming”, and “computer science <> programming”, just to satisfy the geeks in the crowd.) Then he invites five volunteers to the stage and gives them cards, each showing 1 through 16 dots on one face, blank on the other. He invites them to sort themselves, then to start displaying numbers in binary. As the group counts from 0-31, Craig invites us to notice patterns – the one bit flips each time, the two every other time, etcetera. He calls this approach “Computer Science Unplugged”, which Google is helping develop to teach computer science as early as pre-school.

Lesson two is “Enable Others”. He shows us how to build a webpage and to add a google map to the page. As Google Maps came online, Craig tells us, people learned how to reverse-engineer the highly obfuscated javascript that Google Maps ran on. Once Google realized how many people were learning to work within the system, they released an API, which Craig uses to put a map of Louisville on his webpage. Using this system, Craig tells us, users have built the Chicago Crime Map, the Seattle Bus map, and various real estate maps. Google, he tells us, was so impressed by one of the real estate maps, built before the API, they hired the guy who built the application.

Lesson three is “use deep technology”. Craig explains how Google does spellchecking, looking at massive sets of data to make intelligent recommendations. A request for information on “kofee” is pretty ambiguous, but a request for “kofee cup” is probably a request for “coffee”, while “kofee annan” is probably a search for Kofi Annan. Showing the numerous misspellings for Britney Spears, Craig remarks on how bad people are at spelling, and on the challenges of clustering two or three terms to make search recommendations.

To make these recommendations, you need to “build for scale”, Craig’s lesson #4. He references Rodney Brooks’s advice on robotics – build systems that are “fast, cheap and out of control”, which can have lots of robots fail, but still accomplish the mission. Craig suggests that computing systems should be “dumb, unreliable, massively parallel, working on lots of data”.

To build interesting systems, you need to build systems many people will use, on a very large scale. These projects aren’t incremental improvements – they’re big leaps into the future. He explains how Google builds these systems using cheap, unreliable PCs, assuming there will be massive failure of hardware and correcting for it with software, using “reliability through replication”. The goal is so that “multiple failures don’t hurt, they only reduce capacity.” And this redundancy is needed for scaling, anyway. (Craig shows us a backup of his slide, assuring us his presentation is fully redundant.)

How does Google maintain these huge racks of servers? The key is velcro – the machines aren’t screwed together, merely held together by velcro, so a dead hard drive can be torn out and replaced easily. He introduces us to the New Zealand version of duct tape – number 8 wire – and shows us “number 8 wire, silicon valley style”, an early version of Google’s servers. They were aluminum trays, lined with cork, each with four motherboards attached to four hard drives. It’s pretty amazing that these systems – as well as disk drives in enclosures made from lego-knockoffs – managed to scale into today’s systems.

Craig’s final lesson is “detect trends” – he points to trends.google.com, and offers his assurance that Google doesn’t create profiles of individual users, but looks at queries in aggregate. He tells the story of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire contestant who made it to the final question, and used his lifeline to make a Google query – “carol brady maiden name”. He shows us the rank of that query on Google – it spikes when the episode aired in the East Coast, again when it airs on the West Coast and then a tiny spike when it aired in Hawaii. Google’s usage curve shows different patterns in different parts of the world – it’s a smooth workday curve in the US, but there’s a lunchtime siesta in France and Spain.

Craig gets a wide range of audience questions – it’s clear that the inner workings of Google are pretty fascinating to end users. He offers the “star trek” scenario – verbal computing, with natural language processing – as his “next big thing” for Google, on a long timeframe. He answers a question on “how search really works for a non-technical person” with an explanation of spidering, catalog builds, intersecting search terms and relavency rankings. And he addresses the secrets of Google corporate culture, mentioning that free food and free messages don’t hurt, but noting that the real benefit is from giving engineers 20% of their time to work on their independent projects, a process that’s led to products like GMail and Froogle. He also suggests that Google’s management shortage and flat structure is a benefit, which forces engineers to communicate with each other because their managers are too busy to help!

September 13, 2007

Idea festival: Pictures of peace

Filed under: Developing world,Human Rights,IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 7:56 pm

Idea Festival had invited Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, writer and Nobel Peace prize winner, to speak at the conference. Unfortunately, the Iranian government wasn’t willing to provide her with a visa to speak at this event, or other events in the US. With Ebadi not able to appear, Idea Festival has organized a conversation, titled “Peace”, which invites New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, University of Kentucky professor
John Stempel, and Global Voices Middle East and North Africa editor Amira Al Hussaini to discuss issues of peace, freedom and cultural understanding.

On the topic of Iran and their decision to prevent Ebadi from presenting at the festival, Kristof and Stempel both point out the complexities of the current situation in Iran, the idea that there’s a great deal of pro-American sentiment as well as a great deal of repression. Stempel mentions that some of his more conservative students promote the idea that we should bomb Iran into submission – “there’s a lot wrong with that idea, but beyond that, how can you bomb a country where 65 to 70% of the people support America?” Kristof expressed surprise at the willingness of Iranians to criticize the regime. Stempel reminisced about Iran when he worked there as a diplomat, during the Revolution. Iranians were very willing to engage with him personally, but conversations closed with a friendly “Death to America” – he makes the point that the greeting was warmly offered, just somewhat disconcerting to an American diplomat.

Amira takes a different tack on impressions of Iran and argues that Iran isn’t the only repressive nation in the Middle East or in the world as a whole. She points to attacks on free speech online and offline throughout the region, imprisoning bloggers for comments posted on their blogs. Pointing just to Iran, she suggests, makes a mistake – dozens of countries are looking for ways to control speech, some more violently and harshly than others.

As the conversation turned towards Kristof’s talk on Darfur, Amira offered an interesting perspective: “As an Arab, I feel strangely distant from the Darfur situation. Yet it’s happening right on our border. Do we blame the media – yes, it’s not in the local media, but it’s right there on the Internet. If we want to look around, we can find out easily what’s happening.”

Kris Kimel, the organizer of Idea Festival and moderator of this panel, pushes the panelists on the question of “freedom” – should the US be pushing freedom in the Middle East. Stempel wonders who gets to define freedom – if freedom is defined very differently in the Middle East, are we pushing for freedom or for some uniquely American view of freedom? Kristof gently argues that this is a bit of a cop out – since the Carter administration, US foreign policy hasn’t been afraid of supporting basic human rights, and we shouldn’t be afraid to push for these rights. He suggests that the problem isn’t that other countries misunderstand freedom, but that Americans generally fail to understand other countries. He urges more foreign travel, and argues that Americans are uniquely parochial and interested, primarily in their own culture. (I’d challenge this. Kristof specifically offers the example of best seller lists in the US and Europe – Europeans are more likely to read regionally than Americans. But my analysis of media coverage suggests that almost all counties are quite parochial, looking primarily at a small set of nations they consider highly relavent – usually nations they border, or that they have long-standing conflicts with.)

Amira dives right in and announces, “Your idea of freedom in America cannot work in the Middle East.” People in the region are bound by religion, tradition, values, and these manifest in different practices. “A daughter gives birth and spends 40 days with her mother, learning how to take care of the child.” The result is a very tight knit society, one that’s very prone to turn on outsiders, she argues.

Questions about terrorism from the audience provoke interesting responses. Stempel argues that we’re suffering from the “detritus of 9/11″, and that the consequences of that event are our view of a unipolar world, and a failure to look at the wider world with humility. Asked whether the US should consider engaging with “bad actors”, like human rights violator Burma, Kristof makes an argument that failing to engage with governments is a poor plan, and that events in North Korea demonstrate the value of talking with rogue regimes. Stempel offers his assurance that the US won’t invade Iran because we lack forces; Kristof suggests that we might bomb Iran in the waning days of the Bush presidency, but would not invade. Amira explains the sympathy that some Arabs feel for bin Laden, arguing that American behavior in Iraq has proved some of bin Laden’s accusations about America to be true.

Kristof’s urging of Americans to travel more gets a cool reception from some in the audience – one questioner argues that it might have been a good idea 20 years ago, but the world is too dangerous now. Amira demurs – she brought a group of US and UK journalists to Yemen and they were warmly received. Kristof points out that Yemen is such a sociable place, you hope to be kidnapped, because your captors treat you well. (We think he’s joking, but he makes the point that the kidnappers frequently have very modest goals, like a paved road to their village, and often release captives when demands appear to be met.) Stempel mourns the death of the US Information Agency, an organization resonsible for marketing America abroad by introducing the world to American scholarship and culture – as a recipient of USIA largess through the Fulbright program, I can only agree with him. And he closes with a hope that we will see “more humility at the senior levels” of government and that our next President will “do a better job of explaining ourselves to the rest of the world.


One of the reasons I like Idea Festival so much is that it’s very conscious of its embodiment in the Louisville community. The opening night event is a Taste of Louisville session, where a hall at the conference center is filled with tasting stations from two dozen local restaurants, breweries and distilleries. My friends and I graze on macaroni and cheese with truffles and lobster, beef in bourbon tarragon reduction, braised bison served with vegetable ragout and barley. There are lots worse ways to open a conference, and few better ways to get conferencegoers excited about heading out to dinner the following night.

Idea Festival: Kristof on Darfur

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,Human Rights,IdeaFestival07,Media — Ethan @ 3:54 pm

Nicholas Kristof has turned his column with the New York Times into a powerful tool to advocate for disadvantaged people around the world, especially in Africa. In introducing him to the Idea Festival stage, the moderator mentions that Kristoff has travelled to every American state, every Chinese province, 120 countries and every member of the axis of evil.

Kristof takes the stage and, almost immediately, tells us that we have a “moral obligation to stand up to the ultimate human crime: genocide”. We would expect moral leadership to come from Washington… but throughout the 20th century, leadership has come from the street, not from government. President Wilson looked the other way during the Armenian genocide; FDR ignored pleas to bomb the train lines leading to Auschwitz; the Clinton administration avoided even using the word “genocide” in Rwanda.

There was hope that George W. Bush might change this model – reading a report on Clinton’s inaction in Rwanda, President Bush scrawled, “Not on my watch” in the margin. Perhaps President Bush aspired to do better than President Clinton, but, in fact, it hasn’t happened. Samantha Power’s argument in her genocide book is that we don’t act on genocide because we don’t want to – we’ve got other priorities, other issues we think are more important.

Kristoff tells us that he was moved to focus his attentions on Darfur due to his travels to the region. Because we haven’t been there, he shows us a series of images from the Sudan/Chad border, an oasis that is normally uninhabited, but currently has 30,000 refugees. Kristoff went “tree to tree” talking to family groups who’d fled their homes. Under the first tree, he met a man who’d been shot in the neck, who’d nursed his brother for 49 days, carrying him to this refugee camp. The next tree featured a woman who’s sister who had been thrown into a well to poison it. Under the next, a pair of young girls who’s parents had been kiled. Under the fourth tree, a woman who’d been gang-raped and mutilated.

“What really got to me is that these were the first four trees where I did interviews. In all directions, there were more trees and more people. I realized the mass of the atrocities, the scale of it – it’s been very hard to move on and write about other things.”

Kristoff offers scenes from a DVD, a compendium of horrors:

He shows us the destruction of a village. Typically, villages are bombed by government planes, then hundreds of janjawid pass through with machine guns, shooting everything that moves, with a focus on men and boys.

In a village in Chad, two janjawid soldiers were camptured, and Kristof had an opportunity to interview one, a man who’d been shot off his horse and hit with a machete. He explained that he wasn’t attacking villages out of hatred, but because he’d been paid by the government.

He shows video of a young man who’d tried to flee a janjawid attack – his eyes had been gouged out with a bayonet. His daughter, at the foot of the bed, was looking at her father with an expression of utter revulsion, an image that Kristof said broke his heart.

An elderly man refused to leave the village when the janjawid came, because his wife was unable to run. The janjawid knocked him down and started a bonfire on his back. His wife jumped onto the fire and put it out with her body – the soldiers let them both go at that point.

How did we come to this situation? There’s a long-time tension between Arab and non-Arab populations, a tension between herdsmen and farmers, between lighter and darker-skinned people. In 2003, the African tribes formed an incipient rebellion, and the “Sudanese government went beserk and decided to wipe out the rural population in Darfur.” Kristof points out that the Sudanese government is not a group of extremists, but a fairly rational government – they simply saw a tremendous threat in Darfur, and unleashed attacks to neutralize the threat.

One of the dynamics of the conflict is mass rape as a weapon of terror. The attackers don’t just rape – they scar women after the fact in an attempt to mark them as victims.

The government acknowledges killings in Darfur, but says that these are tribal tensions and not something they can control. But Sudan has released people from prison and armed them to allow them to attack in the region. Kristof tells us about driving on a road controlled by the Sudanese military – he was stopped at each checkpoint, but the janjawid were waved through each checkpoint. At one checkpoint, his translator – a nineteen-year old boy – was stopped for “investigation”… “and it was very clear that investigation would consist of him being shot after we left.” Kristof and his photographer refused to leave, and they were detained along with their translator. “But having white skin and a blue passport is a certain amount of protection” – he, his photographer and his interpreter were released, but it underscored for him the involvement of the Sudanese government in the killing in Darfur.

Kristof offers a few skeptical questions that we may be afraid to ask:

– Is this a genocide? There’s an attempt to wipe out men over 13, but not neccesarily women and children. But under the definition coined by Rafael Lempkin, genocide doesn’t need to be an attempt to exterminate each person. The situation in Darfur, he argues, is similar to the Armenian genocide in this sense.

– Yes, Darfur is terrible, but so is malaria, and the death toll has been much worse. Kristof acknowledges that we need to do more about AIDS, malaria and other diseases. But nothing has personally effected him more than seeing a government killing civilians because of tribe. “If you go to Darfur, you cannot doubt the existence of evil.”

Kristof doesn’t think that sending US troops to Darfur is the solution – it would be percieved as a play for Sudan’s oil in the wake of Iraq. So Kristof recommends mobilizing international reaction and embarrasing Sudan on the global stage. France, the UK and the UN have started to press diplomatic buttons. And, while Kristof is critical of Bush, he’s at least had the guts to call the situation genocide and has supplied $2 billion in aid. This only affects Darfuris who make it out to Chad. “But you see doctors prying bullets out of kids like they were doing four years ago. It’s great that there are doctors. But we could be doing this in another ten years.”

He tells the story of an aid worker who was working in a village with a janjawid presence. The janjawid treated a family like slaves, demanding food and firewood, and raping the family’s daughters. The father broke down and begged the commander to let the daughters go – the commander cut off the fathers’ head in front of the daughters. The aid worker asked the girls if she could provide anything they needed – plastic sheeting, food. The daughters said, “There’s nothing you can provide – we just want to die.”

Darfur doesn’t feel unsolveable, Kristof says. While the situation is spiraling out of control, and while even the government seems to be losing control of the situation, it’s plausible to believe that the situaiton could change with more diplomatic effort. If we don’t make enough of an effort and get the government to make concessions, Darfur is going to continue to fragment, becoming more lawless and dangerous. The problem is growing – it now encompasses northern CAR and Chad, both of which might collapse under refugee and criminal pressures.

Kristof says the hardest question he gets is, “Why should we care?” Darfur is a long way off, there are problems at home. He answers that we know that failed states harbor terrorism, diseases, destabilization around the world. Instability in Chad will damage oil supplies. We’re paying billions in relief to Darfur. A study found that the cost of a failed state is $100 billion – if we can make a modest investment, we benefit fiscally from preventing state failure.

But “we don’t only have interests, we have values.” We should focus on AIDS, malaria, the chaos of eastern DRC. But our values require us to stand up and respond to genocide sponsored by a state. Kristof urges us to join the movement for greater action in Darfur because the leadership won’t come from Washington, but from people who are moved to try to change the situaiton.

Kristof ends with the story of Sewad, a woman he interviewed in a camp in Chad. She’s a Darfuri whose village was burned, and who fled to a refugee camp in Chad. She knew how dangerous the situation was in the camp for her and for her daughters, since the janjawid now surround the camp in Chad, and threaten women who collect firewood to cook food. Collecting firewood with her younger sister, they saw janjawid – she urged her sister to run to the camp, and she ran in the other direction, sacrificing herself to a brutal gang rape. Kristof points out that the stigma associated with rape is a profound one, but that Sewad was letting Kristof use her name and story as her way of fighting back against genocide.

There’s a string of questions from the audience, mostly centered on the question of how more pressure can be applied on the Sudanese government and onto other global governments. Kristof points out:
– the trade between China and Sudan, selling oil and buying weapons
– the unwillingness of Chirac to address the genocide while pushing through legislation to criminalize denying the Armenian genocide
– the risk of peace in the Sudanese north-south war decaying under the pressure of Darfur
– the power of naming and shaming against China – Kristof argues that Mia Farrow was singlehandedly able to get the Sudanese government to accept peacekeepers and wonders what the Bush administration might be able to accomplish.

Kristof leaves with a parting shot at Chinese bloggers, wondering why 11 million Chinese bloggers haven’t pressured their government on Darfur. I’m sitting with Georgia and Amira, and they’re as surprised as I am – given the state of filtering in China, the consequences for some bloggers and the controlled media environment, it’s hard to imagine Chinese bloggers being as active as American bloggers on this issue, for instance.

Then again, it’s a rough session for bloggers – my liveblogging evidently antagonized the gentleman in front of me, who berated me for my rudeness. I have high hopes that the conference organizers will explain liveblogging to the audience in one of the future sessions, otherwise I will need to either stop transcribing, or find some way to separate myself from the rest of the audience.

Idea Festival: Dollar bills and epidemeology

Filed under: Geekery,IdeaFestival07 — Ethan @ 2:09 pm

I’m here at the Idea Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for the next couple of days. Idea Festival was good enough to invite me to speak last year, and invited me back this year to give a talk alongside my Global Voices colleagues, Amira Al Hussaini and Georgia Popplewell. In the meantime, I’m hanging out with Idea Festival blogger Wayne Hall and blogging as much of the conference as I can.

Dirk Brockmann is a physicist at the Department of Non-Linear Dynamics (or maybe the Dynamics and Self Organization… or maybe the Institute for Fluid Dynamics) at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany. No one is doing fluid dynamics at Max Planck anymore, but the basic philosophy of the institute is the same – take the methods of theoretical physics and apply them to a very different field. In Brockmann’s case, this means looking at currency circulation as a proxy for human travel, which ends up being a way to study epidemeology.

The data Brockmann uses is from WhereIsGeorge.com, a long-running web experiment that tracks currency. Studying this data statistically gives insight into ways that people travel around the world, which is critical to understand in figuring out how SARS and other diseases spread around the world.

When you think of space, time and disease, Brockmann begins, the first disease most people study is the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century. It started in southern Europe, spread in waves, at a speed of a few kilometers a day, eventually wiping out a quarter of the European population. Waves are familiar to physicists – perhaps the wave equations we understand from light can help us understand this spread? Unfortunately, other diseases – the spread of measles in the UK, for instance – are much more complicated. Complex phenomena are usually the product of multiple forces. To study them, you can build complex models that incorporate the key causes… but these generally fall short, and don’t fully model the systems under consideration.

One technique for building better models is to look at different examples and look for common features – Brockmann shows us a chart of pandemics over the past millenia. For the past few centuries, the major pandemics are influenza pandemics. He invites us to look at H5N1 – bird flu – because it’s so scary: while the disease doesn’t currently affect humans, if it crossed over from an avian population, it would be devestating. HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are two other pandemics we should be worried about, but tend to ignore because TB, in particular, strikes primarily in developing nations. SARS killed as many people as HIV/AIDS and TB kill every two hours, despite the fact that media attention focused so heavily on SARS.

Estimates for the impact of a pandemic like bird flu were between 2 million and over a hundred million – that’s two orders of magnitude, which implies that a) the press does a lousy job of reporting science numbers and b) there’s great uncertainty about what a real-world pandemic would look like. Brockmann shows us what a disease looks like in a small population – a school or a town – they reach a peak quickly, then drop down gradually. There’s a model – SIR dynamics – in which patients are susceptible, infected then recovered – which goes a long way towards predicting epidemic spread in an isolated group. Key factors in building these models are the mean transmission rate and the mean disease duration. If you take the product of these two, you get a single factor, the “basic reproductive rate”, that characterizes the spread of an epidemic quite neatly.

While we can predict the spread of “compartmentalized” diseases quite neatly, it’s lots harder to predict the transmission of bird flu, because transmission of disease is directly related to our transportation networks. If you want to understand how to build a better model, you have to understand how we travel in space and time. Brockmann shows us a 3D model of air traffic networks, showing links between nodes and the volume of travel. This travel, of course, is very different from travel in the 14th century – we can cross the world in a day, and this means that disease dynamic can be very, very different. While Black Death moved at a couple of kilometers a day, SARS crossed the Pacific Ocean within a few days.

To model SARS, Brockmann began by combining a local disease model with a global travel system model – the results predicted were quite close to what actually happened in the spread of SARS. This is a pretty good indicator that following travel is a great clue to understanding disease spread. But air travel is only one factor – people travel through lots of other methods, including cars, trains, buses, on “all length scales”.

Once Brockmann realized that an accurate disease model would require a much more robust travel model, he found himself somewhat depressed. He mentioned the problem to his friend, cabinetmaker Dennis Derryberry, who suggested WhereIsGeorge, which allows people to track the movement of dollar bills, as a possible proxy for actual US travel. Because the WIG data set is so large, it’s possible to do a great deal of statistical extrapolation from it.

A quick check of report density on WIG to population density shows a pretty clear correlation – people seem to participate in the game from all over the country. Marked bills seem to get injected into the system from all over the US as well. After bills are injected, most are next sighted near their injection point… but a small set are discovered a long way from home, which is consistent with the nature of long-distance travel. The distribution follows an inverse power law – which is a mathematical distribution that physicists know well. Power law distributions are characteristic of data sets that are “scale-free”. To explain “scale-free”, Brockmann suggests we all guess the mean height of an adult human being – our estimates will tend to cluster pretty tightly, probably in a bell curve distribution, because there are no humans one inch tall, and none a mile tall. But if we estimate mean human income, we’ll be all over the map, because there are no scale constraints for the equation.

A dollar bill moving around the world is a “random walk” in mathematical terms. There’s a variety of mathematics that help us understand random walks and scale-free phenomena that might inform how we build models on the spacial spread of disease.

Brockmann shows us a map of Kentucky, with each county represented as a node, and links that show the strength of the ties in the network – how much currency flows from one to another. We can compute the transportation network based on the currency flows in Kentucky, and in the US as a whole. Something that becomes immediately apparent is that the short-distance connections are more relavent than the small-distance ones, confirming the intuition that airtravel data alone is insufficient to build a model.

Currently in vogue in network theory is identifying “communities” in complex networks. Using a moularity function, you can detect communities within the graph of a network, areas where connections to the community are strong and connections to other communities are weak. Doing this in the WIG/transportation network gives us information that can be quite counterintuitive. A map of Europe shows us one type of communities – nations. But those communities may not map neatly to realworld communities. The national boundaries have evolved over time, but they aren’t neccesarily the “effective communities” or Europe. The community analysis of a transport network shows us what the effective divisions might be – lots of people transit from New York to Los Angeles, so perhaps they are functionally the same community.

Doing this analysis on the WIG data divides the US into ten segments. One covers almost all of Texas (except El Paso, which is part of a Southwest cluster); another covers all of New England and the Atlantic states, down to Virginia. They’re very different from the ways we’re used to breaking our nation into regions… but these are the communities that a mathematical analysis of data tells us are created by transportation and trade networks.

The new, richer model built with the WIG data predicts the spread of a disease through the US in a very different fashion than a pure wavefront model, the sort of model we would use to model the Black Death. This model moves very quickly, and it’s fractiline – a disease spreads from one major city to another and then spreads from those urban centers into rural areas.

The final message of Brockmann’s talk: the creator of Where Is George, who is in the audience for the talk, had no intention of creating a tool for scientific research. But it’s possible that this data may be a key set in predicting the spread of disease in the future.

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