Nation & World News

Supreme Court Clears Way For Same-Sex Marriages In Florida

By Bill Chappell on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Rejecting a request by Florida’s attorney general to maintain a judge’s stay that would have kept same-sex couples from marrying in the state, the Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriages to be held in Florida next month.

The stay stems from a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who said in August that Florida’s 2008 ban is unconstitutional.

As has happened with many similar cases, Judge Hinkle issued a stay on his own ruling that Florida’s ban was illegal, to give the state time to appeal. That stay is set to expire at the end of the day on Jan. 5.

The state took its request for a longer stay to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. But a three-judge panel declined to prolong the stay.

Things heated back up this week, after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a request with Justice Clarence Thomas, who oversees the 11th Circuit, asking him to extend the stay.

The ACLU of Florida responded to Thomas’ request for a plaintiffs’ response Thursday, saying, “Florida cannot continue to deny fundamental rights to certain groups of people simply because it has done so in the past.”

The Supreme Court issued its order Friday, in a short statement:

“The application for stay presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied.
“Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas would grant the application for stay.”

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CEO Says Sony Pictures ‘Did Not Capitulate,’ Is Exploring Options

By Bill Chappell on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm

On a day when President Obama added his voice to criticisms over the decision to pull the satire The Interview, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton says the studio “did not capitulate” to hackers, and that its actions have been misunderstood.

Lynton defended his studio in an interview on All Things Considered, saying that Sony still wants an audience to see The Interview — if not in theaters, then by other means.

His remarks came shortly after President Obama called the decision to cancel the film’s planned national release “a mistake.”

Discussing the film this afternoon, Lynton said that Sony viewed the film as part of film’s satirical tradition, saying that under the current circumstances, “It is very important and we would very much like the American public to see this movie.”

Here are more highlights from the interview by NPR’s Melissa Block:

On President Obama’s position

“First, I was surprised by the remark. But, I think actually the president and I are coming from the same place. We are obviously both strong proponents of the First Amendment.

“I think the issue here is that there’s been a general misunderstanding with the press and the public about how these events unfolded, and the fact that we have been absolutely diligent about making certain that this movie get out into movie theaters. And it was only when the movie theaters themselves had said they couldn’t take the movie, that we had to say that we couldn’t release it on the 25th of December.”

The question of blackmail

“We did not capitulate. We don’t own movie theaters, and we require movie theater owners to be there for us to distribute our film. We very much wanted to keep the picture in release. When the movie theaters decided that they could not put our movie in their theaters, we had no choice at that point but to not have the movie come out on the 25th of December. This was not our decision.”

A video-on-demand release?

“Yes, those are other avenues and we are actively exploring them …. to date, we don’t have any takers — neither on the video demand side nor on the e-commerce side. People have been generally fearful about the possibility of their systems being corrupted, and so there have been a lot of conversations about the robustness of various systems to be able to make sure they’re not hacked, if and when we put the movie out digitally.”

“I shouldn’t say if — when. We would very much like that to happen. But we do need partners to make that happen. We ourselves do not have a distribution platform to put the movie out.”

How about streaming on Playstation systems?

“That can be explored, I think in general we need to bring together a coalition of platforms to make this operate properly.”

On Sony’s cyber security

“We were extremely well prepared for conventional cyber security. What the FBI and Mandiant, who was the expert who we hired to come in and do the forensics on this, have come out in public and said, is that 90 percent of all U.S. corporations would not have withstood the cyber attack that we experienced.”

Thanks to NPR’s Serri Graslie for quickly transcribing Lynton’s interview.

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Obama Says ‘James Flacco.’ The Internet Says, Thank You

By Bill Chappell on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 6:38 pm

It was an honest mistake. But when President Obama meant to talk about James Franco and instead said “James Flacco” — on a Friday marking the full-on start of the holidays, no less — the slip was eagerly received by people on Twitter and elsewhere.

The remark came as the president spoke about the FBI’s belief that North Korea is responsible for a hacking attack on Sony Pictures, in retaliation for its now-canceled spoof comedy, The Interview.

Here’s what Obama said during his end-of-year news conference:

“I think it says something interesting about North Korea, that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie, starring Seth Rogan and James Flacco.

“I love Seth. And I love James. But the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you a sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here.”

Shortly after the flub, NFL quarterback Joe Flacco wrote to actor James Franco, “Welcome to the family, brother.”

After the president spoke, the name James Flacco became a top-trending topic on Twitter. Several people Photoshopped images that combined aspects of the actor and the Ravens quarterback. And some simply took Obama’s slip to another level, as Slate quickly published a name generator to let people “Obamify” their name.

For example, the rapper Ghostface Killah came out as “Ghostface Kaepernick.”

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New EPA Standards Label Toxic Coal Ash Non-Hazardous

By Scott Neuman on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 6:38 pm

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new national standards designating coal ash – a nearly ubiquitous byproduct of coal-fired power plants that contains arsenic and lead – as non-hazardous waste.

NPR’s Christopher Joyce reports that coal-fired power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the coal ash each year and they have long stored millions of tons of it in giant ponds.

But many of those ponds have failed in recent years, allowing contaminated water to get into rivers and streams, and ultimately into drinking water.

Environmental groups sued the EPA to designate coal as a hazardous waste, which would require strict rules for its care, Christopher says.

But instead, the EPA has decided to treat it more like ordinary household garbage.

According to The Associated Press:

“The Environmental Protection Agency said in a call with reporters Friday that the record did not support a hazardous classification. The agency said the steps they were taking would protect communities from the risks associated with coal ash waste sites and hold the companies operating them accountable.

“‘It does what we hoped to accomplish … in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way,’ said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.”

Nonetheless, the new EPA rules will set standards for how coal ash ponds are built.

Christopher reports that the EPA will require companies to disclose their coal ash storage plans to the public. The agency says the public can then take legal action if companies don’t meet the EPA standards.

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St. Louis Grand Jury Heard Witnesses Who Lied, Prosecutor Says

By Bill Chappell on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Some witnesses were clearly lying when they spoke to a grand jury about the August police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., according to St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch. In an interview about the case Friday, the prosecutor says he won’t seek perjury charges.

Nearly a month after he announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, McCulloch told St. Louis radio station KTRS 550 AM that he hasn’t spoken publicly about the Michael Brown case because “I didn’t want to fire things up.”

In the interview, KTRS host McGraw Milhaven also asked McCulloch to explain why he made the announcement on the night of Nov. 24, the Monday before Thanksgiving.

“There was no good time to announce this,” McCulloch answered.

As you’ll recall, McCulloch also arranged for hundreds of pages of grand jury documents to be released about the case, bringing an unusual chance for close analysis of the evidence the panel considered.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Lying Under Oath And Perjury

“It’s a legitimate issue. But in the situation — again, because of the manner in which we did it — we’re not going to file perjury charges against anyone. There were people who came in and yes, absolutely lied under oath. Some lied to the FBI — even though they’re not under oath, that’s another potential offense, a federal offense.

“But I thought it was much more important to present the entire picture and say listen, this is what this witness says he saw — even though there was a building between where the witness says he was and where the events occurred, so they couldn’t have seen that. Or the physical evidence didn’t support what the witness was saying. And it went both directions. …

“I thought it was much more important that the grand jury hear everything, what people have to say — and they’re in a perfect position to assess the credibility, which is what juries do.”

On Releasing The Findings After Dark

“There was no good time to announce this. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. We knew that very early on. But I did work very closely with law enforcement. … I decided early on that I would release it as soon as practicable after the grand jury made a decision. …

“What occurred afterward was unfortunate; there are a variety of reasons that that may have occurred. Some people were bent on destruction, regardless of when this was going to be released. I thought it was more important to get the information out as quickly as possible. I think waiting longer would have aggravated things.”

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Apple Responds To BBC On Conditions At Asian iPhone Suppliers

By Scott Neuman on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president for operations, has responded to a BBC report that workers at Asian suppliers for the iPhone 6 are mistreated and overworked, saying he’s “deeply offended” by the accusations.

In an email to some 5,000 Apple staff in the United Kingdom, Williams hit back at the British broadcaster’s Panorama program, which sent in undercover reporters to observe conditions at the Pegatron factory, near Shanghai, where iPhones are assembled.

The BBC’s report “implied that Apple isn’t improving working conditions,” said Williams in the email published by The Telegraph, the authenticity of which NPR confirmed with Apple.

“Let me tell you, nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote.

“We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions, to discover and investigate problems, to fix and follow through when issues arise, and to provide transparency into the operations of our suppliers,” Williams wrote to employees.

But, he added, “We can still do better. And we will.”

Panorama has stood by its reporting that rules on workers’ hours, ID cards, dormitories and work meetings were routinely breached, according to the BBC. the documentary alleged that workers fell asleep during 12-hour shifts on the iPhone production line and that some of them were required to work 18 days at a stretch.

Williams responded that Apple had tracked the weekly hours of more than 1 million workers in its supply chain and that 93 percent were in compliance with a limit of 60 hours per week.

Panorama also reported that child labor was being used in Indonesia tin mines, where some of the raw materials for iPhones are procured.

In response, Williams said in the email: “Apple has publicly stated that tin from Indonesia ends up in our products, and some of that tin likely comes from illegal mines.

“Tens of thousands of artisanal miners are selling tin through many middlemen to the smelters who supply to component suppliers who sell to the world,” Williams wrote. “[There] is widespread corruption in the undeveloped supply chain. Our team visited the same parts of Indonesia visited by the BBC, and of course we are appalled by what’s going on there.”

Williams said Apple had two options: either buy tin only from outside Indonesia, which he called “the lazy and cowardly path,” or else “stay engaged and try to drive a collective solution.”

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Instagram Is Now Valued At $35 Billion By Citigroup Analysts

By Bill Chappell on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Less than three years after Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion, the photo-sharing service is now worth $35 billion, according to analysts at Citigroup.

Instagram’s user base has skyrocketed since the acquisition, in part because of its integration with Facebook but also because the purchase roughly coincided with the release of an Instagram app for Android smartphones.

Earlier this month, Instagram announced that it surpassed 300 million users.

The hefty valuation was included along with Citigroup analyst Mark May’s guidance that Facebook’s stock should be valued around $91. Since August, Facebook shares have been hovering in the 70s.

May is quoted by Forbes:

“‘Not only is Instagram’s audience now larger than Twitter, but its users are ~1.8x more engaged, and user growth has been greater,’ May writes in a note to clients Friday. ‘Instagram is at the early stages of rolling out advertising, but we believe brands have and will find it an effective channel.'”

In his previous analysis of the photo service, May had valued it at $19 billion.

If you’re wondering how the $35 billion valuation compares to other companies, Bloomberg News says the estimate “puts Instagram in the same realm as American Airlines Group Inc., with a market capitalization of $36.4 billion, and Kraft Foods Group Inc., at $37.2 billion.”

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Obama’s Wide-Ranging, Year-End News Conference

By Scott Neuman on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Updated at 6 p.m. ET

President Obama spoke to reporters in a year-end news conference at the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.

One of the topics that came up was Sony Pictures Entertainment’s decision to cancel distribution of the film The Interview following North Korea’s cyber attack against the company’s servers.

The president said he thought Sony “made a mistake” and that it could set a dangerous precedent to allow “some dictator” to control free speech in America. (Update at 6:45 p.m. ET: The head of Sony Pictures defends his studio in an interview with All Things Considered.)

“I wish they’d spoken to me first,” the president said of the film’s producers. “I would have told them ‘do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”

On this week’s White House announcement that the United States would move toward normalization relations with Cuba after five decades of diplomatic isolation, Obama said there were no plans for him to visit Cuba before his term as president is over nor for Cuban leader Raul Castro to visit the U.S.

Here’s our live blog:

Update at 2:23 p.m. ET. Congress Must Lift Cuban Embargo

“We cannot unilaterally bring down the embargo,” Obama said.

There are bipartisan supporters of this approach; there are bipartisan detractors of this approach,” he said of his decision to normalize relations with Havana.

“I don’t anticipate overnight changes,” he said.

He called the embargo “self-defeating.”

Update at 2:20 p.m. ET. Cuba-U.S. Relations

The president said that it’s not out of the question that Cuba could take actions that the U.S. did not like.

“That is true of a lot of countries out there where we have an embassy,” he said.

“The whole point of normalizing relations is that it gives us greater opportunity to have influence with the government than not,” the president said.

Update at 2:15 p.m. ET. On Cuba

“We are glad the Cuban government has released slightly over 50 dissidents,” the president said.

“I share the concerns of dissidents and human rights activists that this is still a regime that represses its people,” he said.

“What I know deep in my bones is that if you have tried the same thing for 50 years and nothing changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” the president said.

“The more the Cuban people see what is possible, the more interested they will be interested in change. … It may happen fast. It will probably happen slower than I’d like,” Obama said.

Update at 2:38 p.m. ET. Race Relations

“Like the rest of America, black America is better off in the aggregate than it was when I cane into office,” he said.

“The gap between the income and wealth of white and black America persists,” he said. “This is a legacy of a troubled racial past. Jim Crow. Slavery. That is not an excuse for black folks, and I think the overwhelming majority of black people understand it is not an excuse.”

“I think it has been a healthy conversation that we have had,” the president. “You’re not going to solve the problem if it is not being talked about.

“I have been very pleased to see Republicans and Democrats in Congress who are interested in these issues as well,” he said.

Update at 2:32 p.m. ET. Keystone Pipeline

“Keystone is not American oil. It is Canadian oil,” Obama said. “It would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it all the way through the United States to the the Gulf.”

There’s very little impact on U.S. gas prices, he said.

“Sometimes this is sold as if it is going to lower gas prices in the United States. It’s not,” he said.

He said it would add “a couple thousand temporary jobs” during the construction phase of the project.

He said it was important that if the project goes forward, it doesn’t contribute to climate change.

Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. President Has No Plans To Visit Cuba

Obama said there were no plans for him to visit Cuba before his term as president is over. And likewise, the two countries are not at a stage where Cuban leader Raul Castro would visit the U.S.

“We are not at a stage here where me visiting Cuba or President Castro coming to the United States is in the cards,” he said.

“I am a fairly young man, so I imagine at some point in my life I will have a chance to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban Cuban people,” he said.

Update at 2:23 p.m. ET. Congress Must Lift Cuban Embargo

“We cannot unilaterally bring down the embargo,” Obama said.

“There are bipartisan supporters of this approach,” he said of his decision to normalize relations with Havana.

“I don’t anticipate overnight changes,” he said.

He called the embargo “self defeating.”

Update at 2:20 p.m. ET. Cuba-U.S. Relations

The president said that it’s not out of the question that Cuba could take actions that the U.S. did not like.

“That’s is true of a lot of countries out there where we have an embassy,” he said.

“The whole point on normalizing relations is that it gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with the government than not,” the president said.

Update at 2:15 p.m. ET. On Cuba

“We are glad the Cuban government has released slightly over 50 dissidents,” the president said.

“I share the concerns of dissidents and human rights activists that there is still a regime that represses its people,” he said.

“What I know deep in my bones is that if you have done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” the president said.

“The more the Cuban people see what is possible, the more they will be interested in change. … It may happen fast. It will probably happen slower than I’d like,” Obama said.

Update at 2:10 p.m. ET: Chance For Tax Reform

Obama said that after talking to Speaker of the House John Boehner and incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that tax reform is possible.

“I would like to see more simplicity in the system. I would like to see more fairness in the system with respect to the corporate tax reform issue,” Obama said.

“The devil is in the details,” he said. “I am going to make sure we put forward some pretty specific proposals.”

Update at 2:05 p.m. ET: Sony’s Pulling ‘The Interview’ A Mistake

Obama said Sony Pictures’ decision to cancel the release of ‘The Interview’ because of a North Korean hack attack was wrong.

Sony he said “made a mistake.”

He said it was dangerous to allow “some dictator” to control free speech in America.

“I wish they’d spoken with me first,” the president said. “I would have told them ‘do not get into a pattern where you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”

“I like Seth and James,” he said of the movies co-stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco. But the president said it was ridiculous to suggest the comedy was a threat to North Korea.

Pyongyang’s hackers, he said “caused a lot of damage.

“We will respond,” he added.

Update at 1:55 p.m. ET: List Of Accomplishments

In his opening statement, Obama outlined many of the accomplishments of the year and of his presidency.

He said this year has seen the strongest job growth since the 1990s and that almost all the new growth has been in full-time positions.

“Wages are on the rise again,” he said.

America, the president said “is now the number one producer of oil, the number one producer of natural gas.”

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the number uninsured Americans are “at a near record low.”

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Obama Says Sony Should Not Have Pulled Film Over Threats

By Eyder Peralta on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET

President Obama called Sony’s decision to pull its film The Interview, following threats to movie theaters, a “mistake.”

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” the president said in his year-end news conference.

He added that he was “sympathetic” to Sony’s concerns, but, “I wish they would have spoken to me first.”

Reacting to President Obama’s words today, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton says, “First, I was surprised by the remark. But, I think actually the president and I are coming from the same place. We are obviously both strong proponents of the First Amendment.”

In an interview on All Things Considered, Lynton defended his company, saying that its actions have been misunderstood.

“I think the issue here is that there’s been a general misunderstanding with the press and the public about how these events unfolded,” Lynton said, “and the fact that we have been absolutely diligent about making certain that this movie get out into movie theaters. And it was only when the movie theaters themselves had said they couldn’t take the movie, that we had to say that we couldn’t release it on the 25th of December.”

Earlier Friday, the FBI said it has enough information to confirm that North Korea was behind the hacking of Sony Pictures.

The agency tied the attack to North Korea because the malware used in the attack had the hallmarks of software written by the country in the past.

“For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks,” the FBI said in a statement.

The tools used, the agency said, also had similarities to a cyberattack that took place in March of last year against banks in South Korea.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, for its part, issued a statement saying it “is and always has been strongly committed to the First Amendment.

“The decision not to move forward with the December 25 theatrical release of The Interview was made as a result of the majority of the nation’s theater owners choosing not to screen the film. This was their decision,” the Sony statement said.

The hack has caused serious repercussions for Sony. The stolen data have made public some embarrassing emails written by its executives. Hackers also leaked unreleased movies and scripts.

The group that took responsibility for the attack, “Guardians of Peace,” said it was responding to Sony Pictures’ comedy about an assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After the group issued threats to attack movie theaters that show the film, major movie chains pulled The Interview and Sony decided against a Christmas Day release.

“We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private-sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there,” the FBI said. “Further, North Korea’s attack on [Sony] reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States.”

In a separate statement, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the hack “underscores the importance of good cybersecurity practices to rapidly detect cyber intrusions and promote resilience throughout all of our networks.

“Every CEO should take this opportunity to assess their company’s cybersecurity,” he added.

Immediately following the FBI announcement, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, R-Calif., criticized the White House for not imposing tough financial sanctions on North Korea.

“North Korea is attacking our infrastructure,” Royce said in a statement. “It is also attacking our values. The decision to pull ‘The Interview’ from theatres unfortunately is a North Korean victory in its attack on our freedom. We better quickly respond comprehensively to defend freedom of speech in the face of terrorist threats and cyber attacks.”

Options, though, are limited. The U.S. could impose new financial sanctions on Pyongyang and boost military support to South Korea. Yet these moves have had little impact on the heavily sanctioned country in the past.

CNN reported earlier Friday that the hackers behind the attack issued another statement Friday, praising Sony for pulling the movie. Removing it from screens, the hackers said in an email to Sony executives, was a “very wise” decision.

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Education Dept. Issues Framework For New College Rating System

By Scott Neuman on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Beginning next year, colleges and universities will be judged on three broad criteria when it comes to meting out federal financial aid: access, affordability and student outcomes, according to a new “framework” released by the Education Department.

The ratings plan was first announced by President Obama in August 2013, but the framework announced today is only an interim step. Public input is being sought by Feb. 17 on the proposed system.

Schools could be rated on a sliding scale, from “high performers” to “in the middle” to “low performers,” based on such indicators as whether they meet a certain average net price, graduation and student loan repayment rates, and whether graduates get a job in the field they studied.

Anya Kamenetz of the nprEd blog has more details here.

Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said Thursday that the process of designing the new rating system “is an important step in improving transparency, accountability and equity in higher education.

“The public should know how students fare at institutions receiving federal student aid, and this performance should be considered when we assess our investments and set priorities,” he said.

But The Associated Press notes the release of only a framework was “an acknowledgement of just how complicated it is for the federal government to assess more than 7,000 colleges and universities.” (NPR’s Claudio Sanchez takes a closer look at one college, Randolph, where students pay hefty tuition fees, here.)

The Washington Post says, “Mitchell acknowledged Thursday that the department is deliberating key issues: Which metrics will be used? How will colleges be grouped for comparison? How will they be given credit for improvement? What does ‘in the middle’ mean, the middle 50 percent or the middle 90 percent? Will each college receive a single composite rating, multiple ratings — or both?”

According to the AP, when the president announced the ratings system last year, “it received immediate pushback from much of the higher education community and Republicans. Critics said a ratings system could provide a disincentive for colleges to accept students considered high-risk.

“Congress does not need to approve the ratings system, but it would need to pass legislation if it is to be used to parcel out federal financial aid. [Mitchell] … said Obama is unlikely to ask for that during his remaining two years in office.”

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