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Software Hardware

Stallman's Legacy Halts At Hardware (hackaday.com) 208

szczys writes: To say Richard Stallman had a profound effect on free software is not a bold enough statement. The power of the GPL, and his advocacy for software freedom have changed the world. But there is one frontier that has yet to hear this gospel. These days, no hardware is an island. Almost every type of electronics we use is running some type of code, and in almost every case some of that code is secret in more ways than one. From beefy processors to graphics controllers, boot ROMs and binary blobs run in the silicon we base our systems upon. The code is not published and in the rare case that you are able to view the source it is only under strict NDA. This represents one of the biggest barriers to true open hardware.
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Stallman's Legacy Halts At Hardware

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  • by ArcWild ( 4414699 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:21PM (#51294393)
    Stallman has always had the right idea IMHO, but that 'ideal' put up against Corp Profit will never win sadly.
    "Those who don't understand code, will be owned by those who do"
    I'm all for a hardware manufacturer who creates and promotes 100% open hardware with public code provided.....................know any?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by jellomizer ( 103300 )

      The success of the GPL is in spite of Stallman not because of it.
      Most successful GPL program are "Infrastructure based" Operating Systems, Web Servers (the most popular one is under the Apache Open source license) , Programming Languages, Databases. These are software that people use as the backdrop to the real work they are trying to accomplish. Installing a Database will not solve any problems, but using the database to solve your problems may improve your success. These get a lot of action because th

    • by mi ( 197448 )

      Stallman has always had the right idea IMHO

      How was it a "right" idea? The society — and generations of programmers — were spending considerable efforts on software, which could not be used by all. This caused a substantial duplication of efforts and repulsed a substantial body of programmers, who preferred the truly free BSD-license instead. Instead of cooperating, people and groups ended up competing. And when the original GPL proved to not be "enough" [wikipedia.org] — for example, it was still possible

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        How was it a "right" idea? The society - and generations of programmers - were spending considerable efforts on software, which could not be used by all. This caused a substantial duplication of efforts...

        It was the right idea at the time. What you describe is precisely what was happening in the 1980s. GPL was a drastic medicine for this; since the source could not be re-closed, its sole target was to avoid just that duplication. For achieving this, I applaud GNU, no question.

        Fast forward 20 years. People have become accustomed that software is free. From OS to $EDITOR, compiler & desktop. And now the liberty of GPL starts to become a hindrance at times. People want to use GPL stuff for work, and can't b

      • by Bradmont ( 513167 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @04:38PM (#51295661)
        Saying BSD-style licenses are "truly free" and the GPL isn't is like saying that you're only truly free if you have the right to use a gun to hold others captive. The ability to revoke freedoms from others does not make one more free in any logical sense.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mi ( 197448 )

          you're only truly free if you have the right to use a gun to hold others captive

          Actually, being unable to hold somebody — like a thief caught in your home — captive would be a violation of freedom. But your analogy is flawed and let's not use it.

          The ability to revoke freedoms from others does not make one more free in any logical sense.

          BSD revokes no freedoms from anyone.

          Whatever is released under BSD remains so for ever. A new development may be made under a different license, but that can hap

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Saying BSD-style licenses are "truly free" and the GPL isn't is like saying that you're only truly free if you have the right to use a gun to hold others captive. The ability to revoke freedoms from others does not make one more free in any logical sense.

          A comparison:
          * GPL: use the code for whatever you want, but you must share changes
          * BSD: use the code for whatever you want

          Seems to me that the latter has one less restriction on what you're able to do. Isn't having fewer restriction equivalent to being more free?

          • Nope, it's not. You need to consider the consequences of the licenses too. "You have the ability to place restrictions on other people" means, in practice, that other people will place restrictions on you. (Remember that there's a lot more of them than there are of you.)

            Seems to me that having more restrictions placed on you makes you less free.

      • Generations of older idiots do not realize, that corporations are shafting you and laughing all the way to the bank based on *your* hardwork, and you just accept it. There is nothing wrong or shameful about asking for higher compensation, and joining a union to strength your demands by putting workers and executives on an even playing field, and all efforts to "fight" it are misguided and destructive.

        FTFY.

        Look, I don't mean to be rude in the above statement, but it really irritates me when people refer to younger generations as idiots, just because we have a different philosophy than you do.

        In my view, BSD allows corporations to fork the code and never contribute back. They can essentially take everyone's hard work, say "So long and thanks for all the fish", and package up a proprietary version of it and sell it for oodles of money. They don't owe you a thing. They don't owe the open source project a th

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        The GPL was never supposed to prevent duplication of effort if people wanted to try different approaches or use different licences. The idea was simply to create a way for people creating software to protect their work and ensure that others would not use it to build systems that were hostile to them. It gives developers assurances that are essential for projects like Linux.

        BSD is nice and all, but Linux is clearly the more popular OS. The fact that it is GPL licensed has not prevented large corporations us

      • What makes you think gcc can't be used for a BSD project? You can use it on any sort of project. Nothing that is output from GPLed software is automatically under the GPL. Compilers do put their own prewritten stuff into output, which is why gcc has special permission.

        If gcc could only be used to write GPLed software, it would never have caught on.

        Profit isn't a reward for doing something people want. It's related, in that you are unlikely to make a profit on something nobody wants, but just doing

    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

      Open code turns hardware into even more of a commodity where they start racing toward the bottom in price. No one in the hardware business really wants that. Inter-operability between products per some agreement? Sure. Open hardware. Good luck.

      They will need to be forced to allow open hardware by some means or development. It is not in their interests to do so otherwise, and so far they cannot be forced to.

    • by lkcl ( 517947 )

      I'm all for a hardware manufacturer who creates and promotes 100% open hardware with public code provided.....................know any?

      yeah, that'll be me.
      http://rhombus-tech.net/commun... [rhombus-tech.net]
      https://www.crowdsupply.com/eo... [crowdsupply.com]

      i also have an RYF / FSF-Endorseable CPU Card under development:
      http://rhombus-tech.net/ingeni... [rhombus-tech.net]

      just so you know, i currently have a sponsor for the 15.6in laptop, i've been working on it for 14 months now. sponsorship works well for two reasons: firstly, investment is usually profit-driven, so the priority is on maximising the investor's profits instead of getting the product - and even more importantly the modular stan

  • by Anonymous Coward

    His legacy also stopped at bathing as well.

  • Wrong... (Score:3, Informative)

    by LynnwoodRooster ( 966895 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:23PM (#51294413) Journal
    The biggest barrier to true open hardware is the fact someone has to pay for a tangible good, and that tangible good - hardware - is designed for a specific purpose. The BIOS and bootloaders and such are immaterial, and do not limit you from using a piece of silicon as you desire. The block is silicon that does what you want to do in the first place. And that carries with it costs beyond just software creation.
    • I wish that this were more often true; but firmware appears to be getting bigger and uglier(even on systems where 'firmware' means only the BIOS-or-equivalent stuff, not the entire embedded OS), rather than more unobtrusive over time.

      Sure, the PC BIOS was pretty lousy; but we went and replaced with with UEFI, which is essentially an always-on secondary OS designed by the people who thought that ACPI wasn't a dubious plan. That's not exactly progress.

      It's also false that firmware doesn't limit you fro
      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Actually, the Broadcom decoder situation is a little different to how you describe it. The Broadcom decode is a binary blob that you need a licence to use. You could however implement your own hardware accelerated decode if you had complete documentation for the chip and weren't worried about patent issues. So really the problem is not that the chip has features disabled by firmware, it's that there isn't enough documentation for a free implementation of the firmware and possible patent issues.

        This highligh

    • by maligor ( 100107 )

      The biggest barrier to true open hardware is the fact someone has to pay for a tangible good, and that tangible good - hardware - is designed for a specific purpose. The BIOS and bootloaders and such are immaterial, and do not limit you from using a piece of silicon as you desire. The block is silicon that does what you want to do in the first place. And that carries with it costs beyond just software creation.

      I think the point where GPL fails in hardware currently is tooling, and assosiacted low level designs/operations to make ASICs. There's plenty of hardware model designs under (L)GPL, including the OpenRISC. It's not that the materials in the chips is expensive, it's just expensive to start making them.

      Realistically something like this could be kickstarted - aka, making a large batch of OpenRISC SoC's, but it would be quite risky, in many areas like performance or having a completely failed batch due to a is

    • Re:Wrong... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by lkcl ( 517947 ) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @03:29PM (#51295015) Homepage

      The biggest barrier to true open hardware is the fact someone has to pay for a tangible good, and that tangible good - hardware - is designed for a specific purpose. The BIOS and bootloaders and such are immaterial, and do not limit you from using a piece of silicon as you desire. The block is silicon that does what you want to do in the first place. And that carries with it costs beyond just software creation.

      i'm designing Libre Hardware, right now. i've been on this task for the past five years, since the embarrassing time when i encouraged 20 software libre developers to join me in buying one of the very first ARM netbooks to come out (back in 2010) that turned out to be GPL-violating. i had to spend a frantic 3 weeks reverse-engineering the hardware in order to provide those people with a GPL-compliant linux kernel.

      this example just on its own demonstrates that what you have said is simply untrue in a very profound and subtle way. you claim "The BIOS and bootloaders and such are immaterial, and do not limit you from using a piece of silicon" - how can you load a kernel into memory using the BIOS's bootloader (if there is one) if you do not know how the BIOS *actually works*? how can you load a kernel into memory if you don't have the hardware's documentation? what if the proprietary bootloader (if there is one) has some sort of checksum or DRM where you are not provided the keys?

      another example is the IBM / Lenovo laptops, where the BIOS had the PCIe device and MAC address of the WIFI adapter *burned into EEPROM*. quite literally the only way for people to replace the WIFI adapter was to *replace the entire BIOS*. that required a *massive* reverse-engineering effort and we now have coreboot support for many Lenovo laptops.

      time and time again i have had to cut certain SoCs and ICs from the list of products because i cannot get the SDK, cannot get the Datasheet, cannot get *any* information about how the SoC or IC works.

      so you claim "the block is silicon that does what you want to do" - it only does what you want to do via a hardware API which requires an extremely comprehensive bit-level and timing-critical software-driven understanding of that "block". without that, the hardware is LITERALLY useless. [remember NDISWRAPPER for WIFI cards?]

      can you see, therefore, through these examples, that you've fundamentally misunderstood the complexity of the issue, and why there are such severe barriers to entry in the hardware arena?

      i *do* understand this, so it's why i have been working for the past five years on creating Libre-compliant eco-conscious hardware, where the hardware - all of it - will be vetted for GPL-compliance before putting it into production. sounds mad? but it's the only way, i feel, that instead of waiting for someone else to tackle this, i'm *actively* taking responsibility for ensuring that there exists Libre-compliant Hardware.

      • by e r ( 2847683 )
        Do you have a website for your project, your team, etc?
      • i'm designing Libre Hardware, right now. i've been on this task for the past five years, since the embarrassing time when i encouraged 20 software libre developers to join me in buying one of the very first ARM netbooks to come out (back in 2010) that turned out to be GPL-violating.

        So you have a GPL ARM netbook somewhere? Can you please provide me the URL to download the RTL for that ARM chip you have in that netbook? Also, please send me the URL to download the silicon layout files? Which foundry did you contract with to build that chip? TSMC?

        All commercial contract silicon foundries with any semi-recent process node (32nm or lower) require you to sign an NDA before they provide you with the transistor models for their manufacturing process. If your ARM chip design is under a GPL

    • The biggest barrier to true open hardware is the fact someone has to pay for a tangible good, and that tangible good - hardware - is designed for a specific purpose. The BIOS and bootloaders and such are immaterial, and do not limit you from using a piece of silicon as you desire. The block is silicon that does what you want to do in the first place. And that carries with it costs beyond just software creation.

      Yes & no! It's true that if I take a piece of 'truly open hardware', it would be at the expense of YOU getting it. However, the issue here would be the 'freedom' to fix, replicate the hardware, just like the 4 freedoms of GNU.

      Talking just about electronic hardware - stuff that can be done in silicon - you would normally have HDL models of anything you design. Let's say you had a VHDL model of a chip, and wanted to share it. You could send the model to someone else, without giving that someone the

    • Re:Wrong... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sbaker ( 47485 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @05:05PM (#51295909) Homepage

      What is being discussed is not "free" (as in "free-beer!") chunks of physical hardware, Indeed, that would be tough to do because physical objects are made of atoms - and atoms are not generally zero cost items - so they cannot be copied and distributed for free. We're talking about "free" (as in freedom) hardware that can be understood for $0 and (at some cost/difficulty) copied. The design of the hardware is free (as in beer and as in freedom) but the hardware itself is only free as in freedom.

      To look at it another way - if I design and build a house - I can offer the plans for free under a GPL-like license. You can then look at my plane, improve them and you can use the plans to build yourself a house - all without without paying me a cent...but you still have to buy the bricks and pay the builder. You *do* have to pay for your own "copying". That's actually the same with software - if I want a copy of emacs, even though it's GPL'ed, I have to pay for the bandwidth and disk space to make myself a copy of it (the GPL even allows the author to charge me a reasonable amount for making that copy - which is something that almost never happens!) The distinction between copying GPL'ed emacs and copying my GPL'ed house is in the cost of copying the item (fractions of a penny versus hundreds of thousands of dollars). That's not a conceptual difference - it's just a matter of scale - and it's not even necessarily larger. I've downloaded hundreds of Gigabytes of stuff that cost me many dollars worth of disk space to store - and I've downloaded the open-hardware design for a bracket for my "lasersaur" laser cutter that cost pennies to manufacture.

      The problem we're discussing with hardware that depends on "binary blobs" is in no way different from writing software that requires an external library for which you don't have source code.

      The issue is whether the software library is free (as in beer) or not. If you have to link some GPL'ed program to DirectX in order to run it under Windows - the software can still usefully be GPL'ed because even though DirectX is a closed source "binary blob" - people who run Windows all have a copy of it already. So it's effectively free-as-in-beer. However, if you write your own closed-source middle-ware package and charge people $100 to license it - then creating some GPL'ed application that requires that middle-ware isn't a very constructive thing to do. Of course we'd prefer that all of the libraries we use are also GPL'ed - but that's not an absolute requirement - and it's not a particularly reasonable one out here in the "real world".

      OpenHardware that requires use of a binary blob is no different from software that requires some complicated library. If the binary blob is legally copyable (free as in beer) - we can still usefully make our own copy of the hardware. But if the binary blob is either not legally copyable or requires a license fee to copy - then we're in the same situation we were in with software that needs a pay-to-license middleware library.

      Viewed in this way, OpenHardware is no different at all from OpenSoftware - EXCEPT that the cost of copying it is higher because it's made of atoms instead of bits.

    • The really interesting part is not that hardware is expensive to duplicate, but that software isn't. If you have a CPU and want another, and don't want to pay Intel or AMD for one, you need an extremely expensive fab. If you have an operating system and want another, you send it over cheap digital communications cables or burn a DVD or something inexpensive like that.

      I could cheaply provide you with an entire high-quality operating system with lots of additional software, and it wouldn't take that long

  • by Lead Butthead ( 321013 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:31PM (#51294481) Journal

    When you start missing the days when every piece of hardware you bought came with schematics and firmware listings, instead of six page license agreement printed in four point fonts and written in incomprehensible legaless (and indeed, demanding adherence to reprehensible terms.)

  • What's the point? CPUs have hardware interface and instruction set specifications that allow reverse engineering. Sure, some things are microcoded, but microcode is slower than hardwiring and is mostly useful for working around design flaws.

    GPUs, on the other hand, are clouded in secrecy and there would be a benefit from opening them up much more than they are now.

    • The big problem is security. There are too many places for exploitable bugs, deliberate back doors, key loggers, side channels and other forms of pwnware to hide in modern processors. Do you know where all the components in your PC were fabricated?
      • by sbaker ( 47485 )

        The big problem is security. There are too many places for exploitable bugs, deliberate back doors, key loggers, side channels and other forms of pwnware to hide in modern processors. Do you know where all the components in your PC were fabricated?

        That's "security by obscurity" - which is no security at all. If you want to avoid all of those exploits, you have to allow the good guys to find, report and fix them before the bad guys find, hide and exploit them.

  • Patents ... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:37PM (#51294553) Homepage

    I think patents are why this can never work.

    Pretty much EVERY industrial process is patented by someone. That patent is guarded by a corporation who wants to ensure they get paid ... either through sales, or licensing the patent.

    IBM makes a zillion patent applications every year.

    There's simply no way you can bypass the sheer quantity of "intellectual property" which encumbers the world. And since pretty much every aspect of the hardware is probably covered under a patent, you're not going to get it.

    Hell, even with software, Microsoft used to insinuate that Linux violated a bunch of their patents, but wouldn't ever name them.

    The modern world has been structured to serve the needs to greedy corporations. They're not going to allow you to sufficiently change the rules of the game to take that away.

    Which is why every treaty these days is having the intellectual property pushed even harder, because governments are on the payroll of entities which want to further entrench their rights as superseding ours.

    Keep dreaming.

    • It is NOT patents - it is everything to do with policy to prevent coreboot. They don't want hardware under the owners control.

      • Such vanity. Such utter vanity.

        Which do you think is more likely ... decades of greedy corporate behavior resulting in a "patent everything" mentality ... or some giant conspiracy to stop your pet project?

        Companies have been doing this crap since before coreboot. They're sure as hell not doing it because of coreboot.

        They want to block everybody, because they want control. They didn't get together and say "ZOMG! teh coreboot is teh enemy".

        It's just another bug on the windshield of the inexorable creep of

    • by erice ( 13380 )

      Strictly speaking, patents are not a problem for making software open. Open source reveals patented techniques but then, so does the patent application. The competition can see what you are doing but it doesn't matter because they can't use the information.

      Which means it is not an excuse for binary blobs. If it source was open, it still would not be free because of the patents but that's another problem.

      Binary blobs serve to protect trade secrets including elements are could be but are not yet patented.

      T

      • Open Source, in discussions like this, is normally used in the sense of the Open Source Initiative. Their definition of Open Source is very similar to the FSF's definition of Free. (And once more we see how Stallman was right when he objected to the term "Open Source".)

  • Make your own (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@nospAM.gmail.com> on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:41PM (#51294593)

    Nothing is stopping you making and using your own hardware, rather than putting expectations on other peoples products. Of course, making your own hardware isnt cheap or trivial, whereas putting expectations on other people is both of those things.

  • Say what you want about Richard Stallman, no one's ever accused him of being too willing to compromise on his principles in the name of pragmatism and expediency.

    Oh, wait, they totally just accused him of that.

  • by Da w00t ( 1789 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @02:42PM (#51294611) Homepage
    Source: e-mail exchange with him, based on my shmoocon presentation on hacking USB flash drives [slideshare.net].

    In short: I said there's no way you can have open source firmware for a proprietary undocumented ASIC, that has to keep track with new developments in flash memory every 3 months.

    He want on to ask if there was a way to buy a USB flash drive that wasn't field-reprogrammable, or to "convince a company to make USBs [sic] that way". I'm not aware of any, and it's impossible as-is to A) ask a vendor "What chips are you using?" and B) have the vendor use the same controller/flash chips on the same device.

    Dude wouldn't listen, and I gave up trying to educate him.
    • Dude wouldn't listen, and I gave up trying to educate him.

      I was under the impression that sums up his particular strength and weakness. He isn't interested in the particulars of his grand vision that are impractical or impossible. With RMS it's always a "Damn the torpoedoes..." mentality.

    • He want on to ask
      USBs [sic]

      I gave up trying to educate him.

      Perhaps you should focus your efforts closer to home?

  • the reason a legacy of GPL can be attributed ot stallman is because of the egregious error of computing in capitalism. Namely, the means of production of code were given to coders themselves and in doing so they were empowered to construct the terms of that softwares use.

    Hardware has enjoyed this luxury for quite some time, however its days may be numbered. open source firmware for routers and mp3 players has existed for a while, and open source chip design and hardware is slowly coming to fruition with
    • by ADRA ( 37398 )

      Well, open hardware is pretty crippled. When you consider patents, almost across the board hardware innovation patents are a non-started for a small-ish open hardware company trying to cook their own gear. If you're successful enough, someone will sue you into the ground. Software on the other hand can be served from countries which don't have software patents and still get downloaded everywhere. Would x264/ffmpeg exist today if purely developed under US laws? Probably not, but who's to say...

      Its hard to sh

  • I guess whatever device we're talking about here has had limited scope until this wearable/beacon/smart bubble started. We effectively have known that specific devices (think: a clock, a fridge, an AC unit) did and still do very specific things, and until now we see them doing those things clearly, not transparently, because they are usually one-task devices. So what point was there really in open-sourcing that stuff or requiring any form of software-bound compliance? Not much really.

    Now that we're getting

  • I don't think it's possible or even desirable for every piece of software to be open source. That would result in a lot of useful software not being written, as many smaller developers will not figure out how differentiate themselves from legal copycats.

    Nevertheless, FSF made a huge positive contribution by making compelling critical mass of free software available and forcing commercial companies to share improvements that they make to Linux kernel, compilers and other key infrastructure. We can't even ima

    • I can see a similar need in hardware - a set of copyleft hardware, firmware and 3D printer designs that anyone can use as a base for an innovative product while sharing improvements to reusable components.

      That would definitely be a game shifting paradigm change.

  • incorrect (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @03:33PM (#51295039)

    From beefy processors to graphics controllers, boot ROMs and binary blobs run in the silicon we base our systems upon. The code is not published and in the rare case that you are able to view the source it is only under strict NDA. This represents one of the biggest barriers to true open hardware.

    this is incorrect! the giant barrier that prevents people from having true open hardware is the obscene cost of having your design made into a silicon chip. if you could suddenly get a one-off chip made for $100, we would all be running much different systems and few of them would be related to x86.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I respect what Stallman has contributed to free software, but at the same time, his views are ridiculous. He is to FLOSS what fundamentalists are to religion. His untenable ideals and overwrought goals drive people away, and do more to hurt the more reasonable open source options than to help free software.

    • Stallman is indeed a fundamentalist. His goals are just fine - but he's about as remote from what a typical software engineer is as it's possible to be. That's OK, he's the idealist - and that lets the rest of us be pragmatists.

      GPL is great for complete software packages - emacs, gcc...that kind of thing. But for libraries, it sucks. That's why we have LGPL. Sadly, there is a lot of anti-LGPL rhetoric out there https://www.gnu.org/licenses/w... [gnu.org]

      I think we need something like that for OpenHardware. The

  • You would be amazed at some of the 'low level' libraries that GPU manufacturers have and license to other such companies. These companies have Math Phd's still trying to get better precision and faster computation at Sine and Cosine functions, etc... I'm sure they are not in a hurry to open source this type of research which took plenty of money and time.
  • This doesn't affect me because I always talk in code anyway.

  • The sales of computers are going down last years, and there are more other devices in the age of "Internet of Things" that are harmful for the freedom of the users. Even simple climate control is not your device, but is designed to spy on your family habits, "phone home" - all in the name of optimizing your utility bills. In the US the practical disadvantage of this unfreedom can likely be just unsolicited junk mail, in other countries with higher corruption levels this data can be sold to burglars who wil

  • Find the cpu thats fully understood.
    Buy the motherboard thats been fully examined and found to be open and usable for a developers needs.
    Tell the world about it on the web and grow a user community.
    Move away from the devices and brands that expose IP's while selling an expensive VPN related product.
    Stop buying tame and junk crypto turn key products that have trap doors and backdoors design in as sold and shipped.
    Secure and understand what can be as a user and developer.
    The cpu, motherboard, OS can sti

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