Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Case for Dumping the BA Degree

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

~Charles Murray in today's WSJ


At 8/13/2008 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"They need a certification, not a degree."

BS. I could have passed a Microsoft certification way before I graduated as a computer scientist, but I would have missed out on tons of theory that has actually become quite useful in my career, much more so than that said certification, which goes out of date every 3 or 4 years as a new technology supplants it.

The point of the degree is two-fold. First is to teach one how to think critically, and the second is to demonstrate that one can deal with a certain amount of necessary work, whether immediately relevant or not, to complete and attain a goal. This is a measure of commitment and personal discipline. In good schools, there is a third benefit which is the confidence to tackle problems on which the student has never worked. Not to approach them arrogantly, but to not be intimidated or overwhelmed by a challenge or completely new type of problem.

At 8/13/2008 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could this be "No College Graduate Left Behind"?

The usual argument for the B.A. is that people learn to "think" and that "higher" learning is about more than merely learning a "trade". Many disciplines offer limited economic rewards ie. art history, philosophy, ancient greek etc. so one could expect strong resistance.

It's the same reason that we are using the qwerty keyboard designed to overcome a mechanical problem. The most common letter combinations are spaced furthest apart and the weakest fingers are used for the most frequently used letters. By contrast, the Dvorak keyboard allows one to type 100 words on the baseline alone and generally doubles typing speeds. Why do we have this relic from 1874when the problem it was designed to overcome no longer exists?

At 8/13/2008 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with Charles; I did not read he entire article, just the snippet.

A B.A. needs to be looked at with the GPA, extracurricular activities and future plans. Dropping the B.A. would not provide a complete picture of the student.


At 8/13/2008 10:53 AM, Blogger David Foster said...

A very different view of education--specifically, education for future executives--from the well-known management consultant Michael Hammer. (Dr Hammer is recognized as the father of business process reengineering.)

At 8/13/2008 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A year-long credit crisis may be only at the halfway point and defaults of higher-quality mortgages and problems at U.S. bond insurers are expected to drag on future bank earnings, Standard & Poor's said on Wednesday.

These fools finally woke up they probably have more then a BA degree.

At 8/13/2008 11:07 AM, Blogger Audacity17 said...

I have a B.A., B.B.A. and a M.B.A. I think for the most part they are useless. Technical degrees are more useful. I advise most young people against spending any money on college. One should calculate the opportunity cost of not working four years(salary+experience), plus the cost of schooling, and determine if its worth it. In my opinion the most important thing college does is expose you to great books. But you can seek those out yourself. The idea of certifications is much more appealing. You find out what is required to be learned and you do it on your own. Most people aren't that motivated though.

At 8/13/2008 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are Murray’s qualifications to write such an article?

Only someone who believes that education and training are synonymous could write such an article. These are two distinct fields, which have completely different goals. Education teaches one how to “think,” and training teaches one how to “do.” Take a heart surgeon for example, even someone not educated in the body could be taught how to perform an open-heart by-pass operation—possibly a machine could even be programmed to do the procedure because it is a mechanical procedure, but that does not mean that the surgeon would know that the heart pumps blood to the body and why. Is having that information critical? I think so.

Maybe Murray has a BS degree if he does not believe BA degrees are useful to an employer. All the employer requirements that I have seen lately entail critical thinking skills along with the ability to communicate in both oral and written forms. BA degrees along with technical skills fulfill those requirements quite nicely.

Robert: I have a journeyman's card and five college degrees. They all serve me quite well, and I would hate to have to decide which one is more important, or which I would give up if I could only pick one or two to keep. We are a totality of our experiences.

At 8/13/2008 1:14 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

I concur with coder, as far as computer certs in the current format.

These are nothing but rote memorization tests for the most part which don't verify jack about how well you figure out solutions to problems when presented.

I don't fully concur that all aspects of a degree are better (I do concur with the notion that it shows a lot more perseverance than it does background knowledge, understanding, or problem-solving ability), especially given all the unrelated garbage that gets tacked-on in order to justify other aspects of the university -- English Lit, A Foreign Language, Art History... useful side knowledge but hardly related to job function, and particularly unlikely to serve as a value in later life when it's always taught in such a form that absolutely no one remembers jack from each course five days after the final exam.

What is called for is a learning institution with the goal of teaching thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and inventive approach formulation, in addition providing background knowledge to use in that pursuit for a given arena of professional activity.

The learning institutions described don't currently exist, if they ever did.

> Why do we have this relic from 1874 when the problem it was designed to overcome no longer exists?

Ummm, qt: You've been able to buy Dvorak keyboards for decades. Are you using one? If not, why not? Do you have one you carry around with you so that you can switch at your location?

Do you realize that there is software available that translates the standard keyboard mapping to a Dvorak mapping? The keycaps don't match, but the layout is where the dvorak deesign says it should be.

The secondary reason is that studies have not show the difference to be a sufficient enough improvement that it is worth the not insigificant retraining expenditures (given the vast numbers of typists out there). I don't recall the numbers reliably off the top of my head, but I *think* the improvements are less than a 20% increase in typing speed for most users, with a notable amount of variance.

At 8/13/2008 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would have been more valid decades ago in certain industries.

A degree cannot tell you everything, but it should not. One considers previous experience, references, and all the other information used to make judgments.

Besides, if you hire a dumba$$, it should not take too long to figure that out (unless you are one yourself), and the new hire will (should) descend to their level of ability or lack thereof.

At 8/13/2008 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis Gartman, with whom Mr.Perry seems to enjoy a close relationship, is an advocate of the liberal arts degree. Quite to the contrary of this case.

At 8/13/2008 2:29 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"What are Murray’s qualifications to write such an article?"...

walt g I'm thinking you must remember the furor over a book Drs. Murray and Hernstein wrote, The Bell Curve...

It drove libtards, libtard politicos (of both parties), race pimps, and other assorted academic questionables into a collective rage even a decade after the book's initial printing...

At 8/13/2008 2:47 PM, Blogger Eric H said...

Interesting point: The NCEES (national engineering "certification testers")has recommended that states require a bachelor's degree +30 additional hours for candidates to be eligible to test to become licensed in engineering. Speaking from experience, I would have rather worked an additional fifth year in the field under the tutelage of a P.E. prior to testing than endure two more semesters of college. I don't think I could have taken an additional 30 hours related to my field. As an employer, I would rather have that additional year of design experience than another year of classroom seat time (and an employee with more college debt).

As my first, licensed-engineer employer said: "just because you have an engineering degree doesn't mean you are an engineer."

At 8/13/2008 2:51 PM, Blogger Audacity17 said...

But does education teach one how to think? I wonder. Does the classroom dictate realities in the world, or just reflect what is currently known/believed? It seems to me that new realities often take years to even show up in textbooks.

At 8/13/2008 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert asks: "But does education teach one how to think?"

Not if you are defining education as college attendance. All learning, which leads to knowledge, is essentially self-taught. But, the ingredients to learn along with the directions on how to apply that knowledge after learning are prevalent in colleges or universities, so it’s easier than searching for them on your own. At the same time, one has to be careful that they are learning how to think and not what to think.

A lot of people have gained great knowledge without college, but, I dare say, very few without trying. I am a proponent of a thorough liberal-arts education combined with technical knowledge in the field for a well-rounded employee. A BA is not bs to me.

At 8/13/2008 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes, I am aware that you can configure your software for Dvorak. There are still compatibility problems.

The vast majority of computer users never learned touch typing...nor computer programming :)


FYI on Charles Murray. Interestingly, he has a B.A. in history and a PhD in Political Science. Big claim to fame is The Bell Curve.

With regard to a BA, this type of degree is not a professional qualification like a degree in medicine. While critical thinking is a part of process, doesn't it tend to be a byproduct rather than a course of study. How many of those of us with BAs recall taking courses specifically in critical thinking, logic, analytical reasoning or rhetoric?

Glad to see my university has added a course in Rhetoric as part of the Dept. of English offerings. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be a required course.

Charles Murray is correct to the extent that the BA represents a nebulous qualification. The graduate can have taken all kinds of different subjects and it is difficult to understand just what the graduate knows.

At 8/13/2008 4:02 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

1) The claim that the Dvorak keyboard is superior to the qwerty board turns out to be an urban legend, with the studies "proving" its superiority all tainted.

Here, at Reason online, is about as definitive a study of the legend and the tainted studies behind it that you can find online . . . a source libertarians will especially like:


2)There are lots of problems with the Murray argument --- not least, the B.A. degree has traditionally been a reparative period of study, at any rate in the first two years during which most students --- at good universities and liberal arts colleges --- mainly cover general studies requirements in the sciences, social science, and humanities.

Reparative in what sense?"

Traditionally, European secondary education was highly elitist, with a careful selection at the ages of 12-13. Only about 5% or so of pupils at that age were selected to continue in university-oriented high schools, at the end of which education --- say, the age of 18 or 19 --- a nation-wide exam was given to see which pupils actually would be admitted to universities. If there were a selective elite group of universities --- say, Oxford or Cambridge in Britain or ENA or other elites grandes ecoles in France --- a further exam would be given.

Example: the French baccalaureat was introduced in the early 1920s. In the first year, only 20,000 high-school (lycee) students took the exame, and only about a quarter passed.


3) Any university studies were there highly specialized. And on the Continent these included what we regard as professional schools, such as medicine or law --- students in those areas starting immediately in the first year of university life. Note that this is still the case, despite efforts by the French government, say, to develop a more general two-year liberal-arts degree of some sort. (It was slightly different and remains that way in Bitain, but you still specialize from year one on in whatever field you're admitted to.)

Switching between fields of study in European universities was and generally remains nearly impossible once you've been admitted.


4) What happened to the pupils in European countries who didn't get to go on to university-preparatory high schools . . . the selection process, remember, administered until the late 1950s or 1960s --- depending on the European country --- at age 12 or so? They went on to more or less vocational studies and would leave school at about the age of 15 . . . later raised after WWII in to 16 (and more recently later still).

In the late 1960s and 1970s, all this early selection changed in Europe. There were fairly successful efforts to develop comprehensive schools at the secondary level, though in some countries (Germany for instance) there are still specialized elite schools for certain students . . . or were, anyway, the last I checked a few years ago.


5) In the upshot, European education does look on the pre-university level more like the US comprehensive schools . . . especially with tracking streams for those in most (not all) US secondary schools heading for university taking more academically challenging courses.

Example: The French baccalaureat is now taken not by 20,000 high school students yearly but several hundred thousand. And the pass rate has risen from about 20-30% or so to about 75-80% . . . with opportunities for those who fail to take the exam the next year.


6 Still, for all these dramatic changes, university education in Europe is heavily specialized --- the opposite of American universities. And the variety of differently ranked universities and colleges (liberal arts, community etc) is unique. There is little or no ability in Europe to switch between these various levels of high education --- say, students in the community colleges and state colleges in California able to apply to University of California schools (or state colleges --- as is rife in the US. In doing so, there is a built-in offset --- not totally, but marked --- that dilutes the social class-background of students, with those from highly educated families having a big advantage from day one in their lives.


The other strengths of US 4-year degree universities?

(i.) Students do not have to specialize until their junior year, and they can switch fields if they want. What's more, they can drop out of school, travel the world, go to work, go into the military, and return when they want.

Unlike in Europe, as a result --- I'm speaking from lots of experience as a student and professor in several European systems --- students here usually end up doing something they enjoy doing. That is not the case nearly as frequently as in the specialized systems of Europe.

Thus, to give you an example, one of my two best friends at Oxford, an English fellow who was admitted to study law --- which he hated --- never practiced. He even failed the first time he took his 3-year exit exams. His love was the theater, and he is now one of New York's leading theater critics. Another good student also studied law --- he was also the president of the debating union --- and after being bored by the life of a barrister for a couple of years, he entered Harvard law school and got a doctorate in law, trained in a range of social science techniques that he used in his dissertation. He eventually had a chair at the University of London, where he enjoyed academic life.

(ii.) With the exception of British universities --- and in particular Oxford and Cambridge --- there is not the rich universe of extra-curricular activities that are a source of admiration in US higher education: team sports, intra-mural sports, music courses and orchestras and bands, college newspapers and literary journals, debating clubs, and clubs of every sort of interest.

(iii.) With the shift of European universities to mass education --- a total of 100,000 university students in France in 1950 and now several million . . . many simply hanging on for years and years in specialized subjects that bore them, partly because the job market for many young people is not brisk and growing, and partly because they get certain kinds of subsidies from the government. The problem of a mismatch between specialized students and the job market is a problem, please note, everywhere in Europe, though its severity is worse in some countries than in others.

By contrast, the 4-year B.A. and B.S. degree in the US provides American students --- especially in our better private and state universities --- with not just flexibility, but in my view a far better wide-ranging background in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities than is now the case in European universities. If you doubt it, ask any good student who has graduated from UC Berkeley or Stanford or Cal Tech or Amherst and is now studying anywhere in Europe --- including to an extent at Oxford and Cambridge --- whether the education he or she is getting there at the graduate level (or maybe even undergrad level if the student has entirely switched fields) is as demanding and challenging as they received back home.
And it's generally worse on the Continent, believe me.


Before I retired from UC Santa Barbara in 2004, the student daily newspaper --- to give you a clear example, by way of illustration (nothing more) --- ran the results of a survey of foreign students’ views of their undergraduate education. Note: undergraduate, not graduate.

The outcome? Overwhelmingly, the students from Europe and Japan were struck by the demanding reading and written loads in their courses, and the close monitoring by continual exams: mid-terms and quarterly or semester-end final exams. (I do think that a marked advantage of European education is that students are required to take exit exams in their fields. It would be a good idea for all US institutions of higher education to do this, though some of the elite private ones do so --- and, at Harvard and a few places, require most students to write a senior thesis.)

(iv.) American graduate training, including professional schools like law and medicine, have no full equal anywhere else in the world. And that's in part because of the huge filtering system of selection at age 21 or 22, on an average, for systematic selection into, say, one of the top 20 Ph.D. programs in any field and the rest . . . which does not mean, please note, the rest are bad.

(v.) The remaining asset of the US higher educational system just popped to mind: the wide diversity, reinforced by both private and public-financed institutions. Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.


Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor

At 8/13/2008 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don’t think a blanket statement about the usefulness of BA degrees does much more than start an intelligent discussion about the issue.

I’ll show my philosophy background here when I answer you that life itself is nebulous. When there is no definitive standard to measure against, you just have to use your best judgment. And that’s where knowledge gleaned from a well-rounded background comes into play. Effective problem solvers and decision makers cannot rely solely on their technical expertise because the world often is not black and white but a shade of gray.

At 8/13/2008 5:19 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> The vast majority of computer users never learned touch typing...nor computer programming :)

Well, as a long time programmer, touch typing is useless for programming. I've only learned to touch type for blogging. Literally.

The way programming is done uses a completely different rhythm from writing for reading. You use a lot more symbols and symbology, stop and think for a moment, then start again, look something up, then type some more. It's a much more erratic process than writing for reading is, and so touch typing is only vaguely useful at best, and one can easily go for years without it.

I used to type "riffs" (i.e., I'd "touch-type" certain common key sequences, like "the" and so on because I'd type those often enough, but now I generally only look at the keyboard for the initial placement and if my hands get off-place.

But as far as that goes, there are still a huge number of people out there who touch type, for writing letters, documentation, etc. And they still would have to take the time to relearn.

And if you're NOT someone who touch-types, then the layout really doesn't matter that much -- except that they'll still have to learn how to hunt-and-peck with the new layout, which will slow and frustrate at first.

> Site Change History (update 21 July 2000)

Awww, c'mon. There's got to be a more up-to-date site than that one. People were still using Windows Me at that point!!! (shudder)


That's basically a keyboard driver:

M$ even has ones for XP and Vista -- Try
this and this.
Heck, if you have a laptop you can probably pop the key caps off of that, change the order, and install the translation program into place... or, if you don't like that idea (it's really not all that tough on most laptops), you can probably get some printable vinyl and make stick-on key labels (at the bottom of one of the M$ links is a link to a company which makes such, too -- Keytime, Inc).

P.S., As I type this, I'm doing it on a NorthGate OmniKey 102 keyboard, with 12 function keys on the *side* (the old PC-XT layout) bought in 1990. It's got an old fat-DIN to mini-DIN converter, and it'll be amusing since I'll probably have to get a mini-din to USB converter for my next machine. No "Windows" keys at all, either.

Solid as a rock, though.

At 8/13/2008 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bachelors degrees lost their value because of our ridiculous belief that everyone should have at least four years of college education. The percentage of high school grads who go to college has gone up 3-fold in 40 years (from ~25% to ~70%). Most of those additional 45% would not have made it through college in 1968. Colleges watered down their curricula to high school levels to prevent all those students from failing. The outcome, of course, is a BS or BA degree with little meaning. Colleges love that, because it means that many students who wish to excel will get masters degrees or doctorates.

The universities and colleges win; students, employers, medical schools, and law schools lose. I teach medical school, and I'm appalled at the number of students who just aren't smart enough to be doctors and at the even larger number of students who aren't adequately prepared for medical school. I've also been on the hiring side (medical technologists), and I've found the majority unready for work.

This problem will not be resolved until we convince parents, young students, and school teachers that trade schools are an honorable path towards a career, and that college is not best for all.

At 8/13/2008 8:41 PM, Blogger juandos said...

obh says: "Well, as a long time programmer, touch typing is useless for programming"...

Hmmm, I'm going to have to disagree with that and I've done quite a bit of coding myself...

Then again I learned to touch type first on a manual...

That same touch typing skill came in very handy when typing in hex addresses...

I found touch typing very helpful for Basic, C, C++, Cobol, and Fortran...

I wonder obh if I would've had an easier time coding without typing skills...

BTW my personal opinion of using a Dvorak keyboard, well it sucks to have to learn a new varient of an older, comfortable physical skill...

At 8/14/2008 12:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with Walt completely. Murray's argument fails at the outset by falsely assuming that a BA is supposed to deliver specific knowledge or skills valuable to the workplace. It never was intended for that. And professions that require such specific skills already have measures in place, whether it be certification or an apprenticeship program.

At 8/14/2008 4:57 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Then again I learned to touch type first on a manual...

If you were touch typing before you learned to code (my interpretation of what you said) then you can't judge how useful it would be...

> I wonder obh if I would've had an easier time coding without typing skills...

I'm saying I had no need for touch typing for two decades of coding, from PL/1, through Assembly (a dozen flavors), Fortran, Snobol, APL, COBOL, and a lot of C.

It wasn't until this century, when I started blogging, and commenting a lot, that I really got to the point where I truly touch-typed.


I'm not saying you CAN'T use it, I'm saying there's no need and the benefits are negligible.

As far as using it for typing in hex -- one word: EWwww.

If you weren't checking that three times every 8 chars for a typo or thinko (thus negating any TTyping benefits), then you must've spent a *lot* of time on debugging.


At 8/14/2008 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to have your take on programming, gentlemen. Thanks for your thoughts on Dvorak.

Walt g,

I completely agree with you that broadening one's perspective is an asset in developing good decision making skills. Also agree with Dana:

"Murray's argument fails at the outset by falsely assuming that a BA is supposed to deliver specific knowledge or skills valuable to the workplace. It never was intended for that. And professions that require such specific skills already have measures in place, whether it be certification or an apprenticeship program."

My focus is really around the development of critical thinking and formal logic. This part of the piece could stand some improvement. The following are 2 examples:

Many of us never learned how to construct a formal argument, for example. With my BA in history and english, I did not learn the concept of resolution and proof in argumentation until very recently. I see many university educated posters who struggle with this concept and can't understand why their posts are pulled apart.

The second exmple are 2 books which most humanities students read: The Communist Manifesto and Machiavelli's The Prince. While these books have influenced history and are worth studying in that context, they are not very useful from a practical perspective. Unfortunately, alternatives to these 2 models are seldom presented. A visit to the Marginal Revolution confirms the influence of the Communist Manifesto on students.

Would highly recommend The Best of Drucker as a gift for any young person you know. The book contains a great deal of useful information distilled from over 60 years of writing and teaching management studies. Possibly one of the most useful little books I have ever read.

Possibly the most important thing that university taught me was an excitment about ideas and learning. University cannot be all things to all men. It is just the beginning of a life long journey.

At 8/14/2008 1:43 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

Another book, recommended for anyone with an above-average intelligence ("intelligence" == IQ *plus* wisdom, in this context) is "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", by R.M. Persig.

Persig's book starts out oddly but as you get into it it's quite an impressive tour-de-force into two common mindsets -- his "Romantics" and his "Classicists" -- the Romantics are those who want to go through life, never analyzing, never thinking, "just grooving" on it all (zen). The Classicists are those engineering-types who analyze EVERYTHING -- dancing, picnicking, hot-air balooning, and so on, never really sitting back and enjoying it (motorcycle maintenance).

Persig's thesis is that BOTH worldviews are accurate and applicable approaches to life -- but that each has a time and place. He argues that this duality is at the heart of much of people's malaise with modern technology -- many people believe that tech is at the heart of their dissatisfaction, when in fact it's their own insistance in forcing everything into one or the other mindset.

Persig traces this duality back to the Greeks (he's a professional rhetorician, teaching it at colleges), and apparently had a nervous breakdown doing it (It was the 60s, and he was given electroshock therapy. As a result, he nominally doesn't recall "being" the person with the breakdown, and speaks of himself in the third person, as Phaedrus. Much of his detail of what Phaedrus discovered is derived from copius notes he took)

It's a fascinating look at a philosophical idea that I'd argue most intelligent people should read, because most people DO, in fact, do what Persig notes -- try and shoehorn all of life's experiences into one of the two perceptions, and get annoyed when the square peg doesn't fit intot he round hole.

At 8/14/2008 1:45 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

P.S. you can actually read it here for free (strictly legit, AFAIK), if you like.

Or at least read the first couple chapters and see if you want to go out and get it...

At 8/14/2008 2:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the recommendation. I have been casting about for something worth reading.

Currently, slogging through Harrison Salisbury's Siege of Lenigrad. An interesting, exhaustively researched book. The # of commanders executed and the complete paralysis of decision making under Stalin is truly amazing. Salisbury started the Op Ed page at the NYT and wrote extensively on Russia & China.

I emailed our local regional chairman to request cost per ton comparisons on the recycling program vs. solid waste collection. I'll wager that he will refer me to someone "more knowledgeable in that area". :o)

At 8/14/2008 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Did start reading the first chapter of Zen. Have run into this same divergence.

I have always had the hands on, mechanical, don't-ask-your-troops-what-you-wouldn't-be-prepared-to-do-yourself approach and did not really understand what management was until I read Drucker.

Recently, one of our neighbours decided to create a pond in the backyard by excavating a boggy area and diverting a nearby stream. You guessed it, the retired banker, directed the machine operator and together they had the backhoe stuck up to its ying-yang in mud within minutes.

I looked at the site and slightly down the hill is a natural depression about 15 ft across where the stream spreads out and a deep channel cut between the trees where the stream continues. All he had to do to create a pond was build a sluice with removable boards to adjust the height of the water. Instead of telling his wife this, I used an example of a micromanager to highlight what her husband did

Commanding Heights is another really excellent book. Very useful to help understand why Europe has such a completely different outlook from North America.


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