Information Overload

JT Ellison

How much do we need? How much is too much? At what point does our dependence on information supersede our creative life?

These are all questions I’ve been asking myself this week.

I will be the first person to admit that I’m an information junkie. News, current events, politics, heck, even the weather: I’m constantly updating my internal databases with the latest news. The same goes for my publishing career. I’m always asking questions, wanting the latest information. I read the industry blogs, get daily mails from Publishers Weekly, Publisher Marketplace (silly, because the information contained therein really is redundant, I should pick one and let the other go) Galley Cat; newspapers, police sites, anything that might help me research, or learn, or feel informed.

I subscribe to RSS feeds of several major publishing related blogs, like Sarah Weinman. And I subscribe to several other kinds of blogs – news oriented, productivity oriented, wine blogs, funny blogs. It takes me nearly an hour to catch-up every morning, and more and more lately, I’m falling behind because I run out of the allotted time. (Because if I don’t allot a specific amount of time, I can easily splurge and read blogs all day.) There are just so many fascinating parts of the world to explore, and many, many writers who explore them in ways that I never can. So I read and experience these things vicariously, and feel smarter because of it.

Perfect example, right now I’ve subscribed to the Crime RSS feeds of the London newspapers, because I plan to set a book there and I want to get a sense of what’s happening. Do I need to do this? No. I could wait until I get ready to write the book and do the research then. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.

But why is this necessary? Why do I need to know all of these things? Need. Want. Two very different beasts.

I’ve been “complimented” in the past for being “plugged in.” I was actually introduced to a group as having my “finger on the pulse of publishing.” You can only imagine the internal cringe when I heard that. And it’s not true at all – I rely on others to feed me the most current information. Then I synthesize it and apply it to whatever project it needs to get applied to. I don’t take this as a compliment – to me it says I’m spending too much time away from my job. I’m a novelist, after all, not a journalist.

There is a tipping point, a moment when you realize that while it would be nice to know every single detail of the world, you don’t need to. Trying to know everything is incredibly, incredibly stressful. My tipping point came last week, when I realized I was spending half my allotted blog reading time slogging through Mashable. Mashable is a cool site, with lots of content. So much content that you could easily read Mashable alone and never get a chance to do anything else. It’s information overload at its finest. The day I deleted Mashable from my RSS feed was my first step toward information independence.

Here’s more irony for you—late last year I adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which included trying to have a more minimalist experience on the Internet. I just realized that in my quest to learn about minimalism, I ended up subscribed to 12 minimalism/productivity blogs, all of which basically repeat the same information over and over again. Not very minimalist. It was ridiculous, really. Anyone can talk the talk. It’s walking the walk that’s the hard part. There’s one blogger (who shall remain nameless) that I used to love. When I realized that he spent all his time talking about creativity, yet never creating, I deleted him from my feeds.

Psychology time. The most minor self-examination led me to a quick conclusion: It all boils down to the fact that I have a few small issues with control. As in, I’m a control freak. I’ve been known in the past to end up lifting heavy projects myself because I don’t trust others to do it right. It’s narcissistic, at best, to assume that my way is the best way. So the way I approach information is similar: If I KNOW all these things, then I’ll never get caught short out in the real world.

I think we all experience this from time to time – we are the ME generation, after all. We want to be smart, to be hip, to be now, to know more than the person next to us. It’s borne from the same motivation that causes us not to listen to others when they speak—the weird way our brains work in conversation, mentally composing our next sentence to sound witty, erudite, charming and funny, not fully paying attention to what the other person is saying. Come on, admit it, you’re guilty of that just like I am. Naughty, naughty.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain amount of information that you absolutely need to know to succeed in your business. But do you need to know everything? Every nitty, gritty detail? No. The world is not going to end if you hear about the Google Settlement the day after it happens through the grapevine. We lose days talking about publishing houses getting kicked out of writer’s organizations, authors who take on reviewers and end up in the New York Times, Twitter gossip – all under the guise of necessary information. But is it really necessary? No. Not necessary.

Deciding the difference between necessity information and curiosity information is a good place to start with this. What do I need to know to get through my day? What will niggle in the back of my head if I don’t give it a glance?

While analyzing that dichotomy, I realized that the level of information I need has changed dramatically over the years. When I was first starting out, I HAD to know as much as possible, because having a little insider information might have made the difference between getting a contract and not.

But now? Now I don’t need to be up on the latest news from agenting. I don’t need to read about creating a synopsis. I definitely don’t need to read people’s publishing stories, because no matter what, it ends up being a comparison of apples and oranges, and many of the oranges have had a rough go of it lately, and are getting a wee bit negative on their blogs. (These posts are more likely to bring me down than up, and that’s not what I want from my online reading excursions.)

I have an agent. He’s wonderful. I’m not looking for a new one. I find myself reading agent blogs, thinking, hey, that’s good advice, and passing the information along to the folks I know who need it. And while that’s nice of me, it’s really not my job to educate people about how to get an agent. (Narcissism again. Tsk.) I don’t need to be reading every detail of the DRM issue. I’ve put a team in place to work for me, to deal with these issues so I can focus on my writing. Knowledge is power, most definitely, and I don’t advocate falling off the train entirely. But ascertaining what you must know versus what you want to know can shave hours off your day.

If pushed, I would say that I felt like so many people helped me out along the way, I owe it to the next class of writers to help them up too. But then I remember that weird thing called bootstraps, which I used to pull myself to the top of the heap by doing my own research on how to get an agent. I didn’t go to a writer and ask how, I researched the living hell out of it. (Hmm. Note to self. Next time someone asks me how to get an agent – I shall tell them to Google it. That’s how I got started…)

You get my point. I’m moving on.

I took some of my own advice, and deleted a ton of blogs from my daily roundup. I installed Instapaper on my Mac so I can skim headlines in the morning and give myself the sense that I’ve covered the bases, and save the detail for later in the day, after I’ve gotten my creative work done. I changed my RSS feeds – deleting about 50 that were either redundant, inactive, or otherwise not necessary to my daily being. I deleted a bunch of bookmarked pages, streamlined my toolbar so only the vital sites are visible. I dropped ALL of my social networking sites into a folder, and stowed that folder out of sight in my bookmarks that I don’t open regularly. Out of sight really is out of mind for me.

Having so many sources of information wasn’t giving me a broad-spectrum view of my interests. It was stressing me out. So it felt very good to crash my system and start fresh with LESS.

It’s only going to get worse from here, folks. E-Readers will access the internet (and where’s the fun of escaping into another world if you’re email beeps in the background?) smartphones already do, netbooks – you know why I love to travel? Because there’s no internet on the plane. That’s X number of hours that I don’t have to feel guilty if I’m not available. When that small bit of heaven is taken from me, I don’t know how I’ll ever escape. So I’m starting my good habits early, before the world goes haywire and Google starts broadcasting into our brain chips.

I challenge you to this information duel. Skip a day. Just… skip a day. Don’t read the paper. Don’t turn on the television. Don’t read your blogs. Don’t look at Twitter. Forget about Facebook, just for one measly little day.

A note on the challenge: You’ll need to replace your Jones with something. Go for a walk. Play with your kids. Write a letter to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Take yourself to lunch. Read a book. Something, anything, to get away from the information overload.

And here’s the kicker. When you come back the next day, delete everything. You’re not allowed to go back and read yesterday’s news or blogs. Move forward with your life, and see what happens. I’m willing to bet cold, hard cash that the world will continue spinning on its axis.

Go forth, my friends, and free your minds.

Wine of the Week: Chateau Borie de Noaillan – a very nice Bordeaux that I plan to restock my every day cellar with.

PS: I’m running a contest to celebrate the upcoming release of THE COLD ROOM February 23. Swing by Fresh Fiction and enter for a chance to win a Barnes & Noble Nook!

35 thoughts on “Information Overload

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    This is a fascinating blog. When we built our house, we discovered that the valley we’re in has no terrestrial TV reception. We have a clump of five large trees that block where the satellite dish would need to point. Cable? Ha!, don’t make me laugh.

    We’re on the longest possible piece of string from the telephone exchange that still allows us to have a broadband internet connection. I won’t say it’s slow exactly, but sometimes downloading anything is like watching two glaciers playing chess via a webcam.

    The only radio station we can receive is a local one from the other side of the Pennines that makes hospital radio seem positively slick.

    We don’t have newspaper delivery.

    So, our only news is what pops up on AOL when we log in, if you ignore all the segments about what’s happening in the latest TV reality shows. But, if anything drastic happens, we know about it.

    At first, I felt kinda cut off, but after five years, I really rather like it.

    Sometimes, a little ignorance can be bliss ;-]

    Reply
  2. Catherine Shipton

    This is part of why I’m planning my camping in the rainforest trip.

    There is no broadband in the forest. There is likely little mobile phone connection too.

    There is however, scads of natural beauty and walks that all go downhill for the walk home. Actually the image that keeps coming back to me, is this gorge with treeferns from the creek to the ridge above…and the filtered green light, and turning another twist of the path and coming across a waterfall. This particular track has about 5 very erratically formed waterfalls. If I can manage it soon there will still be freshwater blue crayfish(protected) tthat appear on the path like little hissing ninjas (if silence wasn’t paramount to a ninja).

    I’m hoping I can to reset my body clock closer to sunrise and sunset to really rest…amongst this absence of electronica. I am bringing a notebook, maybe more than one to see what floats through after I walk through ancient forests day after day.

    JT I do understand your desire to know, and your need for some restraint. Disconnecting for just a moment does help bring back some balance.

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  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    When I was unemployed for a year and other than scouring the resources for possible jobs, I was incredibly up on the news and politics through the Internet and other sources. It IS time consuming to keep up-to-the-minute informed and I’m sure we can all agree this is the most saturated our society has been in facts and viewpoints. Now that I’m working again, I miss that the most.
    However, there are people who go through life being incredibly uninformed of the world which I think is equally as bad. Or use their resources to be informed of celebrities, etc.
    Ultimately, there are no answers and I guess it comes down to personal choice. I definitely can see you wanting to know and control all. And maybe having a chart to help organize it. 🙂 As I’ve mentioned before, I wish I had your drive and I love how you try to make sense of it all in your blogs.

    Reply
  4. JD Rhoades

    It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a news junkie. My Google Homepage runs to four tabs, three of which are news sites and political blogs. And yes, I know I should cut down. But I just subscribed to Instapaper and several British crime news feeds.

    Thanks JT. Thanks VERY MUCH.

    🙂

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  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hey, I hate to break it to you guys, but you don’t want to believe ANYTHING you read in the British press … ;-]

    But if you want a fascinating daily blog, try http://wattsupwiththat.com/

    And PK, I definitely DON’T read the crap about celebrity reality TV on AOL – I was just making the point that you have to wade past it to find the bits of real news on there ;-]

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  6. Dana King

    "If pushed, I would say that I felt like so many people helped me out along the way, I owe it to the next class of writers to help them up too. But then I remember that weird thing called bootstraps, which I used to pull myself to the top of the heap by doing my own research on how to get an agent."

    An admirable sentiment, and one I hope to adhere to should I become published and in a position to provide meaningful guidance. But–and there’s always a but–a very wise man taught me people are much more willing to help those who are willing to do it themselves, but are stuck, or not sure what to do next. It’s not arrogance to expect someone who asks for help to have done something for themselves first.

    I have a day every week or so when events make it difficult for me to be as plugged in as I like to be, so I take advantage of them as they occur. Last night, for example, I had to pack for a weekend trip to see my parents, which will require my laptop. (I installing Windows 7 for my father, and will want internet access in case I get stuck.) I could have left everything on until it was time for bed, or packed the laptop up this morning, but I took advantage of the situation to pack up early, and spend my evenng reading and watching a hockey game. it was a nice break.

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  7. Chuck

    Interesting stuff JT. It’s one of the main reasons I love going to Europe. I could get an international plan for my Blackberry, but I choose not to. I buy a phone card to check in with my wife and kids, when they wake up and before they sleep. But otherwise, I’m disconnected, which makes my senses seem to come alive. Blue skies become cerulean. A nag of a horse appears like something from an oil painting. A great beer tastes like a…well…that’s always good, info overload or not.

    But to try it here at home? I guess I could, but it would have to be on a weekend. What an interesting challenge! Okay…I will do it. I’ll give you an update here, afterward. 🙂

    Tschuss!

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Two things to start:

    Our Tess has gotten her new show, Jane and Rizzoli, picked up for a run on TNT. CONGRATS, TESS!!!

    And our Stephen just got nominated for a Panik Award for best LA Noir novel, award to be given at Left Coast Crime. DUDE! Congrats!!!

    It’s party time at Murderati today!!!!

    Reply
  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Your being "plugged in" has benefited this writer, as you’ve turned me on to a thing or two in the past.

    But, as Henry David Thoreau says, "Simplify. Simplify."

    Now, what’s this I hear about a Google settlement…?

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    Zoë – I don’t know if I could go quite that Walden Pond, but a few weeks of it would be fantastic. Then again, having no choice might force me into a paroxysm of creativity and some gem might fall out. And you are in England, so the charm of it all would stay on me for longer than a few weeks. Will the new house have more information access? And will you love it or hate it?

    Catherine, we’ve talked about how jealous I am of your rainforest trip (except the spiders- UGH!) You are going to have such an amazing time: a real life journey into the heart of your soul. I do hope you’ll give us a run down when you get back. You will be changed, I’m sure, and ultimately change those around you.

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  11. JT Ellison

    PK, there’s no way I could turn it all off forever, that’s for sure. And I know those people you’re talking about, who actually frighten me with how little they know about the world. There does have to be a balance. Your note made me laugh, though – when I was a kid, we had Current Events. I always, always got an O (outstanding, we didn’t have letter grades in elementary) and the teachers were amazed at how "current" I was. I couldn’t help it, my family are news junkies too. so at least I got it honestly.

    Dusty – I’ve been amazed at how awesome Instapaper is. I just click the Read Later link in my toolbar, and when I have downtime, the articles are there for the taking. Yesterday I marked the upcoming NYT Magazine article on James Patterson (a MUST READ for all of us) and skipped on to my work. I’m so glad I did, because it took me forever to read it last night – it’s LONG. But that’s what it’s for, letting you read stuff without gumming up your bookmarks. Very minimalist. : )

    I’ve also had to limit my news/politics blogs, because it all feels like it’s devolved into a shouting match, and I’m not learning what I need to learn. And ultimately, that’s why I’m reading this stuff, to learn.

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  12. JT Ellison

    Z, just marked What’s Up With That – how FUN!!!! And as far as celebrity crap – I have to admit, if I need to procrastinate, looking at Golden Globes dresses on People.com does the trick every time ; )

    Dana, you know the old saying, the good Lord helps those who help themselves. That’s the God to honest truth. When a new author comes to me stuck, I will bend over backwards to help. I LOVE to mentor. I LOVE to pay it forward. There’s nothing more satisfying that being able to help someone over that first hurdle, or the second, or the third.

    But the further along I get, the more I’m amazed at the people who will write you, Facebook you, etc., to ask the simplest things. It’s becoming a bit of a pet peeve – someone asked me the other day how far it was from Nashville to her town. Really, you can’t hit Google maps and check that yourself? So it’s the silly questions that are a waste of everyone’s time that bug me, not the real ones. I heard a story last week of a writer who was approached by a new writer asking how to spell a word. I kid you not.

    Reply
  13. toni mcgee causey

    I’m going to check out the Instapaper thing, so thanks, JT. Mostly, though, over the last year I have trimmed down what I read. I skim the publishing information, hit the major headlines, check out the local news, and read two or three blogs. That’s it, then it’s time for work. This takes about thirty minutes.

    My life this last year has been about finding balance. Finding what brings me joy and health and time to do what I love, which is write, spend time with my family, do outside activities, and interact with friends and meet new people. I think this has made my world richer, just listening to others instead of being in my own head so much.

    Reply
  14. JT Ellison

    Chuck, Europe is just like here. You can do it. I have faith!!! I know it’s especially hard when you eat what you kill, AKA word for yourself, to shut things off. But it’s good for the brain cells to not be constantly deluged. I’ve taken to actually just sitting in my chair or petting the cat a couple of times a day, just to let things calm and center. Not meditation, I haven’t mastered that. Just a few moments of peace. It’s great.

    Louise, I’m sorry! Not really. You’ll love it. I have ot on my phone too, so if I’m stuck at a Dr’s office or waiting for a lunch date to show, I can skip through a couple of articles. And if I really dig something, it goes into my Evernote account so I have it permanently. No more messy bookmarks!

    Stephen, thank you. I can’t give it up entirely, there’s too many things I just need to know. But that article on Patterson – he doesn’t have a computer in his office. Can you imagine how awesome that would be? I can’t do longhand since my wrist surgery – my hand gets wicked tired after a few pages, so typing is my only real option to write a book. but I love the idea of me, the birds signing and a pad of good paper.

    Cornelia, go forth and prosper. Instapaper will save your life!

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  15. JT Ellison

    Toni, that’s it exactly. We’re all so into our own heads – heck, Randy and I joke about our dueling laptops. We can be in the room together, reading the same article on two different laptops, and discussing it. It’s good to shut that off and get out every once in a while. (Says the stir crazy woman who has construction workers in her house, one car that transports the husband away from the house while a part is ordered on the other, and a rainy week. I haven’t left the house since Sunday.)

    Reply
  16. pari noskin taichert

    Great post, JT. I think you know where I stand on this.

    Right now I’m cleaning out my office — yet again — and I’m finally at a point in my life when I’m going to be throwing away all the how-tos and publishing stories and advice. I don’t need it. I don’t need most of the magazines I’ve kept over the years because the info just isn’t relevant and I have much better sources.

    It’s a slow process of letting go and I feel lighter with every recycling bag I fill.

    BTW, I’ll have a different take on information overload this Monday . . .

    Reply
  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    In answer to your question, we hope wherever we build next will be slightly closer to civilisation, and we want to go the hi-tech route when it comes to whole-house automation. Can’t do that and not have TV. (Plus Andy misses the motorcycle racing. I had to buy him the season reviews of World SuperBike, MotoGP, and British SuperBikes on DVD for Christmas, just to make up his loss.)

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  18. Lana

    Reassuring to hear of others experiencing the same angst -whether in terms of OCD-like need to know, or in the letting go of same. As a librarian, originally trained as an archaeologist, letting go is tough. Where will future generations find clues to who we are and what we do? You’re right I may not need x bit of info but I bet you I know someone who does but then that leads into personalized selected dissemination of information (remember that far back? Libraries offered to find & deliver specialized info based on a profile you provided them.). Murphy’s law being what it is inevitably when one let goes of something 5 minutes later a request comes in for just that source. Need to balance self-centric with other’s expectations of you. Why do some find it so much easier to let go?

    Reply
  19. berenmind

    Yes. It takes a lot of time. The online surfing addiction. I struggle with the hold it has over me. I am not a news junkie. I skim a few news sources to stay connected to the outside world (I am very reclusive) but my drug of choice is blogs. I have admitted this and have come to terms with it. I am now in a 365 step program to limit my blog reading to only a few a day. Thank God The Naked Authors shut theirs down because I I am not strong enough to have given it up on my own. (I have been going through withdrawal ever since.)

    I am still stuck, however, with time consuming reading. My curse is that I am a slow reader. Always have been. Took the speed-reading class in high school but it didn’t help. I have to chew and savor words. Can’t skim for content. I still subscribe to "paper". Every morning I read my San Francisco Chronicle, as it is my local news source. I read my New Yorker as soon as I receive it because if I lay it aside I will end up tossing it unread when the new one arrives. I don’t take Architectural Digest anymore. My house will NEVER look that beautiful and clutterless. I hang on to my American Craft magazine because the eye candy is essential therapy for my fragile mental health issues. Then, of course, is the Sunday New York Times which wipes a day off every week.

    I spend most of my time reading BOOKS. Hah! I am not a writer. I am a READER. All yall ‘Ratis are essentially employed by ME. You’re working every day for ME! (Ah. Can you feel the power?) So if you are all organizing your priorities and cutting out time wasting online meandering, that’s what I’m looking for here! Productivity! Quit the surfing and write the damn books and get them out there for me! Yeeeesh.

    I find it pretty amusing that I am reading a blog about giving up blog reading and at the same time learning two new sources for online news ……Watts and Instapaper.

    At any rate, I am NOT giving up Murderati. How could I maintain a healthy lifestyle without it? You can only deprive yourself of so many French fries and potato chips and hamburgers and mystery blogs. If you give up EVERYthing that you crave you will go crazy and ruin any progress made by the therapeutic steps you have already taken. So there.

    Semper fi.

    Reply
  20. BCB

    I’ve been on information overload since I started using Twitter this past summer. I’m getting better about skimming and not reading everything (yes, OCD tendencies), but I often get lost clicking on all the interesting links…

    I tried very hard to stay off the internet last weekend. So I could write. It wasn’t an entirely successful effort. I plan to try it again this weekend, and keep trying until it becomes a habit. My brain needs more time not spent in "input mode" — I’ve discovered I need a period of quiet before I can switch to "output mode" and create. Between work and the internet, it really is a difficult for me to achieve that balance.

    Instapaper, huh? I suppose that’s a link up there in your post, isn’t it?

    Reply
  21. JT Ellison

    Z, I hear ya. You’re a good wife, getting him fun stuff like that. Much better than a Playboy subscription. (Don’t ask)

    Pari, we are doing a remodel, and adding an office for Randy off the bonus room. This entails much throwing away of 17 years of accumulated crap, and we are both feeling so much lighter without it. Once his office is done, I’m rearranging my office closet, which will now store my book research/manuscript boxes. I can’t wait to toss some old junk.

    Lana, I expected to have that exact experience. It’s why I kept the punch bowl. Seriously. I gave away more stuff than I can list to Goodwill, but I couldn’t part with the 20 year old punchbowl, still in it’s original packaging, because you just never know…

    JSB, my zen master. Yes, Obi-Wan.

    Reply
  22. JT Ellison

    Beremind – thank you. I came off editing 278 pages today to your post. Yes, I agree, letting Murderati go by the way side is a mistake. There’s just too much to be gleaned. And you know, if you click on Publishing News at the top of the page, you can get all your book related news in one spot. So we really are a one stop shop! seriously, thank you for reading. We couldn’t do it without you!

    Mike, Randy keep threatening to buy a tour bus. Egads.

    BCB, you betcha. It will save your life. I absolutely couldn’t make it through Twitter without it. That and I’m trying to pare back to following 500. I went on a bit of a follow spree there for a while, and it’s too much info to process. 500 is the perfect amount, especially if you put it all into sections on tweetdeck. (I realize we’re speaking in lingo. Sad.)

    And yes, let’s round out a lovely day with a second round of congrats to our celebrity Murderati. Well done, all of you!

    Reply
  23. Allison Brennan

    When I worked in the Capitol, I was a news junkie. But someone else did the clips–and there was a cover page and I could just flip to the information I wanted. I didn’t actually have to do the clipping or read all the articles to see what was important. I’m pretty good about not blog hopping too much, though when I’m procrastinating I tend to spend a lot more time surfing cyberspace. Like you, JT, I find myself reading agent blogs (I love my agent) and editor blogs (no plans to leave my house, either, but I like what other people have to say.) because I just like information. I remember when I was looking for an agent, I subscribed to PM and PW. I still do. I like skimming the news and books and information and just filing it away. I know, I know, but I can’t help it. :/

    Reply
  24. JT Ellison

    Allison, when I worked in the White House, the clipping service was one of the biggest treats – I missed it so much when I left. That’s what Publishers Marketplace is to me, a clipping service. Now if I could find something perfect for my morning looksee… on my iPhone, I use Fluent News, which is awesome. Picks the top headlines from across the board. I use Google news for that on the computer, and it works pretty well.

    Reply
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