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05/15/14
I’m Back!!!!!
Filed under: General, Innovation, New Product Development, Market Research
Posted by: Tom @ 10:48 am

After a long hiatus, I am back to communicating and networking with the Outcome Improvement Blog.

During the time away, I have been challenged by Mother Nature and a variety of other issues, but a lion’s share of my time has been consumed with InnoLigne, a business startup that is bringing breakthrough market research to innovation and New Product Development.

InnoLigne has proven to be a perfect extension to both my career and the scope and object of Outcome Improvement and its role in bringing progress to each one of us. What has been especially interesting to me is learning about theories that make research and development more structured and focused in a way that complements both business and consumer self-interest.

As part of the go-to-market strategy for InnoLigne and its Whitespace Innovation Research technology, we are seeking to build relationships with a broad cross-section of entrepreneurs, innovators, consultants, software developers, educators, and others interested in sharing and working as a community to advance wellbeing and progress through the application of technology. You are encouraged to join with us.

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08/21/12
How Would You Get Your Life Back?
Filed under: General, Healthcare, Electronic Records, Personal Information, Mobile Solutions & Smartphones, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery
Posted by: Tom @ 2:09 pm

Are you prepared to cope with the next disaster that comes along?  Even when there is no loss of life, it can be very difficult for anyone to fully recover mentally and physically.  Having electronic records and well thought out contingency plans could make a big difference in recovery.  They help even in the best of times. 

Imagine coming home from work one day and seeing what was left of your home surrounded by fire trucks and rescue workers.  Or you smell gas and start through the front door just as the entire place explodes.  Or there is a damaging storm, flood, forest fire, or earthquake.  Every one of these things is not likely to happen to any single individual.  However, over a person’s lifetime, probabilities add up, something serious could happen and we could lose everything.  Some people are luckier than others.  In addition, many people experience nuisances such as lost or stolen wallets, passports, credit cards or car keys at one time or another.  These loses can happen away from home and in a foreign country.  Although minor by comparison, until we get caught up in any situation, it can be difficult to understand their impact and realize the trouble and inconvenience they cause.  It wastes a lot of time. 

A woman in Missouri lamented as she stood in the ruins of her home.  It had been rebuilt after being destroyed in an earlier storm only to happen again.  She had just moved back in the week before.  Someone else had a laptop stolen at a business conference and did not have their files backed up. Between Acts of God, carelessness and deliberate acts, many disruptive things happen.  Imagine the bureaucratic nightmares that occur along with the pain and suffering.  Being better prepared gets lives back together faster and easier.

Facing reality, if it were necessary to evacuate a home and never return to it again, it is highly unlikely that anyone could take along everything that would be needed.   Without records it would be virtually impossible to substantiate insurance claims or establish a person’s identity.  What if someone needed to be taken to a hospital and get help from a doctor who was not familiar with their case.  How long would it be before they could be assessed and treated if they did not have a health record?  Delay costs lives.  Wouldn’t it be better if records were electronic and fit in someone’s pocket rather than in boxes of paper that had to be left behind?

People often lose everything they own when homes, neighborhoods and even whole towns are destroyed in fires, storms, earthquakes and floods.  The recovery process is often long and painful.  The last thing someone needs is bureaucratic red tape when they have already suffered enough.  Nevertheless, minor discrepancies in paperwork invite bureaucratic nightmares.  Whether information is missing, incomplete, inaccurate or simply does not match, even a typo that was made many years ago can be hard to change.  The rules of the game have changed, and we need to be able to substantiate who we are and everything about us.    Digital records that we carry with us or are backed up in “the cloud” make data available when and where it is needed. 

Even if paper records are not destroyed, they deteriorate over time.  Sorting through a shoe box for something and finding that it has become faded and is no longer readable can be pretty frustrating.  Conversion to electronic records is a big improvement. Although it takes time, gradual steps make a difference right away and not everything will need to be converted.

We recommend the following.

1.   Start by preparing basic contingency plans.  When calamities strike, being ready to address them is essential.   Plans can always be improved.

2.    Collect and save electronic files instead of paper ones, whenever possible.  Digital records provide convenience and portability.  Electronic records are easy to create when work is done a little at a time.  They are easy to search.  For example, include a list of phone numbers to call for help, a copy of a driver license or passport, a list of account numbers and instructions to access them on-line, copies of family photos, receipts, certificates, wills, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, and tax returns.

a.   File records chronically by subject.  They can always be reorganized.

b.   Use file types such as PDF that can be read by anyone’s computer, tablet or smartphone.

3.    Create and include a consolidated, organized, digital summary of your health history.  It will help you to get in the habit of keeping electronic records, provide peace of mind, and enable professional caregivers to get up to speed quickly so they can help you when it is needed.  Use Lifelong Personal Health Record software (http://www.lifelongphr.com/) to store your data and create the summary.

4.    Backup Important Files.  In addition to having master copies on a personal computer where you can control and protect your data, backup electronic files using an encrypted Internet service and put copies on small portable devices such as smartphones, flash drives, tablets, bracelets and medallions for easy access.  Security is important to avoid worry about what someone else is doing with your data.

Not a Do-It-Yourselfer?  Contact us for assistance.

             TomR@OutcomeImprovement.com

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07/27/12
It’s Time to Overcome Disconnect and Disappointment
Filed under: General, Technology - Other, Problems and Inequities, The Economy
Posted by: Tom @ 1:53 pm

           

When I look around, I do not like what I see.  My perception is that nothing is working the way it should be, and strong measures are long overdue if the malaise is to change.  People seem to be living on entertainment and social media while waiting for things to improve.  Hope and euphoria alternate with discouragement and despair.  Neither is not the right answer; nor is procrastination and indecision.  Disconnects cannot be resolved by throwing gasoline on a fire when less of something else would be more appropriate.  It is time to face realities and stop rehashing the same things over and over again without providing answers.  Desperate times require desperate, or at least innovative, measures.  They also require a consensus.

For those who don’t get it, Main Street is in the toilet.  Everywhere I look, I see businesses closed that I depended on for many years and their space vacant for months, if not years.  One of my favorites had survived the Great Depression.  At the same time, even with financing, new shops have difficulty opening due to bureaucratic red tape and difficulties getting services connected and equipment delivered and installed.  They could be providing new jobs.  It is also no wonder that large retailers are doing poorly and closing stores when consumers learn from them and then buy from competitors on the Internet.  What are the limits to this punishment?  What will the Internet sellers do when they drive everyone else out of business?  Keep prices low?  I doubt it!  There needs to be a way to resolve these inequities.

As students get ready to go off to college and the unemployed ponder futures without jobs, I wonder what they are thinking.  Are they prepared to add more debt with no hope of getting a job if they are studying the wrong things or don’t already have marketable skills and experience?  Could it be that outdated teachers are passing along outdated information?  What about all the technical wonders that sit idle or are underutilized because someone bought ahead of their needs or failed to understand how to get a reasonable return on their investment before obsolescence set in.  Can we really afford to squander resources like that?

Could social media be the next bubble?  Perhaps.  Social media has probably been oversold, and now that there is so much competition, a major consolidation could occur anytime.  For me, it is difficult to decide which horse to bet on after years of mixed results and false starts.  Although lots of people use social media to share experiences, from a business perspective, I have not been satisfied.  It is too difficult for small businesses with small marketing budgets to gain traction solely because a few people happen to “like” them on facebook.  It is important to leverage new capabilities, but do so cautiously.

To put this subject in perspective, I have checked information about facebook on a financial website.  Their Initial Public Offering (IPO) was in mid-May (2012).  Price started about $42 and went as high as $45 soon after the IPO.  The stock was as low as $25-3/4 in early June.  Since then, there was a high about 33.  Monday (7/23), it closed at $28.75.  Today (Friday, July 27) it dropped to about 22-1/2, an all-time low, for a total loss from the high of 50 percent after disappointing estimates of future earnings before recovering to $23.71 at the closing.

With this in mind, I am more convinced than ever about social media being oversold.  I believe that it is important to hedge bets in the stock market, but also for a business to diversify itself by creating a winning combination of social media, e-commerce and traditional marketing and sales.

For a new business with an innovative new product, my first challenge has been to convince customers that they need something they have not already considered.   I look for a way to link what they already
know and accept to the new and different.  An innovative solution that provides added value and benefits may be wonderful, but it still needs to compete against the tried and true.  This provides a difficult challenge that many consumers and small businesses need to solve before committing too far, too fast to anything whether it is staying with the status quo or innovating.   Careful deliberation will improve outcomes, avoiding disconnect and disappointment.

                                                                               

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06/29/12
What Comes In Under Your Radar and Overwhelms You?
Filed under: General, Safety & Security, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery, Problems and Inequities
Posted by: Tom @ 12:53 pm

Becoming blindsided creates problems of epic proportions.  It doesn’t just cause accidents on highways.  The volume of changes that keeps growing, includes subterfuge that is practiced everywhere whether consciously or not.  This overloads systems causing surprises and incomplete and incorrect information that is then used in making decisions.  Human nature factors in as positives tend to be accentuated and negatives avoided and downplayed.  These things impact all of us in one way or another.

Motorists travel in packs and speed unopposed down highways.  Companies bury legalistic terms and conditions in fine print and apply hard to distinguish changes to product designs, packaging and warranties.  These mask the impacts of cost reductions that lower value propositions and trick consumers to make costly buying errors.  Politicians talk about lowering taxes while services decline even faster.  Spammers waste our time as they flood email accounts with threats to privacy, identities and livelihoods.  We are told what we want to hear, not what we should be told.  Even when something is flagged in red, it may still get lost in the noise and not get adequate attention.

These are symptoms of a world that has gotten so complicated and congested that even the most knowledgeable and vigilant among us is unable to avoid distractions and catch everything significant enough to have the potential for serious, negative consequences.  Even sophisticated systems designed to detect anomalies and warn of impending disaster are not always enough.  For example, weather forecasters were unable to provide actionable intelligence to residents soon enough to prepare for the sudden, severe storms that recently wreaked havoc in the Chicago area with 90-mile per hour winds.

Outcome Improvement is committed to finding ways to help consumers, businesses and governments to anticipate and prepare for contingencies while adding quality and value to life.  Your input would be greatly appreciated to identify topics for our investigation and reporting.  Please add your comments below.        

                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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06/27/12
Use It or Lose It!
Filed under: General, Safety & Security, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery
Posted by: Tom @ 12:40 pm

It is hard to anticipate all the things that can go wrong.  One example is consequences of inactivity. Some of them are more serious than others. Some can be reversed, others cannot.  Here are a few things that come to mind.

Although some of these may seem to be of minor consequence, collectively they can add up and have a major impact.  Not only can some of them be wasteful, they can also cause fires if left unattended for long periods of time.  Just like changing batteries in fire and carbon monoxide detectors, it is a good idea to check around on a regular basis.

Surprising things can happen.  My thermostat batteries failed prematurely.  When it happened a second time, I realized that each time there had been an extended power outage.  While the power was out, the thermostat had been futilely trying to turn on the furnace or air-conditioner.  This is what drained the battery.

The same thing can happen if a battery is being charged when there is a power outage.  Batteries can be ruined if they fully discharge.  It is best to pull plugs and turn off circuits when there is a power failure.  In any event, when power is restored, there can be excessive loads and power surges if loads are not added a little at a time. Motors require about three times as much current to start than they use to keep running.

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05/04/12
The Miracle of Personalized Information
Filed under: General, Technology - Other, Personal Information
Posted by: Tom @ 2:21 pm

This morning when I woke up, I turned on The Weather Channel to help me make plans for the day.  There was a commercial for their services that showed Noah out in the hills with two hands superimposed on the scene to represent God.  The hands were gesturing while there was talk about 40 days and 40 nights of rain and the need to build an ark.  The message from The Weather Channel was about the “Miracle of Personalized Weather.”  This is an example of personalized information that they and others are gradually making available to customers.

Better services and solutions are facilitated by storing and analyzing digital information about things customers need and ask for.  Everywhere vast amounts of data are being collected and mined to provide commercial value.  They are turning the digital data explosion into gold.  This is likely why Facebook’s IPO (Initial Public Offering) is being valued higher than the market capitalization of established companies like McDonald’s and Hewlett Packard. 

Of this new generation of innovators, Amazon is the company that I use most often.  My on-line account shows every purchase that I have made since January 1998.  I may have even made purchases before that, but in any event, the information they have been collecting about me is significant.  They are mining it to analyze my buying habits, find things that will interest me and compare my inquiries to ways other customers have satisfied similar needs.  All of this is available to help me make more efficient use of my time and better purchasing decisions.  I also learn from the feedback of others and contribute my own comments when I can. Teamed with UPS, FedEx and USPS, I can track most shipments and see when they will or have arrived even minutes before.

I suppose that everything has its downside.  Perhaps some of the information being collected could be used to take unfair advantage of consumers if it becomes too concentrated.  Thus far this does not seem to have happened.  There are many opportunities left where digital data and data mining can bring value to our lives. Healthcare is a perfect example with its paper legacy and consumers who have limited roles in decisionmaking. Challenges like these make progress especially difficult.   However, as I look back on my 15-year relationship with Amazon, progress and value go hand in hand over time.  Success requires participation, not just spectators.  As learning proceeds and roles change, benefits of mobile, information and network-based solutions will no doubt continue to grow. Expect this to be a continuing subject for this blog. Please share your views and comments.

                       

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04/22/12
Replacements for Incandescent Light Bulbs - Will You Be Ready?
Filed under: General, Resources and Energy Alternatives, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery
Posted by: Tom @ 12:33 pm

Soon the traditional Edison light bulbs that have been staples for years will no longer be available. Incandescent light bulbs of 40 watts and above are being phased out using government incentives and edicts to force energy savings and likely will reduce the number of nuclear plants that will need to be built.  The transition to energy-efficeint bulbs has been coming for quite some time.  With motivation from sky-high electric bills, I have been trying to find suitable alternatives for about 15 years, but have only had mixed success.  Here are things that I have learned that should help you get better prepared.

Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs have been my primary alternative until recently.  I have a small stock of them that I am gradually using up.  I would not get any more.  A major reason is that I did not realize that they contained mercury when I purchased them.  With all of the controversy over mercury pollution from large tube-type fluorescent lights a number of years ago, it is hard to believe that manufacturers did not learn their lesson.  I never thought not to trust them.  Another reason is that it takes considerable time for CFLs to turn on and then reach full intensity.  This is annoying, and some CFLs do not fit a few of the lighting fixtgures that I have.  Others are poor quality and prone to premature failure.  One even corroded and came apart during my testing.

That leaves new LED replacement bulbs.  They are likely the ultimate answer, and they have been appearing in more and more specialty applications.  High cost has been a major factor, but considering lower maintenance costs and reduced accidents attributed to burned out traffic lights and tail lights, it can be well worth the added expense for more reliable, longer-life, more efficient bulbs.   I remember the need to replace a bulb in the dashboard of an old car of mine.  It cost a couple hundred dollars to disassemble the dashboard to replace a small bulb that cost pennies.  Christmas lights are no fun either when it is hard to find bulbs that have burned out. 

As far as finding replacements for standard higher watt bulbs, there are a number of challenges besides the cost.  Although costs are starting to come down fairly rapidly, the cost to replace a single 100-watt light bulb is still about $25.  However, there is no single replacement that is good for every application. Many LED bulbs are quite directional, cannot be dimmed and provide light that is much whiter than incandescent bulbs. This makes it difficult to mix bulbs, and each application can require a different configuration. Three-way LED replacement Bulbs, such as 50-100-150-watt equivalents, are not available as yet.

Things are gradually improving. A 100-watt equivalent bulb that I bought in late 2009 is very directional.  It requires 13-watts of power and retailed for over $50.  New ones only require 12-watts, are about $25 and much less directional.  I am testing one in a floor lamp in my family room.  It is much better than the earlier design.  Drawbacks are that their “warm white” light still lacks the slightly yellow hue of an incandescent, and some lamp housings lack the clearance to accommodate the bigger bases of LED bulbs.

LED bulbs have a lot of overhead compared to old-style incandescent bulbs that only contain a filament.  They typically have arrays of individual LEDs with heat sinks, rectifiers and cooling fans.  I found that a Ground Fault Interrupter (circuit breaker) in the 30-plus-year-old main incoming electrical panel in my garage did not allow me to put an LED bulb in the ceiling above my bathroom sink.  The LED bulb kept tripping the breaker.  I either needed to use old bulbs or re-wire the bathroom.  Because of situations like that and the need for 3-way lamps, I now have a few Edison bulbs that should suffice until LED alternatives become available to satisfy these needs.

Since stocks of old bulbs are disappearing and becoming more expensive, now is the time to learn about options, set expectations and get prepared.  When I gradually got rid of CRT computer monitors and tube-type televisions, I did not necessarily see my electric bills drop. Sometimes they stayed the same or continued to rise even as usage dropped. In any event, I would have been much worse off had I not continued to adopt new technology to improve efficeiency. Expect benefits like these to continue for many years to come.

 

For more about Outcome Improvement, please visit: http://www.outcomeimprovement.com/.

Tom Rockwood was formerly Corporate Engineering Manager for Energy and Material Resources at AT&T.

                                                           

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03/07/12
Error - Sorry, This Video Can’t Be Played (on your smartphone)
Filed under: General, Mobile Solutions & Smartphones
Posted by: Tom @ 12:08 pm

This is the message that my son got when he tried to download and view one of my vacation videos on his new Android Motorola Razr smartphone from Verizon.  It had worked fine on my laptop.

I tried to duplicate the problem on my own smartphone.  It worked perfectly.  Same thing on my Amazon Kindle Fire.  However, my wife’s Motorola Atrix had the same error message.  Could this be a Motorola problem?

I debated whether to contact the carriers or the manufacturer, but decided instead to put the error message into my search engine.  That saved me considerable time.  I found that many other users had gotten the same error message.  Unfortunately, no one seems to have an answer for it.  With all the different variations of Android, this is probably understandable.  Hopefully, software updates will come along that fix problems like this.  In the meantime, if you have the same problem, try a laptop or home computer, especially one that has sufficient power and bandwidth to handle streaming media.

By the way, if you are curious about the video that triggered this post, you can try it, too, especially if you are interested in iguanas.  (www.Rockwood.com/100_0078.MP4)  If you do, please be patient.  The download is a little slow, and quality is not up to Hollywood standards.  Taking videos in bright sunlight is tough with a little camera that only has a small LCD and no viewfinder.  Reflections made it especially hard for me to follow the action.

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I Gave My Smartphone a Stress Test
Filed under: General, Mobile Solutions & Smartphones
Posted by: Tom @ 10:29 am

For awhile, I have read that smartphones will replace laptops. This might work for many users, but I doubt that it would be adequate for me.  I have found that smartphones may do a lot of things, but they have trouble keeping up with high powered machines and special purpose devices, especially with current displays, batteries and input/output capabilities.

My latest laptop has the same capabilities that I enjoy in my office except I miss being able to multitask using two desktop machines.  Although I miss the two displays, I have gotten much more functional than when I traveled with my first 20-pound laptop and its heavy bag of accessories.  Today’s four-pound laptop does much more, but is still heavier than I would prefer especially when I bring along a Bluetooth keyboard, wireless mouse, 4-port USB hub, cooling pad, datacard, external hard drive, card reader and assorted cords and cables.  Everything does fit in a small carryon bag, and I no longer need multiple bags and a foldup handtruck.  However, I am always afraid that something will get lost especially when I take the laptop out of my carryon bag for airport security.  On my most recent trip, I saw someone almost lose their laptop itself.  Without a laptop, everything could stay enclosed in the carryon bag and cut the risk of loss.

I look at smartphones the same way that I look at Swiss Army Knives with one key exception. They’r both pretty good when they are only expected to do one thing at a time.  The Swiss Army Knife forces the user to stay in control and accomplishes this.  Contrast this with the smartphone as it bombards users with calls, text messages and email while they are trying to check GPS, watch movies, order something online, check bank balances, and a host of other things.  My life is stressful enough without all that going on.  Smartphones need smart attendants to manage the traffic!

I thought that maybe using a smartphone for messaging and a laptop for other things would work just like my two office computers. I decided to find out.  Before setting off on a recent trip, I set up my smartphone to collect email from my four most important email accounts.  I thought that as long as Microsoft Outlook did not download messages in my office, incoming messages would stay on servers and could be viewed on the smartphone and could be deleted manually if I chose to do so. 

The first few days, everything worked fine.  I must admit, I was a little sorry that I hadn’t done this sooner.  It saved me the trouble of going to the computer to check for email.  The only problem was I needed to recharge the phone more often.  Unfortunately, this situation got worse and worse.  After two weeks, it was necessary to recharge the phone every couple of hours.  Occasionally, especially during the night, the battery ran down completely and the phone shut off.  The battery nemesis had hit me with full force.

What surprised me was that I seemed to be getting all my emails, and the number on the phone did not seem excessive.  I deleted messages on the phone and the number of new ones was fairly constant.  The load did not seem to account for the problem, but I could not find and other reason.  However, unbeknownst to me, almost 2,500 emails had been building up on the servers for Outlook to ultimately download when I got back to my office.  After doing so, the excessive battery drain returned to normal.  Even though I deleted messages on the phone, the phone apparently continued to look at all the files on the servers before deciding which ones it needed to download.  This became an intense task requiring lots of battery power.

Although I read regularly about battery issues with smartphones and how battery technology continues to lag user needs, I had never seen a discussion about what I had experienced.  However, after using email for over 30 yers, I get a lot more of it than anyone else that I know.  I must have given my smartphone a real stress test!!

We hope that you will find this account to be interesting and helpful.  Please do not hesitate to comment.

                                                                       

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02/10/12
Preparing for the Unexpected
Filed under: General, Safety & Security, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery
Posted by: Tom @ 6:44 pm

It is impossible to predict when something unforeseen will cause death or serious injury. Often someone’s carelessness is at the very least a contributing factor. The disaster of the Italian liner Costa Concorfdia on January 14, 2012, was the responsibility of one man, the captain. It resulted in a few dozen lives being lost and thousands more, inconvenienced. Pilot error was attributed to the crash of Air France Flight 447 after it stalled at 38,000 feet en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris killing 227 people. Carelessness, impairment, distraction, and falling asleep at the wheel result in many lives lost and crippling injuries on our highways, too. It seems an inequity that those responsible often walk away with little or no injuries while others die or are maimed and live miserable lives.

Countless people also die in fires, especially in cold weather. Carelessness can be a factor, but so can poor maintenance. Smoke, fire and carbon monoxide detectors reduce the loss of life when they work effectively. However, they need to be installed and maintained properly. Just like many other things, they gradually wear out and need to be replaced. I am ashamed to say that it took five members of a Connecticut family to lose their lives before I replaced old detectors with better ones that check for both smoke and carbon monoxide. I am especially happy to have carbon monoxide detection since CO once made me quite sick. This was even when I had what should have been adequate ventilation. My new ones also use AA batteries which I prefer to 9 volt ones in the old detectors.

Other things can make our lives better and more secure. For example, the rubber hoses that supply water to washing machines are prone to failure at the most inopportune times. Substitute hoses that are reinforced with a stainless steel mesh cover reduces the likelihood of a failure. Turning the water off when the washer is not in use is also a good idea.

A few years ago, I bought a black box that connects to my telephone. If the temperature in my house deviates from a specified range, it calls my cell phone. If I do not answer, the device calls a few other people until someone answers. I never thought that I would need it. However, once when I was away during a very cold winter, my furnace stopped working. When the temperature inside dropped below 55F, I got called. It took a few seconds for me to realize what was calling me. The device prevented a big mess from frozen water pipes in my house. Now with smartphones and the Internet, it is possible to use wireless cameras and a variety of other devices to monitor things around our momes.

They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are many little things that can be done to lessen the impact of what can turn into major calamities. Look around and think of things that can go wrong with you. Create evacuation plans in case of an emergency. You will find that peace of mind is a wonderful thing.

If you like movies and would like to see how freak events affect outcomes, you are encouraged to see Unstoppable. You may think twice before you ride the rails.

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01/28/12
Apple’s “Knowledge Navigator”
Filed under: General, Technology - Other, Mobile Solutions & Smartphones
Posted by: Tom @ 9:07 am

Twenty-five years ago (January 1987), Apple Computer released a visionary VHS videotape entitled, “Knowledge Navigator.” What it depicts is amazing, and over the years, I have viewed it a number of times. It lasts 5 minutes, 45 seconds and shows future expectations from 1987. Many features have been validated by the direction technology has taken since then, but others, including ones that are important to me, have yet to be realized. Recently, I found that the video is available on the Internet.

The entire video takes place in the quaint office of a fictional college professor.  We watch him perform tasks and deal with distractions, such as a call from his mother.  To help him, he interacts with a remarkable device sitting on his desk.  It’s the Knowledge Navigator, a truly impressive, collaborative and analytical tool that operates proactively as it adds value and anticipates needs.  It could almost be mistaken for a tablet computer, but it must be one on steroids.  He talks to it, uses its touchscreen, sees and listens to voice responses, and gets intelligent input.  It also manages his communications and schedules appointments for him.

The Knowledge Navigator does some things without consulting the professor and adds value that he likely does not expect.  It is especially wonderful how fast it accomplishes things.  The Navigator barely receives a command before it provides a response.  Although I am truly grateful for my progress to date, a Knowledge Navigator would never-the-less make a big difference in my life by taking care of a growing number of time consuming, repetitive tasks.  For starters, it could manage my email, do research on the Internet, analyze data and create reports for me.

I see the vision of the Knowledge Navigator gradually being fulfilled, and believe that it will not be too many more years before we have true Knowledge Navigators.   Already, it is possible to take advantage of many of their capabilities by building solutions from commercially available hardware, software and services.   Numerous functions and apps are being created for increasingly powerful and functional smartphones and tablets.   Linking their capabilities will gradually provide seamless solutions to problems, enable computers to perform a wider variety of tasks with little or no supervision, and turn into true Knowledge Navigators.

                                                                                   

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12/30/11
Will a Major Cloud Computing Provider Fail in 2012?
Filed under: General, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery, The Economy
Posted by: Tom @ 6:00 pm

This warning was in a list of 10 predictions that a friend sent to me recently. The implication was that if a cloud provider’s business failed, users would lose digital images and other data. I did not believe that this was likely at first, but now I am not so sure. I have seen other concerns about bubbles bursting and started to connect some dots. Here are things to think about.

1.  Benefits of Cloud Computing

Cloud computing involves shared services.  Instead of everyone needing to have and maintain their own data and Internet services, a provider does it for them and it is much cheaper.  The provider’s computer servers are divided up to provide small virtual servers for users on a shared machine.  Smaller businesses find this especially attractive since they avoid the hassles of ownership and receive better service and support than they could afford for themselves.  However, the downside is that this requires reliance on others.

2.  Growth in Cloud Computing

A short article in a technical journal caught my eye.  The writer reported that a major cloud computing provider had a standing order for truckloads of brand new computer servers delivered weekly to expand their data center.  I was interested to learn that the servers were made in the United States by a little known company that made one of my own computers that I especially like.  It takes lots of money to buy this many servers and to pay for all the infrastructure, installation and on-going service and support.  Growth must be phenomenal to support this.  I wonder how long demand for storage will continue at this rate. Is it really necessary to save all this data?

3.  Underlying Business Models

I rely on a number of Internet Service Providers and e-Commerce vendors.  Some of them provide free services including large amounts of on-line storage for photos and messaging.  Although the cost of storage media has dropped considerably, someone still must pay for it and the related costs.  Businesses certainly expect to eventually recover expenses and profit through fee-based services, but I wonder how long they can operate in the red without becoming profitable.

4.  Level of Inactive Accounts

With all the competing products and services, no one has time to use them all.  However, when a new one comes along, they probably want to try it out to see if it is better than what they already have, especially if there is no cost to sign up.  I have several free accounts that I do not use regularly.

5.  Growth of Built-in Waste

Although many aspects of the Internet are automated, the infrastructure must be maintained.  The more e-mail and instant messages that are sent, the more server capacity that is required for logging, tracking and storage.  Multiple copies add to waste as do trivial messages and spam.

6.  Failed Business Models

What is troubling is how cloud computing and social networking compare to business models used by telephone companies in their heyday.  Back then, high costs discouraged usage of services.  Capacity was only added when revenue growth supported it.  Now low costs attract users in the hope that they will buy value added services.  If customers don’t rise to the bait, profitability goes out the window.  If value is not there when something is free, no one will be able to start charging. At some point, too many players chasing too few paying customers will no longer be sustainable. What will happen then? The recourse will likely be to pull the plug.

Maybe some of us really will lose our data if we don’t back it up.  

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11/08/11
The Great Halloween Nor’easter of 2011
Filed under: General, Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery, Problems and Inequities
Posted by: Tom @ 1:22 pm

After Hurricane Irene two months earlier, we thought that a nor’easter would be a piece of cake.  Little did I realize in my wildest dreams that this storm’s impact would be much more severe.  In fact, there were reports that damage in my area of northern New Jersey was the worst since 1938.  After ten days some places still did not have power and just north of us Connecticut was hit especially hard.  In any event, when the storm started early Saturday, October 29, 2011, it looked like business as usual.  We expected possible freeqing rain and light snow north and west of us, but mostly rain where we live.

As things progressed, precipitation quickly changed to light snow, but not all that much.  As we ate lunch in our kitchen, we looked out the sliding glass door to our deck.  There was a little snow on it that seemed to be coming down harder, but nothing to really be concerned about.  A short while later, however, the lights started flickering.  My wife had been making lasagne.  I must have had a premonition as I told her to quickly finish up anything requiring electricity. She just finished cooking the noodles when the power went off not to return again for six days.

Later in the afternoon the storm worsened.  I went outside to shovel 4 or 5 inches of very heavy snow off the driveway.  All of a sudden, I heard explosions and loud cracking sounds.  I knew right away that the snow was breaking tree limbs that had not yet lost their leaves.  Those leaves played a major role in the major damage that was destined for my area including my own yard.  Unfortunately, even though Hurricane Irene damaged and destroyed many trees, there remained countless others that had been spared the first time.  Mother Nature was determined to finish filling the void and neglect of the power company, Jersey Central Power & Light, by cleaning house for them.

In over 30 years that I’ve lived on my street, we have had constant problems of downed wires in storms.  Our neighborhood has buried services, but is at the mercy of above ground feeders.  Had those been buried, we likely would have avoided many outages over the years.  The added cost would probably have paid for itself many times over.  In this case we probably would’ve lost power, but for a much shorter period of time.  The upsetting part is that we are paying premium prices for third world service.

With Hurricane Irene, the outage was much more localized and a day shorter.  We were able to find relief by visiting our children and their families who each live about 2 miles away.  They never lost power from Irene and only for a couple of days this time.  However, travel between us was difficult both times, mostly from flooding with Irene and this time from more extensive downed trees, branches and wires.

The small portable generator that I used for Hurricane Irene continues to be a godsend.  This time, I also used it in my yard to power an electric chainsaw, and spent three full days cutting up and clearing debris.  For anyone considering the investment in a chainsaw, I recommend getting a carbide tipped chain for it.  About ten years ago I got tired of replacing the regular carbon steel chains!

After the power went out, the Verizon wired phones worked for a couple of days before going out of service.   They came back on before the power did.  The Comcast cable did not come back until a day after power was restored.  My cellular services, including the data card for my laptop, degraded more severely this time (compared to Irene) until people started to get their power back.  There were also reports of over 200 cell towers being out of commission from the storm this time that may have contributed to weaker signals before being repaired.

From a contingency planning and disaster recovery standpoint, I believe that these storms provided good lessons.  The large medical center that I use near my daughter’s home, had no power for a few days and was completely shutdown.  Normally, they have an urgent care center.  Also, even though I am an advocate of cloud computing, I also believe that standalone local solutions should not be abandoned to assure more failsafe service. It is important to have a backup plan in case all else fails. In particular, one of my weak links is a limited supply of gasoline to run my generator.  Many nearby gasoline stations had no way to pump gas without electricity.  I am considering a solar panel to charge my batteries, just-in-case, but many businesses are also talking about getting generators. 

As for Trick or Treaters, they had their Halloween either Friday, November 4 or Sunday, November 6.  Most schools used up all their snow days by being closed for a full week because of lack of power.  So everyone seems to be wondering what will happen the next time.

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10/05/11
Fat, Dumb and Happy No More
Filed under: Healthcare, Problems and Inequities
Posted by: Tom @ 7:54 am

When The Pentagon was found to have charged taxpayers $434 for a hammer and $600 for a toilet seat cover, people were outraged. What they failed to realize was that the same thing is happening to us all the time. Unless we see something blatant that affects us directly, we do not even think to question what is going on. A case in point is a healthcare system with similar excesses. 

The other day, I stopped at my local drugstore to pick up a new prescription that I had left to be filled.  The drug had not been in stock.  In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.  Others were probably too smart and were not buying it.  Anyway, when I went to pay the bill, I learned that it would cost $121.37.  This, by the way, was for a prescription strength version of a medicine that is available over-the-counter for a fraction of this amount.  My first reaction was that my insurance had not paid its share.  But no, they had disallowed the claim and I must pay the entire amount as if I had no insurance at all.  Needless-to-say, the drug got put back on the shelf.

For an accountant like me, it is easy to see what is happening.  Costs are what they are, but who pays and how much they are charged is another matter.  One way or another, costs are going to be marked up and allocated to someone for payment.  Nature abhors a vacuum so if there is pushback in one place, something else must give way.  When an insurance company avoids paying at all, so much the better for their bottom line.  If they negotiate too many discounts or too many people who lack insurance and cannot pay are subsidized, everyone else foots the bill.  The consumer has little say in the matter.  Costs simply get spread through the prices of products that we buy, the taxes we pay, insurance premiums, co-pays and deductibles, contributions that we make and so on.  It is anyone’s guess what the true cost or price should be for anything.

There are different prices.  Some people pay nothing out-of-pocket at all.  Until the alarm goes off, we simply take whatever comes along without question.  In my case, I had one other piece of information about medicines that most people do not know.  I had learned from Bloomberg Businessweek that roughly half of the costs of prescription medicines are wasted because they do not work as the prescribing doctor had intended. In 2008, this amounted to $145 Billion wasted by all of us in that year alone. A year ago, I spent $100 on a co-pay for eye drops that did not work. Quite frankly, I was not ready to risk adding to this waste especially when there were other options. 

Looking at the world around us, I believe that it is important to find out the facts, tell it like it is, and fix what is wrong. If you agree, please join in by sharing your comments and experiences with us.            

                                               

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09/08/11
Lessons from Hurricane Irene
Filed under: Contingency Planning & Disaster Recovery
Posted by: Tom @ 3:29 pm

Saturday, August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene started its rampage north past our home in the hills of New Jersey.  My wife and I watched its progress with the Weather Channel on our smartphones.  A map showed that the eye of the nearly 500 mile diameter storm was barely in North Carolina when we started to feel its fury.  We could see the rain bands as they headed in our direction.  Fortunately, the eye would pass to the east of us lessening its impact, but damage in our area would still prove to be severe.  We are thankful to have escaped serious damage.

Before heading to bed that night, we still had electricity.  A couple of hours later (after midnight) we were awakened to the sound of alarms from our computers’ battery backup units complaining that they had lost power.  By morning we had occasional sun before the main storm arrived later in the afternoon.  I started a small generator to power the refrigerator, phones, a laptop and a couple of lights in the evenings.  I only ran it when I was awake as it needed to be fed with gasoline every 1-1/4 hours.  Power was finally restored five days later.  After two days, I was able to get to a gas station that still had gasoline to fill up my cans.  I needed to go back a second time before power was restored.  Total cost of gasoline was about $50, certainly not an inexpensive and efficient way to generate electricity. 

During the power outage, we had no cable service (television, Internet or Internet phone).  One of our favorite links to the outside world was a 50-year old AM transistor radio.  For some reason, there was no wired telephone service for two days during the middle of the power outage.  Were it not for the generator and our cellular service, we would not have had any way to make emergency calls had we needed them.  We were also lucky to have a Data Card for the laptop so we had much better Internet and email capabilities than with the smartphones.   They were reserved for texting and occasional calls. A neighbor used Wi-Fi at a local Starbucks that required a circuituous route to reach due to many downed trees.

The Saturday after we got power back, we went out for dinner with neighbors across the street.  On the way, we passed a long row of utility poles and downed wires.  There were two trucks from the cable company surveying the damage.  After what we saw, we assumed it would be a long time before we had cable again.  However, much to our amazement, service had been restored when we got home from dinner.  The next morning it was out again until the following day.

Until services were restored, there were short times when cellular communications appeared overloaded.  Text messages were always reliable, but had we needed emergency services, there were enough downed trees to make it unlikely that they would have always been timely and dependable.

Thank you to crews from Toledo and Ohio Edison who came to our aid.  Had vegetation around power lines in our area been maintained better we would likely have gotten power back a couple of days earlier.  In any event, when a storm such as Irene is on the horizon, is not the time to be doing contingency planning.  It is the time for final preparations.  Now is the time to take what we have learned and consider where we might not have been so lucky.  We can start taking these things into account now and do even better the next time. 

Finally, it was a comfort to know that we had family members nearby who could have reached us in an emergency.  Too bad the highway department has never raised the level of roads and bridges so we would not always need to take long detours around areas that flood regularly.   

  

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The Future of Work and Jobs
Filed under: Education and Jobs
Posted by: Tom @ 1:41 pm

It surprises me that people who lose their jobs think that they will get rehired as soon as the economy improves. Such an expectation is unrealistic and politicians should not give them false hope.  Their jobs have either been automated out of existence or they have been outsourced to an area with much lower labor costs.  When companies need more workers, they may need different skills or will find contractors and part-time, entry-level employees who work for less money and are not eligible for costly benefits.  If things work out, fine, otherwise it is on to the next candidate with no strings attached and no legal hassles.

The Industrial Revolution brought increased productivity that could usually be absorbed in a growing, manufacturing economy.  This was especially true for products where demand was relatively inelastic.  After all, some products are needed no matter how good or bad an economy is.  Until computers were introduced to more and more processes, an unskilled workforce took the brunt of any force reduction and reduced demand was a good excuse to eliminate outdated facilities and those with unneeded skills. 

Today, things are different.  Computers are replacing labor everywhere.   They are doing things that were unheard of only a short time ago.  Smart attendants are programmed to talk to us, answer our questions and solve our problems.  They are handling more and more complex tasks as companies pick the brains of highly skilled professionals before they retire and program computers with their expertise.   They precisely control machinery that provides superior dexterity to even perform heart surgery.  Soon robots will be doing our bidding and taking care of us in our old age.

There are exceptions to every rule.  What remains to be seen is how people will respond to computers and foreign outsourcers taking their jobs.  One interesting sign is that some recent law school graduates are suing their schools because they had been assured of jobs that did not materialize.  Perhaps it is because of Legal Zoom and the entry level legal work that is being outsourced to countries such as India.  One thing is certain.  If people are encouraged to pursue jobs in healthcare that are growing in number due to an aging population, they will be disappointed if robots become commonplace.

We believe that people who expect jobs should consider business startups.  Innovation is likely to bring new and different types of work.  It is certain that computers will continue to reduce the ranks of those with traditional jobs so it is important not to get caught in a trap with the masses.  Understanding what is needed and how it is done is always important.  As computers become more and more self-programable, anyone with the know-how should be able to boss them around.    

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08/08/11
Small Things, Big Problems
Filed under: General
Posted by: Tom @ 1:37 pm

This morning I woke up to a warm bedroom.  At first I was a little disoriented, but soon I realized that something was wrong with the airconditioning.  Normally when the heating or cooling is not behaving, I go downstairs to check the thermostat.  If it tells me that something is on, but I do not hear it, I know that something is wrong.  This time the thermostat screen was blank except for a couple of small dark spots in the middle.

My first reaction was that the thermostat finally wore out.  After taking it off the wall, I got my glasses and took it out to the kitchen to examine it more closely with a better light.  Much to my surprise, those two spots said, “REPL BAT.”  I still was suspicious that the thermostat was bad.  After all I have a ritual of replacing the three AA batteries every January.  I put a piece of tape on the top with the date.  There was the tape and the date.  No problem there.  Rather than get a new thermostat, I decided to take the outside chance that the batteries were in fact the problem.  Much to my relief, I found that one of them had leaked.  So, I replaced them and all returned to normal after resetting all the times and temperatures.

Recently, I have seen a number of articles about Homes of the Future and the use of Smartphones to interface with them.  Everything relies more and more upon computers and electricity.  With all the complicated control circuits, it is logical that there are many more potential points for failure.  Unfortunately for me, if my thermostat does not work, all I can do conveniently is run the blower that forces air through the duct system.  Getting heating or cooling requires figuring out which terminals on the mounting plate behind the thermostat can be used to manually bypass the thermostat.  Not a job for a typical homeowner.

“What is this complicated life of ours doing to us?  What if all these things go bad at once?  Certainly food for thought when hackers can attack networks that control transportation systems, power generation, and virtually everything else that modern societies rely upon including Houses of the Future.  Image if someone incinerates your dinner and your house along with it.  Maybe it is time to get off the grid.   

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08/05/11
Learning’s Defining Moments Leave Lasting Impacts
Filed under: General, Healthcare
Posted by: Tom @ 4:29 pm

I often wonder what led me to do certain things that have proven to be invaluable.  One of them was to take typing in high school; the other was to take my first computer class in college.  At the time, boys seldom took typing, and I was in the last class of Mechanical Engineers to graduate without having to take a computer class.  I can remember hearing the dean emphasize this point in a meeting to discuss schedules for our senior year.  I am not sure whether he was telling us that we were lucky or that we should take one anyway.  All I know is that a good friend from the business school took a computer class and had a terrible time with it.

As a practical, hands-on person, I am a little surprised that I would have done anything that was not required.  I looked upon many required courses in Mechanical Engineering as being too theoretical with too many theorums to prove and not enough practical applications.  With the exception of a machine design class where we designed, built and tested our design, I preferred my business classes and was driven to be an engineer primarily because it seemed the best route to a good job.

After that first class, I found more and more reasons to get involved with computers.  I also found that knowing how to type gave me a distinct advantage.  Since then I have found that many of my peers have been forced into retirement because they lack skills that have become second nature to me.  It is sad to see how a person with an obsolete education is much like a machine that was built with old technology.  Although attempts are made to adapt or refurbish machines to perform like new ones, once they need to be replaced, they are simply thrown on the scrap heap.

Unfortunately, obsolete people with declining health require costly treatment and little to show for it.  Sadly, while machines get melted down and recycled, people at first get paid to do nothing.  Later as they add a growing number of affirmaties, they consume vast amounts of money for medicines, surgeries and constant care.  Hopefully, advancements in medicine will bring increased quality of life and reduce these costs.  However, people need new challenges that keep them mentally alert.  Perhaps, new occupations will be found that require minimal retraining and put them back into leading more normal, interesting, healthy and productive lives. 

I am happy that a series of decisions to stay informed about new innovations has helped to keep me in the game.  Hopefully, this is a lesson to all to keep learning.  

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07/22/11
Smartphones - What to do with one
Filed under: Mobile Solutions & Smartphones
Posted by: Tom @ 5:02 pm

Back in January (2011), I got a letter from AT&T that my cell phone would no longer be supported after May.  Not a concern or priority for me in the beginning, but ultimately, this triggered quite a learning experience.  I will probably report more about my experiences later, but right now, suffice it to say, I delayed action until mid-May.  After all, the service that I already had was meeting my needs and I was thinking of switching to a smartphone.  I was not sure which one and new, better models were coming out regularly.  Ultimately, I replaced my plain vanilla flip phone with a Motorola Atrix Android.  I decided that it would be perfect to use for testing software that I was working on.  It would give me an alternative to phones that others also are using to help me.

Most of them either have a Blackberry or an Apple iPhone.  Some have even upgraded more than once since their first smartphone.  They use them for voice calls, but mostly for texting and email.  They also like to share pictures, listen to music and play games.  In fact, our daughter’s three and five-year-old sons are quite proficient with Angry Birds, Bejeweled and a number of other games on her iPhone.  Some games are recreations of ones that were popular years ago. They were found in arcades or early computer or television games or on special purpose hand-held devices.  In our daughter’s case, when the iPhone is in use or both boys want to play, they have the same games on an iPod Touch.  How times have changed.

My choice of the Atrix was largely influenced by its replaceable battery and memory card and the internal WiFi hotspot that I can use to connect my laptop to the Internet.  Normally I use a cellular datacard with the laptop, but it is always good to have an alternative in case of service problems.

Just like the multitool that I have carried in my pocket for years, smartphones have a lot of interesting features and capabilities in one package.  Little by little I have tried out the GPS navigator, weather forecasts, airline reservations and used the camera and tried out a movie.  Most important, I am gradually puting some inportant information on the phone in PDF format since there is a free copy of Adobe Reader for my Android phone.  My Emergency Medical Card was first, but I plan to add more things.  Before I do, I will decide how best to protect the information in case the phone is lost or stolen.  I already downloaded a program that will scrub information off the phone if it is lost.  I am also looking into applications that use the phone’s camera and facial biometrics to unlock an encrypted partition on the memory card.

The way I look at it, having the capabilities of a smartphone brings peace of mind.

Please stay turned for more of my experiences and report ones that you would like to share.

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07/13/11
What are we being exposed to?
Filed under: Healthcare, Occupational Health and Safety, The Environment
Posted by: Tom @ 2:18 pm

When I wake up in the morning feeling congested, I turn on the Weather Channel.  As the Air Quality Report shows Unhealthy for Certain Groups, I think about growing up in a polluted Pittsburgh where the sun shone as an orange disk through the smog.  Later I saw a power plant in Ohio with a stack so tall that the company bragged that pollutants would never reach the ground.  Years later, I heard a that dust-borne bacteria from the Sahara Desert was killing coral in the Caribbean, and an aunt of mine complained that each time she took a cruise to Alaska there was less and less beautiful ice.  Forty years ago, I even heard about receding ice when I visited a glacier in the Canadian Rockies.  I also remember once when the smell of forest fires in Colorado was noticeable in the Northeast.  A lot has been learned about pollution since then.  Considerable progress has been made.  It is especially noticeable in Pittsburgh, but there is still much to be done in many other parts of the world.

I started my career at a steel mill with smoke and gases spewing everywhere and later spent time in factories all over the country that used dangerous chemicals.  I think about workers who have died from exposure to asbestos and coal dust including those involved in the cleanup of the World Trade Center site in New York after the 9-11-2001 terror attacks.  I remember the controversy about acid rain traveling to New Jersey from Ohio and dust coming to the Caribbean from the Sahara.  Now the talk is about mercury from China raining down on the waters off the coast of the Western United States and tainting wild fish caught in the sea.  Reports show more widespread damage as researchers keep looking for it farther and farther from the sources.  Measures like tall stacks may help to prevent high localized concentrations of pollutants, but cannot keep up with the broad, longterm impacts.

No doubt these poisons are building up in our bodies.  Certainly does not sound pleasant or reassuring, does it?  Especially when no one really knows precisely what concentrations are hazardous to our health!

The question is, “What can we do about it?”  Or, would it be better not to know so much?  One thing is certain.  This is an important subject for Outcome Improvement.  Please watch for more commentary on it.

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