Hitting close to home

Growing up, I loved to read. I remember being obsessed with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. In 6th grade, my class had an assignment to read a book and then deliver a speech in front of the class about what we read. We had 2 minutes for our speech. Mine went 11:30. I was all about it.

These days, I’m more in love with the IDEA of reading. I say to myself all the time that I want to get back into reading. It will help build my vocabulary (something that is very important in journalism), introduce myself to different writing styles, and help me become more knowledgeable about this giant world we live in. My reading still revolves around ESPN.com articles and various sports blogs. I’m working on it.

Why do I mention this? The answer is quite simple. I don’t do well with required reading. The required reading in this case is Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. I knew at the beginning of the semester it was going to be a challenge.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m packing for a trip to New York City. My brother lives up there with his wife, and both my mother and father are going to be up there for Thanksgiving. Given the history between my parents, this is a big deal. The only problem is I won’t be there to enjoy it with them, or so my bro thinks. The three of us have kept my trip to the Big Apple a secret for some time, and I’m planning on telling him about it when I knock on his door. I’m looking over what to bring with me, and I come across the book. Given my lack of reading, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when I say I’ve fallen behind in my Manjoo progress. I decide to take it with me to read on my flight there and back. As it would have it, the powers that be decided I needed to devote more time, so after I missed my flight, I had about 6 hours to kill before my next chance to get up to New York. Guess there’s no better time than now.

Turns out the book is an easy read. I breeze right through it, almost effortlessly. At no time do I feel the assignment is burdensome. I am drawn into the chapter titled “Trusting Your Senses: Selective Perception and 9/11.” Like many people in my generation, 9/11 is a day that is burned into my memory, similar to the way people feel about the Kennedy Assassination and Pearl Harbor. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. My father walked into my room, letting me know he was leaving, saying, “I’m headed to work. By the way, a plane hit the Twin Towers.” Half asleep, I remember thinking ‘that can’t be right.’ I turned on the TV to find out a second plane had hit the other tower, and proceeded to watch as they both collapsed. I felt absolutely helpless, as if my own world was crashing down. I had been in New York three months earlier to visit family. I had the opportunity to visit the towers, but told my mother that I didn’t want her spending the money because we had been before. Looking back, I wish I had decided differently.

Since 2008, I have visited New York several times. My brother was hired out of college to work in the financial district, an opportunity no graduate can refuse. I have made several visits to Ground Zero during those trips. It’s like there is a huge hole in the middle of the island. I can still picture the view I had of the towers on my first trip to New York as a young boy, standing at the base and looking straight up, not able to see the top. Now I see lots of construction, steel masses, and emptiness. During one of those trips I walked along the sidewalk that leads to the Path train, which travels to New Jersey. The Path was located under the towers before they collapsed. There is a man there, screaming at the top of his lungs and handing out brochures. He is telling anyone and everyone that the government was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Since that time, I have never looked into any conspiracy theories about that day. I have never even been interested. When I read this chapter, I am immediately reminded of that day in 2008 when I was walking toward the Path. One of the points the man felt was strong evidence to his conspiracy theory was the collapse of the 7 World Trade Center. This building had collapsed around 5:20pm, nearly seven hours after the towers had gone down. He was convinced there were explosives inside the building that led to its collapse. This building housed New York’s emergency operations center, which was intended to handle disasters such as the 9/11 attacks. He felt strongly that this was the reason it was targeted.

I don’t like to believe that there is some kind of conspiracy behind the attacks. I barely like looking at the images themselves. Reading about Phillip Jayhan’s beliefs and different theories hits me emotionally. It’s a very bad feeling. It’s similar to the feeling I had when I was watching the towers collapse: helplessness. It’s unfortunate that some people will believe what they want, regardless of evidence that shows otherwise, simply disregarding facts that don’t lend credence to their beliefs and tossing them aside with little to no explanation. When you read about Dylan Avery’s documentary Loose Change and why he feels the way he does, some of the information does raise interesting questions. As Manjoo writes: ‘Why don’t we see any aircraft debris at the Pentagon scene? What are those explosive puffs ejecting from the towers? What about the people who claimed to hear explosives at the scene of the World Trade Center?’

But as you read on, the professionals have explanations for these questions. There were images showing debris from an aircraft, as well as an engine assemply at the Pentagon. The building had a great deal of damage, not a single hole as Avery claims. The puffs of air coming from the towers are exactly what you’d expect from an enormous mass of concrete and steel crumbling upon itself. The air is escaping through the windows as it goes down. The supposed explosions witnessed are the sounds you’d expect to hear from a building with the incredible amount of damage and fire that the towers had. But when you mention this to Avery and those of his beliefs, the evidence is tossed aside. Just like the phone calls from the aircrafts. Just like the video of bin Laden claiming responsibility.

I long for the day when the construction at One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) is completed. The day when the memorial waterfalls that sit at the footprint of each tower flow. More information about the site can be found here. To this day, the area is still engulfed in sadness, and it always will be. But once the construction is complete, a new chapter in Lower Manhattan begins. And proof that America will always live on and be strong against all odds will stand 1,776 feet high.

Public Meeting #2

My second meeting brought me to the Lee Davis Community Center on 3402 N. 22nd St.,Tampa, FL 33605. It is just down the street from the residence of the person I am covering for my public profile. It was a meeting for the Health Care Advisory Board.

I walked into the room where the meeting was being held, and I thought I was in the wrong place. All I saw were seats that had signs with the attendees’ names on them. Is this meeting really public? I can’t be sitting with the people in the meeting. I walked out and made sure I was in the right place, which I was assured I was. I found another door and entered that way to see that they had set up a few more tables and seats in the back of the room. Phew. I didn’t want to be in the center of the action.

The meeting was led by Dr. John Curran. He is affiliated with USF. The School of Medicine if I remember correctly. He was fairly monotone throughout the meeting. He tried to keep everyone involved by throwing in a few jokes here and there. It didn’t seemed to work. All I could focus on for the first 10-15 minutes of the meeting was Seth Hoffman, one of the people involved in the meeting, and the fact he was sleeping for most of the beginning. He had your common case of rapid head jerks when he caught his head falling in one direction or another. I was pretty surprised to see it.

For the most part, I had no idea what they were talking about. It was like another language. Maybe it was because it was related to medicine, an area I have little knowledge in. Maybe it was because Mr. Hoffman had captured my attention. Who knows. I just know I was lost.

One point I do remember came from Anthony Escobio. He appeared to be a representative from one of the health care networks, possibly Network A. He was concerned that Network D was retaining its enrollees much better than the other networks. It seemed as though he was worried that there was inequality of resources being distributed among the different networks, with his being one of the networks not receiving as much. One of the ladies involved in the meeting (her name escapes me) mentioned that she felt it had to do with customer service, as she had visited both locations and noticed a difference. They decided to look into the issue further and report back their findings. Dr. Curran mentioned his appreciation for the way Mr. Escobio handled his inquiry, which was in a very diplomatic fashion. I noticed the same thing, and thought he handled himself professionally. That’s probably one reason why they were willing to find out why there was a difference.

The rest of the meeting had details on finances, exceptions to self-suffiency, a bylaws discussion, and a presentation. Again, I was lost. I didn’t pick up much from the rest of the meeting. I left simply appreciating Mr. Escobio’s professionalism and Mr. Hoffman’s need for a nap.

Public Meeting #1

I like the downtown area. Very professional. Lots of nice restaurants. This is usually where I go to watch the Gasparilla Parade. There’s Channelside and the Ice Palace (I’ll never call it the Forum). But why can’t I park for free??? Ugh.

On 11/4, I stroll up to the Frederick B. Karl County Center to attend the meeting for the Board of County Commissioners. It’s a nice building, and just down the street from where I was 5 months to the day for my brother’s wedding. It’s a nice area.

Comm. Mark Sharpe starts the meeting with the pledge. That seems appropriate. Right after that, Comm. Al Higginbotham leads everyone in prayer. I found this a bit odd. I am certainly not against religion, but I thought we were supposed to separate church and state. Small details.

It’s the first meeting after the election. Comms. Ken Hagan and Jim Norman are unable to attend. Comm. Sharpe mentions to everyone that if they have comments about the commissioners during the public segment of the meeting, they must be directed to the board as a whole and not as a personal attack. It’s like he knew what was coming. I’ll get back to this later.

The first part of the meeting was celebratory. They brought up 5 kids, likely in their teens, and presented them with 2010 Fire Rescue Summer Academy certificates. They had the chance to speak with the commissioners, although only one did, and also posed for a photo op with Comm. Sharpe.

After this, Comm. Higginbotham proclaimed 11/13/10 as FAAN Walk for Food Allergy Day. A lady brought up a 4 yr. old black lab named Remi who had been trained to detect peanuts. The son of Remi’s owner was extremely allergic to peanuts, to the point it could be life-threatening. She explained that with the help of Remi, the family was able to enjoy more normalcy in their life. Another photo-op followed.

There were other presentations led by Comms. Kevin Beckner and Rose Ferlita. Comm. Ferlita became a bit emotional when speaking to two women from the Twelve Oaks subdivision. She presented to them keys to the county. It seemed as though they had a long working relationship. Ferlita is leaving the commission and running for mayor of Tampa in 2011.

Now onto the public portion of the program. Surprisingly enough, most of the citizens wanted to talk about one thing: roads in Carrollwood Village. Having driven through the back roads of the Village several times, I was very familiar with the issues.

I remember the days of using those roads to get to my first job at Chuck E. Cheese. The time saved allowed me more time in that special mouse suit. I was pretty hilarious, if I don’t say so myself. Since then, they have made several changes to the roads. One of the changes is installing pylons on Lowell Road. These pylons have become a bit of an eye sore. Most of the times I’ve driven past the area they are either broken or missing. Truth is they are located on a pretty tight turn, so it doesn’t surprise me to see their condition. The citizens of the community want them removed.

The second concern were the number of bumps in the area, particularly on Casey Road. Again, this was another road I frequented. I remember being able to zip through there and saving a lot of time on my commute. Some years later, they installed pretty large bumps in the area to try to stop the speeders. I found alternate routes. Turns out the bumps were not of a high quality and deteriorated rapidly, eventually being removed. The citizens were upset, first off because these bumps were causing damage to their vehicles, and secondly because tax payer money was wasted on the bumps that were removed. One lady actually brought in a video of her drive over the bumps that remained to show how much they caused her vehicle to bounce around, even though she was traveling at a low speed. They also wanted these bumps removed.

Onto the forecast I mentioned before. An older lady came to the podium to address the board. She seemed nice from the start, but she was on a mission. She started off by acknowledging the great work that some, and I stress some, of the commissioners had done over their term. Almost as quickly as she started, she went after the commissioners not present, namely Comm. Hagan. Comm. Sharpe repeatedly told the lady to stay away from personal attacks, but she wasn’t budging. She justified her statements by saying she was merely making observations. At one point, Comm. Ferlita stood up out of her chair and walked toward the other side of the commissioners’ seats, and the lady immediately accused her of not listening or caring what she had to say. It was pretty entertaining. Like I said, she was on a mission!

There were one or two more presenters, and then the meeting was over. I should have thanked the lady for bringing a little spice to my time downtown.

I’m still a good driver

I have visited the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court website several times before. I always went for one purpose… traffic citations. I am one of the lucky ones who hasn’t been able to talk his way out of tickets. It’s happened so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve searched to see if I really can save 15% on my car insurance if I devote 15 minutes of my time to talking to the appropriate people. Other times it’s been necessary for job applications.

According to the traffic citation search, I have been blessed with 16 tickets. I feel like that’s on the low side. I know for a fact the website doesn’t show my first ticket. It lists my first traffic offense as speeding in 2003. I know I had one ticket before that. Most of the tickets are for procedural things: not having my license, proof of insurance, and registration. So don’t you worry, I really am a safe driver.

Now onto my point. I never realized you could use the website for so many other things. Court records. Official records. Board of County Commissioner votes. So on and so on. The website was a big help when looking for info for my public profile. But I wanted to find out more about one of Tampa’s most polarizing sports figures:

Warren Sapp

Why Sapp, you ask? I don’t know, I answer. Maybe it was because I saw him on NFL Network the other day. And while I have expressed reservations to delving into the private lives of citizens by searching through public records, his past is very public, and I won’t be saying anything that hasn’t already been said.

On with the search.

The first record I see is in 1996 for a replevin. There aren’t too many details available. You can check it out here.

In 1997, Sapp was alleged to be in possession of marijuana. The case opened 6/7/97, with the charges ultimately dismissed on 9/11/97. The file was destroyed 4/10/07. Here is the history.

A case comes up involving Sapp and a woman named Angela Sanders, a paternity case filed in 1998. The records show there are updates to the case as recent as 2008. The records can be viewed here. According to a St. Pete Times article published 8/23/03, Sapp pays $2,506 per month in child support for Jaelon Austin Sapp.

There is a case that was opened on 7/21/03. This was for a dissolution of marriage with Jamiko Sapp. It was last updated 2/2/04 and can be found here.

No records were returned when searching traffic citations or official records. But as you can see, there is quite a lot of information available just by simply visiting Pat Frank and friends at hillsclerk.com. I’m going to start keeping this in mind when I step in my motor vehicle and cruise the streets of this great city. I think my name is in the records enough.

Sunshine Law fan… maybe not

I have mentioned before that searching through public records to get to know the people around me better can be fun. I certainly felt that way at the beginning of the semester. As I continue on through this public affairs reporting process, I feel like I’m starting to jump ship. I’m being brought into a world of information that I don’t want to be a part of. More appropriately, I don’t want other people fishing around into my life and into the lives of those I care about.

As of the last post, I found a new perspective on looking up mug shots as a form of entertainment. Maybe it was funny to see the people I knew, and in all likelihood, not a big fan of, during their visit to the Hall of Shame. After seeing the other side, it’s not something I’m comfortable being a part of.

Enter the next step into my transformation. Preston Trigg stops by and brings the class into the world of a Hillsborough County Tax Collector employee. He says a lot, but the part that sticks out for me is the property tax records.

I remember thinking earlier in the semester that looking up those records would be pretty cool. But as I watched Trigg’s PowerPoint, I saw a different side. These property records give a lot of information.

The history of tax payments, including delinquency.

The original purchase amount.

The current value.

The physical address!

I can’t help but think how this would relate to a family member, more specifically, my mother. All you need to pull up these records are the first and last name of the person you are inquiring about. And if that person doesn’t have a common name, that makes it so much easier to find. My mom is employed with an organization that has had plenty of crazy people who have done horrible things at the work place. There is a large amount of employees in this organization. It’s safe to say that nobody gets along with everybody. Everyone has an enemy, or someone they don’t see eye-to-eye with. What happens if one of these people is willing to go as far as hurting someone? All they need to do is visit the property appraiser’s website, and they know where to go.

Not a fan.

It’s great that Florida has the tools to effectively be the watchdog of the community. Finding out the behind-the-scenes info by using the appropriate avenues and asking the right questions. But what happens when these laws are abused? What happens when someone doesn’t have the best of intentions when searching through public record? What happens when someone adds another public record to the masses, say, a mug shot, after they took advantage of the law?

Glamour Shots

Looking at mug shots online has become such a big deal that there are now websites specifically dedicated to just that, i.e. Tampa Bay.com Mug Shots. There you can search a 60-day archive for the arrests of people in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando counties. You can narrow down your search by selecting the age, gender, height, weight, and more of the mug shot you want to see.

I am now one of the lucky ones to have been taken where the magic happens.

Orient Road Jail. 1201 Orient Road, Tampa, FL 33619. While it is good to know where to find records for various inmates, I’d like to make this my last visit.

We start off in a long wide hall. Very quiet and almost zero activity. We’re told to stay on one side of the walkway because the other side is for inmates. It’s very eerie. I’d hate to be walking down this hall at night.

Into the surveillance room. Being a jail, you know every square foot is being watched. There were quite a few eyes checking everything out. This room wasn’t very interesting for me. That changed at our next stop.

Pod 7 Alpha, or 7A… one of the holding cells for some of the newer inmates. The deputies were saying that some people feel that Orient Road is too nice. ‘These are inmates! They have broken the law. Why are we paying for them to live the good life??’ Not so sure that a cell that you are locked in and forced to share with a stranger is the good life. You know the privacy you enjoy when handling business in the bathroom with your favorite reading material? No such luck here. Anyone who happens to peer into your cell gets to see it all. Privacy doesn’t exist here. While it is understood that everyone who is locked down did something to be put in this situation, it is important to understand that those held in jail have yet to be convicted of their charge(s). I remember feeling all the eyes staring at our class as we look over their living quarters. Locked up and kept away from those in the outside world. It has to be such a horrible feeling.

Also, it has to be very tough for deputies who work at the jail. They aren’t allowed to have any weapons. Should a skirmish/fight break out, they certainly wouldn’t want a weapon to fall into the wrong hands. So if they find themselves in the middle of a brawl, they are fighting mano-a-mano. Hopefully the guy in the red corner doesn’t come from the same blood line as Yao Ming. They also have the risk of being ganged up on by a group of the inmates. It doesn’t matter how big you are. If the other guy has numbers, you’re eventually going down.

Then onto booking. We got to see where those interesting photos are taken and posted online. It doesn’t seem so cool when you’re on the inside. We see the newbies grouped together by sex, kept away from us and forced to keep quiet. There are also a few who refuse to behave and are forced in solitary from the start. The “fun” you see online takes on a completely different perspective. That snap shot is someone’s really bad day. Nobody wants to end up in jail. Not only do they have to deal with the legal issues that follow, but they are now the laughing stock of those who visit the previously mentioned websites. It just doesn’t feel right any more. Sure it’s public record, but imagine if a family member made their way to Orient Road and got their free photo shoot. Do you really want everyone to see how photogenic they are?

Access to what?

I have found a new hobby after meeting with Mr. Tim Nickens, and it is courtesy of the Sunshine Laws. Some may call it cyber stalking, but I prefer looking at it as exercising my rights as a citizen of this great state. To get a better understanding of my hobby, I have included the following excerpt from the Florida Statute, Chapter 119.01:

“(1) It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency.”

Basically, I can sit in the comfort of my own home, complete with mismatched PJ’s and a cold brew, and find out why my neighbor’s car looks like it drove through a wall. See why my friend can never leave his house because his property tax bill is still due. Check if my bro’s ex had previous issues with authority and “glamour” shots.

All online.

Who needs an XBOX??? Sure, I enjoy launching a grenade into the corner that my enemy thinks he’s invisible in, only to be blown 40 feet in the air three seconds later while playing Halo (brings quite a bit of satisfaction). Picturing myself as Slash while I rock out to the Guns ‘N’ Roses song of my choice and achieving monumental scores in Guitar Hero. Watching the look on my brother’s face after I toss a 60-yard bomb with the flick of a wrist and crush his hopes of finally beating me in Madden.

But this stuff is real!

I’d be lying if I said I never found myself sitting at the computer with friends looking at mug shots for the people we know, laughing when we scored a record and     oogled at the number of arrests and crazy bond amounts, but who hasn’t?

But now I have soooooo much more. Goodbye anonymity. Hello entertainment. Thanks Tim. I have found more free fun.

Don’t underestimate the press

It’s amazing how much politicians and their supporters try to get away with, especially considering how easy it is to get a hold of their public documents. Mark Jimenez of Future Tech Inc. thought he could work around contribution restrictions in 1995-96. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated the hard work and determination of the Tampa Tribune’s political reporter, William “Windy” March.

Jimenez was a huge supporter of Bill Clinton during his reelection campaign of 1996. He contributed the maximum amount allowable my law to the Clinton campaign. However, Jimenez wanted to do more. His eagerness caught the eye of March’s partner when an unusual amount of contributions were given from Jimenez’s company, Future Tech of Miami.

One of the websites used to research these contributions was Congressional Quarterly MoneyLine. This site is used for checking federal records and includes such data as who contributed to what campaign during specific periods of time. People giving contributions are required to give the name of their employer. Performing a search of those associated with Future Tech in 1995-96 shows a total of 32 contributions, as you can see by following this link.

Taking a closer look, you will notice that 22 of those contributions came on 9/13/95, which happened to be a fundraiser attended by several employees in Bal Harbour. Seeing this odd activity, March drove down to Miami, visited the office of the supervisor of elections, and found information about these contributors that would justify the extra attention given to the company. Many of these contributors had never contributed before. Many had never voted or were even registered to vote. Some were registered Republicans! Why would they randomly decide to support Clinton out of the blue?

Turns out Windy was on to something. After investigations performed by congressional committees, it was found that Jimenez had funneled money through his employees to be able to provide more to the Clinton campaign. Although some of the work can be considered tedious, Windy’s search of the public records uncovered illegal political activities. Jimenez served a prison term and was forced out of the country.

You would hope that people would learn to not engage in illegal political activity. Unfortunately, that will never happen.

Meet the PAR Life Saver

With so much available in the world of public records, it can get pretty overwhelming. So many websites available to be your own personal investigative reporter… or maybe just a nosy neighbor. I don’t spend any substantial amount of time looking into the lives of public figures, friends, co-workers, etc. Being in this class has forced me to make it a hobby, if at least for a semester. But I just don’t know where to start!! Where do I go to find some clarity???

Cheryl McCoy has the answer.

Seeing as how I spend most of my schooling time in the CIS building, Cheryl’s realm of discovery is just a short walk away. The library holds the key to a good grade in public affairs reporting, and I am determined to find it. Here is that website: http://guides.lib.usf.edu/publicrecords. JOU 4181 – Public Affairs Reporting: a guide for locating public information in Florida. I like to think of it as my PAR savior.

Had this trip been at the beginning of the semester as it had in years past, I would be absolutely lost and not be able to take advantage of such an incredible tool. Thankfully, it has been saved for a later time so that I have an understanding of the public records world and the information it can provide. I still feel a bit overwhelmed with the plethora of information available, but it’s a good overwhelmed.

One of the greatest tools I found and use on the website is located under the Newspapers tab. Under Open Access, you find a link to the St. Petersburg Times Archive, dating back over 100 years with the help of Google News. Every now and then I find myself looking through the archive at sports news from the past, such as the times of John McKay in the beginning of the Bucs franchise. He was known for giving a funny quote or two in his day.

More appropriately, I have used the archive to search for articles for my public profile, and lucky for me, I have found plenty, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. That Hillsborough County A-Z Index is going to work wonders as well. Thanks Cheryl. You’re a life saver.

Steve Andrews… more than Erin Andrews padre.

I have never been truly interested in becoming a reporter as a profession. Well, maybe that’s not 100% true. If the opportunity to be a sports reporter came along, I’d jump on it in a heartbeat. As far as television news broadcasts go, sports news is a small piece of a large pie.

Throughout my time at USF, the professors and advisers have made it a point to tell all the students that our first job will be in the middle of nowhere. Get ready to do a lot for a little. That is the job that I have no desire to take part in. News, politics, and public affairs have never been my cup of tea.

In comes Steve Andrews, head investigative reporter at News Channel 8. Given the fact I rarely watch the news, I am not too familiar with him, other than the fact I know he is a reporter and the father of Erin Andrews. With Gil talking him up the whole semester, I have been looking forward to this trip.

While I won’t say I’ve had an epiphany and am looking to change my life’s goals, I have opened up a bit to the possibly of investigative reporting since meeting with Steve. He is truly a watchdog for the Tampa Bay area. Investigative reporting allows much more than the usual stories we see every night on the news: murder, robbery, grand theft auto, etc. Sometimes it seems like it’s just a report from Orient Road. Even though there is an immense amount of time and work put into these stories, it allows a reporter to use all of their talents and resources to inform the community.

When watching the stories Steve put together, it is incredible to see how much information came from public records. As I’ve said before, I have never taken interest in public affairs, but the various field trips and guest speakers have opened my eyes to the enormous amount of records available for all to see.

I remember the story of the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance a few years back. At the time, the fact that stuck with me was how much money was being wasted by the department, not so much who was reporting the facts. Listening to Steve tell us how the story came together, how it almost fell apart, and how he used public records to nail down the story was a treat. Here is a link to the story. It is great to know that there are reporters out there still working for the people, ensuring that tax dollars are being spent appropriately and responsibly, and seeking answers when it appears otherwise.

Even though I would still rather do what Erin is doing to make a living, I wouldn’t be disappointed if a career working with her father was in the cards.

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