back to article From landslide to buried alive: Why 2017 election forecasts weren't wrong

In the aftermath of almost every recent election, two types of story get written based on the outcome. One is how the polls "got it wrong", how the forecast – surprise! – failed to match the actual result. The other, usually written by someone with at least basic statistical skills, explains why the polls mostly didn't "get it …

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The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

... or a variation on the theme, has been around since at least 1891. Most members of the public have heard it. Most probably think they understand it.

Unfortunately, most can't apply it to reality.

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Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

Better yet, sum up the article thusly: "All politics is local".

The national polling in the US turned out to be almost exactly on the mark - but we don't elect a president by national popular vote. In the UK that's taken as given, but if you apply a uniform formula everywhere equally you won't account for localized phenomena like the DUP or Labour's results in Wales.

The problem is that it is a lot harder to poll per state in the US or per seat in the UK - the number of contacts you need to make is far higher, and you won't get enough to get the error margin down as low as in your national polls. When you have states with a 4%+ margin of error and a 2% lead for one candidate, that state is basically a tossup but journalists who don't understand statistics won't write it that way.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

Yet the exit poll got it almost exactly correct which shows that polls can be done correctly.

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Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

The exit poll showed what someone who had voted (as opposed to deciding not to bother), had actually voted, after they did it (no possibility of changing their minds).

No wonder they got it right..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

Complex systems can appear to be simple for periods giving nice correlations with simple mathematical functions such as Jupiter's spot however if you have to keep changing your paradigm then it was never true and the imagined predictability never extended beyond the head of the statistician.

Statistics as a subject ignores the real relationships and attempts to lever the simple relationships which everyone knows are stochastic. Whilst they keep getting paid they will continue to make stochastic predictions that turn out false and true to everyone's surprise.

For me it has always been a shame that so much talent is still being wasted in what is little better than alchemy, until they can make a single paradigm that is always true then it is just shamenism

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

> the exit poll got it almost exactly correct which shows that polls can be done correctly.

No it doesn't. It just shows that their results were close to the actual vote, something that can happen purely by chance.

As the article argues, the issue is not polls being done incorrectly, it is them being misused, misinterpreted, or just plain not understood.

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Boffin

@DougS Re: The phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" ...

Sorry but there's a bit more to this...

You can take a larger sample size, but you would still be off.

The issue when polling Trump supporters is that those who are true supporters will openly express an opinion in favor of him. Of those who ultimately voted for him were the undecided and those who didn't want to be outed as Trump supporters. And then there are people who tell the pollsters to F-Off!

That's the real issue. You are assuming that you're getting a random sample, when you are not. Did the polls take in consideration that most people who responded to the poll tended to be Democrats?

As to the popular vote... doesn't matter. Polls are done at the local level.

If you look at the map, Trump won most of the country. The map county by county showed Red.

Bottom line, Clinton ran a bad campaign. And she's a crook and criminal.

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Stories

The media and people want a story, the polls give them that. What am I responding to? Q.E.D.

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So when will the politicians learn?

Which really just shows that it's time the politicians stopped making policy based on polls, and tried actually promoting what they believe is the right thing to do. It will make them leaders, not followers, which is much harder work since it requires principles and the ability to defend them, but it would be a far healthier system. It is one reason that so many people voted for Corbyn, whom they like despite his ludicrous economic policies, and against May, who is widely detested even by people who support the Tories.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

and now everyone is twisting the result to fit their personal narrative - whether it's about Brexit/Austerity/Socialism etc etc

May moved left (energy price cap FFS) to capture some of the middle. In the end, she just validated some of Corbyn's positions.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

and tried actually promoting what they believe is the right thing to do

A politician thinks of one thing only. Their next election . (possibly their sub-processes include troughing at the public purse , fiddling their expenses , lining up corporate boards to sit on)

The chance of them doing "the right thing" are pretty slim, especially if it will make them unpopular.

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Facepalm

Re: (energy price cap FFS)

on that subject (energy price cap FFS) Who do these politicians think they are? energy is a real world , finite resource that there isnt enough of . Putting a fixed value on it is akin to trying to change the time the sun comes up , or the value of Pi , or , classically, stopping the tide coming in.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

May's manifesto was grim, it had to be because she expected to win and would have to stand by what was in it.

But Labour, knowing they had no chance of winning could fill their manifesto with vote-bribes and vote-bait without having to worry about fulfilling them.

This Labour strategy worked as it damaged the tory majority, but it was extremely unethical.

A great play though, presumably by Corbyn's advisers as I am pretty sure he doesn't have the smarts to come up with it himself.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

He has had enough smarts (/) to fight the PLP and get elected twice, whilst being the whipping dog of a media that has no morals or ethics. FUD has unfortunately become the norm.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"This Labour strategy worked as it damaged the tory majority, but it was extremely unethical."

As opposed to the "strong and stable" strategy that tried to cast the Labour leadership as terrorist sympathisers, both current and historic.

"But Labour, knowing they had no chance of winning could fill their manifesto with vote-bribes and vote-bait without having to worry about fulfilling them."

The "economically competent" Tory horse bolted that stable quite a while ago.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Chill, I'm not arguing for the tories, just pointing out how things played out. The Labour manifesto was clearly a massive vote-bait and there was no way they would be fulfilled. But that didn't matter because they knew they wouldn't need to.

And I don't think tories had "Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser" in their manifesto - that tended to be a pro-conservative media thing.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Policies that were fully costed and backed by a lot of economists unlike the Tories insane austerity agenda.

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Unhappy

"May's manifesto was grim, "

It was also completely uncosted.

Which she though was not a problem as "They will vote for me and the Grey vote is naturally Conservative. "

Successive govts have been generous to pensioners. Historically they were not well paid. Now that has changed a lot.

Community care is a problem for all governments and those of the UK have kept on ignoring it for decades. Who pays and how much are very difficult questions and it needs cross party support to avoid stop/go polices.

The elderly tend to need multiple medial specialists and social services support. Better communication between all of these would be a start but we're talking serious money.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

He has had enough smarts (/) to fight the PLP and get elected twice, whilst being the whipping dog of a media that has no morals or ethics. FUD has unfortunately become the norm.

He doesn't need smarts to fight the PLP, he just needs smart people behind him.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Policies that were fully costed and backed by a lot of economists unlike

LOL.

Economists with a fine track record.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Cannot upvote this point enough. I am trying to promote the same point.

Politician that triangulate peoples opinions and polls are not leaders, but, almost per definition, followers. They like to call themselves leaders but they are followers, and even worse, followers of the lowest common denominator out there.

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Machiavelli

Machiavelli said there where 3 types of rulers:-

The first had the smarts to rule on their own, these where excellent but rare;

The second had the smarts to listen to their advisers and to be able to pick the best advice from the conflicting advice. These where good and common.

The third couldn't rule on there own and couldn't decide which advice was the best. These where bad and didn't last long.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader which category May and Crobin each reside in.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"Politician that triangulate peoples opinions and polls are not leaders, but, almost per definition, followers."

To some extent I can sympathise with this. However the last several years should have taught us one thing: politicians of all parties - here and in the US - got completely out of touch with what the electorate was thinking. You can't lead if you take peoples' willingness to follow for granted. Leadership needs more than sound-bites.

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Happy

Re: (energy price cap FFS)

on that subject (energy price cap FFS) Who do these politicians think they are? energy is a real world , finite resource that there isnt enough of . Putting a fixed value on it is akin to trying to change the time the sun comes up , or the value of Pi , or , classically, stopping the tide coming in.

Energy is a near-infinite resource whose availability is controlled by cost. If there was a market for electricity at £5 a unit, you could be sure that every green space in the country would sprout a solar panel, every industrial estate a power station and even hamsters would be turning little generators. There aren't enough suppliers in the market for proper competition, so there is a considerable amount of price gouging and screwing the customer, which is why Government intervention is needed. Markets can be powerfully influenced by Government policy - look at train tickets, heroin, and mobile phones for obvious examples.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn? @werdsmith

You open your comment by suggesting a politician would "have to" stand by their manifesto, and yet somehow expect to be taken seriously? I don't think politics is your strong suit, friend.

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Boffin

Re: Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli said of the secretaries of princes, Il Principe (Florence, 1513), Cap. XXI.

E perché sono di tre generazione cervelli, l'uno intende da sé, l'altro discerne quello che altri intende, el terzo non intende né sé né altri, quel primo è eccellentissimo, el secondo eccellente, el terzo inutile.

There are three different kinds of brains, the one understands things unassisted, the other understands things when shown by others, the third understands neither alone nor with the explanations of others. The first kind is most excellent , the second is also excellent, but the third is useless.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn? @werdsmith

You open your comment by suggesting a politician would "have to" stand by their manifesto, and yet somehow expect to be taken seriously? I don't think politics is your strong suit, friend.

I can see you also have weak suits.

This was not my first general election and I am aware of what happens to manifestos. I also recall the flak that the parties have to take when they go back on manifesto promises.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"This Labour strategy worked as it damaged the tory majority, but it was extremely unethical."

I can see that this is the first time you have ever paid attention to a UK General Election.

Making unsustainable policies before elections is what Oppositions do. They know the Government will break its promises if re-elected, so there's no point in doing anything else.

The only rule is never upset people with long memories, which is what did for Clegg (and will do for anyone in the DUP who tries to modernise the party).

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Headmaster

Re: (energy price cap FFS)

"classically, stopping the tide coming in"

Can we, once and for all, leave old Canute alone: he was trying to point up the absurdity of his sycophantic courtiers,

He was well aware that he couldn't control the sea.

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Megaphone

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

We have had twenty-five, maybe thirty years of spin-based politics, where marketing crept into election campaigns and became a driving force. But in that period marketing crept into everything else as well and now we have a generation who grew up being marketed at so hard and so constantly by everyone that it is just noise to them. The smart political move now is to have clear convictions that you are willing to stick to and argue for, to be the person you claim to be and to step away from the tired marketing and spin-doctor tropes that have lead our electoral narratives for so long.

It feels like a breath of fresh air to have some actual politics back in our politics, instead of just buffed surfaces and used-car-salesman slickery.

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Indeed AC............

..................."As opposed to the "strong and stable" strategy that tried to cast the Labour leadership as terrorist sympathisers, both current and historic."

Then after fucking up in this election big time they are now trying to get into bed with the political wing of the banned UDA and UVF in order to preserve some kind of majority. Their hypocrisy in attacking Corbyn for talking to Sinn Fein about a peaceful way forward a couple of decades or more ago when he was followed thereafter by John Major and then Tony Blair (respect to them both in this particular context regardless of my political disagreements with both of them in other areas) is nauseating. The Tories are putting at risk the entire peace process in NI just to preserve their nasty political arses.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

>A politician thinks of one thing only.

I think you'll find that they think about an awful lot of things. But most of them mean nothing, if not elected.

Very few of them are 'troughing at the public purse'. Mostly, they're just trying to get enough spondulicks to run a campaign - to get elected (which is where we came in).

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"May moved left (energy price cap FFS) to capture some of the middle. In the end, she just validated some of Corbyn's positions."

Indeed, but bear in mind that she started off in her first speech by very firmly parking tanks on Labour's lawn in terms of spoken policy - which had people hoping that the conservatives might have actually seen the error of their ways, but then U-turned on that and went full blown "nasty party" within weeks.

When that was shown to be unhelpful, she may have moved left again (and Corbyn's policies aren't that extreme - the conservatives used many of them 60 years ago), but having rattled her core "grey" voters with the level of proposed nastiness(*), I'm pretty sure that all subsequent U-turns were taken with a large dose of salt by them and middle-ground electoral slugs, especially when the Conservatives were selling uncosted policies which would drive 80-90% of the population into poverty whilst decrying Labour's relatively well costed out plans as unworkable - and responding to anyone in the media pointing it out by simply attempting to shout them down.

(*) I'm fully and painfully aware that pensions policy over the last 50 years has been a £100 trillion ponzi scam(**) and that my retirement age will be 75 if I'm lucky, but I was aware of that back in the early 1980s and have been expecting it since I was 18 - most Boomers and early GenXers simply believed what they were told instead of crunching numbers on birthrates.

That said, the level of cutbacks on elderly healthcare and proposed effective financial penalties rank pretty high on the Grinch scale. GenX and GenY are likely to suffer retirement of 75 or beyond (if they can actually afford to retire). Millenials may see it reduce again, but it's unlikely to ever go below 70, or be compulsary (which was done to ensure Boomers had guaranteed jobs to walk into. The window on that was closed even before GenX entered the workforce)

(**) right across USA/UK/AU/NZ and many other "developed countries" - where the population was encouraged to spend more and save less. The oncoming trainwreck was forseeable from the mid-late 1970s and makes Bernie Madoff's antics look like child's play. Boomer grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to be served with a very large bill and there's a risk they may choose not to pay it.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"Making unsustainable policies before elections is what Oppositions do."

And what sitting governments do is to start tossing sweeties to the marginal electorates about a year before the planned election, knowing most voters have short memories about shitfests that happened longer ago than that.

The Conservatives didn't get a chance to actually start throwing things around in the electoral lolly scramble, which didn't help them.

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@ Arctic fox

"some kind of majority" ... "just to preserve their nasty political arses"

What alternative is there when the Tories have more seats than all potential opposition parties combined?

I don't see how this situation can be described as "not a majority government" yet an individual MP can win their seat by one vote and not have to power share. It looks to me like the Tories have a clear majority despite alienating their core voters, while Labour pulled out all the stops with false promises designed to lure young / inexperienced voters.

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Unhappy

"t looks to me like the Tories have a clear majority "

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons.

If your party holds 326 of them you have an absolute (but wafer thin) majority, provided none of your MPs are Speaker or Deputy Speaker (who by convention abstain from votes).

Anything less is a minority.

The Conservatives hold 317 seats.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Indeed AC............

with the political wing of the banned UDA and UVF

The political wing of the UVF is the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party), and that of the UDA is the UDP (Ulster Democratic Party), though I doubt if either is very progressive or democratic. The DUP may be a bunch of unpleasant fundamentalist bigots (although somewhat less so since the demise of Paisley senior) but they can't really be described as a "wing" of any of the current paramilitary groups.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn? @werdsmith

The whole point of this election was that May was seeking to dump manifesto promises and return to power with a mandate unconstrained by promises not to increase tax and NI, and with policies like cutting pensions, taking winter fuel allowances, bus passes and the like from pensioners, and taking ownership of people's homes away (and their heirs' inheritance) as a punishment for needing home care.

Mean, nasty and economically illiterate policies driven by dogma.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

>And I don't think tories had "Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser" in their manifesto - that tended to be a pro-conservative media thing.

Rather like 'Strong and Stable' and 'Magic Money Tree' it was used by every minister whenever security came up. Be interesting to see if they stick with Sir Lynton's 'broken record technique' and empty manifesto in the next election - which can't be long off.

Originally it was Cameron @ 1922 Committee when he was pressuring his back-benchers to vote to bomb Syria/Daesh in 2015..

"You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers,"

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Re: (energy price cap FFS)

The price of energy is artificially high because all parties (except Ukip) are committed to Ed Miliband's Climate Change Act and the fixation on renewables. This is not "real world" economics.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"A politician thinks of one thing only. Their next election."

I guess Jeremy Corbyn is not a politician, then.

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Re: So when will the politicians learn?

@ whileI'mhere

"I guess Jeremy Corbyn is not a politician, then."

The same Corbyn who would never push the nuclear button and is totally against Trident. Right up until the unions complained. Then he wanted to build the subs but not load them with nukes.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Oh, Corbyn is definitely a politician. Manifesto says X, voters put him in. He does Y. Then there's a referendum: campaigns on A (very quietly, admittedly), voters in his constituency say A is what they want, and say so with a significant majority. He does B, and orders other MPs to follow B as well, even if that means totally ignoring their constituents' wishes too.

Don't ever doubt that he is a politician.

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Re: (energy price cap FFS)

I distinctly remember a leading politician, possibly a cabinet minister at the time, saying "the truth is what I say it is".

That was in a TV program discussing their philosophy of life, not an election campaign.

Since then, I have discovered that a significant percentage of the UK population believes that you can make something become true by pretending it is, or that something is automatically true if someone older than you says it is (even more widely believed in the Middle East, I suspect).

In both cases, their definition of "true" does not require the "truth" to persist for more than a few minutes.

If you support these ideas of "true" you can easily support the idea that the price of fuel can be set by authoritarians with guns - this has been tried under various regimes around the world with the predictable consequences - price of fuel drops in the short term, but in the longer term it si the availability that drops.

However, there is always the get out clause that "it was the Imperialists/communists wot done it".

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Re:well aware that he couldn't control the sea.

Which demonstrates that the art of taking your opponents words and twisting them to mean something quite the opposite to what was intended is probably as old as politics. Nothing new about fake news...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

"Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser"

Even if that was merely a media trope, it's backfired spectacularly on the party of government. Especially as it referred to Northern Ireland... and now the Prime Minister is in bed with the DUP...

You really couldn't make this up. Antony Jay, your imagination needs a reboot.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So when will the politicians learn?

Concur.

That said, actually in AU they substantially fixed the pension Ponzi scheme decades ago. And doubled down by refusing to deregulate the banks. Resulting in the undoubted fact that not even the dodgiest of the Australian banks - and some of them make the worst US and UK banks look like pillars of rectitude - came close to collapse in the GFC.

While successive Australian governments of all parties deserve almost zero credit for anything good in the world, I have to give them credit for those two achievements.

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Re: (energy price cap FFS)

The climate change act is good - and not because of sea level changes; there are nastier bogeys waiting if we don't slash our carbon emissions. (See: 'anoxic oceanic event', 'leptav sea methane emissions' and 'storegga slides', then work out what the impact of 1-5GT of methane bubbling off the siberian continental shelf might be)

Fixation on renewables is double unplus good. Even with the country carpetted in windmills and solar panels there isn't enough electricity production available to replace all carbon-emitting processes, by a factor of 6-8. Yes you could just replace all carbon-emitting power generation but factoring in transportation, heating and industrial processes makes "just replacing current generation" woefully insufficient.

The amount of money being ploughed into renewables in _this_ country alone could pay for at least a dozen nuclear power plants which would produce far more reliable power (we need about 60-70 of them) for a far lower environmental impact than renewables.

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Anonymous Coward

"despite his ludicrous economic policies"

... as opposed to the "cut your way to growth" policies that have been so successful in reducing the national debt and promoting economic growth? Such austerity policies have also worked remarkably well for big orgs like IBM ... in that the people at the very top get vastly richer whilst those at the bottom suffer, and the organization as a whole goes in the general direction of the drain.

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