Forty Years After the Vietnam War: From the Extreme Orient to a Modern Metropolis

7 June 2014, Saigon, Vietnam

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“… The fresh, young coconut juice at Nha Hang Ngon restaurant in a restored French colonial villa – was the perfect elixir on this humid summer evening in Saigon.

For a moment, it felt like le “Extreme Orient” – though the country of my birth is quite familiar in flavor and ambiance. MDN”

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30 April 2015, Los Angeles, California

Forty years ago today, as the government of South Vietnam fell and the streets of Saigon erupted in panic upon the end of a war — which lasted two decades after the country was divided after the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the ensuing American involvement until 1975 — my mother and I boarded a U.S. military transport plane leaving the place of our birth in Vietnam. My father left shortly afterwards, and we were fortunate to reunite in the United States, which welcomed us as political refugees. We embraced our new homeland… not knowing when we would return.

“Our paths crossed on this day. Your uncle Ky (RIP) flew my family out of VN. I remember it like it was yesterday.” my friend Long said of my uncle Ky upon his recent passing in Seattle. He was a pilot who flew my father and other evacuees out of Vietnam.   My uncle left behind quite a legacy with six children, most of whom have children of their own.

Twenty years later, I returned to visit my relatives as the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations in 1995. Coincidentally, my supervisor while I was an intern at the State Department in Washington DC became the first Chargés d’affaires and opened up the U.S. representative office which later became the American Embassy in Hanoi.  Over the past two decades, I have been back to Asia and Vietnam on numerous trips for work, study and personal time.

I have been eager to explore my heritage in the “Extreme Orient” – as well as the refined “Old World” in Europe and more exotic corners of the globe from Rio to Riyadh.  These journeys have allowed me to study foreign cultures, conduct cross-border business, and maintain lifelong friendships from my time living abroad in Geneva and Singapore.  On a flight back from Stockholm to Los Angeles this week, Sweden was the 35th country I have visited over the past two decades.

As a toddler whose family left with nothing but a suitcase and determination… each time we journey forth or back to our roots, we have maintained a strong sense of appreciation for every opportunity.   My relatives and I have been privileged to realize the American dream. Our lives have by no means been perfect… careers flourished and floundered, relationships brought happiness and pain, while expectations were raised and unfulfilled. But, American society is both fair and forgiving, allowing one to settle and resettle, succeed and fail, innovate and reinvent.

Looking ahead, the upcoming decades will continue to take me to lands both familiar and distant.  Whether returning to the once-again bustling streets of Saigon, now transforming into a modern metropolis known as Ho Chi Minh City… it is with a renewed perspective on the chaos of the past, gratitude and awareness of the present, and much hope for a promising future ahead.

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A Good Fortune in New Orleans and 2014 Year-End Greetings

French Quarter, New Orleans, 19 November 2014

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“… Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance — except for love.  That will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!”  Gina the Gypsy told me as she closed my palms, after a brief reading in Jackson Square.

I’ve traveled here several times before — with a love, to witness marriage in this historic square — and on the verge of a new career at a crossroads. 

Now, here on behalf of a new job — I’m starting to regain my footing again.”

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December 26, 2014, Southern California

In 2008 on my previous trip to New Orleans, I met with a potential employer from Switzerland which would have kept me in a global career – but instead, pursued a passion and started working for myself the following year.  A global financial crisis hit, and I managed to survive out West, barely, in support of creative artists.

Just as I was about to catch a flight back to L.A., I walked passed Gina in Jackson Square, who casually insisted that I could benefit from a quick reading at a reasonable price:

“Your family is overcoming cancer, and some other ailments that will pass. And you, you have a strong aura. Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance…” she explained.  That sums up the year.

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Paris Dinner 2014February began with a trip to Tokyo en route to an MBA session in India.  In April, I returned to Geneva and Paris which brought back fond memories while en route to a conference in Hamburg. The studies continued in Singapore in May, followed by a visit to Vietnam for a conference and to visit family and friends, and a layover in Hawaii.  It was nice to reconnect with distant and longtime friends, after recent years of being more grounded in L.A.

The studies concluded at the end of summer with my graduation from the UCLA Anderson-National University of Singapore global executive MBA program (“GEMBA”). My event organization skills came in handy as I was recruited to help with the GEMBA program’s 10th anniversary celebration, and also was elected class president and party planner in chief by my peers.

Anderson Graduation 2014Fortunately, my family and father in particular were able to attend the graduation. He had been fighting pancreatic cancer since last year, and was strong enough to overcome a serious surgical procedure and chemotherapy treatments.

In recent months, I returned to the corporate world in a marketing role supporting a global sourcing company. The new role drew from my creative network as I helped re-brand the company with American Idol finalist Pia Toscano and the talented Jared Lee. Meanwhile, I continued to support brand partners and causes at an annual Grammy week event, during the SXSW festival and in a summer music series at Whole Foods Market locations to benefit the Whole Planet Foundation.

GEMBA Celebration Pia Jared

The year ended with a celebration involving my MBA alumni friends, creative artists and brand partners. Corporate types mingled with musical composers, in a spectacular private home and studio in Malibu on a perfect December day.

Studio Malibu Holiday 2014Being an entrepreneur, then returning to school taught me one thing: how to throw good parties!  On a more serious note, it allowed me to connect the dots by leveraging networks and opportunities in ways that made sense and offered value to those involved. Memorable experiences can be precious products.

“You are now in a good place… Love will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!” Gina said as she finished our brief but surprisingly prescient session, then collected $20.

In what seemed like years of being lost at sea, followed by steadfast determination to right the ship… I feel I am on the right path. 2014 was a good year. The years ahead should be even better with a more sturdy vessel, newfound navigation skills and a stronger sense of direction – to realize personal and professional goals.  In any event and notwithstanding the detours, the journey looks more promising than ever.

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Second Chances and a “New Age” in Singapore and L.A.

1 June 2014, Singapore

MarkBlog-SporeFront-June2014“… ‘Welcome to the new age’!  the familiar chorus from Imagine Dragon’s global hit “Radioactive” reverberated through the atrium at the NUS Business School.

Earlier this year, the band joined me at CES to see Fleetwood Mac in Vegas — and a year ago, I entered this building to embark on an educational journey with familiar institutions NUS and UCLA, and destinations along the way — Shanghai in November, India in February — and this summer, the conclusion of the academic adventure in Los Angeles.

Today, as I prepare to depart Singapore, I am a bit wiser, more optimistic and ready for the dawning of a ‘new age’… MDN”

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August 23, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“Congratulations! Look forward to what more you will do for the program,” Dean Judy Olian said as I accepted my second degree from UCLA, an MBA from the Anderson School of Management, after having received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1994.

Anderson-Graduation-Smaller Like twenty summers ago, my parents and brother returned to the campus to witness the ceremony, thankfully.  A year prior, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a major surgery known as a Whipple procedure in January and was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Life sometimes gives you a second chance,” he said, both in self reflection and as a proud parent.  For him, each new day is hampered by uncertainty… though filled with a stronger awareness of the present.

UCLA-Family-Graduation2014The hope and irony of the moment struck me.  Two decades of promise had passed with much ebb and flow, peaks and valleys, marked by cross-cultural studies as a Fulbright fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS), to a global trade career in Washington D.C. and Geneva, followed by a return to L.A. to pursue creative expression and entrepreneurship.

Then, coincidentally, back full circle at UCLA and NUS again, where I had to start over and retrace my steps in order to find a path forward.  Once again, I became a starving student strapped with huge loans… but more optimistic and humble than ever.

Notably, this year marked the tenth anniversary of the partnership between the two renowned business schools.  What started as a sensible concept of facilitating business education between East and West, led to an established reputation and global rankings of #3 by The Economist and #4 by the Financial Times in 2014.  Of course, we had to celebrate the program’s progress, and since I was known in the class as a professional “party planner” (as a result of all the Planet LA Records showcases), I became highly involved with the commemorative events.

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.com

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.comSomehow, it made sense to align an MBA anniversary celebration with talented musical performers and corporate sponsors including from my new employer, and in historic settings in Southern California.  It was gratifying to help create these memorable experiences, which sure required a lot of education and risky business ventures to master the art of party planning (lol).

At the graduation, my classmates chose me to present one of the teaching awards to Professor Prem Shamdasani, our most entertaining marketing professor who guided us on concepts about branding and customer loyalty, and with much humor and passion.

“Before I begin, I wanted to thank my classmates for the undemocratic election,” I said jokingly before presenting the award to Dr. Prem.  This was due to my selection as the class president, which happened while I was away on an urgent business trip during our final intensive session in August.

Joking aside, it is an honor to represent the class on the UCLA Anderson alumni board and continue to build the academic brand, while helping to sustain the camaraderie of our group… and yes, probably more reunion parties to plan!

On a personal level, the past two years have been an amazing opportunity to gain more practical career skills, and to offer greater emotional value in every moment… given this precious, second chance at learning and life.

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From Bollywood Premieres to Hollywood Releases

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14 February 2014, Mumbai, India

“We had our wedding reception here,” Bappa mentioned as he and his driver picked me up in a bright red Audi from this hotel (ITC Maratha Mumbai).

As we drove past the airport, there was a huge billboard announcing the release of the Bollywood film “Gunday.”

“Dad has a super hit in this mega film by producer Aaditya Chopra,” Bappa explained.

The name of this Indian movie icon didn’t register, but should have since I represent Bappi Lahiri — India’s “Disco King!”  So unfamiliar, yet somehow makes sense like this overwhelming country! … MDN

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August 16, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“I am so happy to release my latest album ‘Bappi Lounge’ today,” Bappi Lahiri announced as I stood next to him at Yamashiro in the Hollywood Hills, known for its majestic views of Tinseltown and the urban sprawl of L.A.

BappiLounge-FrontIt was the fifth album we have released together in less than four years since my label Planet LA Records has represented the prolific artist “Bappi-da” as he is affectionately known by millions of South Asian fans.  The first release “World, Peace, Love and Harmony” on September 29, 2010 was almost a fluke as I knew practically nothing about Bollywood.  My business partner and I were reluctant to take on such a daunting task, but we did it anyways.

“You are like my brother… I have so much music to share.  Someday I will get nominated,” Bappi has insisted, while I assisted him with Grammy consideration for each new release.  Every year since 2010, Bappi has returned to L.A. with his latest collection of contemporary and traditional songs, cross-over genres and unusual collaborations with American jazz greats, notorious rappers, Middle Eastern pop stars and Indian gospel singers, to name a few.

This time around, he came with his family including his son and producer Bappa Lahiri — who I met for the first time in February of this year in Mumbai, during a trip to India as part of my global studies with UCLA.  Bappa cued up the tunes as his father performed two new songs “Mystery” and “East Meets West” from the electronica-infused album.  The mellow lounge tunes held sway over the courtyard, keeping the conversation hushed.

BappiRelease-pic2“Now, I am going to sing my super hits,” he told the crowd, which was an eclectic mix of Grammy staff, a former member of The Supremes, Bollywood fans and my classmates and alumni from the UCLA Anderson-NUS global executive MBA (“GEMBAs”) who were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Asia-Pacific program.

“Oh La La… Oh La La!” Bappi belted out.  The song’s fast tempo and catchy chorus quickly changed and uplifted the mood.  The song was a huge single off the popular Bollywood film “The Dirty Picture” — which led to Bappi’s resurgence in recent years.  His duet partner on the song, Shreya Ghoshal has over 21 million Facebook fans (more than Madonna’s 19 million likes)… India’s “Disco King” was back!

As Bappi sang to the dance track, I pulled the audience towards the stage, starting with my Indian classmates, then the rest of the global contingent joined the party.  I knew well from working with creative talent that many of them feed off the energy from the crowd.  Many artists are brilliant because they are egocentric.

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Bappi  began to sing with vigor as the crowd danced around him.  He kept going beyond his scheduled set with encore numbers including his 80s megahit “Jimmy Jimmy” which has since been covered by M.I.A. (a female rapper of Sri Lankan origin who sang with Madonna during half-time at the 2012 Superbowl, and caused a mini scandal with her middle finger).

“Thank you, thank you,” Bappi repeated as he placed his hands together in a namaste-style prayer, signifying the end of his performance.

As my classmates and industry colleagues surrounded Bappi for a group photo in front of the UCLA-NUS step-and-repeat banner… I felt deep inside that somehow, my seemingly impracticable foray in the music industry in recent years — followed by an academic restart in B-school since last year, was beginning to make sense.

BappiRelease-pic1This evening involved many moving parts and dots to connect, marked by years of trial and error.

For the most part, I believe it was a memorable experience for every star and guest that danced and smiled that night — which made it worth the overwhelming effort expended since I began on this passionate journey… five Bollywood albums and counting!

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Return Trip to Geneva: Re-Connecting with Ground Control

3 April 2014

Geneva, Switzerland

geneva-apr2014-back“… Upon arrival this early Spring morning, I crossed the Pont du Mont-Blanc towards the L’horloge Fleurie (flower clock) which was blooming on schedule as the over-sized hands rotated over the in-laid yellow flowers that were changed with seasonal precision.

Just beyond was the ever potent Jet d’eau (water fountain) which framed a misty rainbow against the billowing sails that made their way between Alpine lakeside towns of Evian and Montreux across the crystal waters of Lac Leman.

It has been nearly six years since my last trip to Geneva.  The WTO Doha Round is now past its 12th year of painstaking negotiation.  Some former WTO colleagues have moved on, while many others have remained to carry forth globalization.   Though, I have traveled less far and often in recent years, my perspectives appear to be deeper and wide-ranging as I reflect upon a former career and promising future.  MDN”

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United Airlines Flight 956:  Newark/New York to Geneva

2-3 April 2014

“Just like the old days” … posted my friend Mike Mossetig, a former journalist with The News Hour in Washington D.C. who has since retired and relocated to Hong Kong.  He was the first to respond to my Facebook update mentioning I was en route to Geneva and Europe.

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The seasoned Boeing 767-300 plane reminded me of the jet-set “old days” and of my previous trip to Geneva in 2008.  I had taken this same route many times when it was still a Continental Airlines flight (which has since merged with United), among the over fifty trips to Geneva while living in Washington D.C. and working for two global law firms for over a decade.

Six Springs ago, I was at the peak of my previous career and was traveling to Europe to participate in a seminar hosted by my former firm’s London office featuring the Deputy Trade Minister of Ukraine Valeriy Pyatnytskiy on May 14, 2008, just after he led his country’s delegation in concluding its 14-year WTO accession negotiations.  Ukraine is now making headlines again with the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and given the struggles the country is facing politically and economically.  On that last trip, I also had an interview for a global advisory position with a prominent Swiss insurance company.

Looking back on that moment, if I had remained in a corporate role – the past six years would have resulted in a far different existence… I would have been a wealthier and more traveled man, but perhaps not as enriched as from the independent path I eventually took.  The following year in 2009 upon returning to Los Angeles, I established a consulting practice and creative business in pursuit of a passion.  The seasons have flown by in the West where I had to learn survival skills in an entrepreneurial world, and now am re-learning as an Executive MBA student at UCLA Anderson and its partner program in Singapore.

“Ground Control to Major Tom,” was a repeated lyric from the David Bowie song “Space Oddity” in movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” – which I watched during the flight to Geneva on the 3×5 postcard-sized screen of the plane.

Mitty’s character played by Ben Stiller was prone to daydreaming about an exciting life, but in reality had not gone anywhere, or done anything notable.  At the start of the movie, he turns 42 and had been living a life lacking in purpose, respect and romance.

Mitty’s boss in the opening scenes ridicules his daydreaming:  “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.  Can you hear me, Major Tom?”

But later as sung by his love interest played by Kristen Wiig — the song inspires Mitty to take a leap of faith towards real adventure and self discovery: “This is Major Tom to Ground Control.  I’m stepping through the door… and the stars look very different today.”

Coincidentally, I am also about to turn 42 and anticipate major transitions ahead.  Looking back, I am grateful for the lessons learned and miles traveled thus far, despite being more grounded in recent years.  Like Mitty, I have embraced substantial risks and challenges… which hopefully should lead to further exploration and greater meaning in the new era.

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Indeed, “the stars look very different today” even though it is starting to feel a bit “like the old days.”

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A Record Snowstorm and Flurry of Perspectives in Tokyo

8 February 2014, Tokyo, Japan

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“… the snowstorm began late in the evening as I left R2 Lounge in Roppongi where old friends, creative colleagues and current classmates gathered, celebrated and cross-pollinated in the midst of the Tokyo winter.

It’s been nearly four years since my last trip, and my Fletcher friends from the mid-1990s remarked how astonishing my network had evolved since we last met in 2010, with entertainers and MBA students now among the mix.  Perhaps the coming Spring and future visits will yield a flowering of new perspectives.  MDN”

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7 February 2014

Tokyo, Japan

“You know so many salary men!” my former colleague Sayaka Shiomi said with exaggerated surprise.  She had supported me during the founding of Planet LA Records while we were students in the UCLA Extension program on Entertainment Studies between 2009-2010, and recently moved back to Tokyo to carry on with her career as a music journalist.

Sayaka was referring to my Fletcher alumni friends in dark suits at the Japanese trade and defense ministries, as well as recent MBA colleagues who worked for Japanese insurance and construction companies.  She, on the other hand, was wearing her trademark leopard print skirt which matched her fuzzy purse and seductive name cards.

Earlier in the evening – my Fletcher friends and I exchanged our new and updated business cards at Sushi Zanmai, a fantastic restaurant next to Tsukiji seafood market in the Ginza district.  I would often stay at a hotel in Ginza like I did this past trip just to have sushi for breakfast in Tsukiji, or sometimes observe the record-setting tuna auctions in the early morning hours.

Since we last gathered in 2010 during a Fletcher alumni dinner, most of my Japanese friends had more elevated titles:  Director, Vice President, Head of Unit; and most were still working at the same government ministries and corporations.   My business cards this time were no longer black and white with raised ink as issued by a traditional law firm, but had a unique Planet LA logo as founder of a music entity.  They must have thought I had a serious case of confused identities, and commented on the flexibility for career changes in America compared to Japan’s traditional employment for life.

After dinner at the hip R2 Lounge in the entertainment district of Roppongi – Tokyo’s version of Hollywood or Times Square – the distinct groups from my past and present mingled uncharacteristically but in good fun.   Japanese suits and rebellious rockers, fighter pilots based at the U.S. Embassy, a dash of French and Italian expats, along with a Ukrainian girl who had become a Japanese citizen – found common ground despite bureaucratic rigidity and creative frivolity.

Some of us continued on to a live music venue called Red Shoes in Aoyama until past 3am as the largest snowstorm in a decade hovered over Tokyo (which ended up canceling my flight).  The restless conversations continued on as we ended the evening at one of the city’s all-night, yet elegant watering holes called Bar Deuce — savoring whiskey cocktail nightcaps turned champagne breakfast elixirs until the patient manager politely told us he was closing around 8am.  By then, daylight revealed a vast megalopolis covered in a new snowy coat.  So chill, cleansing and enticing like the evening that would not exhaust itself until dawn.

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January 1, 2014: Reflections on Asian Wealth and Family Health

21 November 2013, Shanghai, China

Shanghai 2013

“Shanghai claims to have over 700 skyscrapers!” my MBA classmate Sherry pointed out — as we headed towards some local factories and a company tour of Li & Fung — the global trading giant — which started in China, relocated to Hong Kong, and now expanding again in China.

From the 65th floor Nanjing Lu bar at the top of my hotel (Le Meridien) next to People’s Park, I am overlooking an urban forest of skyscrapers.  Across the river in Pudong, the Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 and rising to 121 stories, China’s tallest and the second highest in the world.

Here, I can feel the heartbeat of arguably the world’s most dynamic city and impatient nation.  MDN”

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January 1, 2014, Midway City, California

“About 33,000 were diagnosed last year,” my father explained after doing an online search about the Whipple procedure on the iPad Mini I gave him for Christmas.

And life expectancy for most is around two years…” he said, in a hoarse voice weakened by over a month of chemotherapy.  On New Year’s Eve, he proudly wore his “UCLA Dad” sweatshirt while undergoing the latest treatment earlier in the day.

In a few fleeting seasons, he went from being a healthy retiree in the Spring to emergency hospitalization for jaundice in late summer, which was diagnosed by the the fall as a obstruction caused by pancreatic cancer.

Needless to say, this year was notable for its unexpected challenges and pending transitions, and ever full of learning…

In May, I dusted off my passport after a two-year hiatus and hit the books again at two familiar institutions – traveling to Singapore to start my Executive MBA program with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore Business School.   The studies continued in L.A. in August and Shanghai in November, which gave me a chance to visit relatives in Da Nang, Vietnam and spend Thanksgiving with the Ogburn family in Saigon.

May also led to a new role handling brand partnerships for MNET America, the U.S. affiliate of the Korean entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M.  Meanwhile, I continued to support artists and brands through Planet LA Records and on more focused events, including with Whole Foods Market and the Whole Planet Foundation for a Grammy week party and during the SXSW festival, and an event at the Gibson Guitar showroom supporting Carrie Ann Inaba’s charity, among other creative pursuits.

This holiday season was rather disperse for my family as my brother was away in Afghanistan as part of U.S. security efforts, and my sister-in-law returned to Brazil to see her relatives.  This left the rest of us to watch over their two canine “kids.”

In 2014, the travels will continue to India in February, and back to Singapore in May as part of the MBA program, and to other destinations and roles yet unknown.

As I watched the New Year’s celebrations in London, Miami and New York City – where I have taken my parents before on family trips including for New Year’s, I could only hope we can spend more precious time together, and that my “UCLA Dad” will at  least, be healthy enough to witness my MBA graduation ceremony by the end of the summer.

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Whatever may happen, I hope to make him proud of the sacrifices he has made while fighting a war in the jungles of Vietnam and toiling for nearly forty years in America’s factory floors – allowing his sons to live freely, dream boldly, and explore the world – sometimes with him, and always with his aspirations in mind and spirit.

Happy and healthy New Year!  May you all live every precious moment to its fullest!

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