Adaptive Understanding

A fundamental aspect of the martial arts, and particularly the Budo arts, is: “Always allow your training to influence your life for the better”. Every art is more than just a series of techniques and very often is based on a a system of philosophy, belief, and then physicality which forms the foundation for the movements, styles, and techniques themselves.

To truly understand the art you pursue, you must focus on the subject as a whole and not neglect any aspect less than the others. This is what separates the art from the martial side of things. There is truly a lot more to be found in the genuine and honest pursuit of the warrior arts than merely physical skill and ability, regardlessof your chosen discipline, provided you acknowledge it and let it influence and change you as an individual.

At their most basic level, martial techniques are not merely a physical thing. It is all a matter of perspective and understanding of the art you train within. For the beginner it is percieved that you use your body to manipulate an opponent or instrument to enact an outcome. It is a black and white situation where logically A is followed by B then C, etc etc and is learned by rote just like the alphabet through to Z. This is in fact correct but unless you continue to grow within the art then you limit your ability to merely what you learn. All you ever do is work with the letters, rather than try to form the words,sentences, verses,and eventual stories of our journey through our training.

Every day you will get a little slower, a little less flexible, a little more tired, a little more older, yet we can choose to grow as well, becoming more learned, more adaptive, more capable, more understaing,and more sure of our art. Not just as a form of physcial ability, but also as a means to improve our selves, our way of life, and our ability to deal with situations and changes to the world around us.

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The Trials and Tribulations of the Vicarious Appraiser

Everyone likes to know that they are getting better and improving at the things that they do. The greater the importance of that activity and the more we choose to invest in it, then the more we want to see results. In many activities, these results are measured in terms of improvement based on what is produced at the end of a particular time or project. This then gives us a checkpoint or benchmark to identify with just how much better we are becoming in between these times.

While this works well for most activities, within the traditional martial arts it is not simply enough to produce a final improved product to be put on display at gradings, demonstrations, or for personal satisfaction. As we are often both our own worst critics and also our own worst advisor, how can we ever really know what our level of progression is with any honesty, or truthfulness? How do we put distance between our own sense of self? And how do we find honest clarity on our own understanding of what we are doing vs what we are attempting to achieve?

The simple answer is that we do not.

When we work in self-review, we must always try to do so from the viewpoint of the Vicarious Appraiser, the person who has a vested interest and wants to see the best result in the outcome but only as imagined or witnessed against a tangible target.

This is essentially why we have a grading syllabus and we rely on the examiner to apply an honest and truthful method of approach to our advancement and capability during the completion of a grading examination.

Every instructor wants to see their students do well, but the very best want to see them take their training and progress it beyond what they themselves are not yet capable of. In order to do this they have to bear witness to a students progress and demosntrations without the hinderances of the emotional ego or baggage which we have in other aspects of our lives.

The appraiser must want to see success and to give encouragement toward that goal, yet also must be freed from the bonds of sympathy when those goals are not met. The position takes is one of Judge, Jury and indeed Exeutioner all of which must be passed without malice or discontentment, but which comes from a place of understanding with regard to the proper and correct technique, attitude, focus, and respect for the future of the student, the club, and the art itself. If that involves the failure of that student to progress to the next grade hen that must be what it is. Without bias.

So for students who seek to undertake a grading, what then?

My advice is to go into it with the proper spirit and not want to merely show off and showcase the skills you have learned but instead display that you know what it takes to start and finish each movement exactly at the level required to satisfy not just yourself, but the assessor. You must never forget that deep down the grading assessor wants you to succeed above all else, they ant to see you at your prime on the day, they want to sit and watch and be happy with your demonstration of your progress in your chosen art. Yet, just like the assessor the student must also be detatched from the need for success and must get out of their in-head thinking and instead just perform the movements.

In essence what each and every assessor wants to see is not what you can do, but how much you understand and demonstrate what is required to be where you are going in the months and years to come.

Within the grading, the vicarious assessor is not looking at who you are now and what you are doing in that moment, but are hoping for a glimpse through the forest of who you will one day become. Do not contend yourself with who they are, what they appear to be or what you feel they may be thinking.

All they seek to do is genuinely lead you toward the next stage, sometimes with care and other times with clarity, but always forward and always that little more knowledgeable and, one can hope, wiser to the path.

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Challenging Progress – Part 2


The more we train, the more we become familiar with the various aspects of the technical and finite requirements of each technique. This is the way to move forward with training in the martial arts, or is it?

Certainly when one practices form, kata and repeated movements, then the progression and development of muscle memory serves to give you a continual baseline for progress as movements become memorised, techniques become refined and we can see a light at the end of the tunnel with regard to that ‘perfection’ that we believe we should strive for. Without fail, there is an end point to kata where we do reach the very pinnacle of what we as individuals are capable of, but that should never truly signify the end-game of our development – why? Simply because that ‘perfect’ example of technique is only applicable in that moment, and for that purpose. A few seconds later both you, and your environment have changed.

Mere acknowledgement of success changes the nature and manner in which you view that success, and therefore may be used as either a bridge to improvement, or a prison for stagnation. What you choose to do with the knowledge of your success paves the direction of how you will develop from that moment forward, and your understanding of the relationship and differences between fixed and formless training.

Many martial arts are fixed in learning, foot here, hand here, this angle, that angle, hand stops here, etc. The student is required to adapt to progress and to reshape their movements to the demands of either execution, style, or effectiveness. That does not detract from those arts and is in effect the strength inherent in the execution of them.  The power in striking arts must be driven from the feet to the hips and shoulders then into the hand or else it is not effective. Only by applying the formula can a student understand and eventually make it their own.

Alternatively, In Aikido, almost everything is formless, shapeless and steeped in fluid motion and interchangeability of relationship between Uke and Tori. All techniques are dependent upon the body, mind and spirit of the individual, and the manner in which both they, and the partner engage. There is no fixed pattern that can be applied beyond starting movements and it is up to the student to shape the techniques to suit their body. This is why it is important to not merely follow and mimic what is shown, but to fully embrace all aspects of the technique, ensuring that you not only know why, but how, where and when these techniques will work. Blindly following what you are shown invariably does not work unless you feel the development of the movement throughout, from conception to completion.

Because of this, progress in Aikido is never-ending. Each and every situation, moment, partner, application, technique, exchange and resolution becomes unique. Nothing is ever repeated and even the smallest change in attitude or expectation alters the end result. Progress therefore is dependent not on how well we execute a movement, but on how we perceive we have improved as a result of doing it. Progress is shown in our increase in understanding and in greater understanding comes the knowledge of greater potential.

To challenge progress in Aikido is to challenge oneself to understand what is required to complete each movement, working from a sense of both the intuitive and the practical. It is not to seek perfection of form and mastery of technique, but to refine and control your own understanding and capacity for application.

Progress is measured not in how we control and dominate others but in how we are able to control ourselves and, through our actions and continuous work for personal improvement in our art, extend that control to our partner and our environment alike. It is this application of self-control that makes Aikido look effortless from the outside, it is a visual display of the self control and the development that has developed on the inside, manifested fully.

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Challenging Progress ? – Part 1

“I can’t wait until I get more experience at this and it all becomes easier”

I remember very well the day that one of my students said this to me, it was mid-training and I was explaining the intricacies of controlling body movement and re-directing an opponents strength back on themselves through their own grip on the limb they were trying to immobilise. it was during basic Ikkyo practice and they had become frustrated with themselves.

I also remember the look on their face when i told them i often thought the same thing, it was a mix of confusion and humorous disbelief. Very quickly I mentioned that was the whole point, and was in fact one example of how well they were doing. That they found it difficult was a a demonstration of their improvement.

Even more confusion ensued.

To understand the importance of maintaining the challenge of training, it is important first to recognise the need for progression and the manner in which we deal with it, both as student and also as instructor.

Progression in traditional martial arts is measured in many ways, for some it can be determined and identified with through the attainment of grades or belts, for others it is a less physical and more personal issue and comes from personal perspective and introspection. Both are at one extremely valid and often misleading. On one hand, display of a grade or completion of a grading shows a level of technical ability to a common standard but often does little for the students personal belief in themselves. This expresses itself often after a grading where students feel they do not deserve what their instructor determines they have achieved. On the other the level of personal understanding serves the individual very well but can inhibit their interaction with others who are unable to recognise their ability, thus limiting the level of training which they may accomplish together, thus affecting how both feel about their technical ability. I have experienced this in the past when the club only wore traditional white or black belts, other clubs did not grasp the ;level off an individuals ability, and likewise the students found it difficult to know where on the developmental route they were. The curse of western mindset and thinking. We really do need to know where we fit in – so that we can see a way forward.

It is vital therefore that both the personal, and external, aspects of development and improvement are catered for during the students development. That way both they and their instructor can work together to forge a path for the student to develop. A path in which they not only believe in themselves and appreciate the efforts they put in to achieve what they have, but also a pathway which they are capable of displaying that progress in externally, – not in a bid to show superiority, but to show that they indeed are on the same path, just in a different place and with different requirements for the next stage of development.

Measuring of progression allows for the eyes to remain on the future and the requirements to be met, but it also serves to remind us of where we have come from and what we should work hard to maintain hold of. In martial arts, just as in life the past holds the key to the future and everything that a student has done up to any point in their training is just a placeholder for the next part of that particular developing phase. It serves to be the foundation for the future building blocks upon which development occurs. They are never forgotten or over-written, they are merely altering themselves to suit the individual martial artist that we personally will become…….

(to be continued in Challenging Progress? – Part 2)


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Grading Brain vs Training Brain

Within your development in the art of Aikido, there will inevitably be moments when you feel pressured or put on the spot to undertake movements and techniques. Sometimes this comes from peer pressure when a partner is able to do what you are not, other times it is when your instructor is blatantly watching what you are doing. You will also no doubt have noticed that these are the moments when nothing seems to work properly at all and you often feel awkward, off-balance, and physically clumsy.

This feeling is magnified ten times or more during the grading process, where every aspect of not just your ability, but also your attitude and understanding of what you are doing is being called into question and thrown out there for your assessor to see in full.

You will have no doubt often heard it said that the faster, flowing techniques are easier than the static, basic movements. This is true not only because the attacker is in motion, but also under momentum to which you and they must adapt to each and every moment. In doing so the completion of the movement is key and invariably the method of doing so becomes less important as you do not have the time to look for an application, but instead must take what you can from each incoming attack. It is your Instinctual response system that takes over during training, one which is more reactive to your opponent as the technique is you goal. But in a grading, that goal changes significantly.

In a grading situation, the movements start from that basic position where momentum and motion does not exist. Therefore the ability to manipulate your partner becomes the most important aspect. This requires not just knowledge, but understanding of not only what you see, but also what you feel occurring within the technique. In basic movements and especially during gradings it is your Conscious processing system that needs to be at the forefront of your mind. You need to show not only that you can do it, but you know WHY it works, and be able to demonstrate that understanding through only your ability to undertake clean, proper movement of your body and limbs.

This is why the key to working effectively and showing good understanding of the technique lies within the entry movements to each attack and defence, and we will deal with that in the next blog post next week. Until then, work on your knowledge and understanding of the movement, and the integral parts of the techniques. Be aware that it is not enough to just complete the movement on an instinctual level, but to be able to show that you understand the technique in full and are able to consciously show that and display that skill for assessment.

Yours in Aiki


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Connecting Centrally/Projecting Externally

Aikido is very different in application from many Budo, and is often alien to those who come from a mash-up of martial traditions or extremely ‘hard’ styles. This is in no means a statement that Aikido is in any way a ‘soft’ style, for that remains down to the practitioner and instructor of that particular school. There is hard Aikido (Yoshinkan) and Soft Aikido (Ki Aikido) just as samples, as well as many other options in between.

Good Aikido is neither hard nor soft in application and will in effect make use of both at the same time, moving from one to the next – hard in the extension through the arms, soft in the body and hips then migrating each over the give grounding in the body and flexibility in the limbs etc. etc.

Regardless of changes to physical application what must remain in constant control at all times in every movement or technique is:

  • focus and intent upon your partner throughout the technique;
  • your own core muscle movement through your centre;
  • projection of your own control/bodyweight into your partners centre of balance;
  • awareness of changes to your partners balance requiring you to adapt and change.

In doing so we are able to essentially insert our intent and focus into our partners movements, sensing and changing and adapting to their movements in order to maximize on the technique as a whole.

In Aikido, again unlike many martial arts, it does not pay to be faster than your partner or opponent, but instead work in tune with their timing and movements, this is the essence of Kokyu-Ho (breath power technique) where often a link or connection is so tenuous that sudden or jarring movements before or after application will break the hold or connection you have made.

Instead of finishing the technique with the arms to complete what we see being done by other, it must be a whole body integration where we connect mentally, physically and even to some extent spiritually (offering our partners an escape or respite from pain or injury) to complete what we feel is required. Connecting our centre and body to our partners then bursting forth from that power base through the extreme limits of extension, from heel to fingertip (or extreme edge of a weapon if we are using them) through a projecting core to extend our intent into the technique and to the location where our partner, wittingly or unwittingly will seek to be.

This is why Aikido takes so very long to learn, understand, and assimilate and why it will always be a lifelong process of learning.

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From The Ground Up

“A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind.”

Morihei Ueshiba


Every martial discipline begins with working to connect the student to the foundation of their own movement, to connect them into grounding their body effectively for balance, co-ordination and power, leading to the completion of technique.

This grounded principle in Aikido has a dualistic nature, like in other Budo arts, whereby both attacker and defender must learn to make peace with, and work from, contact with the tatami beneath them. This is reflected in terms of both taking ukemi, and in forming techniques leading to this point.

Quickly realising that the best way to improve and learn in Aikido is often to not watch the technique for the way it is done, but to receive and feel the technique and WHY it worked, becomes vital in our development. Quite literally we learn from the ground up, during technique, after technique, and even before technique. Learning Aikido is as much about being thrown and rising again as it is about working to technical requirement.

The connection to the ground is everything and should lead the way through your development from beginner to the end of your days. The connectivity and grounding is a defining principle of the concept of ‘Square’ in the Sangen (Triangle/Circle/Square) and applies not just at the end, but throughout every movement.

It is here that the dichotomy of Aikido movement begins to come into play. Remain grounded, keep the weight low, keep and maintain a solid and defined centre of gravity – yet be mobile, relaxed and capable of change to allow ebb and flow of Ki and movement between you and your partner. Both Aspects at almost opposite ends of the scale in terms of physicality and yet it is not in the physical that you will find the solution.

Aikido is a multi-faceted martial art, it requires not only physical discipline, but also mental/emotional, and even spiritual discipline to understand the many concepts and methods of moving not just our body, but also our mind (thoughts) and spirit (attitude).

Everything must come from a grounded position and focus, all movements need to be fully nurtured and developed, and not only understood, but accepted in terms of movement, mindset, and manipulation of our own body. This is why we spend so much time working on techniques from Suwari-waza and hanmi-handachi – to be so low and connected, to feel the presence of the ground beneath not just our feet, but our entire lower limbs, is vital in helping us to translate that connection into a series of standing movements.

Aikido begins to flow forth by working from the ground up and utilising our physical connection, realising it through mental control of our body, and finishing with mastery over our own responses to a situation. There is a reason that Aikido techniques do not feature kicks – it breaks connectivity to the ground, manoevres our own balance away from our centre and makes us not only vulnerable, but unable to control via the cycle of grounded completion. This cycle comes by working from a grounded posture, transferring that to our partner, then drawing it back down through their own third point (point of least balance) to throw or pin or immobilize or unbalance. To fully complete we need all three aspects – mind/body/spirit to function with a sense of one-ness and not be individual units fighting their own internal battle by being ungrounded as a whole.

Always remain grounded, work from the ground up through and from your connections to the earth, through and from yourself, and through and from your partner and you will find that the techniques begin to complete by returning the movement and energy back to where it began.

Be grounded in technique, in life, and in all you do. And if you do fall, get back up with a Body, Mind and Spirit that is willing to continue.

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True Victory and the Warriors Path – Part 2

So we have survived our first few forays into the dojo and have arrived, relatively unscathed at a place where we feel that small measure of understanding has begun to take root.

Within the first few weeks and months, the techniques and principles begin to plant in our thoughts and there is even a few fleeting moments of familiarity with the movements and directions required to translate each technique into what our own individual body types and personalities can create. We have faced the demons of our own doubts and insecurities at the entrance to the Dojo and at cast set them aside, not fully slain but merely wounded or winded for the moment.

That moment becomes everything for it is really all we ever have, both in Aikido and in life. When we begin to understand (and not merely realize) this, then we begin to appreciate the importance of not merely the fluidity of physical motion, but also the fluidity of our own progression both within and without the Dojo. Change, adaptation, and re-direction becomes not merely a state of being for training, but a metaphor for our life and path toward understanding Budo.

The greatest challenge we face, is to live each moment within that moment. To face directly each single instant and to react in the way required to merge and blend with that instant. All our sense may be screaming to run, to hide, or to turn and fight yet we must also recognise that these reactions are the offspring of our Ego, and of the deepest parts of our mind which exist purely to lead us into self doubt.

Many of the methods and movements of Aikido appear counter-intuitive, such as: turning where the direct would appear more productive; entering where any sane person would prefer distance; opening up where a tighter defense may seem logical; controlling and sedating where a coup-de-grace would be far more directly efficient. What then does this say about Aikido? It identifies that if we see a movement as counter-intuitive then so too will our attacker and as a result, the effectiveness of what we do cannot be second-guessed or compromised, that we do not work in the obvious or the identifiable but instead seek to control ourselves in that one instant to overcome our own natural response and so instill that into our attacker. It is this that renders them, and their attacks as less effective.

In training to respond not to our minds, but to the situation and the feelings and movements we have coming from our attacker, then we can work out-with the envelope of perceived and anticipated reaction. We can return that power back to its source and we can make the informed choice of how to respond and control our opponent by first controlling ourselves, then extending that control to the moment, to the situation, and so to our attacker by default. We work to protect ourselves and to offer that protection to the situation in order that both may walk away from it, not necessarily unscathed but certainly to live to tell the tale.

True Victory in Budo does not come from the defeat of ones opponent or of a threat, but from the defeat of our human response to that threat. It permits us to rise above and to enter into the very heart of the problem through self control, self-awareness, and self-discipline, choosing the manner and nature of our response not just to protect in the here and now, but in the future.

Masagatus Agatsu Katsuhayabi – True Victory in each passing second, in every breath, in every thought, in every moment before thought and action. In Budo we may never obtain in for that moment is already gone, but we may realise it in every action where we utilise the principles and allow our art to simply be with us in each and every single instant.

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Counter Control with Control (Part 1)

The principles and mechanics of basic Aikido form and function are relatively easy for everyone to grasp, at least on a cognitive level: Your opponent attempts to attack you, and you then defend accordingly. Such a simple concept.

Like many aspects of the martial arts, it is not enough to just look at the very plain and basic meaning of this statement, in doing so you are just working mechanically and becoming nothing more than an automaton. Instead of a living, thinking and feeling human being which not only completes, but LIVES through each movement.

If Aikido were that easy that all we need to do is follow a format, we would all be masters of the art in only a few months. Fortunately the truth is something much more complex than simply following a three-step process of: 1. Foot here, 2. Hands here, 3. Push here,

Why fortunately? Because the process of mechanical procedure can only function within a set of specified and defined parameters, and the highly individualised, fast-moving, fluid dynamic of training in the Dojo does not allow for this, never mind the addition of an unstable environment should a real situation arise and you be compelled to act in defence.

Any given situation introduces an element of fallibility not just in our own capacity to deal with the techniques and the situation, but also within the focus and also the determination of the incoming attack. If either of these factors is incompatible, then the technique is doomed to fail.

Given that we cannot expect out attackers to be pleasantly appreciative of our limitations in ability, understanding, form, execution and confidence, the onus for change must lie solely on the our shoulders. Unless we are able to change the fundamental aspect of how we choose to deal with the attacker and the method or style of attack used, it is more than likely that our defence will not be completely effective.

In order to make the most of our ability, we must simulate and become at once the attack and the defence combined as one fully committed action, free from restraints imposed upon ourselves, by ourselves. This is the essence of training, and in order to be realised first we must focus not on the individuals or the outcome, but on the way we choose to interact within any given moment. Control, then becomes the key factor, but oftentimes not in the way we first think

(Continued in Part 2).



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True Victory and the Warriors Path – Part 1

Anyone who studies Aikido for any length of time will one day stumble upon or eventually be referred to a phrase oft mentioned by O-Sensei, this is specifically “Masagatsu Agatsu Katsuhayabi” or “True Victory is Victory Over Oneself, In a Single instant”.

Like most esoteric phrases, it is impossible to capture this in any single aspect and the beginner student will doubtlessly take something different from it than the long-term Aikido practitioner. However, while an individuals interpretation of this, or any other training maxim will alter, it does not necessarily lessen from what was first realised. Instead the understanding will grow from that point of first meeting and assimilation of the phrase and it, like the student will change and reform over the years until what you have is the same, but intrinsically different in terms of not only meaning, but also application. Different, yes, but only in the way that we as individuals are now as different in this moment as from when we were first born.

 Aikido, and the Budo philosophy that is contained within it, grows with us in every aspect of our lives. Often in very subtle ways in which we are not aware until a moment occurs where we draw upon either knowledge, thought, or technique to improve an issue or situation. Not merely in terms of combat, but in relation to life itself.

The Budo aspect of training is the first thing that many who enter into this most unique martial art encounter, and indeed is often the draw that encourages any one individual into the dojo in the first place. The need to know that one can protect oneself from danger. It is pure sympathetic nervous system response to perceived or real hazards and is a perfectly natural thing to occur, especially in the world we now live in where danger is prevalent at every turn, physical, material, emotional, and even social. The need to defend and protect, and the embodiment of a ‘warrior spirit’ is an enticing and exciting prospect and this is the greatest hurdle that many new (and sometimes old) students must overcome for the concept of what makes a good warrior differs greatly from culture to culture. Likewise what is expected from that culture as being a ‘real fighter’ is likewise affected.

How then can the beginning student relate to the eastern philosophical concepts within Aikido, and translate them into the cultural equivalent that gives at once both a sense of satisfaction, but also a sense of meaning with training. Particularly given that the majority of Aikido techniques take a great deal of time to develop to any degree. Failure is not necessarily an option, but is surely a likelihood should a new student attempt to make use of what is learned in any capacity close to what we use in the Dojo to practice.

This is where the understanding of the difference between Aikido and my other warrior arts begins to shine forth. Essentially Aikido seeks to subconsciously derail a students confidence from day one, breaking them down with lack of success, lack of understanding, and movements contrary to anything they had previously encountered. It becomes clear that this is not a ‘qiuck-fix’ course where a few simple punches and kicks will suffice and slowly confidence and even interest begins to ebb.

It soon becomes clear that Aikido is not a 3-trick pony but a complex system of movements, thought, and understanding that will not be easily taken into the real world for a considerable time. Added to this is the fact that in attempting to understand, assimilate and label these new movements it also becomes clear that to confuse a grown adult all one needs to do is ask them to move in a straight line while holding a wooden sword above their head and to cut down on a specific movement. In these moments there is no glory, no victory, no raising oneself above others, in fact we often leave classes feeling less masterful than we entered.

For the beginning student embarking with excitement on the Warriors Path, the way ahead seems extremely rock indeed and the Victory in any instant seems unfeasibly out of reach and grasp. Success seems always just out of reach.

Yet here is the first lesson and application of the path ahead. In being presented with the impossible task, does the student turn and walk away or do they continue? This is similar to the old adage of the student waiting patiently for days outside the home of a prospective Sensei in the hope of being accepted. In this case the student and Sensei are the same and so begins the first steps on the path to a self-enlightenment, where student and teacher merge into the same person and only they can choose to stay, or to go.

In this moment, fighting against all that their mind  and culture tell them is what they want, they must instead understand what they need, and open that door to themselves. At that point, their true journey begins and the real trials and work can start to unfold…

To be continued in True Victory and the Warriors Path – Part 2

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