Learning about $
September 6, 2011 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Way too many people in my life, including my wife and I, are well-educated but have no innate grasp of economics. How did you learn about all things money (microeconomics, macroeconomics, finance) in a way that stuck?

I'm posting this anonymously because I'm embarrassed to be so clueless. But I know I'm not alone - I know many VERY well-educated people whose eyes glaze over when hearing about tax code, interest rates, monetary policy, mortgages, inflation - just about anything even slightly wonkish with regard to money. Has anyone out there been in our shoes and somehow filled this gap in their knowledge? If so, how -- books, tutorials, courses, websites?
posted by anonymous to Education (33 answers total) 124 users marked this as a favorite
NPR's Planet Money (especially the podcast) has helped me learn at least some of this stuff by putting it in context, rather than just throwing pure theory at me.
posted by griphus at 10:05 AM on September 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I've been reading The Economist for about 15 years. Some of it sticks.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 10:12 AM on September 6, 2011

Two books: Armchair Economist and Freakonomics.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:15 AM on September 6, 2011

My intro course used Principles of Economics and it's really quite good and readable, although (inevitably for a textbook in the current turbulent economic climate) some of the examples could be more up-to-date.
posted by phoenixy at 10:16 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

my mother, whose degree is not in english and has never worked outside the home nor posseses a driver's licence, taught me how to do real time currency conversions in my head and tracks the dollar, the euro, the pound and the rupee against the singapore dollar everyday. It took me to adulthood and reaching the point in my career where I can now sit back and receive consulting enquiries to realize that the bania community [the caste is known as vysya or bania] trained their womenfolk to be good "housewives" i.e. the CFO's of the family's wealth, be that they be the humble traditional grocer/moneylender in every village or owners of a gazillion tobacconists in Leeds.

The unpredictable and irregular income stream that is the fact of life of any industrialist or businessman must be managed, husbanded and reinvested. So were we suddenly to gain a windfall like the example you mention above, it is now too late in my conditioned teaching for me to be able to run around spending it like someone who perhaps may have never learnt the art of managing money.

It struck me as I read your question that I would answer that its far more important to understand money as an energy flow, back and forth, as a stream, effecting change (growth, investment, expense, ups and downs) than the actual details you list, simply because one can access educated expertise in all those areas from professionals who specialize but one needs the big picture perspective to be able to understand what one wishes to do with money and how best to do it.

I have understood money management to be an art, not a science.
posted by infini at 10:18 AM on September 6, 2011

From reading smart economic and financial policy writers/bloggers: e.g. Felix Salmon, Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, Tyler Cowen, and Megan McCardle, among others. Obviously I have to sort out who I ultimately believe has a better handle on the truth, but they're all worth listening to.
posted by mojohand at 10:19 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

For personal finance, though, you really can't do better than to begin with this guy's book.
posted by mojohand at 10:23 AM on September 6, 2011

Economics: Paul Krugman, The Age of Diminished Expectations. An excellent introduction for a general audience. Recommended by a friend who's an economist.

Seconding the recommendation for Andrew Tobias, The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need.
posted by russilwvong at 10:27 AM on September 6, 2011

I really like Russ Roberts's podcast series, EconTalk. You might want to look at the Theory of Markets section and work up from the earlier ones. They're basically hour long-ish interviews with economists, political scientists, historians and non-academics (e.g., the car salesman, a logistics manager at Frito Lay about how potato chips are made, the ticket scalper).

Note that that is a look at the economic way of thinking (perhaps as warning, Roberts base assumptions are very much in the Hayek/Austrian way of thinking, though he does have some nice interviews with Keynesians and others who may be less sympathetic with that view), which, in many ways, not the same as personal finance.
posted by chengjih at 10:34 AM on September 6, 2011

I think it's hard to understand general economic and financial concepts without some knowledge of accounting. I'm amazed how often the media and politicians confuse balance sheet issues with income statement issues. A basic introductory text or course in financial accounting is an absolute pre-requisite in my mind for an understanding of higher level concepts. MIT has an accounting class in their OpenCourse program.

Other than that, I found that the Instant Economist did a good job of laying out basic economic concepts in very straight-forward language. Plus it's only 100 pages. You've probably heard the idea that a true expert can explain their ideas in a way that the general public can understand--that's what this book does. I read it a few years into my career in finance and have recommended it to friends who are also in the industry because it serves as a good "reset" to our way of thinking.
posted by mullacc at 10:35 AM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I recommend The Motley Fool for beginner's introductions to finance/investing/retirement plans/etc.
posted by RobotNinja at 10:38 AM on September 6, 2011

There's a whole industry of publications e.g The Economist written to convince middle class people who, although they have enough excess income to have investments, essentially live off of their wages that they have a common interest with the investor class: people who live off of the returns of their investments i.e. Warren Buffett.

None of the things you read in economics are value free, each represent a particular philosophy with sometimes not so apparent political goals and outlooks.

Popular economics (like popular science) exists mainly to advertise a point of view, If you aren't interested in the technical arguments then you are reduced to deciding whether you buy the advertising or not. There is no "innate economics," every fundamental assumption can be questioned and has been.

You can, of course, read Marx if you want to understand Marxist economics. You can read the original Keynes, which is quite discursive and not mathematical at all in comparison to current trends in economics. You can read the famous textbook by Samuelson if you want a more formal introduction to Keynesian (macro)economics. Original sources are always good. I am reading Graeder's anthropological theory of value, which is essentially a critique of the rational actor hypothesis at the core of "microeconomics" from the perspective of "gift theory."

Also, finance and economics are entirely different subjects.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:39 AM on September 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

The 21st Century Economy: A Beginner's Guide by Randy Charles Epping (2009). A guide to understanding financial/economic issues in the news. He uses a lot of very simple, everyday analogies in order to be accessible to a complete layperson. It seems pretty neutral and balanced, though if anything there might be a left-leaning tilt.

The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car by Tim Harford. Explains fundamental economic principles (e.g. the difference between price and cost, the law of supply and demand) with vivid examples and first-hand reporting. As the subtitle suggests, he covers economics on a macro on micro scale: he'll explain why you pay what you do for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and then he'll connect this to international trade and the rise of developing countries. Persuasively argues that sweatshops and free trade are good for the poor and the environment. This is a real page-turner.

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell (4th edition, 2010) is an opinionated (conservative/libertarian) but rigorous (over 700 pages) guide to economic principles. Explains why the free market works and a centrally planned economy doesn't.

The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide by Robert H. Frank (the New York Times columnist, not to be confused with Thomas Frank, who wrote What's the Matter with Kansas?, or Robert Frank, the Wall Street Journal economics columnist). A left-leaning guide to the economy and a good counterweight to Thomas Sowell. Sowell and Frank are almost mirror images: Sowell explains why government policies intended to help the poor/disadvantaged are counterproductive, while Frank explains why robust government policies are beneficial even to the rich (and certainly to the middle class and poor).

The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen (originally published only as an ebook, but now available as a traditional albeit very short book). Cowen is considered a libertarian, but he's a very moderate libertarian. He also writes a great blog (linked above).

For personal finance, Jane Bryant Quinn is supposed to be good: I've been reading her Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People and plan to get her weightier Making the Most of Your Money Now (revised in 2009).

Get Rich Slowly is a popular blog on personal finance.
posted by John Cohen at 10:48 AM on September 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

cant link it from my phone, but "hidden order: the economics of everyday things" is what i would recommend.
posted by davejay at 10:53 AM on September 6, 2011

Firstly, it helps to be interested in the subject. Mostly what fascinates me about economics is when it all goes wrong. The .com bubble was an interesting debacle I was too young to be harmed much by but old enough to learn from. So I took two classes on economics in college: Macroeconomics and microeconomics. Many colleges require one or both from their students, and I'm sure other people will recommend a good book or recorded lecture series on that.

Beyond the basics, for educational resources, I set aside one winter break to view the entire Financial markets course. It's pretty light on math, as there's a companion, unpublished course on quantitative analysis. I also spend a previous winter break going through Thinking about economics to get a historical perspective, which I borrowed for free from a local library. Great deal!

There's also plenty of books in the library worth reading. Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker gives a nice description of the personalities that drove the banking crisis in the 80s, and his Big Short gives another look at the subprime crisis. I'm currently reading Stocks for the Long Run, which was assigned reading for the above Financial Markets course. Since I work for a uni, I also get access to academic research via Google Scholar, so on occasion I can dig into a subject like whether lifecycle funds are actually a good idea.

For ongoing events, I find that public radio is really handy. I subscribe to about 5 hours a week of podcasts:
NPR's Planet Money (20 mins twice a week)
APM's Marketplace (30 minutes 5 days a week)
APM's Marketplace Money(40 minutes weekly)
Economist (not really sure -- 10 minutes daily?)
Econtalk (1 hour weekly)
London School of Economics (irregular)

You could probably get by with just listening to Planet Money and Marketplace Money; Marketplace gives only passing details to daily events, and the LSE, Econtalk and Economist are kind of political in nature. Which I suppose meets your need for 'wonkish' material, but really, it's just one special interest or another grinding axes, be it gender equality at the LSE or taxes & regulation at George Mason.

As far as taxes go, about the best I can offer is an exercise in attempting to calculate your taxes with a spreadsheet. US is quite complicated with exemptions and standard deductions and itemization, but my return and yours are probably pretty simple once you know what the plan is.

I also subscribe to the AskMefi RSS for work & money, and I've been submitting a lot of questions to http://money.stackexchange.com/ and attempting answers. Oh, and Mefi itself tipped me off to a neat TAL podcast that does a pretty good job explaining the basics of the subprime crisis.
posted by pwnguin at 10:54 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

cant link it from my phone, but "hidden order: the economics of everyday things" is what i would recommend.

Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life by David Friedman.
posted by John Cohen at 10:56 AM on September 6, 2011

There's a huge difference between understanding the tax code (especially as it applies to you) and understanding things like exotic financial instruments and their role in recent events (e.g., mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations) and understanding economic theory. You need to decide what your aims are -- to better manage your money? To understand current events? To understand deeper policy issues?

That said, I think that you should start your study of economics with the following joke, recently told to me by an economist:
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, "Let's smash the can open with a rock." The chemist says, "Let's build a fire and heat the can first." The economist says, "Let's assume that we have a can-opener..."
And this isn't just a joke. When I was subjected to what essentially amounted to a required macroeconomics class in law school, I was really, really confused until I understood the point made succinctly in this joke: what passes for economic reasoning depends on an ABSURD extent to assuming givens (and making value judgments) that have little relationship to the real world.
posted by yarly at 11:12 AM on September 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think it's important to note that there are different economic philosophies, and information may look very, very different to two economists from different schools. I prefer Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism, which has helped me pick up a lot of general economics information through well-chosen news and commentary. She's apparently some kind of fancy, successful yet leftish financier.
posted by Frowner at 11:28 AM on September 6, 2011

You say that your larger problem is that you're tired of feeling clueless.

As noted above, there is a cure for this, and it is to read the Economist. You will still be clueless for a while, but after a few months of reading you'll find yourself knowing more. As an added bonus, the Economist has a ruthlessly international perspective, so you'll also become less clueless about world affairs. It is highly biased, in the sense that it is a classical-liberal / right-libertarian publication, and it is so on every. Single. Page. OTOH, it never hides this bias, so you can easily take that into account when necessary.

More broadly, if you're interested in the economy and interest rates and taxes and stuff, I'm not sure you're terribly interested in economics. Especially not microeconomics, where you're going to spend all your time plotting indifference curves and budget lines, or plotting marginal production and marginal cost curves, or solving Cournot duopoly games. Microeconomics is essentially the study of constrained choices, not anything that transparently has to do with "The Economy" as we usually think of it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:31 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My favorite economics-savvy person says that if you religiously read the opinion pieces/editorials in the the NYT, the Economist, the WSJ, and any other decent paper, you'll end up picking up economics without having to formal educate yourself about it.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:32 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Given that you want to start from the bottom, there's no better place than Khan Academy, which has a whole lot of videos on finance.
Seriously, watch even a fraction of them and you'll be in a much better position to understand the other resources on this page.
posted by clord at 12:03 PM on September 6, 2011

Long ago, I took a required Personal Finance course at a technical college I was attending; I think such courses ought to be required more than language courses, across most disciplines, and I recommend to you, that if you can find such a basic program in a community college nearby, that you take it, too. The disciplined survey class approach will help many get through what can be a fairly dry subject, over a finite period of time.

Later in my life, I was sent to some graduate level management finance courses by a business in which I became a manager, and later still, with a few partners, I bought a business unit of a large corporation, by doing a classic mid-80s leveraged buyout, with bank financing. That was my first in depth exposure to how bankers view finance, risk, profit, and return on investment, and it was an incredibly instructive experience, particularly since the buyout was complicated with leasing issues, various tax issues, and the problems that came from being a foreign corporation in 41 states the day we opened for business under our own masthead. I recommend reading The American Banker for a while, to get a sense of what a banker's perspective on current economic issues may be.

I also recommend reading Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor, when you can.

And it is also important to understand that governments view money much differently than the private sector, regardless of politics. Central banks and economic sovereigns are stranger and less predictable, less governable creatures than corporations, by far.
posted by paulsc at 12:14 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's personal finance, and there's economics; the difference is scale, and it's a non-trivial difference. Listen to Marketplace on public radio, read MSN's money section, Wsj.com, Motley Fool, mint.com, marketwatch, and more, more, more. Take a course. Read books.
posted by theora55 at 3:47 PM on September 6, 2011

You're not alone. Not even close.

Start with personal finance. Learn about opportunity costs and the time value of money, then about shares, bonds and other financial instruments. Get practical tips on how to save and invest this money for long-term growth. You're anonymous, so I can't tell where you are, but even if you're not in Australia, Paul Clitheroe's Making Money can give you an approachable, practical guide to this sort of stuff. The (unsurprising) short story is that you need to spend less than you earn, save the balance, and invest these savings in a wide range of options (property, shares, bonds, 401K, managed funds) to balance risk and achieve long-term growth. The trick, though, is knowing which options are best suited to your current circumstances (for example, your employment arrangements, your level and type of debt, your stage of life and appliacble tax / finance regimes).

Move on to behavioural economics. There are a number of popular non-fiction titles that will help you to understand the reasons why (and million ways how) we tend to make poor decisions about our interests. Having wonky perceptions about sunk costs and opportunity costs are two of the biggies here, and the stuff about how we really don't know what makes us happy in the first place is very helpful too. Everybody will recommend Freakonomics; I'd add Drive.

Move on to microeconomics. Needs and wants, supply and demand, and elasticity are about as far as you need to go; don't worry too much about types of firm (monopolies, duopolies etc). The first few chapters of any high school or undergrad text will do this for you (Frank and Bernanke's Principles of Microeconomics springs to mind).

Move on to macroeconomics. Learn the quadrant model of a simple economy so you can understand the relationships between the price and supply of money with interest rates, inflation and real interest rates; how these affect spending, savings and domestic / foreign investment; how this affects the balance of payments and the exchange rate; and how all of these things can influence, and are influenced by, labour supply and demand and wages. It looks very, very daunting at first, but after a couple of days evenings drawing lines between the four boxes you'll be able to watch the news and say 'Hrm; reserve bank has jacked up interest rates - this will result in yada yada yada' and resolve to equilibrium in your head.

Otherwise, shortcut all of this and see a couple of personal financial advisors. Ask them to explain the reasons for their advice.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:40 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Three years ago, I was you. I still struggle to understand economics and finance and everything and I visit many of the webpages listed above. This is a long journey. I'd start with this series of videos:

Evening 1. Watch all the parts of Money as Debt. The key take away from the series is that the system is an understanding of fractional reserve. Prepare to be horrified. Watch this and ponder it before moving on. You should fully expect to find yourself believing that a cabal of moneyed interests are actively screwing you. Go to sleep enraged.

Evening 2. Try your hardest not to contribute to the Ron Paul campaign. Instead, pour yourself some wine/beer/liquor/other because you are going to spend a bit of time with Sal Khan. Start here and go through the first four videos. By now, the absurdity of the fractional reserve system should start making more sense.

Evening 3. Tonight, I'll give you a day off of videos. Instead, listen to this episode of This American Life, "The Invention of Money". You are going to have to accept that this thing that you are thinking about...money...is confusing and that you may very well not understand it as well as you think you do.

I mean banking was weird. Money is weird. And its about to get more weird.

Evening 4. You have done so much. This has been a lot of work. Tonight, we start with short article by Steve Randy Waldmann, "The Evils of Saving". Wait...what? Yup, saving money is evil. Ok, that was a little hyperbolic. The point is that we are taught a very specific way of looking at saving, a way which is misleading.

You think to yourself that you need to work, earn money, save, invest wisely. Then you read about some people who have a cushy relationship with powerful figures in the banking system, which nets them millions. No working. No saving.


Up until this point, we have been looking at this stuff at a sub-national level. You are going to want to watch the rest of the Khan Banking series at some point. Let's move on to the bigger picture, though.

Evenings 5-8. Let's start with the controversial Niall Ferguson and "The Ascent of Money" series. This is the first step in tying the "banker" to the "nation". Is he overstating the power of finance? And, by the way, what came first...the money or the debt? If you have the time, maybe you can refer to MeFi's own David Graeber to shed some surprising historical insights on that.

Evening 9. Ok, now we are ready for the crisis. Money is weird, blah, blah, blah. You need to hear about the abuse. You need to see how savers (in this case really big-time savers) can be problematic. You need to learn about the "Giant Pool of Money".

Evening 10. How could this all happen? Let this episode of Frontline start you in understanding how de-regulation was a key part of it. The beginning of this Bloggingheads speaks to the fraudulence part of it all.

Evening 11. You know, all of this is very counter-intuitive. The irony is that the opposite of what you think is very possibly the solution and it was spelled out by Paul Krugman years ago in a non-wonkish way.

There is so much more. I hope that helps. Good luck.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:06 PM on September 6, 2011 [17 favorites]

They're intricate subjects. I'm working on my MBA and have taken a macro and micro class and still don't fell qualified to talk about either.

Why don't you pick one and go with it? Macroeconomics is in the news and will be at the center of the 2012 US presidential election, so I'd start there if you want to apply what you're learning. One good book for that is "The Little Book of Economics".
posted by tenaciousd at 8:20 PM on September 6, 2011

Adam Smith needs to be mentioned. As someone said above, original sources are good.
posted by infini at 10:37 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are lots of great resources in here, so I just wanted to drop a tip for you: always consider the source. For example, Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen follow an Austrian school of economics (also known as Hayekian, as Friedrich Hayek was one of its founders) which is very libertarian and behaviorally-inclined (instead of statistically-inclined...what a thought!).

On the other hand, Paul Krugman is particularly liberal (and a proponent of stronger government interventions, which Austrian economists strongly disagree with). His foil is Greg Mankiw (who shills his book a lot on his blog, so I skip him). Take both with a grain of salt.

For a general understanding of how to think like an economist, I'd actually suggest Nate Silver's blog at the NYT. He applies basic statistics to a variety of questions, and that's an academic economist's job in a nut.

I'll also second Planet Money. The Freakonomics podcast might be too...contrarian for your taste, but many stories explain quirky oddities with economics.
posted by achompas at 10:08 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of resources above, it might be more useful to just give my opinions on them at this point. Good sources --

--whoever said above that you should look into accounting was dead on. If you read and absorb a really thorough introduction to accounting you will know more useful stuff about real-world business than most Phd economists.

--If you want to understand the theory of the economy it is way more useful to start learning from first principles than to get sucked in to either everyday market commentary or political wars. For macroeconomics, Hypnotic Chick's list of sources above is really good for teaching on the first principles concerning the fundamental weirdness and funkiness of money. Money is not a thing, it is an illusory social convention used to regulate the economy. Her list is really for getting you to the point where you understand that in your bones.

--It is also important to learn about personal finance. Most of this is inoculating yourself against all the horrible personal finance advice out there. Benjamin Graham is really good for that. God knows the last decade proves market timing can in fact work, but it's also a thoroughly irrational process so you better have a feel for those irrationalities. The bottom line on personal finance is that you should either A) be really safe, or B) have a very deep understanding of the exact private information you are working off of (e.g. local real estate when you really understand the neighborhood).

Some things to avoid --

--The book "Freakonomics" is completely useless for understanding just about anything important in the real economy, so I'd skip it.

--Most of the political ideologue/economics type are not very useful at all as they skew everything. Megan McArdle has been wrong and confused in just about every single economics blog item I've ever seen her write, so I particularly wouldn't use her.

--An exception to the political rule above is Paul Krugman, who unlike most of that crowd is rather brilliant (Nobel prize), a great popularizer, and understands his stuff at a very deep level. Skip the NY Times articles and look to the books...Return of Depression Economics is very good.
posted by zipadee at 1:39 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is hard to answer as the field is so large.

I think the best way would be to go back and read all the berkshire hathaway shareholders letters. These are available for free on berkshirehathaway.com .

I'd also recommend reading poor chalire's almanac.

That should give you a good idea of "business" and enough "economic" insight to further refine which areas you are most interested in learning about. As a plus, it will help you avoid a lot of folly.
posted by sf9719 at 3:52 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of really useful suggestions so far. I have to admit that I was fairly clueless about money for most of my life. Then when we moved to US (from Belgrade, Serbia) as a part of learning about my new environment, I realized that I just don't know anything about mutual funds and such. So I picked fantastic and very short book from David Bach 'Automatic Millionare'. I didn't really like the title, picked it up as a start and it is fantastic book and things I learned from it are super useful to this day. Later. I bought few copies and gave to my friends I felt could use it. Mostly he gives you useful, actionable information and doesn't take long to get it. So called 'latte factor' is complete bs in a way, but it is still great book.

It is important to spend less then you are making, leave at least 10% aside. Have money saved so when you need it you will not be under stress.

I also enjoyed later to learn about stocks and invest in them and later in options.
posted by desireco at 3:54 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are two questions here really:
(1) how to manage YOUR money; and
(2) how to understand / analyze the national and international economy.

For economics of countries or economic principles, I second Planet Money, Paul Krugman, and the Khan Academy courses.

For your personal finances, I recommend Your Money: The Missing Manual.

Your Money was written by the same author as the above mentioned blog, "Get Rich Slowly". The blog itself has some great earlier content though it's new posts are mostly fluff (JD doesn't post anymore). But the book is AWESOME as a starting place for personal finance; I honestly cannot recommend it enough. After researching how to deal with personal finance for the first year of my professional life (i.e., the first time I was making money rather than taking out student loans and merely trying to be frugal) I reached a happy medium of knowledge ... then I bought Your Money and I was furious: he had done all the work for me and collected it into a short, easy book while I had read hundreds of pages in other books, blogs, and reference materials. Every point in the book was a quick summary of what I had learned and I bought several copies to share with family and friends because it really is an excellent resource.
posted by unclezeb at 6:21 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Russ Roberts's podcast series, EconTalk

I also enjoy this while jogging but for two different reasons. He gets interesting people to interview and does some fun topics (potato chips!) but also because he is a bit overt/dogmatic in his free market ideology and it amuses me to listen to how his guests, who are generally pretty sophisticated thinkers, politely glide past his occasional republican-style Laffer moments.
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 AM on September 13, 2011

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