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The Toddler at Y Combinator (fastcompany.com)
167 points by jkurnia on Aug 18, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments

I was my son's primary caregiver for several months while my wife recovered from surgery (for 1 month she was unable to provide any care, even 'babysitting'). He was around 9-12 months. It was far more exhausting than anything else I've ever done. I went to the grocery store while he slept, laundry in the mornings. I wrote code at night or nap time, or sometimes during the day when he was content to play with toys.

You very quickly learn to drop the stuff that doesn't matter; I'm a more productive developer today because of it. I was forced to develop a critical eye and abandon designs that didn't work immediately. I also lost my taste for TV shows, movies, and most podcasts; now I'd rather build something than consume content.

Good for Julia; I have a lot of sympathy. Frankly I have a lot of sympathy for single parents as well... I used to have harsh uninformed opinions on the subject (that I see often repeated around HN and tech in general, especially by privileged young guys like myself). Then I had to live it for reasons entirely outside my control.

I remember Adam from our batch! Cool kid: precocious, though he did come this close to spilling things on my computer a couple times :)

Seems like a good outcome in the end... but the landlord asking her to clean bathrooms to stay there? What the hell?

I'm guessing this was cleaning the toddler affected bathroom(s).

Have you seen what young child of the correct age will do to a bathroom in a single session? It's amazing! There's always number one, and possibly number two spread around. I still don't know how so much mess can be made without intentional effort.

Source: I work from home, with children, clean bathrooms.

I will suggest that what is true of your children in your home is not universal truth. My kids were holy terrors on multiple fronts who could not be trusted for 30 seconds. Pissing all over the bathroom and smearing poop around was not one of the things they did.

The request for one of the few women in the house to clean the bathrooms in order to stay reads as straight up sexism to me.

possibly, but most parents I know would clean up after their toddlers immediately in a bathroom that isn't in their own home. Maybe if the child is old enough to go by himself, but that didn't seem to be the case here.

On the other hand, I've dealt with landlords who wouldn't even hesitate to use (abuse?) the power to throw someone out to get negotiate something like that.

purely anecdotal.

the article clearly states that asking her to clean the bathrooms was a penalty for her child speaking to the other men in the house while they were working:

"Sometimes, when Kurnia became absorbed in her work, the naturally curious Adam might wander over to another resident to ask what he (the residents were mostly male) was doing on his computer. Some found this cute; most didn't. Finally, someone complained to the landlord, who threatened to throw Kurnia and Adam out unless she agreed to clean the bathrooms. Scrubbing toilets for 15 people seemed too time-consuming, so Kurnia negotiated: she would pay a higher rent, take out the trash, and keep closer watch over Adam. The landlord granted a reprieve."

setting aside the landlord's troubling, possibly illegal response; the lack of compassion of the male developers in said flophouse says volumes about the issues facing us in Silicon valley.

Ah, but does your landlord ask you to clean the bathrooms as a condition of staying there?

Startups are challenging, but that's definitely an added challenge Julia. I wish I had known about the housing challenges during yc, maybe we could have helped somehow :(

Not to distract from this story, I've been impressed with my experience donating on Zidisha -- repayment has been incredibly quick, and it's rewarding to reinvest funds.

"I did the right thing, she thought. But I’ll never do it again."

Somebody should change that for incubators and YC, being the most forward thinking and advanced one, should be the first to try:

IDEABOLT: Apply to next HN with non-profit startup to care for kids (preschool 2-5) of HN batchmates onsite at YC (with its blessing, taking over a large room or some converted space nearby). Not only this would increase the pool of applicants greatly (really?) it boosts the coolness of HN close to \infty.

The service will be free (9-5) so how to make money? Investigate innovative preschool learning methods using the kids (of course, with parents permission). This target group is perhaps the least served child demographic (no good solutions for something as mundane as poop/feed tracking, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10075191), except mundane stuff like diapers and bottles).

"He even struck up a bond with Paul Graham. Most people either talk down to two-year-olds or ignore them. But Graham took the time to figure out that Adam was fascinated with trains, says Kurnia, and the two of them spent 10 minutes drawing trains on a white board. Graham treated Adam like a little founder, interested in his interests."

I would have expected this! OK, Add to the idea to mine kids for ideas, Big fashion.

If you are serious, you could research how on-site daycare was handled during WWII to entice women into the work force and help them succeed. It has been done before, and very successfully, but only long enough to win WWII and then send women back home in droves to be full time moms -- which they mostly were happy to do, in part because prior to WWII everyone was suffering through The Great Depression and savings rates for a great many de facto 2 income, no kids families during the war was as high as 50%. People were happy to buy a house in the 'burbs and live the good life after suffering through the depression and then the war back to back. But lots of interesting things happened during WWII. As part of your research, you might start by watching historically based movies, such as A League of Their Own.

That is true. Many good things happened in the USA during WWII, and many of those good things were abandoned as soon as the war ended. This was also true of "Total Quality Manufacturing" using the statistical techniques developed by Edwards Deming:


"Statistical methods were widely applied during World War II, but faded into disuse a few years later in the face of huge overseas demand for American mass-produced products"

Deming ended up in Japan because American companies were not willing to listen to him, after the war. The Japanese companies were very willing to listen to him. And thus something happened that many people thought impossible: the Japanese caught up to the USA, in terms of manufacturing quality.

send women back home in droves to be full time moms My mother told me of that time and she was one that wasn't particularly happy about being told "thanks for your heroic effort, but now back to the kitchen."

Interestingly, women's rights tend to go up during wartime or in very warlike cultures. The Spartans were a very military culture. Other Greek city-states thought the de facto rights of Spartan women were scandalous.

I don't know what the solution is (for how to promote gender equality without, say, a global war), but I am glad I was a military wife for many years.

I was serious, however the scope I had in mind was perhaps different than what you are suggesting in that:

1) The target is not just women, it's founders (men and women), and specifically founders at incubators where the work effort is intense. That way the scope of the proposal is limited to manageable proportions.

2) We're not talking about any onsite daycare but a very specific case.

3) The main goal is not to "entice women into the workforce" or to increase women in tech (although this great benefit may come as a side benefit) but to disrupt childcare for this particular scenario.

So the important questions are: how would preschool childcare be done different, how can kids really create something useful, can a company use this as a sustainable resource, etc.

It's vaguely disturbing to hear suggestions to use children as experimental subjects. It makes sense across a population (eg, all of UK) to do clustered RCTs, but the YCombinator nursery group would be tiny and so the evidence gathered would be weak, which makes (imo, I'd be interested to hear what the ethicists say) it more problematic.

And I'm even more unsure about this bit:

> how can kids really create something useful, can a company use this as a sustainable resource, etc.

Perhaps I'm misreading it? Better Off Ted had a bit where the children in the nursery were put to work. I don't think that's what you're suggesting?

Exploiting kids as subjects does sound repulsive (although using them as subjects with parents consent is perfectly ok for scientific purposes, e.g. see Alison Gopnik's fantastic work and her TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/alison_gopnik_what_do_babies_think?...). My suggestion was rather to use this group, which would be tiny as you point out, as a simple "sounding board", e.g. to develop new ways of teaching young children programming. Another way would be to get their ideas and keep them in the loop for development of new products targeting kids. Toy companies, such as Lego, routinely employ kids to test new toys but I think very few involve them in the creation phase.

Sorry, you are hearing things I did not intend. My commentary on how and why things were done during WWII is not intended to define scope of your project. You could just stop at "If you are serious, you could research how on-site daycare was handled during WWII." The rest of my comment is about history, not about your idea.

I was thinking something similar. Seems the daycare industry might be ripe for "disruption" (or preferably, innovation).

Solving these sorts of problems better would do wonders for the persistent gender gap in high tech.

"The first time Kurnia showed up with Adam, it may have raised a few eyebrows. While other founders with children have occasionally managed YC by having their spouse join them in an apartment in the area, no one had ever attempted to care for a toddler, alone, through the program."

Whenever you hear male founders/tech workers bitch & complain about women and tech and the level playing field, remember this example.

> the landlord [...] threatened to throw Kurnia and Adam out unless she agreed to clean the bathrooms

Pardon my french, but how the fuck is that legal? That's seriously messed up at a fundamental level.

I have literally no idea. I didn't think that a landlord could throw you out if you don't do a task for them.

I'm guessing this was cleaning the toddler affected bathroom(s).

"Moving quickly, she found she could cut the round-trip hike to about an hour. The only problem was when it rained, which happened several times. In those cases, she’d pass an umbrella up to Adam. He’d stay mostly dry, but Kurnia would be fairly wet by the time they arrived."

Wait, so none of her batchmates noticed this and offered her a ride for subsequent trips?

Most of the time when I took Adam to YC, it was not for batch events but rather for one-on-one office hours. When batchmates were present, they would give us a ride, as did the YC partners when they didn't have other responsibilities.

My hat is off to you. I joke that I have a 7 month old son and a 14 month old startup but then I also split duties with my wife, so it's a tiny fraction of what you've dealt with.

"The website is crashing!" as an early phrase would be awesome and horrifying all at once. :)

Whatever it takes for success. And pg is a genuinely nice fellow.

That vignette is classic pg. It makes me happy to see so well-chosen and vivid a detail in a report like this.

me too. i can just see it!

A lot of this discussion has centered on YC's support for parents / female founders. Since that wasn't the focus of the Fast Company article, I've shared my experience and thoughts on that subject more extensively here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julia-kurnia/a-female-founder-...

Huh they don't have digs for their batches. I would have thought they would.

That'd be an obvious next step for them, for sure.

I'd be shocked if YC ever did that. The presumption has always been that founders are adults who make their own decisions. YC partners aren't founders' bosses or life organizers. They just offer advice about startups.

I wasn't thinking like a kid-style dorm. When I was younger, I worked at a gas station for the summer in a tourist town (Tofino, BC). Gas station attendants aren't usually given free housing, but in this case the company did provide housing because they found it impossible to staff the place otherwise. The town got stuffed so full of tourists that there were no accommodations for the temporary summer staff. So hotel, restaurant, and even retail employers would have some kind of cheap and very rough housing deal for temp staff. Mattresses on the floor kind of thing, and only on an as-needed basis.

Because of the unique housing tension in SF, I'd guess that some employers do that there as well.

This is an amazing story. Reminds me of my mother. I need to call her...

Nice timing of this article.


Perhaps I'm naive, but I would've expected the folks at Y Combinator to go a little above and beyond so a parent with a young child wouldn't have to stay in a 'flophouse'.

I think most folks at YC weren't aware I was coming alone with Adam until well into the batch. They did go above and beyond to put me in touch with a housing advisor while I was in the area for interviews. The problem was that I was only staying for three months, too short a period to rent an apartment cheaply, and there didn't happen to be any women founders' shared houses in my batch.

In case it didn't come through clearly enough in the article, I should reiterate that the YC partners and my batchmates were super supportive and often went out of their way to make it easier for me to participate in YC events - offering rides, allowing Adam to tag along with me at office hours, helping to entertain him, and generally being extraordinarily patient and welcoming.

You don't need me to tell you you're a tremendous bad-ass, and I'm sure everyone was helpful and meant well, but if Y Combinator is truly trying to be inclusive they should've been more proactive here. I'm sort of shocked that at the most prestigious and successful incubator in the country, no one even seems to have even asked the admitted founders about any additional responsibilities they might have like child or elder care.

Agreed. That's one reason (among others) I'd never consider applying to YC. It appears to be tuned to individuals without any encumbrances -- i.e. the young, unattached, and fairly well-to-do.

Impressive that Julia hustled so hard just to be there at YC, but disappointing that she had to. Why doesn't YC provide some basic support for its founders to attend the program? At a minimum, room, board and transport for founders and their families for the duration.

Not doing so will strongly select for people who already have the means to support themselves in Silicon Valley for 3 months, which is like saying "rich kids only".

Of course YC provides "support for its founders to attend the program". It funds them to do so. Nonprofits get the same funding.

I don't know about this case, but the article mentions "the meager monthly stipend she allowed herself", which suggests that Julia chose to spend as much of the funding as possible on the nonprofit itself, despite considerable inconvenience. If that's so, I admire her for it, and it's a strong signal of authenticity for Zidisha.

I also admire Julia for the commitment she showed. She made it work, and by the sound of it, it was damn hard.

Don't get me wrong, YC clearly provides great support in general for its founders. What I'm suggesting is that I would expect them to go that bit further to be inclusive - especially with their public commitment to encouraging female founders.

My impression is that the funding founders get is interpreted as funding for the company, rather than for the founder to live. Is that wrong?

> funding for the company, rather than for the founder to live. Is that wrong?

Oh yes, quite wrong. The #1 purpose of the funding has always been to cover founders' living expenses while in YC. It was more than enough for that when we went through it in 2009, and of course the startups get a lot more these days.

I should repeat that I don't know any details, but I bet you the YC partners had no idea of the lengths Julia was personally taking. (Literally! Commuting an hour on foot with a two-year-old is quite a length to take.) This is clearly a strong and determined person. It seems unlikely that she would have brought such details up or asked for special treatment in any way.

The YC donation was more than enough to cover the cost of airfare and living in Mountain View for three months. I spent the majority of it on Zidisha rather than living expenses. Another reason we ended up staying in the Airbnb location, other than the affordability, was that Adam became good friends with one of the neighbor kids. :)

YC isn't a summer camp. It's not an incubator. You are not an incubee.

They give you money and you can spend it however you want. It's generally assumed the cost to start at startup these days is only food+housing for two or three people.

Well, the article does have (italics mine):

> she and Adam would have to get by in the Bay Area on the meager monthly stipend she allowed herself.

YC does give people a decent chunk of money; at least startups. Maybe it's different for non profits? From the article, it seems she chose to live frugally and spend it on her project.


That's false, as you could trivially find out for yourself if you wanted to.

Why didn't YC offer a good childcare solution from day one?

You've been abusive in this thread in several ways, including by posting this three times. Please stop.

YC is an investor. It provides funding, not "solutions". Founders can spend the funding on childcare if they deem that best for their startup. Probably some do. It's entirely their call.

One question - why was Kurnia the one who had to take Adam? Wouldn't it be a lot more sensible to leave him home with the dad?

I can't speak for anyone else's circumstances, but I can't imagine ever opting for my two year old son to be away from his mother for three months. Happy to elaborate, if people are interested.

I've only been a father for nine days (and only out of the hospital for two), but I absolutely feel the same way.

Please. I have no kids, hope to someday, but it seems to me that being separated from either parent for three months sucks equally for the parent, but the kid probably won't notice that much. It's not like he's breastfeeding or anything. I'm interested to learn how I might be wrong though.

*Yo, I asked a legitimate polite question in the interest of learning more, stating my preexisting assumptions and inviting people to educate me. The parent comment gave a very nice and informative reply which was helpful to me and likely others. I don't think that rates downvotes.

"Please resist commenting about being downvoted. It never does any good, and it makes boring reading."


At two years old most children will have a stronger bond with the mother than the father because generally the bulk of care, including breastfeeding, has been administered by the mother up until this point in their life. There are likely genetic/chemical/evolutionary forces at play here too.

Even at three years old, my daughter would unquestionably choose to spend three months with my wife rather than me (I'm not hurt or offended by this!).


"but the kid probably won't notice that much"

The kid will definitely notice :)

Being separated from a kid for three months would also be much harder emotionally on my wife than it would for me.

My wife and I are equally busy, and I operate better on less sleep than my wife. So with our daughter I did a lot of the "mom" things the first two years. She woke up like clockwork for a feeding every three hours for more than a year. Now, at two and a half, if she wakes up in the middle of the night she'll cry for "daddy" not "mommy."

In my experience this is not true when the father is also doing a lot of the care, so I am skeptical of the importance of "genetic/chemical/evolutionary forces."

Yes, that is somewhat speculative on my part although the "chemistry" part behind the bond created by breastfeeding is very well established.

I really doubt there's any chemical forces. My brother is a stay-at-home dad and his daughter far prefers him to her mother.

I was thinking that since kids mostly don't remember anything from before age 2-3, it wouldn't matter. But then again, it probably would matter to the parents, who wouldn't want to distress their kid regardless of whether he remembers.

Will not remember is not the same as will not affect, core emotional and psychological growth happens prior to 3, just because a child has poor recall does not mean they are not the sum of their experiences up to that point in time.

[citation needed]

The kid will definitely realize mom and dad are gone at two, they're not vegetables, but whether that has any impact on them later is not something that's been established by evidence. The idea that kids are the "sum of their experiences up to that point in time" is an old wives' tale.

I thought there was some evidence related to stress hormones, and the toll of being in a constant state of arousal due to stress. But that may be on older children.

It probably doesn't matter too much in the long-term, but you can't use childhood amnesia to justify ignoring the way a toddler feels right now!

The trauma still happened to the kid, whether he remembers it or not. If there are clinical studies that show psychological trauma at age 2 or 3 does not matter because of memory, I'll gladly be wrong, but I don't want to inflict distress in my kids. Not to mention seeing your kids being miserable crushes your spirits as well.

We dont fully understand childhood memory. The "skeptic" community is often fast to quote that kids remember nothing and be very reductionist but these hasty conclusions aren't justified by the evidence. Children do have early memories, the question is what quality are these memories and how do they affect them. There's no magical amnesia that happens or some pathways that light up on your third birthday that lets memory work. Its all a long and gradual process.


Far from having no memories at all, very young children remember a lot like adults. In early infancy, the neural structures crucial for memory are coming online: the hippocampus, which is, very roughly, in charge of storing new memories; and the prefrontal cortex, which is, very roughly, in charge of retrieving those memories.

But these neural regions and their connecting pathways are still developing. And they capture only part of the present as it flows by.

Plenty of two-year-olds do still breastfeed, actually. The story doesn't mention if Adam was breastfeeding but it's quite possible. Toddlers that age don't need breast milk nutritionally (at least in developed countries) but it's great for comfort and bonding. Best way there is to calm a kid down after a bump on the head.

Parenting is not an engineering exercise. Relationships aren't all that amenable to those approaches either. There aren't universal answers or optimal algorithms (from a scientific perspective, systems of thought based on revelation are another matter). Putting a two year old in daycare may not be better for the child than an adventure in California...and that's assuming that daycare is even available on demand, which in many places (such as the US) it usually isn't.

Parents stand in line when sign-ups begin. They get on waiting lists before their child is born. Demand exceeding the supply of affordable daycare is typical in the US. I don't even want to imagine what it's like in the Valley. When you have children, brace yourself.

They absolutely notice it. I'm a father of two, ages 3 and 12 weeks. When I'm gone, my oldest acts out in a big way. Toddlers are naturally very selfish. They know that the remaining parent is stressed and they'll use this to get their way. It's incredibly stressful for both the kid and parent left behind.

I would love to someday participate in an incubator such as YC but I just can't imagine how my family would handle it--we're dual-income and my wife is active duty military.

It depends on a lot of factors. I was a military wife. My husband was gone a lot. At one duty station, he was gone about six months out of the year, every year. He mostly wasn't a very involved father. Our oldest son mostly didn't care or even preferred for his father to be gone. Our younger son really missed daddy, in part because he was a more involved parent with our second child and in part because each child has their own personality.

A 2-year-old might very well be breastfeeding still, actually. It's my understanding that from a biological standpoint, it's pretty natural for a child to breastfeed up until 3-6 years old, rare as that is nowadays. One benefit of breastfeeding is that it acts as a natural form of (unreliable) birth control that helped to space out children before the advent of artificial birth control pills.

Sorry I didnt come back in time to elaborate (as offered). The other comments said what I would say and more.

One thought on you getting down voted: Your comment started with 'Please.', which could be interpreted to mean, 'yes, please do elaborate', or it could be interpreted as confrontational / disbelieving, as is sometimes the case when people just say 'Please!'. Just a thought.

Sorry, I had hoped the rest of my comment would make my intention clear. I see it didn't.

Attatchment parenting[1] which has some mild evidence base would suggest that separation from a parent should be handled carefully. A sudden three month break probably isn't compatible with attachment parenting.

[1] attachment parenting should not be confused with helicopter parenting, which has some superficial similarities but which is different and which has mild evidence of long lasting harm.

I can't speak for all kids, but some kids will most definitely notice being away from a parent at that age. Especially if that parent is the primary caregiver.

The article indicates the father tried to make arrangements (presumably) to keep the child (edit: or perhaps accompany them) but was unable to do so successfully:

Terra scrambled to find a substitute instructor at his martial-arts school, but came up short. All of which meant that if Kurnia was going to participate in YC, she’d have to separate Terra from his two-year-old son for three months—

To me, that sounds like he was trying to make arrangements to go with them. You don't need to have a substitute teacher to watch a child; there are daycare options, or he could bring the child to the school. Doesn't seem like a worse option than taking the child to live in a flophouse.

To me, people's basic parenting decisions sound like something we shouldn't be trying to debate on a message board.

It was the entire point of the story. So it is something that is up for discussion. I see almost no reason why the child didn't stay with his dad during that time.

Well, if "s73v3r" on Hacker News sees no reason, surely the matter is settled.

So tell me, why could the child not stay with his father? Why was it better that he live in a flophouse?

Sounds like it was very tight financially, it might have made more financial sense for her to integrate childcare into her daily life at YC than for him to pay for daycare/babysitting while he's at work. Seems it worked out fine for the most part, but it's also possible that if she had to do it over again, different choices would have been made.

That was my assumption.

The kids do much better when I'm the one on business trips than my wife. (I can manage, but they miss her more than they miss me.) Not sure how universal this is. I hear it changes when the kids get older.

Also - the dad in the story is a martial arts instructor. Perhaps watching so much violence every day wouldn't be great for the kids. (And it's not a profession that pays very well, which may have precluded daycare)

I chuckled a bit at your violence comment. One, because violence is not the main purpose of martial arts. Two, because the father teaches it, little Adam will undoubtedly be learning how to fight and defend himself when he's big enough.

> One, because violence is not the main purpose of martial arts.

You should probably try explaining that subtlety at least once to a kid under the age of 4 before you laugh at it. Most martial arts contain hitting and kicking components, or at least pretty physical throws and grapples. To a toddler, that's just fighting since it quacks like a duck. They're extremely literal at that age.

Some toddlers might understand it, but I'd be cautious assuming all of them would grasp an abstract like that. Remember, this is the same age group that might think it's totally reasonable to use the family dog as a substitute for paper towels, or want to share their spaghetti-o's with the fish in the fish bowl. When he's big enough to understand and restrain his actions, more power to him and his family.

I suppose that's a fair enough assumption, in theory. However having been around gyms with toddlers/young children around, everything is mostly ignored while the kids use the ring ropes as a personal jungle gym.

I don't know what they think or absorb from it, but I'm guessing they just see it as some sort of goofy adult playtime because they acclimate and grow bored of it quickly.

You're also forgetting that they also see us laughing, sweating, doing pushups and situps, and shaking hands at the end while we thank each other.

While breastfeeding, it is just about impossible for a child to be separated from Mommy. When no longer breastfeeding, I see no particular reason that the child could not go with Daddy just as easily as with Mommy. It depends on the family dynamics, I suppose. Many children are more closely bonded with their mothers, but that may be down to (out-dated, imho) cultural expectations that the mother be the primary caregiver. I have tried very hard to share the parenting equally with my wife, and my daughter seems to miss each of us equally when we are away. She has spent full days away from Mommy without trouble, but she has not yet done an overnight (breastfeeding). She has been without me for up to a week or so at a time though we usually Skype daily. I think, now, we would be willing to have my wife go away for a few days and have the daughter stay with me, but so far a situation requiring it hasn't come up. I travel more for work than my wife does.

For many families, that would be harder. For others, not. There's no right decision.

that was literally my first thought.


How on Earth could that possibly be any of your business?


What a dazzlingly dishonest comment. Your original comment read:

"Why wasn't the child left with the father?"

You rewrote it after I wrote my response, to which you originally replied "Flagged for rudeness".


No, he doesn't have you confused with anyone else. I saw the same thing.

The current comment at the root of this thread doesn't even make sense. "The company" was Julia Kurnia. The child care part of the story is about her efforts to handle child care while going through YC.

> "The company" was Julia Kurnia.

No, the company was YC.

I fixed my comment to improve clarity.

> I fixed my comment to improve clarity.

No, you didn't. tptacek's and Mz's description of what you did is accurate.

You're clearly commenting in bad faith, in a way that crosses over the line of what we ban people for. Your account history also contains many, many comments that break the HN guidelines. Please re-read and follow them from now on.



Please don't post unsubstantive comments to HN.


Oh geez, fine, tried just once to be a bit playful. Back to regular business, folks. Nothing to see here.

I honestly do not see why the child had to go with. What was wrong with the husband taking care of him?

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