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There has been a lot of heated debate on this issue lately and as a user, I decided to propose a definite policy on such matters:

The following is my proposed policy

1) When a problem from an ongoing contest is posted and someone has pointed us to the source of problems,

we should ask ourselves

a)Is the competition a part of the selection procedure for a particular country's team for the International Mathematical Olympiad?

If (a) is true, we should ask ourselves this

(i)Is the question a problem from a particular contest in the past or a well-known theorem

If so, I propose that the question be kept open.(Olympiad organizers are not supposed to propose well-known problems)[The onus of proof that the question has appeared elsewhere earlier should be on the poster.And we have enough competent people to judge if the problem is a well-known theorem or problem or not]

(ii)The problem is not well-known one at all.

The question should be promptly closed and comments disabled on it till the contest is over

b) If the competition is not part of the selection for the International Mathematical Olympiad, moderators should put up a sign saying: "This is part of the (name of the contest) competition.Please use your judgement while posting answers" and the moderators should not try to close the contest.We cannot be responsible for every little contest.

Please use upvotes to vote in favour and downvotes to vote against the proposal.

Edit:This is going to be debate;let us take all viewpoints into consideration as no single viewpoint will likely to be overwhelmingly useful for the site.My attempt is merely an imperfect, but perhaps a necessary one.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with (ii), but not with the rest, so will neither upvote nor downvote. I agree that we cannot be responsible for every contest, little or not so little. However, for contest questions that have an expiry date, I think that once we are made aware of the facts, there is a need to go beyond providing information. Please note that the comment is about ongoing contests only, and is not intended to be generalized. $\endgroup$ – André Nicolas Oct 1 '12 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ Just a side remark: whichever policy we adopt, we probably should write it into the FAQ blurb on the main site. (We have the freedom of editing the section under "What kind of questions can I ask here?") $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 1 '12 at 11:56
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I would like to make a counter-proposal:

If a moderator receives a request to temporarily remove a question from someone, the moderator uses their judgement to determine whether the request is reasonable and comes from a credible source. If so, they close and delete for the appropriate amount of time. In cases where it's not obvious that it's a reasonable request, the moderators should err on the side of not closing/deleting questions. Requests to remove old questions or generally known problems should be denied. Moderators should not undo decisions like this made by other moderators.

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    $\begingroup$ There are different moderators with different judgment. This proposal will backfire and cause unnecessary heat between the moderators. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 1 '12 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila: Added a sentence at the end to respond to your comment (no one has voted yet). Honestly I care a lot more about the substantive policy here than about keeping the moderators happy. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 1 '12 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that keeping the moderators happy is somewhat less important than keeping the house in order. However as Gerry's recent thread points out, there has been some "mod wars" (analog to closing-wars or so) recently. This is not good for the moderators and bad for the site. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 1 '12 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ I agree. However I think that it is important to make that addition that you made, just to clarify that mod wars should be avoided on this issue as a part of the policy. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 1 '12 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ I prefer in the general sense Noah's proposal over the OP. (a) I don't see why the Olympiads should get special treatment (b) while the onus should be on the contest organizers to secure their contest, I consider patrolling the internet and sending out requests to remove contest material a reasonable form of security. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 1 '12 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ How answers may be applied should be of no concern to us. MSE's charter is to disseminate mathematical knowledge, not to attempt to enforce motley ethical policies on how such knowledge may be applied. See my comment to zyx's answer. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Oct 1 '12 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Really analogies should be banned in internet discussions, because they result in people arguing about how good the analogy is rather than the point at hand. Suffice it to say I think "librarian" is a very poor analogy for a site that answers questions rather than providing resources to answer questions. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ Furthermore, many librarians in teaching settings (both high school and college level) do consider part of their job to be preventing cheating and plagiarism. There are whole books written on this subject (e.g. "Combating student plagiarism: an academic librarian's guide"). I'm pretty confident that if you walk into a library, set your homework on the desk and ask "where can I find the solution manual for my homework" the librarian's response will not be to give you the solution manual to your textbook. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ At all the libraries I can think of that have solution manuals, they serve a high volume of students who come to the desk with a stack of homework and want to use the solution manual. The only access restriction is that the manuals cannot leave the library, because they are in demand. The plagiarism campaigns are librarians explaining to students how to cite and locate references. Librarians refusing access to material because of feared plagiarism or cheating is not something I have heard of, but maybe you have some examples in mind. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 2 '12 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque: There's a difference between restricting access and actively aiding and abetting. I'm sure plenty of librarians see such a difference. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I have gotten the impression from you that the dissemination of information is the goal, and that as a matter of principle, one should not attempt to evaluate whether it should cause harm, or if and how to restrict information in order to mitigate that harm. But it is exactly this activity that people are trying to engage in here: if and how to go about restricting questions and answers to contest problems to make things better overall through decreasing harm. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Oct 3 '12 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I have to ask (even though I am honestly tired of this conversation already), suppose you get an email from a contest organizer asking you to remove a certain question (which by luck has less than 50 views, no comments, votes or answers whatsoever). Would you do that, or would you send them a reply that it is not for you to decide, etc. etc.? Now what if that email came from a rather respected organization, e.g. AMS, would you do the same? $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I don't care if the question is relevant, instead of a straightforward answer we seem to waltz around for several comments which you will later use to claim that this is going off topic, and in later occasions use against me with "you do this all the time" sort of comebacks... The question itself is relevant because as I stated numerous times, this site must not ignore all other mathematical bodies in the world. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx: Since Bill is the main antagonist in most cases, and its seems that he is also an extreme separatist I wanted to hear his opinion. Since I don't really go well with Bill, I always prefer to have open communications with him. I do think it is relevant to this subject. Since you are not a moderator and he is a moderator, furthermore he undid actions taken by other moderators, I wanted to hear his answer to this question. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: But we're discussing the issue of whether this site should police cheating that occurs on this site. Also, only the latter half of that phrase was aimed at you, and is based on comments like: "How answers may be applied should be of no concern to us." "These matters are beyond the scope of this site." "We should not cripple our site based on matters having nothing to do with us." "This is not our problem." Also, phrases like "I think that our job is only to disseminate knowledge, not to attempt to police how that knowledge may be used.", if I assume it's meant to apply to this issue. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Oct 3 '12 at 20:16
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I propose we do nothing special for contest problems, and treat them the same as other questions.

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    $\begingroup$ Here here! (Padding to satisfy minimum comment length.) $\endgroup$ – Unreasonable Sin Oct 3 '12 at 16:25
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I posted this at the end of a long chain of comments, but perhaps it can be considered a proposal.

  1. FAQ has an item informing online contest organizers that they can (if they choose to) ask an MSE moderator to post their contest problems on MSE in a locked form. When doing so, the organizers should specify the contest period, which is indicated in the post.

  2. The questions are unlocked at the specified date. MSE users can then post their solutions and vote for the best one, as is usually done.

  3. If another MSE user posts one of these contest questions, it is closed as a duplicate, which is already done on a regular basis. A duplicate is not necessarily a verbatim copy. The MSE users have sufficient experience deciding whether Question X should be closed as a duplicate of Question Y, and they can apply the same practice here.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree. Questions should be real questions posed by users genuinely interested in learning the mathematics required for their solution. They should not be locked placeholders posted only for the purpose of preventing variations on these questions from being asked here. Again, I emphasize that difficulties posed by the creation of online competitions should be of no concern to this site. This site has nothing to do with external matters such as online competitions. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Oct 1 '12 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque The second sentence is not true as stated. SE allows encyclopedia-type questions, by posting which the OP does not necessarily seek new knowledge. I did not learn anything new by posting this question, for example. $\endgroup$ – user31373 Oct 1 '12 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Encyclopedia postings, and virtually every other use of the duplicate questions rubric, allow for posting new answers under at least one version of the question. This is not true under the preventive locking, which is a huge difference and a complete reversal of the existing SE philosophy on duplicates (such as to prevent redundancy, increase the efficiency for users, reduce unwanted material instead of adding it as this proposal would do). Additional criticisms of preventive locking are at the end of the comment trail under my answer, where LVK had originally made the proposal. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 1 '12 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ @LVK I'm sure you knew what my point was, so there is no need to quibble over tangential technicalities. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Oct 1 '12 at 22:19
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I think that any attempt to patrol contest problems here (vs action by the contest organizers, before and after they are notified) will run into endless difficulties.

Deletion helps those who post with the intention of cheating on a contest. They may get some useful answers, and are auto-notified of replies, but other contestants are kept in the dark.

Locking contest problem P, but not functionally similar questions such as reference-requests, generalizations, specializations, reductions, or sub-problems based on P, is a fig leaf that allows the more moralistically inclined users of the site to claim concern for the contests while allowing open cheating in all the indirect ways. For some forms of indirection there will be serious differences of opinion as to whether it is good or bad in relation to a contest (such as asking where to find problems similar to $P_1$, methods useful for $P_2$, or practice problems helpful to those wanting to solve $P_3$).

Restricting in any way the discussion of questions that are "similar" to open contest problems, or could potentially disrupt the contests if applied in the obvious way, is a serious form of censorship to the site. A cure much worse than the disease.

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    $\begingroup$ My point of view is that it's not M.SE's problem to root out all endless variations of contest and exam problems, but that when problematic questions are pointed out to M.SE then we should behave like good citizens of the mathematical community and close the questions. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 1 '12 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx: As I wrote in some other thread. I hope to have a future in the academy. I would not like my name to be linked to a site which has a nefarious reputation for cheating. Homework questions are quite the grayscale, and I have a very strong opinion where I stand on this scale. I can testify that the good users on this site closed and deleted home-exam questions, once those were identified as such. I honestly feel that if MSE chooses to ignore the outside world on those issues, then it is no longer a community I should feel comfortable in, and I am sure that I am not the only one. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 1 '12 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx: While most courses do grade homework assignments, in my view the main point behind these exercises is to get used to applying definitions and getting used to a certain settings. I see no harm, and rather a good deal of help, to sit and explain something to someone in full. Because of this I don't think that every homework problem deserves closure. Exams, on the other hand are meant to actually measure how well you did your homework and understood the material on your own -- and for that they should be closed. Contests are meant for an individual or a particular team [cont.] $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 1 '12 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ @LVK Why do you think that mathematical problems can be copyrighted? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Oct 2 '12 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque: I am pretty sure under present copyright laws, specific statements of mathematical problems can be copyrighted, just like everything else that is written. And like mostly everything else, paraphrasing goes a long way toward preventing, strictly speaking, copyright infringement. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 2 '12 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ The "mathematical community" is much larger than just academic mathematicians. It includes summer programs, AoPS, m.SE, high school math teachers, etc. People who care about mathematics and are involved in promoting mathematics. If someone is putting a bunch of effort into running a competition, the least we can do is help them out in very minor ways to avoid our accidentally or purposefully abetting cheating. It's a question of simple decency and niceness to people who put a lot of effort into mathematics, and who we'd expect to help us out in the future if we made a reasonable request. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: for example, the Mathematical Association of America quite clearly believes that the USAMO exam questions are copyrighted. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 2 '12 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: the two situations are clearly not even remotely similar. All USAMO problems are supposed to be original (as in, not having been asked in that form before). Please stop using false analogies. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 2 '12 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Glad to see you've come to the same conclusion I did 6 hours ago. Cheers. :-) $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 2 '12 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque can correct me if I'm wrong, and I hope I am, but my understanding is that he thinks contest and exam questions should be treated like all other questions and given full and complete answers. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque: Do I understand correctly that in your opinion if someone asks a question from an exam or contest and you know this fact, your opinion is that you should answer the question. But that you want to clarify that although you're in favor of knowingly helping someone cheat, your goal in doing so isn't to help them cheat. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Y'all are free to give lengthy answers and make yourselves feel either clever or munificent; I personally dislike freeloading when it comes to academic challenges. This attitude, if not the issue of contest questions, is one reason I've essentially given up on MSE $\endgroup$ – user16299 Oct 2 '12 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque: If a question were already on m.SE before the contest, then indeed we should leave the answer up. There's a huge difference between information that's already available and made-to-order solutions given to someone trying to cheat. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ No, it means I don't think the library should write a new book at the request of someone competing in the competition. As I said, existing old questions like existing old books should stay up. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Oct 2 '12 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque I have stopped using certain other corners of the internet because they seem to have a consensus, or dominant voices, espousing things I find objectionable. I don't find myself needing to use MSE and I find increasingly that I don't want to contribute $\endgroup$ – user16299 Oct 2 '12 at 19:48
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[ Many edits and additions, see end of posting. ]

I would like to point out that there are hacks that make it impossible for locking to prevent the use of MSE to obtain answers. For this answer, the word saboteur is adapted from some of the earlier conversation, where it was claimed that answering live contest questions is sabotage, but the term answerer could be used instead.

Askers can include contact information and other clues in their user profile. Send warez to (...) @ email.com . Saboteurs can search for recent closed or locked questions under the (contest-math) tag, look through the asker profiles, and supply solutions.

Questions can include invitations to discussion of the same problems on other sites. I saw this interesting problem on (link to unmoderated contest problem BBS). Users who want to promote these sites can do it with links in questions, answers and comments. This can be done persistently but on topic and within MSE posting guidelines, to grow a community of contest solvers in addition to getting information about particular problems. The growth does not have to come only from the immediate needs of a current contest, and no conspiracy is required.

Saboteur solvers can include contact information in their profile and clues in their answers. I like to discuss contest problems, hit me up at (...). Over time this would circumvent a deletion policy, no matter how extensive, by using MSE as a meeting and advertising place for a population that does its Q + A elsewhere. Frequent users would learn who to call when they need help that is restricted. If the askers and solvers can find their community using MSE it doesn't matter so much if it is done through question-answer or some other means.

This is, at the moment, minor or nonexistent compared to the more traditional ways of gaming unsupervised competitions, such as spending ridiculous amounts of time (which is within the rules), forming a large team of solvers, outsourcing the work to hired guns, or having a giant library of books with problems and solutions. But it illustrates the futility of trying to restrict the answers here.

Earlier, Noah Snyder had speculated that there is a "critical mass" of users here who actively desire the solution of active contest problems, or despise math competitions, or for whatever reason would eagerly sabotage the contests. I don't think that is correct, but if there is no large saboteur population here at present, it is possible that it would grow in response to measures taken to restrict contest discussion. Or not, but it is a possibility to consider.

In response to the comments, I rewrote most of this answer, but would also like to underline the point that there is nothing conspiratorial here. No coordinated planning or communication is necessary. Individuals can act alone and in a short time deliberately or spontaneously organize a community. The volume and exposure of MSE would make that possible and no amount of locking and deletion policies can control it.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if you've been watching too much X-Files or too many times Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson. Either choice is a decent way to pass time, but this post just seems... overly conspiring. Are there ninjas on the lawn trying to kill us? :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf, some might say the same about obsessing whether somebody somewhere is cheating. If you don't think the hacking is likely, or you believe that the potential saboteur population is small (as I said to Noah when he proposed it as an important element of the cheating discussion), then that would also suggest the cheating problem is minor or imaginary. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 3 '12 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ I think that everyone that partook in the comments discussion on your previous answer (you, me, Bill, Willie, Noah, Yemon, everyone) should clear their cache, by drinking or whatever. You have any idea how insane you people sound?? This is just madness. It is not long before someone connects the Israeli-Iranian crisis to this problem, or even WW-II (with respect to Godwin's law...). Seriously guys, take a day off. Take a break. Take a night to relax. Then read this page again... $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ It's weird how you claim that mathematicians don't form a community in a real sense, but contest saboteurs who act alone would spontaneously form a community. Needless to say, I think that what you wrote here is an extremely far fetched situation. Especially if the saboteurs work alone. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ The saboteurs would form even less of a community (the kind that has trust, reciprocity, acquaintance, kinship, etc) than mathematicians. You could call it a group, a collection, a community, a ring, an underground, or something else. The saboteurs only need to be a significant number of users on an unmoderated forum, it does not have to be devoted to contest analysis. And there can be a large number of non saboteurs who are not for or against the contests, but just use the forum. This all can develop, and maybe has already, with nobody knowing or caring about others who do the same. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 3 '12 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Yes. And The Blackadder is a true story of British history. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 3 '12 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ We are talking about people doing things openly that are legal and generally positive (answering math questions). Setting up another site can be as simple as a matter of taste, such as preference for a low tech unmoderated math forum on Yahoo or Google groups, versus glitzy but moderated Mathjax on MSE. Advertising one site on another, using non-spam, unremovable messages is really not such a big deal. Words like "conspiracy" are hard to apply in a totally open environment where everything happens in the sunlight. This is straightforward stuff, not sci-fi. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 3 '12 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ Derivation of the word saboteur added at beginning of answer, to avoid silly issues about conspiracy. $\endgroup$ – zyx Oct 3 '12 at 22:47

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