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Chinese online education app Zuoyebang raises $1.6 billion from investors including Alibaba

The rivalry between China’s top online learning apps has become even more intense this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest company to score a significant funding round is Zuoyebang, which announced today (link in Chinese) that it has raised a $1.6 billion Series E+ from investors including Alibaba Group. Other participants included returning investors Tiger Global Management, SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China and FountainVest Partners.

Zuoyebang’s latest announcement comes just six months after it announced a $750 million Series E led by Tiger Global and FountainVest. The latest financing brings Zuoyebang’s total raised so far to $2.93 billion. The company did not disclose its latest worth, but Reuters reported in September that it was raising at a $10 billion valuation.

One of Zuoyebang’s main competitors is Yuanfudao, which announced in October that it had reached a $15.5 billion valuation after closing a $2.2 billion round led by Tencent. This pushed Yuanfudao ahead of Byju as the world’s most valuable ed-tech company. Another popular online learning app in China is Yiqizuoye, which is backed by Singapore’s Temasek.

Chinese live tutoring app Yuanfudao is now worth $15.5 billion

Zuoyebang offers online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students, and claims about 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day. In comparison, there were about 200 million K-12 students in 2019 in China, according to the Ministry of Education (link in Chinese).

In fall 2020, the total number of students in Zuoyebang’s paid live-stream classes reached more than 10 million, setting an industry record, the company claims. While a lot of the growth was driven by the pandemic, Zuoyebang founder Hou Jianbin said in the company’s funding announcement that it expects online education to continue growing in the longer term, and will invest in K-12 classes and expand its produt categories.

Chinese online learning app Zuoyebang raises $750M

 


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Google reportedly tightens grip on research into ‘sensitive topics’

Google is currently under fire for apparently pushing out a researcher whose work warned of bias in AI, and now a report from Reuters says others doing such work at the company have been asked to “strike a positive tone” and undergo additional reviews for research touching on “sensitive topics.”

Reuters, citing researchers at the company and internal documents, reports that Google has implemented new controls in the last year, including an extra round of inspection for papers on certain topics and seemingly an increase in executive interference at later stages of research.

That certainly appears to have been the case with Dr. Timnit Gebru, an AI researcher at Google whose resignation seems to have been forced under confusing circumstances, following friction between her and management over work that her team was doing. (I’ve asked Gebru and Google for comment on the story.)

Among the “sensitive” topics, according to an internal webpage seen by Reuters, are: “the oil industry, China, Iran, Israel, COVID-19, home security, insurance, location data, religion, self-driving vehicles, telecoms and systems that recommend or personalize web content.”

It’s clear that many of these issues are indeed sensitive, though advising researchers to take care when addressing them seems superfluous considering the existence of ethics boards, peer review, and other ordinary controls on research. One researcher who spoke to Reuters warned that this sort of top-down interference from Google could soon get “into a serious problem of censorship.”

This is in addition to the fundamental issue of vital research being conducted under the auspices of a company for which it may or may not be in their interest to publish. Naturally large private research institutions have existed for nearly as long as organized scientific endeavor, but companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others exert an enormous influence over fields like AI and have good reason to avoid criticism of lucrative technologies while shouting their usefulness from every rooftop.

Google CEO says company will review events leading up to Dr. Timnit Gebru’s departure


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VCs dispense with niceties during Capitol riots: “Never talk to me again”

It was hard not to feel emotional today, as the world watched for more than four hours as rioters stormed into and throughout the Capitol building in Washington to disrupt the certification of the election win of incoming U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden. They’d been encouraged earlier in the afternoon by outgoing President Donald Trump to head to the building and protest what he falsely claimed yet again was a stolen election, a lie he began to spread the evening of the U.S. election in November.

While members of Congress called on Trump to make a statement rebuking the rioters’ actions from their undisclosed locations, he instead encouraged his supporters over Twitter, writing of the “sacred landslide election victory” that was “so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots” and later posting a video in which repeated his lies about a “landslide election that was stolen from us.”

It was the first time in American history that supporters of the losing presidential candidate forcibly disrupted the official counting of electoral votes, as noted earlier in the evening by PBS. And while Trump’s tweets were later deleted by Twitter for “repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy,” the move was viewed by many as too little and too late, including by Silicon Valley investors, a wide number of whom let loose their fury toward the outgoing administration and its enablers.

So many of us have held off on this post in the name of balance and decency. If you still support Trump after this, FUCK YOU and never talk to me again.

— Ryan Sarver (@rsarver) January 6, 2021

What’s happening in DC is a terrorist attack on the US gov & should be dealt w/ as such

One warning to stand down, then head shot

The deference to white domestic terrorist orgs is appalling & must end

If black folks were assaulting the Capitol, there’d be helicopter gunships

— Matt Ocko (@mattocko) January 6, 2021

I’m sorry Hawley, I can’t hear you over the first pump to the MAGA crowd earlier. Sit the fuck down. (Nice double mask by Romney though!)

— M.G. Siegler (@mgsiegler) January 7, 2021

A lingering question is whether the ignominious day — one on which a dozen Senate Republicans and dozens more Republican House members had planned to object to the certification of the election results — will begin to polarize people further or whether, following Trump’s departure, some of that fury begins to subside instead.

Some investors, at least, say their anger has always had more to do with basic human decency, which seemed frequently to take a backseat during the Trump administration.

Deena Shakir of Lux Capital used to work for the Obama administration and is transparent about her political perspective on Twitter. But she says of today’s events that they “are not about politics. What we have witnessed is an affront to democracy, an assault on American history, and a gruesome reflection of the divided nation we live in.”

Hunter Walk — who cofounded the venture firm Homebrew and today tweeted, “don’t be putting [Trump son-in-law and White House advisor] Jared Kushner on cap tables when this is all said and done” — echoes the sentiment. “I’m not afraid to have a strong public voice on issues I consider to be urgent and essential human rights questions.”

As for whether the shock of today might make it harder to fund or partner with a team who supported Trump’s ascendency, Walk suggests it won’t, that business is business. “We fund wonderful entrepreneurs and employ no purity tests on whether they agree with us 100%. I’m certain we’ve backed people who sit to our political left and to our political right – that’s not an issue for us and not an issue for them.”

To the extent that Walk’s public political stance may turn off some talented founders who “would just prefer their investors shut up and write checks,” that’s “ok,” too, says Walk. “We don’t believe we need to compromise our values in order to be successful.”

Shakir meanwhile suggests that she doesn’t always have the luxury of tuning out politics entirely. For one thing, she considers those who terrorized the nation’s capital today “angered perpetrators of a jingoistic, supremacist ideology that is not only normalized but actually incited by the highest branch of our government and amplified via social media.”

More, she notes, “Given my focus on healthcare, so much of my own thesis development and so many of my conversations have inevitably been informed by the pandemic, which—for better or worse—has become politicized.”

Try as she might to bifurcate politics from work, it’s futile right now, Shakir says. “These events and policies inform our present and our future, affect the markets that value our companies, and contribute to trends and white spaces.”

Today, she adds, they also “reflect our values as a nation and as human beings.”


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Why and how financial institutions are modernizing testing

Today financial services firms face unprecedented consumer expectations. The pressure is on to produce always-on apps that deliver whenever and however users need it. 

Organizations are responding to this pressure by choosing to focus on DevOps, agile development and other initiatives that can accelerate time to market, boost performance and improve efficiency. Those producing the best outcomes, though, have one additional thing in common. They are modernizing testing. 

Why is test modernization so important? Just consider the experiences of one, large financial services enterprise, who had adopted proprietary test tools that were costly to maintain. Test scripts were developed manually, resulting in long delays as development teams waited for code to be tested. There simply was no way to integrate and deliver code continuously at speed without sacrificing quality. 

The dilemma is all too common. Application testing simply hasn’t kept pace with market demands. Many organizations are locked into complex, proprietary tools that require specialized knowledge and lack the scale and flexibility needed to deliver continuous, accelerated test coverage. Instead, they conduct tests only after design and development are complete – often with less than total coverage. 

According to Andrea Cabeça, Executive Superintendent at Bradesco Bank, legacy systems can limit modernization programs. As an example, developing shorter test cycles can be a challenge when dealing with mainframe systems that take 20 hours to run transactions. Regulatory demands on the financial industry add a further layer of complexity- you need to transform and give space for your team to be creative and try new things, while staying within those regulatory demands that limit you. 

There is also the problem of adapting new tools to manage the old legacy world,  according to Cabeça. Although financial teams want to embrace collaborative work, unit tests, and more, these new steps don’t always work with old monolith systems. Making a push to go cloud first, can add challenges of its own.

An automated alternative
Forward-thinking financial services teams are now modernizing testing to break through such barriers. They are moving to an open-source, technology-agnostic test automation framework able to span the entire DevOps lifecycle. 

These new platforms transform and democratize testing. With an automated framework that is easy to use, anyone in the application delivery chain can run SaaS-based, open-source tests at any time, from anywhere. All it takes is a software browser. You can validate performance at every stage of the application lifecycle – from product strategy and code development to delivery and production. 

As a result, you have the data you need to determine whether the work you are doing is moving the needle on key business strategies. You can establish a continuous feedback loop that improves quality, drives higher levels of customer satisfaction and builds a better bottom line. 

The business case for modernization
As you might expect, financial institutions take a no-nonsense approach to technology investments, and they’ve found the business case for continuous, automated testing is compelling. 

A report from industry analysts at Forrester explores the total economic impact experienced by five companies making the move to an enterprise-ready, open-source testing framework. Each has adopted a solution that supports continuous delivery, providing 100 percent test coverage at speed. They can automate and standardize end-to-end performance testing and conduct load testing at scale.

Analysts found that over a three-year period, the companies experienced a 207 percent return on investment, realized a net present value of $2.6 million, and produced almost $4 million in operating savings and other benefits. 

By diving deep into each company’s experiences, analysts identified the source of these significant, bottom-line benefits. A few examples: 

A 10 percent improvement in developer efficiency
With a testing platform that supports shift left, developers can test during sprints instead of weeks after the fact. If bugs are found, they don’t waste time reacquainting themselves with the code they’ve written or the use case they’re addressing. Instead they can quickly isolate and fix issues and can build quality in from the ground up. 

Forrester found that testing during development saved a half-day of developer time for every 40 hours worked. Unplanned work was reduced by 28 percent, and team members spent half as much time on test case design.

A 10-fold improvement in application performance
With automation, teams can test more frequently at every stage in the development lifecycle – before new applications and updates hit production and are encountered by real customers. Catching errors and resolving them earlier makes a big impact. Forrester found nearly 40 percent of the financial benefits realized with test automation were linked to these significant application performance improvements.

One company said it had eliminated the spike in call center traffic typical during new software releases as customers reported problems. Another reported application load time improved by 10 to 15 percent. Yet another said software availability had improved from “three nines” to “four nines.”

A $300K annual reduction in operating costs
Legacy testing platforms based on proprietary technology are expensive to operate. They come with a high initial price tag and require costly ongoing maintenance. Forrester found that teams making the move to open-source testing were able to eliminate licensing fees and costly upgrades, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Faster time to market
The study shows that test automation accelerates the development DevOps lifecycle and enables organizations to release new applications and updates much faster than before. As a result, adopters were poised to accelerate growth and to move more quickly into new markets. 

Improved strategic alignment 
An automated test framework made it possible to achieve new levels of transparency and to keep all stakeholders aligned – from product strategy teams and developers to operations and customer service teams. Automated reporting tools made it easy to monitor critical metrics, identify trends and determine how various releases were faring before and after launch. As a result, team members had the information needed to ensure their efforts were effectively supporting important corporate initiatives.

Join the test automation revolution 
If your testing tools have become a bottleneck, it’s time to adopt a modern, open-source framework. When you do, you will be poised to broaden your test program and to keep up with the fast-paced demands of today’s marketplace.

 

Content provided by Broadcom

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Snapchat locks President Donald Trump’s account

Snapchat locked President Donald Trump’s account after pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol. A Snap spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the action was taken on Wednesday and added that the company will monitor the situation closely before re-evaluating its decision.

This is not the first time Snap has taken action against Trump’s account over concerns about dangerous rhetoric from the president. In June, it announced content from Trump’s Snapchat would no longer be promoted in its Discover tab, and would only be visible to users if they subscribe to or search for it.

In a blog post published shortly before Snap announced its decision, co-founder and chief executive officer Evan Spiegel said that Snapchat “simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform.”

Snapchat is no longer promoting Trump’s posts

Unlike many other social media platforms, Snapchat was created for users to communicate with friends instead of a wider audience, the Snap spokesperson said. It has focused on making it harder to spread misinformation by relying on moderated and vetted content. For example, the Discover tab only features content from editorial partners like Reuters and other news organizations.

Twitter also locked Trump out of his account after forcing the removal of three tweets, but that action may last for only twelve hours. Facebook and Instagram locked Trump out of posting for 24 hours and blocked the #StormTheCapitol hashtag.

Many activists are calling for Twitter and Facebook to make their bans permanent, with ethics organization Accountable Tech tweeting that “the violent assault on the Capitol today has been heartbreaking, but not entirely unexpected. Sadly, Twitter and Facebook’s preparedness and response has been wildly inadequate. Simply labeling incitements of violence is not enough.”

Color of Change, activist groups step up pressure to kick Trump off Twitter, Facebook


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SD Times news digest: Grafana Cloud unveils free plan, Cockroach Labs’ $160 million funding, and Blueprint launches RPA platform migration

Grafana announced a new free plan that gives users access to Prometheus and Graphite for metrics, Loki for logs, and Tempo for tracing integrated into Grafana. 

“With Grafana Cloud, you get a service managed by the maintainers of these leading open source projects, whose deep knowledge allows us to run them efficiently at scale better than any other company in the world,” Richard Lam, a senior product manager at Grafana Labs wrote in a blog post.

The paid Grafana Cloud plan was also upgraded to include new features and five time more metrics. 

Cockroach Labs announces $160 million funding
Cockroach Labs wrote that it plans to use the funds for further product development for its cloud-native, distributed SQL database and to expand its staff. 

The latest financing was led by Altimeter Capital with participation from new investors such as Greenoaks and Lone Pine, and many existing investors. 

The company also announced a free version of Cockroach Cloud for development and education that will soon be released in beta.

Additional details are available here.

Blueprint launches RPA platform migration
The new robotic process automation (RPA) platform enables companies to quickly switch from one RPA tool to another, which was previously constrained by many factors such as code parity, lost credentials, absent versioning, and more, according to Blueprint in a post.

The solution takes in bots from any leading RPA tools and then creates a digital blueprint that can be pushed into other RPA platforms. The blueprints also enable automated processes to connect to relevant dependencies, systems, and constraints.

“Our technology reduces the complexities and cost of shifting RPA tools to near zero, allowing companies to pick the platform that’s best for them, regardless of how much they’ve already developed on a competing platform,” said Dan Shimmerman, the president and CEO of Blueprint. “This ultimately pushes RPA tools down the value stack, commoditizing automation and execution platforms, so companies can choose the vendor that offers the best price and value and simply switch.”

Linux Foundation launches open source management and strategy training program
The new program consists of seven modular courses that teach the basic concepts for building effective open source practices within organizations. 

The courses were to designed to be “reasonably high-level,” and detailed enough to help open source users to implement these concepts quickly, according to the Linux Foundation 

“Organizations must prepare their teams to use [open source] properly, ensuring compliance with licensing requirements, how to implement continuous delivery and integration, processes for working with and contributing to the open source community, and related topics,” said Chris Aniszczyk, the co-founder of the TODO Group and VP of Developer Relations at The Linux Foundation. “This program provides a structured way to do that which benefits everyone from executive management to software developers.”

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California vegan egg startup Eat Just yokes itself to China’s fast food chain

Eat Just, a food startup from San Francisco making chicken-less eggs, has ambitions to crack the Chinese market where consumer appetite for plant-based food is growing and other Western vegan substitute brands like Beyond became available in recent quarters.

The startup said this week it will be suppling to fast-food chain Dicos, a local rival to McDonald’s and KFC in China. The agreement will see Eat Just add its plant-based eggs to the restaurant’s breakfast items across more than 500 locations. The eggs are derived from a legume called mung beans, which have long been a popular ingredient for soup, noodles and dessert in China.

At Dicos in major Chinese cities, consumers will find Eat Just eggs in breakfast burgers, bagel sandwiches and Western-style breakfast plates. That diversifies the Dicos plant-based menu which already includes a vegan chicken burger supplied by local startup Starfield. Dicos also offers a gateway into China’s low-tier cities where it has built a stronghold and can potentially help evangelize plant-based proteins in communities beyond China’s urban yuppies. The chain operates a total of 2,600 stores in China and serves 600 million customers a year.

Eat Just first entered China in 2019 and currently generates less than 5% of its revenue from the country, Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just, told TechCrunch. But over time, the company expects China to account for more than half of its revenue. Ten of its 160 employees are based in China.

Eat Just’s vegan egg recipe / Photo: Eat Just

“We have been intentional about starting small, going slow and hiring people who know the market and understand how to build a sustainable business there. We’ve also been focused on finding the right partners to work with on downstream manufacturing, sales and distribution, and that work continues,” said Noyes.

The partnership with Dicos arrived on the heels of Eat Just’s announcement to set up an Asia subsidiary. The nine-year-old company, formerly Hampton Creek, has raised over $300 million from prominent investors including Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It was last valued at $1.2 billion.

Before its tie-up with Dicos, Eat Just had already been selling online in China through Alibaba and JD.com among other retail channels. Its China business is currently growing by 70% year-over-year.

While there’s no shortage of strong competition in the plant-based food race in China, Eat Just claims it’s taken a unique angle by zeroing in on eggs.

“Plant-based meat companies offer products that pair deliciously with Just Egg,” the brand name of the startup’s main product, Noyes noted.

“Plant-based foods are increasing in popularity among Chinese consumers and more sustainable eating is becoming part of a national dialogue about the feeding of the country in the future. China produces about 435 billion eggs per year and demand for protein is increasing.”

Indeed, Euromonitor predicted that China, the world’s largest meat-consuming country, would see its “free from meat” market size grow to $12 billion by 2023, compared to $10 billion in 2018.

Beyond Burger arrives in Alibaba’s grocery stores in China


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SD Times Open-Source Project of the Week: AlmaLinux

AlmaLinux is an enterprise-grade server OS that CloudLinux released to replace CentOS. According to the company, it will serve as a free Linux OS for the community, and be ready within the first quarter of this year. 

Right after Red Hat announced that it’s CentOS stable release is no longer under development last month, CloudLinux launched the project for the replacement, code-named Project Lenx. This resulted in the 1:1 binary compatible fork of RHEL 8 now named AlmaLinux. 

Now, users of CentOS can switch to AlmaLinux through one command without any switching downtime. 

“The demise of the CentOS stable release left a very large gap in the Linux community which prompted CloudLinux to step in and launch a CentOS alternative,” said Igor Seletskiy, the CEO and founder of CloudLinux Inc. “For CloudLinux it was an obvious move: the Linux community was in need, and the CloudLinux OS is a CentOS clone with significant pedigree – including over 200,000 active server instances. AlmaLinux is built with CloudLinux expertise but will be owned and governed by the community.” 

To bolster the community that is governing ongoing development efforts, CloudLinux is committed to supporting it for the next eight years with $1 million annual investment, according to the AlmaLinux website.

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TikTok rolls out its first lidar-powered AR effect

Snapchat was among the first apps to leverage the iPhone 12 Pro’s LiDAR Scanner for AR, but now TikTok has followed suit. The social video app confirmed today it has launched its first-ever lidar-powered effect to help its users ring in the new year. The effect features an AR ball, similar to the one that drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. After a countdown, the ball drops and explodes to fill the room with confetti, as well as a floating “2021” in the air.

Support for LiDAR, or light detection and ranging, was introduced on the new flagship 5G iPhone models, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, in the fall. The technology helps the iPhone better understand the world around you, by measuring how long it takes for light to reach an object in the space and reflect back.

Along with improvements to the iPhone’s machine learning capabilities and dev frameworks, this allows for more immersive augmented reality (AR) experiences.

Snapchat, an early adopter of the technology, had first used the new LiDAR Scanner to create a Lens in its app where flowers and grasses would grow in the room around you. The Lens included virtual vegetation that even climbed up the walls and around the cabinets in the room, for example.

To ring in 2021 we released our first AR effect on the new iPhone 12 Pro, using LiDAR technology which allows us to create effects that interact with your environment – visually bridging the digital and physical worlds. We're excited to develop more innovative effects in 2021! pic.twitter.com/6yFD2FfHta

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) January 6, 2021

Similarly, TikTok’s effect aims to use LiDAR’s understanding of the room to land the confetti more realistically after the ball explodes.

In the example video the company published on Twitter, it showed the confetti covering the floor, sofa and throw pillows, much as it would in real life. This effect wasn’t perfect by any means — it was still very clear this was an AR experience and not real confetti — but it was an improvement over AR effects that lack the same spatial awareness.

TikTok described the effect as being able to visually bridge the digital and physical worlds, thanks to how the AR effects interact with the user’s environment. It’s available globally, with the exception of a few select countries.

Of course, fun AR effects are only one of many use cases for something like lidar. The technology is also being adopted by apps that let you scan to create 3D models, like 3D Scanner App, or those that help with interior design, like RoomScan LiDAR, or even games, like the Apple Arcade title, Hot Lava.

TikTok says it plans to roll out “more innovative effects” over the course of 2021.

Apple unveils its flagship 5G phones, the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max


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State Department reportedly orders diplomats to stop posting on social media after U.S. Capitol riots

The State Department ordered diplomats to stop posting on social media after pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol, reports CNN, citing three diplomatic sources. Diplomats overseas were also told by the under secretary for public affairs to remove scheduled content for Facebook, Hootsuite and Twitter until told otherwise, and that planned social media posts from the State Department’s main accounts were also being suspended.

According to CNN, diplomats are usually only told to pause social media posts after a terrorist attack or major natural disaster.

As of late Wednesday evening in the United States, the main State Department Twitter account had only retweeted a thread by Secretary of State MIchael Pompeo in which he said “the storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable.”

Social media allowed a shocked nation to watch a coup attempt in real time

So far, the official Instagram accounts of the State Department’s Instagram and Pompeo and the State Department’s YouTube have made no posts after the rioting at the Capitol, while the State Department’s Facebook page has a post repeating Pompeo’s Twitter thread.

TechCrunch has contacted the State Department for comment.

Social media platforms scrambled to react after an extraordinary and terrifying day of violence that resulted in the deaths of four people. Rioters breached the Capitol early Wednesday afternoon, as electoral votes were being counted, forcing lawmakers to evacuate (the joint session was later reconvened).

On Wednesday afternoon, Twitter required the removal of three of President Donald Trump’s tweets and locked his account for twelve hours, before stating that he would be permanently suspended for future violations of its Civic Integrity policy. Facebook and Instagram announced that the president would barred from posting to his accounts for 24 hours and began blocking content posted to the #StormTheCapitol hashtag.

Twitter locks Trump out of his account for at least 12 hours

Facebook and Instagram block #StormTheCapitol, lock Trump out of posting for 24 hours


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