About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/8/2017

Totals
Posts - 2465
Comments - 2567
Hits - 2,005,630

Averages
Entries/day - 0.47
Comments/entry - 1.04
Hits/day - 380

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:50 AM Pacific


  09:58 AM

There have been a rash of anniversaries in the last week or so for milestones in the computer industry.

30 years

MS-DOS: 27 July 1981
IBM-PC: 12 Aug 1981

More than one person has said that the deal that Bill Gates and Paul Allen made with Seattle Computer Products to buy what was originally known as QDOS and then rewrite it as MS-DOS was one of the best business deals ever made. See a slideshow: A Quick Look At The 30-Year History Of MS DOS.

Apple had shown that it was possible to create a "microcomputer" for a mass market. IBM saw that and used its leverage in the business community to put a computer in front of every information worker in the world.

From an interview that PC-Magazine did with Bill Gates 30 years ago:

It would be nice if there was a hard disk and I'm sure the independent vendors will come and put one of those in it.[1]

[...]

It's possible to do a much better machine in a lot of ways from a hardware point of view.

[...]

This machine will be significant because it will usher in a new generation of portable software. [...] I think five years from now the amount of software and the quality of the software on this machine will be incredible.

[...]

The Apple II does not have enough communications capability and CRT capability to really be used in [personal work station] mode. Until the IBM PC came along, there was no product that could be offered to fill that need and I think that it is a huge market.


20 years

World-Wide Web: 6 August 1991

The document (WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project) envisaged the Web as being used for a variety of purposes, such as “document registration, on-line help, project documentation, news schemes and so on.” However, Tim Berners-Lee and his collaborator Robert Cailliau, a Belgian engineer and computer scientist, had the foresight to avoid being too specific about its potential uses.


Thing is — and I know lots of people in the same position — I was around for these things.

[1] Note that the photo in the article does seem to show an IBM PC-XT, which would be an anachromism.

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  06:40 PM

Here's a little self-administered test for Americans. (Of course, non-Americans are welcome to play, too, if they want.) Sit yourself down with a blank piece of paper or a blank document in your text editor and write out the words — first stanza only — of the US national anthem. When you're done, check your answers by looking up the lyrics. (Here's one site you can use.)

How'd you do? Something like 2/3 of Americans can't get the lyrics right.

I got to thinking about this because twice in the last few weeks I've seen a sporting event at which the pre-game singer mangled the words to the anthem (most prominently, Christina Aguilera at the Superbowl).

The US national anthem presents some difficulties, I think, in a couple of ways:
  • The words only make sense if you know that it commemorates a siege and bombardment. What "perilous fight" are we talking about here? What's up with the "rockets' red glare"? In the second line, "what so proudly we hail'd," what does what refer to? Not that this is necessarily important, but what war is this?

  • The musical range, an octave plus a fifth, is at about the limit of the range for amateur singers. There's more than one reason that people applaud when singers hit that "home of the FREE". :-)
I mentioned all this on a Facebook post not long ago, and noted that given these difficulties, maybe we should have an easier song as our anthem. This got some responses. One not-surprising response was that singers should know the songs they go out to perform. That's true; if you're a million-dollar singer who gets a gig to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," you have every obligation to be a pro and get it right. (That said, the vehemence with which Ms. Aguilera was condemned in some quarters was a bit extreme, imo — I don't buy that it was a "disaster," for example.)

What surprised me a little, tho, were the responses that argued that the anthem should not be "dumbed down" just because people couldn't sing it. To me, this seems backward. The national anthem (I emphasize: to me) is something that literally belongs to the people, something that people sing as part of their pride in their nation and in solidarity with their fellow-citizens. Given this, isn't it ideal to have an anthem that anyone can sing, both lyrically and musically? As it is, we generally have to rely on professional singers for good renditions of the anthem, because, as noted, the majority of Americans cannot make it through the song.

The analogy I used was the song "Happy Birthday" — so simple, both musically and lyrically, that even small children can sing it. Obviously, no one is going to come up with a national anthem that's as simplistic as "Happy Birthday," but you get the idea — the song should serve the people, not be some sort of skills test or patriotism SAT.

It's not as if the national anthem is part of the Constitution or anything; it's only been an official anthem since 1931. I get that people like the phrase "star-spangled" and that even if most people can't pinpoint which rockets' red glare we're talking about, it makes a nice complement to, say, the Fourth of July. Still, it would be nice to have a song that would be easier to sing.

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  01:42 AM

As about just everyone on the planet knows, the logo for Starbucks is a mermaid. The coffee lady has gone through a number of transformations, from this:


To the latest design:


As an aside, just for fun I want to note that this latter design is very cleverly used to decorate Starbucks HQ in Seattle (the erstwhile Sears store-cum-warehouse), with the sea-lady peeking out from the top of the building's "tower":


Ok, so, the question du jour is where this logo came from. Corporate mythology has it that the design was "originally derived from a twin-tailed siren in an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut." Sounds plausible, right?

Not to everyone. As recounted in the Wall Street Journal blog, of all places, a graduate student at Yale who writes a blog named Got Medieval thought this sounded fishy (haha), because, for one, "there’s no such thing as a 16th-century Norse woodcut."

Long story short (i.e., edited), ...
The twin-tailed siren isn’t from a “marine book” at all. She’s from an early German printed book, Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina, a translation of Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Melusine. Melusine tells the story of how the first male of the Lusignan line, Raimondin, met a beautiful woman at an enchanted fountain in the forest. After extracting a promise that he never try to find her on a Saturday, this woman, Melusine, gave him all her love and great wealth as well, promptly married him, and later bore him eleven sons. Naturally, Raimondin couldn’t leave well enough alone, tracked her down on Saturday and found her back at the magic fountain where she had reverted to her true form, a twin-tailed siren or serpent-lady.

So the Starbucks mermaid isn't a mermaid, she's a twin-tailed siren. And she most definitely did not come from a "16th-century Norse woodcut."

The Got Medieval blog calls this The Other Starbucks Mermaid Cover-Up. (If you compare the old and new logos, you'll deduce what the first cover-up was.) The entry expends a fair bit of scholarship on this issue and makes a case that the official story is, um, misremembered at best:
If medieval studies teach us anything, it’s to be extra cautious with origin stories. Just as there was almost certainly no conveniently named Trojan refugee Brutus who founded Britain (nor Turkus Turkey, nor Francus France), no sword in the stone that elected a Welshman the king of all England, no Donation given by Emperor Constantine of all his earthly power to the Catholic Pope, and no shape-changing serpent lady Melusine to sleep with the Count of Anjou, there was almost certainly no “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut” floating around Seattle in 1971. It’s far more likely that three businessmen and coffee afficianados searching for a symbol for their new coffee shop in Pike Place Market turned to the American edition of The Dictionary of Symbols — which, incidentally, was first published in that same year, 1971. But the urge to clean things up and make them more inspiring than they were is simply irresistible where one’s origins are concerned.
The number of people who feel a certain sense of vindication at having this cover-up exposed is, I imagine, fairly modest. Still, I do have sympathy for Carl S. Pyrdum, III, the stated author of the Got Medieval blog, who says he started the blog "as a place to gripe about how the mainstream media does not understand the Middle Ages." A significant number of posts on the Language Log, for example, are gripes about how the mainstream media (and people at large) don't understand language.

And really, anyone who's an expert at something can find it exasperating to encounter the largely uninformed ramblings of the rest of humanity about the expert's beloved field. Of course, that rarely results in a chance to rant about a major corporation and then have the WSJ pick up the story. So kudos to Got Medieval for this one.

Hat tip to Nancy Friedman, who passed along to me the info originally provided to her by John Ochwat.

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  12:24 PM

That Mozart could be a sly fellow. Music poured out of the guy seemingly effortlessly -- legend has it that the Kegelstatt Trio was written out while Mozart was waiting his turn at skittles[1] -- but maybe it wasn't as always as easy as that. And the man did have to make a living, after all.

Take, for example, the flute concerto in D. According to S. W. Bennett, on the liner notes to the LP The Virtuoso Oboe:
[T]he financially hard-pressed Mozart had an opportunity to earn some money by writing for the flute, an instrument he disliked. A Dutch patron of music and flautist, M. de Jean, commissioned in 1778 a group of flute works, which Mozart had to supply in a hurry. He brought forth three flute quartets and two flute concertos.
You're in hurry, you have some distant patron, and you don't even like the flute. So what do you do?
Of the latter [that is, the concertos] the one in D is undoubtedly the C major oboe concerto transcribed. As "almost conclusive evidence" Alfred Einstein points to the fact that in its D major flute form, the violin parts of the concerto never go below A on the G-string, indicating that the whole work was simply transcribed a whole tone upwards.
Heh. Hey, maybe he won't notice that his commissioned flute concerto is actually an oboe concerto redone to make it more flute-y. But alas, it seems that De Jean did actually notice -- per the infallible Wikipedia, De Jean didn't pay Mozart for the concerto.

An interesting historical twist is that the oboe concerto was lost for many years, and only the flute concerto was in the repertoire. People knew from writings that there was an oboe concerto, but there was no manuscript. But a dude named Paumgartner eventually pieced it together in the 1920s:
This oboe concerto was first published in its present form in 1948, the editors using old manuscript parts in the Mozarteum library at Salzburg, but the music has long been known as the Flute Concert in D major, with the same K. number.
Kids, don't let this happen to you. If you plagiarize, even yourself, your rich patron will find out and will stop the check. And don't forget to make backup copies of your originals, just in case.


[1] Not quite; he did compose like that, but not the trio in question.

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  11:20 AM

Recently I finished The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, which is a book about the English scientist Joseph Priestley, who is best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Johnson shows how Priestley had a strong influence on both science and politics (he was a close friend Jefferson and Franklin). But Priestley also sat at a historical confluence that was conducive to, basically, Enlightenment thinking, and Johnson ties together many threads in a way reminiscent of James Burke: coffeehouses and efficient postal delivery, which fostered open and fast communication; innovations in scientific technology, which let Priestley engage in the experiments he did; the wealth of the industrial age, which indirectly provided Priestley with the time to do research; and so on.

At times the chains of connections go quite far indeed -- for example, from Priestley's simple experiment with a mint plant all the way to the field of planetary ecology. A continuing theme is energy: sunlight to feed plants, coffee to feed scientific minds, oxygen to feed animals, coal to feed the industrial revoltuion, and so on. To discuss these last two, Johnson takes a side trip way back in Earth history to the Carboniferous era, where he tells the following story.



Many of the fossils that Brongniart uncovered shared a defining characteristic: compared to their modern equivalents, they were massive. He discovered ferns the size of oak trees, and flies as big as birds. In 1880 he unearthed his most startling find: a monster dragonfly (Meganeura) with a wingspan of 63 centimeters [2 feet]. Subsequent fossils have been discovered with a wingspan of more than 75 centimeters.

Meganeura was not alone. Paleontologists worldwide soon discovered that giantism was a prevailing trend between 350 and 300 million B.C., a period now called the Carboniferous era. Like some strange Brobdingnagian natural history exhibit, the landscape of the Carboniferous was populated by foot-long spiders and millipedes, and water scorpions the size of a small boy. The plant life was even more spectacular. Club mosses growing in damp forests towered above the swampland below, reaching heights of 130 feet, five hundred times taller than their modern descendants. Horsetails and rushes that now top out at around four feet regularly reached the height of a five-story building. Early conifers sprouted leaves that were more than three feet long.

The planetary fad for giantism didn’t last. The dinosaurs evolved immense body plans in the coming ages, of course, but by 250 million B.C., the rest of the biosphere had largely retreated back to the scale we now see on earth. But that pattern was distinct enough that it presented a tantalizing mystery: just as the Cambrian explosion raised the question of why life suddenly grew so diverse, the Carboniferous age raised the question of why life suddenly grew so big and how it managed to survive with such exaggerated proportions. Meganeura shouldn’t have been able to fly, given its size. The respiratory systems of modern insects and reptiles wouldn’t be able to generate enough energy to support a body plan that was ten times their current size. And yet somehow the giants of the Carboniferous managed to thrive in that exaggerated state for a hundred million years.

[...]

The "natural" level of oxygen on Earth was less than 1 percent; the 20.7 percent levels we enjoy as respiring mammals was an artificial state, engineered by the evolutionary breakthrough that began with cyanobacteria billions of years ago. [i.e., photosynthesis] The scarcity of oxygen before the evolution of plant life suggested one follow-up question: why had oxygen levels stabilized at around 20 percent for so many millions of years? Were it to drop to 10 percent, most of aerobic life would suffocate; were it to double, the combustion reactions of oxygen would engulf the planet in a worldwide inferno. So what mechanism allowed the atmosphere to regulate itself with such precision?

[Robert Berner and Donald Canfield researched atmospheric oxygen levels going back 600 million years.]

[Their data showed that] oxygen levels had been relatively stable for the last 200 million years. But the most startling finding came before that long equilibrium. The data showed a dramatic spike in oxygen levels, reaching as high as 35 percent around 300 million B.C., followed by a plunge to the borderline asphyxia of 15 percent in the Triassic era, 100 million years later. The oxygen pulse overlapped exactly with Meganeura and other giants of the Carboniferous.

Since then, dozens of paper have explored the connection between increased oxygen content and giantism, and the growing consensus is that higher oxygen concentration would support larger body plans in reptiles and insects. And the increase in atmospheric pressure that accompanies 35 percent oxygen levels would even alter the aerodynamics enough to allow Meganeura to take flight.

Where did all that oxygen come from? From plants, of course. First, the plants invented the photosynthetic engine that created an oxygen-rich atmosphere billions of years ago. But at some point near the end of the Devonian age, the plants evolved the ability to generate a sturdy molecule called lignin that gave them newfound structural support, allowing them to grow to sizes never seen before on Earth. Larger plants alone might have led to an oxygen increase, but lignin may also have had a more indirect role in the spike. One popular but unproven theory argues that lignin confounded the microbial recyclers responsible for the decomposition of organic matters. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis; decomposition plays that tape backward, as bacteria and other animals use up oxygen in breaking down the plant debris, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Lignin may have disrupted that cycle, because the recyclers had not yet evolved the capacity to break down the molecule, creating what the paleoclimatologist David Beerling calls an episode of "global indigestion." With the decomposers handicapped by lignin’s novelty, immense stockpiles of undecomposed biomass filled the swamplands and the forest floor, and the oxygen levels climbed even higher. Oxygen would not return to the 21 percent plateau until the microbes cracked the lignin code, millions of years later.

But the debris accumulated during the age of Meganeura did not disappear from the geologic record. It simply went underground. When it ultimately resurfaced, it would transform human history every bit as dramatically as it transformed natural history the first time around.

Update 2 Nov 2010: Interesting post on the Wired blog about how some biologists raised larger-than-normal dragonflies by keeping them in an oxygen-rich environement.

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  01:20 AM

The New York Review of Books this week has a review of a series of books about Bosnia and Kosovo, which of course also deal with the shocking brutality of the strife that began there is 1992. The article opens with the following, which doesn't need much comment, I don't think:
What unites many countries in the world, both the ones that don’t give a fig about human rights and the ones that profess they do, is their unwillingness to punish their war criminals. When it comes to accountability, instances of confronting their own guilt are exceedingly rare among nations, especially when the victims are members of some other race, religion, or country. Even international leaders concerned with situations such as the one in Yugoslavia, despite their protest to the contrary , are often reluctant to see the guilty punished since political interests usually take precedence over justice.

In addition, there’s an unwritten understanding that crimes committed by the United States and a few other Western powers go unpunished. When the International Criminal Court was launched in 2003, the Bush administration refused to join, fearing that its military and its leaders could be arbitrarily indicted by some grandstanding foreign prosecutor. But that was just dissembling. The real reason is that the United States considered itself as a country whose exceptional moral standing exempts it from accountability for the war crimes it commits. The trouble with that is that everybody else feels the same way. The belief that one ought to be able to kill one’s enemies and live happily ever after is nearly universal.

Not many people care to know what their governments do to others in their name. No society can bear the thought that it is committing some injustice against innocents, so elaborate excuses have to be made. Justifying war crimes to their fellow citizens is what nationalist intellectuals are expected to do. The editorial and opinion pages of our newspapers and magazines have recently published articles pleading with President Bush to pardon the lawyers in the Department of Justice who devised the regime of torture and detention and the officials who put them into practice, and not allow them to be criminally prosecuted, since, allegedly, they broke the law out of a sincere wish to keep us safe. What nationalist ideologues everywhere tell their own people is that they occupy a unique moral universe in which the laws of the outside world do not apply. Unlike everyone else in the world, they, and only they, are good even when they are slaughtering women and children. Anyone who objects to that view either suffers from self-hatred or is some sort of traitor in the employ of a foreign power.

-- Charles Simic, "Connoisseurs of Cruelty," New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009

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  11:20 AM

You know what I wouldn't mind? A bit of sunshine. Wrong time (winter) in the wrong place (Seattle), I guess.

Fake reviews prompt Belkin apology. I guess I've just always assumed that some number of product reviews (and restaurant reviews) are by shills. (I'm usually most suspicious of the ones with the really, really bad grammar, haha.)

The #1 Song on this Date in History. What was the #1 song on the Billboard chart on the day that you were born? (Me, it was Elvis Presley, "Too Much.") [via Sarah] [18 Feb 2012: h/t to Rupert Charles for the updated link!]

What the Web knows about you. Check out the list in the sidebar of all the things the author was able to find about himself. [via ... just about everyone]

Facebook and list mania, aka "25 Things About Editors". John McIntyre's editor-specific take on the "25 things about me" meme that's been going around.

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  09:21 AM

NPR is noting that today (9 Dec) is the 40th birthday of the unveiling of the computer mouse. The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart, who is sort of personally responsible for -- or at least who envisioned -- the PC as we know it today. His prototype was made of wood:



[source]

I'm not 100% sure of the chronology of the mouse -- Engelbart applied for the patent in 1967 -- but it was on December 9, 1968 that Engelbart gave a lecture in which he demonstrated not only his proto-mouse, but the PC, hypertext, networking, and other stuff. The video isn't great, but it's an amazing glimpse into history being made. This demo might not look revolutionary today, but this was still the era of mainframes and punchcards, and it's hard to imagine just how radical this must have looked.





Here's a cite from that lecture that indicates just how forward-thinking Engelbart was:
If in your office you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?
-- Douglas Engelbart (December 9, 1968)

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  01:41 PM

It never ceases to amaze me how willing businesses are to appropriate any holiday for their own commercial purposes. This showed up in my Inbox recently:



Presidents' Day, well, whatever. When the Feds combined Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays to make a generic holiday, and then made it one of their Monday-based "observed"-type days off, the shine was pretty much off that particular celebration.

But Veteran's Day, for heaven's sake. This is a holiday that's about reflecting on service and on sacrifice:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

-- Woodrow Wilson [source]

On [this] day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves[1] to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower [source]
Free shipping, c'mon. You can't even pretend that that's anything but blatant hucksterism. If they really wanted to observe Veteran's Day, they could try the two minutes of silence that is observed at 11:00am in many places to remember the fallen of WWI. Like, shut down the Web site for two minutes and post a tribute to veterans for those two minutes. Yeah, right. That would be too much of a sacrifice, no doubt.

I was born at a unique time in 20th-century American history. My grandfather fought in WWI; my parents' generation (including my stepfather) fought in WWII, and some later in Korea. Older brothers of people I knew (and indeed, friends of mine now) were in Vietnam. Children of people I know now are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had the good fortune that at no time during what would have been my eligible years were we involved in any major conflict. I did not join the service as a volunteer, nor was I ever called up. Veteran's Day is not about me in any way. Even so, I think it's disrespectful to use the holiday as an excuse for simple commerce. Instead, how about we just salute those who have served.


[1] Sounding very Lincoln-esque.

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  01:17 AM

A short while ago, a guy strolled into the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., which is one of the, or the, preeminent repository of Shakespearean stuff. He wanted to know if the First Folio he was carrying was the real item. As it happens, it was; it was a volume that had been stolen 10 years ago from the University of Durham in England. The dude is currently a guest of the state in the UK while they sort out the story.

The First Folio is an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, plus some other plays. That the First Folio exists at all is unusually good luck; that we have so many copies, doubly so. Much of the work of other Elizabethan playwrights has vanished, since their work was either never written down, or written down and not printed, or printed but lost. As Bill Bryson points out in his Shakespeare Lite study:
Only about 230 plays survive from the period of Shakespeare’s life, of which the First Folio represents some 15 percent, so Heminges and Condell saved for the world not only half the plays of William Shakespeare, but an appreciable portion of all Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
The First Folio was printed after Shakespeare’s death, but it was assembled by people who had worked with him. This gives you an idea of what we might have had:
To aid recollection, they had much valuable material to work with—-prompt books, foul papers (as rough drafts or original copies were known) in Shakespeare’s own hand, and the company’s own fair copies.
To which he adds "all now lost." There had been previous printings of Shakespeare’s plays; some editions were good, but others ... not so much. The latter, for example, might be "versions set down from memory (often very bad memory, it seems) by fellow actors or scribes employed to attend a play and create as good a transcription as they could manage."

Aware of these less-than-stellar editions, the compilers of the First Folio sought to create definitive ("True Originall") versions of the plays. Had they not done so, we would likely not know about 18 plays of Shakeaspeare's for which we have no other source.

And yet. It was not just Elizabethan spelling that seemed to lend itself to only the most casual discipline; printing was not subject to the most rigorous QA. Bryson explains:
In fact, the First Folio was a decidedly erratic piece of work.

Even to an inexpert eye its typographical curiosities are striking. Stray words appear in odd places—-a large and eminently superfluous "THE" stands near the bottom of page 38, for instance—-page numbering is wildly inconsistent, and there are many notable misprints. In one section, pages 81 and 82 appear twice, but pages 77-78, 101-108, and 157-256 don’t appear at all. In Much Ado About Nothing the lines of Dogberry and Verges abrupty cease being prefixed by the characters’ names and instead become prefixed by "Will" and "Richard," the names of the actors who took the parts in the original production.

The plays are sometimes divided into acts and scenes but sometimes not; in Hamlet the practice of scene division is abaondoned halfway through. Character lists are sometimes at the front of plays, sometimes at the back, and sometimes missing altogether. Stage directions are sometimes comprehensive and at other times almost entirely absent. A crucial line of dialog in King Lear is preceded by the abbreviated character name "Cor.," but it is impossible to know whether "Cor." refers to Cornwall or Cordelia. Either one works, but each gives a differ shading to the play. The issue has troubled directors ever since.
What these guys needed, of course, was the services of a good editor.

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