Skip to comments.VANITY: My Journey Through the Computer Age, and The Passing of Steve Jobs
Posted on 10/05/2011 9:57:56 PM PDT by rlmorel
Steve Jobs is dead.
I just got home and saw the news, it compelled me to write this.
I wrote this because I have used an Apple product nearly every day since 1987, and those products have impacted my life in a variety of ways, almost all of them good.
Steve Jobs was one of those people who seemed like he would be around forever to me. I don't spend much time pondering the passing of many public figures. It's not my style, and I understand all too well that in the end, our time here on this earth is simply dust, a single fraction of a heartbeat in time.
But I think I'll make an exception for Steve Jobs. This is how his products personally affected me.
I had worked on a Digital Equipment PDP-11 when I was in the Navy back in the 70s, and after I got out and went to college, I took a course on programming. Computers weren't things that I was completely conversant with, but they weren't completely mysterious to me either.
In 1986 I was living at my brothers house, and I noticed that there had been a large square bag sitting in the corner of the room for about a week. When I asked about it, he said it was a computer he had borrowed it from my sister, who had purchased it but wasn't using it. It turned out that he didn't need to use it, so was just sitting there. I called my sister, and asked her if I could play around with it. She said Sure, I'm not using it use it for as long as you want.
Funny, I remember that summer night very well. There wasn't much going on, so I had time to burn, time to be curious. I unzipped the bag, and pulled all the components out. There were no instructions or manuals, so I just looked at these things and thought Okay. This keyboard has a wire coming out of it, it probably plugs into the back of this component, and yeah, this connector looks like that and I would plug it in. There was a rectangular device which I found out later was a SCSI drive, and it was insanely expensive. But I also found out that it was 20 MB of storage, which was equivalent to a whole boatload of floppies, so I knew that was a good thing.
I plugged it in and looked at it before I powered it up. The sun had gone down, and it was getting dark in the room. I felt on the back of the box for the rocker switch, and turned it on.
The computer bonged at me, a single echoing note. And then that little screen lit up with a small, square, odd smiley face in the middle of it, and I watched a series of inscrutable symbols march along the bottom of the screen. In that darkened room, with that device that didn't belong to me, of which I knew nothing about, my real love affair with technology and computers began.
So here I am, hunched over in a chair, looking at this device that has no instructions, trying to figure out what it's all about. There was a symbol of some kind of by itself on the screen, and I found that if I moved the mouse, a pointer moved with it. So far so good. I put the pointer over the symbol on the screen and clicked the mouse. Nothing happened, except that the symbol was somehow changed in appearance. So I clicked it again, nothing happened. I clicked a couple of times in a row, and all of a sudden the symbolic object on the screen expanded, and now there was a white square that had a bar across the top with some fine horizontal lines.
You get the idea.
I sat there for a couple of hours just tinkering with the thing. Eventually I found my way to the applications and opened up MacPaint. It seems so childish now, but at the time, that was making all kinds of synapses fire in my brain. I imagine that I did what nearly everybody else did who got their hands on a program like that for the 1st time. You know, making all kinds shapes, filling them with every imaginable pattern, dragging them around on top of each other, and so on.
Within a short period of time, I was compelled to go out and buy my own computer. It was interesting, my sister offered to let me have the computer and use it for as long as I wanted, but there was something about using it while it belonged to somebody else. It's almost as if either I felt guilty for taking it away from somebody else, or after enjoying using it so much, I worried that she would ask for it back.
So I went out and bought myself a Mac SE. I had so much fun with that thing. I worked at a hospital, and I hilariously toted that big square bag into work with me so I could do work stuff on the computer. I was doing all of our procedure manuals, I was making nice good looking documents for our vascular lab, all kinds of stuff. Here I am now, nearly 25 years later, and every once in a while if I am sitting around after work with some of my coworkers, someone will recall watching me bring that bag in, wondering what the heck it was. And someone else will exclaim that they couldn't believe at the time some of the things I was able to do on that dinky square box with that miniature screen.
To this day, more than a few people will claim that I inspired them to buy a computer. I readily admit that hearing that brings a smile to my face.
Over the years, I became familiar with a wide range of programs. I had a copy of Adobe Illustrator, and I learned how to use that program without a manual. I'm telling you now, that is a hard thing to do. Nowadays, it wouldn't be hard at all, because so many programs use those kinds of tools now, and those kinds of methods of manipulating vectors. But back then, it was a real mind bender to me. I spent a lot of time in bookstores looking for books that might tell me something I could use. As I went into the 90s, computer books became a lot more common, and I ended up buying a lot of those books. My crowning achievement was a large poster that I made in Adobe Illustrator for my wife of our cat wearing a Christmas hat. I still have that file, and I open it now and marvel that I did this entire thing on this little teeny tiny 8 inch screen of that Mac SE. I find it humorously ironic that, given that the Internet is chock full of Cat pictures and such, you would nearly think the Internet was made solely for such things, it was such a proud achievement for me, taking me weeks to complete.
As the years went by, I purchased a steady parade of Apple products. For me, one of the most groundbreaking things was the introduction of the Apple Newton. At the time, I was working in nuclear medicine, and one of the things that was problematic for me were the sequences of manipulations we were required to perform on studies so that the physicians were able to interpret those studies appropriately. These sequences of manipulations, applying such things as Fourier filters (with different parameters) and the order in which the steps were applied images and so on became very hard to keep track of because they changed from day to day at the whim of the physician.
I had one of those small rectangular leather bound notebooks that I carried habitually in my back pocket, and was constantly pulling it out to refer to it. The problem was, as things changed, I had to scratch things out or erase them, and write the new ones in. Eventually, the little leather bound notebook became unreadable and completely full, with notes written horizontally and vertically along the edge of pages, things blacked out and so on. And to top it all off, it became nearly impossible to find just the right note, because as we all remember, you had to use your brain to remember where in the notebook that particular piece of information was in order to access it.
When the Newton came out, I purchased one immediately without hesitation. That product got a bad reputation from some people, but it was revolutionary for me. One of the things that was absolutely perfect about it was its soup memory that was completely searchable. I discovered the concept of keywords on my own, and began tagging everything that I put into it.
And I put everything into it.
When the updated Newton came out, I got some money and got that one immediately. At the time, you could buy a little tiny folding keyboard, and I purchased one of those. It was around this time that I was promoted, and they put me in charge of the IT functions in my radiology department. I left direct patient care behind, and dedicated myself to the fusion of information technologies and medical imaging. In the middle 90s, it was also a tough time financially for some aspects of medicine, and we were no exception. Here I was, given the job description of managing everything they came in or out of the walls, and they couldn't afford to buy me a desktop PC. So I went to meetings with my Apple Newton and folding keyboard, and I would take notes on it. Every once in a while I will go to a meeting now, and someone who's been there a while will say I remember when you used to come to those meetings and set up your little computer and take all the notes for the meeting
For my desktops, I had PCs at work, but at home I used Macs. I used that Mac SE From 1987 To 1994. After that, I saved up my money to buy the best Mac that was available at the time, and I bought a Mac 9600. I got a lot use out of the 9600, but I will tell you this: there has never been a computer before or since that was more tortuous to have to replace or install memory on. It was absolutely, bloody brutal. Apple has since designed some really nice stuff, but there was nothing nice about opening up that box, I assure you.
It was around this time that I understood 2 things how terrible computers had the capability to be operationally, and how the Macintosh operating system was getting close to crossing over from a pleasurable computing experience to the operationally terrible computing experience.
I had my 1st desktop PC at work, and I found it to be eminently usable for what I needed it for, with one glaring exception: it crashed. It was running Windows 95, and it crashed constantly. I got so accustomed to having it freeze up, have to reboot it, redo all my work and get back to where I was, but I stopped even feeling as though was problematic. I liken it to the old frog in the hot water parable which addresses the concept of getting so used to something that even when it gets terrible, you're so used to it that you just don't realize it.
One day, after my computer had crashed 5 or 6 times before lunch, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea how much time I was losing due to computer crashes. I had a stopwatch, so I kept it next to my computer for the next week or so, and I timed it every time the computer would crash, starting at at the point where I realized it was frozen, and ending at the point where I was back to where I had been before the computer crashed.
Over the course of that week, averaged out, it was taking me approximately 15 min. of wasted time every time the computer crashed. And the computer was crashing between 5 and 10 times a day. I was appalled at that, but when I extrapolated out (using some wild ass guesses, nothing really scientific) to the entire American workforce over a year, it came out to some kind of ridiculous number that almost made me fall on the floor. It was the waste, the sheer waste of man-hours. It was then that I realized just how inefficient computers could make people.
But my Macintosh was not immune. As a power user, I had so much software installed, and so many extensions loading at startup that was taking an inordinate amount of time start up the computer, but even worse, the operating system (which had previously seemed rock stable in comparison to the Windows systems I was using at work) became unstable as well. To my annoyance, I found myself becoming completely familiar with special programs that were used to manage extensions, and I found myself developing an unnerving amount of trivial knowledge about all of these extensions, which ones couldn't be used with other ones, which ones were going to make your system unstable and so on.
For the last few years of the 90s, the operating system was nowhere near as enjoyable to use as it had been. It was clear to me that the operating system was being pushed far beyond it's capability to reliably handle its tasks. I began to watch with increasing interest Apples attempts to move to a more modern operating system.
When Apple moved forward and introduced OS X, that was it. That operating system delivered the reliability, power and stability that I wanted in a computer. I remember when I installed it for the first-time I just had to go out and see just how well it handled multitasking I launched every single application that I had, and began opening image files and playing movies until the movies begin to stutter and things slowed down. It was great. I was one of those people who was willing to give up some of the interface niceties that I had used and become used to over the course of a decade or so, in order to get a powerful and reliable operating system. I have been thrilled with it ever since.
But it hasn't just been the Apple products I used on the desktop that I enjoyed, and that changed my life, it has been the ones I carry my pocket that have made a more profound difference for me.
I had a pretty good-sized music collection, and when CDs came out, I jumped on them before anybody else that I knew. I went to a high-end music store, and they were playing some classical music on a brand-new CD player, and I was blown away. I was fresh out of the Navy, and was working in a nursing home part-time while I went to college. I began to buy as many CDs as I could, and it was funny how at the time it was very difficult to find more than just a few titles, but even when titles came out but I wasn't all that interested in, I bought them for variety. To my damaged ears, the music was just unbelievable. So I amassed a nice collection, but over the next 20 years, I listened to music less and less. I didn't have time. I was working my tail off, and socializing with friends, and being able to relax and pop in a CD just wasn't happening for me. I eventually became somewhat alienated from my music, and stopped listening for the most part.
I forgot just how much I loved my music.
When the iPod came out, I bought one immediately. I came home, took my entire CD collection and stacked it all around my computer area. I began digitizing my music. Every time I would even walk by the room, I would walk over and insert a CD to digitize it. As I recall, it took me several weeks.
But it changed my life in a most pleasurable way. I found my music again. I was able to take my music everywhere with me, and still do. Even more enjoyable was the fact that I was able to access all of my music, and much of my music had become inaccessible to me simply because I couldn't see it. For a long time I was just listening to the same music for convenience, instead of digging through my collection. After my music had been digitized, I realized all the music that had been hiding in the shadows all those years. It reopened my eyes.
But even more so, there is another aspect of the iPod that has changed my life. I used to read ferociously. When my wife and I would go on vacation, I would bring between 5 and 10 books with me. I've always loved reading, I read Moby Dick when I was 8 years old, and thought that was the coolest book ever. Even though I consistently failed at math, and wasn't able to even add fractions when I graduated from high school, I had good linguistic skills. (I fixed my lousy math skills in the Navy, due in large part to a great guy, a civilian contractor working for Detroit Diesel Allison who came on our last cruise and tutored me in math. Jerry Wouters, if you are still alive and out there, know that you made a difference, a huge difference, in my life. God bless you.)
But over the years, my eyesight has got worse, and worse. I began to read less and less, to the point where I couldn't read anything for more than 15 min. without my eyes beginning to burn and water. After I had the iPod, I discovered audio books. It not only changed my life in a good way because I can make up for some of that lost reading, now that hour-long commute that I have everyday to and from work is (can I actually seriously say this with a straight face) fun. Yup fun. I hate to even admit this, but there are times when I pull into my driveway, and I sit in the car for 5 min. to listen a little bit more :-)
And last but not least, is the iPhone. My whole adult life, I have been an early adopter of technology. It has been wonderful for me, and improved my life in substantial ways. Don't get me wrong, there are few things they can give me the same kick as pulling off a mountain road to watch the sun go down, or seeing a blazing shooting Star at night. But technology has allowed me to leverage parts of my life and make them fuller and more enjoyable in many cases. That said, cell phone technology was not for me. I was not the least bit interested in having a phone all the time and I was one of the last people of anybody I knew to purchase a cell phone. Neither my wife nor I had the least bit of interest in that technology.
Kind of funny, considering I have been on call nearly constantly (it seems) for the past 25 years or so. But being so much of a Luddite when it came to cell phones gave me an interesting perspective that many people may have missed out on. I actually paid attention I got to watch the demise of the pay phone. Pay telephones were something that I was intimately familiar with. Beginning when I was in the military (and I know there are many of you out there who understand completely what I'm saying here) pay telephones became an integral part of my life. All the rolls of quarters, the constant clink clink clink of having to add them as you spoke long-distance, and the frustration of trying to finish conversation with a loved one as your time ran out and you had no more money!
But even more curious, was the odd relationship that I had with pay telephones. Working in the field the medicine, I was on the hook constantly, and had to be available to call people back or drive in to the hospital at a moments notice. When I drove to and from work, I knew where nearly every single pay telephone was in a 30 mile radius. I laugh when I think about it.
I've always suspected that the primitive Neanderthal men who trudged through that rugged landscape had to know it every moment the exact location and distance of any tree that could be climbed. I am sure that they probably utilized much the same synaptic pathways to store the location of those trees that I used to store the location of all the pay telephones.
But as I eschewed the use of cell phones, it became apparent that the landscape of pay telephones was becoming alarmingly barren with each passing day. Then one day, I was paged on my way home. I sped my car so the closest pay telephone, jumped out and found a blank area with a wire hanging out. I jumped back in my car and spent the next phone, jumped out and found the phone unusable because someone had jammed something into the coin slot. Now, as time was ticking, I motored relentlessly to a gas station where I knew there was a phone, because I had used it a few days before. Jumping out of the car, I grabbed the phone and there was a high-pitched tone emanating from it. I jiggled the receiver up and down, then out of frustration, slammed the handset in the receiver.
To my chagrin, the handset broke in half. I was appalled I knew what they made those things out of, and they were nearly indestructible. I'll bet that if you tried to break one deliberately, you would be unable to. Worse, as I stood there with half the phone in my hand, I gazed at a sticker on the phone directly in front of me that promised $10,000 fine to anyone vandalizing the phone. In disgust, I looked up to see the gas station videocamera gazing unblinkingly down at me. Great.
It was at that point that I knew I had to purchase a cell phone. But I had been holding off even thinking about it, because I vowed that I would not carry around both a cell phone and an iPod. It was fortunate for me, that right around that time, the iPhone was released. I purchased it, and now I have 2 or 3 old iPods that are just sitting around doing nothing. It's great music, phone, Internet all on one thing that I stick in my shirt pocket. Even better, with a cellular data plan, I was able to actually remote desktop into my work computer and provide support. Good God. All that in my shirt pocket.
We have arrived.
This is my techno-story. And I suspect there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who have traveled that same road that I have, and arrived at the same kind of destination. That in itself is not all that remarkable, it's wonderful that so many have done so.
What I find remarkable, is that it was the vision of this one man who had a hand in all of it. There is no doubt that Steve Jobs was not only NOT the only one who had a hand in this, but that he irrefutably stood on the shoulders of many others. But what is remarkable is that Steve Jobs saw this. He was a technological visionary who saw a reality, a reality where people used massively complex technological devices with the same dispassion that they use a hair dryer. Or better yet a toaster.
When you see people using an iPod, they generally aren't holding it in their hand in front of their face, twisting it from side to side and looking at it in a puzzled fashion trying to figure out what to do.
What's remarkable is that when you see someone using iPod, it is nearly unconscious. They are simply using it. Like sticking slices of bread in the toaster and mashing the button down.
When I made the decision to buy an iPhone, my first cell phone, I went down to the nearest Apple Store to actually look at one. As I walked into the Apple Store (another vision of a techno-reality by Steve Jobs) they had a table set up with 10 iPhones on it. What I saw astounded me in a very basic way. Before I walked up to use one, I stood back for about 10 min. and just watched the people gathered around the table holding this new technology in their hands.
What amazed me was watching the looks on their faces as they explored this complicated device without the benefit of a manual or a sales representative standing by their side. As these people handled this device, they would reach out with their hand or finger and do something. I could not see what was happening on the phones. But looking at the faces of those people told me everything.
Their faces all had semi-neutral looks on them, with just the faintest hint of a furrowed brow. Not furrowed in puzzlement or frustration, but rather, furrowed in concentration. Then, out of the blue, their eyes would open up wide, their faces would light up, and a hint of a smile would enter their face. It was clear as the blue sky these people had light bulbs of pleasure and discovery going off in their brain. For these people, this was a device that did something the way that they thought it should. How about that?
That is what made Steve Jobs a special person in the world of technology. He understood what many people wanted in technology. And his gift was not only understanding that, but driving people who work for him to produce products that filled that desire.
Some people like to say that is simply marketing, pure and simple. But it isn't.
The real talent of Steve Jobs was the fusion of understanding people's needs, engineering products to meet that need, and marketing those products via slick commercials and accessible stores manned by enthusiastic employees. Like many people, I often denigrate marketing. But marketing was one of the key reasons that Apple products were so successful, and responsible for the widespread introduction of various technologies and concepts into everyday lives. Everybody knows some aspect of technology that was invented, thought of, or even introduced by somebody or some company other than Apple that never made it until Apple introduced it into the market.
The way I see it, a technology that is not accepted is no different from a book that is not read or a painting that is not seen. It doesn't make any difference if someone designs the ultimate artificial heart that would change medical history, if it never makes it inside a human's chest. So, in that light, I would encourage people not to discount the importance of the marketing angle.
That is my journey through the technology landscape of the personal computer age. In my case, it was largely illuminated by the lights placed on that landscape by Steve Jobs and Apple Computer as I progressed through it. For me, it has been a hugely entertaining and productive ride.
I have a friend whose grandfather is 105 years old. When I saw him recently, I can only marvel at him. The things he has seen with his eyes astound me, from horse-drawn carriages to jets. But those of us younger than him have also been here for part of that ride, and have borne witness to the computer age. We have lived through historic times in many ways, and the advent and acceptance of the personal computer it's just one of them. In the future, accounts of this time in this revolution will undoubtedly feature Steve Jobs. And we were here to see him work. It has been a privilege.
God bless you Steve Jobs, and Godspeed.
He was a visionary. That vision will be missed.
My husband and I met him in the lateish ‘70s when he was pitching his idea for a personal computer. The first electronic fair event we ever attended, the booth gift was a McIntosh apple. (I type this on my Mac lap top) Thanks Steve.
This is the absolute best, by far, vanity I have ever read on Free Republic.
My journey was different, but I remember the evolution of Apple products much like you do.
A worthy send off to a great man.
I’m curious to know why the Left gives a pass to Jobs
He was super rich
His company was highly valued
He tried to pay as little of “his fair share” of taxes
He sent A LOT of jobs overseas
He employed tens of thousands in Chinese modern day “sweatshops” to make his products for the corrupt upper classes who could afford them.
He never supported unions in his company
His suppliers never would support unions
What makes Jobs different from the Chairman of Exxon-Mobile, who of course, they hate?
Great! You ought to submit it for print publication somewhere.
Your father’s eyes in the photo on your home page, tell me so much about him, and about you.
Thank you, I envy you.
Just for your info, and apropos of nothing, but something to ponder, PGR is an acronym that stands for the name of a collective farm in a Communist country.
Interesting - which one? I didn't know collective farms still existed!
I once played high-school baseball in our town (named Kenyon), and our team was sponsored by the local police department. The initials on our uniform were "KPD"
I wore my jersey a few times when travelling with a group of visiting exchange students from Germany. Only at the end of their visit did they tell me they thought it meant "Kommunist Partie Deutschland"
Yes. Steve Jobs has profoundly impacted and brought great joy to many of our lives—especially he brought great relief to us old PC converts and joggers :-D. RIP Steve!!! and thank you.
Anyway, PGR was in Poland a state farm and the acronym stood for Państwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne, which means (I think) State Agrarian Farm.
BUMP for a great article.
Round Rects Are Everywhere!
Author: Andy Hertzfeld Date: May 1981 Characters: Steve Jobs, Bill Atkinson Topics: Software Design, Inspiration, QuickDraw Summary: Steve inspires Bill by pointing out something about the real world Revision: most recent of 8
ill Atkinson worked mostly at home, but whenever he made significant progress he rushed in to Apple to show it off to anyone who would appreciate it. This time, he visited the Macintosh offices at Texaco Towers to show off his brand new oval routines, which were implemented using a really clever algorithm.
Bill had added new code to QuickDraw (which was still called LisaGraf at this point) to draw circles and ovals very quickly. That was a bit hard to do on the Macintosh, since the math for circles usually involved taking square roots, and the 68000 processor in the Lisa and Macintosh didn't support floating point operations. But Bill had come up with a clever way to do the circle calculation that only used addition and subtraction, not even multiplication or division, which the 68000 could do, but was kind of slow at.
Bill's technique used the fact the sum of a sequence of odd numbers is always the next perfect square (For example, 1 + 3 = 4, 1 + 3 + 5 = 9, 1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16, etc). So he could figure out when to bump the dependent coordinate value by iterating in a loop until a threshold was exceeded. This allowed QuickDraw to draw ovals very quickly.
Bill fired up his demo and it quickly filled the Lisa screen with randomly-sized ovals, faster than you thought was possible. But something was bothering Steve Jobs. "Well, circles and ovals are good, but how about drawing rectangles with rounded corners? Can we do that now, too?"
"No, there's no way to do that. In fact it would be really hard to do, and I don't think we really need it". I think Bill was a little miffed that Steve wasn't raving over the fast ovals and still wanted more.
Steve suddenly got more intense. "Rectangles with rounded corners are everywhere! Just look around this room!". And sure enough, there were lots of them, like the whiteboard and some of the desks and tables. Then he pointed out the window. "And look outside, there's even more, practically everywhere you look!". He even persuaded Bill to take a quick walk around the block with him, pointing out every rectangle with rounded corners that he could find.
When Steve and Bill passed a no-parking sign with rounded corners, it did the trick. "OK, I give up", Bill pleaded. "I'll see if it's as hard as I thought." He went back home to work on it.
Bill returned to Texaco Towers the following afternoon, with a big smile on his face. His demo was now drawing rectangles with beautifully rounded corners blisteringly fast, almost at the speed of plain rectangles. When he added the code to LisaGraf, he named the new primitive "RoundRects". Over the next few months, roundrects worked their way into various parts of the user interface, and soon became indispensable.
The details matter ... and Steve knew how to get them out of his engineers.
Jobs, Gates, and I have a couple things in common...besides making our respective living in the computer industry for years, we were all born in the same year (in fact, Gates and I share the exact same date/year of birth). It’s been a fun ride watching all the changes. I entered the industry in 1984 upon leaving my AF pilot days behind me. This “second career” now spans over 27 years; I’m currently in the supercomputing business, playing around with and marketing to the owners/users of the most powerful systems on the planet...literally.
Jobs was one of those guys that always just made you shake your head. He could rip off an idea and make it his own (the entire Apple interface; a direct rip off from Xerox), but he’d get furious with Gates for ostensibly ripping HIM off (e.g. Windows)...yet he was a bloody genius when it came to understanding human interfaces.
As you so accurately portrayed, it’s the end user interface that is so critical to any technology. Ask any software developer, and they’ll tell you that the code takes 20% of their time in developing an application...the user interface takes about 80% (or at least that was the case for years; this day and age, with much more advanced s/w development tools, those percentages may well have shifted).
The point, and one you made so well, is that Jobs made high end technology VERY accessible in ways that Microsoft is still struggling to achieve decades later. Windows 7 is actually terrific, but MS still find themselves chasing Jobs’ visions for computers, OS’s, smart phone interfaces, etc.
Rest in peace, indeed, Steve Jobs. You plowed a lot of ground for us in your lifetime.
Beautiful post. I am sad and will miss him.
To my knowledge I’ve never operated anything Apple/Mac/i*. But I recongnize Steve Jobs’ contribution to our modern technical society. That was a good article. Thank you.
Thanks for the memories and a great story. As a non Apple user, you have increased my interest in the I phone.
A Freeper’s personal commentary on the passing of Steve Jobs. . .
Mr. Jobs was a pioneer in the tech area.
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