Our Dr. Brooks

Sometimes, the Lives of Readers intersect with mine in interesting ways. This is one such story, and it started in 1971 — though I didn’t realize the connection until much more recently.

Dr. Fred Brooks became a Premium subscriber in early 2004, after who-knows-how-long on the free edition distribution. He used his work address at the Computer Science department at the University of North Carolina.

People working or studying at departments of Computer Science, Computer Information Systems, and related fields at major universities have always been well represented in True’s readership, since they had access to the Internet earlier than most. I’ve recognized many of their names as they have subscribed over the years.

But I didn’t recognize Fred’s name — not at first, at least.

Blast from the Past

Back in 2007, I wrote about my forward-looking Junior High School math teacher, Adrienne Drummond-Hay, in Menlo Park, Calif., who introduced me to computers in 1971. She had received permission (and a grant?) to bring computers into her classroom. That was in the form of two Model 33 Teletype machines as terminals, and we’d dial in (with 110-baud acoustic couplers) to where the computer actually was, 7 miles away in Mountain View — a Hewlett-Packard 2000C that was leased out to any business that wanted time …at $5.00/hour! (That’s the equivalent to $33.50/hr in today’s dollars.)

Ad for R.A.I.R. Inc, which owned the first computer I ever used. (Image from Datamation magazine, December 1976.)

Their hourly rate was significantly higher if the customer was lucky enough to have a 300-baud terminal and modem. Today, I can still remember the phone numbers we dialed for access — both the 110-baud and the 300-baud numbers!

Mountain View is part of “Silicon Valley”. In 1956, William Shockley established Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Mountain View, the first company to develop silicon semiconductor devices in the area. That is how the Santa Clara Valley became known as Silicon Valley.

Today, many of the world’s largest technology companies are headquartered in Mountain View, including Google (and its parent, Alphabet Inc.), the Mozilla Foundation, Intuit, as well as major offices for Microsoft, Symantec, 23andMe, LinkedIn, Samsung, and Synopsys.

Even before the Shockley Lab, tech was already well rooted in the area: Naval Air Station Moffett Field was established on the shore of the San Francisco Bay in Mountain View in 1933, which was expanded into Ames Research Center in 1939 — the second research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA. Ames still plays a vital role in NASA, especially in astrobiology and, yes, supercomputing. IBM had established a lab in nearby San Jose in 1952.

In Palo Alto after World War II, Stanford University’s dean of the School of Engineering, Frederick Terman, encouraged faculty and graduates to start their own companies. In 1998, a bit more than two years after True went online, Stanford Ph.D students Sergey Brin and Larry Page continued that tradition, developing a search engine to catalog the web sites exploding onto the early Internet. They called it “BackRub”, but later renamed it Google.

1950s TV comedy scene.
Title Explanation: “Our Miss Brooks” (radio 1948-1957, TV 1952-1956) was a comedy hit in early television history, centering on high school English teacher “Miss Brooks”. Here, Miss Brooks (Eve Arden) taunts tyrannical principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon) after he accidentally glued his hand to his desk. (CBS publicity photo, 1952)

Back to 1971

2000C system diagram from the Operator’s System Reference Manual, dated July 1971. It came standard with a 1 MB fixed head hard drive. 1.5 MB or 2.0 MB drives were available as options, as was the probably stratospheric-priced 23 MB “moving head” drive. (H-P)

I stayed after school most days, along with several other guys (and, at that point, they were all guys), to learn about the computer via the terminals in Mrs. Drummond-Hay’s classroom. That led me to view computers simply as a tool, not some mysterious box to be feared.

The problem that cropped up: summer. With school out, I no longer had access to the computer! Dr. Herb Ludwig, a neighbor whose kids I used to babysit, was a Computer Science lecturer at Stanford. He let me audit his summer class in 1972. Stanford’s main computer: an IBM 360/67, running the Stanford-written ORVYL time-sharing system.

The Project Manager tapped to lead IBM’s System/360 computer hardware development, and its OS/360 software support package: Fred Brooks, who reported directly to IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson Jr. The “System” — called that because it could be ordered in many configurations that were all compatible with each other — was announced in 1964, with deliveries starting in 1965.

Its base memory was a whopping 8 KB. A company (or government agency) could buy a system that fit their needs knowing that as their needs increased, they could upgrade their computer.

Fred previously worked on the architecture of IBM’s 7030 “Stretch” — IBM’s first transistorized supercomputer that was, at its introduction in 1961, the fastest computer in the world. It was still slower than expected, and thus considered a “failure.” But it served as the base design of the System/360, which was hugely popular. Stretch was important: in 1957, Brooks co-invented an interrupt system that introduced features still used in computers today. Brooks coined the term “computer architecture.”

A Huge Leap Forward

Brooks, along with Stretch and System/360 developer Eric Bloch, and Bob Evans, who convinced Watson to drop the various models of IBM computers in favor of a multi-level compatible “System” of computers which became the 360 series, were awarded the first (1985) National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Ronald Reagan “For their contributions to the IBM System/360, a computer system and technologies which revolutionized the data processing industry.”

Other recipients that year included True reader Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs, “For their development and introduction of the personal computer.” (The year after another of my favorite IBMers, Reynold B. Johnson, won “For his invention and development of magnetic disk storage.”)

Men in front of large 1960s computer console.
The time-sharing console for Stanford University’s 360/67. (Photo: Stanford Infolab)

In 1999, Brooks won the Turing Award “For landmark contributions to computer architecture, operating systems, and software engineering.”

Brooks won the Franklin Institute’s Bower Award in 1995, crediting him with defining “a concept of computer architecture that separated computer software from hardware, allowing those two fundamental realms of the computer age to develop dynamically and independently.”

What made the 360 so interesting was that it could be expanded: memory up to a massive 8 MB, and higher and higher capacity processors. Hence different designations: the Model 30 was the smallest; Stanford’s /67 was significantly higher powered, leaving “my” little H-P 2000C in the bitdust.

The upshot is, I got to be in Dr. Ludwig’s Stanford summer session class teaching the basics of computer science, using the university’s 360/67, another major benefit of happening to grow up in Silicon Valley. Though being too young to drive, I had to ride my bike to the Stanford campus (about 4 miles).

Being the writer type I always was, I wrote a paper — using the WYLBUR system editor as a word processor — for extra credit, which Herb said boosted my theoretical grade to an “A”. (I think he was being generous because I was only 13.) While the paper may have been trivial in its insights, I did learn the wonderful power of Search & Replace (and note it could even right-justify the text!)

My 1972 paper for Dr. Ludwig, printed on an IBM 2741 “golf ball” computer terminal at Stanford University. (“Someday soon” is taking awhile!)

An Innovation We Can All Appreciate

Then, as now, I’m grateful for the thing that Fred Brooks is most proud of. “The most important single decision I ever made,” he told the Computer History Museum in 2004, “was to change the IBM 360 series from a 6-bit byte [character] to an 8-bit byte, thereby enabling the use of lowercase letters. That change propagated everywhere.”

The H-P 2000C and the teletypes were ALL UPPER CASE ONLY. I’m extremely pleased that I was able to express my thanks for the improved “Human-Computer Interface” directly to Dr. Brooks.

Once the System/360 project was complete, Brooks apparently yearned to pass along his knowledge: in 1965 he accepted an invitation from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to found their Computer Science department. He chaired the department for 20 years, and continued to work there for the rest of his career, researching virtual environments and scientific visualization (aka “virtual reality”).

Imagine what his students are doing now!

When Brooks left IBM, Watson asked him why it was so much harder to manage software projects than hardware projects — Brooks had done both for the company. “Adding manpower to a late software project,” he replied, “makes it later.” That became known as Brook’s Law, and Fred expanded on that idea in his seminal 1975 book, The Mythical Man Month,* which (in a new edition) is still in print today.

Crossing Paths

Professor on stage.
Brooks lecturing in Germany, November 2007 (Photo: SD&M [Software Design & Management AG], CC-BY-SA-3.0, cropped and color balanced.)
Having Fred Brooks as a reader makes me awe-stuck at the confluence with my early computing years. So even though I never had the privilege of studying with him, Brooks still had an important impact on my life, helping to lead me to become one of the first people in the world to use the Internet as a platform to make a full-time living.

As Fred once said about his lengthy tenure at UNC, “The wonder is still there; that’s why I’m still here.” And exactly why True is in its 28th year, and counting.

Dr. Brooks turns 91 this spring, and made the decision to let his Premium True subscription run out; this week will be his final issue. “So thanks and farewell,” he wrote. I replied to ask if I could write about him and his impact on me, telling him some of the things I wrote about above. (I don’t reveal the identity of readers without permission; there are many well-known names among them.)

“Wow!” he replied. “I had no idea you’d recognize my name, much less know so much about my career. You may mention me by name in your blog, so long as you don’t get it confused with the Honorary Unsubscribe.”

Hah! Fair enough. Live long and prosper, Frederick Phillips ‘Fred’ Brooks Jr. As I say about the Honorary Unsubscribe, “These are the people you will wish you had met.” I haven’t had the privilege to meet Fred in person (yet!), but it was my honor to entertain and inform him for around 20 years, and correspond with him by email so he could know of my admiration.

Shortly after that I got an order from Dr. Rob Katz, an expert in data visualization, and I couldn’t help but notice his UNC Computer Science email address. I popped him a note saying I’d be writing about Fred, and might he have any interesting stories about him?

“Somehow I suspect you have weird connections with many people 🙂 ,” Rob replied. “I didn’t have too much interaction with Fred while I was a grad student there,” he continued, but he had one story:

He was already an icon by the time I was there in the ’90s, and at some point he was honored with a bust that was displayed in a big common area. Well, one night someone dressed up his bust in a bright tie-dye shirt and sunglasses and maybe a hat. We all had a good laugh the next morning, and I figured the added stuff would disappear by the end of the day. But no, “Fred” stayed dressed in his new style for months! So I guess he had the rare quality of being able to laugh at himself.

Thanks much for your long support for This is True, Fred, and for the contributions you made to make computers better for us all.

* FTC Notice: If you buy products through links on this site I may receive an “affiliate” fee, which does not affect the price you pay. Details on True’s Privacy page.

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18 Comments on “Our Dr. Brooks

  1. Wow. What great memories. Thanks for sharing. (And, hoping you’re reading the comments: Thanks Dr. Brooks, from another long-time computer guy!!)

    Leo Notenboom

    Leo, an early Microsoft employee, is also a very long-time reader, and writes about computers at AskLeo.com. -rc

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  2. Hah!! Beat you by a year. I got on a computer the first time in 1970. We only had it for two weeks and it only did 110 baud, but that was long enough to get a dozen or so programs written and working. I just wish I had kept some of my old paper tape programs. They’d be a museum piece by now. I do still have my old 22 scale slide rule though. 🙂

    I think I have some punched tape in a box somewhere. I think I also have a clear soda bottle filled with the punchouts (and securely capped). -rc

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  3. Great memories, indeed! In 1973, I was playing Land On The Moon on a 2741 TSO terminal attached to USF’s IBM 360/70. There wasn’t a lot of security in those days, as I found out when I managed to dump the contents of memory, which included every TSO user’s account information, including password. I also learned that instead of buying punch cards in the bookstore, I could write and store my programs on the computer, and once it was working I could command the system to punch a deck for me. Probably cut my college costs by $2 or $3!

    When I got to college they ran admin and student learning on a PDP 11/70 (RSTS), on which I first learned proper word processing using Data Processing Design’s Word 11 (Microsoft was far from first with that name!) I found that you could reserve a huge chunk of disk space …and then scan it to see what was there — prior file versions, data bases, etc. — including “confidential” information since it was also used by school admins. Oops. Even today when you “delete” a file, its data usually remains on the hard drive until it is overwritten. -rc

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  4. I always enjoy the stories about your early life, space and computing. In this one you brushed up against my husband [or nearly]: He was at NAS Moffett Field in the early to mid 70’s when NASA was learning how to land an unpowered brick, aka shuttle. Lots of radar ranging and computer work he could tell you about. He and I were not married at the time, so I get to listen now.

    Cool! -rc

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  5. This was an exceptional story. I make my living in software development — I owe my entire career to people such as Dr. Brooks. Also, my employer is reworking our development team scheduling, and the link to his book was very timely. I’m part of my team’s scheduling management group, so I went ahead and bought his book. I’m sure I’ll find lots of great insight!

    I mentioned the quote about “adding more people to a late project makes it later” to my manager and she loved it.

    Thank you Dr. Brooks for ALL of your incredible contributions to the worlds of computing and development!

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  6. I was in what is believed to be the first high school programming class…in 1958 at Santa Monica High School.

    Our algebra teacher had spent the previous summer programming for the SAGE system and was convinced “any high school student could do this.” She set out to prove it, managing to convince some corner of IBM and someone at Bank of America to be the sponsors. We met after school, learning the concepts of computing and then how to program an IBM 702. Four of us then had summer jobs with B of A at their then new datacenter in downtown LA.

    When we were back in school, with the same teacher for geometry, she warned us that there was no future in computers because IBM was only going to make a few. In my junior and senior years of college there were “programming” classes available, although not yet a CompSci department. I routinely took at least one for an easy A 🙂

    After I graduated I began a career as a news photographer, but soon discovered I could either take pictures or eat. Being fond of eating, I applied for a job at IBM, where a clever salesperson, aware that I wasn’t yet an employee, convinced me (free lunch) to interview with one of his customers. I did, and they offered me more than IBM. So, in 1965, I became a “real” programmer, i.e., I got paid. Went on to various tech executive positions and started my own company in 1964. Now mostly retired, but the industry has been very good to me.

    I remember “This is True” from early on. (My domain name was registered in 1993.) Did you live in north Boulder in the 70s? If so, I believe we met once. Thanks for being the last remaining source of rational thinking on the Internet!!!

    And thanks to Dr. Brooks, without whom many of us would have had to do actual work to make a living!

    I lived in South Boulder from July 1996, to August 2003. In the 1970s, as the story here notes, I was in California. -rc

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  7. As a college senior majoring in computer science and graduating this December, this is an excellent story. My Intro to Software Engineering professor last spring went on and on about The Mythical Man-Month, drilling its main points into our heads (especially the line about adding manpower making the project later) and repeating those points on our final exam. It’s incredibly cool to learn that he was also a Premium True reader like me.

    I’m curious what some of these other well-known names on your subscription list are. If you can’t give names, maybe you could offer a few clues about occupations and such?

    Just very generally, there are quite a few well-known researchers, authors, software developers, actors, and other (for lack of a better word) luminaries among the readers. It’s great fun to get comments from them. -rc

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  8. As a greybeard on a forum for technical writers, I sometimes mention influential historical figures or developments that shaped how things work now. Fred Brooks and _The Mythical Man Month_ came up only last week in a thread about adding staff to busy projects.

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  9. I had the pleasure of taking a course taught by Dr. Brooks out of “The Mythical Man-Month” while I was enrolled at Duke, just up the road from UNC, around 1980. He’s a vibrant and compelling speaker, and I learned a lot from that course that I still use today.

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  10. While I was about 1000 miles from Silicon Valley, I, too, cut my programming teeth on a HP 2000 C time sharing computer, this one based at the Jefferson County School District office, though during my junior and senior years (1972-74). Had fun but the only computer stuff I do now is website support for a national company.

    Life swings a pendulum. I might get back to writing programs again. My wife wants a better ‘phone book/datebook/reminder’ app than what’s available. I’ll see what I can do.

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  11. What pleasant reading.

    I wrote my first program in 1957 on a Univac 1103. A whole 4K of 36 bit words. Only language was assembly (RECO) and paper tape input and output. We used an advanced form of a teletype called a flexowriter.

    Some years later when the IBM 360 came out we were appalled at the architecture. One good thing was the 8 bit byte. However going to 2’s complement was terrible. I cut my eyeteeth on 1’s complement on Control Data machines which was much more logical and efficient. Arithmetic and logical shifts are the same. Also the format of floating point was also very sneaky. I’m sure that was pushed by the sales people. It may no sense at all, except to fool the uninformed. It still makes me irritated.

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  12. I just checked. I still have my pristine copy of “The Mythical Man Month” (1975) on my bookshelf. I still browse through it whenever I’m trying to make some room on my shelves.

    And I started in a similar manner. The head of our math department took a continuing education course over the summer and started the first computer class with a hand-picked 15 students in my junior year of high school in the fall of 1970. Also with a Model 33 Teletype, an acoustic coupler and paper tape. And I am still doing IBM mainframe support to this very day! Thank you, Mr. Eschenburg.

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  13. As someone who started using computers around the time of Windows 95 and who understands nothing of programming or software, I want to thank all of the brilliant people who worked on developing the early technology and getting us to where we are today (and the ones who are still doing it!). I just built my first computer myself this summer after many hours of research and it felt like such an accomplishment. It’s so fascinating to read about how far we’ve come in such a short time.

    Building your own is an accomplishment! Now when something breaks you have a leg up on fixing it yourself. Excellent! -rc

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  14. It was 1962 that the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now “Va Tech”) Statistics Department got an IBM 1620 processor. I was studying Electronic Engineering (EE) and the Mantra in the EE department was “Computers are only approximations! To get an accurate answer you need an Analog Computer!” I think it was a professor who wrote a FORTRAN program to print out the value of pi to 5000 places. Some approximation!

    The other Mantra was “Transistors are a passing fad, to get a job done must use a Vacuum Tube!” My last vacuum tube job was somewhere in the 1980’s when the task involved a high power transmitter and a couple of tubes from EIMAC were the answer.

    I built computers using the Intel 4004, 4040, 6500, 6800, 6809, Z80… It beats attempting to put random logic together, particularly if there is a Teletype Model 33 ASR in the mix. CP/M and MP/M operating systems from Digital Research were a starting point, but multitasking real time operations were also needed.

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane Randy,
    Bill Grenoble (AKA Old Bill G)

    At least I know what 4004s (and, of course, Z80s) are! On micros, I started with CP/M Plus. -rc

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    • When I did my Degree (81-83 @ Western Australian Institute of Technology — now Curtin Uni), I also learned to “play” on microcomputers using CP/M. Interestingly, MS-DOS was not well thought of, and see how that turned out. 🙂 And yep … from 4004 to Z80 and beyond … great hearing about this sort of thing again. But we mostly learned using mainframe and mini-computers, COBOL, Fortran, and a few others, including assembler (on a PDP 11/34) …. ahhhh, this brings back memories.

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  15. In 1962 (I think), when I was a junior in the best HS (and a public one!) in Nashville and had a couple of wins in the state (well, Tennessee) math contest, Vanderbilt U. gave me a library card (which I still have) and permitted me to take a programming course in Fortran.

    A ‘homework’ problem was to write a program to solve the general quadratic equation. The program had to be written on cards, which were then entered into the computer (and damned if I can remember which one it was) and run. There was no monitor, so we had to punch our program on paper tape and enter it via the same reader, then run it. The result would usually be an error, and IIRC, the error was not very specifically identified. Nevertheless, once the error is discovered, rewrite the bad instruction, wait for the computer to be available, return to Step 1 and hope ineffectively that you have not made a different error, in which case…. After what seemed like a week, I finally had the program correctly finished, and heaved a BIG sigh of relief.

    That was my introduction to computation. Later, after an undergrad degree in Math at MIT, I was accepted in the Ph.D. program at the same university in Linguistics, finished in 4 1/2 years (1968) and, having been convinced by my doctor (M.D.) father, who had served as a Captain in WWII, to join ROTC in college, entered active duty. While there at a secure site near Washington D.C., I had access to a bulb-driven PDP-1 connected to reel-to-reel 6-foot tower IBM drives and a mechanical line-by-line printer. A couple of guys were responsible for keeping everything running, which they by and large did successfully, by some miracle — there was a reason why this was the only such setup in the world, as it was extremely delicate. I did a couple of machine language programs (making a 4X5 pixel Russian alphabet to display on the *********** that served as our monitor — AFAIK, no one has ever used it).

    I have made a few more forays into programming in different languages (Commodore Basic and machine language in the 80s), but nothing of note, but I do understand the basic basics of how to program, especially the part about making programs idiot-proof (because we are all idiots for the most part).

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  16. I was in 4th grade when my entire class came to my house. My dad was the architect for a General Electric computer (in Phoenix) operating system based on BASIC. We had an ASR33 in the spare bedroom. He had written a simple binary search for a number between 1 and 100. He explained the algorithm to the class, then took half of the class to try it, then the second half.

    In High School, we had several Wang 702B computers. Backup was to cassette tape — mandated TDK tapes to minimize damage to the heads.

    My dad taught me Boolean logic when I was in 5th and 6th grade. After I graduated high school, he taught me 8080 assembly code. I used that to create a church database and mailing system.

    I then went to New Mexico Tech for computer science (1987). We had a DEC 20 with ADM3A terminals. Great education. (If you are looking for a great CS education, and can live in a small New Mexico town, NMT is a great college. Been eating off that education ever since.)

    First job was at Floating Point Systems in Portland. Again, mainframes. Then a company, Metheus, working on 68000 based UNIX systems. That was my entry into embedded systems. Almost everything I have since done is embedded systems, from very powerful to small Arduino systems.

    I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I have been able to positively affect literally every person in the world in one form or another, mainly through work on telecom teams. In that, my story is not unique. Anybody with a career over 10 years has affected millions of people.

    Robots are this generation’s drug-vector into STEM. We need to encourage kids, especially girls, into STEM. The general wisdom is we need to get girls interested in STEM by 4th grade. Simply put, “Mars needs Women” — we need to create a pipeline to get young girls interested. We need to get them into the pipeline and encourage them through High School into College.

    I use Susan B Anthony (SBA) coins — they tell a story. The front is SBA — as a figurehead because it took 75 years of terrible discrimination and derision, persistence and sacrifice for great social justice. The back is the Apollo 11 mission patch. Serious science and engineering, at the cost of hard work and sacrifice. But — as the movie “Hidden Figures” shows — guys build the hardware, but (Black) Women got us to the moon.

    I give these to young women, waitresses, teachers, and anybody else that will affect young girls. I give them to the girls, too. Let’s face it — boys are stupid about girls, and will tell girls they cannot do things because they are girls. By having a coin, they can look at it and remember the stories. Hopefully, it will give them the buck-up to keep going.

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  17. Fred Brooks will be a CS icon for his pioneering work. His observation about adding people to a late project is spot-on. A fundamental reason is that adding people increases the lines of communication by N-squared (or worse).

    True story: My dad was part of a team of about a dozen guys that created CALL/360, which was commissioned by Buck Rogers (really his name), who was the manager responsible for OS/360. He needed a backup, because OS/360 had been seriously slipping its schedule. CALL/360 was done in 10 months on a fixed-price contract.

    About half-way into the CALL/360 project, the CALL/360 contact (a guy named Fry) met with Buck Rogers and the OS/360 contact. Fry reported they were on schedule. The OS/360 contact reported “We had to hire another 25 programmers, so we need to build another building” (a direct quote).

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