21
Mar
20

Building a Replacement Server 2.0

I built my current server about five years ago as a replacement for my Sparcstation 20 so it could be retired from the role and used in a more desktop role. Recently the machine I built suffered what I thought was a hardware failure and hasn’t been up in some time. This has brought forward plans I’ve had for quite a while to replace it with something more power efficient. I’ve been struggling for quite a while to find something that is relatively cheap, but also more power efficient than the 60-100W my old Celeron 2.4 Ghz uses.

One option I had been investigating for a while is the plethora of small form factor PCs that are generally available. I looked at various offerings from Intel, Gigabyte and others that are available and found that whilst they were indeed quite power efficient, they also tended to cost quite a bit for a bare bones system that would require buying additional components. For this reason I decided it would be better to go for another option.

I had looked among my collection of old hardware for an alternative, and couldn’t find anything that was suitable, so I was going to have to buy something new. With small form factor PCs ruled out due to cost I had to do some research. I ended up finding some videos from Phil’s Computer Lab where he used old thin client machines for various purposes such as retro gaming or in some cases being able to play fairly modern games. Checking out the specifications of the thin clients they appeared to be reasonably powerful, efficient, cheap, and you get a complete system that require minimal additional components. Sounds like a winner!

I ended up buying an HP T620 thinclient with the 1.5Ghz Quad core AMD GX-415GA chip. It came with 4 Gb of DDR3 memory and 16Gb flash in the form of an M.2 drive. Whilst not terribly impressive specs for a modern machine, it’s fairly good for 2013 technology and is certainly better than the old Celeron I currently have. The most exciting aspect of the thin client is its power efficiency. I had a fairly good idea that it would be significantly better than the old machine because the power brick is 65W, so the likely maximum energy draw has to be less than what the old machine draws at idle. Being a low power device it is passively cooled and is completely silent in operation.

So I got out my kill-a-watt style power meter to see how much energy I could expect this machine to consume, I was pleasantly surprised. With the default operating system (embedded windows 8) it used a whopping 2W after boot at idle. Being so low I was completely astonished! I wasn’t planning on using windows as the operating system, so knowing the idle power may be different I went about the software install. Like previous server installs I’m using NetBSD again, partly because it makes it easy for me to migrate, but also just because I like it.

I had some difficulties installing because of UEFI, but once I resolved that the install went smoothly. Hardware support turned our fairly well, with all the major devices except the wireless working. Given I’ll be using Ethernet that’s not much of an issue for me. After boot on a clean install the idle power consumption is around 7W, which is still quite impressive. I suspect the higher consumption is because of the open source radeon driver not having good power management, which I can’t do much about at the present time.

The only issue I had after installing the operating system was the distinct lack of storage, 16G is not really all that much and I know that I’ll need more. Luckily these thin clients can take upgraded storage, mine has a mSATA slot that some revisions of this unit don’t. So I went online and bought a 120G Kingston UV500 mSATA SSD. Had my unit not had that slot I could have upgraded the M.2 drive to something larger. There are also a number of USB ports that could be used for external storage.

I’ve now deployed the new machine and I’m quite happy with the results. I’m quite happy with the performance, which I’d say is in large part due to the SSD storage. I like that it’s passively cooled because that makes it completely silent. Lastly the extremely low power consumption makes it very cheap to run, and I managed to get mine (including the extra storage) for significantly less cost than you’d pay for most small form factor PCs.

27
Feb
20

Bob’s Fury Update: Bug Hunting

I’ve been doing some coding on Bob’s fury lately, basically making adjustments and making code faster in the hope that I could make it work well on a 286 class machine. I have been using dosbox to develop and test, but this doesn’t fully test the compatibility or stability of software as dosbox has its own quirks and does not behave exactly as real hardware does. This is where my old Microbyte 386sx computer steps in, here’s a photo from when I first bought it.

It has been very useful for performance testings as it has a turbo feature that is software controlled. You can not only toggle the CPU speed with a key stroke, but you can set the slower speed in the BIOS configuration. This has allowed me to test with the machine running at its stock 20Mhz as well as a slower speed, I’ve used 10Mhz for my testing as a rough equivalent of many 286 machines. The testing I was able to do has shown that my game should be playable on a 286 depending on the video mode. CGA and VGA both have acceptable speed for game play, whilst EGA is marginal.

The testing did however uncover a rather annoying and difficult to squish bug. If I have the sound turned on (PC speaker is all this machine supports) the system will freeze when a game event that plays the explosion sound happens. Hunting bugs such as this are difficult as there is little feedback about the potential causes. It sounds like the code supporting the PC speaker should be at fault, so that’s where I began the search for the bug.

For the PC speaker I found a support library many years ago that allowed you to use the music macro language used by the play statement in GWbasic and QBasic. It hooks interrupt 1Ch (the system timer interrupt) to update the state of the PC speaker. Whilst I haven’t had any previous issues I wondered if there was a fault that could cause the crash. At first I wondered if using floating point instructions could have been the cause. The library has a small section using floating point to determine the number of ticks a note should last. On a system such as the 386sx without a FPU such instructions cause an interrupt so that emulation in software can take over. This interrupt within an interrupt was what I thought may be the cause.

So I constructed a test program hooking the same interrupt and performing a series of floating point calculations as a test, this didn’t yield the result I’d hoped as the test program worked fine. So I then wondered if the 386 was getting another type of problem that would cause an unwanted interrupt. So I copied sections of code from the library into the test program to run in a normal procedure that would show run-time error messages and debug information I could use. No run-time errors appeared and the results of the required calculations appeared to be correct.

I have a few ideas left to test, but I’m left with quite a puzzle regarding the cause. This does illustrate the need for testing on actual hardware, it’s usually better to test on many machines. Unfortunately I don’t have a large supply of 286 and 386 class machines, although I have a few I may be able to repair. I need to test on another machine because there could be something specific in the design of the Microbyte machine that isn’t compatible and is causing the issue.

07
Feb
20

Bloxinies and Bloxinies II for DOS

One afternoon I had a bit of spare time, whilst looking around the doshaven website for something to play I ran into two simple puzzle games. Bloxinies and it’s sequel Bloxinies II. These were both made by Sebastiaan Jansen (also known as Thandor) in 2013 and 2016 respectively.

The first game is much like Paganitzu in many ways. Your character, Bloxinies has gone through a gate into a puzzle realm. It has to collect all the diamonds in each level before it can move onto the next, eventually to be able to return home. The levels contain hazards similar to those found in Paganitzu.

Technically the game uses CGA graphics and some basic PC speaker sound. The graphics are fairly well drawn for CGA, although there is basically no animation. Whilst it’s basic, the simplicity works with a puzzle game like this.

I found the levels a bit simpler than those in Paganitzu, but still quite challenging. The only thing that was annoying is running out of lives and being sent back to the start of the game. To make progress it’s important to conserve your lives as best you can, so when you return to a point of difficulty you have the best chance of success.

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The second game is a much improved version of the first. Some new features have been added such as a few new enemies, gates and levers, the ability to use bombs, and extra lives. Notably there is multiplayer with a special set of levels. Each person has their own controls on the same keyboard.

There have been some technical improvements as well, mostly in the graphics which now supports VGA. Appropriately there is a significant improvement in the art, there’s more variety in the blocks that make up the walls in addition to the new features, making it more pleasing to look at. The sound system appears to have remained the same, retaining PC speaker sound.

The levels are more complex due to the new features, but at the same time have a shallower learning curve in the sequence. I feel like this is because the designer had more features to explore before increasing the difficulty. This gave me a bit more time playing before I hit any major road blocks, which were more punishing because of the lives system being carried over from the last game. Levels from the first game are included if you wish to play them with the improved graphics.

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The only real complaint I have for both games is the lives system, which I feel doesn’t really belong in a puzzle game. Otherwise I quite enjoyed playing both of them. I didn’t get a chance to dive deeper into the multiplayer aspect of the second game, what with lacking a second player, but it does certainly look interesting. If you’re looking for a download you can find it here on the authors website. He’s included the source code for each game and a means for editing levels if you so desire. I was pleased to see it’s implemented in pascal, mostly because I use it myself for my own DOS projects.

13
Jan
20

Cyrix 6×86 Generic PC with ECS P5VX-Be Mainboard

During the recent holiday season I took the kids to visit my parents out on the farm. During my time there I had some time to drag out some old computer hardware from storage. The PC  I dragged out today was bought as an upgrade and replacement for our then aging 386. I don’t remember exactly when we got this machine, but judging by the date codes on some of the hardware it has to be sometime in 1998. It is a socket 7 based system with a Cyrix 6×86 PR 166Mhz with 16Mb of RAM assembled by a local system integrator. So it was certainly a fairly budget machine for the time, however it felt like a huge upgrade coming from what we had. It has been stripped for parts, but the fundamental components remain, here’s a photo of the chassis and another of the remaining components

Taking a look inside we see most of the PC is still there, the main things missing are the optical drives, floppy drive and some cabling. Whilst it’s not complete the majority of the components are in working order.

Taking a closer look at the lower front of the mainboard we can see that there is one of those annoying dallas clock chips that can go flat and leave a PC unable to remember its configuration. The CPU and its heatsink are also mounted here, the Cyrix chips are interesting beasts, whilst they were budget parts in many senses they achieved good results depending on the workload. Typically workloads making heavy use of the FPU were better suited to either Intel or AMD parts, but other loads that make heavy use of the main integer core could run faster on these Cyrix parts. Our experience with this particular sample was that it could do all the same jobs and play similar games, but sometimes your performance would be worse or better depending on what you were doing.

My Dad used this machine for the farms business accounting, and for that it did a fairly good job. Being a teenager during this machines work life I used to play quite a few games on it. DOS games worked very well in general, games like doom basically ran perfectly, and even the first Quake did ok as long as you didn’t crank up the settings. Windows 95 gaming depended on the game, partly due to the limited amount of RAM the machine had, which I think limited what we could play more than the CPU. 3d games in general didn’t work so well, partly due to the lack of a 3d accelerator and RAM.

The graphic card was fairly basic being just an Octek S3 Trio64V. It is quite compatible with DOS games and works ok with 2d applications, but it doesn’t do any 3d acceleration at all. 3d games we played had to use software rendering, some of which didn’t perform well while others were quite playable. These cards were quite common due to their low cost.

The Quantum Fireball Hard disk was about 1.6G in size from memory, its death is  what ultimately forced this machine into retirement. From what I’ve read online this was a relatively fast drive in it’s day, which makes it an odd choice for this otherwise fairly budget system. I seem to have had bad luck with Quantum drives as they seem to die more often than others I’ve owned. It was quite dirty before I wiped the dust off, although I think the dirt you find out on the farm is generally less hazardous than dust in the city.

The motherboard is a P5VX-Be made by Elitegroup (also known as Elite or ECS). It wasn’t a particularly high end board for the time, but it was perfectly serviceable for most tasks. There are two issues with this chipset that could be a problem. Firstly the chipset only caches the first 64Mb of RAM out of a 128Mb maximum which could drastically slow down windows if you had more than 64Mb. Also the maximum FSB that it supports is 66Mhz, which meant it couldn’t support some of the faster AMD and Cyrix parts that were available.

These two issues aren’t as bad as they sound, remember that most systems of the day had 16Mb or 32Mb of RAM with only very high end systems using 64Mb. Also looking around at FSB speeds of socket 7 CPUs there aren’t that many that require higher than 66Mhz speed. So it would have been a very unusual (and expensive) build that couldn’t really use this board. For a retro enthusiast today it could be a problem, but for us at the time it was perfectly adequate.

Other features of the board are the usual integrated peripherals such as floppy and hard disk controllers, serial and parallel ports. Also integrated is a Crystal SRS (CS4327B) sound card, a sound blaster compatible device that supported DOS games as well as having a decent windows driver. We were still playing quite a few DOS games at the time, so this was quite a bonus and worked exceptionally well. Especially considering our previous machine only had the PC speaker for sound.

Working with this board isn’t too bad, as the jumpers are mostly labeled in a way that is visible while the board is installed. It doesn’t seem to be too hard to work on, although I’d suggest having the manual so you know what configurations are valid and to double check your jumper settings.

Whilst this machine is anything but high end it gave us a pretty good service life and was capable of doing most tasks that we gave it. Even if it was sometimes not particularly fast it was a very big improvement over the 386 and 486 machines we had previously There were limitations in what games we could play, but that really only became very limiting once 3d acceleration became mandatory for gaming.

01
Dec
19

Some DOS Games for the IBM PC

The early IBM PC was not really all that good at playing games, it was after all primarily designed for businesses. Despite this many developers did make games for them, although they were typically very limited by the capabilities of the PC. I didn’t get to play any of these older games when they were new, mostly because I was quite young, but also because we got our first PC in 1990. Being a 386sx @ 20Mhz it wouldn’t play most of them.

Because many of these older games are simpler and shorter I’m rolling up a few of them into a single post. The games for today are Bowling, Hardhat Mack and Moonbugs.

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Bowling is a simple text-mode ten-pin bowling game. There’s not really a whole lot to say about it. After you enter a number for the game speed, the number of players and their names it jumps straight into the game. The players take turns to bowl, which basically is just striking a key when the ball lines up with where you’re aiming. The pins fall down in a deterministic way that eliminates much of the variety you would usually have. This is partly because the ball is the same size as the pins and there isn’t much vertical resolution in the alley. This one is simple enough it may have been implemented in BASIC, although there isn’t any way to know for sure.

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Hardhat Mack was originally an Apple II game made by Michael Abbot and Matthew Alexander in 1983, it was ported for the IBM PC the next year by Dana How and Kevin Gilmore. It’s a single screen platform game starring the titular character Hardhat Mack, who is working on a construction site. Like in Donkey Kong, Mack has a different task in each level to complete. There are three different stages to complete before the game starts again on a slightly harder difficulty level.

Technically it looks much like most other games of the era, with 4 colour CGA graphics and PC speaker sound. The artwork looks fine, but the technical implementation seems a bit slow and suffers from colour distortion due to the way the sprites are drawn and moved, most likely using the XOR operation. It also affected my ability to get a good screen shot whilst playing in dosbox.

The controls takes a little getting used to, you press a directional key and mack continues to move in that direction until you press down (for stop) or change direction. Mack and the enemies move fairly slowly, so it’s not a particularly action packed experience, but there is some challenge avoiding the enemies and completing the level. That being said other games like Freddy’s Rescue Roundup have more and deeper game play.

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Moonbugs was made by Windmill Software back in 1983 who are much better known for making Digger in the same year. Moonbugs is an arcade style game much like many of the early arcade shoot ’em ups, what makes it unusual is the graphics mode that it uses. It is one of the few CGA games to achieve 16 colour graphics in what is essentially a hacked CGA text mode.

The graphics whilst chunky are very nicely implemented. Animation in general is very smooth even with a large number of objects on screen and the movement looks quite good. Sound is of course PC speaker, which is again implemented very well, I’m not sure how they achieved it, but it sounds very much like an old school arcade game.

The game play is a combination of ideas from arcade games with twist of its own. The main enemies move around the screen and shoot in a way that reminds me of the insects in galaxian. They will swoop down and steal some of the uranium fuel at the bottom of the screen, you can shoot the enemy to recover the fuel. More of them spawn as the game goes on at a rate dependent on the level and up to a limit as well. A bonus bad guy will occasionally fly along the top of the screen like in space invaders which you can shoot for a bonus and later levels seem to include homing missiles that you need to destroy or avoid.

The main aspect of the game play that is original is the machine collecting the uranium fuel that you’re protecting. The machine gradually collects the fuel over time, once all of it is collected and the machine connects to the dish the level is over. You get a bonus for each piece of fuel collected at the end, so having the fuel stolen reduces the time available to shoot enemies and your score.

Moonbugs is colourful and noisy in a way that would fit right in an arcade setting. It’s fairly challenging without being painfully hard. I quite enjoyed my time with it. The best way to play it today is via dosbox with cycles and settings to match a CGA XT machine. You can find it at the digger remastered site (scroll down a fair bit) along with other Windmill Software games.

21
Oct
19

Anniversary and some random thoughts

It’s amazing how fast time flies by, but yet another year has flown by! This month marks the 8th year of my blog, which seems like an awfully long time to be writing about anything at all really. I think part of the reason I keep it up is the enjoyment I get out of investigating and later writing about subjects I’m interested in. I have unfortunately been busy with work and kids and had to put some ideas I’ve had on the back burner, after all writing this is just a hobby.

Some thing I’m keeping in mind for the near future is making some content around retro-programming, for gwbasic in particular but also for other programming languages for old machines. I’d like to do this on youtube, but am yet to get required equipment (mainly a mic). I’ve been thinking about making video content for quite a while, but have been reluctant because of the over saturation in some area’s of interest I have, also I don’t like the sound of my own voice. On the other hand there isn’t much content out there about gwbasic other than a few not-so-great tutorials and sample programs.

I hit another road block with my Sparcstation as a desktop series, having trouble getting software to build. I’ve not powered on my machine for a while, but it’s something I intend on getting back to. I also think I’d like to cover some of the other machines I have in more detail, perhaps in a similar manner, but they need introductory posts to show the machines themselves. Good ideas but likely to come out slowly as I manage to find the time to do the work required.

I’m currently working on replacing my server again, not because it’s broken, but in an effort to reduce the energy consumption of the device. At idle it runs at about 60-70 watts, which doesn’t sound like much, but it can end up using between 130 and 151 Kilo Watt hours over a quarter (an electricity bill cycle). Which whilst not expensive compared to many devices is still significant and worth reducing. I’m working with a 10 year old Intel board and Q8430 CPU from a Medion PC that I have handy. I’m trying it to see if I can get much of a reduction as it has much better power management than the current machine. Alternatively I may go with a Raspberry Pi of some kind or a mini PC.

I’ve been keeping an eye out on the technology industry at large, I’m happy to see AMD is making the CPU market a bit more competitive again. For quite a while Intel dominated the space taking the lions share of the market almost everywhere. AMD has managed to not only become competitive in terms of performance, but has managed to make better performing chips (depending on workload) at a better price than Intel has been offering. Because of this they are getting some market share back which is good for everyone, especially consumers. It’s funny the reaction of some commentators and reviewers with click-baity titles such as “is Intel dying?”. Anyone with half a brain would know they aren’t and won’t in much the same way that AMD didn’t.

Rumours of Apple switching from X86 to ARM for its line of laptops are interesting but not unprecedented. They have switched architectures multiple times in the past. Given the potential advantages of ARM it is not surprising to hear of the switch. In the past few years Apple laptops have suffered design issues around the use of Intel chips, primarily the heat disipation and battery longevity of these devices. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with Intel parts, but more that the design priorities Apple has suit the ARM architecture more. I’ll be interested to see if they can manage to keep the laptops performance competitive and if there will be enough software support to make it viable. However at this stage no-one really knows what they have up their sleeve.

Microsoft releasing an Android based mobile device on the other hand was a little surprising but nice to see. Co-operation like this that would have been unimaginable in the past. I’m guessing the reasoning behind making an android device would likely have something to do with the poor market share that windows phone has had in the past and the popularity of the android platform. As far as mobile devices go it sounds intriguing, but it also signals a wider co-operation between Google and Microsoft that will improve both the Android and PC experience as far as interoperability goes.

I’ve noted quite a bit of advertisements around VPN services over the last few years, usually claiming their service is a good way of maintaining privacy It’s true in many cases that a VPN connection will increase privacy and security, especially on an public network/wifi where someone could be listening. It also can prevent your ISP from using information about your internet habits for whatever nefarious purpose they might have.

However they aren’t a perfect solution for privacy, they mostly protect you from your ISP (or others on your local network) observing your activity. With encryption of web traffic being almost ubiquitous traffic interception isn’t really an easy way to gather data about someone. Rather the web sites and services that you use are tracking you through other means such as cookies, user logins, and other information generally given freely. Facebook and Google are known to be able to track your activity even after leaving their websites, partly because many sites are integrating features of their platforms. Using them for authentication is an example. The risk of this happening is not influenced by using a VPN.

So I’d say that even if you’re using a VPN for some reason, it’s still prudent to use software features of your browser/apps to increase privacy where necessary. Just be aware that whilst a VPN is good at increasing your privacy, it’s not perfect by any means.

I could go on, but I’ve realised how long this is starting to get so I’ll wind things up. It’s funny how at first you can be short on ideas but once you get started you can’t stop. I’d like to thank all my readers for putting up with my spelling mistakes and poor grammar all this time, and of course for sticking around and reading and/or commenting.

01
Oct
19

Old Tech: The AccessGrid

Today I’d like to talk about an old technology that has mostly died off and I used to use rather extensively in my job. The AccessGrid as it was known was an advanced teleconferencing system used world-wide for remote teaching and academic collaboration. Rather than being one single technology such as Skype, it was a collection of open source software that worked together, the main client simply being the glue that co-ordinated the meeting system. The main software was initially created in 1998 by Argonne National Laboratory and maintained by them until it was later made open source and supported by the community.

I was involved in running one of the AccessGrid nodes for my local university, mostly for the purposes of remote teaching. The rooms (also known as nodes) were set up with the ideal that the technology should be as transparent as possible for students and teachers. Most sites had a technician (usually referred to as the operator) that ran the equipment so that participants in a session didn’t have to manage the technology on top of their normal activity. The operator also usually participated with the AG community at large, helping each other with technical issues and testing the software and hardware configuration of nodes. I was the operator for our node, and am still involved in supporting remote teaching today.

A Typical AccessGrid node at University of Newcastle Australia

The room was equipped similarly to a class room, but with extra equipment to capture as much as possible. The front of the room had smart boards for writing notes and displaying lecture slides. For tutorial sessions students both remote and local could present solutions on the smart boards, although the exact technical solution used to provide this varied depending on the participating nodes. We had a number of cameras so all the local participants could be seen, and ceiling and lapel mics so students and teachers could be heard. These would usually be adjusted to some degree to suite each session, although sensible defaults would usually work fairly well.

Audio and Video was sent between clients using RTP (Real-time Transport Protocol) using Multicast UDP packets to transport the data. Because support for Multicast traffic isn’t universal and had been blocked at some institutions Unicast bridges were set up. These bridges allowed people with out Multicast support on their local network to connect to meetings, these bridges were run by nodes which had working Multicast support. Users could manually select which bridge to use to avoid high latency or traffic load.

Rat (robust audio tool) was the program that sent and received audio. It had options for many different bit rates and audio encodings and worked quite well on most platforms and audio equipment. It did have some basic echo canceling capability, but that usually wasn’t used as most nodes opted for hardware based echo canceling with devices such as the ClearOne XAP800 which generally did a better job. A notable feature of the software was the ability to tune the audio volume of each participant individually, which made it much easier to cope with audio issues as it could be adjusted on the fly. This unfortunately seems to be an unusual feature on modern communication software which often doesn’t allow this to be easily done.

Vic (Video conferencing tool) did the video portion of the session, by using multiple instances of this program it was possible for each node to transmit and receive video from multiple sources, usually cameras but also live screen captures from another program. This allowed a Node to send a video of the teacher, any local audience members, and multiple screen captures. Large sessions with many participants could have a large number of video streams, I remember seeing 15-20 streams for the bigger events. Generally it scaled fairly well, but you needed a decent internet connection.

The AccessGrid for Australian universities died rather unceremoniously and suddenly when the server was switched off most of the way through semester 2 in 2014. The person who was maintaining the server had left the institution where it was hosted, so when their server room was renovated it was decommissioned without any plans to reinstate the service. This happened with no announcements or notice, just one day it was suddenly dead. This left the still significant number of people using it for remote teaching scrambling to find alternative solutions as quickly as possible, thankfully most people managed, but it wasn’t fun.

Had the server not died, would the AccessGrid still be in use today? The answer is probably not, but maybe. As a technology it was harder to use and required significant technical knowledge. Modern software has largely taken that complexity and difficulty away, unfortunately taking some of the flexibility away with it. Commercial software often requires a license fee for the server at least, but in some cases also for the client software. This extra cost was off-putting to smaller institutions who don’t have the larger resources others do, so that may have motivated some to stick with it.

So why wax all nostalgic about it? Partly because no-one else has and the foot print the AccessGrid has on the internet is gradually fading. Also it was an interesting and formative technology in the electronic teaching space. It achieved results that at the time were not possible with other technologies enabling students access to courses they otherwise couldn’t reach, and Lecturers access to a wider audience. For me personally it was memorable being a part of the community and making the technology work. Whilst it had its problems it was interesting, functional, and flexible.




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