Friday, February 28, 2014

Herman Hollerith and the Mechanical Tabulator

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)
On February 29, 1860, American statistician and inventor Herman Hollerith was born. He is best known for his invention of the mechanical tabulator based on punchcards to rapidly tabulate statistics from millions of pieces of data. He was the founder of the Tabulating Machine Company that later merged to become IBM. Hollerith is widely regarded as the father of modern automatic computation.

Herman Hollerith was born the son of German immigrant Prof. Georg Hollerith in Buffalo, New York, where he spent his early childhood. He entered the City College of New York in 1875 and graduated at age 19 from the Columbia University School of Mines with an "Engineer of Mines" degree in 1879. In 1880 he listed himself as a mining engineer while living in Manhattan. Hollerith worked on the 1880 US census, a laborious and error-prone operation that cried out for mechanization. This experience, along with some advice from mentor John Shaw Billings, convinced him that the Census Office desperately needed a better way to tabulate census data than hand counting. Herman Hollerith first got his idea for the punch-card tabulation machine from watching a train conductor punch tickets. What the train conductors did was that they punched the train tickets at different on specific positions to distinguish features of the ticket holder, such as gender, color, or age. The idea was to prevent the tickets being reused by other persons than the original passenger. Thus, encoding information by the position of a punch hole on a card, the same idea that was used in the early 1800s to control a Jacquard loom, an automatic weaving machine that is controlled by specially coded punch cards.

Hollerith's mentor Billings suggested a device similar to the Jacquard loom might be used to automate the census count. Meanwhile, he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1882, where he taught mechanical engineering Hollerith seized on the idea of punch cards, designing a machine that used the location of holes on each card to tally not only overall numbers but also individual characteristics and even cross-tabulations. After some initial trials with paper tape, he settled on punched cards and designed special equipment -- a tabulator and sorter -- to tally the results. He tested his new machine in Baltimore in 1887, the same year the hand-counted 1880 census was finally completed, and was successful enough that he won a contract from the Census Office when it reopened for the 1890 census. Hollerith's electric counting machines were a great success. They appreciably reduced tabulation time for the 1890 census while providing more statistics at a lower cost for processing. Actually, it saved the 1890 taxpayers five million dollars, and earned Hollerith an 1890 Columbia PhD, as a description of this system, An Electric Tabulating System (1889), was submitted by Hollerith to Columbia University as his doctoral thesis. His success in 1890 led to contracts with foreign governments, eager to use his devices. Hollerith's machines reduced a ten-year job to three months. This was the first wholly successful information processing system to replace pen and paper. Hollerith machines were used in 1891 for censuses of Canada, Norway, and Austria; railroad companies used them to calculate fare information.

In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company, opening a shop in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. He provided machines for the 1900 census count, but had greatly raised his leasing prices, which led the Census Bureau in 1902 to explore other options. After a former US Census Bureau technician James Powers was able develop a more advanced version of Hollerith's machine, he started his own machine tabulation company and Hollerith's company, which had changed its name to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company after a merger, was practically run out of the market. In 1918, Thomas J. Watson, an accomplished salesman, joined the Computer Tabulating Recording Company as an executive and revolutionized the way the company was run and transformed it into a successful enterprise once again. Although Hollerith worked with the company as a consulting engineer until his retirement in 1921, he became less and less involved in day-to-day operations after Watson came on board. Hollerith retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he died of a heart attack in 1929. As for the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, in 1924, the resurgent enterprise changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

At yovisto, you can learn more about the work of Herman Hollerith and his tabulating machines in the presentation of Francis Underwood from the Computer History Museum.
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Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Steinbeck and his View of the American Society

John Steinbeck
(1902 – 1968)
On February 27, 1902, American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck was born. His works comprise twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, among them 'The Grapes of Wrath', 'East of Eden', and 'Of Mice and Men'.

John Steinbeck grew up in California and also many of his later stories play in the area south of San Francisco. Steinbeck noticed his interest in literature early and began writing stories as a student. In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University, studying journalism, English literature, classical literature and history. During semester breaks, Steinbeck worked on farms, at construction areas and factories. It became more and more clear, that the student was rather unsatisfied with the life as an academic and he dropped out of university, realizing that his jobs had a much greater influence on him than his actual classes. In his later works, he often worked up his experiences he made in these milieus.

Before publishing his very first novel, Steinbeck tried his luck in New York City, but was disappointed, wherefore he returned to California quickly. When 'Cup of Gold' was published, it stayed rather unnoticed by critics, just like his next two works. The first real success set in with the novel 'Tortilla Flat', published in 1935. It is assumed that the 17 stories in this work were inspired by Steinbeck's co-workers at a sugar factory. In the following period, Steinbeck published 'In Dubious Battle', which led to a contract with the the San Francisco News. Steinbeck was supposed to write about migrant workers from Oklahoma and his intense research on the topic is supposed to have inspired his masterpieces 'Of Mice and Men', published in 1937 and 'The Grapes of Wrath' from 1939. For 'The Grapes of Wrath', Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer-Prize, since the novel was not only seen as an amazing piece of literature but also as a remarkable historical resource.

When World War II started, Steinbeck joined the 'Foreign Information Service' and realized several propaganda projects, resulting in the theater play 'The Moon is Down'. After the war, Steinbeck was highly influenced by an old friend, who was occupied as a marine biologist and showed him completely new perspectives to his environment. The scientist was often 'used' as a literary figure in his following works including 'Cannery Row' and 'The Log from the Sea of Cortez'. Unfortunately, it was hard for Steinbeck to continue his success with his later works. He traveled through Scandinavia, France and Africa, gathering new energy inspiration for another masterpiece, 'East of Eden', published in 1952.

After a stroke in 1959, Steinbeck decided to get to know his country once more. He traveled across the United States, writing about the American society and publishing another work titled 'Travels with Charley: In Search of America' in 1962. The work is quite a mixture of Steinbeck's reflection of the American culture, road trip stories, and a travel guide. The author wrote about the people he met and the conversations they had. On this day, the book gives a pretty good introduction to U.S during the 1960s. In the same year the book was published, Steinbeck was told that he will be awarded the Nobel Prize.

At yovisto, you may be interested in the Nobel Prize lecture by John Steinbeck.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Robert Alexander Watson-Watt and the Radar Technology

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt (1892-1973)
On February 26, 1935, British engineer and Fellow of the Royal Society Robert Alexander Watson-Watt started with first experiments on detecting and locating aircrafts with radio technique, later called 'RADAR'. Radar was initially nameless and researched elsewhere but it was greatly expanded on 1 September 1936 when Watson-Watt became Superintendent of Bawdsey Research Station located in Bawdsey Manor, near Felixstowe, Suffolk. Work there resulted in the design and installation of aircraft detection and tracking stations called Chain Home along the east and south coasts of England in time for the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

The history of radar starts with experiments by Heinrich Hertz in the late 19th century that showed that radio waves were reflected by metallic objects. This possibility was suggested in James Clerk Maxwell's seminal work on electromagnetism. However, it was not until the early 20th century that systems were able to use these principles were becoming widely available, and it was German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer who first used them to build a simple ship detection device intended to help avoid collisions in fog (Reichspatent Nr. 165546). Numerous similar systems, which provided directional information to objects over short ranges, were developed over the next two decades.

The principle of radar is simple. You only have to be able to produce a short electromagnetic pulse and have to wait until it gets reflected by a solid object. Thus, te development of systems able to produce short pulses of radio energy was the key advance that allowed modern radar systems to come into existence. By timing the pulses on an oscilloscope the range could be determined, and the direction of the antenna revealed the angular location of the targets. The two, combined, produced a "fix", locating the target relative to the antenna. The term RADAR was coined in 1939 by the United States Signal Corps as it worked on these systems for the Navy.

Robert Watson-Watt graduated with a BSc in engineering in 1912, and continued his studies as an assistant to William Peddie, the holder of the Chair of Physics at University College, Dundee, who encouraged Watson-Watt to study radio, or "wireless telegraphy" as it was then known. During the Great War, Watson-Watt experimented with the detection of thunderstorms and lightnings in order to warn pilots of approaching thunderstorms. When in the 1930s there was the rumor that Nazi Germany should be able to produce a "death ray" using radio waves that were capable of destroying towns, cities and people, the Air Ministry asked Watson-Watt about the possibility of building their version of a death-ray, specifically to be used against aircraft. Watson-Watt quickly returned a calculation carried out by his colleague, Arnold Wilkins, showing that the device was impossible to construct, and fears of a Nazi version soon vanished. However, he also mentioned in the same report a suggestion that was originally made to him by Wilkins that radio waves may be capable of detecting aircraft.

On 12 February 1935, Watson-Watt sent a secret memo of the proposed system to the Air Ministry, Detection and location of aircraft by radio methods. Although not as exciting as a death-ray, the concept clearly had potential but the Air Ministry, before giving funding, asked for a demonstration proving that radio waves could be reflected by an aircraft. The proof could be given at 26 February. The prototype system consisted of two receiving antennas located about 10 km away from one of the BBC's shortwave broadcast stations at Daventry. The two antennas were phased such that signals travelling directly from the station cancelled themselves out, but signals arriving from other angles were admitted, thereby deflecting the trace on a CRT indicator. Despite a high level of secrecy - only three people had knowledge about the demonstration - is was a full success. On several occasions a clear signal was seen from a bomber being flown around the site. Most importantly, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was kept quietly informed of radar's progress. Finally, on 2 April 1935, Watson-Watt received a patent on a radio device for detecting and locating an aircraft.

With the development of Radar, Robert Watson-Watt provided a fundamental contribution to the allied victory in the Second World War. He was knighted in 1942. In the 1950s, he moved to Canada as a consulting engineer. As an irony in history it is reported that Watson-Watt was pulled over for speeding in Canada by a radar gun-toting policeman. His remark was, "Had I known what you were going to do with it I would never have invented it!"

At yovisto you can learn more about the History of Radar in the 1950s ATT documentary 'Echoes in War and Peace'.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Assassination of Wallenstein

The Assassination of Wallenstein
On February 24, 1634, Bohemian military leader and politician Count Albrecht von Wallenstein was assassinated at Cheb in Bohemia. An imperial generalissimo of the Thirty Year's War, and Admiral of the Baltic Sea, he had made himself ruler of the lands of the Duchy of Friedland in northern Bohemia. Wallenstein found himself released from imperial service in 1630 after Emperor Ferdinand grew wary of his ambition.

Wallenstein was born into a rather poor family and was raised bilingually before his parents passed away. He enrolled at the Protestant University of Altdorf near Nuremberg in 1599, but soon decided to travel around the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Italy while studying several languages. Wallenstein joined the army of the Emperor Rudolf II in Hungary, seeing two years of armed service against the Ottoman Turks and Hungarian rebels. It is assumed that he converted to Catholicism in this period due to the Counter-Reformation policy of the Habsburgs, which barred Protestants from being appointed to higher offices at court in Bohemia and in Moravia.

Based on recommendations, Wallenstein was made chamberlain and married an older, richer woman. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1614 and Wallenstein inherited her estates, which he used to win favour, offering and commanding 200 horses for Archduke Ferdinand of Styria for his war with Venice in 1617. After another marriage, this time with Isabella Katharina, daughter of Count Harrach, Wallenstein was considered as one one the wealthiest men in the Bohemian Crown.
Portrait of Wallenstein
(1583 – 1634)

In 1618, the Thirty Years' War started and Wallenstein associated himself with the cause of the Catholics and the Habsburg dynasty. He managed to bring the Moravian treasure-chest to Vienna in order to prove his loyalty to Ferdinand. Next, Wallenstein was able to secure his family's land, confiscated large tracts of Protestant lands and named his territory Friedland in northern Bohemia. Wallenstein became the Duke of Friedland in 1625, offered to raise a whole army for the imperial service in the same year and recruited about 50,000 men. When he was rewarded the Duchies of Mecklenburg, many high born rulers of German states were quite shocked. Also Wallenstein started to lose battles, which made him a host of enemies, both Catholic and Protestant princes and non-princes.

Ferdinand started suspecting, that Wallenstein intended to take control of the Holy Roman Empire and planned to dismiss him. However, he had to be called into field again. With a new army, he was able to advance against Gustavus Adolphus, who was killed in the confused melee. It is assumed that by this time, Wallenstein indeed started preparing to desert the Emperor and that he started negotiating with France, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Sweden. Soon, Wallenstein became aware of the fact that the Emperor was planning to replace him, but hoped that his army would stay loyal to him.

However, on 24 January 1634 he was removed from his commands and was charged with high treason. Wallenstein lost his army's support, but still intended to meet the Swedes under Duke Bernhard in Cheb. Unfortunately for him, he was assassinated after his arrival by Scottish and Irish officers on February 25. It is assumed on this day, that the Holy Roman Emperor did not command the murder. Still, he had given free rein to the party who he knew wished "to bring in Wallenstein, alive or dead" and the murderers were rewarded with wealth and honor.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture, explaining the beginnings of the Thirty Years War.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Pico della Mirandola and the 900 Theses

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
On February 24, 1463, Italian Renaissance philosopher Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born. He is famous for, when at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the "Manifesto of the Renaissance", and a key text of Renaissance humanism and of what has been called the "Hermetic Reformation".

Who was this impressive Renaissance man? Giovanni was born at Mirandola, a small autonomous county near Modena, the youngest son of Francesco I, Lord of Mirandola and Count of Concordia and his wife Giulia. The family had a long and noble ancestry that dates back to the 11th century. Giovanny was a precocious child with an amazing memory. He learned Latin and Greek already at a very early age. His mother intended him, as usual for the youngest sons, for the Church and already at age 13 he went to Bologna to study canon law. But after his mothers death three years later, he switched subject to philosophy at the University of Ferrara.

From 1480 to 1482, he continued his studies at the University of Padua in Hebrew and Arabic. In 1485, he travelled to the University of Paris, the most important centre in the whole of Europe for Scholastic philosophy and theology, where he probably began his 900 Theses and conceived the idea of defending them in public debate. He settled in Florence around 1848, where he met humanist philosopher Marcillio di Ficino and rained the patronage of the influential Lorenzo di`Medici. Giovanni prepared for travelling to Rome to publish his 900 theses, but on his way he fell in love with the wife of one of Lorenzo de' Medici's cousins. He attempted to run off with the woman, but he was caught, wounded and thrown into prison by her husband. He was released only upon the intervention of Lorenzo himself.

Pico based his ideas chiefly on Plato, as did his teacher, Marsilio Ficino, but retained a deep respect for Aristotle. It was always Pico’s aim to reconcile the schools of Plato and Aristotle, since he believed they both used different words to express the same concepts. It was perhaps for this reason his friends called him "Princeps Concordiae", or "Prince of Harmony". He finished his Oration on the Dignity of Man to accompany his 900 Theses and continued his travel to Rome in 1486 to continue his plan to defend them. He had them published in December 1486 and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly. In February 1487, Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate, and established a commission to review the orthodoxy of the Theses. Although Pico answered the charges against them, thirteen of the Theses were condemned. Pico agreed in writing to retract them, but he did not change his mind about their validity, and proceeded to write an Apologia defending them, dedicated to Lorenzo. The Pope set up an inquisitorial tribunal, forcing Pico to renounce the Apologia as well which he also agreed to do. Pico fled to France in 1488, but was arrested at the demand of the papal nuncios, and imprisoned at Vincennes. Through the intercession of Lorenzo de' Medici he was finally released, and the Pope was persuaded to allow Pico to move to Florence and to live under Lorenzo’s protection.

Pico settled in a villa near Fiesole prepared for him by Lorenzo, where he also wrote his most celebrated work, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Predictive Astrology), which was not published until after his death. In it, Pico acidly condemned the deterministic practices of the astrologers of his day. After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, in 1492, in Florence political instability gave rise to the increasing influence of the domenican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola, whose reactionary opposition to Renaissance expansion and style had already brought about conflict with the Medici family and would lead to the wholesale destruction of books and paintings. Nevertheless, Pico became a follower of Savonarola. Determined to become a monk, he dismissed his former interest in Egyptian and Chaldean texts, destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune. In 1494, Pico was poisoned under very mysterious circumstances. It was rumored that his own secretary had poisoned him, because Pico had become too close to Savonarola.

At yovisto you can learn more about the Renaissance in the lecture of Prof. Dr. Thomas W. Laqueur from BErkeley on 'The Ranaissance in Western and World History'.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Sky Disc of Nebra

The Sky Disk of Nebra
Image: Dbachmann
On February 23, 2002, the state archaeologist Harald Meller succeeded to acquire the now famous Nebra Sky Disc in a police-led sting operation in Basel, Switzerland. The Nebra Sky Disc is a Bronze age artifact shaped like a disk with a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols, representing a map of the sky.

The disk weighs about 2,3kg and consists of bronze as well as an alloy made of copper and tin. Originally, the disc was dark brown or even black but after the long years of sitting in the dirt, it became green. It was surprisingly found, that the disk was altered several times through the years. The smaller discs made of gold originally counted 32 pieces but due to the later adding of two 'horizons', two pieces were covered. By the time it was buried, one of the horizons was taken off and three holes were punched into the disk.

The disk was discovered by two Germans with the help of a metal detector, first thinking of it as the center piece of a shield. In Cologne, the disk was sold for about 15.000 Euro and until 2001 it was owned by several people across Germany illegally. Until this day, the actual value of the sky disk is unknown, but the insurance value in 2006 was 100 Million Euros. Due to the fact that the sky disk was excavated by amateurs, it was partially damaged. Also, the discoverers tried to clean the disk with soap and a steel sponge, wherefore the gold applications were damaged significantly. In Halle, Germany, it was then restored and the removed gold plates were reattached.

The Sky Disk of Nebra
Three Stages; Image: Rainer Zenz
Scientific research on the sky disk started as soon as possible and the responsible scientists were the archeologist Harald Meller, the astronomer Wolfhard Schlosser, the archeo-chemist Ernst Pernicka, the Saxony-Anhalt State Criminal Investigation Department, as well as experts from the University of Wales. It was found without a doubt that the Sky Disk of Nebra and the other findings the two men made, consisting of several swords, chisel, axeheads, and bracelets belonged together. Their estimated age was about 3600 years, which was found out through intense x-rays. It was then also figured out that the disk was produced in three different stages. A particle accelerator in Berlin researched on the different gold applications and it became quite clear that the gold particles came from the Carnon River in Cornwall.
It was furthermore assumed that during the first production phase of the sky disk, the open star cluster Plejades were added, represented by the smaller gold disks. The bigger yellow disks could either be interpreted as the Sun or a full Moon. The third major object was thought of as the Moon as well. It was assumed that the disk may have helped farmers calculating the dates for harvesting and seeding. Others saw a probable use of the disk in harmonizing the Lunar calendar with the Solar year. Later on, the signs for a religious use of the disk became more frequent and it was furthermore assumed that it was part of a complex religious system in Europe.

In the following years after its discovery, the Sky Disk of Nebra was exhibited numerous times across in Europe.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a three part documentation on the Sky Disk of Nebra.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Affair of the Poisons

Catherine Deshayes, "La Voisin",
On February 22, 1680, Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, aka La Voisin, was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake. This Affair of the Poisons (L'affaire des poisons) was a major murder scandal in France which took place in 1677–1682, during the reign of King Louis XIV. During it, a number of prominent members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced on charges of poisoning and witchcraft. The scandal reached into the inner circle of the king. It led to the execution of 36 people.

Sounds scary? It should! The origin of the case began in 1675 after the trial of Madame de Brinvilliers, who had conspired with her lover, army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix, to poison her father Antonine Dreux d'Aubray in 1666 and two of her brothers, Antoine d'Aubray and François d'Aubray, in 1670, in order to inherit their estates. There were also rumors that she had poisoned poor people during her visits in hospitals. She fled, but was arrested in Liège. She was forced to confess, sentenced to death and on 17 July was tortured with the water cure (forced to drink sixteen pints of water), beheaded and burned at the stake. Her accomplice Sainte-Croix had died of natural causes in 1672. The sensational trial drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, starting a number of rumours. Prominent people, including Louis XIV, became alarmed that they also might be poisoned.

The affair proper opened in February 1677 after the arrest of Magdelaine de La Grange on charges of forgery and murder. La Grange appealed to François Michel le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, claiming that she had information about other crimes of high importance. The subsequent investigation of potential poisoners was led to accusations of witchcraft, murder and more. Authorities rounded up a number of fortune tellers and alchemists who were suspected of selling not only divinations, séances and aphrodisiacs, but also "inheritance powders" (a euphemism for poison). Some of them confessed under torture and gave authorities lists of their clients, who had allegedly bought poison to get rid of their spouses or rivals in the royal court.

The most famous case was that of midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin or La Voisin, who was arrested in 1679 after she was incriminated by the poisoner Marie Bosse. La Voisin implicated a number of important individuals in the French court. These included Olympia Mancini, the Comtesse de Soissons, her sister Marie Anne Mancini Duchesse de Bouillon, François Henri de Montmorency, Duke of Luxembourg and, most importantly, the king's mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan. Questioned while intoxicated, La Voisin claimed that de Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain and keep the king's favor over rival lovers. According to rumors remains of 2,500 infants were found buried in La Voisin's garden, but the truth of this accusation is still disputed.

Catherine Deshayes was married to Antoine Monvoisin, a jeweller with a shop at Pont-Marie in Paris. After her husband was ruined, La Voisin started her career by practising chiromancy and face-reading to support her family. She practiced medicine, especially midwifery, and performed abortions. She arranged black masses, where the clients could pray to the Devil to make their wishes come true. During at least some of these masses, a woman performed as an altar, upon which a bowl was placed: a baby was held above the bowl, and the blood from it was poured into the bowl. La Voisin was convicted of witchcraft and was burned in public on the Place de Grève in Paris the 22 February 1680. In July, her daughter Marguerite Monvoisin revealed her connection to Montespan, which was confirmed by the statements of the other accused. This caused the monarch to eventually close the investigation, seal the testimonies and place the remaining accused outside of the public justice system by imprisoning them under a lettre de cachet. The Poison Affair implicated 442 suspects: 367 orders of arrests were issued, of which 218 were carried out. Of the condemned, 36 were executed; five were sentenced to the galleys; and 23 to exile

At yovisto you can learn more about the dark age of the witch hunt in Europe in Prof. Teofilo Ruiz lecture 'The Terror of History: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe'.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Girard Desargues and Projective Geometry

Desargues (1591-1661)
 Mural Painting by Théobald Chartran
at the Sorbonne Paris (c. 1885)
On February 21, 1591, French mathematician and engineer Girard Desargues was born. Desargues is considered one of the founders of projective geometry. Desargues' theorem, the Desargues graph, and the crater Desargues on the Moon are named in his honour. In his later years, he designed an elaborate spiral staircase, and an ingenious new form of pump, but the most important of Desargues' interests was Geometry. He invented a new, non-Greek way of doing geometry, now called 'projective' or 'modern' geometry. As a mathematician he was highly original and completely rigorous. However, he was far from lucid in his mathematical style.

Little is known about Girard Desargues' personal life. Born in Lyon, Desargues came from a wealthy family devoted to service to the French crown. His father was a royal notary, an investigating commissioner of the Seneschal's court in Lyon (1574), the collector of the tithes on ecclesiastical revenues for the city of Lyon (1583) and for the diocese of Lyon, then the second most important city in France. Desargues seems to have made several extended visits to Paris in connection with a lawsuit for the recovery of a huge debt. Despite this loss, the family still owned several large houses in Lyon, a manor house at the nearby village of Vourles, and a small chateau surrounded by the best vineyards in the vicinity. Thus, it is clear that Desargues had every opportunity of acquiring a good education, could afford to buy what books he chose, and had leisure to indulge in whatever pursuits he might enjoy.

Girard Desargues worked as an architect from 1645. Prior to that, he had worked as a tutor and may have served as an engineer and technical consultant in the entourage of Richelieu. As an architect, Desargues planned several private and public buildings in Paris and Lyon. As an engineer, he designed a system for raising water that he installed near Paris. It was based on the use of the at the time unrecognized principle of the epicycloidal wheel. When in Paris, Desargues became part of the mathematical circle surrounding Marin Mersenne, which also included Rene Descartes, Étienne Pascal and his son Blaise Pascal. It was probably essentially for this limited readership of friends that Desargues prepared his mathematical works, and had them printed.

Desargues wrote on 'practical' subjects such as perspective (1636), the cutting of stones for use in building (1640) and sundials (1640). His writings are, however, dense in content and theoretical in their approach to the subjects concerned. His research on perspective and geometrical projections can be seen as a culmination of centuries of scientific inquiry across the classical epoch in optics that stretched from al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) to Johannes Kepler, and going beyond a mere synthesis of these traditions with Renaissance perspective theories and practices. Desargues conceived projective geometry as a natural extension of Euclidean geometry in which parallel lines at infinity, sizes can vary as long as proportions are kept, and shapes are considered to be one with the totality of shadows they can cast. This is exactly what is needed in perspective design, where each object appears deformed according to the point of observation. Thus the plane sections of a cone are nothing but the different images projected by a light source on a wall when its inclination varies. In this framework, a circle is equivalent to an ellipse, which becomes a parabola as soon as the intersection point of the axis of the light cone with the wall ends up in infinity.

Desargues' most important work, the one in which he invented his new form of geometry, Rough draft for an essay on the results of taking plane sections of a cone was published in 1639 only in a small number. Just one is now known to survive. The painter Laurent de La Hire and the engraver Abraham Bosse found Desargues’s method attractive. Bosse, who taught perspective constructions based on Desargues’s method at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, published a more accessible presentation of this method in 1648. In the 17th century Desargues’s new approach to geometry, i.e. studying figures through their projections, was appreciated by a few gifted mathematicians, such as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, but it did not become rather influential. Rene Descartes’s algebraic way of treating geometrical problems, published in Discours de la méthode (1637) came to dominate geometrical thinking and Desargues’s ideas were forgotten. Desargues' work, however, was rediscovered and republished in 1864. Late in his life, Desargues published a paper with the cryptic title of DALG. The most common theory about what this stands for is Des Argues, Lyonnais, Géometre (proposed by Henri Brocard). He died in Lyon.

At yovisto you can learn more about Desargues and his projective geometry in the lecture series of Yale Prof N.J. Wildberger on the History of Mathematics

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ludwig Boltzmann and Statistical Mechanics

Ludwig Boltzmann and co-workers in Graz, 1887.
On February 20, 1844, Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann was born. His greatest achievement was in the development of statistical mechanics, which explains and predicts how the properties of atoms determine the physical properties of matter.

Ludwig Boltzmann was born in Vienna as the son of a tax official. He was educated at home as well as in Linz before enrolling at the University of Vienna in 1863. Boltzmann graduated in physics and mathematics three years later and became the assistant to his teacher, Josef Stefan, who was back then the Head of the Physics Institute in the city. Boltzmann completed his dissertation on the Kinetic Theory of Gases, which seemed to presuppose the reality of atoms and molecules, but unfortunately many scientists like Ernst Mach and Wilhelm Ostwald disbelieved their existence, which resulted in long debates.

Ludwig Boltzmann
Already at the age of 25, Boltzmann became a full Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Graz. In the late 1860s and early 70s, he traveled through Germany, studying and researching with Robert Bunsen, Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff and many more before joining the University of Vienna as a Professor. In this period, women were still not allowed to attend university lectures officially in Austria. However, Boltzmann met the passionate teacher of mathematics and physics, who was refused permission to audit lectures unofficially. He helped her successfully to appeal and married her just four years later.

Going back to Graz, Ludwig Boltzmann began developing his statistical concept of nature. Boltzmann's reputation was quite impressive and was known to often defend his theories through lectures across Europe. But unfortunately, his theories were often questioned by philosophers, wherefore Boltzmann himself started studying philosophy in order to combine the subject with his research in physics. And indeed, his lectures in natural philosophy were quite successful. For his talks, the largest lecture halls were chosen and still, people had to stand in the room to follow his words. Still, his work in philosophy was often criticized by contemporary philosophers. He founded the Austrian Mathematical Society in the early 1900s and to some of his most famous students belonged Lise Meitner and Paul Ehrenfest.

However, Ludwig Boltzmann's most important scientific contributions were in kinetic theory. The Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution for molecular speeds in a gas and the Maxwell–Boltzmann statistics as well as the Boltzmann distribution over energies remain the foundations of classical statistical mechanics. They proved to provide a significant insight to the meaning of temperature. Unfortunately, throughout his lifetime, many scientists still doubted the reality of atoms and molecules and Boltzmann went though numerous lively discussions considering the topic. But, shortly after his passing, Jean-Baptiste Perrin's studies of colloidal suspensions, which based on Einstein's theoretical studies of 1905, confirmed the values of Avogadro's number and the Boltzmann's constant. He was finally able to convince the world that the tiny particles really exist. Max Planck then stated that "The logarithmic connection between entropy and probability was first stated by L. Boltzmann in his kinetic theory of gases" and the formula for entropy S = kB lnW (with kB being the Boltzmann constant) was engraved on Boltzmann's tombstone.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Leonard Susskind, introducing Statistical Mechanics.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The first Modular Space Station - Mir

Russian Space Station Mir, backdropped against Earth, taken from the Space Shuttle Atlantis
On February 19, 1986, the main module of Russian space station Mir was launched from Baikonur, Russia. Mir was the first modular space station and operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001.

In 1976, Mir was authorized in order to design an improved model of the Salyut space stations and in 1986, the second launch attempt was successful and Mir made its way up to the low Earth orbit. It was maintained in a near circular orbit with an average perigee of 354 km and an average apogee of 374 km. The station completed 15.7 orbits per day and had to be boosted to a higher altitude several times each year. Due to its orbital altitude, the on-board environment was not really zero gravity, it was often referred to as microgravity since the state of weightlessness was not perfect. An earth-like atmosphere was established on-board, because it offers significant benefits for the crew's comfort, and it is much safer than the alternative, a pure oxygen atmosphere. This would have increased the risk of a fire such as that responsible for the deaths of the Apollo 1 crew.

In order to allow members from the military forces of allied Warsaw Pact countries to participate in manned and unmanned space exploration missions, the Intercosmos space program was founded. Many European astronauts were able to visit Mir as part of several cooperative programs, and Mir became the most visited spacecraft in history, being visited by over 100 different people. The United States however, planned to launch Mir's counterpart Freedom as soon as possible, and also a construction of Mir-2 was in the Soviet's thoughts. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Space race, both programs got cancelled and both countries decided to work on a similar project together. In the first act of the new coperation one American astronaut deployed to the Russian space station Mir and two Russian cosmonauts deployed to a Space Shuttle. Russian and American scientists learned from each other and in 1993, U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Jr., and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced plans for a new space station, which eventually became the International Space Station.

But coming back to the space station Mir, the crew had to deal with quite a labyrinth of cables and instruments on board. Most of the time, the station housed three people but was designed to support six for about one month. The used time zone on board was Moscow Time and a typical day for the crew members started with two hours of hygiene and breakfast. From 10am to 1pm, work was conducted and followed by one hour of excercise and lunch. After that, the crew worked for three more hours and exercised for another four hours. In their free time, the cosmonauts answered letters and drawings from Earth, caught up with work or communicated with their loved ones on Earth.

It was announced that due to a lack of funding to keep Mir flying, the station would be deorbited in June 1999. In order to deorbit the station, a special analogue computer was installed and each of the modules, starting with the docking module and on March 23, 2011, Mir reentered Earth's atmosphere and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short introduction to the space station Mir by NASA astronaut David Wolf from 1997.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)
after François Clouet, c. 1559
On February 18, (or February 8 according to the old Julian calendar), 1587,  Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed after having found guilty of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. In the Western world, we all might have heard about the rivalry of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. I have learned about the story back at school in my German lessons, when we were reading Friedrich Schillers 'Maria Stuart', the psychological as well as historical interesting story of the two Queens that ends with the execution of Mary.

Mary was born in December 1542 in Linlithgow Palace, the only child of King James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. When she was six days old her father died and she ascendet to the throne, while her mother acted as regent in her stead. She spent most of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents. At just five years of age Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII's son, Edward. But her Catholic guardians were opposed to the match and took the young Mary to Stirling Castle, breaking the agreement. Henry ordered a series of savage, yet unsuccessful raids into Scotland known as 'The Rough Wooing'. After Henry VIII died in 1547, young Edward’s uncle the Duke of Somerset continued on with the attempt to forcibly create an alliance between the two countries.

Conscious of the benefits of an alliance with France, the Scots betrothed the young queen to Francis, the four-year-old heir to the French crown, and sent Mary to be raised at the court of Henry II. In April 1558, the young couple were duly married and Francis became king in 1559, briefly uniting the French and Scottish crowns. However, Henry died from an ear infection the following year. A widow at just 18, Mary returned to Scotland where she faced many challenges. As a Catholic in a country that was officially Protestant, she was regarded with suspicion by some of her subjects. Mary accepted the Protestant-led government and initially ruled with moderation.

In 1565 Mary married her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, an English nobleman. The bridegroom was proclaimed Henry, King of Scots. Their only child was to become James 1 of England. Mary soon became disenchanted with Henry, he had become overbearing, arrogant and carried away by his new title. He made enemies of some of the powerful nobles and, because of that enmity, there was a plot to kill him. Some thought that Mary had knowledge of the plot. Henry, along with his servant, was found strangled to death after the gunpowder blast intended to take his life failed.

Suspicion fell on Mary and her close friend, the Earl of Bothwell. When Mary married Bothwell two months later, the Protestant lords rebelled against their queen. After her army was defeated at Langside in 1567, Mary fled to England. Mary asked Elizabeth for protection from her enemies in Scotland. However, Elizabeth was highly suspicious of the woman who in the past had claimed she was the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth feared that the arrival of Mary might encourage the Catholics in England to rebel against her rule. Elizabeth therefore decided to imprison Mary. During the next nineteen years while Mary was in prison, Elizabeth's officials discovered several Catholic plots that attempted to make Mary queen of England.

In 1586, a man called Anthony Babington devised a plot to kill Elizabeth, rescue Mary and then see her as the next queen of England. Babington wrote in code to Mary to explain what he was doing. Mary wrote back, stating that she agreed with what he was doing. This was to be her downfall. The letters were intercepted by Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. This was the evidence he needed to convince Elizabeth that, while she lived, Mary would always be a danger. Babington was arrested and charged with treason. Anthony Babington and six others were executed for high treason on 18 September, 1586. An attempt to kill the monarch was the most serious crime in England and the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. Now the government had a case against Mary. She was put on trial in October 1586 in Fotheringay castle. Elizabeth was against Mary being executed for her part in the plot, and for six weeks refused to sign her death warrant. Walsingham and Parliament insisted that Mary should die. On 8 February, 1587 Mary was beheaded. Afterwards, Elizabeth claimed that she had not given permission for Mary to be executed. As a result, Davidson, the man responsible for the execution, was fined £6,000 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the first part of a documentary on Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. But also, you should make sure to watch part 2 and 3 as well.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sinking of the H.L. Hunley

Drawing of the H. L. Hunley. Based on a photograph taken in 1863
On the night of February 17, 1864, the submarine H.L.Hunley of the American Confederate Army sank the steamship USS Housatonic with a torpedo and became the very first submarine to attack and sink an enemy vessel. The Hunley was lost at some point following her successful attack and all crewmen were lost. Although the Hunley only played a small part in the American Civil War, it was a large role in the history of naval warfare and demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare.

In the time of the American Civil War, the three inventors Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson first built a small submarine named Pioneer in New Orleans, Louisiana. Pioneer was tested in February 1862 in the Mississippi River and was later towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials. But the Union advance towards New Orleans caused the men to abandon development and scuttle Pioneer the following month. The three inventors moved to Mobile and joined with machinists Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. They soon began development of a second submarine, American Diver. Supported by the Confederate States Army the men experimented with electromagnetic and steam propulsion for the new submarine, before falling back on a simpler hand-cranked propulsion system, which in the end proved too slow to be practical. One attempted attack on the Union blockade was made in February 1863 but was unsuccessful. The submarine sank in the mouth of Mobile Bay during a storm later the same month and was not recovered.

Construction of Hunley began soon after the loss of American Diver in Mobile, Alabama. Hunley, nearly 12 m long was launched in July 1863. She was then shipped by rail on August 12, 1863 to Charleston, South Carolina. Hunley was designed for a crew of eight: seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. Each end was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Extra ballast was added through the use of iron weights bolted to the underside of the hull. In the event the submarine needed additional buoyancy to rise in an emergency, the iron weight could be removed by unscrewing the heads of the bolts from inside the vessel. Hunley was equipped with two watertight hatches, one forward and one aft, atop two short conning towers equipped with small portholes and slender, triangular cutwaters.

The military seized the vessel from its private builders and owners shortly after its arrival in Charleston, turning it over to the Confederate Army. Hunley would operate as a Confederate Army vessel from this point forward, although Horace Hunley and his partners remained involved in the submarine's further testing and operating. Hunley (then called Fish Boat) sank on August 29, 1863, for the first time during a training exercise, killing five members of her crew. She sank again on October 15, 1863, killing all eight of her second crew, including inventor Horace Hunley himself, who was aboard at the time, even though he was not enlisted in the Confederate armed forces. Both times Hunley was raised and returned to service.

Hunley was originally intended to attack by means of a floating explosive charge with a contact fuse (a torpedo in Civil War terminology) towed behind it at the end of a long rope. Hunley would approach an enemy vessel, dive under it, and surface beyond. As it continued to move away from the target, the torpedo would be pulled against the side of the target and explode. The floating explosive charge was replaced with a spar torpedo, a copper cylinder containing 41kg of explosives attached to a 7m-long wooden spar. The spar was mounted on Hunley's bow and was designed to be used when the submarine was 2m or more below the surface. The spar torpedo had a barbed point, and would be stuck in the target vessel's side by ramming. On the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley made her first and only attack against a live target. The vessel was the USS Housatonic. Housatonic, a 1240-ton steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannons, was stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor.

In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom in five minutes. After the attack, the H.L. Hunley failed to return to her base. What really happened, remains unclear. Dixon would have taken his submarine underwater to attempt to return to Sullivan's Island. Hunley sank, killing all eight of her third crew. This time, the innovative ship was lost. The finders of the wreck suggested that she was unintentionally rammed by the USS Canandaigua when that warship was going to the aid of the crew of the Housatonic. Years later, when the area around the wreck of the Housatonic was surveyed, the sunken Hunley was finally found on the seaward side of the sloop's wreck, where no one before had ever considered looking. This later indicated that the ocean current was going out following the attack on the Housatonic, taking Hunley with it to where its wreck was eventually found and recovered more than 130 years later in August 8, 2000. Currently, H.L. Hunley is undergoing archaeological study and conservation treatment at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

At yovisto you can learn more about submarines in a science TV feature from the 1950s.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Letters of Giambattista Bodoni

Giambattista Bodoni
(1749 - 1813)
On February 16, 1749, Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni was born. He also was a type-designer, compositor, printer and publisher. Bodoni designed many type-faces, each one in a large range of type sizes. He is even more admired as a compositor than as a type-designer, as the large range of sizes which he cut enabled him to compose his pages with the greatest possible subtlety of spacing.

In his early working years, Bodoni was apprenticed in the Roman Catholic Church's printing house. He earned a great reputation through working extremely hard and mastering several languages and types, especially ancient languages. Soon, Giambattista Bodoni became a leader of originating pseudoclassical typefaces in Italy, after Baskerville became famous in Britain and Didot in France. The Duke Ferdinando of Bourbon-Parma announced in 1768, that Bodoni should organize a printing house in Parma, which was then called the Royal Printing House.

The books, Bodoni published were incredibly well received and he went on with classical and highly respected works like those of Homer. A few years later, Bodoni had become so successful, that he was allowed to open his own priting house that beared his name, 'Officina Bodoni'. He started teaching his art and skills as well. Under his students were the Amoretti Brothers with whom he became good friends. Unfortunately, a serious disagreement between the brothers and their master established, wherefore they opened their very own typefoundry in Italy and became quite famous themselves.

Bodoni's success and popularity soon surpassed famous French typographers like Pierre Simon Fournier, but as much as his work was admired, his highly styled editions were often considered more apt "to be admired for typeface and layout, not to be studied or read." Bodoni worked hard on his technical refinement throughout the years and was able to reproduce letterforms with very thin hairlines, standing in sharp contrast to the thicker lines constituting the main stems of the characters.

Giambattista Bodoni passed away on 30 November 1813 in Parma.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short introduction into the history of typography.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Great Paris Academic Dispute of 1830

A cartoon of Geoffroy as an ape
(supposedly an Orang-utan)
with Cuvier in background (1842)
On February 15, 1830, the famous Paris Academy Dispute began between the naturalists Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and George Cuvier about the possibility of biological evolution began with a speech of Saint-Hillaire comparing vertebrates with molluscs. Within 8 public debates the scientists argued about the possibility that nature not necessarely has to be static but might be subject to constant change. It was the most prominent scientific debate in the 19th century that heavily influenced science on a world wide level.

In 1830, decades before Charles Darwin's theory of evolution took shape, natural scientists were busy classifying and explaining the multitude of nature. Among them most notably Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who published the first taxonomy of nature and Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon with his comparative studies of nature. Usually, natural scientists had the strong believe that all animals were already perfectly created by God and that they haven't ever changed since creation. One of the first scientists who came up with the concept of evolution was Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829), who was not convinced about the static view of nature. He was also one of the first who proposed to extend the timeline given by the bible that limited the age of the universe to approx. 6.000 years. According to Lamarck, evolution was much slower. Therefore, the earth had to be much older.

Georges Cuvier is known as being the founder of modern paleontology, but he didn't believe in evolution. His examinations of mummified Egyptian cats - which apparently didn't differ from modern cats -  confirmed him in his believe that species don't change over time. He interpreted fossils as former species that became extincted because of catastrophies, a theory that is also referred to catastrophism. According to Cuvier's theories, all animals can be divided into four distinct branches: Vertebrata, Articulata, Mollusca and Radiata. He denied any relationship or similarity among those branches. If there are any similarities, he stated, it was because of similar functions and not because of any other relationship or of a common ancestry. Cuvier was said to be a perfect anatom, who was able to reconstruct the whole animal out of a single bone.

Contrarywise, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire believed in evolution and in a relationship among all animals. But, this relationship should not be based on a common ancestry, but because of morphological similarity. According to his believe, there should exist something like an all common basic blueprint for life. While Cuvier was looking for distinctions between animals, Saint-Hilaire focussed on similarities and analogies. When Saint-Hillaire attempted to apply this philosophy to invertebrates in 1830, a major dispute arose with Cuvier.

The dispute began with the discussion about a paper of two unknown French natural scientists Meyranx and Laurencet, in which they tried to show that the arrangement of inner organs of squids is similar to those of vertebrates. Saint-Hillaire strongly supported this work, because he saw the possibility to reunite the four branches of animals previously separated by Cuvier. Well, Cuvier took this as a personal assault and went into strict opposition to Saint-Hillaire's claim. The debate that followed divided the scientific world and compelled both men to elaborate their models of natural history. While Saint-Hillaire believed that ancestral species historically gave rise to unchanging modern forms through the occasional evolutionary appearance of successful monstrosities, Cuvier denied evolution entirely. Digging deeper into their differences, their particular disagreements over specific issues within zoology and anatomy culminated in the articulation of two competing and divergent philosophical views on the aims and methods of the life sciences. Despite their differences, the two men did not become enemies; they respected each other's research, and in 1832 Geoffroy gave one of the orations at Cuvier's funeral. Saint-Hillaire's evolutionary concepts did much to create a receptive scientific audience for Charles Darwin’s arguments, who wrote
What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? Geoffroy St. Hilaire has insisted strongly on the high importance of relative connexion in homologous organs: the parts may change to almost any extent in form and size, and yet they always remain connected together in the same order. (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859)
At yovisto, you may learn more about fossils and what they can teach us in a talk by Dr Paul Sereno. The paleontologist discusses his surprising encounters with prehistory.

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