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Margot Lee Shetterly Wants to Tell More Black Stories
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Your new book, “Hidden Figures,” is the story of the black female mathematicians at NASA who helped put Americans on the moon. Why haven’t we heard about this before? Where I grew up, in Hampton, Va., we knew the story, and we thought it was pretty normal. They were people who were doing this exceptional job when you look back on it, but at the time, they were just ordinary people who loved their work. It was kind of nice to grow up in a place where that achieved such a degree of normalcy that people weren’t talking about it all the time.

But those women also deserve this big celebration happening now, too.Totally. It’s the responsibility of people like me to tell these stories, so that other people can see that this is normal. The black experience isn’t exclusively slavery/civil rights/Obama. There are certain stories that are automatically on the trajectory, and anything that’s not on that is hidden in the shadows. Meanwhile, most people live their lives between those dots.

Being able to have a spectrum of the black experience is contingent on the history that gets written about black Americans. If it’s just the firsts and the onlys, you never get the manys. Yeah. That’s a huge burden to be so hungry for these stories of excellence, and to have to hold them up, like a crucifix in front of a vampire. This story takes the pressure off any one woman having to succeed or fail. It doesn’t have to be: The entirety of black hope is riding on this one person and if they mess up, all of us are doomed.

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Blacks, Political Correctness 
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  1. tyrone says:

    more, that’s pretty much all we hear

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  2. These women who are Margot Lee Shetterley’s subjects were not “mathematicians”, They were clerks, doing arithmetic computations. I’m sure the computations were often complex and it’s likely that the adherence to instructions and necessary computations are beyond the capacity of most college and university graduates today. But let’s not spin grandiloquent fantasies of the type that seem a particular indulgence of Negroes.

    I worked in a particle physics research facility back in the mid 1960s. The staff included several young White women just out of high school who traced out particle paths on enormously magnified bubble chamber photographs so that the trajectories might be punched onto cards as pairs of x-y coordinates for further analysis using a suite of CERN FORTRAN programs. It was demanding and critical work but we did not call these young ladies physicists and they would have laughed if we had.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Oleaginous Outrager
    Narrative underminer! How deplorable, no, reprehensible!

    Should have seen the Twitter rage when I pointed out that these "mathematicians" were actually human calculators, capable perhaps, but they tested the equations, they did not create them.
    , @JackOH
    Yeah, I did just a quick eye-roll of the article, and it looks like the author has mistaken two uses of "computer". The older use was, as you said, a job title for someone, usually a woman with no more than a high school education, who'd repetitively operate a mechanical calculator to evaluate functions set out for her by a mathematician or engineer. Honorable work, to be sure, but to characterize those young women as "human computers" will surely muddle the contribution they made in the eyes of some ill-informed readers.
    , @George
    Dey seem to have gotten dey ejamakaytions. Dem negros back den dey all waz followaz of Booker T Washington, so dey all got ejamakaytions until da intagrated public schools replaced da exclusively back colleges.

    Dr. Christine Darden (born September 10, 1942) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who devoted her 40-year career in aerodynamics to researching sonic booms at NASA. She was the first African-American woman at NASA's Langley Research Center to be promoted into senior executive service.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Darden

    Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician. She made fundamental contributions to the United States' aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical leadership work at NASA spanned decades where she calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and continued work through the Space Shuttle program and on early plans for the Mission to Mars.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson


    The list: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/
    , @boogerbently
    Harriett Tubman was a mental defective. Her "courageous exploits" documented solely by her and in her later years.
  3. Excellent piece, Mr J. A combination of knowledge and experience imparted to us dimwits. Thank You.

    Read More
  4. @Jus' Sayin'...
    These women who are Margot Lee Shetterley's subjects were not "mathematicians", They were clerks, doing arithmetic computations. I'm sure the computations were often complex and it's likely that the adherence to instructions and necessary computations are beyond the capacity of most college and university graduates today. But let's not spin grandiloquent fantasies of the type that seem a particular indulgence of Negroes.

    I worked in a particle physics research facility back in the mid 1960s. The staff included several young White women just out of high school who traced out particle paths on enormously magnified bubble chamber photographs so that the trajectories might be punched onto cards as pairs of x-y coordinates for further analysis using a suite of CERN FORTRAN programs. It was demanding and critical work but we did not call these young ladies physicists and they would have laughed if we had.

    Narrative underminer! How deplorable, no, reprehensible!

    Should have seen the Twitter rage when I pointed out that these “mathematicians” were actually human calculators, capable perhaps, but they tested the equations, they did not create them.

    Read More
  5. Jason Liu says:

    Most people involved in any scientific project are not known by name, much less celebrated. They are worker drones. Smart drones, but still drones.

    This means the highlighting of these black women is based only on their skin color, and can be considered a form of entitlement.

    I agree that the entirety of black experiences is not solely victimhood. But you wouldn’t know that looking at any literature written by a black author.

    Read More
  6. That is why education is important because during the era, American women who happened to be black, were part of the apartheid/segregationist era and as such they soared as high a they could within the social milieu despite laws made to stifle or denigrate their educational prowess.

    These women were not clerks! One was a research mathematician, the other taught mathemathics and one was a NASA engineer. I realize that in the eyes of certain white individuals, they will always be clerks, maids or whatever but people create their own reality. Gracias a dios..
    The story is inspiring only due to attempts to not mention such exellence but stuff liek this makes America even greater. People rise depite the laws made against them. God bless USA

    Read More
    • Replies: @boogerbently
    On average, I think blacks have regressed in the last few decades.
    It's easier to be a entitled victim.
  7. jackson says:

    Paul Kersey in ‘Whitey on the Moon’ argues that black agitation is what killed NASA’s space exploration program in the 70s.

    Read More
    • Replies: @landlubber
    We can only hope that today's black agitation (or a global pandemic or an invasion by extraterrestrials or the return of Jesus or...) can successfully kill the F-35 program.
  8. JackOH says:
    @Jus' Sayin'...
    These women who are Margot Lee Shetterley's subjects were not "mathematicians", They were clerks, doing arithmetic computations. I'm sure the computations were often complex and it's likely that the adherence to instructions and necessary computations are beyond the capacity of most college and university graduates today. But let's not spin grandiloquent fantasies of the type that seem a particular indulgence of Negroes.

    I worked in a particle physics research facility back in the mid 1960s. The staff included several young White women just out of high school who traced out particle paths on enormously magnified bubble chamber photographs so that the trajectories might be punched onto cards as pairs of x-y coordinates for further analysis using a suite of CERN FORTRAN programs. It was demanding and critical work but we did not call these young ladies physicists and they would have laughed if we had.

    Yeah, I did just a quick eye-roll of the article, and it looks like the author has mistaken two uses of “computer”. The older use was, as you said, a job title for someone, usually a woman with no more than a high school education, who’d repetitively operate a mechanical calculator to evaluate functions set out for her by a mathematician or engineer. Honorable work, to be sure, but to characterize those young women as “human computers” will surely muddle the contribution they made in the eyes of some ill-informed readers.

    Read More
  9. George says:
    @Jus' Sayin'...
    These women who are Margot Lee Shetterley's subjects were not "mathematicians", They were clerks, doing arithmetic computations. I'm sure the computations were often complex and it's likely that the adherence to instructions and necessary computations are beyond the capacity of most college and university graduates today. But let's not spin grandiloquent fantasies of the type that seem a particular indulgence of Negroes.

    I worked in a particle physics research facility back in the mid 1960s. The staff included several young White women just out of high school who traced out particle paths on enormously magnified bubble chamber photographs so that the trajectories might be punched onto cards as pairs of x-y coordinates for further analysis using a suite of CERN FORTRAN programs. It was demanding and critical work but we did not call these young ladies physicists and they would have laughed if we had.

    Dey seem to have gotten dey ejamakaytions. Dem negros back den dey all waz followaz of Booker T Washington, so dey all got ejamakaytions until da intagrated public schools replaced da exclusively back colleges.

    Dr. Christine Darden (born September 10, 1942) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who devoted her 40-year career in aerodynamics to researching sonic booms at NASA. She was the first African-American woman at NASA’s Langley Research Center to be promoted into senior executive service.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Darden

    Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician. She made fundamental contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical leadership work at NASA spanned decades where she calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and continued work through the Space Shuttle program and on early plans for the Mission to Mars.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson

    The list: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/

    Read More
    • Replies: @Jus' Sayin'...
    Thanks for the correction. I owe an apology to Shetterly, the Negro women she profiled, and readers of this blog. These women clearly were engineers, scientists, and applied mathematicians and they made important contributions to the projects and agencies for whom they worked. I went off half-cocked because of earlier articles I read in toto that described female clerical staff on similar WW II and later defense projects as mathematicians and computer programmers. I unjustly assumed that this was just more of the same.
    , @JackOH
    George, thanks. As I said, I read only cursorily, and the articles I scanned did not explicitly mention post-secondary education of the Black women.

    I guess I'll echo J1234 above, that many of us are wary of more genuine historical Black contributions to America being "weaponized" by exaggeration to make undue political claims on today's Whites. It does appear that author Shetterly is trying to avoid that, again, by my cursory reading of her interview and related articles.
  10. J1234 says:

    Your new book, “Hidden Figures,” is the story of the black female mathematicians at NASA who helped put Americans on the moon.

    The word to take note of in this statement is, “helped.” Why? Because it will disappear in a few years. Just like black Union soldiers who helped win the civil war, but are now considered (by Afro-centric black “academics” and “historians”) to have been an indispensable part of the northern war effort…”the north couldn’t have won without them.” (Even though only 2500 to 3000 Union blacks actually died in battle.)

    And let’s not forget the Tuskegee Airmen…whose kill ratio was far less than (Chuck Yeager’s) 357th unit, but by the time several decades had passed, the Tusk Airmen had become “the greatest fighter pilots of WW2!” Yeah, we’ve heard this all before.

    I have no doubt there were black mathematicians at NASA, but the more you make a big deal out of it, the more it looks like the Special Olympics of scientific achievement.

    Read More
  11. @jackson
    Paul Kersey in 'Whitey on the Moon' argues that black agitation is what killed NASA's space exploration program in the 70s.

    We can only hope that today’s black agitation (or a global pandemic or an invasion by extraterrestrials or the return of Jesus or…) can successfully kill the F-35 program.

    Read More
  12. @George
    Dey seem to have gotten dey ejamakaytions. Dem negros back den dey all waz followaz of Booker T Washington, so dey all got ejamakaytions until da intagrated public schools replaced da exclusively back colleges.

    Dr. Christine Darden (born September 10, 1942) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who devoted her 40-year career in aerodynamics to researching sonic booms at NASA. She was the first African-American woman at NASA's Langley Research Center to be promoted into senior executive service.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Darden

    Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician. She made fundamental contributions to the United States' aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical leadership work at NASA spanned decades where she calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and continued work through the Space Shuttle program and on early plans for the Mission to Mars.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson


    The list: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/

    Thanks for the correction. I owe an apology to Shetterly, the Negro women she profiled, and readers of this blog. These women clearly were engineers, scientists, and applied mathematicians and they made important contributions to the projects and agencies for whom they worked. I went off half-cocked because of earlier articles I read in toto that described female clerical staff on similar WW II and later defense projects as mathematicians and computer programmers. I unjustly assumed that this was just more of the same.

    Read More
  13. George says:

    I could not find bios of Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    Dorothy Vaughan, no university degree is listed.

    Hired in 1943 and assigned to the West Area Computers, she moved into the area of electronic computing when the first (non-human) computers were introduced at NACA.

    So maybe as you say mathemetician is a stretch.

    The other women had wp pages with normal credentials. Exclusively black, Booker T Washington, type colleges seem to be a pattern. So it is interesting that exclusively black colleges are not considered a solution black educational problems. There was much less competition from immigrants so even if they were racists and sexists, the were stuck filling positions with black female talent.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Jus' Sayin'...
    The sad thing is that the exaggerations of both how bad things were for Negroes (and women!) in the USA before Brown v. Board of Education and Negro (and women's!) accomplishments have created a lot of cynicism among those who realistically assess the situation.

    I worked with and became quite friendly with a Negro woman who graduated with an associates degree in the 1940s and worked her entire life for one organization. (We bonded complaining about the young folks surrounding us.) In the early 1950s when the organization adopted electronic data processing techniques she taught herself the technology. [see historical footnote] She was better at this than the individuals that the organization sent out for training and eventually took over their jobs.

    Yet she was never considered for the more advanced training these same people later got in actual programming nor was she promoted as high as she deserved. She was understandably angry about this when she discussed it with me but not bitter. In short she was treated unfairly but not brutally. She made a decent life for herself and recognized that racial relations in this country had a ways to go in the 1940s and 1950s but were progressing independently of government intervention.

    Footnote: Most readers are probably too young to remember card-based electronic processing technology or even to have encountered it, except maybe in stock footage of crime movies from before the 1950s, inserted to show sophisticated electronic technology at work.. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s sophisticated card processing machinery was near state-of-the-art. Computers were rare on the ground and COBOL and FORTRAN were yet to come.

    I actually had to teach myself some basic card sorter wiring in the 1970s to do some consulting work for a state Department of Public Health. It was as challenging as FORTRAN programming. Essentially, one programmed card sorters to accomplish customized tasks by inserting sets of plug-ended wiring into a matrix breadboard. Anyone with the intellectual capacity to become a skilled user of card sorters could readily have learned the assembly language programming of the time whose instruction set typically consisted of less than a score or so commands.
  14. @George
    I could not find bios of Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    Dorothy Vaughan, no university degree is listed.

    Hired in 1943 and assigned to the West Area Computers, she moved into the area of electronic computing when the first (non-human) computers were introduced at NACA.

    So maybe as you say mathemetician is a stretch.

    The other women had wp pages with normal credentials. Exclusively black, Booker T Washington, type colleges seem to be a pattern. So it is interesting that exclusively black colleges are not considered a solution black educational problems. There was much less competition from immigrants so even if they were racists and sexists, the were stuck filling positions with black female talent.

    The sad thing is that the exaggerations of both how bad things were for Negroes (and women!) in the USA before Brown v. Board of Education and Negro (and women’s!) accomplishments have created a lot of cynicism among those who realistically assess the situation.

    I worked with and became quite friendly with a Negro woman who graduated with an associates degree in the 1940s and worked her entire life for one organization. (We bonded complaining about the young folks surrounding us.) In the early 1950s when the organization adopted electronic data processing techniques she taught herself the technology. [see historical footnote] She was better at this than the individuals that the organization sent out for training and eventually took over their jobs.

    Yet she was never considered for the more advanced training these same people later got in actual programming nor was she promoted as high as she deserved. She was understandably angry about this when she discussed it with me but not bitter. In short she was treated unfairly but not brutally. She made a decent life for herself and recognized that racial relations in this country had a ways to go in the 1940s and 1950s but were progressing independently of government intervention.

    Footnote: Most readers are probably too young to remember card-based electronic processing technology or even to have encountered it, except maybe in stock footage of crime movies from before the 1950s, inserted to show sophisticated electronic technology at work.. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s sophisticated card processing machinery was near state-of-the-art. Computers were rare on the ground and COBOL and FORTRAN were yet to come.

    I actually had to teach myself some basic card sorter wiring in the 1970s to do some consulting work for a state Department of Public Health. It was as challenging as FORTRAN programming. Essentially, one programmed card sorters to accomplish customized tasks by inserting sets of plug-ended wiring into a matrix breadboard. Anyone with the intellectual capacity to become a skilled user of card sorters could readily have learned the assembly language programming of the time whose instruction set typically consisted of less than a score or so commands.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Nicholas Stix
    "are probably too young to remember card-based electronic processing technology..."

    "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate"?
  15. @Jus' Sayin'...
    These women who are Margot Lee Shetterley's subjects were not "mathematicians", They were clerks, doing arithmetic computations. I'm sure the computations were often complex and it's likely that the adherence to instructions and necessary computations are beyond the capacity of most college and university graduates today. But let's not spin grandiloquent fantasies of the type that seem a particular indulgence of Negroes.

    I worked in a particle physics research facility back in the mid 1960s. The staff included several young White women just out of high school who traced out particle paths on enormously magnified bubble chamber photographs so that the trajectories might be punched onto cards as pairs of x-y coordinates for further analysis using a suite of CERN FORTRAN programs. It was demanding and critical work but we did not call these young ladies physicists and they would have laughed if we had.

    Harriett Tubman was a mental defective. Her “courageous exploits” documented solely by her and in her later years.

    Read More
  16. @jack shindo
    That is why education is important because during the era, American women who happened to be black, were part of the apartheid/segregationist era and as such they soared as high a they could within the social milieu despite laws made to stifle or denigrate their educational prowess.

    These women were not clerks! One was a research mathematician, the other taught mathemathics and one was a NASA engineer. I realize that in the eyes of certain white individuals, they will always be clerks, maids or whatever but people create their own reality. Gracias a dios..
    The story is inspiring only due to attempts to not mention such exellence but stuff liek this makes America even greater. People rise depite the laws made against them. God bless USA

    On average, I think blacks have regressed in the last few decades.
    It’s easier to be a entitled victim.

    Read More
  17. JackOH says:
    @George
    Dey seem to have gotten dey ejamakaytions. Dem negros back den dey all waz followaz of Booker T Washington, so dey all got ejamakaytions until da intagrated public schools replaced da exclusively back colleges.

    Dr. Christine Darden (born September 10, 1942) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who devoted her 40-year career in aerodynamics to researching sonic booms at NASA. She was the first African-American woman at NASA's Langley Research Center to be promoted into senior executive service.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Darden

    Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician. She made fundamental contributions to the United States' aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical leadership work at NASA spanned decades where she calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and continued work through the Space Shuttle program and on early plans for the Mission to Mars.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson


    The list: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley

    http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/

    George, thanks. As I said, I read only cursorily, and the articles I scanned did not explicitly mention post-secondary education of the Black women.

    I guess I’ll echo J1234 above, that many of us are wary of more genuine historical Black contributions to America being “weaponized” by exaggeration to make undue political claims on today’s Whites. It does appear that author Shetterly is trying to avoid that, again, by my cursory reading of her interview and related articles.

    Read More
  18. In the spirit of this article, here’s an extensive rebuttal of Afro-Black invention claims:

    http://www.toqonline.com/blog/black-invention-myths/

    “Perhaps you’ve heard the claims: Were it not for the genius and energy of African-American inventors, we might find ourselves in a world without traffic lights, peanut butter, blood banks, light bulb filaments, and a vast number of other things we now take for granted but could hardly imagine life without.

    Such beliefs usually originate in books or articles about black history. Since many of the authors have little interest in the history of technology outside of advertising black contributions to it, their stories tend to be fraught with misunderstandings, wishful thinking, or fanciful embellishments with no historical basis. The lack of historical perspective leads to extravagant overestimations of originality and importance: sometimes a slightly modified version of a pre-existing piece of technology is mistaken for the first invention of its type; sometimes a patent or innovation with little or no lasting value is portrayed as a major advance, even if there’s no real evidence it was ever used.

    Unfortunately, some of the errors and exaggerations have acquired an illusion of credibility by repetition in mainstream outlets, especially during Black History Month (see examples for the traffic light and ironing board). When myths go unchallenged for too long, they begin to eclipse the truth. Thus I decided to put some records straight. Although this page does not cover every dubious invention claim floating around out there, it should at least serve as a warning never to take any such claim for granted.

    Each item below is listed with its supposed black originator beneath it along with the year it was supposedly invented, followed by something about the real origin of the invention or at least an earlier instance of it.”

    ……

    http://www.toqonline.com/blog/black-invention-myths/

    Read More
  19. @Jus' Sayin'...
    The sad thing is that the exaggerations of both how bad things were for Negroes (and women!) in the USA before Brown v. Board of Education and Negro (and women's!) accomplishments have created a lot of cynicism among those who realistically assess the situation.

    I worked with and became quite friendly with a Negro woman who graduated with an associates degree in the 1940s and worked her entire life for one organization. (We bonded complaining about the young folks surrounding us.) In the early 1950s when the organization adopted electronic data processing techniques she taught herself the technology. [see historical footnote] She was better at this than the individuals that the organization sent out for training and eventually took over their jobs.

    Yet she was never considered for the more advanced training these same people later got in actual programming nor was she promoted as high as she deserved. She was understandably angry about this when she discussed it with me but not bitter. In short she was treated unfairly but not brutally. She made a decent life for herself and recognized that racial relations in this country had a ways to go in the 1940s and 1950s but were progressing independently of government intervention.

    Footnote: Most readers are probably too young to remember card-based electronic processing technology or even to have encountered it, except maybe in stock footage of crime movies from before the 1950s, inserted to show sophisticated electronic technology at work.. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s sophisticated card processing machinery was near state-of-the-art. Computers were rare on the ground and COBOL and FORTRAN were yet to come.

    I actually had to teach myself some basic card sorter wiring in the 1970s to do some consulting work for a state Department of Public Health. It was as challenging as FORTRAN programming. Essentially, one programmed card sorters to accomplish customized tasks by inserting sets of plug-ended wiring into a matrix breadboard. Anyone with the intellectual capacity to become a skilled user of card sorters could readily have learned the assembly language programming of the time whose instruction set typically consisted of less than a score or so commands.

    “are probably too young to remember card-based electronic processing technology…”

    “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate”?

    Read More
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