Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Xbox 360 Conspiracy Revisited

According to Microsoft the Xbox 360 launch was a huge success, even though the U.S. and Europe, two regions in particular that really wanted to purchase the 360, were left without machines enough to even fill prepaid orders, and Japan, a country that couldn't care less, had more than it could ever want and then some. It had been rumored that supply would be constrained during the launch and that it was a Microsoft conspiracy to appear to have sold more than it had. It would have made sense from a certain point of view to have all stores saying they "sold" out of their 360s, appearing as an extremely successful and desirable product, but considering the holiday rush to buy one, it was more likely that they simply weren't prepared for the launch, wanting so desperately to get a jump on Sony's Playstation 3. This seems to have been proven as all throughout the holidays you simply couldn't get one, and the large video game store chains were left without product to sell, some of them fulfilling pre-orders for the 360s this month and the next.

So, considering this is well known, why am I revisiting the conspiracy? Well, a little explanation first, for those of you who have no knowledge of how the video game industry works. Video game console companies like Nintendo, Sony, and now, Microsoft lose money on every single console that is sold. That's right, they sell the consoles much cheaper than the price it takes to make them. The reason for this is that in order to lure a critical mass of gamers you have to have a very powerful and competitive console within a reasonable price range. The reason you need that critical mass is because that mass will spend all their money on buying the extremely profitable content that will play on that specific hardware (i.e. video games). The other moneymaking area is peripherals such as extra controllers, remote controls, memory cards, etc.

This new Xbox in particular is extremely expensive to manufacture, considering it has the latest and greatest next generation components within it. So, Microsoft, in order to attempt to gain the critical mass, divided the product into 2 packages: Premium and Core. Both packages include an Xbox 360, a controller (the premium having a wireless controller), and a cable to connect the box to the television, but only the Premium brings a connector that can take advantage of the 360's advanced high definition graphics (an RGB component cable). For the Core system you pay what seems like a reasonable and accepted standard price for the latest and greatest, $300 USD. The Premium system costs $100 USD more, which at first may seem like a lot, but you also get more than your money's worth in return. This is where the conspiracy begs to be revisited. The Premium system is a money loser as it comes with the much more expensive wireless controller, a 20GB hard drive, a headset to be used with the incredibly well designed and structured Xbox Live service, the RGB component connector, and an Ethernet cable to get started online right away. This compared to the Core, which only has the console, wired connector, and crappy composite TV connection. The additional components if bought separately, command an incredible "premium". The hard drive alone costs $100 USD, and is REQUIRED if you wish to play old Xbox games or use most of the best features (i.e. Xbox Live!). Be prepared to pay an additional $200 in peripherals if you bought the Core system. It seems like a no-brainer that the Premium system is the one to buy, except, there are NO Premium systems available, only Core systems.

You can actually walk into a store and purchase a Core system. In fact, they'll even have a few in stock. If you want to buy the Premium system, good luck on E-bay paying a few times the price as they are nowhere to be found. Of course, the store will happily sell you the Core with the peripherals necessary to make it a Premium system, and this is where we revisit the conspiracy theory. Considering the amount of money lost on the consoles, could Microsoft had purposefully manufactured a limited supply of Premium systems in order to force sales of the highly profitable peripherals?

In the end, it's Microsoft's battle to lose in this major screw up of a launch the second time around. You'd think that they would have learned something, but it would seem they didn't. The truth of the matter is, that splitting the console packages in two has forced developers to limit their games to the lowest common denominator and therefore will be unable to truly take advantage of the high-end features of the console. This was a very bad call. The peripherals are in extremely short supply as well, which equals lower sales overall and unhappy customers. The loyal fan base which preordered the machine got shortchanged by being un-served, undermining both themselves and the whole preorder system of many retail outlets and chains across the world. The games are nowhere to be seen with no clear "must have" title and in fact, the same titles that sell in other platforms sell at a premium for the 360. The titles don't offer a clear reason to pay $10 to $20 USD more for the exact same game. Sure, the graphics are better, but they're not a significant improvement in some games to merit the extra charge.

Sony will be launching their Playstation 3 in the spring of 2006, and all the demos have so far impressed. They seem to be poised to have a few "must have" killer apps at launch, and will include the next generation blu-ray DVD reader, which will allow you to view all the High Definition DVDs that will be coming out in that format throughout the coming years. Considering their overwhelming dominance of the market, it will certainly be difficult to beat this wonderful, next-generation hardware. Let's see if Microsoft's head start, despite their mistakes along the way, helps them reach an even greater foothold than the last round. We must also not count out Nintendo's revolutionary new console, the Nintendo Revolution, which will bring back all the games of old from their immense library of classics as well as some next-generation beauties.

For those of you wanting a 360, buy the Premium system, and for those looking for games to play on it, look for the only available titles for the cutting edge. Otherwise, steer clear and look for the original Xbox format as your new machine is backwards compatible, thanks to your Premium system's hard drive (required). Enjoy.

For more information:

Core vs Premium comparison - Microsoft Xbox Official Site
Backwards Compatible Game List - Official list of original Xbox games that work on the new Xbox 360 (hard drive required).
Sony Playstation - Official Site
Gamespot - Everything you wanted to know about consoles, video games, reviews, etc. Click on the link to read about the upcoming consoles as well.
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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Where does one belong?

Continuing the random trend, and once again digging into the recent past for something free from previous engagements, here is my rage against duality and status. I hope you like it:

Where does one belong?

It used to be education meant respect
Now it means the promise of a paycheck
and it don't even give that
What's Harvard to a bum
What's an intellectual in a slum

College is just a football team
when your high school and the airport
share the same entrance exams

For what are perfect table manners
when your table's at McDonalds
and your meal but fries and a coke

What's knowledge of the classics
or having great retort
when incomprehensible you are
to those who are your cohorts

What is getting up to greet a lady
when your table's standing up
eating a hot dog at the Stop n Go

A kid downstairs clicks away
over and over at a staple
Does that not define society
Has it not become its staple
A sedated monologue of clicks
without a thought
with thoughtless plight

What's my pain but that of me
What's my pain that I can't see
where social education has gone
where self respect is done
and I the homeless Harvard
everyplace but awkward
nowhere to belong


Once again, let me know what it means to you. :)
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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Lack of Spice

Recently, I was looking to indulge in preparing my favorite nachos recipe (see below), and looking for the most important ingredient, I realized that it no longer existed. I visited five different supermarkets and a few gas stations, looking for that very important, very particular ingredient. Sure, I could use other brands and lesser variations, but I had to try for the exact, exquisite taste that I've always enjoyed. That special ingredient is Tostito's 100% natural, Medium Salsa, not the Mild which is ridiculously available and way too soft and thick, nor the Hot which dulls that perfect taste and is also highly unavailable. You might wonder why specifically that ingredient is so important, and I'll say because it has a perfect blend of ingredients, spices and tastes, apart from having that additional health benefit of being all natural and fat free.

Seeing as the Mild was overtly available and the Medium and Hot completely inaccessible, I began to contemplate how that reflects upon us as a society. Their unavailability translates to the fact that no one is purchasing them, supply and demand. No demand for the Hot or Medium means that no supply is necessary. So why isn't anyone purchasing the Hot or Medium? Has society gone completely mild?

We live glued to televisions, sedated by the heavenly glow of their colorful pixels on the screen. People live sedentary lives with their only stimulation coming from living vicariously through the latest reality show. So, was it any surprise that there was bland food for bland lives? Perhaps not, but for those who still seek the spice, that hot, lively experience that only reality can provide in its empirical splendor, there's always been at least something to appease our lifestyle tastes. Yet, now our taste buds are being forced to indulge in mild foods, the sedative that keeps the masses at bay. The spice of life, it seems needs to be blended away into regularly scheduled programming to maintain that ever important control.

But I say NAY! I will not give in to the corporate masters that decided I should submit to their control and renounce the spice of life. I refuse to stop indulging my brain with spicy foods for thought and actions that keep my body competent and athletic. Mildness leads to inaction and disfunction, and if they'll force upon us the mild sauce, I will spike it with tabasco or whatever else I can find. Reality is better when experienced physically, not virtually.

So, fight the lack of spice. Wake up your senses to the Hot and Medium sauce. Activity and free thought is the true spice of life. Wake up, get out there and think, but lets have some nachos first.

The recipe: Franco's Favorite Home Nachos (all natural veggie food)

1/2 a bag of Tostito's 100% Natural, Organically Grown Blue Corn Restaurant Style Chips.
1/2 an 8 oz bag of Sargento 100% Natural 4 Cheese Mexican Blend (includes Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Queso Quesadilla, and Asadero)
1/2 a jar of Tostito's 100% Natural Medium Mexican Sauce (Hot is also allowed)

1. Cover a microwave safe plate with a layer (1/2 a bag) of corn chips.
2. Cover corn chips with a layer (1/2 a bag) of the cheeses.
3. Spread (1/2 a jar) Sauce all over the the cheeses.
4. Heat in microwave 1:30 minutes or until cheese is melted.
5. Eat and Enjoy :)
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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Land of the Broken Headlights

San Juan, Puerto Rico - We have all seen the advertisements for the Isle of Enchantment, presenting the gorgeous island that Puerto Rico is and can be. It truly is a marvelous place full of beauty and ecological diversity, defying the normal concepts of what a tropical island should have. This is the main reason the highly controversial campaign slogan, "The Continent of Puerto Rico" was used a number of years ago, to describe the Island. But as in many countries and cities throughout the world, it is not without its little quirks and issues.

I will not go into the intricacies of Puerto Rico's values, problems, beauty, or anything of the sort. I'm going to talk about the fact that surprisingly, a manufacturing powerhouse like Puerto Rico (i.e. 16 of the top 20 pharmaceutical products and 50% of all pacemakers are made in Puerto Rico) can't seem to maintain vehicle headlights and could be awarded a new title and advertising slogan, "The land of the broken headlights." I'll explain what I mean.

I took to the road at about 10 pm on a Saturday night. The traffic was light, as it often is on a Saturday as long as you remain away from the heavily frequented night spots in Old San Juan, Condado, and Isla Verde. I hadn't reached the first stoplight and I had already counted 3 vehicles with broken headlamps. Having noticed this little detail that has so plagued the roads of San Juan as of late, I decided to count all the broken, damaged, or otherwise disengaged headlamps I could see throughout the entire distance to the aforementioned Condado area. From the township of Guaynabo to the tourist laden, oceanfront area of Condado in San Juan, the distance is approximately 6 to 7 miles (10 to 11 kilometers) depending on which road you've selected to travel on.

I counted without being too attentive (I was driving after all), and yet, I'm not even remotely exaggerating when I say that I saw at least 23 vehicles suffering from what I like to call, "abnormal headlamp syndrome". This medical condition that seems to afflict vehicles in the San Juan metro area is a disease that must and should be controlled for a number of reasons that include safety of the affected vehicle, the annoyance of oncoming traffic, and the possibility of infection of other vehicles from the unavoidably predictable accident that is likely to occur from the mislabeling of the oncoming vehicle as a motorcycle or cloaked Klingon vessel, instead of say a Mercedes M series wagon.

I wondered what the law had to say or do about all this, and even considered the idea of contacting law enforcement to find out. Then, I remembered that the police don't really do or care much about it, considering the amount of vehicles on the road that have already been infected, so that idea was worthless. Also, if a traffic infraction notice could theoretically be injected into the organic life form that acts as the brains of the vehicle, the dosage is too low to actually have an effect upon said vehicle.

So what do I think should be done about this baffling and particularly dark situation? Well, useless as the thought may be, the time for light medicines is over considering the disease has reached plague status, so, here goes. I propose a notice of infraction be provided at a dosage of 500 USD at the moment of diagnosis by an officer. This would quickly eradicate the problem by providing a heavy incentive for the organic form to act quickly on replacing the affected area with a brand new or repaired headlamp and therefore eradicating the blinding condition of abnormal headlamp syndrome. If within 15 days, the lamp has been reconditioned (verified by an officer), then, the dosage would be removed, otherwise the full dosage would be required within yet another 15 days.

Of course, considering that cops won't stop you even if you run a red light in front of them, that probably won't do much either, but may act as a deterrant to those fearing the miraculous event of a police officer actually doing their job. I'm not one to complain much on the freedom and flexibility of the local arrangements, but I can't help but wonder what kind of place it could be if it continues it's present course towards anarchy. It's time for a beer.
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Friday, September 09, 2005

Sony's New Walkman beaten with a Nano stick

Sony announced yesterday their new Walkman, striking images of the portable brick that was popular back in the 1980's. This announcement of course, has nothing to do with that old, market dominating, portable player. Sony's time has come and gone in the portable music market they created 25 years ago, fumbling to grasp what it was that customers wanted in this new, digital era. Apple is the new crown king of that market with its beautifully designed iPod MP3 player (74% of the entire MP3 player market) and its companion software and online music store, iTunes (85% of the global digital music market). Though Apple was not the first player in this new digital music realm, they redefined and brought to the masses innovation and ease of use previously unheard of in this space. Also, with the iTunes Music Store, they have become the music industry's savior in the P2P, File swapping world of the Pirates of the Caribbeanet.

Apple's most popular model and therefore the number one MP3 player in the world is the iPod Mini,and every single competitor, including Sony has been struggling to copy what it is that makes the Mini so popular. But Apple has decided not to run the conservative plays of a market leader, and instead on Wednesday discontinued their number one player to introduce a new model, the iPod Nano, "1,000 songs in your pocket. Impossibly small." It's thinner than a number 2 pencil and considerably smaller even than Sony's new Walkman, yet it is a full featured iPod, with color screen, photo viewing capability, and that wonderful click-wheel iPod users adore.

Sony's Thursday announcement was dwarfed by Apple's Wednesday surprise. Everyone thought that Apple's Music Event was to introduce Motorola's new iTunes phone, the ROCKR, which they did along with the new version of iTunes, but other announcements followed, including that 30% of all cars sold in the U.S. would include iPod integration and a special iChat appearance by Madonna to announce the inclusion of all her music in the iTunes Music Store. It was the final announcement which blew the industry away, though, the iPod Nano, forcing Sony's Koichiro Tsujino to comment at a news conference, "I understand a certain company made an announcement...We will accelerate our challenge with these new models."

Trying to challenge Apple's dominance is no easy task, and recently Rio, an important player in the flash MP3 space, has exited the market, no longer able to compete. Creative is Apple's biggest challenger with its Zen player, yet continues to lag behind. Sony has attempted to follow the Apple model with its Connect music store, an obvious copy of iTunes, and it's new Walkman which does play MP3's (earlier Sony players did not include the important capacity to play the MP3 format, a mistake they will not soon forget) in addition to Sony's unsuccessful ATRAC format, but they lack the coolness and status Sony once commanded, looking more like wannabes.

To be fair, the new Walkman does have a more attractive design than other models on the market, and the organic EL display integrated into the casing does look pretty cool, but unfortunately it's just not as beautiful and efficiently designed as the iPod. It doesn't look uniquely cool. Also, the Bose iPod speakers knock-off, shown with the announcement looks like it was unattractively designed for a different player. To top it all off, the player is larger and more expensive than the iPod Nano in equivalent capacities.

The Walkman works with the Connect store, but not with iTunes, which is another deterrent to many buyers. Sony was offered a partnership in iTunes development, a way to guarantee its compatibility with the store and Apple's Fairplay (a digital rights management (DRM) music protection scheme), but Sony declined the offer, preferring to develop its own Connect store and now iTunes wannabe software. iTunes of course, has 85% of the global market, leaving Sony's Connect to share in the remaining 15% with Napster, Real's Raphsody, and all the others.

Apple not only leads the market in sales, but it leads the market in design, innovation, ease of use, quality, and the all-important cool factor. Sony had made some inroads in its local Japanese market, but that was before iTunes availability in Japan and still had only reached 27% of the flash player market at the time. As long as Apple continues to take risks and design products like the new Nano, it will be a gargantuan task for Sony or Creative to keep up.

Long ago, Steve Jobs said that he wanted Apple to be like Sony. It seems his prediction came true, and now, I'm sure that it's Sony, that wishes it was Apple.


Apple's Models:
iPod Shuffle (no display): Available NOW! Models: 512MB or 120 songs for $99. 1GB or 240 songs for $129.
New iPod Nano (black or white, color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 2GB or 500 song capacity for $199. 4GB or 1000 song capacity for $249
iPod (color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 20GB or 5000 songs for $299. 60GB or 15,000 songs for $399.
iPod U2 Special Edition (black with red click wheel, color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 20GB or 5000 songs for $329. Includes a 50$ coupon towards the purchase of The Complete U2 collection in the iTunes Music Store as well as a poster.

Sony's Models:
New Walkman: Available starting November.
Flash memory based models (include FM radio): 512MB for 22,000¥ ($200 USD), 1GB for 27,000¥ ($246 USD), and 2GB for 32,000¥ ($292 USD).
Hard drive based models: 6 GB for 30,000¥ ($274 USD) and 20 GB for 35,000¥ ($319 USD).

NOTE: Japanese Yen to U.S. Dollar conversion based on exchange rate on September 9, 2005.
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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The "third world" is right at home

In any land of need, the suffering masses will do anything to survive. We've seen the effects of this in many "third world" countries as they grow and develop their societies under dismal conditions and lawlessness. Constant civil wars, looting, "freedom" fighters and what not are the daily bread of many of these nations. Within the supposed first world nation of the United States of America, it would be inconceivable to think that such violence, overall lawlessness, and revolt could occur since the economic power of the nation provides for the needy people within it, right? Well, the state of Louisiana has been the land of need for a long time. Almost half the population of the state lived in poverty and the high school drop out rate was (some officials estimate) as high as 90 percent (NOTE: The high school drop out rate statistics seem to vary greatly but all remain above the unacceptable 50% level. Thanks to Russ for this clarification.). The state answer to the latter was to cut millions from the education budget. So much for Bush's no child left behind initiative. With between 6 to 8 billion dollars a month being spent in Iraq (218 billion dollars to date and more than in Vietnam), where is the aid of the needy at home? Hurricane Katrina has dealt a deadly blow to an already "third world" state and to the entire U.S. Gulf Coast sending it into Somalia, Rwanda, or Haiti type levels, yet the President was on vacation reenacting his September 11th, 2001 performance by reacting slowly to the news, and Congress approved a measly 10.5 billion for a devastated area the size of Great Britain.

Over 400,000 people along that coast were forced to leave their homes. New Orleans continues to be under 8 feet (2.43 meters) of water and the situation is not expected to improve for at least another couple of weeks (UPDATE 9-2-05: Army said it could take 36 to 80 days to drain New Orleans). Coastal towns like Biloxi, Mississippi had 90 percent of its buildings blown to bits. There is no drinking water, there is no power, and food is running out. In New Orleans , countless dead line the street or float through its waters. Tens of thousands of people were and continue to be stranded with no means of evacuating. The war of need has begun.

The U.S. and its media cohorts like National Geographic and others, have long portrayed "third world" countries like lawless war zones in extreme poverty, to market its powerful image over that of the rest of the world. We've all seen them in the news and National Geographic documentaries: the gun toting owners of shops defending themselves from looters, warring groups shooting at each other in the streets, people stealing from everyone and everything including medical supplies from hospitals and food from anywhere. This is New Orleans today. Armed with pipes and axes, a group stripped two hospitals clean, leaving many of the sick and dying without vital supplies to survive. Violence is rampant with no order in sight despite the National Guard troops that have entered the city. Mobs rule, the gangs rule, violence rules, death is everywhere. It's a war zone.

Desperately obvious is the fact that more help is needed...and pronto. The number of troops is definitely not nearly enough to bring order to Iraq...ahem, I mean New Orleans (see a pattern here? Ed.). The Salvation Army has been aiding with food and supplies, which is a step forward, but the amounts have been limited and could cause the situation to deteriorate at each cantina should these run out. A more realistic, and particularly respectful, monetary figure should be approved by the U.S. Congress.

In the end, when the waters have receded, the violence subsided, and order been brought back to the coast, the developing nation or "third world" state of Louisiana will not only require a gargantuan, Iraq-like effort and attention to resuscitate its devastated cities and neighboring regions, but a particular attention to home that has been missing from the U.S. Government for a long time. While the nation focused its attention on Iraq's infrastructure and effort, Louisiana had become the "third world" even before Katrina. Mississippi wasn't far behind.

In a land of need, the desperate will do anything and all is justifiable, but why in the U.S. is there a land of need?
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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

bNowhere patents the bathroom process

Today, bNowhere has received a number of patents for the bathroom process. This includes patents for the method of urinating both standing and sitting at both urinal and toilet, the process of defecating in a toilet and urinal and in multiple positions, plus, the same process specified within the constraint of clothing, bedding and other situations. Starting immediately, everyone found doing such acts must pay bNowhere a licensing fee.

Sounds completely idiotic doesn't it? Well, something similar has been happening in the computers and software industry for the past 20 years, and is an issue that continues to rear its ugly head every number of months at different scales. The most recent example is Creative Technologies, makers of the Zen mp3 player and number 2 competitor in the portable mp3 player market. That specific market is presently dominated and by no small measure by the ubiquitous Apple iPod in all its forms. Apple holds between 75 and 85 percent of the mp3 player market depending on who you ask, and Creative is one of many fighting for the rest of the market and a bite of the Apple pie. In fact, Creative's Chairman and CEO, Sim Wong Ho has been adamantly vocal about his company's "war" against the iPod since November of 2004.

Despite his claims and efforts, Apple sold over 6 million iPods in the last quarter, an over 600 percent improvement over last year, and Creative can barely sell those numbers in a year. Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the help of the government many companies have attained the means to fight the "war" with weapons that are as ridiculous as the bathroom example above. Creative's particular weapon is the recently acquired U.S. Patent 6,928,433 referred to as the "Zen Patent". This patent describes how files on a digital music player are organized and categorized hierarchically. In other words, the patent is the equivalent of inventing "alphabetical order" since it gives Creative a 20 year, government sponsored monopoly on hierarchical organizing of files in an mp3 player by song, artist, genre, etc. Anyone who's used an mp3 player, be it Apple's iPod, the Rio or any other brand than creative will logically find this browsing method familiar. Then again I should say that anyone who's ever classified music should find this familiar which makes all of this laughable and though normally considered unpatentable, here it exists for all the world to pay Creative for the right to organize the files in their player in the same way as their home CD collection.

Another controversial example in recent years was Amazon's 1-click® patent. On September 28, 1999 the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent Number 5,960,411 for a "Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network". In simple terms, Amazon patented the process of shopping used by most websites. The system receives a click, and processes an order for an item based on personal data previously stored on file that includes credit card and shipping address. Amazon defended its "innovation" saying that no one had thought of 1-click® shopping, and yet reducing clicks has been at the top of every webmaster's list since the beginning of the World Wide Web. The storing of personal information and using it to present data isn't anything novel either and is ridiculously obvious. It is the same as walking into a store, grabbing some stuff and telling the clerk as you leave, "Put it on my tab, Earl!"

Certain things can't and shouldn't be patented, yet the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is awarding patents to everything and anything on computers and software. Their cluelessness and overall ignorance when it comes to online issues has resulted in a new form of defeating the competition, patenting their obvious processes.

Don't Patent the Mousetrap, Patent the Process!!!

Now you can patent the "Method and system for placing a mouse in a trap" and upon receiving said patent, all mousetrap manufacturers will be in violation of your patent and therefore subject to an injunction unless a licensing agreement is reached. It's exactly what Amazon achieved when it was awarded an injunction to Barnes and Noble's online store for their Express Lane system, and right before the critical holiday season. It was eventually resolved with a second, confirmation click, but it achieved the purpose of defeating Barnes and Noble in the online space at a very critical time. Is this the ethical way to compete? Should this be allowed? This has far reaching effects upon the economy, businesses, innovation, etc. and none of them pretty.

It used to be that to compete all you had to do was build a better mousetrap. Well, no more, now you don't have to build anything, just own the patent to the idea. It is a sad day for business, a sad day indeed.

Final Note: an untold number of patents were unknowingly violated in the writing of this article. ;)
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