Camera review: Kodak EasyShare v610 Dual Lens

I have owned the Kodak EasyShare v610 Dual Lens digital camera for the past year and a half, and I’ve meant to write about it for some time. This will be a nostalgic review, since the camera is no longer being made.

Last weekend, I put together an 8-minute video review, and also took some photographs of the camera. I’ll accompany those two offerings with my insights, gathered after a LOT of use in just about any weather and light conditions. At the end of the review, I’ll also post selected photos taken with the camera.

There’s what the camera looks like at first glance. I purchased a matching leather case for it, and I’m not sorry I did it. It protected the LCD screen from scratches, and it helped protect the camera itself when I threw it about from bag to bag. Back when I was in college, in the mid 90s, my parents gave me a first generation Canon Elph. It used APS film, and it was a small, beautiful and elegantly designed little camera for its time. I’m talking about this because I got a leather case for that camera as well, and it helped keep that camera running in good condition for several years. My advice to you if you get a small camera is to get a good case for it as well. Make it sturdy, so it can withstand abuse, and make it stylish, so you won’t be ashamed to be seen with it in public. Leather fits that bill quite nicely, doesn’t it?

Video review

The video I recorded is enclosed below. You can also view it here, or download it if you like. If you’ve seen some of my other video reviews, you’ll have to excuse the lower overall quality of this one. I shot it this past Sunday, informally, during a very hectic weekend. I had a limited amount of time at my disposal, I was rushed, and it shows. But I managed to get my points across, and I’m happy about that, so it is worth watching.

Kodak EasyShare v610 from Raoul Pop on Vimeo and on YouTube

Dual lenses

One of the striking features of the camera is its dual lens setup. Back when it came out, a 10x zoom on a camera this compact was virtually unheard of. It’s still fairly uncommon. The only way this could be accomplished, while still keeping things looking great and with no external zoom extending outwards from the camera body, was with two lenses, one for closer distances, and one for what could be called tele. The first lens — the bottom one — is for 1-5x, and the second lens — the top, larger one — is for 5-10x, as you can see below.

Kodak v610 dual lens setup

The two lenses together have an astounding range of 38-380 equivalent focal millimeters. The first lens goes from 38-114mm, and the second goes from 130-380mm. I have good things to say about the quality of the optics. The images were sharp when in focus, and there was little fringing and chromatic aberration. There were two drawbacks to the lenses.

  • One, they were fairly slow. What I mean by that is that they didn’t open up quite enough, and that tended to make the camera pretty hard to use in low light situations without a tripod. The smaller lens (1-5x) is rated from f/3.9 to f/4.4, and the large lens (5-10x) is rated to f/4.8.
  • Two, there was a pause when zooming out past the 5x mark. The camera’s zoom would stop when it reached the end of the focusing range of the first lens, and I would have to press the tele button again to pick up the next lens and focus further than that. Over long periods of use, that tended to be pretty annoying.

But I didn’t let these things bother me too much. After all, I got 10x zoom in a very compact package.

Kodak v610 mode and on/off buttons

Controls and ease of use

What I liked most about the camera was its ease of use for basic photo taking. That proved to be both good and bad. Anything more advanced (such as long exposures, a change in ISO, or White Balance) required some menu surfing, and any custom settings were erased when the camera was turned off. Even something as simple as delayed exposures (2 or 10 seconds, for example) needed to be set for every single photo where they were needed. One couldn’t just turn on that setting and keep it on. It would reset after every exposure.

Even though I didn’t like this, I can understand the rationale for it very well. After all, this camera is a compact point and shoot meant for people who just want to pull it out and take photos, not for more serious tasks. And let me tell you, if someone that doesn’t know much about cameras picks up a Kodak v610, messes with the settings, and doesn’t know how to get it back to normal, they’ll be VERY much relieved when they find out all they have to do is turn it off, then back on.

The controls on the camera are wonderfully designed. The buttons are either metal or very hard plastic, and I am not about to scratch them to find out what they’re made of. At any rate, they’re the right shape and texture, and it’s fun to press them.

They’re intuitive, they fit well within the camera’s interface, and there aren’t too many of them, which is the right decision for a compact camera such as this.

Kodak v610 zoom and selection controls

I loved the easy way to switch between normal, macro and tele mode. See the big, square button above? Turn the camera on, and you’re in normal mode, where the camera can focus from 2 feet to infinity. Take photos as would normally do. Press the bottom part of the button once, and you’re in macro mode, where the camera can focus from 2 inches to 2.3 feet. Press it again, and you’re in tele mode, where you can take photos of things very far away and not have to worry about focus. The camera focuses to infinity automatically and picks a higher aperture, which means you’ll get a larger depth of field.

The build quality of the camera was evident everywhere. The tripod mount is a great example of this. It was pre-planned and integrated into the silver metal border that lines the camera’s sides. Not only that, but the mount itself is metal, not plastic. Given the camera’s light weight and compact size, one wouldn’t think it’d need a metal tripod mount, but there it is, and I love it!

One point of contention with the camera is the USB connector, which is a custom one. I would have loved to see Kodak put a standard USB mini connector on the camera, but they didn’t. That’s probably because they wanted it to integrate with their camera stands and plug right into their photo printers, but come on, there are volumes to be said about standardization… It’s really important when it comes to good design.

Capabilities

The camera includes a movie mode which records Quicktime movies using MPEG-4 compression at 30fps. I found the quality of the movies (640×480 pixels) to be plenty for my on-the-go needs, and often used it as my primary video camera. I have a confession to make: it was also my only video camera. :-) Remember my video review of the Canon Rebel XTi? It was done with the Kodak v610 mounted to a tripod. Came out great, didn’t it?

With a 2GB SD card in the camera, it could record over 1,100 photos or 1 hour of video, which is more than plenty for such a compact camera. The only problem was, the camera’s battery would only last for about 125 photos. I’m not sure how many minutes of video the camera could do on a fully charged battery, so I can’t speak for that. But I did find myself frustrated by the low battery life when taking photos, and ended up purchasing a second battery. With judicious use of the zoom and LCD screen, I found I could extend the battery life to 135-150 photos, but that was still not quite enough for me, and it was pretty frustrating to be out in the city, taking photos, only to have the camera die on me.

Again, I think this is a design issue, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a flaw. This is a small, stylish camera meant for the person who would pull it out every once in a while and take a few photos, not for someone who wants to take lots of photos. That person should opt for a bigger camera with more battery life.

One other point I wanted to mention was the sensor’s light sensitivity. It was capable of 64-800 ISO on paper. In real life, I found 400 ISO to be barely acceptable, and 800 ISO unusable. 64, 100 and 200 worked out great. If I left it on Auto ISO, it varied it between 64-200 automatically to get the optimal exposure. The camera changed the ISO settings in increments of 10 between 70-200 ISO, and I’d always get a chuckle out of seeing all sorts of ISO speeds show up in my photos’ meta-data.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the camera. I say “was” because I recently gave it to my parents. They had a more complicated digital camera, and they often couldn’t understand the settings and were frustrated because they couldn’t get the photos they wanted. The Kodak v610 will work out much better for them since it’s more compact, it’s fully automatic, and it resets its settings with every “reboot”.

The camera also has a blurry photo indicator that can be turned on. If a photo is good, a little green hand will appear. If the photo is marginally acceptable, the little hand will turn orange. And if the photo’s not good at all, the little hand will turn red. That’s easy enough for anyone to understand. I told them to re-take any photos where the little hand will turn red, and if they can’t get anything orange or green to seek more light or give up. I think they’ll finally be able to get more decent photos now.

Let me show you a few photos I took with the camera to illustrate what it could do. I can’t emphasize enough how useful that 10x zoom proved to be, and you’ll see what I mean as you look at the photos.

Sample photos

This first photo is quite appropriate for this time of the year, as it represents a group of merry carolers on a sled.

This is another macro shot, this time of colorful beads in a public market.

The wide focal range allowed me to get photos of entire valleys from mountain tops. This is a photo of a portion of the Shenandoah Valley, as seen from Skyline Drive. Here you can see the typical bluish tinge caused by UV haze. This gets exacerbated by the CCD sensors of smaller cameras. I’ve seen it on many small cameras. For example, the iPhone’s built-in camera suffers from this defect to what I consider an unacceptable degree.

The camera’s CCD sensor was fairly adept at capturing color.

These very red and vibrant fall foliage was captured last year at our local Audubon Naturalist Society in Bethesda, MD.

During one weekend morning, I decided to set up the camera on a tripod and play around with water drops on petals. I got some really nice photos out of that session. This is one of them.

Waterdrops on petals

There’s a WWI memorial in downtown DC, and the crowning piece is this golden statue.

Liberty points the way

I love great sunrises, and I captured many of them with the Kodak v610. This is one of those photos.

Passionate sunrise

The inside courtyard of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC is shown below. The camera always managed to expose photos decently when confronted with situations like this: a wall in shade and the bright sky above. A LOT of cameras have problem with this kind of a setup, including my 5D, which tends to overexpose the sky.

Watergate

Taken during a fierce snowstorm (we get one of those every year around here). It’s too bad the snow melts away so quickly afterwards.

During the snowfall

The next day, snow began to melt, as expected. I rushed to get a few photos before it would all be gone. This photo was post-processed to emphasize the frozen atmosphere — wishful thinking on my part, since the temperature was above 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Frozen

We were walking along the C&O Canal this past spring, and spotted a fox walking around in the forest. It stopped to check us out as well. This is where the camera’s 10x zoom was very useful. We were able to get up close even though we were separated by a body of water.

Fox in spring

The camera’s compact size made it a breeze to use when an opportune moment was spotted, like with this lone tulip outlined against a green wall.

Tulip

The zoom once again proved useful for getting closer to this lovely country house. In reality it was quite far from the road.

Lovely country house

Although there’s some lens flare in this photo, which could have been avoided with a lens hood (but the camera isn’t equipped with one) I love it. This is a portion of the C&O Canal where the water has pooled and is now stationary. Since the canal is no longer maintained, this portion has turned into a swamp. While I wouldn’t wade around in it, it makes for an interesting wildlife habitat, and the afternoon light is superb.

C&O Canal, now stationary

Guess where this photo was taken? It was at the top of the Tyson’s Corner Mall parking lot, looking toward DC. Summer was in full swing, and that’s the reason for the rich, deep green foliage of the trees.

Virginia forest from above

This was taken more recently, right in my community. Those beautiful golden hues can be seen every fall, but I won’t tell you where. I’ll keep it a secret for now. :-)

Golden fall foliage

I leave you with another beautiful sunrise.

Golden sunrise

Summary

If you’re interested in a capable little point and shoot with a very powerful zoom for its size, try finding the Kodak v610. I checked and it’s out of stock even at Kodak’s own online store. It seems only Amazon still has a few units left. Though it’s no longer being made, if you can pick up a used one at a reasonable price and provided you understand its limitations, I think you’ll enjoy using it.

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Hardware review: LaCie 500 GB external hard drive

:arrow: Updated 11/3/08: I’ve seen renewed traffic to this post, and wanted to let you know that at this point the drive retails for $99. I think that price point is a little high given that 1TB drives have become affordable, and bare 1TB drives only cost $110-130. This means that if you’re looking for an external 500 GB drive, it should cost you somewhere between $79-89. Keep in mind that the manufacturer has to strike a balance between the cost of the drive and the cost of the enclosure, and while 500GB drives are bargains now, it will soon become impractical to manufacture them at the large scale needed for low price points, because the 1TB drives will become the new commodity hard drive. My message is, get them while you can, or spring for the 1TB external drives. The original review continues below.

This unassuming little black drive is a great product and a great buy at only $120 for 500 GB. It seems that LaCie has discontinued it. Buy.com, where I purchased two of them, no longer has it in stock. Amazon still has it, thankfully. Read below to see why I like it.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive

The price is right for all that space. C’mon, 500 GB for $120? Sign me up! On top of all that, it’s whisper quiet! My big complaint with a previous 500 GB LaCie drive that I owned was the noise it made. Boy, was it loud! Not this drive. It’s so quiet, I can’t even hear it, unless it’s being actively accessed, and even then, it’s pretty quiet.

What’s also REALLY nice about it is that it doesn’t have a power brick. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s that big, heavy annoying power adapter that sits in the middle, between the part you plug in the outlet and the part that plugs into the drive. Not on this drive! I love that! It only has a simple, unassuming cable, and that does wonders when it comes to cable management and keeping the underside of my desk neat. These are all the cables you’ll need with the drive.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive with cables

Here’s what the back of it looks like. Again, no annoying and loud cooling vents, just the adapter and USB ports.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (back view)

I love the simple, unassuming, but very efficient design. Instead of a cooling fan, the drive cools via a grille built into its bottom.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (bottom view)

The only other drive that compares to it in terms of how little noise it makes is the LaCie 250 GB external hard drive, which I also own. But I don’t think this drive can be found on the market any more, and besides, why go for 250 GB when you can get 500 GB for $120?

250 GB LaCie external hard drive

If you want a great little drive to store your files, jump for the LaCie 500 GB USB drive before it’s gone. It’s hard to get 500 GB drives by themselves at this price point nowadays, much less already packaged up in a neat little enclosure and with cables. I’m not sorry at all I bought two of them, and I might get one more in the very near future — if there’ll be any left on the market after the Christmas season, that is.

USPS, how slow can you go?

I’ve written about the USPS before, and how slow and unreliable it can be. I want to give you an idea of how terrible their service can be with hard, indisputable evidence (see screen shots enclosed below).

A package was mailed to us from a vendor on 11/14/2007. It came from Capitol Heights, Maryland, and shipped to my city, which is North Bethesda, Maryland. [For those unaware of this, North Bethesda is not officially a city (yet); it's a borough between Bethesda and Rockville. The Post Office treats it as Rockville but anything addressed to North Bethesda will get there just fine.] It arrived on 11/27/2007, approximately 13 days after it left Capitol Heights.

Here’s the kicker: not only are Capitol Heights and North Bethesda in the SAME state, but they’re only 25 miles apart. According to Google Maps, and taking the long way around DC by going on the Beltway (I-495), it’s approximately 25 miles from Capitol Heights to my place.

How in the world could it have taken them 13 days to deliver it? I don’t know how, but there it is. If you want to talk about incompetent service, I think this would be a good example. If they’d have walked the package to my place, it would have been faster. But no, they have fleets of cars, and automated systems, and all sorts of things to speed things up, and somehow they not only manage to miss deadlines for Priority Mail and lose packages on top of that, but they bungle up a 25-mile delivery so badly that it takes them 13 days to get the package to me.

Here’s the proof. The package was supposedly processed on 11/20/07 at their Capitol Heights facility.

 

It arrived at my place on 11/27/07.

 

USPS Track & Confirm (screen 2)

But they received the electronic shipping notice sometime on the 14th, according to the Additional Details page. That means they received the package itself either on that same date, or shortly afterwards. Whether the vendor took their time to get the package to the post office, or whether it sat at the post office between 11/14/07 and 11/20/07 is irrelevant to me. Even if I give the USPS the benefit of the doubt and say they started working on the package on 11/20/07, that’s still 7 days to transport it 25 miles. It’s still unacceptable.

 

USPS Track & Confirm (screen 3)

Any way you look at it, the USPS is a mess. If it takes them this long to process and transport what’s essentially a local package, I suppose I should be happy it “only” takes them 7 days to get a letter from me to my parents down in Florida. That could be called an improvement on their local delivery service.

To top it all off, they want to keep increasing the price of first-class postage and other services. I’d like to know what we’re getting in return, other than copious amounts of junk mail.

Snow!

We had our first snowfall of the season yesterday, here in the DC area. We couldn’t miss the opportunity and went out to take photos.

Autumn’s few last vestiges hung precariously by their frozen stems.

The few last vestiges

Snow fell quietly upon the brook behind our building.

Bend in the river

It weighed down these oak leaves as well.

Weighty matters

The brook kept flowing, regardless. It might soon be covered in ice, but it’ll still find a way to flow underneath it all. Water always finds a way.

Flow

Snowflakes trickled down through the bare branches to the forest floor, covering its carpet of fallen leaves with a fresh coat of white powder.

Snowing in the forest

Bunches of red berries were slowly building little snow hats.

Berry cold

I love the contrast between the vibrant red of the berries and the pure white color of the snow.

Abundance

My sweet Ligia, with snow in her curly hair.

My sweet

Hardware review: Dell Optiplex 745 desktop

I ordered the Dell OptiPlex 745 computer for use at work, where we’re in a full Windows environment. As much as I don’t like it, I’m stuck doing my development work on PCs for now. My reaction after using it for about 6 months is mixed.

On the one hand, the form factor is nice. On the other hand, the performance is sluggish, and some of the design aspects of the hardware leave a lot to be desired. I suppose I should take it all in stride, since one can’t expect something outstanding or superior from Dell — only something adequate.

Front view of Dell OptiPlex 745

I got an Energy Star-rated 745 in the Desktop form factor, which can be stood upright or laid on its side, like I have it here in the photo. I ordered it with a 24″ wide screen LCD, which I like except for its cumbersome controls. The keyboard and mouse are standard Dell hardware. Actually, the mouse is supposed to be a “premium” 5-button mouse, but it’s pretty inferior in real-world use.

Here’s what I like about the computer:

  • Lots of USB ports in the back
  • Multi-card reader built into front panel
  • USB ports on front panel
  • Small form factor
  • Easy to service
  • Pretty good deal, hardware-wise
  • The screen was a really good deal when bundled with the computer. (By itself, it’s still pretty expensive.)

Now here’s what I don’t like:

  • Cheap hard drive with tiny buffer size (8 MB)
  • Sluggish performance: it should do a LOT better given the specs, which I’ll outline below.
  • Bad design for monitor speaker panel
  • Cumbersome controls on monitor
  • Loud noise from hard drive
  • Cheap, plasticky, loud mouse that doesn’t feel right in my hand

The computer came with an Intel Dual Core 2.66GHz processor, 250 GB SATA 8 MB Buffer hard drive, 4 GB RAM, 256 MB ATI PCI Express video card, and a few other goodies, including a Firewire card. I installed Vista Ultimate 32-bit edition on it. You’d think with these specs, it’d zip right through the applications and start up really fast. Well, it doesn’t. I’m not sure whether it’s Vista’s or Dell’s fault — or maybe they’re both to blame — but it takes about 10 minutes for a full restart cycle. That’s ten agonizing minutes while I watch it slowly grind through its tasks. Blech.

As if that’s not enough, when I start applications, the performance is once again nothing special. I even use a 1 GB USB flash drive as a ReadyBoost drive, and while it does somewhat minimize the hard drive seek operations, the performance is still nothing special. That’s pretty sad when you think of it. New hardware, new operating system, loaded with goodies, using the equivalent of a nitrous oxide addition to the carburetor in the form of a ReadyBoost drive, and still, it only jogs along at a comfortable pace. Speaking from personal experience, that’s the sad story of Windows and PC hardware in general…

What’s more, and I have a feeling Microsoft is to blame for this, even though I installed 4 GB of RAM in the machine, and the computer sees all 4 GB when it boots up, Windows has chosen to see only 3069 MB out of the 4096 MB. Why, I don’t know. Did it reserve 1 GB for itself without telling me? It would be nice if it said that somewhere, but it doesn’t. Is it because 4 GB is the upper limit on x86 computing platforms? Possibly, but then shouldn’t it still see the whole 4 GB? I don’t know. If one of you can clarify this, I’d really appreciate it.

The OptiPlex 745 wouldn’t be a Dell if it didn’t have a few points of contention, a few things that make you smack your head out of frustration and ask WHY. Here they are:

  • The hard drive has an 8 MB buffer. I tried ordering a drive with a 16 MB buffer, but Dell didn’t offer one at the time of purchase. That’s got to be a pretty stupid thing. Now, just a few months after I bought this, there are drives out there with 32 MB buffers. I have two of them at home, and they’re great. But Dell shot this computer in the foot because they stuck it with a tiny buffer. I sit there all day long and hear the hard drive churning and seeking because there isn’t enough space in the buffer to store transient data. It’s pathetic but hey, it’s a Dell.
  • They stuck a stinking blue LED light right on the LCD’s speaker panel. You can see it below. What were they thinking?! I could understand sticking blue LEDs on external hard drives that aren’t directly in the line of sight, or on the back panel, or side panels, or anywhere else but directly in front of my eyes! It’s not as if the word hasn’t gotten out that the human eye can’t focus blue LED light properly, and people get headaches because of them. Did Dell bother to think about the design? Apparently not. What I had to do was to stick a web cam right in front of the blue LED, in order to hide it. I suppose I could also take some electrical tape and mask it. Either way, this was a stupid design decision.
  • The mouse has to be one of the worst mice I’ve ever used. It’s right up there with old trackball mice at the local public libraries, the ones with gunk built up on the tracking controls… You know the ones I’m talking about… the ones that use to drive us crazy while we looked up citations for our college papers. While this mouse tracks fine, it feels terrible in my hand. As if that’s not enough, it’s so cheap and plasticky, and it clicks so loudly every time I use it, that people down the hall can hear me clicking. It’s horribly annoying. I’m trying to think of creative ways to do away with it. But hey, it’s a Dell mouse…
  • Last but not least, even though the OptiPlex 745 can be stood upright, it has no rubber there. Not even some non-skid backing. So if you stand it upright on a desk with a smooth, hard surface (that’s most desks, in case Dell is reading this) and smack it only slightly, it’ll fly right off the desk. Oh, that wonderful Dell design…

Top view of the Dell OptiPlex

Would I recommend this desktop to someone else? Well, it depends. Do you want a Dell? If you do, and you know what to expect, I suppose it’ll do the job. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and stay away from it, unless you can get it with a better hard drive.

I would recommend the 24-inch display though. In spite of the crappy blue LED on the sound panel, I like the display’s vibrant colors, and I love its size. I also like the fact that it has a built-in USB hub, a built-in multi-card reader on the side, and many inputs (DVI, VGA, component, S-video) on the back. If you can get it at a good price, get it.

And for goodness’ sake, if you do end up getting one, DO NOT get the Dell mouse, or you’ll soon regret your days…

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Thomas TimberWolf

Thomas TimberWolf

Back in 2001, you could see some wonderful and innovative cartoons on the Internet. I’m talking about Thomas TimberWolf, an (unfortunately) short series made sometime in 2000-2001 by Chuck Jones and company. This series is possibly the last animation work of Chuck Jones, who died in 2002. This was about the same time that you could see some truly crappy cartoons on TV — not that things have improved much nowadays. But let’s get back to the good stuff…

One of the wonderful things about Thomas TimberWolf is that the series was done in Flash. While some of the smooth movement and art of hand-drawn cartoons was lost, what we gained was a small file size (about 2.8 MB for 5-6 minutes of fun) and vector art. Vector art?! Oh yeah. It means you can scale any of these cartoons up to whatever size you want, and the lines will still be smooth and crisp. No pixelation, no blurriness, only clear lines and colors. Wonderful!

Let’s also not forget that the cartoons themselves are great. I mean, c’mon, we’ve got an intellectual timber wolf with a tragi-comic flaw: every time he says the word “Timber!”, trees fall on him. He spends his days trying to avoid falling trees and not entirely succeeding. How can you not be entertained by that? :-D What’s even better is that Chuck Jones’ signature style was retained during the computer animation process. We’ve got the same minimalistic gags, the familiar, endearing character art, and that wonderful, non-specific warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you watch quality stuff. I can’t describe it, but any cartoon aficionado will probably know what I’m talking about.

Thomas TimberWolf was released on the Internet in 2001, and it seems that a short while after the series ended, the Flash files became easily accessible on various sites, without copyright restrictions. I’m not sure entirely sure about that, so don’t quote me on it, but that seems to be the case. At any rate, I believe I downloaded the episodes from this same site several years ago. They’re still up and available there, so that’s a good thing.

Although only 13 episodes got released to the public, there are about 6 more episodes available, and that’s straight from the horse’s mouth. Stephen Fossati, who created, directed, wrote and co-produced the series, said it sometime in 2005. Stephen Fossati is Chuck Jones’ only living protege and worked closely with him for about 10 years. Their collaboration culminated with the Thomas TimberWolf series. I would love to see the other episodes, and I wonder where they are. If anybody has information about them, please let me know.

If for some reason the site where the episodes are posted goes down, I have them and can post them here. I’m not sure about the legality of it. If someone can give me the all clear on it, I’ll gladly put them up.

So, while they’re still available, go download all of the episodes, and keep them safely on your hard drives. They should be preserved for posterity.

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