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What are the Windows A: and B: drives used for? (superuser.com)
118 points by kamaal on Oct 19, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments

It's funny to talk about the 20 year old hackers who didn't ever have the experience of installing Word Perfect 5.x from 30-40 floppies, but let me tell you that those kids are going to feel just as old pretty soon. My daughter, who is about to turn one, is puzzled by why my Macbook Air doesn't do anything when she touches the screen. She doesn't recognize my dad's old Treo, which he gave her as a toy, as a phone, but will put a thin slab block up to her ear. We don't have cable at home, so she watches all her shows on Netflix and iTunes.

Novell Netware 2.15 came on 49 360k floppies. I remember generating individualized network clients based on the chipset of your network interface card with SHGEN-1 and SHGEN-2. To this day I have no idea why the last disk it asked for was SHGEN-2 and then it said, "Your shell is now on SHGEN-1."

Wow. What would happen if one of those floppies were damaged or unreadable? Would the whole process be a waste of time?

Back in My Day when people had POTS modems [0], I once downloaded the ~20 disks of the b'a'se and 'n'etwork slackware disk series in windows 95 and rebooted to install, hoping that none of the disks were bad.

It turned out that all of those disks were fine, so I continued downloading the other disks in the series by minicom'ing to my ISP's shell account, ftping them to the remote disk, and zmodem'ing them to my local disk. I played nethack on another virtual terminal while this was working.

Well, I switched back about 5 minutes later to check on the progress and it was just crawling, like 4KB every few seconds. I moved the mouse to hit the 'cancel' button on the zmodem transfer window, and the transfer rate shot up just then. I thought "well, okay..." and went back to nethack.

A few minutes later same thing happened. Move mouse, transfer speed goes up. I didn't understand IRQs at the time but I grasped apparent causality. I decided I'd try moving the modem to a different IRQ but that required a reboot. I wanted to finish the current disk set, so I sat there with a book in one hand, twirling the mouse in little circles with the other.

That's my hand-crank modem story.

To this day, whenever the network is slow, I twirl the mouse in little circles subconsciously.

[0] like these ( http://az413224.vo.msecnd.net/img/40934/m_40934_1.jpg ) not these ( http://images.yourdictionary.com/images/computer/_ACUPLER.GI... ).

I logged in to upvote this story because I encountered the same problem on a military communications system once (!) There was an interaction between the system beep() function and message processing throughput. If a large number of alerts ever queued up, communications slowed to a crawl as the CPU spent all its time going "beeeeeeep...beeeeeeep...beeeeeeep..." for a few minutes. Moving the mouse caused a rapid-fire "bebebebebebebebebebebeeep" as the buffers flushed and throughput returned to normal.

Even worse was illegal software. There were 720KB (Double Density) and 1440KB (High Density) 3.5" diskettes (amongst other sizes). The disk drive would detect the difference by an extra hole in the disk.

People would buy cheaper double density disks, drill a hole in it, so that the same diskette could be used as a 1440KB disk. Of course, they were of a far lower quality, and 'arj' (which was popular at the time) would often fail after the n-th disk.

Edit: heh, there is even a reference to drilling holes on the Apple website ;): http://support.apple.com/kb/TA39910

I used an Xacto knife to create an extra notch in Commodore 64 5.25" disks back in the day so that I could take the single-sided disks and make them double-sided.

I would take one disk flipped over the other, mark the notch with a permanent marker, then cut out the outline. Most disks, like Elephant Memory, would work fine. You just flipped the disk over and inserted back into the 1541 to read the reverse side.

I had a special square cutter tool specifically designed for this purpose. Just slot the disk in the tool, punch, done.

It helped when you were putting out hundreds of disks of pirated games on a regular basis.

I had a little switch to bypass the optical notch-detector on my 1541 drive.

I still think the single-sided disks were from the same production line as the double sided ones, and it was all market segmentation.

I did the same. And disks were a bit expensive to a kid like me, so I'd even do the cut on various game disks I had, since many of them were single side only, and it was like getting a free disk.

standard paper hole punch worked too, given enough hand strength :)

"... flipped the disk over..."

They called them flippy disks...

Haha, yeah, there was this thing that was advertised as a "disk doubler", and all it did was drill a hole through your 3.5 single density disk. In retrospect it was quite the ingenious scam.

I'm guessing that 3.5 disks were binned, so maybe you could get away with it once in awhile? Of course, the only way you could find out was to actually lose data...

Later on in the 90s, AOL started sending 3.5" disks in the mail, totally free. How convenient was that?

Yes. It was usually the last disk.

Yea, pretty much. That's why you had backups of any important software (copying floppies was a really fun process). Once the disk died, you were screwed if you didn't have a backup copy of it.

That's why you had a backup set of those disks.

Many of the MS disks used weird methods and formats, making copying the discs not easy.


Sad that a 1 year old has "all her shows" to watch.

[Non-valuable contribution, removed]

Edit: I apologize for the rudeness of my comment. However, it is my understanding that the evidence available today points to things like TV being damaging to the development of the very young (1-3 years old)

My wife and I practice evidence based parenting. We do whatever is most convenient for us unless we can find substantial evidence indicating we should do something else. That's a challenge when it comes to parenting, because parenting is driven by hysterics, group think, and paranoia more than anything else.

When it comes to television, studies have shown some negative correlation. But they disappear when you adjust for socioeconomic status and parental education: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/03/03/babies.watch.TV.

What the data really indicates is that poor people and single parents let their kids watch more TV, and since IQ is highly heritable, TV watching ends up being linked to lower cognitive performance. But it doesn't seem to be a causal relationship, or at least the data doesn't clearly support that conclusion.

Obviously its important to engage with kids, and parking them in front of an iPad could get in the way of that. But at the end of the day, there are no prizes for making parenting harder than it already is.

As with all parenting topics this one is a bit more complicated.

There's not much science. That science is poorly reported by mass media. It's misunderstood by many readers. And most people have fierce cognitive biases anyway.


Basically, "talk to your children. watching tv stops you talking to your children". I guess that's reasonable, except you can't talk constantly at children. Not everything is a learning opportunity. The parents and the children need some down time. The science doesn't say anything about exhausted stressed parents deprived of human contact and the impact that has on children, or the possible benefits of TV to that parent.

Do you even have kids?

That is sadly how parents raise their kids these days...

I remember installing Borland C++ with stacks of floppies, it felt like 50 but probably more like 30 or so. It took half a day.

But when you got it installed, finally, you felt like you earned it.

Oh man, yea...I never installed anything with THAT many disks...I think the biggest one was 7 or 8 floppies...which took several hours.

I kinda miss those days. Sometimes.

My uncle told me that two of its nephews play "phone" together by putting their whole hand flat against their ear instead of the usual thumb/pinky finger gesture...

Not everybody missed out -- I may not have done 40 floppies of WordPerfect, but I did install my first Debian (3.0 Woody) from a boot floppy, a root floppy, 4 driver floppies, and 20 base system floppies. http://www.debian.org/releases/woody/i386/ch-appendix.en.htm... http://archive.debian.org/debian/dists/woody/main/disks-i386... http://archive.debian.org/debian/dists/woody/main/disks-i386...

Oh man. Same experience, different distro. Slackware was a bunch of disks too (but I don't remember exactly how many)

It came on different disk sets; you really only needed the 'a' (base) set, but the 'n'etworking set was useful if you wanted the thing to connect to anything else.

IIRC there were also

    d:   development (gcc, make, etc)
    e:   emacs (I think; I used vim at the time)
    x:   X11 base system
    xap: X applications
    y:   bsd games
probably several more

I'm only in my mid 20s and I already feel totally left behind by the rise of mobile computing. Every experience I've had of the web on a mobile device has been incredibly frustrating. The idea of a phone or tablet as one's primary computing device makes me feel about 90 years old.

Dude, my copy of SCO Unix was only maybe 15 floppies....


brap brap brap eeee errrr eeeeeee errr brap brap aehhe aaaaeheh

insert disc 2/15


The really annoying thing about SCO Unix is that it didn't use BIOS so trying to install it on a system with an unsupported floppy disk drive controller would invariably have it unable to find the floppy disk after booting the first one, and if the video card was not supported, the screen would just go black after booting off the first disk.

Oh those were the days.

OS2 came on 32 (thirty-two) 5.25" disks. I remember loading that beast.

I remember OS/2 Warp on 3.5" disks being even worse. They had al kind of supplemental disks and IIRC something that resembled Microsoft Works (BonusPak, maybe it was a demo).

To get an impression, I found this on eBay:


Windows 1.0 was a little bit less : http://twitpic.com/39kbjz but you need to install first DOS: http://twitpic.com/39kaxd

Humorous image of thousands of floppies if you were to install windows 8.1 with that media: http://i.imgur.com/g0Zgf6q.jpg

lol I'm a 36 year old hacker who forgets quickly myself. After 4 iPhones, I used a Galaxy S3 for a few weeks. When I got the iPhone 5S, for several days I kept pushing the right lower side expecting a back action.

On my iPad mini, I keep trying to unlock it with my fingerprint.

I'm still on my first smartphone and it's an HTC Android phone. Using iphones and ipads that weren't mine, it took me a while to figure out that you can double-click the single button to get it to do something different. Trying to interact with it with only one pressable button kind of feels like having flippers instead of hands. I haven't quite grokked the one-button doctrine.

Awww, that is an adorable question :)

I think in DefCon 18, Gordon "Fyodor" Lyon was talking about using Lua in Nmap. He said that the description mentioned that all of it and the doc could fit in a floppy disk.. And then he said "For the younger audience, a floppy disk is.." at which point the audience exploded in laughter.

I'm 26 now, but my oldest brother is 18 years older than me and almost all of us in the family are engineers so I had different technologies around the house. (Not old enough to see "drum memory", though).

Also, even if you only had one physical floppy drive, it would still respond to A: and B:, albeit as split personalities. What I mean is that you could stick your programs disk in there and type A:EDITOR.EXE to run some editing program, and then go to save your document and type B:MYDOC.TXT as the filename, and DOS would know that you wanted to write this file to a different floppy, so it would day, "Insert disk for drive B and press enter", prompting you to swap the floppies. Then, when the editor program needed to access some of its files again, it would try to access, say, A:LIBRARY.OVL, and DOS would know that meant it was time to prompt the user to swap disks again.

At that time (okay, a little later, but there was some overlap), I was using RISC OS. Its disk format allowed for each disk to have a name, which would be used in fully qualified filenames (e.g. ADFS::MyData.$.Docs.Resume). The OS could then ask for the disk by name (MyData).

When I got my first IBM PC in early 1982, IBM only offered single sided single density floppy drives with 160KB each.

But double sided drives were already available on the market. The only problem was that the PC BIOS and DOS didn't support the second side.

So I bought a PC with no floppy drives and picked up a couple of double sided drives at a local distributor for $300 each.

As I'd hoped, they worked fine as single sided drives too, so I was able to boot DOS. Then I got to work on supporting the other side.

It seemed a bit complicated to try to merge the two sides into a single FAT filesystem, so I wrote a TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident program) that mapped the other two sides onto additional drive letters.

That turned out to be surprisingly easy. So the four sides on my two floppy drives were A:, B:, C:, and D: drives.

Later I got an awesome Tallgrass 10MB hard drive for only $5000, and that became my E: drive.

Now I knew my storage problems were over: I would never run out of space with that thing!

A friend of my Father's was a mainframe guru, back in the day, and he told us about "cylinder" hard drives that would take several hours to power down because the torsional stress on them would get too high if slowed down too quickly. Also tape drives that were spinning so quickly they could be dangerous.

Sounds almost like heavy engineering!

I remember the time someone thought they'd save money by buying cheap paper for the high speed IBM 6400 line printer. The print head moved so fast it just shredded the paper into a fine dust that caked in every internal part. It sucked cleaning that out.

Some of the most brilliant people I've worked with are satisfied by the work, without needing lots of self-promotion.

"The Story of Mel" is both inspiring and humbling. A "real programmer"


We're not very far away from "what is the blue 'Save' icon meant to be?" are we?

Kind of amazing really. Girlfriend's nephews are 6 and 9, pretty tech savvy (there's a lot in the house), but they had no idea what the slots in the front of their grandfather's computer were (and why should they?!).

The way things are going we will probably not have any Save buttons at all soon.

Maybe for certain applications we're used to saving in, but unless there are revolutionary changes in computing I'm betting that you'll be able to save in notepad for a long time coming.

It's used as Commit, and that will continue to be useful

Google Docs doesn't have any.

I now officially christen this the "old guy thread of the day".

Back in my day, kid, we didn't have no stinking floppies for our PCs. All we had was cassette recorders, and we were happy to have 'em!

Reading this question took me down memory lane to doing a lot of PR#6. Couldn't remember if that command was for floppies or cassettes. Had to look it up. It was how we did I/O on the Apple II. As I remember, you changed the number (PR#3, PR#4, etc) based on the physical slot the peripheral was plugged into. This was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and real men wore skirts.

If I remember correctly, "PR#6" was basically just a command that executed the code at $c600. Each peripheral card had a 256-byte address space which was mapped into $cx00 where x was the slot number. Slot 6 was the standard slot for the disk controller -- it may even have been wired in, in later machines. So "PR#6" basically executed the firmware boot loader for the floppy drive.

What I found weird was that I remembered the command, but not the technology it came from or exactly how I used it. So I'm Googling around trying to figure out when and why it was important. For some reason I remembered it as "Print #6".

Old age and forgetfulness is going to be really strange for a whole generation of computer nerds. So many different technologies, commands, and paradigms all jumbled up.

See, my first computer was a Tandy 1000 and it just ran off of floppies and RAM. No hard drive. My mind was blown when we upgraded to a Windows 3.1 system that not only had a hard drive, but also a 3.5" floppy drive. WHOA, SMALLER DISKS.

OMG, i'm getting too old.

I came here to say that. In fact, bugger it, I don't care about originality! I'm going to say it too!

Oh gods, I'm so old.

I am only 27! Why is this happening?!

Just wait - in another two or three years, you will suddenly not be able to be trusted with meaningful architectural decisions, you will be looked down upon as too slow, and your years of knowledge will be ignored because clearly you don't have anything to offer.

Yikes, me too! Although the first realization was when I heard Aerosmith on the oldies radio station.

You know when I saw punchcards first, they were already a somewhat bygone relic of ages past. But I used floppy disks for a long time. That someone would ask this question today, never having seen a computer with a floppy disk... Yeah I feel old....

You want to know old? I'll tell you old. I just downloaded a copy (never mind where from) of Borland Pascal 7.0, the last version of Turbo Pascal for MSDOS. I have my own legal copy, with 5¼" disks, but no disk drives. But I also have a program I wrote in the mid-1980s that still has some users, and I've wondered for a long time what would happen if I needed to make changes to it. Now, thanks to DOSbox, I can run that entire programming environment on my Linux box and... probably do nothing with it, but at least it's there...

I have downloaded C64 software I have legally to run on Frodo.....

I know how you feel. My ten year old daughter did not realize you could network computers together with a cable. To her, everything is networked wirelessly.

When I was clearing out a cupboard the other day, my Son found an old cassette tape, he then proceeded to ask me what it was! I'm pretty sure in 20 more years we may see the same for CD ROMS or DVDs.

This particular post makes me feel so old though and I'm only 30 in a couple of weeks.

I remember buying Doom years ago and when I got the box it jangled round from all the discs inside of it.

I also remember when the first 24x speed CD drives came out, this is when hard drives were too expensive to load a full game on to so CD speed was important so your game didn't buffer as much.

Kids these days with their solid state iPads and 3D games consoles.


I think this was literally the first piece of "computer knowledge" I ever learned.

That means you missed all the fun with k7 tapes?

which for those that don't speak French translates to "cassette" tapes (ka - sept)...

That's exactly how I felt when reading the question :\

Don't copy that floppy, grandpa.

glad it's not just me

Man, this question makes me feel old as hell--I'm 40, btw. It reminds me of the time when my friend's daughter asked what the car window handle was for. I was like, it rolls the windows up and down. She thought it was a new thing. Wow.

That's pretty fun. I'm glad the highest voted reply on superuser wasn't snarky about the answer. This sort of reminds me of the "Who the hell is Paul McCartney?" thing on Twitter recently... which is an order of magnitude more irritating than a kid who never saw a floppy drive.

The drive letter B: is also used by BartPE [1] as the default for its RAM disk. In fact, I think every time but one I encountered a Windows-era PC that had a B: drive it was a RAM disk, not a floppy drive.

[1] A bootable live Windows XP/Server 2003 environment. See http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/.

A: and B: were more relevant when PCs didn't have hard drives. Back then usually the OS would be on A and your current game/app would be on B.

I still remember the first game that was soooo big it required both A and B, meaning you to take the OS boot disk out (which you of course always forgot to put back in after you were done.)

Good thing I had a dad who soldered Philips' Apple ][ clone together when I was 2 so that I don't feel that old for knowing this ;)

Bart's work is fantastic. I just submitted his MODBOOT page, which taught me far too much about bootdisks and .BAT programming.

Also its bootdrv.com is one of the smallest useful programs I've ever seen, clocking in at seven bytes.

In 2008 I got to play with an old oscilloscope/i486 hybrid beast with dual 5.25 inch floppy drives still in use at my physics lab. You could save the measurements to B while running the code off A. AFAIK it is still in use.

For the rugrats among us: http://imgur.com/bOdxEUW

My first mass storage was a PhiDeck, a tape cassette drive that stored data digitally and that had motors to load and unload the heads and seek. It had a file system, of sorts, that fit in about 6K of RAM. Effective data rate was about 9600 bits/second, and it usually took 20-30 seconds to launch a program.

Primitive and slow as it was, it was still a vast improvement over audio cassettes.

Later, I wrote a software UART and interfaced my Z-80 system to a single Atari 810 disk drive. 96K of storage and tons faster. I got a lot of work done on that system.

One of my favorites memories is my dad trying to copy a BBC Model B compact audio cassette without a cable ... speaker to microphone! He started it and crept out the room quietly closing the door behind him. It did not work.

I recall recording software onto audio tape from radio broadcasts, I think it was a regular BBC radio show. (If anyone remembers I'd love a reminder of the details.)

When I bought a new computer in 2002, I specifically got one which still had a floppy drive, because I wanted to be sure I could play all my DOS games via boot disk [1].

DOSBox [2] was still in its infancy then, and the DOS emulation in Windows was...less than one hundred percent compatible with all the hardware tricks various DOS games used to squeeze the last ounce of performance out of the hardware. (In the DOS days, it was common practice for application programs, especially games, to directly deal with I/O ports, interrupts, DMA, etc.)

[1] A DOS boot disk is similar to a bootable Linux CD / DVD -- removable media containing an OS. In this case, you mainly use it to customize the loaded drivers on a per-game basis. Regardless of how much physical memory you have, in DOS only 640K is conveniently addressable [3], so it's very important to selectively load only the drivers a specific game needs.

[2] http://www.classicdosgames.com/interviews/peterveenstra.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conventional_memory

Floppy DUO Imperial March:


Thank you for kicking off the youtubes. I really, really needed to post this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=up863eQKGUI (don't copy that floppy)

Especially appropriate for this article given that the top comment is "It's A:\Trap".

I found this really sad. I don't consider myself old, but I suppose I'm going to have to start at some point. Maybe this is it.

I remember laughing at my instructor when he mentioned carrying a box of punch cards. Boy do I feel like the old timer now.

I spent a good bit of the summer of '89 writing C code to drive a tape punch for programming CNC machines.

I remember zipping the game on cca. 30 floppies at friend's place, then going home and trying to unzip. Of course 27th or so would be corrupted. Sometimes it took me 3-4 round trips to friend's place and back, to get the game transferred :)

BTW, does anyone remember having to enter no. of cylinders in BIOS to make the HDD work :)

It's funny to think that only exposure folks have to floppy disks now is the look of "save" icons.

I had to go digging for a 3.5" drive a couple months back because I found some floppies that had some college papers on them. I have a zip disk with some artwork, too. At one point I had a SCSI zip drive and an Adaptec controller for it, but I have no idea where they're at now.

Adaptec 2940 FTW!

Senility poll: Did you know the answer to this question?

You do realize that other people can't see your poll result right?




Nope. 7 yes so far!

I am just 22 years old and I knew the answer. The first computer I used back in 98 came with floppy disks

Partially. I am old enough to remember computers with one floppy drive (for old software, explaining the A:-position), but too young to have experienced the times when you needed two.

You never NEEDED two. All two did was make it easier to copy disks, and sometimes make it so you changed disks less often.

I'm from the time when A: meant 3.25" and B: meant 5.25", but you certainly didn't need a B:.

Yes. I am old enough to have seen DIY 8bit computer kits on hardware stores.

My first computer was a Timex 2068, using a tape recorder with counter!

The dream of every kid was to have a double deck tape recorder.


Could also be that some people only used Macs or Linux or Unix or iPads.

I hope that's a joke. In case it isn't: IBM PC predates all of those except UNIX (and you wouldn't think much of the pre-1980 UNIXen); CP/M, which originated the standard, comes from 1973.

Sure, but the Mac came out in 1984. And don't forget the Apple II and C64.

Yes, because it's asked and posted here very often.

I did, made me feel old, and Im 25


Only knew about A:

My first computer was an Atari 800. It had a cassette deck and a 5 1/4" disk drive. I spent a lot of my youth typing in BASIC games that were printed in magazines and books, then modifying them to learn how it worked. My first programming language...

When my parents brought home an IBM-compatible PC with an enormous 50 MB hard drive I could hardly believe my luck.

Anyway, I don't need this to feel old; my wife already does that. She was in middle school when I was in college, and asks things like, "What's Galaga?" But I suspect she does it on purpose about half the time now...

My first PC didn't have a C: drive.

It had two 5.25" diskettes to load the systems.

Yup, me too. Put the DOS disk in start up the computer, then switch disks as you needed to to run programs. That was so fun!

My dad worked for DEC in the 70's and 80's. When I was young he took us in and showed us a cabinet that had a bunch of spinning platters in it. They looked like 12" record albums, but they were light brown and made of metal. At least that's how I remember it, and I imagine they were the precursors to today's spinning hard disks.

My dad let my brother and I take a couple retired disks home. We tried to play frisbee once or twice with them, and then wisely decided that was probably a bad idea.

My first computer came with no drives, the tape drive was an optional accessory. Loading programs from tape instead of typing them into the basic was loads better. When I got my first PC I had a 3.5" (on B) and a 5.25" (on A) and a bunch of my friends kept coming over to have me copy their 5.25" disks to 3.5" disks and I was the cool kid on the block for a few months.

And I've just noticed that the "save file" icon in word processors isn't a floppy disk as it used to be.

> And I've just noticed that the "save file" icon in word processors isn't a floppy disk as it used to be.

Maybe the one you're using. But the "Save" icon in the most popular word processor is a 3.5" floppy disk: http://i.imgur.com/WLFtT7A.png

This is the latest version -- Word 2013.

ahaha thanks :) I checked on LibreOffice and naively assumed that anything else would have a more modern icon set.

I've used floppy disks and tape recorders, but I'm a bit embarrassed that I never used punch cards.

Seeing this made me smile. I haven't seen an A drive for ages now. I dont know about the times before 1998 where most people have a nostalgic memory of these, but they used to self corrupt like crazy all you had to fear was the "Do you want to format Drive A?"

Once upon a midnight dreary, fingers cramped and vision bleary,

System manuals piled high and wasted paper on the floor,

Longing for the warmth of bedsheets,

Still I sat there, doing spreadsheets:

Having reached the bottom line,

I took a floppy from the drawer.

Typing with a steady hand, I then invoked the SAVE command

But got instead a reprimand: it read "Abort, Retry, Ignore."


I had a Toshiba laptop once that came without any software floppies; instead at first boot you had to generate the installation floppies for windows 95 and MS Office. If I recall correctly it asked for something like 80 floppies. Nightmare.

God I feel old. I'm getting flashbacks of a quarter mile sneakernet between my friend & my house where we transferred MP3s on a floppy disk with multi-disk zips.

Luckily in Windows you can reassign drive letters in the Computer Management tool. I've reassigned my two optical drives to A: and B:.


TIL I am old.

It just like talking about programming on punch card to Generation Y

OH man. Knowing the answer to this makes me feel so old.

So, sooooo old.

Are we that old? :(

This comes out periodically.

Oh man I am getting old :)

Now I really feel old.

FML I'm old

I feel old.

If I could, I'd start everyone off "learning" about computers by using an Apple ][+. It is an open enough environment to learn just about everything, and a restricted enough environment to encourage efficiency and elegant design. After that, kick 'em upstairs to something modern with a Lisp compiler and you've got 'em for life.

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