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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/23/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 26, Whole Number 1314
Table of Contents
The Holiday Greeting Crisis (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am fascinated by the whole holiday greeting issue this year. This is the time of year when people are less selfish. They want the world to run well and for people to be happy. And they tend to express the wish other people will enjoy their life. Perhaps it becomes a matter of habit and a little too automatic, but the reason behind it is there. You would think that the people who receive these wishes would be pleased to get them. This year we seem to have a number of people who in the name of Christianity are not happy with the situation. They are saying, "Listen, you jerk, you are SUPPOSED to hope that I have a good time this holiday season. Or at the very least you should lie to me and tell me you want the best for me. AND, you little creep, you are SUPPOSED to assume that I am Christian and celebrate the Christian holiday. No general holiday greeting will do." Never mind that these people who are causing the ruckus are showing no good will to anyone; they expect that good will should be expressed to them--sincerely or not--and it must be custom-fit to their particular holiday, no matter what holiday anyone else celebrates. To these people, I myself hope you have a lousy holiday and a disastrous New Year. A year of painful cold sores to you all and arthritis would be a definite plus. And I am sincere. Well, mostly. To everyone else, we wish you Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. [-mrl]
Holiday Toy (pointer):
And for you Star Wars fans who are celebrating the appropriate holiday, you can find a pattern and directions for a "droidel" at http://www.starwars.com/kids/activity/crafts/f20051216/index.html. [-ecl]
Narnia on BBC7 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn talks about the Narnia series in her column for this week. Her column's a jim-dandy, crackerjack whiz-bang, so don't miss it. Also I review the current film version of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. Hopefully you will find that review is up to the usual modest standards I set for myself.
It also should be noted that BBC7's radio programming for Boxing Day, December 26, will be the following dramatized programs. All times are Greenwich Mean Time (UTC). That makes some of this programming inconvenient for live-listening on this side of the pond. *However*, for the Tuesday to Sunday afterward these programs can be downloaded at your convenience from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/listenagain/monday/.
The Magician's Nephew
The first of CS Lewis' Narnia books. A lion sings a new world into existence, but a dark treachery threatens its future.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
A forgotten wardrobe becomes the pathway to adventure and intrigue, as four children step into another time and place.
The Horse and His Boy
When a slave makes his escape with a talking horse, a mysterious lion shadows their every move. A prince wages war on Narnia.
A young prince learns the truth about his father's murder and four strangers from another world are thrown into war.
The Northern Irish Man in C. S. Lewis
A fascinating account of author C. S. Lewis's boyhood in Northern Ireland, and how it inspired the magical stories of Narnia.
Google Library Scans (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Two weeks ago I wrote about Google's breaking down of barriers in communication. I expressed the opinion that like most new technology there are people who benefit from it and people who will be hurt by it. But I considered that overall Google's information innovations were a good thing. In general I am more favorable toward Google than toward other technology companies. In specific I have more respect for Google than for certain other company that shall remain nameless, but is a leader in providing various software tools including operating systems and a browser for PCs.
A friend wanted to know my thoughts on Google's project scanning copyrighted material and asking unwilling publishers/writers to "opt out" rather than asking their permission before scanning anything.
Google is involved in litigation with publishers about the subject currently. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that Google is providing a service not only to their users, but also to the publishers. Let me explain.
This brouhaha is very much like the film exhibitors' reaction to home video in the 1970s. Some thought it would destroy their business. After all, if people could see films in their homes they would not have to go to the theater to see them. Well, home video came in, and the movie theaters did not go under. In fact, until recently they did very well by home video. Home video increased or at the very least sustained interest in cinema. If it was a threat it has been a long time in coming. It may be that early release of films to video is going to be the threat that the exhibitors feared thirty years ago. The home cinema experience is getting better and the theater experience is getting worse. This is a digression but I think movie theaters have to clean their floors and police unruly audiences to improve the movie going experience or home video will eat their business. But until recently home video and theater exhibitors have happily co-existed, counter to some people's expectation.
The same sort of thing seems to be gripping the publishing industry with Google's plan. Some authors love it and some hate it. Some people think it will be disaster and some think it will be terrific for publishing. We will have to wait a few years and see the net effect. Like the home video example it may be decades before we can tell. What is the upside for publishers and authors? All of a sudden people using Google tools are finding the books that have not currently in prominent places in bookstores. Books have a natural bookstore run, frequently a matter of months, and then are off the store shelves and gathering dust. A featured book in your bookstore right now may not be available in a year or may be available only by special order. With Google scanning libraries suddenly some older books are in demand again or possibly even for the first time. People are finding them through the new Google capability.
I, for one, may get a copy of a book that cites my mathematical work. It republishes a paper one of my professors wrote thirty- four years ago. He mentioned my help. But I never knew where the paper appeared until Google told me. Now I may purchase the book. This is an example of Google creating demand for otherwise obscure books.
Google, however, would give me only a three-page or so neighborhood of the mention of me that it found. I cannot get the entire book. The capability of users getting free short excepts from Google will affect different authors in different ways, depending on the nature of the book. For some books getting a three-page view may be all a user needs. Nobody needs more than one or two pages at a time from a dictionary or a cookbook. From a novel a three-page excerpt is just about useless.
What Google has provided is really an electronic implementation of an old capability, that of having a bookstore where you can browse books and find the one you want. Amazon has a similar capability for books that it stocks. Physical bookstores may have some problems because people will be able to find the books and then order them online without ever having a physical copy of the book in hand. They can bypass the bookstores altogether. Some people may find a book they want online and then go to the bookstore to buy it. It may help bookstores. It may hurt them. Those are pretty much the breaks of the bookselling business.
Publishers know that this might help them and might hurt them. They really do not know which for the moment. They are insecure and are looking for a nice safe piece of the action so they are sure that they will survive. But they have been allowing people to browse the books in bookstores for years, and it would have been foolish for them to resist that. Right now they are jockeying to make additional profit from the Google capability. This is insurance against the possibility that the Google capability will hurt them in the long run. Still, they would be really foolish to withhold permission from Google. It would mean they are giving away whatever free exposure they could be getting from he new capability. Google knows that and the publishers know that. I suspect that no matter how much complaining we hear no major publisher is ever going to opt-out of Google's scans. They will shake whatever money they can out of the tree (hoping, perhaps, for a cash settlement) and then quietly let the matter drop. It might even serve them right if Google decided not to scan their books. Then they would probably sue to be included like the others. They will need the exposure to sell their books.
Public libraries are actually more of a threat to the publishers than Google scanning books is. Libraries buy one copy of the book and then any number of people can access the entire book free of charge. Some publishers have wanted to put libraries on a pay- per-view approach. They are trying that in Britain. But nobody in this country wants to implement such an accounting-heavy process.
Technology companies like Google are really shaking things up, as I said in the previous article, and a lot of currently comfortable businesses will not be so comfortable. As one of the nameless masses I stand to benefit from what Google is doing. People like realtors and newspapers and perhaps book publishers are going to have to make out as well as they can after the shakeup. But then all of us will. [-mrl]
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Disney Studios brings the best known chapter of C. S. Lewis's "Narnia" books to the screen. Shooting in New Zealand is only one way in which this film mimics THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But somehow one never really cares much for the four children who generally just do the obvious. Aslan is a big lion, but also just a cipher and is much less interesting than even Kong. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Warning: this review has minor spoilers as well as insufficient awe for a beloved children's story.
After STAR WARS proved to be a lucrative hit at the box office Disney Studios decided to play in the same field with a me-too production, THE BLACK HOLE. It was of considerably lower quality. The logical series for Disney to make in response to THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the "Narnia" series of C. S. Lewis. Lewis supposedly wrote the series in response to THE HOBBIT by his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. I have to admit that after very much liking Peter Jackson's interpretation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS I was rather anticipating seeing what could be done with the Narnia books. I came away with memories of cold little scenes and big digital battles. Even knowing the story's mythic meaning, I felt that the story came off as rather trivial. We don't know much about the villain except that she is bad, bad, bad, and has made the land live always in winter, but never in Christmas. Everybody seems to know what Christmas is, but most people do not believe in the existence of humans. If they don't believe in humans, what exactly do they think that Christmas is?
But I am getting ahead of myself. This is the Lewis story of four siblings who were evacuated from London during the blitz. They are sent to the relative safety of a huge mansion in the countryside. Life there is excruciatingly dull except for the games the children play together. A game of Hide-and-Seek leads the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), to hide in an old wardrobe, only to discover that behind the old coats is a gate into Narnia, a world of mythical creatures and talking animals. Soon all four children are in this world and are the key to the battle between the evil White Witch and the noble ruler of the land, Aslan the noble lion. (Would people have objected if I called him "Aslan the talking Lion?" It is a little hard to think of him as so noble after he cons all of his friends while conning the White Witch.) The children are accompanied on their journey by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, two beavers who talk but never say their reaction to the enormous fur coats that the children wear.
For an American film the film feels very British. (Interesting trivia question: I can think of many American films set in Britain, but only two British films set largely in the United States. Those would be PHASE IV and much of GOLDFINGER. What others are there?) It took a moment for me to realize one of the characters was actually Father Christmas. Oddly, nobody notices that his joyful gifts for the boys are actually lethal weapons for the children to use, and painful weapons at that. The sword looks like a particularly nasty piece of work.
The problem is that Aslan may be noble, but he is a long way from being an interesting character. He is guided by philosophical principles that are never very clear. And though he manages to get human expressions on a lion face, he is too lofty be earn much viewer respect. The four children also remain undeveloped as characters. The viewer is expected to like them mostly because they are children, but we never see very far into their character and each follows the path of least resistance. (Admittedly that leads the boys into a battle, but it is still the path of least resistance.) What makes them important is not what they think or what they do or even believe but simply who they happen to be, the fulfillment of a convenient prophecy. The battle scenes, which are intricate but uninvolving, show imaginative CGI but are still not very interesting. The issue being fought over seems to be equally unengaging. You have the people who wanted it always winter and never Christmas against the people who wanted some warmer weather and occasional Christmases. Of course, since the film was shot in New Zealand, most of the crew probably felt you could even have both at the same time.
The film has some of the standard and expected problems of Disney films. With few exceptions the good people are all attractive and the bad people all unattractive. Disney films seem to have an on-again, off-again relationship with wolves. The wolves in this film are not the good wolves of NEVER CRY WOLF and THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN. They are the mean, evil wolves of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
The story is nicely visualized but just never grabbed me. I freely admit this is just not my preferred flavor of fantasy. The film has many problems, most probably attributable to the original story. I give this film a disappointing +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
THE BROTHERS GRIMM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: THE BROTHERS GRIMM is a funhouse of ideas and visual surprises but a story with no center and virtually no characters. It is more imaginative than the similar VAN HELSING is, but it has many of the same faults. Terry Gilliam has to realize that there is a lot more to film than creating unexpected and amazing images. There is certainly enchantment here, but the story does not do much to hold it together. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
Terry Gilliam is probably a genius. He came to the world's attention as the animator for "Monty Python's Flying Circus". For this work there was a premium on surprising the audience. Surprise is at the heart of most humor anyway. Gilliam has made unexpected and bizarre images his hallmark. Most of his film career he has been making live-action films that have the same sense of surprise. Over the course of sixty seconds in a Gilliam film just about anything can happen. This is a virtue of sorts, but it also leads to stories that are not engaging. It is very difficult for any character continuity to express itself through the light and action show. Jonathan Pryce manages to give us a character of interest in BRAZIL, easily Gilliam's best film. But that is a rarity. Gilliam's take on THE BROTHERS GRIMM is historically inaccurate and emotionally more numbing than engaging, but it does provide him with a canvas for some amazing images.
As is generally known, the actual Brothers Grimm were collectors of folktales and researchers in folklore. The fairy tales that bear their names were collected by them and transcribed into stories. THE BROTHERS GRIMM suggests that instead they are primarily con artists and charlatans who pose as freelance witch hunters for hire. The year is 1796 and the invading French occupy Germany. Mark Damon and Heath Ledger play Will and Jake Grimm. The Brothers Grimm ply their dishonest trade, looking for hamlets that think they have problem with the supernatural and then they stage amazing shows of the supernatural culminating with the brothers dramatically dispelling the evil. The superstitious locals believe what they see. And well they might because the Grimm Brothers use stagecraft centuries in advance of their time. These shows would be likely be impossible even with 21st century staging.
The two brothers comically argue and fumble their way through several comic situations until a village that has a real supernatural problem hires them. Faced with trees that can move on their own, Wilhelm looks in awe and concludes, "These people are much better funded." But it is not some local performing tricks. Apparently children are really being stolen from the village in ways that are taken from various fairy tales. The brothers investigate and find that they may be in over their heads. Complicating matters are their run-ins with members of the French army led by an inhuman commander Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce). Also entering into the story is a statuesque trapper Angelika (Lena Headey) who knows the real folklore of dealing with supernatural evil.
Shot in Prague and in Ledec nad Sázavou, both in the Czech Republic, the film has a nice authentic look that speaks of Eastern European craftsmanship. The accents of the characters are a bit of distraction. Most of the major actors have English accents. The brothers themselves have British accents as children and mostly American accents as adults.
Like THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, the film is a scratchpad of ideas and visual surprise. Like VAN HELSING, the pace rarely lets up. Like SLEEPY HOLLOW, this film borrows from familiar stories, but has little to do with their canonical versions. The story is really sausage that is made from grinding together various pieces of familiar Grimms' fairy tales. And to make it more palatable, only the fairy tales most familiar to modern audiences are used. In spite of a good cast the story is driven by Gilliam's style and the fast pace rather than by characters. Heath Ledger, whose current appearance in BROKEBACK MOUNTAN may be a breakthrough performance, is too hidden under make-up as to be unrecognizable here. I bet I know which performance he will want remembered.
It is hard to see where this film will have an audience. Action with no characters does not play well to the art house filmgoer. European history will not play well to the action film crowd. There is much in this film to admire, but it goes by too fast and the story is almost incomprehensible. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
(Available on DVD.)
CUSP by Robert A. Metzger (copyright 2005, Ace, 517pp, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-01241-8) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Quite frankly, I don't know what I just finished reading. It is either one of the more brilliant hard SF novels in recent memory, or a muddled mess--I'm not sure which. One thing's for sure-- it's full of outstanding ideas. And that is, after all, one of the reasons to read SF. I put off writing this review for a few days after finishing the book just to see if everything would coalesce in my mind, or if it everything would remain flying around.
It's all still spinning.
The novel starts in 2031, when two momentous events happen. A solar flare/jet erupts from the sun, actually shifting its position. At the same time, two rings running perpendicular to each other, one across the equator and the other across the poles, emerge from beneath the surface of the earth. All hell breaks loose, as world governments and all of humanity try to recover from the seismic and climatic shock.
Things really get weird here. First of all, there are experiments to cross the Zero Point--call it a sort of Vingean singularity, but only sort of. Humans crossing the Point will be something greater, of course--a sort of post-human super creature. Enter the entity called the Swirl, which is trying to advance humanity through the merger of a human being and the supercomputer known as CUSP. Sarah Sutherland, through the machinations of her father, who knows more than a little about the Swirl, as it turns out, manages to join with CUSP and go post-Point.
Then it gets weirder. It seems that the sun is test-firing its jet again. And the rings and their rockets (for lack of a better term) are also test firing. It turns out that the earth and the sun are headed to Alpha Centauri, where anyone who is left will meet with the Alphans. These guys apparently are monitoring civilizations about to go Post-Point in an effort to make sure they don't go out of control. The Alphans bring the planets to orbit around Alpha Centauri (well, either A, B, or Proxima--it was hard to tell sometimes) in order to isolate and study them.
I won't go any further with a synopsis. There's just too much to cover. I will say that this is the type of book that I've gone begging for over the last ten or twenty years, and yet I felt something missing when I finished. Oh, this book is full of ideas. We have yet another explanation for the event that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, for example. The whole "let's turn the sun and earth into giant rocket ships and send them to Alpha Centauri", for another example. There's a bit of homage to Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy thrown in. So there is enough to keep your mind occupied.
But the action, scenes, and scenarios cut too abruptly. I went from one chapter to the next wondering "now how did I miss THAT?" and "where did THAT come from?". And while the story doesn't cry out for characterization, given its nature, we know next to nothing about most of them.
All in all, even with all the ideas, I'd rate this book a bit of a disappointment, especially compared to PICOVERSE, Metzger's previous outing. [-jak]
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins shine in this 1930s and 1940s story of a widow who turns a cinema into a theater for live entertainment, founding an institution that becomes a symbol of British spirit during the Blitz. This film is recommended to anyone not offended by some tasteful nudity on the screen. This is a warm comedy-drama, a confection of a film loosely based on the true story of the famous Windmill Theater in London. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
A very aristocratic looking woman walks from her husband's funeral. Without changing clothes she quietly gets in a rowboat and rows to the middle of a pond. There in the privacy she desired she sits crying, mourning her husband. The film has shown us that she is a woman of great unconventionality who will insist on having her own way of doing things.
Dame Judi Dench plays Laura Henderson, a wealthy and impulsive widow. In the 1930s with her husband dead she decides that she has to bury her grief in a project of some sort. On a whim she buys an old theater and decides to run it. Her friends are aghast at her strange enterprise, but she continues to make the theater work. Of great importance is the choice of a proper theater manager. She knows the right man for the job is Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), but from the first moments the two discover that they cannot get along and begin a bickering relationship that will last for years. She insists on calling Van Damm Jewish, even after he angrily informs her that he is not.
And that is far from her last conflict. When after a successful year or so the profits go down she decides that she will add to the act elegant nudity in the style popular in Paris. This causes a scandal and Mrs. Henderson has to fight the best efforts of the government to shut her down. And then comes World War II and she is fighting not only resistance from her own government, but she is fighting the German government's attacks in the form of the Blitz. But her theater is below street level, making it a de facto air raid shelter. The theater's cause becomes not just artistic freedom, but giving the troops the sort of entertainment that they can appreciate. MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS is the human story behind the legendary theater.
A film of this sort walks a narrow line between being charming and being maudlin. With the cause of resisting the German military force being sixty years old, it is the rare film that still can manage to be stirring. But director Stephen Frears keeps the film in balance. This is a film that deftly touches a wide range of emotions. Certainly it is by turns funny, sentimental, and powerful. From the moment the film starts with its 1930s style credit sequence, the viewer feels that a delightful experience is coming. Martin Sherman's screenplay offers delightful dialog.
For those not offended by the theme of presenting nudity tastefully on the stage, this is a delightful film with characters the viewer comes to really care for. There are few surprises as to where the film is going, but the production values and the style make this all very comfortable and likable, a real gem. This is a film whose strongest suit is its dialog and some charming characters. You could do much worse for a holiday season film. I rate MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The good thing about THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon (ISBN 0-060-93167-1) is that it is short. The bad thing is that it is incomprehensible, and does not even have a real ending. Having slogged my way through this for our reading group, I now know I can skip all the rest of Pynchon's works. Oh, there is one other good thing--according to Charles Harris, Pynchon got all the philately correct, or at least wrong in an explainable way. (For example, the ink on some of the stamps seems to react to chemicals incorrectly--but since the stamps are forgeries, that is excusable.)
In 1996, Mark C. Carnes edited PAST IMPERFECT (ISBN 0-8050-3760-8), in which historians wrote essays about various (historical) films. For example, Jonathan D. Spence wrote about SHANGHAI EXPRESS, and (as an example of the broad definition of "history" used) Stephen Jay Gould wrote about JURASSIC PARK. Now Carnes is back, with NOVEL HISTORY (ISBN 0-684-85765-0), in which historians write about historical novels. And this time the novelists (well, most of them) are given a chance to respond. Part of what this means is that you can be reasonably sure that none of the living authors are going to be completely trashed. On the other hand, it probably would not be worthwhile to spend time writing essays on bad books anyway. The one problem is that if you are not familiar with the book being discussed, then the discussion is not very meaningful. (This was less of a problem in PAST IMPERFECT, as the movies chosen were far more widely known.)
Last week I read KING KONG; this week it was THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (ISBN 0-060-76489-9). While the book KING KONG is but a pale imitation of the movie, the movie THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is not as good as the book. However, this does not mean I think the book is great either. But while the movie has some stunning visual scenes, it cannot convey some of what can be done with narration. Take the children's reaction to Aslan. When they first hear of him in the book, Lewis writes, "And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everybody felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something that you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning--either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you get when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer." So you have some idea of what the children feel about Aslan. In the movie, all you can see is that they seem oddly deferential to a talking lion.
Lewis's background as a professor shows through in some odd ways. When Mr. Beaver calls out, "It's all right! It isn't *her*!", Lewis adds, "This was bad grammar of course, but that is how beavers talk when they are excited; I mean in Narnia--in our world they don't usually talk at all."
And in what seems far too modern for 1950 (when the book was written), he writes "And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool. . . ." (But I notice that Lewis's "battles are ugly when women fight" was changed in the film to just "battles can get ugly".)
There is some irony in that the film based on Lewis's work often seems to be a "Lord of the Rings" wannabee, because Lewis himself had disdain for Tolkien's Middle Earth and its "non-Christian" mythology. But when I read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, it seems like a fairly mundane children's book, with some heavy-handed symbolism ladled on. (And it is arguably the best and most popular of the "Narnia" books, which makes me wonder how well the film sequels to it will do.)
And it's worth noting a recent change in the series. Traditionally, they have been numbered in the order of their publication:
Now, however, they have been re-ordered to match the internal chronology:
Which is why us old folks think of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE as the first book, while newer readers think of it as the second and may possibly wonder why Disney started with that one.
For those of you attracted to old classic horror novels, but put off by the exorbitant prices these out-of-print works garner at antiquarian books stores, good news: Matthew Lewis's THE MONK is now available in a Dover Thrift Edition (ISBN 0-486-43214-9). And Marjorie Bowen's BLACK MAGIC (reviewed in the 04/11/03 issue of the MT VOID) is available as an Adobe download through amazon.com. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: In our country, we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either. -- Mark Twain
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