A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Archive for November, 2009

McLuhan’s "big book"

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1976, age 65). Those bloody books

My son, Eric asked me the other day why I didn’t dedicate any of my books.  It’s not as if I don’t have people about me that have been a great influence or a great stimulus – Harold Innis, Wyndham Lewis, Siegfried Giedion; Mother, Corinne, Pierre Trudeau.  The simple fact is that I am not very proud of my books, especially the later ones.  You see I talk them through and when I am talking that’s when they’re at their best.  Lately though, I fear, even my talk is not me at my best.  The ideas the words don’t come to me as they used to do – unbidden and without asking [see previous posts – “30 years ago today..” and “Fear and loathing of doctors”.  It used to be every corner I turned presented me with a new thought.  Minerva’s Owl flew early for me and now I believe she will never fly for me again.

Me (November 2009, age 57). That bloody McLuhan

Robert Fulford, who writes for the Toronto Star, writes that “McLuhan made a horrible mistake – he didn’t write the “big book.”  He didn’t write the book that takes four or five years in which you test your ideas and you find out which ones are meaningless and which are valid … so there’s nowhere that his admirers can tell people to go and say,” Read that –that’s what McLuhan’s got to say to you.”

Marshall McLuhan never wrote a big book.  But I don’t think he was being entirely truthful when he told his son he didn’t dedicate his books to any one because he wasn’t proud of any of them.  The truth is that he wasn’t proud of the first and last books he was involved in the writing of, but but he was proud of his second and third books, The Gutenberg Galaxy – it won a Governor General’s Award – a Canadian Pulitzer – and Understanding Media – a best seller, which sold 200,000 copies in the spring of 1964.  Neither of these books, however, is easy to understand.  Why he didn’t dedicate them to anyone is a bit of a mystery.  Why he never wrote a big book isn’t.  He never considered his thinking done.

There is, however, a book you can read, which isn’t his big book, but is at least an understandable book.  A book in which you can hear Marshall McLuhan talk out his ideas.  You won’t find simple answers to complex questions but you will find a readable, plain speaking McLuhan.  The book is: The Letters of Marshall McLuhan, Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987.

If you were going to dedicate a book for McLuhan, say the Gutenberg Galaxy or Understanding Media, who would you have him dedicate them to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ed. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart. Scarborough Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1996, p. 188.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 28th, 2009
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Be careful how you mark-up your books

Marshall McLuhan (November 19, 1952, age 41).  Writing in books

I have more fun writing in books than I do writing books.  The End of the Gutenberg Era book is taking longer than I thought.  Not surprising, as Corinne tells me I seem to be reading all literature for it.  Here’s how I attack a book.  First I dip into it and grab the big message then I go back and talk with the writer, that is I write to him in the margins.  Take this new book that just came out, by William H. Whyte, Jr., and the editors of Fortune magazine, Is Anybody listening? Here’s the heart:  PR types at G.M., G.E. and I.B.M. are spending a fortune selling capitalism and democracy to the world.  And Whyte delivers the shocking news that despite the all expenses paid field trips to New York, London, Paris, and L.A. nobody’s listening!

Here’s one of the conversations I had with Whyte in the margins of his book.  “Of course they aren’t.  Nobody expects people are going to read advertizing copy before they actually buy it.  You should talk with David Ogilvie he’ll give you the low down.  It’s a well understood fact on Madison Avenue that people only read ad copy after they buy the product.”  That’s what Corinne did when I went out and bought her that new vacuum cleaner she’s been asking for.  Spent a whole lunch hour pouring over the glossy pamphlets provided by the good folks at Hoover.  And that’s why Canadian teenagers don’t like Canadian history; they haven’t bought the product yet.

Me (November 2009, age 57).  The problem with highlighting

Marshall McLuhan wrote in his books.  If you go to the national archives you can see his writing in his copies of Saussure, Joyce, and the rest.  I do much the same myself with McLuhan’s books.  Except that I often write orders to myself.  Things like “compare this 1952 outline for The End of the Gutenberg Era to the final table of contents of 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy.”  Or “See Postman.”

There are different ways of marking in books.  Many students I see studying at McGill and Concordia University seem to prefer highlighting.  That is you work your way through a photocopied article or textbook assiduously highlighting in pink, yellow, or blue everything you think is worth keeping and ignoring the rest.  This approach is a method of summarization.  In the olden days, before highlighters, students would underline using coloured pencils or ball point pens to obtain a similar result.  The idea being, I think, that the highlighted or underlined material was what you should pay attention to when you re-read the article or text when it was time to study for your final exams.

The problem is highlighting or underlining does not make you the equal of the article or text, it makes you subservient to it.  May be that’s what you need to do to get an undergraduate degree at university; talking, conversing, writing in the margins is what you need to do to be the equal or the better of the writers of the books you read.

Do you write in your books?  Do you underline?  Do you highlight?  Do use post it notes?  Is it possible to read an electronic book or an article or book on your computer’s screen with understanding if you cannot mark it or make notes on it in some way?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

William H. Whyte, JrIs Anybody Listening? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 27th, 2009
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What would you do differently the second time around?

Marshall McLuhan (November 20, 1967, age 56).  What I would do

There is a parlor game Corinne likes to play called “Second time around.”  Everyone has to answer the question, “If you could live your life over again what would you do differently?”  Prizes go to the person who answers the question most honestly and most entertainingly.  I did not win.  My marks for honesty were credible but my marks for entertainment were as Mr. Jed Clampett would say on The Beverly Hillbillies “pitiful.”

I said I would do everything I did the first time around plus I’d do more, much more.  My biggest regret, you see, is that I have so many projects now in various stages of incompletion. And I’m afraid with this operation coming up that I’ll never complete them.  Corinne said I was being a downer that I was being too hard on myself, but I think not.

Me (November 2009, age 57).  The dangerous thrill of discovering new things

Marshall McLuhan toyed with many ideas and started many projects he never completed.  For example, he spent a great deal of time making notes and assembling files for the rewrite of his Ph.D. thesis for publication as a book, and his study The Laws of Media, which was to be his magnum opus on media.  Both projects were eventually completed.  But not until many years after his death, in 1980, and of course by other people, the thesis by his biographer Terry Gordon in 2006, 16 years later, and the Laws of Media by his son, Eric McLuhan in 1988, 8 years later.

I believe Marshall McLuhan left so much undone because he could not resist the lure, the thrill of discovering new things.  The constant pursuit of the new stopped him from getting things done.  This is a temptation I know that I also am suffering from myself.  Right now I have 12 projects on the go, five of which have to do with McLuhan, this blog being one of them.  I don’t have time to do anything more over the next year, yet new ideas come to me and I’m tempted to run after them.  Marshall McLuhan is a great teacher.  The fool it is said learns from his own mistakes, the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.  Thank you Marshall.

If you could live your life over again what would you do differently?  (Remember marks go for honesty and entertainment.)

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 223-247.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 26th, 2009
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Fear and loathing of doctors

Marshall McLuhan (November 25, 1967, age 56). I’m allergic to Doctors

I do not want this operation. The operation is to remove a tumor that they tell me may have been growing in my brain for a decade. The tumor, Dr. Mount says, is causing my headaches, the pain in my eye, the black-outs that have been getting worse. I blacked out in front of a class here at Fordham University. Corinne told me she was worried sick. Culkin was worried too. Everyone tells me I must have this operation. That if I don’t I will go blind. That I will die.

The clock is ticking. How can I sleep? Dr Mount wields the knife today at 11:30 a.m. Here’s what he told me he will do. First he will cut a small hole in my skull. Then insert the lifts. They’re metal. Look like spatulas. They will lift up my brain so Mount can get at the tumor. Apparently this part of the operation won’t hurt as the brain does not have nerves like the rest of the body does. Mount says the tumor is the size of my fist. He expects the operation will last 5 hours or so. But he will work as fast as possible to get the job done with the minimum of damage. That’s my worry. I know they will do away with the tumor. I just hope they do not do away with me.

Me (November 2009, age 57). What the Doctors did

Marshall McLuhan’s operation lasted 22 hours. Judith Fitzgerald, one of his biographers said it was the longest brain surgery in American medical history. A neurosurgeon I interviewed this summer, Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, says this is an exaggeration. But it was he says a very long operation, and given its length an operation filled with danger for Marshall McLuhan.

Many of you are wondering what happened to him. Whether he survived the operation. Whether he made a full recovery. What the experience did to him. These are things I will talk about in the weeks ahead. What I can tell you now is that he did survive the operation and he did recover, in part, but not in full, enough to return to work, but I don’t think to work at the same level.  To be blunt, Marshall McLuhan survived the operation but his genius did not. This was and is a tragedy. A tragedy is “a dramatic performance ending in a catastrophe.” (Short Dictionary of Classical Word Origins). What was catastrophic about his loss of genius was the impact it had on McLuhan, his reputation, and his legacy.

Consider the books he published after the operation, after 1967. All were completed with the help of co-authors. Not one measured up to the heights he achieved with The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. One cannot help wondering whether they would have been written at all without the help of his co-authors. And one cannot help thinking whether it would have been better if they had never been published. For with the appearance of each new book his reputation for brilliance, and original thinking fell.

What is a genius? What does it mean to lose your genius? What is lost when genius is lost?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post
Judith Fitzgerald. Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy, 2001, 128-135, and 191.
Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 212-213.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
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Fear and loathing on the telephone

Marshall McLuhan (1960, age 48).  The telephone blinds us to its power

The other day Everett Munro, a businessman here in Toronto, and one of my leading fans in the Hogtown business community, spoke to me about a problem he was having.  Normally he said, “speaking to my boss is not a problem.  But whenever we speak on the phone I’m gripped by fear.  My voice shakes and I have difficulty breathing.  I don’t understand it.  It seems so irrational.  I actually like my boss.  We get along.  Sure he’s demanding.  Wants things right and wants them right now.  But I’m the same way with the guys who work for me.  Is there anything I can do to stop this?  It’s driving me crazy.”

I was able to set him right.  “Your problem, I said, “Is that you do not realize the power of the telephone. The telephone is such an intense auditory experience that it blacks out the visual.  It blinds our power to see.  You’ve got to work to involve the other senses, to counteract the power it’s having on the balance of your senses.  Here’s the bottom line.  Try to visualize to picture your boss when you’re speaking to him.”

Me (November 2009, age 57).  What if he’s right?

This story is told by Philip Marchand in his 1989 biography of McLuhan.  It is difficult to tell what Marchand himself thinks of the advice McLuhan gave to the nervous businessman. He writes matter-of-factly that Marshall McLuhan’s advice “doubtless would have sounded farfetched to many people, but the businessman tried it and it worked.”  But we are left wondering whether McLuhan’s advice is really all that useful or is it actually something of a scam.  Something that appeared to help but in actual fact was just a coincidence, or a placebo.

This is the story, however, that stimulated my own fascination with McLuhan.  For like the nervous businessman I often found myself feeling nervous speaking to people on business calls.  Curious, I tried McLuhan’s suggestion, and I found that it worked.

Does McLuhan’s advice sound far-fetched to you?  Do you ever find yourself feeling nervous speaking on the telephone? Why don’t you try McLuhan’s suggestion too and let me know what happens?  What have you got to lose?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 150.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 24th, 2009
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The meaning of poetry or the truth is whatever upsets the apple cart

Marshall McLuhan (April, 1980, age 79). Listen to what I’m saying

Ah. Yes.  Err. April is the cruelest month.

Me (October 2009, age 57). Here is what I hear

On September 26, 1979 Marshall McLuhan had a stroke.  The stroke took away his power to speak, read, and write.  All he could say were forced short words like ah, yes, no, and oh boy.  Seven months later he’s in his house with his friend Patrick Watson and out comes this bit of poetry.  It’s from The Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.”  (…breeding/ Lilacs out of the deadland, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”)

What was he trying to say?  Simply that it was April, and wet, and oh boy here’s a bit of poetry for you, Patrick?  Perhaps but there is a deeper, darker message McLuhan might have been trying to send.  He must have been extremely sad and frustrated by his inability to speak.  Speaking was when he was most creative and when he was happiest.  And remember McLuhan must have taught this poem in his modern’s course many times in the 50-odd years he’d taught at universities.  He must have talked to his students many times about the dark epigraph to the Wasteland which ushers in the first line.  The epigraph to the poem, is in Latin and Greek, and is from Petronius, The Satyricon.  Fortunately my copy of the poem includes a translation of the passage.  Briefly:  The Sybil, a prophetess, is locked in an iron cage in the public square of the ancient Roman town of Cumae from where she delivers her prophecies.  Young boys are throwing stones at her and taunting her.  “Sybil, Sybil, what do you want?’   And she says “I want to die?”  Did McLuhan cry?  Was he emotional?  We don’t know.  When I interviewed Patrick Watson about this, he told me that he didn’t remember.

Do you know anyone who suffered a stroke like Marshall McLuhan did?  How did they communicate with other people?  What do you think McLuhan was trying to say?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 546-547.

T.S. Eliot. The Wasteland

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 21st, 2009
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My apologies for being repetitious, but repetition is not learning

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 55).  Read to learn (continued)

Today my students did their oral exam on books I asked them to select from my reading list.  (Here are a reminder of the books on that list:  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 1965; E.T. Hall, The Silent Language, 1959, and A.P. Usher.  The History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929; 1954.)

Yesterday, recall, when they asked me what to expect I told them: (1) we’d start at A and go from there; and (2) Don’t tell me what’s in the book, I’ve read it. Tell me what you think now that you’ve read it.  Then we can talk about new things instead of old things.  Most of them succeeded in telling me something that they learned.  As a result, joy springs eternal, we spent most of the class talking about new things rather than old things.  And they found out what I meant by we’ll start at A and go from there.   The first student who volunteered to be examined was given a grade of A.  Enthusiasm and courage deserve to be rewarded.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Learn to read (continued)

Here is another example of reading by Marshall’s Rules.  The book I will have a go at here is Abbot Payson Usher’s A History of Mechanical Inventions.  Step 1 summarize the idea.  Step 2 talk about what you’ve learned from it.

Step 1.  In Chapter IV, The Emergence of Novelty in Thought and Action, Usher asks the question “Where do new ideas come from?  He argues that what needs to be explained is not the final eureka of the long chain of thinking in the creation of a new idea (gold displaces a volume of water precisely equal to its mass), but the first weak groping for the new (gold is very heavy). What accounts for this initial weak groping is explained by previous writers as a result of (1) some external event that stimulates the thought (Newton’s apple), or (2) the mysteries of the sub-conscious.  This, he says, is not a good explanation.  But as yet he doesn’t have a better idea.  Except he does underline this idea:  If the world was a closed system says eventually all the new ideas possible to create by playing around with things – that is by experimentation, would eventually get created.  And then invention would cease.

Step 2.  New ideas appear every day.  Therefore either the closed system we live in (city, nation, culture) is very large, rich in variety, and complex, or we do not live in a closed system.  Every new idea has the potential to break open a closed system.

Where do you get new ideas?  Where in your view are new ideas needed most?  Who are the greatest new idea creators today?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Abbot Payson Usher. A History of Mechanical Inventions. New York: Dover, [1929; 1954] 1988.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 20th, 2009
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Repetition is not learning

Marshall McLuhan (1967, age 55).  Read to learn

Tomorrow I will give my students their oral exam on books I asked them to select from my reading list.  Here are a few of the books on that list:  Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 1965; E.T. Hall, The Silent Language, 1959, and A.P. Usher.  The History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929; 1954.

Today they asked me what to expect I told them: (1) we’d start at A and go from there; and (2) Don’t tell me what’s in the book, I’ve read it.  Tell me what you think now that you’ve read it.  Then we can talk about new things instead of old things.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Learn to read

Marshall McLuhan was a master reader.  He knew how to get to the heart of anything he read quickly and learn from it.  And this power he tried to teach his students.

Can you and I learn to read like Marshall McLuhan? McLuhan, of course was a genius, so this may seem like a difficult thing to do.  However, I do not think it is impossible.  Here is my take on a book McLuhan refers to indirectly on his reading list:  The Meaning of Meaning, by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards.

The trick is to follow the spirit of McLuhan’s advice.  Don’t only summarize the book or piece of the book: “The relationship between words and ideas and ideas and things in the world is direct.  But the relationship between words and things in the world is indirect.  That is you can always find words to express your ideas and ideas to match the things we see in the world, but you cannot reach for words to describe things.  This is impossible.  The only thing you can do is reach for words to express your ideas about the description of things.”

The summary is necessary but it is not thinking, it is repeating.  It is step 1.   Go to step 2:  Ask yourself what new thing you’ve learned from it.  For example, I’ve learned that to reduce misunderstanding I need to take the shortest possible indirect route between my words and the real world I’m trying to talk about.  The shortest possible indirect routes are through pictures (look at this), pointing at something (there it is), putting my finger on the thing (see) or describing the picture or thing in plain English (it’s a house).

The next time someone starts telling you word for word, image for image, about a book, movie, or magazine article  do you think you could ask them not to repeat it to you but rather to tell you what they learned from it?

Having read this blog post will you ask yourself what you learned from it?  If so, what did you learn from it?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? Toronto: Stoddart, 1994, pp. 13 and Appendix A.

C.K. Ogden and I.A Richards, The Meaning of Meaning.  Sixth edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace and co. 1943.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, November 19th, 2009
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Marshall McLuhan: Hedgehog or fox?

Marshall McLuhan (January 23 1953, age 41). The Gutenberg Era

I’ve told Ezra Pound and I’ve told Walter Ong.  I have a big idea I’m writing a book about.  The movement from script to print created the logical, visual western world.  The new electric media are returning us to the oral, acoustic world from which we came 2000 years ago.  The important thing is not the content of these media but their technique.  Print is the mechanization of writing.  Radio, movies, and TV are the mechanization of voice and gesture.  Every day sees new discoveries opening up this new uncharted place.  “We were the first that ever burst into that land-locked sea.”

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  McLuhan was a hedgehog who thought he was a fox

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin proposed the idea that all thinkers can be usefully divided into two groups, hedgehogs who relate everything they write about to a single unifying vision and foxes who come to every question with ways to think about it, who have not one vision but hundreds.  In economics, Milton Friedman is a hedgehog, John Kenneth Galbraith a fox.  In religion, both the Pope and the Dahli Lama are hedgehogs.  In politics, Reagan is a hedgehog, Clinton is a fox.  In literature Ayn Rand is a hedgehog, Charles Dickens is a fox.

The question is what is Marshall McLuhan?  His biographers give the impression that they believe McLuhan to be a fox.  But I think this is not the case.  McLuhan loved specific examples, observations and was not at his best in writing up systems of thinking about the media.  However in one important way he was a hedgehog.  Throughout his life in everything he did in studying media he displayed an obsession about exploring the impact of media on us by means of their operation as forms, rather than through their content.

In your life are you a hedgehog or a fox?  What about the people you admire most, parents, teachers, politicians, mentors, writers, thinkers, activists:  Are they hedgehogs or foxes?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

McLuhan, Marshall.  Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 234.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 18th, 2009
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What goes on in coffee shops?

Marshall McLuhan (July 1952, age 41).  I go to coffee shops to talk

The coffee shop in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum is conveniently located close to the English department and the department of Political Economy.  This  is my destination most week days at 4p.m.  There I’m sure to find congenial company,  economists Harold Innis and Tom Easterbrook, and anthropologist Ed Carpenter and one or two others.  We go to talk.

Yesterday the subject of conversation was study, where it’s done and how and with what end in sight.  In the ancient world and in the Middle Ages study was an oral and a social activity.  Texts were read aloud and outdoors.  With the advent of print study became a solitary indoor activity, a communion with books.  And where better place to commune with books than in a library, surrounded by them.

Michael Hinton (2009, age 57).  Today people go to coffee shops to study

What remains of the basement coffee shop in the Royal Ontario Museum – a gathering place for bus loads of public and high school students visiting the museum – that McLuhan talks about can still be visited by anyone who wants to have a look at the place where McLuhan talked his way into his first insights about the Gutenberg Era and Understanding Media.

Walk into any coffee shop today, Second Cup, Starbucks, what have you, and what do you see?  Students.  Studying.  Heads down, tapping away on their computers, communing with the digital world.  Study which was a solitary book-mediated activity has increasingly become a social electric-mediated activity.  What they are studying is less interesting than the fact that they are studying and doing it outside the boundaries of their school, college, or university.

Parents:  Where do your children study?  What does it matter whether they study alone or together?  Are there subjects that are better studied alone than together?

Students:  Do you study in coffee shops?  If so, why?  Are there subjects you cannot study in a coffee shop?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

McLuhan, Marshall.  Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 231-232.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 17th, 2009
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