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Neal Stephenson explains Star Wars geekdom
June 17, 2005 6:32 PM   Subscribe

Neal Stephenson wrote an excellent editorial today in the NY Times on Star Wars. Quite good.
posted by about_time (55 comments total)

 
Copying the article and posting it here won't be appreciated.

For NY Times articles, please use the New York Times Link Generator so you can get a nice registration-free link like this:

Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out - New York Times
posted by gen at 6:51 PM on June 17, 2005


Thanks, gen.
posted by Eideteker at 6:57 PM on June 17, 2005


I never really saw the geek vibe in Jedi that Stephenson does. Yes, they're expert pilots, but that seems to be because they use the force, not because they're unusually technically competent. In the sci-fi movies, it seems like everyone is a master at pushing buttons.
posted by gsteff at 7:02 PM on June 17, 2005


The point Stephenson makes is a good one, although using Star Wars as a means of making the point seems a bit stretched to me. I mean - he's right and all - but its a whole lot easier to make the point that by outsourcing and globalizing we're cannibalizing our future by simply saying that.
posted by sirvesa at 7:04 PM on June 17, 2005


Thanks gen, I'd forgotten about that useful tool.
posted by about_time at 7:09 PM on June 17, 2005


I have heard the term "geeking out" used only to describe stoned people who seem fixated on something uninteresting.

I wonder how much pot ole Neal smokes...
posted by Kwantsar at 7:09 PM on June 17, 2005


I agree with the sentiment but it seems to come off as apologia for a one-and-a-half star B-movie?
posted by Rothko at 7:11 PM on June 17, 2005


That whole article vegged me out. Can someone summarize it for me, please?
posted by Doohickie at 7:19 PM on June 17, 2005


That whole article vegged me out. Can someone summarize it for me, please?

Summary: In Star Wars, the Jedi are geeks. The galaxy overtly respects, and secretly fears, the Jedi because of their geeky abilities. This reflects current American culture, and is why America's long term prosperity is in danger.

Hopefully, articles like this will make America wise up and start treating scientists and programmers like the gods we are.
posted by gsteff at 7:33 PM on June 17, 2005


I read it all, but it just washed over me. I think it was a pretty thoughtless article about a rather dumb movie. Next.
posted by squirrel at 7:33 PM on June 17, 2005


Can someone summarize it for me, please?

Let me try! :oP

new star wars movies posted by nervousfritz at 7:40 PM on June 17, 2005


Well done, nervousfritz.

I didn't really like the article though (but thanks for the link). It seemed a half-baked, ambiguous, overshort glimpse at a good idea. What I got from it is that basically the Star Wars movies are just the tip of the iceberg, but all that submerged stuff (books, the cartoons, etc) is not for everyone. In fact, it's only for the people who are obsessed with it, as it is a fleshing out of and further storytelling in the universe created by Star Wars. If you like that universe, well, then read the books.

I don't have a problem with the books - aside from the fact that I dislike much contemporary fiction (without reading it and with no justification - they are simply a sub-genre. Some people like fantasy. Some legal drama. Some mystery. Some period pieces. Some nonfiction. Some science fiction of a certain sort - say, a kind with lightsabers and elite psychic warriors. We, the laypeople who do not immerse ourselves in this and for the most part do not care for it, only enjoy the movies as escapism and adventure narrative while for others it is more than that.

I'm not sure I understand about his points on geekery and such and his parallels to today's society, they seemed shortly written and a bit fanciful. In any case, there's a long potential New Yorker article hiding here which I'd rather read.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:53 PM on June 17, 2005


I don't buy it. I've always thought that, ultimately, Jedis were a moderately technophobic bunch. Sure, they do like to push a lot of buttons and know how to build light sabers from a pair of dry twigs and an empty soda can, etc., but let's face it, they only do it because George Lucas thought that would be a really cool thing to do. Their clear preference for the mystical Force over machines (for example, when Luke is instructed to turn off his X-Wing's targetting system in Episode IV and "trust the Force" instead) clearly goes against Stephenson's argument.

They are New Age types at best, with a confused relationship towards science and technology, guided mostly by the writers' demands for visual spectacle and immediate gratification rather than something even remotely resembling logic. Duels on a volcanic planet without anything so much as a singed eyebrow? Instant, ansible-like, communication devices that are inexplicably plagued by a weak signal beyond certain distances? (If they're instant, distance shouldn't matter.) Starfighers that can bank and turn and stop even though they only have rear thrusters? A Jedi master who can't figure out the bloody obvious disappearance of a star system from a map? And so on, and so on . . .

I think one can safely say Lucas wasn't thinking about scientists and people who like to "geek out" when he wrote about the Jedi Order, or much of Star Wars, for that matter.

"Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts" is therefore not odd counsel coming from a Jedi. That's my two cents, anyway.
posted by Goblindegook at 7:59 PM on June 17, 2005


Sooo.... I'm supposed to respect those grown ups who buy toys? Fine, whatever ole'Neal says...

My problem is that what Star Wars was has been co-opted into what it has become.

There are people out there who are fans of this monstrosity who never played D&D or mucked around with an 8-bit computer. Who have never loaded anything from a tape drive or what have you.

This trend continues into the IT world. Once I used to work around all sorts of smart types - people who played zork on their C64s when they were kids. Now the cubicles of IT are filled with NASCAR dads. Check out the parking lot - they all have Support Our Troops magnets on their SUVs... and they all skip work for movie day.

Geekdom it seems has turned to the dark side.
posted by wfrgms at 8:14 PM on June 17, 2005 [1 favorite]


Copying the article and posting it here won't be appreciated.

But bypassing the NYT registration system will? Anyway, Neal has this right:

In sum, very little of the new film makes sense, taken as a freestanding narrative.
posted by mediareport at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2005


Starfighers that can bank and turn and stop even though they only have rear thrusters?

Not to mention they make lots of whooshing noises in a vacuum.
posted by y2karl at 8:25 PM on June 17, 2005


The implication that you're a passive consumer if you have no interest in the games, novels, and cartoon series grates on me. I mean, I went into the movie knowing I wasn't going to like it all that much. But I only spent $10 on it. If something's going to ask me to pay for the cartoons, games, and novels, I'd better feel like I'm going to get something in return that's more than a deeply morally confused, badly written, and badly acted storyline.

So Neal Stephenson says I wouldn't see it as morally confused and badly written if I had bothered to give my obsession over to the whole Star Wars phenomenon? Well, they could have proved it to me before the terribleness that the trilogy has been.
posted by Jeanne at 8:48 PM on June 17, 2005


Not to mention they make lots of whooshing noises in a vacuum.

That one's so obvious I no longer bother to point it out. But your mentioning it reminds me of a convention I attended some years ago, during which I heard a so-called "science fiction" writer proclaim that we shouldn't bash Lucas for that because, and I quote, "it's still possible an engine that produces sound in a vacuum could be invented."

Like Star Wars itself, this is sadly symptomatic of a society that is hopelessly surrounded by technology but has zero understanding of the science that underlies it. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and sometimes it seems it doesn't have to be that advanced. A lot of people approach technology on nearly superstitious grounds, and I'm not talking about a lost tribe in the farthest recesses of South America who's afraid photography will still their souls. People have been known to do funny things like ascribing whims and tempers to computers, cars, tv sets, etc. and perform strange little rituals when they break down.

Who cares about the "how" so long as it works, anyway? :)
posted by Goblindegook at 9:05 PM on June 17, 2005


"it's still possible an engine that produces sound in a vacuum could be invented."

But it *is*, at least if we admit more-or-less standard space opera tropes like psionics. Then all you need is an engine core that works on a principle related to whatever psionics you make up and broadcasts some level of random noise into the ether. Then you'll hear sound through vacuum as your brain tries to interpret the psi energy it's being bombarded with (which by purest coincidence happens to stimulate the auditory centers).

There! As an added bonus, the wind from my handwaving will power Brussels for a year.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:31 PM on June 17, 2005


I still haven't figured out if the Empire are the good guys or the bad guys.
Not that I've made all that much effort.
posted by mischief at 10:19 PM on June 17, 2005


I DO have a bone to pick with the current methodology of supplying critical story info outside of the main product so that you buy into others (Matrix, Star Wars, etc).

If NS gets one thing right in this article, it's that the masses will put up with a bunch of stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and just veg. That doesn't mean they aren't shaking their heads when they leave the theatre. They did in mine.

"it's still possible an engine that produces sound in a vacuum could be invented."

This is really sad, and loses me FAST. Sounds in space. Why not just pretend that space isn't weightless and don't explain it? Why not have ships land on the sun and have people go out for a stroll? Breathe moon air? Take a bite of the cheese?

If they're going to change something that's common knowledge, they have to explain it or they don't get my suspension of disbelief. Period.
posted by dreamsign at 10:34 PM on June 17, 2005


gsteff has it--funny stuff.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:50 PM on June 17, 2005


I don't buy it either. Its pretty obvious that the jedi are far from technologists and closer to theocratics if anything. They're pretty much just a sci-fi version of buddhist monks with ruling powers, which isn't that uncommon such as in pre-invasion Tibet. They were just another power structure the Emperor had to take down to assert power. The building of the lightsaber was a rite of passage, not a geeky hobby. Their piloting skills came from the force, not by being gearheads.

I think Neal needs to turn off his "geeks are oppressed everywhere" mindset for a few minutes and enjoy some fiction.
posted by skallas at 11:28 PM on June 17, 2005


If they're going to change something that's common knowledge, they have to explain it or they don't get my suspension of disbelief. Period.

Well, I could be totally wrong here, but I suspect that a lot less (average) people were as familiar with the impossibility of sound in space as many are today simply because Star Wars itself seems to have spread the "no sound in a vacuum" fact all over popular culture via fun fact/trivia.
posted by Stauf at 11:46 PM on June 17, 2005


Not to mention they make lots of whooshing noises in a vacuum.

Yeah, one of the many things that bugged me about the new trilogy (even though I liked them all - sue me), every vehicle and most animals sounded like a poorly-tuned motorcycle.
posted by RylandDotNet at 12:00 AM on June 18, 2005


I think Neal's point was that America is doomed without a healthy, productive, obsessive population base hidden behind the curtains.

If you read this article and think too much about Jedi esoterica, then you've surely missed the point.


Too many vegging out, too few geeking out.

The geeks will go where they are welcome. More specifically, not here--and America loses.
posted by sourwookie at 12:18 AM on June 18, 2005


But bypassing the NYT registration system will?

It's not a 'bypass', it's an NYT procedure so blogs can link through.
posted by Firas at 2:24 AM on June 18, 2005 [1 favorite]


Social commentary aside

Call me a lazy geek, but I want my epic space operas to stand alone. I don't want to sift through countless spinoff novels of undeterminable quality to glean those fascinating little details (and major plot lines) that were missing in the movie. And yes, this is partly apologia for a crappy movie.
posted by recurve at 4:04 AM on June 18, 2005


In the sci-fi movies, it seems like everyone is a master at pushing buttons.

Speaking of that - did anyone else notice that in the prequels, when Padme flies her ship anywhere she always pushes the same single button. No matter where she's flying.
Now that's user friendly!

I guess the tons of other buttons in the ship control the window-wipers or something.
posted by spazzm at 4:11 AM on June 18, 2005


A journalist uses Star Wars as metaphor.
No words....there are no words....
posted by nj_subgenius at 6:22 AM on June 18, 2005


Wow, a breakthrough! Finally, somebody publishes something written by Neal Stephenson that I didn't like.
posted by alumshubby at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2005


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance beat him to it by a few years.
posted by srboisvert at 6:59 AM on June 18, 2005


[changed fpp link, deleted post with full text]
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on June 18, 2005


I have heard the term "geeking out" used only to describe stoned people who seem fixated on something uninteresting.

Clearly, kwantsar, you've known only very uninteresting people.

Seriously: Is it uninteresting to those "geeking out", to the observers who don't get it, or both? I suspect the second option is the case, which definitively illustrates the term "anti-intellectual". Whereas I'm not personally interested in, for example, computer programming, but I don't say coding is intrisically uninteresting nor do I devalue those who do it.

By the way, wfrgms, how do you store and load programs from a cassette deck? When I was a kid I saw one of those newfangled home computers in somebody's house but nobody showed me how it worked or let me play with it.

And as for those people who complain about not being able to follow the story without buying "Clone Wars" books, assuming you, like most Americans, live in something like a "metropolitan area", don't they have them available for free in your local library? (You DO have a library card, right?) Louisville is one dinky-ass "metro", but there's lots of "Star Wars" stuff. (It's the New Cambridge Histories and such that they're lacking.)
posted by davy at 7:29 AM on June 18, 2005


So "geeking out" now means "obsessive consumption"? What happened to using one's own imagination?
posted by melt away at 8:01 AM on June 18, 2005


Stephenson: In sum, very little of the new film makes sense, taken as a freestanding narrative. What's interesting about this is how little it matters. Millions of people are happily spending their money to watch a movie they don't understand. What gives?

In other news, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Madagascar overtake Sith.

The moral of the story? Who needs to understand the plot when you have something cute and animated, or something that goes "boom!"

I think he's stretching to create both meaning and social relevance for a franchise that has been largely successful for its cute critters and things that go boom. But somehow, because Lucas takes himself seriously, fanboys assume that everyone else has to take him seriously as well.

Jeanne: The implication that you're a passive consumer if you have no interest in the games, novels, and cartoon series grates on me. I mean, I went into the movie knowing I wasn't going to like it all that much.

Bingo. It's the director's responsibility to put the viewer into the story, and provide enough context so you know what is going on.

On the other hand, setting a human drama against a background of incomprehensible events can be good. It fails in this case because the Anakin-Padme love affair has all of the romantic chemistry of a pair of wet towels on a rod. The Anakin-Obi Wan love affair is just plain petulant, and the Anakin-Papatine love affair is too little too late.

But hey, who needs plot when you have wookies, droids, and things that go "boom!"

sourwookie: I think Neal's point was that America is doomed without a healthy, productive, obsessive population base hidden behind the curtains.

If you read this article and think too much about Jedi esoterica, then you've surely missed the point.
...
The geeks will go where they are welcome. More specifically, not here--and America loses.


I've read the piece few a couple of times and I'm still trying to figure out what his point is. Is his point the existence of fanboys who will watch pure shit if served up with the right iconography? Is his point that Jedi are good metaphor for American geeks, in which case the esoterica is important? Is his point that America is geek hostile (not true from my point of view, America is one of the largest importers of geeks in the world?)

Is there a there there, or did the NYT just run filler from an overrated sci-fi celeberty?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on June 18, 2005


I haven't seen Sith (so maybe I'm talking through my hat - and this certainly calls into doubts my own geek cred), but I tend to give the benefit of a doubt to world-building that doesn't spell out every detail of the backstory. And that doesn't have the characters spend half the movie explaining to each other matters that should be common knowledge in that world. (Check out my handle.)

It's enough that the people in the story demonstrably understand what the hell is going on, and how their society works: the viewer then CAN just "veg out" and assume that all this running-about-advancing-behavior makes sense to the characters involved. From the reviews, it seems like Lucas has not made all of the backstory entirely clear to his actors.

But to return to Stephenson's point: yes, we are in trouble. Star Wars doesn't actually prove his case, but it's an interesting hook for him to hang his argument upon.

P.S. - - ROU Xenophobe: thank you for that, it made me laugh.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:50 AM on June 18, 2005


davy: And as for those people who complain about not being able to follow the story without buying "Clone Wars" books, assuming you, like most Americans, live in something like a "metropolitan area", don't they have them available for free in your local library?

I think that's missing the point of the complaint in a big way. When the background material becomes a prerequisite rather than an enhancement, the director has failed at his basic task. For example, you can read LotRs without really needing to read The Hobbit, or the reluctantly-added appendices, much less the Silmarillion. There are narrative devices that give you enough backstory so that you are not completely lost, so you can focus on the emotional conflicts of the protagonists.

The Dark Crystal is a bit more clumsy in it's presentation of backstory. But it still manages to condense about 200 pages of Henson-Froud backstory into 10 minutes. By the time Jen sets out on his quest, you know character, conflict, and setting.

The fact that key elements of Anakin's character are not explained within the narrative of the movie, makes Sith a bad movie. Not some cool cultural phenomenon, but a bad movie.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:50 AM on June 18, 2005


I believe Stephenson misses the point entirely here.

There's no arguing that the Star Wars "universe" is a fractured one: that you can't properly follow the "intricacies" of the story without having played the video game, read the novels, etc etc. But this doesn't have anything to do with geeking out, or whatever Stephenson calls it, but, rather, with the changing nature of the Hollywood film industry.

The most significant change to Hollywood box-office reports in the last 20 years or so is that a film's ancillaries (most notably sales of video copies, but also toys, video games, novelizations, C-3PO buttplugs, whatever) have begun to pull in more money than the films themselves. A film in an established franchise, like Star Wars or The Matrix, are merely the flagship items in a "multiverse" which, as a matter of course, complicates and occasionally enriches the overall narrative. To get the full picture, you need to engage in all these multiple texts; i.e., you need to spend more money. This fragmentation of the industry is largely responsible for the narrative unsatisfyingness of both Star Wars and The Matrix, to use the two most obvious examples again. Delve in more deeply to the ancillary texts, and you'll have a fuller sense of the story -- but not before you've paid for it. Ultimately, this is a business decision.

Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, has done some interesting work on this subject, as has Robert Allen, though I can't find a reference to the latter online.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:17 AM on June 18, 2005


Of course, bad movies can be pop-culture phenomena by virtue of what the fans add to the narrative. For example, Rocky Horror Picture Show is wretched without someone doing trash drag, and the audience participation lines. That still does not O'Brien a great director.

AsYouKnowBob: But to return to Stephenson's point: yes, we are in trouble. Star Wars doesn't actually prove his case, but it's an interesting hook for him to hang his argument upon.

Um, America has always been "in trouble" when it came to math and science. In the 50s, and 60s, it was the Russians. In the 70s and 80s, Japan and Germany. Now, it's India, Korea and China.

Same shit, different decade.

Meanwhile, one of the agenda items for the G8 summit is the medical brain drain from developing countries. The "geek exodous" depends a lot on which types of geeks you are looking at. To some extent, the job market is still adjusting from the internet speculation bubble that created a lot of jobs out of the claim that the internet will "change everything."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:24 AM on June 18, 2005


This seems to follow the form of mass media editorials. It's meant to appeal to a certain audience, not the skeptical reader. It’s better than cable news, but even newspapers offer the distinctive ambiguity that rarely holds up beyond appearances. With a little thought, its clear that there is little substance behind his arguments.
posted by Candide at 11:20 AM on June 18, 2005


(most notably sales of video copies, but also toys, video games, novelizations, C-3PO buttplugs, whatever)

If I were going to pick a droid shape to shove up my ass, I'm personally thinking I'd go with R2.

"And that is not the only aspect of "Episode III" that you will see in a different light. If you watch the movie without doing the prep work, General Grievous - who is supposed to be one of the most formidable bad guys in the entire "Star Wars" cycle - will seem like something that just fell out of a Happy Meal."

Stephenson is spot on there. Grievous came out more cute than formidable. And so much of the movie, especially the beginning, seemed to be aimed at merchandising. Like that bit where R2 is blasting little droids off Anakin's ship in the space battle -- you know that was in the movie just so there can be a level like that in the video game.

Stephenson writes damn good prose. Too bad his politics are always so blunt and obvious. Even though I generally agree with him he gets awfully grating.
posted by gurple at 11:42 AM on June 18, 2005


Neil Stephenson needs to get one of those T-shirts from The Onion that say "I understand The Muppets on a much deeper level than you."

That's all this is.

The sad thing is, he appears to believe it.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:22 PM on June 18, 2005


If you've read Neal Stephenson books then you should probably realize that he probably pumped out this editorial between bites of his tuna sandwich some wednesday. KirkJobSluder had it right -- It doesn't really make any sense.

Its like he started writing the article equating Jedi to the geeks of America then realized that the metaphor didn't quite work halfway through, so he switched it around and made the failure of the metaphor the reason why America is doomed.
posted by spaceviking at 1:40 PM on June 18, 2005


For example, Rocky Horror Picture Show is wretched without someone doing trash drag, and the audience participation lines

NTM, drugs, alcohol, nudity, and the possiblity of getting laid.
posted by jonmc at 2:53 PM on June 18, 2005


jonmc: NTM, drugs, alcohol, nudity, and the possiblity of getting laid.

Yeah, what Sith needs is some good old audience participation to get us through those horrible love scenes. You know, start the movie with some contests. Give a free beer to the person who can do the best Darth Vader "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" I can already think of some great lines:

--
Anakin: "I sense Dookoo."

Audience: "He who sensed it, dealt it!"

--
R2 flies with jet pack.

Audience sings: "Up in the air, junior bird men!"

--
Anakin cuts off Dookoo's hands.

Audience: "Need a hand Chris?"

--
Crash landing of massive space ship.

Audience: "I picked the wrong movie to stop sniffing glue."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:08 PM on June 18, 2005


Now, I wanna sniff some glue
posted by jonmc at 6:00 PM on June 18, 2005


They're pretty much just a sci-fi version of buddhist monks with ruling powers, which isn't that uncommon such as in pre-invasion Tibet.

Or Iran's Mullas...

---

Also, I thought the article sucked.
posted by delmoi at 6:44 PM on June 18, 2005


For example, Rocky Horror Picture Show is wretched without someone doing trash drag,

Okay, I haven't seen the new star wars (I caught attack of the clones on cable but only watched half of it, kinda thing) but my impression is that it's actually just a poorly put together movie. Rocky Horror is campy and ridiculous, but it achieves exactly what it means to. And Tim Curry is just good. It became a cult movie because people enjoyed it, not because it was so boring and annoying that people wanted to throw rice at it.

But I agree that this article feels half-assed and unsure of its thesis.
posted by mdn at 10:18 PM on June 18, 2005


Participation Pt. 2:

Obi Wan - 'I can't watch any more'
Audience - 'I concur'

---------------------

Oh, I need coffee.
posted by asok at 3:01 AM on June 19, 2005


This is really sad, and loses me FAST. Sounds in space. Why not just pretend that space isn't weightless and don't explain it? Why not have ships land on the sun and have people go out for a stroll? Breathe moon air? Take a bite of the cheese?

"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, And other science facts (la!-la!-la!) just repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show, I should really just relax.'"
posted by Cyrano at 10:07 AM on June 19, 2005


Its a political commentary on outsourcing (among other things).

He's making an allusion to the decline of the American "Empire", using Edward Gibsons same reasons that he used for the decline of the Roman Empire, that the thin veneer of citizens who profit most from the technologies of the day become lazy with free time and out-source the important stuff to other "countries" (read: barbarians) which leads to the eventual decline and fall.

In other words, this is a political commentary on the fears and concerns of a thin veneer of rich, white, geeks facing a world of hungry geeky competitors at the gate.
posted by stbalbach at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2005


Gibbon

/nitpick
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 3:00 PM on June 19, 2005


Not to mention they make lots of whooshing noises in a vacuum.

That one's so obvious I no longer bother to point it out. But your mentioning it reminds me of a convention I attended some years ago, during which I heard a so-called "science fiction" writer proclaim that we shouldn't bash Lucas for that because, and I quote, "it's still possible an engine that produces sound in a vacuum could be invented."

A more appropriate answer would be simply "poetic license". The whooshing noise, just like a music soundtrack that obviously wouldn't really be there for the characters, adds to the mood of the scene. It's part of the storytelling.

For all the flack Lucas catches wrt Star Wars storyline inconsistencies, I would be interested in a similar comparison to, say, the old Buck Rogers serials. I suspect they were little better. It's not religion; it's not high art. It's entertainment.
posted by Doohickie at 5:55 AM on June 20, 2005


I am way late to this party, but I will point out that his main idea in the NYT-Sith piece is very similar to his Morlocks/Eloi idea in In The Beginning Was The Command Line.
posted by everichon at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2005


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