Friday, January 29, 2016

What is the sound of a 1% interest rate rising?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Monday, January 25, 2016

Thanks, Tony "3:10 to Yuma*" La Russa

Tony La Russa liked playing the long game.
I have Patricia Highsmith and Jean-Patrick Manchette on tap, but today's post is devoted to the man who may have done more than anyone else to make major league baseball almost as long and delay-ridden as an NFL game (though not quite as interminably drawn out as the last two minutes of a close NBA game, as a commenter rightly points out).

I had moaned earlier about the constant interruptions in NFL games when I realized that major league baseball has been becoming more like the NFL in recent years and decades: Tinkering with the rules to boost offense (the DH), increased specialization on the field (the DH), endless games, and so on, and I realized that baseball missed a chance to honor a man whose success did much to foster these trends.

Wouldn't it have been great if Tony La Russa had spoken for eight or ten minutes at his Hall of Fame induction in 2014, then brought someone in to speak for one minute, followed by a conference with the Hall of Fame board chairman? La Russa would then bring in a third speaker to offer a funny line because that's what that speaker is good at, followed by a specialist in touching heartfelt remarks for forty seconds, then another conference with the board chairman.

A fifth speaker, all around good at everything, would then come on, followed by another conference and, depending on how the audience seemed to be reacting, another speaker. La Russa would then bring on the final speaker, who can't talk for more than a minute but who is an absolute master at summing everything up with a memorable exit line.

La Russa's short speech would by then have swollen to forty-five minutes, and half his audience would have been asleep, but those who remained awake would have acclaimed it as one of the best speeches ever.
* Box scores for major league baseball games list the amount of time the game took at the bottom in hours and  minutes: 2:16, 2:44, or, more frequently since Tony La Russa had such success with hyper-specialization and frequent pitching changes, longer than three hours. La Russa runs the Arizona Diamondbacks now, so I think Tony "3:10 to Yuma" La Russa is a hell of a thing to call him. Share if you agree.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Detectives Beyond Borders on stage in Bangkok

Christopher G. Moore was the inquisitor, Edwin van Doorn captured it on video, and I answered the questions, talking about international crime fiction as my shirt exuded a weird purply glow at Check Inn 99 in Bangkok. See the interview here.

In Bangkok at the CheckInn99 on Sunday 15 November 2015 A special inaugural meet up of Bangkok Noir community was hosted by Christopher G. Moore and featured...

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

John McFetridge and I take down the Coens and steal Jay Stringer's lunch money

Youngish crime writer Jay Stringer commented on an online article that ranked the Coen brothers' movies. John McFetridge and I weighed in. You won't believe what happened next.
Don't shoot me; my cultural
references are my art.
Peter Rozovsky: The Coen brothers are the perfect moviemakers for a smart-ass, self-referential epoch in American culture. That said, Fargo was good and their version of The Ladykillers is one of the worst movies ever made, so this list gets at least two things right. He's also right that O, Brother! Where Art Thou? has one of the great soundtracks in movie history. But the movie also may be the most overrated of my lifetime. And this guy was "riveted" by the "hysterical" story? This piece is not from one of those inferior Onion imitations that seem to be cropping up everywhere these days, is it?

John McFetridge: I want to like this many, many times, Peter.

P.R.: Say the word, and I'll post it again.

J.McF.:  I think when it comes to the Coens (much like when it comes to Quentin Tarantino), it's best to keep any comments other than unqualified praise to ourselves.

P.R.:  No, occasional criticism of Tarantino is permitted. The thing about criticizing the Coens is that it amounts to criticizing their culture and, hence, their fans. I think they appeal to an audience that is nervous that it won't get the joke, so must be told "Hey, this is just a joke!" even as it is told the joke.

Jay Stringer: I'm happy to hear the criticism. I disagree with it, but I like to hear the other side in things because I'm never afraid to change my mind

P.R.: The Coens and Tarantino are also brilliant visual stylists, which probably helps, even if the visual style is occasionally cringe-makingly arty and referential. That way, people who don't get the reference can enjoy the visual feast, and people who do get it can congratulate themselves for getting it.

J.McF.: I think there's also a fair amount of making fun of hicks in the Coens' movies. I suppose some pushback against the aw-shucks, wise man (I blame Will Rogers) is needed, but I don't like what I see.

J.S.: I wouldn't lump those two (well, three) artists together. Unless it's maybe as opposite ends of something. I think Tarantino has a conscious effort to be cool. I think the Coens have a conscious effort to be uncool. Whilst both are making that conscious effort, I think the latter leaves more room for interesting characters, stories, and, observations, whereas as 'cool' will always get in the way.

J.McF.: No, I don't think the movies have anything in common, I just find that both filmmakers have fans the way boy bands have fans. Which is fine, of course. I've come to accept that when it comes to art and culture I am pretty much universally wrong.

J.S.: John, I can agree with you on that. I see far less of that behavior among Coen fans, but then, I would, because I'm one of them.

P.R.: What about that nonsense with the hat blowing along the ground in, I think, Miller's Crossing? I think you may be right about the cool/uncool, Tarantino/Coen split. The key word in the case of both is "conscious," because it's a tiny leap from "conscious" to "forced."

J.S.: Peter, you're right, it's a very small leap from one to the other. And sometimes I think the Coens have taken that leap and made a mess (just as I think Tarantino has made one brilliant film, where he took enough of a step back) but I think they've stayed on the right side of that line for many great films

P.R.: You could be right, though I'm skeptical. I've seen just a few of their movies, but those include some that have been highly praised. Still, I don't pretend to be able to offer anything like an assessment of their career.

J.McF.: Remember your comments about "The River"? I think much of that applies here.

P.R.: When I have time, I may post later about George Clooney's performance in "O, Brother ... " Though the performance is enough to make me cringe, I can't fault Clooney because he was obviously performing in a style that had been dictated or at least indulged by the Coens, so I blame them. 

J.S.: John, I should clarify, the behavior I was saying I could see was the more 'fan' culture. But as for your point about them making fun of certain groups, I hadn't seen it, but maybe it's a fair point I can look for it in future.

J.S.: I think maybe for me, it's usually come down to it not sticking out that they single out one group, because so often EVERYONE in the film is an idiot. Burn After Reading did that (and was one of their most criticized films, but I loved it); the film is full of idiots.

J.McF.: It's probably me. People often told me the Coen brothers' movies were smart (or even that they were "for" smart people). So I probably approached them defensively (I used to struggle, being one of the least smart people in any room I was in, it doesn't bother me so much anymore), but there always seemed to be some winking about the idiots in the films. Sure, most of the characters are idiots, but we're not meant to empathize with them at all, we're meant to laugh at them.

J.S.: Oh I'd agree if that's how the films were being sold to you. Hate that in any field. "For smart people" is just another form of exclusivity to art. It's utter crap.

J.S.: But take Fargo as an example. I think what we're really being asked to laugh at in that film is pride. Ego. Self-delusion. That cuts across class and social barriers. Everyone loses in that film out of stupidity driven by one of those traits, and the only character who really has it screwed on is the down-to-earth, working, married mother-to-be.

P.R.: In re making fun of hicks, I liked Fargo, and I think most people did. One criticism I heard was from somebody from that part of the county who said the accents in the movie were bad, that people don't talk the way the Coens had them talk.

J.McF.: I think the exaggerated accents are part of it. Like George Clooney's performance in O Brother, it's an artistic decision I don't understand. I suppose it simply goes over my head, but to me the exaggerated accents draw attention to and isolate the characters, making them more other and less likely for much of the audience to relate to them. And make them easy to make fun of. Of course, maybe going through those emotions while watching is supposed to make us in the audience (who think those things) uncomfortable with our own preconceived notions and with ourselves. I'm totally in favor.
Visual nonsense from Miller's
J.S.: I can certainly empathize with locals who don't like the Fargo accents. I get it every time I watch  Peaky Blinders. That's set in my patch, where my Miller books are set, and those weird accents drive me NUTS.

P.R.: I should make it clear that I don't remember noticing a problem with the accents; I've never been to that part of the United States. But I, in turn, can empathize with someone from Glasgow or Ireland being impatient with bad accents, since those are the sources of what are probably the most widely and badly imitated of accents in English.

P.R.: What bugged me about Clooney's performance in O, Brother... was that tag line that the Coens had him deliver throughout, something like: "Boy, that really hits the spot!" The Coens had him deliver the line in obvious imitation of a bad ham actor. If the idea was to show that George Clooney, sex symbol, was capable of light comedy, why not just have him do light comedy instead of imitating someone trying to imitate comedy? It's just one more bit of Coenish meta.

 J.McF.: Like Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy repeating, "You know, for kids."

J.S.: Can't argue. It's a fair criticism of writing being a little on the nose.

P.R.: Also in re making fun of hicks, remember those funny names that people on social media would make up about those Oregon folks who took over the wildlife refuge? The names included "Y'all-Qaeda" and "Yee-hadies" and such. Now, why is Southern speech used to mock an action led by two brothers from Oregon whose father was from Nebraska? No need to look far for an answer to that question. Vanilla ISIS is pretty funny, though.

J.S.: Yeah I didn't really like the way those people were/are turned into a joke. Not because I don't find them preposterous, but because I don't think it's the right way to address the issues. And I don't want to make jokes out of those guys, while being complicit in a media that in turn makes poor city street kids into villains and heroes.

"Peter, John & Jay discuss stuff." Should be a panel somewhere.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Shtetl, with a glottal stop

Rick Ollerman, Adrian McKinty
You haven't lived until you've heard an Irishman say "shtetl." Thanks to Adrian McKinty, I can now say I've lived.

Oh, sure the audience at Sunday's Noir at the Bar in New York ate up McKinty's reading from his latest novel, Rain Dogs, and sure, his was not the evening's only good reading, but that was no shock. Hearing shtetl pronounced with a glottal stop, on the other hand, was an experience I never thought I'd have. (McKinty's wife's ancestors were from a shtetl, in case you were wondering how the subject came up.)

MC Todd Robinson
Rick Ollerman was there, too, and was too polite to correct me when I kept referring to his fine novel Shallow Secrets as Shallow Grave. Rick Ollerman: Editor, novelist, mensch.

Dennis Tafoya
The Philadelphia area's own Dennis Tafoya read from a work in progress—searing, hard-hitting stuff from one of the original readers from back when I created Noir at the Bar in 2008. (Dennis read the next year.)

New York's Noirs at the Bar happen at Shade Bar, and accolades to the bartender, Laurie, who not only mixes a good Hendrick's and tonic, but also knew my name. And thanks to Suzanne Solomon and Tim Hall, who joined forces for a two-part reading; Dana Cameron; Danny Gardner; Vincent Zandri; and Jason Pinter, who also read, and to Jen Conley, who sat quietly in the audience without organizing an event, reading a story, or announcing her engagement, all of which she tends to do at Noirs at the Bar.
Danny Gardner

Adrian McKinty, Suzanne Solomon, Tim Hall
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Too much of nothing: The High Window

The High Window has plenty of good stuff in it, but I know of no one who considers it among Raymond Chandler's best work. I'm part of that consensus, and here are some of the reasons, based on a recent rereading:
1) Chandler's inspiration flags.  In Chapter Four, needing to give Philip Marlowe and the reader information about the case at hand, Chandler has Marlowe call a friend who happens conveniently to be "a crime reporter on the Chronicle," a hard-boiled convention probably five to ten years out of date by the time The High Window appeared in 1942. The information is forthcoming, Marlowe and the crime reporter friend duly exchange mildly salacious wisecracks, and the reporter disappears, never to return.  The reporter's name suggests that Chandler was well aware of the scene's perfunctory nature: Kenny Haste.

2) The word nothing occurs 73 times in the novel, sometimes like a  self-mocking drumbeat: "Nothing in that, Marlowe," Marlowe tells himself, "nothing at all. Nothing for you here, nothing."  Chandler would engage in morbid crankiness in The Little Sister in 1949. Something similar may be at work in The High Window.

3) On a possibly related note, I detected what I would bet was the inspiration for Ross Macdonald's cringe-inducing pathetic fallacies in The Galton Case. In Macdonald, "Flowers bloomed competitively in the yards." In The High Window, "a small tiled pool glitter(ed) angrily in the sun." Is it fair to blame Chandler's mild excess for Macdonald's more serious sin? Maybe Chandler could be indicted as an accessory before the fact.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Story and voice: A post about The Big Sleep inspired by cold mutton fat

"She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores."
— Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Haunted by John McFetridge's comment about voice and story here at Detectives Beyond Borders and consumed by desire to revisit the greatest mutton-fat simile in American crime writing, I read The Big Sleep again on Saturday.

McFetridge wrote "I think voice is really important in a story but not as important as the story," which sounds at once reasonable and at odds with the wisecracking American P.I. tradition that Raymond Chandler perfected for eternity. So I kept my eye on story this time, and McFetridge was right. The pathos of the story and the depth of the Sternwood family's pride and self-delusion get more affecting each time I read The Big Sleep.

Martha Vickers as Carmen
Sternwood in The Big Sleep's
best performance.

The novel also increased my wonder at Howard Hawks' celebrated 1945 and 1946 film adaptations. Aside from minor details of hair color and such, the performers — and the cast is a strong one — are dead ringers for Chandler's versions of them. And the movie's additions either are plausible extrapolations from the novel (the racy horse-racing dialogue between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart) or good, solid action in their own right (the end of Eddie Mars). My guess is that the former is due to the movie's writers, who included Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, and the latter to director Howard Hawks.

Oh, and the novel's plot is less confusing than the movie's, if that matters.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Modern noir, settling Bruce Springsteen's hash, and the truth about rock and roll: A discussion

Jay Stringer, Glasgow-based crime writer and rumored consumer and provider of drinks at Bouchercon, put up a post on Facebook this week about depictions of working-class life in fiction and the media, and the discussion grew from there. Here's part of what ensued:

Jay Stringer: “I listened to one of my favorite songwriters singing one of his most famous songs last night. And it's a tale of getting someone pregnant, getting married at 19, and that was `all she wrote.' [Ed. note: Bruce Springsteen, "The River."] And ... it just speaks to me of someone who hasn't lived that life, singing without the empathy to really understand it.

“Now, that songwriter gets it right more than he gets it wrong, and there are many other songs — particularly on the albums that followed — where he finds the empathy to deliver it.

“We either make out that it's some soul-crushing grind, that saps people’s dreams and robs them of dignity, or we mythologize it, patronize it into some noble existence full of daily wonder, where every character from that background speaks like Morgan Fucking Freeman with pearls of wisdom, and they're all just happy to be alive, thank you Guv'nor.

“We can't seem to just let it be what it is. A life. A story. A real person. … And truth can be damned entertaining. Because life ain’t one thing or the other; it's not heroic or tragic. Because on the tragic end, we have a lot of modern noir that pisses me off, because it's become a race to the bottom of misery. And that's not honest either. But it's about empathy. Not talking down or up.”

Johnny Shaw, Jay Stringer, Eryk Pruitt at
Bouchercon 2015, Raleigh, N.C. (Photo
by your humble blogkeeper)
Peter Rozovsky: "...a lot of modern noir...pisses me off, because it's become a race to the bottom of misery."

“A similar thought has crossed my mind, with the addition that a lot of modern noir and rural noir and noir with working-class characters also seems to be about how many 'fucks' one can get on the page.

“And then there are Johnny Shaw, Eryk Pruitt, Benjamin Whitmer.”

Jay: “Agreed, Peter. Those guys 'get' it. Life is all of the things. Funny, tragic, heroic, dull, epic, short, pointless, daft, numinous. It's got more that one shade.”

Peter: “Pruitt is the one of those guys I have read most recently, and one thing I noticed in his stuff is that if a character is a dumb fuck, Pruitt will show that the character is a dumb fuck. No bogus nobility here.

“As for `The River,' the `wedding coat’ line always bothered me. I think Springsteen used `coat’ because he couldn't think of anything else that rhymed with 'wrote.' Great songwriters manage to distort the rhythms of normal speech to fit music while creating the illusion that they're writing real speech. In the U.S., no one ever did that better than Johnny Mercer.

“I think Springsteen is pretty damned good as a performer and overrated as a songwriter. The man will have to answer in the next world for `Go-Kart Mozart was checking out the weather chart,’ after all. The songs of his that get cited as great noir songs or heartfelt working-class laments always strike me as a little off. `Wedding coat,’ for example, and what is the reason for the jazz arrangement and Richard Davis' bass on `Meeting Across the River’? What do they add to the song? What do they have to do with the song?

“I flatter myself with the thought that I'm a good test for whether noir with poor or rural or working-class characters works because I have never been any of those things. So if it works for me, it can't work just because it's authentic or some crap like that. It has to be not authentic, but convincing.”

Jay: “I'm growing to think narrative songs can be a trap, too. Not that they can't work, because so many of them do, but I think they're very easy to get wrong. Sometimes songwriters are trying too hard to write prose, and losing sight of what works about a song. And I think the song `The River' shows that. He's a young guy stretching very hard to find a new voice, but the work is showing. I can do things with a book that a songwriter can't do in a song. But a songwriter can do things with a song that I can't do with a book. And I think we should both lean into that. Bruce tells a story in `Racing in the Street,' for example, that's purer than a book, and plays to its strengths as a song. But when he wrote `The River' I think he lost sight of that.

“Funny you mentioned his story songs just as I was essaying about them.”

Peter: “It's hard to avoid that subject when discussing Springsteen. Those long (and I mean long) monologues before songs, complete with rising musical backgrounds of their own and delivered in a suitably throaty voice are pretty good, but make no mistake: They are showmanship, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that, but rock and roll and the people who write about it take themselves awfully seriously. Not everything has to be a primeval evocation of an earlier America or crap like that. Sometimes a musician can just be a good showman. But God forbid anyone should write that about Springsteen. Calling him an entertainer rather than a poet or a troubadour would be so irreverent.”

Jay: “I think that's why as much as Springsteen has been one of my favorites for a long time, Paul Westerberg has always been my guy. He writes songs. He goofs off. He plays guitar and sings. He's not TELLING us that he's telling stories, he's just making us feel. And his songs find emotional truths and are relatable, but he's playing to his strengths in simply wanting to write and play songs. I'm a big believer in finding out what it is your chosen art form can do better than any others, and going for that. I like comics that do things only comics can do. Songs that are the best at being songs. Films, etc. ... If and when a songwriter wants to tell me what they're singing about, that's fine. It's their choice of course, but it adds a bit of glass between my heart and their words. Don't tell me, show me. And the BEST artists, I think, are the ones who get on with it, and don't need to tell you they're artists.”

Peter: "He's not TELLING us that he's telling stories ..."

“That gets right to the point, I think. From the mid-1960s on, rock and roll thought it had grown up, but it was really like a 17-year-old trying too hard to show it was a grown-up and not always bringing it off.”

That was all he wrote.
Jay: “Your `poet or troubadour' line also touches on what annoys me about the cult of Bill Hicks. Which isn't a knock on Hicks himself. Stand up was my first love, but I get SICK of people who want to say `Hicks wasn't just a comedian, he was a POET.’ No. He was a comedian. He was one of the best there is/was at that particular art form; don't cheapen it by saying it's something else. Bruce is one of the best showmen in rock, as you say, so why can't people let him be that, and then talk about how being that also allows him to have things to say about life? Why does Watchmen need to be a `graphic novel' and not just the very best of COMICS?"

Peter: “I remember reading a third-hand account that Springsteen would spray his face with something to create the illusion that he was sweating on stage. Nothing wrong with that if one is a hard-working entertainer, but definitely behavior unbecoming a troubadour. ... I also read, maybe in the same place, that David Bowie admitted that he never had as much sex as he liked people to think he had. One has long known, of course, that the Rolling Stones were a bunch of art school and LSE boys … Rock and roll needs someone to cast an eye on it like the one James Ellroy cast on Hollywood.

“I have a bit of sympathy with the uncomfortable English vocabulary for comics. `Graphic novel' is pretentious and arriviste, and it smacks of insecurity. But `comics' is an odd term, too, because there's nothing comical about many of the best of them. Our language has no accurate, comprehensive term like the French bandes dessinées.”

Billy Samson: "From a lurker's point of view that was an excellent conversation, well done you two! The Springsteen spray-on sweat thing was new to me, but reminded me of the old story of bottom-drawer goths Fields Of The Nephilim losing all credibility with ANY audience early in their career after a bag of Homepride flour (complete with the wee bowler hatted fella cheerily waving) was spotted behind them in a Melody Maker photo, thus revealing exactly how they obtained their deathly stage pallor.

“Obviously Bruce had more critical capital in the bank before that, so wasn't a problem. But everything in art is a pose (of sorts) to gain our trust by its very nature, and balances empathy disguised as sympathy for the artist with actual empathy (for the target audience and others). What I find interesting is how our codes for deciphering and interpreting all this have changed in recent years.”

Jay: “One of the reasons my love for [Tom] Waits grows, I think, is that the selling of the myth, the selling of the pose, is such a part of his art. He's practically winking at us the whole time. To the point that, actually, we don't even question the authenticity. And part of that is because he's a brilliant writer, but also I think because of the way he's made an act out of the act."

Billy Samson: “I find a lot of older people I know, punk-era types who grew up in way more socially aware times, take Waits completely at face value. The notion of him being more Bowie than Leadbelly is dismissed. (The notion of Leadbelly himself actually always being a bit Bowie is another step again.)"

John McFetridge: “I have to admit I don't read much noir anymore. I find I'm rarely in the mood to read about losers or about people getting screwed. I sometimes think we missed a big change in the world (in North America, anyway), and the literature got disconnected. “I've been reading a lot of what you might call '50s suburban lit lately, Philip Roth and John Cheever and Saul Bellow, the kind of stuff I had no time for in my twenties. I see now they were fully engaged in their times. Sam Wiebe brought up Norman Mailer the other day, and he's another I didn't get till I got old enough. I'm looking for that in noir, but what I see mostly is what you said about Tom Waits, a lot of winking. Not because the writers or singers aren't `genuinely working class,' but because the characters often seem to be stuck in another era when people dropped out of high school and still had expectations of normal life.

“Let me put it this way: I remember in history class being told about a shift in European culture (we were talking specifically about France) away from hunting and to fenced-in animals, husbandry, I guess. It meant there was a shift in who were the cool kids, so to speak. Being a great hunter didn't matter so much anymore but being witty in the salon started to be (or being philosophical, I guess).

“So, I guess I find a lot of noir has missed the 'revenge of the nerds' stage that we've been going through the last forty years.

Jay Stringer: “I guess for me, and this brings it right back, is that I feel a lot of modern noir is in the same place as the song I started off by taking at a pop at, except darker. And none of it feels real. We've taken `write what you know,’ and, rather than fix it to `know what you write,’ we've turned it into `pretend to write what you pretend to know. The whole thing in `The River' about the 19-year-old who gets married. Well, my first marriage was 23 (I think) ... I know lots of people who did what the song is singing about, and none of them have ended up being the guy in the song. For one thing, most marriages I've ever known start off in the right place. Not all of those people are happy, but they're not some walking working-class dead. And it's just that total lack of anything real that's bugging me. It can be done in an entertaining way, it can be funny, or dark, or hopefully a mixed bag of emotion, but make it feel REAL.

“And we're in a place — shit we've already discussed this a bunch of times — where entertainment has been separated out from having to be about anything. Something can just be `dumb fun' now, whereas entertainment used to be about things. But we're generations down the line into the misdirect. If our entertainment is no longer talking about who we are, then we forget who we are.

“I agree with you about finding the balance. Absolutely. To quote Ray Banks, "the most lasting argument is made in subtext." I think he said that, anyway. If he didn't, he should have. In fact, let's just say I said it, right there. Trouble is, I think we're in a phase increasingly where the balance has been tipped all the one way, and we're encouraged more and more to go to that, but the ideal is to do both.”

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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