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The choices of a food writer


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 11:31 AM

From the Daily Gullet: click here.

Are these the most important choices confronting a food writer? What other important choices must be made?

John Thorne has made one very distinctive set of choices.

What other food writers do you enjoy who have made very different choices, e.g. writing from a more omniscient perspective?
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#2 JAZ

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Posted 06 February 2003 - 02:52 PM

A couple of thoughts, Jonathan.

First, I think, for most writers it's not so much a calculated choice between the approaches as it is a process of finding what works the best for you. For example, I use some personal experience in my writing, but I could no more write a "Mr. Latte," Amanda Hesser-style article than I could turn into a major league baseball player. I think it's a mistake that a lot of beginning writers make -- they try to sound like someone else. And I don't think there's anything worse than reading an essay or article or book in which it seems the author is forcing a personal voice or in which the tone appears to be a calculated decision.

And of course you didn't imply that the aspects you discussed are all-or-nothing choices, but I think that's a point that bears emphasis. Take "personality" again. John Thorne's writing is highly personal, as are many food essays these days. But take a book like Harold McGee's The Curious Cook. It's not personal in that same sense (you don't find out anything about McGee's personal life) but at the end of it I think you certainly have a sense of what kind of person he is. Even in the most "anonymous" food writing, some sense of the personality of the author comes through.

[The sole exception that comes to mind is Cook's Illustrated magazine. I find the articles in Cooks positively eerie -- I see different names on the various articles, but there isn't a shred of personality in any of them that would give me the impression that they're written by individuals. Except for Christopher Kimball's opening essays (which for my taste are way too personal), there's nothing human there, which is the main reason I have a hard time reading it; even when I'm interested in the subject, I can't get past that omnipresent CI voice.]

#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 07:26 AM

Jonathan Day's downright Talmudic article on John Thorne (see link above) notes three species of choices:

- "Anonymous or personal?"

- "All-knowing or learning?"

- "Travelling or staying home?"

Let me add the big one I think he missed:

- About food or not about food

This is for me the key issue that separates the real food writers from the pretenders. There are far too many people out there with food writing podiums in major media outlets who simply are not writing about food. "Anonymous or personal?" Yes, but about what. I'm happy with anonymous writing about food, and personal writing about food. What I don't want in a food column is personal writing not about food. (Anonymous writing not about food is even worse!) "Travelling or staying home?" I don't give a damn. If you're a food writer and you travel, write about food. If you stay home, write about food. Yes it's nice to flesh out your food pieces with cultural observations and such, but it should all be pointing to and informing the food discussion.

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#4 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 07:41 AM

Steven's impassioned plea for the visceral reveals yet another Talmudic conundrum: Is food a metaphor for life or is life a metaphor for food?
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#5 robert brown

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 09:17 AM

If you believe that the way people write about certain sphere of human activity is a commentary on the nature of the activity, then food writing or criticism can make us think twice as to whether foodmaking is an art form. I never heard that Bernard Berenson or Erwin Panofsky ever mixed in their European travels in their art historical theories or criticism. In probably more instances or not, food writing has become a sub-division or travel writing more than serioous critical writing. Of course there is also the burgeoning field of culinary history which by its nature excludes the personal. But is that endeavor what we are talking about here?

#6 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 09:24 AM

About food or not about food...this is for me the key issue that separates the real food writers from the pretenders.

I agree with this, Steven. And there are many "food writers" who travel to distant places, eat in expensive restaurants and then write stuff that makes it painfully clear that they really have no idea of what they're writing about. Or they write about everything other than the food. Or write about themselves at great length, then toss in a paragraph about the restaurant they are reviewing. The Sunday Times over here features A A Gill and Michael Winner, who both indulge in this.

On the other hand, there is "food writing" that contains a lot about food, in some cases very knowledgeably assembled, but isn't particularly good writing. Its mission is more to inform the reader than to delight. Many guidebooks fall into this category, as do some of the bite-by-bite analyses of lengthy dinners found on Internet food boards.

But, every now and then, we get both food and good writing together: cause for celebration.
Jonathan Day
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#7 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 09:28 AM

Impersonality in criticism, whether of art or political history or gastronomy, serves to pertpetuate the fiction that a human can write with a divine objectivity. T.S. Kuhn demonstrated that even scientists are writing from a personal perspective -- a point of view or paradigm from which facts are observed and assembled in a format which is radically altered when one observes them from a different location in space or time. I trust the critic or the historian who bares his prejudices more than the po-faced pretender to a neutral indifference -- or an overweening omniscience.
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#8 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 09:53 AM

Is food a metaphor for life or is life a metaphor for food?

MFK Fisher didn't always get it right, either the food or the writing. But sometimes she did:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. ...

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. ...

So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it ... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one.

There is a commuunion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. ANd that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not about wars or love?"

(from the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, 1943)


Jonathan Day
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#9 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 10:10 AM

Thanks, Jonathan, that's the sort of answer I hoped for. Fisher's oft-quoted story, "I was really very hungry", is as John Thorne says, a tragedy: a metaphor of the interrelationship of the reclusive artist, the academic apologist and the accidental public.
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#10 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 10:19 AM

With all due respect to The Great One, MFK Fisher's quote strikes me as an after-the-fact justification rather than an expression of a real person's motivation for anything. Writing about food may be honorable for the reasons she stated, but I'd like to go back in time, take her aside, and say, "Hey, Mary, tell me why you really like to write about food." How much do you want to bet she'd say something like, "Because I really like it!"

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#11 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 10:24 AM

Actually, my bet is that she would have preferred to write about sex: a different hunger, a different fine reality of its satisfaction.

But that kind of writing was harder to get away with in 1943.
Jonathan Day
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#12 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 10:37 AM

But, every now and then, we get both food and good writing together: cause for celebration.

From a book review, by me, that will appear in Saveur next month:

Food writing, like any writing, is best when expertise and talent collide.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#13 robert brown

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 10:49 AM

By its nature, all writing of a critical or historical nature that is more than compiling a timeline or an unannoted bibliography is "personal". It's a matter of when the writer adds material that is not germane to the topic. Of course a person who is trying to make a point about a meal and can draw on a prevous meal he or she had, or uses such for comparison is someting I don't consider extraneous or egocentric. I think what we may really be asking ourselves is if food writing is more worthy of journalism than a branch of humanistic criticism or "heavyweight" reading. That it can be, and is, accounts for the large number of books I find myself tempted to buy every time I go into a bookstore in New York or Paris.

#14 John Thorne

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 11:13 AM

If Fat Guy ever cornered Mary Frances and demanded that she fess up, she probably would have hit him with her walker and told him to get the hell out of her house. He forgets that she claimed that she was not a food writer and she certainly didn't have his simplistic attitudes about the craft. "Yes it's nice to flesh out your food pieces with cultural observations and such, but it should all be pointing to and informing the food discussion." This is completely wrongheaded. Any food writer who "fleshes out" his or her food pieces with "cultural observations and such" should go earn a living writing book jacket copy. What makes writing interesting, as opposed to instructive, is sensibility, and sensibility is all part and parcel of the same thing. For the same reason I think that "food writing, like any writing, is best when expertise and talent collide." This may be true of chefs, but I don't find it particularly helpful as a way of thinking about writing. Talent is too easily confused with cleverness, and expertise is as often used as a cloak for a deeper ignorance. "When expertise and talent collide" seems to me to work best as a description of Gourmet magazine writing -- which, of course, may be exactly what is meant here.

#15 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 11:37 AM

To paraphrase Kipling, "What should they know of cooking who only cooking know?" Fisher wrote so well of food because she knew, as Paul Henderson wrote at the conclusion of _Cornucopia_, his take on British cuisine, "It is a hard thing to say, but fine food is far from the most important thing in the world."
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#16 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 11:53 AM

Elizabeth David once reminded us* that a cookbook was supposed to be a piece of "technical instruction." Most food writing has something of that character to it, simply because we read it in part to satisfy a need, to provide clues on the quest. David was commenting on a dreadful cookbook, but the same would apply to a beautifully written cookbook whose recipes did not work. It would not be fit for purpose, like a knife that did not cut, and hence, in a profound sense, "not beautiful."

This was one reason I was so delighted with John Thorne's take on Paula Wolfert, because I had been irritated by her reticence to give clues about her informants. It wasn't that I planned to drop in on Lulu Peyraud to see whether she would offer a bowl of bouillabaisse, but Wolfert's secrecy was annoying.

MFK Fisher, of course, did a bit of the same. Do you remember the essay "Define This Word" (in The Gastronomical Me) where she visits a restaurant in northern Burgundy, "an old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France's most famous restaurants"? Fisher sits down, hoping for a simple lunch, and instead is served eight hors d'oeuvres, pâté, trout, salad, wild duck terrine, cheeses, apple tart, coffee, marc. It is all delicious, as is Fisher's writing -- this, in my view, is one of her best essays.

But we never find out the name of the restaurant. Given that she wrote in 1936, that is less of an omission. Today, it would be an example of "lack of expertise".

--------

*In An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David with an Introduction by John Thorne -- click here to order
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#17 JAZ

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 02:10 PM

It strikes me that we're all speaking of "food writing" as if it's a homogeneous category, when there are really many different species of food writing, all with different qualities. How can one compare On Food and Cooking with How to Cook a Wolf with Kitchen Confidential?

It's like trying to talk about "non-fiction" as a cohesive genre -- what do you mean by that term? newspaper columns? personal memoir? "how-to" books? magazine articles? history books?

It seems to me that "food writing" is almost as vague a category as "non-fiction," and trying to explain what makes "food writing" good, or trying to delineate necessary and sufficient conditions for successful food writing, is an exercise in futility. What makes a restaurant review good is different from what makes an essay good, which is different from what makes a cookbook well written. And that's not even scratching the surface of possibilities -- what about food science? or histories, or biographies?

I find the Best Food Writing compilations amusing for that reason. Not that the writing in them isn't good; it's very good (and I'm not just saying that because Steven and John's writings appear there). But it's all very much the same type of writing - essays and articles. You'd never find a chapter from Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini in it, nor an excerpt from something like On Food and Cooking. Both are very well written, but they don't fit the profile of the book series, which really should be titled "Best Food Articles, Essays and Memoirs."

And if those of us in the business (or those with a decided interest in it) succumb to conflating the various types of writing that comprise "food writing," the average person out there is even more confused. (I don't know about Steven and John, but here's my least favorite conversational exchange in the world:

"So, Janet, what do you do?"
"I write about food."
"Oh, you review restaurants?"
"Um, no. Actually I'm working on a book."
"Oh, a cookbook?"

End of dialog)

If we recognize that food writing is not one cohesive category, then I think it's obvious that everyone here has expressed valid points about what constitutes "good food writing." But Steven's criteria are valid for one sub-category (restaurant and travel reviews), and John T's apply to another (essays and memoirs). And food science would require yet a third set of criteria. Expertise is crucial in some cases, extraneous in others. Personal experience is distracting in some cases, delightful in others.

I'd bet that if we chose a topic at random and each of us here wrote about it, we'd all write something good, but there'd be nothing in common among our results except the general subject. And that's what's so wonderful about "food writing"; there's room for just about anything as long as it's well done.

#18 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 02:56 PM

Those who write well often have strongly negative reactions to those who write very differently, whether well or badly. It's a phenomenon which extends to the other arts. The most extreme example I know: Sibelius spent his later years listening only to recordings of his own music.

Among food writers, John has written thoughtfully and somewhat ruefully about Richard Olney's postumously published memoir, _Reflexions_. If the work had been published minus an index, food writing in England and America would have come to a screeching halt while his former friends and associates scoured its pages to learn whether they had been cut off at the knees.
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#19 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 03:54 PM

For the same reason I think that "food writing, like any writing, is best when expertise and talent collide." This may be true of chefs, but I don't find it particularly helpful as a way of thinking about writing.

But John, that's how I think of your writing, which I like very much. :biggrin:

Sincerely,

Your subscriber . . .

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#20 vmilor

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 04:08 PM

I have a simple comment about a particular sub-category of "food writing", i.e. restaurant reviews. Very often they remind me of demographic raw data meticulously assembled about a country. There is a lot of information out there but it is tiresome to read and it often obfuscates, rather than reveals, what is interesting and unique about the country. The lengthy analysis of dishes starts to make sense for me when they are geared to show what is unique about the chef, what his particular style is. In other words you need a theory, and overarching framework, to render the empirical material(that is the description of dishes) intelligeable. Of course there is no perfect theory, but to paraphrase John Thorne, the higher the sensibility of the author towards his subject, the more interesting the resulting report will be. I may then visit the restaurant in a different season when none of the dishes described by the author is available but can still make intelligent choices.

#21 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 04:35 PM

Vmilor, the way most newspapers (which is where restaurant reviews mostly appear) divide up the duties, there are "food writers" and there are "restaurant reviewers." Restaurant reviewers are typically viewed as consumer advocates writing about a consumer product: restaurant meals. That's why, in my opinion, most restaurant reviews are not only boring but also barely qualify as food writing at all.

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#22 John Thorne

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 04:36 PM

"But John, that's how I think of your writing, which I like very much." But, Stephen, if you like my writing, for God's sake, you know the last thing that I am is any kind of expert. About talent, well, I suppose I do have some of that, although it is very rough hewn. Perhaps one could say that "Food writing, like any writing, is best when ignorance and talent collide"? Or, better, drag Oscar Wilde out of his special spot in Hades to retort, "Food writing, like any writing, is best defined as the place where ignorance and incompetence so often collide."

"John T's [criteria] apply to another (essays and memoirs)" Well, gee, thanks for tossing me a dog biscuit and pushing me back into my "literary food writing" corner. I would argue that sensibility is what makes one cookbook superior to another, however factual it may be. It is sensibility, not just expertise, that makes Shirley Corriher so engaging, and she and I couldn't be further poles apart. You can say, "well, that's just your taste," and I won't deny it, but, believe me, my taste embraces a universe. :hmmm:

#23 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 04:41 PM

Forgive me, for I am young and have little of the attribute known as "sensibility" -- I don't even have enough of it to know what it means! Can some of the more experienced, wiser, older folks around here flesh out this concept for me? I shall then, armed with my positivistic and handy definition, go out into the world and attempt to acquire sensibility, which I'm sure will annoy a great many. :laugh:

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#24 Gavin Jones

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 04:51 PM

This is a frankly bizarre discussion. Good food writing has to be good writing first. It might then be 'about' various things.
'Food writing' as an area is marketing.
Authors I have read on food such as Rabelais, Marinetti, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth David or the policier San-Antonio may be read as writers about food or writers tout court.
Reading these authors as 'food writers' is a bizarre misprision, to my mind.
If Elizabeth David isn't writing about sens/sexuality and repression I will fellate M. Shaw's hat.
The other writers you can fill in your own topoi and appropriate chastisement.
Wilma squawks no more

#25 JAZ

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:08 PM

"John T's [criteria] apply to another (essays and memoirs)" Well, gee, thanks for tossing me a dog biscuit and pushing me back into my "literary food writing" corner.

John, I don't think that the "literary food writing corner" is such a bad place to be. It's one of my favorite corners to hang out on.

#26 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:13 PM

John Thorne writes:

I would argue that sensibility is what makes one cookbook superior to another, however factual it may be.

There are cookbooks written for a whole range of expertise, from Saulnier's _Repertoire de la Cuisine_, which gives the briefest of instructions to the chef/cook who already knows exactly how to finish in cocotte, to Delia Smith, who has surmised (correctly) that there is a whole generation that doesn't even know how to boil an egg. (Her books are doing very well in France.) In between, the bias is now towards an assumption of relative innocence, in which, above all, quantities must be precisely specified, even when such exactitude is misleading.

But certain cookbook authors of the past are still allowed a certain latitude of precision, even in instruction. If Elizabeth David were writing today and told her readers to "cook the eggs with the milk", her peers would raise a howl of indignation. But she is remembered fondly as Britain's Gastronomic Liberator. Of course she could actually write and, towards the end of her career, immersed herself in painstaking scholarship.
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#27 Fat Guy

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:13 PM

Good food writing has to be good writing first. It might then be 'about' various things.

It can't be about "various things"! It has to be about food! If it's not about food it's not food writing! Am I the only sane person in the room?

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#28 John Whiting

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:17 PM

I don't think that the "literary food writing corner" is such a bad place to be. It's one of my favorite corners to hang out on.

Not a million miles from the No-Name Diner! :biggrin:
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#29 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:18 PM

Can some of the more experienced, wiser, older folks around here flesh out this concept for me? I shall then, armed with my positivistic and handy definition, go out into the world and attempt to acquire sensibility, which I'm sure will annoy a great many.

Let us begin, O young and insensible one, with with the OED.

Power or faculty of feeling, capacity of sensation and emotion as distinguished from cognition and will. Caird, writing on Kant: "Our assertions must be based on the very nature of our own sensibility, and not on the nature of the objects affecting it."

(in the 18th and early 19th century, rare today): capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. Thackeray, Vanity Fair: "This lady had the keenest and finest sensibility, and how could she be indifferent when she heard Mozart?"

A great deal of modern food writing (both restaurant reviews and essays) starts and ends with the technical merits of the dishes offered: the precision cut of the mirepoix, the dozens of layers of foam in the dessert, even the sheer number of courses presented. Wider considerations disappear: the only question is whether the kitchen has worked its way through the athletic challenge of presenting numerous "high degree of difficulty" dishes. I have a similar reaction to the notion of rushing from restaurant to restaurant, maximising the number of 3-star meals consumed per day of travel. Context and setting get lost.

There's more to it than technique (or even ingredients, for that matter), and being open to that is what sensibility is all about, especially where we are talking about refined, 3-star, haute cooking, which in itself can seem to have little to do with satisfying fundamental hungers.

Music criticism went down a similar road in the rise of the "period instruments" movement. For some critics, the only issue was whether "authentic" instruments, scores and performance practice were employed. It was purely technical apprehension of the music, with little consideration as to whether it was music at all.

Having said this, some of the posts on this thread seem to imply that any technical understanding necessarily impairs a broader sensibility around food and life. I don't think this is the case. One can listen to music as well (or better) for having learned some theory, and indeed for having some experience of playing music. A cook can be a good food writer, both at technical and sensible levels.
Jonathan Day
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#30 John Thorne

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Posted 08 February 2003 - 05:19 PM

"Am I the only sane person in the room? "

Finally, you understand the problem.