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Dissed again by Tom


Mark Sommelier
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Do all of you read the live "chat" on Wednesdays that Tom Sietsema does at 11AM? ( http://washingtonpost.com ) It isn't really a chat since it is heavily moderated and has an incredibly slow server. The q's and a's take 10 or 20 minutes to get posted. Today, 9/24/03, was another session that Tom allowed some anonymous person to bash my place. It is not a secret that I work at CITRONELLE. What do you all think about anonymous critiques? Are people too timid to speak up in restaurants these days? If you want a different table, ASK FOR IT! Why accept a table you don't like , and then complain anonymously on the internet? I have spoken on the phone with Tom Sietsema about this anonymous crap that goes on. It is hard to deal with. What do you guys think? It is not easy going to work everyday hoping someone hasn't posted an anonymous personal attack against you or your empolyer. I would like to hear some answers here. Tom claims to read this website. After his Q&A he hasn't repsonded here.

Mark

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Anonymity can be a shield or a sword. I sympathize with those who use it as a shield. For example, we have a lot of restaurant employees participating on eGullet and many of them feel (correctly, I think) that their bosses will retaliate against them for being honest here. So they participate anonymously. Then again, the site's administrators typically know who they are, which provides a certain measure of protection because there is still private accountability, just not public accountability.

But those who use anonymity as a sword are simply cowards. And if a Web site (or any other outlet) harbors such people, and takes no steps to rein them in, then the Web site is complicit in that cowardice.

Of course there are different types of anonymity. For example you take a user like "tommy" on eGullet. The guy has posted here more than 12,700 times as of now. So yeah, you don't know tommy's last name. You don't even know if his name is really tommy. But he is heavily invested in the persona of tommy and that in and of itself is a form of accountability and non-anonymity, provided the technology department at eGullet does its job and prevents tommy from using aliases. (Not that tommy would ever degrade himself that way; I'm just giving an example of what some extremely pitiable souls do with their spare time.)

At the same time, non-anonymity is no guarantee of good conduct. If a person is totally un-self-conscious and doesn't give a crap what people think of him or her, then there's no real difference between that person being anonymous or not. Non-anonymity is only one component of accountability, which is in turn only one component of legitimacy.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hi everybody.

Just to preface, I don't add my two cents here because 1) I already have a forum (an hour-long online discussion every Wednesday on the Post's site) and 2) I think the people who participate here do just fine without me. I'm not certain my contributions would be proper or welcome here on a regular basis.

That said, during my live chat I try to screen out the ticked-off competitors, the flaks wanting to plug their clients, the people who claim to have gotten food poisoning at X, Y or Z restaurant.

Yesterday's missive re: Citronelle and Palena was unlike previous gripes (I could tell from the tone and the way the complaint was written) and I personally encountered rather sullen and abrupt wine service at Citronelle just a few weeks ago (yes, I was dining anonymously; yes, the wine was terrific). That, combined with several reader complaints re: Palena's service, made me feel comfortable airing the complaint.

Thanks for hearing me out.

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Hi Mark, I read Tom's chat every week religiously. I can see how it would get old having unknown customers attack your restaurant week after week. I do think a lot of diners are too timid to speak up. I've been in that position myself. Just the same I'm grateful for the anonymity of Tom's chat...I get lots of good information, positive AND negative, that I wouldn't get otherwise from those anonymous posts. For example I learned about the popovers at Normandie Farm in Potomac from somebody who wrote in yesterday; it sounds like a fun restaurant and I'd never even heard of it until somebody wrote in.

For a long time I protected my own anonymity on the Internet, including here on eGullet. Fat Guy talked me into using my real name in my signature when I started keeping a diary of my experiences as a student at L'academie here on eG. I do think my words carry more weight when I stand behind them with my real name. It's unfortunate that the programming for Live Online chats encourages anonymity by not suggesting people use names. Just the same I find Live Online far more useful than, say, the anonymous reader reviews on washingtonpost.com. I think Tom does a good job of fielding a cantakerous public, asking for follow-ups (remember he asked about an explanation to yesterday's negative comment about Citronelle), and calling foul when something totally doesn't jibe with his experience.

In a more general sense I wonder sometimes about bad service experiences in fine dining restaurants. I'm in my 20s and have never felt age discrimination to speak of, and I rarely have truly bad service such that I might complain about. I don't drink much either, my limit is about two drinks (usually a cocktail and a single glass of wine with most dinners) and my partner who often dines with me doesn't drink at all. When I spent a night in the front of the house at Ortanique I could see personally how satisfaction with service varied depending on the diner's mood when they walked in. I suspect a lot of people who call age discrimination or who decry bad service for nondrinkers are expecting to see those practices, and they approach the table with that attitude. This is not to say I don't think such discrimination happens, just that coming in ready for a good time is more likely to lead to having a good time. I couldn't help but wonder if an off night at Palena led the person who wrote in to expect an off night at Citronelle too...that maybe they were on the lookout for it, or were already tense and defensive when they came in the door. They said they were in Palena one night and Citronelle the next after all.

BTW, Mark, you must follow up on your comment about Citronelle's iced tea. What makes it the best in town?

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Tom--you know you're welcome here and elsewhere on the site, but we also realize you're busy enough. However, I think eGullet affords you an opportunity to explore an issue or flesh something out that you aren't able to online--given the time limit imposed on your Post chat--and the column inches imposed on your reviews.

My main reaction to this specific post Mark--aside from the general question of anonymity on the internet which is really a much larger discussion--is that Tom and the Post did do right by you because they printed your reply. And if you weren't online at the time, I bet it would have been printed the following week. And for me, that real-world accountability reassures--on their part and on your part!

Then we can convene here--the only place where you're going to find diners plus industry pros, chefs, sommeliers, editors, writers and critics like Tom hanging around free to say what they want.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Are people too timid to speak up in restaurants these days? If you want a different table, ASK FOR IT! Why accept a table you don't like ...

We go out into the world each day to reinforce our world view and insulate our egos.

There are those who cannot accept the sadistic part of themselves and so split it off into outside objects. The 'restaurant' is frequently this object and is used as such. Someone else has to be the agressor but it must not be me - and so the follow up on Tom's show is simply furthering the insulation. This type of person is doing the best they can to stay alive in the world and using your restaurant and public forums like the internet to do so, which also addresses the anonymity issue as once again the person in question has removed (insulated) themselves from any true involvement in their role.

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Mark,

I guess Tom is doing his job like the rest of us, to the best of his ability.

If you get too many of these complaints that get get publicised like this one then perhaps someone is trying to sully your(the restataurants) good name.

However in this particular case the food critic is endorsing or legetimising the complaint with a similar personal experience. So maybe there is a problem, so think of it as a positive

1. You got to find out about it ( so did a zinllion other folks)

2. You got a response in which was great publicity as it communicated to all those zillion people that, while you are human like everybody and sometimes apt to make mistakes, you are

a. on top of things

b.act fast with a response, and

c. are going to do something to address the issue.

bhasin

ps: love your comments on pairing spicy foods with wines on the Indian forum.

Bombay Curry Company

3110 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305. 703. 836-6363

Delhi Club

Arlington, Virginia

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First of all, I've always thought that the live chat has got to be one tough gig. As Tom mentioned, there are a hell of a lot of interested parties hiding behind the facade of anonymity. Picking them out from a screen full of questions is never going to be a 100% perfect proposition.

Second, I think it's great that Tom offers Mark and others a chance to reply to criticism. I doubt there is a single chef, sommelier, manager, or owner whose reply Tom wouldn't publish in his chat. And I think it's great that Mark is willing to engage the chatters, however frustrating it can become. It shows that he is committed to what he is doing, and to doing it right.

But back to the specific issues of anonymity and accountability. What does the typical anonymous chatter want? In many cases, they just want an answer to a question like, "where can I get a good turkey molé in this town?" or "where should I go for a great seafood mean on my anniversary?" They see the chat as sort of an interactive dining guide where the act of looking something up in the index is replaced by typing a short query to the person who just happens to have written the book. I don't think a lot of chatters want any more interaction than that.

But when it comes to lodging complaints, particularly against a specific restaurant, things are a little different. There are two reasons for a chatter to complain: because they hope the problem will be corrected; or because they feel a duty to warn their fellow diners about a situation they feel is intolerable. In the former, anonymity reduces the chance that their particular grievance will be addressed directly. In the latter, readers' lack of knowledge about the complaintant's background and biases necessarily reduces their credibility. In either case, a willingness to engage in a dialogue is going to be more productive than posting an anonymous complaint and walking away.

Within the confines of the chat format, I think Tom does all he can to create a back-and-forth discussion. He does this by printing Mark's replies and Gillian Clarke's rants, soliciting recommendations for dining in cities he has not visited, and letting participants tell other chatters it is unreasonable to expect a fine-dining establishment to offer a McDonald's-style playland for their children. Here at eGullet, we can pick up where he is necessarily forced to leave off.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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I think that the fact that Anonymity in a forum like this one or the Live Online chats helps foster a more open and freewheeling discussion. The community itself (the members and moderators here on eGullet, Tom and the producers and to a lesser extent the readers on washingtonpost.com) help monitor and moderate the tone of the posts.

We have all seen many times when Tom will either disagree with a poster or try to call them on having ulterior motives. The same thing happens here on eGullet where out of line posters can get smacked down pretty hard.

As for the specifics of your situation you work in a high profile place that (from what I understand, since I still have yet to go there) deserves all the praise it gets. But it also puts you in a position to recieve more than your share of complaints.

I think most people look at one random anonymous post and take it with a grain of salt (or at least they should). But, if there are several similar posts over the course of time, from what seem to be different sources, then that might indicate a problem.

Bill Russell

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Wow! Thank you Steven, Tom, Steve, Rochelle, Darren, Bill for responding. (so much for anonymity :biggrin: ) What grabbed me about the incident yesterday was a tiny salient detail in the wording of the original complaint. The person claimed to have just dined with us last week. A month and a half ago I will admit we received a complaint letter outlining the same story right down to the "people at the next table telling us the food is great but the service is obnoxious". That complaint was dealt with by the management. Why does it resurface yesterday? Some anonymous person out there has an axe to grind against Citronelle. Look at the reader reviews on the Post's website. The same person posts there, too. Always angry, always derogatory. The story is always the same: "I was just there last week for the second time, and......bad table and lousy service". This person would have us believe he/she is too timid to ask for a different table and too timid to let the manager know something is wrong. Suddenly, on the internet, this person becomes a brave martinet, crying foul, seeking revenge. I am copied on all complaint letters the restaurant receives. In all honesty, we get 4 or 5 letters a year. All of them are handled by the management. A thousand people a week eat at Citronelle. 5 letters a year ain't a bad average. In my particular position, I go overboard trying to be warm, sincere and friendly to counter the image of the snooty sommelier. It works for me. Thanks for listening. I find this stuff demoralizing. That's what moved me to post this thread.

Mark

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It's too easy for any donkey to fire up his or her computer, and post something derogatory. I don't think there's a way to stop it either, except with a well-trained thought police doling out beatdowns for every unwarranted negative post. Seriously, Mark has a point about the repetitive nature of Citronelle's negative issues. All it takes is one person with a lot of free time to tarnish a restaurant's reputation. I do read all the opinions I can find about Firefly, and any negative posts I see I do a little self-check to see if the comments hold warrant. Usually they don't. Luckily, sometimes they are so stupid that no one could take it seriously. Or does the adage "if you read it then it is true" hold here? The internet has forced restaurant employees to have even thicker skins.

Mark, have you ever thought of adding "fuzzy" to your arsenal of warm, sincere and friendly?

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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Some anonymous person out there has an axe to grind against Citronelle. Look at the reader reviews on the Post's website. The same person posts there, too. Always angry, always derogatory. The story is always the same: "I was just there last week for the second time, and......bad table and lousy service".

Now we are talking about a whole diffferent issue; the problem isn't anonymity, it's cyber-stalking. Anyone who has such a bad opinion about the service at a particular restaurant that they need to repeat it over and over again in every possible forum should really just try to move on, find someplace else to eat, and look into getting some semblence of a life.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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First, Tom, it's nice of you to say we're doing fine without you. I'll take that as the compliment it seems meant to be, and add that I'd welcome the addition of your participation in this, and in the other boards where you might offer facts or opinions. I don't know why you would think your contribution wouldn't be proper or welcome here. I can't speak to the propriety of your participation if you have concerns about commitments outside of eGullet, but your participation would be deemed appropriate to our function in the culinary world.

I think we're going to find anonymous outlets for people to use one way or another. Part of the necessary smarts we all need to sharpen is our own ability to tell the cranks from those with a legitimate complaint. Those carrying an axe may be harder to spot if they are sophisticated. For that reason, as well as because negative comments tend to be expressed far more often than people bother giving praise, most complaints need to be taken with a bit of salt. That's little consolation to the offended parties. I don't have any familiarity with any great restaurant that hasn't drawn serious criticism from someone. The world is an imperfect place and we all don't carry the same standard for what's correct in any given situation. Earlier I responded on the France forum about the sommelier tasting the wine. I, and the poster, think it's a service. Others think they're being robbed of a bit of their wine. I suppose a sommelier could always ask first, but the difference between "may I" and "shall I" may set off one diner or another. People can be unbelievably picky. Without good evidence, I've learned to assume the house is right far more often than the customer. I suppose you can assume I've learned to pick my restaurants well, if nothing else. There's probably a lot of bad service out there that I've managed to isolate from my experience making me less sympathetic to those who haven't learned to do the same.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Part of the necessary smarts we all need to sharpen is our own ability to tell the cranks from those with a legitimate complaint. Those carrying an axe may be harder to spot if they are sophisticated. For that reason, as well as because negative comments tend to be expressed far more often than people bother giving praise, most complaints need to be taken with a bit of salt.

This is very true - especially in the completely unfiltered reader reviews on the Post and in other places. These tend to be nearly unanimously negative. In tend to pay little attention to most of these - especially the ones along the lines of "This place sucks". If they are more focused and specific I tend to put more credence in them.

This is not limited to restaurants. In addition to being a "food person", i am also a "golf person". Golf Magazine's website also has a reader comment section for golf courses where you rate the courses on various creiteia and make comments. Even Pebble Beach - the French Laundry of golf courses - has its share of 1's and 2's (on a scale of 5). I played there earlier this year and I can guarantee that no one in their right mind would call it a 1 or 2. Those low rating tend to have the comments of "This place sucks" much more often than a thoughtful critique of the golf course's shortcomings.

Bill Russell

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Mark, don't feel bad. At least your restaurant doesn't have anything negative on its Alexa Review Page. :laugh::laugh::laugh: You should see some of the obsessive juvenile crap on ours. When they start comparing your restaurant to Nazi Germany then I might worry a little bit.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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Mark, don't feel bad. At least your restaurant doesn't have anything negative on its Alexa Review Page.  :laugh:  :laugh:  :laugh:  You should see some of the obsessive juvenile crap on ours. When they start comparing your restaurant to Nazi Germany then I might worry a little bit.

Wow, Jason, you're right! Lucky our review page is blank.

Mark

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It's no secret that I think Maestro is one of the best restaurants in America. I've also promoted Laboratorio and Citronelle as among the best. I say all of this because at a recent party I overheard a friend of mine, in another room, loudly complaining about the $400 she recently spent at the "overblown" Maestro. Three glasses of wine into this discussion her voice had risen and her thoughts could not be ignored. She went into some detail about leaving hungry and feeling that she could have had an even better meal at the Macaroni Grill.

I heard every word of what she said. Much of it was true. She could have had a better meal at the Macaroni Grill because having grown up on macaroni and cheese, rarely eating any cheese or noodle other than that from a box, I cannot imagine her knowing the difference between Reggiano and Kraft. Kobe beef? Whether from Charlottesville or Japan this is a woman, sitting three seats down from me a year ago, that sent a steak cooked medium well back, since it was ONLY medium well. Yet with standards like this she trashed Maestro for the 10 or 12 that could not help but hear her. My guess is that at least half of them, faced with the future choice of going or not going, because of her, will not go.

Here is my problem: someone anonymous, someone who typically doesn't drink wine, someone who probably does not typically visit a restaurant like Citronelle (or Maestro, Laboratorio, Cafe 15, etc.) essentially reports a negative experience on a website that is frequented by hundreds if not thousands of people. Further a second comment is added by the host to lend credence to the earlier post. Meanwhile, like my neighbor who eats Kraft macaroni and cheese almost exclusively and wouldn't recognize quattro fromaggio anything from something she's used to seeing in a box, can dissuade a group of people from going to a serious world class restaurant. This is the problem with a chat, even with a website like this. A negative post can hurt both financially and emotionally. And the negative post isn't even from a professional food critic, rather, perhaps like my neighbor, from someone who's standard is boxed macaroni and cheese. Yet, those listening to her may not have known this. Except in this instance it's someone who didn't drink wine. This is a clear danger in "chats" and in websites like Chowhound and eGullet. I believe that someone's opinion who is anonymous that their opinion should be thrown out. Seriously. There have been far too many times that someone has recommended something to me whose standard has been Olive Garden. Another friend, whose standard might have been Guido or Le Calandre should have had more weight, yet the anonimity of the website didn't allow this.

My sister had a restaurant that Phyllis Richman ranked, in print, as one of her 50 favorite years ago. This was before Helen's bankruptcy. To this day (she is a successful caterer) my sister still works 70 and 80 hour weeks, every week, even after 61 years. But to be trashed because of someone's value judgments who I/we would never agree with their own standards, well, that's one thing. Certainly, one thing that's unfair. To be trashed by a professional food critic is quite another. Like my neighbor, like the anonymous writer, before credibility is given to people like this I believe that we should know a little about who they are and what their own values and standards are. On a chat like the Post's this isn't going to happen.

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The OJC (Obsessive Juvenile Complaint) factor. How can one avoid it? Any place of public accommodation is going to attract it's share. That includes restaurants, hotels and discussion web sites. Pre qualification might help--if you'd like permission to post on eGullet, please submit 200 words on one of the following subjects. :unsure: I don't think so.

I'm sure restaurants would love a way to screen potential diners. I might even enjoy being kept out of a restaurant I'm not likely to appreciate. (Hey, this cuts both ways. There are restaurants serving boil in bag mac 'n' cheese, or is it cheeze as I was corrected recently.) The problem is that they guy who's denied entrance can't be stopped from posting that he ate at the restaurant and the food sucked, and that won't stop him from complaining about the portion size either. In fact, you'd be lucky he didn't say he got food poisoning as well. I don't know about the Washington Post site, although Tom says he tries to weed out the obvious crank posts, but here we expressly prohibit claims of food poisoning without an accompanying doctor's letter and a report to the deparment of health. People will get food poisoning, although more likely at home than in an upscale restaurant, but it's too easy to make the false claim anonymously.

Joe H is on the money. We don't know that the guy who dumps on Citronelle or the French Laundry hasn't just had his first meal where he didn't get change from a twenty. The message that the food sucked or that the place doesn't offer the value of Olive Garden is a dead giveaway, but what about the guy who knows food. He's got a personal gripe. Maybe the sous chef is sleeping with his wife. It's easy for him to write that the scallops were well past the translucent stage or that injudicious use of saffron left the risotto tasting bitter. He doesn't even have to eat there. All he needs do is read the menu on the web. Our alexa detractors will eventually get wise and take the time to write more convincing reviews, if they're capable of masking their juvenile obsession. The point is that potential diners of any sophistication at all, are not going to place a value on anonymous reviews. The pseudonym as Fat Guy has said, is not the issue. Until one has developed a persona I don't place much value on anyone's reviews here or elsewhere on the net. Citronelle and eGullet will both draw their best clientele from positive reccomendations from respected voices. This includes trusted friends, associates and journalists. In more ways than one, this thread illuminates the success of eGullet for me.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Dear Mr. Buxbaum,

Thank you for an eloquent response. Citronelle suffers the same bashing with the same story time after time. I personally am tired of reading it. I am so tired of reading it that I took the extreme step of posting this thread and mentioning Tom in the header. Tom said he dined there "anonymously" recently. Everybody in my place knows who he is. Was he wearing a beard? A dress? A jalaba?

Robert, you should look at the Post website and see the stupid shit that is posted and left there about many restaurants, mine included. The reader reviews are brutal, and fabulous, both. In our case, the same jerk posts the same stuff. Too timid to complain in person, but brave as hell in front of his keyboard.

Edited by Mark Sommelier (log)

Mark

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Having just now read these reviews, I can't see why it is easier to assume that it is always the same person (or jerk) rather than a few different people experiencing the same phenomena, especially as Tom also apparently experienced this for himself.

I also have to say that the "Concerned Employee" response certainly didn't help your case and the attitude of that response would put off as many people as the negative reviews.

I'm not wanting to be negative - I have yet to visit your restaurant - just to point out that it isn't always the best policy to shoot the messenger (or to assume that it's because they're low class rubes only worthy of eating Cheeze in a box).

Bottom line is you always have to take these reviews with a pinch of salt. The good ones as well as the bad ones. I'm sure there are as many good reviews posted by interested parties as bad ones posted by competition or people with an "axe to grind".

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It is always painful to put your heart and soul into something only to have someone lightly trash it for fun, sport, spite, jealousy or for any reason.

It is clear from his emotion and his history of posts that Mark indeed puts not only his heart and soul, but his entire being into Citronelle and being a sommelier that enhances the diners experience. Being a sommelier really means something to him.

Mark I am afraid these are the wages of being on top. Someone will always be shooting at you -- some with good reasons and some with bad. The problem is of course that the general public can't tell the good ones from the bad ones.

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