Will Digital Make LF obsolete?

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I would be interested to hear people's views about the long term direction of digital photography, and the impact it will have on large format photography and darkroom practices in particular. I have seen some discussion to this effect in the archive but the most recent I found was a year old so I hope people won't mind if I reignite the debate. I am currently saving up a substantial amount of money to buy a large format lens I have covetted for some years. Part of my justification for spending so much money is that it is an investment for life. I am 27 and plan to be using this lens when I am 70.

But will I be able to? Will my new lens be made obsolete by digital in just a few years? Will manufacturers bring out a "35mm" digital camera with LF format quality at low cost as I have heard a pro photographer say? Will conventional film even be available in five or ten years? I have heard many criticisms of digital photography. The main one I am worried about it does not seem to be as much fun!

In all areas but this I am a technophile. I love all this new digital stuff. But I like fooling around with photographic chemicals, dark slides and enlargers. I am dismayed at the speed with which CD's replaced LP records. Will digital cameras do the same thing and make all my fun a thing of the past? Will film be widely available, or will it be made by boutique specialist firms who make fiendishly expensive film for die hard photographers who insist on doing it the hard way? Or is film quality such that it will always have an edge, in LF at least?

Maybe I have completely misunderstood digital and have nothing to worry about. But I would welcome any views before I spend my money! I would be interested in views from both die hard digital and old school people.

-- Andrew Herrick (andrewherrick@hotmail.com), May 18, 2000


The world could end tomorrow....buy the lens you have always wanted and have fun today.

-- Don Sparks (Harleyman7@aol.com), May 18, 2000.

Not for a long time. It will eventually and that may be a good thing. But right now and in the foreseeable future digital will be digital and silver imaging will still be as it has been for over a hundred years. Say I have a nice D5 Nikon. Okay I also need a computer, scanner, the computer programs, time to learn them, and a quality printer with paper and inks. Now how much does all this cost? I'd say for a quality end product, traditional methods are still much cheaper than digital for now. I didn't say better, just cheaper. Somewday all will be digital except for people like me. I love the work it takes to produce a Fine Art Print. And a nice carbon print is a thing of beauty not easily matched by digital methods today. Buy the lense. You can always sell it to us old farts when the world goes comp[letely digital. James

-- james (james_mickelson@hotmail.com), May 18, 2000.

Check "Last Year at PMA" in the "Uncatigorized" archive for a closely related post. I asked basically the same question.

Since that time, my group has had presentations on digital, and work done in ink can be stunning. Even last night, someone brought in work from a 35mm slide scanned and printed on his home system. (700 dots/inch.) I was impressed, because it had the same textures one would expect to find in large format. Recently, I saw some large 16x20 examples that had been "tossed off" a ($500,000) Lambda printer. The saturation in color was really something. (Again, the source was a 35mm slide.) I'm looking forward to seeing something done with care on a Lambda with a larger original.

A problem that I see with digital (or for us) is that the best work, and the larger work (e.g. prints above 11x14) in digital, must be done by expensive equipment (6 digit) that can't be done at home. With silver, and for a reasonable (?) amount of money, the enthusiast can achieve first-rate results in a home darkroom. This isn't true for ink.

-- neil poulsen (neil.fg@worldnet.att.net), May 18, 2000.

I have been told that the main reason for commercial use of LF is not image quality per-se but ease of retouching. Repro work is almost exclusively digital these days as the necessary equipment reduces in price daily and it is no longer hard to find a qualified digital retouchers. So scanned roll film is increasingly edging out LF, with direct digital capture taking over in areas like catalogue work where the cost is justified by the throughput.

All this says to me that hobby and fine art LF photographers will find film stocks increasinly difficult to come by, especially in colour. This is already true in formats larger than 10x8.

Mind you, there's nothing to stop us making our own plates and printing paper. It's a pain, but the results can be excellent and it's almost certainly easier than persuading Kodak that small markets can be profitable.

-- Struan Gray (struan.gray@sljus.lu.se), May 18, 2000.

Buy the lens and you'll be at the head of the "photography unplugged" craze when everyone is tired of looking at "perfect" digital images in 2035. Look at the resurgence of historic processes and the Holga/Lomo fad today.

That said, your large format equipment won't go obsolete, even if you do decide to give up film for digital methods. Like all technology, the cost of those high-end LF digital backs will come down, and you'll be able to produce images with millions more pixels than a "35mm"-style camera, with outstanding lenses and camera movements. Even if you can control perspective (at the cost of having to crop) and focus with a digital image in Photoshop, it's hard to produce the natural result you can get the old-fashioned way.

-- David Goldfarb (dgoldfarb@barnard.edu), May 18, 2000.


-- John Laragh (jwl@taconic.net), May 18, 2000.

Andrew: There is no doubt that digital will take over the magazine and publication end of photograhy, but there will always be those who appreciate classic photography. I wish you could spend an hour or so in my booth at an art show and listen to the comments on the pictures. So many people have never seen a properly printed, toned and presented LF black and white image. I have had people spend an hour or more in my booth just looking at the prints, and I don't claim to be a world famous photographer although my stuff sells well. I expect nearly all commercial and portrait photography will go digital but at the same time the hard core artists-craftsmen hypo- breathers will never accept digital as a serious method for fine art photography. Buy the lens and enjoy it. I am 62 years old and have had heart surgery, but I still buy lenses just for the sheer joy of using them and looking at them. I obviously am not buying them to use for 20 or 30 years. There is just something wonderful about a precision lens that makes it a joy to own. Good shooting, Doug.

-- Doug Paramore (dougmary@alanet.com), May 18, 2000.

I have to agree with Doug, production stuff will be digital but the fine art stuff will still be there. I plan to start Platinum printing this year and am looking forward to it.

-- Scott Walton (scotlynn@shore.net), May 18, 2000.

Another interesting thread.

Except, perhaps, for fine are, digital will eventually completely replace silver based photography, but I don't know if it will happen within the next century.

Here's why: silver memory is very, very cheap. The amount of information you can store on a piece of film is much more expensive in the electronic or magnetic domain, even today.

But, most importantly, silver is "parallel processing" and electronic is "serial processing". You can expose an entire sheet of film in one ten-thousandth of a second, or 100 microseconds. This is electronic flash. There is no memory that can move all the data contained in a single piece of film in that short of a time frame.

Our company produces catalogs for our products. All of our photography is silver based. It then gets scanned for PhotoShop work. But it starts out as silver.

In any case, buy the lens. Even digital photography uses lenses. And, at least in 4x5, when digital takes over you will be able to buy a digital back at an affordable price for your view camera. (You can buy them today, but whether they are affordable or not depends on your viewpoint.)

And LF will never be obsolete. It's lasted as long as photography. No other camera has the full range of controls as a view camera. It simply isn't practical with the short focal length lenses that 35mm and MF use.

-- Charlie Strack (charlie_strack@sti.com), May 18, 2000.

Andrew I asked myself almost the same question at the start of this year.Having just turned 50 I felt that I and my photography had reached a "crossroads",do I go digital or do I consolidate the old ways?I chose the old ways and blew a fair sum on a 45 enlarger,new 45 camera and a couple of lenses I felt are unique to 45 work. I did this because I beleive traditional processes are here for a very long time to come,just look at the number of photographers printing in platinum,POP,carbon and any other alternative process you care to think of,in fact it seems to be on the increase. So if you look after that lens and yourself you will be using it at 70,your computer? Regards,Trevor.

-- Trevor Crone (trevor.crone@uk.dreamcast.com), May 18, 2000.

I often compare photochemical imaging vs. digital imaging with different mediums in the world of painting. Artists were painting with oils in the 1600's. The invention of Acrylics or Computer Graphics for that matter, have not displaced oil as a viable and popular painting medium. All the mediums in photography or painting are simply tools that various artists gravitate toward, either for their subtle nuances or sometimes for the way they handle. They are not forms of expression in and of themselves, but a means to achieve it.

I sell broadcast television equipment to feed my family and in the twenty years that I've been doing that, I've seen enormous technological change take place in that industry. As with any other technologically driven field, many demand to have the latest, some not even understanding what it is they are asking for! "I wanna go digital" is the common remark I hear. Digital processing in a camera? Digital tape format? Non-linear digital editing? Digital what? Tape? OK, D1?, D5?, DV?, DVCPro?, DVCam?, D-9?, 4:1:1 sampling?, 4:2:2 sampling?, 8-bit?, 10-bit? Do you see my point? You can spend a great deal of time trying to understand all that is new before you can even chart a path of purchase. I'm not saying one should reject all new technology, but rather to consider it all as a selection of tools for specific tasks. If you can identify the tasks at hand, the right tools will be obvious to those who bother to read and keep up with the times.

In art, the business of what tool to use is more emotional. Some people don't like to sit in front of a computer screen. It reminds tham too much of television or work, for that matter! Some people like to get their hands wet and enjoy the tactile aspects of making traditional prints. The process has mistique and requires a certain brand of dexterity and thought that differs from the world of computers. The business of going out into the wilderness with only mechanical tools that require no batteries or cables or laptops, to some, fits in more comfortably with hiking in the out-of-doors, devoid of the sounds of the modern rat race.

On the other side, there is tremendous possibility for experimentation in the digital domain. Remove picture elements, add new ones, rob from one image and paste into a second. Change contrast, tonal scale, soften, sharpen, the whole gamut offers tremendous possiblities.

I say the two worlds will coexist for a long time. As long as there are people wanting to express themselves with traditional tools, you'll be able to find the materials. They may cost more. They may be fewer in variety as "highly profitable markets" dwindle, but you'll be able to get the tools and supplies you need. There may even be a resurgence of interest in various mediums. Just look at the cottage industry that has sprung from the many alternative processes you read about in the trades.

As for what any person age 27 will be doing when they are 70, all I can say is "probably not what they think they will be doing". I would buy the tools that seem appropriate for the task at hand and with which you have the greatest comfort level. It's what you do with those tools that really counts! Good luck and thanks for asking such a great question of this forum. I'm sure it will get a lot of us thinking real hard about just what we do all this for!

-- Robert A. Zeichner (razeichner@ameritech.net), May 18, 2000.

Great comments by everyone, esp. David G and Bob Z. Inkjet/digital may be seen as a alternative medium. Instead of trying to make an inkjet print minic a photography, we can use this new tool to create the best expression it is possible of. That is why we still have people working in charcoal, lithograph, etching, drypoint, watercolor and so on. Think of yourself as a printmaker-then find the medium that fits the expression. That's why I like the book called Photographic Printmaking, this is what we are doing. ON THE OTHER HAND, each new medium changes the standard for authenticity and, also, how we psychologically interpret the world. This is the great part of Keepers of Light. Thus, in the old days, if we needed to establish that we graduated from a certain university, we would have to have had the registar sign a typed letter, which we then submitted by mail. Today, a xerox copy of your diploma is expected-and demanded! And it may eb transmitted by fax. But is that really as authentic or verifiable a documentation. When we accepted a wood cut as "reality," we perceived our world differently from when "paintings" or "photographs" cut it. That is what respondents are saying: it may be hard to detect, but there is a difference between light-sensitive, chemically developed materials and digitally produced ones, (the photon vs. the pixel, as it were), just as there is between movies shot on film stock and those done on video tape. Great list a

-- David Stein (DFStein@aol.com), May 18, 2000.

Digital won't make LF obsolete. LF became obsolete when Oscar Barnack introduced his Leica. Vinyl became obsolete when CDs were introduced. 35 MM motion pictures became obsolete when HDTV Video came along. But wait a minute....

Why do people flock to 8x10 and 4x5 from medium formats? Why do collectors seek out vinyl claiming it has a warmer, fuller sound than CDs? Why are features still shot in 35 mm instead of v

-- Wayne Campbell (wtcamjr@aol.com), May 18, 2000.

Until recently, I thought we were about 10 years away from digital being a serious threat to even medium format, let alone LF, but I've had to revise that drastically.

Snooping around Kodak's website, I see that they already have 36 x 36mm square CCD sensors with a resolution of 4096 x 4096 pixels! They're monochrome sensors with extended blue sensitivity, but put 3 of them together to give a full RGB image, and you've got one hell of a digital camera. The 16 megapixel resolution would give MF a very serious challenge. And this technology is available now.

Of course, I don't know what the cost would be, but I do know that it'll be half of that in a years time, and a quarter the year after. Meanwhile the cost of a basic MF camera continues to rise, as does the price of film. My initial estimate of 10 years looks way off the mark. Just food for thought.

-- Pete Andrews (p.l.andrews@bham.ac.uk), May 19, 2000.

I also think its much closer than most people seem to think it is.

-- Ron Shaw (shaw9@llnl.gov), May 19, 2000.

If/when digital takes over, the last piece of equipment to become obsolete will be the lens. No matter what you do, you still need to form an image to begin with.

-- Quang-Tuan Luong (luong@ai.sri.com), May 19, 2000.

I worried about this for awhie too. I see a time when digital could match the quality of LF today. But there is much more to the advantage of using LF than just image quality. I had a vision of a future digital camera that would replace todays LF camera. Whatever quality a digital camera is capable of, to match LF it would also have to be capable of tilts and swings and a larger viewing area to fosus on (an 8x10 screen for a handheld camera?).

So, the digital equal to a LF camera of today would have tilts and swings in some form and a large (possible expandable or pop-up) viewing screen at the very least with possible other differences from a regular digital camera. What I'm basically talking about is a standard LF camera with a digital back. You would probably have the same image quality as you would get with a conventional LF camera and having a drum scan of the negative or transparency. Add in the extra cost of the digital LF camera and I don't see any advantage to traditional LF equipment.

-- Mike Troxell (mtroxell@ix.netcom.com), May 20, 2000.

A painter can take Photoshop or a similar program and create a 'digital painting'. Now suppose a new printer is developed which will print out an image that simulates conventional oil paints, watercolors, charcoal finish, ect. that is indistinguishable from the finish provided by the traditional medium an artist would use. Is this 'digital painting' that someone created with a computer as valid as a traditional painting even though the digital artist mentioned may be incapable of drawing even a straight line with a paintbrush but relies on the computer program to get all the lines, angles, colors, ect. correct that the painter may not have been able to produce manually?

I realize that digital manipulation takes skill and talent, but I feel that some (many?) photographers who have spent years perfecting their camera and darkroom skills feel the same about digital photography as a traditional painter would feel about the digital painter. It may be wrong to feel that way but still.....

-- Mike Troxell (mtroxell@ix.netcom.com), May 20, 2000.

Firstly thanks to all for your valuable responses. Whatever it may do to our photography, the digital age is a wonderful thing in being able to connect people like this from around the world. The discussion has made me realise that I had in fact asked two questions but had confused them into one.

The first is whether digital (in small or MF) will replace LF by virtue of its low cost/high quality over the coming years, thus rendering my new lens obsolete. I now realise that no matter how great the resolution and sophistication becomes at the back end, you still need a superb piece of glass at the front to take a superb picture. Digital won't change that. And whatever advances are made at the small end of the scale will carry over into the larger formats. Someone said recently that you can "walk into" a large format picture by virtue of its incredible detail and sense of space, and that you could never do this with a 35mm picture. I suspect this relationship will hold with the new generation of cameras as well. So I suppose I can buy my lens knowing it won't become useless in a few years.

The second question centres on the ongoing availability of conventional film. I agree that for professional photographers (who aren't particularly fussed about the fun or romance of the old ways) digital will take over completely. So the question I ask myself is whether the serious amateur photographers will be a sufficient market to keep the flame alive. I suspect yes, if for no other reason than LF photographers tend to be an obsessive lot and will probably pay the extra money to get what they want! Here's hoping. Anyway thanks again for all your contributions and here's to a long life for the old ways!

-- Andrew Herrick (andrewherrick@hotmail.com), May 22, 2000.

Everyone has missed the most important aspect of traditional vs. digital: Image stability. Film offers the chance to reprint the image in the future, and it can look just as good. Digital cannot do that. It probably never will. There is no such thing as an "archival" digital file. It is not only up to a cd or similar type of media. File formats change, especially in the fast moving software market. Press and magazine photographers are alerady realizing they need the image on film, regardless of how it gets used later. It is not print quality or editing that will keep film around, it is the need for images that last, and the knowledge that people in the future can access those same images. Digital is the ultimate form of throw-away photography. Don't bother to question print stability, think about the source of the image.

-- E.L. (elperdido65@hotmail.com), May 22, 2000.

No. Digital will die.

-- Wayne (wsteffen@mr.net), May 22, 2000.

I agree with Wayne: I believe that "digital", in terms of image capture, is a fad. It might well replace the point-and-shoot for people who care only for snapshots, but will never supplant ANY format used by "serious" amateur photographers.

On the other hand, digital output (the Lightjet, e.g.) is here to stay......

-- john costo (mahler@lvcm.com), May 30, 2000.

After almost 30 years in the darkroom I am moving to digital. This is due mainly to an allergic reaction to the chemicals involved with creating fine prints. This has not been an easy decision and my solution is a compromise at best, I will continue to shoot LF on film, but that film will be scanned, manipulated, and then digitally printed. The selling point for me was seeing an 11x14 B&W print done on an Epson 1200 with a "quad-tone" ink set. It truly did rival much of the work I have done. If you then look at the output from the Epson 1270 or 2000P for color work you can see that we are at the doorstep to being able to produce fine art prints at home digitally.

I would like to address two of the statements above, 1) I work in computers for a financial institution for a living and as far as long term storage, I have files that are older then some of the people posting here, yes they had to be translated from 8mm tape to CD, but the fact is they are still usable today. Compare that with some of the early Ektachrome slides I have which will now require hours of Photoshop work to restore. 2)The second point would involve the deficincies of CD's compared to records. The truth is that in the early days of CDs the sampling rates were low enough that you did loose some of the warmth of a recording. That has long since been resolved and the fact is that prices have gone down enough that my 18 year old son can now afford a multitrack digital recording studio based on his home computer! In my youth the equivalant tape studio would have cost 10s of thousands of dollars and the tapes would have been full of hiss and static.

Digital will continue to evolve at breakneck speed, those who ignore it will be passed by it, for some that is a totally acceptable inevitability. However, just as digital instruments never completely replaced traditional drums and guitars, digital capture devices will never totally replace film. However the output device will change and change fast!

Just my .02 worth!

-- Harry Pluta (hspluta@msn.com), October 17, 2000.

Yes, it will. Digital will get bigger & bigger and then the United Nations will, under the leadership of World Czar Bill Gates, declare silver, platinum and all film media tools of the devil. All film and especially large format, hand tools of the devils henchen, will be confiscated and destroyed. The words Ansel, Weston and Deardorff will be stricken from the language of world 'Gatespeak' and any uttering them will be put to death.

Images and image ownership will reside with the world Czar and any who try to keep some for their own will be hung, with the Corbisographers (image recorders of the future) documenting the whole affair on their digital media content providers and immediately downloading it to all the palm pilot mediameisters of the world where media specialists will tell us what we have just witnessed while at the same time debiting our bank accounts for each image downloaded.

Content will be what these 'new images' will be called and any foolish enough to hoard old images of any media will be severely dealt with. Anyone caught with Large Format photo gear from the past, other than in the museum of the history of Corbis Media, will be put to death or forced to look at student digital media content providers images of their cats and dogs until they lose their mind.

Yes, the truth will come to pass. When LF is outlawed, only outlaws will shoot LF.

-- Dan Smith (shooter@brigham.net), October 17, 2000.

Probably not, at least not until a digital system can povide the following : Image resolution meeting film quality, the scanning backs themselves are self-contained - what I mean is that you take a picture, and then an image is projected/viewable from the ground glass, without the need for a PC to be on hand, as for the storage side, we are reaching that capacity, however the capture side of things is still lower quality than film. However one thing that will not be bad for LF is the post capture digital side. As this gives you the ability to produce digital 'contact seets' mixing col neg, B+W, and slides.

-- David Kirk (david_j_kirk@hotmail.com), October 18, 2000.

Its my belief that film will be around as long as the mass consumer market continues to buy it. If consumers were going to abandon film soon, they would have done it already. Image quality isn't really an issue for them. Image storage, convenience of obtaining prints, and battery drain continue to be the major impediments. As long as the industry continues to expend all of its efforts on image quality, film will remain available, including LF film, IMO.

-- Joe Buechler (jbuechler@toad.net), October 18, 2000.

Film will always have the edge in that, once it is developed, the first generation image will be easily viewed without an intervening layer or layers of technology. But make no mistake digital is coming. Right now it is fiendishly expensive and any specific piece of equipment or software is technically (but not necessarily functionally) obsolete almost by the time it arrives on the market.

-- Ellis Vener (evphoto@heartstone.com), October 18, 2000.

Film will always have the edge in that, once it is developed, the first generation image will be easily viewed without an intervening layer or layers of technology. But make no mistake digital is coming. Right now it is fiendishly expensive and any specific piece of equipment or software is technically (but not necessarily functionally) obsolete almost by the time it arrives on the market.

Also try making a long exposure on a digital camera sometime.

-- Ellis Vener (evphoto@heartstone.com), October 18, 2000.

Are some of you guys for real, saying digital is a fad or will die? Or just totally clueless?

I'm laughing either way. Digitally-acquired photographs already surpass medium format quality. The equipment is grossly expensive now, but prices are dropping by about 1/2 each year.

In the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to: - shoot a 4 X 5 or 6 X 9 camera with a digital back capable of hundreds or thousands of pictures - shoot with no grain and achieve resolution limited by the lens only. - shoot with 14 stop dynamic range - preview and bracket shots instantaneously - achieve greater color accuracy, and defer color/white balance until later - surpass 4 X 5 quality

That being said, all these things together may take 5-10 years to be reasonably priced. But it's only a matter of time.

-- lloyd chambers (photo@llc4.com), October 23, 2000.

Lloyd: The question is, rather, whether *you* are thinking straight. You will be able to shoot images with resolution limited by the lens only, huh? Well, you better patent that technology, my friend, because you've obviously discovered an imaging system based on infinitely small picture elements, even smaller than the atom! Get real, Lloyd, interpolation and up-scaling is not resolution, it's just scaling. Oh, and another thing. Don't make blanket statements like "digital already captures better images than 4x5 and 6x9." What digital? What film? Yeah, scanning backs are great, but despite marketing hype, I doubt that there is any scanning system that actually has quanitfiably more resolution than a 4x5 negative. A 4x5 neg has at least 10 -12 times the resolution of 35mm, which has been estimated at 12 million pixels. Therefore, your scanning back would have to have an imager capable of 144 megapixels. NOT FILE SIZE, my friend, but actual "at capture" (read: like film) resolution of 144 megapixels. Name one. As for the "no grain" issue- Ever notice that no one complained about the grain of 4x5 (pretty much a misnomer) until people started talking about the grainless qualities of digital? Wonder why? I'll tell you. . .because you have to blow up 4x5 to extreme degrees to see grain. I mean, you'd have to scrutinizing an 8 foot by 10 foot print at a viewing distance of a few inches to see objectionable grain from a 4x5 neg. I mean, come on. . . do you really call that "grainy image quality?" Sure, digital doesn't have grain. .but guess what? It has pixels and color banding/noise problems. You don't get something for nothing. I'd rather see a slightly grainy but highly detailed film print over a "smooth and grainless" digital image that made up detail by using computer algorithms to add pixels to enlarge the image. If the detail isn't there in the capture, regardless of the medium, it ain't there. I will concede that there is no reason why digital can't be made to capture more contrast range over more stops. . but this at the cost of long exposures right now. Moreover, the only advantage to this is having more information to work with in a file. Given the physical and optical properties of projection and print viewing. .it's not actually possible to represent more than 4-7 stops of contrast. That's not an "analog" (ugh) limit, it's the immutable laws of light and reflection.

I suppose this post is going to strike some as overly zealous and reactionary. . and frankly, that's not the point, but I don't care. The reason I get so incensed by this kind of nonsense is that digital enthusiasts are given to making all sorts of wild, crystal ball predictions about a techno-utopia of digital photography-all the while neglecting the fact that beatiful, technically perfect film photographs have been made for more than a century, and it's not breaking anyone's back. There is nothing subpar about well executed film images-maybe that's the reason for many digiphiles' hyperbolic claims that film is so crappy-they've got to justify why they're so obsessed with catching up to it. Apparently all the hassles of digital image making- expensive, computerized processing work, having to be familiar with all manner of expensive, complicated, jargon-ridden and constantly "upgraded" software is so much easier than clicking my 4x5 shutter at 1/125 of a sec, processing and printing it. Yeah, right.

-- Josh Slocum (jayslc@yahoo.com), October 23, 2000.

Hi!Nobody mentioned that with a digital back (for optimum results)you should buy a "DIGITAL" lense which focus the different color wavelenght to a more uniform plane.So,maybe it could be wise to buy that lense.... in the "DIGITAL" version,if available.

-- Gil. Langlois (langloisgilles@yahoo.com), November 03, 2000.

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