[the palaverist]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

[koreans in uzbekistan]

There is a beautiful shot about a quarter of the way through the South Korean film Wedding Campaign that captures as well as anything the dislocating loneliness of the foreign. Man-taek, an aging bachelor farmer who has come to Uzbekistan in search of a wife, is standing at his hotel window, gazing out into the Tashkent night; a trolley crawls along the street below, its cables giving off irregular showers of blue-white sparks that light up the empty, alien street. The dancing shadows, the sensation that even light has become something strange and incomprehensible, sent a little chill of recognition through me, and I thought of our first night in Korea, gazing out the car windows at hundreds upon hundreds of red neon crosses floating in the night, their meaning obscure.

Wedding Campaign — the Korean title, Naui Gyeolhon Wonjeonggi (나의 결혼 원전기), more literally translates to "My Arranged Marriage" — is the story of Man-taek (Jeong Jae-yeong/정재영) and his best friend Hee-chul (Yu Jun-Sang/유준상), a taxi driver. They are nearing 40 and unmarried, a near-hopeless situation in Korea, especially in the countryside, whose towns have come to resemble old-age colonies as the young have migrated to Seoul in search of education and opportunity. The opening scenes, which are very funny, introduce us to Man-taek's aimless, pathetic life of nocturnal emissions, drunken binges and bad karaoke over civil-defense loudspeakers.

Fate intervenes when Man-taek's grandfather discovers a mysterious being who speaks Korean but looks white, or sort of white, and has to ask about the meanings of certain words. It turns out this strange creature is the new wife of someone in town and is from an unpronounceable place far away: Ooz-bek-eess-tuh? Something like that. Soon Hee-chul is arranging a journey for the two bachelors, through an expensive matchmaking service, to this mysterious country far away where there are Koreans who apparently want to marry aging men from the motherland so they can move there. (The film gives a cursory explanation of how Koreans ended up in Uzbekistan: basically, Stalin deported 172,000 ethnic Koreans from the Far East to Central Asia in 1937 as part of his broader policy of genocide through deportation.)

Once the pair arrives in Tashkent, along with two other bachelors whose stories (and terrible suits) provide additional comedy, there are plenty of twists, turns and complications, but it's obvious from very early on that Man-taek will forgo the various pretty girls paraded in front of him in favor of his translator, Kim Lara (Ae Su/애수). Indeed, the film falls back on a number of romantic-comedy conventions — the oaf who turns out to be loveable, the agonized howling of separated lovers, the inevitable romantic success of the protagonists — but there are two things that make it all hold together. The first is the unusual plot and setting, involving not just the community of Korean Uzbeks, but also the sleazy business of marriage-fixing for the sake of visas and the precarious situation of Kim Lara, who turns out to be a North Korean refugee who hopes to earn enough to buy a forged South Korean passport. The film was actually shot in Tashkent, and the strangeness of Koreans among mosques, and of mosques among Soviet buildings, lends an atmosphere of unpredictability.

The second strength of the movie is Jeong Jae-yeong's performance as Man-taek. I've always been annoyed by movies about losers or unpopular girls who suddenly get a makeover and get the boy or girl of their dreams, because the character in the initial loser phase is usually played by an attractive, talented actor and is typically more attractive and fun than your average real-world non-loser. The actor just has to switch gears, from playing an oaf to playing a romantic lead, which is something that any capable actor should be able to do.

Jeong Jae-yeong manages to avoid this clichá by playing an oaf who remains an oaf, yet somehow manages to be believably attractive to Kim Lara. Man-taek never ceases to be the sweaty, stuttering, stubborn, sloppy-eating, binge-drinking fool, yet he manages throughout to express an underlying dignity that the audience believes well before Kim Lara falls in love with him.

Adding to the believability of the central romance is the film's layered examination of what it means to be alone and alienated. Man-taek is never alone — he has a best friend and a family and lives in a small town — but he is nevertheless a man apart, aging into a role for which his society has little respect. His experience of Uzbekistan is, of course, all about being somewhere alien, while Kim Lara, as a North Korean refugee, is also alone in the world, living in fear of discovery by the authorities.

That Lara is North Korean adds to the layers of alienation. In some sense, the Uzbek Koreans are a proxy for the lost Koreans of the North: a group of people who are Korean in a way that is recognizable to South Koreans, yet who are obviously from a different world. There's a touching moment when Kim Lara takes Man-taek to a Korean restaurant, where the half-starved bachelor wolfs down a meal that is at last familiar. He asks Kim Lara what she thinks of the food and whether it's too spicy for her (Koreans rightly believe that a lot of foreigners can't handle the amount of pepper paste they slather on everything). She says it's delicious, using the formal mode. Man-taek corrects her, telling her she should say it in the informal mode appropriate between friends. Then he grins, with a mouth full of food, and declares that he's never taught anyone anything before. Kim Lara tells him that whoever he takes back with him to Korea, he should teach her all about South Korean manners and customs.

The obvious emotional subtext, of course, is that Kim Lara secretly wants to be that woman. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is her own sense of awkwardness in terms of South Korean manners, to the point that a South Korean could mistake her for someone foreign-born. Has the North really drifted so far from the South? It's hard to know for sure, but we are approaching the time when there will be no one left alive who remembers Korea as a unified entity. (Even today, Koreans who remember an undivided Korea are recalling not a unified independent country but an annexed territory of Japan.) As the language of each country moves in its own direction, as the cultures drift ineluctably apart, will North Koreans become as foreign as Korean Uzbekistanis?

I don't think they will, but Wedding Campaign manages to hit on a number of Korea's fears: that its farms will be abandoned, that the countryside will be emptied of young people, that the population as a whole is aging too rapidly, that the North is drifting away. Still, these themes never weigh down the movie, which stays funny and light on its feet while giving its main characters enough depth and complexity to keep the viewer sympathetic. If you have the chance, go see the second showing this Sunday afternoon at BAM Cinematek.

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Monday, August 28, 2006


There's a new post up at the irregularly updated Pistlethrot.


[the dark side of music blogging]

Enjoy this fascinating look at the dark underbelly of music blogging, starrring Aziz Ansari (via Another Form of Relief).

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Tourfilter is a fantastic new tool that I discovered through the Hype Machine blog, Machine Shop. It's simple and brilliant: put in the name of an artist you like, and Tourfilter will email you when they've got a show scheduled in your town. You can see my list and share your own with your friends. It's a great way to keep track of numerous artists without having to fish through dozens of listings at various clubs. I'm just hoping they integrate with Google Calendar soon.

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[soundtrack to milfs]

Mama (MP3 | Video) by Kennedy

"Nobody loves you like your mama loves you / But who's lovin' your mama? I am! I am!" Genius. Watch the video. (Via 2 Many Scenes.)

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Friday, August 25, 2006

[too much music!]

Now this is dangerous: The Hype Machine is a music blog aggregator that allows you, with the click of a button, to listen to the latest tracks from a ton of blogs, or else the most popular tracks, and provides links to the original posts so you can download the stuff you like. There are hundreds of blogs, and thus hundreds of eclectic tracks — more than you could possibly listen to, especially if you let yourself get waylaid by interesting blog posts with additional songs in them. But it's also an inexhaustible source of new music, which is pretty fabulous.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

[it makes me smile]

Knock 'Em Out by Lilly Allen

Big Chief by Professor Longhair

Lily Allen is a pop sensation in the UK, where she's already hit number one with her single "Smile." Set to chipper, ska-inflected beats, Allen's songs hide a sharp wit and a dark worldview. Though she doesn't rap, her lyrical rhythms and density are informed by hip-hop, and there are hints of The Streets and Lady Sovereign in her music — Allen has the dour intelligence of the former and the charm of the latter — as well as a touch of Dawn from The Office.

I first heard of Allen through Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker. You can hear a great deal of Allen's music on her website, and also catch a couple of videos. And the MP3s are from Aurgasm, which may well be where Lily Allen first heard that fantastic Professor Longhair piano riff before turning it into the backing for "Knock 'Em Out."


Monday, August 21, 2006

[colors and numbers]

I have discovered a most extraordinary blog. 16 Colors elegantly combines the Internet's tendencies to spectacular pointlessness, acute nerdiness and accidental beauty.

I stumbled across this strange beast while searching for an online random color generator. And why was I searching for such a thing? Because I'm learning Korean.

See, when you're learning foreign vocabulary, you can often help yourself along by creating little mnemonic stories about the new words. For example, I can remember that sukje (숙제) means "homework" because I think of an Arab kid who'd rather go to the souk and smoke a jay than do his homework. Elaborate? Yes. Effective? Very.

There is some vocabulary, however, that is simply not amenable to that kind of mnemonic storytelling. Specifically, number and color terms just have to be memorized through brute force and repetition.

Koreans have a couple of different number systems, and while the Chinese-based system is relatively simple — higher numbers like 25 are just "two-ten-five" — the Korean native numbers, used to tell people's ages, have unique terms for 20, 30, 40 and so on up through 90. (Past 99, it's all the Chinese system.) To bang these beasties into my head, I dug up an online random number generator, made a long list of numbers between zero and 99, and then sat there for a while reciting them. After about ten minutes, my intuitive knowledge of number terminology had increased substantially.

Looking to replicate this success, I googled "online random color generator," and lo and behold, I found my way to 100 Random Colors 2.0, which is exactly what it sounds like. Hit reload and watch the colors change! (The site was created by web designer Regnard Kreisler C. Raquedan.) But somehow the random colors are even better in blog form. There are even archives!

Meanwhile, I should get back to mumbling Korean words at the screen.

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[yet more beck]

Looks like Beck's new album is to be called The Information and released on October 3. The tracklist is up at Beck.com, and you can hear two new tracks — "Nausea" and "Strange Apparition" — there, while Beck's MySpace page has "Nausea" plus "Motorcade."

According to Billboard Magazine, The Information will have 15 tracks and come packaged with a DVD containing videos of all the songs.


Friday, August 18, 2006


This one's for you, Jenny.

On Tuesday, with the day off for Korean Independence Day, I made my way to the Brooklyn Public Library's Central branch, at Grand Army Plaza, and came home with an armload of books, among them Roadmap to Korean by Richard Harris (not the actor), a student of the Korean language, a resident in that country for five years at the time of publication, and a kindred spirit. His book is a compendium of useful concepts that he wishes he had, and now I wish I had, upon first arriving in Korea (example: an appendix with translations of typical ATM screens).

When we were in Korea, our school's assistant director and our primary boss, James, was fond of prefacing every statement with "Maybe," which led to much bafflement. "Maybe tomorrow is a holiday." "Maybe you teach one extra hour tonight." "Maybe I have to go to Seoul tomorrow." Maybe? What the hell does that mean?

In a chapter about how Korean is a high-context language, meaning much is said indirectly or left understood based on context, Harris has this to say about Korean maybeism:
Another example of Koreans not being direct linguistically is the only-too-common, seemingly ubiquitous 'maybe.' Though some visitors to Korea don't ever pick up on this, even after years of interaction with Koreans, the fact is that the Korean language itself is ladled with grammar structures that imply that something is not definite, when everyone knows it clearly is. That's why Koreans, when speaking English, say things absolutely baffling with regards to the use of maybe.
Harris feels my pain!

He goes on to give a few examples of phrases that make sense in Korean but translate bizarrely into English, like "Maybe I can't go to class" and "Maybe your sister's tall." They make more sense to me now, knowing what I know of Korean grammar. At the time, though, they left us completely at a loss. This is why I want to learn Korean so badly. Just as I needed to go back to Nepal and India a second time to find out what had so completely addled my mind on the first go-round, I feel now like the only way to work out what Korea was really about is to get inside the language.

No easy task, that, but I'm working on it.

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[the new york korean film festival]

New York Korean Film FestivalThe New York Korean Film Festival is back, from August 25 to September 3, with films showing at the ImaginAsian Theatre, BAM and the Anthology Film Archives.

The Film Festival website offers a fair amount of information, including synopses and even trailers — although without subtitles, so I can't get more than the gist of what they're about. Still, it's enough for me to have picked a few highlights that I hope to see.

Korean film has developed a reputation for moody thrillers and crime dramas, but I've never been wild for the genre, and my own interests lean more towards films that reveal the experience of daily life in Korea. Two romantic comedies, Rules of Dating and When Destiny Meets Romance, look like they'll be good fun, and even without understanding most of it, the trailer for the latter is hilarious. On a darker note, Grain in Ear is a social drama focused on the plight of a poor Chinese-Korean woman and her young son, and it seems to have won a fair amount of international recognition.

I have to admit that I'm intrigued by Forbidden Quest, an erotically charged historical drama. Also historically New York Korean Film Festivalinteresting are Water Mill, a black-and-white drama of revenge and betrayal from 1966, and The Way to Sampo, a 1975 film about the rapid pace of change in South Korea. And then there's If You Were Me, a collection of six short animated films.

But the film I'm most excited about is Wedding Campaign, which follows an unlucky Korean bachelor to Uzbekistan, of all places, where he goes to find himself a bride among the substantial Korean diaspora that lives there. How often will a movie come along that can satisfy my fascinations with Korea and Central Asia simultaneously? Right: once. And this is it. I'll be at the showing at BAM on Sunday, September 3 at 4 p.m. See you there!

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[old friends]

Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a message on Friendster from an old high school friend, Nicole Kristal. She was a sophomore when I was a senior, and we were never that close back then, though we had a number of friends in common. But we worked together on The Voice of Troy, the school newspaper, and we developed a certain mutual respect as capable writers who actually cared about both the craft and the purpose of journalism.

I hadn't talked to Nicole since we were both in college, so I was fascinated to learn of the twists and turns her life has taken since. After earning her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1999, she found her way to Los Angeles, where she tried to make it as a singer-songwriter (if the audio links on her website don't work, you can find some samples here). To make ends meet, she fell into "tutoring" rich kids, which ultimately meant writing their papers for money.

This demoralizing career did get her published in Newsweek, no small achievement, and even got her on the CBS Evening News, where you can see a clip of her speaking in what used to be my accent. (Her troubling career also inspired a lengthy article about hemmorhoids for Ostrich Ink.)

She's now a staff writer for Backstage West, a wholly more decent line of work, and has a book coming out — The Bisexual's Guide to the Universe, a tongue-in-cheek work to be released in October by Alyson Publications.

We talked last night for the first time in years, and we'll probably chat again soon. Unlike a lot of my high school acquaintances, who've settled into boring suburban babymaking lives and with whom conversation is a tedious chore, Nicole is actually interesting to talk to. And it's always kind of interesting to catch up with people you knew way back when.


[oh, lordi!]

Hard Rock Hallelujah (Audio | Video) by Lordi

The Eurovision Song Contest is usually an ABBAesque cheesefest, but this year's winners are different. Still hopelessly cheesy, yes, but different. Taking a page from GWAR, Lordi — the most popular thing to come out of Finland since Nokia — is a metal band that only appears in ridiculous monster constumes and that indulges in parodic Satanic lyrics. From their contest-winning anthem "Rock and Roll Hallelujah":
On the day of Rockoning
It's who dares, wins
You will see the jokers soon'll be the new kings
Apparently the day of Rockoning has come, and these jokers reign supreme. In Europe, anyway.

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[why we fight]

The outbreak of war in Lebanon got me to wondering about the roots of the modern Middle East and its conflicts. Sitting on our bookshelf was A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin, which Jenny had thought was quite good.

So I started in on that, but I hadn't gotten very far before I realized that in order to understand it, I would need a clearer sense of what World War I was all about. So I backtracked to John Keegan's The First World War. As one might expect from a historian of warfare, The First World War is very much a military history, with a fair description of the political crisis that precipitated the calamity and a great deal to say about specific battles and tactics. But any military study of World War I inevitably leads one to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of warfare itself, not to mention questions about the political and social motivations behind this particular war. The Germans intended to take Paris and the French Berlin, but what did they hope to do when they got there? Why were societies willing to mobilize such massive armies to fight with tactics that were understood at the outset to involve massive casualties? Why were men willing to advance in ordered ranks under shelling and machine-gun fire that spelled certain death? Why did none of the armies pull back from the stalemated front lines to fight a guerrilla war? Why did everyone agree to show up and play by the spectacularly murderous yet orderly rules established by Clausewitz in On War? There seemed to be a great deal Keegan was leaving unsaid.

This is presumably because his answers to these larger questions can be found in his masterwork, A History of Warfare, a trenchant exploration of the roots and ritualizations that have characterized war throughout history. A sustained criticism of Clausewitz, the book argues that war is usually fought by tactics that are dictated as much by cultural preference as by any absolute material aims. Military culture, Keenan suggests, ossifies at the moment of its greatest glory and is extremely resistant to change, which helps explain why Mameluke horsemen continued to confront riflery long after such attacks were proved futile, why the Ottoman Empire had such a difficult time adjusting to the military imperatives of modern Europe, and why the United States continues to send armored divisions against every enemy, from Communist-tainted jungle hamlets to Branch Davidian compounds to insurgent-permeated Iraqi cities.

Keegan also makes the point that every sort of war — 20th-century Clausewitzian massive wars, Maoist "protracted" wars involving forced politicization of civilians, the primitive warfare of the Yanomamo — is incredibly brutal and loathed by most of its participants. Protracted war, moreover, though often successful on its own terms — Mao, Tito and Ho Chi Minh did take power eventually, and the ongoing terrorist struggles in the Middle East have certainly strengthened the hands of men like Nasrallah — they do so at an extraordinary cost in civilian deaths and typically for the purpose of installing a repressive regime that quickly succumbs to rampant corruption.

The news of late reinforces the sense that war is inevitable and getting worse, but that turns out to be false. In an enlightening and encouraging article for Science and Spirit, science writer John Horgan presents this arresting statistic:
Hard as it may be to believe, humanity as a whole has become much less violent than it used to be. Despite the massive slaughter that resulted from World Wars I and II, the rate of violent death for males in North America and Europe during the twentieth century was one percent. Worldwide, about 100 million men, women, and children died from warrelated [sic] causes, including disease and famine, in the last century. The total would have been 2 billion if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.
This calculation is so counterintuitive because in primitive societies, warfare rarely results in more than one or two casualties at a time, whereas modern wars can reduce whole cities in an instant. But the populations involved in modern war (and peace) are also drastically larger, and relatively few countries have face more than two or three high-casualty wars in a century, whereas many primitive societies are in a state of endemic tit-for-tat warfare.

I'm not sure how encouraging all this is for the Lebanese or Iraqis at the moment, but I am coming to the view that while war has been with us throughout history, its forms and purposes are widely varied and amenable to adjustment, even to elimination. Keegan reminds us that until quite recently, slavery, infanticide, dueling and cannibalism were all also practices that had remained a part of human culture since the dawn of our existence, but they have largely been eliminated. Of course, I don't think war will be eliminated easily or soon. But is it possible? In theory at least, I would have to say yes.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

[breaking the glass ceiling]

Indra K. NooyiPepsiCo has named a woman CEO: Indra K. Nooyi, an Indian-American who was born in Chennai (then Madras) and educated at Indian universities before graduating from the Yale School of Management.

Nooyi joins 12 other female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. This low rate of representation for women at the highest levels of American business suggests that the glass ceiling is still a concern. Still, Nooyi's promotion is perhaps a sign of change. Keeping in mind that people don't typically become CEO until well into their careers, and that women only started entering the workforce in great numbers perhaps 25 years ago, we may still be in the early stages of transition in the upper echelons of the business world. After all, people of my generation, still in their thirties, are the first to have spent their entire professional lives in environments regulated by sexual harrassment laws. When people born in the 1970s are old enough to be CEOs of Fortune 500, I expect to see a higher percentage of women in top executive positions, if not total gender equality.

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[two years]

Permanent Mission BuildingThe I.M. Pei-designed South Korean Mission on East 45th Street.
I sort of missed it as it went by, but July 27 marked two years for me at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. This is the longest I've stayed at any job except for DoubleClick, which lasted three long years.

But it hasn't seemed that long, presumably because I really enjoy being here. By two years in at DoubleClick, I'd gone through a fairly disastrous opening period and suffered through my boss Karen's pregnancy leave, during which her second-in-command hewed strictly to her orders that I do no work except editing — which was a problem because there was, during that period, no editing to be done — and then, upon her return, confronted me with threats of imminent dismissal because I hadn't been doing any work. Things turned around in my last year, when I finally got my own ego in check and learned how to behave decently in an office, while my boss finally worked out how to run a writing department (useful tip: request writing samples from job candidates). I suppose the whole transformative experience of DoubleClick, which was my first serious job out of school, made it seem longer than it was.

In any case, that's now far in the past. Apparently speechwriters don't usually last long here at the Mission, so I may be headed for veteran status fairly soon.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

[concerned with your size and hardness?]

Fascinating copy from a spam email I received:
Concerned with your size and hardness? Study this, here's the answer!

A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath. God gives every bird its food, but does not always drop it into the nest. A creaking door hangs longest.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

[a lack of palaver]

Okay, so I admit it's been quiet around here lately. Partly that's the summer doldrums — who can write when it's five thousand degrees out? — and partly it's that I have actually been pretty busy.

For one thing, I've been trying to get ahead on my Korean studies, because I will inevitably fall behind this fall when the General Assembly committees get going and actual work briefly becomes my primary activity at the office.

And then there's the help I've been giving to Steve Harrison's Congressional campaign. This week I wrote a Social Security speech that he's delivering today, as well as a 60-second fundraising spot that will run nationally on AirAmerica, which is giving discount air time to candidates. I'll be sure to post the speech and the spot once I get final versions, and hopefully I'll get to find out when the ad is running and post the times as well.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

[new beck songs]

BeckThink I'm in Love | Cell Phone's Dead by Beck

Beck has a new album on the way, this one produced by Nigel Godrich, who also did Mutations and Sea Change. Two new tracks, complicatedly leaked and then retracted by Beck.com and Beck's MySpace page, give a sense of what we're in for.

Despite advance word that this was going to be a hip-hop album, the first leaked track, "Think I'm in Love," is anything but. A melodic, mid-tempo love song of sorts, with spare production that sounds possibly incomplete, "Think I'm in Love" picks up where Sea Change left off: with a fragile psyche working its way back from a horrendous breakup. It's pleasant enough, but I don't think it'd make me turn my head if I didn't know it was by Beck.

"Cell Phone's Dead" is another matter entirely, reaching back to Beck's old abstract raps over eclectic soundscapes. The funky bassline sounds like a sample from Herbie Hancock's "Wiggle-Waggle," off the Fat Albert Rotunda album, over which echoey percussion rattles around as Beck raps. But then comes the jungle break, full of lush sounds and hoots, so that the track is like a conceptual mashup of "Hell Yes" and "Nobody's Fault but My Own," with a pinch of Odelay jitters thrown in. Let's hope the whole new album is this sonically interesting.


Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
February 2010
April 2010
January 2011
February 2011
July 2011


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