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Archive for the ‘bureaucracy’ Category

dfw, bureaucracy, left sexiness, etc

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Excited to be writing up a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. And even more excited to be able to say that the politics of this unfinished novel are at once incredibly subtle but utterly profound – exactly the right answer to so much that has gone wrong lately and continues to go wrong today. Won’t scoop myself by telling you just how this works, here, but for a quick preview of the sorts of things that I am thinking about, and that I think Wallace was thinking about as he wrote this, let me point you to some old posts. First, if you’re interested, take a look at this one on bureaucracy. Second, here’s the final paragraph of my critique of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and its about bureaucracy:

On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Anyway, hopefully if you’re interested you’ll see the review one way or another.

A side point,perhaps a controversial one:

Sort of frustrating situation nowadays amongst what we might call the youngish writing left. Here’s the problem: I’m continually tempted to write something longer on bureaucracy. I have a feeling (obviously you can disagree!) that I’m on to something with this line of argument – perhaps even something like an important “rebranding” of some words whose usage allows for a considerable amount of political mayhem to go on ostensibly with the support of the public. If it doesn’t deal with vibrators and porn, or zombie movies and eco-distaster, or moody depressive pop music, or dumbish sci-fi, pubic hair styles, or some sort of (in the extreme case) blinkered souixante-huitardism it doesn’t feel as though there’s a tremendous amount of market space for it. In other words, let’s say (just play along with me for a second) that one has a hunch that she or he has a good answer to some of the current problems and impasses, but that that answer, in the end, is somewhat boring or even utterly unsexy.

More deeply, one might have a secondary sense that the above referenced themes give themselves on to bad political arguments – arguments that seem to me to have lots more in common with the worst trends in the status quo than anything else. (Left feminist works that mostly spend almost all of their energies hating on women, works “against capitalism” that argue – to my eyes – against the same institutions that capitalists would love to destroy, etc…) (Zizek and Badiou, if complexly in the case of the later, do seem like the bad influences that had set a lot of this in motion…) In short, it starts to seem that somehow the instinct or decision to take up “sexy” lines of approach or themes leads to shit arguments… In particular, in almost none of the cases that I’m referencing here is their the slightest hint behind the attitudinizing and easy critique of a path forward, the simplest step to be taken – at least, again, ones that haven’t already been part and parcel of the right’s approach already (per what I say about Capitalist Realism above…)

I’ve heard all the arguments about “sexing up socialism,” and definitely agree that there’s some serious PR work to be done. But somehow, the current atmosphere seems incompatible with going about things the right way. Maybe I’m wrong, being a bit defeatist about things, but it is the sense that I have.

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April 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

mark fisher’s capitalist realism

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Ah insomnia! A little worried that I’ve found the problem of my early-middle age. Anyway, was up from 4 AM this morning and decided to spend the wee small hours reading Mark Fisher’s new Capitalist Realism, which I’ve finished, and which is quite a good read. (And quick! I made it through in about 2.5 hours while also answering blog responses, writing a couple of emails, and making and drinking 1.5 pots of coffee…)

One thing that occurred to me while reading it is just how British Mark’s examples and ultimately his arguments are. Obviously this isn’t a problem! But from an American perspective, or at least to this American, what Capitalist Realism is really about at center, given its preoccupations, is not really capitalist ideology and atmospherics in general so much as a specific (and specifically British) set of phenomena having to do with the lingering bits of British socialism, the remnant bits of the welfare state. The book focuses on the experiences of those who work for or use a set of public resources – further education colleges and state-funded universities, NHS-provisioned psychological care, the BBC, etc. I can’t actually think of a single example of non-public business mentioned in the book. (He talks a bit about call centers – but in the UK these are often attached to public organizations like the NHS too…)

It’s not even the standard story about privatization that Mark is ultimately telling here, though it’s a related story. Rather, Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on something else – the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced (have been forced to) to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

The Research Assessment Exercise (now, the Research Excellence Framework) is the face of this that I’m most familiar with, as it’s the pseudo-market in place for higher education in the UK. The short version of the process is that academic departments collect and submit “research inputs” from their staff – three or four “inputs” from each lecturer including essays, books, editions or whatever the equivalents are discipline to discipline. These will be assessed according to a variety of metrics by a board, who will rate the inputs and, when the results are aggregated, departments as wholes. Funding will be distributed (according to a complex formula) to universities based on the results. Entities like the NHS have their own versions of this sort of exercise. And further, it’s easy to see how the dominance of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the NHS’s mental health provision has everything to do with its cost-effective and goal-oriented nature.

Having benchmarks and metrics to measure the effectiveness isn’t, to my mind, a strictly bad thing in principle. It’s not a terrible idea for state-funded agencies to be required to demonstrate that they are in fact working correctly. The oldest problem of socialist economic organization is how to provoke productivity and promote efficiency once work has been shielded from the imperatives of the market. But on the other hand, while the rules of market participation are quite clear cut (make a lot of money, one way or another), the very pseudo-ness of this sort of exercise allows the bureaucrats and politicians involved in its development wide latitude to accomplish nefarious ends – and to accomplish them with all of the trappings of semi-scientism and “definitive” league tables.

For instance, while it’s still a bit early to tell exactly what metrics will be employed in this current round of the REF. This is a big problem to start with – we’ve all already been playing a game whose rules still haven’t been formulated two years into the match… But what’s worse is that there’s a good chance that the rules will be skewed to favor varieties of research that humanities academics simply don’t produce.  I won’t go into the details here – I swim in this stuff all day and night, and simply can’t go through it again. If you’re really interested check out Stefan Collini’s excellent piece in a recent TLS, describes the problematic situation for the humanities very vividly.

At any rate, to an American, or at least this American, Capitalist Realism is as much a book about the adaptation of the UK’s lingering socialist structures – public education facilities, public health care provisioners, public broadcasters – not so much to capitalism per se, but to the simulation of capitalism that defines New Labour’s approach to public services. Since Americans barely have any of these structures even to worry about – little public health care, public education is mostly administered on the local or state level, PBS and NPR aren’t large enough to matter in the way that the BBC does – there’s only been a small amount of pseudo-market gaming. (Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was a step in the direction of “standards-based education reform” on a federal level). And while some of the structures that Mark describes can be found in the private sphere, the self-assessment and self-monitoring that he focuses on really are, to my mind, most prevalent in the British public sphere, a framework of holdover socialist public organization constantly being tampered with by a state whose priorities lies elsewhere.

And this fact has important ramifications for the assessment of the overall argument of Capital Realism. On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

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December 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

“the real tragedy of england” / office park socialism

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The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile. (D.H. Lawrence).

Perversities – inner-originated or outer, who knows – conspired to put me back in the gynaecological surgery ward during the same week when I finished reading Ballard’s Crash. Too bad Ballard’s sexo-aesthetic didn’t take – perhaps I’d have been wafting along in some sort of dark erotic reverie instead of melting into a puddle from anxiety and wanting-to-be-homeness. I spent three days and two nights, and I’m just back now, and so very happy to be back.

I hate hospitals, I really do. We were taught quite a lot at Catholic school about the fucked up fort-da games God plays with hell – a glimpse of the All-Most and Everythingest, and then lost, lost forever, that sort of thing. You’re hottest most excellent fantasy, but when she turns (and keeps turning forever and ever) there are maggots for eyes and yuck for breasts and burning hot coals where the… you know what I mean. Hospitals are like that for me too. Single rooms in them impersonate austere hotel rooms (love those!) but then add into the mix nervous electronics (hate that!) and people who burst into your room unannounced to do unpleasant things (hate that even more! in a visceral sort of way!) that completely blow the fantasy that you’re trying to keep in place that this is just a lovely few days spent somewhere with an interesting view and worse TV choices than at home.

Anyway, we spent three days and two nights. With luck, we are now absolutely finished with absolutely everything having to do with the medical end of bringing children into the world. We’ve had our two, my wife was injured and then injured worse, and now we’re done. We’ve replaced ourselves, and now, well, it’s your turn! We’re done!


Best of all, we got to do our three days and two nights during the runup to what appears to be a full-scale swine flu pandemic. You heard it here first – they’re clearly in the process of shifting hospitals from their normal and normally gory work of hacking and sawing and sewing and injecting into H1N1 Containment Camps. Shit. I overheard unpleasant conversations between nurses in the lifts (elevators) detailing the geometrical increase of infected patients in their wards: we had none yesterday, three today, and they’re telling us to be ready for nine tomorrow. The reassuring thing is that none of the staff seemed particularly worried about this outbreak, except in terms of what it is about to do to their next few workweeks. But clearly, this thing is happening.

from the side

Apparently, infection makes the lights go out wherever you are, and turns your hands sort of black to white, white to black, and green in the dirty spots. Worse than you thought, huh? But it does make it easier on the Underground. If the person you’re tit-to-tit with during the morning rush starts to cough and sputter, simply give a little left-and-down juke and see if there’s any green aura involved. Saves on swabs.


Anyway, I had lots and lots of time to start out our 13th floor window. Here’s some rain happening over the Thames Estuary. I thought less abstractly and interestingly about things like aggregate fiction, and more poignantly and pressingly about simply wanting to be out of the hospital, down on the street, and back on schedule with my work. I could see all of my workplaces – the libraries and my office and even the tops of buildings that contain my favorite coffee places at street level – from up here.

I’ve decided that I want the following image (properly and professionally cropped, of course) to be used on the cover of some book soon, perhaps even the one I’m finishing now.

northwest mittel-europa

northwest mittel-europa

One of the reasons why the image is an appealing choice for a cover is because it’s so fucking weird. And not just this scene – London from above, with the exception perhaps of stuff along the river, is weird in general. Funny to think how few images you see of London from above. There are easy and hard reasons why this is so. The easy ones generally have to do with the ugliness of the city. It truly is ugly – you can come and see for yourself if you like.

I will photoshop out the cranes if I use this for a cover, as they are not really real, not in the realest sense of real – like the BT Tower is real.

My wife and I decided that in certain senses, London from above reminded us most (or best) of things like the boringer parts of Toronto seen from on-high, or the way Waterbury, Connecticut looks from the 84. (If you know what I mean with that last one, specially NY-NJ to NE driving props to you…) Obvious, if you look in just the right directions, it’s a bit different, but in general, blah.

But don’t get me wrong. It is one of the most loveable things about this place. There are big problems with photogenicness as well – a kind of hyper-realness that of course never feels real enough, as per almost every single street in Manhattan. London feels at times like an only-slightly post-medieval Los Angeles, with the invisible hand dropping what it would as the city sprawled. Terraced houses are nice. Modernist apartment blocks are nice. Terraced houses giving way for six units to modernist apartment blocks and then back again doesn’t look all that nice – and that’s the rhythm of the entire city.  And because of that rhythm, which repeats itself in large scale in the act of dropping a sublimely iron-curtainy looking telecommunications tower into Fitzrovia,  you can take insipidly beautiful / excitingly ugly pictures like the one above. And this rhythm has much to do with the sense of generic urbanity, raw unmarked urbanness, that London gives off in all of its parts – a sense that when felt deeply suggests that Ballard didn’t even have to go to the highway networks that mesh Heathrow. Tottenham Court Road fits the bill just as well.

postcardic (and not really my picture)

But on the other hand… or perhaps on the same hand but only somewhat differently, there’s the question of what to make of all the greenglass newbuilds like the one pictured, the hospital in question above. (The BT Tower picture was taken from that central column of windows in the tower, thirteen floors up…) Nu-language utilitarianism rendered in transreflective window treatments, the design might well have been plucked from an office building on the Rt. 1 pharmacorridor in New Jersey. It is big, it is banal, but it is clean and new. Despite the fact that the photo above (full disclosure – not mine this time) could easily work as a nouveau-nostaligic entry worthy of a future decade’s Architectures de cartes postales, but of course it never will. People have changed, and our architecture is regrettable. But still, perhaps only the Americans in the audience can appreciate how wonderfully funny and more than funny it is to get medical care in a hospital that looks like it could be the regional office of Merck & Co., but which contains no cash registers at all, except the ones at the newsstand and the cafe.

I can’t help but fantasize, from time to time but insistently in spots, about the repurposing of all of the slick office buildings, with their employee cafes and openplan offices, into workspaces for a new bureaucratic rationality, distributing goods and services rationally. Just as in 1984, the characters struggle to remember what these places were before they were rebranded into totalitarian ministries, I tease myself with the thought at times of what sort of conversations might occur over the corian-countertops and leftover cubicles of media company officebuildings put to better use.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm

of the devil’s party: nu milton

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Jonathan Bate gives us something strange to think about in his review of Campbell and Corns’s John Milton: Life, work, and thought:

Campbell and Corns discover a Milton who would have been at home in the corridors of New Labour power or in the managerialized modern university.

Strange for me to think about today, in light of my recent post on bureaucracy, and further as yesterday I taught (twice!) Coetzee’s Disgrace, which from the title forward plays out the story of an old-school lit prof (and student seducer) in self-consciously Satanic resistance to, yep, the managerialized modern university in the wake of “the great rationalisation.” Hmmm….

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March 5, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Posted in bureaucracy, poetry

the bureaucratic sublime

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From Alexander Provan’s review of a group of works on and by Kafka in The Nation:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer, the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork. Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare state, and its administration required a massive expansion and modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was “being suffocated by files and drowning in ink,” wrote the governor of Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

I wish I had time to do the reading that I’d like to do in order to make the point that I’d like to make. But for now: it is important – when dealing with Kafka, modernism in general, and modernity in general – to remember that the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily free and easy human contact and everything working very smoothly indeed. Rather, the alternative, both historically and often enough at present day, is the efficiency of hierarchical fiat.

For in its most neutral sense, and under forseeable conditions (anarchist utopias where you simply take as many apples as you like from the big barrel notwithstanding), there is no distribution of public benefit without bureaucracy. If there will be free health care and subsidized education, there will be forms to fill out, boxes to check. There are ways to run a society without forms – the gentlemanly handshake, the emperor’s thumbup or thumbdown. I’m sure there are people who get into Harvard from time to time without filling out an application, just as there are doctors you can see who will bill you later. The welfare state is a state run on ticked boxes and eligibility criteria. This is not to say that the pejorative usage of the word bureacratic is unjust. Bureaucracy is in fact often enough used to inhibit the distribution of benefits by setting up obstacles for those who would obtain them to negotiate, as I’m sure just about anyone who has filed for unemployment benefits in the USA or UK could easily testify. But this fact – the way bureaucracy is put to work in neoliberal societies by those who would deprive citizens of their rights – should not distract us from the bigger picture.

In this light, take a look at IT’s excellent post on the RAE and the goalpost-shifting that’s perhaps about to happen. The RAE is perhaps the most maligned element of bureaucratic governance in the UK system of higher education. But if I might play the helpful American for a second or two, it’s worth remembering that for all the grumbling that we do (“we” being now UK academics – I wear a lot of hats) that, in the eyes of someone who comes from the states, the RAE seems like a potentially highly progressive manifestation of bureaucratic rationality. We can see in IT’s post just why the word potentially is in the previous sentence and why I’ve italicized it.

But the Americans out there can second this if they like. If we had a system of academic finance distrubution that held even the slightest possibility that if, say, SUNY Stony Brook outperformed Columbia during a given period, that SUNY Stony Brook would swipe some funds away from Columbia’s pot…. Well, that might change some equations around a bit. And if the system were weighted to reward good work against the odds and to draw some cash away from well-endowed but underperforming institutions…. well, we’d still be simulating “market” logic, but one could deal with that if the simulation was jiggered to be fair, given the unlikeliness of any true equality in university funding of the “nationalize Harvard and spread its endowment from sea to shining sea) model….

But, yeah, a potentially fair RAE might look like the one that just took place, but whose findings were then duely acted upon rather than burying them in shoulder slaps for the old boys and vague ramblings about “our current crisis….”

Anyway, back to bureaucracy in general:

I’ve attended private universities in the US, and I’ve worked at public or publically-funded universities in the US and the UK. And I can assure you, with a few notorious exceptions (looking at you, again, Columbia!), there’s lots and lots more paperwork and general bureaucratic overhead involved with every single thing that happens, from the changing of the title of a course to the admission of Ph.D. students at publically funded institutions. There are days when my life feels like it is dissolving into a mass of papers on my desk. And I resent it – you have no idea how much I resent it.

But the reason why I resent it is because I am a little bit of a snot with a few not totally healthy memories of life at extremely-well endowed private institutions, where if the right person wanted something done, it was simply done without all that much paperwork, all that much meeting and voting and squabbling and oversight. I will admit that there are times when I envy the working life at institutions like the ones I attended.

But of course, of course, there’s a distinct and clear dark side to this sort of efficiency. It’s country cousins with the darkside that goes by the parabolic abbreviation make the trains run on time. With the smoothness and humaneness of response comes often enough a lapse into nepotism of the worst sort, the hiring of friends and lovers and the lovers of friends, picking from the visible top of the heap (and we know who gets to be visible) and that sort of thing.

At the place where I used to work, when the department decided to hire someone, there was this hoop that we had to jump through called something like Affirmative Action Review. Now, the purpose of this review wasn’t expressly to force us to hire black candidates rather than white ones, or women rather than men. It often felt like a mostly useless paperchase involving interaction with some office or other in the adminstrative building, all of which generally came to ratifying the choice we’d already as a department made.

But there was a logic to it. I didn’t get it at first, but I had one colleague (who happened to be the single Marxist instigator, you know the sort) who incessant raised the point of the affirmative action procedures when we were tempted to play fast and loose with them by, say, not running a proper job advertisement, not interviewing several candidates for a position, or not putting a potential spousal hire through the full ordeal of the interviewing process.

As I said, I didn’t really get the point of the procedures that I’ve just listed at first, but he explained it all to me once so clearly that I never wondered about them again. The point is this. The AA protocol doesn’t ensure that we would hire, say, a black candidate for a job. What it does work toward ensuring is that we don’t fall victim to the temptation to hire intelligent friends,  to hire spouses and partners and lovers, even if they are talented and seem on the surface to be an obvious choice for the job. We might in the end end up hiring them anyway, once the full search has been completed…. or we might just hire someone else who’s astoundingly excellent when given the chance (I’ve seen this happen. Shit, I’ve made this happen. Just ask around my old school… Was amazing, I was….) Our friends and lovers tend to be similar to us in background, just by mandate of biographic probability. (If I had had to marry one of my grad school classmates, the odds were something like 5-1 that I’d have married a woman that went to a posh undergraduate school just like me, was white just like me, came out of similar socio-economic bracket as me, and so on and so on…) We had Stanford grads around, and without due diligence we’d likely have been experiencing a fall harvest of Stanford-types every year etc etc.

Perhaps I’m overplaying the point. Perhaps I’m just trying to tell myself something like rather than grumble about the paperwork that’s waiting for you on your office desk, that you’ll have to go in early and spend an hour filling in tomorrow morning, shut up and realize that sometimes the bureaucratic stuff has its purpose. And that, in fact, if society were the way you’d have it in the haziest vision of what it actually might best be, you’d likely be doing more and more paperwork, endless paperwork that would take the place of the easier “Oh, that’s a good school! Let’s let her in!” which is the worst thing in the world, really….

In short, and again absent the arrival of the anarchist utopia that is in equal parts a lovely idea and unlikely to work properly, I will content myself with fantasizing about a world in which I visit an office to apply for my housing, I fill out a form to apply for my shitty constructivist computer (as they would be hard to get, given the equal access that those currently without access would have to them – schoolkids in Ghana before the overly-pensive in London), I wait my turn for my subsidized vacation somewhere, and I hand in my dated vouchers to get me some food at post-Tesco. So long as all this pain-in-the-assery meant that I didn’t get to step to the front of the line because I carry American Express, so long as the bureaucratic hoops meant that we were all getting our fair share, so long as paperwork replaces class-privilege, it is a worthy dream to replace the ones that I currently am having about lost cats and the like…

Let’s hope the funders-that-be sit down and their desks and go through the numbers properly and give Roehampton its due. They’ve got some good fucking researchers over there, let me tell you. And from what I hear, worthy students too.

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March 4, 2009 at 12:15 am