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Week in Review 
For the week 10/23/2006 - 10/27/2006
Brian Trumbore

The President and Iraq

I watched President Bush's press conference on Wednesday with dismay, though I'll admit at this point it's hard to win me over on any aspect of this administration's foreign policy, especially when it comes to Iraq. We, the American people, let this president off the hook in 2003 and 2004 and we've paid a heavy price.

Following are some thoughts from an editorial in USA Today on Thursday.

"There continues to be a yawning gap between (President Bush's) rhetoric and reality:

" 'Absolutely we're winning,' Bush said. But only 19 percent of Americans in last weekend's USA Today/Gallup Poll agree. And just 14 percent of Iraqis surveyed recently say the U.S. impact on their country is mostly positive.

"The United States has 'no intention of.standing in the crossfire between rival factions,' the president said. But that's exactly where American troops in Baghdad now find themselves.

"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is 'the right man,' he said, though shortly before Bush's news conference the Iraqi leader denounced a U.S. raid on one of the many militias drawing Iraq deeper into civil war.

"For all of Bush's claims to consistency in his policy, the definition of 'victory' has also shifted. At first, he thought invasion alone would light the fires of democracy. Then it became a longer-term fight to suppress terrorists and spread freedom in the Arab Middle East. Now, political rhetoric aside, it is simply to get out while leaving a functioning, U.S.-allied government behind."

A different angle, courtesy of military historian Frederick W. Kagan, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

"It's been coming for a long time: the idea that fixing Iraq is the Iraqis' problem, not ours - that we've done all we can and now it's up to them..

"The current crisis in Iraq is no more just an Iraqi problem than it has ever been. The U.S. military destroyed Iraq's government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an 'occupying force,' thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order. And yet U.S. Central Command never actually made establishing order and security a priority. Its commander throughout the insurgency, Gen. John Abizaid, has instead repeatedly declared that America's role is primarily to train Iraqi forces to put down their own rebellion and maintain order.

"By allowing violence and disorder to spread throughout the country, the Bush administration has broken faith with the Iraqi people and ignored its responsibilities. It has placed U.S. security in jeopardy by creating the preconditions for the sort of terrorist safe haven the president repeatedly warns about and by demonstrating that no ally can rely on America to be there when it counts.

"A rapid U.S. withdrawal would lead to catastrophe in Iraq. The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers - the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around..

"Nor is there any likelihood that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki will be able to simultaneously accomplish all the tasks now demanded of him, especially without American help.. What are his chances if U.S. forces leave, sectarian violence rises and Iraqis grow ever more pessimistic about the success of their democratic experiment?....

"Both honor and our vital national interests require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance. It doesn't matter how many 'trained and ready' Iraqi soldiers there are, nor how many provinces are nominally under Iraqi control. If America withdraws its forces before setting the conditions for the success of the Iraqi government, we will have failed in our mission and been defeated in the eyes of our enemies. We will have dishonored ourselves."

I agree with Kagan, but now we're dealing with an administration that suddenly says "It's never been a stay the course strategy" as it flails away in this deadliest of months in theater. And we have a president who continues to utter inane statements, such as this gem from Wednesday.

"General Abizaid was describing to me what it's like to go to Baghdad markets."

Oh yeah, it's a real joy. I do have to hand it to Iraqi civilians who continue to go about their lives, like in visiting the market, even though more often than not the pavement beneath their feet turns blood red. Of course the smartest Iraqis, and the ones with the wherewithal to do so, have already fled; that is unless they are of the political class, protected somewhat behind the Green Zone as they steal from the treasury in the hope one day they can have a cushy retirement in Paris.

I previously pointed out how laughable it was this summer when we learned President Bush had read some books on Lincoln, as well as a "few Shakespeares." It bears repeating. Just what the heck did Bush learn from Lincoln? Nothing. If he had he wouldn't have stuck with the generals; a largely worthless bunch of political hacks. Again, didn't Bush read how many generals Lincoln went through before settling on Grant?

Bush said in last weekend's radio address: "Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy."

These same commanders in 2003 and 2004, when we still had a chance to take control and provide Iraq's citizens with the security they were crying for, failed to have the guts to go to the president and demand more troops, to fight fire with fire and make an honest effort to establish law and order. Instead, today the totally inept General George Casey has to admit that 90 percent of the fighting is within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. 43 long, excruciating months and we haven't been able to secure the capital of the damn place.

And there was Prime Minister Maliki, another pitiful figure. He wasn't at the press conference that Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad held in Baghdad, the one that broached the subject of setting benchmarks, or timetables (despite the administration's claims to the contrary). Why wasn't he in attendance? President Bush was asked. "I have no idea why he wasn't there."

24 hours later and our president didn't have a clue on this rather sensitive subject, so instead there was Maliki, blasting the U.S. for the raid on Sadr City, saying he hadn't been informed ahead of time, while adding "no one has the right to impose a timetable (on us)." That's our man in Baghdad. Friend to Moqtada al- Sadr.

I don't know what we should do at this point. I stated my case in '03 and '04 as succinctly as I possibly could and have been losing hope ever since. I also can't believe in a nation of 300 million we end up with the leaders we do, on both sides of the political aisle.

George Will had the following comment in an op-ed this week.

In September 1942, the U.S. government purchased 58,000 acres in eastern Tennessee that became a town, Oak Ridge, "an amazing scientific facility. Thirty-four months after the purchase, an atomic blast lit the New Mexico desert. After 43 months in Iraq, U.S. forces still struggle to cope with improvised explosive devices."

I thought of this in conjunction with a little sightseeing that I did last Saturday, visiting the lone remaining Titan II nuclear missile base south of Tucson. [Decommissioned in 1986.] I marveled at the feat of engineering each of the 54 bases represented; all also built within 34 months from scratch. Incredible redundancies were built in. To me it was a monument to what we can achieve.

And then I watch someone like Gen. Casey, or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the latter once again showing his disdain for the American people at a briefing on Thursday. We shouldn't even be talking about these two these days.

But that would have required President Bush to act. He told us if anyone's accountable it's him. Blame the president, he said. The buck stops here. Very true, Mr. President. History will indeed hold you accountable.

Wall Street

Day after day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was setting new records this week, with the broader S&P 500 and Nasdaq at 5- and 6-year highs as well. But then on Friday a dose of reality was delivered in the form of a pretty sour report on third quarter GDP, up just 1.6 percent. I arrived in Scottsbluff Friday afternoon and flipped on CNBC to see Larry Kudlow, Republican shill, say 'Oh, I guarantee the New York Times and the Washington Post will spin this number to tell the American people that the economy is slowing, but I see a lot of good in the report.'

Huh? Don't blame the Times and Post on this one, Larry. Maybe those polls that keep showing more Americans believing the economy is getting worse, not better, were on to something. Maybe most Americans, especially those outside the canyons of Wall Street, correctly feel that while the government's official data has been good, and for a while housing seemed like a sure thing, they remain focused on disappearing pensions and still rising healthcare and tuition costs, at rates far greater than any increase in wages they may receive.

I think I've proved over the years I'm no liberal when it comes to economic and tax policies, but facts are facts, and here's one you can't ignore.

Q1: GDP up 5.6 percent
Q2: GDP up 2.6 percent
Q3: GDP up 1.6 percent

And some say Q3 will actually be lower when the revisions come in. So what kind of spin are you talking about, Larry?

But as we've been saying week after week, it all comes down to housing. Either you believe that housing will land softly like Dorothy's house in Kansas, and that in a short while you'll all be following the yellow brick road back to riches, or you feel as do I and many of my friends and contributors to this column that we have a long ways to go before we can call a bottom in real estate.

And as we discovered in the GDP report, housing, broadly defined, fell 17 percent. [The consumer, 2/3s of the economy, was up 3 percent and capital spending was up over 8 percent.]

17 percent! But wait, there's more.

Earlier in the week we learned the median price on existing home sales was down 2.2 percent, year over year.

But the median price for new home sales was down an even greater amount, 9.7 percent!

In this last instance, that 9.7 percent decrease was the biggest drop since 1970.

The only good news in the housing data this week was the fact new home sales actually rose (while existing fell). But that was not only because mortgage rates have remained sanguine, developers are offering everything under the sun to get you to take the place off their hands.including two kitchen sinks.

I know I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, being the eagle-eyed observers that you are of your own local scene. But I spent a good deal of my time in the Tucson, Arizona, area driving around and all I saw were the big boys, building massive developments, with signs offering all kinds of incentives.

DR Horton, Clayton, Lennar, KB Home, US Home.these are some of the bigger ones I jotted down in my drive-thrus.

What the casual observer doesn't pick up on, but what you know all about from reading this column, is that the homebuilders haven't just been overdeveloping, they are liable for all that land that they may now opt not to build on. That's what keeps their managements up at night, I can guarantee you. So much of it was purchased at the very top, of course, with massive leverage.

Back in New Jersey, we've had a few instances of fairly sizable developers going Chapter 11 already, before any of the real bills come due.

So to those who say housing, and thus the U.S. economy, are going to fall softly, I say you have a hard time convincing me.

But.I do agree that for right now, when it comes to the consumer and sentiment, as the readings are proving in this regard, oil continues to trump real estate. In other words that little hypothetical of mine from weeks ago, hard annual savings of $450 at the pump versus a paper loss of $25,000 to $50,000 on your home, continues to carry more weight.

That will change too, however. Josh P. in San Diego passed along an observation concerning an exclusive development he has watched closely over the past year. A group of doctors purchased some spec properties, looking to make a killing, but then the market slammed to a halt. And now, no matter how much they slash prices, no one is biting.

What has amazed so many of us is how quickly psychology has changed. But it still has been slow to impact consumer spending and falling oil has had everything to do with it. One thing is very clear, however. The days of using one's home equity as a debit card or piggy bank are over. The official numbers don't reflect that yet, but they will. All together now..wait 24 hours.

There was other news on the week, I hasten to add, and obviously some of it was quite good or the markets wouldn't have ended up as they did, before taking gas on Friday's GDP data.

Earnings, for one, have been super; up over 17 percent for the third quarter as reported thus far. This week's winners included the likes of DuPont, Amgen and Lockheed Martin, but you still had some losers, namely Texas Instruments, Phelps Dodge, and Ford (more on this one later).

And I'd be remiss in not mentioning the Federal Reserve. The fact I waited until now to do so is probably a sign they think they're doing a good job. Ben Bernanke and Co. held the line on interest rates again, but the Fed appears to have far more confidence in the health of the economy than some of us do. In fact the Fed appears to be more optimistic than last time, talking of 'moderate' growth going forward, which translates to 2 to 3 percent. A soft landing, in other words. They concede housing is an issue, but at the same time the board offers inflation isn't really one so, net/net, it all comes out a positive by their way of thinking.

Back to earnings, though, in conjunction with the Fed's comments. Bernanke better be right in his forecast of solid growth for the foreseeable future because many more quarters like the third and there is no way in hell you'll see double-digit earnings growth in the future, as currently forecast by most.

One other note on earnings. The last two weeks we've seen two companies, Intel and Amazon, report declining numbers, year over year, yet the Street has rewarded them for the basic reason that the two could've been worse. In other words, this past year we've seen the manipulation game come back with a vengeance. I don't doubt that both Intel and Amazon have some good things to say, and in light of the problems they've had the past few years there's something to be said for "stability." But I would also note that in the case of Amazon, it is looking to reduce capital spending to shore up earnings. That's significant. See below.

Street Bytes

--Stocks finished modestly higher, as alluded to above, with the Dow Jones tacking on another 0.7 percent to finish at 12090 after hitting a new high on Thursday of 12163. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq held gains of 0.6 and 0.4 percent, respectively.

Aside from the GDP number on Friday, the market also had to deal with a potentially critical call from a Goldman Sachs tech analyst in Asia who said global circuit board shipments to PC manufacturers and the like were "falling off a cliff." What's hard to determine is how much of this is tied to Microsoft and the wait for its new Vista software, and how much is really tied to the actual economy. Plus Goldman has a way of playing (talking) its own book, as we saw with its call early this year that oil was going to soar well above $100; though in Friday's instance I obviously wouldn't be surprised if the global call proves prescient.

--U.S. Treasury Yields

6-mo. 5.14% 2-yr. 4.75% 10-yr. 4.68% 30-yr. 4.80%

Bonds staged a powerful late-week rally on the soft housing numbers and GDP report. Sentiment has been changing every few days in the trading pits. One week the economy is strengthening, meaning inflation could still be an issue and the Fed may have to resume raising rates. The next week, like the one just past, the data reveals the economy to be slowing faster than expected, and thus the Fed may actually have to lower rates down the road to prevent an outright recession. Next week brings the key employment figure for October and we'll have more data to chew on.

I would just add two other items. A report by McGraw-Hill says construction spending is going to decline in 2007, a huge negative if true, while I have my own observation from a drive on Interstate 10 from Tucson to Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Sunday.

I-10 parallels the freight line that goes from El Paso (and further points east and north) to Los Angeles / Long Beach. I have to admit it was fascinating watching all the after another. That's obviously a sign of some health, one I couldn't ignore.

But I was also amused that half the freight cars either said "China Shipping" or "Hanjin." Lesson learned.

--Exxon Mobil reported its 2nd-largest profit ever in the third quarter, $10.5 billion despite falling oil prices since July. Many will decry that Exxon is still earning this much, but it's also a reminder from yours truly that with huge profits come huge tax revenues for the government. In other words, the budget deficit picture should continue to look fairly good with the oil companies fueling the increased take on the corporate tax front.

--Oil and gas prices firmed further this week, ostensibly on far lower inventory data than was expected and generally colder weather across regions that are heavy consumers of the stuff. And when you see gasoline futures at $1.55, off a low of around $1.40, that tells you one thing. We've probably seen the bottom on the average price at the pump.

--Ford lost $5.8 billion for the quarter, far more than expected, and the company announced it needs to restate earnings all the way back to 2001 due to a new look at its accounting for derivatives. [I can relate to this. My carbon fiber holding has been dealing with a similar issue the past year.] Ford, however, is not offering any better news for the current quarter on an operating basis.

As some have said, Ford does have a knack for turning success into failure. Case in point, the Taurus.

I'm currently renting a Taurus for this trip and the other morning I was packing up the car in Santa Fe. So I click the remote to open the trunk and the trunk of a car two down from what I thought was mine opened up.

Turns out there were three identical white Taurus lined up next to each other, all with Arizona plates. And therein lies the story of the demise of a model that in the mid-90s was the best-selling in America.

Ford is an expert at cannibalizing its best. As the Taurus was selling like hot cakes, 400,000 a year, Ford had the brilliant idea of flooding the rental car market.yup, fleet sales were the way to go, they thought.

But all Ford ended up doing was significantly reducing the resale value and, coupled with a failure to redesign Taurus to change with the times, the attraction of the model was soon surpassed by the competition; namely Toyota and Honda.

Look how long the Honda Accord has been successful. When it starts to age, Honda comes up with a new look and features so it's still a popular brand. [I'm on my 3rd Accord myself.]

So has Ford learned anything? Doubtful.and the earnings prove it. As for the Taurus, the last one rolled off the assembly line this Friday.

--Holiday airfares will be up 15 percent on average this year over last.

--Wal-Mart, listening to its shareholders, announced it would reduce capital spending (i.e., slow store expansion) in favor of improving earnings. But you see news like this, and that of Amazon, as stated above, and while the moves are good for shareholder value, if you're reducing cap-ex, those involved on the other side (contractors, IT experts) are suddenly receiving some negative surprises when it comes to their own futures. That eventually translates into fewer jobs, at least by my back of the beer coaster calculation.

--Enron's Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years. He'll be an expert at convincing prison officials he made 1,000 license plates when the total was really six.

--The initial public offering of ICBC, China's largest lender, was up 10 percent its first day of trading in Hong Kong, a disappointing debut to some. That was also Hong Kong, not New York.

--E85, the ethanol blended gasoline, can corrode the gas pumps, as well as the actual underground storage tanks, according to Underwriters Laboratories. The more we learn, the more we realize we are being taken to the cleaners.

[I know. But what of Brazil and the success they're having with ethanol? I honestly don't know the details, but do you really think Brazilians think of corroding tanks like we do? Ever been to some of these countries? All you see are corroding tanks. And that's a memo.]

--The European Union warned China on its trade policies; open up or face protectionism. The EU has been suffering on the outsourcing front and in weakening exports in some industries as much as the U.S. has.

--Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive, raked in $295 million in total compensation in 2005, by one estimate. [Another pegged it at a mere $85 million, depending on how you account for his options holdings. Regardless, he's getting by, you might say.]

--Blackstone Group is increasing the size of its record private- equity buyout pool to $20 billion. But as the private-equity craze continues, some players are beginning to sour on the often outrageous fees and tactics (such as extracting huge dividends) that the bankers are employing at the expense of shareholders.

--Anheuser-Busch admitted some of its brands such as Bud Light are beginning to lose market share to Heineken's new Premium Light. I noted last month, following a reunion of my high school poker group, that we had agreed this would be the case. [Though to be fair to Anheuser-Busch, it still commands about 100 Xs the market of Heineken's entry.]

--The New York Times reported that congressional authorities are looking into the SEC's investigation into hedge fund Pequot Capital Management, which the agency cleared a while back of any wrongdoing following allegations by an SEC whistleblower.

But a congressional committee is finding the SEC's original probe was riddled with conflicts of interest, including the fact investigators may have looked the other way with regards to John Mack, then with Pequot and now CEO of Morgan Stanley, due to his heavy support for the Republican Party and President Bush.

As yet, however, it doesn't appear Mack did anything illegal, but e-mails that are surfacing, authored by Pequot chief Art Samberg, are damning and smack of insider trading.

--IBM is suing Amazon over its 'building block' patents that facilitate e-commerce. IBM tried talking settlement with Amazon for years, but Amazon was unreceptive to any kind of arrangement for ripping off IBM's technology.

--Sunday's Washington Post had a front page story on click fraud; yet another on this growing issue that one day will finally knock Google down a peg or two.

--The Post also reported on a significant increase in activity involving hackers from Eastern Europe who are accessing online brokerage accounts and making trades worth $millions; ostensibly to drive up share prices so that they can then dump their holdings in other accounts..using your money. Isn't that clever?

--Newcomers into the European Union, such as the group that was admitted a few years ago, are learning to play the game that many Old Europe countries have since the formation of the economic club; lie to gain more subsidies. For example, Slovenian farmers submit claims that they have twice the cattle they actually do and they then get twice the money.

--Finally, voters in Panama overwhelmingly approved an expansion of the 92-year-old Panama Canal. Panama was increasingly losing out to competitors such as the Suez Canal because of heavy fees and often long delays. Here are some facts I found interesting from a piece by Will Weissert of the AP.

"About 25 of the 37 ships passing through on an average day pay up to $200,000 to reserve a spot in line, which on top of regular tolls pushes the cost of crossing Panama to more than $400,000 for the largest ships..

"Even a ship that has a reservation waits an average of 16 hours before moving through, and those without reservations wait an average of 28 hours - delays that cost shippers about $50,000 a day per vessel. And when the canal needs routine maintenance, the delays can grow to six or seven days, with more than 100 ships lining up to get through."

So now Panama will build a third set of locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, creating a separate lane for larger ships while doubling total capacity.

Foreign Affairs

North Korea: It turns out the high-level Chinese envoy who met with Kim Jong-il lied to the world in floating the story Kim apologized for the nuke test. Now the envoy denies this, which is why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it never happened.

For its part Pyongyang warned Seoul not to go along with UN sanctions, while suddenly you're seeing the same old stories that North Korea has enough plutonium "for 8 bombs" as the press recycles everyone else's material. To which I reply, no one knows, so why keep putting out this pablum?!

Iran: Speaking of not having a clue, remember how just a few weeks ago "experts" were claiming that Iran was falling behind in the uranium enrichment game? I said, again, 'How would we possibly know?' So this week International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei said Iran is speeding up the enrichment of uranium because it has added a second centrifuge cascade, a fact the government later admitted. Why golly gee, I thought Iran was having problems accomplishing this? Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe can't seem to agree on a renewed sanctions effort against the mullahs, while Russia is vehemently opposed because, after all, it is committed to building a new atomic reactor for Iran for $800 million.

Separately, Argentina showed real guts in issuing arrest warrants for a number of Iranian and Hizbullah officials, formally charging them with carrying out the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85. One of those implicated is former Iranian President Rafsanjani.

Afghanistan: It appears NATO airstrikes, going after the Taliban, inadvertently killed anywhere from 12 to 85 civilians, depending on the source. These mistakes are having a huge negative impact on public opinion and helping the Taliban, hard as that may be to comprehend.

China: The commies told bloggers they must register under their real names, while French President Jacques Chirac summed up the question of China these days thusly.

"(China's success) fascinates, (but) these successes raise questions; those of outsourcing, of respect for market economic rules. The image of China is.about its political and social evolution, the ecological impact of its growth, its world ambition." [South China Morning Post]

To which I'd answer, China has no respect for any of the above. The only field where they are showing some modicum of giving a damn is on the environment, because they're finally realizing they are poisoning their own people.

Russia: President Vladimir Putin told his countrymen he will retain his influence even after he leaves office following 2008's election, which can mean about anything. What he did add is that he reserves the right to handpick his successor, which we all knew he would, and whoever he tabs will walk away with the election in a landslide.

Putin also refused to sign an energy cooperation agreement with the European Union.

And then you had the lovely case of the big art gallery owner in Moscow who was visited by skinheads, who then promptly beat the crap out of him and trashed the works of a Georgian artist he was displaying. I can virtually guarantee Putin smiled upon hearing this, seeing as Putin continues to threaten Georgia himself.

Lebanon: Speaker Nabi Berri, the Hizbullah sympathizer, is calling for a meeting with all political parties for the purpose of forming a national unity government. The Pro-West faction, including Prime Minister Siniora, doesn't want this, countering that Hizbullah is to blame for the war and the predicament it left Lebanon in. Berri obviously sees the conference as a way to increase, not decrease, Hizbullah's influence.

As for Israel and its role, it continues to flyover Lebanese sovereign territory, claiming it's monitoring arms smuggling. There is also some question as to whether Israeli fighter jets buzzed a German warship in waters off Lebanon.

Britain: A Guardian poll revealed that 61 percent of Brits want their troops withdrawn from Iraq, while on a different issue the Blair government announced it would establish quotas for both skilled and unskilled workers coming from Bulgaria and Romania upon their admittance into the European Union on January 1st. Quite a change from Britain's past open-door policy.

Sudan: The dictator in Khartoum expelled the special UN envoy for speaking the truth about Darfur as well as the Army's recent setbacks against the rebels.

Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez is continuing to fight for the Latin American spot on the UN Security Council, now 41 ballots and counting, saying he wanted to keep the candidacy alive to "damage" the United States.

Brazil: President Luiz da Silva is expected to romp in the runoff this Sunday.

Germany: The Merkel government is committed to expanding the military in order to enable Germany to be more of a player on the international security scene. Good! [Though kind of funny how some of us are fired up to see Japan and Germany become more militaristic. It's a new world, sports fans.]


Pray for the men and women of our armed forces.

God bless America.


Gold closed at $602
Oil, $60.73

Returns for the week 10/23-10/27

Dow Jones +0.7% [12090]
S&P 500 +0.6% [1377]
S&P MidCap +0.9%
Russell 2000 +0.5%
Nasdaq +0.4% [2350]

Returns for the period 1/1/06-10/27/06

Dow Jones +12.8%
S&P 500 +10.3%
S&P MidCap +6.7%
Russell 2000 +13.8%
Nasdaq +6.6%

Bulls 52.7
Bears 30.1 [Source: Chartcraft / Investors Intelligence]

Have a great week. I appreciate your support. Next time from Rapid City, S.D. I'll try and sum up what I see as the mood in this part of the country as we approach the election; not that my conclusion will be any different from your own at this stage. It's called surly.

Brian Trumbore

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