|Volume 1, Number 4||4 November 1999|
Welcome to the fourth edition of the Imaging Resource Newsletter! We have a lot to share with you in this issue, so let's get right to it:
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There are so many new digicam models retailers are building more shelves and e-retailers are writing more HTML pages. Which means only one thing: a lot of copywriters are sharpening their pens (they still do that). Nevermind them, we've got Dave, freshly emerged (dragged away) from the bright LCDs and red eye-reducing strobes to give us the straight scoop on the current market. All prices approximate.
BARGAIN CAMERASBargain Cameras may be interesting not only to beginners, but also to experienced users as a second camera. The "news" is that high-resolution cameras are now available at relatively low cost. These cameras print quite nicely up to 5x7 on a photo-quality inkjet, larger on a lesser printer, with few or no artifacts.
Fuji MX-1200 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/MX12/M12A.HTM
Fixed focus, but one of the least expensive megapixel-plus cameras at only $299 ("street" price should be much lower, check http://www.2020consumer.com or http://www.shopper.com). Very basic camera, fixed-focus, non-zoom lens, but good exposure control, several options for white balance, decent image quality. Very compact, too. Uses SmartMedia.
We reviewed the previous D-340L (see http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/D340/D340A.HTM). The -R update of the earlier model gave it faster shot-to-shot speeds and improved color. We've shot some images with the 340-R, but haven't posted them yet. We plan to put the updated D-340R images in the Comparometer(tm) pages (at http://www.imaging-resource.com/IMCOMP/COMPS01.HTM). Very similar specs to the Fuji MX-1200. Slightly less compact, but with a sliding cover to protect the lens. The -R update model has faster shot-to-shot speeds and improved color. Exposure control is more limited, basically just a +/- 1 EV adjustment, but color and resolution are very good, and the protective lens cover makes us a little more comfortable dropping it in a pocket. List price is also only $299. Uses SmartMedia.
1 megapixel, lower resolution, but very good color, and controls that novice users find easy to navigate. $399 list. Review in progress; look for it next week.
MIDRANGE CAMERASThe story here is the same image resolution as the cameras mentioned above, but lots more features. Prices for this level of product have come way down from where they were a year ago, while image quality and the feature set have improved considerably.
Olympus D-450L -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/D450/D450A.HTM
1.3 megapixel, list price of $499. Lots of features, excellent image quality. Excellent color, solid 1.3 megapixel-level resolution. Cool features: variable ISO for shooting in lower light, or boosting shutter speeds when shooting action in daylight. Excellent low-light capability. Fast shot-to-shot speed. Optional uncompressed storage mode for critical shots. Uses SmartMedia.
Canon A50 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/A50/A50A.HTM
1.3 megapixel, list price was $499, but you need to add another $100 for the rechargeable battery and charger (not an option; really shouldn't have been packaged as such). Very compact, zoom lens-equipped (2.5x optical zoom), 1.3 megapixel camera. All-metal body, lens automatically retracts behind a metal cover for transport. Uses CompactFlash.
Fuji MX-1700 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/MX17/M17A.HTM
1.3 megapixel, list price $599. Super-compact digicam, very easy to slip into a pocket and take anywhere. Has a 3x zoom lens packed into the tiny body. Excellent image quality, in a very appealing package. (Non-macho types would call it "cute.") One of our favorites, but it uses a special Li-Ion battery, with relatively short life, so we recommend a second battery along with the camera. Uses SmartMedia.
Kodak DC240 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/DC240/DC240A.HTM
1.3 megapixel, $599 list. "Kodak Color" (meaning bright, vivid color), user-friendly menus. Color is really excellent, ease-of-use very good as well. Early models had problems with extremely bright scenes (sunny day at the beach, snow, etc.), because the lens stopped-down too far, and produced fuzzy results. The current models have a maximum shutter speed 2x higher (about 1/750 of a second), and different firmware, using the smallest apertures only as a last resort. In our tests, this seemed to fix the problem, but it can still be triggered by very bright subjects. Other than this, an excellent camera. Uses CompactFlash.
HIGH END CAMERASIn this product range, the main trend is more pixels and more features while keeping the price under $1,000. There are some interesting price reductions and new models lower on the scale. While new features and technological advances are appearing at the high end, manufacturers are dropping prices on existing models, and introducing spinoff versions at lower price points, taking advantage of development done for earlier high-end units.
Olympus C-2000 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/C2K/C2KA.HTM
2.1 megapixels, $799 list. The big news here is that Olympus has just dropped the list price to $799. This camera originally debuted at $999, only this spring! LOTS of features, tremendous exposure control, external flash sync, great low-light capability, etc., etc. The new price makes it particularly compelling. Uses SmartMedia.
Nikon Coolpix 950 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/C950/C950A.HTM
2.1 megapixels, $949 list (under $850 on the street). No earth-shaking news here, but still worth mentioning, as the Coolpix and the above-mentioned Olympus C-2000 consistently duke it out on our Web site for the title of "most popular camera," with the Coolpix generally slightly edging the Oly in popularity. This may change, with the C-2000's recent price drop. The Coolpix 950 also works with external flash (albeit the Nikon dedicated units), has very good exposure control, and great low-light capability. It also has cool features like the Best Shot Select option, which snaps 5 pictures in rapid succession, and chooses the sharpest one. The swivel body design also seems very popular. Uses CompactFlash.
Nikon Coolpix 800 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/C800/C800A.HTM
2.1 megapixels, $699 list price. This camera bundles most of the features that make the Coolpix "cool" (including the magical Best Shot Select function mentioned above), but at a price $200 lower. Nikon brought the price down by dropping the swivel body, going to a mostly-plastic body design, using only a 2x zoom lens (vs. the 950's 3x design), and removing some of the most-sophisticated exposure controls. The result is an "almost 950," for $200 less. Uses CompactFlash.
Canon S-10 -- Review in progress
Ultra-small 2.1 megapixel design, $699 list price ($625 on the street), but like the A50 described above, the "optional" battery/charger set should really be considered mandatory. Very much like the A50, only with a 2.1 megapixel sensor. Oh yes, fast USB interface too. Ultra-compact, all-metal case and buttons, retracting 2x zoom lens with metal protective shutters. Very slick, and beautiful pictures, too. Review coming soon. Uses CompactFlash. (Also supports TypeII CF, so can use the new IBM "MicroDrive" -- 340 megabytes on a CompactFlash card!)
Toshiba PDR-M4 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/PDRM4/M4A.HTM
Toshiba PDR-M5 -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/PDRM5/M5A.HTM - M5 review coming in about a week.
2.1 megapixel Speed Demons! Thanks to a very fast Toshiba-designed processor chip, these cameras can snap a picture every two seconds all day long (or until your memory card fills up or your battery dies). The M5 also sports a nifty "movie" mode for recording silent movies up to two minutes in length (longer with larger memory cards). Like the Fuji camera mentioned earlier, both use a small Li-Ion battery with a fairly short life, so you should really plan on buying a spare battery. The M4 is a non-zoom model, with a $599 list price (good price for 2 megapixel digicam!), while the M5 has a 3x zoom. Both cameras excel at low-light time-exposures, thanks to a nifty Toshiba trick for "subtracting" sensor noise from the image. The M5's lens is a bit noisy when autofocusing, which would blow your cover in candid situations, but works fine. Both use SmartMedia.
Fuji MX-2900 Zoom -- http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/MX29/M29A.HTM
2.3 megapixels, $899 list ($700-$740 on the street). Nice styling, with a big handgrip and telescoping lens with similar rattle-prone tendencies to that of Toshiba's PDR-M5. Excellent resolution though, good color, great exposure control. Special mounting lugs for auxiliary lenses: We tried the wide-angle adapter and it worked well. A good camera with expansion capabilities for the advanced amateur. Easy enough to use in "auto" mode for the neophyte though. Uses SmartMedia.
Kodak DC290 -- Review just started
2.1 megapixels, $999 list ($800-$850 on the street). This unit just arrived in our "test lab." Kodak's new "big gun", with lots to recommend it. All the features of the previous DC260/265, including the Digita OS's scripting language for extending the camera's capabilities, user-friendly user interface, external flash capability, etc., etc. The big news on this model (besides its full 2.1 megapixel sensor) is that Kodak has finally provided an "uncompressed" image-storage mode. They've also markedly improved image quality (based on a very quick "first look" at the images we've just shot in the studio, eliminating many of the previous compression artifacts, even in JPEG-formatted files. Finally, the LCD viewfinder really works. The LCDs on the 260 and 265 were (in)famous for their low refresh rates, which made them virtually useless for action shots. We haven't looked at the images in great detail yet, but what we've seen so far is excellent. Uses CompactFlash.
Olympus C-2500L -- Review in progress, due up in about a week
2.5 megapixel, $1299 list. Olympus' new top-of-the-line SLR (single lens reflex) sets a new benchmark for both image quality and system flexibility! (As you'd hope, given its high price.) The 2500 has the distinction of having produced both the highest resolution and most accurate color we've seen to date! Accessory lenses for wider wide angles, and more tele telephotos. An exceptionally capable external flash unit is available as an option. Very impressive camera for well-heeled photo enthusiasts. Definitely not for the "happy snapper," although easy enough to use in full-auto mode. Uses SmartMedia.
And we just got a couple of Casio cameras in (the 2000UX and 8000SX). Also a Sony DSC-F505 is due to arrive tomorrow. More on them later!
Feature: A Guide to Shopping on the InternetYou're making a list and checking it twice. Wouldn't it be nice if you could let your fingers do at least some of the shopping on the Web? It sure would be nice -- if it works.
But shopping online is a mixed bag. Some sites are great. Revolutionary. Better than sliced bread. Others could learn a thing from lemonade.com. They just don't get it.
On the one hand, we still fondly remember a particularly pleasant experience buying luggage from http://www.landsend.com a few years ago. The site was 1) easy to navigate, 2) had what we wanted, 3) held our hand with email until we got it, and 4) even customized it correctly (well, we did the data entry). I don't remember if we saved any money over ordering out of their catalog, but it was much easier. No walk to the mailbox, no phone calls checking on an order for which we had no reference number. But something more: we actually enjoyed the experience.
On the other hand, Steve Manes, the computer industry commentator (who just hates those digital photo frames, by the way), recently recalled a ridiculous experience he had at Macy's site. He ordered a gift through their bridal registry. Everything went as expected: he found the gifts the couple had selected, saw which ones were still available and picked one. But being the sleuth he is, he went back to the site a few days later and found that the item he'd selected was still available for ordering by any other friend of the couple. How's that? Macy's doesn't marked items as selected until they have been shipped.
Sometimes you get the feeling e-commerce is in the hands of people who only buy pizza -- over the phone.
A while ago, we went to http://www.amazon.com and http://www.barnesandnoble.com to (try to) order a gift certificate (which saves a lot of shipping). Entirely different experiences. Amazon made it easy, Barnes and Noble seemed to think you haven't enjoyed their signature experience unless you have time to brew some coffee. They've improved in the year since, but that's what amazon's lawsuit against them is all about, apparently.
OK, anybody with an inkjet printer can keep gift certificates in stock. But what about real merchandise?
There's only one acceptable answer to that question. And it was admirably illustrated by a hardware site (http://www.upgradestuff.com/) I visited looking for a just-finally-released investment-saving accelerator that the big guys had been taking orders for on the promise of shipments from the manufacturer. This site actually displayed inventory in their product list. Simple. Macy's should have hired the guys who wrote that site.
Shipping is another thrill. You slog through an online order form only to find countless shipping options (of little practical difference). Your browser's Back button suddenly looks faster than overnight delivery. But FedEx recently released code to site developers to link into their tracking system, so look for some improvements here. We've had good experiences with sites that use FedEx, UPS and Airborne.
But our favorite shipping experience was with http://www.amazon.com. They upgraded our delivery choice during the holidays last year and our gift-wrapped presents arrived early at all their destinations. Sometimes online shopping can be a little extra special.
Here are few tips we've found useful to help make shopping on the Internet a pleasure.
TIP: Bring Your Common Sense
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ask yourself what little fact has escaped your notice.
TIP: Shop Safely
Secure forms are just part of the deal (that little key in the corner of your browser window should indicate the form's status).
Keep in mind the Internet is no safer than any other place you flash your credit card. The data, encrypted or not, passes through a lot of hands. On the other hand, using a cordless phone broadcasts your unencrypted account number to any neighbor on the same channel. Foolproof safety is unachievable.
If you want real horror stories ('tis the season) take a look at the page titled International Credit Card/Check Card Fraud with Small Charges: J K Publications, Netfill, Webtel, N-Bill, MJD Services, OnLine Billing, XBC.COM and Charter Pacific Bank, maintained by a guy who is tracking an old credit card scam reinvented for the Web: http://www.labmed.umn.edu/%7Ejohn/ccfraud.html#CPBank.
But there is a way to completely eliminate the risk.
Use a credit card that specifically indemnifies you against any loss on Internet purchases. "Our Online Guarantee ensures that if your account is compromised, you'll never be held responsible for charges made by persons who are not authorized users," Citibank's card claims (http://www.click4ps.com). But that's just one example (from today's mail). We wouldn't be surprised to see this new benefit become standard stuff shortly. Ask your bank about it.
TIP: Research the Store
Read what they put online about themselves. Especially their return and privacy policies. Call their toll-free number. Let 'em talk. If something puts you off, go elsewhere.
But do more. Check out the usenet groups where people use the products. You'll find some unfair criticism with every truely gruesome detail lovingly recreated for your benefit by someone who thinks every company is in business to lose money. But you'll also read some recommendations (which are always briefer for some reason).
And you can just outright ask. But read the group's FAQ first (usually published regularly in the group, but you can find it in the archives at http://www.dejanews.com or http://www.remarq.com).
And don't miss sites like http://www.2020consumer.com that can point you in the right direction. Unlike many sites that compare prices, this one employs actual human beings to filter the results.
TIP: Be Patronizing
Had a good experience? Have another. At the same place. Vote with your dollars.
We saved a fortune on CompactFlash using this tip. Did the research online, found the range of prices that seemed reasonable give the capacity we were looking for (16M). And then just to get out of the office, we walked over to the old camera shop where we've bought a bunch of gear in the past and to our surprise they beat every price (by a lot) on a 15M card. They kept my business.
TIP: Throw Out the Low Price
Think of your business as out to bid. Sure you throw out the highest bid. But toss the lowest one too.
You want more than the rock-bottom late-night lowest price for the kids with credit problems. You actually want to use the product you are purchasing. And you want the store and manufacturer to stand behind it (because there are problems every now and then). You want a low price. A price that reflects you did all the order entering yourself.
But the lowest price -- particularly from an obscure site -- is not worth the pennies they want you to believe you are saving.
TIP: Ask Good Questions
Good question: "What models do you have in stock?" Bad question: "Do you have the Canon S-10 in stock." Any question a salesperson can answer with a "Yes" is a bad question. Answer to first question: "Uh, let me get back to you on that." Answer to second: "Yes." See what I mean?
TIP: Know What You're Getting
Don't assume it's new in the box stuff. Find out. Some sites (like http://www.onsale.com) are specific about the condition of the things on sale (refurbished by the manufacturer, new in box, etc.). Order only when it's clear. Or email them. And if you don't hear back promptly, ask yourself what it would be like if you had a problem and they already had your money.
TIP: Get Contact Info
Save the order page to disk, bookmark the page, save the email from the company. That's real savings.
OK, enough tips. Now a little reality therapy -- or, as Dave calls it, a tirade. Mix these tips with Dave's facts of life and get out there and shop. And let us know if you find a place you really like ...
Dave's Tirade: Internet Darwinism"Beware what you wish for, you may get it!" I don't know who first said this, but it's very true, and particularly so in the marketplace.
Every time you buy a piece of equipment, you cast a powerful vote that tells resellers how you want to spend your money. Too often, many of us (I admit guilt on this myself) just want the lowest absolute price, and vote with our dollars by making purchases on that basis. Guess what though: the place with the lowest price may have lousy customer support, unreasonable return policies, general bad attitudes, etc., etc.
Obviously, some companies manage to deliver products at low prices, yet still provide good customer service and all the rest. By not taking the time to research who you're buying from, and what their policies are like though, you're making it all the less likely that a good purchase experience will accompany the good deal.
If the only thing the market (that's us) rewards is a price that's a dollar lower than the next guy, what do you think will happen?
That's all the resellers will come to care about.
Companies that invest the money in customer support staff, efficient and accurate order-processing systems, and all that's required to really take care of their customers will go out of business, and all that will be left will be the bottom-of-the-barrel, bozos-with-a-warehouse discounters.
How do you prevent this from happening (and ensure good prices and good service)?
Do your homework, as Mike has described in this article: Find the good companies with good ratings from other consumers. Then,Let Them Know WHY You're Buying From Them. If you can attach a note or comment to the order, or better yet, find an email address and send them a note explaining that you bought from them thanks to good consumer ratings from XYZ consumer-rating site.
(An unabashed plug for the 20-20 consumer site (http://www.2020consumer.com/) Mike mentioned above: This is a GREAT service! Their customer ratings of resellers are absolutely invaluable, and very revealing of what companies are really like to deal with! Check them out.
As the operator of a busy Web site, I can tell you that emails like this carry tremendous weight. The rough rule of thumb is that only about one person in a thousand with an opinion will take the time to write and tell you about it. That means that any opinions expressed are probably shared by at least a thousand other people who feel the same way, but didn't take time to write.
So it doesn't take many emails underscoring the importance of good service to really reinforce this with the resellers. You can also help by educating you friends about how to buy "smart" on the Internet too: Feel free to pass along this email, with the "buy smart" article in it to your friends and acquaintences. The more people we can get "shopping smart," the better life will be for all of us!
New on the SiteAs you can see from the reviews we've promised above in the camera overview, we're working full time until we get caught up with the flood of new models. Drop by the site (http://www.imaging-resource.com/DIGCAM01.HTM) to keep up with us.
Beginners Flash: The Half-Pressed ButtonOne of the first things you noticed about your new digicam, we'll bet, is that little delay between the time you pressed the shutter button and when the digicam actually got around to snapping the shot.
A lot goes on then. Memory may have to be cleared, focus set, whites balanced, etc.
But if you know in advance what the light is and where to focus and you're just waiting for the right moment, try holding your shutter button half-way down before the shot. On most digicams that will lock in those settings. So the camera will have less to do when the right moment comes along.
This technique is also handy for those times when you want to focus on something that, well, isn't there yet. Find something about the same distance away and press the shutter button half-way down to lock the focus.
Advanced Mode: EV Compensation You Can UseWhether your camera offers multi-mode metering or not, it probably has exposure compensation. The reason? Not even film can capture the entire brightness range of the typical scene before you. About 1:10,000. And black and white prints have a brightness range of only about 1:100. How you map that 1:10,000 in front of you to the 1:100 or so you end up with is what exposure is all about.
And rather than letting the camera guess (or fudge with multi-mode metering) about what's important in your shot, exposure compensation using EV (or Exposure Value) can give you the deciding vote.
Your camera's built-in exposure meter calculates the average brightness of the scene and sets the camera to expose for a middle gray (18% gray, the geometric midpoint of reflectances from black to white). Most of the time that's fine. Or nobody would be buying point-and-shot cameras.
But when you're faced with special factors like the reflections of snow or sand, or metallic highlights, you have to fudge the exposure to compensate.
Try this experiment to see exactly what we mean. Find a nice bright flower to shoot in some absent neighbor's garden. Get close enough to just about fill the frame with the colorful petals and notice the range of color in your LCD viewfinder. Pretty full. Now step back so the flower is just part of the picture. Suddenly it's burned out. Nothing but white. No detail.
In trying to "see" the darker garden details, your automatic exposure has become blind to the finer shades of the flower.
That's when you need EV compensation.
Just tell your camera to underexpose the scene and your flower will retain its color. And when your subject is dark, just tell the camera to overexpose. You know, like when the sun is behind everyone in the picture and you want faces not silhouettes.
How high or low should you set your EV compensation? Well, it depends on your camera. Some cameras permit half-stop adjustments, some just full. And the range may vary, too, but it's usually two full stops over to two under. But the answer is to experiment. After all, with a digicam, you don't have to wait an hour to find out the results.
Just for Fun: Halloween Masks for Your CameraThe pumpkin may have rotted long ago, but masks aren't just for Halloween. A "mask" placed over your camera lens to frame the subject can add interest and (dare we say) "focus" to your shots. Thanks to the small diameter of most digicam lenses, you probably have a lot of potential digicam masks just lying around waiting for their 15 minutes of fame.
Remember those plastic containers film cassettes come in? Slice off the bottom, hold it over your camera's lens, and you have a nice round mask to focus attention on your subject. The black ones from Kodak are a little shiny but they serve the purpose. And the clear ones make a nice fog effect.
But don't stop there. You can make your own masks in any shape with a pair of scissors and construction paper or fogged mylar film or any number of materials. Just be sure to keep out light between the mask and the lens.
Masks are one trick that can be a treat.
Dave's DealsTrial downloads of the (excellent) PhotoGenetics imaging program are still available. If you decide to purchase PhotoGenetics, be sure to come back through this URL (http://www.q-res.com/php3/downloads.php3?refid=imgresource) to receive the special $5-off deal for Imaging Resource readers!
We Have MailYou can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Re: Newsletter 3 winner's idea.
Just a word of caution. The flash gets to be pretty hot when used repeatedly. Sticking paper over the flash glass reduces thermal dissipation. If used in rapid succession the camera can burn out the flash. If you need to diffuse the flash for close-up use an incandescent lamp and turn off the flash. (The lamp I use is one of those spring-loaded desk lamps where you can move the light up and down and sideways and light directly or off something reflective.) The auto-white balance fixes the colour or you can select incandescent manually in the REC M mode. You then have the benefit of modelling the image prior to exposure. This is safer and gives much more control of "depth" of the subject.
-- John Swainston, Maxwell Optical Industries, Sydney, Australia.(Good note! I'd been thinking of it as bulging in front of the strobe tube a bit, not actually touching the head itself. -- Dave)
Editor's NotesWell, the first note has to be, "Hello, world." Dave asked me to join the IR team after I successfully answered the question, "What's the best camera to buy?" According to the terms of my contract, I'm not allowed to reveal the answer. But just ask Dave. I'll be happy to tackle your other questions if you email them to email@example.com. -- Mike
Did you install Mac OS 9 only to find Nikon View isn't compatible? Drop by http://www.cameraid.com/ for a terrific solution. Juri Munkki's shareware Cameraid is Mac OS 9 compatible. Among it's other virtues.
Got a Kodak DC265 running the Digita OS? You can play Donkey Kong on the LCD with MAME (http://members.aol.com/JWSurine/). Great way to break in new batteries.
A special Millennium edition of the Nikon Coolpix950 -- with 25% of the proceeds going to charity -- goes on sale Nov. 8. The Coolpix950 Millennium bundle will feature a special silver-blue brushed metal Coolpix950 with a grey handgrip and an individually numbered plate (0001 to 2000) on the front, with a black Millennium camera bag, Energizer NiMH battery and charger, Lexar 64MB CompactFlash(tm) Card, USB card reader and four filters with a filter wallet. Available only at Nikon's online outlet store (http://www.nikonoutlet.com) for $2000, $500 will go to charity, and the customer will be issued with a tax deduction letter. Congratulations to Nikon for supporting this worthy cause!
Next IssueWe're already working on the next issue. Advanced Mode will reveal a very simple way to reset the time or date on your pictures.
And Dave's already started sniffing out some special holiday deals.
We'll have special reports from Comdex and our list of must-have accessories for any digital camera. If you've got one to tell us about, well, tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SignoffThat's it for now, but look for our next issue in about two weeks. Meanwhile, visit our site for the latest news, reviews, or to have your questions answered in our free discussion forum. Here are the links to our most popular pages:
Daily News: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEWS.HTM New on Site: http://www.imaging-resource.com/NEW1.HTM Digicam index: http://www.imaging-resource.com/DIGCAM01.HTM Q&A Forum: http://www.imaging-resource.com/FORUM.HTM Newsletter Forum: http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a.tcl?topic=irnews Tips: http://www.imaging-resource.com/TIPS.HTM
Mike Pasini, Editor
Dave Etchells, Publisher
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