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Confessions of a Barista: What’s life like for the person making your pourover?

Allie Schuh, Little Amps, 2013

Allie Schuh, Little Amps, 2013

Little Amps Coffee Roasters is humming smoothly as I push open the door. Two men are bent over a single laptop, each cradling a cup of French press. Another customer is digging through the collection of for-sale vinyls and occasionally sipping a cold jar—the shop’s famed shot of espresso poured over ice and shaken vigorously with brown sugar until frothy.

A brightly colored mural of a Mediterranean villa graces one exposed brick wall, and light from the wide windows pours over the polished tables and wooden floorboards at the Olde Uptown location on Green Street. The high, tinny grind of the espresso machine rises above the murmur of voices, and, from behind the bar, barista Allie Schuh waves at me and says, “I’ll be with you in just a second.”

A connoisseur of cozy spaces, I am familiar with this lifestyle, but Allie has promised to show me the side of the coffee trend that I don’t know about—that of the world behind the bar.

According to author Merry “Corky” White, American coffee culture has experienced three major waves: one post-World War II with the introduction of instant coffee, another with the rise of Starbucks and its emphasis on coffee origin and brewing technique and the third with the “refinement of coffee culture” that emphasizes detail and ceremony. With such a refinement, coffee has emerged into the American conscience as a beverage that is both private and public, cult and caffeine. But that is only the story from the front side of the bar.

Allie detaches herself from the espresso machine long enough to give me a hug. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asks, handing me a cup of today’s roast: a sweet, fruity Honduras E.V. Perez with flavors that remind me of blueberry and peach.

Allie’s smile is contagious, as is her expertise. Her personal interest in coffee began as a passion for meeting people in intimate spaces. It transformed into a profession when she graduated from college and found that many traditional businesses are currently unable to invest in young people, but coffee shops are.

She has been a barista for nearly two years, beginning in a small coffeehouse in San Francisco and then working at Midtown Scholar Bookstore when she moved to Harrisburg. She joined Little Amps in 2012. “A good barista is worth his weight in gold,” Allie says. “The profession of coffee is filling a niche for young people.”

Allie smiles at a client over my shoulder, and I’m reminded she’s still on the clock. “For you, Nevin?” she asks and drifts away.

I trail behind her and enter the space behind the bar, a chest-high hallway narrower than a church aisle. Tucked out of the sight of clients are plastic bins of freshly roasted coffee lined in neat rows, brown paper bags, an array of spices for specialty drinks, a digital scale and glassware. Mason jars are being chilled in the fridge for the cold jars. A red step stool is just behind the counter so that one can stand at the proper height to execute a pour-over—a style of coffee made from pouring a thin stream of water in a circular motion over a filter of precisely measured grounds. Everything is so organized that I’m afraid to touch anything.

Allie offers to show me how to pull an espresso, and I eagerly step forward. The act of standing before a massive machine and coaxing out a tiny cup of black liquid has always seemed so magical that I can’t decide if it will be harder or easier than it looks.

It’s both. Allie’s lesson comes with a list of warnings: tamp too hard and you’ll break the grounds, making it more difficult for water to seep through. Pull a shot too short, and it will be bland. Pull a shot too long, and it will be bitter, like over-steeped tea. Allie rinses the heavy port-a-filter with hot water and holds it out to me. “Ready?” she asks.

She shows me once, and then I try to imitate: grinding the espresso into the port-a-filter while rotating it to get an even fill; leveling the grounds with my finger and tapping the filter once to settle them. I gently nestle the tamp into the grounds to evenly distribute its weight; then I press down with my best guess of what 30 pounds of pressure should feel like. Finally, we lock the filter into the espresso machine.

“Go ahead and pull the lever,” Allie says, and I yank down with the same amount of upper body strength that I’d use for an exercise at the gym. The lever reluctantly gives way, and, for nearly half a minute, it releases as espresso pours in delicately colored streams into a waiting cup below: a dark body, a light crema.

I’m staring at the cup reverently when a wave of customers appears before us, and Allie sets my espresso aside. By the time I finish fudging my way through a French press, it’s been a few minutes, and Allie informs me that my espresso is too old to give a clear indication of my failure or my success.


Andrea Musselman, St. Thomas Coffee Roasters, 2013

Andrea Musselman, St. Thomas Coffee Roasters, 2013

Outside of Harrisburg, in Linglestown, the lunch rush is just beginning, and the line for coffee is nearly out the door at St. Thomas Roasters. Barista Andrea Musselman is standing at the front counter with her curly auburn hair held back with a bandanna and her fingers poised over the register keys as she takes a customer’s order.

Beside her, owner Geof Smith is singing “one is the loneliest number” and greeting every customer by name. Laughter mingles with the sound of grinding espresso. Past the serve counter is St. Thomas’ Diedrich roaster, surrounded by canvas bags of coffee and white buckets of freshly roasted beans. Nearly 20 loose-leaf teas and 20 in-house roasted coffees are available for bulk purchase, and the aroma of the coffee lingers everywhere: in the coffeehouse’s dark green walls, the well-loved sofa next to the back entrance and local artwork that adds to the room’s intimacy.

By the time the crowd dies down, Andrea has already served me two house blend espressos: one straight and another poured over ice then strained back out so that I can taste the difference that the temperature makes. She is knowledgeable and moves fast—stepping purposefully to keep up with the speed of the orders.

Her life’s first coffee was a Sheetz cappuccino that her father allowed her to sip. “It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” she says. “I drank it all, but I don’t think I was supposed to.” After college, she took a job at Panera Bread that helped her realize that her interest did not just lie in drinking coffee but also in preparing it.

From her standpoint, the modern hype over coffee is not just a fad—it’s valid.

“There are 130 flavor components in coffee,” Andrea explains. “So much of a flavor depends on the complexity of the soil the coffee was grown in, how the coffee was processed, if there was a bug on a bean that fermented or how the coffee has been roasted. The product itself is really exciting and always changing.”

She is drying glasses as she speaks and deftly moves to stir flavor syrups into buckets of fresh beans: hazelnut, vanilla, cinnamon sticky bun. Behind her, Geof has begun the day’s roast, and the bitter aroma breaks into the air with the popping sound of cooling coffee.

Being a barista seems to be equal parts science, art, people and sheer physical labor, but at least, according to Andrea, all the days are different. “It’s paninis today,” she notes, then she laughs. “I sometimes try to predict a busy day. If it’s sunny out, you’d think everyone would be out getting coffee, but that sometimes means everyone’s doing something else.”

Andrea records the date of flavored beans on a clipboard in neat little figures then turns back to me. “Have you ever made a latte?”

I want to impress Andrea with my espresso skills, but this machine is different, and I do not know which buttons to push. Instead, she grinds an espresso and tamps it with a crisp tamp, tap, tamp, tap—and pulls the espresso into a cream-colored mug with green stripes. “To steam milk,” she says, handing a cupful of 2 percent to me, “you have to hold the cup a bit to the side with the steam wand inside, like this, so the milk will swirl.”

With the sound of a long, tight slurp, my milk spins in a vortex and rapidly jumps to 160 degrees: too high. “Now drop the cup down to get some foam,” Andrea instructs. I follow, but I drop too far, and the milk coughs out. I quickly take it off the heat.

To make latte art, Andrea tells me to pour the steamed milk slowly into the espresso, beginning high above the cup then dropping closer while swinging the stream gently from side to side. This technique results in a mug that looks like it’s been topped with a white, coffee-rimmed blob.

I’m staring at it, thinking mud puddle, when Andrea’s co-worker Jessica Janze walks by and cheerfully congratulates me on making a sun.

I’m further behind on my coffee career than I thought.


For both Allie and Andrea, both sides of the bar—that of the barista and that of the customer—have their merits.

“The best part of [my job] is really getting to talk about coffee and connect with people,” Andrea says. “When someone comes back in and says, ‘the coffee you recommended was perfect,’ that’s really satisfying.”

Allie would agree. “As a barista, you really get to know the customers you serve. Even though you’re interacting with people just minutes every day, there’s still time to invest in relationships.”

But the other side of the bar is equally satisfying. “In a coffee shop, you get to know your community, meet your significant other here, make friendships,” Allie says. “I’m a barista, and I still enjoy going to a coffee shop after work. This is where it all happens.”

She chuckles. “And on that side of the bar, my feet don’t hurt as much.”

Little Amps Coffee Roasters
1836 Green St., Harrisburg
(717) 695-4882
133 State Street, Harrisburg
(717) 635-9870

St. Thomas Roasters
5951 Linglestown Rd., Linglestown
(717) 526-4171

A version of this article first appeared in on October 29, 2013, and in print in TheBurg, November 2013.

Free Pancake Friday, Oakland Avenue, Pittsburgh

Fresh pancakes, Oakland Ave, November 2012

“Pancakes! Get your free pancakes!”

The voice is loud and authoritative, and it cuts through the crisp morning like a fishmonger’s. Danny Santoro, a junior computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, bends over two hot griddles on his front lawn, pouring scoopfuls of batter from industrial-sized mixing bins and waiting until the pancakes bubble and sizzle. Roommates Chad Miller and Adam Britton along with a handful of neighbors gather around, exhaling steam into the morning air. It’s week 11 of Free Pancake Friday on Oakland Ave.

“They’re free, like, for real? I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” says a passerby, leaning over the griddle and accepting a hotcake and a cup of hot chocolate. “I figured you were a bunch of boys doing a science experiment. Thank you so much!”

“Yeah, they’re free,” says Santoro. “No ulterior motive. Well, we have a tip jar.” He flips a few pancakes and then adds, almost as an extra thought, “For charity.”

Hot chocolate and morning joy, Oakland Ave, November 2012

Past charities have included the Pittsburgh Food Bank, breast cancer research, and Hurricane Sandy relief, but raising money was not the original point. Free Pancake Friday began first as a mistake.

“The first week happened because we were trying to have a house breakfast, and Chad made way too many pancakes,” Santoro explains. “So we just kind of stood out on the street and gave them out, no plates or anything. Hot and free, like America in the summertime.”

Today, they not only have plates; they have syrup, hot chocolate, a lawn table to lounge at, and pancakes whose flavors vary per week, ranging from pumpkin to buckwheat to red velvet. The group plans to keep making pancakes through the winter and through the snow. “Who doesn’t like pancakes?” Santoro says.

Danny Santoro, a CMU junior, mans the griddle; November 2012

Two-Decade Dream: Grantville Volunteer Fire Company’s new building becomes a reality

Fire company president Wayne Isett

This article was first published on April 28, 2012, in The Patriot-News.

EAST HANOVER TWP — At the April 14 groundbreaking for Grantville Volunteer Fire Company’s new 15,000-square-foot building, the excitement in the air was as tangible as the dry spring heat that wafted over the gravel ground

No wonder — the dream to build a firehouse for the 200-member volunteer fire company has been nearly 20 years in the making.

“It’s been said that perseverance is not just running one long race, but many short races one after the other,” East Hanover Twp. supervisor George Rish said. “This fire company is an example of that.”

Consultant Paul McNamee of Paul McNamee Consultants agreed.

“You have a hard-working fire company. They’re one of the hardest-working clients I’ve ever had,” McNamee said.

Standing to the side of the crowd, fire company president Wayne Isett smiled calmly, introducing speakers and acknowledging guests. A 30-year member of the fire company, Isett and other senior members identified the company’s need for a new building back in the 1990s when they began outgrowing the current location on Jonestown Road, which had been constructed in 1973.

Read the complete article at

Encore! Home School Productions have appointment with death

Encore! Home School Productions, an independent theater group composed of home schoolers from across Central PA, will perform Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death” at Trinity High School in Lower Allen Township from April 19-22. The group’s 2011 performance, “First Impressions,” earned them three Apollo Award nominations, defining the group’s perseverance as an acting group and team. Click here to read more on

This article was first published in The Patriot-News on Friday, April 6, 2012.

Amber Emerson, Lewisberry (top left), discuss the plot with Austin Cassel, Hummelstown (left), and Forrest Davis, Palmyra (right), at Grace Chapel, Conewago township.

Friday Photo: A Plowman’s Perspective of Harrisburg Snow Removal

Third Street, Harrisburg, at 1:30 A.M.

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of TheBurg, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s 11:35 PM on Wednesday, December 7, and I haven’t left home at this odd of a weekday hour since Black Friday. I bend over my steering wheel and crane my neck toward the sky: still no snow.  Front Street is as clear as a country road, a sleek damp ribbon studded with lampposts.  The black jogging path runs beside a silver Susquehanna.  It’s a picturesque scene, but the weather forecast has been clear: snow advisory for Central Pennsylvania from 7pm to 7am tomorrow.

When snow is on the forecast, most of us slide into a familiar routine: check the quantity of milk in the fridge, the level of gas in the tank. For most of us, the routine stops there, except for the occasional glance at the sky. This is not the case for Harrisburg’s Department of Public Works, for whom the words “snow day” have an entirely different meaning.

Tonight, four men—Dave Spiroff, Enola; Rodney Keller, Hummelstown; Randy Sauder, Harrisburg; and David Jordan, Susquehanna township—have just arrived for work.  I join them in a utility building on South 19th Street which is backlit by fog and orange light. Director Ernie Hoch sips coffee and shakes my hand, and the men greet me with a nod. “This is my A team,” says Hoch, by way of an introduction.  “These are the guys that I call first.”

During heavy blizzards, up to 45 men, CDL licensed or otherwise, can be called upon by the department to help clear the city of snow, rotating over 12 hour shifts.  Most snow removal strategies are systematic, including prioritizing primary and secondary streets, and mapping out the city into 8 sections to focus the work. However, trying to determine where to push the snow, or struggling to fit a snowplow down Penn Street, can make for white-knuckle work.

“There’s always that one street that you’re driving down with your heart pumping Kool-Aid,” says Spiroff, who has worked with the city for 16 years.

Tonight, expectations are minimal. The one- and five-ton salt trucks have already been loaded, the goal being to salt ramps and bridges and to keep a close eye on the roads near the river, where it’s colder. The crew scatters, taking their places among the city, and Hoch and I duck into a pick-up truck and drive up Cameron Street.  We’ve barely driven five minutes before Hoch checks the weather on his phone. “I actually think the snow’s passed over us,” he says suddenly. There is no regret in his voice. “I’m not disappointed.  It’s better to be proactive. The streets will be clear by rush hour.”

I will be awake again by 6:30 and part of that rush hour traffic that will move swiftly through a bitter cold sunrise.  The students that I teach will be disappointed to have not had a delay, and I will secretly regret that I can’t sleep in, either.  However, it’s clear that this privilege of safe driving has everything to do with the four trucks that are out on the streets right now, circulating like quiet watchmen, tracing the city silently beneath a snowless sky.

Dads and daughters enjoy Londonderry township’s dance

The following is taken from an interview of participants at Londonderry township’s Fifth Annual Daddy-Daughter dance.  An abridged version appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, October 28, 2011.

Daddy-daughter dance, Sunset Golf Course Clubhouse, October 2011

WHITE TIGHTS, BLACK TIES: Londonderry townhip fathers and daughters celebrated one another at the fifth annual Daddy-Daughter dance, a heartwarming evening of games, prizes, and music at the Sunset Golf Course Clubhouse on Friday, October 14.  “It’s hard to tell who appreciates the dance more, the daughters or the daughters,” says coordinator Beth Graham. Thirty-seven couples were in attendance for professional photographs, a food buffet, and the crowning of a king and queen.

MILES OF SMILES (clockwise from top): Richard Silks with granddaughters, Kylie, Alex, and Cheyenne of Cedar Manor

WHO: Richard Silks, Cedar Manor
GRANDDAUGHTERS: Alex, 5; Kylie, 9; Cheyenne, 12

He says…
–       GRANDDAUGHTERS’ BEST QUALITIES: “Alex makes her own cheers that she always has to share.  Kylie does jigsaw puzzles with me. Cheyenne is great at spending quality time.”
–       BEST PART OF THE EVENING: “The whole night.  It puts memories into my granddaughters’ lives, the kind you can never replace.”

PERFECT PAIR: Kailynn White, 7, with father Steve White, Elizabethtown

WHO: Kailynn White, 7
FATHER: Steve White, Elizabethtown
PARTICIPATION: “We’ve been coming for three years.”

She says…
–       BEST PART OF EVENING: “I love dancing with my friends.”
–       FAVORITE DRESS-UP ACCESSORY: “My high heels.”
–       DAD’S BEST ASSET: “He’s great because he loves me.”

FIRST DANCE: Jeff Poor with Ellie, 5, of Elizabethtown

WHO: Jeff Poor, Elizabethtown
DAUGHTER: Ellie, 5
PARTICIPATION: “It’s our first year, but we were crowned dance King and Queen!”

He says…
–       OVERALL IMPRESSION: “The dance is a neat way to get dads and daughters out together before the girls get too old.”
–       ELLIE’S GREATEST ASSET: “Her energy, her fresh outlook, her innocence.”

She says…
–       FAVORITE DRESS-UP ACCESSORY: “This dress.”
–       DAD’S FAVORITE FOOD: “He makes good bacon.”
–       BEST PART OF THE EVENING: “I won the contest.”

DOUBLE DIP: (from left) Andy and Rylee Hartwick, 6, of Middletown with Aaron and Paige Adelman, 7, of Londonderry township

WHO: Andy Hartwick, Middletown
DAUGHTER: Rylee Hartwick, 6

He says…
–       FAVORITE SHARED ACTIVITY: “We go fishing together.  She’s my girl.”

DANCE LIKE THIS: Lucy Rodgers, 10, and her father Simon of Harrisburg

WHO: Lucy Rogers, 10
DAD: Simon Rogers, Harrisburg
PARTICIPATION: “This is our third year coming to the dance.”

She says…
–       BEST PART OF EVENING: “The limbo.  I won two years in a row!”

He says…
–       FAVORITE EVENING MEMORY: “Just seeing Lucy smile.  It melts my heart.”
–       LUCY’S GREATEST ASSET: “Her self-assuredness.”

Friday Photo: Political Climate

Political Climate: A record-breaking snowstorm hit the northeast on Saturday, October 29, 2011, 11 days before Election Day--a day which, in contrast, is predicted to enjoy sunny skies and a high of 64 degrees.



Local band Colebrook Road aims to ‘draw people’

Colebrook Road (left to right): Joe McAnuty of Harrisburg, fiddle and vocals; Marcus Weaver of Elizabethtown, banjo and vocals; Wade Yankey of Harrisburg, mandolin; Jesse Eisebise of Lower Swatara Twp., guitar; and Mike Vitale of Millersville, bass and vocals.

The name Colebrook Road is both a bluegrass band — and a place. As a band, it’s a five-member musical powerhouse based in Harrisburg who has written Pennsylvania-inspired songs like “Dry Ground Blues” and “Delta Skunk” and has performed in various venues, including many across the mid-state. As a street, Colebrook Road runs across Central Pennsylvania through Dauphin, Lebanon, and Lancaster counties, and represents many members’ childhood, connection to the land, and life philosophy. I spoke to the band Colebrook Road in October about their connection to community in an article recently published in The Patriot-News.

Friday Photo: Kill Your Television

Uptown, Harrisburg, October 2011

I found these words on a street on which I’ve never walked before.  I do not know the street name, but what I know for sure it was north of Maclay, the unofficial dividing line between Harrisburg’s Old Uptown and “real” Uptown, between poverty and prosperity, between black and white.  When living on the farm in Shippensburg, I never understood how it was be possible that the contrast between city neighborhoods could be so stark, but the answer as I see it now is both complex and simple: differences in money and thus schools, differences in traditions and thus legacy, differences in opportunity and thus the lack of it, which both enrobe and result in the mistrust of a stereotype.

But here’s a fact that brings us together: in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans over the age of 15 spent an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes watching television daily, making TV-watching the most third-most prominent activity in our lives.  (As the survey includes retirees and teenagers and charts daily activity, including weekends, sleeping tops the chart at 8 1/2 hours, and “work-related activities” only clocks in at 3 1/2 hours).  This means that watching television one of the most unifying activities across races, genders, and age.

There’s a problem in this equation–for all of us.  Norman Herr, Ph.D., author of the textbook The Sourcebook for Teaching Science publishes on his website that, by the time a child finishes elementary school, he has witnessed 8,000 murders via television, and will watch 400,000 violent acts by the time that he reaches 18.  He also writes that many of Americans are so “hooked” on watching television that the act, for some, fits the criteria for substance abuse (usually defined by answering “yes” to two or more of the following questions): 1) the substance is used as a sedative; 2) it is used indiscriminately; 3) the user feels a loss of control while partaking; (4) the user feels angry with himself for using too much; (5) he feels an inability to stop; and (6) he feels miserable when the substance is being withheld.

(Does “I accidentally stayed up until 2am watching Breaking Bad” sound familiar to anyone?)

It’s easy to laugh off these occurrences, but with these statistics in mind–along with well-popularized figures of increasing childhood obesity rates–it is no longer funny.  I originally read the message I found with the violent wording (“Kill,” not just “Turn off”) in a rough neighborhood as being fueled by one resident’s frustration about and awareness to the role that excessive television-watching plays in the cycle of poverty and abuse, but apparently, the message is for all of us–south of Maclay and otherwise.

‘Architecturally Speaking’ gives new perspective on old art

Steve Zeigler, September 2011

Drive past Steve Zeigler’s warehouse on Lexington Street in Susquehanna Township, and it’s likely you won’t notice anything besides a junkyard. Surrounded by a chain link fence, the warehouse faces an old coal shed whose storage bays spill with porcelain bathtubs, a blue park bench, a pile of metal grating.

Then you see the gates: enormous wrought iron towers with the high arches and plunging curves that evoke the entryway of a Victorian mansion.

“I’m not sure where they came from,” says Zeigler thoughtfully. “But I would like to use them over the warehouse entrance.”

This is the storage warehouse of Architecturally Speaking, a business that finds, makes, and sells repurposed industrial art for the home or garden.  Selling mostly from a stand at the Antique Marketplace in Lemoyne, Zeigler—a full-time landscaper, Dauphin County native, and the owner, artist, and picker of Architecturally Speaking—has been salvaging and selling his goods art for over 5 years.

At Zeigler’s business, every item has a use—and a story.

“This is a freezer door from the old Weaver’s on Derry Street,” Zeigler says, tugging at a massive wooden frame with a steel lock and peeling turquoise paint.  “I’d like to see this as a wall decoration.”

Nearby, next to a functioning coal stove, sits a length of wrought iron railing from a Pittsburg cemetery.  There’s a zinc façade from Sixth and Maclay Street, Harrisburg and street signs from New York City.  Zeigler even has the arched transom window from the boarding house that formerly stood on the now-vacant lot on the corner of Second and State Street, Harrisburg; the address is still printed in yellow on the glass.

“Other people throw things like this away, but not me,” says Zeigler.

Old park bench and iron work

Many of Zeigler’s finds are for sale “as is,” but Zeigler also sees the pieces as inspiration to create new art: organ pipe fences, clutch gear mirrors, heating-grate flagstones. Wooden desk drawers become shadow boxes, carefully filled with other found objects—like an old photograph of a Harrisburg flood paired with antiques that could have been found inside the homes. Patterned tin, like that which covers the ceilings of old buildings, is sanded, repainted, and stretched over a frame like a canvas.  A birdhouse is built out of old wood from a blacksmith’s shop behind Penn National Racetrack and then fitted with metal from a roof of a car.

Edgy, funky, yet consistently practical, this art pays homage to the beauty of the architecture from which the materials came.

“I can just look at an object and find another purpose for it,” Zeigler says.  “It’s fun.  I love it.”

Clutch Gear Mirror

The larger trend toward “industrial” art can be seen in popularity of exposed ductwork, brick walls, and the use of antiques as décor in restaurants, bars, and businesses across the mid-state.  The bell hung in the Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg, is from Manchester, England. In La Piazza of Linglestown, an Italian restaurant housed in a former church, customers wait for their tables by sitting on one of Zeigler’s found church pews.

Zeigler’s picking runs take him as far as New York City, Baltimore, and Virginia; and his art has been sold to customers along the East Coast. Creative and meticulous—he loves working especially with textures, especially metal—Zeigler views his own art not a challenge, not only for him but his viewers as well.

“The name ‘Architecturally Speaking’ asks people to take a different perspective on what’s around them,” he says.

Architecturally Speaking
(717) 903-6329

Sales: Antique Marketplace, 415 Bosler Avenue, Lemoyne
4410 Lexington Street, Harrisburg (by appointment)

This article first appeared in TheBurg, September 2011.

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