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City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

It’s a pretty well-known statistic in Buffalo that the city has a high school graduation rate just north of 50 percent, and that this percentage – which only popped up in the last several years – actually marked an improvement over previous decades where the graduation rate notched under the halfway mark. Some one in every three adults in Buffalo can’t read above a third grade level. It’s tough to lay the blame for Buffalo’s literacy rate at the feet of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, though. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it does what it can in a place which tries to shut itself in.

The main branch of the system – which is simply referred to as the Central Library – is located in Downtown Buffalo, just a block to the east of the lightrail line at Lafayette Square. You can’t miss the building, although that’s more because of its location than by any architectural merit – the damn place looks like some kind of extra cardboard scenery out of a Star Wars movie. The current building first opened in 1963 as another one of those doomed economic redevelopment and urbanization projects that decimated Downtown Buffalo in ways which would cause wet dreams for Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. It replaced a building by Cyrus LW Eidlitz from 1887 which fit Buffalo’s old architectural ethos like a glove and came off like a European castle/Greek-style church hybrid. Using only pictures, the old building and the current one look to be around the same size. Of course, the new building, being of that disastrous “modernist” style, floats above Ellicott Street, connecting the front entrance at Lafayette Square with a back end on the Ellicott/Broadway/William intersection. While it spans two blocks, it also covers only two floors – as opposed to three or four in the old building – and that’s only two if you include some new bathrooms and office space on the second floor. I wonder what happened to all the books that used to be up there.

Yeah, there are only books on the first floor. Fables Cafe and the fiction section are in the front half, and the back half has the nonfiction section and media room and computers… Hell, let’s just shorten everything by saying the back has most of what makes the Central Library the CENTRAL LIBRARY. The cafe is a nice little addition, but I’ve never eaten any of the food outside of a couple of snacks and cups of coffee, which were pretty good. Since a lot of people like to read and write at cafes, the library is a perfect atmosphere for one, when I’m finished with my weekly librarying, I prefer to visit Perks Cafe, a local indie joint which is right across the street.

The Central Library has some nice little special sections which make it stand out. One is The Center for Afro-American History and Research, and if you need to do research on African-American history in Buffalo, this is where you want to go to do it. Central Library has managed to beat the institutionalized racism you see everywhere in the city and provides the entire Western New York region with the largest African-American history resource center around. Books, microfilm, and records of prominent organizations – like the Urban League – are in there. Central Library also includes a collection for disabled people – large-print books, audiobooks, radio receivers, and descriptive videos are floating through circulation too. The Grosvenor Room is the home of the local genealogical society as well as a bountiful harvest of stuff regarding local history. And the Mark Twain Room is an exhibition room featuring Twain’s original handwritten manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you’re wondering how Buffalo, of all places, managed to get ahold of a literary treasure of that magnitude, then you have to understand that Buffalo was once a far more important city than it is now. Twain was briefly a member of the Young Men’s Association, which was what was around just before the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library was established. Twain personally donated the manuscript himself in 1885, and was a Buffalo resident at one time when he spent a couple years with one of the local newspapers.

If you want to borrow a book, you get three weeks. CD’s and movies are weeklongs. You can order items and make reservations, but the library charges for those services for some reason. Can’t say I know why. This is a habit which only cropped up in the last few years – they used to do it for free. Now it costs a buck per item. The obvious tradeoff here, though, is the fact that there is a copy of pretty much everything you can name floating around through the system somewhere. The library has never failed to deliver something I asked for. Still, the library grants you a charge account of up to $10 before you’re not allowed to do anything anymore, and that’s between fines and requests, and if you make a lot of requests, that $10 compilation is going to arrive quickly. The requests I made were $1 each.

There are a lot of interesting and informative events that happen right in the center of the building, which isn’t some special event room of its own. It’s literally right out in the middle for everything, for all to see, making it convenient for people to just stop off for a few minutes to listen to the lecture or watch the video. A lot of clubs meet there, and there are tax classes and computer classes.

The only problem you’re likely to have with the services is that the system runs entirely on a self-checkout. The librarians will perform renewals and take returns, but they’re not allowed to check your swag out for you. The self-checkouts can be a major pain in the ass, too: You would be amazed how easily the computers make checkout errors. Sure, it’s usually no problem if you’re placing one item on the checkout pad, but any more than that and there’s a 50/50 shot of something not reading right. That means you have to keep on scanning it until it does read the right way. Once you’re trying to check out anything over four or five items, chances of an error shoot up to nearly 100 percent, and you end up having to separate everything anyway. It would be a lot less tedious to just have the librarian get it out of the way quickly.

As far as the Central Library building goes, it’s bright and quiet, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Stay the hell out of the first floor bathrooms. Use the recently-remodeled bathrooms on the second floor. Not only are they bigger and better-working, but in the first floor bathrooms, illicit things tend to happen. If you need the one stall offered, there’s likely to be someone in it shooting heroin or snorting cocaine. Sketchy characters drift in and out, and while they are most likely to leave you alone, it’s really not a scene you would want to be around in case something goes wrong.

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library seems to have changed quite a bit in my absence – the children’s section is a lot smaller, the movie and music sections were condensed and consolidated, the computer policies changed, and the second floor is basically nonexistent – but it’s still around for people with reading habits. Or the many people who would be best off developing them.

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51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

In March of last year, Time Out Chicago published a list of particular sentences and thoughts which people who had lived in Chicago for awhile could use to identify you as not being from Chicago. People loved the damn thing, and I dropped into a few other city blogs to check if other places followed suit. New Orleans did, and Portland tried, although no one ever published a full list for that city. Now, its been about a year and a half since Time Out Chicago published it, and after giving it some thought, I’ve decided its time for a Buffalo booster to punch up a list of 51. True to Buffalo’s form, though, no one here seems to have found out about Time Out Chicago’s idea. Buffalo is, of course, always three decades behind the times and current trends, so although it took me a years and a half to create my own list in response, I’m actually well ahead of the curve in Buffalo time. Note that if you’re stupid enough to say some of these things in public here – like number six – the people in this city are legally obligated to kill you.

1 – “Buffalo wings.”

2 – “Let’s be honest: The Bills never stood a chance against the Giants in that Super Bowl anyway.”

3 – “Main Place Mall is obviously the best hangout spot. There’s always a lot to see there.”

4 – “Don’t worry about having beer if you get snowed in. Tea is a fine substitute.”

5 – “Why go all the way to Mighty Taco? Taco Bell is closer. It’s just as good.”

6 – “I’m glad Buffalo Wild Wings is in the area. They know how it’s done!”

7 – “Why go to Canada to drink underage? You can buy a perfectly good fake ID here.”

8 – “The NFTA is working exactly like it’s supposed to. It’s doing a great job.”

9 – “I got caught in a traffic jam on the skyway during rush hour.”

10 – “Dolphins are mammals, not fish!”

11 – “Buffalo ’66 needs a sequel.”

12 – “Call the ballpark by its proper name: Coca-Cola Field.”

13 – “Nobody gives a crap about Irish lineage!”

14 – “I’m sensing an impending boom in heavy industry.”

15 – “I just don’t understand the logic of carving a chunk of butter into a lamb shape.”

16 – “Look, I don’t know my neighbors, so I don’t see why I should dig them out of five feet of snow just because.”

17 – “The Convention Center really adds to the aesthetic of the city.”

18 – “UB’s North Campus is easy to get to. You just can’t miss it.”

19 – “Tim Horton may be a hockey legend, but his donuts suck.”

20 – “I would prefer the pleasant natural smells of a typical city downtown area to the Cheerio smell infesting our downtown.”

21 – “All those one-way streets make navigation downtown a snap!”

22 – “Albany really sticks its neck out for us. We’re lucky to have them.”

23 – “Why does everyone like Rob Ray so much? He was a thug who never did anything for the community!”

24 – “Not having salt potatoes for the Fourth of July barbeque isn’t the end of the world.”

25 – “Ani DiFranco? That name doesn’t ring any bells.”

26 – “Who could possibly go running in this snow?”

27 – “The people in University Heights are so quiet and well-mannered.”

28 – “Summer here is gross. An average high of 80 degrees? Way too high.”

29 – “The view from the American side is just as good.”

30 – “I wish we had more New York City-style pizza joints. They do the best pizza downstate.”

31 – “The Albright-Knox doesn’t have anything interesting.”

32 – “All those Wrights and Sullivans need to be razed for more modern steel buildings.”

33 – “The Skylon is perfect for a first date.”

34 – “The Taste of Buffalo is just a low-budget version of the Taste of Chicago.”

35 – “Coffee? Starbucks, of course!”

36 – “I’m glad Niagara Falls axed the Festival of Lights.”

37 – “The city’s 4 AM Closing Time is absurd and needs to be cut back a couple of hours.”

38 – “What’s a weck?”

39 – “No, I don’t think my relatives would be interested in seeing The Falls.”

40 – “You know, it wouldn’t kill anyone to hold the annual pond hockey tournament at an indoor rink for once.”

41 – “William McKinley had it coming.”

42 – “$700 for a single-bedroom apartment is a steal. If you get that price, jump on it.”

43 – “Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer? Overrated. Now The Buffalo News – there’s a shining beacon of great journalism!”

44 – “Three words when it comes to grocery shopping: Anywhere but Wegman’s.”

45 – “I wish Buffalo was more like New York City.”

46 – “The 1999 Stanley Cup Final was a long time ago and Brett Hull scored a good goal. Get over it!”

47 – “Another parking lot downtown would really improve the view.”

48 – “Don’t worry about potholes. They don’t exist here.”

49 – “Why would you move to North Carolina?”

50 – “I don’t see why this city thinks it’s so tough.”

51 – “I’m still waiting for Brian Higgins to run for President.”

If I were Infallible Dictator… I Mean, uh, Mayor

If I were Infallible Dictator… I Mean, uh, Mayor

What say, for a minute, that Buffalo’s Mayor was suddenly and tragically killed in a snow, football, and chicken wing-related incident and, through a series of wacky mishaps, I fell into position as Mayor of Buffalo. I can tell you now the first thing I would do: Assuming that everyone on the City Council died “mysterious” deaths, I would use the ensuing power void to tighten my grip and expand my authority, thus making myself from the mere Mayor into the Infallible Dictator of Buffalo. Maybe that comes off as a little harsh, but considering what I have in store for the city, I can’t take the chance of anyone there standing in the way of my grand plans. Yes, a giant laser would be involved. Actually, now that I think of it, two of them would be involved: One pointed at Albany and the other aimed straight at New York City. Before I started going all Bond villain on the state’s ass, though, I would first try to spruce up the quality of life in Buffalo in the following ways:

NFTA
It’s not a public secret that Buffalo’s public transit system is neither. What I would want to do is introduce the NFTA to the free market, so that when it died its inevitable death, it would go out knowing exactly how much it sucks. Buffalo’s public transit issues would ideally be solved when I brought a few enterprising transportation visionaries to Buffalo and gave them a few incentives to set up shop as the local people movers. Hopefully, the competition would drive the NFTA to get its act together, quit dropping routes to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, start providing something that resembles weekend and holiday services, and send its buses around on inner ‘burb routes more than once every two hours. If it acted the way it acts now in the face of real competition, I would watch and laugh as it died its slow death and their leaders kept begging for more funding. It had its chance. It blew it. And as a bonus, the city could finally liberate that undeveloped waterfront property the NFTA owns and refuses to do anything with.

Main Place Mall and Tower
A free market solution won’t do much more to the building that got me into The Buffalo News – the free market already killed this place, but its owners are too dumb to know it. One could liken Main Place Mall to a movie villain that just doesn’t go down, no matter how much the good guy keeps shooting at it. At any rate, the place gets demolished, and we get replica replacements of the Erie County Savings Bank and every other building that was wiped out to make room for Buffalo Place, except with updated, modern amenities. (Actually, I would hope the architect for this project would try to reproduce the interior of Main Place Tower’s lobby; to the little credit that can be given to it, the lobby is gorgeous.) Maybe we could also convince the Liberty Building owners to demolish that enormous nook on the mall side that ruins its symmetry in order to connect the two. For now, though, well, you do realize Seneca Mall was razed when people stopped going and businesses weren’t renting space there anymore, right?

Skyway
This is my infrastructure archenemy. While I’ve seen numerous proposals to turn it into a long, floating park, all those proposals have the same problem: They’re impractical. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea, but there’s no way it’s getting done. Think about it; we’re barely able to maintain the skyway the way it is now, and one of the popular ideas involves year-round maintenance of lawn, glass-enclosed walkways, safety devices, asphalt pathways, and god only knows what else on top of the current structure. Meanwhile, tearing the whole thing down would be $10 million. The city spent more than that on Pilot Field! Therefore, I’m doing the easy thing here and ripping down the skyway. It would remove an eyesore, open up the waterfront to the Old First Ward, and make Tifft Street and Fuhrmann Boulevard more accessible. We could also get more green space in the city without it sitting there by giving the ruins a light landscaping makeover.

The Whole Stadium Issue
When Ralph Wilson died last year, I was impressed as I watched The Buffalo News raise the question of whether or not it would be right for Buffalo to keep the Bills. Then Terry Pegula bought the team, and The News dropped all pretense of economic and logistic issues and started debating about where to put the new stadium. It’s offensive that the idea of placing a stadium anywhere downtown is even being considered – a new downtown stadium would mean devastating property blows to Larkin, or the Cobblestone District, or both. The Larkin and Cobblestone Districts are both being held up as shining examples of the New Buffalo. Both are new neighborhoods which were built up around stagnant, abandoned property thought to offer nothing but potential parking lots. A downtown stadium would be a classic example of Buffalo shooting itself in the foot, 60’s urban renewal style. A good alternate site would be the old Central Terminal – we could give the classic piece a shining and buffing, and build the stadium right around it, perhaps turning the train platforms themselves into the entryway and the building into a fan zone and souvenir shop. Oh, and one more thing: I won’t be taking any shit from the NFL. It makes $9 billion a year. It’s footing the bill for this thing. Otherwise, the Bills are playing at Southside Elementary until I’m formally able to throw them out of the area.

One HSBC Tower
No, I don’t care what name they’re slopping all over it at the moment. Hell, the only reason I’m calling it One HSBC Tower is so it has a proper reference that everyone knows. To me, it will always be the oversized refrigerator box ruining the skyline that even cockroaches think is below their standards. The place is almost completely vacant, and knocking down the tower would immediately improve the skyline. We can hang on to the base, though – it would make a fine new convention center. Not because it’s any prettier than the tower (or the current Convention Center, in fact), but because it wouldn’t destroy the skyline, and it doesn’t choke off any streets.

Buffalo Convention Center
Speak of the devil. This is an ugly disparagement to the city’s radial pattern which also chokes off traffic. It just gets destroyed.

Delaware Park
I don’t think Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Delaware Park, would have approved of the huge landscaping blunder which guts it: The Scajaquada Expressway, which some idiot city planner thought would be a good idea to place in the middle of the park, bisecting it. Let’s face it; placing a high-speed road in the middle of a park doesn’t exactly scream “Welcome to our fun, friendly place of relaxation, meditation, and escape;” instead, it says “Nobody in this city gives a shit about physical exercise and fresh air, parks are just another span to drive across when you’re late for a football game.” This just isn’t going to do. Therefore, I’m going to make it into a large bicycle and walking trail, planting a few trees along the sides and through the middle, basically turning this chunk of the Scajaquada into a nice, tree-lined boulevard without the cars.

I guess I can amend this to say that all brutalist and modernist architecture built during the revitalization era from the ’60’s to the ’90’s should be removed and replaced with more of the Victorian and Gothic buildings that stood the test of time. We’re not trying to win any height contests here; we’re trying to bring some beauty to the area and get rid of the empty monuments that remain of the people who jumped ship. I can almost certainly think of more things to do than this – off the top of me head, the Buffalo Museum of Science could use an expansion, and why the hell does the city have so many parking lots? – but this should be enough to get the community’s creative juices pumping again. Maybe some of you think these ideas are a little farfetched, but if so, just remember two things: First, our (ongoing?) fiasco with the Peace Bridge involved a suspension bridge twin span which looked nothing like the current bridge; second, the city was once dangerously close to hinging its entire economic development plan on a fishing store.

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

Anyone who has ever lived in Buffalo, New York knows the city has a notoriously overzealous preservation committee – they’ll fight tooth and nail to rescue tool sheds that have been converted into crack houses. If you know anything about Main Place Mall, though, that not only may provide an explanation for their behavior, but a damn good explanation.

Main Place Mall is plopped right smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo as part of a complex nicknamed Buffalo Place. It has a covered walkway leading into the next-door Liberty Building, and it takes up most of the block from Church Street to Lafayette Square, sitting conveniently on Main Street’s lightrail line. To understand the preservation committee’s eternal worrywarting, you have to understand what that part of the city contained until Main Place Mall was built in 1969. The Erie County Saving Bank Building was there, a magnificent architectural piece which drew influences of European-style castles. There were several other beautiful buildings sitting on the block too, the traditional architectural styles of which can still be seen on certain blocks of Main Street today.

The history of Buffalo is similar to that of most other Rust Belt cities. The city exploded thanks to its ideal situation right at the tail end of the Erie Canal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States, and one of the richest. The place was an industrial giant with an enormous steel base, and over 70 percent of the grain that got shipped anywhere in the world ended up passing through Buffalo at some point because of Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators – the world’s largest, many of which still exist. Buffalo got hit hard when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and many of the traders who had to go through the Erie Canal were able to bypass the city completely. There was also the whole suburban White Flight trend that started hitting in the 50’s and 60’s. Everything started deteriorating, and the city officials, in their everlasting brilliance (note: that’s written with the highest possible level of venomous sarcasm), started wiping out everything in their paths in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the prettiest buildings in the entire country got the axe, and were replaced by structures which I suppose might have fit some definition of “modern” at the time. The newer buildings on the Buffalo skyline are ass-ugly. Brutalist architecture became a way of life to the 60’s developers, and it’s all punctuated by the 40-floor One HSBC Center, which is the tallest building on the city’s skyline, the most prominent, and the most likely to be mistaken for a giant refrigerator box. It might be the ugliest building on Earth. PS: It’s also largely abandoned these days. Most of the major tenants have run off – including HSBC itself, which occupied 75 percent of the available space in the building. 97 percent of the building will be vacant by the end of this year. There’s a reformation and renewal project in the works for the place which might spring it back to life, but it will unfortunately not involve razing the place, so hopefully the aesthetic remake will at least make it blend better with the rest of the city, or at least not make glancers want to gouge their eyes out.

Main Place Mall was one of those attempts at renewal. It’s a shopping mall which was intended to bring everyone from the suburbs back into the city for their weekend cash-throwing contests. It failed. Man, did it EVER fail.

Main Place Mall looks like the Death Star. I think it’s technically defined as a piece of late-century modernist architecture, but it really doesn’t look like it contains any of the standard giveaways of modernist style. In other words, if you’re looking for something Wright might have designed – Wright being one of the headmasters of architectural modernism as well as a guy who designed a couple of houses in Buffalo – Main Place Mall ain’t the place to start. This place looks much more like a brutalist building made out of metal: It looks heavy and angular, the side beams look like exposed steel beams, and the assembly could easily be mistaken for large slabs. Fitting, because Main Place Mall basically IS a large black slab. Main Place Tower, which is attached to the mall, looks like a giant version of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you’re a first-timer in the Buffalo city limits, Main Place Tower is the only part of the building where the entrances are marked. So it’s the only way you’ll know you’ve found Main Place Mall if you’ve never seen the place before and somehow missed any online descriptions or directions: “If you’re walking along the lightrail line and you reach an ugly black slab, you’ve found it!”

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s pizzeria both have direct entrances from the outside of the mall, which is good, because that means you can visit them both without having to actually set foot in the mall itself. Buffalo Coffee Roastery makes delicious coffee and baked goods. Its main function is just to serve as a coffee joint – instead of a full-time cafe, like a lot of other coffeehouses today – especially if you don’t plan on staying, because the only seats there are along the walls – there are no proper tables. The coffee is quite delicious, though, so it’s very convenient to grab an order as you wait for the lightrail to stop by the Church Street station. Gino and Joe’s is an oddball pizzeria by merit of the fact that it serves New York City-style slices instead of the Buffalo-style which is made by absolutely every other place in the city, save Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s damn good pizza, though, and at under $3 per slice, quite reasonably priced.

You now know of the only two places in Main Place Mall worth checking out. There are two floors in Main Place Mall, but no place else worth visiting unless you:

a – Have an unchecked fetish for footwear. I’m not talking about the unique stuff, either; I mean plain, old, average, everyday, ludicrously overpriced footwear. There are a few footwear stores in Main Place Mall, including a Foot Locker and a Payless.

b – Are in dire need of an emergency newsstand or dollar store. There’s one of each.

c – Work downtown and want a conveniently located Key Bank or food court. Let’s face it though, Buffalo is a strict Bank of America city now, despite once being the official capitol of North America for HSBC. And Bank of America is accessible in the next-door Liberty Building.

There are a couple of other stores, but basically there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a shopping mall, Nicholas! Even if the retailers are bland, it would still be easy to visit the place and grab a new suit shirt should something happen to the one I’m wearing! Just go into the JC Penny’s or Macy’s or…. Hold it. Shut up. Let me stop you right there. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But when I said there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting, you were probably thinking the emphasis was on the “worth visiting” part, like a lot of other people would. That’s not the case. My emphasis was actually on the “nothing.” My little bullet listing up there wasn’t an emphasis; it was a summary of stores that are open in the entire place. I think there’s also one clothing store, and I know there’s a place for Buffalo-unique collectibles and T-shirts and a place to buy chocolates. Those are all on the first floor. However, it’s very easy to get to similar places all throughout the city – Buffalo collectibles are easily located on nearby Elmwood Avenue, sweets can be found anywhere within the nearby Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, and as far as the clothing store goes, even people in the suburbs probably live within easy distance of a strip mall with clothes stores in bunches.

Yes, the majority of the first floor is empty space. There are a large number of closed storefronts, most of which have been that way for a long time. The really depressing part, though, is how much of that space is NOT actual storefront. Anyone who frequents shopping malls is aware of the fact that malls have a habit of placing plain whitewall over spaces that haven’t been rented out to tenants in a long time. A good chunk of the first floor consists of that if it’s not closed storefront.

The second floor, however, is even worse. Outside the food court, there are no stores whatsoever. Just a hulking balcony. In the worse old days, there was a walkway to the building across the lightrail line, but that building has somehow managed to become even more useless than Main Place Mall, and so it’s now completely close – which means the entrance to the walkway is also boarded up. The eastern side of the second floor has closed storefronts. The western side? Entirely whitewall.

The one part of Main Place Mall which would make Main Place Mall worth a visit – besides Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s – would be the food court, but only if you happen to work downtown, and even then it’s pretty inessential. About half of the food court is whitewall. One of the food court restaurants is Gino and Joe’s – the very same place on the first floor, serving the very same food at the very same prices. Everything else is there just to satisfy hunger pangs. The food there does the job. It’s not exceptional, but it’s probably the only reason Main Place mall is still open.

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s need to be given their own spots. Once that happens, Main Place Mall needs to be demolished. Aside from those two places, the only halfway decent thing I can say about Main Place Mall is that, with One HSBC Center just a couple of blocks down the street, it doesn’t look quite as ugly as it is. Some Buffalo tourism sites advertise Main Place Mall as one of the city’s premier shopping centers. That’s a bigger lie than any of our local politicians is even capable of telling.