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Photograph by Charlie Nucci

"California is the only state in the union where you can fall asleep under a rose bush in full bloom and freeze to death." --W.C. Fields

Capturing the Saratogans

Cheating, bomb making, death threats--Saratoga High School brews a potent mix of fear and privilege. A Saratoga grad returns for a look at the city and school where competition breeds desperation.

By Mark Ames

As the staff of The Falcon, the award-winning Saratoga High School newspaper, began discussing op-ed page topics for an upcoming issue last Thursday, media hype--negative media--was on all of their minds. "Why does the media only focus on what's bad? Why do they hype the bad and never talk about the good?" asked one student, to nods of approval.

What they really were complaining about was the local media's fetish for "what's bad about Saratoga." A sense that the valley was indulging in some nasty schadenfreude over the recent scandals--from cheating to a bomb plot to a death threat against the principal's family--in the region's most privileged community had many upset, from students to the mayor.

"It's OK to do that to adults, but I get concerned when I see that done to kids," said Saratoga Mayor Anne Waltonsmith.

As proof, a journalism student picked up that morning's edition of the San Jose Mercury News and pointed to the Valley section's headline. "Look at this. A Bellarmine student just got arrested for terrorism threats, and it only makes the Valley section--Section B. We have a cheating scandal or a bomb plot, and it makes the front page. Why? Something's not right."

"Yeah, but it's kind of a relief that they have the same problem at Bellarmine," quipped another, to muffled chuckles. "At least we're not the only ones around here."

There was more truth to his quip than they realized.

One day later, Saratogans could feel a little less persecuted. On Friday's front page of the Mercury, an article told of an alleged plot by a dozen middle school students to burn down Sunnyvale's Cupertino Middle School, leading to nine arrests.

Last week was a strange one for schools and students both locally and across America, in what is turning out to be a particularly violent academic year: 36 students have been murdered, already more than the previous two academic years combined.

On Monday, Feb. 9, a high school student in suburban Albany, N.Y., brought a shotgun to school and started firing it at the students. Jon Romano, 16, was brought down from behind by an assistant principal after firing and missing twice with bird shot, hitting the school corridor walls.

The name of Romano's high school--Columbia--eerily recalled the name Columbine, the Littleton, Colo., site of the most notorious of all schoolyard massacres, in which 15 students, including the two high school perpetrators, died in 1999. Columbine is the standard by which all school massacres are measured--and a word that most people involved in education are afraid to whisper. Like Columbine, and like so many planned or executed schoolyard massacres around the country since the mid-1990s, Columbia High serves a predominantly white middle-class suburb, the kind of place where locals thought "It could never happen here."

The day after the suburban Albany shooting, on Tuesday, police were called into Corinth High School, located in another predominately white suburb in neighboring Saratoga (!) County, after graffiti was found in the boy's restroom warning, "Hell is coming 3-13-04." Police swept the school as nerves frayed. Then someone pointed out that March 13 is a Saturday. Not a lot goes on in a high school on Saturdays. It would be pretty hard to bring hell, presumably in the form of a massacre, on an empty, locked-up school.

On Wednesday, the schoolyard violence drama came closer to home when Sacramento County police claimed to have foiled a massive Columbine-style school massacre involving guns and explosives at Laguna Creek High in suburban Elk Grove. Initially, authorities said that the accused white student suspects were plotting a race war against the school's African American students.

The Elk Grove massacre plot will forever be remembered for its front-page story of a racist plot and the perpetrators' undefined "Nazi-themed drawings." Except that the very next day, both the alleged racism motive and much of the hyped plot were debunked. In a Section B article in the San Francisco Chronicle authorities and students backed off the initial hype.

Who is really going crazy, the students or the adults? (Or everyone together?) Whether the plot was fantasy or not, the reality is that the two students face up to 10 years behind bars.

That ends Wednesday's drama.

On Thursday, we learned that a 15-year-old Bellarmine sophomore had been arrested posting messages on the Internet about his plans to kill African-American students at his prep school.

And on Friday, the press reported a story of a plot by a group of 12- to 14-year-olds to burn down their Sunnyvale middle school. Nine were arrested. Their motive was revenge for having been assigned detention. Sheriffs, the school principal and the DA are all taking the matter seriously. But already by Saturday, many involved expressed skepticism that the "plot" was anything more than empty boast of the sort we all remember as students. No materials were found on any of the students, nothing but a plan.

Blown Out of Proportion

Which brings me back to the Saratoga High School bomb plot. Sensationalist reports spoke of how the Saratoga sophomore suspect had broken into the science lab on Jan. 16 and stolen or hoarded up to five dangerous chemical explosives: potassium nitrate, glycine (or glycerin or glycerine, depending on which report you get), cupric chloride, potassium permanganate and ammonium nitrate. Most of those chemicals may not ring a bell, but one, ammonium nitrate, should: it's what Timothy McVeigh used to level the federal building in Oklahoma City.

But how serious was the Saratoga High threat?

"One would need on the order of a few hundred pounds of explosives [to blow up the school]," said Dr. Van Romero, an explosives expert at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. "Quantity is everything."

However, the student was apprehended with only a couple of bottles of the chemical agents, while the other chemicals were reportedly stowed in a gym bag in his bedroom. Gym bags, for anyone who has studied the schoolyard massacre or the "Going Postal" phenomenon, are the perp's favorite accessory, like leg warmers for '80s aerobics instructors.

But could individual bomb materials hidden inside a gym bag be that scary? According to explosives experts, most of these chemicals found on the student alone or in combination would not constitute a bomb. Take the scariest component of all, ammonium nitrate. You need a fuel to combine with an oxidizer like ammonium nitrate to create an explosion. Otherwise, it's just a fertilizer that you may as well plant some GM-altered corn seeds in.

Some students I spoke with at The Falcon were dismissive. "He didn't even have a bomb," said one. "He didn't even have enough material to do significant damage. He could have gone to a gas station and filled up a tank and done more damage."

"No one's scared that someone's going to blow up our school," said a female Falcon staffer. "I heard from a science teacher that he didn't even have enough bomb material to, like, blow up a chair."

Even Dr. Kevin Skelly, the school's principal, sounded less alarmed by the bomb plot and death threat than he did about the cheating scandal which precipitated them, a sentiment shared throughout the campus.

"I don't think it was a real viable threat," Skelly said. "From what I can gather, the chemicals that he took from the room are not the chemicals that would make a bomb. He had some more things at home, but I don't think in the quantity or quality it would take to pull it off."

The most remarkable thing about the bomb suspect was how unremarkable he struck the students I spoke to. No one knew who he was, nor did they know people who knew him. Even fellow sophomores described him as someone they didn't know. His photograph in the yearbook reveals a skinny Asian American sophomore with a long neck looking uncertainly over the camera lens.

As for the 15-year-old girl who was pulled out of school and arrested for posting gruesome threats to Dr. Skelly's family, including allegedly kidnapping and chopping up his children, neither he nor other students interviewed seemed to take it too seriously. The threat was posted on her own AIM messenger profile. Some students who saw it cut and pasted it and sent it to the principal.

"She was weird and depressed," said one student.

Another claimed that she had been treated for mental health problems not long before her boyfriend was caught up in the cheating scandal and bomb threat.

One student told me that the two sophomore suspects had been dating each other since the seventh grade. Even that struck at least one student as weird.

While the boyfriend seemed, by his photograph, unremarkable, the murder-threat suspect's picture revealed a broad-faced Asian American girl grinning confidently, as if she was hiding something.

Perhaps the threats weren't that dangerous. Everyone at Saratoga's campus seemed more concerned with the cheating scandal and its damage to the atmosphere there than they were by the bomb plot and death threat.

But how the hell could bomb plots and death threats seem more normal than cheating? Even if they weren't "serious" threats, the fact that they were made at all should have disturbed Saratogans more than a cheating scandal. After all, cheating is as old as schools--or businesses, for that matter. Just look at the dotcom bust that devastated Silicon Valley--cheating is hardly anything new.

Could It Happen Here?

My reaction to the Columbine massacre in 1999, and the reaction of some of my friends, was surprise--surprise that it hadn't happened earlier, and that it hadn't ever happened at Saratoga High. In retrospect, I think one of the reasons why it had never been threatened at Saratoga in my time was simply because no one had thought of it until Columbine. Now that the pipe-bomb-totin' genie is out of the bottle, there's no putting it back inside.

Apparently, my friends and I aren't the only ones who could imagine a Columbine at Saratoga. One staffer from The Falcon told me, "I can think of a lot of students at our high school who could do a Columbine thing. A lot."

Indeed, just a couple of years ago, according to several Falcon staffers, an Asian American student was expelled from Saratoga High after he was caught with a list that he had drawn up of students whom he planned to murder. How much of that was hype and how much was real will never be known--the plot was never revealed to authorities or the media.

This year's bomb plot is eerily reminiscent of the case of Al DeGuzman, an Asian American student at De Anza Community College--the place where many Saratoga graduates go if they don't get into a four-year-college--who was found hoarding explosives in order to execute a Columbine-style massacre at his school.

Three years ago, Lancy Chui, a 17-year-old Saratoga student, committed suicide after writing a play for her English class about a girl who is saved from committing suicide by a kind and caring stranger. Apparently, no one read anything into her play; the kind stranger never came to her rescue. She took a picnic blanket and a bottle of sleeping pills out onto a lawn on West Valley's campus, lay down and died in her sleep while giving the impression to passers-by that she was merely picnicking and resting. It is alleged that her suicide note included an apology to her parents that she did not get accepted into Harvard.

And in 1997, another massive cheating scandal in a U.S. history Advanced Placement (AP) class rocked the school after students reportedly got the questions in-advance from a friend who had taken the test several time zones away in Singapore.

Issues of The Falcon at the time complained of the intrusive media and their grotesque glee over Saratoga's fall from grace. It got to the point where local TV correspondents were removed from campus by police.

"The students just want to move on and put this all behind them," sentiments echoed exactly today. Everyone in Saratoga "has already moved on." As if the events were simply another test successfully aced.

The Grade Divide

One of the biggest, most interesting elements in the recent Saratoga High scandals is the Asian American angle--an issue that none of the local media would dare touch even with their lawyers' proverbial 10-foot-pole--some kind of PC-driven fear or reverse-racism that I don't completely understand. The perpetrators of the cheating scandals, the bomb threat and the death threat were all Asian American students, in a student body that today is split almost evenly between Asians and Caucasians, a drastic shift from when I was a student, when almost the entire student body was white.

In spite of the fact that racism quickly becomes the media's and authorities' defining motive in white-led student plots elsewhere, even when that racism may not have existed (Columbine, Laguna High, etc.), both the media and people in Saratoga are deathly reluctant to make an issue of what role Asian American culture, race-related social alienation or the pressures that immigrant parents put on their children played in all of this.

One educator who worked with the school spoke of the Asian American pressures and asked not to be named told me, "Many Asian American children, when they are picked up from school by their mothers, sit in the back of the car even when the passenger's seat is empty. I don't think there's any overt racism in the school, but the Asians and the whites are in most cases separate."

Many students agreed. "There's no real race tension, but the Asians always park their cars on one side of the lot, and the Caucasians on the other side," said one.

"There are more Asian and more Indian students," said Mayor Waltonsmith. "The ethnic diversity may add to the energy of getting good grades."

This separateness is seen elsewhere. In the yearbook pages showing the different clubs, I noticed that the speech and debate club, as well as the journalism staff, was predominantly Asian American, while a large Christian club was predominately white.

Let's just come out and say what people are afraid of saying but everyone knows is true: the Asian Americans and Indian-Americans have raised the bar. I think I can say this because my ethnic group, Jews, have often been accused of doing the same thing in their communities, and have suffered discrimination because of it, including quotas at top schools.

How high has the bar been raised?

Nearly one-third of Saratoga's students have 4.0 grade averages. Almost the same proportion take AP honors classes. The average SAT at the high school is almost 1250. And it is ranked as the top public school in the state. A graduate from the class of 1999, Ankur Luthra, became Saratoga High's first-ever alumnus chosen to become a Rhodes Scholar. Another recent graduate, Allan Chu, was named one of the nation's top 20 graduating high school seniors and entered the National Inventors Hall of Fame while still at Saratoga.

These stats would have been unimaginable in my time. Indeed, I remember when I went to school it wasn't even cool to get good grades. I even intentionally dumbed my grades down in junior high so as not to be labeled a "brain."

While many praise the school and administration for making Saratoga a premier high school, others complain that the pressure is too intense and that the school has lost sight of its primary purpose--to teach its children.

Several people I spoke to complained that the school pressures those with lower scores not to take standardized tests in order to keep the school's overall scores high.

I'm not sure that the administration can be blamed as much as the parents and community. To make the kind of money you need to get a Saratoga address today--one real estate agent told me that the average house goes for $1 million--you can't have the personality of a hippie. Parents come from the pressure cooker of the top end of corporate America, and that pressure cooker extends down to the high school.

This is most evident in testimonials I found on the Internet or in the high school newspaper.

From the most recent issue of The Falcon:

"I don't feel anywhere near as much competition here," said Philip Sung, who started at MIT last fall.

"I think that SHS is overcompetitive because it's a small school and everyone knows how other people do," said Joyce Li, a freshman at UC-Berkeley.

Um, now wait a minute. I went to Saratoga, and I went to UC-Berkeley. Berkeley was brutal--I knew numerous students who couldn't last the first year, the competition was so intense. Suicide there is not uncommon--at least one student a year would swan dive either from the Campanile or the top floor of Eshelman when I was a student there. Saratoga is more competitive than MIT or Berkeley?!

One of the most poignant examples of the intensity of Saratoga High's competitive culture was expressed in a website by a former Saratoga student, 19-year-old Daniel Walter Yang.

"My 5th grade year was a waste as I learned nothing from school. However, I learned a lot on my own by reading almost a book every night or couple of nights. There was nothing else to do and so I read and read.

"...By the time I started as a freshman at Saratoga High School, I had read all of Michael Crichton's books up until then and a lot more. But high school brought a halt to my reading as the homework increased significantly and there were other things to do. I haven't read much for pleasure since the start of high school.

"...Junior year was tough, and I lost sight of many of my passions. My photography, my design, my running. I stopped a lot of them. I did win a [sic] illustration award for one of my designs at a national high school journalism convention in Boston though. But that was for work I had done the previous year. The homework load was just very heavy and that led to stress on some of my personal relationships.

"At the end of Junior year, I knew I needed to rediscover my passions and patch up rifts with other people if I was to lead a productive and full life."

Yang has since found Jesus. It's a touching portrait; the stress he suffered at Saratoga, and the subsequent finding Jesus, has an almost recovering-addict flavor to it, like a former convict. "My struggles with following Christ's path and glorifying God is a key influence in everything I do," he wrote. As if he had undergone unbearable pain on a wrong path. The path of competing at Saratoga High, where one-third of the students have 4.0 grade averages.


Photograph by George Sakkestad

Principal's Stand: Saratoga High School Principal Kevin Skelly leads a discussion on classroom ethics.

Fear of Failure

This kind of pressure and competition would have been unimaginable when I was a student. And yet Saratoga struck me, and others, as already unbearable enough just because of the social pressures.

Many in Saratoga blamed the competitive academic pressure and stress for everything from the cheating scandal to the bomb and murder plots. Many others--particularly students I spoke with--dismissed this as a "sorry excuse."

The student charged in plotting to blow up Saratoga High was apparently getting a D in one of his classes. He planted a keystroke device in one of his teacher's computers in order to download the teacher's tests, which he then shared with others. When he was caught, he was put up for expulsion in a great public trial that scandalized the valley.

At the same time, the students involved in the cheating scandal were subjected to what many described in the January issue of The Falcon as a "witch hunt," an aspect to this story that no other media has picked up on but which I recognize from my own experience:

"[S]tudents have questioned the process [of the cheating scandal investigation], saying that the administration has asked kids to reveal names of suspected cheaters and has 'pressured' some into answering untruthfully.

"... What has students crying 'Salem' and 'McCarthy' likely arose from the atmosphere created by students and teachers themselves in the past few weeks. Students have not only readily accused other students of cheating but have found it worthwhile to accuse 'tattlers' as well," the article said.

The mother of one accused student was quoted as accusing the administration of being "difficult to talk with" and that "she was told to find an attorney on 'short notice' and was given no explanation."

It was in the climate of this alleged witch hunt, just as the January issue of The Falcon went to print, that the accused bomb plotter, who had been expelled, was caught breaking into the science lab to steal the explosive chemicals.

The shame to his parents and the fear that he had failed forever must have been unbearable. America is not kind to people who fuck up; Saratoga is downright medieval to "losers." Indeed, fear of failure is one of this nation's great motivators, whether in school or in the workplace.

The father of one accused student in the cheating scandal said, "He's pretty much a destroyed kid."

The mother of another complained that her "family's reputation has been damaged in the community."

The kid who then made the step to plotting to blow up the school must have felt like he'd been condemned to death. When you're in high school, you have no idea how little your fate in school defines the rest of your life. In Saratoga, the fear of failure is worse: you know that you're starting off at the top and that there is nowhere else to go but down. Your whole fight while a student there is to keep from slipping off the cruise ship. In this context, blowing up the school would have been a dying boy's gasping, desperate revenge, like a mortally wounded soldier flicking off a grenade pin to "take a few down with me."

Saratoga Soul

I gave this story the headline "Capturing the Saratogans" because, quite frankly, in 10 days working on it, I failed to capture the Saratogans. What makes the Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans so jaw-dropping memorable is its astonishing access into an upper-middle-class suburban home rocked by scandal.

What has made studying the Saratogans for this article so strange for me has been my complete inability to get into the Saratogan "soul."

It is this inability to capture anything about them that I think is part of the problem.

Over the past week, I have spent time reacquainting myself with my hometown, trying to get beneath the surface to understand the culture that produced the cheating scandal and subsequent bomb plot/death threat. What I learned, from prying unsuccessfully into the town that was once my home, is that when you scratch the surface of Saratoga, all you get is more surface.

Most people here won't talk about anything unpleasant--which is to say, they don't talk. To admit anything wrong or unpleasant is almost like admitting one's own guilt, one's own wrongness. As soon as a problem arises, no matter how serious, people are "moving on." It's such a beautiful place--if you have a problem here, it's your own damn fault.

Not only have I been frustrated by this lack of a soul, but it's been just about the most nerve-wracking article I can remember working on. I found myself wilting in the face of all of this temperate beauty, wealth and surface niceness. In my career as a journalist, I have covered gunfire, revolutions. I have had death threats phoned and faxed to me, and faced lawsuits from scary people who you are not allowed to lose to. But nothing has been as daunting as facing suburban Saratogans and all of their beautiful, perfect, nice coldness. I began to doubt my own style, honed in some of the world's roughest places, as soon as I drove down Saratoga Avenue. This place is like kryptonite.

I have worked for years in the former Soviet Union, in a violent, post-totalitarian landscape where people speak another language, and I have never had such difficulty in gaining access to people's mouths--or when I did, to their hearts--as I have in trying to get to know Saratogans again. In part this is because I believe people here have far less heart to reveal, only ambition and results; it is more a case of nothing to articulate than a case of people being inarticulate. It's as if there isn't an inner world, a "deep underlying current," to expose.

When I tell that to people here, they point out first that everyone is afraid of lawsuits, and secondly, Saratogans are especially mindful of their reputation and image. Part of what makes that image is the privilege and exclusivity. And part of that image is the perceived perfection of the ambitious parents' children.

The recent events have been a double blow, though not the first. Everyone remembers how Saratoga's most famous graduate, Steven Spielberg, accused students at the high school of being anti-Semitic and harassing him. Personally, I doubt that Saratoga students were anti-Semites--I never noticed it, and I doubt that most Saratoga kids, growing up in this provincial bubble, even knew what a Jew was. But Saratoga students, at least while I was there, are certainly crueler and more judgmental even by California suburban standards, and that cruelty was painful enough to make a lasting impression on the world's most successful movie director.

Looking Down

Fear and perfection--that pretty much sums up the twin poles between which the most ambitious Saratogans operate in. As raw as my memory is of this place, what I'd forgotten until I came here is the incredible beauty of Saratoga's settings. I see now, only 20 years after leaving, why we were considered "privileged."

Willis Peck, a journalist who was born in Saratoga in 1923, told me that ever since Saratoga was "discovered" by San Francisco's moneyed elite in the late 19th century, "there has always been a wealth element to the city."

Its early settlers, like Senator James Phelan, built huge mansions like Villa Montalvo on massive estates. Saratogans had always considered themselves as separate from San Jose, in large part because the estates here were larger and the moneyed elite intended to keep things that way.

Saratoga looks down on San Jose not only from its nose, but from its front window. Just two minutes away from the high school, if you cross the street, drive up Reid Lane, take a left on Canyon View Drive, and turn around ... you can see San Jose, most of Santa Clara County, all 1.6 million of 'em, spread out below Saratoga's 29,000 residents--sprawling, polluted and anonymous San Jose, a paved-over bowl of megastore-anchored strip malls, freeways and avenues, tract homes and three-and five-story office complexes, submerged in a year-round layer of brown smog, smog that is best visible from the view up in the Saratoga hills. And on the other side of the valley, at the far end of Saratoga's view, is the lifeless, brown Mt. Hamilton range. Brown--in nature's terms, the opposite of Saratoga's lush green. That's how the outside world looks from a Saratogan's window.

Saratoga's sense of privilege could not be more concrete than that.

Driving around my old neighborhood in the flat area known locally as "the Golden Triangle"--what my friends and I called "The Maze"--I was stunned by how little it had changed in 25 years since I moved away. The shrubs and lawns are just as well-manicured and green, the houses are neither too freshly painted nor sun-decayed. The cars in the driveways of the Maze are, in relative terms, the same as they once were--nicer than in San Jose, but not the flashy Mercedes Benzes or Porsches that you have in the richer parts.

Neither reconstruction nor entropy has altered Saratoga. The structures have been preserved without being improved. A small beat-up car in front of the house next to the one I lived in even had a KSJO dirthead sticker on its back window; when I lived there, my neighbor had a '70s equivalent of the same dirthead car with the same dirthead KSJO sticker.

Usually, time forces either decay or reconstruction, but in the Maze, as in most of Saratoga, everything has been preserved, even the lush oak trees and firs that hang over Saratoga Avenue and Highway 9.

Even stranger is the fact that Saratoga High School, in spite of its wealth boom since I left, is still the same ugly cinder-block-walled barracks that it was when I went there.

"It looks like a jail," one student complained to me. "Even the new performance arts center is ugly."

"And they don't even have the money to finish it," sneered another.

The new school library, built long after I left, nevertheless preserves the same light-gray cinder-block-walled jail-chic style employed so grotesquely throughout the campus.

"I hate it," said a student.

Seeing this time warp disturbed me. In ways that I cannot even articulate. In ways, as I said, that even the revolutions and death threats I have faced never bothered me.

Not everything is the same, of course. The orchards are no more--I remember the last tracts of prune and walnut orchards in my own neighborhood, but they've all been subdivided into expensive homes, just as my old elementary school, Congress Springs, has been turned into a subdivision. I remember hating Congress Springs enough to vandalize it with some friends in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. Now the school is gone--and the area is no better for it.

The one obvious change is Saratoga's ethnic makeup. About half of Saratoga High's students are Asian American. The students look different than the all-white preppy/stoner divide when I was a student. Like most American youths, today's students dress as if they just woke up and threw on the first thing they could find, usually a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of baggy jeans. Many of the Asian American kids sport spiked hairdos. Bedheads or half-combed hair are also common.

Not with everyone. While on the campus, I spotted a pair of clearly popular girls walking across the quad in expensive boutique clothes, loudly gossiping, bragging in volume. One wore black nylons, knee-high leather boots, a low-cut black miniskirt and a halter top showing off her midriff. She spoke in the same horrifying uptalk that I remember wanting to flee from, so when I heard her talk, I naturally fled. Fled for my rented Toyota Corolla, which, in Saratoga High's parking lot, drove the privileged point home all over again. There were Land Cruisers, a Lincoln Navigator and other assorted SUVs, each about three times the height of my Corolla. The most popular car was the BMW, although I also noticed several Mercedes Benzes, including two convertibles.

As I pulled out of the parking lot in my Corolla, through a forest of SUVs, all I could think of was getting out of this place and back to Russia--violent, bloody, wonderfully imperfect Russia.

Saratoga is a beautiful privileged place, and it makes you feel, if you don't love it and become a part of it, that something is wrong with you. It's a debilitating feeling, a special venom, that paralyzed me within a day of arriving. Because the only place you can go from Saratoga is down.


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From the February 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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