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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 18, 2010

Oxford's New Building, One Year Later

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Posted by Derek

About a year ago, I wrote here about the impressive-looking new biochemistry building at Oxford, and wondered if it would work out quite the way the architects intended. Now I see a report from a post-doc who actually works there:

My first thoughts setting foot into the new building were the following: How are we supposed to concentrate with our offices in the atrium? How are we going to manage to work at such tiny desks?
I have to say, these initial concerns were justified. We hear the lab phone of every single floor ringing through the atrium, including people's mobile phones (which also causes envy towards those who actually have reception). When people really need to concentrate on writing, reading or thinking while others are discussing their work or are simply chatting, the atmosphere can get pretty tense. And even if it was completely silent in the atrium, the small size of the desks already makes working difficult. . .I once discussed the lack of space with our head of department. He simply replied: when you have to write a paper, you work from home anyway... I'd say £47 million well spent!

Anyone else over there want to comment?

Comments (48) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. befuddled on January 18, 2010 1:07 PM writes...

Reminds me of the newest research building at my campus in grad school. Lovely windowed walkways for visitors. Unpleasant windowless labs for the ones who actually worked there.

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2. Jonathan on January 18, 2010 1:17 PM writes...

When I was a grad student at Imperial they built a new biomedical building on the main campus like that; all the PhD students and postdocs in a giant open space in the atrium with no peace or quiet. I was very thankful I was down the road at the NHLI and never had to deal with it.

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3. darwin on January 18, 2010 1:41 PM writes...

Too late. HR has already caught wind of the "open space" concept and the ball is rolling. Someone from Novartis should chime in to see how it is working there...

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4. Anne on January 18, 2010 1:53 PM writes...

There seems to be an epidemic of these - there's examples at all three educational institutions I've been at in my entire life. My K-12 school built a new middle school with a big open atrium area - that one actually works quite nicely as a place for kids to gather and just centralizes the building. At my college, they built a massively expensive (especially for the size of the school a 2000 student liberal arts college) Life Sciences building, and it too has a huge wide open atrium, and labs with glass walls. The lab I worked in just for class labs was nice and clean, but not an enormous step up in terms of functionality, and it is weird to know that people can look at you as they walk by.

A building at the UMich campus is the biggest culprit I've encountered - it's very similar to the one described in this post. A five-story hole ("atrium") piercing layers of labs and offices. Many of the offices are out in open space, and while I haven't been there during busy work days, I imagine the sound can spread through the space quite badly. It sure is beautiful and comfy as a person just strolling through, but I really don't see a huge productivity benefit.

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5. PharmaHeretic on January 18, 2010 2:41 PM writes...

Here is a relevant dilbert cartoon strip..

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6. Ed on January 18, 2010 2:48 PM writes...

Architects design the building they want you to have according to their pre-conceived notions, then try to convince you its a good idea. For example, most scientists are introverted types who generally form small groups of close friends.

Obviously this makes it far from ideal for them to find themselves in a huge, open-plan atrium office where everyone and his lab mouse can hear your chit-chat. But open-plan atria are fashion of the day, so that's what you're going to get.

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7. Anonymous on January 18, 2010 2:54 PM writes...

New "kitchen table" design coming to some chemistry labs here at GSK. Come in every day (lowly chemists up to managers and directors) and randomly sit down a one very large, long table. No space is your own....apparently you will get some sort of rolling file cabinent where you can put their stuff in each night (and take out each morning). Thanks HR! This ought to be a gem...

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8. barry on January 18, 2010 3:09 PM writes...

Chiron built such a research building in '99. I thought at the time that the open atrium evoked a tenement airshaft where housewives would hang laundry and exchange gossip. Eventually, by the addition of "textile elements" the echoes were largely suppressed. Still, it makes for a noisy and distracting office environment.
The architectural community was enthralled. I would often seen tour guides leading bevies of them through. We had to add blinds (to our whiteboards, not to our offices) to protect what was confidential

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9. TOSG on January 18, 2010 4:24 PM writes...

Anne: Is that the BSRB?

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10. bbooooooya on January 18, 2010 4:28 PM writes...

"Come in every day (lowly chemists up to managers and directors) and randomly sit down a one very large, long table. No space is your own....apparently you will get some sort of rolling file cabinent where you can put their stuff in each night (and take out each morning). Thanks HR! This ought to be a gem.."

Hey, that's great! "Hotelling" from the 80s making a resurgence. It's always exciting when a previous discredited notion is renewed by a new group of HR morons who find these magic beans.
The whole notion was discredited as being less productive in the a few decades ago, but this time will be different!

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11. Michael on January 18, 2010 4:43 PM writes...

Oh dear, it's an epidemic. In Bergen they have built two of these the last ten years. First they built one with windows instead of walls to the offices and the labs far away so that you can't easily walk between. That was thoroughly thrashed by all who worked there.

Now they built a new one, and what do they do? Separate the offices from the labs even more. AND, make ALL the walls out of glass. To add injury to insult they place all PhD fellows in office cubicle landscapes with uninsulated glass walls to the faculty offices around these.

Then they place two kitchenettes right beside the landscape, without walls. Just to bring the sound level up a notch. Are we annoyed? Yes. Does anyone care? No.

Did I mention that it's yellow?

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12. Gillespie on January 18, 2010 4:54 PM writes...

This post hits close to home- I've been at Huntsman Cancer Institute for 9 years. It's one of these "open lab" designs- one huge room with lab benches and desks all together. Supposed to encourage collaboration, which it does, but it's terribly loud and distracting. It also encourages unauthorized “sharing” of lab equipment and supplies… I’ve come in to find some unknown person used my microscope over the weekend and left it on, or did not clean up my tissue culture hood! It is interesting how we scientists have adapted to this open lab- Headphones and mp3 players are ubiquitous, effectively blocking out the larger lab area so you can focus on your own bench, and keep any social interaction to a minimum. Luckily we have access to separate office spaces for quiet reading and writing, but they are mostly shared, so not that ideal. Summary- open labs are great for social networking and “sharing” of lab supplies (!) and ideas, bad for any writing, reading or concentrating... the most important part of science!

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13. Chemoptoplex on January 18, 2010 5:03 PM writes...

Having all of your works in progress displayed to the world is just a reminder that you need to move that much faster before someone else scoops you, and having your computer similarly exposed prevents you from wasting any time on Facebook or reading blogs. Productivity must have increased tenfold! (That is if it didn't end in a rash of grad student suicides.)

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14. MedInformaticsMD on January 18, 2010 5:30 PM writes...

Wait! it takes a village to think creatively. All that visibility should enhance creativity. Privacy is so ... stifling.

Cubicles rule!

Also, with computers, who needs a desk at all cluttered with that anachronism, paper? Even scientific conferences don't need paper anymore. Paper is so...ancient Egypt.

Noise? Technology will solve that too! Get noise canceling headphones.

Finally, the above was satirical.

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15. dearieme on January 18, 2010 5:49 PM writes...

The Law Faculty building at Cambridge has a reputation for a huge, noisy open-plan area. My wife and I visited once; I walked to the reception desk to ask "Is it normally as noisy as this?". The receptionist cupped her hand to her ear and yelled "Speak up."

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16. Bored on January 18, 2010 6:05 PM writes...

Yes, an epidemic...
I'm in education. The building I work in has the library in the center of the building. It originally had no walls surrounding the library at all! It was an "Architectural Statement" we were told. It was absolutely the noisiest place on campus. The tide turned (almost violently) at a staff meeting where one of us yelled out,"The statement made by the library is that the architect was a short-sighted asshole."

They eventually surrounded that part of the building with a 16-foot sheetrock wall. It looks like crap, but isn't as noisy anymore.

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17. Kako on January 18, 2010 6:11 PM writes...

This is interesting - I remember reading and commenting on your post last year about a similar style of building that I was working in at the time. The quote above mirrors my own thoughts exactly, is there anyone out there who actually finds themselves being more productive in this kind of environment??

Have escaped now for a postdoc in germany and much prefer having a small shared office. I am sharing it with, I'm fairly sure, the loudest girl who's ever existed but hey, I discovered weissbier, so pros and cons...

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18. milkshake on January 18, 2010 7:06 PM writes...

I don't know if you have seen the obscenely-expensive and awful campus buildings at Scripps Florida. This stuff actually won an architect award! Not only the buildings are not very nice to look at (or to look in) but from the functionality point of view these three buildings are an unmitigated disaster. Our old temporary buildings now occupied by Max Planck were nothing special but at least they had a sensible lab and office layout.

The irony is when our new campus was completed I got to move from the overcrowded temp building into one with much less hood space and smaller office, and now on top the management was harassing us for not closing the hood sashes properly because of the huge electricity bill.

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19. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 18, 2010 7:31 PM writes...

The ugliest building on one of the various university campuses at which I have studied won several awards. Students and faculty called it "The Grain Elevator."

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20. Anne on January 19, 2010 12:18 AM writes...

TOSG: Yes it is! I myself worked in the LSI, which I find to be a perfect balance of modern, fluid space and genuinely productive organizational schemes. It's an awesome place. I gaze at BSRB in awe occasionally, but I don't think I'd want to work there!

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21. PharmaHeretic on January 19, 2010 1:42 AM writes...

Off topic.. Just out of curiosity, has anyone tried to make ligands that bind to opioid receptors and inhibit the reuptake of D, NA and 5HT at once?

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22. Simon on January 19, 2010 4:22 AM writes...

dearieme, the Cambridge Law Faculty building was designed by Norman Foster, so it must be good, right? Apparently there was a belief that noise "doesn't travel vertically" when it was designed, hence the gaps between each floor and the outer wall to let the sound from the cafeteria make it into the library area.

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23. riven on January 19, 2010 7:33 AM writes...

We just moved to an open plan office that is shaped like a C (but with square edges) for 20 with space for 4 more. atound 60% now uses ear phones as noise and discussion is constant.
Meeting rooms were provided (2 rooms) but these were not isolated from the room so noise is also evident with meetings.

In comparison to the previous arrangement (corridor with 2 per room); far less wore earphones and the atmosphere was quieter. Also having one conservation going on is not very distracting (as opposed to several).

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24. Lou on January 19, 2010 7:55 AM writes...

Having worked in two such "open plan" buildings, it is just impossible to read or write sometimes due to the background noise.
Anyways I thought that such buildings were built so that it gives the (academic) institution a bright, new, nice, airy, beautiful building to impress potential new recruits/collaborators/funders. Nothing to do with scientists who had to work inside it.
And new buildings gives the impression of affluence, but being airy cuts down on the material required - cost-cutting.

I'm happy I'm not the only one who grumbles about these buildings.

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25. Yorrick on January 19, 2010 9:13 AM writes...

I can confirm that the "atrium style" research facility at Chiron was a fiasco. Hearing the equipment down the hall was bad. Hearing a pipet drop from three floors below was maddening. The analogy to a tenement courtyard is apt. To me, the structure evoked Giovanni Piranesi's Roman "Carceri" (Prisons)

But I guess you're never going to please the chemists, so you may as well please the architectural community.

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26. Larry on January 19, 2010 10:15 AM writes...

I work in a 50 year old building. We have labs, and at the end of them, a private office. The offices are connected, but by a door (which remains shut most of the time). Works great, lots of privacy and quiet. If I want to collaborate with someone else, I just walk over to their office. Old school all the way!

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27. Vader on January 19, 2010 10:29 AM writes...

When I was at Caltech (and, as far as I know, it's still the case today) the most prominent building on campus was the Milliken Library, a ten-story glass and stainless steel tower rising from the midst of ... the beautiful three-stories-at-most Spanish colonial buildings that made up the rest of campus.

This large erect pillar of modernity sent a clear message: Screw architectural compatibility, or any other aesthetics.

Well, you might argue, at least you have ten floors of books. Except that breaking up the collection into ten levels meant constant running up and down stairs or taking the elevator.

But scientists are usually only looking up books in their subject area, right? Which is likely to be found primarily on one floor. Well, even ignoring the curse of hyperspecialization, every department on campus had its own excellent departmental library. I spent far more time at mine than at the central library. I only went to the central library to explore. Except I didn't much, because of all that running up and down stairs.

When a magnitude 6.5 earthquake hit nearby, the Milliken Library just shook it off, as intended by its designers. Of course, it shook it off by swaying majestically back and forth at an acceleration that was later estimated as 0.3G at the top floor. A lot of undergraduates earned a lot of pocket change as temporary hires to reshelve all those books.

My present employer is making desultory efforts to get funding for a new Science Complex. Fortunately we do enough confidential research that the atrium idea is right out. I hope. But I anticipate a fair amount of other architectural idiocy.

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28. P on January 19, 2010 10:37 AM writes...

An excellent question would be: do the architects who design such open space buildings themselves work in open spaces or in offices?

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29. Petros on January 19, 2010 10:52 AM writes...

Modern architects are wonderful at designing award winning buildngs that are ill suited to their purpose.

The History Faculty Library in Cambridge won James Stirling an award but looked, and behaved like a greenhouse!

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30. Anonymous on January 19, 2010 12:09 PM writes...

@Vader: You should see Caltech's newest chemistry building. The only people they were trying to please were the architects. The labs pack people in shoulder-to-shoulder.

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31. Rook on January 19, 2010 12:17 PM writes...

@30. Anonymous (and probably my labmate): Oh but such a view from the north side of the building! Swoon.

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32. Hap on January 19, 2010 12:55 PM writes...

Why people build buildings that architects design irrelevant to their intended usage is beyond me - I can understand why (sort of) architects design buildings to look pretty and win awards but I don't really understand why those that commissioned the designs are willing to pay them for the designs, let alone build them. If the building doesn't work for its intended usage, then I don't really see why it is either built or them wins awards when built, since I thought the point of building design was to design a building to fit what people was going to use it for (and then to be beautiful in doing so).

As long as the users of the buildings or the people paying for the buildings are irrelevant to their design, this is what you get. (For examples see Boston City Hall, and Groepius's dorms in Harvard).

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33. MTK on January 19, 2010 1:30 PM writes...

while not a chemistry building, MIT's Stata Building has got to win the prize for architecture gone amok. It's no doubt a sight to see, but functionally I hear it's a bit scary. Slanted interior walls, mile high atriums, incredible amounts of unusable space, etc.

If you've never seen it, go ahead and do a Google Images search.

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34. zDNA on January 19, 2010 1:42 PM writes...

Howard Roark, call your (open-air design) office.

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35. bmp3 on January 19, 2010 5:18 PM writes...

I used to work in one of those oh so well designed open floor plan buildings. We moved in after a long period of renovation and the first thing was people complaining about all the phones that they would hear ringing throughout the building. It was pretty remarkable how you could hear in certain locations people talking at normal voice one level down in a cube area. So the "architects" came back and the decision was to blow in (no kidding) white noise thru some small speakers placed in the ceiling above the desks. While this higher noise level was annoying in the beginning it actually did help somewhat(amongst other improvements, such as installing some sound absorbing matierial in on the atrium walls). Still, I can't believe that you have to pipe in noise to drown out all the sounds bouncing around in such wonderfully designed open spaces...

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36. coprolite on January 19, 2010 5:30 PM writes...

there is nothing so boring as reading people's descriptions of where they work.

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37. Anonymous on January 19, 2010 8:39 PM writes...

I guess I've been lucky. When I started undergrad (small liberal arts college) all the sciences were in one large building, built back in the 60s or 70s, where there was pretty much three wings of two floors each intersecting at a round are containing, among other things, the largest computer lab, some lecture halls, and the servers. The chemists got one wing, the biologists got one wing, and the physicists and geologists split a wing. The mathematicians were in the middle.

After being there for one year, the new building opened, which was built just for chemistry and biology. While it did have some questionable design elements, including one of those open-air lobbies, it had writing areas directly connected but separate from the labs, almost no interior windows in the labs, and you never really felt like you were on display for the prospectives.

In grad school, the department building was an amalgam of three buildings connected together and often in ways where you couldn't get there from here. The initial building was built in the late 40s, the grad student building in the 50s, a third wing was added in the late 90s, and a separated but adjacent large auditorium and a couple labs also in the 90s. There were a couple places you could get together in a group and talk, but not in a way that would inconvenience others.

My current job, while having some downright odd bits of floor plan, is again nothing like some of what's been described. I dread something like that happening one day, but I'd probably have to change jobs to wind up in a building like the ones described above.

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38. Bored on January 19, 2010 9:21 PM writes...

#36 Coprolite

Oh, you are so wrong oh fossilized one. There is something far more boring than reading people's descriptions of where they work. It is called "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace."

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39. start_revolution on January 19, 2010 11:52 PM writes...

Yeah, I often wonder about architects too and what kind of buildings they themselves work in. I've seen how Masters students from architecture work, and indeed it is uber open office environment with massive sharing of everything. Not sure about the super-star types asked to design expensive buildings. I hope these bozos will learn one day that one size does not fit all, and they should not bring their pre-conceptions about their work into every area of human endeavor.

Another pet peeve of mine are low privacy bathrooms. But this discussion is for another time!

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40. start_revolution on January 19, 2010 11:53 PM writes...

Yeah, I often wonder about architects too and what kind of buildings they themselves work in. I've seen how Masters students from architecture work, and indeed it is uber open office environment with massive sharing of everything. Not sure about the super-star types asked to design expensive buildings. I hope these bozos will learn one day that one size does not fit all, and they should not bring their pre-conceptions about their work into every area of human endeavor.

Another pet peeve of mine are low privacy bathrooms. But this discussion is for another time!

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41. Anonymous on January 20, 2010 3:55 AM writes...

I always wonder how architecture is an engineering discipline that can progress backwards.

Cost savings from reducing quality are common in all trades, but in architecture the steps backward are actively pursued. Here's something to try: add something outrageous (2-chloroethylamine, for example) to the structure and explain bright-eyed to the management that you selected this moiety for QSAR because it's an artistic statement.

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42. Brett on January 20, 2010 11:00 AM writes...

When I was an undergrad at Caltech, the administration tried to put in a Richard Serra sculpture. The problem? The proposed sculpture was an 8-foot steel wall criss-crossing one of the most heavily-trafficked lawns on campus. Setting aside the aesthetics of the sculpture, who thought that blocking people from walking across the lawn would be a good idea? Not to mention we would have had to find somewhere else to play Frisbee. After protests from students and faculty (I know of *no* undergrads or graduate students that supported it, and only a sprinkling of faculty), Baltimore finally gave up his plans to enlighten the campus.

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43. A Nonny Mouse on January 20, 2010 1:19 PM writes...

You should have seen the Wellcome Research Labs at Research Triangle Park (or maybe you did in Natalie Wood's last movie "Brainstorm"). Anyway, the architect had total control of the building even after it was taken over. In the heavily angled corridors/offices in East/West in was one colour (orange!!!!) and in the North/South direction blue.
There was a continual battle with one of the chemists who kept re-painting the orange in his office to cream. The following Monday it had been painted back to orange. This probably went on until Glaxo took over and he was removed (being an older chap).

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44. Dave_n on January 20, 2010 8:33 PM writes...

Well, for those of you who have visited Coventry Cathedral (UK) or the University of Dar es Salaam or its UK equivalent, the University of Sussex, you have been "Spenced!". Sir Basil, after winning prizes for the first two mentioned, designed the U of S at Falmer. I always remember the look of abject horror on the assembled "architectural populace" when the third floor (second floor in the UK) of the Biology building was to be ceremonially "christened" with the proverbial cup of tea, brewed from the top most faucet in the new biochemistry lab. Voila, tap opened, no water! Frantic running around, water on floor below, no valves between floors, but could see level of water in the all glass supply lines just at the floor level. Sudden realization from one of the architects; they had economized by not putting a pump in the water line that ran over the South Downs and crested a hill just at the level of the floor, not the bench. Needless to say the grad students and faculty were in hysterics with laughter; the architects, including Sir Basil were a little unhappy!!

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45. coprolite on January 21, 2010 4:07 PM writes...

lmao. that might be the worst thing lucas has done. and I do know about howard the duck and fern gully.

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46. Bored on January 21, 2010 8:28 PM writes...


For a very funny and insightful review of "Phantom Menace", go to Youtube and search for "Red Letter Media, Phantom Menace review."

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47. Oxcart on January 29, 2010 6:09 PM writes...

If open plan is so good why do the professor's offices all have doors?

I heard of one head of department who broke the architect's heart by refusing to have an atrium (even after he was told he had to have one). They got lots of grad student and postdoc offices instead.

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Total Manage Marketing Review- Terrific part particulars that you will?ve acquired on this internet site post.

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