The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Sunday, June 29, 2003
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HOSTILE TERRITORY: I pulled into the local Home Depot this afternoon and was weaving my way through the parking lot looking for a space. Someone was loading a van with lumber and had an aisle half blocked, leaving just enough room for one car to pass. I was coming up the aisle and a guy in a big SUV was coming the other way. I was closer to the blockade, so the SUV-man held back in a gentlemanly fashion. Or so I thought.

Just after passing the lumber loaders, I saw a space to my left, so I jammed the wheel and turned in. There was another space just past me, and the big SUV started clumsily maneuvering into it. As I got out of my car, I heard some shouting from that SUV, something about “taking my space” followed with some good old-fashioned eschatological invective. Given the tone of the gentleman’s voice, I decided it was best not to look back.

I got into the Depot and sought out the safety of the plumbing aisle. It was kind of crowded, so my new friend couldn’t pick me out too easily. However, I sensed that the longer I stayed, the more vulnerable I was to a rather unpleasant encounter with a frustrated, high-testosterone man on a hot summer afternoon. I was looking for a washer for the neck connection on my sink, which is pretty leaky these days. But there were too many; who knew which one would work. You shouldn’t go into Home Depot unless you know what you’re doing. And if I decided to buy some washers and stand in one of those slow lines behind guys and burly women with boxes of tile and rolls of insulation and sheets of drywall, I’d be a sitting duck for a meeting with my SUV-owning friend. So I decided after 5 minutes to sneak out the entrance way. I wondered what sort of revenge he had planned for me for making him walk an extra 10 feet.

I was relieved when I arrived at my car to find all the windows intact and none of the tires slashed. There weren’t any huge scratches to the car body either. No, all that my friend did to express his angst was to put a lumber cart behind my rear bumper. Phew. I put the cart off to the side, started my machine up, and got the heck out of there.

Honestly, I didn’t want to spite the guy. I didn’t know he wanted that particular space. He didn’t have any blinkers on. When the same thing happens to me, I let it go. I figure that when you see a parking spot that you’d like but someone else gets there first, them’s the breaks. But I guess that when you’re a big guy in a big SUV at Home Depot and you see a skinny guy in a Corolla get to your spot first, well, things just seem dreadfully wrong with the universe.

There was one cool aspect to the incident, however. During my short time in the store, I heard Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” playing on the PA system. Yea, it’s funny how sometimes you hear just the right song at the right time in the right place. Almost as if life were a movie or something.

P.S. I did finally resolve the leaky faucet neck problem; went back to the Depot (a different one!) and got some teflon packing rope. Voila! Now, if I could just find a fix for the “aggressive, frustrated suburban male in big SUV” syndrome.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 26, 2003
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It doesn’t seem like a good time to be a Democratic presidential hopeful. Mr. Bush is on a roll, leading every possible Democrat in the field. The war in Iraq was a hit with the American public, and Mr. Bush’s aircraft carrier landing was the icing on the cake. Victory is sweet, and should be even sweeter come November, 2004.

Well, I’m not a big fan of the Democrats these days, but they’ve still got one thing going with me: as with life in general, the alternative is so much worse. I really wish the Dems could rally back and save this country from another four years of Bush-ism, but it don’t seem likely right now. Nevertheless, in the spirit of hopeless idealism, and knowing there’s not a chance in hell that what I’m gonna say here will make any difference, I’m going to offer the Democrats a plan to recapture the imagination of America.

Let me start by saying what the Democrats should NOT try to do. Unless they can clone another Bill Clinton, i.e. someone with charisma levels rivaled only by Ronald Reagan, they should NOT try to offer the public another slightly-more-folksy Republican spin-off. And they should not offer up a US Senator (or, by the same principal, a member of the House). History tell us that most Americans who vote like their presidents to come equipped with hands-on experience in running a section of the nation, i.e. as a state governor.

So who are the top Democratic contenders to challenge Mr. Bush in 2004? Answer: Senators who seek to imitate Clinton’s slightly-more-folksy Eisenhower Republicanism, but who ain’t got anywhere near Clinton’s charisma level. It looks as though the Democratic big wigs have decided to shut this one down early and save their energy for ’08.

But do they really have to? Mr. Bush and his Republican friends in the House and Senate seem to be doing all kinds of things that fail to benefit the “great silent majority”, as Richard Nixon used to say, i.e. the scads and scads of voters who need to work for a living. Bush has implemented a tax cut rigged to favor the rich and give the tab for it back to the middle class in 8 years or so (once he’s gone and forgotten). He’s prosecuted a war on terrorism that produces big headlines but avoids doing a lot of the basic things that would make our nation more secure from foreign threats, e.g. building up redundancies within critical security, communication and transportation systems, and helping local police get in tune with what’s happening in the neighborhoods. Mr. Bush executed a war in Iraq on extremely false pretenses, and turned off a lot of people who we still need as friends (i.e., western Europeans). He prosecuted a war in Afghanistan for one good reason (routing al Qaeda), but soon forgot the other reason behind it (bringing Afghanistan into the modern world so as to keep it from falling into the hands of some future anti-western fanatics). He talks a lot about bolstering American education and maintaining a safety net for the truly needy, and yet he’s quietly robbing both factions. He realizes the need for job growth in a stagnant economy, but is choking off money for the basic research and sorely needed infrastructural improvements that would support it. In sum, he’s doing a really great job in making everyone feel good, but in reality is working hard to shut out nearly everyone except the rich, the military, and the ultra-religious.

I still think that a focused Democrat could do the same to this guy as Clinton did with his father. They’d need someone who could rekindle and recapture the good old “common sense” spirit of the nation, a Harry Truman sort of guy. But so far, none of the Democrats seem to have the guts to grab the common sense issues and hold on to them long enough to inflict any damage. Thus far, Mr. Bush and company seem able to scare off any and all Democrats who dare question his policies, like those cheezy science fiction movies where the pathetic Earthlings get masacared by death rays in their first attempts to counter-attack the alien invaders.

Here’s my plan: first we need a former governor. If he has a truck load of charisma and an extremely crafty mind, then fine, let him run as an Eisenhower Republican clone, let him move to the right-of-center, and keep him from challenging or offending anyone when he moves his lips. But governors like that only come once in a blue moon, and the moon ain’t blue these days. So it looks like we’ll have to settle for a non-charismatic governor who is willing to come out swinging for the good old Democratic values regarding the lot of the common man (and woman, of course). Someone who isn’t going to say “me too” to Mr. Bush’s highly polished image as a muscular defender against the world’s bad guys, but instead is going to say “thanks Mr. Bush for what you did in the fall of 01, but Americans by now have become tired of living in fear; they’re ready to get out and rebuild our nation’s strength with education, investment and renewed private-public cooperation. Thanks for the tax cut, but most people would rather you keep the $500 or so in return for your being there when they need Social Security or Medicare or good schools for their kids or affordable health care or protection against unsafe workplaces or polluted drinking water or deadly over-crowded Interstate highways or crime and youth gangs in their neighborhoods.” Someone who can turn around the fear-mongering that Mr. Bush used to justify the war in Iraq.

Yea, the Dems seem to be searching right now for a Senatorial Bill Clinton, but what they need is a Governor Harry Truman. They need a fiesty underdog who’s not afraid to take some risks so long as he strays not far from the bedrock of common sense. Someone who is confident that the American public can yet be swayed from the hypnotic transe that Mr. Bush and company have put them in (with much help from Al Gore and al Qaeda).

The equation comes down to Howard Dean. He’s far from perfect, but with a solid conceptual platform behind him (something with a snappy name, akin to the GOP’s “Contract With America” of the mid-90s) and a scrappy attitude and a good running-mate, well you never know. Sure, if al Qaeda or any of their immitators hits us again before the election, Bush has it all sown up. That goes no matter who runs on the Democratic line. But even if that doesn’t happen, I don’t see a Kerry or an Edwards or a Lieberman (least of all) getting very far trying to play Mr. Bush’s game better than him. The Dem’s have nothing to lose with my approach, and at least a slight chance of pulling off a miracle. Give ’em hell, Howie!

Here’s the site: www.deanforamerica.com Yea, guess he watches The West Wing too.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 21, 2003
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For the past couple of months, we’ve had a sparrow who seems to enjoy sitting on a telephone wire observing the comings and going of humans to and from my apartment house. He perches himself at about the same spot every day, where he gets a bird’s eye view of people coming out of the door and down the porch steps. He doesn’t seem terribly fazed by human activity, like most birds. It almost seems that he enjoys watching us as he contentedly chirps away the hours of the day. I gather that he’s an older sparrow (they supposedly live about 10 years) who knows where the food is and doesn’t have to work too hard to get it. Perhaps his mate died not long ago, so he isn’t bothered this season with searching out bugs and worms for a brood of hungry hatchlings.

Well, I know that he’s just another house sparrow, and that house sparrows are considered to be pests, right up there with pigeons and starlings. Bird purists consider them the avian equivalent of cockroaches. They’re actually not even native American sparrows; they’re really weaver finches, that came over from England about 250 years ago. They’re an intelligent and aggressive species who know how to drive away any avian competitors in their size range. So, although they can’t mess with the many starlings and blue jays and mockingbirds and robins that we have around here, they unfortunately prevent us from seeing any nuthatches or purple finches or titmouses or bluebirds or any of the other interesting northeastern species (save for junco “snowbirds” during the winter).

But hey, I’m not going to throw the first stone at this little guy (see picture). If he didn’t have such a bird-brain, he might tell me that I’m a part of a human invasion from Europe that drove out a native culture, starting right around the time when his ancestors first saw these shores. Yea, true enough. So I’m not going to begrudge him his little window on the busy world of humankind. Let him enjoy his golden years observing us big critters as we come and go from our nest, with our various plumages, making our various noises (sometimes while holding little boxes up near our beaks), carrying many sorts of things with our claws. Interesting species, even if they are a bit too common. Yes, I guess that thought could work both for me and for my sparrow / weaver-finch friend.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:49 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
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DOCTOR HEAL THYSELF: I’m not a big fan of doctors. Most of them have quite an unpleasant attitude. I accept the fact that when you’re sick, ya just gotta put up with it. They’re probably right in looking down on you from on high when you come to them hurting or bleeding or ready to keel over from fever or weakness. You need an Army colonel at that point.

But as to prevention, as to avoiding disease and chronic illness, I find doctors to be almost worthless. They don’t seem ready or able to stand down their attitude and get to know you. Oh sure, they’ve got plenty of tests and are ready at any time to tell you how they’ve found something and you’d better be ready to spend the rest of your life submitting to their egos and their pills and whatever other tortures they’ve come up with or else you’re gonna die a grisly, painful death (even if you’re feeling just fine right now, or at least you did until you stepped into the examining room). As to getting to know you personally and considering whether changes in lifestyle and diet and attitude might first be tried, well … that they just don’t do. Other than Patch Adams, they don’t realize the healing power of humor, and definately don’t have much of a sense of it.

I’ve heard that there actually are some humane doctors out there who do stuff like that, and I hope someday to meet one. But I have a case-in-point story to tell right here that doesn’t give me much hope. At the moment, we have two young interns living in the apartment upstairs from me. One of them seems like a more-or-less average guy; the medical profession may actually require a few years to turn him into an SOB. But as the other guy … well, he drives a BMW with a Princeton undergrad sticker on his windshield. So he sounds quite impressive. But when I’m going to work in the morning and see his car in the lot, I can see what a mess the inside of it is. Textbooks, papers, coffee cups, shirts, tossed about all over the seats and floor. Sure, I know that interns live extraordinarily busy lives, but I know other extraordinarily busy people who don’t use that as an excuse to turn their cars into pig stys.

But the killer here … literally … regards this intelligent and priviledged young intern’s smoking habit. You see packs of Camels and Marlboros strewn all about his car. And lately, since the weather got warm and the windows stay open, I get to hear his hacking cough as he walks past my window going to and from the parking lot. I mean, HELLO, this guy just completed four years of graduate level classes regarding disease and the human body, and he can’t figure out what those butts are doing to him? Would I want to put my life and my health into this man’s hands? But before long, the medical establishment is going to confer him with credentials saying that I can. And that doesn’t give me a lot of comfort about the medical establishment.

Modern medicine … plenty of knowledge, more and more all the time. But a few quarts low as to human wisdom. You really have to wonder how many people they lose because of their coldness and disconnection from everyday life, despite the (admittedly) many people that they do actually help.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 14, 2003
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The US Government has had the Homeland Security Advisory System in place for the past year or so. This is the color-coded alert system that’s supposed to tell us how much danger we’re in of experiencing a big terrorist strike. The Advisory System has five levels, and so far the indicator has bounced around between the second and third highest levels (i.e., orange, aka “high”, and yellow, aka “elevated”). The Department of Homeland (In)Security has not yet dropped the alert status level down to blue (“guarded”), the second lowest level, not even for a few days. It looks as if we’re stuck with yellow (“elevated”) and orange (“high”) for the foreseeable future.

This all makes me wonder, what would it take in order for DHS to drop the terror alert status down to green, “low”? We’d really need a humongous “summer of love” for that one, wouldn’t we. We’d have to bring back the late 60’s and take them world-wide. Perhaps we’d have to fulfill the idealistic lyrics of John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine”. No heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion, no possessions, everything being shared. Hmm, well, don’t hold your breath on that one.

I myself would settle for a code-blue world where there was still a heaven, still a hell, still countries, still religion, still possessions, and not quite everything being shared, but at least enough to make the poorest nations and the most desperate people believe that it’s better to educate their children and cooperate with Uncle Sam’s capitalist posse rather than to train for suicide bombings. Yea, that in itself would be a huge stretch of the imagination. But hey, ya gotta keep dreaming, ya gotta keep hope alive. Hopefully, somebody reading this (maybe you college students) will live to see “code blue” someday. “And the world will live as one”. Almost, anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
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ALL IN THE NAME: The U.S. space program has lots of problems these days. Once upon a time, NASA’s mission was quite simple: beat them damn Ruskies. But now that we’ve beat ’em, things just ain’t so simple anymore. Plenty of good questions come up, such as, what do we expect to get out of space exploration, and what’s it gonna cost. Do we really need to have people up there, or can we accomplish our goals faster and cheaper with robots? And where do we go next, now that we’ve sunk a lot of money into a space station that doesn’t have all that much scientific, commercial or military value, and an old and dangerous space shuttle that likewise doesn’t have much value but is the only way to keep the space station going for the next 10 years? And just to make the problem even more interesting, don’t count on increased funding from the government, nor on a groundswell of interest from private investors.

Well, this is another fine mess, as they used to say in the old Laurel and Hardy movies. And at the moment, my mind isn’t up to solving it. But I do have one observation about NASA and the whole space exploration effort these days. And that is this: they just don’t come up with names like they used to. Back in the days of excitment, they gave their rockets and spaceships grand, inspiring names: Atlas, Mercury, Titan, Gemini, Saturn, Apollo, etc. Admittedly, some of those names were jingoistic leftovers from the Cold War years when America thought it could overwhelm the world with its nuclear might (too bad that the Russians and everyone else finally figured out how to build atom bombs). But at least the space program was a place where that all of that grandeur and bombast could be directed for somewhat better purposes. Thus, the tradition of naming our nuclear missles after the mighty Gods of ancient legend, e.g. Thor and Jupiter, was carried forth to the vehicles that would probe the heavens. Even second-stage rocket components were given names like Centaur and Agena (not sure just what that one meant, but it still sounded ancient and mythological).

Today, with the space program in the doldrums, our rockets and spaceships are given acronyms and other monikers that fail to ignite the imagination. I mean, what can you expect from something called the Space Shuttle, whose official name is Space Transportation System (or STS for short)? And right now, the alternative to the Shuttle is called EELV (evolved expendible launch vehicles). The backbone of the EELV fleet is the Delta rocket, a name about as exciting as a muddy river. (The Delta evolved from the old military “Thor” rocket; they should have kept the old name). Upper stages are now given inspirational names like “IUS” or “Transtage”. Wow. And in the private realm, we have Sea Launch, with it’s Zenit rocket (launched, not surprisingly, from a floating barge). What the heck is a Zenit? Something Russian, I think. C’mon, couldn’t they have at least added an “h” at the end? Orbital Systems at least tried to honor tradition with its “Pegasus” booster, which is dropped from a jumbo jet as to blast-off in mid-air. Supposedly the Sea Launch scheme is better then Pegasus in terms of technology and launch efficiency. But sure not in terms of public inspiration.

Someday, space travel and transportation will be entirely routine, and space vehicles will be as ordinary as 767s are today. (And if they can do that “Space Hook” thing by lowering a cable down from a big satellite, space travel will have all the glamour of an elevator ride). But for now, space remains a big problem, and people need to get psyched in order to deal with it. Picking out grand and exotic names to inspire the imagination is more important than ever if our space program is going to avoid going the way of the old Soviet Union.

SWEET HOME ALABAMA: I just read about Bob Riley, the Republican governor of Alabama, a man with little sympathy for liberal Democrats. And yet, Governor Riley has suddenly found some friends amidst that crowd. Alabama has a terribly regressive taxation system, one that puts much more burden upon the poor than upon large corporations and high-income families. Well, turns out that Governor Riley has introduced a plan to change all that, a plan that reduces taxes for poor and working class households while increasing tax payments from the rich and the corporate sector. And it looks like he’s going to get it passed. How’d he sell it? By quoting the Bible. As a fundamentalist Christian, Governor Riley recalled the lines in the Bible where both Jesus and the Old Testament prophets said that the poor should be given a break. And he decided to put that mandate into action.

My goodness, here’s a fundamentalist who takes Jesus seriously when he tells the rich man to sell his things and give the money to the poor. Gee, what’s next? Republicans who get pangs of conscience over “blessed are the peacemakers?”

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 7, 2003
Brain / Mind ... Personal Reflections ...

Sorry to bring up a touchy subject, but the fact is, we all have to die one day. Maybe it’s good sometimes to think a little bit about that. Not many people want to die, but since we can’t get around it, I suspect that most of us would like our passing to be a meaningful, emotional thing (the way you sometimes see it portrayed in the movies). Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to be feeling all that good as you die, and your mind probably won’t be at its peak of concentration. [Although some research shows that the brain has an electrical surge in its final moments, as dying brain cells all shoot off at once; this might cause a final moment of peak consciousness, possibly responsible for some reports of near-death experience.]

It would be nice to have some great insight in your final hours; maybe you’d finally see the meaning of life, or maybe you’d come up with some great message to pass down to young people that would inspire them in their struggle to fulfill the promise of humankind. That would be nice.

Unfortunately, your mind is probably going to be wandering at the time, and if you’ve lived all your life within the American consumer culture, it would be hard for the wandering mind not  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 3, 2003
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BOOK REPORT: Lately I’ve been reading Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop, one of those “stories of modern science”. Some people see Complexity as a follow-up to Chaos by James Gleick. Both books tell the story of how a group of free-thinking scientists started coming up with new ways to mathematically describe the real world in all of its, well, complexity and chaos. But in fact, the two concepts, though related, are actually at opposite ends of a pole; chaos tries to describe how chaos emerges from seemingly orderly physical processes, whereas complexity tries to describe how order emerges from chaotic situations. (Hows that for yin and yang?).

Both books are real mind-expanders, if you can plod your way through the concepts (very little math). Chaos gives useful insights on how orderly things break down; for example, it has given medical researchers some information on what happens before and during a heart attack. Complexity, by contrast, asks how did order ever emerge from a universe where chaos (e.g., entropy) seems to be the general rule? How do we have life and societies and economies at all in a world where things generally fall apart? A fundamental Christian might say that God calls all the shots, and thus keeps things from going totally bonkers by keeping his hand on the wheel 24-7. But the complexity scientists seem to have a different belief. They seem to see something inherent to the basic rules of the universe that allows and even encourages self-organizing behavior. (I.e., as though God loaded the dice).

These rules are somehow embedded in every little bit of matter and energy. They aren’t orchestrated by any central commander; they just follow their own little rules, and somehow, as an unintended result, things just come together! Universes form, gas congeals into stars, heavy elements form into planets, molecules on those planets grow more complex and somehow pick up the trick of reproduction, life grows more complex and somehow picks up the trick of self-awareness expression, and societies and economies and religions emerge from the whole mess. For instance, when you see a flock of birds flying together, do you ever wonder how they do it? Did they plan it out before they all took off? Well, no. Each bird just seems to follow a few simple rules that are instinctive, and voila, you get beautiful flock formations that take birds on journies that last thousands of miles.

Complexity was published in 1992, but most of the story line occurred during the 80s. So here we are more than a decade later, and it’s fair to ask whether the concept of complexity, i.e. self-organizing and multi-agent systematic behavior, has gotten anywhere. Actually, I believe it has. Think about computer programming. Up until the 1990s, most programmers were taught to think of the program as the boss. Data comes in and the program guides it each step of the way to some kind of output. That was called “structured programming”. But in the 90s, the idea of “object oriented programming” started emerging. Instead of assuming that the program was always the boss, the idea of “OOP” was that the program should be broken into little independent pieces, i.e. “objects”, that individually react with the data and then interact with each other in the quest for an output. The point of OOP was not to guarantee that you got a predictable output for each variation of input data; instead, you made sure that each object works properly, and then let the chips fall where they may. I myself was taught basic structural programming, so OOP is not an easy idea to master. But it does seem to have a lot in common with the ideas that Mr. Waldrop discusses in his book.

I saw another bit of evidence today in an article on Spacedaily.com about a project to build aircraft and spacecraft that can actually repair themselves in flight when something goes wrong! Imagine if the Space Shuttle Columbia had that ability and could have self-repaired the scratch on the wing edge that doomed it on re-entry. Well, the technology sounds pretty far out; but consider your own skin. When you get a scratch, you don’t have to think about how to heal it. OK, sure, you clean it and apply antibiotic, but the basic work of clotting and repairing the cut is done automatically by your blood and skin cells. Your mind is not controlling the process. Each of your skin cells and blood cells know what to do when they get violated by a knife. No one cell can save the day, but put the efforts of thousands of them together, and you thus get a scab and a healing process. So, why not invent a process that could similarly repair a broken hydraulic pump or a cracked fuel line?

Well, OK, as the book title implies, the process is rather complex and it ain’t gonna be available overnight. But based on the work of the complexity scientists, it does seem doable. If you’re interested, the project is called “Smart Spaces” and is being done by CSIRO, the Austrialian national research institute. You can check it out at www.smartspaces.csiro.au/

As for me, I’m playing around right now with a simple little Excel spreadsheet meant to demonstrate complex emergent behavior, or something like it anyway. It’s inspired by the “Game of Life” computer simulation, as described in the book (as with the GOL, the status of each little zone on my spreadsheet is dependent on what goes on in each of the zones surrounding it). But instead of the little transient structures that emerge on the Game of Life, my spreadsheet shows the life (and sometimes death) of an orange blob which unintentionally tries to stay alive despite the negative forces of the dark blue zone (the shadow of death!). I’m still fooling around with the program, but every now and then the blob does something that kind of reminds you of a group of interactive living cells (i.e., a person), or a group of interactive living persons (i.e., a civilization). The whole thing is rather crude, but I may nevertheless put it up on my web site for anyone interested to download. Stay tuned for further announcements, complexity fans!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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