The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, September 30, 2004
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SOCIAL ENGINEERING: I did a web search on the term “social engineering” the other day. Back in the late 19th and early 20th Century, SOCIAL ENGINEERING was the concept that intelligent planning and centralized controls could be used to change society into a kinder and gentler thing, where people could lead better lives. Social Engineering was once seen as the antidote to Hobbe’s notion that life is “nasty, brutish and short”.

Obviously, social engineering didn’t do too well in the 20th Century. And in the 21st Century, it’s turned into something else entirely! I just found out today that “social engineering” is now a method of overcoming an organization’s security methods by exploiting people’s tendencies to help other people. Classic hackers try to get valuable information (like credit card and social security numbers) through high-tech methods of infiltrating computer systems and overcoming their defenses. But the “social engineers” take a low-tech, high-psychology approach. They talk to employees and ask innocent questions. If the employee seems cooperative, they push it to the limit, eeking out enough info to get inside the door (where they can get some more info, on and on until they’re ready to do some real damage).

Supposedly, a “social hacker” managed to get $10 million from a bank this way. On his first call to the bank’s office, he got just enough information to impress the person who answered his next call. By the fourth or fifth call, he had all the codes needed to make a wire transfer. He was able to zap the money to a Swiss bank account in his name and then turn the funds into diamonds, which he brought back into the U.S.A. hidden in a belt. He got this far because humans tend to err on the side of helpfulness and trust. Well, you can be sure that the corporate security people and the homeland security folk are going to shut that down!

But back to good old-fashioned social engineering, the “change-the-world” kind. That’s now got a bad name too. The conservative types like to use it for target practice. I was reading a blog the other day (, Dec. 6, 2003) that spoke of the evils of classic social engineering and the goodness of lassiez faire. The blogger, who claims to know a mistaken interpretation of Christian charity when he sees it, was chiding a public housing agency in Cleveland for spending taxpayer money to modify a subsidized apartment so that an 800 pound woman who needed a cheap apartment could get in and out. Obviously, wider doorways had to be cut out, and who knows what kind of bathroom appliances were needed. This guy implies that the lady could only blame herself for getting that fat; by bowing to her needs, society will only encourage such gluttony in others. (He’s also against spending public money to save near-extinct species like pandas; hey, if they can’t adapt to a polluted world, who needs em?)

OK — so, by that logic, the next time an SUV flips over on the freeway and someone gets hurt, let’s not waste any social resources like ambulances and hospital care on the driver and his guests. They darn well knew (or should have known) that SUVs have a stability problem. When people make mistakes, they should be held strictly to the consequences, even if that means death. Anything less than such a high standard will impede the adaptation and natural selection process that the blogger is so in love with. Although he doesn’t say it, he seems to anticipate the emergence of a perfect, flawless human race. Yes, it does sound a bit Hegelian, and vaguely Nazi.

In a way, though, isn’t this “incentive system” a la Ayn Rand a form of reverse social engineering? Weren’t the Nazi’s the ultimate social engineers … at least in the old-fashioned sense of social engineering. And perhaps the modern form, with it’s emphasis on unchecked self-interest and exploitation of old-fashioned civility, isn’t all that different. What goes around comes around.

I’d suggest that the conservatives start worrying more about the modern form of social engineering than about the costs of saving pandas and helping overweight humans.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 26, 2004
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PAINT CAN BLUES (antique white, actually): You know what’s really a drag? When you start getting older and one day you have to go out and buy something or do something that you haven’t done in quite a while. You remember there were certain stores or places to go where you could get what you need. But those places are either gone, or they don’t have the stuff any longer. There’s a whole different procedure for getting what you want, and you’ve got to learn how to do it all over again.

This has happened to me over and over since I passed the age of 30 (which was quite a while ago). My latest crisis involves interior paint. I rent an apartment, and painting the walls is pretty much the landlord’s thing. But there are a couple of dings and old nail holes that I wanted to touch up myself, so I went to Sears looking for a small can of antique white interior latex semi-gloss. Last time I bought paint was maybe 15 years ago, when things were basically the same as when I was a kid. You went to Sears or Two Guys or some other rough-and-ready kind of place, and you wandered around through rows and rows of paint cans, looking at the labels for the shade of color nearest to what you had in mind. This morning I went out to get a small can of antique white, figuring things would be just the same as they always were in the paint department.

Sorry, Jimbo, think again. The world has changed. I burned up a few gallons of non-replaceable petroleum fuel driving to Home Depot, K-Mart, Sears and Target (which doesn’t carry paint at all), and was appalled by the lack of variety regarding paint. About all one could find was bright white (not the antique white that I needed), and primer. What the heck? Where were all the different tones of blue and brown and green and red of my youth? I gave up and went home, confused and dejected.

Only later did it strike me. You now have to buy the primer and ask someone to mix in the color tints right there in the store. Oh, so that’s what that big counter in the Home Depot paint section is for. I thought that kind of thing was only for people with specialized tastes like sea foam or apricot. But no, even if you want good old forest green or fire-engine red or antique white, you’ve got to ask to get it mixed. OK, that’s the system now. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this change? Why wasn’t this in the newspapers?

OK, I’ll get with the new paint program. But what still bothers me is that there are a gazillion stores out there that make it incredibly easy to buy clothes and towels and books and CDs and camcorders and DVD players and premium chocolate. And of course the web sites only add to the mix. For stuff like this, you have lots of variety, with plenty of choices as to price and quality. But if you need a new table lamp, or a set of tires, or a small can of touch-up paint, or a new watch band, or wool mittens, or a sofa cover, or a bicycle tire pump, or a needle and thread, or you want to get some new heels on a perfectly good pair of shoes … for that kind of stuff, better days have passed.

It seems to me that over the past 25 years, the skin-deep stuff like clothes and towels and electronic toys have taken over the stores, while the basic stuff like tools and repair / replacement items have gotten harder and harder to find and to buy. Maybe this reflects the throw-away mentality that we have in America these days. You don’t get new heels on shoes, you just get new shoes. You don’t replace a watch band, just get a new watch. You don’t re-paint an old cabinet, just throw it out. When your shirt rips, don’t sew it, just throw it.

I don’t know. A lot of things have gotten better since I was a kid, and maybe the new way of buying paint is actually better; it arguably gives you more choices as to colors (although I’d rather just grab my antique white and pay for it, and not wait for the mixing guy to get around to me). Admittedly, places like the Home Depot and Staples make it easier to get a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff that you’d have trouble finding when I was young. But still, the overall trend towards fashion and throw-away convenience in our American marketplace makes me wonder about our values and our inner fortitude. Right now there are some very tough people in places like Indonesia and Afghanistan and Tunisia and Yemen with designs on our rich land. Will people sipping lattes from Starbucks, wearing Polo knits and shorts they just got from Kohls, be ready for them?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, September 23, 2004
Personal Reflections ...

Yawn. No big essay today, just some random notes. First, a quick review of the two-part PBS show on God, Freud and C.S. Lewis that finished last night. I’d give it a B plus. On the negative side, the roundtable discussions with Dr. Armand Nicholi, a Harvard shrink who came up with the idea for the show, went on too long and didn’t go anywhere. I go to a weekly roundtable discussion called Socrates Cafe, where people talk about this, that and everything else (so long as it’s politically-correct everything), and it’s pretty much the same. However, at least you get a sense of fellowship at the Cafe. When you have to watch a rambling conversation on TV, it gets to be a drag. But everything else about the show was excellent. The best part was when the actors playing Freud and Lewis went face to face, exchanging polite barbs while giving each other very dubious looks. You could imagine that really happening, given the very different wavelengths that Sigmund and C.S. were on.

After watching the show (and mostly ignoring the roundtable sessions with the doc), I found myself on the fence about the existence of God. But actually, I had a fence experience on Saturday night that helped to keep me from falling into the backyard of atheistic despair. There was an outdoor concert at a minor-league baseball park not too far from my house that day, and the main act was Leonard Skynyrd. I heard a DJ on the local radio station say that Skynyrd would go on around 7:30 PM, so I decided to go out for a jog at about that time, figuring I’d schlep past the stadium around 8 and would hear some tuneage on the pass-by. I got there and guess what? No tuneage. Some kid in the parking lot was telling his friend on the cellphone that Skynyrd was going on in 10 minutes. I circled the lot a few times and nothing happened, so I got disgusted and started for home. Of course, just as I cleared the lot I could hear the major applause and the guitars and drums revving up. Time for a big turn around, o ye of little faith.

I got by the gate and saw a couple of people hanging out, enjoying that live Southern rock and getting a partial view of the stage to boot. Believe it or not, the nearby cops and security forces weren’t hassling anyone for freeloading on the entertainment, so I joined them in the chill of an unexpected cold front on the last weekend of summer. I didn’t dwell on the fact that I was probably older than many of these kids’ parents. Nobody was bothering me and the music was good, so what the heck.

And then, half way thru the show, something incredible happened. Security just threw open the gates, and my fellow freeloaders and I all strolled into the stadium for a better view. I just stood there, incredulous, sure that those young, beefy guys with the black shirts were gonna yell and chase me half way home as soon as I started for the steps. Meanwhile, Skynyrd was cranking its way into “Give Me Three Steps”. So I took three or four steps myself, and surprise, surprise, no comment whatsoever from the gendarme. Guess it’s a free concert! I didn’t go down too far, settling on a nice mezzanine with a straight-ahead view of the stage. Hey, there I was at a rock concert again – something that I hadn’t done in at least 10 years, and something that I didn’t figure I’d ever be able to do again after the gray hairs started taking over. I stayed to the end, knowing that the encore was going to be “Freebird”. And indeed it was.

Hey, this was in New Jersey where nice stuff hardly ever happens, especially in big-money entertainment venues. I still don’t know what got into those security guys to just open the gates like that and let the rif-raf (like me) in, knowing full well that the show was gonna go at least another 45 minutes. Can it be that C.S. Lewis was right and Freud was wrong after all? Actually, Skynyrd seems to agree with Lewis – recall the line from “Simple Man”, regarding a certain “someone up above”. A rather old-fashioned theology, but a theology none the less.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 18, 2004
Outer Space ... Society ...

Follow-Up: I did a web search on Doctor Joy Shaffer, the author of the interesting article on the future of space exploration that I reviewed in my last entry. It appears that she runs a medical practice that specializes in cross dressers and transexuals, offering services such as body hair removal, fat injections and hormone therapy (actually, she is formerly a he herself). She’s based in California, of course. Talk about boldly going where no one else has gone! Are there many astronauts in drag out there? Perhaps David Bowie’s Major Tom?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the snicker. I realize that Dr. Shaffer provides professional medical services to people with “transgender” issues. But geez, what an eclectic set of interests – space technology and transexuality.

And then again, that’s the trend here in modern America. Because of education and television with a zillion channels and big bookstores and the internet, people today have a million different things that they can get interested in. It’s like a great big smorgasbord, where everyone takes a different combination of foods to make a meal.

Almost no one these days has the same set of interests. If you’re taken by Amish quilts and do some quilting yourself, there’s no reason that you can’t also be a big fan of Latin dancing or college hockey. The average slob that you see watching an NFL game while drinking a beer may also be an expert on the construction of the Pyramids. Someone big into NASCAR racing and tennis may also be interested in forest mushrooms. A person who has voluntarily studied the history of Christian monasticism and the anti-poverty movement in America may also be interested in railroads and collecting stamps (hey, sounds like me!).

So what the heck. To paraphrase the old Chinese curse, “may you live in eclectic times”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:47 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Outer Space ...

There’s a really good article on the Space Daily web site about where space exploration is headed in the 21st Century. The bottom line is this: it shouldn’t be like the past or the present, and it ain’t gonna be like Star Trek either. NASA wants to keep the Space Shuttle and the Space Station going, and President Bush wants to put humans back on the Moon and take them out to Mars. This article, written by a physician named Joy Shaffer, argues that the time for stuff like this is long past.

Doctor Shaffer’s father was an engineering professor in Florida who taught courses at the Kennedy Space Center; you can tell that she took after the old man in her appreciation for the nuts and bolts (and economics) of rockets and space ships. She makes the point that there ain’t much to gain anymore by sending people to hostile places like Mars; all the science and discovery there could be done more cheaply and safely by robots. Neither Mars, nor any other place in the Solar System, could practically support a human colony anytime soon. And just why would we want to be there anyway? A space base would use up so much energy just to keep people alive and relatively safe that there would be no economic benefit to it (as we’re finding out with the International Space Station).

About the only cool thing for humans to do in space, now that we’ve proved that we can get there, is to look for other places that may support intelligent life. Ms. Shaffer’s low-energy dream involves space elevators using carbon nanotube fibers, which could cheaply lift up huge observation equipment that could scan the heavens for planets like earth. Right now our telescopes and other sensors can pick up hints of other planets belonging to far-away stars. So far we can only pick up the big ones (like Jupiter or Saturn), and we can’t tell much about them. The big ones like that probably don’ t support life. With a huge array of orbiting detection equipment scanning both visible and invisible light spectrums, though, we could start to pick out planets like our own in terms of size, temperature, presence of atmosphere and presence of water. (And maybe also radio signals that would interest the SETI people?).

Next, using super-thin carbon nanotube sails and radioisotope generators – stuff that is being developed today — we could build spacecraft that would use solar wind to build up speeds of about 1% of light speed. If we could also develop the technique of hibernation – and Ms. Shaffer, being a doctor, seems to think that we can – then we could put people on such a spacecraft, put them to sleep for 2,500 years or so, and then wake them up to land on some earth-like planet and live out their years exploring it. They’d be aging at about 1% of the normal rate under hibernation, so they’d be 25 years older once they got there. But, they’d arguably have radio equipment and could beam signals that would reach the earth in about 25 years. So after 2,525 years, we’d finally know what happened to them and if they met any E.T.s out there. Or if we poisoned or blew up our planet up before then (or if the earth just runs out of resources), well, at least someone would be carrying on the human race, somewhere out there.

Dr. Shaffer seems to think that all of this would be possible before the 21st Century is over. Kids being born right now could live to see it. (But unless they also went into hibernation, they wouldn’t be there when the brave interstellar explorers finally report back on what they found.) The interesting thing is that the good doctor doesn’t rely on any huge revolutions in physics or energy – she isn’t counting on warp drive or antimatter fuel or even nuclear fusion becoming usable for space travel before 2100. She says that we can do some really cool things based on what we’re developing today; but the biggest hurdle is getting over our mindset that space travel involves a ship with a big power generator attached. So far, aviation and spacecraft design isn’t really all that much different than nautical technology from about three hundred years ago. Maybe it’s time for some bold new goals for space exploration based on new ways of thinking (or actually, very old ways; i.e. hoists and sailboats). I commend Dr. Shaffer for such thinking, and recommend her prophetic article to you. She boldly goes where hardly anyone has gone thus far!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 11, 2004
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Nine-Eleven Reflections: The “baby boom” generation to which I belong is now in charge of the country, and three years ago today we got our biggest dose of reality ever. (Right about this hour, the towers were coming down; I was a safe distance away in Newark, but I did get outside to see the bizarre sight of one tower standing, smoking like a chimney. I went back inside and a fellow worker told me that the second tower just went; it’s just as well that I didn’t see that.) We Boomers grew up singing about peace and love, draft beer not students, make love not war. Now we’re running the show, and we find out that some powerful and dangerous elements from across the seas have rejected our offer of an idealistic new world. Instead, they are coming at us using very ancient techniques and philosophies. E.g., survival of the strongest and nastiest, something that served Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan quite well.

I’m not a big fan of President Bush and I won’t vote for him in November. However, I will give him credit for pushing the battle line across the ocean, to the homeland of those powerful and dangerous elements that toppled the towers and smashed the Pentagon. You have to be a real liberal to argue against the Afghanistan war, and I’m just not that real. As to the Iraq invasion, I still think it was a mistake. But it did draw the front line far from our borders. Even though it started out as a war against Saddam Hussein and the Baathists, the Iraqi campaign has become a long-term, low-intensity battlefield against Al Qaeda and its clones. It has merged with the continuing American military presence in Afghanistan into an overall shooting battle between the US and the Greater Middle East Terror Establishment; this was pointed out the other day by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama’s right hand man, on a video shown on Al Jazeera.

In a lot of ways, that’s not good. Our troops and generals are probably in for years of on-and-off battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and some other places like that. Maybe 500 or so Americans are going to die each year for perhaps the next ten years. We will no doubt see some progress in forming modernized, Westernized forms of representative government in the region. But the nasty elements won’t let us say “mission accomplished” and leave; they will threaten to take apart everything we established once we’re gone.

You might be thinking that I’m wrong about this and that the mysterious forces that challenge us in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t be all that strong; we can surely root them out, given our incredible military might. I’m old enough to remember when people used to think the same thing about the Viet Cong. As with Vietnam in the 60s, the Middle East today has millions of young people taught to hate and resent America. We can keep on killing 20 of our shadowy enemy for every American life lost; but they won’t have much problem replacing every martyr of theirs that we dispatch to the heavenly realm of the thousand black-eyed virgins.

So, perhaps even the most liberal of us owe GWB some respect for taking the fight to the enemy’s doorstep. At 5 PM on 9-11-01, I was totally convinced that we were in for more horror. Visions of suicide bombers in crowded malls and dirty bombs going off in financial districts danced through my head that night. And yet here we are, three years later. We’re not out of the woods by any means, but even if the next big homeland catastrophe comes later today (and I pray that it doesn’t), it’s still hard to believe that we’ve had three years of safety, albeit a very nervous and anxious kind of safety.

But at this point, the die is cast. Even if Kerry were to somehow turn things around and be elected, he’s not going to bring the boys (and girls) home from the Middle East, despite his campaign promises. If not Iraq, it’s gonna be Yemen or Indonesia or some where else. And obviously GWB is in no hurry to lay down our guns, even if losing 500 or so Americans every year starts to make people out in the heartland a little bit ornery. Hopefully that will put the next big domestic attack off for as long as possible. But we could be in for another big shock in the near future, even if it doesn’t take place on our soil.

Here’s what I’m thinking: Pakistan has nukes and a cadre of scientists and engineers who know how nukes work. As Graham Allison pointed out in an article in the October, 2004 Atlantic Magazine, a whole lot of people in the Pakistani government have ties to Al Qaeda and its affiliates despite Pakistan’s nominal allegiance to the United States. Over the next five years or so, it becomes more and more likely that enough equipment and nuclear expertise will seep out, into the hands of the wrong people. At some point, Al Qaeda may be ready to try out a crude atomic device. It will probably be rather large and fragile, and it may not have enough yield to take out an entire city (at least not on the first couple of tries). It will probably require nursing and tinkering by its inventors right up to the last minute. So, it may still be quite a while yet before Al Qaeda could sneak a nuke into New York City on a container ship and level the face of Manhattan.

However, the nasty boys might soon be able to put a not – ready – for – prime – time bomb on a pickup truck and drive it up to the gate of an American military base in Iraq or Afghanistan, make a few last checks and adjustments, hit a timer switch (which might even allow the driver and crew enough time to run for their lives), and boom, take out maybe 200 soldiers or marines in one fell swoop. And leave behind a radioactive crater where no one can go for years. And leave everyone in the US and Europe shaking in their boots wondering when Al Qaeda or whomever is going to sneak a bomb into their backyard.

I totally hope that I’m wrong here and that we’ve got a close eye on the nuclear situation in Pakistan (and elsewhere). But let’s face it, right now we’re living by the sword. The sword can keep you alive for a while, but eventually you’re gonna die by it. The U.S. is the richest country in the world, but is also one of the greediest. Of the “developed nations” of the world, i.e. Japan, Canada, the US and Western Europe, the U.S. gives almost the lowest share of its national wealth away in foreign aid. OK, if you include private donations in with the government programs, the ranking gets a bit better, but still ain’t great. Foreign Policy magazine recently updated its overall ranking of the 21 richest nations regarding their overall impact on the poor; this study considers foreign aid, low-cost loans, investment, trade policy, immigration policy, and peacekeeping efforts. The U.S. comes out somewhere around the middle, tied with Germany and France. Our friends in Australia, Canada and Great Britain do better. Uncle Sam could definitely do more for the world. (To see the article, do a Google using ‘Foreign Policy Ranking Rich 2004’; otherwise you have to register with the Foreign Policy site).

This ain’t good. Instead of relying so much on our guns and smart bombs, maybe we had better start sharing the wealth some more. When you’re the rich man in a poor village, you’re gonna get mugged sooner or later. But if you use your wealth to help the village to become a better place, well – you may still get mugged, but at least you’ll keep your halo.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, September 6, 2004
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OK, Philosophy 201 students … I just finished my CD lecture on Schopenhauer. Arg! Pondering Schopenhauer is like sitting thru a 4 hour Wagner opera. Well, I only went to a Wagner opera once, while I was married. We left at around 10, so I can’t really say that I sat thru an entire Wagner opera. However, my marriage was a bit Wagnerian, so maybe it still counts.

Anyway, back to Schopenhauer. He said some really interesting things about the unapparent similarities between aesthetic experience (beauty) and ascetic practices (solitude, fasting) — how they both help to escape the will. Aesthetic beauty helps to distract the mind from the will, but ascetic practices help to weaken it.

The will is our inner reality, the “thing in itself” behind the mental illusion of our existence. But the will is conflicted and tormented. It has a death wish. As the Buddha said, it’s best to resign from the struggles in life that the will engenders.

So, to sum Schopenhauer up: I will, therefore I am. I am, therefore I’m miserable. Kill will.

Hey, that’s the fun of philosophy. No Polyannas allowed!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 3, 2004
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THE OUTSIDERS: I’m still checking in with the local Socrates Café group, maybe once every other week. If nothing else, it gets me out of the house a bit. Once in a while you hear an interesting comment, although many of the topics are bland and much of the discussion is rather predictable (albeit intelligent). The other night’s topic started out on the bland side – i.e., how do you know when you “belong” (as in social belonging). However, the discussion spread out after a while to consider the overall human need for social belonging and its clashes with our need for individuality. I made the point that anxiety about belonging was a modern problem; in ancient farm villages, individuality was just not an option. Pretty good, but not one of my better nights.

After gaining some focus, the conversation started drifting back into the fluff zone when the group started praising the joys of group belonging. In my usual contrarian mood, I said that the longing for belonging could be a slippery slope leading down into the pit of group thinking. Not that belonging is a bad thing, mind you, but one always has to ask oneself, do I think and feel this way because that’s how I really think and feel, or am I doing it just to be part of the group? During my schpiel, I made the point that I used to find it hard to believe that millions of Germans supported the National Socialist viewpoint back in the 1930s. How could a modern, educated society make such a terrible mistake as to support Hitler and all he stood for? Well, knowing what I now know about people and their need to be part of a flock, I can better understand the dynamics behind the Nazis’ rise to power. Perhaps being an outsider isn’t always such a bad thing; you get to see things that others can lose sight of. Think of those outsiders in Nazi Germany like Deitrich Bonhoffer. They paid dearly for never losing sight of the truth. But they were later hailed as heros; their memories served as buoys to guide the German people back to their senses, once the madness had been defeated.

Being an outside ain’t an easy thing, and I don’t recommend it for everyone. But for those of you who can and do stay back from the masses, you’ve got my sympathy. I’m a fellow traveler along that road less traveled. It’s a lonely and sometimes depressing journey. The joys of good company and fellowship are not easily passed upon. However, you will have more good things to say on those occasions when you do affiliate with the masses (some people say that I have too much to say when I go to a Café meeting, or when I write an entry to this blog).

And another thing to ponder – back in the 1960s, there was a pop group called The Outsiders. They had only one real hit – Time Won’t Let Me, from 1966 — but it was a catchy one, a tune that I can still hear playing in my mind. It had a great horn section. If that’s what being an outsider is all about, well, then bring it on — outsiderdom can’t be so bad after all!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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