The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Religion ... Spirituality ...

Is there life after death? I hope so. But just what would it be like? What would be the point of it? The standard concept of Mid-Eastern / Western monotheism is that Heaven is a place of eternal reward for those who have earned it here on earth. According to some strains of Islam, Heaven is the place where each good man will find 72 black-eyed virgins awaiting him (“houris” in the Quran). Heaven is eternal sex, in other words; all of the pleasure and none of the guilt. Unfortunately, this bit of hadith (a tradition relating to the sayings or actions of The Prophet) has been getting twisted around into an argument for suicide terrorism lately.

Christians and Jews usually don’t think of Heaven as an eternal orgy (although Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible does spice things up a bit). However, some of their concepts of the afterlife are just as immature. In a new book called A Travel Guide to Heaven, Anthony DeStefano provides a popular Catholic perspective (the book did get a bishop’s imprimatur) of what awaits the saints. DeStefano’s heaven will be a place much like earth, and the souls there will have bodies, albeit bodies that aren’t so high-maintenance (thus there won’t be much for doctors to do but play golf). Will our favorite pets be waiting there for us, all bright eyed and bushy-tailed or bushy-feathered? You bet. Heaven won’t be a timeless stillpoint of mystical contemplation; “books will be written and read, public structures will be built and utilized.” There will be banquets of pasta and red wine. Once in a blue moon you will get the thrill of meeting the Big Guy, sort of like going to a black-tie affair where the Governor will attend and you get to shake his hand. I’d bet that God the Father always wears an outstanding tux, and his hair is perfect. Probably gives a great after-dinner speech too.

To sum it up, “Heaven is dynamic. It’s bursting with excitement and action. It’s the ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment, by someone who knows what enjoyment means, because He invented it. It’s Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome and New York all rolled up into one. And it’s forever! Heaven truly is the vacation that never ends.” In other words, you can’t go home again.

(Ironically, the World Trade Center is shown on the promotional web site for Travel Guide to Heaven, in the Rest In Peace? Not! section.)

Arg. I myself hope that George Bernard Shaw is right in his description of Heaven in Don Juan in Hell. According to Shaw, Heaven would be a rather boring place for people like Mr. DeStefano. It would be a place where time both stops and proceeds (a huge contradiction here on earth, but this is the after-life). The clocks will stop ticking in the eternal contemplation and reunification with the One, i.e. in the presence of God. But spirits in Shaw’s heaven will also participate in the temporal realm as well. They will carry out continuing work assignments in order to “help the cause of the life force”. In other words, they will stay involved with the imperfect realm from which they came, trying in unseen ways to make things better, to support truth and goodness whenever and where ever it rises from the muck. Perhaps this is what angels are truly all about.

According to legand, Don Juan was dragged down to Hell by the great statute of Ana’s father. But in a twist on fate, Hell turned out to be just like DeStefano’s Heaven (except that the man in the tux is you-know-who; but the Devil is certainly a gentleman, so one could hardly tell that he isn’t whom Mr. DeStefano would have expected). According to Shaw, Juan eventually gets bored of “the vacation that never ends” (a potential problem that DeStefano addresses by promising tours of Saturn and the Milky Way). Don Juan walks away from it all and finds his way to the real Heaven. There are no guards at the gates to either Hell or Heaven, and anyone can come and go as they please. But as you might expect of a Heaven that is both eternal contemplation and a regular desk job, traffic is light.

If Shaw’s paradigm of the afterlife is correct, then Hell is really what the old-time Catholics used to call “Purgatory”, and there is no eternal place of fire and brimstone having a red man with a forked tail holding a pitchfork. Hell is actually a place where you go to grow up, where you reach spiritual maturity, where you get beyond the “ultimate playground” of earth-like pleasures. Only when you are ready, as Don Juan finally was, do you voluntarily enter the place of true oneness with the ultimate, and then work to bring the force of life closer to that ultimate.

Hopefully, the 72 black-eyed virgins eventually get to go too.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 24, 2005
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THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR: The older I get, the harder it gets to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving; i.e., to be thankful for all the wonderful stuff that life is full of. Problem is, life is full of a whole lot of other stuff that makes it hard to be thankful sometimes. I’d like to get sentimental here and tell you about my wonderful family and friends and how I’m so thankful for all of them. But I’m just not a very sentimental person. I’ll leave the sentimentalism to country-western singers. Nevertheless, I’ve posted a stylized picture taken today which includes a family member, and a friend of the family. Family and friends are definitely not an unmixed blessing (and I’m definitely not an unmixed blessing to my family and friends). But then again, they’re better than enemies and strangers — most of the time, anyway. So in the partial spirit of Thanksgiving, here’s my semi-tribute to family and friends. Hope that you and your family and friends had a happy one.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 20, 2005
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Uncategorized ...

I’ve got an office tip for you young folk who have been out of college for a few years and have moved up a few steps in the company. No, this is not about the program “The Office” on NBC (Tuesday night). But wait . . . . maybe it does sort-of relate. That show is delightfully off-beat but mostly genuine, even if bossman Michael Scott is a bit “over the top”. (Bosses are usually jerks, but it’s hard to find one that jerky and yet that harmless; bosses usually have a streak of evil genius that gets them promoted to the job, in spite of their jerkiness.)

There definitely are lots of guys like assistant-boss Dwight Schrute out there, although puff-balls like Dwight usually don’t possess the frustrated mean streak that NBC writes into his character. NBC keeps a blog for Dwight on its web site, called “Schrute Space”. I read it the other day, and it actually made a good point about robots. Dwight, being kind of a techno-geek, said in his blog that robots are often depicted in science fiction as evil, menacing things — but guess what? Robots are all around us right now, and no one seems to be running from them in fear. The fictional Mr. Schrute points out in his blog that if you have a Mr. Coffee in your kitchen, you have a robot there. So wake up and smell the robotic coffee.

Oh, back to my own office tip . . . . which might be the subject for a future episode of The Office (you never know). Once you’ve been with a company for a couple of years, they start taking you a little more seriously. That means that sooner or later you’re going to be called into some kind of important meeting with some kind of high level boss. You know, the ones with the big offices and the nice carpeting and furniture. When that happens, just remember this: stay cool and don’t say anything unless you are asked to speak (unless it’s your third or fourth big meeting and you know something vitally important and relevant to the discussion — and even then, make it fast).

And most important, always listen for that point where the conversation slows down, which means that the main meeting is winding up. At that point, grab your pen and pad and sit forward in your chair, ready to bolt for the door. Usually the big boss will look at you at that point and graciously say “thank you” – that’s your cue to leave. Big bosses are usually quite gracious. You should then graciously smile back and walk briskly back to your cubicle. Everyone else, including your own immediate boss (who you came in with) will remain seated for the after-glow discussion about the heavy crap. That’s the kind of stuff that goes on above your level. If you haven’t already left, i.e. if you think you’re just as important as everyone else at that table, it will get awkward — they will tell you to leave, and you will then lose points.

But if you know just when to leave, you gain points. Big bosses and little bosses love it when the minions know just how important they are. And even though it’s all b.s., you don’t want to hang with that crowd anyway. You want to get back with your fellow minions. So play the stupid status game with them, and keep collecting the paycheck. And then go home (or better yet, go out to a bar with your friends) and watch The Office, and laugh about it all. Until they can finally make a Dwight-like, quasi-intelligent robot to take your place, you can laugh all the way to the bank.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:56 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, November 18, 2005
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What’s Bad With General Motors Is Bad With the USA. I’ve read that GM is going down the tubes. Sales are declining. Bankruptcy looms. An American dinosaur is dying.

Actually, GM was warned quite a while ago. GM was always good at knocking out big cars by the millions. Since the mid-1960s, GM stopped innovating — they would leave that to Ford, then Volkswagen and Volvo, then the Japanese. Their cars were still stylish — GM knew and still knows how to make a car look good — but the quality was declining. But as to compensate, GM gave you what seemed like more value by expanding the dimensions.

People seemed to like big cars, even if they didn’t run right, and GM was there to sell them. Then came the gasoline lines of the mid-70s, when GM tried to make small cars. They weren’t very good, but instead of committing to research and development so as to perfect the small car, GM decided to go back to big cars. They got back into the spotlight in the roaring 1990s when everyone wanted an SUV or pickup truck. Instead of investing in research and development in things like hybrid power, GM kept on bashing out monsters and would loan you the money to buy them (they made a big portion of their profits from financing). Now, whether because of increased gas prices (which have actually come down quite a bit lately; I saw regular for $1.99 tonight) or changing public tastes and values (wouldn’t that be something if small and smart becomes fashionable again in the auto world), SUV and truck sales are down. GM’s regular cars are OK, but they’re not Toyotas or Hondas. GM ignored all of its warnings, and now the vultures are circling overhead.

GM is a reflection of everything that is wrong with America today — a once-great empire that still appears powerful and technically advanced, but got lazy and disinspired over the years and is now living off the left-overs from the glory days. Sooner or later the reckoning will come. GM forgot about the balance of virtue that made it great (the balance of quality and style, the balance of standardization and customer choice, the balance of production efficiency and personalized marketing), and replaced them with extremes (extremely large vehicles, extremely little innovation, extremely good credit financing, extremely poor quality). America seems to be moving from balances to extremes, too (extremely rich or extremely poor, extremely caring but extremely capitalist, extremely nice but extremely greedy, extremely low taxes but extremely indebted, extremely religious but extremely militarized).

At GM, it was style over substance, bigness over quality, power over finesse. GM defined the American Dream for our parents (if you are a Baby Boomer) or grandparents (if you are Gen X, Y, Z or whatever). If GM hits the skids, how much longer can that dream hold up? We shall see.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Politics ... Society ...

We live in a time when most people seem very cynical about what government can do. The general feeling is that government is a waste of time and money, so we might as well cut taxes. It’s easy to find examples of corruption (they’re in the news most every day) and hard to find examples of government programs that have had a positive effect on the country. But if you look hard enough, you can find some. It was the government, not the free market, that made possible the railroad industry, the trucking industry, the airline industry, and now the internet industry (the digital highway, as they called it back in the late 90’s). Those things all had a big effect on our nation — both good and bad, but hopefully more good than bad.

Then there was the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Just as the Civil War was getting under way, President Abraham Lincoln somehow got a bill passed that quietly had a huge impact on American history over the next half-century. The Morrill Act gave each state 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of the state’s congressional delegation (i.e., Senators and Congressmen), in exchange for their promise to start an “A&M;” college (agriculture and machinery). The states were to sell the land and put the proceeds into a fund that would support the construction and operation of such colleges. Eventually, 70 “land grant” colleges were started, including one of my alma matas (Rutgers in New Jersey).

Between 1880 and 1900, the graduates of these colleges converted American businesses into huge, scientifically managed, technology-oriented affairs (of course, technology back then meant steam engines and telegraphs, but eventually became cars, airplanes, nuclear power and computers). The American economy grew in leaps and bounds, and the United States thus became a world power. After the Civil War, we were just plain lucky that no other nation was powerful enough to mess with us, as our nation was weak and vulnerable. But by the 1890s, we had plenty of guns and battleships (paid for by taxes, made possible by expanding technology), and we weren’t afraid to push other countries around. The Spanish-American War made it clear that the US had become a world-class predator, and was no longer the potential victim of some other expanding empire.

(Obviously our imperial / predatory attitudes were an unfortunate side-effect of the growing economic and military power that the Morrill-educated masses made possible. Those attitudes made us a lot of enemies throughout the world, but most of those enemies were weaklings in far-off places who seemingly couldn’t hurt us. But now, with the technique of terrorism being honed throughout the planet into a deadly art form, some of those weakling chickens are now coming home to roost, with bombs attached.)

So tax dollars today can make the difference between national strength and weakness tomorrow. Yes, I realize that too much tax and too much corruption can sap the strength of a nation, as Alan Alda pointed out on last week’s West Wing debate episode (in discussing the plight of poor African nations). But here in America, I think we need a restoration of public faith that our government can be good and can do good things with the moneys that we taxpayers give it. If the public wants it, deserves it, and demands it, it can happen.

The basic presumption of the Morrill Act remains valid, i.e. the more publicly-funded education, the better. But beyond Morrill, we have to renew the commitment within our education system to the greater notions of civilization, including liberality and wisdom and not just entrepreneurial techniques. Knocking out a huge cadre of MBAs and software engineers and bio-tech scientists will support continued economic growth; but what about the macro questions of fostering and preserving civilization amidst growing religious fanaticism, poverty, terrorism and ecological catastrophe? I somehow don’t think that we can rely on democracy and the free market to find solutions to these crises (although they certainly can play a role). Our nation has to commit itself to the preaching and promulgation of civilization, and has to put its money where its mouth is (and that means taxes, as we don’t have enough federal land left to repeat the Morrill Act).

I hope that out there in our universities, there is still a quiet army of believers in civilization, ready to be enlisted by a newly enlightened American public into a world crusade for a greater good. I know they’ve been on the ropes from both the left and the right over the past 30 years. They’ve had to put up with radical leftists trying to find refuge from the real world (who angrily insult the heritage of Western Civilization because of the past sins of its proponents), and with neo-conservatives who have cut their government support and now demand that they serve industrial/military research interests. They dance to the conflicting tunes of political correctness and academia-is-now-a-business-sector. They know that “civilization” ultimately means world civilization and do not limit themselves to Plato and Shakespeare, although they protect that heritage as the one we know the best. I hope they will be ready to go when their day finally comes, when the Morrill Act of the 21st Century finally arrives.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 10, 2005
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Uncategorized ...

I’ve been a vegetarian, more or less, since 1987. I still eat some egg and milk products (in cookies and cake) and I eat clams sometimes. I read somewhere that true vegetarians give clams “the benefit of the doubt” as to whether or not they have any feelings and consciousness. I guess that I give my own appetite the benefit when I’m in doubt. Nonetheless, my daily diet is still pretty far from the standard American diet. And that works for me. I eat what I like and I like what I eat.

It occurred to me that vegetarianism, whether perfect or somewhat compromised like my own version of it, is made possible by the modern industrialized world (I’m gonna give it credit for once). Because of our extensive trade, transportation and distribution networks, most of us Americans can buy a wide variety of foods cheaply and conveniently. We have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and grains all year long. We have available a wide variety of food items that substitute for meat protein, like nuts and soy products and pasta. Even without meat or animal products, we can still eat a wide variety of foods available in the typical supermarket. And if we do have a problem with a vitamin or nutrient (I have the typical vegetarian deficiencies in calcium and B vitamins), we can buy supplements pretty cheaply.

So, for better or worse, vegetarianism is made practical and possible by modern society. Just go back 200 years or so and you absolutely had to eat meat to get by in a lot of places on this planet. There just wasn’t any other way of getting calories and nutrients down your gullet for many months. In warm places, especially near a lake or an ocean, you could get a fairly wide range of grains and veggies and nuts; but in the colder places (like Poland, where my ancestors came from) or up in the mountains or deserts, there just wasn’t a whole lot of stuff that you could grow and store. Maybe you had some potatoes or cabbage, but not much else. So you had to take advantage of all the proteins and fats and minerals that your near-by animal friends had stored up in their flesh, for your own survival.

It sometimes amazes me how humans have occupied pretty much every corner of this planet, no matter how cold or dry or nasty the environment. But then again, they couldn’t have done it without having animals to eat. Before the advent of supermarkets, you could only be a veg-head in places like Italy or Africa, where plenty of beans and vegetables and fruit were always available. In Norway or the high Andes Mountains of South America, you had to rip into flesh in order to get enough energy to stay alive. Which makes me wonder, as an imperfect vegetarian, why even settle in such crappy places? I guess that the inner drive to control your own plot of soil is strong, even stronger than the urge to have something more than meat and potatoes on the table every night.

Here in modern America, land and houses are terribly expensive; which proves that the primal urge to control one’s own domain is still strong. But at least food is plentiful and relatively cheap, allowing those of us who can overcome the other primal urge (i.e., to rip into flesh when the stomach starts growling) to follow our enlightened wills. I’m glad to be one of the enlightened . . . .

Uh oh . . . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 6, 2005
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Uncategorized ...

The other day I was thinking a bit about Plato and his notion of “The Forms” (i.e., the perfect ideal behind every crude and imprecise concept here on earth; e.g. the perfect circle, perfect harmony, perfect love, or maybe perfect justice). This was the basis of Plato’s metaphysical view; in effect it was his religion. The Forms supposedly exist in a heavenly realm where everything is perfect. Our souls come from the World of The Forms, and after we die they return home to that World. While here on earth, our souls are pretty much lost in the muck of decay and the struggle of daily existence. However, once in a blue moon they experience something that reminds them (if just for a moment) of the perfect world from which they came. When it happens you feel a thrill, a deep-down sensation, a religious experience.

For people like me, the way of having such a religious experience is through learning and education. Reading and studying are generally pretty boring. But once in a while you have an “ah ha” experience, a moment of great insight when the pieces all come together and you feel thrilled by the rush of understanding. That’s the kind of thing that an eternal student (like myself) lives for. It’s a bit like a drug trip or like falling in love, but without the hell to pay afterward.

Not to say that moments of love aren’t also temporary visions of an ideal. It’s just that reality and basic human needs and misunderstanding so quickly intervene in human relationships. Perhaps where and how you “follow your bliss” (as Joseph Campbell would say) is a matter of individual temperament. People who are extroverted and sensory-oriented will find their visions of heaven in physical moments (including, but not always through sex; it could also be a mother’s rush of joy in holding her baby, or an embrace among teammates after a great play in a sports game). People who are introverted and intuitive, however, will tend a bit more towards study, thinking and abstraction as their window on the holy.

I’m in no hurry to die, but I hope that Plato is right and that there is an eventual reunification with the forms. (Plato said that the ultimate purpose of philosophy, which means love of wisdom, is the preparation for death.) But I’m sometimes worried by a recurring thought, a rather silly one — that the forms are really “Colorforms”, those vinyl shapes that I played with as a child. So after death, your soul would then go to a place with a dark background having bright, colorful shapes floating about, e.g. red triangles, green squares, blue rectangles, and orange circles. Arg, sounds a bit like a bad acid trip. Say it ain’t so, Plato.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:04 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 3, 2005
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TV TIME: I try to keep up with 2 or 3 TV shows a year. That isn’t easy, as there aren’t very many good shows out there. I was a big Fraiser fan, but that show finally bit the dust two years ago. However, The West Wing has kept me in touch with the tube. I’m glad that Martin Sheen and company are hanging in there. At the moment, in fact, the West Wing literally leaving us hanging. President Bartlett/Martin Sheen’s term is just about up, and Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are fighting it out on the campaign trail to succeed him. Fortunately, whoever the scriptwriters pick to win the election, the show will go on; either one of them could keep The West Wing interesting for years to come. A live debate between Santos (Smits) and Vinnick (Alda) is coming up this Sunday; that should be great . . .

As with most West Wing junkies, I’ve taken interest in Commander In Chief, a new drama offering from ABC. In case you’re not familiar with CIC, it features Geena Davis as the first female President. According to the plot, Congresswoman Mackenzie Allen (Davis) was selected for the VP spot as the token female on a conservative Republican ticket, as to steal the womens vote from the Democrats. It worked, but the true blue GOP President (true red, actually) unexpectedly dies soon after taking office. Since “Mac” wasn’t really a true-red Republican, they encourage her to step aside and allow the Speaker of the House, played by Donald Sutherland, to “take the purple” (as the Romans used to say about new Emperors). She was ready to comply, but then Congressman Nate Templeton (Sutherland) had to go and say some stupid, chauvinistic things about women in front of Mackie. Next thing you know, she’s the Commander In Chief. And in doing so, she gains an instant enemy in The House, where Templeton / Sutherland will have to remain.

Templeton aside, the really big crisis is this: President Mac has a husband and three kids, and they are all in the needy mode. They all want her attention; they all want her to keep the family intact just as before. And she’s trying her best. But now she’s got the world’s last great superpower to run. Thus, the show becomes a desultory mix of The West Wing and All My Children. Can Mac have it all? Can she be a good wife and mother, and still have the time and energy to run what we used to call “the free world”?

Even if the writing and acting and plot lines thus far have not been Emmy material, Commander In Chief does raise an interesting question. It pushes the female career and family issue to the limit. Well, almost anyway. Thus far, every episode gives President Allen a limited set of challenges: the Speaker gives her a political headache; her husband or one of the kids gives her a mommy crisis; and wouldn’t you know it, some nasty terrorist or tinpan dictator out there in Blahdististan gives her a military / diplomatic situation to deal with. (Or maybe mother nature spits out a hurricane or an earthquake at the wrong time.) Superwoman Mac gets pretty frazzled by all of this, but somehow she sorts it out by the end of the day, and is ready for whatever craziness tomorrow might bring.

If you’re a West Wing fan, or if you just follow current events and presidential politics, you know that this is more than just a bit contrived. Where is the rest of the government? Where are the cabinet members, the speechwriters, the media people, the generals and admirals, the foreign diplomats, the political advisors, and for that matter, any other member of the House or Senate? The Commander In Chief here doesn’t seem to have all that much to command. As such, she has time to attend to her daughter’s indiscretion with boyfriends and her son’s fighting at school. The West Wing — and everything I’ve ever read or heard regarding the Presidency — makes it pretty clear that there isn’t time for that. You keep the family around for the photo ops so as to satisfy the American myth about home and hearth; but in reality, someone else has to tend to the kids. And the first lady (and someday, the first guy) just have to keep themselves busy (albeit, with a staff and a budget to help). I think that the cold, hard truth is that you can’t be President and raise kids at the same time; no one even tries. Maybe they should; if Bill Clinton had in fact given more time to Chelsea’s homework, he might have avoided the Monica Lewinsky hijinks.

So, is Commander In Chief unintentionally saying that women generally don’t do as well when faced with the cruel choice between duty to the family and duty to the world? Is it asking whether it’s right that men traditionally choose worldly duty over family needs? If it is, then CIC needs to do a better job of it. The show has created an interesting tension, but it avoids the ultimate consequences. If Commander In Chief can’t be another West Wing (which I would have liked), then at least it should do a good job with the “soap opera” issues that it takes on. Perhaps it should be honest about the fact that Mackenzie Allen / Geena Davis can’t be both soccer mom and Madame President, and is going to hurt someone (or maybe everyone, including herself) by trying. Maybe this show could convey to guys like me the wrenching personal and social dilemmas that women face when they try for career success and family life. Maybe that would make us ponder whether it’s fair that men get a pass on this issue, while women are held accountable if their kids or their husbands go wacky because they work late. Bring on the psychological intensity.

But CIC is not set up for psychological intensity. Nor political intensity. Nor dramatic characterization and realistic dialog. It sets up a good story line and an interesting situation, but doesn’t seem to do too much with it; just basic, easy-to-swallow entertainment. I think it’s another thin-veneer, one-season-and-out show at best (which is so typical for ABC; this is something that CBS might have done better with). And that’s too bad, when you consider what could have been done here with the right actors and the right writers and the right direction.

PS — On metacritic.com, they summarize a variety of newspaper reviews of Commander In Chief, and have a board for write-in reviews. The write-ins each give an opinion score of 0 to 10. I decided to list the scores, broken down by the reviewer’s sex, and take the averages. It turns out that the female average is 8.7, and the male average is 6.2. Not a very surprising result. What is surprising is that 7 women sent in reviews, whereby 19 men took the time to make a comment. So the guys are taking this show seriously, even if they don’t always like it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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