The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, June 25, 2007
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FRACTALED FERRY TALES: I’ve read various accounts regarding the mathematical concept of “fractals”, and what a big deal it is. In a nutshell, fractals represent a mathematical situation where there exist patterns within patterns within patterns within patterns . . . . on and on. So, no matter whether you are looking at something from space or thru a microscope, the fractal pattern would be the same (give or take some random factors). A fractal surface area is kind of like a sponge, with lots of surface area in a small space. A good practical example of fractality is provided by aluminum foil. When you first cut a piece of foil from the roll, it’s nice and flat and shiny. Maybe you use it to wrap up a pound cake or something like that. After the pound cake has been eaten, many people throw the foil out. But if you’re a cheapskate like me, you save the foil and use it for something else, perhaps a muffin. After about the fourth or fifth time reusing foil, you see that it has become all scrunchy and shrunken, and isn’t much good anymore for wrapping stuff. That piece of foil was once flat, but has now become fractal, with lots of little folds and jags.

My point here is to ask what the big deal is about fractals. Mathematicians talk like they had found the holy grail. And they had some good examples, here and there. E.g., compare a shot from a space satellite of the middle of the USA, with the Mississippi River branching out into all sorts of twisty, smaller rivers, which in turn branch out into smaller rivers. on down to little creeks and brooks. Compare that with a shot of a tree. And then a close-up shot of a leaf. And then with a shot of the tiny blood vessels in your own skin. OK, so there are some recurring patterns to nature; give the math guys credit for being able to formally describe it.

But on a bigger level, the fractal idea is a big flop. I’m thinking here about the quantum world of fundamental particles, versus the bigger worlds of molecules and living beings and planets and solar systems and galaxies. There’s a huge disconnect in the way that tiny stuff acts versus bigger stuff; i.e. quantum physics versus the relativistic world of gravity. A long time ago, the atom seemed like a little solar system, with electrons revolving around the proton-neutron nucleus just as the planets revolved around the sun. (And on a higher level, billions of solar systems revolved around a black hole at the core of most galaxies). Now, if that were true, the cosmos would truly be fractal. But in fact, the atom is nothing like a mini-solar system. And the galaxy itself acts differently from a solar system because of “dark matter” (stuff we still don’t understand).

So, things do change fundamentally, depending on what level you look at them from. Aside from old aluminum foil, perhaps fractals still amount to an interesting idea that is useful in certain contexts. But sorry, mathematicians; you haven’t found the key to reality. So get back to your theorems and axioms, and call us in a few years to let us know how you’re doing.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 23, 2007
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SAFE LANDING: In the world of criminal justice bureaucracy, you’ve got to put up with some shrewd and aggressive people. My latest little encounter regarded a federal grant opportunity that we had hardly an icicle’s chance in hell of getting. Still, one of the shrewd higher-ups (a trial attorney by trade) decided that we had to go for it, mostly to impress the big boss (the County Prosecutor). And since I’m the “grants guy”, that meant that I’d have to catch the hot potato here. I’d be the guy to take the blame if we didn’t submit the application, or catch hell if we submitted something really junky, despite the fact that our proposal clearly wasn’t what the feds were looking for. The blame-game will start once we got the rejection notice.

OK, so I played the game. The grant was due yesterday (Friday), via GRANTS.GOV (all federal grants are now submitted electronically). On Thursday evening, I got a few pages of materials from someone who had no idea what a grant application looked like, so on Friday I had to massage that fluff into something that at least looked like a decent submission. The thing that annoyed me about it was that I was working at the same time on another federal grant application, one that we do in fact have a shot at (due Monday). Oh well, that’s life. Nothing at all happens, or everything happens at once.

I had the fluff lady, who was supposed to have prepared the application, come in on Friday despite her having the day off. Well hey, this grant was her boss’s idea, so she needed to bear some of the brunt too. I gave her the federal checklist and told her what we needed. She was good-natured enough about it. Still, had she bothered to look at the grant punchlist a week ago, she might had been able to have stayed home. But some people, despite being smart (she’s another trial attorney), just don’t know how to follow instructions.

Anyway, by 5 PM on Friday, we at least had enough stuff to say that we addressed every point in the proposal request; not very well, but at least there were no obvious omissions. Our proposal was still way off-base and will clearly be rejected, given the extreme competition for federal grants these days. But at least I had my own butt covered. Another day, another week, another grant, another bureaucratic maneuver to escape the line of fire.

By 5:30 PM I had an e-mail confirmation from GRANTS.GOV that our application had been received. It was an intense day of work for me, but it was finally time to go home. Just before I locked up my desk and grabbed my bag, I fired up the browser for a quick look at the news. The headline on was appropriate: Space Shuttle Lands Safely. Yep. As I marched down the stairway towards the door, I reflected on it: a safe landing in California for the Shuttle, a safe bureaucratic landing in Newark for me. The Shuttle never fulfilled its promise, and my own life went the same route. But it was Friday evening, and we were both on the ground safely after a busy week. So, it was time for a beer, not for a tear of regret.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
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I felt a twinge of sadness the other day when I read that the last of the great trans-Atlantic passenger ships, the Queen Elizabeth II, is going to be retired and sent to Dubai to become a floating hotel. By the time that the QE 2 went into service around 1970 (when I was still in high school), the jet plane had already killed off most of the demand for three-day voyages from New York to London or Paris. But God bless those British folk at Cunard for building one last great “liner”, nonetheless.

The Queen kept up the old tradition for another three decades, although toward the end it was doing more cruise business than cross-Atlantic trade. I never rode the Queen, but I once worked in Manhattan and had a view of the Hudson River dock where the Queen would hold court every month or two. I always kept an eye out for her. Sometimes she’d be docking as I was getting to my desk in the morning, and once or twice I was there late enough to watch her heading downriver for the open seas. Well, I doubt if I’ll have reason to visit Dubai anytime soon, so perhaps I’ll never see the old girl again. But here’s a pic I managed to get of her from my office. A nice little memory of some British pomp and circumstance on the west side. New York, and the world in general, is not a better place now that the Queen 2 no longer flies the Union Jack proudly over the briny seas. Hail Britannia, erstwhile ruler of the waves!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 17, 2007
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Because my blog is not widely popular, I have the luxury of being “not politically correct” from time to time. My thoughts for today fall into that category. I’ve been thinking about the “Islamic problem” and the “African-American problem” side-by-side. Of course, I’m taking the perspective of a main-stream American white guy. Also of course, I have my prejudices. Third “of course”, I’m trying to be as fair and open as possible about this stuff as possible, given who I am and where I come from. Final “of course”: at the end of the day I do have my opinions, and I’m sticking with them whether popular or not.

With that being said, let me get back to comparing the Islamic problem and the African American problem. Both represent large groups of people who are having their problems fitting in with “Western culture” and economics. They both have legitimate beefs with this culture, but they both also have common beliefs and practices that keep them from fitting in and achieving full economic participation. Another “of course” is needed at this point: of course, this is a broad-stroke statement. There are millions of people from both groups who have fully adopted and integrated with “The West” and are quite successful, in many ways. But in general, both groups seem to have their problems with mainstream western culture and with poverty. They too often represent the economic outcasts, and they express anger about this.

The interesting thing is that they both have something the West wants. The black culture has a certain cultural verve that whites seem to crave (hip hop music, trendsetting words and expressions, sporting and artistic prowess, etc.). The Islamic culture has oil. So we have to deal with eachother, like it or not. Another interesting thing is that both Islam (as both a religion and a culture) and the black culture have many legitimate criticisms of the western mainstream. They seem to imply that we are too materialistic, too impious, too stingy, too impersonal (although I’m NOT trying to merge the Islamic vision and the Black vision into one; they are very different, and would have many points of disagreement and friction between themselves). These cultures certainly have many of their own faults, and even hypocrisy; but alot of their cultural critiques ARE worth thinking about. They do contain some significant truths.

Well, aside from a few weirdos like myself, no one could seriously discuss the commonalties between the black problem and the Muslim problem in public. If some kid in grad school attempted to do a sociology thesis on this, he or she would be banned forever from the halls of academia. If a serious article about this appeared in the Washington Post or the New Yorker, the author would never publish again, and the paper or magazine would have to issue profuse apologias. The world of thought just ain’t ready for open-mindedness these days. And that’s too bad. I think it would be better for everyone to start slugging it out in academic words and logic, and leave the law suits and protest marches and political invective (and even guns and weapons of mass destruction) behind. But of course, I’m not holding my breath.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 9, 2007
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MY FUN DAY: When you’re a nerd like me, fun is a somewhat rare event. However, I did have a bit of fun this past week . . . . nerdy fun, as it were. You see, the wife of a former office mate from a past job had called up another guy in my office (who had also worked for that past employer of mine), wanting some help in making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet. The guy who took the call (Mr. Raj) decided to call me in on the case, so I picked up his cell phone and made my re-acquaintances with Valerie.

Ms. Valerie has a PhD in nursing and health care management, and recently took a job in the financial unit of a big health care system. This presented her with a bit of a challenge. She was used to managing field-level nursing operations, and not to fiscal controls and cost projections. Her new boss wanted her to turn out some actual-versus-target-expense graphs, despite her unfamiliarity with the intricacies of spreadsheets. And she had to turn them out fast. So she turned to Mr. Raj, who in turn turned to me . To turn a phrase. (OK, I’ll stop with the turning).

Anyway, there I was sitting at Raj’s desk, speaking to Valerie in Manhattan on Raj’s cell phone, trying to walk her thru the creation of a decent multi-line chart on Excel I opened up Excel on Raj’s computer, and had Valerie follow me as I created a graph. . It got pretty intense there for a while. Maybe even dramatic (she obviously was taking me very seriously, as though her job depended upon it). It kind of reminded me of those movie plots where the pilot of an airplane becomes unconscious and a passenger with little or no flying experience has to land the plane. “OK, now Valerie, do you see that handle next to the throttle lever? OK, now move it just a bit to the left. Is the plane banking and turning towards the left? Good. OK, put it back to the center. Now, take a look at the air speed indicator, which is . . . .”

Well all right, this isn’t exactly what I said (and I guess I just broke my promise about not turning anymore). But still, it was kind of fun helping someone get the hang of operating an unfamiliar technical system. She did finally get a fairly decent double-line chart together. And I felt pretty good about playing the part of the heroic air-traffic controller who landed an emergency flight through his cool and calm instructions. In my hyperactive, fun-loving imagination, anyway!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, June 1, 2007
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Andy Rooney, the old guy who blabs away on 60 Minutes, is cynical about the USA sending people back to the Moon. Well, perhaps he has a point. For the time being, outer space can be explored a lot more thoroughly and a lot more safely using machines. I’ve heard the argument made that there’s nothing like really being there when you’re exploring new territory. But let’s face it; human beings can’t really experience the Moon or Mars or anything else beyond our planet’s atmosphere. They would have to be cocooned in highly protective outfits and stay in isolated bases, due to all the radiation, heat, cold and lack of air. It’s not like they could go outside and touch or smell or taste anything, which is what human exploration has always been about. So I’ll give Andy a pass on this issue.

But actually, I recall Andy Rooney also being cynical about the original Apollo moon landing program from the late 60’s and early 70’s. About 5 or 6 years ago, I heard him on 60 Minutes complaining about a promise that NASA made about the great discoveries that would be made regarding the moon;s formation. Andy said that he didn’t remember ever getting that report. Well, that’s because it hadn’t been written yet. Actually, that report only came in recently. Not long ago, moon scientists finally reached consensus that the earth was hit by another planet about 4.5 billion years ago. A lot of the earth’s surface was scraped off in the process, and the stuff eventually congealed into the Moon. That’s why the Moon doesn’t have much iron, as opposed to the Earth, whose core is almost all iron.

They now call this story “the Big Whack”. And it took a while to gel. Science can be a slow and cautious process. As it should be. Sorry for the wait, Andy. Sometimes, it takes time to get it right. But now that we’ve got the moon right, well . . . . perhaps it’s time to move on to some bigger and bolder science ventures, way out there in the blue. But as far as sending people along with our probes . . . . we’re gonna have to be patient about that. Just as Andy Rooney should have patient about the moon rocks report.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, May 28, 2007
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THE WARRIORS OF JERICHO TUMBLE: CBS decided not to renew the Jericho TV series, despite a loyal following that was quite incensed (you may have heard about the “nuts” campaign; I hope that CBS employees enjoyed all the peanuts and cashews that the disgruntled fans sent in). I got curious about Jericho last November, and pretty soon got hooked. It wasn’t an easy TV show to watch. In fact, it could be quite depressing. The basic premise, for all of you non-Jericho people out there, was that 20 American cities got nuked simultaneously because of a sinister terrorist plot. Something about old Soviet missile warheads that got into the wrong hands.

Well, if you vaporize 20 of the USA’s biggest cities — and then add injury to injury by popping off some air-blasts meant to fry all those computer chips that we now rely on (via an electromagnetic pulse wave) – a lot of things would fall apart. Like the economy, the government, the Internet, the airlines, the electrical power systems, the food distribution system, stuff like that. Little towns like Jericho (which was fictional) could survive whatever radiation came their way, but would still have to watch the modern world slip away. Gasoline would get scarce, modern medicine wouldn’t be available anymore, no more electricity . . . they’d have to start living like America did in 1776. And not everyone could do it. People would starve and freeze in the winter, women would die in childbirth, no more heart or diabetes medicine, people would get nasty about sharing their dwindling supplies, plenty of guns . . . . . Yes, it would get pretty depressing.

That was the problem behind Jericho. Despite Skeet Ulrich and some pretty young actresses, the show was ultimately built on some very depressing premises. There was some slight hope that the federal government would eventually get itself back together and start rebuilding. But that would take decades, and people watching TV after a hard day’s work aren’t willing to give a show 20 years to brighten up again. Yes, there are some very dark shows out there these day; e.g., 24 popped off a few nukes too this past season. But Jericho was just way too far into social collapse. So of course it’s been canceled. Get back to more edifying stuff like American Idol.

The darn thing for me is that over the last 3 or 4 episodes, Jericho hit on a really interesting theme. Given the dire circumstances and lack of government protection, Jericho and its neighboring town, New Bern, had to form militias to defend themselves from roving gangs (think Mad Max). Unfortunately, New Bern got the idea that perhaps they could use their militia to force Jericho to “share” a bit more of their food and other basic necessities. New Bern was in somewhat worse shape with regard to food stores, but it had a wildcard – an old factory that it converted over to produce mortars. Before long, negotiations broke down and a full-scale war between New Bern and Jericho broke out (and that’s where the series ended, with an unresolved war going on).

This peaked my interest – here was WAR under a magnifying glass. Here were otherwise-nice, reasonable, middle-class Americans suddenly killing each other because of bad circumstances, lack of communication, leaders who let power go to their heads, irrational fears, etc. Here were people who used to bowl together and shop together, now firing live rounds at each other (not paintballs). Here was a classic human story, one repeated so many times over the last 6 or 7 millennia in so many different places and so many different ways. WAR. Exactly what weakens humankind as a whole, and yet which seems so necessary to the parties involved. Like an infection of some sort that humankind just can’t seem to cure itself of, not even in our modern, enlightened world.

I have too many books to read right now, as it is. But nonetheless, I’m looking for a good book on WAR. A book that looks at war as a social phenomenon, a social infection perhaps. Something that tries to find commonalties and root causes, something that can put World War 2 and Iraq and Napoleon and the Pelopenesian War on the same page. Something that estimates just how much humankind has lost over the centuries because of war. What if there were no war – would we now have more resources to share? Or would there be too many people on the planet, barely getting by, always on the edge of starvation? Do we need war to innovate – e.g., the Internet started as a military tool, and the space program was clearly tied to military concerns first, with science and economics as a side thought.

Without war, could there have been a Roman Empire? Or a British Empire? Or an American Empire? Would world trade have developed as far as it has? Would we have to otherwise give in to some depressing form of socialism where we’d all be living barefoot on farms, picking corn and slooping hogs and taking orders unquestioningly from big brother? Or could we have still derived television and high-fi stereos and personal computers and such, based upon some balance of market economics and fair play? I’ve never seen the big questions about war and humankind thoroughly addressed. Can human beings, such as we are, avoid war? Or are we just wired for it, given the conditions and limitations of the world that we live in? Are we all just too different, e.g. Muslims and Jews and Christians? Or do communication and education and enlightenment have a chance?

Thus far, I haven’t found anyone tackling these issues, at least not on a popular level. Right now, the mysterious and important question of human consciousness is all the rage. You can find scads of recent books about it, some of them quite good. But as to WAR, capital W-A-R, there just doesn’t seem to be too much.

OK then, professors and thinkers out there! Maybe it’s time to buy the Jericho series DVD (once it comes out) and watch those last 3 or 4 episodes. Sorry about all the soap opera cheeze and the X-Files conspiracy stuff on the show. Try to get past that, and concentrate on why two towns with dwindling water and fuel and food supplies find it in their best interests to use those supplies up so as to lob bullets and explosives at each other. How might this have been prevented? What probably happened in the end? Were the two towns eventually better off because of the decline in population and centralization of government? Or was this just going to spark off another war sometime in the future, with more loss of precious resources? Next, let’s haul in 6000 years of human civilization; let’s look at all the wars, big and small. Let’s have some extensive conversations about economics and politics and sociology and anthropology and geology and psychology and neuroscience and evolution, how they all relate to all the wars we’ve ever had. Then let’s ask – is the next war really necessary?

I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War. When it was finally over, my generation hoped it would be the war to end all wars, at least as far as the USA was concerned. But then came Grenada and Bosnia and Kosovo and al Quada (our on-going antiterror war), then Afghanistan and now Iraq. Is there any way out? Is there anything that can be done so that perhaps in 100 years, war wouldn’t be fashionable? Can the whole United Nations ideas and ideals somehow be revived (without the threat that the UN is going to impose world communism and take away our nice shopping malls and SUVs and big-screen home theaters here in America)???

The fact that Americans like neither the UN nor the ideals behind it; that they don’t want to read books about what causes war and what can be done about it; and indeed, that they don’t want to watch Jericho, makes me a bit pessimistic that war can be stopped. Hope that I’m missing something and being a bit too pessimistic here.

But nonetheless, my deepest respect to all who have honorably
served their nations in war, or in preparation for war, on this Memorial Day. They all do it in hope that their children won’t have to. May we yet find a way to fulfill those dreams.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, May 25, 2007
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Tonight, I have only a small observation to offer about the real world. And that regards apples. It’s not about how apples fall from trees towards the earth’s center. Isaac Newton already covered that. What I’ve noticed is that when you bite into a moldy spot on an apple, it tastes like dirt.

But OK, then – that makes rough sense, given that soil has a lot of rotting leaves and grass and tree branches in it. Dirt is a mix of sand (little particles of rock) and organic stuff, and the organic stuff is a breeding ground for bacteria and other microbes. And all those little microbes probably produce the same chemicals in dirt that they produce in apples, which are organic things. Not that you want to eat those rotting brown spots, or that rotting brown earth; but all this rot obviously has a role in how and why things grow, in the cycle of ecology.

I’ve also been dabbling a little in Julian Barbour’s “Platonia”, a timeless, probabilistic state-space that (in theory) pre-figures both classical reality and quantum reality as we know them; and with the grounds for number theory (courtesy of Douglas Hofstadter in “Godel, Escher, Bach”). But right now, dirty apples are about the best I can do in terms of explaining just why this world is the way it is.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 20, 2007
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Former President Jimmy Carter was in the news yesterday for criticizing George W. Bush’s presidency and the war in Iraq. Carter used the phrase “worst president in history”. Even thought he limited his judgement to foreign affairs, I believe this was a bit “over the top”. I’d imagine that the conservative bloggers and lists are having a field day with this. I mean, Carter did not exactly receive high marks for his handling of the Oval Office either.

The former President would stand on much firmer ground had he criticized Mr. Bush for our nation’s current energy situation. Gasoline is hitting $3 a gallon, and may not go back down again (or if so, not for long). And Iran is only a few years away from testing a nuclear weapon. Once that happens, gasoline prices could triple. Yep, $9 to $10 a gallon. Once people start paying $250 to fill up their SUV’s, they may not have much cash left for another spending binge down at the mall. Consumer spending will thus be ratcheted downward. Malls might start going bust. Commercial real estate prices will collapse. The banks will stop making loans, and the economy will be headed for a nasty and long recession. Unemployment and inflation will zoom back up to levels not seen since – well, since the Jimmy Carter Presidency.

What could be done to stop or avoid this? Trying to bomb Iran will probably only make things worse. Besides, they reportedly have most of their nuclear development sites in “hardened” locations. About the only sensible thing would be to jumpstart the alternative energy and energy efficiency industry with federal subsidies (in lieu of some or all of the subsidies we currently give the big energy and utility companies for their use of fossil fuels). Which is just what Carter tried to do. But Ronald Reagan pulled the plug on this, and no president since then has shown any interest in renewing it. The attitude is, “let the free market resolve it all”. Well, the free market led this nation into the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Sometimes a little collectivism is needed to avoid the worst pitfalls of economic freedom.

Once gas prices hit $4 or $5, which might not be too long from now, people might be finally be willing to listen to Carter regarding energy. He might thus save his reputation for that moment, instead of wasting his credibility taking cheap shots at GWB, pointing out things that even the most hard-assed guys sitting in VFW and American Legion halls in West Virginia and Missouri and Montana are coming to see. Jimmy, keep your cool. Your moment of redemption for the 1977 cardigan sweater speech is coming.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 6, 2007
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Cultural Corner: I saw a little article about recent goings-on in the field of cultural anthropology. Actually, they’re doing some fairly interesting research these days. Well sure, anthropology was always sort of interesting, with Margaret Mead and her cronies searching out the last of the painted tribesmen and hunter-gatherers in central Africa or some far-away Pacific island, with their colorful feathered costumes and crazy dances.

But today, the anthropology professors and grad students are focusing on a topic that hits home, right here in post-industrial America. They are now doing “ethnography” research and writing papers about “commodity chains”. Consider this: in America today, it seems like we don’t make anything. Just about everything we eat, use, drive, burn, entertain ourselves with, etc. comes from somewhere else. The place could be Mexico, could be Brazil, could be China — who knows. Actually, there are people who DO know – they are the trans-national businesses that get rich off of all this international trade. And then there are the people in far off lands who dig up or make the stuff for those big importers. Interestingly enough, the anthropologists have recently gotten interested in all of this, and how it’s changing the world.

I hope that some of this research will be tapped by the popular article writers and TV news shows, to enlighten the public on just what the effect of modern trade arrangements are, and who wins and who loses. (No surprise that the losers are mostly the poor countries who gather the raw materials and process it for us; although maybe there are some good effects in some places). For the time being, I’m going to give links to a few commodity studies that I found in a quick Google search.

1.) Table Grapes from Mexico

2.) African Gray Parrots

3.) Imitation Crab (a.k.a. “surimi seafood”)

All of this stuff is probably exists right there in your home town, if not in your house; it’s available at your local supermarket and pet store, probably at the Wal-Mart. Maybe you might want to know a little about what the stuff is, who makes it, who brings it over and sells it, and whether things are better or worse off because of it.

Well, just thought you might want to know what’s going on.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:16 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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