Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Thursday, 12 February 2004

Topic: The Culture

What a wonderful world...

Jon Bonn? on MSNBC reviewed these data for us, from the new Statistical Abstract of the United States - so they must mean something.

Things to know?

Family net worth in 2001 was at an average $395,500, up from $230,500 (in 2001 dollars) in 1992. Median net worth didn't jump quite as much, but still rose to $86,100 from an inflation-adjusted $61,300.

And we gave some of it away. In 2000, we gave an average of $1,623 to charity, about 3.2 percent of household income. That was up from 2.2 percent in 1991 and 1995.

And this odd thing - Dogs lived in 36 percent of households, where families owned an average 1.6 canines. Just under 32 percent of Americans had cats, but 2.1 cats lived in the typical cat lover's home. Which means my cat Harriet should really have a friend. I guess she's lonely.

And this: We picked up $485 billion in food to eat at home, and $415 billion to eat away from home. That included 6.9 billion pounds of citrus fruit and 20.6 billion pounds of other fruit, 48 billion pounds of vegetables and 12.8 billion pounds of potatoes.

And we consumed $59.2 billion in packaged beer, wine and liquor and spent another $53.2 billion drinking in bars and restaurants.

In parallel drug stores sold $182.7 billion worth of prescription drugs in 2002, more than double the $72.2 billion spent in 1995.

And America had 23,900 supermarkets in 2001, about 600 fewer than in 1990. But the number of "superstores" grew to 8,900, and the percentage of markets offering delis (80 percent), bakeries (72), seafood (43) and pharmacies (34) all grew significantly. The number of convenience stores shrank to 56,200 from 93,000 in 1990.

Alaska's shopping centers were the most profitable, at $344 in sales per square foot; Nevada's were the least, at $148.

Sex? Utah was by far the most fertile state, with 21.8 births per 1,000 people, followed by Texas, at 17.6. Birth wards were a bit quieter in Vermont (10.6) and Maine (10.9).

Sanctioned sex? The chapels in Nevada averaged more than 75 weddings per 1,000 residents. Hawaii came in a distant second, with just over 20. Nevada also led the nation with 6.8 divorces per 1,000 people, followed by Wyoming's 6.6. (Not all states reported divorce statistics.)

Cars? Sales of new cars and trucks grew to $680 billion in 2002 from $316 billion in 1990. Car registrations grew to 230 million, up from 189 million. And that happened despite having fewer car lots: We had 21,725 franchise dealerships in 2002, down from 24,825 in 1990.

Being bored in cars? In Los Angeles we spent an extra 62 hours per year our cars due to traffic delays. In San Francisco it was 41 hours. But if you were in Bakersfield, or Boulder, Colorado or in Buffalo, New York - or in Spokane for some reason - you spent five hours or less in traffic during the whole year.

What does it all mean? Who knows?

Posted by Alan at 10:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Wednesday, 11 February 2004

We live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things. Albert Camus? Meet Paul Wolfowitz.

Last Saturday this was published in The New York Times - a discussion of Albert Camus and his relationship to the American neoconservative movement that brought us the startlingly new US doctrine of our inherent right to preemptive unilateral war against any nation we felt might in the future be some sort of threat. They could be trouble down the road? We then have the right to overthrow that government and occupy that territory and run that country - until we force them to form a government more to our liking. Thus the business in Iraq. We had to do it. It was the only prudent thing to do.

Think of it this way. You're a punchy middle-aged white man walking down the street. You see a young black man, dressed in ways you think you have read about - droopy pants and something you remember about gang colors from a magazine article a month or two ago. But you really do follow the news - you know about crime statistics and the odds that this young man, rather than a young white fellow in a GAP outfit, is some sort of low-life criminal who means you harm. Let him pass? Ignore him? Your decision. So you pull out your handgun - you are constitutionally permitted to carry one after all - and you shoot him dead. You had to do it. It was the only prudent thing to do.

Same sort of thing.

If you wait to know if this young black man is going to kill you, you could be real dead. That's dumb. And with Iraq? If we only reacted to an actual terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction then tens of thousands would be dead. Can't have that. We have the duty to get ahead of the curve. You've heard the arguments.

What does this have to do with Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher who died in the fifties? Not much. But we live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things.

See Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, February 7, 2004

First you must accept the idea that matters these days, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, parallel how things stood at the end of WWII -
Consider the period just after the Second World War, when another tyranny had just collapsed. It seemed as if the Allies had, through their trials, learned something about totalitarianism and democracy. Could those concepts be used to understand the Soviet Union, the West's erstwhile partner? Was it something very different (a humanitarian revolutionary state gone awry) or something very similar (a fascistic state beyond saving)?
Today, what are we to make of the Islamic world? Is it beyond saving, or something that can be "fixed" in some way? Can we turn the Middle East into a region of free-market secular democracies all living together in peace and harmony, and all buddies with Israel? Iraq seems to be our first stab at this.

Since it seems there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at least since the early nineties, we have been told the real reason the second Iraq war was so important is this seeding of secular, capitalistic democracy in the area. Just as we defeated the Soviet Union and now have a nation there stumbling toward capitalism and democracy - even if Putin doesn't quite get the concepts - so we can transform Iraq and all the Middle East. This is, after all, the core of the neoconservative argument.

Well, according to Rothstein such issues affected the impassioned arguments between the two most important writers in postwar France, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Rothstein refers to a new book, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (University of Chicago), in which Ronald Aronson, who teaches at Wayne State University, "traces the nuances of their friendship, their mutual influences and hostilities, and the themes that still haunt contemporary debates."

What of that? They were concerned with past-war communism, not Islamic terrorists flying into tall buildings, nor with a strange dictator in a sandy land behaving badly.

What really was going on with these two guys then? Is there a parallel?
Their schism over Communism was not academic. At the time of France's liberation, buoyed by its Resistance role, the Communist Party had 400,000 members; that figure almost doubled by 1946, and the party joined a coalition government. In addition, according to Mr. Aronson, the party dominated the largest trade union, published dozens of newspapers including the country's two largest, and had a payroll of more than 14,000. The Communist Party was part of the mainstream in a way it never was in the United States.

But its allegiances were just as open to question: it slavishly followed Soviet leadership; fellow travelers idealized the Soviet Union, despite readily available accounts of horrors.

Andr? Gide, who visited Russia in the 1930's, said he doubted whether anywhere, even in Hitler's Germany, the "mind and spirit are less free, more bowed down."
Okay then. The issue was this - can communism be fixed, or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly?

The question today is for the messianic neoconservatives - can the Islamic world be "fixed," or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly? We're working on that.

Camus and Sartre disagreed - just as some of us feel perhaps the neoconservatives are more than a bit loony in thinking the Islamic world can be made "more like us" and thus, in Douglas Adams' famous formulation "Mostly Harmless."

Rothstein points out Camus had joined the communist party in Algeria in 1935 and left two years later in dismay. Aronson even implies that Camus' views on absurdity and freedom grew out of that experience.

But the Germans rolled into Paris, and then were booted out, and one had to make some judgments:
... in France, during the German occupation, Camus did heroic work as editor of a Resistance newspaper, Combat. Sartre, in their developing friendship, called Camus an "outstanding example" of a life lived in "engagement." After the war, both men saw an opportunity to remake the world, redressing social ills. Both also wanted to steer the French left away from the Communists while distancing themselves from the growing cold war.

But by 1948, Sartre had become a fellow traveler, even giving the party the right to censor one of his plays. He called freedom under capitalism a "hoax" and France a "society of oppression." He refused to denounce Soviet labor camps or the show trials. And he justified revolutionary violence, praising the African revolutionary Franz Fanon.

Meanwhile, Camus found himself ever more repulsed by Communism, which he called "the modern madness." He saw Communism as a desperate attempt to create meaning and certainty. He wrote, "Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything." If there were a choice between justice and freedom, meaning a choice between the ideal Communist state and the flawed Western state, he wrote: "I choose freedom. For even if justice is not realized, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open."
And there you have the split.

After Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes, panned Camus' influential counter-revolutionary book The Rebel in 1952, the friends never spoke again. Sartre's influence was so strong that Camus' French reputation was not repaired even after winning the Nobel Prize in 1957. And then he died - drove his Citro?n into a tree on Boulevard St-Germain, just down the street form the H?tel Madison where he was staying, across the street form the Caf? de Flore where his used to meet Jean-Paul and Simone when they were still friends. Or was that Les Deux Magots? (See this for more detail.)

Now this may be drifting from a real parallel with the neoconservative agenda today. But you do have two guys arguing over what can be fixed and what cannot. There is a sort of parallel.

Aronson apparently does not want the reader taking sides. He insists that we have to "free ourselves from the dualistic thinking of the cold war," and not take the "currently fashionable" view praising Camus.

Well, maybe so. Like Rothstein, I find that Camus, "in his concreteness and human sensitivities, is more perceptive, and in his compassion, more trustworthy."

Rothstein says Camus had a major influence on later French writers like Andr? Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri L?vy and Pascal Bruckner - guys he calls the neo-cons of the French left. If so, fine.

Rothstein also says that in Camus' "rejection of utopianism and his acceptance of sad compromise there remain hints of what might form some sort of realistic political ideal."

But that does not sound at all like the idealistic claptrap of the neoconservatives over here who have been creating our national policies for the last decades and implementing them for the last three years.

Our "neo-cons" know nothing about compromise, sad or otherwise, and certainly have no urge to reject utopian visions. They are shoving those visions down our throats, and slapping Iraqi folks around, hard, with those visions.

Camus would just sigh. He'd seen it before. That's why he walked away from Sartre.

Posted by Alan at 20:52 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 11 February 2004 20:59 PST home

Janet Jackson, Jesus and Newsweek

I have a friend with a young daughter. Her daughter retrieved this week's copy of Newsweek from the mailbox, and was pretty upset.

My friend wrote to me:

"Janet Jackson's boob was much easier for my daughter to take than what showed up on today's Newsweek cover, the bloody face of the actor portraying Jesus. I've had enough. No more magazines, no more TV..."

And she sent his off to Newsweek -
To the Editor:

My young daughter came inside after collecting today's mail, and when she uncovered the February 16, 2004 issue of Newsweek, she let out a horrified shriek, and covered her face. On the cover was a close up color photograph of James Caviezel's face, and although adults can understand that it's only makeup, my daughter saw gashes and red, and thought it was blood. Children cannot distinguish reliably between fantasy and reality, and certainly today's movie makeup can look more real than reality. This movie was not made for children, and I do not think that photos from the movie should be on the front cover of magazines that young kids will see in newsstands, grocery stores, bookstores, and coffee tables across America. I believe that children are traumatized enough by the reality of this world, let alone the fantasy of Mel Gibson's movie on the cover of your magazine.

[name withheld]
And I sent her this:

How old is your daughter now? Is it time to explain the Christian myth of Jesus - and how it's important to many hard-core Christians to emphasize his suffering? Is it time to explain folks like Mel Gibson and his father, crazed at the thought the Jews did this to their hero? Time to explain how Mel Gibson broke down in tears in an interview two days ago explaining that he knew his own wife was going to hell, to endless torment, because, even though she is a devote Christian, she is an Episcopalian? Is it time to explain that Mel Gibson said he was suicidal, with wild mood swings, until he decided to make this film because God wanted him to make this film?

Is it time to explain to her that although you and your husband don't buy into this stuff, almost all other Americans do? And that almost all other Americans want revenge for what happened to Jesus - from the Jews, or at least from the Muslims? Time to explain the Crusades, and the Inquisition, and the Thirty Years War?

Is it time to explain to your daughter how our mutual friend's older sister suddenly found Jesus and gave up her Judaism and now will not let her children ever again see their cousins or ever again see their grandfather, your friend's father now dying of emphysema, because they are all, every single one of them, heathen and unclean. Drop him a line. That happened this year. And the details are nastier than in this paragraph.

Sit your daughter down and explain religion? It's a thought.

Yes, the magazine cover was graphic. On purpose. Jews and other evil people did this to our sweet Jesus. Maybe it's time she understood the world is full of people that passionately hate other people - with every fiber of their being - and will use such images to help them get up the outrage to start killing those they hate, to make the world better, to make it good and pure.

Yes, she young. But she ought to know about the world.

Flashing one's boobs in public is considered a bit over-the-top. But some women secretly want to do that, and it gives them a thrill even to consider it. And with Janet Jackson it was that, or more probably, marketing. Doesn't matter much, really.

But such people don't get a kick out of suffering and death. Some folks do. Lots of folks do.

I have no idea what to say to your daughter, really.


Here's the Newsweek cover:

Posted by Alan at 17:53 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 11 February 2004 21:01 PST home

Tuesday, 10 February 2004

The Madness of King George?
Yeah, yeah.
But one could heed what he said.

In public life it seems one must be careful of one's statements.

On Sunday, February 8th in his interview with Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press hour, George Bush said this:

"I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman."

Really. Yes, quoted out of context this seems too good to pass up.

Here and in the parent magazine Just Above Sunset the issue of actual madness was raised. See Is our leader dumb as a post, a liar, or mad as a hatter? for that.

Yes, last summer launched a website petition to declare Bush insane under the 25th amendment. A joke?

Indeed he said we went to war - or said in one of the previous explanations - because Saddam Hussein refused to let inspectors into Iraq. Hans Blix was fiction of our own imaginations? Those briefings Blix gave to the UN never happened? We must have been hallucinating? Must be so. Bush said this last July at the White House with Kofi Anan at his side. Anan subtly rolled his eyes. The statement has been repeated by various Republican congressmen, and by James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA. Must be so.

Who is mad here? As Groucho Marx once said, "Who are you going to believe - me or you own eyes?" Make your choice.

Oh heck, why we went to war gets more mysterious every week. It's kind of fun to guess what the next reason will be. The problem is forgetting you heard the previous reasons, or if you remember them, telling yourself you're mad to think you actually heard them.

It's a matter of who is mad. You or them.

Today we have the budget projections:

White House expects 320,000 new jobs a month this year, a number not seen in a decade.
Job forecast: higher than it looks
Mark Gongloff, CNN/Money staff writer , CNN, February 10, 2004: 6:47 PM EST
The White House forecast for job growth this year is even more optimistic than it appeared at first blush.

When the Bush administration issued the Economic Report of the President Monday, several news organizations reported there would be 2.6 million new jobs this year. But that number was based on the difference between projected average payrolls for this year and last year.

In order to achieve that number, a White House source explained Tuesday, the President's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) is forecasting about 320,000 new jobs will be created every month this year. That would be about 3.8 million in total, or about 2.9 percent higher than the December 2003 total estimated by the Labor Department.
Not very likely. The best we've done in any month in the last several years has been last month's 112,00 new jobs. The month before was 1,000 as you recall. We need 150,000 a month to just break even with population growth.

How is this going to happen? No one in the administrations is saying, but that the tax cuts helped businesses make much more money, and sooner or later they should start hiring folks. It could happen. Have faith.

Faith is good. The GDP rose over seven percent in the last several quarters, while wages rose only 0.6 percent - so there's a lot of excess profit out there. Surely that means using some of that money to staff up these corporations. On the other hand, paying dividends to the shareholders takes a lot of that money - and now the tax on dividends has been halved (it's no longer "taxed twice" as your recall.) And there are executive salaries. Oh well. They might staff up. It could happen.

Actually, for what I can find, this would be the biggest spurt in job creation in the last sixty years. The evidence that this could actually happen is scant, to say the least. But my conservative friends say a positive attitude works wonders. We'll see.

As major corporations add jobs they will add those that provide the best results at the lowest cost, so they may staff up in Bombay or Lahore rather than here. Oh well.

And thus today you also have this:
"The movement of American factory jobs and white-collar work to other countries is part of a positive transformation that will enrich the U.S. economy over time, even if it causes short-term pain and dislocation, the Bush administration said yesterday.

The embrace of foreign "outsourcing," an accelerating trend that has contributed to U.S. job losses in recent years and has become an issue in the 2004 elections, is contained in the president's annual report to Congress on the U.S. economy.

"Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade," said N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, which prepared the report. "More things are tradable than were tradable in the past. And that's a good thing."
Really? It does make our corporations more cost-competitive. And you really can't fault them for wanting to reduce costs. That keeps prices lower.

Three million out of work? That's just a regrettable byproduct of a healthy economy.

Well, this is not madness. The madness is in believing that folks will like this stance - and that particular madness comes from believing there are more corporate owners of businesses in the country than people who are - what do you call them? - employees. How quaint a concept. People still work and not own? Couldn't be. Their thinking is that most people want businesses to do well, even if they lose their jobs. Even if they end up sleeping in the streets. Strong businesses make America strong.

Hard to sell - but the current administration really seems to believe that.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina said it would come as a "news bulletin" to the American people that the outsourcing of jobs overseas is good for the country. "These people," he said of the Bush administration, "what planet do they live on? They are so out of touch."

Well, Edwards is running for the nomination, so he cannot just flat-out call Bush and his team mad as hatters. "Out of touch" is a strong as he gets.

One blogger, Atrios, looks at it this way:
... Few policy changes benefit all citizens - generally there are winners and losers and the strongest claim that can be made is that in principle when policy changes increase the overall level of income/output, then the losers can be compensated by the winners with an appropriate amount of redistribution. These people fall into the trap of perceiving the level of GDP or average income as value-free metrics of the health of the economy. They aren't value free. Saying improvements in GDP are "always good," and voters should always support policies which in theory do so, embraces the idea that, say, this is the case even if it will make life worse for 90% of the population, while improving things for 10% on the basis that the "average" will be higher. It's simply a fetishizing of GDP, and embracing the belief that we all should. It's reducing "the greater good" down to one number.

Look, most economic theory (and most economists) will say that free trade is a rising tide, but no one does or should claim that it's a rising tide which lifts all boats. It doesn't. And, asking people to support policies which go against their own self-interest on the grounds that it's going to increase the value of some economic statistic is ludicrous.

... it isn't as if I don't think people are capable of supporting policies which go against their own narrow self-interests - either by truly making charitable sacrifices or simply pursuing some notion of "enlightened self-interest" which recognizes an overall personal net benefit from some action of collective choice which, say, raises their taxes. I just reject that the simple metric of per capita GDP, or some abstract notion of "economic efficiency," does or should embody this notion of the "greater good." There's a sense that per capita GDP is a valueless measure of an economy's wellbeing, but it isn't. If policies which lead to higher per capita GDP also have huge distributional consequences, then ignoring those consequences isn't eschewing value judgments - it's simply sticking your head in the sand and pretending the consequences don't exist.
In short? These guys are mad - crazier than Michael Jackson and his sister combined.

But maybe not. They've sold this stuff so far.

We all got an average tax rebate last year of three hundred dollars. A whole lot of folks didn't see even that, as you got around forty-five thousand back if you earned more than three hundred thousand a year, and more the more you made. Between thirty and a hundred thousand you probably missed the whole thing. But yes, the average was three hundred dollars. Pretty impressive. Folks liked the idea - the concept - even if they didn't get the money.

Perhaps they should have paid attention to the concepts of average and mean values back in school. Oh well, it helped businesses get healthy, and staff up on Pakistani employees. Good for the country.

The folks who support Bush seem to be as mad as the White House crew.

As for other madness?

Yes, Afghanistan produces seventy percent of the world's opium, and yes, we control Afghanistan. We won that "preview war" the year before we whipped Iraq. But we cannot let the economy there collapse and a civil war to start up. Let it be. That's not madness. That pragmatism.

Pakistan? One of their top scientists fessed up to selling nuclear technology to Libya and North Korea and God knows who else, and yes, the president of Pakistan pardoned him, and yes, we're okay with that because they're our ally in this war on terror. Yep, they have their own nukes aimed at India and ready. But they're not North Korea, damn it. Everyone makes mistakes.

And that Osama fellow is floating around in the mountains between these two allied nations of ours. And they're doing next to nothing to help us find the fellow before the Republican convention. But we love them anyway.

Yes, Afghanistan has opium - the bulk of the world's production - and Pakistan has nukes that they have discussed with the bad guys to help the bad guys get their own nukes, and the worst of the real terrorists in the hills, the guys who hit us over two years ago.

Our response? We defeated Iraq and got Hussein. That makes things better.

But it's not madness. We need allies there, even the Saudis, who persist in supporting the Muslim sects out to kill us all. The Saudis - friends of the Bush family for generations (see All in the Family by Kevin Phillips, Viking Penguin, reviewed here) - will keep the oil flowing, as they are the key player in OPEC.

Except today OPEC jacked up oil prices to compensate for the weak dollar. Starting April 1st - an interesting date - they reduce output by a million gallons a day. Oil futures spiked.

But the Saudis are our friends. They have been forever. And the weak dollar helps the country - we can sell our stuff better overseas, and stuff from France and Germany will cost much, much more - punishing them for telling us Iraq wasn't a threat and blocking us from getting rid of the weapons of mass destruction we proved were there, if you remember Colin Powell at the UN last year.

Oops. Try not to remember that.

Work on forgetting a lot of stuff.

Or, alternatively heed Bush's advice -

"I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman."

It's true.

Posted by Alan at 21:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 10 February 2004 21:59 PST home

Notes on Freedom of the Press

Controversy everywhere these days!

See Catholic Backlash Over Pope on a Pogo-Stick
Pete Harrison, Tuesday, February 10, 2004
LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of angry Roman Catholics have written to Britain's BBC complaining about a planned cartoon show mocking the Pope as a puerile preacher on a pogo-stick, the broadcaster said Tuesday.

Petitions are circulating in parishes and some Catholics are even risking jail by refusing to pay their TV license fees if the show goes out as planned this summer.

"I am not prepared to pay for the Holy Father to be mocked," said human rights activist James Mawdsley who met Pope John Paul after the Vatican intervened to have the campaigner released from a Burmese jail.

Luke Coppen of the Catholic Herald newspaper said the cartoon was "gratuitously insulting" and had caused "quite a big uproar." The BBC said complaints about "Popetown" -- a satirical cartoon about office politics in the Vatican -- had numbered "a few thousand."

Extracts from the show have appeared on the Internet where discussion boards are buzzing.
So who is this James Mawdsley fellow?
Mawdsley hit the headlines in December 2001 when the Pope helped secure his release from a Burmese jail where he had served 14 months of a 17-year sentence for handing out pro-democracy leaflets.

"I will not pay the 1,000 pound ($1,800) fine, so that means prison -- never mind," he told Reuters.

Mawdsley said at least 6,000 people had written to the BBC complaining, while 28,000 had signed a protest petition.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in England declined to comment.
And what about the BBC, now so disgraced for not being pro-government in the Fox News way of reporting the real truth?
The clash comes at a critical time for the BBC. A furious row with the government over its reporting of the run-up to war with Iraq left the corporation bloodied and weakened. And now its future funding is up for review.

Last week, it was accused of caving in to the government after several lines were cut from its satirical radio show "Absolute Power," which poked fun at Prime Minister Tony Blair and the culture of spin.

The BBC declined to comment on media reports that it was thinking of shelving Popetown.

CHX Productions, which is producing the show for the BBC and uses the voice of American comedienne Ruby Wax for its pogo-ing Pope, also declined to comment.
When in doubt, decline to comment. No Comment.

Posted by Alan at 09:16 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 10 February 2004 09:24 PST home

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