Later On

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Archive for December 21st, 2013

Why do American banks and businesses support credit card theft?

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Chris O’Brien reports in the LA Times:

The massive data breach at Target this week has again highlighted how the United States remains a relatively insecure backwater when it comes to credit card technology.

Over the last decade, most countries have moved toward using credit cards that carry information on embeddable microchips rather than magnetic strips. The additional encryption on so-called smart cards has made the kind of brazen data thefts suffered by Target almost impossible to pull off in most other countries.

Because the U.S. is one of the few places yet to widely deploy such technology, the nation has increasingly become the focus of hackers seeking to steal such information. The stolen data can easily be turned into phony credit cards that are sold on black markets around the world.

“The U.S. is one of the last markets to convert from the magnetic stripe,” Randy Vanderhoof, director of the EMV Migration Forum. “There’s fewer places in the world where that stolen data could be used. So the U.S. becomes more of a high-value target.”

EMV stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa and is the technology standard that involves placing an integrated circuit of some kind into a credit card. Most European and Asian countries began adopting the technology a decade ago, pushed by regulators in those countries.

About 80 countries use smart credit cards, which allow for greater encryption and security. By comparison, only about 1% of credit cards issued in the U.S. contain such technology.

Smart cards in most countries are so widely adopted that U.S. travelers are increasingly running into problems using their magnetic stripe cards when they travel abroad. Banks and credit card companies often advise customers to request a smart credit card they can use for foreign travel.

The reason such technology has been embraced is simple: Hacking into a system to collect information on a chip and then creating a counterfeit credit card using similar technology is too complicated. As a result, hackers have increasingly turned to the U.S., where the cards are significantly easier to duplicate because information is stored on a common magnetic strip. . .

Continue reading.

The decline of the US is best seen through its falling behind other nations: in healthcare, in education, and (as in this example) in technology. The US was once a leader. It now lags behind other nations, and the lag seems to be increasing.

If we had a functioning Congress, it would be easy to mandate the use of this technology, but our Congress can’t seem to do much of anything.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 8:45 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

How NSA paid RSA to publish an insecure algorithm

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Via Kevin Drum: Joseph Menn reports in Reuters how NSA paid RSA to use a flawed random-number generator in its products so RSA customers’ messages could be easily read/decrypted by NSA. Obviously, RSA is not a company to be trusted, although they did get $10 million for betraying their customers. I’m hoping that the customers will both sue and abandon RSA. The report begins:

As a key part of a campaign to embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products, the U.S. National Security Agency arranged a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, Reuters has learned.

Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the NSA created and promulgated a flawed formula for generating random numbers to create a “back door” in encryption products, the New York Times reported in September. Reuters later reported that RSA became the most important distributor of that formula by rolling it into a software tool called Bsafe that is used to enhance security in personal computers and many other products.

Undisclosed until now was that RSA received $10 million in a deal that set the NSA formula as the preferred, or default, method for number generation in the BSafe software, according to two sources familiar with the contract. Although that sum might seem paltry, it represented more than a third of the revenue that the relevant division at RSA had taken in during the entire previous year, securities filings show.

The earlier disclosures of RSA’s entanglement with the NSA already had shocked some in the close-knit world of computer security experts. The company had a long history of championing privacy and security, and it played a leading role in blocking a 1990s effort by the NSA to require a special chip to enable spying on a wide range of computer and communications products.

RSA, now a subsidiary of computer storage giant EMC Corp, urged customers to stop using the NSA formula after the Snowden disclosures revealed its weakness.

RSA and EMC declined to answer questions for this story, but RSA said in a statement: “RSA always acts in the best interest of its customers and under no circumstances does RSA design or enable any back doors in our products. Decisions about the features and functionality of RSA products are our own.” . . .

Continue reading. RSA’s statement is, obviously, totally false. Or perhaps they thought the $10 million was simply a nice gesture of goodwill on the part of NSA. . .  No, they knew that the $10 million was to pay them for double-crossing their customers. Hope they enjoy the money.

I now wonder whether any encryption technology from the US is reliable. NSA seems determined that strong encryption not be available to anyone. And should NSA claim that they will not subvert new encryption algorithms in the US, who will believe them?

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 8:33 pm

Posted in Business, NSA

Watch out for dietary supplements

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I’m definitely cutting out most. Anahad O’Connor reports in the NY Times:

When Christopher Herrera, 17, walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital one morning last year, his chest, face and eyes were bright yellow — “almost highlighter yellow,” recalled Dr. Shreena S. Patel, the pediatric resident who treated him.

Christopher, a high school student from Katy, Tex., suffered severe liver damage after using a concentrated green tea extract he bought at a nutrition store as a “fat burning” supplement. The damage was so extensive that he was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

“It was terrifying,” he said in an interview. “They kept telling me they had the best surgeons, and they were trying to comfort me. But they were saying that I needed a new liver and that my body could reject it.”

New data suggests that his is not an isolated case. Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists. The research included only the most severe cases of liver damage referred to a representative group of hospitals around the country, and the investigators said they were undercounting the actual number of cases.

While many patients recover once they stop taking the supplements and receive treatment, a few require liver transplants or die because of liver failure. Naïve teenagers are not the only consumers at risk, the researchers said. Many are middle-aged women who turn to dietary supplements that promise to burn fat or speed up weight loss.

“It’s really the Wild West,” said Dr. Herbert L. Bonkovsky, the director of the liver, digestive and metabolic disorders laboratory at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. “When people buy these dietary supplements, it’s anybody’s guess as to what they’re getting.”

Though doctors were able to save his liver, Christopher can no longer play sports, spend much time outdoors or exert himself, lest he strain the organ. He must make monthly visits to a doctor to assess his liver function.

Americans spend an estimated $32 billion on dietary supplements every year, attracted by unproven claims that various pills and powders will help them lose weight, build muscle and fight off everything from colds to chronic illnesses. About half of Americans use dietary supplements, and most of them take more than one product at a time.

Dr. Victor Navarro, the chairman of the hepatology division at Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, said that while liver injuries linked to supplements were alarming, he believed that a majority of supplements were generally safe. Most of the liver injuries tracked by a network of medical officials are caused by prescription drugs used to treat things like cancerdiabetes and heart disease, he said.

But the supplement business is largely unregulated. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health, Medical

A startup has publicized its salaries—the reasons are interesting

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Bryce Covert writes in ThinkProgress:

Buffer, a social media startup, just released public information about every employee’s salary, from CEO ($158,800) to its newest hires in the lowest paid positions (currently $70,000 is the lowest salary). It also published its “salary formula,” in which it takes a base salary for each position and multiplies it by seniority, experience, and location.

As part of the announcement, the company explained that it made this move to stay committed to one of its core values, “Default to Transparency,” and explained, “Recently, we also made the decision to apply our ideas around transparency to compensation. We hope this might help other companies think about how to decide salaries, and will open us up to feedback from the community.” It also explained that it believes transparency in all processes builds trust and breaks down barriers within its team.

Another important effect, for Buffer or any company that decided to make compensation totally public, could be to reduce racial and gender discrimination in pay. Most companies aren’t like Buffer; about half of all workers are either discouraged or outright banned from discussing their pay with colleagues. This makes it very difficult for women or other workers who suspect pay discrimination to find out whether they are being unfairly paid less than their peers. Lilly Ledbetter, of Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act fame, didn’t find out she was being paid less than her male coworkers until 19 years after she started working for Goodyear and only thanks to an anonymous note.

Not all women are the victims of discrimination, but women on the whole still make just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, and a portion of that gap can’t be explained by other factors. Even without clear transparency, nearly a third of women say they would be paid more if they were a man and 13 percent say they were denied a raise because of their gender.

The picture is even worse for people of color: African-American men make 73 percent of what white men make and hispanic men make 61 percent, while women of color make even less: black women make 64 percent of white men’s wages and hispanic women make just 54 percent.

Buffer’s transparency makes it easy to see not only that many of its female employees are paid less than other men, but also why. Mary, an entry-level employee, makes less than Adam in the same position because of their different locations. Michelle, who appears to be one of the more senior engineers, still makes less than Andy and Colin, other senior engineers. Carolyn, CHO, is the only woman in the C-suite but also the lowest paid, partially because her base salary is based off the lowest paid position. The lowest paid employee at Buffer is also woman. The company is transparent in all of these calculations, but employees could still question whether these gender differences are actually fair.

Another way to tackle salary secrecy, however, would be for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban the practice of salary secrecy.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 3:17 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

A Federal Judge In Utah Adeptly Dismantled All Of The Arguments Against Marriage Equality

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ThinkProgress has an extremely interesting summary by Zack Ford of the Utah case that makes it abundantly clear that same-sex marriages are completely in line with Constitutionally protected rights and the state has no reason or legal means to disallow them. The article begins:

Friday’s decision by a federal judge overturning Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (Amendment 3) represents the first major legal victory for marriage equality since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In that case, United States v. Windsor, the Court only addressed the question of federal recognition of marriage, and though procedural rulings in cases in other state have cited it, the Utah decision is the first time Windsor was cited to completely overturn a state law banning same-sex marriage. In an extremely readable opinion, Judge Robert Shelby — an Obama appointee whose nomination was supported by both Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) — explained not only why Windsor applied, but why the state’s arguments against same-sex marriage fell flat.

As is playing out in other suits across the country, both the plaintiffs — three same-sex couples — and the state cited Windsor in their arguments. According to Utah state officials, Windsor affirmed the right of states to choose how to define marriage, but the plaintiffs’ legal team pointed out that the case wasn’t actually decided on such federalism grounds. Instead, Justice Kennedy wrote that DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment, denying due process and equal protection to same-sex couples. In his opinion, Shelby noted that the 14th Amendment provides the same due process and equal protection at the state level, and just as they did for interracial couples in Loving v. Virginia, “individual rights take precedence over states’ rights where these two interests are in conflict.” Ironically, he went on to cite Justice Scalia’s dissent in the DOMA case to reinforce its impact in this regard.

In U.S. case law, equal protection has sometimes been applied through what’s called “heightened scrutiny” for some classes of people who might be targeted for discrimination, such as women or people of color. Thus, if a law is found to be unfairly affecting a group of people on the basis of their sex or race, as examples, the government is held to a higher standard to defend that law. Aside from a few lower court rulings, however, there is not federal precedent to apply heightened scrutiny to sexual orientation, and as Shelby noted in his opinion, he is bound by Tenth Circuit jurisprudence that decidedly did not apply such scrutiny. Thus, he could only consider Utah’s marriage ban according to a “rational basis review,” which basically means that if the government could provide any convincing justification for Amendment 3 — even if it’s not the purpose for which it was originally passed — then the law must be upheld. But, Shelby noted, heightened scrutiny was not necessary to impact the outcome of this case, because “the law discriminates on the basis of sexual identity without a rational reason to do so.” WithWindsor in hand, he proceeded to unpack and dismantle each of the arguments the state made.

Claim: Same-Sex Couples Are Not Qualified To Marry Because They Cannot Procreate

Conservatives have long arbitrarily asserted that a limitation to man-woman unions is inherent in the very definition of “marriage,” suggesting that “same-sex marriage” is thus an oxymoron. Utah state officials offered their own variation of this claim, arguing that same-sex couples were not “qualified” to marry because they can not naturally reproduce with each other. Shelby observed that there are plenty of opposite-sex couples who cannot have children or choose not to, while at the same time there are over 3,000 same-sex couples already raising children in Utah. The state’s double standard played out humorously during oral arguments earlier this month, with Philip S. Lott representing Utah (transcript is abridged here):

THE COURT: Is it the state’s position that it would be constitutional, if the state chose to do so, to enact a regulation or law requiring that individuals who wish to marry submit to fertilization testing to prove that they’re capable of procreation? Is that constitutional? Because marriage — you’re relying on procreation as an essential characteristic of that union or that right? […]

LOTT: I don’t believe it would be constitutional, also because there is Supreme Court precedent saying that the right to not procreate is a fundamental right. So the state would not do that and would not be able to do that. […]

THE COURT: Before we leave that last hypothetical, let me pose it a different way and see if the answer is any different. Could the state of Utah constitutionally restrict marriage — deny marriage licenses say to post-menopausal women?

LOTT: I think the answer again is that the state’s interest in fostering procreation within certain parameters is not intended to exclude other relationships that potentially are going to involve raising a child. If you have a post-menopausal woman, she may not herself be able to have a child, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not going to have a grandchild that she may be in a position to need to raise or a niece or a nephew, and so the state’s interest is still present.

THE COURT: So is it something different than an individual’s actual ability to procreate? That’s not the fundamental characteristic? It’s the likelihood that the person may find themselves in the position of raising a child?

LOTT: Yes.

THE COURT: Okay. How are same-sex couples different in that respect?

LOTT: Well, a gay or lesbian person obviously can reproduce, but it’s not going to occur within a same-sex marriage. […] The simple answer to that is that procreation is the difference. A same-sex couple is not going to produce children.

THE COURT: Okay, so post-menopausal women in the state of Utah do not have a constitutional right to marry, as an example, or people who by virtue of surgical operations or genetics or whatever reason — if they can’t procreate, there’s not a fundamental right to marry. That’s the state’s view about the defining difference between the fundamental right that the plaintiffs are seeking here and those that are recognized by the Supreme Court?


In his decision, Shelby pointed out that the Supreme Court has recognized “important attributes of marriage that exist besides procreation,” which is why, for example, prison inmates have been allowed to marry even if they are unable to consummate their marriages. “These attributes of marriage,” he wrote, “are as applicable to same-sex couples as they are to opposite-sex couples.”

Claim: Same-Sex Marriage Is A “New Right” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Law

Obamacare Q&A with a Kaiser Foundation expert

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Interesting interview in Pacific Standard by Charles Ornstein of Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit think tank (and not related to Kaiser Permanente, an HMO).

Few groups have tracked the Affordable Care Act as closely as the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank (not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente). Integral to those efforts has been Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives at the foundation.

Back in February, Levitt wrote a commentary for the Journal of the American Medical Association about what he expected to happen in the early going of the health insurance exchanges. He predicted: “It is very likely that it will be less than perfect.”

That’s certainly been the case. He continued:

“There also will undoubtedly be technical glitches in the eligibility and enrollment systems that are being created from scratch on a tight schedule. Some people will see their premiums increase, and anecdotes about those cases will undoubtedly be highlighted in the media. The fact that others will see their costs decrease or will have insurance that offers better benefits and more secure coverage may be overlooked. Although personal out-of-pocket costs for health care should decrease for most people, some may nonetheless perceive their deductibles and co-pays as unaffordable.”

With the impending Dec. 23 deadline to sign up for Obamacare coverage that begins on January 1, I checked in with Levitt to see if his thoughts had changed. The email interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As we approach the December 23 enrollment deadline, how do you feel?
I’d say we’re pretty much where I anticipated we’d be with implementation—two months ago. I always expected, as did many others, that things wouldn’t be perfect at the start. In fact, I wrote about that back in February in JAMA. My expectation was that there would be some glitches in the systems, things wouldn’t necessarily work smoothly for people with more complex family and financial circumstances, there would some mix-ups on the back end transmitting enrollment information to plans (as in the Medicare Part D program at first), and things would be working better in some states than others. That’s essentially where we are now. That’s not ideal, but there is still time to get things back on track. January 1 is important, but March 31—the end of open enrollment—is even more important.

It looks like there’s going to be a last-minute crush of applications (online and on paper). Are they going to be processed on time?
Well, my crystal ball is a bit blurry today, so there’s no way to say for sure whether all the last-minute applications will be processed on time. The good news is that data from the states, which have generally been reporting enrollment information faster than the federal marketplace, are showing a December surge. That suggests people have not necessarily been discouraged by the early problems.

I’d say the highest priority is avoiding coverage gaps for people who were buying their own insurance before. That’s folks who had their policies cancelled because they didn’t meet the new requirements of the ACA, as well as some people with serious health conditions in high-risk pools. There are also still a lot of people in the system who have been determined eligible but have not yet picked a plan. I know the federal marketplace has been reaching out to those people, and hopefully they can be converted into actual enrollees.

There have been a number of reports about well-known hospitals not being included in many health plans. Are you concerned that consumers will discover this after it’s too late? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Government, Healthcare

Teaching The Odyssey at San Quentin

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Fascinating article in Salon by Bill Smoot:

The opening of “The Odyssey” describes Odysseus as polytropos, a man “much turned” and “much turning.” He makes much happen, and much happens to him. When I selected “The Odyssey” as the first text for my English 101 course at San Quentin Prison, I worried about the choice. It’s a difficult work for readers of limited literary background, and I wondered how a population of mostly black and brown men doing long prison terms would relate to the story of an ancient Greek king. As it turned out, I had them atpolytropos.

The theme of the course was life as a story, and at the first class, I asked them to tell a story from their own lives. A few declined; most spoke. One recalled his boyhood in Cambodia, the day he saw a river filled with floating corpses, victims of the Khmer Rouge. One had been unable to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother because he was in prison. A black man from Arkansas had seen his cousin murdered by white supremacists. One shot a man in a drug dispute. Another had grown up as a neighborhood protector and admired the way Odysseus “took care of business,” saving his crew from the Cyclopes and killing the suitors. Another man had gone berserk when the love of his life sent her brother to tell him their wedding was off. My students werepolytropos aplenty.

When we first see Odysseus, he is gazing across the sea, weeping for home. When I read this passage aloud, a hush fell over my students. From various places on the grounds at San Quentin, inmates can see the expanse of San Francisco Bay. They, too, have looked across the water, thinking of home. One student, a man in his 20s, objected to Odysseus’ tears; he thought they showed weakness. The others, mostly older, challenged him. No, they said. It takes strength to show your feelings. It is heroic to cry.

Their points of resonance with Odysseus were many. When Odysseus learns that in order to return home, he must first journey to the underworld, they nodded. They are held in their own Hades, and they hang on by believing that if they survive the hell of prison, they will return home.

Plotting against the suitors occupying his palace, Odysseus lies awake in doubt, reminding himself, “Bear up, old heart.” Inmates, too, worry about what’s going on at home, and one admitted, “I lie awake like that, too. I give myself pep talks.”

They recognized the undisciplined ego from which Odysseus proclaims his identity to the Cyclopes, thus inviting the wrath of Poseidon. For their own hubris, they have paid dearly. At other times, Odysseus survives through self-control, and the lesson is not lost on them. When Odysseus wins help from the young princess Nausikaa through humility and finesse, they see that softness can be a source of power.

Homer never tires of reminding us that when Agamemnon returned home, his wife had betrayed him and conspired in his murder, the better for the reader to appreciate the loyalty of Penelope. Penelope’s fidelity was not lost on my students. “She’s a down broad,” one said admiringly. I needed a translation. “You know,” he said. “She stands by him, even when he ain’t there.”  The others nodded.

Early in book one, Zeus complains that men blame the gods for their afflictions. Though these inmates have plenty of material to mine for excuses — guns and drugs, gangs, abusive parents, violent neighborhoods, poverty and failing schools — I never once heard an excuse. They claim the bad choices and terrible actions as their own. They are men in repentance.

Following “The Odyssey,” we read “The Catcher in the Rye.” At first the students were puzzled by the transition from a hero like Odysseus to an antihero like Holden. A couple of them never got past their disgust with a rich kid wasting opportunities that few have. But most of my students, after a few discussions, began to see that Holden’s alienation is revelatory. Phonies do abound, life is a game if you’re one of the hot shots, and few of us escape the way society corrupts the innocence we had as children. One night when we were discussing Holden, a middle-aged black man in for murder shook his head and said with quiet amazement, “I’m like this dude.” One inmate, when he finished “Catcher,” started reading it again. By the next class meeting, he had read it four times. At semester’s end, when I asked which works would stick with them over the years to come, many said “Catcher,” even some of those who had not liked it. Maybe more than one realized they are like that dude.

A few weeks later, one of the men came into class beaming. One afternoon he had been taken to a local hospital for a medical procedure, and he and the nurse had engaged in an animated conversation about Holden. “She remembered the part about the ducks on the pond,” he smiled. “We talked about that.”

The same forces that divide us into haves and have-nots with regard to material wealth also divide us with regard to educational wealth. Only a few of my students had heard of “The Odyssey”; fewer had heard of “Catcher.” None had read them in school. But now, though they live in prison, two men sharing a cell 10 feet long and 4 and a half feet wide, they had journeyed to ancient Ithaka and to Holden’s Pencey Prep. Now they knew those works and they could discuss them. They had formed their own opinions. Now they had a seat at the cultural table.

As the semester progressed, we read Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, a variety of poets, essayists and story writers. In these works of literature, my students saw a wider world than the one enclosed in those 50-foot walls, and they also saw themselves: their virtues and their vices, their pain and sorrow, their aspirations.

So having read the stories of others, it came time to write a story from their own lives, and some returned to the stories they had told on that first night of class.

One recalled a particular day when he was a young boy in a refugee camp in Thailand, standing in a very long line to get his bowl filled with rice. When finally his bowl was filled, he hurried back to his hut, and in his haste he tripped and fell, spilling every bit of rice in the mud. What is true of every good story was true of his: It was particular; it was a story only he could tell. And it was universal, for who among us has not waited so very long for something deeply needed only to have it spill before our eyes? Indeed, in his story I saw my own: a wife who walked away from our marriage in search of something else, taking with her my last chance to become a father. It was part of the reason I had come to teach at San Quentin, to ease my own grief by helping others.

Another personal essay, written by one of the better writers in the class, recalled an incident on the yard. This inmate had gotten into a fight, not his first, been pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by the guards and left on the ground for several hours to shiver in the cold fog before being hauled off to “the hole,” solitary confinement. Lying on the asphalt, he had an epiphany. He had spent his life going nowhere good, nothing had changed, and nothing was going to change — unless he did. From that moment, he stayed out of prison trouble, learned to meditate, began enrolling in programs and courses. The object of his epiphany was that sliver of freedom that even the incarcerated have — we are always free to make something out of what has been made of us.

Before the semester began, I had tried to prepare myself for encountering some intense attitude. What did this rich white guy think he had to teach convicted felons? My fears were unfounded. Over the course of the semester, the men were earnest, hardworking, open and appreciative. They know the country is fed up with crime, and that as incarcerated men they are hated by most of society. To those who come in from the outside to help, they feel a deep appreciation. They practice gratitude.

At the end of the course, one of the students wrote on his course evaluation, . . .

Continue reading.

It’s worth noting that studies have established that reading literary fiction increases social awareness and empathy. Google will find you a lot of articles on that. Here’s one in The Guardian.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 December 2013 at 1:40 pm

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