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Is Consciousness An Illusion?

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In the NY Review of Books Thomas Nagel reviews a new book by Daniel Dennett (whom I wish had known about back when he started):

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
by Daniel C. Dennett
Norton, 476 pp., $28.95

For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions—illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.

Dennett is always good company. He has a gargantuan appetite for scientific knowledge, and is one of the best people I know at transmitting it and explaining its significance, clearly and without superficiality. He writes with wit and elegance; and in this book especially, though it is frankly partisan, he tries hard to grasp and defuse the sources of resistance to his point of view. He recognizes that some of what he asks us to believe is strongly counterintuitive. I shall explain eventually why I think the overall project cannot succeed, but first let me set out the argument, which contains much that is true and insightful.

The book has a historical structure, taking us from the prebiotic world to human minds and human civilization. It relies on different forms of evolution by natural selection, both biological and cultural, as its most important method of explanation. Dennett holds fast to the assumption that we are just physical objects and that any appearance to the contrary must be accounted for in a way that is consistent with this truth. Bach’s or Picasso’s creative genius, and our conscious experience of hearing Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto or seeing Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, all arose by a sequence of physical events beginning with the chemical composition of the earth’s surface before the appearance of unicellular organisms. Dennett identifies two unsolved problems along this path: the origin of life at its beginning and the origin of human culture much more recently. But that is no reason not to speculate.

The task Dennett sets himself is framed by a famous distinction drawn by the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars between the “manifest image” and the “scientific image”—two ways of seeing the world we live in. According to the manifest image, Dennett writes, the world is

full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.

According to the scientific image, on the other hand, the world

is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).

This, according to Dennett, is the world as it is in itself, not just for us, and the task is to explain scientifically how the world of molecules has come to include creatures like us, complex physical objects to whom everything, including they themselves, appears so different.

He greatly extends Sellars’s point by observing that the concept of the manifest image can be generalized to apply not only to humans but to all other living beings, all the way down to bacteria. All organisms have biological sensors and physical reactions that allow them to detect and respond appropriately only to certain features of their environment—“affordances,” Dennett calls them—that are nourishing, noxious, safe, dangerous, sources of energy or reproductive possibility, potential predators or prey.

For each type of organism, whether plant or animal, these are the things that define their world, that are salient and important for them; they can ignore the rest. Whatever the underlying physiological mechanisms, the content of the manifest image reveals itself in what the organisms do and how they react to their environment; it need not imply that the organisms are consciously aware of their surroundings. But in its earliest forms, it is the first step on the route to awareness.

The lengthy process of evolution that generates these results is first biological and then, in our case, cultural, and only at the very end is it guided partly by intelligent design, made possible by the unique capacities of the human mind and human civilization. But as Dennett says, the biosphere is saturated with design from the beginning—everything from the genetic code embodied in DNA to the metabolism of unicellular organisms to the operation of the human visual system—design that is not the product of intention and that does not depend on understanding.

One of Dennett’s most important claims is that most of what we and our fellow organisms do to stay alive, cope with the world and one another, and reproduce is not understood by us or them. It is competence without comprehension. This is obviously true of organisms like bacteria and trees that have no comprehension at all, but it is equally true of creatures like us who comprehend a good deal. Most of what we do, and what our bodies do—digest a meal, move certain muscles to grasp a doorknob, or convert the impact of sound waves on our eardrums into meaningful sentences—is done for reasons that are not our reasons. Rather, they are what Dennett calls free-floating reasons, grounded in the pressures of natural selection that caused these behaviors and processes to become part of our repertoire. There are reasons why these patterns have emerged and survived, but we don’t know those reasons, and we don’t have to know them to display the competencies that allow us to function.

Nor do we have to understand the mechanisms that underlie those competencies. In an illuminating metaphor, Dennett asserts that the manifest image that depicts the world in which we live our everyday lives is composed of a set of user-illusions,

like the ingenious user-illusion of click-and-drag icons, little tan folders into which files may be dropped, and the rest of the ever more familiar items on your computer’s desktop. What is actually going on behind the desktop is mind-numbingly complicated, but users don’t need to know about it, so intelligent interface designers have simplified the affordances, making them particularly salient for human eyes, and adding sound effects to help direct attention. Nothing compact and salient inside the computer corresponds to that little tan file-folder on the desktop screen.

He says that the manifest image of each species is “a user-illusion brilliantly designed by evolution to fit the needs of its users.” In spite of the word “illusion” he doesn’t wish simply to deny the reality of the things that compose the manifest image; the things we see and hear and interact with are “not mere fictions but different versions of what actually exists: real patterns.” The underlying reality, however, what exists in itself and not just for us or for other creatures, is accurately represented only by the scientific image—ultimately in the language of physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and neurophysiology.

Our user-illusions were not, like the little icons on the desktop screen, created by an intelligent interface designer. Nearly all of them—such as our images of people, their faces, voices, and actions, the perception of some things as delicious or comfortable and others as disgusting or dangerous—are the products of “bottom-up” design, understandable through the theory of evolution by natural selection, rather than “top-down” design by an intelligent being. Darwin, in what Dennett calls a “strange inversion of reasoning,” showed us how to resist the intuitive tendency always to explain competence and design by intelligence, and how to replace it with explanation by natural selection, a mindless process of accidental variation, replication, and differential survival.

As for the underlying mechanisms, we now have a general idea of how they might work because of another strange inversion of reasoning, due to Alan Turing, the creator of the computer, who saw how a mindless machine could do arithmetic perfectly without knowing what it was doing. This can be applied to all kinds of calculation and procedural control, in natural as well as in artificial systems, so that their competence does not depend on comprehension. Dennett’s claim is that when we put these two insights together, we see that

all the brilliance and comprehension in the world arises ultimately out of uncomprehending competences compounded over time into ever more competent—and hence comprehending—systems. This is indeed a strange inversion, overthrowing the pre-Darwinian mind-first vision of Creation with a mind-last vision of the eventual evolution of us, intelligent designers at long last.

And he adds: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2017 at 2:09 pm

Life as chaotic equilibrium: An orderly but chaotic process

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From page 10 of The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore:

Darwin’s argument requires three main features: variation, selection and retention (or heredity). That is, first there must be variation so that not all creatures are identical. Second, there must be an environment in which not all the creatures can survive and some varieties do better than others. Third, there must be some process by which offspring inherit characteristics from their parents. If all these three are in place then any characteristics that are positively useful for survival in that environment must tend to increase. Put into Richard Dawkins’s language, if there is a replicator that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive, then evolution simply must occur. This inevitability of evolution is part of what makes Darwin’s insight so clever. All you need is the right starting conditions and evolution just has to happen.

The evolutionary algorithm

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995) has described the whole evolutionary process as an algorithm, that is, a mindless procedure which, when followed, must produce an outcome. Nowadays we are used to the idea of algorithms, although Darwin, Wallace and other early evolutionists would not have been. Many of the things we do are based on algorithms, whether it is adding up sums, dialling a telephone number or even making a cup of tea. Our interactions with machines are particularly algorithmic and the prevalence of machines makes it easier for us to think this way – take a cup, put it under the spout, choose the drink, put in the right amount of money, press the button, take the cup out – if you do the right steps in the right order then the result is a cup of cappuccino, do it wrong and you have a mess on the floor. The computer programs that hold our medical records or run the graphics in our computer games are all algorithms, as are the ways we interface with word processors and financial packages.

Algorithms are ‘substrate–neutral’, meaning they can run on a variety of different materials. A human with a pencil and paper, a hand–cranked adding machine, and a digital computer can all follow the same algorithm for some mathematical procedure and come to the same answer. The substrate does not matter – only the logic of the procedure does. In the case of Darwin’s own argument the substrate was living creatures and a biological environment, but as Dennett points out his logic would apply equally to any system in which there was heredity, variation, and selection. This, again, is the idea of Universal Darwinism.

Algorithms are also completely mindless. . .

The environment itself is constantly changing because of all these developments, and so the process is never static. . .

Algorithms must always produce the same result if they start from the same point. This seems to suggest that, if evolution follows an algorithm, its results must be predetermined and predictable. This is not the case, and chaos theory explains why not. There are many simple processes, like dripping taps or moving gases, or the path drawn out by a swinging pendulum, which are chaotic. They follow simple and mindless algorithms but their end results are complex, chaotic and unpredictable. Beautiful shapes and patterns can emerge, but although the kind of pattern may be repeatable, the detail cannot be predicted without running the procedure right through. And since chaotic systems can be highly sensitive to initial starting conditions, a tiny difference at the beginning may lead to an entirely different outcome. Evolution is like this.

And that kind of sensitivity to starting conditions shows up constantly. I was peeling shallots and got to thinking about how they are all the same, in a way, but in detail each one is unique and some quite different from its neighbor. The variations in their configurations and shapes seems exactly what was described: following an algorithm (the genetic code for a shallot), but with small variations in initial conditions that leads to all the different shapes. And in a way, you can see how relentless is the process of evolution: even here, in the 10 shallots I was preparing, each one was a little different. Constantly varying, constantly interacting with the environment, whatever environment it is, since that also changes constantly and includes not only other lifeforms but also human choice (as in selective breeding). Reality is amazingly rich in detail at every level. And the same is true for memes—in writing this, for example, it is in a way like a lot of writing (same language, same sort of argument and exposition) but it is also unique (unless someone else has by coincidence written this same post, word for word—and that seems unlikely). So again: same sort of result, but specifically different.

And so many levels! Everything is clearly a process—nothing is static—so take a very brief process—say, a college student reading Starbuck’s “On First Looking in on Blodgett’s Keats’s “Chapman’s Homer”“ to a friend while smoking a pipe.

Now think of the various descriptions/scales. Start with the quarks. That brief process involved various perturbations of quarks, but that view, though certainly a view of reality, would not convey the full nature of the process. Nor would a view at the level of atoms or molecules. Or of cells and their metabolism. Or of the simple physical scene: the substances of which things are made. But there is a view other than the lifeform and physical views, and that is the view of the cultural meaning: the poem’s meaning as understood by the reader and his perceived intellectual/physical experience: his thoughts about the poem combined with the taste of his tobacco and the reason he is reading it to his friend. Obviously, there’s much in the way of emergent phenomena here, but at each level what we see is reality—just incomplete. And complete reality is everything together. Hard to get one’s head around.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Books, Memes

Interesting how the social fights the natural: early scene in “War and Peace”

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This occurs early in Book I, at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. (I am rereading the earlier parts in the light of what I’ve learned about the characters and because I keep noticing new things, like how Anna Pavlovna is determined that the natural be banished in favor of social convention.)

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

The story was very pretty and interesting, especially at the point where the rivals suddenly recognized one another; and the ladies looked agitated.

“Charming!” said Anna Pavlovna with an inquiring glance at the little princess.

“Charming!” whispered the little princess, sticking the needle into her work as if to testify that the interest and fascination of the story prevented her from going on with it.

The vicomte appreciated this silent praise and smiling gratefully prepared to continue, but just then Anna Pavlovna, who had kept a watchful eye on the young man who so alarmed her, noticed that he was talking too loudly and vehemently with the abbe, so she hurried to the rescue. Pierre had managed to start a conversation with the abbe about the balance of power, and the latter, evidently interested by the young man’s simple-minded eagerness, was explaining his pet theory. Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pavlovna disapproved.

“The means are… the balance of power in Europe and the rights of the people,” the abbe was saying. “It is only necessary for one powerful nation like Russia — barbaric as she is said to be — to place herself disinterestedly at the head of an alliance having for its object the maintenance of the balance of power of Europe, and it would save the world!”

“But how are you to get that balance?” Pierre was beginning.

At that moment Anna Pavlovna came up and, looking severely at Pierre, asked the Italian how he stood Russian climate. The Italian’s face instantly changed and assumed an offensively affected, sugary expression, evidently habitual to him when conversing with women.

“I am so enchanted by the brilliancy of the wit and culture of the society, more especially of the feminine society, in which I have had the honor of being received, that I have not yet had time to think of the climate,” said he.

Not letting the abbe and Pierre escape, Anna Pavlovna, the more conveniently to keep them under observation, brought them into the larger circle.

Tolstoy writes explicitly of Anna Pavlovna’s role at conducting and controlling the soirée. And I love how the little princess communicated how much the vicomte’s anecdote impressed her: not just repeating the verbal compliment, but complementing it with a gesture.

But the point is how quickly Anna Pavlovna moves to stifle any outbreak of natural feeling and interest, undirected by social conventions.

Update: I mentioned that for this readthrough I’m keeping a Word document with character names and brief descriptions. For Anna Pavlovna I noted:

To Anna, observing correct form is everything, thus her approval of the men greeting her aunt not showing their boredom or impatience. She recognized their feelings, and her approval is for their having the social manners to hide those feelings and perform social rituals well. Anna Pavlovna dislikes Pierre immediately because Pierre lacks a social mask. “The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pavlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room. But in spite of this lowest-grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.” Thus Anna Pavlovna’s great distaste when Pierre doesn’t talk when he should (to Anna’s aged aunt) and insists on talking when extended conversation is inappropriate (when he attempts to give her a detailed critique of the Abbe’s plan for peace. Naturally, Anna hides her dismay. Tolstoy writes: ““We will talk of it later,” said Anna Pavolovna with a smile.” I’m sure that, however forced that smile may have been, to all appearances it was cheerful and friendly.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Racism in the U.S.: A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America

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Terry Gross at NPR reviews racist U.S. policies:

In 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock. Author Richard Rothstein says the housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”

The government’s efforts were “primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,” he says. African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.

Rothstein’s new book, The Color of Law, examines the local, state and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.

Rothstein says these decades-old housing policies have had a lasting effect on American society. “The segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads … to stagnant inequality, because families are much less able to be upwardly mobile when they’re living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent,” he says. “If we want greater equality in this society, if we want a lowering of the hostility between police and young African-American men, we need to take steps to desegregate.”

The Federal Housing Administration’s justification was that if African-Americans bought homes in these suburbs, or even if they bought homes near these suburbs, the property values of the homes they were insuring, the white homes they were insuring, would decline. And therefore their loans would be at risk.

There was no basis for this claim on the part of the Federal Housing Administration. In fact, when African-Americans tried to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods or in mostly white neighborhoods, property values rose because African-Americans were more willing to pay more for properties than whites were, simply because their housing supply was so restricted and they had so many fewer choices. So the rationale that the Federal Housing Administration used was never based on any kind of study. It was never based on any reality. . .

Continue reading.

It’s no wonder why the U.S. is still so racist: it is a attitude cultivated over decades and centuries.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2017 at 10:20 am

The Field Study Handbook

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This sounds fascinating, and I bet if you couldn’t use it, you probably know someone who could.

It’s up on kickstarter, so it’s still in the idea stage. I think it would go through some iterations as things are tried: a kind of Whole-Earth-Catalog approach.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 May 2017 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Reading “War and Peace” after some life experience

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I have to say that I get definite “domestic violence” vibes from the brief exchanges between Prince Andrew Bolkonski and his wife, Princess Lise Bolkonskaya in the beginning of the book, when Pierre visits the two in their home after Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. The exchange between Andrew and Lise took place in front of Pierre, so there’s nothing explicit. But the language and attitudes certainly struck a chord.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 May 2017 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Books

America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

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Lynn Parramore writes at the Institute for New Economic Thinking:

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.”  But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.

In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear:  America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations, and fates.

Two roads diverged

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations, and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick, or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression, and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration – check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.

Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.

How did we get this way?

What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions, and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?

The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s War on Poverty was replaced by Nixon’s War on Drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics, as Temin explains), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.

America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector.  Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.

What can we do?

We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over forty years, but Temin says that we know how to stop digging. If we . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 May 2017 at 12:55 pm

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