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Iran, Inequality, and the Battle of American Norms

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Adam Gopnik has an interesting piece in the New Yorker:

The word “norm” seems to have crawled out of the swamps of sociologese, and into the public conversation, almost becoming the word of the week. Right now, it’s a way of saying that following (or fixing) a law isn’t enough: to do the right thing you have also to follow the unwritten rules, the accepted underlying practices, the norms, of societies and institutions. The Timess David Brooks, in praise of a new book by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam, wrote a column recently arguing that we can’t solve the problem of poverty with cash handouts and good government alone—the social norms of the poor have to change, or be changed, first. Those social norms, like the expectation that, having made a woman pregnant, a man should marry and support her, are, Brooks writes, more important than any other element in making poor people rich, or at least richer. (Jill Lepore, to be sure, writing for this magazine, drew different conclusions from Putnam’s book.)

In an ironically parallel move, the same Republican moralists who condemn the poor, or their politicians, for not enforcing social norms were accused all week of betraying an essential constitutional norm themselves—in this case, that you don’t effectively tell the nation’s enemies to ignore its twice-elected leader. Their pay-no-attention-to-the-President letter to the Iranian government wasn’t illegal, much less “treasonous,” but it certainly and grossly violated an unwritten but widely understood norm of political behavior. It wasn’t that no one had ever done something like this before. It was that there had been an assumption that it wasn’t remotely doable. That’s what made it a norm. If Barry Goldwater had written a letter to Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis insisting that anything J.F.K. promised to do to resolve it should be ignored, it wouldn’t have just seemed destructive. It would have been unimaginable.

That’s the difference. A law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it. Laws are plans, like the city grid, that must be followed; norms are landmarks, like the old Penn Station—you don’t think anyone could tear them down, and then someone does.

Political norms matter because any constitutional arrangement known to man can break down if it isn’t played by the laws as well as by the rules. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” a great Justice famously said, but in truth any constitution can become a suicide pact if people ignore what’s left unwritten in it. If people choose not to buy the basic premise, the joke won’t land. Any social arrangement can disintegrate as much from misuse as repeal. If, as has happened in many an empire, the army figures out that it can buy and sell the emperors, pretty soon you no longer have an empire, or at least no longer much of an emperor. One shockingly violated norm of American constitutional practice was the old one against impeachment on a party-line vote. It’s always been the case that a simple majority in the House can send an American President to a Senate trial, with all the costs that involves. It was just taken for granted that no one would try this without bipartisan support and the likelihood of a conviction. Back in 1998, the Republicans decided to do it anyway—Why the hell not, the country’s booming and can run itself—at a cost that is still not fully understood.

The social norms that Brooks writes about matter a lot. Putnam’s great accomplishment, in his earlier books about the social roots of democracy, including “Bowling Alone,” was to make the case that civil society did indeed precede democratic institutions. Learning to play nice with others before you ever saw a voting booth was the best guarantee that the voting booths would remain open. The number of glee clubs or volunteer firemen in a community was a better guide to how well they adapted to democracy than any other metric.

Putnam’s earlier work certainly presupposes a feedback between prosperity and sane social practices. Do societies get rich because they have good norms, or do sound norms spread when societies get rich? One needn’t be terminally wishy-washy to think that a virtuous circle sets in, in which more money makes for more social peace (and more stable families), even as social peace and stable families help people make more money. Certainly, no one doubts the vicious circle of poverty producing social despair, with social despair producing more poverty. Isolating norms away from the booms and busts that help make them happen is as odd as isolating spare change from the pockets in which it sits.

So norms like playing well together really do matter. But they are a lot more plastic and locally enforced, less organic and hallowed, than can sometimes seem plain. The sociologist Howie Becker spent a career documenting all the ways in which norms are not just malleable over time but a lot more fragmentary than the people with power choose to believe. There are norms alongside norms sitting by norms around the corner from other norms. Reefer smokers follow them as tightly as prohibitionists. Willie Nelson obeyed as many as Nancy Reagan; they were just harder to spot through the smoke. Some social norms that are taken to be obvious in certain times and circles (homosexuals should be prosecuted, blacks and whites shouldn’t marry) turn out to be intolerable, and others that look trivial (people should go bowling with each other) turn out to be indispensable. Which one is which often becomes apparent only after they’ve been altered.

One way to get poor people to act like rich people is to give them more money. Prosperous societies have fewer social problems than poor ones, and when poor societies become more prosperous they generally become more placid. What the right wing is really asking is how you get poor people to act like rich people without actually giving them more money. That is a harder question. But the idea that there’s a causal connection between things like sexual permissiveness and social harm is obviously fatuous. The most astonishing change in American life in recent times has been . . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2015 at 9:31 am

Posted in Daily life, Politics

Why do politicians not want the public to know what they are doing or have done?

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One can think of a variety of reasons, most not very complimentary to the politician. Taking pains to hide or destroy the record of what s/he has done in office makes a prima facie case that the actions are reprehensible and would not withstand public scrutiny. That concealing or destroying records is so common speaks volumes about the state of political corruption in the US.

Here’s a ProPublica Muck Reads email:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been on the defensive ever since the New York Times first reported that she used a private email account for government business. In light of the imbroglio, we decided to look at the email escapades of other politicos for this week’s MuckReads.

Colin Powell relied on personal emails while secretary of state, Politico, March 2015

Since news of Clinton’s use of private email for White House business broke, an aide to Colin Powell says he “might have occasionally used personal email addresses” to correspond with staff and officials during his tenure as Secretary of State.

Bush Advisers’ Approach on E-Mail Draws Fire, The New York Times, April 2007

The Bush Administration admits that as many as 22 political advisers to the president, including Karl Rove, used their Republican National Committee email accounts for White House related business. At the time, the RNC automatically purged emails after 30 days. Later, a White House spokesperson reported that as many as 5 million emails could have been lost from the White House’s official server.

Jeb Bush Owned Personal Email Server He Used as Governor, NBC News, March 2015

A Mar. 4, 2015 report from NBC News finds that between 1999 until early 2007 Jeb Bush used his own private email server for official business as Florida Governor.

Two ex-Walker aides charged with illegal campaigning, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, January 2012

Two former aides to Gov. Scott Walker, while he was Executive of Milwaukee County, used a private Internet network to conduct campaign work. They are later charged with illegally campaigning on government time.

Trove of Palin E-Mails Draws Press to Alaska, The New York Times, June 2011

In 2011, Sarah Palin releases more than 24,000 pages of emails sent from a private account while she was Alaska governor, responding to public records requests made in 2008. The emails reveal less-than scandalous details of her life including her early attempts to meet John McCain, a draft ghostwritten letter-to-the-editor in response to criticism against her and plans to see a controversial Christian pastor in Juno, Alaska.

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya J. Scott Gration resigns over ‘differences’ with Washington, The Washington Post, June 2012

Scott Gration, US Ambassador to Kenya, resigns in Jun. 2012 just before the publication of an Office of Inspector General report that found he had “repeatedly violated diplomatic security protocols at the embassy” by using a private email account for official business, according to the Washington Post.

Christie administration may have violated public records law, The Record, January 2014

The Record releases a cache of emails sent from personal accounts between top Chris Christie aides that reveals their plan to create a traffic jam over the George Washington Bridge possibly as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee who refused to endorse Christie in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election.

After Pledge of Sunlight, Gov. Cuomo Officials Keep Their Email in the Shadows, ProPublica, May 2014

ProPublica finds that top advisers to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo conduct government business through personal email accounts including Howard Glaser. ProPublica recently obtained emails from Glaser in which he touted his ” significant, critical, and current input” on a deal that weakened rules to prevent misdeeds in the mortgage market.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 March 2015 at 9:52 am

A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?

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Amy Knight has an interesting report in the NY Review of Books:

Last week, when Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. After offering numerous far-fetched hypotheses about who committed the murder and why, the Russian Investigative Committee settled on the same explanation it has put forth in numerous past political murders, including that of Anna Politkovskaya: the Chechens did it.

According to the usual pattern, the suspects would then be expected to confess, a motive would be concocted—in this case, that Nemtsov had made statements against Russian Islamists—and the crime would be declared solved. But hardly anyone in Russia seems to believe that this is why Nemtsov was killed, or indeed, that these suspects, if they were the killers, acted on their own. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder. They also appear to be causing an internal struggle within the government itself—a struggle that could help explain President Vladimir Putin’s absence from public view for over a week.

Russian authorities have accused one of the five Chechens, Zaur Dadayev, of organizing the crime, but even if he did, it is unlikely that he would have decided to do so on his own. Dadayev was a deputy commander of the crack “North” battalion, which is based in the Chechen capital of Grozny and is under the patronage of the authoritarian Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin loyalist. Many commentators think that Dadayev would not have undertaken such a bold assassination—in the center of Moscow just minutes from the Kremlin—without Kadyrov’s explicit orders.

But the chain of command would have to go higher than the Chechen president. Although Kadyrov runs Chechnya like a fiefdom, and has for years cracked down on his enemies with impunity, even reportedly using death squads against them, his powers have clear limits in the Russian capital. On Friday, I spoke with Akhmed Zakaev, head of the Chechen government in exile, who is based in London, and he stressed that Kadyrov would never embark on a mission to kill such a prominent figure as Boris Nemtsov without Putin’s approval. Kadyrov, he said, “can do what he wants in Chechnya, but not in Moscow or Russia. It is most likely that Nemtsov was assassinated because it was Putin’s wish.”

Yet even if Zakaev is right, it is hard to explain why Putin would then go out of his way to praise Kadyrov in public. On March 9, just two days after the arrests of Dadayev and the other four Chechens was made public, the Kremlin announced that it had awarded Kadyrov a medal of honor for his service to the Russian state. (Amazingly, at the same time, Putin also conferred a medal of honor on Andrei Lugovoy, the prime suspect in the fatal 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer who was an outspoken enemy of Putin. As it happens, a British public inquiry into the Litvinenko murder is now taking place, in which Lugovoy’s name has been coming up almost daily.)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately dismissed the timing of the two awards as a coincidence. But to many observers it looked like . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 March 2015 at 8:43 am

Posted in Government, Law, Politics

A real-life example of a back-door to encryption

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It seems to be obvious to everyone except politicians and law enforcement officials that deliberately building a weakness into any security system pretty much makes it an insecurity system. “I know: let’s have surveillance cameras cover all entrances to the building except for just one!” Idiocy.

And yet many are clamoring to build computer “security” systems that have at least one vulnerability, a vulnerability that ONLY legal authorities will ever discover and use—despite the obvious value of knowing that vulnerability and the high likelihood that someone who knows it (and a fair number of people will, if it is to be widely implemented) will sell the secret—or simply post it on the Internet in protest.

Kevin Drum has an interesting post on this very topic:

Companies like Apple and Google have announced recently that they will start providing their customers with encryption that even Apple and Google don’t have the keys for. This means that even if law enforcement officers get a subpoena for data held by the companies, it won’t do any good. They couldn’t turn over decrypted data even if they wanted to.

This has led to calls from the FBI and elsewhere to provide “backdoors” of some kind for use by law enforcement. This would be a kind of master key available only under court order. But security experts argue that this makes encryption fundamentally useless. If you deliberately build in a weakness, you simply can never guarantee that it won’t be exploited by hackers. Encryption is either secure or it’s not, full stop.

Over at The Switch, Craig Timberg provides an interesting recent example of this. Back in the 90s, we were fighting this same fight, and one temporary result was the government’s mandate that only a weak form of encryption could be exported outside the U.S. This mandate didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough to get incorporated into quite a few products. Still, that was 20 years ago. What harm could it be doing today?

The weaker encryption got baked into widely used software that proliferated around the world and back into the United States, apparently unnoticed until this year.

Researchers discovered in recent weeks that they could force browsers to use the old export-grade encryption then crack it over the course of just a few hours. Once cracked, hackers could steal passwords and other personal information and potentially launch a broader attack on the Web sites themselves by taking over elements on a page, such as a Facebook “Like” button.

….The existence of the problem with export-grade encryption amazed the researchers, who have dubbed the flaw “FREAK” for Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys….Nadia Heninger, a University of Pennsylvania cryptographer, said, “This is basically a zombie from the ‘90s… I don’t think anybody really realized anybody was still supporting these export suites.”

For vulnerable sites, Heninger found that she could crack the export-grade encryption key in about seven hours, using computers on Amazon Web services….More than one third of encrypted Web sites — including those bearing the “lock” icon that signifies a connection secured by SSL technology — proved vulnerable to attack in recent tests conducted by University of Michigan researchers J. Alex Halderman and Zakir Durumeric. The list includes news organizations, retailers and financial services sites such as americanexpress.com. Of the 14 million Web sites worldwide that offer encryption, more than 5 million remained vulnerable as of Tuesday morning, Halderman said.

This is an object lesson in deliberately building vulnerabilities into encryption technology. Maybe . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2015 at 12:57 pm

Why do politicians believe they understand technical issues?

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I suppose politicians have to make decisions, but they do seem not to be able to listen well or learn quickly. They have the typical chief executive’s belief that what s/he strongly desires must be possible, even if those with knowledge explain repeatedly that it’s not. CEOs simply cannot comprehend that something they want so very much might not be possible because, after all, they are powerful and wealthy, so surely that must mean that they can get anything they want. Right? (The Dunning-Kruger effect also plays a role: politicians are so ignorant of the relevant science and technology that they don’t even have enough information to know how uninformed they are.)

In the Washington Post Andrea Peterson has an excellent article on a specific instance. By all means read the whole thing. Here is the conclusion:

“I think what we’re missing is that people are kind of in their corners arguing about liberty versus security instead of saying, ‘Look, we all want to have privacy for the end users’ — that’s what the companies are responding to. They’re trying to be able to tell their customers, ‘We’re going to protect your data,'” she [Hillary Clinton] said. “But we also don’t want to find ourselves in a position where it’s a legitimate security threat we’re facing and we can’t figure out how to address it because we have no way into whatever is holding the information.”

Clinton said people have a “legitimate right to privacy,” but she argued that the encryption debate was about finding “the right balance” — a balance Clinton said she hasn’t figured out yet.

Clinton said her position was “not a dodge,” but some within the tech industry were not convinced, including Nu Wexler, a member of Twitter’s policy communications team.

Asked by Re/code’s Kara Swisher how she might resolve the issue, Clinton said she would start with having a “real conversation” with tech executives. “I think the conversation, rather than ‘you don’t understand privacy and you don’t understand security,’ ought to be ‘OK, let’s figure out how to do this,'” she said.

But there is already a dialogue going on between the Obama administration and leaders of the technology industry — and much of it is coming down to the technicalities of how encryption works more than an ideological debate over privacy and national security.

Technology companies have moved to expand their deployment of encryption in the wake of revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Apple and Google, for instance, have made it impossible to unlock many mobile devices using their operating systems even if served with a legitimate warrant. This has created tension with U.S. law enforcement officials, who warn that this could allow cybercriminals or terrorists to “go dark.” The officials have urged technology companies to build into their products ways for the government to intercept encrypted communications.

But cybersecurity experts have criticized this approach, saying that such “lawful intercept” technology can’t be implemented without fundamentally undermining how encryption works — adding complexity into the code that multiplies risks and gives hackers yet another target to attack.

The debate sparked a heated exchange between NSA Director Mike Rogers and Yahoo’s information security chief officer, Alex Stamos, at a cybersecurity conference Monday. “It’s like drilling a hole in the windshield,” Stamos said.

Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, oversaw an earlier round of the encryption debate, during the 1990s — commonly known as the “cryptowars.” As part of the cryptowars, the government promoted the use of NSA technology called the “clipper chip” to provide intercept capabilities for encrypted phone calls. But researchers discovered vulnerabilities in the design that could be exploited, leaving those calls insecure against others hoping to eavesdrop.

“We had this fight almost 20 years ago, and we thought we’d answered the question — that the benefits of strong encryption outweigh the needs for tap-ability,” Alan Davidson, vice president and director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an interview Monday after the exchange between Rogers and Stamos.

But political leaders appear to be re-hashing the same debate in search of a compromise solution that technical experts say does not exist.

“Everybody in Washington loves the notion of a middle ground, but the solution people are looking for just doesn’t exist,” Davidson said. “You can’t build a strong encryption system with guaranteed tap-ability.”

Clinton seems completely incapable of grasping that a compromise is not possible: encryption either does not allow third parties to decrypt the message, or (if it does) then the message is not really encrypted. What Clinton wants is some sort of encryption scheme that can detect whether those trying to break the encryption are “good” (in which case the encryption releases the information) or “bad” (in which case the encryption remains strong). But encryption cannot make those decisions.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 12:43 pm

Scott Walker as presidential candidate

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John Cassidy has some interesting points about Mr. Walker’s candidacy:

Let’s stipulate up front that Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is an odious politician whose ascension to the Presidency would be a disaster.

Set aside, for a moment, his repeated refusal, in the past few days, to say whether he believes that President Obama loves America, or whether he believes that the President is a Christian, and look instead at Walker’s record running what used to be one of America’s more progressive states. Having cut taxes for the wealthy and stripped many of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights, he is now preparing to sign a legislative bill that would cripple unions in the private sector. Many wealthy conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, who have funneled a lot of money to groups supporting Walker, regard him as someone who’s turning his state into a showcase for what they want the rest of America to look like.

But just how threatening is he? If you’ve been following the political news during the past week, you may well have the impression that he’s stumbling in his campaign for the 2016 G.O.P. nomination. Among the political commentariat, the consensus of opinion is that Walker’s repeated refusal to distance himself from Rudy Giuliani’s incendiary comments about Obama, and his subsequent encounter with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Robert Costa, during which he appeared to question Obama’s religious faith and took some shots at the media for asking him silly questions, weren’t merely reprehensible: they were serious gaffes that raised questions about Walker’s political abilities.

It wasn’t just liberal columnists who piled on. In a column at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis, who also writes for the Daily Caller, said that Walker’s comments raised the question of whether he “might not be ready for prime time on the national stage.” Lewis went on: “Conservatives should be worried that Walker hasn’t proven capable of navigating these land mines.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who is a former G.O.P. congressman, wrote at Politico: “Good candidates know how to make dumb questions look, well, dumb.”

Rather than deflecting the reporters’ queries about Obama’s beliefs, as other Republicans had done, Walker used them to send a none-too-subtle message to Republican voters. His refusal to say whether Obama was a Christian wasn’t merely a shot at a hostile media. As Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post noted, it allowed Walker to “wink and nod at the far-right fringe where people really believe that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who hates America.” Milbank also wrote that Walker was “refusing to grant his opponent legitimacy as an American and a Christian.”

In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.

Having cemented his reputation as an economic conservative, Walker is busy making a concerted effort to win over social conservatives and evangelical Christians, some of whom apparently believe that Obama is the Antichrist (or perhaps the Seventh King). Earlier this month, during a trip to London, he refused to say whether he believed in evolution, commenting: “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in, one way or the other.” In addition to making that hat tip to the Book of Genesis brigade, Walker has been reiterating his opposition to gay marriage and taking a notably harder line on abortion than he did during his gubernatorial reëlection campaign, last year. In a recent meeting with Iowa Republicans, the Times reported earlier this week, he stressed his support for a “personhood amendment” that would define life as beginning at conception and effectively outlaw the termination of pregnancies. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 10:31 am

Uh-oh: Some revealing details of Clinton finances

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This at the very least looks bad, particularly the money “donated” by Marc Rich’s wife (pretty clearly in exchange for Marc Rich’s pardon by Clinton hours before he left office). Pam Martens and Russ Martens report:

Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be named the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, finds herself enmeshed in a transatlantic scandal that is an untimely reminder of the scandal fatigue that Americans were forced to endure during the Presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.

Last Monday, the Guardian newspaper, the BBC, the French newspaper, Le Monde and dozens of other news outlets disclosed that the Swiss banking unit of the global behemoth bank, HSBC, had assisted the ultra rich in hiding assets and providing advice on how to evade domestic tax authorities.

The documentation for the revelations were provided by a former HSBC employee, Hervé Falciani, to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

That news broke on Monday, February 9. The Clinton bombshell came the next day, Tuesday, February 10, when the Guardian reported that seven clients of the Swiss HSBC bank had cumulatively donated $81 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation – a nonprofit that runs the Clinton Global Initiative, the Clinton Presidential Library and numerous other programs.

The Guardian report was quick to point out that there was no evidence that any of the seven donors had evaded taxes and that it “is not unlawful for US or other non-Swiss citizens to hold accounts in Geneva.”

Two of the donors listed in the leaked files are raising eyebrows. According to the Guardian report, one of the donors who had a Swiss HSBC account is Jeffrey Epstein, “the wealthy financier who was jailed for 13 months in 2008 for soliciting sex with underage girls.”  Another, reports the Guardian, was Denise Rich, the ex-wife of the now deceased Marc Rich, who fled the U.S. after being indicted for tax evasion, fraud and racketeering and then received a highly controversial pardon by President Clinton just hours before he left office.

On the heels of the Guardian’s report last week comes news in the Wall Street Journal this morning that the Clinton Foundation is also accepting donations from foreign governments. One of those countries is Saudi Arabia, the country that has played an outsized role in collapsing the price of oil and putting many U.S. shale producers in financial jeopardy. According to the Journal, Saudi Arabia had donated between $10 and $25 million since 1999 to the Clinton Foundation with a portion of that coming in 2014. The Foundation’s database lists only a dollar range for donations.

Other recent foreign government donors include the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Australia, Germany and the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency of Canada, a government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, according to the Journal report. The paper notes that the Clinton Foundation had stopped raising money from foreign governments in 2009 while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State.

Adding further political intrigue, the New York Times is out with a report this morning indicating that the Geneva prosecutor’s office has released a statement acknowledging that it has opened a criminal inquiry into potential aggravated money laundering at the HSBC Swiss banking unit and is engaged in a search of its offices today.

Related Article:

Hillary and Bill: Their Rugged Journey from Paupers to One-Percenters in 365 Days

The Marc Rich pardon was already quite ugly and suspicious, and to find that it apparently was purchased is very unpleasant.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 February 2015 at 3:46 pm

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