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Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises

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Christopher Cook reports in Craftsmanship Quarterly:

In the fall of 1989, a full quarter-century before President Obama normalized US relations with Cuba, the Berlin Wall came tumbling to the ground in a flurry of sledgehammers and concrete dust. Meanwhile, an economic tsunami was brewing on the small Caribbean island. The Soviet Bloc was crumbling fast, sending shock waves across the globe that would plunge Cuba’s food and farming into years of austerity, hunger, and radical overhaul.

Earlier that year, the international socialist market terminated Cuba’s favorable trade rates—abruptly curtailing 85 percent of the tiny nation’s trade. Imports of wheat and other grains dropped by more than half; food rationing set in, and hunger widened. Soviet aid, a pillar of Cuba’s economy, evaporated as U.S. economic sanctions tightened.

Economic collapse led swiftly to agricultural crisis. Cuba’s industrialized farming system, fueled, literally, by Soviet tractors and petrochemicals, ground to a halt. Oil imports fell by 53 percent, and the supply of pesticides and fertilizers fell by 80 percent. Launching an era of austerity and reform known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” the Castro government “instituted drastic measures such as planned blackouts, the use of bicycles for mass transportation, and the use of animals in the place of tractors” to meet the unfolding crisis, according to a report by Food First, a U.S.-based think tank focused on food justice issues.

Cuba took a step back in time, transforming itself from an industrial farming machine into a traditional agrarian society. Soviet tractors, once ubiquitous on Cuba’s farmlands, were replaced by animal traction—oxen, horses, and cows. In just the first year of this change, the nation put 280,888 domesticated animals to work, according to a detailed study of Cuba’s agricultural transformation called “Agroecology Revolution,” referring to an agricultural science developed in Latin America.

Out of sheer necessity, an entire nation went largely local and organic. By 1990, Cuba began breaking up its big state-run farms. Much like its American counterparts, these industrial operations produced monoculture harvests, which were accomplished primarily with heavy machinery and fossil fuels. Now the government was issuing land use-rights, seeds, and marketing incentives to peasant farmers by the thousands. Over the next decade, according to “Agroecology Revolution,” Cuba’s farmers shifted to organic fertilizers, traditional crops and animal breeds, diversified farming with crop rotations, and non-toxic pest controls emphasizing the use of beneficial plants and insects. This blend of measures is part of a sustainable-agriculture approach known as agroecology. It’s often described as a promising innovation—which is a little ironic given that it draws on age-old peasant farming practices.

And in this case, the revolution was not born out of idealism. It was simply the only option on hand for a nation with no money to keep buying tractors, oil, and petrochemicals. “Necessity gave birth to a new consciousness,” explains Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of Cuba’s National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

Agroecology’s Big Harvest

Cuba’s agricultural de-tox represents “the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic and semi-organic farming that the world has ever known,” according to Food First. Across the countryside, a “campesino-a-campesino” (farmer-to-farmer) movement, growing more than 100,000 strong, shared techniques to stimulate production. Among the farmers’ guiding principles: “start slow, and start small;” “limit the introduction of technologies;” and “develop a multiplier effect” of farmer knowledge.

Great concepts, but what about results on the ground? By 2007, ANAP found, Cuba had stabilized and in some areas expanded food production even as farmers dramatically reduced pesticide use. While scaling back pesticides anywhere from 55-85 percent across a range of crops, peasant farmers produced 85 percent more tubers, 83 percent more vegetables, and 351 percent more beans.

Cuba’s farming revolution propelled the island from the lowest per capita food producer in Latin America and the Caribbean to its most prolific, says Miguel Altieri, UC Berkeley professor of agroecology. Writing in The Monthly Review, Altieri and Fernando Funes-Monzote, a founding member of the Cuban Organic Agriculture Movement, came to a dramatic conclusion: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 June 2017 at 12:10 pm

A 1912 news article ominously forecasted the catastrophic effects of fossil fuels on climate change

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Akshat Rathi writes in Quartz:

A short news clip from a New Zealand paper published in 1912 has gone viral as an example of an early news story to make the connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change.

It wasn’t, however, the first article to suggest that our love for coal was wreaking destruction on our environment that would lead to climate change. The theory—now widely accepted as scientific reality—was mentioned in the news media as early as 1883, and was discussed in scientific circles much earlier than that.

The French physicist Joseph Fourier had made the observation in 1824 that the composition of the atmosphere is likely to affect the climate. But Svante Arrhenius’s 1896 study titled, “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature on the ground” was the first to quantify how carbon dioxide (or anhydrous carbonic acid, by another name) affects global temperature. Though the study does not explicitly say that the burning of fossil fuels would cause global warming, there were scientists before him who had made such a forecast.

The earliest such mention that Quartz could find was in the journal Nature in December of 1882. The author HA Phillips writes:

According to Prof Tyndall’s research, hydrogen, marsh gas, and ethylene have the property to a very high degree of absorbing and radiating heat, and so much that a very small proportion, of say one thousandth part, had very great effect. From this we may conclude that the increasing pollution of the atmosphere will have a marked influence on the climate of the world.

Phillips was relying on the work of John Tyndall, who in the 1860s had shown how various gases in the atmosphere absorb heat from the sun in the form of infrared radiation. Now we know that Phillips was wrong about a few scientific details: He ignored carbon dioxide from burning coal and focused more on the by-products of mining. Still, he was drawing the right conclusion about what our demand for fossil fuels might do to the climate.

Newspapers around the world took those words published in a prestigious scientific journal quite seriously. In January 1883, the New York Times published a lengthy article based on Phillips’ letter to Nature, which said: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 12:47 pm

‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene

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Alex Blasdel writes in the Guardian:

A few years ago, Björk began corresponding with a philosopher whose books she admired. “hi timothy,” her first message to him began. “i wanted to write this letter for a long time.” She was trying to give a name to her own singular genre, to label her work for posterity before the critics did. She asked him to help define the nature of her art – “not only to define it for me, but also for all my friends, and a generation actually.”

It turned out the philosopher, Timothy Morton, was a fan of Björk. Her music, he told her, had been “a very deep influence on my way of thinking and life in general”. The sense of eerie intimacy with other species, the fusion of moods in her songs and videos – tenderness and horror, weirdness and joy – “is the feeling of ecological awareness”, he said. Morton’s own work is about the implications of this strange awareness – the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings – which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our “core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is”.

Over the past decade, Morton’s ideas have been spilling into the mainstream. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, and perhaps the most powerful figure in the contemporary art world, is one of his loudest cheerleaders. Obrist told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books are among the pre-eminent cultural works of our time, and recommends them to many of his own collaborators. The acclaimed artist Olafur Eliasson has been flying Morton around the world to speak at his major exhibition openings. Excerpts from Morton’s correspondence with Björk were published as part of her 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Morton’s terminology is “slowly infecting all the humanities”, says his friend and fellow thinker Graham Harman. Though many academics have a reputation for writing exclusively for their colleagues down the hall, Morton’s peculiar conceptual vocabulary – “dark ecology”, “the strange stranger”, “the mesh” – has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion. Last year, he was included in a much-discussed list of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His ideas have also percolated into traditional media outlets such as Newsweek, the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking. His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.

Morton’s theories might sound bizarre, but they are in tune with the most earth-shaking idea to emerge in the 21st century: that we are entering a new phase in the history of the planet – a phase that Morton and many others now call the “Anthropocene”.

For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period.

The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning “human”, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. Extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, vanished species, lakes turned to deserts, nuclear fallout: if there is still human life on earth tens of thousands of years from now, societies that we can’t imagine will have to grapple with the changes we are wreaking today. Morton has noted that 75% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this very moment will still be there in half a millennium. That’s 15 generations away. It will take another 750 generations, or 25,000 years, for most of the those gases to be absorbed into the oceans.

The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.

One of Morton’s most powerful insights is that we are condemned to live with this awareness at all times. It’s there not only when politicians gather to discuss international environmental agreements, but when we do something as mundane as chat about the weather, pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket or water the lawn. We live in a world with a moral calculus that didn’t exist before. Now, doing just about anything is an environmental question. That wasn’t true 60 years ago – or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realised just how much a part of it we are.

Morton believes that this constitutes a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe on a par with those fomented by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. He is just one of thousands of geologists, climate scientists, historians, novelists and journalists writing about this upheaval, but, perhaps better than anyone else, he captures in words the uncanny feeling of being present at the birth of this extreme age.

“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” he writes. “And it creeps up on you.” Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, “let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet”. But “harm to Earth is precisely what is happening”. Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, “everything is interconnected”.

As Morton’s work spreads beyond cultural hierophants such as Björk to the pages of major news outlets, he is arguably becoming our most popular guide to the new epoch. Yes, he has some seemingly crazy ideas about what it’s like to be alive right now – but what it’s like to be alive right now, in the Anthropocene, is pretty crazy.


In the course of its young life, the Anthropocene has grown into a concept as grand in its scope as any other world-historical paradigm worth its salt (which, if it’s sea salt, now includes a good dose of synthetic waste in tiny particles called microplastics). What began as a technical debate within the earth sciences has led, in Morton’s view, to a confrontation with some of our most basic ways of understanding the world. In the Anthropocene, he writes, we are undergoing “a traumatic loss of coordinates”. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 12:40 pm

Socially responsible capitalism is losing

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Back in the 1970’s I recall at various business seminars the conventional wisdom about a company’s “stakeholders”: thos who benefited from (and were responsible for) the company’s success: the customers, the employees, the shareholders, and the community. The company had a responsibility to each of those.

That died. Companies now view their only responsibility is to the shareholders. Employee wages are kept to a minimum, employee benefits likewise—and if possible, employees are disguised as “independent contractors” so that no benefits are paid and labor protections are lifted. Customers are to be fleeced as efficiently as possible—for example, airline companies deliberately worsen the flying experience (tiny seats with no legroom (to encourage the payment of extra fees to get minimally better seating), no amenities that you don’t pay for, extra fees for checking luggage, more requirements that you must check luggage, beating passengers senseless to free up a seat for company employees, and so on. And the communities? Companies now feel zero loyalty to the community and shutter factories to relocate elsewhere if it even slightly improves profits.

Greed is a terrible thing, and the corrosive effect that wealth has on ethics has been demonstrated, but seldom so clearly by the wealthy Scrooges who own companies today.

Sheelah Kolhatkar reports in the New Yorker:

In December, 2015, a new startup called Juno entered the ride-hailing market in New York City with a simple proposition: it was going to treat its drivers better than its competitors, notably Uber, did theirs—and do “something that was socially responsible,” as one of Juno’s co-founders, Talmon Marco, told me last fall. In practice, that meant drivers would keep a bigger part of their fares and be eligible for a form of stock ownership in the company. But, on April 26th, when an Israeli company named Gett announced that it was buying Juno for two hundred million dollars, that changed. The merged company is dropping the restricted stock plan for drivers, and those who already hold stock are being offered small cash payments, reportedly in the hundred-dollar range, in exchange.

Juno’s founders had adopted the language of a doing-well-by-doing-good philosophy that has spread in the business world in recent years. Some call it conscious or socially responsible capitalism, but the basic idea is that any business has multiple stakeholders—not just owners but employees, consumers, and also the community—and each of their interests should be taken into account. The idea arose in response to an even more powerful principle: the primacy of investor rights. In a new book, “The Golden Passport,” the journalist Duff McDonald lays much of the blame for that thinking at the feet of a Harvard Business School professor named Michael Jensen, whose “agency theory,” developed in the nineteen-eighties, sought to align the interests of managers with those of the company’s investors. (Gordon Gekko spoke eloquently on its behalf in the movie “Wall Street.”) This alignment led to huge stock-option pay packages for top corporate managers and, McDonald argues, provided an intellectual framework that justifies doing anything (within the law) to increase a company’s stock price, whether that be firing workers or polluting the environment.

In this philosophical tension, the investors-above-all doctrine seems to have triumphed over the more inclusive approach. “I think what’s recent is maybe being so completely blatant about it,” Peter Cappelli, a professor and labor economist at Wharton, said. When American Airlines agreed to give raises to its pilots and flight attendants in April, analysts at a handful of investment banks reacted bitterly. “This is frustrating,” a Citigroup analyst named Kevin Crissey wrote in a note that was sent to the bank’s clients. “Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.” Jamie Baker, of JPMorgan, also chimed in: “We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups.”

Those comments were mocked online, but similar sentiments are everywhere in the financial establishment. Both Costco and Whole Foods—whose C.E.O., John Mackey, wrote the book “Conscious Capitalism”—have been criticized by Wall Street investors and analysts for years for, among other things, their habit of paying workers above the bare minimum. Paul Polman, who, as C.E.O. of the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, has made reducing the company’s carbon footprint a priority, recently fought off a takeover bid from Kraft Heinz, which is known for its ruthless cost-cutting.

Newer platform companies have also encountered the phenomenon. An app called Maple, which made the nearly unheard-of decision to offer health benefits and employee status to its food-delivery people, folded in recent months. Etsy, which allows craftspeople to sell their goods online, and which became known for its employee perks, has lost most of its stock-market value since it went public, in 2015; hedge-fund investors have been pushing the company to reduce its costs and to lay off employees. In the case of Juno, according to a person familiar with its operations, the founders sold the company and agreed to cut its driver stock awards because they couldn’t find new investors to finance its growth. “They were stuck from an expansion perspective, and this was what had to give,” I was told. “It came with some huge compromises.”

Many factors contributed to the troubles of these companies, but Cappelli notes how “vociferously the investment community seems to object to being nice to employees. It’s a reminder that, in the corporate world, things are constantly yielding to the finance guys—whether they know what they’re doing or not.”

This fixation on short-term stock gains is inherently unstable, Cappelli said. “The interesting thing is always to ask them, ‘What’s the value proposition for employees? Why should these people work only for the interest of the shareholders? How are you going to get people to work hard?’ ” He went on, “I don’t think they have an answer.” . . .

Continue reading.

It is the role of the government to act as a counterforce against the excesses of big business, protecting the welfare of employees (through labor laws) and of customers (through regulatory protections and oversight agencies) and of communities (by blocking inappropriate mergers and takeovers through antitrust actions). But the US government is rapidly failing, and corporations now call the shots—and the only goal of corporations is to extract as much money as possible from customers, from employees, and even from the government (with tax avoidance schemes).

Here’s a good example of (a) corporate indifference to anything but money and (b) corporate takeover of government: “How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science.” That article, by Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton in the NY Times, begins:

The campaign ad appeared during the presidential contest of 2008. Rapid-fire images of belching smokestacks and melting ice sheets were followed by a soothing narrator who praised a candidate who had stood up to President George W. Bush and “sounded the alarm on global warming.”

It was not made for a Democrat, but for Senator John McCain, who had just secured the Republican nomination.

It is difficult to reconcile the Republican Party of 2008 with the party of 2017, whose leader, President Trump, has called global warming a hoax, reversed environmental policies that Mr. McCain advocated on his run for the White House, and this past week announced that he would take the nation out of the Paris climate accord, which was to bind the globe in an effort to halt the planet’s warming.

The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

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“Most Republicans still do not regard climate change as a hoax,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who worked for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “But the entire climate change debate has now been caught up in the broader polarization of American politics.”

“In some ways,” he added, “it’s become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you’re a good Republican.”

ince Mr. McCain ran for president on climate credentials that were stronger than his opponent Barack Obama’s, the scientific evidence linking greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to the dangerous warming of the planet has grown stronger. Scientists have for the first time drawn concrete links between the planet’s warming atmosphere and changes that affect Americans’ daily lives and pocketbooks, from tidal flooding in Miami to prolonged water shortages in the Southwest to decreasing snow cover at ski resorts.

That scientific consensus was enough to pull virtually all of the major nations along. Conservative-leaning governments in Britain, France, Germany and Japan all signed on to successive climate change agreements.

Yet when Mr. Trump pulled the United States from the Paris accord, the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and every member of the elected Republican leadership were united in their praise.

Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.

Government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people’s lives worse rather than better,” Charles Koch explained in a rare interview last year with Fortune, arguing that despite the costs, these efforts would make “very little difference in the future on what the temperature or the weather will be.” . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2017 at 8:39 pm

Koch Brothers campaign to support global warming becomes overt

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Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker:

If there was any lingering doubt that a tiny clique of fossil-fuel barons has captured America’s energy and environmental policies, it was dispelled last week, when the Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris climate accordSurveys showed that a majority of Americans in literally every state wanted to remain within the agreement, and news reports established that the heads of many of the country’s most successful and iconic Fortune 100 companies, from Disney to General Electric, did, too. Voters and big business were arrayed against leaving the climate agreement. Yet despite the majority’s sentiment, a tiny—and until recently, almost faceless—minority somehow prevailed.

How this happened is no longer a secret. The answer, as the New York Times reported, on Sunday, is “a story of big political money.” It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history.

As the climate scientist Michael Mann put it to me in my book “Dark Money,” when attempting to explain why the Republican Party has moved in the opposite direction from virtually the rest of the world, “We are talking about a direct challenge to the most powerful industry that has ever existed on the face of the Earth. There’s no depth to which they’re unwilling to sink to challenge anything threatening their interests.” For most of the world’s population, the costs of inaction on climate change far outweigh that of action. But for the fossil-fuel industry, he said, “It’s like the switch from whale oil in the nineteenth century. They’re fighting to maintain the status quo, no matter how dumb.”

Until recently, those buying the fealty of the Republican Party on these issues tried to hide their sway, manipulating politics from the wings. But what became clear this past weekend is that they can remain anonymous no longer. With their success dictating America’s climate policy, the fossil-fuel industry’s political heavyweights have also won new notoriety. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of the Kansas-based fossil-fuel leviathan Koch Industries, used to attract attention only from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which labelled them “the Kingpins of Climate Denial.” They were so secretive about their political activities that, when I first wrote about their tactics in The New Yorker, in 2010, the article was titled “Covert Operations.” But now references to the Kochs are becoming almost as commonplace as the Dixie Cups, Lycra, and other household products that their business produces. As the Times noted, Republican lawmakers’ swerves to the right on climate issues “did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil-fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries. . . .” The Kochs were called out on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, too. On ABC’s “This Week,” former Vice-President Al Gore cited “dark money” from fossil-fuel companies as the explanation for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord; on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Secretary of State John Kerry specifically chastised the Kochs.

Now that they have been flushed from the shadows, the Kochs and their political operatives have proudly taken credit for obstructing the U.S. government from addressing climate change. Charles Koch, who is a hardcore libertarian, has argued that government action was only “making people’s lives worse, rather than better,” as he put it in an interview with Fortune last year. Meanwhile, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ main political-advocacy organization, has boasted about the group’s success in killing the careers of politicians who broke with the brothers’ anti-climate-change agenda. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2017 at 6:37 pm

A Very Powerful Study That Bolsters the Lead-Crime Hypothesis

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Do read Kevin Drum’s post on yet another study on the problems caused by environmental lead. (Exposure to lead in early childhood results in violent adults 20 years later.)

Here’s a chart from the post, but do read the post:

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2017 at 10:49 am

How dead is the Great Barrier Reef?

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 May 2017 at 12:58 pm

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