Later On

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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Continuing fallout from the failure of the War on Drugs

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A bankrupt policy that costs $15 billion per year and results in increasing drug use. Jon Lee Anderson reports in the New Yorker:

1971, President Nixon announced the U.S. “war on drugs,” which every President since has carried forward as a battle standard. Until recently, most Latin American governments have coöperated, and in return have received intelligence, equipment, and, perhaps most importantly, financial assistance. The overall investment has been huge—the federal government now spends about fifteen billion dollars on it each year—with the net result that drug use has proliferated in the U.S. and worldwide. In the drug-producing countries, where drug consumption was negligible at the start of the American effort, the criminal narcoculture has attained ghoulishly surreal proportions.

Over the course of the past few years, a growing number of Latin American governments have begun to challenge U.S. policy and to call for a radical rethinking of the war on drugs, including widespread decriminalization. A handful of leftist governments, such as those of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, have gone so far as to end their coöperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, alleging that U.S. drug policy is a new form of Yankee imperialism. Uruguay, under the former President José Mujica, became the first country to legalize state-sponsored production, sale, and use of marijuana.

The latest opposition to the forty-five-year-old drug war came not from a government that is hostile to the U.S. but from its most steadfast ally in the Americas, Colombia. On May 14th, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government was halting its longstanding practice of spraying the country’s illicit coca crop with chemicals to kill the plants. The spraying began in the late nineties under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, which aimed to wipe out the country’s drug culture and its guerrillas, who largely depend onnarcotráfico for their survival. Santos made the announcement after U.N. scientists confirmed what critics of spraying had long alleged: that glyphosate, a key ingredient in the herbicide known as Roundup, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Colombia was the last country in the world to use chemical spraying to combat illegal drug cultivation. Citing health hazards and damage to impoverished rural economies, both Bolivia and Peru, which also grow coca, have banned aerial spraying. Afghanistan, the world’s chief supplier of opium, overrode American protests to ban spraying in 2007. The Karzai government argued that the program drove poor Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban by destroying their livelihoods without offering realistic economic alternatives. Similar arguments have long been made in Colombia, where millions of farmers have been driven from their land to live in urban slums.

The U.S. State and Defense Departments, which jointly oversee Plan Colombia, have always lobbied heavily in favor of spraying, which is outsourced to the giant U.S. security contractor DynCorp. DynCorp has earned hundreds of millions from its Colombian contracts, just as it previously did in Afghanistan, where it also won the government contract to implement counter-narcotics strategy. Notably, after President Santos announced the halt to spraying, that U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, published an Op-Ed in the leading Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, arguing in favor of continuing the spraying campaign while saying that the U.S would continue working closely with Colombia in spite of the recent decision. Whitaker ended his Op-Ed with the English phrase “We have your back.”

So who is to be believed about the war on drugs, and what is the right way forward? After almost twenty years, many deaths, and billions of dollars spent under Plan Colombia, has illicit coca production decreased in Colombia? Overall, yes, according to the plan’s proponents: in his piece, Whitaker asserted that the area under cultivation for illegal coca production was reduced by half between 2007 and 2013. But studies also show that that area increased by thirty-nine per cent last year—so the most recent trends aren’t good. And if one third of the initial cultivation area is still left, that means that a significant amount of cocaine is still coming out of Colombia, and will be for the foreseeable future. . .

Continue reading.

Maybe we’re going about drugs all wrong?

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2015 at 12:30 pm

Mass Incarceration: The Silence of the Judges

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Jed Rakoff writes a review in the NY Review of Books:

What Caused the Crime Decline?, a report by Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling, with a foreword by Joseph E. Stiglitz and an executive summary by Inimai Chettiar
Brennan Center for Justice, NYU Law School, 134 pp., available at www.brennancenter.org

For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.

The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.

Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.

And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males.

This mass incarceration—which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (most of whom committed nonviolent offenses)—is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular. These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders. They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders. And they required lifetime imprisonment for many recidivists. These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison.

The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high levels of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to them. Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades. A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place.

But is this true? The honest answer is that we don’t know. And it is this uncertainty that makes changing the status quo so difficult: for, the argument goes, why tamper with what seems to be working unless we know that it isn’t working?

There are some who claim that they do know whether our increased rate of incarceration is the primary cause of the decline in crime. These are the sociologists, the economists, the statisticians, and others who assert that they have “scientifically” determined the answer. But their answers are all over the place. Thus, for example, a 2002 study by the sociologist Thomas Arvanites and the economist Robert DeFina claimed that, while increased incarceration accounted for 21 percent of the large decline in property crime during the 1990s, it had no effect on the similarly large decline in violent crime. But two years later, in 2004, the economist Steven Levitt—ofFreakonomics fame—claimed that incarceration accounted for no less than 32 percent of the decline in crime during that period.1

Levitt’s conclusions, in turn, were questioned in 2006, when the sociologist Bruce Western reexamined the data and claimed that only about 10 percent of the crime drop in the 1990s could be attributed to increased incarceration. But two years after that, in 2008, the criminologist Eric Baumer took still another look at the same data and found that it could support claims that increased incarceration accounted for anywhere between 10 percent and 35 percent of the decrease in crime in the 1990s.

As these examples illustrate, there is nothing close to an academic consensus on the proportion of the decrease in crime attributable to increased incarceration. Last year, a distinguished committee of the National Research Council, after reviewing the studies I have mentioned as well as a great many more, was able to conclude only that while most of the studies “support the conclusion that the growth in incarceration rates reduced crime…the magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain.”2

Most recently, in February 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School published a study entitled “What Caused the Crime Decline?” that purports to show that increased incarceration has been responsible for only a negligible decrease in crime. One cannot help but be impressed by the sheer scope of the study. The authors identify the fourteen most popular theories for the decline in crime in the last few decades and attempt to test each of them against the available data.

Five of the theories involve criminal justice policies: increased incarceration, increased police numbers, increased use of statistics in devising police strategies to combat crime, threat of the death penalty, and enactment of right-to-carry gun laws (which theoretically deter violent criminals from attacking victims who they now have to fear might be armed). Another four of the theories are economic in nature, involving changes in unemployment, income, inflation, and consumer confidence. The final five theories involve environmental and social factors: aging population, decreased alcohol consumption, decreased crack use, legalized abortion, and decreased lead in gasoline (which theoretically reduces the supposed tendency of lead fumes to cause overaggressive behavior).

The primary findings of the Brennan study are that . . .

Continue reading.

Rakoff rather obviously does not understand the issue of environmental lead. The problem is not “fumes,” but lead after the fumes evaporate, along with lead in pain and in the water (as in DC, where some tap water was enormously high in lead). But an interesting article.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 May 2015 at 11:38 am

ALEC-Tied Politicians Push North Carolina To Gut Its Environmental Protection Act

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Samantha Page reports at ThinkProgress:

It only took two weeks for the Republican-led House in North Carolina to introduce and pass a bill gutting the state’s environmental law.

The House passed the SEPA Reform Act on Wednesday after allowing total of one minute of public comment. Two of the three bill sponsors have ties to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

The bill will largely dismantle the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), opponents say. Under SEPA, a 1971 law to “encourage the wise, productive, and beneficial use of the natural resources of the State without damage to the environment,” any project that uses state funds or state land is subject to an environmental assessment progress. The SEPA Reform Act changes the trigger for review at $10 million of state funds.

But environmental advocates say a $10-million threshold still effectively wipes SEPA off the books, and state representatives know that.

“It was stated on the floor that $10 million would rarely if ever be triggered,” Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Mary Maclean Asbill told ThinkProgress.

The proposed bill originally set the threshold at $20 million but was amended to the lower number and the review process for public parks was exempted. Lawmakers also clarified a section that would have created uncertainty for federal grant-funded water programs.

“I still feel that this is a near repeal of SEPA,” Maclean Asbill said in an email.

The bill was sponsored by three Republicans, Rep. John Torbett, Rep. Mike Hager, and Rep. Chris Millis. Both Torbett and Hager have attended ALEC’s Annual Meeting, and Hager was paid $1,000 to speak at an ALEC event. Nationwide, including in Congress, Republicans have introduced a number of bills recently that would repeal environmental protection laws or defund environmental agencies.

Opponents of the bill also said the House process lacked transparency and the bill was not adequately justified. In addition to the rapid progression of the bill through the House, it came with little to no supporting evidence.

There was “no report, no evaluation, no assessment of the [SEPA] program,” Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “Where are the stories of how SEPA has caused a problem? Who has been harmed?”

Diggins said her group is not opposed to the state doing analysis on the effectiveness of the more than 30-year-old law. But, “that’s what should have happened before it was brought to the committee.”

Diggins was the only person who was given time to speak against the bill at a meeting of House Environment Committee last week. She was allowed one minute, and the Committee went on to approve the bill 8-0. No supporters of the bill testified. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2015 at 2:16 pm

Environmental lead and Freddie Gray

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Kevin Drum has an interesting point:

The Washington Post features a simple headline today that encompasses decades of personal tragedy and public policy disaster:

Freddie Gray’s life a study in the sad effects of lead paint on poor blacks

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray’s personal tragedy. It’s this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here’s the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

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This is important, because even if you’re a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today’s teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don’t need to constantly harass and bully them; we don’t need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don’t need to beat them senseless; and we don’t need to incarcerate them by the millions.

We just don’t. We live in a different, safer era, and it’s time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let’s stop pretending it’s always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.

Be sure to read the Washington Post article. Astonishing what we have done to ourselves. From the article:

. . . It wasn’t long after that he was given the first of many blood tests, court records show. The test came in May of 1990, when the family was living in a home on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore. Even at such a young age, his blood contained more than 10 micrograms of lead per decileter of blood — double the level in which the Center for Disease Control urges additional testing. Three months later, his blood had nearly 30 micrograms. And then, in June of 1991 when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37 micrograms.

“Jesus,” gasped Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, when told of Gray’s levels. “The fact that Mr. Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate, and profoundly affect his cognitive ability to process information.” He added: “And the real tragedy of lead is that the damage it does is irreparable.”

By the time Gray and his family moved into the hovel on North Carey Street, which became the subject of the subsequent litigation, the amount of lead in his system had lowered. But he and his sisters began developing problems.

His sister, Fredericka, developed issues with aggression, Gray said in a 2009 deposition. “She still got problems like that,” he said. “She still do. She always was the aggressive one. She liked to fight all the time and all of that.”

Equally troubling was the children’s performance in the classroom. All three of them were diagnosed with either ADHD or ADD, and Fredericka’s academic career was “riddled with suspensions,” court records say. . .

 

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2015 at 10:06 am

There are landslides, and then there is earthflow

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Watch this earthflow in western Russia that occurred on 1 April 2015—and I don’t believe it’s an April Fool’s joke:

Apparently it’s a mine-waste failure. The US has had several bad failures regarding mine waste, but nothing on this scale, so far as I know. Yet.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 10:30 am

Posted in Business, Environment

The US government is not doing its job, Part MCCCXLVIII: Regulating the oil industry

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Kevin Drum points out another instance of Congress and the Obama administration failing to do their basic job of protecting the public interest:

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation’s worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana’s oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state’s ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we’re pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2015 at 1:15 pm

Oklahoma state government makes a deliberate decision in favor of ignorance

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Tim McDonnell writes at Mother Jones:

Over the last few years, Oklahoma has experienced an insane uptick in earthquakes. As we reported in 2013, the count exploded from just a couple per year back in the mid-2000s to over a thousand in 2010, growing alongside a boom in the state’s natural gas drilling industry.

There is now a heap of peer-reviewed research finding that Oklahoma’s earthquake “swarm” is directly linked to fracking—not the gas drilling itself, but a follow-up step where brackish wastewater is re-injected into disposal wells deep underground. It’s a troubling trend in an industry that thrives under notoriously lax regulations, especially when the risk to property and public safety is so obvious.

If those numbers weren’t dramatic enough, here’s another: This year, Oklahoma has experienced an average of two quakes per day of magnitude 3.0—enough to be felt and inflict damage to structures—or greater. That’s according to a deep, comprehensive report on the subject out in this week’s New Yorker.

But even freakier than the earthquakes themselves, according to the story, is the pervasive denial of science coming from state agencies like the Oklahoma Geological Survey, whose job it is to oversee the oil and gas industry:

The official position of the O.G.S. is that the Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes were likely a natural event and that there is insufficient evidence to say that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are the result of disposal wells. That position, however, has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise.

The story goes on to detail super-cozy relationships between top regulators and drilling company executives; the state’s ongoing and systemic habit of dismissing or ignoring the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence about the quakes; and a failure by regulators and the state legislature to take any meaningful steps to address the crisis. It’s really quite damning.

As a reporter covering the fracking industry, I’ve found that a lot of the problems associated with the technique aren’t necessarily inherent to it, and could be resolved with more pressure on companies to behave responsibly, or laws requiring them to. Better zoning regulations could keep wells out of neighborhoods. Stricter well construction standards could cut down on the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and help ensure that gas or chemicals don’t contaminate groundwater. In other words, while industry may resist them, there are ready solutions at hand to many of the most cited drawbacks. And the same could be true in the case of earthquakes: while many geologists have now found that drilling wells into deep “basement” rock can set off temblors, there still isn’t a law in Oklahoma that simply requires locating disposal wells elsewhere. . .

Continue reading.

Rivka Galchen’s article in the New Yorker:

In the fall of 2011, students in Katie Keranen’s seismology course at the University of Oklahoma buried portable seismograph stations around the campus, in anticipation of a football game between the Sooners and the Texas A. & M. Aggies. The plan was to see if the students could, by reading the instruments, detect the rumble of eighty-two thousand fans cheering for a touchdown. “To see if they can figure out if a signal is a passing train or a cheering crowd—that’s much more interesting for them than discussing data in theory,” Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics, told me.

But at 2:12 A.M. on November 5th, the day of the game, people in seventeen states felt an earthquake of 4.8 magnitude, centered near Prague, Oklahoma, a town of roughly twenty-five hundred, which is about an hour’s drive from Norman, where O.U. is situated. The students quickly packed up the seismographs and headed to Prague, hoping to measure the aftershocks. “Obviously, this was more worthwhile than a game,” Keranen said.

Outside homes around Prague and nearby Meeker, Keranen and her students, along with Austin Holland, the head seismologist of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, buried their equipment. Portable seismographs look like mini-kegs, or time capsules, and they need to be placed underground and on a level. The researchers wanted to install them quickly, since the ground was still shaking.

Shortly before 11 P.M., people in Prague heard what sounded like a jet plane crashing. It was another earthquake, this time a 5.6, followed, two days later, by a 4.7. (The earthquake scale is logarithmic, so a 5.0 earthquake shakes the ground ten times more than a 4.0, and a hundred times more than a 3.0.) No one was killed, but at least sixteen houses were destroyed and a spire on the historic Benedictine Hall at St. Gregory’s University, in nearby Shawnee, collapsed. Very few people had earthquake insurance; the five million dollars needed for the repairs at St. Gregory’s was raised through crowdfunding.

The earthquakes were big news, but the victory of the Sooners—the name comes from the term for those who broke the rules of the 1889 land run and staked claims in advance—was followed more closely. Few noticed that Keranen and her team had gathered likely the best data we have on a new phenomenon in Oklahoma: man-made earthquakes.

At the time, earthquakes were a relatively rare event for Oklahomans. Now they’re reported on daily, like the weather, and generally by the weatherman. Driving outside Oklahoma City one evening last November, I ended up stopped in traffic next to an electronic billboard that displayed, in rotation, an advertisement for one per cent cash back at the Thunderbird Casino, an advertisement for a Cash N Gold pawnshop, a three-day weather forecast, and an announcement of a 3.0 earthquake, in Noble County. Driving by the next evening, I saw that the display was the same, except that the earthquake was a 3.4, near Pawnee.

Until 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year. (Magnitude-3.0 earthquakes tend to be felt, while smaller earthquakes may be noticed only by scientific equipment or by people close to the epicenter.) In 2009, there were twenty. The next year, there were forty-two. In 2014, there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California. Including smaller earthquakes in the count, there were more than five thousand. This year, there has been an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 or greater.

William Ellsworth, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey, told me, “We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced.” Many of the larger earthquakes are caused by disposal wells, where the billions of barrels of brackish water brought up by drilling for oil and gas are pumped back into the ground. (Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—in which chemically treated water is injected into the earth to fracture rocks in order to access oil and gas reserves—causes smaller earthquakes, almost always less than 3.0.) Disposal wells trigger earthquakes when they are dug too deep, near or into basement rock, or when the wells impinge on a fault line. Ellsworth said, “Scientifically, it’s really quite clear.”

The first case of earthquakes caused by fluid injection came in the nineteen-sixties. Engineers at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical-weapons manufacturing center near Commerce City, Colorado, disposed of waste fluids by injecting them down a twelve-thousand-foot well. More than a thousand earthquakes resulted, several of magnitudes close to 5.0. “Unintentionally, it was a great experiment,” Justin Rubinstein, who researches induced seismicity for the U.S.G.S., told me.

In recent years, other states with oil and gas exploration have also seen an unusual number of earthquakes. State authorities quickly suspected that the earthquakes were linked to disposal wells. In Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, after dozens of smaller quakes culminated in a 4.0, a nearby disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes stopped. Around the same time, in Arkansas, a series of earthquakes associated with four disposal wells in the Fayetteville Shale led to a ban on disposal wells near related faults. Earthquakes were also noted in Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. There, too, relevant disposal wells were shut down or the volume of fluid injected was reduced and the earthquakes abated.

But in Oklahoma, which has had more and stronger earthquakes than the other states, it was late 2013 before an owner of a disposal well was asked by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas exploration, to temporarily reduce its operations—and that was because the well operator himself contacted the O.C.C. and the O.G.S., asking them to look into whether his well was causing problems. So far, there have been only eleven instances in which an owner has, by order, stopped injecting fluids or repositioned a well that was drilled into basement rock.

Driving through Oklahoma’s countryside, you see . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2015 at 2:52 pm

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