All About Mormons

September 13, 2016

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have a curious relationship towards religion. They are not religious and enjoy mocking religion in their show, yet they deny being atheists and have been just as quick to make fun of the pretensions of Atheism and the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and they have admitted to having  a certain curiosity and respect for religious belief. In fact, a closer look at the South Park episodes which ridicule religion shows that they are really opposed to hypocrisy or bad actions justified by religious belief.

Parker and Stone have a particular liking for Mormonism. Growing up in Colorado, right next to the Mormon promised land of Utah, they knew many Mormons and have expressed an appreciation for their politeness and niceness, even while regarding the story of Joseph Smith and Mormon beliefs as ridiculous. Their feelings about Mormonism and religion in general are expressed in the seventh season episode, “All About Mormons“.

In this episode, a Mormon family, the Harrisons, moves to South Park and one of the boys, named Gary, is in the same class as the series regulars.  The Harrisons are nice and polite and eager to befriend everyone in South Park, particularly the Marshes and while they do not want to force their religious beliefs on anyone, they are more than willing to tell their neighbors the history and beliefs of the Mormon religion and it’s prophet Joseph Smith.

The Harrisons

The Harrisons

This history is told through a series of musical flashbacks.

Stan is not impressed with their account of Joseph Smith and points out the inconsistencies and logical fallacies that suggest that Joseph Smith was simply making up his stories about the golden plates and the Angel Moroni.

"All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"

“All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

The next day Gary confronts Stan at the bus stop and explains why he is a Mormon even if the stories are a little silly.

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

The sentiment expressed by Gary, and presumably shared by Parker and Stone is one that I would hope if widely adopted, might promote greater tolerance and civility between persons of different faiths, and with those with no faith. Still, it doesn’t satisfy me because it ignores the question that is most important to me. It is good if the religion you follow makes you a better person, but the question I think more important is, is the religion true? Can the assertions and claims made by this particular religion be shown to be true or false?

I do not mean the metaphysical claims made by nearly all religions concerning deities or the afterlife or anything of that sort. These matters cannot be shown to be true or false this side of eternity and properly matters of faith Nor do I expect that every word of the Book of Mormon or spoken by Joseph Smith to be literally and completely true. That is a burden that even my own mainstream Christianity couldn’t bear. I do think it is fair to ask whether, in a broad sense, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are what they claim to be. Is the Book of Mormon really a historical record of Jewish refugees who settled in the New World? Is Joseph Smith really a prophet of the Lord who translated this account?

The answer to both questions would seem to be no. Studies of the DNA of the Native Americans show that their ancestry is almost entirely from Northern Asia or Siberia. There is no indication of any ancestors of Semitic or Middle Eastern origin. There is no archeological evidence that any of the events described in the Book of Mormon ever took place Not a single city or country named in the Book of Mormon has ever been positively located or identified, nor do any individuals named in the Book of Mormon appear in any historical record outside the Book of Mormon. In contrast, many places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, can be located on a map and many people named in the Bible can be attested in other sources. It may well be that some of the accounts in the Bible are slanted, or even fictitious, but there is no question that there really were places like Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or Babylon and that people like the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his apostles really did exist.

As for Joseph Smith, he had something of a reputation as a con artist who practiced folk magic, specializing in money digging, or searching for lost treasure by occult means. It is possible that Smith reformed after the visions he claimed to have had, but Smith’s actions even after he founded the Mormon religion do not seem to be those of an honest man, still less a prophet.

Does it matter it there is any truth to the Book of Mormon or the story of Joseph Smith, so long as it improves people’s lives? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that a faith built on untruths is a faith built on sand rather than solid rock. I do not believe that such a faith can endure.

For my part, if it were shown that the claims of Christianity were false, I would be obliged to change religions. I could not take comfort in the idea that it does not matter whether the stories the gospels tell about Jesus are true so long as I follow the teachings in the gospels because Christianity is not based on the teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else. Buddhism could still exist even if it were shown that there was no such person as Gautama because his teachings about life and suffering stand on their own regardless whether he existed or not. The same could be true of Confucius or Socrates or many other sages. The teachings of Christ are not much different from the teachings of other sages and express the same truths common to the whole human race. The central message of Christianity is a historical one, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form who was crucified for our sins, who died and was resurrected, defeating sin and death. If Jesus were shown to have never existed or were shown to have been just an ordinary man, than I, and every other Christian, have been wasting our time. As Paul put it,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Cor 15:12-19)

Is this true of Mormonism? I don’t know. The family values taught by the contemporary Mormon faith certainly have little to do with the polygamous Joseph Smith. It may be that the faith is better than its founder. And yet, the family values that Mormonism teaches are, or used to be, the mainstream within the Judeo-Christian tradition. If one can have the family values without the silly stories about Joseph Smith, why bother with the silly stories? If the Mormon religion gives life meaning but is shown to be based on falsehoods, than then meaning one derives from the faith is also based upon falsehoods. I think I would rather have a faith based on truth.

Fifteen Years

September 11, 2016

It has been fifteen years since 9/11. We said that we would never forget, but I am afraid we are already forgetting. They are even starting to teach in colleges that it was our fault.  A person turning eighteen this year, old enough to vote, was only five on that fateful day. I don’t imagine that they would have any clear personal memories of that day, unless they or someone close was personally affected. I am afraid that we are trying to forget the most important lesson of 9/11, that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who would like to destroy us, even if Barack Obama, the lightworker, is the president. Judging from the headlines, we are already relearning the fact that withdrawing from the world will not make the bad guys decide to leave us alone. Too bad the lightworker is incapable of learning from history. Even now he has made a deal with Iran with virtually guarantees that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons without interference from us. It may well be that the next 9/11 attack will be nuclear one.

Well, I will never forget that dreadful day fifteen years ago, no matter how long I live. We will just have to keep telling the story to the younger generations so they will not have to experience any such attacks for themselves. With that in mind, I am going to copy what I wrote three years ago.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at work, driving from Madison to North Vernon when I got a call from my wife. She asked me if I were listening to the radio. I was not. She told me to turn it on because something terrible was happening. I turned my car radio on and listened to the coverage of the attack.

I went about my duties at the stores in North Vernon in a sort of state of shock.  The North Vernon WalMart and Jay C played continuing news coverage of the day’s events instead of the usual soothing Musak. Not too many people were working or shopping in the stores. They were mostly just listening.

I had to go to Seymour for a meeting that afternoon. On the way I noticed that some gas stations had raised the price of gasoline to a then unheard of price of $5 per gallon. At the meeting, no one wanted to discus the business at hand. Instead we talked about the terrorist attack. It seemed certain to us all that more attacks were on the way and that this time we couldn’t just launch a few missiles, blow up some tents, and then move on. We were in for a long fight.

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I went home but I don’t remember much about it.

I was once in the World Trade Center. I was in New York with some friends as a sort of tourist and we took the elevator to the top floor of one of the twin towers. There was a gallery up there where you could look out over the city of New York. The day was foggy so I didn’t see anything. They had a gift shop in the center section of the floor. It sickens me to think that the people who worked there went to work one morning, and then had to choose between burning to death or jumping, Not to mention the tourists, who only wanted to look at the city.

It still sickens me to think about the people who were only doing their jobs having to lose their lives.

twin

 

The Ku Klux Klan is Coming to Town

September 4, 2016

The Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has decided to honor my home town Madison, Indiana with a rally held the very same weekend as one of our more popular events, the Chautauqua/ Old Courthouse Days. Oh joy.

Our local newspaper, the Madison Courier, reports on this exciting development.

City, county and state law enforcement agencies are coordinating efforts to ensure public safety on Saturday, Sept. 24, when the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan plan to hold a rally from noon to 2 p.m. at Madison’s Fireman’s Park on Vaughn Drive — during the Chautauqua Festival of Art and Old Court Days celebrations.

In a document submitted several weeks ago to Jefferson County Sheriff John Wallace, representatives from the Klan – Imperial Officers Larry Philmore of Fort Wayne and Robert Preston of Baltimore, MD. – requested to hold the rally on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

However, since the Courthouse will be surrounded by Old Court Days vendors and patrons, city and county attorneys sought advice from an Indianapolis attorney who specializes in 1st Amendment issues to see if it was legal to ask the Klan to hold the rally at another location, Mayor Damon Welch said.

The attorney advised that, because of the previously planned event, local officials had the right to offer the Klan another location for the rally, Welch said, adding that Klan officials ”verbally agreed” to move the rally to Fireman’s Park, which is outside of the footprint of both Old Court Days and the Chautauqua.

In a telephone interview Friday, Philmore confirmed that his organization did agree to hold the rally at the park.

“We did not know the festival was going on,” he said, adding it wasn’t the Klan’s intention for the rally to coincide with Chautauqua weekend, which draws thousands of visitors to Madison each year. “That’s not how we do things,” he said.

And how is it that we get the honor of hosting a Klan rally?

One reason Madison was chosen for the rally is because the KKK “has had a chapter there for years. It’s been passed down from generation to generation,” Philmore said.

Philmore said, too, that he doesn’t believe it’s an accident that the population of Indiana is still mostly white and that the races are, for the most part, segregated.

“Indiana has always been a big supporter of the Klan,” he said.

I did not know that we have a chapter of the KKK here in Madison, but somehow, I am not surprised. I did know that at one time, the Ku Klux Klan was very powerful in Indiana. Back in the 1920’s, virtually every Democratic politician was a member and the Klan dominated Indiana politics. This is not something most Hoosiers are proud of.

But we mustn’t assume that the planned rally has anything to do with race just because it is the Ku Klux Klan. Their concern is with the growing problem of drugs in small communities.

The subject of race will not be not the focus of the Sept. 24 rally in Madison planned by the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a Klan spokesman told a Madison Courier reporter on Friday.

“Our main (issue) is drug trafficking and the drug problem” that is plaguing Jefferson County and other counties throughout southern Indiana, said Larry Philmore of Fort Wayne.

The rally, which will be from 2 to 4 p.m. at Fireman’s Park on Vaughn Drive, is intended to encourage people to “start standing up to drug dealers. It’s time to make a stand,” Philmore said. “If people have a problem with that, it’s on them.”

The Klan is not a hate group, after all.

Philmore said the rally will begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer, followed by a series of speakers. The event will be followed with a member “meet and greet,” he said, which will include “a cross lighting, not a cross burning,” held at an undisclosed location in the county.

“Cross-burning is what idiots do,” Philmore said. “It’s against our rules. It’s done by backyard rednecks that make the Klan look bad.”

Cross lighting, he explained, is simply a fraternal ritual of illuminating the cross with “the light of Jesus Christ. Out of the darkness comes the light,” he said, acknowledging that to be a member of the Klan, one must be a Christian.

“Do we allow any other races in? No. But, we’ve been here 151 years,” he said. “We’re the oldest civil rights organization in the country.”

I can hardly wait to see that burning, sorry lit, cross.

Now, the sensible thing to do when the Ku Klux Klan shows up in town would be to ignore them. Don’t protest them. Don’t drive by and gawk. Don’t argue with them. That only gives these pathetic losers the attention they can’t get any other way. Stay away from the site of the rally and enjoy the Chautauqua.

Of course there are people who do not plan to be sensible. I will call these people the Anti-Klan since they seem to have the same desire to stir people up and get attention for themselves.

A collection of concerned citizens calling themselves Jefferson County United hopes to discourage a late-September visit to Madison by the Ku Klux Klan.

In an open letter to Philmore and Richard Preston of Baltimore, Md., whose names and contact information appear on a document sent to Sheriff John Wallace announcing the Klan’s intent to rally, the group states:

“We pride ourselves on being an open, welcoming community. Maybe our reputation for hospitality was a factor in your decision to visit us. But if so, you take us too much for granted.

“We have been working hard for many years to create a strong, supportive community that welcomes people of all faiths, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and people from all parts of the world. Not everyone in the community shares our ideals, but many of us in Jefferson County strive nonetheless to embrace all people. … We must speak out, therefore, against detestable messages of division, resentment, hatred and white supremacy. … We are keenly aware of the disgraceful history of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana … but this is not the Indiana of the 1920s. … We decry your idealogy.”

On Tuesday, the group held an informal meeting, inviting members of the Human Relations Commission, as well as law enforcement and representatives of Hanover College, said fellow member James Buckwalter. He said at least 50 people attended, all representing various segments of Jefferson County’s population.

“We are in the process now of trying to think what an appropriate, peaceful, nonconfrontational response would look like,” Buckwalter said. Coming to a consensus is difficult, particularly because of the group’s diversity.

Emphasizing that he was not speaking for the group, Buckwalter said he doesn’t believe anyone wants to confront the Klan. “If there’s a consensus about anything, it’s that (the KKK) is not a good group. We’re concerned about their presence here and we are discussing a possible constructive, peaceful response.”

I really don’t think any response at all is necessary.  After all when the Klan and Anti-Klan meet there can only be one result.

 

 

But, seriously, I really think that protesting or rallying against the Klan is not a good idea. Of course the Anti-Klan doesn’t believe that we should ignore the Klan.

The movement, she said, is also more than being a response to the KKK’s presence.

“I see their visit as an opportunity to open up a conversation that maybe we have been avoiding as a community, about how we welcome people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, people of all faiths,” said Arico.

“Many people told us the best thing to do is ignore (the Klan) and they’ll go away and everything will return to normal,” Buckwalter said, building on Arico’s comments. “But we don’t want to go back to normal. (Hopefully) their decision to come here will have the opposite effect of what they intended.”

But that is exactly what I want, for the Klan to stay away and everything to stay normal. I do not want this conversation about how we welcome people of color, etc with these people because the conversations always end up the same way. If you don’t tow the liberal line from A to Z than you get called a racist, sexist, homophobe, bigot, etc. These kinds of conversations do no good and only turn people against each other, which perhaps is the intent of the progressives who are always clamoring for them.

I think that if we stopped talking about race relations and just tried to treat everyone decently, we would find after a time that there would no longer be anything to talk about, and groups like the Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan wouldn’t exist anymore.

Murder and Magic

September 1, 2016

Writing a detective story in a science fiction or fantasy setting can be a hazardous undertaking because of the temptation for the writer to cheat by having his hero pull out some gadget that will destroy the suspect’s alibi by showing everyplace he’s been for the last twenty-four hours or casting a magic spell that shows the blood on his hands, literal or not. In order for the mystery writer to play fair with the readers and write a whodunit worth reading, he has to set out the rules and limitations of the advanced technology or magic that his world uses to solve crimes. He need not make the rules explicit in the story, but they have to be there in the background, and they have to be reasonably consistent.

Randall Garrett did an excellent job of combining the mystery and fantasy genres in his Lord Darcy series of stories. Set in an alternate world in which Richard the Lion Hearted managed to survive the accidental crossbow shot that killed in real life.  Instead, the near death experience prompted King Richard to settle down from fighting and crusading and seriously try to govern the lands he ruled, resulting in an Angevin Empire that survives into the twentieth century. Richard also patronised scholars and scientists which led to the discovery of the laws of magic. By the time of Garrett’s stories, the Angevin Empire of England and France, along with the Americas and other colonies is the leading world power and magic is used in everyday applications, much as science and technology are used in ours. Magicians can cast spells to preserve food, secure homes, communicate over long distances, and help solve crimes.

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In this world, Lord Darcy is the Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy. In the course of his duties, Lord Darcy solves crimes and untangles international intrigues, assisted by the forensic sorcerer Sean O’ Lochlainn. Despite the fantasy setting, the cases Lord Darcy investigates are mostly the sort that can be found in any mystery story. Magic is not often used to commit the crimes and Sean O’Lochlainn’s techniques are rather like the more scientific procedures that might be familiar to a viewer of a show like CSI. Magic is a substitute for science in Lord Darcy’s world and a forensic sorcerer can no more solve a crime by magic in that world than a crime scene technician can “magically” solve a crime in our own.

Murder and Magic is Randall Garrett’s  first collection of  Lord Darcy stories. The collection includes four short stories with cases involving a supposed suicide, mistaken identities and blackmail, and a plot by the King of Poland, England-France’s chief international rival, to disrupt the Atlantic trade. I found each of the stories to be entertaining and finished the book wanting to read more. I think that anyone who enjoys reading either mysteries or fantasies will find the stories that combine the two genres to be worth reading.

Retired Emperor

August 22, 2016

Japanese Emperor Akihito may be thinking of abdicating his post because his age is making it difficult to fulfill his duties as emperor. The BBC has this story.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito has strongly indicated he wants to step down, saying he fears his age will make it difficult to fulfil his duties.

The revered 82-year-old emperor’s comments came in only his second-ever televised address to the public.

Emperor Akihito did not explicitly say he wanted to abdicate as he is barred from making political statements.

PM Shinzo Abe said the government would take the remarks “seriously” and discuss what could be done.

“Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do,” he said.

It is not as easy as that, though.

Why can’t the emperor abdicate? Abdication is not mentioned under Japan’s existing laws, so they would need to be changed for the emperor to be able to stand down. The changes would also have to be approved by parliament.

Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito

I am actually a little surprised that there is no provision for an Emperor abdicating under current Japanese law. There was a time, during the Heian period, in which the Emperor was not only permitted to abdicate, but was actually required to step down in favor of his successor.

The period of time from 794-1185, when the court at Heian ruled over Japan is known as the Heian period. This was a remarkable period of Japanese history, in which the Japanese fully absorbed the influences from China and made them part of a a uniquely Japanese culture. During the Heian period, Japanese arts, literature, and philosophy reached a peak seldom equalled in the centuries since. The influence of the Heian period on Japanese culture is something like that of ancient Greece and Rome in the West, the basis of everything that followed.

The earlier Heian period is also one of the few times in Japanese history in which the Emperor actually wielded political power, following the example of the all-powerful Chinese Emperors. Over time, however, the Imperial house began to decline in power and vigor, just as the various Chinese dynasties had. The powerful Fujiwara clan began to gain power at the expense of the Emperors. The Fujiwaras monopolized the top government posts and were the regents when an Emperor was a minor. They married their daughters to the Emperors so that a Fujiwara was always the Emperor’s father-in-law, with the filial obligations that brought. Eventually, the Fujiwara regents began to compel the Emperors to abdicate as soon as they were old enough to rule on their own. These Retired Emperors often became Buddhist monks and were referred to as Cloistered Emperors. By 1000, the Fujiwara regent was the emperor of Japan in all but name, while the reigning Emperor was a figurehead.

In any other country, it is likely that the people who had the power behind the throne would have grown weary of the pretense and seized the throne themselves, as the Frankish Carolingians had overthrown the Merovingians and were overthrown in their turn by the French Capets, or the succeeding dynasties of China had overthrown one another. In Japan, however, this was unthinkable. One of the ideas that the Japanese had not taken from Chinese politics was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Japanese Emperor was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and thus always had the Mandate of Heaven, whatever the failings of his person or his line. The Fujiwaras had to be content with being regents.

In time, the Fujiwaras declined and the Imperial House began to reassert itself. In a characteristically Japanese fashion, the reigning Emperors, themselves, did not attempt to regain power. Instead, the Retired Emperors took power. This was the known as Cloistered Rule. So, during the period of Cloistered Rule, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, who was in fact, a figurehead, with a Regent or Chief Minister from the Fujiwara Clan who was supposed to be powerful, but was another figurehead, while the real power was held by a former emperor who was in theory, merely a monk. It seems unnecessarily baroque and complicated, but the Japanese have generally preferred rule by consensus rather than by a single strong man. The system seemed to work well enough.

Then again, perhaps it did not. The members of the Imperial Court at Heian always had a strong contempt for common people and the outer provinces of Japan, what we might refer to as flyover country. For the court nobles, the common people were little better than domestic animals, while the military aristocracy who fought off the northern barbarians were themselves semi-barbarians. The Imperial Court became more insular and isolated from the concerns of the provinces. The members of the court became more concerned with their rank and position at court than with administrating the country. As a result, the military leaders in the provinces began to gain power and by 1185, after a series of struggles between several Retired Emperors and military clans related to the Imperial Family, a warlord named Minamoto no Yoritomo took power as the first Shogun (Supreme General), ending the Heian Period, and establishing the military dictatorship of the Shoguns that lasted through several dynasties of Shoguns until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Imperial Court and the court nobility continued as before except they had no power and depended on the Shoguns for funds.

Emperors still occasionally abdicated in favor of their successor, but the custom of Cloistered Rule ended with the end of the Heian Period. The last Emperor to abdicate was Kokaku who reigned from 1779-1817. His position as Retired Emperor caused some trouble with the Tokugawa Shoguns, and it is perhaps not coincidental that from his reign, and retirement, the Imperial Court began the process of asserting itself against the Shoguns.

I don’t know when the laws about abdication were changed or whether the current law in Japan actually prohibits an Emperor from resigning or whether there is simply no provision for abdication. Judging from the article, it would seem to be the latter case. If so, than I can’t imagine there would be any reason to deny Akihito’s wish to abdicate, especially considering his age and health. There is, after all, ample precedent in Japanese history.

Atomic Hard Drive

August 16, 2016

It is easy to become depressed about the state of the world right now. We have what are probably the worst two candidates running for president in this election. The whole world seems to be falling apart and terrorist attacks are starting to become a daily occurrence in Europe and America and our leaders express confusion over their motives; obviously Islam has nothing to do with the Islamic State. The economy seems to be stagnant with the 1% getting ever richer and the rest of us struggling to keep in place.

But this kind of thinking is misleading. We do have problems, yet in so many ways, life in the twenty-first century is better than it has ever been. Our lives are far more comfortable in almost every material sense than those of the people who lived a century ago, thanks to the enormous progress we have made in science and technology. The day-to-day bad news, which tends to depress us, is really a distraction from all the amazing discoveries and inventions that will be changing our lives over the rest of the century.

Here’s a story I read in the Wall Street Journal about one of these discoveries.

By manipulating the interactions between individual atoms, scientists report they have created a device that can pack hundreds of times more information per square inch than the best currently available data-storage technologies.

The working prototype is part of a decades-long attempt to shrink electronics down to the atomic level, a feat scientists believe would allow them to store information much more efficiently, in less space and more cheaply. By comparison, tech companies today build warehouse-sized data centers to store the billions of photos, videos and posts consumers upload to the internet daily. Corporations including International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. also have explored research to reduce such space needs.

The so-called atomic-scale memory, described in a paper published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, can hold one kilobyte, the equivalent of roughly a paragraph of text.

It may not sound “very impressive,” said Franz Himpsel, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who wasn’t involved in the study. But “I would call it a breakthrough.”

Most previous attempts at encoding information with atoms, including his own, managed roughly one byte, Dr. Himpsel said. And data could be stored only once. To store new information, the “disk” had to be re-formatted, like CD-Rs popular in the ’90s.

With the new device, “we can rewrite it as often as we like,” said Sander Otte, an experimental physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the lead author on the new paper.

They can actually arrange individual atoms. When I was growing up, no one had ever seen an atom. They were too small to be imaged, even by electron microscopes. Scientists did not invent the scanning tunneling microscope, which allows individual atoms to be “seen” and manipulated until the 1980’s.

Scanning tunnelling microscope

Scanning tunnelling microscope

To build their prototype, the scientists peppered a flat copper bed with about 60,000 chlorine atoms scattered at random, purposely leaving roughly 8,000 empty spaces among them. A mapping algorithm guided the tiny, copper-coated tip of a high-tech microscope to gently pull each chlorine atom to a predetermined location, creating a precise arrangement of atoms and neighboring “holes.”

The team also crafted a language for their device. The stored information is encoded in the patterns of holes between atoms. The atom-tugging needle reads them as ones and zeros, turning them into regular binary code.

The researchers marked up the grid with instructions that cued the software where it should direct the needle to write and read data. For instance, a three-hole diagonal line marked the end of a file.

They still have a lot of work to do before our computers come equipped with an atomic hard drive.

Writing the initial data to the device took about a week, though the rewriting process takes just a few hours, Dr. Otte said.

“It’s automated, so it’s 10 times faster than previous examples,” said Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif. Still, “this is very exploratory. It’s important not to see this one-kilobyte memory result as something that can be taken directly to a product.”

Reading the stored data is much too slow to have practical applications soon. Plus, the device is stable for only a few hours at extremely low temperatures. To be competitive with today’s hard drives, the memory would have to persist for years and work in warmer temperatures, said Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a research consortium based in Durham, N.C.

When Dr. Otte’s team took the memory out of the extremely low-temperature environment in which it was built and stored, the information it held was lost. Next, his team will explore other metal surfaces as well as elements similar to, but heavier than, chlorine, to see if that improves the device’s stability.

But, maybe it will happen sooner than we think.

We truly live in a brave new world. If only we stop ourselves from messing everything up.

Who is David Duke?

August 15, 2016

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has come out of whatever rock he has been hiding under to express his support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, so naturally National Public Radio had to go speak with him about his endorsement and his run for a Senate seat from his native state Louisiana.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is running for U.S. Senate and tells NPR that he believes he’ll be getting the votes of Donald Trump supporters.

And he reiterated his own support for Trump, saying he’s “100 percent behind” the Republican presidential candidate’s agenda.

“As a United States senator, nobody will be more supportive of his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will,” Duke said.

Trump, while he once said he didn’t know enough about Duke to comment on him, has several times disavowed endorsements by Duke. But that hasn’t stopped some white supremacists from publicly supporting Trump’s campaign.

Duke says that Trump’s attacks on Muslims and illegal immigration have brought his own beliefs into the mainstream.

The former KKK grand wizard, who describes himself as advocating for European-Americans, filed to run for an open Senate seat in Louisiana just one day after the Republican National Convention.

Who is David Duke. anyway, and why should anyone care who he endorses or what he is doing?

As noted, David Duke was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. To be more precise, Duke was the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 to 1980. This is not as impressive as it might seem. The Ku Klux Klan hasn’t really existed since the 1930’s, at least not as a single national organization with a centralized leadership. Instead, the Ku Klux Klan has become a number of small fragmented groups with a handful of members. These rival Klans tend to hate each other, along with other racist groups, as much as they hate Blacks, Jews, the federal government and other perceived enemies. Because there is not any such thing as the Ku Klux Klan is existence any more, anyone with a few followers can start his own Klan with and declare himself Grand Wizard or Imperial Dragon or any other title he wishes. That is just what David Duke did. In 1974 founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and made himself Grand Wizard.

Duke didn’t fit the common stereotype of a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He was not a drunken red neck constantly spouting racial slurs, but an articulate, educated, and telegenic figure who preferred to dress in business suits rather than Klan robes. He tried to change the Klan’s image from a band of violent racists to something like a White civil rights organization with an emphasis on nonviolence and legality. As a result, he became popular on the talk show circuit where liberal talk show hosts, like Phil Donahue, could present him as the charismatic leader of the new, growing and dangerous Ku Klux Klan.

It was all a lie. Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was not rapidly growing in numbers and influence.The Klan remained divided and fractious and the more violent and old fashioned Klans, like Duke’s rival Bill Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan were actually more popular among racists. Duke himself was not a particularly good administrator or leader. In the late 1970’s, a reporter for the Tennesean named Jerry Thompson managed to infiltrate the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Invisible Empire and discovered that Duke’s organization was a shambles. Meetings were rare and not well attended. Duke found it difficult to gather a quorum for Thompson’s initiation ceremony. The group seemed to exist more for Duke’s publicity than anything else. By contrast, Thompson found the Invisible Empire frightening with their more violent rhetoric and carrying guns everywhere. Even so, Wilkinson’s group had few members and despite a real  danger of individual Klansmen committing violent crimes, the organization as a whole was fairly ineffective. Thompson tried to play up the Klan threat in his book, My Life in the Klan, but all his investigative journalism managed to convey was how ridiculous Duke and the Ku Klux Klan actually were.

David Duke resigned his position as Grand Wizard in 1980 under somewhat murky circumstances. He claimed that he had become disenchanted because of the associations between the Klan and violence, particularly when he had no power to stop other Klans from committing violent acts. Instead, Duke decided to form a new organization the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). There were allegations that he had used funds from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to renovate his home. Jerry Thompson reported that Duke had met with Wilkinson and agreed to sell him the membership list for his organization. This was seen as a betrayal by many of Duke’s former associates.

Since then, David Duke has been busy writing and promoting his racist and anti-Semitic views. He was convicted of tax fraud and mail fraud back in 2002. He has also run for public office and generally losing. He did manage to win election to the Louisiana House of Representatives where he served from 1989-1992. He does not seem to have been a very effective legislator. Duke has generally run as a Republican, although he began as a Democrat and joined Ross Perot‘s Reform Party in 2000, working for Pat Buchanan.

The answer to the question, “who is David Duke?”, then, is that he is nobody of importance. David Duke is a failed politician and a failed leader of a fringe movement. There is no reason for anybody to really care what David Duke thinks on any issue. So, why does NPR think Duke’s opinions are worth reading? Maybe the editor’s note at the beginning of the article can explain.

NPR spoke with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who supports Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, because Duke represents the way in which white supremacists attach themselves to Trump’s campaign.

The logic is that because white supremacists support Donald Trump, Donald Trump must be a white supremacist. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump is hardly running on a white supremacist platform. He has said some unpleasant things about illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but I do not believe that it is racist to insist that we maintain some control over who gets into our country. This is simply guilt by association. Not even association, since I doubt that Donald Trump has ever met David Duke and may well have been telling the truth when he said he had never heard of him.

It is odd that no one seems inclined to look into the past associates of any Democrats. Barack Obama began his political career in the apartment of a left-wing terrorist and attended a church with a racist, anti-American pastor for many years. The Clintons have a number of unsavory acquaintances, not to mention their corrupt dealings with their Clinton Foundation. None of that seems to matter as much as a nobody like David Duke endorsing Donald Trump, just as the Clintons’ obvious corruption is somehow of far less importance than Donald Trump’s more idiotic public comments.

We have had a biased media for quite a long time, but I don’t think that I have ever seen them so determined to choose a winner for the next election, even if it means sacrificing what little integrity they still have and even if it means outright deception. I have never liked Donald Trump very much and I wish that someone else had been the Republican nominee, but I have to say that anyone who the liberal media hates so much must be doing something right.

 

Trump and NATO

July 25, 2016

National Review Online‘s Kevin Williamson wrote an article criticizing Donald Trump for his latest really bad idea, having the United States not necessarily follow up on its treaty commitments to our NATO allies. I might as well say that while I vastly prefer a Trump presidency over a Hilary Clinton presidency and I do not think that Trump will be the disaster in the White House that some are predicting, his tendency to shoot off his mouth, along with his apparent ignorance of the nature of international trade, cause me to have serious reservations about Trump’s fitness for the office he seeks. Unfortunately, he seems to be the lesser evil by a long shot. I might as well also state that even when Trump seems to be saying something stupid or unacceptable, it often turns out that he is making a good point after it has been stripped of its populist rhetoric. It may be that this is the case with his statements about NATO.

First,  here’s what Williamson has to say.

Trump, whose nickel-and-dime gestalt could only have come from a repeatedly failed casino operator, is a creature in search of petty advantages and small paydays. As such, he suggested yesterday that the United States might forsake its commitment to NATO — our most important military alliance — because he believes that our NATO allies are not carrying their share of the expense. Trump’s mind processes information the way a horse processes oats, and the product is exactly the same.

 

It is true that the United States spends more in both absolute and proportional terms than do other NATO members, but here the United States is the outlier. It spends a great deal more on national defense than other NATO members do, and more than non-NATO members, and pretty much every country on the face of the Earth. That has nothing to do with NATO; that has to do with political decisions made in Congress and by presidents of both parties going back to Franklin Roosevelt. It may very well be that the United States spends too much on the military — I believe that it does — but that isn’t because some other country spends too little. The myth of the free-riding Europeans, diverting domestic tax dollars from national security to welfare programs, is not supported by the evidence. They don’t have unusually small militaries; we have an unusually large and expensive one.

Since 1949, there has never been any serious doubt that the United States would fulfill its obligations to the North Atlantic alliance. That is a big part of why we had a Cold War instead of an all-out (probably nuclear) World War III in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a big part of the reason there is no longer a wall running through Berlin, and why the people who hold Bernie Sanders’s political philosophy were able to murder only 100 million innocent human beings instead of 200 million.

 

Thanks to Trump, the heads of government and defense ministers of the other NATO powers must now consider that the United States will welsh on its obligations the way Donald Trump welshes on his debts. He isn’t the president yet, of course, and he probably won’t be. But the chance isn’t zero, either. If you are, say, Lithuania, and you suspect that the United States will not actually have your back — a suspicion fortified by Trump’s man-crush on Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — what do you do? Maybe you try to get ahead of the curve and go voluntarily into the Russian orbit.

All of these are good points and Williamson is probably correct is asserting that our European allies are not really taking advantage of us when it comes to funding NATO. He is definitely right that NATO played a role in seeing that the Cold War did not become World War III and that the alliance helped us to win the Cold War. But, I think that Williamson, and maybe Trump himself, misses the larger point. Why does NATO still exist?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 in order to combat potential aggression from the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. NATO was conceived of as a alliance of mutual defense among the free nations of Western Europe and North America. In many ways, NATO has been one of the most successful multi-national alliances in history, and although the NATO allies were never called into joint military action against the Soviet Union, the alliance was surely a deterrent against any Soviet plans to extend Communism into Western Europe.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The whole reason for NATO has not existed for a quarter of a century. Why is NATO still around? Who are we defending against?

There are still threats in the world. Vladimir Putin seems to be intent on restoring as much of the Soviet empire as he can ,but Putin’s Russia is only a pale shadow of the old Soviet Union. Russia is still a strong country, but it is not the superpower that the Soviet Union was. Putin can stir up trouble in the Ukraine, but he lacks the global reach of the Soviet leaders. The leaders of the Soviet Union were inspired by a militant, millenarian ideology, Communism, that had some appeal and supporters in West and elsewhere. These days Communism is discredited everywhere except on American college campuses and Bernie Sanders rallies. Putin’s appeal to Russian nationalism is not something to inspire people in Europe and America. There is also the threat of Islamic terrorism and other threats around the world that clearly call for coordinated action by the United States and its allies, but a framework for fighting the next world war may not work so well against a more diffuse enemy.

Looking over the Wikipedia article, I find that NATO has made many changes in its command structure, etc in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it seems to me that it is an organization that is seeking a role to play, particularly since NATO has been permitting Eastern European former Soviet satellites such as Poland to join the alliance, pushing the alliance all the way up to the Russian border. This may not have been wise. The Russians must surely see this as a threat. How would we feel if Mexico and Canada joined in a political and military alliance originally created to counter the United States?

Kevin Williamson mentions Lithuania in his article. Lithuania joined NATO in 2004. Obviously, under the terms of the alliance, if Vladimir Putin sent tanks into Vilnius tomorrow, the United States would have to respond as though it were an attack on American soil. How credible is that, really? Would the United States really fight a war against Russia over Lithuania? Are American interests really served by threatening war over Lithuania? It would be unfortunate if Lithuania had to return to its previous role as a province of Russia, but is it really America’s job to keep that from happening.

I am not an isolationist. I believe that America, like it or not, has to be the world’s policeman, both for our good and the good of the whole world. These peacekeeping actions we keep finding ourselves in are expensive, but not nearly so expensive as a full scale war would be, and I have no doubt that that is exactly what we would have if we let things go. But, I think we need to be a lot smarter about how we use our influence in the world and we need to understand that we cannot get involved in every single quarrel, nor can we bring democracy to people who have known nothing but despotism for centuries. The next president, whether Trump or Clinton, should probably begin a complete reappraisal of our foreign policy to determine what serves American interests and what does not, and this reappraisal must include considering whether relics of previous decades should be kept, reformed, or abolished.

Team America

July 19, 2016

In a recent post, Scott Adams has a few words to say about how persuaders can unite or divide us. Some of what he has to say matches things I have been thinking about for some time particularly on the subject of racism in America.

To begin with, Adams divides people into three categories.

Rational People: Use data and reason to arrive at truth. (This group is mostly imaginary.)

Word-Thinkers: Use labels, word definitions, and analogies to create the illusion of rational thinking. This group is 99% of the world.

Persuaders: Use simplicity, repetition, emotion, habit, aspirations, visual communication, and other tools of persuasion to program other people and themselves. This group is about 1% of the population and effectively control the word-thinkers of the world.

And people think in terms of in-groups and out-groups.

You can easily spot word-thinkers when they talk about politics. Their go-to strategy involves identifying enemies and fitting them into whatever category matches their biases and cognitive dissonance. Look for this form:

You can easily spot word-thinkers when they talk about politics. Their go-to strategy involves identifying enemies and fitting them into whatever category matches their biases and cognitive dissonance. Look for this form:

Examples:

  • Person X is liberal, or not
  • Person X is a conservative, or not
  • Person X is an insider, or not
  • Person X is a racist, or not
  • Person X is a legal resident, or not
  • Person X is like Hitler, or not
  • Person X is a science-denier, or not
  • Person X is a sexist, or not

So, part of being a politician is defining people and issues in such a way as to make their supporters feel as though they are a team and their opponents as part of the opposing team.

For example, Trump is trying to frame the election as Americans versus outsiders. To Trump, you’re either in the American category or you’re a threat to those who are, in terms of money or violence. You will note that Trump has avoided calling Clinton liberal. That category lost its power. But Trump has defined a “crooked insider” category for Clinton and makes sure you know she’s in it.

Clinton has avoided calling Trump conservative, because the label wouldn’t fit. Even conservatives have a hard time putting Trump in that category. But if the alternative is Clinton, conservatives will hold their nose and accept him in their group.

Clinton’s strategy – which has worked well – is to put Trump in the boxes that are labelled sexist, racist, science-denying, and Hitler. That’s too many boxes for the purposes of good persuasion. Persuasion requires simplicity. So team Clinton tried to create an overarching category called “hate,” in order to assign Trump to it. They even used the “love trumps hate” slogan. Trump has tried to get out of the hate box by talking about love and doing a lot of hugging.

 

The big risk with word-thinking during an election – with all the analogies and categorizing – is that the public starts to see the world in those terms and act that way. Clinton’s message has been that America is divided by race and gender, and suddenly we see a horrifying uptick in police shootings because it fits that world view. That blood is on team Clinton’s hands (my side), in my opinion. My guess is that the genders also have a more negative view of each other than at any time in history. That’s coming from my team as well.

Obama has not been the unifying figure that many people hoped he would be. It might have been better in a Nixon going to China way if the first Black president had been a Republican, perhaps with a military background. Instead we got someone who, as a community organizer and Marxist, was inclined to see people as opposing groups.

Trump, on the other hand, is drawing us a picture of America as one team and everyone else as the competing teams. In terms of persuasion, this is a super-strong message, but only if he hammers it home at the GOP Convention.

Have you ever noticed that professional sports teams are great at overcoming racism and getting everyone to play together? That’s because the coach has persuaded the players to see the team as their dominant identity. Trump can do the same with America. Just tell us we’re on the same team, and that we’re in afriendly competition with the rest of the world. I don’t care what gender and ethnicity you are, so long as you’re with me on the American team and helping to compete against the rest of the world.

The words “Team America” would be the strongest persuasion this country has ever seen. That framing loses the xenophobia and hate, and defines us as part of a friendly competition with the world that is good for all. The only downside is that Team America is the name of a hilarious puppet movie. But I think we can get past that.

Here is the part I have been wondering about. Have you ever noticed that the people who claim to be fighting against racism, sexism, etc are the same people who insist on dividing people by race, sex, etc. They emphasize our differences and bring up past and present grievances and then seem surprised when the result is not an increase in racial harmony.

Contrary to what is preached from every corporate human relations office, diversity is not always good. Homo Sapiens is a pack animal and we instinctively prefer member of our own pack, group, tribe, etc. Emphasizing differences and then preaching diversity only gives people reasons to dislike and distrust one another. If these people really wanted to end prejudice, they would emphasize our common identity as Americans, making us feel as though we were all one tribe or team. They would draw attention to the things we all have in common as Americans and minimise the differences between race, etc. I think we would all get along a lot better if we thought of ourselves as Americans first and anything else second. But, then maybe their goal is not fighting prejudice and racism but taking advantage of them to divide and rule.

 

 

Abolish the Police

July 18, 2016

A Black Lives Matter activist named Jessica Disu has called for the police to be abolished during what was called a heated discussion on the Kelly File, as reported on Fox News.

A Black Lives Matter activist from Chicago argued during a heated Kelly File discussion that American police forces should be abolished.

“Here are the solutions. We need to abolish the police, period. Demilitarize the police, disarm the police, and we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice,” said Jessica Disu, drawing some shocked reactions.

The conversation started with Megyn Kelly asking the panel – which included Black Rights Matter supporters, law enforcement officers, conservative commentators and religious leaders – about some who praised the Dallas gunman.

Disu, who described herself as a community organizer, said that Black Lives Matter has never called for violence against anyone.

She did not comment when Kelly pointed out that some protesters have called for “dead cops.”

Megyn Kelly asked her how citizens would be protected if police forces were “abolished.”

“We need to come up with community solutions. The police force in this country began as slave patrol,” Disu argued.

The suggestion is not actually as crazy as it sounds. We believe that having a professional, uniformed, quasi-military style police force is essential for maintaining order in our communities, but in fact, the idea of a body of police officers with the duty of capturing criminals and investigating crimes is a surprisingly recent one, dating back only to the early to middle nineteenth century. Before that time there were no policemen, as we know them. Of course, there have been officials charged with maintaining law and order for as long as human beings have had governments, various forms of county sheriffs. town constables, city watchmen, etc. For the most part, these officials have had the duty of enforcing court orders, serving warrants, responding to citizen’s complaints, and keeping order. Pursuing criminals wasn’t their main function. In most cases, in the ancient and medieval eras, it was up to the victim of a crime and his family to resolve crimes committed against them and to bring the criminal to the attention of the magistrates. Often, there were no public prosecutors, as we know them, and it was up to the victim to bring charges against the criminal in court. If the identity of the criminal were not known, the victims could hire a thief-taker, something like a modern private investigator, to track down and capture the criminal.

This system probably worked well enough in a Medieval setting of a rural country with small villages where everyone knew each other. Social pressure would have prevented most people from committing crimes and it wasn’t too difficult to discover who was responsible for a theft or murder, etc. It perhaps worked less well in the larger cities of pre-industrial Europe, but conditions were probably manageable, at least for the elite. With the industrial revolution, cities such as London or Paris began to grow in population to an extent unprecedented in European history. There were large numbers of people moving to the cities in search of jobs and as a result crime increased to unprecedented levels. It was becoming obvious that something better was needed.

Robert Peel is often credited with establishing the first metropolitan police force in London in, although the gendarmes established by Napoleon in France anticipated his reforms in some respects. Robert Peel was a Conservative politician who would go on to become Prime Minister in 1834-1835 and 1841-1846, when he would prove himself to be something of a reformer. In 1829, Peel was serving as Home Secretary and had become greatly concerned over the rise in crime in London and other British cities. Acting on the recommendations of the committee he had created to resolve the problem, Peel got Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Police Act which created the first, tu, metropolitan police in history.

Strange as it may seem, the idea of having uniformed police patrolling the streets of London was fairly controversial when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed. For many Londoners, the idea of a semi-military force keeping order seemed more fitting for the despotic regimes of the Continent than for a free country like England. The freedom loving Englishmen, along with their former colonists in America had a particular horror of a large standing army as an instrument of tyranny. Kings used such forces to impose their will on the people. For this reason, Peel was anxious to emphasize that the new police force was not a military organization, but was a politically neutral body accountable to the public it served. The police wore blue uniforms, in contrast to red worn by British soldiers (redcoats) and carried no weapon except a club and a rattle, later replaced by a whistle, to call for assistance and he used no military ranks, except for sergeant. Above all, Peel saw his new police force as part of the public, not as something separate. “The police are the public and the public are the police”, he often said.

The London Metropolitan Police proved to be effective at controlling crime and police forces based on Peel’s principles were soon organized in other cities in Britain and the United States. Professional police forces like Peel’s have become the norm all over the world to the point where it is simply inconceivable for a modern society to be run without them, yet I wonder what Robert Peel would make of what we have made of his creation. I think he would be alarmed at the extent in which his critics have been proven right.

Remember that the most important principle on which Peel organized the London police around was the idea that the police were not soldiers occupying the city of London but were a professional, civilian organization dedicated to serving the public. Somehow, over the last century that principle has been eroded. All too often, the police today are organized on explicitly military lines with military-style ranks, uniforms and training. We have heavily armed police officers in armored personnel carriers and Special Weapons and Tactics units being increasingly used to perform the normal duties of police work. Inevitably, people who are trained almost as soldiers begin to act like members of an occupying army instead of public servants, particularly in areas where the ethnicity of the police differs from that of the community. They become warrior cops instead of public guardians.

An excellent question

An excellent question

I do not favor abolishing the police. We cannot go back to the simpler times in which a society could get by with informal law enforcement. Yet, maybe it is time to have sort sort of public discussion what sort of law enforcement serves us best in the twenty-first century. We may want to move away from the warrior cop model in which the police become almost as dangerous to civilians as the criminals towards a police force more integrated with the communities they serve. Demilitarizing the police seems to be a good first step. we certainly want to stop this tendency to see the police and the civilians as somehow being opposing sides. Both the police and the public, at least theoretically, want the same things; safe places to live.

For this reason, movements like Black Lives Matter and community organizers like Jessica Disu are doing more harm than good. By all means, police officers who break the law should be punished, and the police do not do their side any favors when they refuse to assist in the prosecuting wrongdoers in their ranks, but it is reckless and irresponsible to paint all police officers as racists bent on killing black men for no reason. This antagonism can only make needed reforms more difficult to enact, particularly when abuses which should concern everyone; Black and White, police and civilian become a matter of Black versus White and police against the civilians. We all have to learn to stand together or we will fall divided.


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