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situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

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The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

situation USA 1: Billy Barr’s memo, etc

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silly Billy

Jacinta: So we can’t get enough of the wacky world of US federal politics, maybe from a schadenfreudish perspective, since we’re not Americans and have no intention of setting foot in that mad bad sad world…

Canto: Fully of lovely people I should add. Very diverse.

Jacinta: Very, let’s leave it at that. But we’re fascinated that Trump is still trumpeting, and that the nation’s better half, actually more than half, has still not found a way to rid themselves of him. I’m very reluctant to attribute any smarts to Trump, because criminal types, in spite of many movie depictions, are rarely smart enough to avoid getting caught. Yet Trump is still at large. He’s obviously done many things right, re self-preservation, and even self-aggrandisement.

Canto: We think of criminals as dumb because they’ve been caught. That’s why we call them criminals.

Jacinta: Good point. Anyway, the slow train crash that’s US federal politics today may not be the Trump crash. He may well walk away from the wreck unscathed. The number of final scenarios from here seems virtually infinite.

Canto: So let’s jump right in. The Mueller team has produced a report, redacted to the public, but mostly available (with almost entirely unredacted summaries of each of the two volumes, on conspiracy and obstruction respectively), which we have read and which we’ve found to be extremely critical of the administration and Trump himself. We’ll be quoting from the report throughout this fun, multi-post analysis.

Jacinta: But first we want to have a look at the role being played by US Attorney-General William Barr, who’s currently standing between the Mueller Report and its reception and treatment, by Congress, by the US justice system, and by the American public.

Canto: Barr hasn’t been the A-G for long, having taken office on Valentine’s Day of 2019.

Jacinta: A loving day for Billy and Donny. Some background to the appointment. Trump nominated Barr for the position on December 7 2018, a month after the resignation of the previous A-G, Jeff Sessions. Trump, as example F of the Mueller Report’s many examples of possible or probable obstruction of justice relates, had been trying to get Sessions to either ‘unrecuse’ himself (a legal nonsense, according to many) from overseeing the Mueller Report, or to resign, throughout Sessions’ tenure in the position. Barr, who held the position of A-G back in the early nineties, was clearly aware of Trump’s frustration with Sessions and his desire for an A-G who would protect him, support him, be on his team, etc, and had sent, unsolicited, a 19-page memo, available online, which is well worth reading. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognise the many flaws in Barr’s arguments, you simply need a good sense of logic, decency and fairness.

Barr’s memo begins badly, with the title – Re: Mueller’s ‘obstruction’ theory. The scare quotes are meant to imply that obstruction isn’t really a thing in this case, and possibly for Presidents in general. But the most telling word is ‘theory’, because, as we have seen from the report itself, and no doubt this is a feature of Mueller’s legal career, the Special Counsel doesn’t theorise much, he relies on case law and precedent, which he cites at enormous length, to hammer home his findings.

Canto: Yes, just reading the memo, the word ‘theory’ comes up in the second and third paras. I also note the use of scary words like ‘demand’, ‘threat’, ‘interrogation’ and ‘coerce his submission’, all used in reference to Mueller’s behaviour towards Trump, all piled up in the first couple of paras. It’s no wonder that some have surmised that this memo was intended for an audience of one – especially if that person hasn’t the attention span to read more than a page a month.

Jacinta: Well, Barr quickly moves to legalese, using terms like actus rea (actually actus reus) and mens rea – which mean, respectively, a criminal act, and the intent, or knowledge of guilt. What he writes in these next paragraphs is unexceptionable – he agrees that the President is bound by standard obstruction laws, and that Nixon and Bill Clinton were rightly impeached on obstruction in the form of impairment of evidence. But then he goes on to write:

Enforcing these laws against the President in no way infringes on the President’s plenary [absolute] power over law enforcement because exercising this discretion – such as his complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding – does not involve commission of any of these inherently wrongful, subversive acts.

Barr Memorandum, June 2018, p2

Canto: Hmmm, I think I see what Barr is trying for here. But first, why isn’t it jaw-dropping to grant absolute power to one person over law enforcement? Only in America, surely. The land of the individual super-hero. But what I think Barr is arguing here is that Trump’s attempt to stop a proceeding – the Mueller enquiry – was perfectly legal due to his plenary power. So, even if Putin’s Russia interfered with the 2016 election ‘in sweeping and systematic fashion’, and did so to substantially advantage Trump, and the Trump campaign knew about and welcomed that interference, it was perfectly legitimate for Trump to shut down an investigation into that interference and the Trump campaign’s response. Based on that view, all attempts to get the enquiry stopped or to change its focus were legitimate. End of story.

Jacinta: You’re getting there. And fortunately we don’t have to rely only on our own brilliant minds to critique this memo, as many lawyers have already done so. But let’s continue to go it alone for a while, and then see what others have to say. Barr admits at the outset that he’s ‘in the dark’ about many facts, yet he’s happy to speculate, claiming that ‘as far as I know’, and ‘seemingly’, this is what Mueller is actually doing – for example ‘proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws’. Again, we’re not lawyers, but I note that Mueller cites precedent many times in his report. And he doesn’t include in his examples of possible/probable obstruction the multitudinous tweets and speeches in which Trump denigrates the Special Counsel’s investigation as a witch-hunt and the Russian interference as a hoax. In a broad sense, this appears to me to be witness tampering – using the bully pulpit in the manner of dictators of the past, repeating a lie over and over until it becomes true. The witnesses here being the American public. But back to the memo. Barr homes in on USC 1512, subsection c2, which Mueller does indeed use in his report, but c2 seems to me clear-cut about obstruction, and covers many acts committed by Trump which Barr glosses over or doesn’t mention. In fact Barr seems to think that the only possibly obstructive act committed by Trump was the firing of Comey. Here is subsection c:

(c) Whoever corruptly (1) alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object, or attempts to do so, with the attempt to impair the object’s integrity, or availability for use in an official proceeding; or (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.

Further, Barr states that, as far as he knows, Mueller isn’t accusing Trump of evidence tampering. But how far does Barr know? This is an assumption, and on the basis of that assumption he accuses Mueller of an over-reach which in any case makes no sense on the basis of a straightforward reading of c2.

Canto: Well according to Barr, c2 shouldn’t be read as standing alone, it should somehow be read in the context of 1512 c as a whole. To me, though, it clearly reads as a necessary addition to c1, which doesn’t deal adequately with all the nefarious ways and means of obstruction. Barr describes the use of c2 as allowing an ‘unbounded interpretation’ of obstruction. But the law surely requires a definition of obstruction that captures the myriad ways that obstruction can occur – myriad but at the same time obvious to any well-reasoning witness.

Jacinta: Interesting – Mueller and Barr are friends of at least 30 years’ standing, which is a worry, and this makes me imagine, and perhaps it isn’t just imagination, that Mueller is writing up his report partly in refutation of Barr’s claims. That’s based on reading just three pages of Barr, but we’re often more miffed by the criticism of friends, and blokes are such competitive bulls.

Canto: Yes but you could be onto something there. Mueller dwells at length on 1512 c2 as the basis for his obstruction analysis, as well as on the three elements that must be fulfilled to show that obstruction has occurred – obstructive act, intent, and connection to an official proceeding – and towards the end of the report (Vol 2 III. Legal defences to the application of obstruction-of-justice statutes to the President), Mueller directly addresses the issue of 1512 c2, not in response to Barr, but in response to Trump’s personal counsel. These remarks summarise the Special Counsel’s position:

In analyzing counsel ‘s statutory arguments, we concluded that the President’s proposed interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2) is contrary to the litigating position of the Department of Justice and is not supported by principles of statutory construction.

Mueller Report Vol 2, p159

Jacinta: Yes I like the report’s succinctness, with the above summary being followed by a great deal of case law, constitutional argument and so forth. Of course we’re not conversant with all the precedents and the possible constitutional nuances, but we note that these arguments – which may well be directed at rebutting Barr – are detailed and cool, lacking the sense of outrage we find in Barr, regarding over-reach and unprecedented interpretations. And they do seem to confirm our amateur understanding that 1512 c2 is intended to cover acts other than the physical destruction of evidence – and those other acts would be an open-ended set.

Canto: Yes, Barr quibbles a lot on the term ‘otherwise’ in 1512 c2, and Mueller responds to that.

Jacinta: But if we move out from the detailed law into the world of basic ethics, we should be able to recognise that Barr’s position is nothing short of appalling. He tries to argue – and he did so in the senate hearing – that it’s not obstruction if the President ‘thinks’ that the proceeding is corrupt, and so wants to shut it down. So, according to Barr, Trump’s endless claims of a witch-hunt are sufficient justification for him to dismiss the Special Counsel! That’s laughable. I mean Trump would say that, wouldn’t he? Not that this is what Trump thinks. He knows full well that he’s a career criminal. It’s what every career criminal would say when brought to justice. Duh.

Written by stewart henderson

May 4, 2019 at 7:36 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

The battle for justice, part 1: some background to the case

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A prosecution should not proceed if there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction being secured. This basic criterion is the cornerstone of the uniform prosecution policy adopted in Australia.

from ‘The decision to prosecute’, in ‘Statement of prosecution policy and guidelines’, Director of Public Prosecutions, South Australia, October 2014

not this movie, unfortunately

I rarely focus on myself on this blog, but now I feel I have to. Today I lost my job because of something that happened to me about 12 years ago. So the next I don’t know how many posts will be devoted to my battle for justice, in the hope that it may help others in a similar situation. Of course I also find that writing is my best solace, as well as my best weapon. I have no financial resources to speak of, all I have is a certain amount of nous.

Between 2003-4 and 2010 I was a foster carer, under the aegis of Anglicare. Over that period I fostered six boys, with naturally varying success.

So why did I become a foster carer? I simply saw an ad on a volunteering website. I was being pushed to do some work, which I’ve always been reluctant to do, being basically a reclusive bookworm who loves to read history, science, everything that helps to understand what humans are, where they came from, where they’re going. And I hate when work interferes with that! But having come from what for me was a rather toxic family background, trying to shut myself from screaming fights between parents, and being accused by my mother, the dominant parent, of being a sneak and a liar, and ‘just like your father’ (her worst insult), and being physically and mentally abused by both parents (though never sexually), and having run away from home regularly in my teen years, I imagined that, as a survivor, I could offer something which might work for at least some of these kids  – a hands-off, non-bullying environment which would be more equal in terms of power than many foster-care situations. Call me naive…

Mostly, this approach worked. I did have to get heavy now and then of course, but not for long, so I always managed to stay on good terms with my foster-kids, as I have more recently with my students. This was even the case with the lad who accused me of raping him.

Let me describe the case as briefly as possible. A fifteen-year old boy was in my care in September 2005. He was much more of a handful than the previous two boys I’d looked after, and when I lost my temper with him during a school holiday trip in Victor Harbour, he took it out on me by claiming to his mother, with whom he spent his weekends, that I’d punched him on the back of the head. This was false, but his mother took the matter to the police, and the boy was immediately taken out of my care.

After an internal review conducted by Anglicare I was cleared of any wrongdoing, to their satisfaction at least, and another boy was placed in my care. Then, sometime in early 2006, this boy was secretly whisked out of my care, and I was informed by Anglicare that a serious allegation had been made against me. I was in shock, naturally thinking this new boy had also accused me of some kind of violence, but I was finally informed by the Anglicare social worker who’d been overseeing my placements that ‘it isn’t your new foster – kid’. The penny dropped more or less immediately that it was the same boy who’d accused me of hitting him. This boy, as far as I was aware, was now living happily with his mum.

I was left in limbo for some time, but eventually I received a message from the police to go to the Port Adelaide police station. There I was asked to sit down in an office with two police officers, and informed that I was under arrest for rape.

I was somewhat taken aback haha, and I don’t recall much of the conversation after that, but I think it went on for a long time. I do remember one key question: if the boy’s lying, why would he make such an allegation? I had no answer: I was unable to think clearly, given the situation. But later that night, after my release on bail, an answer came to me, which might just be the right one. When the boy was in my care, the plan was to reconcile him with his mother, who put him in care in the first place because she couldn’t cope with him. I knew his mother, as I met her every weekend for handover. She was highly strung and nervous, and it seemed likely she was again having trouble coping with full-time care. Quite plausibly, she was threatening to return him to foster care, which he wouldn’t have wanted. She allowed him to smoke, she allowed him to hang out with his mates, and her environment was familiar to him. To him, I would’ve seemed boringly bookish and unadventurous. What’s more, his claim that I’d hit him had worked perfectly for him, getting him exactly where he wanted. Why not shut the door on foster care forever, by making the most extreme claim?

I don’t really know if this sounds preposterous to an impartial reader, but this answer to the riddle struck me as in keeping with what I knew of the boy’s thinking, and it was backed up by a remark he made to me, which soon came back to haunt me. He said ‘my mum’s friend told me that all foster carers are child molesters…’. It was the kind of offhand remark he’d often make, but it was particularly striking in light of something I was told later by my lawyer. Apparently, the boy didn’t tell his mother directly that I’d raped him, he’d told a friend of his mother, who’d then told her.

So, after the sleepless night following my arrest, I felt confident that I knew the answer to the key police question. I typed it up and took it forthwith to the Port Adelaide station (I didn’t trust the mail). How utterly naive of me to think they’d be grateful, or interested! I received no response.

So I obtained a lawyer through legal aid, or the Legal Services Commission. At the time I was dirt poor: I’d received a stipend as a foster carer, but that had stopped. Otherwise I worked occasionally as a community worker or English language teacher, mostly in a voluntary role. From the moment I was charged I spent many a sleepless night imagining my days in court, heroically representing myself of course, exposing contradictions and confabulations, citing my spotless record, my abhorrence of violence of all kinds, etc, etc. So I was a bit miffed when my lawyer told me to sit tight and do nothing, say nothing, and to leave everything to him. Standard procedure, presumably. The case passed from hearing to hearing (I don’t know if that’s the word – at least there were several court appearances), over a period of more than a year, and every time I expected it to be dismissed, since I knew there was no evidence. It had to be dismissed, there could be no other possibility. The only reason it had become a court matter in the first place, it seemed to me, was the absolute enormity of the allegation. But how could this possibly be justified? But I had to admit, the boy had, more or less accidentally, stumbled on the perfect crime to accuse me of – a crime committed months before, where there could be no visible evidence one way or another… It was all very nerve-wracking. And I was very annoyed at the fact that the DPP (the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) seemed to have different lawyers representing it at every court appearance, and mostly they behaved as if they’d only been handed the brief minutes before.

Finally I arrived at the lowest point so far – an arraignment. I didn’t know this (my last) appearance would be an arraignment and I didn’t know what that was. I just expected yet another appearance with a handful of yawning court officials and lawyers in attendance. Instead I found a packed courtroom.

Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant to inform the defendant of the charges against him or her. In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea.

In Australia, arraignment is the first of eleven stages in a criminal trial, and involves the clerk of the court reading out the indictment. (WIKIPEDIA)

The reason the courtroom was packed is that several arraignments are processed in the same courtroom on the same day, so there were several accused there with their friends and families. Unfortunately, I was solo. On my turn, I was taken out to the holding cells and brought in – some kind of ceremonial – to the dock. The charge was read out (I’d already been given the ‘details’ by the lawyer, so I barely listened to it) and I was asked to plead, and the judge told the court, to my utter amazement, that I was adjudged to have a case to answer.

So it was perhaps even more amazing that, a week or two after that appearance, the case was dropped.



Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2017 at 7:34 pm

a bit more on cell cultures, cell mortality and patients’ rights

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Human connective tissue in culture, 500x. Image courtesy of Dr. Cecil Fox (photographer)/National Cancer Institute.

Canto: Well, we’ve followed up Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race with Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which intersects with Wadman’s book in describing cell cultures and their value in modern medicine and genetics. So are ready to talk about all this again?

Jacinta: Yes, this book tells a compelling history of the Lacks family as well as a story of the ethics around human cell cultures, based on the HeLa cell line taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, shortly before she died of cervical cancer.

Canto: A very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix, to be precise, though the tumour was misdiagnosed at the time.

Jacinta: Yes, her bodily state and her sufferings make for grim reading. And the cells were taken sans permission, in a pioneering era of almost no regulation and a great deal of dubious practice.

Canto: The wild west of cell and tissue culturology.

Jacinta: George Gey, the guy who ordered these cells to be taken, was a great pioneer in cancer and cell culture research, but he and others found it very difficult to keep human cells alive in vitro, so he was much surprised and delighted at his success with Henrietta’s tumour cells.

Canto: They were the first ever cells to live beyond the Hayflick limit, though that limit wasn’t spelt out by Hayflick until 1961.

Jacinta: And wasn’t accepted for decades after that. And the reason for their apparent immortality, a rare thing in untreated cells, was their cancerous nature. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme known as telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Normally these telomeres, often described as like the protective caps at the ends of shoelaces, shorten and so become less protective with each cell division.

Canto: So if we could stop cancer cells from producing telomerase, you’d stop all that metastasising…

Jacinta: Sounds easy-peasy. And if we could introduce telomerase into non-cancerous cells we could all live forever.

Canto: Bet they haven’t thought of that one. So if this cell line was cancerous, how could they be of so much value? How could they be of any use at all, since the aim, I thought, was to produce ‘clean’ cells, like the WI-38 cells Hayflick produced ten years later? Remember how they had so many problems with monkey cells, which were full of viruses?

Jacinta: Well, forget viruses for the moment, the exciting thing about the HeLa cells was that they stayed alive and multiplied, which was rare, and so they could be experimented on in a variety of ways.

Canto: But did they use the cells for vaccines? The 1954 Salk polio vaccine was tested using these cells. How can you do this with cancerous cells?

Jacinta: Well it was the suitability of these cells for mass-production that made them ideal for test-driving the Salk vaccine, and of course their prolific nature was tied to their cancerous nature – Henrietta’s cancer seemed to be horribly fast-spreading, it was just about everywhere inside her at her death. Her cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and I’ve read that this may have had something to do with their prolific nature. She also had syphillis, likely contracted from her philandering husband, and this suppresses the immune system, allowing the cancer cells to multiply more rapidly. But even though they were cancer cells they shared many of the properties of normal cells, including the production of proteins and susceptibility to bacterial and especially viral infections. Of course you would never inject HeLa cells into humans, but their malignancy is an advantage in that you get the results of say, viral infection of cells as they reproduce, much more quickly than with normal cells, because of their reproductive rate. It seems old George Gey hit the jackpot with them, though he never made any more money out of them than the Lackses did.

Canto: They initially used rhesus monkey cells to test their antibody levels in response to Salk’s killed polio virus, but they were too hard to get and too expensive, and the HeLa cells were an excellent alternative because they were easily infected by the virus… and they reproduced with unprecedented alacrity.

The malignancy of immortality (or vice versa). A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes. Courtesy Paul D. Andrews)

Jacinta: Yes, that’s to say, they readily produced antibodies, and so could be experimented on to produce the level of antibodies to create immunity. But growing cell cultures in vitro and maintaining them in a viable state, that’s been a decades-long learning process. Tissue culture these days is big business, which has led to the murky ethical questions about tissue ownership that Skloot refers to at the end of her book.

Canto: Yes but I for one am quite clear about that issue. I’m more than happy for researchers to use any tissue that comes from, say, a biopsy done on me. Is that tissue mine, when it’s removed from my body?

Jacinta: Well, is it? Think of locks of hair kept from a loved one – something that happens a few times in Skloot’s book. Wouldn’t you be moved by a lock of hair that you knew came from someone you loved but who was no longer around? Wouldn’t you feel you had hold of a part of her? Not just a memory of her?

Canto: Interesting. I think I’d be in two minds about it. I’d think, yes, this is her hair, a small part of her, and that would bring all the emotion of identity with it. But then, what I know about science and cells tells me this is just hair, it’s not what makes her her. It’s nowhere near it. Our hair is discarded all the time.

Jacinta: If you had some of her brain cells? Or heart tissue haha?

Canto: Nothing but ultra-ultra minuscule parts of the whole. And essentially meaningless when disconnected from that whole. But this misses the point that the value of this tissue for research outweighs by far, to me at any rate, the sentimental value that you’re talking about.

Jacinta: But for some people, and some cultures, the intactness of the human entity, after death say, is of deep-rooted significance. Are you not prepared to respect that?

Canto: But we slough off our trillions of cells all the time. Even as a kid I was told we replace our cells every seven years. Of course it’s much more varied and complicated than that, but the general point of constant renewal is true.

Jacinta: Yes but they’re your cells, with your DNA in them, nobody else’s.

Canto: Well people are prepared to be operated on, which inevitably kills or removes cells, and in doing so they give themselves up to experts in healing their bodies and often saving their lives, so it would seem to me pretty mean-spirited not to allow those experts to make use of what’s removed, which is of no obvious use to them.

Jacinta: I think you have a good argument there, but what if these mad scientists use your cells for some nefarious purpose?

Canto: Well, call me a trusting soul, but why would they do that? And what nefarious purpose could they use them for?

Jacinta: Well it mightn’t even be nefarious. With the modern commercialisation of cell and gene technology, they might find your tissue perfect for developing something patentable, out of which they make shitloads of money while preventing independent research on the tissue, so using your cells in a way that you might strongly disapprove of. But you wouldn’t have the slightest say, as things stand today. Rebecca Skloot describes examples of this kind in the Afterword to her book. There’s been a raging debate about commercialisation and gene patents and patients’ rights for some time now in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, with scientists and other stakeholders ranged along the spectrum. In fact, these are the last words of Skloot’s book, published in 2010:

2009: More than 150,000 scientists join the American Civil Liberties Union and breast cancer patients in suing Myriad Genetics over its breast-cancer gene patents. The suit claims that the practice of gene patenting violates patent law and has inhibited scientific research.

Canto: Right. As her investigations reveal, it’s not just about patients wanting a share of the loot from research on their cells, and so using the courts to bog everything down and hinder that research, it’s often about researchers themselves wanting to cash in, and patients joining with other researchers to try to free up the system for the common good. So how’s the Myriad Genetics case going, and how’s the situation regarding patient rights in this field, several years on?References

Jacinta: Well in the case of Myriad, it was all highly complex and litigious, with suits and countersuits, which the company mostly lost, in particular in a landmark (and unanimous) Supreme Court decision of 2013, in which they found that ‘merely isolating genes that are found in nature [in this case the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes] does not make them patentable’. But of course this wasn’t so much about patients’ rights in the material that was once part of their bodies. It’s not all about money – though much of it is, and if you don’t want the money landing in lawyers’ pockets, the best thing is to have clear guidelines, disclosure, and fully developed and complex consent procedures. My impression from doing a fairly shallow dive on the issues is that we’re a long way from sorting this out, in an increasingly complex and lucrative field. Our own federal government’s NHMRC has a booklet out, available on PDF, called ‘Ethics and the exchange and commercialisation of products derived from human tissue: background and issues’, which is already six years old, but I don’t see anything in the legislative pipeline.

Canto: Looks like an issue to be followed up, if we have the stomach for it.

Jacinta: It pays to be informed, that’s one obvious take-away from all this.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
Meredith Wadman, The vaccine race, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm

any day now, any way now, they shall be released….

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The New York Times describes the current US Prez as a billionaire, but is he? How can such a bumbling oaf be so super-rich? In the same NYT article, by Alan Rappeport, the Prez was quoted as bragging, when still a candidate, that he understood his country’s tax laws ‘better than anyone who has ever run for President’ – clearly as truthful a remark as everything else he’s ever said. His subsequent remarks on the tax system he promised to fix have been typically vague when not entirely ridiculous. A one-page tax plan of sorts was released in late April, which promised massive tax cuts to businesses and individuals, but it was massively short on details on how such cuts would be targeted and absorbed without a massive blow-out of the deficit. Anyway, it’ll be massive cause the US Prez likes massive. The administration has promised a thoroughly detailed plan by the end of August, but fellow-travellers who’ve been involved in meetings – mostly Republicans – remain thoroughly sceptical.

Meanwhile the Prez hasn’t released his own tax returns in spite of promising to do so. In mid-April some 100,000 citizens demonstrated against this interesting behaviour while high-profile critics such as Sam Harris have wondered why the release hasn’t been forced upon him. Could it be that the Prez is above the law? This is of particular concern because investigative journalists and historians such as Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder, people with solid Russian connections, have cast doubt on the Prez’s fortune and raised questions about his indebtedness to Russian money-makers, and possibly Putin’s mafioso government. And of course tax cuts to the rich might just ease the economic burden on the Prez himself, supposing he has one.

Apparently there’s a 40 year tradition of Prezes releasing their tax returns. When I read this in Rappeport’s NYT article I was immediately disheartened, as it became clear that it was only a tradition, which is far from being a law. And the Prez, as we know, is no traditionalist, with respect to such fakeries as the rule of law, a free press, human rights and the like. But I hatched an idea this morning as I heard about the Prez’s tweets on the London knife attacks, taking the opportunity to shore up his base with dog whistles on crazy immigrants, and attempts to mock the London Mayor by deliberately misconstruing his remarks. My idea is for certain high profile critics to take to Twitter (which I never use myself) or other social media platforms, and to address him directly, on a daily basis, with remarks like ‘have you released your tax returns yet, Herr Prez?’, and to get everyone else to do the same – a sort of global crowd-sourcing project. After all, though the Prez isn’t a traditionalist, he is a populist, and imagine how he would respond to hundreds of thousands, growing to millions, of people tweeting the same request every day, flooding social media platforms around the world… You may say I’m a dreamer, but really, imagine….



Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2017 at 9:26 am