an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘ethics

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has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.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.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

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’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Trump: the slo-mo train wreck is far from over – it’s likely to get much worse

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some semi-reluctant future reading – or maybe I’ll just watch the video

This morning I heard an American pundit saying Trump has got to change his approach and become more co-operative with investigating authorities, because his strategy isn’t working. Everybody is offering Trump free advice but he’s unlikely to take it because he’s Trump. People don’t change very much, they certainly don’t become completely different people, certainly not after the age of seventy. Trump has spent his life among crooked rich people, he was brought up by crooked rich people, he only admires crooked rich people, and he will die as crooked as he has lived. That’s his fate.

What pundits should really be working on, IMHO, is limiting his power and curbing his destructive tendencies. Now that the cognoscenti are coming to realise that better vetting processes should have applied to candidates for the overly-powerful position of POTUS, they should be doing their utmost to put obstacles in the way of that power (followed by root and branch reform of the entire political system once Trump is dumped). For example, putting real pressure on White House staffers, many of whom should know by now that the writing’s on the wall, to resign en masse. Or even just to suggest that they do so? Rats tend to desert a sinking ship, but perhaps not if they don’t sense any land in the offing, a safe haven to run to. So maybe it would be the most ethical thing to do, now, to entice Trump’s enablers to abandon him, not entirely without penalty, but with less penalty than if they stick with him to the end. A bit like offering limited immunity. And in the same way, the media should be onto those in Congress who are enabling Trump, or are not being sufficiently vocal in their opposition, or their position in general, to speak their minds more clearly. It’s time for more media hounding, for the sake of the beleaguered nation. Two of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress are now being prosecuted as swamp creatures, not surprisingly. More needs to be made of this.

I’m not talking here about ‘weaponising’ the media, or being partisan. This is clearly about corruption and the law. My own early recognition of Trump as a boorish, tasteless, noisome, proudly ignorant, self-serving buffoon had little to do with politics. I’ve learned over this year that he was a ‘lifelong Democrat’ until a few years ago. I didn’t believe it any more than I believe he’s a Republican now. He knows as much about politics, history and international affairs as he does about science. But I’ve also learned more about his inherent dishonesty and crookedness. The responsible media generally recognise this, and they should play, more openly, a heroic role in bringing him down. It wouldn’t be a partisan role, it would be about nation-building, or nation-repairing.

It’s important here not to be partisan, and that’s why it’s essential to focus on the law rather than on politics. Certainly there needs to be a political backlash against Trump, and against his Republican enablers, but I’ve already expressed my skepticism of impeachment, a political process, as a means of dismissing political leaders. All citizens should be subject to the law, regardless of position or profession. This is not to say the mid-term elections aren’t important, as the country needs more liberals and democrats in positions of authority to counter Trump’s fascistic or mafioso-style approach to government. However, the mid-term elections are over two months away, plenty of time for more damage to be done to the country’s political institutions by an increasingly desperate ‘Commander-in Chief’.

The preposterous and disgustingly juvenile, and typically American, idea that their POTUS may be above prosecution simply because he’s too important and vital to the workings of the State, needs to be punctured beyond repair. This seems to me a high-priority issue. Of course, the fact that the USA has given its POTUS too much power will make things difficult in the immediate post-Trump period, but this is a tough lesson that needs to be learned. It seems a constitutional crisis may be just what’s needed to get the nation to wake from its jingoistic slumber and start working on a better, more collegial and distributed power system than the current hero-worshipping laughing-stock it has created for itself.

So let’s go to the issue of indictment, and later we’ll go to the aftermath, which will presumably be a Pence Presidency – not a pleasant prospect, from what I’ve heard.

Unfortunately the indictment of a sitting President is regarded as a constitutional matter – unlike the indictment of any other citizen, presumably. This is a situation that should be rectified. Section 3 of Article 1 of the US Constitution puts it thus:

“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust,or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

Note the unclear wording here. It talks about impeachment first, which to my mind, is irrelevant. It’s the last part that is relevant, though it gets entangled with impeachment – ‘The party convicted shall nevertheless be liable to and subject to indictment’, etc. But impeachment is not about being convicted. The law convicts, surely. The Constitution was signed into law in 1787, and is a source of understandable pride to the American people, but it’s hardly to be expected that it would make everything clear and precise for the next two hundred-odd years. It looks as though indictment should follow impeachment, which is, it seems, misrepresented as ‘convicted’, but it cannot surely be the case that if the President commits what constitutes a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’ (and I really hope that term is clear in US law) he has to be impeached before being charged. That, to me, would be outrageous. It’s very obviously the wrong way round – though of course, you’d have to be sure that the Justice Department had a very sound case before proceeding – perhaps with a speaking indictment (I really like them things). And then, of course, if conviction occurs, impeachment wouldn’t be an issue. It would just be a matter of a change of residence.

It’s astounding, and frankly appalling, that some soi-disant constitutional lawyers really do argue for immunity (while in office) due to the heavy duties of the Presidency  (duties that Trump largely avoids), while other experts argue that Presidents really do have the power to pardon themselves. It’s yet another indication that Yanks, even high-powered legal eagle ones, are in thrall to the wankeries of their worst movies, featuring the vigilante superhero out to save the State from itself, with collateral damage just being part of the thrill.

Considering such jejune but baked-in attitudes about their ‘commander-in chief’, it’s unlikely that Americans will learn much from the current debacle. Still no proper vetting at the outset, still no reduction of pardoning and other powers, still no integration of the Presidency with Congress, still insufficient checks and balances, still the same childishly carnivalesque two-horse races every four years, still the same embarrassing, unreflective jingoism. And still, I find it all quite fascinating. I’m just glad I’m not actually there.

So what will happen by years’ end? Presumably impeachment proceedings, depending on the numbers in both houses – I haven’t yet read up on impeachment, what it requires and entails, and I’ll be doing that soon. But presumably impeachment isn’t easily enforceable, and Trump will ignore it and rely on his base to protect him. That’s when things will get really interesting.

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2018 at 1:04 pm

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Trump’s downfall – like watching a slow-mo train wreck

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the demise of Richard III

So after something of a lull (but not in the offices of the DoJ’s Mueller and his team) everything’s hotting up in the Russia investigation, and my prediction seems now a dead cert. The indictment of the thirteen was a fascinating read, and we’ve yet to find out if any Americans close to Trump were wittingly involved in this trolling affair. There’s likely more to come from that direction, but the most recent guilty plea and co-operation deal from former White House aide Rick Gates lands a decisive blow, and we still haven’t heard from Flynn – though there may be nothing much to hear.

The Mueller team’s strategy in this investigation, or perhaps I should say the pundits’ attempts to comprehend the strategy, makes for irresistibly compelling viewing and listening, especially as we’re now getting reading material from the team, and very deliberately so, as the American public, or that part of it that matters, need to be made aware of the real and serious nature of the Russian threat and the relationship between the Trump campaign and presidency, and Russian oligarchs, government officials and supporters, such as former Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych. I should mention the most compelling of the pundits, for me, who include Rachel Maddow, Laurence O’Donnell and Ari Melber for MSNBC, and Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo for CNN and their numerous expert guests.

What has been tantalisingly suggested in the most recent indictments of Manafort, Gates and the Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan is a possible/probable connection between 1: Manafort’s financial problems and the many swindles he engaged in after the deposing of Yanukovych in 2014 and the sudden reduction of those problems when he became Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, and 2: the financial connections between Trump and members of his family and Russian oligarchs. One key to that reduction seems to be the millions of dollars of loans received from a Chicago bank headed by a Trump supporter, who apparently was hoping to be made Secretary of the Army in return. Didn’t happen of course.

And the crises keep on coming in Trumpland. I’ve not written here for a few days, and the latest, just in, is that Kushner has been effectively demoted due to his lack of a security clearance, which will mean a battle between him and John Kelly, which will involve Trump, but more importantly it will focus attention on just why Kushner is deemed a security risk. And of course the clearance issue involves a scandalously large number of White House staff besides Kushner. Another shemozzle. There was apparently a conversation between White House counsel Don McGann and Deputy A-G Rosenstein (initiated by the White House I’ll bet) a couple of weeks ago about Kushner’s clearance. I’d love to have heard its substance. It’ll be interesting to see how Trump handles this particular debacle. He presumably won’t fire Kelly, because that’ll do nothing for the clearance situation – it’s people like Mueller and Rosenstein he wants to fire. My guess is he’ll try to continue with business as usual, defying Kelly’s order that Kushner not be allowed access to top secret documents. The media need to be watchful on this.

But getting back to Manafort-Gates, this appears to be the main game re Trump’s downfall. According to all the legal analysts, the case against Manafort is more than extremely strong, and his only hope of getting a lighter sentence is to plead guilty and co-operate with the Mueller investigation – though perhaps he’d prefer to live his life out in jail than leave himself open to Russian hit-men. He’s showing no sign of cracking as yet, but I can’t imagine it’s due to loyalty to Trump. Meanwhile, reports are that Trump is very worried about Manafort spilling the beans. Again it’s all about following the money.

For the rest of this piece, though, I want to focus on whether Trump will be kicked out, how will he be kicked out, the obstacles and a little bit about the aftermath. First, let me focus on an article in the New Republic, by Matt Ford, published in late January, entitled ‘Trump is Here to Stay’. It’s not a pro-Trump piece, but it questions the likelihood of indicting a sitting president. This is a key question, because I’ve never taken much interest in the political process known as impeachment, which is a more or less uniquely American thing. To me, it should be all about the law – laws being similar (or more similar than different) in all advanced western nations. And no single person, regardless of station, should be above the law. So I would be expecting that Trump would be removed by the Department of Justice, not by Congress, but there’s no precedent for this. But there’s no precedent for Trump either. I wouldn’t want Trump to be removed by a political process, I’d want him to be removed for breaking the law, or laws.

So what laws would he have broken? Obstruction of justice and perjury are two obvious ones, and others would have to do with his finances, and how they tie him closely to Russian oligarchs and their extreme anti-democratic ambitions and their interference in the recent elections – for which one Russian oligarch has already been indicted. Of course my disagreement with Ford and his article is driven by optimism and an unwonted love of fireworks, but I think that, though he accepts Mueller’s thoroughness, he underestimates it. He might also think differently now that these Russians have been indicted, and Gates has pleaded guilty. The Mueller team have come out in public a lot more in the past month, and more is surely expected, nobody can really predict what will come out next. Indictments against, say, Kushner for his financial dealings may change the picture, especially if they’re comprehensive. And Manafort may yet change his tune under pressure. And remember that the Mueller team can look at any wrong-doings that turn up in the course of their investigations, which include the dodgy profits Trump is certainly deriving from simply being the President. I think Ford also underestimates the groundswell of resistance, which may lead to unprecedented national action throughout 2018. The mood against Trump may turn more and more ugly, and if a Mueller indictment comes on top of that, we may witness a true constitutional crisis. For example, I don’t see Pence as being acceptable to the American public, so we’ll be in uncharted territory. Americans might at last see that their political system needs some serious revision – too many personal appointees of America’s CEO and not enough elected officials running things – not enough democracy, in effect.

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2018 at 11:27 am

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towards the ousting of Trump and his confederacy of dunces

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Before all this shite came up I was writing something completely different. In order to alleviate myself of my own existence for a while, I should get back to it, and update it.

We’re living in interesting times, and I can’t help but put my weird and less than minuscule shoulder to the wheel in trying to bring down Trump and his cowboy cronies. I’ve been trying to ignore this stuff but it’s just getting too exciting. There’s been the Paradise Papers, the Facebook revelations, sex scandals and of course the Mueller inquiry. The pundits of the cable news network MSNBC are almost peeing their pants on camera as they gleefully rake through the revelations of Russian links to the Trump administration. It’s a great time for the media, with an obvious charlatan in the White House, whose buffoonery provides endless talking points, while ordinary folks and elephants get shafted big-time.

I’m not always a huge US watcher, and I’m of course pretty ignorant on the details, but it’s been a circus that’s been difficult to ignore lately, and the pickings are getting richer and richer. I’m garbling up metaphors here, so let me calm down and look at the now distinct possibility of removing Trump from office. First, the Mueller inquiry. NBC news is reporting, with apparently impeccable sources, that Trump’s former, albeit brief, national security adviser Michael Flynn is close to being charged with money laundering and perjury by the Mueller team. Of course, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gates have already been indicted and it looks like a junior but big-talking foreign policy adviser to the administration, George Papadopoulos, is assisting the team with their inquiries after pleading guilty to perjury about Russian connections. I’ve been listening to a number of legal and political experts being interviewed, mostly on NBC, and it looks as though the case against Manafort, the biggest fish, is extremely strong, and it seems like a matter of days before Flynn is indicted, but what would I know? On top of that, there’s Jefferson Sessions, the US Attorney-General and apparently an arch-racist, who has perjured himself under oath, and others who are key figures in the Trump admission, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

It does seem as if Trump’s hold on power is crumbling, unless I’m falling prey to the manic glee of American liberal pundits. Certainly there are polls and election results that suggest maybe I’m not getting ahead of myself. There has just been an election victory for the Democrats in Virginia, and the (extremely unpopular) Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has been swept out of office. The Virginia result in particular is being treated by some as a watershed event (where does that odd term come from?) but maybe not. Certainly though it’s bad for Trump, who heavily supported the Republican candidate (then threw him to the dogs when he lost). The apparently reliable Reuters/Ipsos poll measuring Trump’s approval/disapproval rating has him currently at about 36%, with 59% disapproval, figures which have remained more or less steady for the last two months. I don’t see a huge dip in the polls – his numbers have always been quite low, it seems, but unless they pick up he’s going to be very vulnerable, and may become more extreme under pressure. His lack of success in pushing his agenda, his gaffes, his tweets, the Russian mess  and the inquiry, they’re all converging to ensure that he won’t be elected again, but what are the chances for those who want him out before the next election. Surely almost all hopes lie with the Mueller inquiry.

Robert Mueller was the Director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013, its longest serving director since the thuggish J Edgar Hoover. Appointed by George W Bush, he was given a two-year extension to his term by Barack Obama, and was eventually replaced by James Comey, who was controversially sacked by Trump earlier this year, a decision which may prove disastrous for the man with One of the Great Memories of All Time (a memory which may well be tested under oath soon, according to former US solicitor-general Ken Starr). It was Comey’s slightly controversial dismissal that led directly to the 2017 Special Counsel Inquiry headed by Mueller, since Comey alleged that Trump had essentially tried to obstruct justice by asking him to drop an FBI inquiry into Flynn and his connection with Russia. Mueller and his team’s brief is to investigate “any links and/or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”, to quote from assistant Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in the position. That’s a pretty wide brief, it seems to me. Mueller has a fearsome reputation and he’s gathered together a team of 16 lawyers, some of them highly reputed, and if Flynn is indicted, which appears a near-certainty, things may well reach crisis-point for the administration.

So it all appears to be going along nicely, if painfully slowly for those who want Trump and his confederacy of dunces removed. The thing is, Mueller and his team will be thorough. They won’t go charging in and arresting people unless the evidence is clear, and even then they may try to use the guilty as hell to gain more information about other parties, in exchange for a degree of immunity. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to be a fly on the wall of Mueller’s Justice Department offices over the coming weeks.

Flynn seems to be a particularly revolting reptile. Apparently he tried to arrange a deal, which would have earned him oodles of money, to smuggle the moderate Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen out of the USA to Turkey, where he would’ve faced certain death under the thuggish macho dictator Erdogan, who constantly accused Gulen of organising the failed coup against him. If this is true, and provable, hopefully Flynn will live inside a cell for a long time. But there’s also a possibility that Flynn discussed this plan with the morally cretinous Trump, who would undoubtedly have approved. If there’s evidence of such discussions, that would be fantastic for us all.

Flynn’s a weak link for many other reasons, it seems. According to the Washington Post, he lied to the FBI – a felony offence – about discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak regarding sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration due to its meddling in the US election. It was because of this dishonesty that he was sacked by Trump – with great reluctance. Flynn also seems to have been involved in a strange plan to build US-Russian nuclear power plants in the Middle East, about which, again, he has been less than honest. The Russians who were part of the deal are under US sanctions. Flynn has an obvious penchant for the anti-democratic Russian kleptocracy, something of a liability for a National Security Advisor.

And there are other members of the confederacy – Trump junior, Kushner and Sessions stand out, but there are so many others in the worst political administration the western world has ever seen – who are being targeted by the Mueller inquiry. The question really is – when will the circus be closed down? Every day’s delay, after all, brings damage. Morans are running the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the EPA and just about every other US department…

All of this calls into question the whole of the US political system, surely. It has often been called the least democratic system in the western world, though that tends to avoid the problem with democracy itself, the problem that uninformed people have the same voting rights as informed people. If you’re going to have a democracy of that kind, you really need to maximise the number of informed people. But another problem, and it’s as clear a problem in Australia as anywhere, is that ignorant, loud-mouthed people can run for political office, with far less vetting than is carried out in protecting our borders. In this respect I’m an unashamed elitist. But America’s presidential system is way too presidential. Australia’s political system, like Britain’s, is much more party-based, with responsibilities, and culpability, more equally shared among government leaders. And this, I think, is a much better, much less dangerous system. In the USA, people generally vote every four years for a person rather than a party and its policy set, and this has so many problems associated with it, it just isn’t funny. Trump, for example, isn’t a Republican, he’s ‘his own man’, a blundering, bullying, bullshitting, bragging, belly-aching buffoon, a man born into and gifted enormous wealth, a laughing-stock as a businessman, a patsy for Russian mafioso oligarchs, who has installed an assorted pile of know-nothings to important political, scientific and cultural posts in the most economically powerful in the world – though by no means a model country for fairness, security or opportunity. I can’t think of any other western country in which this could’ve happened. The checks and balances, but above all the political culture of those countries would never have allowed it.

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2017 at 10:00 am

The battle for justice part 2: the problem with nolle prosequi

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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

Continuing from last post, the case against me was dropped a short while after the arraignment, but not before the police made a visit to my home, the soi-disant scene of the crime. They’d never visited my home or made any contact with me since the arrest, many months before, but it seems the arraignment had spurred them, or forced them, into action.

This was something I’ve never really got. Like many of us I’ve watched my share of crime shows and whodunits. Typically, the arrest comes as the final scene, after weeks and months of painstaking sleuthing. Yet my arrest seemed to have come at the start (though I did have to wait for a while), before any questioning. And then, after the arraignment, the police suddenly showed up at the putative crime-scene to do their sleuthing at last.

I knew what they’d come for, too. Long before, my lawyer had told me some of the details of the boy’s claim. I had apparently raped him in the toilet, after which he’d gotten away and locked himself in the bedroom. I was able to tell the lawyer that none of the bedrooms in my house were lockable, so that part of his story was demonstrably false, so at long last they’d come to check. And then, almost the next day, I was told the case was over.

I don’t remember being sent any paperwork to that effect but I suppose I must have. I was just relieved it was all over, that sanity had prevailed, etc. But this year, more than 11 years on, I came to realise, thanks to a screening process by the DCSI (the South Australian government’s Department of Communities and Social Inclusion), that it wasn’t over, and that it would never be over. This was because of the little matter of ‘Nolle Prosequi’:

The entering of a nolle prosequi by the Director of Public Prosecutions means that he is not pursuing the prosecution at this stage. Theoretically he may pursue the prosecution at a later stage, but this rarely, if ever, happens. Normally the DPP does not give a reason for such a decision, but it is usually based on a problem with the evidence he has assembled. In the course of assembling it, or after it has been assembled in a book of evidence, a problem may arise with a witness or a crucial part of it, that would make it difficult to proceed. Difficulties of this nature usually undermine the whole basis for the trial. Even if new evidence is discovered, the problems with the old evidence remain. If a nolle prosequi is entered, and then registered by the court, the accused is discharged and free to go. He or she enjoys the presumption of innocence that all accused people enjoy until they are convicted of a crime beyond all reasonable doubt. (Carole Coulter, Irish Times, April 2006)

 

Nolle prosequi... is a legal term of art and a Latin legal phrase meaning “be unwilling to pursue”, a phrase amounting to “do not prosecute”. It is a phrase used in many common law criminal prosecution contexts to describe a prosecutor’s decision to voluntarily discontinue criminal charges either before trial or before a verdict is rendered. It contrasts with an involuntary dismissal. Legal effect [in the USA]: The entry of a nolle prosequi is not an acquittal, and the principle of double jeopardy therefore does not apply. The defendant may later be re-indicted on the same charge. Effect on future employment [in the USA] Federal agencies, especially the military, view nolle prosequi as an unfavorable judgement. This has the effect of requiring a waiver submission for service, or the outright denial of employment (WIKIPEDIA).

Nolle prosequi was the ‘finding’ in my case.

As indicated in the quotes above, nolle prosequi can be interpreted as anything from ‘presumed innocent’ to ‘still pretty suss’, and it seems any department, any arm of government, is at liberty to interpret it as they wish (and given the current environment, they’re more than likely to err on the side of the child/accuser). But here’s the kicker, as the yanks say. And it’s an extremely important and fundamental kicker for my argument. Once arrested (for sexual abuse or rape, say) nolle prosequi is essentially the best any accused can hope for!! This is the dirty little secret your lawyer is most unlikely to tell you about.

Let me explain. When you go and seek legal aid to defend yourself against a false charge [please, if only for hypothetical reasons, assume the accusation is false], it means you’ve already been arrested, and the DPP has already instituted proceedings against you. And once a prosecution is instituted, your lawyer will try to get it thrown out, i.e nolle prosequi. The other alternative is acquittal – but acquittal can only come after a full criminal trial. I quoted in my last post that an arraignment is the first stage of an 11-stage criminal trial in Australia. That should give an indication of just how humungous a criminal trial actually is – involving lawyers, witnesses and experts for both sides, the presentation of different types of evidence, examinations and cross-examinations, a jury presumably, and all in all a process that will tie up a courtroom for some time, with much expenditure of money and energy. So your lawyer is actually trying her best to make sure you don’t have your day in court. So nolle prosequi is the lawyer’s victory, but if organisations like DCSI interpret nolle prosequi as ‘still pretty suss’, that means you’re stuffed – for the rest of your life! If not longer.

Now, notice the statement from the DPP at the top of this post. It sounds impressive – they won’t go ahead with a case unless they have a reasonable prospect of succeeding (and this would surely mean having sufficient, or at least some, evidence). Now, let me tell you that during the whole 13 or 14 months that my case was ongoing, I was in a state of sleepless agony, and occasional rage, with the mantra ‘no evidence, no evidence’ echoing in my head, and on the day after I heard that my case was dismissed, I took to my computer and typed a terse paragraph to the DPP (yes I’m sometimes capable of terseness), accusing them of incompetence in my case, not only for seeming to pass the buck from lawyer to lawyer, but for going against their prosecution policy as stated on their website, which I quoted back to them (the policy was, I believe, worded a little differently in 2006 from the 2014 version quoted above, and I think then it actually mentioned evidence). Not surprisingly they didn’t respond, but I met my lawyer, purely by accident, a few months later and he told me my letter had caused quite a stir – which thrilled me as throughout the case I always felt like Mr Nobody or The Invisible Man. I asked him why, with no evidence at all, the case had lasted as long as it did. His response was that I was one of the lucky ones. Many people in his experience had gone through this process and been destroyed, based on no more evidence than they had against me. No more than someone’s story.

But I’ve had another insight since taking aim at the DPP all those years ago. Yes, I still think the DPP contravened their own policy by taking on my case, but I was forgetting, in my utmost naivety, the role of the police. Yes, the DPP say they won’t prosecute a case unless they have a reasonable chance of success, but when the police arrest a person and charge him with rape, the DPP obviously don’t know a thing about it. They only find out later, from the police. In other words, the DPP has cases ‘dumped’ on it by the police, and has to make the best of them. Their ‘reasonable prospect of conviction’ is based entirely on the word of the police that they have sufficient evidence. You can see here how a world of tension and acrimony might open up between the police and the DPP.

So it looks as if my anger against the DPP might’ve been misplaced. My anger should have been directed at the police. But of course if I’d written to the police about their lack of evidence, where would it have got me?

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Posted in argument, work

Tagged with , , , , ,

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.

References
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

a smart ploy, with serious overtones for gender equality

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This is serious, mum: striking a blow for common-sense and against gender-regulated dress-codes. CREDIT: DEVON LIVE / SWNS.COM

I heard an amusing story on the morning news about young male students in England protesting the absurd imposition of a strict long trousers dress code in all weathers at some local high school, where the girls, of course, are allowed – or rather, required – to wear skirts. It reminded me of my days in high school in the early seventies when we were gathered together, boys on one side, girls on the other, to hear our deputy head launch a tirade against ‘long, scruffy hair’. Of course, he was talking only about boys, who henceforth were banned from having hair below the collar. Of course I couldn’t help but notice that all the girls’ hair, of indeterminate scruffiness, hung below that level. I also noted with interest that the deputy head was completely bald.

More than forty years on I still fume at that arbitrary diktat, such is my rabid anti-authoritarianism, but of course I didn’t then have the courage, or the power, to make a protest. Forty-odd years on and these English schoolboys have staged a protest that’s magnificently rebellious, non-violent, eye-catching, intelligent and humorous, by coming to school in the standard uniform – for girls. Interestingly, the media were on hand to capture the spectacle and to interview the lads, who were articulate and positive about the comfort and style of their skirts. The media presence suggests to me the collusion of parents, and a deal of planning leading up to the big day….

So Dr Google reveals that the boys were from Isca Academy in Exeter, Devon, and accompanying photos reveal the boys’ obvious delight in their ploy. I sincerely hope it was entirely their idea. The protest has had immediate effect, with a new policy on shorts to be adopted ‘subject to consultation’. The problem with this is that there’s a heatwave on now in England, so the boys likely won’t be allowed their shorts until the hot weather is over. I’m hoping they’ll continue with their skirts while the heatwave lasts. That would be the most logical and practical solution. However, the gender-segregating stupidity of our general society, never mind the petty regulations of what looks to be a conservative, elitist Devon school, will probably not permit that. The school itself is using climate change as an excuse for a permanent withdrawal of its long-trousers rule, rather than admitting that the rule is idiotic at any time – though perhaps no more idiotic than most dress rules that segregate the genders.

It seems like a minor issue, but I don’t think so. It goes to the heart of gender equality. Dress codes that clearly separate the genders – and I’m leaving aside the LBGTQ etc minefield – are never a good idea. And this of course includes hairstyle codes. For a start there’s the impracticality. Both codes would have to be equally flexible to suit weather conditions as well as working conditions, and to suit personal choice. It would be manifestly unfair, for example, to restrict the length of boys’ hair when girls’ hair length is unrestricted. And it would be manifestly unfair to impose trousers on boys and skirts on girls when weather conditions will differentially affect the genders because of their uniforms, not to mention differentially affecting their freedom to engage in a range of other activities, for example in the rough and tumble of the playground. To manage this flexibility with two separate, and highly differentiated dress codes, would be virtually impossible. Not to mention that this stark separation doesn’t represent the reality of gender. Neurological studies reveal that there’s no categorical difference between the male and the female brain, only statistical differences, and the variation within female brains and within male brains is far greater than the difference between the genders. This should be seen in our choice of clothing too, but I think we’re still constrained too much by myths of masculinity and femininity, even in our casual dress. We need to keep working on it.

There’s another, more important issue, though, about highly differentiated male/female dress codes. When you have stark differences like these there are always associated values. Differences in type are generally seen as differences in quality. For example, a dress, of whatever design, is rarely viewed in the same businesslike way as long trousers or a suit. Suits radiate a kind of standardised, more or less faceless power, and women rarely wear them and are certainly not encouraged to do so. Of course it’s hard to say what came first – the suit, which then invests the male with power, or the male, who invests the suit with power – but it seems to me the power differential is real, and a more diverse dress code, best encouraged from early childhood, would help to break that down.

And this brings me, finally, to a hot-button issue: the burqa, and also the niqab and other variants. Many of the discussions around banning the burqa have to do with issues such as identification, but this misses the clear-cut point that the burqa, in particular, is a cultural symbol of female inferiority, and nothing else. That’s all it is. That’s what it’s for. And cultures that treat women in this way, with or without their own collusion, are in violation of basic human rights. Cultures that impose the burqa will try to present arguments for its use that are as reasonable as they can possibly make them to a global audience, but they can’t argue with the evidence that the women in those cultures have far less freedom, opportunities and power than the men.

This is the point, for me. Some cultures are better than others, and the best cultures are those more in harmony with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the human values that underpin that declaration. The best cultures are also those most in keeping with what science and history tell us about human nature – and they tell us a lot. If we didn’t have cartloads of information about what kinds of culture or society allow us to thrive, we wouldn’t be able to develop analyses such as the OECD better life index, which currently measures 38 countries through 11 parameters including jobs, safety, community, education, environment and life satisfaction. Australia currently ranks second behind Norway, after being number one for three consecutive years (the OECD is headquartered in Paris).

In December last year, in an article titled “Why Australia needs a debate on the burqa ban”, Andrew Macleod, a business leader, speaker and commentator, wrote ‘I believe every culture can set the customs and norms that they wish.’ This is, of course, fair enough, it’s like saying ‘I believe everyone has a right to their own opinion’, but that doesn’t mean every opinion has to be respected, or is worthy of respect. Particular customs and norms can and should be challenged. Macleod, in his article, takes the ‘when in Rome’ view. You should adapt your behaviour and practice to the norms of the country you’re visiting or living in. I would follow that advice too, but not out of respect – merely out of survival. I wouldn’t want to land up in a foreign jail or be beaten half to death by an angry mob. More importantly – and it’s easy for me because I’m poor and can rarely afford to travel anyway! – I would research any country before visiting it, to ensure that it has customs and laws worthy of respect. I’ve often been urged by friendly students to go and visit their native countries, but, not being a businessman or a seasoned traveller, I haven’t the slightest interest in visiting a country that doesn’t uphold basic human rights, even for a day.

Of course I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, stop people from other countries visiting Australia, and I don’t think an outright ban on the burqa would be a good idea, though I think sensible laws relating to such apparel in certain situations should be enacted. I’d want to ensure also that there is vetting – not to ensure conformity with ‘Australian values’, but in conformity with global human values and rights. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, coerce people into espousing such values. We need to show by example the value of such values. The OECD only measures 38 countries, and they’re mostly western countries with market economies and established democratic institutions – advanced countries as they’re called. We’re internationally recognised as one of the best of them, and should be able to advertise ourselves as a country whose values are worth adopting, without resort to the breast-beating nationalism that too many Americans, and Australians, indulge in (and such values have nothing discernible to do with speaking near-perfect English).

Do I look too modest in this? Clothing to make the heart sink

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2017 at 2:42 pm