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23 May 00:01

Rationally Speaking podcast: Sean Carroll on philosophical naturalism

by Massimo Pigliucci
Astrophysicist and author Sean Carroll joins this episode of Rationally Speaking, to talk about "naturalism" - the philosophical viewpoint that there are no supernatural phenomena, and the universe runs on scientific laws.

Sean, Julia, and Massimo discuss what distinguishes naturalism from similar philosophies like physicalism and materialism, and what a naturalistic worldview implies about free will, consciousness, and other philosophical dilemmas.

And they return to that long-standing debate: should scientists have more respect for philosophy?

Sean's pick: "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human."

References: Moving Naturalism Forward workshop.
21 May 05:09

Kinky scholars

by thuudung

Leprechaun fetish? You’re not alone. Indeed, kink has gone mainstream. But don’t ask theory-addled scholars of gender for insight, says Camille Paglia. .. more»

21 May 00:01

Love and reason?

by Massimo Pigliucci
by Massimo Pigliucci

Recently I attended a talk by Ronnie de Sousa, a philosopher at The University of Toronto, by the somewhat unusual, almost oxymoronic, title of “Love and Reason” (as opposed to, say, Love or Reason). It turned out to be a fascinating tour de force ranging from the Countess of Champagne and her 1176 verdict on the nature of love, to cognitive scientist’s Helen Fisher studies of the chemical underpinning of different aspects of love. Here I will limit myself to a few aspects of de Sousa’s talk (who graciously provided me with his original slides), but Ronnie is finishing a paper on the subject, so stay tuned for much more if what follows happen to sufficiently stimulate your curiosity.

First off, though, I simply cannot resist the temptation to quote the above mentioned Countess of Champagne in full. The quote actually allows de Sousa to introduce the framework of his talk (the relationship and difference between reasons and causes of love), but it is worth reading in its entirety for its own sake.

Apparently, back in 1176, a “Court of Love” was established — presided by the Countess herself — to address the question of “Whether love can have a place between spouses,” i.e. whether the very concept of love is compatible with matrimony. Here is the verdict quoted by de Sousa:

We state and affirm that love cannot extend its power to a married couple, for lovers give one another everything freely, without obligation or any necessity; conjugal partners, by contrast, are committed to doing one another’s will and not to deny anything to one another.

So there you have it, apparently duty and inclination are not compatible in this instance, a very stern, Kantian view of things. And indeed, Kantian interpretations of love were a major target of ferocious criticism (even downright scorn) in de Sousa’s talk, which was delivered with humor and even theatricality (he quoted several passages from literature classics, such as the Cyrano, and he did so very engagingly).

Ronnie clearly distinguished reasons of love from reasons to love, as well as between positive and negative reasons, and finally between reasons seen from the point of view of the lover and from that of the loved. I do not want to get too far into this particular aspect of his talk, but some tidbits will give you an idea.

For instance, most people would not accept “I love her because she is rich” as a good reason for love, just like — and the parallel here does a good amount of work in de Sousa’s scheme — we would find weird, within the context of a work of art, if someone were to say “it’s beautiful because it’s expensive.” Or consider this: we would take it as a good reason for someone to stop loving someone else if the former object of love were to turn monstrously evil. But it is hard to imagine the traction one would get by saying something along the lines of “I love him because he is not monstrously evil.” (Though I have to admit that I’ve heard people on the New York dating scene lower their acceptance bar almost as far...)

In one of my favorite bits during the talk, de Sousa presented his version of the famous Euthyphro dilemma, which in its original Platonic context represents the most powerful argument for the irrelevance of gods to morality. The love-related version of the dilemma goes something like this: is what we love of value to us because we love it, or do we love it because it has value? Be careful how you answer it, because either horn of the dilemma carries pretty logical consequences. The first possibility is tautologically self-referential, and would lead us to admit, among other unsavory things, that it is perfectly sensible to love the above mentioned monstrously evil individual (or to love anyone, really). The second option, however, raises the question of fungibility: let’s say that I think I love someone because she is smart, beautiful, and of good character. Well, there is always the possibility of eventually meeting someone else who is even more so in any (or all!) of said dimensions. That being the case, wouldn’t it make sense to “trade up,” so to speak? Switch to the newer, better model? While a distressing number of people do in fact do so without a thought, it seems a bit callous (not to mention extremely un-Kantian!) to treat someone who we allegedly love as if s/he were a car or a television set, no?

Which brings us (skipping around the actual sequence of the talk a bit) to how de Sousa deals with the problem of fungibility. He introduces Helen Fisher’s famous studies on the cognitive science of three distinguishable kinds of love: lust, romantic love (which Ronnie calls “limerence”), and attachment. I referred to the same research in Answers for Aristotle, and I think the general findings are interesting if, of course, open to the usual caveats and potential future falsification of any neurobiological piece of research on humans.

Fisher has described three behavioral syndromes, as well as their correlated hormonal profiles, that characterize different types of “love” in humans. In some cases the three represent a temporal sequence within a given relationship, but this is by all means not a necessity. The first type, lust, is characterized by being fairly object-generic, meaning that we can lust after a (great) variety of people, though of course even lust is somewhat discriminating in its targets. Lust drives sexual intercourse, and at the hormonal level is underpinned by androgens (especially testosterone) and estrogens. It typically has a time span measured in hours or minutes...

Next we have limerence (a word de Sousa credits to psychologist Dorothy Tennov), what most of us call romantic love. Very much unlike lust, the object of romantic love is unique, indeed obsessively so. Its function is to focus one’s energy and time on a particularly good candidate for long-term attachment, and it is chemically underpinned by catecholamins, hormones such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This phase can continue for weeks or months, and up to 2-3 years, depending on the people and the circumstances.

Finally — if a couple gets that far — we have long-term attachment. This is not focused on sex, though it can in fact arouse intense emotional distress. It is what allows people to raise families, which means that it is evolutionarily crucial, in a species such as ours, where long-term parental investment is vital for the survival and well being of the offspring. The chemistry here is dominated by oxytocin and vasopressin, and the duration is indefinite, ranging from several years to a lifetime.

What has all of this to do with fungibility? de Sousa argues that the philosophically relevant differences among the three types of love are that only lust is really fungible, that only limerence seems to be exclusive, and that only attachment has a significant historical component (meaning the unique, shared history of the people involved). If he is right, what makes long-term love (i.e., the sort that leads to attachment) non-fungible is not the exclusivity of the love object (he notes, reasonably, that people are capable of feelings of attachment toward more than one person), but rather the uniquely historical, unrepeatable, series of events that characterize the relationship. From this perspective, the longer one’s history of love with another person, the less fungible that person becomes — even though there may be another individual around the corner who is smarter, more attractive, etc.

I like the general idea, though I’m not sure I buy every aspect of it. For instance, I think the object of romantic love is indeed fungible, only on a different temporal scale than the object of lust. True, romantic love is exclusive, but it may well turn out to be only temporarily so. Indeed, I think even long-term attachment is open to the threat of fungibility, as in the case of relationships that end after many years (and even a number of children), leading one or both former partners to start new long-term, and at least occasionally just as unique and valuable relationships with other people.

However, what I think does happen in the transition between lust, romance and attachment is that fungibility becomes less and less likely, varying on a sliding scale with a maximum value in the case of lust, an intermediate one for romance, and a very low magnitude (but not necessarily zero!) for attachment. Whether this should be cause for moral concern, of course, is another matter.

Ronnie concluded his talk — which is much richer than I managed to convey here — by noting the following (and I am here quoting mostly verbatim): (a) The contingency of the circumstances that give rise to relationships makes them deeply a-rational (so long, Kant!); (b) They derive from chance priority of acquaintance, pheromone compatibility, genetic fatality, transference, and habit (i.e., they have many causes); and (c) None of the above mentioned factors count as reasons. The distinction between causes and reasons in philosophy in general, and in the philosophy of human action in particular, has a long and complex history. Still, as a distinction it is both clear and, I think, useful. In de Sousa’s hands it pretty much kills any rationalist, Kantian approach to the philosophy of love. And that, my friends, is no small accomplishment.
20 May 11:58

The lethality of loneliness

by thuudung

What is loneliness? It’s not solitude or what Kierkegaard called “shut-upness.” It’s an interior experience. And it can kill you… more»

20 May 08:08

Syphilis, sex and fear

by thuudung

Syphilis and creativity. Nietzsche’s grandiosity, Van Gogh’s death obsession, Schubert, Flaubert, Wilde, Joyce: Did the disease shape their work?… more»

17 May 11:44

Slaves to the algorithm

by thuudung

Algorithms are writing news stories, setting you up on dates, making (or breaking) a company’s stock. But does an algorithm know what makes good art?… more»

17 May 01:33

Sagan beats Dawkins. In related news, education overcomes superstition

by Massimo Pigliucci
by Massimo Pigliucci
I have been doing public outreach for science since I originally moved to Tennessee in 1996. It has been a fun ride, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way for many years to come. But two of the first things I learned when debating creationists and giving talks about the nature of science were: a) nastiness doesn’t get you anywhere; and b) just because you have reason and evidence on your side doesn’t mean you are going to carry the day.
Hence, my sympathy for the mild mannered approach of Carl Sagan as evident in, say, The Demon Haunted World, or The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and my dislike of the more in-your-face take of those such as Dawkins, as fun as the latter may be for the in-crowd. Up until recently, however, I could only back up my preference with reasons of personal taste and anecdotal experience. Not any longer, now there is hard data.
A recent paper in PLoS One by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens explored the reasons why people prefer Intelligent Design type “explanations” to science-based ones such as evolution by natural selection. The authors carried out a series of experiments using an established technique in experimental psychology, known as “priming.” Before exposing subjects to, say, a writing by Michael Behe or Richard Dawkins, the researchers asked them to imagine and write about either their own death or some dental pain. Subjects were then given a short passage authored either by Behe or by Dawkins — neither of which was explicitly addressing religion — and were asked what they thought.
Subjects who were primed to imagine their death prior to reading the passages were inclined to like Behe better than Dawkins, and to accept ID accounts over evolutionary ones. The inference being that — as we all suspected — people are drawn to creationism out of emotional fears of personal annihilation, not by reasoned discourse.
Here is the first kicker, however: when the researchers also gave subjects an additional reading, from Carl Sagan, the results were different. In the short passage, Sagan was explicitly arguing that scientific explanations of natural phenomena do not have to detract from meaning (yes, I know that Dawkins also writes about this, but much less forcefully and convincingly, I think). The Sagan piece had the effect of countering Behe’s, even among people who had been reminded of their own mortality. Pretty neat, heh?
But there is more. An additional experiment was carried out by focusing on undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, instead of the broader samples from the general population examined previously. Even after thinking about death, these subjects still favored biological explanations over Intelligent Design, and they even liked Dawkins better than Behe. It seems that education might trump people’s fear of mortality enough to make them understand that science is more sound than religion when it comes to explaining the natural world.
The bottom line is that we now have some of the first experimental evidence that: a) coupling scientific accounts of the world with more philosophical reminders of where meaning in life comes from, and b) simply teaching science, are effective ways to alter people’s perception of the evolution-creation debate.
Think about it: this means that an injection of philosophy and good science education actually makes a difference! Our efforts are not wasted, especially if we can remind ourselves of what should be obvious: people are attracted to pseudoscience not just because they don’t know enough science (though that is certainly the case), but because they find enhanced meaning in the mysterious. Paul Kurtz famously called it the transcendental temptation, and a strong temptation it is. The trick is to counter it with tools that cut deep enough into its emotional roots, not just addressing its surface appearance of rationalization.
16 May 09:03

Video: Cindi Katz & David Harvey: “Global Restructuring: Urban Inequalities, Everyday Life & the Right to the City”

by process

Cindi Katz & David Harvey – “Global Restructuring: Urban Inequalities, Everyday Life & the Right to the City

A class session from Inq13: Reassessing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st-Century: East Harlem Focus – a participatory open online course offered by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and JustPublics@365.

13 May 23:32

tv series (part1/part2/part3) The series argues that computers...

tv series (part1/part2/part3)

The series argues that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have “distorted and simplified our view of the world around us”

13 May 23:30

"Austeridade baseia-se em ideias fraudulentas"

13 May 01:00

Space Oddity

by adafruit

A revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station.

Chris Hadfield, he’s just the best.

12 May 08:20

Michael Sandel and AC Grayling in conversation

by thuudung

Higher education is a public resource, not a private privilege, says Michael Sandel. So his Harvard course is free online. Is he putting other scholars out of work?… more»more»

12 May 01:55

i09: William Gibson on The Past, Present & Future of Sci-Fi

08 May 04:36

Report from the utopian future.

by thuudung

"IT IS A CONCEIT, at least, with a distinguished philosophical pedigree. As philosopher Tzvetan Todorov put it in his fine polemic In Defence of the Enlightenment, a central assumption of Enlightenment thinking was that human life would be "guided henceforth by a project for the future, not by an authority from the past." French legal scholar Frédéric Rouvillois has argued that this project for the future represented nothing less than "the invention of progress," noting its hypnotic and powerful appeal ever since to the Western imagination. Today, this secular progress narrative so thoroughly pervades global thinking that it can be difficult to remember how radical a break it represented from all major religions, which, however committed to charity, have seen poverty as an immutable given of the human condition."

We’re awash in techno-utopian visions of endless progress. It’s long been thus. The problem isn’t optimism, says David Rieff. The problem is foolish optimism… more»

08 May 03:03

The trouble with the Enlightenment

by thuudung

Debating the Enlightenment. The philosophers’ positions – Kantians versus Hegelians – remain fixed, with little left to say. Let’s hear from the historians… more»

08 May 02:45

Costa-Gravas: o dinheiro "é a nossa nova ditadura"

08 May 00:34



Gravado na Soalheira a 5 de Maio de 2013 no âmbito da Grande Rota da Transumância
Realização: Tiago Pereira
Som: Telma Morna


Tags: Bombos and MPagdp

07 May 23:54

Letters to Ms.: How Mary Thom (RIP) Built “Social Media” for Women’s Rights in the 1970s

by Maria Popova

Celebrating the invisible art of making a movement visible.

Yesterday, I attended the memorial for reconstructionist Mary Thom, whom we lost in a tragic motorcycle crash last month and who changed the voice of women’s rights as founding editor of groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. In the early 1970s, just as women were emerging from the stifling grip of the Mad Men era and beginning to raise their voices against injustice at the workplace, Ms. came in as a beacon of what many of us have since come to take for granted, a brave promise of what life would be like in a gender-blind world.

Named after the form of address recommended in secretarial handbooks for when a woman’s marital status was unknown, subsequently subverted by women who wished to be recognized as individuals rather than defined by their relationship to a man, the magazine proclaimed in its inaugural half-column announcement that “Ms.” was meant “only to signify a female human being. It’s symbolic, and important. There’s a lot in a name.” Indeed, there was: From the outset, Ms. made no apologies for calling things by their true, hegemonically defiant names — in the Preview Issue, which appeared as an insert in New York magazine in the spring of 1972, Ms. launched “a campaign for honesty and freedom,” in which fifty-three women signed a statement declaring that they had had an abortion, which at the time was illegal in most states.

Mary Thom by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists

Three decades before the age of social media and instant communities, Ms. presented an unprecedented avenue for women to connect with one another around the issues that impacted their lives daily, which remained taboo and thus cautiously avoided by mainstream media. It was in the letters to the magazine, collected in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) and edited by Thom herself, that these voices come together into a chorus line for the era’s central political and social concerns — equal pay, reproductive rights, the everyday language of bias and discrimination.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem writes in the introduction to the anthology:

Whatever Ms. readers are doing at any given moment, a third to a half of American women are doing three to five years later. You can track change through these letters, and even predict the future.

The country couldn’t have better leaders and teachers than these thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent letter writers. . . .

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem at Mary Thom memorial: 'Mary chose to be backstage and without her there would BE no stage.'

Long before the heyday of smartphones and email and text-messaging, Thom herself laments the lost art of letter-writing in the foreword, reminding us of just how monumental and paradigm-shifting a “social network” this epistolary sisterhood was:

Letter writing is nearly a lost art in this age of telephones and easy travel — and the receipt of written correspondence that is detailed and witty is a lost pleasure. As a result, when Ms. magazine began publishing in 1972, few of us who were on the staff were prepared for the experience of reading the rich variety of the letters that were addressed to the editors. They allowed us to get to know thousands of our readers on a level of intimacy that one shares with only a few real-life friends.


Ms. was founded to give voice to the concerns of a movement, and the letters help us fulfill that purpose.

And the letters were indeed exceptional — diverse yet uniformly courageous, from the confessional letters seeking a sense that others share in the same struggles and concerns to the classic “click” letters, a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from a woman’s anecdote that just “clicks.”

Many tackled the workplace revolution — at the time of the inaugural issue, some 33.5 million women were working outside their homes, but most were earning 59 cents to the dollar of an equally qualified man doing the same job. Meanwhile, the work of keeping a household running and raising children was unaccounted for in the gross national product although it essentially fueled the economy by raising the next generations. One woman had a clever solution, but was met with institutional rigidity:

Rather than hire a housekeeper and baby sitter for our three preschool children, my husband and I decided to “hire” me — to pay me a salary and contribute social security. The Internal Revenue Service said nay; this can only be done for someone not a family member. We tried to contract for disability insurance for me — in the event of my not being able to perform my housekeeping and child-care duties — but we have not yet found a carrier. I am not adding to the family income — and he cannot be compensated for a loss that does not exist.

The implication is clear — the establishment is making it more attractive to leave the home and let others raise their families. So I went job hunting. Results: very few jobs open in my field; higher salaries for men of the same background; hesitation to hire a woman with three “little ones” because I might not be dependable (miss work). Let’s find out why men with families are considered good, stable, desirable employees and women are not.

Mary Fortuna
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
February 1973 issue

But the bias didn’t only come from “the establishment” — one anonymous woman notes its most devastating manifestation:

I work part time at a gas station in Oakland. I pump gas, wash windows, put air in tires, check and charge batteries, check transmissions, change oil, hub jobs, and other basic things. I don’t claim to be a mechanic; I’m not. But I’m getting a little tired of women asking me to get “one of the men” to check their tires, water, and oil. I have been trained on the job to do these things. Men seem to trust and accept my service much more willingly than the women. One woman asked me to check her transmission. I did and found that she was completely empty and suggested she add a quart of transmission fluid. She didn’t believe me and asked that I get “one of the men” to check it out. So I did, and he told her the same thing. This happens every day. I wish there was something that could be done. It is hard enough for women to seek positions in fields that are dominated by men without having to deal with mistrust and lack of support from other women.

Name Withheld
September 1973

A “click” letter poignantly considers just how deeply rooted and systemic the unequal pay problem is:

It occurred to me the other day to wonder at the discrepancy in wages that I pay to those high-school students who baby sit and those who do lawn cutting and gardening for me. Most of the “lawn and garden” people, who happen to be boys ask for a dollar an hour. Most of the baby sitters, who usually happen to be girls, ask seventy-five cents an hour.

Now I ask myself, is caring for my children less important, less valuable, less a responsibility? Or is lawn cutting and gardening considered harder and more taxing physical work? (Two active children under five can be pretty hard, taxing, physical work, too.) Or is it that boys just ask for and receive high wages from the beginning? And is it that child care is, anyway, considered to be “women’s work” and not deserving of pay? Click!

Marge Mitchell
Baltimore, Maryland
September 1974 issue

One woman shares an amusing anecdote of claiming empowerment by turning back on the establishment its own double standards of sexual objectification:

I finally got up the courage to challenge an old established male tradition in my office. I do telephone sales. Our working area in the office has always been covered with “girlie” pictures and photographs of devastating (and devastated) maidens. This made us few women in the office feel terribly uncomfortable.

When the majority of the male staff was out to lunch, we proceeded to rape the latest issue of Playgirl of its best. Over my desk now hangs one gorgeous specimen of the male species, the centerfold. Everywhere there was a girlie picture there are now beautiful stud photographs.

I think the reactions of the men in the office could best be summarized in terms of shock. Although everyone tried to be good humored about it, jokingly or otherwise, they all compared themselves in some way to the models. It was a marvelous experience to see super-duper macho stud types go all to pieces when confronted with the same thing we have had to face for years — images of ourselves as we could never hope to be, images of ourselves as seen only in the minds of men.

Name Withheld
October 13, 1975

Others shared moments of small daily triumphs, the glimmering light of hope for an equal future:

One day last week I pulled up to a four-way stop in my taxi. At one of the other stop signs sat a police officer in a chase cruiser, and at the third, a telephone installer in a Bell Canada van. What made the occasion memorable was the fact that all three of us were women. We celebrated with much joyful laughter and raised thumbs.

Jill Wood
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
November 1980 issue

But in academia, a field still notorious for its gender discrimination, things were far from joyful:

In 1972, as full professor, I sued the university for discrimination in salary on the basis of sex. They were simply paying the men more than the women, especially me. It took all these years of stonewalling, avoiding, ignoring, before they finally admitted I was right, and settled out of court. Of course, I had to promise not to tell anyone how much they gave me and to be a good girl and not encourage any other woman professor to do the same heinous act of subversion of the rights of administration to set salaries. At age seventy-two (I retired in 1975), my lawyer and I decided to settle.

So how much I got is a deep dark secret, but you will notice this letter is being written on a new word processor. There are other things I have done, too. But the most is to enjoy, heartily, the last laugh.

Good luck to all embattled species.

Name Withheld
August 14, 1982

Many of the letters dealt with the politics of women’s bodies and minds. This particular one made me sigh, after having recently been told by my own (female) gynecologist that, at the exact age of this letter-writer, I was wasting my golden hour for procreation, the sublime fulfillment of my womanhood. (Never mind I assured the good doctor I didn’t want kids.)

[The gynecologist] sprang into the examining room waving my medical history and inquired melodramatically why I was so terrified of pregnancy. Without waiting for a response, he informed me that I have one two-year-old child, a fact which had not escaped my notice, and that it was high time I had another, especially in view of the dismal statistics on the incidence of Down’s syndrome and other misfortunes in change-of-life babies. I am all of twenty-eight.

Since I didn’t then jump off the table and rush home to attempt conception before my time ran out, he coyly reminded me that if I stalled too long, and my one child died, I’d be (choke) barren. He darkly hinted at past patients, too numerous to mention, who had suffered nervous breakdowns after being unable to conceive that precious second child. My observation that a woman whose whose self-fulfillment rests on producing children needs a psychiatrist more urgently than a gynecologist fell on deaf ears.

In a last-ditch effort to summon up a satisfactory haul of guilt on my part, he spoke of women with serious physical problems who risk death to bear a child. “And then,” he said, “there are people like you. . . . .”

Dianne C. Felder
Old Bridge, New Jersey
April 1973 issue

Many of the letters found humor and wisdom in the innocent comments of young children, unburdened by the cultural baggage of gender roles:

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

Another, from one of Ms.’s male readers — a pastor, no less:

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I Hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Another section of the anthology is dedicated to letters championing equality in language, a topic particularly apt for a magazine whose very title offers meta-commentary on the subject:

Recently I was “called in” by a secondary-school district where I substitute-teach. I was told that I would be dropped from their list of substitute teachers, unless I stopped using “Ms.” when writing my name on the board at the beginning of a new assignment — “because ‘Ms.’ makes students think of sexuality and liberation.”

When I asked if there weren’t other women on the faculty using “Ms.” with their names, I was told, “No, we don’t have very many young, unmarried women working for us.” Click … crash!

Patricia R. Bristowe
La Honda, California
October 1973 Issue

Others found in the language issue a venue for small but meaningful acts of courage and resistance:

I resigned from my job yesterday as a matter of principle. I was given a letter to type by a senior secretary to the auditing firm that had recently been in our books. A woman headed up the team of accountants at our company for several weeks.

The letter was opened to “Gentlemen.” I changed it to “Greetings.” I was told that the letter must be redone because it was the policy of the company to use the salutation “Gentlemen.” I was told that management determined company policy, not uppity secretaries who didn’t know their place. I decided to resign and didn’t redo the letter.

I’m looking for another job, but I did raise quite a few eyebrows and, hopefully, someone’s consciousness.

Name Withheld
September 12, 1982

Even in Ms., the constant tension between editorial integrity and advertising didn’t fail to rear its head — though it could be argued that, today, similar impossible ideals have permeated the editorial ranks and are being peddled by opinion-packages like Lean In rather than advertisers alone:

Why do advertisers persist in selling the image of the beautiful, shapely woman executive who keeps the same perfectly made-up face and styled hair, even after a hard day of earning a six-figure salary, dining in expensive restaurants, having a brisk game of tennis at the club, and a late night of discotheque hopping? It’s no surprise that real women are tempted to wonder what they’re doing wrong.

Deborah K. Smith
Brookline, Massachusetts
July 1980 Issue

In language, too, the little victories were celebrated as beacons of big change to come:

This may not sound like much, but my boss just asked me a question that made my day and that I am dying to share with someone. He was in a meeting when he called out my name. I thought I was going to have to make copies or do some other chore, but he asked a question: “Dianne, who is the new girl … lady … woman over at Mud Island?” Hooray, he’s thinking! I felt wonderful. I don’t know if he kept correcting himself for my benefit or not, but his awareness is all that matters!

Dee Butler
Memphis, Tennessee
September 1983 Issue

It’s often said that editing is an invisible art, and Thom certainly tried to embody that by deliberately stepping away from the limelight and operating behind the scenes. The irony, of course, is that the snippets of strife and progress captured in Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 make plainly visible the enormous gift Thom and Ms. gave those of us who often forget all the indignities we need not suffer because of these women’s righteous, courageous indignation and fight for awareness.

Thank you, Mary, for everything.

Join me in supporting the Women’s Media Center, where Thom was editor-in-chief, in the remarkable work they do to etch Thom’s legacy into the bedrock of society.

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04 May 23:51

Moore’s law and the origin of life: a study in demarcation

by Massimo Pigliucci

by Massimo Pigliucci

My most recent post was about the worthiness of so-called “demarcation” problems, such as reflections on what distinguishes science from philosophy, the latter from theology, and the former from pseudoscience. My interest in this field has been rekindled because of a long time collaboration with my colleague Maarten Boudry, which has resulted in a forthcoming edited book on the topic, to be published in July by Chicago Press.

Here I want to move from the broad overview I gave last time to a specific recent case at the borderlands between science and pseudoscience: Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon’s paper “Life Before Earth,” currently unpublished but in preview at Cornell’s arXiv. PZ Myers has already harshly commented on the paper, clearly relegating it to the dustbin of pseudoscience. While I don’t disagree with PZ’s overall assessment, I think it is instructive to get a bit deeper into it and unpack the reasons for such judgment. After all, Sharov and Gordon are actual scientists (the first at the National Institute on Aging, the second at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory), and the paper has all the appearance of legitimate, if boldly out of the mainstream, science. (Of course the fact that it hasn’t been published, yet, in a peer reviewed journal is an issue; but it’s not like there is no garbage being published by legitimate scientific journals anyway.)

To begin with, it is not entirely clear what the Sharov and Gordon paper is actually about. Yes, their main claim appears to be that one can use Moore’s so-called law (actually a straightforward empirical generalization based on a very specific data set), a linear relationship between CPU transistor counts and their dates of introduction, and apply it to the problem of when life might have originated in the universe. Here is the stunning claim made by the authors as a result of their exercise: “Linear regression of genetic complexity (on a log scale) extrapolated back to just one base pair suggests the time of the origin of life = 9.7 ± 2.5 billion years ago.” This would be stunning, if true, for the simple reason that earth itself is only 4.54 billion years old, which would therefore squarely place the origin of life in some other region of the cosmos.

Before we get to the meat of Sharov and Gordon’s claim, however, it is worth noting what is so confusing about the paper in the first place. Their main result is presented in Section 1 of the 26-pp. long work, with much of the rest devoted to tangentially, or not at all, related points about which the authors provide an odd mix of a meager overview of the literature and their (largely unsubstantiated) personal opinions. For instance, Section 2 deals with the variability of the rate of evolution as well as Gould and Eldredge’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria. While Sharov and Gordon do need to reassure their readers that their proposed trend of increase in genomic complexity isn’t undermined by too wild fluctuations of said rate over geological time, this has actually little if anything to do with punctuated equilibria, which is a theory about morphological evolution, which has been applied so far only to a relatively small subset of biological taxa.

Section 3, addressing the question of why genomic complexity (allegedly) increased exponentially during the history of life on earth is highly speculative to say the least (invoking concepts such as “evolution as cascading emergencies”), not to mention extremely brief.

Section 4 addresses the almost comical question of whether life could have originated from a single nucleotide (a bit of genetic information). Most practicing biologists would answer “hell no” to that question, but Sharov and Gordon treat us to a highly idiosyncratic (and even more debatable) tour of origin-of-life theories, including the RNA world, the idea of Graded Autocatalysis Replication Domains, the theory of autocatalytic reactions and so forth. Interesting, highly speculative, marginally relevant.

Section 5 is yet another, more in-depth, detour on hypotheses that tackle the problem of going from (very speculative) early surface metabolism (i.e., heritable metabolic systems that allegedly evolved on mineral surfaces) to the RNA world, and finally to the evolution of the first cells. Add some additional speculation on LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life forms on earth), and you can move to Section 6, addressing the question of how life can possibly survive in the interstellar void.

This is of course necessary because if life originated before earth did, then it follows that some sort of panspermia-type hypothesis must hold: life got started somewhere else, and then somehow made it to the third planet in our solar system. Needless to say, this bit of the paper is also highly speculative, having to do with the possibility that the solar system got its building materials from the explosion of a nearby star, for instance. Moreover, the authors bring up the discovery of bacteria that survived in ice for 750,000 years as if that were a reasonable approximation to millions of years of existence in the interstellar void, and so forth.

We then move to Section 7 of the Sharov and Gordon, where they explore the implications of a cosmic origin of life, speculating (wildly) that eventually we may be able to reconstruct a single evolutionary tree elucidating the phylogenetic relationships between terrestrial and extraterrestrial bacteria (never mind, of course, that no sample of the latter is in sight, at the moment...). Interestingly, the authors come down against the idea of “intelligent panspermia,” i.e., the possibility that life on earth (and other planets) was seeded on purpose by extraterrestrial intelligent beings. How do they know that? They confidently state that the evolution of intelligence requires 10 billion years, though we are not told how they arrived at such a bold and confident conclusion. In the same section the authors also manage to trash the famous Drake equation (one of the few theoretical foundations of the SETI program), and to answer the infamous Fermi paradox: the reason we haven’t heard from other intelligences in the universe is because we are likely the first one to appear on the block.

[Incidentally, and disturbingly, a good number of the references given in the paper are to Wikipedia entries! Not exactly the highest standard of scholarship I can think of.]

Section 8 deals with the lagging of genetic complexity when compared to the complexity of the mind. What does that have to do with the only original point of the paper (remember? The one about Moore’s law and the timing of the origin of life)? Not much, but what the hell. Here we find claims such as that humans are “superior” (not an evolutionary term) to mice (I guess these guys never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and that languages too evolve following Moore’s law: did you know, for instance, that Chinese went from 2,500 characters 3,200 years ago to 47,000 characters today, which yields a “rate of language doubling time” (huh?) of 825 years, which in turn “exceeds the rate of brain increase in evolution by a factor of >3000”? Wow. Meanwhile, of course, romance languages haven’t evolved much, despite their ability to produce Shakespeare, or the Sharov and Gordon paper...

But wait! We ain’t done yet! Section 9 goes on to extrapolate the growth of complexity into the future, because extrapolating it back to the past isn’t a hazardous enough practice. To their credit,  Sharov and  Gordon dismiss Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about a forthcoming “technological singularity,” though they do so not based on the incoherence and lack of empirical support of the concept, but rather on the rather simplistic assumption that, you know, humans will always be in control of the power grid, so all we need to do to stem the onslaught of the Cylons is to pull the plug...

The last, tenth, section of the Sharov and Gordon paper has to do with a “biosemiotic perspective” on things, that is with the standpoint that considers living organisms qua agents. From there the authors immediately slide into semi-incoherent talk of reintroducing goals and meanings in the natural sciences, give a completely irrelevant nod to my own field of phenotypic plasticity studies and promptly quit.

All of the above doesn’t quite cross into pseudoscience, though it skirts perilously and repeatedly near that fuzzy borderline. A charitable reading of it is that the bulk of Sharov and Gordon’s paper is a somewhat disjointed, highly speculative tour de force of the field of origin-of-life and (somewhat) related studies. But what about the core of their manuscript, Section 1?

Well, the first highly questionable statement there is that “the core of the macroevolutionary process ... is the increase of functional complexity of organisms.” No, it isn’t. Stephen Gould long ago persuasively argued that there is no necessary direction of increased complexity throughout evolution. The only reason why complexity historically follows simplicity is because life had to start simple, so it only had “more complex” as a direction of (stochastic, not directed) movement. It’s a so-called “left wall” effect: if you start walking (randomly, even) from near a wall, the place you end up is away from the wall. And of course, as Gould again pointed out, life on earth was (relatively) simple and bacterial for a long, long time — and none the worse for it either. Moreover, the most complex organism on earth — us — though very successful in certain respects, is actually a member of a very small and often struggling group of large brained social animals. Measured by criteria such as biomass, bacteria still beat the crap out of us “superior” beings.

But the real problems begin for the Sharov and Gordon paper when they finally get to the business at hand: correlating genomic complexity with time of origin of the respective organisms, and then extrapolating back in time. [As a commenter on my Twitter stream pointed out, they could just as “reasonably” have extrapolated into the far future, arriving at the conclusion that the entire universe will eventually be made of DNA...]

The authors realize that simple genome length won’t cut it, because what matters is functional complexity, and there are some portions of the genomes of various organisms that are redundant and possibly without function. Nonetheless, they end up plotting the log-10 of genome size against time, which is how they arrive at the figure of 9.7 billion years ago for the origin of life. As PZ Myers quickly pointed out, however, even if we accept the procedure at face value, they simply cherry picked the data: plenty of organisms that don’t show up on the graph (plants and fungi, for instance) would completely scramble the results. Make no mistake about it: this is a fatal blow to the entire enterprise, and one that the authors ought to have thought about well before posting the paper.

The second fundamental problem, of course, is with Moore’s law itself: as I mentioned at the beginning, it was derived empirically from a very specific data set having to do with a particular type of human technology. There is no reason on earth (or beyond it!) to assume that the “law” (actually, a limited empirical generalization) should hold for measures such as genomic complexity, or for natural phenomena that are not of human origin.

Lastly (third fatal blow), the problem is with the procedure of statistical extrapolation itself. It’s very useful, of course, but it needs to be deployed with much caution. As anyone taking a Stat 101 course soon learns, data interpolation (i.e., curve fitting within the available range of data points) is a very effective and reliable technique to predict “missing” data; but extrapolation (i.e., extension of the curve fitting beyond the available data range) is a tricky business. Unless one is very confident that whatever mechanism underlies the relationship among the data actually holds regardless of range, one is on very shaky ground. Take, for instance, the most common curve fitting exercise in biology: the one relating the rate of growth of a population to time. If we start, say, a culture of bacteria with fresh growth medium, the colony will initially follow an exponential curve; if we extrapolate this curve a bit into the future, though, we arrive at the nonsensical prediction that the colony will soon take over the entire planet. It doesn’t. Why not? Because resources are limited and because there is going to be competition to acquire them from other species. Which is why many biological populations actually follow a logistic growth curve: they start out exponentially, then begin to slow down, and eventually reach an equilibrium determined by environmental constraints (the so-called carrying capacity in ecology). More complex dynamics (some actually leading to extinction) are possible too, but the point is that an ecologist who took seriously the initial exponential growth and used it for predictions in a scientific paper would be a fool to be laughed out of court immediately. Sharov and Gordon give us no reason to take their extrapolation backwards in time any more seriously.
02 May 23:52

Chullage - Eles Comem Tudo (Vídeo Oficial)

02 May 05:35

Pifarada do Álvaro - "O pastor da Serra Estrela"


No âmbito da grande rota da Transumância -
Gravado no Rosmaninhal a 1 de Maio de 2013
Realização: Tiago Pereira
Som: Telma Morna


Tags: Transumância and MPAGDP

02 May 03:16

Tunisia's revolution annexed

by Serge Halimi
Almost everyone in Tunisia believes that the benefits of the revolution are in danger. Perhaps from a “secular” opposition that refuses to admit that the conservative An-Nahda Islamists were the clear winners in the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011. Or from the An-Nahda Islamists, who want to use their victory to infiltrate the state from within, while exploiting the fear inspired by the Salafist militias. Or simply from a political circus reminiscent of the Fourth (...) - 2013/03 / Open access
02 May 02:43

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

by thuudung

Wikipedia and women. Ninety percent of the editors are men. And it shows. There are fewer articles on female poets than on porno actresses… more»

01 May 00:09

Entrevista com Chico Lobo - A viola e as suas crenças seguida da música "Caipira"


Gravado dia 28 de Abril de 2013 na Igreja de Castro Verde, em Castro Verde.
Realização: Tiago Pereira
Som: Amélia Pomar e Elvira Pomar


Tags: Chico Lobo, Viola Caipira, Voz, Alentejo, Castro Verde and Tiago Pereira

30 Apr 13:08

Cosmic Apprentice: Dorion Sagan on Why Science and Philosophy Need Each Other

by Maria Popova

“A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.”

As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (public library) as he sets out to explore the intricate ways in which the two fields hang “in a kind of odd balance, watching each other, holding hands”:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. There is truth in this clever crack, but, as Niels Bohr impressed, while the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

I would say that applies to the flip side of the above flip takedown: Science’s eye for detail, buttressed by philosophy’s broad view, makes for a kind of alembic, an antidote to both. This intellectual electrum cuts the cloying taste of idealist and propositional philosophy with the sharp nectar of fact yet softens the edges of a technoscience that has arguably lost both its moral and its epistemological compass, the result in part of its being funded by governments and corporations whose relationship to the search for truth and its open dissemination can be considered problematic at best.

Sagan refutes the popular perception of science as rationally objective, a vessel of capital-T Truth, reminding us that every scientific concept and theory was birthed by a subjective, fallible human mind:

All observations are made from distinct places and times, and in science no less than art or philosophy by particular individuals. … Although philosophy isn’t fiction, it can be more personal, creative and open, a kind of counterbalance for science even as it argues that science, with its emphasis on a kind of impersonal materialism, provides a crucial reality check for philosophy and a tendency to overtheorize that [is] inimical to the scientific spirit. Ideally, in the search for truth, science and philosophy, the impersonal and autobiographical, can “keep each other honest,” in a kind of open circuit. Philosophy as the underdog even may have an advantage, because it’s not supposed to be as advanced as science, nor does it enjoy science’s level of institutional support — or the commensurate heightened risks of being beholden to one’s benefactors.

Like Richard Feynman, who argued tirelessly for the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure, Sagan echoes the idea that willful ignorance is what drives science and the fear of being wrong is one of its greatest hindrances:

Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

In noting that a scientific theory must transcend the purely epistemological and reflect both pragmatic and aesthetic sensibilities, Sagan observes:

Some perspectives, some theories lead to many new questions, new devices, and enriched worldviews. They must be counted not just as true and productive but beautiful and stimulating, like poems or paintings, except that their medium is not pigments or words but our perception and intellection.

Sagan reflects on his father’s conviction that “the effort to popularize science is a crucial one for society,” one he shared with Richard Feynman, and what made Carl’s words echo as profoundly and timelessly as they do:

Science and philosophy both had a reputation for being dry, but my father helped inject life into the former, partly by speaking in plain English and partly by focusing on the science fiction fantasy of discovering extraterrestrial life.

In that respect, science could learn from philosophy’s intellectual disposition:

Philosophy today, not taught in grade school in the United States, is too often merely an academic pursuit, a handmaiden or apologetics of science, or else a kind of existential protest, a trendy avocation of grad students and the dark-clad coffeehouse set. But philosophy, although it historically gives rise to experimental science, sometimes preserves a distinct mode of sustained questioning that sharply distinguishes it from modern science, which can be too quick to provide answers.


Philosophy is less cocksure, less already-knowing, or should be, than the pundits’ diatribes that relieve us of the difficulties of not knowing, of carefully weighing, of looking at the other side, of having to think things through for ourselves. Dwell in possibility, wrote Emily Dickinson: Philosophy at its best seems a kind of poetry, not an informational delivery but a dwelling, an opening of our thoughts to the world.

Like Buckminster Fuller, who vehemently opposed specialization, Sagan attests to the synergetic value of intellectual cross-pollination, attesting to the idea that true breakthroughs in science require cross-disciplinary connections and originality consists of linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected:

It is true that science requires analysis and that it has fractured into microdisciplines. But because of this, more than ever, it requires synthesis. Science is about connections. Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” advised Martine in his wonderful 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Science, Sagan suggests — at least at its most elegant — is a conversation of constant revision, where each dead end brings to life a new fruitful question:

Theories are not only practical, and wielded like intellectual swords to the death … but beautiful. A good one is worth more than all the ill-gotten hedge fund scraps in the world. A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.

Supporting Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contention that intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, Sagan applies this very paradigm of connection-making to the crux of the age-old science vs. religion debate, painting evolution not as a tool of certitude but as a reminder of our connectedness to everything else:

Connecting humanity with other species in a single process was Darwin’s great natural historical accomplishment. It showed that some of the issues relegated to religion really come under the purview of science. More than just a research program for technoscience, it provides a eureka moment, a subject of contemplation open in principle to all thinking minds. Beyond the squabbles over its mechanisms and modes, evolution’s epiphany derives from its widening of vistas, its showing of the depths of our connections to others from whom we’d thought we were separate. Philosophy, too … in its ancient, scientifico-genic spirit of inquiry so different from a mere, let alone peevish, recounting of facts, needs to be reconnected to science for the latter to fulfill its potential not just as something useful but as a source of numinous moments, deep understanding, and indeed, religious-like epiphanies of cosmic comprehension and aesthetic contemplation.

The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right. Holstee

30 Apr 02:34

Marta Pereira da Costa - "Minha Alma"


Gravado dia 29 de Abril de 2013 no Intendente, Lisboa.
Pedro Pinhal na viola e Rodrigo Serrão no contrabaixo
Realização: Telma Freitas Morna
Som: convidado especial Pedro Magalhães
Assistentes: Diogo Vargas, Ricardo Rolim


Tags: Marta Pereira da Costa, contrabaixo, viola, guitarra portuguesa, Intendente, lisboa, Pedro Magalhães and Telma Morna

26 Apr 06:31


Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Born near Bordeaux in 1533, Montaigne retired from a life of public service aged 38 and began to write. He called these short works 'essais', or 'attempts'; they deal with an eclectic range of subjects, from the dauntingly weighty to the apparently trivial. Although he never considered himself a philosopher, he is often now seen as one of the most outstanding Sceptical thinkers of early modern Europe. His approachable style, intelligence and subtle thought have made him one of the most widely admired writers of the Renaissance. With: David Wootton Anniversary Professor of History at York University Terence Cave Emeritus Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford Felicity Green Chancellor's Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh. Producer: Thomas Morris.
26 Apr 04:29

Conversation: Steven Pinker on Decline of Human Violence

Conversation: Steven Pinker on Decline of Human Violence
A conversation with Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, and Stephen Heuser, Ideas Editor, The Boston Globe, on the decline of human violence.
Date: Thu, 25 Apr 2013 16:00:00 -0700
Location: Boston, MA, Back Bay Events Center, Personal Genome Project
Program and discussion:
22 Apr 13:23

To This Day: A Collaborative Animated Spoken-Word Poem About the Lifelong Pain of Bullying

by Maria Popova

Soul-stirring words in 20-second fragments of creativity.

To This Day is a beautiful short film based on Shane Koyczan’s spoken-word poem of the same title, exploring the debilitating lifelong trauma inflicted by early bullying. The project, in the style of The Exquisite Book and The Johnny Cash Project, was made by 87 animators and motion artists, each of whom contributed a 20-second segment of the narrative.

our lives will only ever always
continue to be
a balancing act
that has less to do with pain
and more to do with beauty.

Koyczan writes:

My experiences with violence in schools still echo throughout my life but standing to face the problem has helped me in immeasurable ways. … Schools and families are in desperate need of proper tools to confront this problem. We can give them a starting point… A message that will have a far reaching and long lasting effect in confronting bullying.

“To This Day” can be found on Koyczan’s spoken-word album, Remembrance Year, which is absolutely fantastic.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

♥ $7 / month♥ $3 / month♥ $10 / month♥ $25 / month

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit across the different platforms, and remains banner-free. If it brings you any joy and inspiration, please consider a modest donation – it lets me know I'm doing something right. Holstee

19 Apr 23:47

"Tomem lá a nossa dívida ... epa voces funcionam mesmo mal!"