Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Michael Jennings on Christmas tree with scaffolding
michael fallon on Russia unleashes tiger on China
Alastair on Santa's tired helpers
dodgy geezer on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
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Michael on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
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Most recent entries
- I’m an adjective!
- Home advantage and hoping for the best in the World Cup
- Hirst’s Hymn outside the Tate Gallery
- To Covent Garden (3): Cat that looks a bit like a dog
- To Covent Garden (2): Rough roofs – smooth roof
- Christmas tree with scaffolding
- Santa’s tired helpers
- To Covent Garden (1): The twisty footbridge
- Trousers keyboard
- Cameras photoing the Wheel (in 2007)
- Was Guy’s Tower a key building in the architectural history of London?
- Photo-drone wars to come
- A link and a photo of a photographer
- Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
- Sign blocked by surveillance camera
Other Blogs I write for
6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adventures in Capitalism
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Boatang & Demetriou
Burning Our Money
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
China Law Blog
Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog
Coffee & Complexity
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Deleted by tomorrow
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
Dr Robert Lefever
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
Ferraris for all
Freedom and Whisky
From The Barrel of a Gun
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Here Comes Everybody
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we make money not art
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Category archive: Science
Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.
This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):
Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon. They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.
It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.
It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.
Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.
Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.
So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.
The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.
The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C. Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.
This article confirms not one but two of my medical prejudices, which is double nice. Experts have their uses, one of which is to tell you that you have been right all along about something they’ve only just discovered.
The article is about artificial sweeteners, and this is how it ends:
What does this all mean?
1. Our gut bacteria matters a lot. Some guts can withstand artificial sugars well and others can’t. It stands to reason that, as we learn more about the uniqueness of our own microbiome, those of us who want to lose weight would be well served by diets that are tailored to the way our body and its biomic mini-me processes sugar.
2. Artificial sweeteners are pervasive and some people still can lose weight and enhance their health while consuming them. But since we now know that, on balance, they seem to be more bad than good, moderating how much we consume might be smart, too.
3. The study suggests that if people replace artificial sugars with real sugars or cut it out, their biomes could change in a way that contributes to the restoration of normal glucose tolerance over time, all other things being equal.
So, artificial sweeteners have a tendency to be very bad for you. That’s prejudice of mine number one. But, they may not be bad for you because, and this is prejudice of mine number two, people vary, physically. There is not just the one way of being healthy. There are a minimum of several, and what is harmless or even beneficial for you and to those like you may be very bad for other sorts of people.
The basic reason I came to think that artificial sweeteners might be bad for me was, to begin with, pure rationalisation of the fact that I have always thought that they taste disgusting, compared to sugar. “Diet” stuff, as a general rule, tasted, to me, horrible compared to regular stuff. In particular, Diet Coke tasted like that pink liqued they make you gargle with at the dentist. I started out believing that Diet Coke is bad for you because I wanted it to be, and I wanted the Regular Coke that I have always chosen when coking up to be less bad. But the more I thought about that early frisson of (literally) distaste, the more I came to believe that my at first merely wishful thinking actually did make some sense. Sugar really is somewhat more natural than most sweeteners, or so I assume, and we are more likely to be creatures that can handle sugar, even if not in the quantities that life now offers.
Plus, about five years ago, my niece told me that aspartame (which she said is an evil chemical used to make evil non-sugar) is evil. Rubbish says Big Aspartame. But I reckon, for some people, it is evil.
While rootling around in the www like it was about 2003, I found this piece, dating from 2009, which was all about this apparently pretty but otherwise unremarkable abstract picture:
In case you don’t already know what is going on here, the big story here is that the blue bits and the green bits are the same colour. What colour your eyes see something as depends on the other colours in the immediate vicinity.
The writer linked to above found this graphic here, which you can too if you do a bit of scrolling down.
If you saw this around 2009, or something similar around 2003, then apologies for the repetition. That early period of blogging, just after 2000, will always seem to me like a fleeting golden age, when everything of this sort was being discovered and passed on for the very first time. Because we could. Before, we couldn’t. Now, we could. But now (as in now), most of this sort of trivia has been in circulation for a decade, and it lacks the impact it once had. We bloggers must find new things to say, to cover for the fact that blogging itself is no longer new. This is not a bad thing.
I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too. Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture. The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation. I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.
Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:
The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility. It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.
Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops. This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.
Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years. What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically. Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.
It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed. Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...
The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad. Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.
This afternoon, The Guru is coming by to reconstruct God, so God (the other one) willing, I will be back in serious computing business by this evening.
When I was recently in Brittany, my hosts supplied me with a state-of-the-art laptop and a state-of-the-art internet connection. These last few days, without God (my one) and having to make do with Dawkins (my obsolete and clunky little laptop, the thing I am typing into now), I have felt less connected to the world than I did in Brittany. I am connected, after a fashion. But Dawkins is so slow and clunky that I have been doing only essentials (like finding out about England being hammered in the ODI yesterday), and checking incoming emails, and shoving anything however bad up here once every day. It’s like I’ve regressed to about 2000.
I have managed to put up a few pictures here, in God’s absence. But Dawkins’ screen makes these pictures look terrible. I am looking forward to seeing God’s version of these pictures and hope they will be greatly improved compared to what I am seeing now.
Thank God (the other one) I haven’t been depending on God (my one) for music. As I have surely explained here many times, one big reason I prefer CDs (and separate CD players scattered around my home) to all this twenty first century computerised music on a computer is that if God goes wrong, as he just has, I don’t lose music. I also have music concerts recorded off of the telly, onto DVDs, which I can play on my telly, which is likewise a completely separate set-up to God.
In general, the argument against having everything done by one great big master computer is that when something goes wrong with that master computer, everything else in your life also goes wrong, just when you may need those things not to. One of the things that willgo wrong, rather regularly, with your all-in-one master computer is when this or that particular one of its excessively numerous functions becomes seriously out of date. I mean, if it has a vacuum cleaner included, what happens if vacuum cleaners suddenly get hugely better? In Brian world, all I have to do is get another new and improved vacuum cleaner, and chuck out the old one. In all-in-one master computer world, you are stuck with your obsolete vacuum cleaner. Or, if you can, you have to break open your all-in-one master computer and fit a new vacuum cleaner, and probably also lots of other new stuff to make sure the new vacuum cleaner works, which buggers up a couple of your other functions that used to work fine but which no longer work fine. Or at all. I prefer to keep things simple, and separate.
Something rather similar applies with how to handle (the other) God. That is another arrangement you don’t want to have running the whole of your life for you either. It’s okay if you do God for some of the time and keep Him in his place, but you want scientists telling you about science, doctors about medicine, and your work colleagues about your work, and so on. If, on the other hand, absolutely everything in your life, and worse, everything in the entire world you live in, is controlled by ((your version of) the other) God, everything is very liable to go to Hell. (Aka: Separation of Church and State. Aks: don’t be a religious nutter.)
I have my own particular take on (the other) God, which is that He is made-up nonsense. But just as wise believers in (the other) God don’t let that dominate their thinking on non-God things, nor do I think that my opinions about (the other) God can explain everything else as well. These opinions merely explain the particular matter of (the other) God being made-up nonsense.
Do not, as they say, put all your eggs in one basket.
Overheard in a TV advert for sweeties:
You can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.
Talking of which, I am now reading Lee Smolin’s book about String Theory. Basic message: It’s a cult. I haven’t yet read him using that actual word, but that’s what he is saying.
I am, of course, not qualified to judge if Smolin is right, but you don’t have to be qualified to express a judgement, and I judge that Smolin is right. And the way I like to learn about new stuff is by reading arguments about it, starting with the argument that says I am right about it. Smolin is basically telling me that my ignorant prejudice that String Theory is one of the current world’s epicentres of the Higher Bollocks is right, although he is careful not to express himself as crudely as I just did, for fear of upsetting his physicist friends, and because, unlike me, he sees some merit in String Theory.
I have known that String Theory was in trouble for some time, because Big Bang Theory’s resident String Theorist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has been having doubts about it. He wanted to switch to something else, but they said: We hired you as a String Theorist and a String Theorist you will remain.
The above link is to a blog I had not heard of before, entitled Not Even Wrong. Not Even Wrong is the title of another book I have recently obtained with has a go at String Theory. I have not yet started reading this.
It’s true. You can’t trust atoms. And grabbing both ends of one and stretching it out into a string doesn’t change that. It makes it worse.
From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):
Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort. To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing. Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.
The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions. They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity. These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin. Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought. Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions. And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete. These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.
Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria. Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate. In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate. This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.
It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice. But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria. This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.
Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff. Probably both. I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete. But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.
I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how. Now, I have a much better idea. The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.
Every once in a while I hear or read about someone who sees sound, as colour, different sorts of sounds as different colours. (As you can tell from the links at the bottom of this, I just did this again, on purpose.) What the hell are these people talking about? You don’t see sound, you hear it.
But, I have learned enough of the contrasting natures and nervous systems of different people to know that claims of this sort are probably true, in the sense that this is indeed what it feels like to those making such claims, even if the claims made no sense whatever to me. (Here is another piece by me, about how different people differ, this time with respect to the notion that you (i.e. they) can decide what you (they) believe. To me, what you believe is what you actually do believe, and you can no more change it with a mere decision than you can decide to grow another foot. But other people clearly can change what they believe, in just this cavalier fashion. What they actually, deep down, think is true doesn’t seem to matter to them. To me: bewildering and bizarre. To them: obvious and commonplace.)
So anyway, back to those bizarre and bewildering people who see sounds, different sounds as different colours.
I now understand these people much better.
Because, yesterday morning, for a fleeting instant, it happened to me.
Immediately after it happened, I hastily bashed some notes into a computer file describing what I had just experienced, and that is the file that I am now typing further and more considered thoughts into now.
What happened was that I awoke, to the sound of my alarm clock. This alarm clock makes a high pitched beeping noise: beep, pause, beep, pause, beep, pause ...
And, I experienced this sound as ... white.
That is correct. I saw the sound. And the sound was just as white as the background colour of the file into which I am now typing, or the background colour of this blog posting as you are now looking at it.
I never experience sounds a colours when fully conscious. But it makes perfect sense to me that experiences I may only have during the weird moment when I am neither entirely awake nor entirely asleep, but am moving from the latter state to the former state, might be experiences that others may have much more frequently, even when fully awake. Or, fully awake by their standards.
Yesterday morning, for that fleeting, bleeping instant, some sort of weird connection was being made between my ears and the bit of brain where colours get processed and reflected upon, a place where all incoming messages are interpreted as colours no matter what they were originally, a connection that doesn’t normally occur, or perhaps which continues to occur when I am fully awake, but so weakly compared to the connections made between my ears and and the sound processing part of my brain as to be undetectable.
All I have to believe, about those strange people who see sounds as colours all the time, is that they experience what I very briefly experienced yesterday morning, but much more strongly than I did and do. This is not now hard for me to imagine, not hard at all.
A very quick skim-read of this wikipedia article about chromesthesia (which is the particular sort of synesthesia that turns sound into colour, as opposed to just something into something else) did to tell me that chromosthesia can happen particularly when you are waking up, but that could be wrong.
However, I did spot (at the other end of the chromesthesia link above) this:
However, all studies to date have reported that synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike match high pitched sounds to lighter or brighter colors and low pitched sounds to darker tones, indicating that there may be some common mechanism that underlies the associations present in normal adult brains.
So, I am not alone in associating a high pitched bleep with a very light colour, in my case the lightest colour of the lot.
A global temperature graph that seems to fit the recent facts
Libeskind doing the saw cut style in Ontario
Dezeen continues to delight
Finding Rover app tracks lost dogs using facial recognition
Why I admire short term weather forecasts but why cricket people don’t
Views from Kings College
BMdotCOM mixed metaphor of the day
Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
Wedding photography (1): The superbness of the weather
Me and the Six Nations under the weather
The Qur’an is not science – science cannot be ignored
Steven Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment
Why I do not share Johnathan Pearce’s admiration for Bjorn Lomborg
What’s up with that?
BMdotCOM Headline of the week
University of California chickens coming home to roost?
Hockey Stick art
Matt Ridley’s demolition of CAGW
Science can relax about the harm done to it by Climategate
“Things appear almost impossible to escape from …”
Animals that like the smell of humans dying
Climate science as make-work for former Cold Warriors
Cats only seem smart and dogs only seem dumb
Cats know more about fluid mechanics than dogs
Funny feline ephemeron
A blog posting linking to a science article
Cool cat that obeys Allen’s Rule
A serious disappointment
Lucky we didn’t go to Lords
Nasa and Gordon Brown both have their uses
Talking about The Hockey Stick Illusion with Bishop Hill
Towers under the weather - and a steam engine steams to the rescue
Stepping forward into the abyss!
Yet more ramblings about Guesswhatgate
Unravelling the puzzle – and making it into a movie
Picture purrfection and a rather good Clive James piece
Old-school media versus (or becoming) new-school media (again)
ClimateGate roars on and Man(n)-made warming is taking on a whole new meaning
What’s up with this?
Link to a list of peer-reviewed papers supporting skepticism of “man-made” global warming
Shadows on rings
Green cats - feral cats - cats murdered in Wales - more than 113 cats in Livingston NJ
Why I vote against AGW
A little archaeology
Friday baby marmoset
Truth is true
Nothing from me here today but something on Samizdata about cannabis
Link to Samizdata piece about arguments from incredulity
The impossibility of God but the possibility of Michael Flatley’s cure and of super-super-flees
How patent lawyers destroyed a mathematician
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
On the nature of the evolution argument
Star and stripe
Man regrows finger
More horizontal thinness
Tatiana the normal tiger
Has global warming stopped?
Better safe than sorry
The cat genome is cool
She’s alive I tell you! Alive!
Big Solar System things
Short picture of a long distance
Don’t be a physics teacher
Not actually a photo of Saturn’s rings
Back lit Billion Monkey lady and back lit Saturn!
The idea that mental illness does not exist
Plastic that conducts heat better
So that’s how you pronounce Csikszentmihalyi
Thomas Edison - from cheat to creator
Alessandro Volta feels electricity on his tongue
The Great Global Warming Swindle debate now begins
Svensmark – for and against
A basic part of the domestic cat’s heritage
On the ideology of the “climate change” debate
New York Times links - owned genes
I am about to become a published photographer
Geek girl I like your thinkings - are nice - I want have sex with it
Something to bore everyone
Blogging takes longer than doing things - a picture - and why does a hot bath make me colder?
Was that you or a tree?
What is a squarry?