The observable examined

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attitudes, learning, and motivation

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As a parent of a teenager, one of my major concerns has to do with equipping my child with the right set of tools to navigate Life and be “successful”.  The yardstick of success, for most parents, is for their child to attend a prestigious or Ivy league school leading to a well paying industry or academic job. If it comes with tremendous fame and fortune, all the better. Nothing wrong with that per se.  But the hyper competitive environment prevalent in high schools today, chasing that yardstick, creates tremendous pressure on the kids. The situation is further exacerbated by Tiger moms and dads (everyone of whom uniformly believes their kid is a child prodigy or at the very least, super smart) orchestrating their child’s every experience and resume, with the purported goal of gaining them entry into the “top notch” colleges.

There is a bigger problem lurking with this game plan. Because parents think their children are prodigies, they think success is automatic. They do not anticipate that there could be setbacks. And when they happen, the parents, and more importantly, the kids, are not setup to deal with the situation. If they are not careful, it could lead to a download spiral of lost confidence, lowering of self esteem, and self doubt on the child’s part.

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of Mathematics (supposedly identified as a “genius” at an young age) in a recent commentary wrote “This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.” His overall point is that geniuses are not the only successful people in the world. Hard work, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck are important ingredients for success.

Which brings me to the part about tools for navigating Life.

The first is about finding an internal compass that is directed by intrinsic motivation and not just about coming out ahead in the rat race. That this sets you up for success much better than goals that are externally motivated was made evident in a recent study of of West point graduates. The researchers found that cadets motivated by internal drives fared a lot better than those seeking external rewards. They write  ” ….The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success. “

The second is about enjoying what you do. Attitude – how you think and approach the task on hand is hugely important for success, one of the key messages in Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, recognize that education is more than academic schooling. Allison Gopnik illustrates this with a nice anecdote of  her interactions with her grandson. Finally, know that the path to success is not a straight line but is going to be potentially fraught with missed expectations and setbacks deriving from a variety of factors. When that happens, having a strong internal compass, is absolutely critical to staying motivated and maintaining focus on reaching goals.

Written by asterix98

July 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Social Neuroscience

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The 1990s were designated as the “decade of the brain”.  This spurred significant advances in basic brain research.  It also spawned a new discipline called cognitive sciences or cognitive neuroscience (a multidisciplinary approach to study brain function – yours truly was one of the early graduates of this fledgling field of study). A critical development out of this interdisciplinary approach was functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (commonly referred to as fMRI). fMRI has proved to be a very important tool in advancing our knowledge of the brain. With this tool, researchers have been able to peer into functioning brains. Over the last two decades, there has been prolific output from a multitude of labs across the country and the world. Beautiful, psychedelic pictures of brain slices color coded by intensity of activity has filled the pages of journals and popular press.

That the human brain is highly modular in function has been known for a while (thanks to studies involving individuals with lesions in very specific regions of the brain – check books by Oliver Sacks for fascinating stories).  fMRI further reinforced this fact and extended it in important ways by revealing more nuanced modularity in the brain.


Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC, Berkeley, has this to say in a recent article entitled – How the Brain Really Works  


For the last 20 years neuroscientists have shown us compelling pictures of brain areas “lighting up” when we see or hear, love or hate, plan or act. These studies were an important first step. But they also suggested a misleadingly simple view of how the brain works. They associated specific mental abilities with specific brain areas, in much the same way that phrenology, in the 19th century, claimed to associate psychological characteristics with skull shapes.”

Her insinuation is that this modern day phrenology is not sufficient to explain how the mind works. In fact, she goes on to cite some newer research that demonstrates multiple areas of the brain being engaged in certain activities. More importantly the pattern of activity changes depends on context and focus of attention. She writes


People often assume that knowing about the brain is all that you need to explain how the mind works, so that neuroscience will replace psychology. That may account for the curious popular enthusiasm for the phrenological “lighting up” studies. It is as if the very thought that something psychological is “in the brain” gives us a little explanatory frisson, even though we have known for at least a century that everything psychological is “in the brain” in some sense. But it would be just as accurate to say that knowing about the mind explains how the brain works.”

It turns out Gopnik is arguing for the importance of her own profession: Psychology, for brain research and making a case for why she should get a raise.


Joking apart, her arguments have important implications in a broader societal context. In a previous post, I wrote about neuroscience and the law.  There I warned about Neuromarketing. Now there is an established discipline called Neurocriminology. A psychiatry professor, Adrain Raine, has written a book called, the Anatomy of Violence. He has peered into the brains of murderers and found evidence for reduced functioning in certain brain areas compared to “normal” folks. The upshot is there is predisposition to violence in certain individuals and it can be picked up in brain scans. You can read his take in the article – Neurocriminology: Inside the Criminal Mind.  It tackles issues related to the implications of neurocriminological (that must be a new word) research for crime, punishment and the law. Very interesting. A interview with the author can also be heard on Fresh Air – Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior is Biological .  This is a must hear, Terri pins him down on his own contradictory beliefs vis-a-vis what his own research means.  Gazzaniga (cited in my previous blog- link above), has reviewed the book, and he offers this assessment


The belief that violent behavior can be explained—and needs to be understood—is certainly admirable. I join Mr. Raine in believing that it’s our duty to consider all of this research kind of interesting, even though it is going to take a long time to figure out how it all works. And I believe we can learn more about the biological mechanisms of violence, and that we may someday come up with interventions that help us predict with greater accuracy future antisocial behavior: Such knowledge would greatly enhance society’s ability to be more rational, even in such mundane procedures as parole hearings.

But we live in a layered world: There are the physical, the biological, the mental and the social layers, and each builds upon the last. At this point in history they interact in ways we don’t fully understand. Mr. Raine raises this issue, and urges us all to think hard about what steps we should take. When he suggests that we undertake action on the social level—the “top” layer—in order to prevent crime or prescribe individual interventions, I get off the train. In my view, someday, somehow, someone is going to figure out that the social layer simply can’t do all the things we ask of it.

Next stop, Social neuroscience?

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

Critical thinking.Anyone?

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“ . . . intelligence . . . is in plentiful supply . . . the scarce commodity is systematic training in critical thinking.” –Carl Sagan (requoted from How to become a Critical Thinker)

Recently, when browsing the Health pages of Google News, I was intrigued by the following headline in the sidebar – Couple Addicted to Coffee Enemas, Up to Four Times a Day! If you know anything about enemas, well, the obvious is easily imagined. It turns out this couple are participants in a reality show – My Strange Addiction on TLC. And it is in its fourth season!! Fourth !?! What’s on tap for this season? I quote from the article “….In its premiere of the first of eight new episodes on Feb. 13 at 10 p.m. ET, the show will also highlight Lisa, a middle-aged woman from Detroit who eats cat fur, grooming her pet with her own tongue. In subsequent episodes, a woman is addicted to bee stings and another one inhales more than 30 jars of vapor rub every week. In the season finale, a woman is addicted to drinking blood….”  Really!  The good news here is that there is not much collateral damage as these strange behaviors are restricted to the individuals or their families.

Which brings me to another topic – Preppers! Anybody watch Doomsday Preppers, the reality show on National Geographic channel, no less! A NYTimes article described the show thus “…is more or less a weekly invitation to laugh at lunatics tunneling into mountainsides to escape a Russian nuclear attack. ” Of course, there was a significant segment of the population obsessing over the ill-fated Mayan end-of-the world prediction. Now it gets a bit worrisome because we are talking about larger groups of people who could potentially influence others in their network to think like them and create panic. The potential for collateral damage is higher!

Which leads me to L.Ron Hubbard. I urge you to listen to this interview – Going Clear – on the Fresh Air Program hosted by NPRs Terri Gross. It gives you some great insights into the mind of Hubbard, Scientology, and its practitioners. Essentially, Hubbard’s fight with his own demons gave rise to this cult with no real basis for broad applicability of its tenets to create social good.

Which points to two modern day abusers of their reach and power, one peddles physical health and wellness, Dr.Mehmet Oz, and another peddles, spiritual health, Dr. Deepak Chopra. You can read about Oz’s shenanigans in the New Yorker article – The Operator – Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?. From the article, it will be obvious that Oz is a cardiac surgeon with stellar credentials but also a man who gets carried away by his own success and succumbs to peddling advice (taking on a messianic persona) that is clearly outside of his expertise. Hence, the subtitle question. Clearly, lot of folks tune in to watch his show which means he ought to be more responsible. I came across Chopra’s book, back in the early 90s and kind of bought into his holistic medicine philosophy of curing patients, because it made sense. I sampled some of his writings over the years and quickly determined he was losing it. He has truly become, as one blog calls him, appropriately I might add, the King of Woo Woo. He is #72 on the Top 100 American Loons – a place well deserved. He was on KQED’s Forum program recently talking about his new book – SuperBrain . As usual with his gift of gab and condescending voice, he doles out a bunch of nonsense (which compelled me to write this). What is even more surprising, he has convinced academics from Harvard, CalTech, and other prestigious institutions to co-author books with him. This guy utters pure drivel. But then he has a huge following (I have watched him hold audiences in rapture and wondered why they cannot see through his blasphemy).

Which brings me to the main point of this note, the central importance and need for critical thinking in our lives. P.T.Barnum said there is a sucker born every minute. If you don’t want to be one of them, embrace critical thinking with earnest. Just in case someone needs it, there is a lovely primer on Critical Thinking (targeted for high school and college kids).

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2013 at 9:29 am

Harry, Dumbledore and talking Gods

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About two thirds into the movie, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Voldemart uses the killing curse on Harry. In the next segment, Harry awakens in a brightly lit King’s Cross station. A powerful dialogue ensues between Harry and Dumbledore, as Harry is confronted with the choice of returning to finish the work he had started or move on. In the exchange, Dumbledore offers him some words of wisdom thus ….” Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic ….capable of both, inflicting injury and remedying it…….Do not pity the dead..Pity the living….Above all pity those living without love…” Towards the end of this interchange, Harry asks the question “Professor, is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?” Before disappearing into the brilliant white light,  Dumbledore responds, ” Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean it is not real?”

Harry’s questions highlight something interesting and unique about the human brain. The “real” part implies we perceive the external world through our senses. Perception here means we bring to bear some prior knowledge when interpreting the significance of the sensory input and translate it to an appropriate action (including do nothing). This is not the unique part. The “just happening inside my head” part is. We are probably the only life forms on the planet that can run “simulations” in the absence of sensory input from external stimuli. This extraordinary ability to simulate events (anticipate and plan a response) in our head confers enormous survival advantages – in my mind (no pun intended), a key ingredient that has led to our being at the apex of the food chain.  Neuroscientists would, generally, be very happy with Dumbledore’s response, but only with the first part because they do firmly believe mind is a product of physical processes. Harry’s questions then are trying to separate the real from the imagined. But the second part of Dumbledore’s response implies that they are really not distinct. Philosophers drool on this stuff and have orgies debating its ontological and epistemological aspects.

In the realm of the ordinary, real vs imagined is fairly well defined. Imagination is the engine of creativity and has benefitted society tremendously (from literature to technology). Wild imagination leads to fantasy , as in Indian films and Chinese martial art movies where the protagonists can violate all physical laws, including gravity, and perform astounding feats. Nevertheless,  it is still entertaining.  When the imagined becomes pathological, we label these excursions delusional, schizophrenic, paranoia and so on. These have an underlying neurological/psychological basis and are subject to treatment with therapy and medications .

In the realm of the Divine (notice I instinctively capitalized the D),  no such boundaries exist. Your beliefs can be fantastic defying any rational analysis, but they cannot be classified as symptomatic of something amiss. Let’s see how. Tanya Luhrmann, is an anthropologist at Stanford University. She was recently on the NPR program, Fresh Air. The topic was her book – When God Talks Back. She spent sometime with Evangelical Christians (Vineyard denomination) who believe in the notion of an intensely personal God. In fact, he talks back. To get a flavor of what the content of the interview was like, here are the opening remarks Luhrmann made

“.. I wanted to understand what people meant when they said that God spoke to them, that God had heard from them, and that they had heard what God wanted them to do. I was at – first became intrigued by this when I was doing a different project, and it was on religion and community, and I went over to the house of an evangelical woman. And she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have a cup of coffee with God.

She had coffee with God all the time. She hung out with God. She chatted with God. She talked about God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was just so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that.”

Please either listen to the interview or view the entire transcript by clicking on the links.

Here is another very interesting segment of the conversation..(reproduced verbatim from the transcript on NPR)


GROSS: Will you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learn to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, and they’re seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church – you know, in this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there. And then they’re trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations.

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

And so, you know, what I was fascinated by was that as, you know, people would enter the church, they’d be – you know, I don’t know what people are talking about. God doesn’t talk to me. And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form, imagination-rich kind of way.

And after, I don’t know, six months, they would start to say that they recognize God’s voice. Some people told me that they recognized God’s voice the way they recognize their mom’s voice on the phone.

GROSS: Because, I mean, so distinctly, like it had a different sound to it?


Listening to this, would you say we could possibly continue this conversation in English? I hope you get my point about no boundaries existing in the realm of Gods. [I have to admit, I have nothing against the practitioners as long as there is no collateral damage from their beliefs].

Luhrmann found that the Vineyard practitioner’s needed about six months to “…start recognizing God’s voice.”  This is surprising. I thought God had a big booming voice like James Earl Jones, very distinct and instantly recognizable. So what gives? Actually, if we go back about fifty years, we may find an explanation.  Solomon Asch, a sociologist, demonstrated through experiments, that there is enormous pressure on individuals to conform. In Asch’s experiments, subjects could be manipulated into actually believing a line was longer or shorter than it actually was, through feedback from a peer group, even if their senses was providing contradictory information. Another example is Stanley Milgram’s famous role playing experiments, where the participants lost all sense of normal reality and made role playing their primary reality. The transformation of Vineyard initiates into recognizer’s of God voice must largely be due to this pressure to conform to beliefs and expectations of the VIneyard congregation. Clearly, the conversation with God is happening inside the head of the congregationers. It is imagined. In this case, conceding and answering Dumbledore’s rhetorical question in the affirmative, thankfully, has no serious societal consequences, at least for now.

(Disclaimer : Transcript contents belong to NPR/Fresh Air)

Written by asterix98

December 11, 2012 at 1:44 am

Of molecules and (wo)men

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In this past weekend’s edition of WSJ review, the following article appeared

The Trust Molecule

(click above to go to article)

Why are some of us caring and some of us cruel, some generous and some greedy? Paul J. Zak on the new science of morality— and how it could be used to create a more virtuous society

The basic message is oxytocin can foster trust and increase social bonding. Zak writes “…oxytocin orchestrates the kind of generous and caring behavior that every culture endorses as the right way to live—the cooperative, benign, pro-social way of living that every culture on the planet describes as “moral.” The Golden Rule is a lesson that the body already knows, and when we get it right, we feel the rewards immediately….”

This all sounded very good and seemed like the only thing left for us to do was inject ourselves with oxytocin and the whole world would be one large Berkeley hippie commune. Obviously, this would be too easy. I was not entirely satisfied and tried to find out what others had to say on this topic. I found this on the APA site “…

Oxytocin has been on a joy ride for 20 years, ever since animal studies first linked the hormone to bonding between mother and newborn, as well as between mating adults. Dubbed the “cuddle” or “love” hormone by the popular press, more recently it has earned attention for its role in promoting trust.

One company, Vero Labs in Boca Raton, Fla., has even put it in a cologne-like spray, marketed as “Liquid Trust”: Fifty dollars buys a two-month supply that promises consumers “confidence in a bottle,” according to its website….”

Oxytocin doses seem to help children with autism cope much better socially. But some researchers warn that it does have a darker side. From the same APA article …”More evidence of oxytocin’s downside comes from Mount Sinai School of Medicine psychologist Jennifer Bartz, PhD. In a study published online in November in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, she and her colleagues examined whether oxytocin might boost trust and cooperation, as measured with a well-studied economic game, among men and women with borderline personality disorder, who tend to have volatile relationships. She found that rather than increasing trust and teamwork, a dose of oxytocin decreased those feelings compared with a placebo.”

While the jury is still out on the how, why and what of oxytocin, Zak has happily dubbed it the “moral” molecule and in new age style advocates a bunch of behaviors that can enhance social bonding, hugs being his most favorite one. I have to note here that as I was reading these articles, I was reminded of this lady who is fondly referred to as Amma(Mother), by her followers. She apparently can heal, just by hugging and touching. In fact, the byline on her website (link above) says – Embracing the World. The oxytocin definitely must be free flowing in that commune.

Another chemical doing the rounds in the news is dopamine. Researchers have figured out the more adventurous (“scout”)bees in a colony have lower amounts of dopamine making them less averse to novel experiences. Incidentally, in humans it is just the opposite, higher dopamine levels lead to novelty seeking behaviors. As Spock would say, Fascinating!

Written by asterix98

May 3, 2012 at 1:08 am

stress or stimulation

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Robert Sapolsky was on KQED’s Forum a couple of weeks ago. The actual interview is available here 

He is a pretty interesting guy. In the first part of the interview, he discussed stress a lot. Stress is not good for the brain. In the animal kingdom, in general, short term physical stress is the norm (as evidenced by flight or fight type of responses). But “smart” primates invented psychological stress (presumably by running what-if scenarios). The problem is these mental gyrations elicit the same physiological response. If they are transient in nature then we are ok, as in watching scary movies or a roller coaster ride. When the context is controlled or safe, it even elicits pleasure or is rewarding (dopamine at work). These situations then are not stressful but stimulating. It becomes pathological when prolonged over extended periods of time.

It gets even more interesting. Stress in baboons has the same physiological signature  as humans (elevated BP. Increased levels of cortisol). Baboons kill and so do chimps. They can do so “competitively, premeditatively, gratitiously…”.  Fascinating!  In fact, so do many others. Sapolsky observed that baboons engage in displacement aggression (which is really a fancy term for bullying) by beating up the weaker and smaller. (If we didn’t have culture or social norms, as Hobbes noted, we would have degnerated  into, I suppose, baboons. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that we still do behave like baboons) . Supposedly per Sapolsky, baboons only work hard for about three hours to obtain food, so they have plenty of leisure in which to generate psychological stress and relieve it through aggression – somewhat reminiscent of an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

So why don’t Zebras get ulcers? (Sapolsky has a book by this title). Because, they are not smart enough to make themselves sick through anticipatory or psychological stress. Their stress is transient:  Run like hell when a predator is attacking. If that turns out ok, go back to grazing. Simple – no anxiety over the lion’s next move. Sort of out of sight, out of mind.

The deeper insight here is that our psychological smarts, the crowning glory of evolution, comes with many strings attached. Stress being one of them.

He also discussed human ranking systems. One study, of British civil servants, is remarkable, in that the lower you are in that hierarchy, the more unhealthy you are. Pfeffer, also from Stanford, who studies power, has noted the more powerful you are, the less stressed you feel, in essensce generalizing this idea.

Theory of mind is yet another of the subjects he touched upon. There is a fascinating study, of a high ranking and a low ranking chimp, both of whom are placed in a enclsoure with a banana that is either visible or not visible to the high ranking chimp. How the low ranker behaves in this situation is indicative of strategizing based on the anticipated behavior of the high ranker. Very clever study indeed. There is more where this comes from but you will have to listen to the interview……

After listerning to the interview, I was looking around for more and found this video put out by Stanford. Sapolsky addresses a graduating class. It is a very entertaining lecture but touches on more or less the same topics as the interview.Be warned that there is a fairly graphic image of an example of displaced aggression by the alpha male baboon…..

Written by asterix98

March 21, 2012 at 4:15 am

political campaigns then and now

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From the period of human history  we mark as BC  nearly 2000+ years ago, to now, somethings have not changed. Here is how a journalist may report on the current Republican nomination contest and the attendant political campaigns….

“It was a bitter and volatile campaign, with accusations of inconsistency, incompetence and scandal filling the air. Candidates competed to portray themselves as the true conservative choice, while voters fretted about the economy and war threatened in the Middle East. …”

In fact, Philip Freeman opens his piece, Dirty Tricks, Roman Style, with these very words but is describing a political campaign from 64 B.C !! In the rest of the article, Freeman documents the advice Quintus Cicero gave his older brother, Marcus, when he ran for the highest political office in Rome.  Freeman lists the top five

  1. Promise everything to everyone
  2. Call in all the favors
  3. Know your opponents weaknesses and exploit them
  4. Flatter  voters shamelessly
  5. Give people hope

He goes on to describe Quintus’ justification for why these are key elements for a successful political campaign. It is a very interesting read. I was struck by how remarkably little has changed in politics, and human nature, in general, in all these years.

Written by asterix98

March 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

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