Apple, Adobe, and Consumers

I generally agree with what John Gruber writes. (With the exception of anything he says about the Yankees — misguided fanboy!) He, more than anyone I read regarding technology and user experience (particularly regarding Apple products), just seems to get it. He’s following the Adobe/Apple war of words with respect to Adobe’s Flash platform, and his writing is clear, thoughtful, and enlightening. His recent response to John Nack’s Absolute Power vs. The Pirate Flag is typical of his cool and evenhanded perspective. Detractors might want to label Gruber an Apple fanboy, but they would be wrong. He seems to base his admiration for Apple on solid principles: his appreciation of the company’s design ethic, its commitment to a blending of form and function, and on Apple’s predictability with regard to how it pursues business objectives. (Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I base my admiration of Apple on these traits and I hope that Gruber would agree with me. Whatever.)

In his response to Nack, Gruber observes that tight control is what Apple sees as necessary to its long term success:

I’ve made a similar point myself, as far back as 2008. But it’s folly to pretend there aren’t trade-offs involved — that for however much is lost, squashed by Apple’s control, that different things have not been gained. Apple’s control over the App Store gives it competitive advantages. Users have a system where they can install apps with zero worries about misconfiguration or somehow doing something wrong. That Adobe and other developers benefit least from this new scenario is not Apple’s concern. Apple first, users second, developers last — those are Apple’s priorities.

With regard to the platform generally, I agree with Gruber. Where this begins to break down for me, though, is in the area of content. For the applications which allow users to purchase books, music, and movies, there’s a fourth party in the equation: publishers. I think Apple has put the interests of publishers ahead of consumers, especially when it comes to the iPad. One might argue that Apple privileges publishers out of necessity — without content publishers there’s little compelling reason to buy an iPhone OS device. I think that last sentence in Gruber’s paragraph above should read: Apple first, publishers second, users third, and developers last — those are Apple’s Priorities.

That’s my gripe. I’m a modestly tech savvy person and if it weren’t for the brouhaha that erupted after the iPad was released it wouldn’t have cost me a moment’s thought that the thing ran Flash or not. My biggest frustration with the iPad (and almost all other devices that allow for consuming digital media) is that there are walls around the published content. That’s idiotic. Okay, there are some workarounds — I can read books I buy from Amazon using the iPad’s Kindle app. Barnes and Noble and Borders have announced they’ll support the iPad via apps which tie to their stores. It makes me crazy, though. Imagine I had to have an AT&T app on my phone to talk to friends with AT&T and a different application or service on my phone to call my friends on Sprint. Or that I had to buy an ABC branded TV to watch their programs.

I’m not naive about the problems with digital piracy. But did book publishers learn nothing from watching the music industry? I get it — publishers want to avoid making it easy to steal their products. It’s a gnarly problem, and it’s going to take some effort on the part of the publishing industry to come up with a solution that hits the sweet spot between making content that’s viewable on any device and content that’s easy to steal. But by allowing publisher’s to have this much control, Apple is putting the publishing industry’s interests ahead of mine, and I’m a very invested Apple customer, and I’m unhappy about it.

Apple, it seems to me, is happy to keep the public conversation focused on the issues surrounding whether Flash (or other third-party developer frameworks) should be allowed inside the Apple garden. As long as we’re arguing about Flash, we’re not arguing about whether the ePub books in the Apple store should or shouldn’t be wrapped in the proprietary DRM which prevents them from being read on other devices. To some extent, by engaging in the Flash debates (which I’m using as shorthand for conversation about Apple’s ban on third party developer frameworks), Gruber is helping Apple in this regard. I wish he’d turn his superior intellect to the more relevant problem for consumers: the issue of platform specific, DRM laden digital content.

Posted 2331 days ago by Mark ·


Ubi caritas et amor...

Jon and I sat on the the screen porch last night, smoking cigars and sipping bourbon after returning home from the Maundy Thursday service at St. Paul Lutheran in Davenport, Iowa. My buddy Matt had preached the sermon at the service. He laid out, in startling simplicity, the core tenets of Christian thought as expressed in the events of the historic last supper, commemorated by the Maundy Thursday celebration.

While some who might see consumption of alcohol and tobacco as sacrilegious, I attest to the benefit of celebrating Maundy Thursday by intentionally not thinking of the supper shared by Jesus and his disciples as the “last” supper, but as the first supper. And enjoying a dusky liquid spirit and the smokey incense of aged tobacco helped me appreciate that first supper in a new light.

Matt’s salient points in the sermon he preached were about the examples Jesus articulates at this meal: Be hospitable, and love one another. Do this while remembering that on the last night of Christ’s life as a human being he chose to isolate these two values, raising them to the central tenets of what it means to be a Christian. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these two tenets — hospitality and love — are also core tenets of Islam and Judaism.) The rest of what is often ascribed as core to Christianity by religious zealots and fundamentalists is just a distraction. For me, Christianity is simply about this: be hospitable and love one another. That could mean smoking a cigar and drinking bourbon with your brother on a warm, breezy spring evening — the holiness of life is present there. I love my brother, he showed me exceptional hospitality. It was a sacred moment.

Jesus suggests that we remember this meal — the supper at which he washed the feet of all present, drying those dripping toes and heels with his clothing — and let it be our guide for how to love and serve one another. On his last night as a human he performed no miracles and offered little other advice. I think that’s significant—privileging love and hospitality in this way. This should be our guiding light when it comes to living out the teachings of Christ. We must think of the supper shared by Jesus and his crew on the night before he was crucified as the first supper in the formation of the tradition that Jesus articulated for us. To call it the last supper is to create a backward looking theology. To think of it as the first supper is to see the forward looking nature of Christian ethics. The New covenant is about loving and showing hospitality, not about looking back and finding a reason to be judgmental.

I know a lot of people who find the Christian church abhorrent. Justifiably, they’re confused by how self proclaimed Christians can be so insensitive to the suffering of others. Clearly, this isn’t true of all Christians — any more than it’s true that non-believers are going to hell. There are a lot of churches and churchgoers who are neither hospitable nor loving. I am frequently guilty of this myself — it’s hard to be hospitable at all times, and to love everyone. In the end, though, it works for me to remember the events of Maundy Thursday and keep faith with the core ideals that Jesus espoused.

… Deus ibi est.

Posted 2372 days ago by Mark ·


Healthcare Reform

Johnathan Chait at the New Republic posted an article outlining how the Democrats and Obama can still pass comprehensive healthcare reform, much to the chagrin of the Party-of-No’s strategy. Chait suggests that the endzone celebrating of the lapdogs of the insurance industry and advocates of corporate welfare (we used to call them Republicans, but that name seems too civil to describe the screechy naysayers that are leading the fight against the interests of the American people) may be a little premature.

Ever since Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley, conservatives, with very few exceptions, have been convinced that health care reform is dead. Friday’s Charles Krauthammer column offers a good example of the prevailing sentiment: “Barack Obama’s two signature initiatives — cap-and-trade and health-care reform — lie in ruins.”

As a practical matter, Chait notes that the door to reform is still wide open for the Democrats, and that they just have the discipline to walk through it. They don’t need to present legislation that requires 60 votes to avoid filibuster, the house just needs to pass the Senate version of the reform that has already passed and then work out the details in reconciliation. It’s not a slam dunk, but it has a good chance of passing, and in this scenario, the Party-of-No would not be able to obstruct this progress.

Nothing would make me happier than to serve the obstructionist party a cold plate of just desserts. Chait wraps his article with this:

They’ve already run off the field, sprayed themselves with champagne and taunted the losing team’s fans. And now the other team is saying the game is still on and they have a good chance to win. There may be nothing wrong at all with the process, but it’s certainly going to feel like some kind of crime to the right-wing. The Democrats may not win, but I’m pretty sure they’re going to try. The conservative freakout is going to be something to behold.

Let the freaking begin.

Hat tip to daringfireball.net for the link to Chait’s article.

Posted 2410 days ago by Mark ·

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Clipper vs. TransLink

The Metropolitan Transport Commission decided to rename the TransLink card ‘Clipper.’ This has sparked an angry response from some bloggers and tweeters. Some don’t like the name Clipper. Some are complaining about the price tag for what they believe is unnecessary rebranding. The MTC estimates it will cost around $1.4 million.

I’m not an expert on transportation issues, but I like the name Clipper. It recalls, for me, the big airplanes that PanAm flew around the world in the 1930s and 1940s. Those were amazing looking planes and a reflection of the optimism of that generation. Clipper also recalls the fast wooden ships that sailed into San Francisco Bay in the 1800s. I think it’s a nice word.

The other issue is the cost. $1.4 million dollars seems like a lot of money for anything. But in context, is it really too much? First of all, if you accept the reasonable estimate that there are 3 million employed people living in the Bay Area, you could state the cost as 50¢ per every employed person. I don’t mind kicking in my share — 50¢ seems like a reasonable amount for something that may help attract new users of a system wide transit card. Some will argue that they don’t use the public transit, or that the public shouldn’t have to pay for frivolous marketing projects. That’s just wrong. Our social contract is based on our willingness to share in costs the benefit the public, whether or not we receive a personal benefit. I no longer have school aged children, but I don’t have the right to opt out of my share of the cost of public education.

The fact is that some of the money spent on the rebranding will end up in the pockets of workers in the Bay Area. Sure, some will be skimmed off as profit, but the designer who labors to redesign the MTC’s website will be paid. The graphic artist who lays out all the new signage that must be created will earn something. The printers will be able to pay employees to run the presses that print the materials. The workers who install the signs will be paid. The MTC is moving $1.4 million dollars through the economy. It’s putting money in motion.

Money is useful when it’s moving. That’s the theory which underlies the idea of federal stimulus spending. That spending creates inertia. I don’t advocate wasting money on silly things, but some things, like the name of a transit smart card system, can benefit from a little thoughtful design. And the money spent (a miniscule per capita expenditure) could benefit Bay Area workers, and just might entice someone to look twice at the option of using a multi-agency transit smart card. That doesn’t seem so horrible to me.

Posted 2421 days ago by Mark ·

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Unleashing Your Inner Cop

There was an interesting story on the New York Times Bay Area Blog today about a woman who sent a note to the Berkeley Public Library complaining about the treatment of some insects in the library. The whole story is worth a read, but to paraphrase, this woman felt that the insects on display in the library were being mistreated and she was disturbed by this mistreatment, and she hoped the library would remove the insect display so that her to children would not grow up thinking it was okay to keep insects in captivity. Here’s a little taste of the letter:

… I worry about the message you send to impressionable children by treating insects in such a manner contrary to their natures. I am concerned they will emulate such treatment at home and fail to provide species specific care that individual insects may require or that they may capture and enclosure insects, only to forget about them, leaving them to slowly starve and wither.

Michelle Quinn (the NYTimes blogger) wondered if this letter might have been a parody. And to anyone who hasn’t lived in Berkeley it might seem impossible that the writer of this note could be serious. It’s one of the joys of living in the Bay Area that we get to experience the full spectrum of kookiness. The writer may not have intended the note as humor, but it has provided many of us with a good belly laugh. The comments on the blog entry are very entertaining, too.

Someone left a note on my car the other day, complaining that I could have pulled forward a few inches to allow the person behind me to park “safely, so as not to block the driveway.” At first I was angry, then (with Anna’s patient reminder) I recalled where I was. I realized that most people would probably drive by, look at my car taking up too much space and be pissed off about it, but ultimately decide it’s not worth their time to stop and leave a note. Once I cooled off, I gave the person who left the note a little credit for being willing to state their frustrations directly and unabashedly. (Leaving an anonymous note is a little chicken hearted, but at least it’s direct.) The alternative is that people might be angry with you for something you’ve said or done, but rather than say anything directly to you about it they reserve their criticism to be delivered to your co-workers and friends when you’re not around.

The Berkeley mother who was aggrieved by the Library’s inhumane treatment of their insects errs, mainly, in my opinion, by her failure to sign her note. While there is a long tradition of anonymous pamphleteering and anonymous curmudgeonry on the internet, there is a time to stand up and own your opinions. Otherwise we become isolated and our dialogue is reduced to a series of monologues. There’s no opportunity for nuanced interaction. Certainly for issues of more significance than the humane treatment of insects we owe it to one another to engage in conversation with a spirit of openness.

Posted 2430 days ago by Mark ·

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The Theatre

Just as I was preparing to shut down my laptop for the night, Chloe Veltman’s article in the NYTimes about ACT caught my attention. She nails something that has been a nagging problem with ACT since Bill Ball left in the 1980s. Bill’s departure may have been necessary — the accusations (and reality) of fiscal impropriety that swirled around the colorful director rendered his tenure untenable. But in the years since he left, the company has failed to capture something that was undeniably present in Bill’s heyday: an effervescent and visceral relationship with San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Perhaps I’m too much of a devotee of Bill’s magic to be a completely objective observer. I was a student in the Advanced Training Program for actors at ACT in the 1980s. Bill taught a class during my two years on Geary Blvd: Heroics. We were to learn ten lines of Shakespeare or other verse that required a suck-it-up-and-let-it-all-hang-out delivery. The final session of that class was held on the Geary Theatre stage. Each of us took turns delivering our ten lines at the top of our lungs, from the bottom of our heart, and with a prayer and a wing. Bill would sit and listen, offering encouragement. “You’re perfect, darling,” he might call out.

Bill attracted great people. I remember Allen Fletcher. A brilliant director, and a really sweet guy. (He could get angry when he directed but it obviously pained him when he did.) I remember Frank Ottiwell, our Alexander Technique teacher. He was a gentle loving mentor. Sydney Walker who taught us about auditioning was a stunningly talented character actor, and also a loving, kind soul. Actors Liz Huddle, Joy Carlin, Michael Winters, Raye Birk, Ray Rinehardt, Barbara Dirickson, Michael Learned, Marsha Mason — I could continue — the list of people who Bill attracted to ACT is filled with actors who knew how to reach out through the fourth wall and create a visceral relationship with the audience. The material might not have been as intellectually challenging as what the current Artistic Director, Carey Perloff likes to present, but it touched you emotionally.

I would never argue that intellectually challenging material can’t also engage the audience on an emotional level. But often, intellect is the enemy of emotion —especially in the theatre. Actors and directors who become obsessed with regaling us with the power of their intellect can often miss out on the opportunity to convey their humanity. As audience members we want to identify with the characters on the stage. We want to feel the character’s emotions and share their joy and their sorrow. That requires a special gift from the actor — an open door into the heart. When actors (often encouraged by directors) fail to open that door because they are preoccupied with the intellectual content of the play, we in the audience feel left out. I know that many people go to the theatre to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, and the playwright has a profound responsibility to deliver that kind of challenge. It is the responsibility of the director and actors to give the play life. That requires breath, a heartbeat, and passion. It helps to know what you’re talking about, and I think many actors are pretty darned smart. But the better actors are the ones who don’t feel compelled to impress the audience. It’s one of the great paradoxes of good acting — to really shine in the role, you need to make really shining in the role a low priority. (I think Konstantin Stanislavski said it well: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”)

Carey Perloff has a reputation for being a brilliant woman. And I’m sure she’s earned it. Perloff’s arrival at ACT was separated from Bill Ball’s departure by Ed Hastings’ stint at the helm. Ed took the wheel in the chaotic years immediately following Bill’s departure and carefully steered the company into calmer waters. It was a lifesaving maneuver, but ultimately, what ACT needed after Ed’s steadying influence was a new rainmaker. Someone who could bring back some of Bill’s passionate and colorful leadership. I don’t think that’s what ACT found. And I think San Francisco and the Bay Area are poorer for it.

Bill Ball and his ACT had a passionate love affair with the community. We might sometimes hate what he gave us, or we might adore what he presented. Under Bill’s leadership, ACT did more than make us think, it made us FEEL. That’s what the theatre is supposed to do.

Posted 2432 days ago by Mark ·

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Apple Tablet

It seems everyone has an opinion on what Apple will unveil tomorrow. I know it’s a bit late to wade into the conversation but a few items have surfaced in the past couple of days that speak to what I’ve been speculating about. John Gruber at Daringfireball quotes a New York Times article that compares the impact the tablet will have on the publishing industry to what Steve Jobs did to the music industry. I agree with Gruber that Jobs is not the villainous puppeteer that the music industry makes him out to be. That the music industry1 failed to anticipate the death of their 20th century business model is not Jobs’ fault. He merely positioned Apple to be the solution when that model began crumbling under its own weight.

As speculation runs wild about Apple’s new device, most theories about its function point to the tablet targeting an audience similar to the audience for Amazon’s Kindle. I think that’s a pretty safe bet. What I think Apple may be doing, though, is subtly different than what the Kindle does. Right now you can use a Kindle to buy a book (I think the Apple tablet device will allow this too) and subscribe to a newspaper or magazine. I may be missing something, but on my Kindle I don’t see an easy way to pick up today’s New York Times or this month’s GQ. I think the Apple tablet may offer a way for us to consume published media a’ la carte. I don’t subscribe to a print edition of the NYT any more, but I occasionally pick up a copy from the newsstand. I can, of course read the NYT for free on my computer or my iPhone, but those interfaces have some limitations. I’m not going to open my laptop on BART to read the paper, and while it’s nice to get a 30,000 foot level view of the news on my iPhone, I don’t find that form factor ideal for really reading the paper. I haven’t gotten into the habit of reading the NYT on my Kindle because I don’t want to read it on that device all the time. While the convenience of having it always available might be nice, the Kindle UI is clunky and graphically low fidelity, even compared to my iPhone.

I think a subtle difference in Apple’s strategy will be to optimize around the sale of single copies of newspapers and magazines. Sure, you may pay a slight premium for those copies compared to a subscription model, but you (the consumer) will have ultimate flexibility about how much or how often you buy such content. I suspect you’ll also be able to buy subscriptions, but the single copy will be the featured unit. It may also be possible to further subdivide the publication into sections. Only interested in business news? Get the NYT business pages for half the single copy price.

Like the music industry, the newspaper and magazine publishing industries are tied to an antiquated business model. In the old model, the reader paid for the ink, paper, trucking, and front porch delivery. Advertisers paid for the content. The old model has economies of scale that don’t apply to the new paradigm. Smarter people than I have been grappling with this problem for years and no one has yet come up with a solution that preserves the old publishing establishment but still effectively serves the public benefit that is embedded in the ideals of a free press. Why? Because the publishing “industry” has economic incentives that are not aligned with the interests of consumers, and under the old model, the publisher has all the power. Technology has been chipping away at this paradigm, but no reasonable alternative to the paper, ink, trucking, front porch model has emerged.

Will an Apple tablet finally tilt the scale in favor of the consumer? Maybe so. Will it forever change the way news is reported and consumed? Possibly. Will it happen tomorrow? Definitely not. The music industry has managed to dangle in its noose for several years. It’s dying, but it continues to gasp for air. The iPod may be contributing to the demise of industry’s antiquated business model, but it hasn’t killed it yet. The news industry will hang on to its old model for a while, too. Apple will deliver a new consumer oriented device that will put pressure on the industry. Publishing industry executives will whine about it, and complain that Steve Jobs is trying to dictate the terms of their business. But they, like the music industry executives will be wrong. It’s the consumer who is dictating. The Apple device will just be a small part of empowering consumers. There are other factors (ubiquitous network access, miniaturized video capture and editing tools, better publishing tools, etc.) but until tomorrow, the promise of a ubiquitous platform for consumption of published media has been hampered by serious compromises in usability and desirability.

What makes Steve Jobs successful is that he seems to have a keen understanding of human nature. He sees patterns in human behavior and then he pushes Apple to design products that address those patterns. Human beings want to know what’s going on around them. I suspect that Steve Jobs knows that humans want news, and they want it fresh. They don’t expect to pay a huge ransom for this information, but they will gladly pay a small fee. A newspaper machine on the corner delivers relatively stale news for about a buck. Would readers pay a buck for the same content, slightly fresher, and delivered directly to a device sitting on their coffee table? I think so. Will they buy that content every day. Likely not. If they could subscribe for $10-15 bucks a month, would they? Maybe. If the content is rich (includes some video, audio) would the reader value it more than she values the paper and ink she buys at the corner? Yep.

Jobs also knows how to manage products for optimal desirability and usability. He doesn’t actually make these devices, of course, but his vision for how to create products that people want to own and want to use is keen. And he has surrounded himself with people who can deliver hardware and software to meet his expectations. No doubt he is also a powerfully skilled marketer. His product announcement presentations are pure art. Like a skilled and creative songwriter, he blends the notes into a song that has a tune that gets under your skin.

1 Referring to the “Music Industry” is evidence of how fully art, music, literature, etc. have been co-opted by commercial interests. For instance, selling single songs rather than albums (an oft quoted shortcoming of the online music purchasing model) may not suit the industry, but apparently it suits consumers. One might argue that some albums are conceptually whole, that to appreciate the artist’s message one must listen to the whole album in a single session. That may be, but I would argue that for most albums produced by popular musical acts today the concept album is a marketing designation. It honors the viability of commerce rather than the viability of art. In a non-commercial view of music, the song is transactional unit. I’ve never heard anyone self identify as an albumwriter — creative musical artists typically refer to themselves as songwriters. I met a few musicians during my stint at Daytrotter. One thing they shared was a love for the song, and a willingness to share their art without first insisting on compensation. They might want you to purchase and listen to their whole album, but they know that the responsibility for creating a compelling experience that draws you in as a listener is on their shoulders. Relying on a mechanism that forces you to buy a whole album rather than just the single song you want is coercion. It’s business, not art. Art is when you hear the songs and just have to have the whole album.

Posted 2438 days ago by Mark ·

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Reset Priorities

This blog was the site for my emotional release during the campaign leading up to the 2008 presidential election. That event has passed. The outcome was what I had hoped for. The consequences are yet to be measured, but I am optimistic. This is a challenging time for the United States. I suspect that we will survive.

The future direction of faith.hope.love is not so singularly focused on a particular topic. My personal reflections on life after moving back to Oakland will be located at http://BackToOakland.com but there are occasionally things I want to ponder that don’t fit into that space. Those things I’ll write about here. Welcome, if you haven’t been here before.

Posted 2446 days ago by Mark ·


Endorsement

It’s the thing to do. Endorse a candidate for president. Joe the Plumber did it. Colin Powell did it. Newspapers do it. And now, I’m is going to do it.

The editorial board held a meeting over coffee this morning. We discussed the pros and cons of each candidate. We reflected on the strategies each campaign employed, and listened to a couple of commercials. We thought back to the day we saw Barack Obama speak to a small but enthusiastic crowd on the bank of the Mississippi river last year, well before the Iowa caucuses and before he became the nominee of the Democratic party. We tried to imagine what our lives would be like in the event that John McCain and Sarah Palin won the election. Then we hopped in the car, drove to downtown Rock Island, parked in front of the county office building and walked up the front steps to cast our votes (yeah — a few days early) for our endorsee.

We agreed that one candidate was really a better choice than the other. One candidate reflects our values and ideals. One candidate appeals to our better nature. He speaks directly to our optimism about the future. One candidate has demonstrated that he can keep his wits about him, even as he’s being attacked by an opponent who has mistaken cynicism and racism for American values.

It was a unanimous decision. The Faith.Hope.Love editorial board is proud to announce that we are endorsing Barack Obama to become the 44th President of the United States.

Please Vote!

Posted 2891 days ago by Mark ·


Karl the Marxist

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker on Sarah Palin’s Socialist agenda:

Hertzberg » Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.

Posted 2893 days ago by Mark ·