Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Ruminations on Religion

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2015

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

Posted in random musings, religion | Leave a Comment »

“The New Atheists”

Posted by midiguru on April 26, 2015

One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.

Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.

At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.

It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.

This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”

It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.

I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.

Posted in religion, society & culture | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Idealism (good luck with that)

Posted by midiguru on April 25, 2015

Today on Facebook, someone posted what purports to be a quote from Russell Brand: “If we all collude and collaborate together we can design a new system that makes the current one obsolete. This is a journey we can all go on together. All of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people.” This is a charming idea, until you stop to think about it.

As I suggested to the friend who posted the quote, “Karl Marx tried that. He was a pretty smart guy, but he forgot that people are greedy and stupid.” But the difficulty with Brand’s charming notion is a little broader and deeper than that.

What he’s talking about is a new system of government. You can call it a new set of cultural values if you like, and bask in the rosy glow of the idea that somehow everybody in the world will happily embrace these new cultural values, thus making government unnecessary. But that’s childish. It’s not even worth discussing. Government of some sort will continue to be needed.

And it’s not just that a system of government would have to be able to deal with people who make dumb mistakes like drunk driving, or who are greedy and try to grab more than their share of whatever resources are available.

There are millions of people who just plain hate and fear people who look or act differently than them. When you hate and fear people, you’re liable to do bad things to them, and the government needs to step in and stop you.

There are people whose heads are filled with dogmatic, unchangeable ideas. Some of their ideas are harmful, but they will fight tooth and nail rather than let go of their ideas.

There are people who love having control over others, and who aren’t bothered by hurting others (or even enjoy it). Some of them start cults, and some of the cults are dangerous.

And most of us like to do favors for our friends. Employers will hire their friends rather than hire a stranger who is more qualified and perhaps has a different skin color. If everybody in our in-group thinks idea A is wonderful and idea B sucks, we’ll tend to go along with idea A and reject idea B without examining the relative merits of the ideas, because life is too short to sit around and try to ponder complex questions.

A government has to concern itself with all of these difficulties.

But wait — there’s more! The human brain is not very good at evaluating the large-scale, long-term effects of our actions. That’s why nuclear reactors get built near coastlines that are subject to tsunami activity. No matter how rational your government is designed to be, there will be disputes among well-meaning, intelligent people about the likely long-term consequences of various courses of action (such as GMO crops, for example). Governmental processes will be needed to attempt to sort out these disputes.

And still, mistakes will be made.

So okay, Russell — the ball is in your court. Put on your Karl Marx hat and tell us exactly what this new system of yours will look like. Tell us how it will deal with strip mining, religious extremists, racism, exploitation of workers, and the shenanigans of corporate bankers. Once you have a good solid outline in place, we can start to talk about how to implement it, starting from where we are now.

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Digital Decay

Posted by midiguru on April 21, 2015

Back in 2007 or thereabouts, I recorded some arrangements of pop tunes into Cubase. My idea was to be able to play live with my cello and pre-recorded backing tracks. For various reasons, I only ended up playing a couple of gigs, but I still have the Cubase files. Some tunes are awesome for cello soloing — things like “Lady in Red” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”

I still have the files — but they’re quasi-useless. At that time I was using my Yamaha Motif XS for a lot of the tracks. I still have the Motif too, and it still works nicely. But I neglected to take proper notes on which of the Cubase MIDI tracks play which Motif sounds.

Ever heard a piano sound play what was originally a drum pattern? Phil Glass might love it, but it doesn’t sound anything like “Lady in Red.”

Some of the files had audio clips in them — material that I recorded out of the Motif into Cubase as audio, specifically so I could avoid this problem. Also so I could do final mixes (which I still have). But for some reason I didn’t back up the short clips of audio data. Or if I did, the backups were on a hard drive that ended up God knows where. Without the audio clips, the Cubase song files are a lot less coherent or useful.

Don’t let this happen to you, kids! Take proper notes! Make multiple backups!

The good news is, this gives me an opportunity to do new and perhaps more creative arrangements. My previous rendition of “Lady in Red” basically copped the exact sound of the hit single. It was my first experience doing a sound-alike, and I think it came off pretty darn well, because for one thing the original was all synths and electronic drums. (Probably an Akai sampler, but the same premise.) Now I get to try something new.

This time around, I’m thinking more about the electric cello. Easier to amplify — no mic feedback to worry about. And I’ll probably adapt some of the Beatles arrangements that I did last year in Reason. If I decide to tackle the project, months of work lie ahead before I can once more walk like an Egyptian.

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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Posted by midiguru on April 20, 2015

Six years ago I wrote an unauthorized book-length manual called The Inform 7 Handbook. There were (and still are) some things I liked about Inform 7, an authoring system for text adventures, but I didn’t feel its built-in suite of documentation was very well organized. So I wrote an alternative.

Inform 7 (called I7 by the tiny coterie of people who have even heard of it) has been updated several times in the intervening years. By now the Handbook is seriously out of date. A few months ago I started working on a revised edition, but before long I got annoyed with a couple of the more glaring limitations of I7. So I set it aside.

Last week two things happened. I learned that a guy had actually taken the old Handbook (which was only ever a PDF) down to his local print shop and had a spiral-bound copy printed up. This made me proud but also sad, because it’s not a very useful document. Mere days thereafter, Emily Short, who is an I7 developer and guru, stepped up to the plate and fixed the main problem that had gotten me annoyed.

So I took a deep breath and started working on the Handbook again. But then …

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

While You Were Art

Posted by midiguru on April 3, 2015

Yesterday I was looking at a website for the electronic music side of a university music department. (The name of the university does not, at the moment, matter.) This particular department has a strong focus on “art music.”

I’m pretty sure I know what they mean by that phrase. They specialize in highly abstract, experimental pieces. If you want to learn pop music production techniques, you’ll want to enroll in some other institution of higher learning.

Even so, “art music” is a peculiar and off-putting phrase. I’m reminded of a story. I’ve probably told this before, so bear with me if you already know the punch line. It’s a true story — I checked it once, many years ago, by phoning Chris Strachwitz, the head of Arhoolie Records and a tireless collector, promoter, and disseminator of recordings that would otherwise have been forgotten or never recorded at all.

At some point, probably in the late ’50s, a white ethno-musicologist was interviewing a delta blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. The musicologist, whom we may imagine as wearing horn-rim glasses, having a flat-top haircut, and probably being employed by an Ivy League school, asked Broonzy, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your delta blues a form of folk music?”

Broonzy, in the gentle manner of many an African-American who has found it necessary to outwit or deconstruct a bit of white racism, replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard no horse play none of it.”

What he was saying, I’ve always felt, was that even European classical music is folk music. Beethoven is folk music. And once you think about it, this is obviously true. Different musical traditions have different styles, but they’re all folk music.

With that in mind, I’m going to insist that all music is art music. Every bit of it. From Thelonious Monk to Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa, from James P. Johnson to the Bee Gees, from John Philip Sousa to the Residents, it’s all art music. Today at the gym, while listening to Pandora streaming music on my headphones, I heard tracks by Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Miles Davis, and Weather Report. And every one of those tracks was painstakingly and meticulously conceived and executed by passionate, dedicated artists.

The notion of “art music,” it seems to me, springs from a period in the mid-20th century when the composers of classical music, especially those who found themselves making a living as college professors, had to wrestle with the depressing fact that audiences didn’t like their music. Many of them responded to this difficulty in a defensive way by deciding that what the audience liked didn’t matter, that what mattered was being true to some deeper or more profound inner vision. Audiences were “low-brow.” Their tastes were to be derided. Those who catered to audience tastes were producing schlock.

This defensiveness is certainly understandable psychologically, but as a basis for an entire aesthetic, it strikes me as a bit dodgy.

Composers who work in universities have been victimized, I think, by a related intellectual trend, one that goes back much further than the 1950s. Ever since Beethoven came along and took the classical musical world by storm, there has been a pervasive feeling that serious music (whatever we mean by that phrase) must advance. Each new generation of composers must move forward in relation to what has gone before.

The belief in the virtue of progress was, of course, very much in the air during the Industrial Revolution. In retrospect, progress has proven not to be all it was cracked up to be, but that’s a story for another time. As it affected composers, the belief that progress was a virtue had led, by the beginning of the 20th century, into a sort of impasse. There was nowhere left to go, or so it appeared. Schoenberg tried to dispense with tonal harmony entirely. And yet, during the same period, Rachmaninoff was defiantly writing tonal music that was far closer in spirit and sonority to Beethoven.

Today, Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are still played and loved in concert halls around the world. The works of Schoenberg and his disciples, not so much.

By the 1950s, the rococo variations on Schoenberg’s serialism and John Cage’s love affair with randomness had, between them, produced an environment in which the “serious” music being composed was just not enjoyable to listen to. There was still plenty of music around that people loved to hear, but very little of it was coming from the “serious” composers.

This situation started to change in the 1970s when minimalism gained a foothold. Why? For one thing, because quite a lot of minimalist music is tonal. Also, it employs repetition. When ideas are repeated, they transform slowly enough that audiences can figure out what’s going on.

All music rests on the tension between repetition and change. Too much repetition, and we get bored. Too much change, and we get confused.

It’s true that different audiences have different needs and expectations with respect to repetition and change. A knowledgeable jazz listener can spot immediately when the players are improvising on “Autumn Leaves,” even when the improvisation is very abstract. A listener who doesn’t know the jazz idiom or the jazz songbook will hear nothing but cacophony. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that composers of “serious” “art music” ought to be composing atonal algorithmic exegeses of “Autumn Leaves” (although that’s not a bad idea). You know your audience; you know what they’re hoping to hear. We should all be free to deal with audiences’ expectations in whatever way we feel is needful.

But I do feel an academic program that emphasizes “art music” may be doing students a disservice if it discourages or limits discussion of composers like Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jaco Pastorius, Jack Dangers, Richard Devine, Robert Rich, or a hundred other serious, passionate, dedicated artists who have used popular music styles in their work.

It’s all art. Every bit of it.

Of course, it’s not all good art. Sturgeon’s Law applies. Ninety percent of pop music is crap, because ninety percent of everything is crap. What makes a given piece of music crap, or lifts it above the crap, is a different topic, one that we can have endless debates about. There may not be any objective answers to that question. But I don’t think it helps the discussion to say that any given style of music doesn’t qualify as art.

Posted in music | 5 Comments »

Safety

Posted by midiguru on March 27, 2015

The logic is really very simple.

You’re in a crowd of a hundred people. Where, doesn’t matter. You could be at a convention, in a shopping mall, in a large restaurant, or on the sidewalk on a busy city streetcorner.

The logic is this: If none of those hundred people is carrying a gun, everybody is safer. If five of the hundred people are carrying guns, everybody is less safe. If fifty of them are carrying guns, you’re in a very dangerous situation indeed.

Why? Because in any group of a hundred people, it’s quite likely that two or three of them are either mentally ill, mentally impaired by alcohol, or just very, very angry. The more people in the group have guns, the more likely it is that one of them is going to pull out his or her gun and use it.

Logically, then, if you choose to carry a gun (a concealed handgun, or openly), the other 99 people in the crowd are less safe. I know that people sometimes claim they carry a concealed handgun out of concern for their personal safety. So the question is, do you care about the safety of the other 99 people in the crowd, or do you only care about your own safety, and the hell with everybody else? It’s really that simple.

Yes, there are good, logical reasons to carry a gun. Not very many reasons, perhaps, but there are some. If you’re a courier entrusted with large amounts of cash or important documents, you should carry a gun. If you’re a private detective, you should certainly be able to carry a gun when your own judgment indicates that it’s a good idea. If you’re being stalked by an ex-spouse or ex-lover, absolutely — carry a gun! If you have a meth lab in your basement, or even a marijuana plantation in your back yard, having a gun within easy reach makes good sense.

But those reasons don’t apply to very many people. Most of us have no reason at all to carry a gun. Yet lots of people who don’t need them do carry them. And why? It seems to me the reasons boil down to two: irrational fear, or an arrogant need to assert one’s individual rights and freedoms even at the expense of other people’s safety.

Please note: Nothing that I have said here has anything to do with your legal rights or the Second Amendment. I’m not concerned, at the moment, about what’s legal. I’m concerned only about public safety.

It’s often useful, in questions of personal conduct, to ask yourself, “What would the world be like if everybody did this? Would I want to live in that world?” If you honestly believe that the world would be a better, safer, and more joyous place if everybody carried guns, I hope you’ll consider, seriously and at length, the possibility that your emotions may have warped your rational judgment.

I like freedom too. But we all have to live in the world together. Sometimes — quite often, in fact — our individual freedom has to be tempered by the understanding of how our actions may affect others.

Posted in society & culture | 2 Comments »

A Cornucopia of Dreams

Posted by midiguru on March 9, 2015

Had an hour to kill today, over in Pleasanton, between doctor appointments, so I drove up to Dublin and wandered around in Barnes & Noble. Amazon is convenient, but I still love browsing in a real bookstore!

The mass quantities of fantasy novels (both adult and YA) I found simultaneously depressing and inspiring. There’s so much out there! Beautiful covers, bold concepts, fat five-volume epics by authors I’ve never heard of. Depressing mainly because of the avalanche of competition. I’m working on a fantasy epic of my own, and right now the prospect of finding a place for it on one of those shelves feels like lifting a ten-ton weight. Inspiring because I want to buy and read all of them!

Eragon, for instance. Years ago I tried the first book and decided it was tripe. By now I don’t remember why I thought that. But (a) it’s very successful, so Paolini must be doing something right, (b) maybe I was being too judgmental, and (c) peeking into it, the prose style seems not bad at all. So maybe I should give it a second chance.

I splurged and bought all five volumes of Michael Scott’s Alchemyst series. Could have bought the first volume to check it out, but it’s a matched set. My copy of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a different size and cover art for the 3rd volume, because I bought it later. Matched sets are lovely.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Professional Courtesies

Posted by midiguru on March 5, 2015

For complicated reasons, I’m ramping up my involvement with fiction writing. Specifically, fantasy fiction. As part of the process, I’m resolving to read successful books by other authors.

This creates a bit of a moral conundrum. I know a few people enjoy reading my blog posts about writing. I’m learning all sorts of things about the fantasy field through my reading — some subtle things, some not so subtle. But I need to be very discreet about sharing my observations.

These other writers aren’t just “the competition.” They’re my colleagues. If (when!) my own work is published, I may run into some of them at conventions. How will that encounter go, if I have savagely trashed their masterpiece in my blog?

My basic approach, since the world of books is huge and my patience is limited, is to read the first 100 pages of a novel. At that point I feel qualified to draw some conclusions about what the author is up to. Yes, the story may take an unexpected turn on page 150, but if the author hasn’t hinted about it by page 100, that in itself is a defect.

In the last few days I’ve delved into two different novels in this manner. One has no plot at all, and the other has too much plot. And there’s almost no way to explain what I mean by that without providing examples from these specific books.

Plotting is a tricky business. What it boils down to is that you want the reader to be wondering what happens next. You want the reader to want to keep turning the pages.

The plotless book is mainly just an unrelieved litany of depressing events. After a hundred pages, I’ve given up wondering if something wonderful is going to happen next. The main character, a boy 9 or 10 years old, is mainly an observer. He has no power to affect anything, and doesn’t even try. I feel no desire to keep wading through his misery.

In the book with too much plot, the main character has a clear goal — to rescue her father, who has vanished. She faces terrible dangers, and takes some decisive actions. That’s all to the good. But she’s not just the main character — for the first hundred pages, she’s basically the only character. (The book’s title is her name, in fact.) We know she’s not going to die in any of her horrible encounters with monsters at every turn in the road, because if she died, the story would end. And for quite a stretch of time, she has no companions who might be gravely injured, or disappear into a crevice in a glacier or whatever.

Eventually — big surprise! — she will run into a handsome young man who will turn out to be a both a prince and an expert swordsman, and they will fare onward together. Even then, we can be confident that the young woman will emerge victorious from her next agonizing difficulty, just as she did from the last one. And there’s nothing else to care about. No matter how nasty the author makes her journey, she is in no danger at all. As a result, her travails, no matter how harrowing, soon become tedious.

You know who I like? Carl Hiaasen. I read his books clear through, from beginning to end. They’re not fantasy, of course; they’re crime novels. But he keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Things that you don’t expect keep popping up, in part because each story has several viewpoint characters, and in part because he has a well-developed sense of whimsy. Some would call it sarcasm. He’s clearly having fun making up the story, and he wants you to have fun too.

That’s not the only way to make a plot that will grab readers, but it’s a good one.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Something About the Age

Posted by midiguru on February 28, 2015

The modern world is not a nice place to get old in. At least not in the U.S. Rather than being venerated for our wisdom, we geezers seem to be on our way to the trash heap. What I’ve been seeing this week is happening in the music industry, because that’s where I am, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to the music industry.

One friend, now in his early 60s, has just been laid off from an editor job he has had for eight years, at a well-known country music publication. His brother, who edits a drum magazine, just now sent me an email saying he’s working a 15-hour day to meet his next deadline. He no longer has an editorial staff; it’s just him.

Keyboard’s new issue arrived today. 52 pages. That’s slim. I know Steve Fortner is doing the editorial chores there by himself — probably some 15-hour days. Recently someone posted a photo on Facebook of the Keyboard editorial staff from the ’80s, and Michael Molenda, who is still editing Guitar Player after all these years, commented that in those days we had as many editors just for Keyboard as they now have for Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player, and Electronic Musician combined.

It’s not just that the publishing world has changed, though that’s part of it. What we’re also seeing is that the work of skilled writers and editors is no longer respected. Work your fingers to the bone and then get tossed out on the street — that’s the way it happens.

I feel very lucky to have gotten off as easily as I have in the geezer department, but I can’t claim any credit for it. My parents were able to buy a house in the suburbs in 1964. I inherited the house, but if my mother’s final illness had lasted ten years instead of six months, we would have had to sell the house to pay for her care. I’d be in a whole lot worse shape — maybe working 15-hour days, or maybe scrambling around trying to find a job, any job, at the age of 66, instead of being a gentleman of leisure.

It wasn’t always this way. Older workers were once respected for their ability and their accumulated knowledge.

Posted in society & culture | 3 Comments »

 
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