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Coltan, Congo and a missed opportunity July 3, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Business, Choice, Ethics, FairPhone.
1 comment so far

You might have seen the article in the Irish Times about a conference at NUI Galway, on the subject of women and leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Apart from a one-paragraph nod towards Mary Robinson’s contribution, the Irish Times reported only about a plenary speech by Thomas Turner, who is a specialist for Amnesty International on the DRC.

Turner has written a number of books on the Congo and the war there. His message for the participants at the NUI conference dealt with campaigns on boycotting electronic equipment like mobile phones and games consoles because of the claims that the coltan, a mineral used in capacitors in small devices, contribute to rape and mass killings. His abstract for the conference is pretty clear on why that simplistic picture is a problem:

The latest such oversimplification, imposed by outsiders, concerns conflict minerals, mass killing and sexual violence. The Congo war is the bloodiest since World War Two, and the country is the “rape capital of the world”. However, there is a magic bullet that can put an end to the atrocities and that is banning “conflict minerals”. In recent weeks, it has been reported that most of the mines in eastern DRC are no longer controlled by warlords or militias, yet the level of rape and sexual violence remains high.

The Irish Times reports:

Mr Turner also cited the Kony 2012 campaign as another example where the public had been confused, with young people believing that if they bought a plastic bracelet they could eradicate use of child soldiers.

And this line that simple steps by western consumers and concerned citizens will not solve the underlying problems is reported in a review of Turnder’s book Congo:

avoiding the purchase of coltan-laden cell phones or mineral-containing gaming consoles is somewhat incoherent and unlikely to resolve the substantive issues

This has been a missed opportunity. I cannot tell if it was Turner or the Irish Times who missed it.

It is valid to point out the inadequacy of boycotts or of clocking up online views of the Kony video (99 million views since 2012).

But offering only criticisms of simplistic solutions is to do a disservice to those who engage with the messy complexities and work within them to try to bring real change. For example, Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, instead of boycotting coltan from the DRC has sought to secure sources of the mineral that reflect the concerns of the simplistic activists Turner criticises. And those who follow Fairphone’s work know that they are neither naive nor simplistic. They know full well that in a complex product like a mobile phone there are limits to what an organisation can do. But they also see the work they have done as only a first step.

By not exploring viable solutions and concentrating only on criticising those who are simplistic, Turner or the Irish Times, or both, missed an important opportunity.

The Economist on Piketty May 6, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Books, Capitalism, Economics, Inequality, Journalism, Marxism, Taxation Policy, The political discourse, The Right.
55 comments

I bought the Economist because the cover said it has an article about Piketty. (Reading articles about his book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, is quicker than reading the book!)

The headline on the actual article is weird: “Bigger than Marx”. That is true neither of the physical heft of the book nor, if everything I have read about it so far is valid, of the contents.

And then the content of the Economist’s review: 13 paragraphs: two are neutral; four approving; seven critical of the book. The Economist cites five critics of his thesis or aspects of it and zero supporters.

Not that I’m terribly surprised at their overall view, but they might have been subtler. Or maybe I should applaud their transparency.

Basic Income Ireland 2014 Summer Forum April 28, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Economics, Equality, Inequality, Uncategorized.
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Basic Income Ireland invites you to our

2014 Summer Forum

A half-day conversation about Basic Income.

Date: Saturday 7 June 2014

Time: 1:00 to 5:00, with informal discussion afterwards

Venue: Carmellite Community Centre – 56 Augier Street, Dublin 2

No charge. Donations/membership subs will be accepted on the day.

Registration: Please register in advance at http://www.basicincomeireland.com/basic-income-2014-summer-forum-signup.html

A Basic Income is a payment from the state to every resident on an individual basis, without any means test or work requirement.

It would be sufficient to live a frugal but decent lifestyle without supplementary income from paid work.

The idea of Basic Income is being advanced world-wide as part of the solution to the issues facing today’s world.

Come join us to discuss the Basic Income solution and to plan activities for the coming 12 months.

Programme

1:00-1:45 Welcome and light lunch

1:45-3:10 Recent developments in Basic Income internationally

Keynote speaker: Yannick Vanderborght, one of the leading figures in the new wave of basic income activists. Professor of Political Science at Saint-Louis University, Brussels; Chair of Regional Coordination Committee of Basic Income Earth Network; co-author with Philippe Van Parijs of L’allocation universelle (2005) and co-editor of Basic income: An anthology of contemporary research (2013) and other books on basic income.

Yannick will speak on transnational cooperation in the campaign for basic income and on recent developments in the theory and politics of basic income. Followed by a participatory discussion.

3:10-3:30 Tea and coffee break

3:30-5:00 Advancing Basic Income in Ireland

Brief presentation and participatory discussion

Afterwards: social gathering in The Swan, Aungier Street.

Further information on basic income is available at basicincomeireland.com and on Facebook – Basic Income Ireland and Twitter: @basicincomeirl.

Register now: http://www.basicincomeireland.com/basic-income-2014-summer-forum-signup.html

Further information: Basic.Income@nuim.ie

Please circulate this notice to your friends and contacts.

Euro Horror ..still in fact going on March 26, 2014

Posted by doctorfive in Capitalism.
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Just to highlight a few things while we are likely to be looking the other way. Crisis getting crisisier.

A letter from Mario Draghi on Monday. As you are well aware the Irish banking sector remains “a source of some concern with outstanding issues requiring swift and decisive action”

Despite the considerable progress made in recent years, there are several outstanding issues which still require to be addressed. These relate, in particular, to: (i) the completion of the banks’ restructuring and reforms; (ii) addressing the still very large stock of non-performing loans; and (iii) ensuring the viability of all nationalised banks

[..]

As stated on several occasions, the ECB is of the view that it would be preferable if these issues were to be addressed before the conclusion of the SSM comprehensive assessment.

Meanwhile, Obama is in Brussels, with an entourage of hundreds. Events in the East will alter the agenda to some degree but if you haven’t been following details of the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership, it’s terrifying frankly and far from the panacea presented in the press over the last twelve months.

Linda Kaucher

The EU’s international trade agreements, including corporate rights to access government spending, are actively promoted by transnational financial interests – well represented in the City of London.

The major component of the US/EU free trade agreement is ‘regulatory harmonisation’ between the US and the EU, harmonising existing but particularly new regulation for maximum benefit to transnational corporate investors.

[..]

This trade agreement, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) by the EU Trade Commission but the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) in the US will be a neoliberal pact between the world’s two biggest economic blocs. The stated aims are not only to ‘harmonise regulation’ between the US and the EU, but also to pull in other countries including the big developing countries like India and China. In this way, the TTIP is meant to achieve the global corporate rights and benefits that the stalled World Trade Organisation Doha Development Round has failed to deliver.

‘Regulatory harmonisation’ will without doubt mean reducing corporate regulation to the lowest levels to produce the maximum corporate benefit,

And Monbiot

This trade deal has little to do with removing trade taxes (tariffs). As the EU’s chief negotiator says, about 80% of it involves “discussions on regulations which protect people from risks to their health, safety, environment, financial and data security”. Discussions on regulations means aligning the rules in the EU with those in the US. But Karel De Gucht, the European trade commissioner, maintains that European standards “are not up for negotiation. There is no ‘give and take’.” An international treaty without give and take? That is a novel concept. A treaty with the US without negotiation? That’s not just novel, that’s nuts.

You cannot align regulations on both sides of the Atlantic without negotiation. The idea that the rules governing the relationship between business, citizens and the natural world will be negotiated upwards, ensuring that the strongest protections anywhere in the trading bloc will be applied universally, is simply not credible when governments on both sides of the Atlantic have promised to shred what they dismissively call red tape. There will be negotiation. There will be give and take. The result is that regulations are likely to be levelled down. To believe otherwise is to live in fairyland.

Last month, the Financial Times reported that the US is using these negotiations “to push for a fundamental change in the way business regulations are drafted in the EU to allow business groups greater input earlier in the process”. At first, De Gucht said that this was “impossible”. Then he said he is “ready to work in that direction”. So much for no give and take.

But this is not all that democracy must give so that corporations can take. The most dangerous aspect of the talks is the insistence on both sides on a mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). ISDS allows corporations to sue governments at offshore arbitration panels of corporate lawyers, bypassing domestic courts. Inserted into other trade treaties, it has been used by big business to strike down laws that impinge on its profits: the plain packaging of cigarettes; tougher financial rules; stronger standards on water pollution and public health; attempts to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Wouldn’t blame the Commissioner for packing it in sometimes.

 

Direct Provision: An Open Prison March 13, 2014

Posted by doctorfive in Community, Inequality, racism.
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Kelly, SME debt and some bigger fish March 13, 2014

Posted by doctorfive in Business, Capitalism, Irish Politics.
25 comments

Rates! cried Ibec

Rent! cried Isme

Wages! cried the Sfa

Regularly and unopposed since 2008 until Morgan Kelly this week pointed to SME debt. Mark Fielding

The Association called on Minister Noonan to address the fears of vulnerable Irish SMEs and to give assurances that the Irish Government will not allow the ECB to use the Irish economy as an example of strict deleveraging

Perish the thought.

It is just not sufficient for Minister Noonan to ask Prof Kelly to chat to the Central Bank and compare figures. The Minister must be much more forthright and confirm that the SME sector will not be targeted by our bailed-out banks whether under orders from the ECB or not.

Time for the Finance Minister to stand up to the ECB and the market. He will be changing his name to ‘Stop the water tax Fielding’ next.

Last year Fiona Muldoon, formerly of the Central Bank, warned that at least twenty-five billion euro or half the total loans to small and medium firms are “non-performing”. That is just shy of another Anglo and more should the worst of Kelly’s claims come true.

SME arrears throw up complex issues and there is a high-level of property related borrowing.  In effect, in Ireland, literally and figuratively, all roads lead to property.

Given 70% of people in private sector employment are employed by SMEs there is a further direct knock-on for these employees (& past employees) into the whole area of household debt and mortgage arrears in particular.

We have had five years of kicking the can down the road domestically and EU level and it probably a reflection of just how many are up to their neck in bubble property that the obvious SME issue has run under the radar for so long. The austerity agenda was a convenient parallel for all concerned. No one wants to peek at the horror below. It runs right across eurozone, multiples of the kind figures we have quickly gotten used to.

That 70% figure of Muldoon’s relates to another point of Kelly’s where he noted that Ireland is “peculiar” in having lots of multinational and very few large Irish companies. It’s almost as the country has been run in the interest of a very small few.

Last month on Primetime we had the usual adversarial debate on wages increases and tax cuts but I wondered how many at home would notice that it was much venerated entrepreneur vehemently opposed to private sector workers taking home more pay. Similarly,  as lobbying is back in fashion, it is worth drawing attention to this story from 2012. Ireland First, an all star cast

Michael Berkery, John Bruton, Leslie Buckley, Pat Cox, Dermot Desmond, Frank Flannery, Ray MacSharry, Denis O’Brien, Sean O’Driscoll, Michael O’Flynn, Mike Soden, Michael Somers, Dick Spring, Peter Sutherland, Brendan Tuohy

One item of particular concern was upward only rent reviews, something almost unanimously acknowledged to have cost thousands of jobs up and down the country.

[A] discussion document to be submitted to Taoiseach Enda Kenny by Ireland First by a high-powered group of the country’s most successful businesspeople who came together last autumn to try to think of ways to restore Ireland’s economic fortunes.

Outside of Nama’s remit, but still in the area of property, the same source said the new Government needed to move to end the uncertainty surrounding the future of upward-only rent reviews for commercial premises. Under the Programme for Government, the Coalition has given its commitment to end upward-only rent reviews for existing leases.

Commenting on this, the source said: “The rent review issue has to be addressed now. The uncertainty surrounding this is having a serious and direct impact on our potential to attract foreign direct investment. Nobody wants to put their money into commercial property in a country where the goalposts can be moved overnight.”

Michael Noonan had removed this ‘uncertainty’ on budget day the year before citing advice from the Attorney General. “Susceptible to constitutional challenge on a number of fronts” but ongoing pressure saw government suffer defeat in the Seanad just last month and Fergal Quinn’s Bill on the issue now heads for the Dáil.

So who was it doing the leg work against the great many hardpressed, downtrodded, real world, lifeblood, private sector SME?

It is understood that the co-chairs of Ireland First — One 51 chief executive Philip Lynch and Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins — will lead the various delegations once meetings can be agreed with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Government.

Le Monde Diplomatique: “The corporation invasion” December 21, 2013

Posted by Tomboktu in Capitalism, Economy, Environment, Inequality, International Finance, The Far Right.
8 comments

Readers might be interested in this article in Le Monde Diplomatique

Imagine what would happen if foreign companies could sue governments directly for cash compensation over earnings lost because of strict labour or environmental legislation. This may sound far-fetched, but it was a provision of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a projected treaty negotiated in secret between 1995 and 1997 by the then 29 member states of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) (1). News about it got out just in time, causing an unprecedented wave of protests and derailing negotiations.

Now the agenda is back. Since July the European Union and the United States have been negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), a modified version of the MAI under which existing legislation on both sides of the Atlantic will have to conform to the free trade norms established by and for large US and EU corporations, with failure to do so punishable by trade sanctions or the payment of millions of dollars in compensation to corporations.

(1) See Lori M Wallach, “A dangerous new manifesto for global capitalism”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 1998.

And why haven’t you heard of it?

The TTIP/TAFTA negotiations are taking place behind closed doors. The US delegations have more than 600 corporate trade advisers, who have unlimited access to the preparatory documents and to representatives of the US administration. Draft texts will not be released, and instructions have been given to keep the public and press in the dark until a final deal is signed. By then, it will be too late to change.

The full article is available here: http://mondediplo.com/2013/12/02tafta

Money on the Mind September 30, 2013

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Capitalism.
8 comments

In a series of startling studies, psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley have found that “upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.” Ongoing research is trying to find out what it is about wealth — or lack of it — that makes people behave they way they do.

Working poor August 2, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Economy, Inequality.
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Here’s an article from the NYT from 2004
by David Shipler who wrote “The Working Poor: invisible in America” that looks at some of the perhaps less obvious ways that poverty functions – health issues, health/appearance issues, the nature of work that is available, how family relationships impinge, and so on and so forth. It seems to me to be particularly good at point how there are something analogous to a cascade of problems, with each individual problem perhaps unconnected to another, but collectively and cumulatively each operating to further pull a person down.

And there’s one very telling paragraph which points to the primacy of the workplace, but also its effective reification above criticism… the main focus of the story Caroline, found that she was unable to juggle rotating shifts and homelife looking after her daughter. So she was getting grief from schools and social services for neglect but…

Perhaps the most curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle was everybody’s failure to pursue the most obvious solution: if the factory had just let Caroline work day shifts, her problem would have disappeared. She asked a supervisor and got brushed off, but nobody else — not the school principal, not the doctor, not the myriad agencies she contacted — nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace.

And the article is explicit about this:

Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable and beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law permeates the culture of American antipoverty efforts, with only a few exceptions. The most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing and the like. But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents’ employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion. First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.

That is as true in this state as it is in the United States.

The strange naivety of some in the middle-class in relation to work… July 11, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Culture, Economy, The Left, Uncategorized.
4 comments

…there’s a piece in the current issue of Prospect magazine that will infuriate many. Under the heading ‘Middle-class survivalism’ it argues that since ‘we’ are ‘the prime target for politicians struggling to restore the public finances…is there any escape?’

The author is a former financial writer:

Looking back, I can put my finger on the time when clutch of appealing illusion I had carried unquestioningly with me throughout my adult life began to fall away. It was 2009, just two years into the financial and economic debacle that still surrounds us, but long before I or most other people finally realised that what we thought was just another temporary downturn – albeit a bad one – was in fact something totally different. it was game over. An old way of thinking and doing things was finished.

What was the cause of this damascene conversion? Well his wife was pregnant with their first child, there were issues with his extended family and…

…a happy and supportive relationship with my employer which had lasted almost 15 years, suddenly became the exact opposite. By the following sprint I had an infant son, a disorientated mother living among strangers behind locked doors and a cheque instead of a career.

Now, he appears a little trusting. For example, who could disagree with the following:

Life is a lot easier and less stressful if you like your job and the company you work for.

But I often wonder how much that would be true of many many working lives?

That said there’s a lot of truth in what he then says:

The money turns up every month and the seasons roll around. Colleagues can become good friends over the years and the social life of the office is something you miss when it’s gone.

And that is true, and inevitable, at least in many workplaces, because this is a primary focus of life in this period if one is working. The office, factory, whatever the space one is positioned in is where so much of living takes place. It may not take up all the conscious part of the day but it is easily the most prolonged period in a day in a single place – at least for most working.

And having been made redundant myself I know all too well, and this I’ve mentioned already recently, about how friendships, networks, contacts are broken, often for good. All pattern is taken from the day to be replaced if there is no work with… nothing much.

Still, again the thought strikes that he was particularly naive…

The first big illusion I left behind that spring was that any company would ever really care for me, as opposed to the role I was being paid to carry out.

Perpetuating this comforting illusion is a key function of middle management and stupidly I allowed almost 15 years of positive experience to lull me into believing it. That turned out to be a profound mistake and one I won’t make again.

It reminds me of a former boss, an MD of multiple companies. On occasion his thing was to drag his sales and management teams from the various companies into what were optimistically called a ‘sales meetings’ where in some magical ‘synergistic’ fashion great things would be plotted and achieved.

Unfortunately due to the nature of my work I was forced to lurk at these in the corner and saw that the drab reality was that he would proceed to talk for hours about what should be done with little or no purchase on what was actually feasible. Eventually, I realised, as many had before, that these served as a sort of therapy. His catharsis and us paid for the privilege. Fair enough, and there were sandwiches at lunch, so few complaints. As the years progressed these became more and more absurd and that was essentially the spirit in which people engaged with them.

But on one occasion a new recruit, a senior manger in a company appearing for the first time made the rookie error of addressing the MD by his first name. None of us passed comment, but I heard back from the individual – let’s call him ‘Bob’ – involved that he had been taken aside directly afterwards by the MD and informed… ‘Bob, I’m your boss, not your buddy’.

This wasn’t news to me, given my political orientation, but a useful object lesson in terms of the real power relationships at work, nonetheless.

That someone, the author of the Prospect piece, could be a financial writer and not understand these from the get go is a disturbing testament to how orthodoxies actually function (indeed here from a few years back is another angle on this).

Sure, he says:

Being a financial writer, I’ve naturally come across other, more impersonal ways to view the true balance of power that exists between companies and the people that work for them.

But one has the sense that that penny never quite dropped. And note not a mention of unions or workers organising to ensure their rights or extend them further.

Anyhow he continues, being concerned with the anguish of the middle-classes in the newish dispensation. Though, I guess in fairness, it is worth considering how the precariousness of working life that has characterised lower paid work is now reaching well into the self-ascribed middle classes.

And also in fairness he makes an interesting point discussing his mother’s situation. He talks about the general sense of unease in the middle class, amongst the ‘well-paid’ and so on in the current situation. And he suggests that ‘having gone through the process of unravelling my mother’s finances after she went into the care home, I can see good reasons why they should be [uneasy]’.

I grew up thinking my parents were comfortably off and once we tracked downy he paperwork this belief turned out to be broadly true. As part of the wartime generation, she had worked hard, saved and owned property through its long bull market with the result that, at 85, she had a teacher’s pension, property she owned outright and a decent sum in personal investments. What she didn’t have was enough income to meet her monthly bills.

He asks…

How could this be? She had apparently done everything right but was till well short of being able to pay her way in the world.

And here it gets very interesting indeed.

The reasons will, I suspect, be depressingly familiar to many others who have been through the same process with their parents. From what I could discern, my mother must have had a financial advisor at some point – at least this was the most obvious explanation why her money had been spread across a roll-call of the UK’s leading fund management groups (all the big names got their share), and why all of its as invested in equity funds that held shares in the same narrow list of large companies. The other things these funds had in com,mon was that none paid out any regular income to her and they all charges at least 1.5 per cent a year in management feeds, around a third of which would be handed to the advisor who had channelled her money into these funds and then departed the scene.

But why is this a surprise? To be a capitalist requires capital, serious capital. Handing over the facade of capitalist endeavour, attempting to understand let alone play markets, requires much much greater resources than his mother could bring to bear. Add in the noxious intersection of deep self-interest that serves to pass for much of the financial industry and the capacity for personal losses are enormous. And that’s before we get to the marketisation of social services which really only the state has the heft, or the willingness (and even that increasingly partial in the current context), to provide.

He argues that it was an ‘accident of bad timing that meant we had to overhaul our mother’s financial arrangements to try to secure her a low-risk income form her investments at about the worst moment in living memory to attempt such a manoeuvre’.

Well, yes and no. These are cycles, subject to the market. Markets boom, markets bust. And they’re entirely indifferent to such matters as the welfare of his, or anyone’s mother or father.

What lessons does he take away from this? Tellingly he blames ‘the people we elected, trusted and paid to manage this country’s financial affairs knew what they were doing. They clearly didn’t.’

That’s okay as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. It wasn’t just politicians, it wasn’t just supposed regulators, it wasn’t just the private sector, it was an ideology where the needs of the latter were serviced by the former and largely ignored by the regulators. Where political policy was dictated by laissez-faire approaches. Where markets became ever more central to socio-political activity with little or no questioning as to whether they were, or ever could be, fit for purpose.

And his solution is no solution at all. He writes that ‘I’d far rather rely on myself and my family than on any of the institutions I used to believe would ‘be there for me’ when I needed them’.

So he now works for himself, a nice place to be – well bar the enormous and very real pressures – but one that is beyond the scope of most working. He has decided to ‘make my own mistakes in deciding how to manage our money than pay for the privilege of having someone else to blame when things go wrong’. He’s gone off the ‘pensions system’ – though he doesn’t call it by its correct name, the ‘private pensions system’. And one presumes that he feels his mothers pension, which presumably was state, did such a bad job.

Still he also makes another interesting point.

…the other goal of this exercise [he’s put money into a small pension for his children] is to find more ways to pass on wealth from one generation to the next – not just by bequeathing what we have left when we die (inheritance tax permitting) but also by doing some of the hard work of saving for their old age well in advance, so that when they reach adulthood they will have greater scope to spend or save the fruits of their own labour, rather than racing against the clock to amass a pension fund from scratch.

To which the obvious response is that this generational socialism in one family is all very well (though one does have to wonder where individual effort and endeavour fits in), but it does absolutely nothing to address the wider system problems addressing millions both in the UK and further afield who are in a similar or worse situation, trapped in employments where they are, let’s not put too fine a point on this, exploited in a multitude of ways from low wages, poor working conditions and so on, where they have little or nothing to look forward to at the end of their working lives, where they are increasingly pushed whatever their circumstances towards the market. Even after the events that he describes which we have all lived through.

Why he can’t see that community/society/social systems are the way to go escapes me where instead of the risk being borne by the individual, which is what it has been and effectively what he seeks to perpetuate, albeit in a lower key way, it would be borne by all. His is an analysis trapped within the constraints of his own class horizon.

And in all honesty, his middle-class survivalism (sic) doesn’t strike me as that great to begin with. Yet more grabbing the crumbs and trying to make do. And what that means for his offspring…

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