Stuxnet the Invincible

January 18, 2011

Yesterday”s New York Times finally broke the story  of 2010.   The gravest threat to world peace since the fall of the Soviet Union has been temporarily vanquished by a….. wait for it…… computer virus.  The Stuxnet virus finally gained its rightful place in the pantheon of world peace activists when the Times spotlighted its extraordinary success in reversing the momentum of the Iranian nuclear program by rendering many of its main computers inoperable and likely obsolete.   As a related story in the The Telegraph details, Russian scientists  working in the Nantaz facility, have warned  the Kremlin that they could be facing “another Chernobyl” if they are forced to comply with Iran’s tight deadline to activate the complex this summer.

The real news broken by the Times story of course is that the Stuxnet virus, the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever witnessed on earth, was more than likely created in Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility.   That is not really news to those of us who have for years admired and appreciated Israel’s extraordinary technological prowess;  but it might be news to a stubbornly ungrateful world that has been spared, at least for the moment, the economic catastrophe that might have ensued if Israel had been forced to take military action against Iran.

So while world leaders may be breathing a bit easier tonight, perhaps they ought to be paying a little more attention to  some of these  basic realities:  The West’s  security interests are being safeguarded by a tiny country the size of New Jersey; that the small country is on the very front lines of a war that it still largely refuses to either name or recognize; that peace is unlikely to come to the Middle East  – or to the rest of the world for that matter – until the scourge of the West, based in Tehran, is completely defeated and the  worldwide religious movement it leads is forced into ignominious retreat.

While there are no guarantees of anything  in this world,  it is a safer bet than most that Israel’s powerful technological capabilities and the tremendous ingenuity of its scientists, offers a key weapon in determining who will  ultimately win the war of civilizations in which we are all presently engaged.

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Daily Blurb #5

January 7, 2011

Is China Preparing For War With the United States?

Reports that China has developed the prototype of a stealth bomber is getting people in our Defense establishment hot under the collar – and for good reason.  While China has never approached anything near parity with the U.S. in military capacity, the fact that it is now developing its own military technology, sometimes well in advance of the United States, is certainly cause for concern.  There is of course an argument that the trade ties between the United States and the Republic of China and the mutually assured destruction of both economies should war erupt, would prevent a military confrontation.  But this is  no longer convincing.  One just has to read the the books of Niall Ferguson to understand how nations quickly abandon their own better economic instincts when it comes to wars of aggrandisement.

And China’s ambitions in the Western Pacific are very much about self-aggrandisment.  In August, in its annual report to Congress,  the U.S. Department of Defense claimed that China was ramping up investment in an array of areas including nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, submarines, aircraft carriers and cyber warfare. The military report said China was “already looking at contingencies beyond Taiwan” including through a longstanding project to build a far-reaching missile that could potentially strike US carriers deep in the Pacific.

It should come as little surprise.  The revitalization of the Middle Kingdom of the  Ming and Qing dynasties, wherein China reduced all the nations surrounding it to vassal states, is not merely a part of Chinese folklore, but a central tenet of  political discourse and national business strategy.  Is war likely tomorrow, or next year or even in ten years?  Perhaps not.  But we would be foolish to believe that it could never happen or that expenditures in military technology represent no threat to the global  supremacy of the U.S. military.

Obama’s Day of Reckoning Over Settlements

In a few days the Obama Administration will be tested on exactly how much of an obstacle it believes the 120 settlements in Samaria and Judea represent to the peace process.  This month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is taking his campaign to the UN Security Council, where the Palestinians will introduce a draft resolution that would declare Israeli “settlements” in Jerusalem to be “illegal.” The draft demands a halt to all construction in the eastern half of Israel’s capital city.   The Palestinians understand exactly what this means:   “We drafted it using the same words that Secretary Clinton is using and so we don’t see why the U.S. would veto it,” Abbas said.

The Obama Administration, as of today, stands equivocal on how it intends to address this flagrant attack on the notion of a negotiated settlement. On December 29, Mark C. Toner, the State Department spokesman had this to say on the matter at a press conference in Foggy Bottom:

” QUESTION: Hi, Mark. I’m wondering about this report of the draft resolution that may go before the UN Security Council on – by supporters of Palestinians condemning the Israeli settlements. What would the U.S. response be to that?

MR. TONER: Well, every U.S. Administration has been for decades has been clear on this. We don’t accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity, and in fact, we believe continued expansion is corrosive to peace efforts, as well as to Israel’s future. We believe, fundamentally, that direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach the framework agreement that is our goal, our mutual goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the UN Security Council, so we’ve consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council, because we believe that these kinds of efforts don’t move us any closer to our goal, which is of two states living side by side in peace and security.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. go so far as to use its veto power?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s a hypothetical at this point, Cami, but I think I made our position pretty clear. Any more questions?

This has never been a “hypothetical” for any other U.S. Administration and the government’s position on the matter is far from clear.   One-sided U.N. resolutions against Israel have ALWAYS been vetoed by the U.S. at the United Nations.   The failure of the Obama Administration to signal its intentions regarding such a draft resolution is truly a first and a worrying development.

Pundits in Washington and New York are now speculating about what any abstention on the part of the United States could mean for  Israel and the Middle East.  Some have suggested that it will confirm what many for some time have considered the truth – that the Obama Administration’s intends to become  the first openly hostile Administration to the Jewish state.  I would go further.  It would open the gates to the next Middle East war, encouraging Israel’s enemies to believe that it has been abandoned by its main diplomatic champion and that open season has been declared.

The Administration’s insistence on settlement freezes as preconditions to negotiations has proven rash as the Palestinians and their Arab allies have used it to craftily drive a wedge between Israel and its American ally.  If Obama wants to prove he cares more about peace in the Middle East than he does about punishing Israel for its settlement policies, then he must immediately signal to the Arab world that his country will not stand idly by while Israel is made the fall guy for his Administration’s own diplomatic failures and mistakes.   That would be the mature and responsible approach.  But I wouldn’t count on it.

Meet Fred Singer

On Wednesday night , January 5 in Bel Air,  AFA presented  Fred Singer, the renown and ebullient climatologist who has spent the past 30 years debunking anthropogenic global warming and transforming skepticism on that subject into a high art.   Singer’s book Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years and the unmatched research from his own organization, the Nongovernmental International  Panel on Climate Change ( NIPCC) which produced the 850 page study  Climate Change Reconsidered, form the basis of  the scientific response to the deeply flawed and highly politicized work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations agency whose four reports over the past 19 years have been used to sound the clarion call for cutting global carbon emissions.

Singer, an avuncular and engaging speaker with a stentorian voice, described how the global warming debate gained world wide traction as environmentalists came to dominate world forums on issues of economic development.   Whereas he believes there is abundant evidence for increases in world temperatures over the past 150 years,  he stated that the evidence that man has substantially contributed to that warming is still very much in contention and should be debated.  The more likely explanation, he said, is that we are now in the midst of a global warming cycle that repeats every 400 or so years and has much more to do with solar activity than with anything humans do or don’t do on Earth.

It was a powerful presentation, delivered  with a wry sense of humor and a warmth that belied  Dr. Singer’s reputation as a curmudgeon.  I highly recommend Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years and hope to bring Dr. Singer back  to Los Angeles in June for our next summer conference Big Footprint: Is Green the New Tyranny?

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Stephen Hawking’s Leap of Faith

September 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable of living human beings.  Afflicted by neuro-muscular dystrophy (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), today he has the use of only his cheek and a finger.  And yet despite his affliction, this man has become one of the giants of the scientific world, producing books, movies, maintaining a rigorous schedule of speaking (through a vocoder) and even flying into space as history’s first quadriplegic astronaut.

Many have turned to Hawking to determine his views of the interaction between science and religion.  And as one of the most significant proponents  of Big Bang theory, his views on ultimate cause have naturally generated intense curiosity.

For the main, the 68 -year-old scientist has remained fairly equivocal about his views on God.  In an interview with Reuter’s News Service in 2007 he said :

“I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”

Where “Nothing” ends and “God” begins has never been made clear by Hawking.

Until now.  In his new book, The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow,  Hawking gives  great comfort to atheists everywhere when he proclaims that it is not necessary to have a God of the Universe to explain the origins  and development of the universe.

On September 3rd inthe Wall Street Jounal, he explained:

“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

In The Grand Design he explains why, according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously.  The authors question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a “model-dependent” theory of reality.  They discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse–the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. M-Theory, they offer, is  an explanation of the laws governing the multiverse, and the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything.”

The central question that arises out of reading Hawking’s book is not the theory of everything, but the nature of ” nothing.”   What are  the  constituents of  “nothing”  because for something to come from nothing, there has to be matter or energy available to combine.

M-theory, which forms the core of the book,  is an attempt to explain the basic substance of the universe and provide an understanding of ” nothing”.   It attempts to unify the five  existing string theories about the nature of matter by examining certain identifications and dualities. Thus each of the five string theories become special cases of M-theory.

But M- Theory has one huge problem.  For unlike the Theory of Relativity, which was demonstrated and proven in a variety of places and locations in the early 20th Century, M- Theory cannot be shown to be  demonstrably true.   That is because M- Theory relies on the existence of other dimensions ( 11 to be exact), six of which we can intuit but never  experience. Unfortunately, until we can find some way to observe these higher dimensions,  M-Theory has a very difficult time making predictions which can be tested in a laboratory. Technologically, it may never be possible for it to be proven at all.

That essentially leads science back to the same essential starting block as religion.  Unable to prove the validity  of  M-theory, science is rendered helpless by the need to express faith in it – until, such time that is, as we develop either the technology or human capacities  to establish its essential truth.

No quantum physicist  would want to be labeled a practitioner of a faith, but that is exactly, in this field  at least, what they are.  Empirical research  into quantum mechanics can only take you so far.  Everything after that is achieved only through leaps of belief and  imagination.

Sounds familiar?  It should.  All religion is based on exactly the same philosophical premise.

At the beginning of  their book, Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim philosophy (aka religion)  dead in that it has failed to adequately explain the origins of the universe. Only science, they declare,  is now equipped to assume such a task.

Yet as long as human beings can think they will continue to wonder about the extraordinary symmetry of our world and the way the forces of nature appear perfectly aligned to produce life.  They will gaze at the night sky and ponder how all those stars appeared and where the forces that caused them to be, came from.   If M-theory demonstrates anything, it is that the human mind is only capable of understanding so much about the nature of creation.  Everything else may well exist  in a sphere well beyond human comprehension.

So for the time being, we humble non-scientists  are left guessing.  And in this relativistic world, frankly Professor Hawking,  your  guess is as good as mine.


Google’s China Problem

January 17, 2010

Ten years ago, when I was working with Israeli internet  start ups, I brought a representative from an Israeli internet voice recognition company to Los Angeles.  In the course of his presentation to a group of investors, he described a meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing.   He said that for hours they peppered him with questions about security, questions he had never encountered  from  any government official before.    When he asked what was the source of fascination, it  was explained to him that his interlocutors were not as concerned with how to bring the new technology into the country, as with  how to keep it out.

Everyone has known for years that China is the fastest growing  market in the world for both the production and sale of goods.   But with its 1.3 billion person population, China also happens to be the world’s largest  potential market for information technology.

In recent years many of the landmark Internet operations of the United States, including Microsoft, Apple and Google have created beachheads in this market hoping to cash in on the likely explosive opening of this new frontier once Chinese state controls are loosened.

Last week Google became the first of the big three to finally accept that the Chinese fist is not going to be unclenched anytime soon.  Its threatened withdrawal from the Chinese market, after access to many of the major websites such as ebay, Youtube and Facebook had been blocked by the Chinese firewall known as Green Dam, was a last straw.  In recent weeks, at least 700 Web sites seem to have been shut down or blocked—on top of tens of thousands of foreign online services that were  already inaccessible. Individuals have been banned from registering new domain names in China, and authorities are turning the heat up on existing domains.

The lockdown has many companies worried because it is not simply access to information that is involved.   It is also access to proprietary technology that can apparently be scooped up by the Chinese firewall.  Cyberspying is a great threat to companies such as Google which rely on an interlinked network of proprietary technologies to engineer its formidable search engines.   Such piracy , is, of course, one of the known hazards of doing business in China.  But when you talk about theft of the very technology which makes a service such as Google unique, then there is cause for alarm.

For years, companies doing business in China recognized that they had to play by the Chinese rules if they wanted to succeed there.  Tough government regulations have always made it clear to companies from General Motors to  Motorola that they could reap the harvest of the Chinese market only if they were prepared to play by the rules.   For the past twenty years they have done just that.

But Google’s defiance at the latest outrage may be the first stone thrown in a battle with the Chinese which will involve not just companies but governments all over the world.   Already the White House has  come forcefully to the defense of Google demanding that China’s business practices conform with Western standards.  Other countries may soon follow suit.

What is clear is that the Chinese government is attempting to buy itself time.   It well knows that it was information that ultimately brought down Communism in Eastern Europe and the way to stem the ever present threat of a burgeoning counter-revolutionary force is to build barriers to that information.   But economic liberalization is meaningless without access to this information.  And prosperity, the one thing the Chinese leaders are certain is going to vouchsafe the longevity of their regime, will not continue to grow without it.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, growing prosperity also brings with it the demand for civil rights – as has been shown in almost every middle class -led revolution of the past 250 years.  The Chinese are fighting a battle they will not be able to win, and they know it.  One day the regime will topple, under the weight of a popular revolt from those who have access to information about the West and its many freedoms and will demand the same for themselves.

When it will happen , we do not know.   But as events in Berlin 20 years ago revealed to us,  a regime so seemingly certain of its longevity,  can be swept away in less time than it takes it punch a hole in a wall.

Or maybe in the time it takes to say ” Google.”


WHY THE DARWIN DEBATES?

October 29, 2009

This is a quote from the latest issue of Rolling Stone Magazine:

“ When I ask Lemmy if he has a positive or negative view of humanity, he doesn’t hesitate: “ Oh, negative. Human nature is to blame for everything, innit?  We’re just a disease on this planet. Its going to shrug us off like crabs. Its too late anyway, with what we have done to the environment. Our kids are gone be wearing gas masks. We’re all gonna fry. “

Earlier, while discussing drugs, he expressed similar sentiments.

“ There’s a lot of sh-t talked about what’s bad for you, especially in America.   Everyone wants to be safe. Well, I got news for you:  You can’t be safe. Life’s not safe. Your work isn’t safe. When you leave the house, it isn’t safe.  The air you breathe isn’t going to be safe, not for very long.  That’s why you have to enjoy the moment.”

This little piece of ersatz existential philosophy issues from the mouth of one Lemmy Kilmister, the lead guitarist of  heavy metal band Motörhead.    The 63-year -old guitarist, according to the article, drinks a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, consorts proudly with prostitutes and lives in an apartment festooned with original Nazi paraphernalia.

Motörhead, for those who don’t know, was and is one of the original heavy metal bands, formed in 1975, playing a version of  hard core thrash metal that was the predecessor to punk rock.  Now it would come as little surprise to those who know something about rock culture, that a character of Lemmy Kilmister’s orientation and milieu would be a nihilist who has little patience for exploring purpose and meaning in life.  His sense of alienation and fatalism might be said to be typical of a world-weary rock star who has spent most of his  adult life seeking gratification from loud music, women, bottles, pills and needles.

Lemmy Klimister might be a jaded rock star, but don’t think that his negative narcissism and rejection of human exceptionalism  is restricted to his goth rock contemporaries or that his interview is a mere reflection of the magazine’s penchant for showcasing outlaw personalities.  The same issue of Rolling Stone features an article  which bombastically claims that every ocean on the planet is filled to the brim with floating plastic – the result of human degradation of our environment;  It is followed  by an interview with Madonna,  who insists, after one of the most lascivious careers in pop history,  that changing one’s identity on a regular basis is healthy recipe for human contentment;  and  then another  full length article which parades  the old trope that our real enemies are not lurking in caves on the Afghan-Pakistan border but in the Pentagon.

Well, you say,  it  IS Rolling Stone, the flagship of the counterculture.  What do you expect?

Yes, its Rolling Stone, but if you think these views and attitudes reflect only a thin current in the underground press you are wrong.   Those attitudes have, in one way or another, percolated into our social vocabulary, into our attitudes toward government, into our suspicion of religious thought and practice, into the television programs we watch , into the nightly news  we view and into our academies of learning.

Rolling Stone, in other words, is an underground paper no longer.  It is the voice of the mainstream.

There can be little doubt that this self loathing, fatalism and nihilism has derived from the increasing distance the West has placed between itself and the foundational idea of our civilization  –  that human life has both purpose and meaning.    The rapid secularization of  our culture , which followed the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the scientific discoveries which built upon Newtonian mechanics and the increasing role that  rationalism and science have played in forming our understanding our world , have  turned us away from exploring intentionality and purpose as key matters concerning our existence.   The question of ‘why  are we here?’  posed so adamantly by Aristotle, Plato and  some of the greatest philosophical minds in history  is today so loaded with angst, so distant from the focus of  modern scientific inquiry, so dangerously pregnant with the threat of violating the boundaries between ‘Church and state’, that few dare openly contemplate it.

There is also no doubt that 150 years ago, the Darwinian intellectual revolution played a key role in this transformation.  Darwin himself knew that his theory of evolution by natural selection would spur a burgeoning atheistic movement and that if  his theory gained hold, there would be no turning back.  For if natural processes alone, devoid of an intelligent mind or force, were responsible for life on earth , then the notion of a God , responsible for the creation and management of all life forms, could be dispensed with.

The neo- Darwinists, those who have inherited the mantle of the Darwinist thought, passed down from Thomas Huxley, via Herbert Spencer through the Scopes Trial and on toward our own time, have adopted the atheistic tradition, which has marched in step with Darwinism in its crusade to transform our understanding of the origins  and development of life.  Thus when Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s staunchest modern defender claims,
“ Darwin makes it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist,”  he is really stating that he was now free of any obligation to contemplate  purpose and meaning for existence.  Darwin had fixed  it so that the question itself would have little impact on our appreciation of the mechanics of the universe – and that the investigation itself had become meaningless.

Today our magazines, television programs, scientific journals, academies and  even our political culture are suffused with notions which on the one hand, avoid entirely the question of meaning in life and on the other, deride the  attempt to grapple with it as an atavism, belonging to an age devoid of rationality.   In the process, of course,  they also castigate humanity as the source of  the earth’s problems, reject  democracy as a force for good in encouraging the spread of human liberty,  deny the absolute sanctity of human life and brazenly promote rampant sexual license.   The gradual secularization of our society has betokened a break with fundamental notions which underlie civilizational values.  Western civilization, in short, is rapidly ceasing to believe in itself.

Did Darwin intend to wreak such a wholesale transformation of society?   Probably not.  But the consequences are nevertheless with us and they are profound.

Need examples?   Here is Peter Singer, renowned Princeton professor and philosopher:

“ The life a new born baby is of less value  than the life of a pig, dog or chimpanzee.  All we are doing is catching up with Darwin. He showed us in the 19th Century that we are simply animals. Humans assumed we were a separate part of creation and that there was some kind of magical line between Us and Them. Darwin’s theory eradicated the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about our species.”

Or Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg:

“ The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Or the Texas biologist Erik Pianka:

” We are no better and have no more rights to life than bacteria.”

(Pianka famously advocated, at a public lecture at St. Andrews University in 2006, that over population in the world should be addressed by the deliberate spread of the ebola virus which could effectively eradicate 90% of humanity)

Or this  slice of ineluctable pop culture wisdom from the Bloodhound Gang:

“ You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals
So lets do it like the do (it) on the Discovery Channel.”

Given the shrinking acceptance of human exceptionalism and the belief  that human beings are on par with every other feature of nature,  is it really any wonder that the Spanish legislature has  recently passed a statute which extends certain human rights to apes;  that Ecuador’s new constitution extends legal rights to the environment or that Switzerland allows  biologists to be prosecuted for conducting research on plants which have been illegally harvested – the suits being brought on behalf of the plants themselves.

It is also not such a stretch to claim that the gradual erosion of  the belief in man’s uniqueness has contributed  to the spread of a radicalism, with its roots steeped in 60s liberation politics, which has redefined culture in the direction of  emancipation,  experimentation  and the casting off of  traditional assumptions abut family, education and sex.   The social thrust of our age  is to emphasize that human beings, with no purpose nor reason for existence, should, as the Nike ad says “just do it”   – satisfying any urge for individual gratification or personal fulfillment, regardless of the social costs.

But even as the movement to debunk human purpose spreads, enormous gaps in Darwinian theory continue to be exposed.  In the field of micro-biology, the investigation of cellular structure has revealed  DNA,  the informational building block of the universe, to be so complex as to be almost beyond human understanding;   In geology and paleontology, the sudden appearance of species  without  a discovered ancestry, continues to perplex ( just as it  did Darwin in the instance of the Cambrian Explosion); in astrophysics, big bang theorists are unable to approach their subject without embracing some level of cosmology  which suggests purpose.  As science probes deeper into the origins of the universe, the questions themselves about  ultimate cause and development of life grow more confounding and complex.

Perhaps at the root of this issue is not we know of the world and the universe, but rather what we don’t.  As humans have increasingly developed theories and tools to probe the universe’s deepest secrets, we are correspondingly confronted with the frustrating awareness that the human mind may not be capable of grasping the deepest mysteries of the universe’s beginnings.  This notion, that we simply can’t know everything, that we are too limited and too restricted by our physiognomy to appreciate the physical and metaphysical dimensions of the universe, is apostasy to the scientific community.   That is because over the past 150 years that community has elevated  the human mind as the supreme arbiter of universal knowledge and truth –  with science to be employed as its ultimate barometer.

But hubris and self reverence will never serve us humans well in advancing science or increasing our understanding of the mechanisms of the universe.  We should never forget that  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were among our first scientists  but, as they would have defiantly underlined themselves  – they were philosophers first,  concerned as much with why things work, as with questions of how.    The great tragedy of our age is that we have lost the desire, and perhaps even the ability, to ask why.  And that failure may leave us vulnerable to the assault of ideologies and movements that have no problem in asking that question and offering answers that are at complete odds with our views on the sanctity of human life and the necessity for human progress.

The  AFA Darwin Debates, to be held in the month celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species, is, then, an attempt to bring the question of purpose and intentionality back into public discussion.   It is not, frankly,  important to us whether  a God (or Gods) emerges from the debates as the source of  universe’s laws and their application.  Nor is it our desire to discredit evolutionary theory,  which we believe has played an enormously important role in elevating our understanding and appreciation of our origins.

But we are concerned that without such a debate, without informed discussion which embraces a range of options for understanding life, we run the risk of  allowing  our civilization to slide into a swamp of intellectual and spiritual stagnation,  convinced that we are a blight on this earth and that we have no more reason for living than trees, stones or birds.

Nothing, in the end, can be more deadly to a civilization than its own recognition that it has no reason for being. Yet while we struggle with these issues, we shouldn’t forget that the certainty that there is a purpose to life, is really not so far behind us.

After all, Lemmy Klimister’s father was a vicar.


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