dw2

14 May 2010

Chapter finished: Forces for positive change

Filed under: H+ Agenda — David Wood @ 1:26 am

You have to give up to go up

These words from John C Maxwell often come to my mind.  Recently, I’ve been trying to reduce various activities, in order so that I can dedicate more time to an activity I truly want to progress:

  • I’m trying to spend less time reading (for example, reading books)
  • I’m also trying to write fewer blogposts here
  • Instead, I’m prioritising writing material for my book “The Humanity+ Agenda”.

So, I have to apologise for lack of “normal service” in this blog.

However, I’ve now managed to complete a draft of chapter two of my book.  That’s good news.  You’ll find a snapshot of the current contents below.  At the same time, I’ve taken the decision that I ought to add one more chapter into the contents (it will be chapter 3, “My personal journey”).  So in a way I’m at the same situation as before: I still need to write 8 chapters.  (But I can count the draft as 2/10 finished, whereas before I was only 1/9 finished.)

The chapter I’ve just finished drafting, “Forces for positive change”, is meant to be self-explanatory, so I won’t say anything more about it here now.

I’ve also been making some changes to the first chapter (based, in part, on suggestions I’ve received from reviewers).  As I mentioned before, I’m keeping the latest drafts of all the chapters in the “Pages” section of this blog – accessible from the box on the right hand side.

I’ll be grateful for feedback.  I may not act on that feedback immediately, but I’ll get round to it in due course!

========

2. Forces for positive change

<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>

<< Previous chapter <<

How do people respond to mentions of possible global crises?

In my experience, people often find that kind of discussion awkward and embarrassing.  They make a joke, or cough nervously, and try to change to a different topic.

One rationale for avoiding talking about an issue is if there’s nothing that can be done about that issue.  After all, what’s the point of discussing a problem if you can’t change the outcome?  There’s no merit in becoming unnecessarily agitated.  Better to focus on matters where you can change the outcome.  It’s as stated in the “acceptance clause” of the “serenity prayer” saying of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

That doesn’t apply in the case of the crises listed in the previous chapter.  For example, there are plenty of steps that people can take to reduce the risk of environmental catastrophe.  But these steps seem hard.  And this triggers a second, more complex, rationalisation:

  • If the only responses to a perceived crisis are hard, it’s preferable to hope that the crisis isn’t real, or will go away of its own accord.
  • Alternatively, if the perceived crisis turns out to be real after all, it’s preferable to hope that it won’t have any impact in the foreseeable future.
  • In any case, it’s preferable to leave it to other people to worry about the crisis.

Here’s the sense in which this rationalisation is “preferable”: it’s psychologically easier.  It allows people to go on living their lives as normal, concentrating on matters of work and play, family and friends, sport and culture.  They deny that there’s anything significant they personally should be doing about the looming crisis.  Therefore, they’re able to focus without distraction on other matters that are important to them.

This “denialist” approach can gather rational-sounding arguments in its defence.  Part of the psychological comfort blanket is the observation that “we’ve been getting along fine, without things going badly wrong in the past, thank you – despite the warnings of previous doom-mongers”.  One antidote to this is to highlight past occasions when things did go badly wrong, despite protestations of optimism from people who had become overly accustomed to a lengthy period of apparent calm and progress.  The outbreak of World War One is a stark example.  As noted by journalist Hamish McRae:

The 19th century globalisation ended with the catastrophe of the First World War. It is really scary to realise how unaware people were of the fragility of those times. In 1910, the British journalist Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, in which he argued that war between the great powers had become an economic impossibility because of “the delicate interdependence of international finance”.

In spring 1914 an international commission reported on the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The British member of the commission, Henry Noel Brailsford, wrote: “In Europe the epoch of conquest is over and save in the Balkans perhaps on the fringes of the Austrian and Russian empires, it is as certain as anything in politics that the frontiers of our national states are finally drawn. My own belief is that there will be no more war among the six powers.”

A different kind of response to a potential pending crisis is for people to latch on, firmly, to one apparent solution to that crisis.  You know the kind of thing:

  • To prevent the risk of runaway global warming, we must, above all, reduce carbon emissions.
  • To prevent the risk of economic destabilization, we must, above all, constrain the greediness of bankers.
  • To prevent the risk of terrorists detonating weapons of mass destruction, we must, above all, increase surveillance of potential trouble-makers.

This is in line with the “action clause” of Niebuhr’s saying:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can

Yes, if a diagnosis is correct, it can be a good thing to focus single-mindedly on what needs to be done to fix matters.  But if the diagnosis is incomplete, or flawed in other ways, this kind of single-track solution-thinking can obstruct a fuller discussion and even make matters worse.  The passion of misguided courage or premature activism can  pose just as many problems as does a denialist desire to damp down the conversation altogether.  I’m a big fan of passion, but passion without wisdom can often be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  That’s why the final clause of Niebuhr’s saying is the most important one:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In a later chapter, I’ll review what I see as “Six dangerous temptations” which are, each in their own way, mistaken single-track approaches to the impending crises of the 2010s.  But before that, it’s time for me to describe the approach that I view as much more promising.

In some ways, the approach I’ll outline is single-minded too.  But please bear with me while I spell out the whole story.

2.1 Above all, technology

The single biggest force for positive change is technology.

Some examples:

  • Mechanisation frees labourers from the drudgery of tedious physical exertion.
  • New forms of transport allow people to travel and explore, further and faster.
  • Modern buildings provide unparalleled safety, shelter and amenities.
  • Medicine intervenes to cure miserable diseases and prevent early death.
  • Improved agriculture brings forth food to eliminate famine and nurture health.
  • Information technology keeps people informed of key developments.

In prehistory, it was first fire, then agriculture, then the wheel, that set humankind on the road to civilisation.  In more recent times, the printing press enabled both the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Reliable clocks allowed accurate tracking of the positions of ships at sea, diminishing the risk of shipwrecks.  The industrial revolution triggered a series of changes that enabled unprecedented degrees and variety of leisure time.  The Internet, coupled with the spread of both computing and mobile communications, transforms virtually every area of life in almost every corner of the globe, regardless of the type of government.

How could technology address the crises listed in the previous chapter?  In principle, the answers are as follows.

  1. There’s more than enough energy reaching the earth from the sun to answer every human energy need, allowing the discontinuation of CO2-emitting fossil fuels.  All that’s needed is the improvements in technology to harvest that solar energy, store it, and transport it to where it’s needed.  Alongside solar energy, alternative energy technologies could play a role too – such as next generation nuclear fission reactors (to name just one of many possibilities).  Moreover, improved technology can be used to generate and transport ample fresh water from sea water, and to cleanly manufacture quantities of whatever resources are needed.
  2. Improved software systems could monitor and regulate the flow of financial resources around the world, to prevent economic destabilization or financial collapse.
  3. Rapidly improving living standards, enabled by smart use of technology, visibly accessible to everyone on a fair basis, will take away much of the incentive people feel towards revolution or terrorism.  Improved detection systems – akin to improved anti-virus systems in the software world, that limit the potential of damage from virus writers – will also play a part.
  4. The same sorts of improvement will allow more and more people to experience higher peaks of human fulfillment.

But these answers are unpopular.  Here are some key objections to what I’ve just proposed:

  • Technological progress is often slow and uncertain.  For example, progress with solar energy or safe nuclear fission has long been predicted, but often has been delayed.  We can’t afford the risk of waiting for technological improvements; we need to adopt other kinds of solution instead.
  • In any case, technology doesn’t address the underlying causes of human problems, such as faulty human nature, or dysfunctional social structures.
  • Worse, technology brings problems as well as solutions.  (Refer back to section 1.5, “The existential crisis of accelerating change and deepening complexity”.)

In turn, here are my responses to these objections:

  • We need to invest substantially more in technological development – but do it cleverly.  Happily, the rate of technological progress has itself been accelerating.
  • I disagree that technology only addresses “external” aspects of human life.  Technology, wisely applied, can play a big role in improving both human nature and human social structure.
  • To ensure that we obtain positive results from technological progress, rather than negative ones, we need improved monitoring and management of the development and deployment of technology.

2.2 Above all, education

My deeper answer is that the set of solutions I’m advocating is pro-human even more than it is pro-technology.  Technology provides the means, but it’s not an end in itself.

I’m not interested in technology for the “better gadgets” it can provide us.  I’m interested in technology for the “better humans” it can help us to become.

That brings me to the topic of education: life-long learning, in which we continually improve all aspects of our knowledge and intelligence – including our social intelligence and emotional intelligence as well as our analytic intelligence.

There’s a crtically important two-way relationship between technology and education.

In one direction: clearer, smarter thinking, freed by good education from prejudice and misinformation, allows us to make better decisions about improving technology.  It gives us the “wisdom to know the difference”.

In the other direction: improved technology provides vital tools to assist our thinking and allow us to learn more quickly.  These tools include:

  • Widely accessible, easily searchable electronic libraries of the best thinking of the entire planet
  • Calculation engines that can swiftly compute the range of possible results of complex interactions
  • Healthy food, dietary supplements, medication, and stimulants, that allow people to concentrate more fully, while acquiring or using knowledge
  • Targeted “electronic learning” devices, increasingly hosted within rich virtual emulation environments, that allow individuals to quickly and enjoyably acquire specific knowledge and skills
  • Smart “personal digital assistants” that help debug our thinking and guide us through complex tasks
  • An online “cloud” of software services, containing both human and artificial intelligence, that can augment our own mental processes.

The “Internet of Computers” is in the process of transformation to an “Internet of Things” which connects literally trillions of data sensors around the planet.  The result, in principle, is up-to-the-second information about every parameter of possible interest: crops, soil, water purity, atmospheric composition, temperature, underground vibrations…

The output of education is an improvement in individual human minds and improvement in the global human understanding.  Yet education faces some steep challenges in the 2010s:

  • Merely the ability to think faster does not mean that we think better.
  • If we are victim to fundamental biases, we’ll use our greater intelligence to find clever justifications for continuing our biases, rather than to see more clearly.
  • If a society is victim to outmoded but persistent misunderstanding, the same “bias preservation” dynamics operate at a larger level.
  • Various vested interests are better organised than ever before – and have a battery of mind-turning tools at their disposal.

Psychologists have identified and catalogued large numbers of widespread but flawed modes of thinking – with names such as “confirmation bias”, “sunk cost fallacy”, “illusory correlation”, and “conjunction fallacy”.  Alas, merely knowing about these flaws does not mean we are personally immune to them.

However, a credible positive message about the future can give people the courage to combat the cognitive shackles of intellectually repressive worldviews.  Educating and exciting people about the radical transformative capabilities of emerging new technologies – including clean energy, robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, artificial general intelligence, and human rejuvenation engineering – can disrupt powerful entrenched cultural biases, such as those derived from fundamentalist religions or ideologies.  Humanity+, as I see it, isn’t just an appeal for better technology; it’s an appeal for a better way of thinking about technology.  This new thinking highlights the potential for improved technology, wisely deployed, to provide the kinds of solution that were at one time the sole province of religion:

  • Mental tranquility and exhilaration
  • Harmony between peoples and between nations
  • An abundance of resources, without scarcity
  • Lifespans that can in principle be extended indefinitely, containing ever greater variety and fulfillment.

To be clear, this education must clarify the perils as well as the promise of new technology, to allow us to choose wisely the courses of action that will fulfil the promise and avoid the perils.  That choice will be far from easy.  We’ll need all the help we can get.  We’ll need great strength, as well as great wisdom. Some of that strength will come from improved social structures.  And some will come from healthier, more vibrant individuals.

2.3 Above all, health

Education and health are like two sides of the same coin:

  • Education improves the mind, making us wiser (in all the many dimensions of the word “wise”)
  • Health improves the body, making us stronger (in all the many dimensions of the word “strong”).

Just as there’s a two-way relationship between technology and education, there’s a two-way relationship between technology and health.

In one direction: individuals who are healthier are able to work harder, are less prone to mistakes from tiredness or other psychological vulnerabilities, and contribute more to the growth of high quality technology.

In the other direction: improved technology provides numerous tools to improve our health:

  • To repair broken limbs or joints
  • To improve our immune systems
  • To address all kinds of diseases
  • To keep us fitter and more resilient, longer into our lifespans
  • To screen, proactively, for early warning signs of impending bodily failures.

Miniaturisation of medical tools has profound impacts on the effectiveness of many surgical processes.  The evolution from “smart phones” to “smart things” is increasingly extending to “smart cells”.  Techniques from industrial manufacturing and software programming are being re-applied at the level of items that can easily pass through our bloodstreams and other internal fluid systems.  Rather than “programming silicon” we can look forward to increasing applications of “programming carbon”.

Technology not only has the capability of restoring us to health.  It can take us beyond normal levels of health, to a state where we are “better than well”.  It can do this, first, by making changes outside our bodies – providing us with machinery to magnify our strength, telescopes and microscopes to magnify our vision, loudspeakers to magnify our voice, and so on.  But it can do this, second, by making changes inside our bodies.  These changes are more fundamental and, therefore, tend to raise more apprehension.  Many people feel these changes are “unnatural” and, therefore, should be opposed.  But arguments about things being unnatural hold little weight for me.

There’s a saying attributed to the father of Orville and Wilbur Wright:

If God wanted man to fly, he would have made us with wings.

But who among us has refused to enter an airplane on the grounds that it would be “unnatural”?  Indeed, who among us has refused to augment the natural protective and decorative aspects of our skin by covering much of that skin with clothing (something else that is “unnatural”)?  Injecting young babies with vaccines is, again, far from natural.  And what about cosmetic surgery?  Not so many years ago, we might have said “yuk” at the prospect of someone having cosmetic surgery.  Nowadays, it’s no big deal.

Imagine life in 20 or 30 years time, when people might routinely undergo hi-tech medical treatment that repairs, not just aspects of their skin and external appearance, but also lots of internal bodily damage – damage that you and I would describe as “aging”.  Imagine that, as a result of such treatment, someone’s life expectancy is increased by 10 years, and imagine that the treatment can be repeated on a regular basis.  Imagine that this opens the possibility for people routinely living far beyond the current maximum age of 120.  Should we object to such treatment on the grounds that it is “unnatural”?  My own expectation is that we will, very quickly, become accustomed to such treatment, and we’ll no longer bat an eyelid at it.

It will be like test tube babies.  The birth of the very first test tube baby, in 1978, was accompanied by a fervour of hand-wringing and amazement.  Nowadays, most people take the whole process for granted (whilst recognising that it’s made possible by very clever technology).  Likewise, as treatments become available that make our bodies stronger and fitter, and which repair the cellular and inter-cellular damage known as aging, there will – to start with – be a huge press hullabaloo.  But the hullabaloo will subside.

There are important questions over the desirability of people being “better than well” and having indefinitely long lifespans, and I’ll return to these in later chapters.  However, as you can see, I have little respect for attempts to reject these treatments just because they are somehow “unnatural”.

As more people come to understand the potential for greatly enhanced health within the lifetimes of many people living today, there will be a profound shift in attitude.  The shift is well captured in the amusing but profound fable written by Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant“.  I expect that, in the next ten years, larger numbers of people will switch from what might be called a “pro-death” accommodationist viewpoint, which tolerates the fact of human aging and human death (albeit half-heartedly complaining about it), to an aggressive “pro-life” stance, that urgently seeks to accelerate research into the technology and treatment that can slow, then reverse the effects of human aging.  This pro-life stance will vigorously campaign for a much larger portion of national budgets to be allocated to research and development of pro-life technologies.  Instead of spending lots of time learning about, for example, sports team statistics, or the habits of the latest pop stars and movie actors, people everywhere will be exchanging information and ideas about pro-life technologies and treatments.

Is there a risk that a rush of interest in pro-life technologies will be at the cost of interest in other important technologies, such as those for clean energy?  Perhaps.  But probably not:

  • People who think they’re going to live longer will, other things being equal, become more interested in longer-term planetary well-being, rather than leaving that topic as something for subsequent generations to handle.
  • Technologies are frequently inter-dependent.  There’s been a very useful “convergence” of cutting edge ideas from software, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence, among others.  Many of the techniques that accelerate pro-life technologies will, at the same time, accelerate clean energy technologies.
  • Someone who becomes knowledgeable about science and technology due to an interest in life extension will tend also to discover lots of fascinating wider applications of science and technology.

This is where a renewed education programme, as briefly mentioned earlier, should have a big effect.  The result should be a critical mass of informed citizens who have a shared broad understanding of the power and potential of science and technology to provide deep solutions to the major problems facing human society.  Leaders of society will be unable to ignore this critical mass.

2.4 Above all, society

Recall one of the objections I mentioned earlier:

  • Technological progress is often slow and uncertain.  For example, progress with solar energy or safe nuclear fission has long been predicted, but often has been delayed.  We can’t afford the risk of waiting for technological improvements; we need to adopt other kinds of solution instead.

This objection can be re-stated, forcibly, against the specific pro-technology picture I’m painting.  The objection runs as follows:

  • Technological progress is often slow and uncertain.  The idea of technology making people significantly smarter (via improved education) and significantly healthier (via improved medicine) is fair enough in the long term, but don’t expect any big changes in the next 10-20 years.  We should be focusing, instead, on other kinds of solution to the problems of the early 21st century.  For example, we should be seeking changes in politics, and/or in the values that motivate human lifestyles.

As it happens, I agree with much of this objection:

  • I agree that technological progress is often slow and uncertain.  However, we can and should take steps to make it faster, and less uncertain.
  • I agree that, in parallel with a focus on improved technology, we must also address the organisation of society, via changes that only politicians can authorise.
  • Again, I agree that we must also address the question of the values that motivate human lifestyles.

In the section after this one, I’ll revisit the topic of motivational values, under the heading “Above all, humanity”.  For the moment, let’s briefly look at the question of the relationship between technology and society.

By now, you won’t be surprised if I say that there’s a two-way relationship between society and technology.  In one direction, smart changes in legislation and social structure can have a big impact on the speed and effectiveness of research, development, and deployment of new technologies.  And in the other direction, wise use of new technologies – such as the Internet – can boost the effectiveness of social structures.

Technology is developed by people and companies who are driven by various motivations, and constrained by various fears.  The motivations cover both economic desires and non-economic desires – including the “reputation economy” and the “gift economy”.  Changing the incentive structures can have a significant impact on the work performed.  However, the impact is sometimes different from what prevailing wisdom would suggest.  For example, over-emphasis of financial rewards can, in some cases, diminish the potential for people to uncover creative solutions, or to work together collaboratively.

When it comes to governing the effectiveness of technology development, the negative constraints can be even more important than the positive incentives.  If a company fears bad outcomes from the result of some research, they’ll be less likely to undertake that research.  These bad outcomes can include:

  • Being sued for huge amounts of money for patent infringement by someone who, it seems, has thought of a broadly similar idea
  • Undermining an existing profitable product line by the same company.

The system of patents grew up for good reasons, but operates at the present time in a way that frequently hinders innovation and collaboration, rather than rewards it.  This system is overdue significant reform.  Equally pressing is the need for governments to ensure the continuing vitality of their economies, striking a good balance between the requirement for competition and the requirement for collaboration.  There also need to be checks on the ability of sophisticated, well-funded lobbyists to gain undue influence over the decisions of law-makers: democracy is far from healthy when vested interests have so much power.  Finally, societies need to be constantly alert against the twin risks of under-regulation and over-regulation, in numerous areas of potential innovation, including new drugs, new mobile computing devices, new “cloud” services, new financial services, and so on.

None of this “social engineering” is easy, but it all makes a big difference to the likelihood of rapid progress with the development of key technology.  With bad social structures, we get “the madness of the crowd”.  With good social structures, we get “the wisdom of the crowd”.

2.5 Above all, humanity

So far, I’ve described four key themes, as priorities for the coming decade: technology, education, health, and society.  There’s one more to add, which sits at the top of the whole structure: humanity.  The diagram provides a reminder of the numerous two-way interconnections between these five key themes.

The whole point of all the effort on technology, all the long hours spent on education and learning, all the labour to improve our health, and all our social engineering, is to enhance human experience, in ways that are fully sustainable, open-ended, and equitable.

You may ask: what kind of human experience? My answer is: we can presently only begin to glimpse the possibilities.

Some hints are provided by our present-day peak experiences – from music, dance, sport, games, puzzles, theatre, reading, mathematics, discovery, exploration, meditation, friendship, family, community, gardening, pets, safari, food, drink…

You may ask: won’t this become boring? My answer is: why should it? There’s a whole universe in physical space for us to explore.  And there are countless exotic universes in virtual space for us to create and explore.  There will be numerous interesting people to get to know – not to mention huge numbers of fascinating artificial intelligences.

Humanity sits at the top of this structure, not only as the end goal, but as a way to decide, in principle, the value of activity throughout society.  At present, countries tend to measure their worth via their GNP – Gross National Product – or some related economic statistic.  Leaders are happy when their GNP increases, and perturbed when it falls.  But it is widely recognised that GNP is a sorely inadequate measure.  Stirring words from a fine March 1968 speech by US senator Robert Kennedy are worth quoting at some length:

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.  Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

However, so long as (to quote a saying attributed to Milton Friedman) “the business of business is business”, it’s hard to expect companies to set aside the quest for economic profits in favour of these broader human values.  Shareholders will act in concert to fire management teams who fail to exploit profit opportunities.  The remedy is as already stated: a critical mass of informed citizens who have a shared broad understanding of the power and potential of science and technology to provide deep solutions to the major problems facing human society.  This mass of informed citizens can ensure that companies act in service of goals other than mere monetary reward.

Alas, everything I’ve spoken about in this chapter appears to come with a large price tag.  Education and health already consume major portions of national budgets.  Science research budgets are under great pressure, too.  In a time of austerity, it’s likely that expenditure on all these areas will fall, rather than rise.  Yet I have been arguing for an increase, in each of these areas.  In later chapters of this book, I’ll expand these five priority areas into 20 specific research projects.  I’ll make the case that these 20 projects should become priorities for all of us – as individuals, organisations, institutions, universities, industry, governments, and media.  They all deserve a larger amount of attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding.  Given our current severe economic constraints, that may seem a fanciful hope.

But there is good reason for this hope.  We have in our favour the fact that improvements in any one of these areas feeds into improvements elsewhere.  As our technology improves, our education improves, and so on.  Rather than simply focusing on spending more money on each of these areas, we can focus on spending money more smartly on each area.  Raising our game – in ways that I’ll explain – means that instead of “Education”, we can talk of “Education+”.  Instead of “Health”, we can speak of “Health+”.  Instead of “Technology”, we can speak of “Technology+”.  Instead of “Society”, we can speak of “Society+”.  And – you guessed it – instead of “Humanity”, we can speak of “Humanity+”.

At this stage, you will probably still have a large question in your mind: can we really expect the kinds of technological progress that I’ve been indicating as possible for the next 10-20 years? I’ll now seek to address that question in two different ways:

  • In the next chapter, I’ll describe my own personal history in the technology industry, highlighting lessons about both rapid and slow rates of progress.
  • After that, I’ll devote a chapter to each of the five key themes, highlighting each time actual progress that’s happening.

>> Next chapter >>

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