chimerically: (Default)
With quals just behind me and research ramping up, I've been struggling to come to terms with my academic identity and to rekindle a passion for my research that I know is there, but has been dormant for the last little while. It struck me that one book in particular has influenced me more than any other in the last year -- and this has been a particularly mind-expanding year for me. (I'll post more article and book summaries soon to demonstrate.) But for anyone interested in development, modernization, globalization, or Africa -- or any combination of these -- I highly, highly recommend Global Shadows by James Ferguson. It's extremely well-written, and though certainly not an "easy" read, it is very illuminating. In a way, it has both opened my eyes and (temporarily, hopefully) paralyzed me -- I can't help but think that there's just too much that I don't know for me to make any useful difference. But Ferguson himself would not accept such an excuse (I've taken a class with him and am pretty sure of this), so I'm back in the ring, taking more anthropology, equipping myself to grapple effectively with such thorny, complicated issues. (As a side note, I scoff at anyone who thinks computer science or statistics is harder than this stuff. I've done both; I know.)

Below is the summary I wrote of the book last November. It's very long, but for those of you interested in these topics, I think it is worth the time and effort -- and the book even more so! (I was thinking of dividing this across multiple posts, but wanted any ensuing discussion -- and I hope there's some! -- to happen in one place, so I chose not to.)




What is “Africa”? What are globalization, development and modernity? These concepts – though they may be at times vague and ill-conceived – nonetheless play a central role in discourses, economic and otherwise, about the fate of the many interconnected yet unique groups on the continent. It is understandable, James Ferguson argues, for anthropologists to dismiss the notion of a unitary “Africa” as culturally absurd, but the fact remains that just such a notion is used by many around the world, including those in Africa, to justify political and economic decisions from which anthropologists have been largely absent. In this book, Ferguson proposes ways of defining (or redefining) the idea of “Africa,” as well as the ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” He calls on anthropologists to face these and other similar issues head-on, and to address themselves to wider audiences, in their own work.

How is “Africa” defined? Africa is a place that confounds the definitions of modernity, development, and globalization: many of the usual hopes and fears associated with these concepts simply don’t fit the case of Africa. Ferguson says Africa is often defined “through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” – when Africa is even present at all in discussion, it is as a “shadow” place of “black” markets and informal economies, parallel to, or echoing, the “legitimate,” “authentic” ones. But this view is inaccurate and inadequate, just as anthropologists’ status-blind celebration of the cultural diversity of Africa is. The latter, Ferguson argues, blithely ignores the stark economic inequalities between various regions of the world.

Globalization )and modernity )and development, oh my! )

a 'native' perspective from Zambia )

the real face of modern foreign investment in Africa )

Economic language and Africa )

Complicating neat definitions of 'local' and 'national' ) (As a side note, this strikes a chord with me because my home discipline of communication has been working to address this issue for years.)

These new definitions suggest intriguing directions for anthropology and for thinking about Africa, modernity, development, and globalization (and “civil society”) more generally. First, how could this be taken up in our own work? What issues are there with the definitions as Ferguson has presented them – do we buy them? Second, how do they reflect on other authors we’ve read: Charles Piot’s arguments for African modernity in Togo (Ferguson explicitly critiques this on page 167), the “informal” but highly organized and hierarchical economic structures Janet Roitman documented in areas in and around Cameroon (seems to fit with Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/national/international to some degree), Liisa Malkki’s discussion of how refugees in Tanzania imagine themselves, Donald Moore’s documentation of discipline and skirmishes between local and state in Zimbabwe (where would Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/state fit with this?), Louise Meintjes’ overseas-focused musicians in Johannesburg, Nuttall and Mbembe’s ideas around Johannesburg modernity and their call to approach studies in Africa not as intrinsically “other” but a place like any other place? Finally, what can we make of Ferguson’s rallying call to anthropologists to actually weigh in on political debates, instead of (sometimes purposefully) standing by the sidelines and remaining in academic circles – do we buy that, and what are its implications? What is the future of anthropology in an increasingly non-local, status-defined world?
chimerically: (airplane)
I do think it's very important to be ethical in one's research, but I've had enough run-ins with IRB's ridiculous demands and timetables (at three institutions now) that I'm ecstatic to see an article like this, and on one of the front pages of the New York Times, no less. Zephoria, I'd bet you had twenty people send this to you already today, but I did think of you -- and Jean -- as soon as I read this.

To be clear, I don't object to the existence of IRBs; I object to their current form. In addition to the characteristics described below, IRBs really don't understand ethnographic research -- how can you have a fixed set of questions to ask participants when even your research questions are evolving with your observations? Almost every project I've ever submitted has needed at least one round of revisions. Furthermore, at Berkeley, one round -- even for exempt projects -- could take the good part of a year! That's a significant part of one's schooling in which one isn't allowed to even start on a research project! (They are trying to address that; I don't know how it's going since I'm not there anymore.) The IRBs I'm familiar with only meet a few times a year, so approval may take only a few weeks if you happen to submit right before they meet, or several months otherwise. And now, they require everyone to take a certification course -- and I've heard that if you are too efficient in taking it, they make you take it again.

As Ethics Panels Expand Grip, No Field Is Off Limits

By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: February 28, 2007

Ever since the gross mistreatment of poor black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study came to light three decades ago, the federal government has required ethics panels to protect people from being used as human lab rats in biomedical studies. Yet now, faculty and graduate students across the country increasingly complain that these panels have spun out of control, curtailing academic freedom and interfering with research in history, English and other subjects that poses virtually no danger to anyone.

Read more... )
chimerically: (goldenrod)
It's nearly two and I'm not tired and for once I have no urgent assignments to finish, so perhaps I should write a bit about how my life is going. I haven't updated in -- how long has it been now? -- well, either mid-summer or the end of spring, depending on what you count as an update. In that time I've passed the quarter-century mark; moved to Palo Alto; started blues dancing; tried hanggliding and waterskiing; participated in a wedding (as a bridesmaid) at the Grand Canyon; performed with a lindy hop troupe; finished up my internship at Yahoo! Research, helped write two papers for CHI, and started classes at Stanford all in the same week; mobilized my incoming PhD cohort to collectively buy a printer, provide cheap snacks, and have a social email list like my last two departments did; bought and built a fancy new desktop computer for data storage and processing; started competitive ballroom dancing again with a new partner and won second place in a recent competition; went backpacking with first-timers [livejournal.com profile] stellae and [livejournal.com profile] zestyping; presented at two conferences (one with [livejournal.com profile] dag29580863!) ... in short, I've been insanely busy and that's why I haven't been posting, even though I have millions of things I want to write about.

Despite the prevalence of social-sounding events in that list, what has been consuming most of my time is classwork. I'm loving my courses down here, but they really do keep me busy every spare moment with readings and assignments. I've found my Theory of Communication class, though focusing more on psychological measures and political communication than I (currently) do in my research, fascinating. We've discussed emotions and cognition, attitudes and persuasion, verbal and nonverbal communication, interpersonal and mass communication, and political communication, and will be talking about news, campaigns, and the Internet before the semester quarter is over.

I have two other classes which I am particularly enjoying, one on ethnography of virtual communities (taught through the anthropology department) and one on qualitative research methods (taught through the sociology department), which is a lot like a class I took at Berkeley except more structured. I have a list of at least fifty other classes I would like to take in the next few years, which of course I probably can't really do. I think I was at Berkeley long enough -- seven years altogether -- to exhaust most of the classes I wanted to (and was allowed to) take, except for the new and exciting one-time offerings through SIMS the iSchool. It's great to be in a place with a different (though similar in many ways) intellectual tradition and a whole new set of course offerings and opportunities. I have so many sociology and anthropology classes that I want to take that I may end up getting PhD minors in both (if I'm allowed), and maybe even getting a Master's in sociology along the way. The inimitable Jean Lave gave me the names of about twenty professors who she really likes at Stanford, and their course offerings all sound fascinating. I'm having trouble keeping the number of units I want take each semester quarter (eventually I'll get used to the new nomenclature) below the maximum.

My advisor Fred is fabulous, though he's been very busy this quarter promoting his new book -- which I guess is just as well, because I've been preoccupied with classes myself. I really look forward to interacting more with him and with others in the Communication department and beyond, though. And I'm also excited to do what I can to help forge more ties with Berkeley's iSchool, something several of the folks in Communication are interested in doing but lack the time to actually implement.

Aside from classwork, I've also become quite involved in several dance communities around the Bay Area. A good friend in the Stanford Ballroom Dance Team invited me to be their teacher training coordinator, so I set up a program for them at the beginning of the quarter. A fellow Yahoo! Research intern introduced me to blues dancing over the summer and I was hooked, and am now helping with R.A. Blues, a blues dancing venue in the South Bay. I've also been helping Julia Minson with her Mad Hot DanceSport program, teaching elementary school kids how to ballroom dance once a week and choreographing their end-of-year cha-cha/swing medley performance. (Stay tuned for more about this -- this will probably be Dec. 9, and the more who attend, the merrier.) Finally, after a four-month break, I've started dancing competitively again, this time with a Googler who recently moved up here from Southern California. So far it's going great -- though it was really important for me to take a break from ballroom dancing to rehabilitate myself, I've found that I have really missed it. Other kinds of dance, though they all share features, just can't make me as euphoric as International Standard danced at a high level. *contented sigh*

Well, there's a lot more to write -- I have a dozen outlined or half-written posts in my blog.txt file. But it's now approaching three and I'm finally starting to feel tired, and I have to get up early for physical therapy tomorrow (Stanford's health center is SO AMAZING! You Stanford students who complain about it don't know how lucky you are), so for now I'll sign off and leave my midnight railings and political rants for another day.
chimerically: (dolls)
I went to a great talk this morning, and then this and this show up in my RSS feed. It's going to be one of those high-energy research-ideas days, I can tell already. (And I remind those of you who think the day's half-over already that I'm not a morning person. :~))

It does make me wonder what all these folks really mean when they talk about "ethnography," though. I'm still learning what it means myself, and I probably won't start to have a good answer until I spend a few years in the field doing it (and of course, my definition would surely continue to shift and evolve past that, too). The inimitable Jean Lave, while liberal and accepting in so many ways, holds a very strict definition of ethnography (as do many ethnographers). Among other things, she says that one must have a long-term immersion in the culture under study (where long-term is on the order of years, not days). None of this "rapid ethnography" that seems to be popular in HCI, and none of this substituting the term "ethnographic" for "qualitative" willy-nilly. Long amounts of time are necessary for many reasons: it takes time to really understand all of the intricacies and different points of view within a community (and such an understanding both pays respect to the lives of one's subjects and to the research process), it takes time to realize and challenge the assumptions the researcher brings to the table, and it takes time to collect enough data to start building hypotheses from the ground-up, based on observations rather than preconceived notions of what might be interesting. And there are many more reasons, too.

There's another factor Jean Lave talks about in realizing and challenging our implicit assumptions, the second point above. Ethnographers seem to traditionally require that the culture under study is sufficiently different from the anthropologist's because otherwise, important cultural influences are as invisible as water is to a fish (or as the air we breathe is to us, I suppose). While having this as a hard-and-fast rule has been questioned and stretched to an extent, most still recognize that cultural familiarity does breed many assumptions and unspoken understandings.

Speaking of which, this is one thing that makes me most uncomfortable about quantitative studies. They can be immensely powerful, summarizing more data and investigating more users than a qualitative study ever could, but naturally there's still a degree of interpretation that is often not discussed: what is interesting to focus on, what kinds of data is collected, what kinds of hypotheses are made and what assumptions are built into them. There aren't as many opportunities to "test" assumptions "in the field" when one is doing quantitative research, and it's so easy to miss what's really important or find oneself at a loss when challenged with questions of why or how a community does what it does. Here it's unclear whether having familiarity with a culture is more of an asset or liability: it can lead to the same kinds of assumptions but it can also give you insights that you couldn't get from the data alone. It's a drawback on quantitative research generally, I guess. Just one of the many reasons I'm trying to figure out how to walk the line between the two ...

Another thing that intrigues me about the talk this morning is how the speaker integrates design into the research process. It seems that many social scientists, even those doing research on technological artifacts in various ways, don't think directly about design ... even though some fora where they present their work expect it, as Paul Dourish said so well at the recent CHI conference. Others are more adept at design and system-building, and their social analyses seem to, at the very least, be lacking from the point of view of social science communities. But here's someone who seems very adept in both spaces, and that's impressive to me. I'd love to get the chance to work with this person (and also folks like Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson at Intel ... just while I'm naming names :~)) and find out how to do the blending effectively.
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Anyone (in the Bay Area, anyway) interested in being an audience for my final project presentation practice talk sometime Wednesday evening? I'm pretty flexible as to when and where. I want to do a dry-dry run and get feedback from some folks who haven't been hearing all about the project for years, like [livejournal.com profile] dag29580863 has. :~) Let me know via comment, and we can coordinate.
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If you're in the Bay Area and interested in the social uses of technology (or are interested in finding out just what I've been researching the last couple of years), I encourage you to attend my track (track 3, "The Social Life of Information") of the SIMS project presentations this Friday. I'm presenting my research on the social life of snapshots at 9 -- yes, it's early, but I'll promise pastries of some sort for everyone who comes. I've also been hearing a lot of interesting stuff about the Social Uses of Backchannels project, which will be presented at 10. And all of the people in my track are awesome, really. So you should come. We'll be in 205 South Hall, the red brick Mary Poppins building just west of the Campanile. The whole event runs from 9 to 1. See the schedule online for more information.

Stanford

Apr. 14th, 2006 03:39 pm
chimerically: (Default)
I've decided to move to the Stanford Department of Communication next year. The decision was difficult and involved, but I think it's for the best. I am planning on keeping my Berkeley contacts alive, especially that with my current advisor, and I'll probably be back to sit in on a class or two as well (especially the one Jean Lave and Peter Lyman, though both retired, are planning for next spring). I've been doing lots of research on what classes are offered, who teaches them, and what professors and peers I could work with at both places. Danah and David helped me focus in by suggested a few pointed questions to ask myself: where can I find a community I want to work with? who will help me with the inevitable bureaucracy? where can I learn the skills I want to have? whose job would I love to have, and how do I get there? Ultimately, I know that I can't make a fully-informed decision since I haven't attended Stanford and can't possibly learn everything about it and can't know what will come up at Berkeley that I don't yet know about. Both schools have their strengths and weaknesses, and I'd very likely follow different paths at each. But all things considered, Stanford's resources in various areas put it ahead of Berkeley.
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I finished a second reading of Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High-Energy Physicists and discussed it in Jean Lave's ethnography class today. When I have more time, I really want to write about this class. But for now, I'll just share a quote I heard years ago that the book helped me recall. It says a lot about physicists and the culture of physics, as I have experienced it and as Traweek wrote about it. :~)

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting."
- Ernest Rutherford

Utah Quicksilver, Park City and Salt Lake City's best transportation service
chimerically: (dolls)
The aimeadcc acleitrs taht cilam plopee can eilsay raed wdors wtih iranntel lrteets sbelcmard are allaucty uabrn lndeegs.
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A prof in my department sent this article to one of the department mailing lists. I don't know if this guy objects to the way "academics" have been doing Internet research for the last 15+ years or if he just has his head lodged deep in some pre-Internet hole, but he obviously hasn't even tried to find or acknowledge the many studies on exactly what he says is lacking.
chimerically: (Default)
I'm thinking of forming a reading group on technology and feminism next semester, probably starting with Judy Wajcman's book Technofeminism. I haven't done much reading in this area besides some stuff on women studying computer science, but I've been interested in it for a while and also might be taking a course on gender studies in the sociology department, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Who's in? (Of course, we'll have to see how my time for it fares between classes, research, and another reading group for the photos project. But the more interest there is, the more likely it will happen and keep happening.)

Aside: in looking for a link for Technofeminism I found a link to the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies ... take a look at the "concordance" and "text stats" below the fold. Wow! When did Amazon start doing this kind of stuff?
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It's an odd yet familiar ritual that I find myself living over and over again. Hunched over my laptop, I'm still in my pajamas at 3 p.m., and have only imbibed hot cocoa and tea since waking up from my nap after a near-all-nighter of working. Heavily-marked papers, additional laptops, and other research detritus are strewn all around me. It's a scene that I recreate whenever final papers or research publications are due. No matter how much preparation I do beforehand (and in this case, I've been working diligently all semester), it always comes down to this: the last few hours of mad typing, pumped by sugary drinks, hunger, and adrenaline. Bill Watterson hit it on the head:

But it's shaping up nicely, and it will all be over soon ...
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Wednesday was an inspiring day, though it was marred slightly by a friend's mysterious snub and yet another bout of late-afternoon lethargy and headachiness. (Damn sleep problems.) Martin Wattenberg, an artist and a researcher at IBM Watson, gave not one, not two, but three talks at SIMS: first for my information visualization class, then for a small group of students, then for the SIMS Distinguished Lecture Series.

I knew him for the baby name visualizer which he originally designed to help publicize his wife's baby names book, though its audience grew far beyond what he originally imagined. He tracked its uses by Googling for it and reading all of the blog entries and other references on it, and found that bloggers were treating it like a game, setting data-mining challenges for themselves. They roughly fell into the same categories that MUD users did: achievers, who were actually looking for baby names; explorers, who looked for quirks in the data such as I, O, ETH, LAT; socializers, who related the visualization to their own lives and used it as a conversation piece; and killers, who used it to make fun of names they thought were stupid. Because the system was interactive and playful and discoveries could be replicated easily, people could easily be drawn deeply into the data. Also, everyone had a fairly distinctive starting point - often their own name - which meant that the data set got a lot of coverage.

But his visualizations are far more numerous than just that one. Treemaps, timelines, and thought patterns, oh my! )... and some advice ) Of course, many of us wanted to know how he had gotten into doing visualizations like these (and by extension, how we could too). He got a math degree at Berkeley, though he had been doing design in high school. He worked for a financial company and did artistic designs on the side, sandwiched between his work and his home life. Even now, he has to make time to do the artistic installations outside of work, which makes for a stressful existence at times. He told us to take advantage of the time we had now in school and experiment, though he admits that when he was in school, he probably would have scoffed at such at suggestion. (At least when you have a job, you generally have your evenings and weekends free!) Between his talk and Mirrormask, I feel freshly inspired to continue my dabblings in art and design - it makes me feel so alive.


Utah Quicksilver, Park City and Salt Lake City's best transportation service

"So what?"

Oct. 15th, 2005 12:12 am
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I got my project proposal for my social psychology class back today with less-than-glowing comments. I was hoping to carve off a piece of my ongoing research on photography and cameraphones, and proposed studying the ways in which people create identities (e.g. through constructed memories and self-representation) with photographs, narrowing my scope to those online for the purposes of a semester project. The professor responded with, "I don't think I buy 'online photo-sharing identities' as something of sociological interest. I'd encourage you not to do this project. If, however, you are really sold on it, come to my office hours and try to sell it to me." At first, I felt devastated. Why wasn't it interesting? I thought it was interesting ... I was even thinking of expand it into a master's thesis next semester. The fact that I'm getting some "so what" responses from both sides - technological and social - worries me and eats away at my self-esteem. And I just don't know enough about the fields of social psychology or science and technology studies to effectively justify my work to those audiences. But then I thought about the readings of the course, many of whose themes focused on various forms of racial and gender discrimination. Is that what he's expecting? What does he mean by "something of sociological interest?" So it's my plan to review the readings this weekend and try to formulate a rejoinder for office hours next week, and a few questions for him. We'll see how it goes.

In the late afternoon I practiced ballroom for a couple of hours. Practices the last couple of weeks have been really good - we have some new choreography and I feel like we're making headway on some technique issues our coaches have been mentioning for a while now. Tomorrow night we're competing in the Autumn Classic at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in SF, if anyone's interested. :~)
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I was invited, in stead of my advisor who is on sabbatical, to give a lecture in Mass Communications 10 today about the cameraphone project. Luckily, I didn't have to do it alone: I recruited mroth to help, and we traded off speaking throughout the hour. And we also had slides my advisor had presented a month or two earlier to work from. All things considered, it went well. You can see our slides here (be patient: it's 105 slides in a 5MB pdf file). I'm sure we made a few fans by ending 10 minutes before the class was scheduled to end, too, after 1 hour of lecture and 10 minutes of questions. Afterwards, the professor thanked us several times for a "wonderful lecture," and the two students who I knew from ballroom said that grad students should talk about their research more often. :~) Two other undergrads expressed interest in getting involved with the project. Overall, I was happy with how it went.


Students coming in - probably the biggest crowd I've ever presented to (except for my silly 5 minute talk at graduation)

After we finished, I rushed back for the last part of my second identity and storytelling class. I took a gamble signing up for it at the beginning of the semester without knowing anything about it, but so far it has been fabulous. I regretted that I missed most of it today, especially since one of the guest panelists was the creator of Flickr (though the topic was gaming, not photography). I would summarize the class content, but the class blog is doing a better job of that than I could do with limited time. I'm hoping to write about narratives in photo-sharing of various kinds for my paper for this class, perhaps extending it into my social psychology final project on identity and self-representation in photography.

I stayed on for Howard Rheingold's participatory media class, 7-9 on Tuesdays (so late!). I loved the lecture he gave as part of SIMS' Distinguished Lecture Series, but I haven't been as crazy about the course - it seems disorganized and nothing in it has really grabbed my interest. Summary of talk )

On the topic of the cameraphone project, there are plans afoot for three joural publications, and I'll be going with my advisor to 4S next week to see her present the work (and to see a friend and get to know the community). Stress! Excitement! I'm going to have to make this a short update, alas - I have two papers to work on, both due Friday. My dad's website is coming along, though more slowly than I (or he) would like. So much to do! I'll post more later when I have a bit less on my plate.
chimerically: (Default)
I learned today that my Healthy Cities poster got into UbiComp, and got great reviews besides! *cheers*

Yesterday my car did not pass smog. What kind of environmentalist am I? (Answer: a broke one. I'd buy a Civic hybrid if I could ... or use public transit if it were more reliable! Speaking of which, the bus was 18 minutes late yesterday, and the driver was a prick. Good thing I'm finally close enough to campus to rollerblade - and maybe my neck is better enough to bike again.)

Today I started yoga, databases, and compilers, and talked again with A.J., my research advisor at U. Washington. Today was also the first class of Political and Economic Development in the Third World. The professor is an incisive, expressive fellow from Guyana, full of stories and anecdotes and seditious comments. Each student has to lead a panel discussion this semester, and I asked him if he could add a panel on information technology in developing countries. I also volunteered to make a website for the class, of course. Here are a few anecdotes from class:

The US economy depends on continuous expansion of demand. If the mean income in the US drops, the very basis of our economy - spending as much as possible, the sale of luxury goods, etc. - starts to erode, investments drop, people spend even less, fees go up, and we spiral into depression. Your interests are vested in the system, even though the system is unsustainable; in this way, we are all exploiters, just by living in this country.

What about Cuba? The income range in Cuba is $15-$25/month, but they don't have to worry about education, health care, or housing (10% of your income covers housing). They have trouble imagining a system where you have to worry about having a high income to cover housing, transportation, and health care - just as we have trouble imagining a system where there is no clean water, sewage, or access to food and other goods.

How do you get out of an unsustainable system, like the US? How much would nationalized health-care make a difference? How would nationalized health-care be paid for, and how would it affect the current economic situation?

Overseas work is cheap - more in the range of $1/day, rather than the US $20/hour (for comparable work with benefits etc.) - and transportation is cheap also, so it's no wonder companies export labor.

What convinces people that they have to pay $120 for Nike shoes? The shoe is produced for $9 - labor is cheap since conditions are poor, there are no benefits, and factories employ women - and the rest is marketing, plus maybe pumps, lights, etc., changing every three months. The differences go to the shareholders; it accumulates wealth, generates taxes, and creates the conditions for infrastructures and public education.

How does the system justify exploitation? There are concepts of "deserving", along income, racial, gender, etc. lines. Presumption of innocence goes to the wealthy, and excuses emerge. Why does A. Shwartzenegger deserve to run California? He's from Europe, white, wealthy, and male. Say a qualified woman originally from Rwanda was to run - people would presume that because she's from Africa, black, female, she couldn't possibly be in a position of power. A.S. claims the Horatio Algiers story - his family in Austria was poor, and he came to California with little - and since he made it when others didn't, he's obviously more deserving. We all believe we deserve what we have, or more ... and all it takes is more effort, morality, or to get more.

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