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Archive for April 2016

Logical fallacies and the environment: the test

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Since I spent a fair bit of time on logical fallacies in my last class, I could not not ask a question about them in the final test.  In class we discussed Ad Hominem, Appeal to Tradition, Circular Reasoning, Ecological, Either-Or, Gambler’s, Hasty Generalization, Hypocrisy, Non-Sequitur, Sharpshooter’s, Slippery Slope, and Strawman; the last one of the series is here.

The class average for this question, I am happy to say, was 72%.  Dear reader, can you find all the fallacies?  Here is the test question:


The writer of the letter reproduced below may have committed several logical fallacies.  If any, identify them (or it), give the common name for the fallacy, and explain briefly why you think each is a fallacy.

Dear sir:

I am writing to complain about the increase in the property tax.  The city says they need to pay for the upgrade of the river dike.  A bit late, isn’t it?  Last year’s flood was terrible, and as a home-owner I can’t bear extra expenses since I have already had to pay for repairs to my house.  Besides, what are the chances that such a flood would happen again?  They say this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.  I think upgrading the dike now is a waste of money; the horse has already left the barn.

Not only that, but they are telling us that the risk of flood is increasing because of climate change.  Hogwash, I say.  The weather has always been changing around here; there have been other floods, the old folks remember that.  There’s no reason nowadays should be any different.  Besides, I just don’t believe in climate change.  That’s just some kind of brainwashed propaganda that guys like David Suzuki are spreading around, just so they can get money for their causes; they like to make honest folks feel scared.  Next thing you know, these guys will want to take away your waterfront property – they’ll say the river will be easier to manage this way.  Green environmentalists are really red communists inside, I tell you.

My Granpa Jim used to say that it’s better to give a hungry man a fishing pole instead of a fish.  Well, taxes are like fish, and paying them just makes our bureaucrats lazy. No more tax increases, I say.


All right, I can’t leave it without one last cartoon.




Written by enviropaul

April 21, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Logical fallacies and the environment: unrealistic and hypocritical environmentalists

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Like the previous post, this one discusses charges of inconsistencies aimed at environmentalists, namely that they are hypocrits and have lost touch with reality.  Imagine being told:

Really?  You drove to participate in the march in support of public transit? Ha! That tells me that transit just doesn’t work, and it also tells me you’re a hypocrite: you just want other people to take transit.

All activists – not just environmentalists – have had to put up with such put downs, such as expressed in the picture above.  As expressed in the above example, such put-downs contain two fallacies, ones which are not easy to resolve into classic thinking errors.  But I will argue that they are versions of the Appeal to Tradition fallacy, for one, and the Ad Hominem fallacy, for the other.

The Appeal to Tradition takes the following form, a bald statement of impossibility: “it’s just unrealistic to think we can /expand transit/get away from fossil fuels/provide affordable housing/eliminate poverty/etc.”  The problem here is equating “hasn’t been done” with “can’t be done”.  If anything, it denotes a failure of the imagination, but also, insome cases, a definite mental laziness: examples of what alledgedly is impossible may already exist, whether we’re discussing transit (European cities), fossil fuels avoidance (Denmark), housing (Germany), or poverty (Bhutan or Finland).  None of these are perfect examples, but they show progress is indeed possible; arguing otherwise is committing the fallacy called Appeal to Ignorance.

People often underestimate how much things can change. Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman recounts a conversion with her grandmother :

After attending the UN negotiations in Bali, I spent a week with my ninety-two-year-old grandmother, not long before she died.  One day we were sitting in the hospital and I told her about my despair.  She said “I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work.  When your mother was growing up, when I was having my seven children, we didn’t have a phone.  We had a party line.  We didn’t have a car.  No one had their own car.  We had just gotten electricity…you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.”

Along the same lines, BC artist Franke James created a work about change, below:

franke james

The second fallacy in this argument is a form of Ad Hominem, but it comes up so often that I’ll give it a name: the hypocrite fallacy.  It is a clear ad-hominem because the attack is against the speaker, not the argument.  But the attack is sharpened by a charge of hypocrisy: the speaker does not practice what he preaches.  At fist glance, indeed, it would seem difficult to grant any kind of credibility to such a person.

The fallacy lies in the distinction between what is a personal decision and one which involves the broader society.  It would be hypocritical, indeed, to advocate for vegetarianism while being a meat eater.  But advocating against a particular pipeline, for divestment from fossil fuel companies, let along for policies that encourage green energy, all involve society choices.

The distinction is important, and the charge of hypocrisy when there is little personal choice can do has riled environmentalists enough to generate several good rebuttals (here, here or here, for instance). I’ll quote from Ethan Cox:

As human beings, we make decisions both individually and collectively. In the case of climate change, only a charlatan with shares in a compact fluorescent light bulb factory would try to argue that individual actions are sufficient to address the problem we face.

“To say it is hypocritical to divest while still using fossil fuels is equivalent to telling parents they must remove their children from class while advocating for better schools,” wrote Jamie Henn of in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe. “We must fight in the world we have, not the world we want.”

Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation why the “but we all use fossil fuels argument” is flawed in an April interview.

“Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.”


Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. This is the last post in this series (for a while!).  The previous post was on circular reasoning.

Written by enviropaul

April 15, 2016 at 10:38 am

Muskrat Falls: an object lesson for Site C

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Muskrat Falls hydro project

The Muskrat Falls hydro project

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was in the news today: costs are up (again), and the project is behind schedule (again).  This won’t happen with Site C, they say; this is doubtful.

In many ways the Muskrat Falls project is similar to Site C: a large hydroelectric project over a major river in the North.  Also like Site C, Muskrat Falls has been running roughshod over First Nations claims, using injunctions against protests.  And like Site C, the Labrador project will produce serious environmental impacts.

In other ways Muskrat Falls is a simpler project: the dam, built of concrete, is a bit smaller and sits on top of very stable bedrock.  Despite the simpler engineering, cost overruns have multiplied.  According to Tom Baird, costs increased by half a billion every year between the initial 2010 estimate ($5 billion) and 2014 ($7 billion).  They have been most recently pegged at $9.2 billion.

Should we be surprised?  Cost overruns are the nature of big projects.  A group of Oxford University researchers have analyzed 245 large dam projects worldwide and concluded that large dams incurred cost overruns of 96% on average.  They also found that the average delay in completion was 44%.

It’s not just dams, of course.  In BC many large projects have had huge cost overruns: 169% for the South Fraser Perimeter Road; 182% for the NorthWest Transmission Line; and a whopping 550% for the Port Mann Bridge/Highway One upgrade.

Why large projects should be subject to overruns as a matter of course, I’ll leave for engineers to answer; but certainly, the complexity of large projects plays a large role.  But maybe the completion delays are an even bigger concern.  For a hydroelectric project like Muskrat Falls or Site C, every month of delay is a month when electricity is not produced and revenue not generated (this week, we learned that BC Hydro has to borrow money in order to pay dividends – long completion times and delays certainly don’t help this situation).

Contrast this with wind power, just to take one of many alternatives.  Individual wind parks are small projects, each with straightforward engineering and off-the-shelf components.  They normally suffer little cost overruns and completion delays.  And completion is quick, which means that money is not tied up for long durations.  And they can be built in installments, keeping pace with the need for supplemental electricity.  And they are the perfect complement to the existing Bennett Dam, which can serve as energy storage, when wind isn’t blowing – which happens rather rarely in the Peace.

Currently, small clean power projects already provide about 14 per cent of BC Hydro’s domestic supply of electricity and account for $8.6 billion in capital investment in the province, and have created a total of 15,970 person-years of construction employment  according to a new report commissioned by Clean Energy BC.

During the planning stage, Muskrat Falls was feared to cost too much, take too long, and produce too few jobs, compared to alternatives.  All of which has turned out to be true, and all of which has also been projected for Site C.

So even if it didn’t make a mockery of First Nations rights, didn’t impact the environment, and didn’t drown excellent farm land, Site C would still be a bad deal.

Written by enviropaul

April 14, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: circular reasoning

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Circular reasoning is a form of chicken-and-egg argument, where what needs to be proven is what one starts with.  It is not a formal logical fallacy since all the statements may well be true and not contradict one another; but it is a fallacy in the sense that the statements cannot be used as a proof of one another.

For instance, a classic example of circular reasoning comes from religion: the pope is infallible, because the pope said so.  If you are a devout catholic, you may accept these two statements.  However, logic says that using “because” is an error – there is no cause or proof that link these two.  (Incidentally, what if the pope, being infallible, said that the pope is no longer infallible? This creates a version of the Liar’s Paradox – see below.)

Circular reasoning occurs relatively rarely in environmental and scientific debates.  However, accusations of circular reasoning are remarkably frequent.  Most often, it is groups who oppose the scientific consensus who accuse scientists of circular reasoning.  Consider the cartoon below:

begging creation

New fossils are indeed quickly dated using the age of the rock where they are found.  And rocks can also use embedded fossils as an indication of the age of the rock.  But it isn’t a chicken and egg situation, as implied in the cartoon above, because the age of rocks, which is the original reference, is first estimated using other techniques: historical rates of sedimentation, atomic clocks, etc.

Accepting the science behind climate change is often described as being circular reasoning by deniers.  For instance, here’s a text by Tim Ball:

Through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) they produced the science required to support their claim. It is a well-thought out, well-planned, classic circular argument.

More succinctly, they created the problem, created the proof of the problem, then offered the solution. This is what was done with the AGW claim. They assumed, incorrectly, that a CO2 increase causes a temperature increase. They then provided proof by programming computer models in which a CO2 increase caused a temperature increase. They ran the model(s) by doubling CO2, ceteris paribus. The results showed a temperature increase, which proved their claim

How do we know that this accusation of circular reasoning is wrong?  First, there is the fact that the IPCC is a summary of scientific consensus as existed before the creation of the first IPCC.  Then Ball says that assuming an increase in CO2 causes warming (AGW: anthropogenic global warming) is incorrect.  But this is not an assumption; this has been verified in numerous occasions, in the lab, as well as in astronomic observations: Venus is much warmer than expected based on the distance to the sun, and that is due to its CO2 rich atmosphere.  Most importantly, the models that Ball is referring to are not used as a way to prove that climate change is true; they are used as a way to estimate possible consequences of increasing CO2.   If a claim of causality was made, then yes, this could be circular reasoning, but no such claim is made.  (The only claim made is that observed climate change demonstrates that the models do a decent job of representing the physical reality).

So, contrary to what Ball claims, there is no circular reasoning.  However, this is a tactic commonly used: claim that the opposite party is making a claim of causality when none exists, and then accuse them of circular reasoning.  This is actually setting up a straw man, which Ball does transparently and clumsily (he is not among the more eloquents of the deniers).

Notes: a synonym for circular reasoning is begging the question.  This is an unfortunate expression allegedly based on a mistranslation of the original latin for “assuming the first point.”  It does not mean inviting a question.  The Liar’s Paradox is classically stated as follows: “All Cretans are liars. Believe me: I’m a Cretan.”  This set of statements is self-contradictory, but, as with circular reasoning, neither statement can be used to demonstrate the truth of the other.

begging rat

Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: hasty generalization and the ecological fallacy.


Written by enviropaul

April 10, 2016 at 4:39 pm

HafenCity University: truly multidisciplinary

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HafenCity, the university by the water

HafenCity, the university by the water in Hamburg

While in Hamburg I went a few times to visit one of its newer universities, HafenCity University (HCU).  There are several reasons for that: physically, it is housed in a very interesting building; some of the research by faculty are right up my alley (like district heating or green infrastructure); and they have a cool Master’s program, in English, called Resource Efficiency in Architecture and Planning (or REAP).  But mostly, I had noticed that the university boasts an interdisciplinary approach.  I wanted to see what that means in practice.

Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, whatever the word used (and HCU’s website uses all three), one of the most important aspect of university education, in my mind, is the ability to communicate across disciplines.  This is essential for tackling complex problems like climate change – the issue of the 21st century.  But whatever the project, we need engineers who can talk to policy analysts, and vice versa.

The website is quite eloquent in that respect: it states that “HCU works in a transdisciplinary way on the problems of urban living and its spatial, social, cultural, economic and ecological consequences.”  The mission statement expands on this:

  • Disciplinarity as a basis for excellence in one’s own specialist area.
  • Interdisciplinarity through an unified modular structure for all HCU courses, and project work as a central element of each curriculum at the HCU.
  • Transdisciplinarity through an ability to adopt new ways of seeing, behaving and thinking, supported and facilitated by a Studium fundamentale, which forms a core element of all Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes and helps increase creativity and one’s ability to act.

But first, the building.  The uni is housed in a single large building, 140,000 m2 over five stories, just completed in 2014 at one edge of Hafen City.  All the buildings in this new development on the old harbourfront have to be energy efficient, and HCU’s home is no different.  The uni has triple-glazed windows, well insulated surfaces, and the large mass of concrete of the structure serves as a heat storage medium.  In summer, the windows are programmed to open at night for cooling.  And of course, there is a green roof (instrumented – I’ll get back to that).

Much of the building receives natural daylight, and there is constant ventilation with outside air (heat is recovered using a heat exchanger).  The air inside always feels fresh because of that feature.  In spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate so that little heating or cooling is needed, natural ventilation takes over.  This way, the frische Luft – the fresh air that is a must for Germans – is constantly supplied.  They say that the indoor environment in green buildings, the good ventilation and natural light, contribute to make employees more productive.  After visiting a few such buildings, I can understand why – it just feels good in there.

I met with Dr Harald Sternberg, VP Education and Studies, and asked him what interdisciplinarity means at HCU.  He said that when the university was created in 2006, it was decided that the building was going to be homogeneous, without a wing for specific disciplines such as engineering.  This was done to prevent discipline silos and turfwars – the idea being that faculty members mingling would create a sense of cohesion.

Dr Harald Sternberg

Dr Harald Sternberg

HCU’s website mentions the need for “integration of workplace practical skills with academic programs”, and the “current demand for a professional education” at the bachelor’s level, and goes on to state that students get rigorous foundations in their specific disciplines, but develop the ability to converse with other branches of study, through concepts of Urban Planning and Metropolitan Culture.  Sternberg mentioned the common core approach as key.

The bachelor’s level program has a core of courses (about 25 out of 120 credits) common to all disciplines (which include urban planning, geomatics, civil engineering, architecture, and others).  These core courses are spread over the curriculum, and students may take them during their first three years.   Because everyone takes them, they are delivered in large lecture halls (about 300 students), but the classes are broken into small seminars groups comprised of students from a mix of disciplines.  Among the common core topics are things such as Overview of the Building Profession; General Skills (such as scientific method, presentation skills, group work management); History; and Law.

This didn’t come without controversy, of course.  Some students complain; engineering students, in particular, often can’t grasp why they should study history.  But convincing faculty members may have been the bigger challenge.  HCU has its roots in the tradition of applied science universities, where disciplies are well delineated.  At the beginning, many professors did not see the need to create such a large common core.  So HCU created (as universities are wont to do) a committee charged with the design of interdisciplinary curriculum, as well as – and that’s key – selecting the right instructors to ensure flexibility in the process.

Sternberg added that a few outside forces played a role in the process, too.   The uni was undergoing accreditation, and this forced a concerted examination of its approach, with emphasis on what makes it unique.  But also, funding cutbacks emerged as soon as the institution was created; this required creative solutions, including increased flexibility from its teaching staff.  Flexibility can be a dirty word in academia, but here it meant asking faculty to step out of their comfort zone to tackle broad topics instead of staying within their narrow specialization.  This could have been a recipe for disaster, but faculty responded well and the ones I met seem to thrive on this.  New faculty members are now recruited based both on their strength as a specialist as well as their ability to work as part of a multidisciplinary team.

I met with professor Irene Peters, a specialist in the geography and efficiency of urban systems.  Her research covers such topics as the impact of demographics on heat demand for district heating or decentralized wastewater systems, really cool stuff for anyone interested in making cities greener, more livable, and more efficient.  (It is thanks to her that I learned about and visited the KEBAP energy project that I described in an earlier post.)

Dr Irene Peters

Dr Irene Peters

Some of the courses she teaches gave me an insight into the multidisciplinary approach of HCU.  One of them is called Legal and Economic Instruments of Environmental Policy.  This course is team-taught, and covers material from basic concepts of law to emission control, tradeable permits, feed-in-tariffs, as well as how EU laws are integrated into national laws.

But it’s another course, Research Methods and Statistics, that was a real eye-opener.  It’s a common enough title; but the list of topics starts with “Basic concepts in epistemology and philosophy of science “.   Phew!  I asked her whether it isn’t a bit ambitious for an intro course in stats.

She had a chuckle over that.  “It would seem so, doesn’t it?  Students are a bit shocked at first, specially those who don’t have much humanities background.  But they rise to the challenge, and I think they enjoy it.” I don’t recall her exact words, but I remember being impressed.  I think challenging students by exposing them to new concepts is far better than challenging them by piling too much material into a course.  And it pushes students to integrate specific tools – statistical tests, in this case – into a broader context, a truly transdisciplinary one.

One of her grad students, Ansel, an American from Madison, told me he wished he knew more engineering; his master’s work is looking at the performance of district heating systems.  I responded that he should be happy that his undergrad included a breadth of topics in the humanities, which equipped him well to understand policy.  But that is precisely why I think it’s so important to have a multi-disciplinary focus at the undergraduate level; Anselm is bright and I’m sure he’ll be successful, but a broader education would have prepared him better.  As for me, I never heard the word epistemology once through nine years of university studies.  Sigh.

Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut

Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut

I also met with Dr Wolfgang Dickhaut, who told me much the same story about being multi-disciplinary.  Professor Dickhaut is the faculty member in charge of the REAP Master’s program, and he is a big fan of work that spans many disciplines.  His work can attest to that: he was one of the lead investigators in the Wandse flood control project, where members of the community were asked to select the measures they prefered (green roofs, raingardens, greenways, etc) through an interactive computer simulation model.  This project was multidisciplinary in a number of ways: it involved sociologists, communicators, hydrologists, and design rendering specialists, among others, as well as involving researchers from two universities and the municipality.  He is also one of Hamburg’s green roofs specialists, and accordingly he is the key actor behind the university’s large green roof instrumentation system (which measures water retention and flow rates during storms).  He is involved in a project analyzing the impact of climate change on urban trees.  But he is also coordinating a project called e-quartier Hamburg, which looks at the implications for urban planning of electric vehicles or car sharing.  A green roof expert he may be, but he won’t be pigeon-holed.

It seemed that all the work done at HCU follows similar interdisplinary lines.  For instance, I noticed an upcoming conference on the issues of integrating refugees in Hamburg, one that is made up in large part of student research work.  This is, again, of a very interdisciplinary nature, but also shows that the university is nimble enough to steer students towards emerging issues that need urgent attention.

Viewing the green roof at HCU

Viewing the green roof at HCU

I was left daydreaming, imagining some of our Kwantlen grads registering in HCU Master’s program.  I spoke to Madita Feldberger-Schaffer, who works as student liaison for the REAP program.  After I described our programs, she said that grads from our Policy Studies program, and in our upcoming Environmental Geography program, would be fine candidates for the REAP Master’s.  She said that they would bring a welcome contribution, since they represent a diversity of backgrounds (being multidisciplinary also means seeking students from multiple disciplines).  Not an easy program to get into – but who knows!

Now if I could only convince my Kwantlen colleagues of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach…

Logical fallacies and the environment: hasty generalization and the ecological fallacy

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A sampling issue?  Each blind man should trade places...

A sampling issue? Each blind man should trade places…

As with the gambler and the sharpshooter fallacies, the ecological fallacy and hasty generalizations are two instances of poor statistical thinking (also known as inductive fallacies).

The nature of the hasty generalization fallacy can be guessed from its name: it is simply what results from arriving at a conclusion from too little data.  This is akin to concluding “all Germans have blue eyes” based on the five Germans that you happen to know.  It is also illustrated by the parable of the blind men and the elephant (each man should sample further!).

When doing environmental sampling, this simple fallacy can take many forms, difficult to detect.  For instance, saying that “based on our sampling, over half of the lakes in the province are polluted with hydrocarbons” may be a hasty conclusion.  Over half of the lakes sampled indeed showed high levels of hydrocarbons, above the limit.  But were ten lakes sampled? Or sixty?  This makes a big difference on whether the generalization is likely to be correct.

A particular problem with environmental sampling is what is called hotspots.  This is a typical issue when sampling to determine soil contamination.  For instance, imagine having to determine whether a site is contaminated.  The site used to be a 800 m2 minimall, including a gas station.  A gas tank had leaked below the station, polluting an area of eight square meters (the hotspot).  Ten samples taken at random are more likely than not to miss the hotspot; in this case a hasty conclusion would be to say that the site is not contaminated.

A close cousin of this fallacy is the artefact error, where a wrong conclusion may result from a biaised measurement system.  For instance, a fish survey claims that the average size of fish in a given lake is seven centimeters.  But the fishnet that was used to catch the measured fish has a mesh size of 0.5 cm, which means that none of the smaller fish that could pass through the net were included in the sample.  This type of error once led oceanographers to underestimate the number and variety of plankton since the very small varieties (now called nanoplankton, picoplankton, or even femtoplankton) were ignored as they were never noticed in the samples.

The ecological fallacy is the reverse of the hasty generalization.  It has nothing to do with ecology as we commonly use the term.  Whereas the generalization is faulty for extrapolating preliminary findings to a whole population, the ecological fallacy is at fault for assuming that all individual members of a population share its average characteristics.  In everyday language, stereotyping is an ecological fallacy.

Humans? a bunch of identical clones...

Humans? a bunch of identical clones…

An ecological fallacy occurs when one forgets, when studying a population of birds, say, that they are not all clones; variability is to be expected, both in physical traits and in behaviour.  Assuming that all birds will die from pollution after a toxic spill, for instance, may be faulty even if every bird is exposed to a dose that kills the average bird; some individuals may have a much higher tolerance to a toxin than others.  This error may also come even when variability is expected, if the type of variability is assumed wrongly.  If the average weight of a given bird population is 80 grams, so there must be as many birds lighter than 80 grams as there are heavier, right?  Wrong, if your sample consist of a hundred sparrows (30 grams each) and one five-kilogram Canada goose.  The mistake comes from assuming that the population has a normal distribution, that is, that it can be described by a bell-shaped curve.  (Using a bell-shaped curve to adjust student grades is often a faulty procedure, for the same reason.)

The website Fallacy-a-day has nice podcasts on these fallacies and many more.


Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: the gambler and the sharp-shooter.

Written by enviropaul

April 3, 2016 at 9:17 am