On Australian Politics, Elections, and Asylum Seekers
Dirty Spader Productions
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Caution: I'm afraid this post may ramble. I have a lot of thoughts on what is going on in Australia at the moment, and plenty of areas of considerable ignorance compared with some people who may read this. I welcome comments, debate and corrections from all quarters. The only rules of commenting are: keep it respectful and civil.

Very, very long political post in need of an editor.Collapse )

once bitten by smitten kitchen
Dirty Spader Productions
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This evening, I decided to tackle another yummy-sounding recipe from Smitten Kitchen. That is an excellent blog, but probably makes some optimistic assumptions about the eptitude of the chef and/or suitability of their cooking equipment. I found a few parts of this recipe problematic (a packet of rather expensive organic dry lasagne noodles has been converted to a shredded, useless mulch in the cooking process, and thus contributed to the compost this evening). I also found that the overall ordering of the recipe left a great deal to be desired, since chopping the mushrooms is not something you want to have to do when the bechamel is simmering, and preheating the milk for bechamel is unnecessary if you just remove the roux from the heat before adding the milk. So, rather than just link you to the original recipe, I offer the following edited version (converted/adjusted/translated for Australia), which is how I plan to do it next time:

Mushroom Lasagne
Adapted somewhat from the Smitten Kitchen version, which was in turn adapted, only a little, from Ina Garten

Serves 6 to 8

Salt
Olive oil
375g fresh lasagne noodles (1 packet of Latina or similar... or home made if you do that kind of thing)
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 cups milk
175g unsalted butter (divided, 125g + 2 tbs)
½ cup plain flour
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
700g cremini or portobello mushrooms (I used swiss brown, as that's what the local shop had)
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

Prepare mushrooms: Remove any tough mushroom stems (or ends of stems). Slice mushrooms 1cm thick. Heat 1 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat in a large frypan. Cook half of the mushrooms with a couple pinches of salt for about 5 minutes, or until they are tender and release some of their juices, tossing to make sure they cook evenly. Repeat with the other half of the mushrooms, oil & butter.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Make béchamel: Melt 125g butter in a large saucepan. Add the flour and cook for one minute over low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon. Add garlic and stir to combine. Remove from the heat. Add milk, a little at a time at first and stirring until combined. You can add increasing amounts as more has been added - the second half can go in all at once, along with 1 ½ teaspoons table salt, the pepper, and nutmeg. Return to heat, and bring to the boil, stirring or whisking frequently. Simmer, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until thick. Set aside.

Assemble lasagne: Spread some of the sauce in the bottom of a large baking dish. Arrange a layer of noodles on top, then more sauce (about ¼ of what remains), ⅓ of the mushrooms and ¼ cup grated parmesan. Repeat two more times then top with a final layer of noodles, your remaining sauce and last ¼ cup of parmesan.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until top is browned and the sauce is bubbly. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving. To freeze for future use, allow it to cool completely and wrap two to three times in plastic wrap before freezing.




ETA: like all the other Smitten Kitchen recipes we've tried, this is frickin' delicious. Thinking of adding fresh asparagus, and possibly some crumbled King Island blue cheese next time...

ETA2: we did exactly that (lightly fry asparagus in the mushroom pan and mix in with cooked mushrooms, crumble a smallish chunk of Roaring Forties blue into the bechamel prior to constructing lasagne)... and it was even more phenomenally delicious than the original.

Decisions, decisions...
Dirty Spader Productions
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Following on from the interest in my last post, I thought I'd tackle what is apparently an almost impossible task, and talk about the nature and policies of the parties seeking your vote at the coming election. This is an attempt to put some substance out there for those who would like to make an informed decision, but are being less-than-well-served by the campaigns and the media coverage thereof.

Those of you who have been around for a few election campaigns, might remember the days when the major parties could be expected to make all kinds of promises and statements about policies in the lead-up to the election. Whether you agreed or disagreed with them, if you paid a reasonable amount of attention during the month or so prior to an election, at least you had some idea what the competing parties stood for. This is no longer the case. An election or two ago (at least in Australia), someone figured out that the best way to get a party elected wasn't with better policies, any more than the best way to sell drinks is to have the best quality ingredients: the way to get a party elected is with marketing. So that's what we get now. I'd bet that fewer than 10% of people could name more than two policies Kevin07 Rudd took to the last election, but more than 90% know what his campaign "brand" was.

This election campaign, it seems both major parties are utterly determined not to make any significant statement of policy at all. In the very few cases where they refer to their platforms at all, either there is precious little difference between them (for example, the asylum seekers debate seems to have come down to whether East Timor or Nauru is the best location for offshore processing, not whether we need to deal with the irrational fear of ooga-booga-boat people in a seriously different way), or it's a negative distinction (for example, "we won't implement the mining tax" or "we won't bring back WorkChoices"). Minor parties looking for Senate support are more open with their actual policies, and open to being distinguished from each other, but Labor and the Coalition are pretty much relying on marketing strategies to convince you to buy their brand.

Which is where I hope this post comes in...

Who are these people, and does it make any difference for whom I vote?

There are two major parties contesting this year's election, and a few other minor parties worthy of mention. I'll go through them in the order of their current influence. By way of disclosure, I am a member of the Australian Greens, and also the principal instigator of the Filter Conroy campaign. However, I will attempt to describe the various parties as objectively as I can, and I would welcome comments, additions and corrections.

The Australian Labor Party

Labor has its roots in the union movement, to the extent that even the spelling of the party name is from historical association with the American Labor movement. Traditionally, its policies tend towards the "centre left", in regards to more government regulation, more government services, and higher taxes to pay for those (typically in more progressive tax regimes - "progressive" here is an economic term, meaning a system in which those who earn more money pay much more tax - the Australian income tax brackets are a good example). Medicare (formerly Medibank) is an example of a policy with which the Labor party are traditionally associated - it brought a new or increased service to the public, run by the government, and paid for by additional taxes.

The up-side of traditional Labor policies tends to be a better safety net (e.g. unemployment benefits, public health care, etc) and better public infrastructure (e.g. public schools, public hospitals, public transport). The down-side tends to be increased taxation, and slower economic growth due to both increased taxes and increased regulation. The party's alignment with the union movement also brings with it policies that, in an industrial relations context, favour employees and unions, at the expense of business owners, corporations and shareholders.

The union roots of the party also have a considerable impact on how the party itself runs. Like in the union movement, the catch-cry is "united we stand, divided we fall". Individual differences are sorted out behind closed doors. Once a position has been decided upon, every member of the party is expected to toe the party line, and party discipline is ruthlessly enforced. Many people have been astonished to see an atheist, unmarried Julia Gillard and an openly homosexual Penny Wong both clearly state their support for current Labor policy opposing gay marriage. In fact, the opposite case would have been the real surprise: until the policy is changed behind closed doors, "united we stand".

Also because of their strong party discipline, it becomes essential for those with policy agendas within the Labor party to form internal alliances or factions, in order to gather support for those policies and thus be able to direct the party line. Conversely, individuals who are well established within a given faction can become extremely influential within the party. A case in point is Stephen Conroy, who is strongly supported by the Labor right, who holds a significant portfolio (Communications) despite being far less qualified for the role than another Labor MP who held the shadow ministry for many years before the 2007 election.

In recent years, Labor's policies have tended further towards the centre-right of the political spectrum, including privatisation of a number of significant formerly government-owned businesses and services, and preservation of some aspects of the Howard Coalition government's WorkChoices legislation.

The Liberal Party of Australia

Despite its name, the Liberal party is Australia's most conservative major party. Traditionally, Liberal party policies tend to the "right" of centre, favouring individual over collective rights, with less regulation and fewer public services, resulting in less government spending and lower taxes. Liberal party policies are often characterised more by what they don't do, or do less of: lower taxes, less regulation, less interference in business and trade. Typically, such policies tend to favour business owners, corporations and shareholders, lead to stronger short-term economic growth, and greater wealth for individuals, while reducing safety nets such as unemployment benefits and reducing spending on public infrastructure.

In contrast to the Labor party, the Liberal party frequently cite their founder (Robert Menzies) who described the party as a "broad church", meaning that it should encompass a wide range of people and opinions, and that the expression of differing opinions is acceptable, or even desirable. In practice, in recent years the party's scope has narrowed considerably, with less time and weight given to the true social liberals of the party. Nevertheless, as happened with the vote on the ETS, it occasionally happens that members of the Liberal party will cross the floor to vote against party lines. This is all but unheard-of in the Labor party.

For its entire history, the Liberal party has joined forces with the National Party to form what is referred to as the Coalition, which is the body capable of winning a majority in the house of representatives, thereby forming a Government. In general, the Liberal party and its policies dominate the Coalition, and in Queensland the two parties have merged altogether.

The National Party of Australia

As described above, the National party has its main influence as part of the Coalition between the Liberal and National parties. However, its role (and traditional voter base) is considerably different to that of the Liberal party, being focussed on the interests of rural and regional Australia. This tends to manifest as promotion of agriculture and mining industries, and opposition to environmental protection policies. Having a narrower voter base than the other major parties, in other matters the Nationals generally have no distinct policy or position to that of the Liberal party.

The Australian Greens

The Australian Greens party is a relative newcomer to Australian politics, with its roots in the Tasmanian environmental movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Since the demise of the Australian Democrats at the 2004 and 2007 elections, the Greens have been the next most represented party in the Australian Senate after the major parties, although they have yet to win any seats in the House of Representatives. They operate differently to the major parties, and tend to have their strongest support base in the major urban centres, since their policies are predominantly "left wing", focussing on social justice and environmental sustainability. The Greens work to achieve consensus politics, and policies are developed through working groups and ratified by all members of the party. Unsurprisingly, such practices and focus do not attract mainstream support from a populace largely uninterested in politics, and certainly not from large sectors of the population and industry who see their practices as threatened by environmentalist policies (e.g. coal mining, forestry).

In recent years, the Greens have carved out a wider support base due to their ability to distinguish themselves clearly from the major parties with their support for socially progressive issues, such as legalisation of gay marriage, support for refugees, renewable energy sources, and implementation of a bill of rights. However, as explained above, the Greens are unlikely ever to form an Australian government in their own right, so their influence will be restricted to policies and amendments which are passed by a Labor or Coalition-controlled House of Representatives, and supported by at least one of the major parties in the Senate. It is possible that, following the coming election, the Greens could hold the "balance of power" in the senate, which means that any two parties (e.g. Labor and the Coalition, or Labor and the Greens) voting together could pass legislation. It does not, as some disingenuous politicians and commentators have sought to imply, mean that all legislation would need Greens support to pass the senate.

The Others

Yes, it's late and I'm getting tired. However, so too are most of the other parties you may hear from in the lead-up to this election. Family First, a conservative minor party promoting traditional "Christian family values", have had influence in the past term of Government due to a freak of preference deals in the 2004 election electing one senator from Victoria (Steve Fielding). Since Fielding is up for re-election this year, and is unlikely to get re-elected, we can expect Family First to fade into the background by mid next year. The Australian Democrats were once a true centrist party, occupying a similar position in political strength (although not necessarily political appeal) to what the Greens now hold. However, the party self-destructed in the aftermath of passing the Howard government's GST legislation, have had no representation in the senate for the past three years (having won no seats for six), and are unlikely to win any this year. One Nation, an unashamedly right wing (and arguably unashamedly racist) party, have captured a small portion of the vote at recent elections, but without enough to earn them a seat - or a voice - in the parliament.

So, what do I do now?

Well, that's up to you. Above, I've tried to explain what the significant parties stand for, because it seems neither of the major parties want to say anything for fear of scaring people off. "Moving forward", to where? "Real action", on what? There are more questions than answers around the current campaign, but all the press seem interested in discussing are Tony's budgie-smugglers and Julia's earlobes. So, what matters to you? Lower taxes and helping businesses? Industrial relations conditions that favour workers and more expenditure on schools? Putting a price on carbon to do something about global warming? Looking out for the interests of farmers? These are just some of the things that could go into the decision about who gets your number "1" vote... and who gets the other numbers. No matter whether you and I agree or disagree on individual policies, I urge you to get to know what the parties actually stand for (just like with soft drinks, you'll have to read the labels and ignore the ads), make a decision on what you think is best for you and/or the country... and on election day, don't take it for granted that we live in a country where everyone gets a vote.


Boring - but very very important - updated for 2016
Dirty Spader Productions
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Today, I'd like to talk to you about something seriously boring. I do not - it will surprise you to learn - choose to talk about it because it's boring, but rather because it's important. Important because understanding it (or not) could affect your future, and the future of everyone you know. I'm talking, fellow Australians, about what happens to your vote.

There is a lot of misinformation going around about voting in Australian elections. People will tell you about strategies, and about how to avoid wasting your vote. They'll tell you not to vote for a minor party, because it could mean the major party you prefer will lose. The danger in such advice is that it sounds like those people know what they're talking about, and since most people are largely unaware of how their vote works, anyone who sounds like they know what they're talking about is likely to be believed. Sadly, these people are at best unaware that they have been fooled, or at worst they are trying to fool you out of your vote.

Voting in Australia - thanks to the Two-Party Preferred system (in the House of Representatives) and preferential voting (in the Senate) is surprisingly easy. If you don't care to read the why that I'm going to talk about in this post, at least read the following how to vote.

House of Representatives

Number ever box, starting with a 1 next to the candidate whom you would most like to see elected, then a 2 for your second choice, 3 for your third choice, all the way to the highest number for your least-favoured candidate. If you vote this way, your vote will not be wasted.

Senate

the quicker way - voting for parties

Choose the party you most wish to support. Put a 1 in their box above the line. Then chose the party you wish to support second, and put a 2 in their box above the line. Keep doing this until you have numbered at least 6 boxes above the line. You may then continue to number as many more boxes as you like above the line, but do not number any boxes below the line.

If you stop numbering before you have numbered every box above the line, it is possible that your vote will transfer from one of your preferences to another until all of those parties have been either elected or eliminated from the count, at which point your vote will be considered exhausted. When this happens, it makes a small contribution to the possibility of one or more of the remaining candidates being elected with less than a quota of votes (in the end, all vacancies must be filled), so you might consider that exhausting your ballot after a certain point is equivalent to casting an equal-bottom vote to all remaining parties.

the slower way - voting for individual candidates

If you would like to exercise greater control over which candidates receive your preferences, rather than voting for entire parties at a time, do not number any boxes above the line. Instead, start with your most preferred candidate (below the line) and put a 1 in the box next to their name. Then 2 next to your second most preferred candidate, then continue numbering boxes in order from most preferred to least preferred, until you have put a number in at least 12 boxes. You may then number as many additional boxes below the line as you wish, but do not number any boxes above the line.

If you stop numbering before you have numbered every box below the line, as above, your vote may be exhausted if all your numbered candidates are either elected or eliminated from the count. As in the case above the line, exhausting your ballot after a certain point is equivalent to casting an equal-bottom vote to all remaining candidates.

Here endeth the instructions on how to vote.


Now, I will explain why the above are all you need to know, and why anything you might hear about strategic voting or wasting your vote is almost certainly nonsense (I'm sorry to be the one to point this out if it is someone trusted like a parent or friend who has told you such stories - perhaps you can help enlighten them once you've read this).

House of Representatives

Most people consider the House of Representatives to be the most important house in the Australian parliament, because the party that has the most seats in the House of Representatives is the party that forms government, and their leader becomes the Prime Minister. Representatives are elected by registered voters in their division or electorate, and almost always come from one of the two major parties in Australian politics: the Labor Party, or the Coalition (made up of the Liberal and National parties). Many people believe that in order to have your vote "count", you need to vote for a candidate you think is going to win. This is not true. Your vote will either be counted for the person who wins the seat, or for the runner up. This happens even if you put the runner-up second last on your ballot, and the winner last. Here's how it actually works:

Let's say you live in the electorate of Black Stump, with four candidates running for election. They are:

  • Ruben Redneck (One Nation)
  • Colin Conservative (Liberal)
  • Billy Bluecollar (Labor)
  • Umberto Eco (Greens)

To keep things simple, let's say you live in an electorate with only 8 other voters. To represent how things typically fall, let's say three of them are going to give their first preference to Labor, and three will give their first preference to Liberal, one votes One Nation (with Liberal as a second preference) and one votes Greens (with second preference Labor). When everyone else's votes are counted, here's how things stand:

One Nation: 1
Liberal: 3
Labor: 3
Greens: 1

Now, let's say you would prefer something more progressive than either of the major parties, so you want to vote for the Greens, but given the choice you'll take Labor over Liberal, and you don't support One Nation at all. You would vote 1. Greens, 2. Labor, 3. Liberal, 4. One Nation. Once your vote is counted, the tally stands at:

One Nation: 1
Liberal: 3
Labor: 3
Greens: 2

When all first preference (i.e. "1" votes) have been counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all the ballot papers listing them as number 1 are moved onto the second choices of those voters, so we have:

One Nation
Liberal: 4
Labor: 3
Greens: 2

We still have more than two candidates, so the candidate with the fewest votes after the last elimination is also eliminated and their ballots redistributed. Since you gave your "1" vote to the Greens, that means your ballot paper is about to be redistributed. You (and the other Greens voter) gave your second preference to Labor, so here's what it looks like after the Greens candidate is eliminated:

One Nation
Liberal: 4
Labor: 5
Greens

Since all but the last two candidates have now been eliminated, we can declare a winner: Labor.

What if things were different in the electorate, but you voted the same way? Here's something closer to how the division of Melbourne now stands (we'll need a few more voters to make it realistic). 75 voters, with more overall support for left wing over right wing parties (so assume Labor voters give their second preference to the Greens and vice versa), but all conservative voters back the Liberal party.

Liberal: 30
Labor: 23
Greens: 22

In a "first past the post" system (such as in the UK), the result would not represent the wishes of the majority of voters: the Greens & Labor "split" the left wing vote, so the Liberal candidate has the most votes, so wins the seat. This is NOT what happens under Two-Party Preferred. In our system, the Greens candidate - having the fewest first preference votes - is eliminated. Assuming the Greens voters directed their second preference to Labor (like you did), the second count is:

Liberal: 30
Labor: 45
Greens

At this point, there are only two candidates left, and Labor has the most votes, so the Labor candidate is elected.

This is how the system works, not because anyone voted "strategically". People cast their votes for the person they most want, but if that person doesn't win (or come second) then their vote moves on to someone who either wins or comes second. Most importantly, it is impossible for your vote to help your least-favoured candidate: your vote will end up redistributed (at full strength) to their strongest opponent.

Senate

The system for counting senate ballots is considerably more complicated, but for us voters the important thing to understand is that it is (roughly) a proportional system, which means that the number of senators elected for a particular party in a particular state should be roughly proportional to the number of voters in that state who gave that party their highest preference. This is why minor parties have a much greater chance of being elected in the Senate, because they don't need to beat a major party candidate outright - they just need enough of the vote.

Like in the House, the transferrable vote system of the Senate means that your vote is not wasted if you vote for unpopular candidates first. As those candidates are eliminated, your vote transfers at its full value to the next in your list of preferences. Once your vote is used to elect someone, it then transfers at a lesser value to the next candidate - it spends some of its electoral power each time it is used to elect someone, but it still continues to be part of the count until either all positions are filled, or until your ballot exhausts (when the candidate with the last number on your ballot paper is elected or eliminated).

What it comes down to is this: don't be afraid that you don't have a voting strategy - you don't need one. You don't need to follow any party's "how to vote" card. Don't let anyone tell you that your vote will be "wasted" if you give your first preference to a less popular candidate. Don't let anyone tell you that the party you vote number 1 controls your preferences (that only happens if you copy out their "how to vote" card rather than voting according to your preference).

Find out about the candidates and the parties. Decide whom you support most. Decide whom you support least. Put them in order. Vote in that order. Your vote counts.


house prices, and why everything you hear is wrong
Dirty Spader Productions
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In the past couple of days I was interested to read comments from a friend about the recent real estate market collapse in much of the USA. 140 characters has a tendency to reduce discussion to less than the bare bones, but the comment was along the lines of "big fall in house prices: good for buyers, bad for sellers". This may, to many, seem like a common sense statement of truth. In fact - at least insofar as I or anyone else with whom I've discussed this has been able to illuminate - it's not true at all.

more than you ever wanted to read about house pricesCollapse )

thoughts on what happened to the CPRS
Dirty Spader Productions
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Since reading a friend's frustrated tweet yesterday after the defeat of Labor's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation in the Australian Senate, I've been reflecting on what happened and how it happenedCollapse )


my life according to The Idea of North
Dirty Spader Productions
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Using only song names from ONE ARTIST or BAND, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 10 people and include me. You can't use the artist/band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. Repost as "my life according to (artist/band name)"

Are you a male or female?
Man In The Mirror

Describe yourself:
Neat Surprise

How do you feel:
It's Alright With Me

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
That Lonesome Road

Your best friends are:
The Truth

What's the weather like?
No More Blues

If your life was a tv show, what would it be called?
Mas Que Nada

What is life to you?
Simple Feast

Your relationship:
Takes My Breath Away

Your fear:
Sitting In Limbo

The best advice you have to give:
You've Got What It Takes

Thought For The Day:
Two Sides To The Story

Your motto:
We Will Find A Way



Tags? Umm... I tend not to do that much... will see who springs to mind on Facebook. Probably won't be 10, could be more, could be fewer.

Tonight's dinner
Dirty Spader Productions
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This isn't my creation, but still well worth blogging for the sake of posterity (and for making again!)

In a large saucepan or wok, fry one chopped onion (we used purple onion tonight) and one BIG (or two normal) cloves of garlic, chopped. When the onion is starting to brown and caramelise, one tin chopped tomatoes (feel free to chop your own if you have the time and inclination) and about 2tbsp of tomato paste, plus a healthy dose of chopped basil. Simmer.

In another pan fry one chorizo, chopped, until it's nicely browned around the edges, then add to the simmering sauce (just to mix, not to cook more). Turn off the heat five minutes or so before the pasta is done.

Cook enough pasta for at least four serves (about 250g hard pasta), and while the pasta is cooking coarsely shred a handful of fresh mozzarella (about 3/4 cup once shredded and loosely heaped). If the sauce has cooked down a bit (as ours had), take about 2tbsp of the cooking liquid from the pasta and add to the sauce, then drain the pasta, empty it into the sauce pan, add the mozzarella and stir to combine.

Serve and enjoy - with a some freshly cracked firestorm pepper on top if you so desire.

ETA: it seems appropriate that I forgot what we forgot - this should work well with some mushrooms sautéed and added along with the chorizo. That's what we plan to do next time.




In other news, housing market in Melbourne is absurd at the moment, and I don't know where we're going to be living in just over a month... but that just keeps life interesting, doesn't it?

Positives
Dirty Spader Productions
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We've just been informed that we have to find a new place to live in just 6 weeks time. This was not at all the plan, and there are plenty of things we might complain about, for all the good it would do.

Instead, I'm going to try and make a list of the positives about the situation. Commenters, feel free to add any I might have missed!

  • we are already in the same city, and in the same area as we wish to look
  • aside from when we're otherwise committed, we have an entire six weeks to inspect and apply for properties
  • S is employed now, so her part of the application should be more appealing to landlords
  • we have a current rental history together, and should have a glowing reference from our current agent to include with applications
  • this may give us an opportunity to try living a bit further east, which we've considered as having better geography for our purposes
  • there may be less competition in the market at this time of year compared with last time we looked (in January)
  • we're not simultaneously trying to juggle the planning of two interstate moves, university applications, and job interviews
  • it's only a local move
  • we don't have to finish unpacking in this house (ok, that's not much consolation: there are very very few boxes left packed)
  • it will - once we finish moving again - refocus our energies on seriously looking into the sale market and making sure that the next move we do is to move into our OWN house
  • we may find ourselves in a location that requires two cars, so it's just as well that we haven't got around to getting rid of one of them yet



We're (relatively speaking) rich, young and healthy, and none of us are likely to find ourselves unemployed or homeless as a result of this situation. It is indeed a privileged situation to be able to complain about getting kicked out of a house, while knowing that the worst things about it are that we'll have to find another house and move, and that the house we move into might not be quite as convenient or as comfortable as this. Would I prefer not to have to move again? Sure. Do I really, seriously have any reason to feel unfortunate? No.

Weather nerdery
raaahbin
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That's the weather right here, just so's you know.

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