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What’s Wrong with Bananas - Issue 66: Clockwork 


Of the important global crops, the banana is the most genetically uniform. A single cluster of nearly identical genotypes, the Cavendish subgroup, nearly monopolizes the world’s banana groves and banana trade. In contrast to the riotous rainbow of genetic diversity that lends sustainability to natural plant and animal populations, the world’s banana industry has the stability of an upside-down Egyptian pyramid balanced on its tip.

That fact leads to another superlative: The commercial banana is the world’s most endangered major crop. The future of the intercontinentally traded banana was once, and is again, precarious. Given that their wild progenitors are as variable as most species, how has it come to pass that most of the banana plants growing in the world have become so uniform? And what does that uniformity mean for their future as the “world’s most perfect food”?

Gros Michel bananas.Zwifree / Wikimedia

Reproductively, domesticated banana plants are self-copying machines. Proto-farmers who found an individual whose fruit they liked (maybe tasty and not so seedy) could dig up its suckers and replant them in a nearby clearing or even along the trail. In a few years, an industrious proto-farmer might have had reproduced dozens of plants of that…
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Dystopias Now • Commune

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The end of the world is over. Now the real work begins. 

Dystopias are the flip side of utopias. Both of them express feelings about our shared future; utopias express our social hopes, dystopias our social fears. There are a lot of dystopias around these days, and this makes sense, because we have a lot of fears about the future.

Both genres have ancient lineages. Utopia goes back to Plato at least, and from the start it had a relationship to satire, an even more ancient form. Dystopia is very clearly a kind of satire. Archilochus, the first satirist, was said to be able to kill people with his curses. Possibly dystopias hope to kill the societies they depict.

For a while now I’ve been saying that science fiction works by a kind of double action, like the glasses people wear when watching 3D movies. One lens of science fiction’s aesthetic machinery portrays some future that might actually come to pass; it’s a kind of proleptic realism. The other lens presents a metaphorical vision of our current moment, like a symbol in a poem. Together the two views combine and pop into a vision of History, extending magically into the future.

By that definition, dystopias today seem mostly like the metaphorical lens of the science-fictional double action. They exist to express how this moment feels, focusing on fear as a cultural dominant. A realistic portrayal of a future that might really happen isn’t really part of the project—that lens of the science fiction machinery is missing. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this; its depicted future is not plausible, not even logistically possible. That’s not what it’s trying to do. What it does very well is to portray the feeling of the present for young people today, heightened by exaggeration to a kind of dream or nightmare. To the extent this is typical, dystopias can be thought of as a kind of surrealism.

“Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it.”

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through. Vicarious thrill of comfort as we witness/imagine/experience the heroic struggles of our afflicted protagonists—rinse and repeat. Is this catharsis? Possibly more like indulgence, and creation of a sense of comparative safety. A kind of late-capitalist, advanced-nation schadenfreude about those unfortunate fictional citizens whose lives have been trashed by our own political inaction. If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

On the other hand, there is a real feeling being expressed in them, a real sense of fear. Some speak of a “crisis of representation” in the world today, having to do with governments—that no one anywhere feels properly represented by their government, no matter which style of government it is. Dystopia is surely one expression of that feeling of detachment and helplessness. Since nothing seems to work now, why not blow things up and start over? This would imply that dystopia is some kind of call for revolutionary change. There may be something to that. At the least dystopia is saying, even if repetitiously and unimaginatively, and perhaps salaciously, Something’s wrong. Things are bad.

Probably it’s important to remember the looming presence of climate change, as a kind of techno-social disaster that has already begun and which will inundate the next couple of centuries as some kind of overdetermining factor, no matter what we do. This period we are entering could become the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and the first caused by human activity. In that sense the Anthropocene is a kind of biospheric dystopia coming into being every day, partly because of the daily activities of the bourgeois consumers of dystopian literature and film, so that there is a nightmarish recursive realism involved in the project: not just Things are bad, but also We are responsible for making them bad. And it’s hard not to notice that we’re not doing enough to make things better, so things will get worse too. Collective political action is necessary in order to make things better; fixing the problems will require more than personal virtue or renunciation. The collective has to change, and yet there are forces keeping the collective from seeing this: thus dystopia now!

It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.

“Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah.”

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

Besides, it is realistic: things could be better. The energy flows on this planet, and humanity’s current technological expertise, are together such that it’s physically possible for us to construct a worldwide civilization—meaning a political order—that provides adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education, and health care for all eight billion humans, while also protecting the livelihood of all the remaining mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, plants, and other life-forms that we share and co-create this biosphere with. Obviously there are complications, but these are just complications. They are not physical limitations we can’t overcome. So, granting the complications and difficulties, the task at hand is to imagine ways forward to that better place.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Clearly we enter here the realm of the ideological; but we’ve been there all along. Althusser’s definition of ideology, which defines it as the imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence, is very useful here, as everywhere. We all have ideologies, they are a necessary part of cognition, we would be disabled without them. So the question becomes, which ideology? People choose, even if they do not choose under conditions of their own making. Here, remembering that science too is an ideology, I would suggest that science is the strongest ideology for estimating what’s physically possible to do or not do. Science is AI, so to speak, in that the vast artificial intelligence that is science knows more than any individual can know—Marx called this distributed knowing “the general intellect”—and it continually reiterates and refines what it asserts, in an ongoing recursive project of self-improvement. A very powerful ideology. For my purpose here, I only invoke science to assert that the energy flows in our biosphere would provide adequately for all living creatures on the planet today, if we were to distribute them properly. That proper distribution would involve not just cleaner, ultimately decarbonized technologies—these are necessary but not sufficient. We would also have to redefine work itself to include all the activities now called social reproduction, treating them as acts valuable enough to be included in our economic calculations one way or another.

An adequate life provided for all living beings is something the planet can still do; it has sufficient resources, and the sun provides enough energy. There is a sufficiency, in other words; adequacy for all is not physically impossible. It won’t be easy to arrange, obviously, because it would be a total civilizational project, involving technologies, systems, and power dynamics; but it is possible. This description of the situation may not remain true for too many more years, but while it does, since we can create a sustainable civilization, we should. If dystopia helps to scare us into working harder on that project, which maybe it does, then fine: dystopia. But always in service to the main project, which is utopia.

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In which it is revealed that Kim Stanley Robinson is educated way way way above my pay grade.
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Analyst: Apple's poor earnings will recover now they've switched from innovating to rent-seeking


Apple just had a really poor Q3 earnings report, with hardware sales falling off as people figure out that they just don't need to get a new phone every year or so; writing in Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky tries to soothe investors by pointing out that Apple is still seeing growth in "services" and that there's plenty more growth to be realized there.

Bershidsky is refreshingly honest in his description of these services: he refers to repairs, sales through the App and Itunes stores, and cloud services as "collecting rent" on Apple customers and its suppliers.

As Bershidsky points out, long-term Apple users are rather locked into its ecosystem by the tedious and potentially risky process of extracting their photos, music, etc to a rival platform. That means that the suppliers of things like music, ebooks, and videos are also locked into Apple's stores, unlikely to win a battle to establish rival stores that interoperate with Apple's Itunes and other apps, but which take a smaller commission on the sale of their products. Apple has inserted itself into the transactions for copyrighted works for the foreseeable future, passively creaming off a substantial portion of the profits from the sales not because their store is the best, but because they have used DRM and other proprietary tactics to lock out competitors.

A Goldman Sachs report suggests that Apple aggressively turn the screw on the rent-collecting end of its business, using bundling and anti-competitive retail tactics to crush Dropbox and other cloud providers currently serving Iphone owners.

The kicker to the piece comes in the final graf: "Rent extraction from a user base that finds it hard to go away may sound a bit like extortion. But it’s more honest and upfront than extracting data from users in ways they often don’t understand and then making money off the data, as Facebook does."

The poverty of imagination on display here is maybe the most 2018 thing I've read all year. Of course "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product" -- but as Bershidsky and Goldman Sachs agree, "even if you pay for the product, you're still the product."

The fetishization of paid services as a panacea for the woes of surveillance capitalism mistakes the nature of the problem. Google doesn't spy on us like crazy because they're creepy spies: they spy on us like crazy because the lack of competition lets their creepy spy-nature run amok, and the size of Google and its surveillance capitalism breathren allows it to purchase regulation and laws that fail to meaningfully limit surveilling us (if we were serious about regulating privacy, we'd create really serious statutory damages for breaches, far beyond even the dreams of Ron Wyden).

The harms of being "the product" in monopoly walled-garden capitalism are different in kind, but not degree from being "the product" in monopoly surveillance capitalism: you pay lots more, while the world drowns in e-waste. Your access to artistic works is limited by arbitrary and self-serving ways -- and walled gardens are an autocracy's best friend.

(To say nothing of the other problem with "everything should be a paid service": in a grossly unequal world, the idea that charging to participate in discourse will fix discourse is radioactively wrong, a bad idea that's visible from orbit -- imagine a world where the vast majority either have to ration their participation, or use platforms subsidized by 1-percenters who reserve the right to kick you off their services for suggesting limits on looting and exploitation)

What if, instead of forcing us to choose between monopoly surveillance capitalism and monopoly walled-garden capitalism, we held out hope for a world where we smashed the monopolies. Made them paid their taxes, made them divest of the competitors they gobbled up, cut them down to a size where they could no longer dominate the legislative and regulatory processes.

Because, after all, even with its weak growth figures, Apple is still a vastly profitable company. Being forced to give up on blocking competing stores, service, parts, and add-ons would not put the company out of business: it would merely shave a few points off the its quarterly profits -- while diverting that income to other companies, from the small mom-and-pop service depot on your corner to the indie app vendor who could sell software to Ios users direct and pocket the 30% Apple would have creamed off of their margin.

The future is not a choice between one kind of monopoly and another: it's a choice between monopoly and anti-monopoly. The choice between surveillance and walled gardens is no choice at all (and, in the case of Facebook, you get two horrors for the price of one).

Rent extraction from a user base that finds it hard to go away may sound a bit like extortion. But it’s more honest and upfront than extracting data from users in ways they often don’t understand and then making money off the data, as Facebook does. That honesty is in itself a competitive advantage for Apple as it gradually reimagines itself as more of a services company. Now, the challenge is to grow the services offering fast enough to make up for potential iPhone revenue losses; gadget prices cannot keep going up forever without hurting the top line, and in the end, a phone is just a phone. We only need it to gain access to all the nice digital stuff out there.

Apple Used to Be an Inventor. Now It’s Mainly a Landlord. [Leonid Bershidsky/Bloomberg]

(via /.)

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Swedish ISP punishes Elsevier for forcing it to block Sci-Hub by also blocking Elsevier

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The Swedish ISP Bahnhof has a strong historic commitment to free speech, so when the notoriously corrupt science publishing giant Elsevier (previously) sought to force the ISP to censor connections to the open access site Sci-Hub (previously), the ISP went to court to resist the order.

Unfortunately for Swedes and for science, the Swedish Patent and Market Court (which never met a copyright overreach it didn't love) upheld the order, and Bahnhof, a small ISP with limited resources, decided not to appeal (a bigger, richer ISP had just lost a similar appeal).

Instead, Bahnhof now blocks attempts to visit Sci-Hub domains, and, redirecting attempts to visit Elsevier to a page explaining how Elsevier's sleaze and bullying have allowed it to monopolize scientific publishing, paywalling publicly funded science that is selected, reviewed and edited by volunteers who mostly work for publicly funded institutions.

To as icing on this revenge-flavored cake, Bahnhof also detects attempts to visit its own site from the Patent and Market Court and redirects them to a page explaining that since the Patent and Market Court believes that parts of the web should be blocked, Bahnhof is blocking the court's access to its part of the web.

This is the worst possible outcome for Bahnhof. TorrentFreak spoke to CEO Jon Karlung who describes it as a “horrifying” decision that “goes against the soul of the Internet.”

The result, starting today, is that,,,, and several other domains are being blocked by the ISP. But Bahnhof wouldn’t be Bahnhof if it went down without a fight.

The company has no faith in an expensive appeal, which another ISP lost last year in a similar blocking case. However, it does have another ace up its sleeve. Now that they are blocking anyway, they can easily an extra domain name to make a point.

So, in addition, Bahnhof has gone ahead and banned its visitors from accessing the official website as well. Elsevier wanted a site blockade – it now has one.

Swedish ISP Protests ‘Site Blocking’ by Blocking Rightsholders Website Too [Ernesto/Torrentfreak]

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39 days ago
im feeling a sudden urge to move to sweden.
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Trump’s Violent Subtext Has Become Text


It has been clear for a very long time that Donald Trump and his supporters are of the view that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not so much agreements between Americans about mutual rights and constraints, but a pull-down menu of rights that can be afforded to some and denied to others. Trump has long made this clear in his actions: He has the right to unfettered free speech but protesters do not. His Justice Department has made plain that some faiths have the right to unfettered religious exercise and others do not. He has argued, time and again, that the law means what he says it means—courts, the Constitution, and plain text notwithstanding. Last week’s flirtation with canceling birthright citizenship on the back of a napkin was only the latest variation on that theme.

But there’s a far more dangerous picture that has begun to emerge in recent weeks. President Trump has more or less stopped repeating that constitutional rights flow in a single direction (toward him) and has pivoted to a new claim—that his opponents have demanded excessive constitutional freedoms, and that the cure for this problem may need to involve violence. That is new. It is horrifying, and it needs to be seen as what it is.

Jonathan Chait clocked this shift on Monday in his column on connecting the dots between Trump’s “fake news” complaints and his tacit acceptance of violence as the result. As Chait observes, over the past weekend, the president has refused to back down when faced with claims that he is inciting his followers to commit actual physical violence: He told Jim VandeHei of Axios that inciting violence against reporters he deems “enemies of the people” is his “only form of fighting back.” On Friday, Trump told yet another journalist that journalism itself “is creating violence.” He holds out his threats as a warning that constitutionally protected press freedoms will be met with unlawful violence and that this is the only power he can weaponize. As Chait notes, this is the president saying outright that for him, “fighting back” includes actual physical fighting.

This is the very same threat he has made about the perfectly legal migrant caravan—that if any of them throw rocks, they will be met with unlawful lethal force. It is the threat he has used against criminal suspects when he urges the police to illegally cause them bodily harm (“roughing up”) upon arrest. It is the threat he made Monday against lawful voters who, he claims, are practicing what he calls “VOTER FRAUD” and “EARLY VOTING” en masse, and will be met by “maximum criminal penalties” for doing so. It was the argument Donald Trump and his Justice Department made when even lawful asylum-seekers and migrant workers sought entry to the country: If you come here, we will have no choice but to rip your children away from you. The ensuing mind-boggling trauma and chaos of an illegal family separation policy was intended as a “deterrent,” in the selfsame way the trauma and chaos of attacks against reporters are meant as a deterrent against the publication of what Donald Trump has deemed “fake news.”

All these threats, by the way, represent precisely the same strain of just-below-the-surface violent lawlessness that Trump exhibited when he threatened to “lock up” Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, or when he suggested the “Second Amendment people” amongst his supporters could respond to the appointment of anti–Second Amendment judges by a President Hillary Clinton. To be sure, it isn’t direct incitement to political violence. It’s simply a claim that he continues to advance, in one context after another, that the people who support him may respond to exercises of free speech, or protest, or lawful asylum-seekers, or legal voting, or any number of constitutionally guaranteed rights—with violence. It’s the same claim he makes when he says that he, as president, cannot do anything about it if his angry supporters turn to lawlessness, or that the military, or ICE, or the police cannot do anything less than deploy violence any time their own authority is challenged. He is unmistakably arguing that opposition to him, even opposition protected by our laws and constitutional structure, carries a risk. And he is unmistakably implying—as he did to VandeHei—that he has the power to stir up and mobilize those people, and he is quite comfortable doing so. This is him “fighting back.”

Throughout the past two years, I’ve been struck by the Trump administration’s take on the Bill of Rights—that it means one thing for friends of the president, and something else altogether for his enemies. But what is emerging is not just a breakdown in the ideas of freedom and rights in America: It’s a further pernicious claim that exercising your rights could be met with violence from those in power. Indeed, Trump is testing a theory that rights aren’t constrained by the Constitution, but by his decision to deploy, or not to deploy, agents of the state or independent supporters threatening violence against you.

There is nothing in this theory that should surprise us. Donald Trump has fetishized strength and power and violence and assault since he first stepped onto the national political stage. But the nature of the threat has changed: This is the president asserting not only that certain people aren’t entitled to certain rights, but that the way to fight back against them is through violence or tacit threats of violence. That’s what we should be afraid of going into the midterms. It’s not simply that Donald Trump doesn’t believe his opponents have the same affirmative rights he himself does—it’s that he can increasingly justify the use of force in retaliation against those who disagree with him. If you don’t mind the idea of a president using force to “fight back” against constitutional rights, you should at least know that you’re not talking about a constitutional democracy anymore.

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The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture

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Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey. At the time, he was a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and, like most people, he thought of Greek and Roman statues as objects of pure white marble. The gods, heroes, and nymphs displayed in museums look that way, as do neoclassical monuments and statuary, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Caesar perched outside his palace in Las Vegas.

Aphrodisias was home to a thriving cadre of high-end artists until the seventh century A.D., when an earthquake caused it to fall into ruin. In 1961, archeologists began systematically excavating the city, storing thousands of sculptural fragments in depots. When Abbe arrived there, several decades later, he started poking around the depots and was astonished to find that many statues had flecks of color: red pigment on lips, black pigment on coils of hair, mirrorlike gilding on limbs. For centuries, archeologists and museum curators had been scrubbing away these traces of color before presenting statues and architectural reliefs to the public. “Imagine you’ve got an intact lower body of a nude male statue lying there on the depot floor, covered in dust,” Abbe said. “You look at it up close, and you realize the whole thing is covered in bits of gold leaf. Oh, my God! The visual appearance of these things was just totally different from what I’d seen in the standard textbooks—which had only black-and-white plates, in any case.” For Abbe, who is now a professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia, the idea that the ancients disdained bright color “is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art.” It is, he said, “a lie we all hold dear.”

In the early nineteen-eighties, Vinzenz Brinkmann had a similar epiphany while pursuing a master’s degree in classics and archeology from Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich. As part of an effort to determine what kinds of tool marks could be found on Greek marble sculpture, he devised a special lamp that shines obliquely on an object, highlighting its surface relief. When he began scrutinizing sculptures with the lamp, he told me, he “quite immediately understood” that, while there was little sign of tool marks on the statues, there was significant evidence of polychromy—all-over color. He, too, was taken aback by the knowledge that a fundamental aspect of Greek statuary “had been so excluded” from study. He said, “It started as an obsession for me that has never ended.”

Brinkmann soon realized that his discovery hardly required a special lamp: if you were looking at an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture up close, some of the pigment “was easy to see, even with the naked eye.” Westerners had been engaged in an act of collective blindness. “It turns out that vision is heavily subjective,” he told me. “You need to transform your eye into an objective tool in order to overcome this powerful imprint”—a tendency to equate whiteness with beauty, taste, and classical ideals, and to see color as alien, sensual, and garish.

One afternoon this summer, Marco Leona, who runs the scientific-research department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave me a tour of the Greek and Roman galleries. He pointed out a Greek vase, from the third century B.C., that depicts an artist painting a statue. Leona said, of polychromy, “It’s like the best-kept secret that’s not even a secret.” Jan Stubbe Østergaard, a former curator at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, in Copenhagen, and the founder of an international research network on polychromy, told me, “Saying you’ve seen these sculptures when you’ve seen only the white marble is comparable to somebody coming from the beach and saying they’ve seen a whale because there was a skeleton on the beach.”

In the nineteen-nineties, Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who is an art historian and an archeologist, began re-creating Greek and Roman sculptures in plaster, painted with an approximation of their original colors. Palettes were determined by identifying specks of remaining pigment, and by studying “shadows”—minute surface variations that betray the type of paint applied to the stone. The result of this effort was a touring exhibition called “Gods in Color.” Versions of the show, which was launched in 2003, have been seen by three million museumgoers in twenty-eight cities, including Istanbul and Athens.

The replicas often deliver a shock. A Trojan archer, from approximately 500 B.C., wears tight pants with a harlequin pattern that is as boldly colored as Missoni leggings. A lion that once stood guard over a tomb in Corinth, in the sixth century B.C., has an azurite mane and an ochre body, calling to mind Mayan or Aztec artifacts. There are also reconstructions of naked figures in bronze, which have a disarming fleshiness: copper lips and nipples, luxuriant black beards, wiry swirls of dark pubic hair. (Classical bronze figures were often blinged out with gemstones for the eyes and with contrasting metals that highlighted anatomical details or dripping wounds.) Throughout the exhibition, the colored replicas are juxtaposed with white plaster casts of marble pieces—fakes that look like what we think of as the real thing.

For many people, the colors are jarring because their tones seem too gaudy or opaque. In 2008, Fabio Barry, an art historian who is now at Stanford, complained that a boldly colored re-creation of a statue of the Emperor Augustus at the Vatican Museum looked “like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi.” Barry told me, in an e-mail, that he still found the colors unduly lurid: “The various scholars reconstructing the polychromy of statuary always seemed to resort to the most saturated hue of the color they had detected, and I suspected that they even took a sort of iconoclastic pride in this—that the traditional idea of all-whiteness was so cherished that they were going to really make their point that it was colorful.”

But some of the disorientation among viewers comes from seeing polychromy at all. Østergaard, who put on two exhibitions at the Glyptotek which featured painted reconstructions, said that, to many visitors, the objects “look tasteless.” He went on, “But it’s too late for that! The challenge is for us to try and understand the ancient Greeks and Romans—not to tell them they got it wrong.”

Lately, this obscure academic debate about ancient sculpture has taken on an unexpected moral and political urgency. Last year, a University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published two essays, one in the online arts journal Hyperallergic and one in Forbes, arguing that it was time we all accepted that ancient sculpture was not pure white—and neither were the people of the ancient world. One false notion, she said, had reinforced the other. For classical scholars, it is a given that the Roman Empire—which, at its height, stretched from North Africa to Scotland—was ethnically diverse. In the Forbes essay, Bond notes, “Although Romans generally differentiated people on their cultural and ethnic background rather than the color of their skin, ancient sources do occasionally mention skin tone and artists tried to convey the color of their flesh.” Depictions of darker skin can be seen on ancient vases, in small terra-cotta figures, and in the Fayum portraits, a remarkable trove of naturalistic paintings from the imperial Roman province of Egypt, which are among the few paintings on wood that survive from that period. These near-life-size portraits, which were painted on funerary objects, present their subjects with an array of skin tones, from olive green to deep brown, testifying to a complex intermingling of Greek, Roman, and local Egyptian populations. (The Fayum portraits have been widely dispersed among museums.)

Bond told me that she’d been moved to write her essays when a racist group, Identity Evropa, started putting up posters on college campuses, including Iowa’s, that presented classical white marble statues as emblems of white nationalism. After the publication of her essays, she received a stream of hate messages online. She is not the only classicist who has been targeted by the so-called alt-right. Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to ancient Greece. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.

Earlier this year, the BBC and Netflix broadcast “Troy: Fall of a City,” a miniseries in which the Homeric hero Achilles is played by a British actor of Ghanaian descent. The casting decision elicited a backlash in right-wing publications. Online commenters insisted that the “real” Achilles was blond-haired and blue-eyed, and that someone with skin as dark as the actor’s surely would have been a slave. It’s true that Homer describes the hair of Achilles as xanthos, a word often used to characterize objects that we would call yellow, but Achilles is fictional, so imaginative license in casting seems perfectly acceptable. Moreover, several scholars explained online that, though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice systematic racism. They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered peoples, including Gauls and Germans.

Nor did the Greeks conceive of race the way we do. Some of the ancients’ racial theories were derived from the Hippocratic idea of the humors. Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a classicist at Denison University, who writes on race and ethnicity, told me, “Cold weather made you stupid but also courageous, so that was what people from the Far North were supposed to be like. And the people they called Ethiopians were thought of as very smart but cowardly. It comes out of the medical tradition. In the North, you have plenty of thick blood. Whereas, in the South, you’re being desiccated by the sun, and you have to think about how to conserve your blood.” Pale skin on a woman was considered a sign of beauty and refinement, because it showed that she was privileged enough not to have to work outdoors. But a man with pale skin was considered unmasculine: bronzed skin was associated with the heroes who fought on battlefields and competed as athletes, naked, in amphitheatres.

In an essay for the online magazine Aeon, Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, writes that the Greeks “would have been staggered” by the suggestion that they were “white.” Not only do our modern notions of race clash with the thinking of the ancient past; so do our terms for colors, as is clear to anyone who has tried to conceive what a “wine-dark sea” actually looked like. In the Odyssey, Whitmarsh points out, the goddess Athena is said to have restored Odysseus to godlike good looks in this way: “He became black-skinned again and the hairs became blue around his chin.” On the Web site Pharos, which was founded, last year, in part to counter white-supremacist interpretations of the ancient world, a recent essay notes, “Although there is a persistent, racist preference for lighter skin over darker skin in the contemporary world, the ancient Greeks considered darker skin” for men to be “more beautiful and a sign of physical and moral superiority.”

Last year, high-school students participating in a summer program at the risd Museum, in Providence, were so fascinated to learn about polychromy in classical statuary that they made a coloring book allowing gallery visitors to create brightly hued versions of the objects on display. Christina Alderman, who runs the program, told me, “The moment they found out that the statues were originally painted, I just lost them to that idea. They were, like, ‘Wait, are you serious? I’ve played video games set in ancient times, and all I see are white sculptures. I watch movies and that’s all I see.’ It was a real human response—they kind of felt they’d been lied to.”

The idealization of white marble is an aesthetic born of a mistake. Over the millennia, as sculptures and architecture were subjected to the elements, their paint wore off. Buried objects retained more color, but often pigments were hidden beneath accretions of dirt and calcite, and were brushed away in cleanings. In the eighteen-eighties, Russell Sturgis, an American art critic, visited the Acropolis, in Athens, and described what happened after objects were unearthed: “The color of all these soon began to fall and vanish. The beautiful statue first described lay on a table in the museum on the Acropolis in May, 1883, and already some of its color had been shaken off; for as it lay it was surrounded by a little deposit of green, red and black powder which had fallen from it.” Paint that survived was sometimes concealed in recesses: between strands of hair, or inside navels, nostrils, and mouths.

In time, though, a fantasy took hold. Scholars argued that Greek and Roman artists had left their buildings and sculptures bare as a pointed gesture—it both confirmed their superior rationality and distinguished their aesthetic from non-Western art. Acceptance of this view was made easier by the fact that ancient Egyptian sculptures looked very different: they tended to retain brilliant surface color, because the dry climate and the sand in which they were interred did not result in the same kind of erosion. But, as Østergaard put it to me, “nobody has a problem hailing Nefertiti as a spectacular piece of world art, and nobody says that it’s unfortunate that it’s painted. Because it’s not Western, it’s perfectly O.K. for it to be polychrome. But let’s not have it in our part of the world, because we’re different, aren’t we?”

Starting in the Renaissance, artists made sculpture and architecture that exalted form over color, in homage to what they thought Greek and Roman art had looked like. In the eighteenth century, Johann Winckelmann, the German scholar who is often called the father of art history, contended that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” and that “color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty.” When the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were first excavated, in the mid-eighteenth century, Winckelmann saw some of their artifacts in Naples, and noticed color on them. But he found a way around that discomfiting observation, claiming that a statue of Artemis with red hair, red sandals, and a red quiver strap must have been not Greek but Etruscan—the product of an earlier civilization that was considered less sophisticated. He later concluded, however, that the Artemis probably was Greek. (It is now thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek original.) Østergaard and Brinkmann believe that Winckelmann’s thinking was evolving, and that he might eventually have embraced polychromy, had he not died in 1768, at the age of fifty, after being stabbed by a fellow-traveller at an inn in Trieste.

The cult of unpainted sculpture continued to permeate Europe, buttressing the equation of whiteness with beauty. In Germany, Goethe declared that “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors.” He also noted that “people of refinement avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them.”

In the nineteenth century, a series of major excavations should have toppled the monochrome myth. In Rome, the architect Gottfried Semper used scaffolding to examine Trajan’s Column, and reported finding myriad traces of color. Victorian excavations of the Acropolis turned up some painted reliefs, sculptures, and marble gutters. The Augustus of Prima Porta and the Alexander Sarcophagus retained bold hues when they were discovered, as contemporaneous paintings of them confirm.

In a catalogue essay for an 1892 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the classical scholar Alfred Emerson said of polychromy that “literary testimony and the evidence of archeology are too strong and uniform to admit of quibble or doubt.” Nevertheless, Emerson continued, “so strong was the deference for the Antique, learned from the Italian masters of the Renaissance, that the accidental destruction of the ancient coloring” had been “exalted into a special merit, and ridiculously associated with the ideal qualities of the highest art”—from “lofty serenity” to “unsullied purity.”

This ardor for whiteness was so intense that the evidence didn’t stand a chance. Scholars who continued to discuss polychromy were often dismissed. Auguste Rodin is supposed to have pounded his chest and said, “I feel it here that they were never colored.” Sculpture and painting had become increasingly independent disciplines, and artists who tried to merge the two were met with scorn. In the eighteen-fifties, when the British artist John Gibson, a proponent of polychromy, showed his delicate “Tinted Venus”—the goddess’s body is mostly white, but she has muted golden hair and cornflower-blue eyes—a titillated reviewer described the figure as “a naked, impudent Englishwoman.”

As the artist and critic David Batchelor writes in his 2000 book, “Chromophobia,” at a certain point ignorance becomes willful denial—a kind of “negative hallucination” in which we refuse to see what is before our eyes. Mark Abbe, who has become the leading American scholar of ancient Greek and Roman polychromy, believes that, when such a delusion persists, you have to ask yourself, “Cui bono?”—“Who benefits?” He told me, “If we weren’t benefitting, we wouldn’t be so invested in it. We benefit from a whole range of assumptions about cultural, ethnic, and racial superiority. We benefit in terms of the core identity of Western civilization, that sense of the West as more rational—the Greek miracle and all that. And I’m not saying there’s no truth to the idea that something singular happened in Greece and Rome, but we can do better and see the ancient past on a broader cultural horizon.”

In the twentieth century, appreciation for ancient polychromy and decoration went further into eclipse—largely on aesthetic, rather than racial, grounds. Modernism lauded the abstraction of white forms and derided earthy verisimilitude in sculpture. In a 1920 essay titled “Purism,” the architect Le Corbusier wrote, “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers the sensory jubilation of the paint tube.” In Italy and Germany, Fascist artists created white marble statuary of idealized bodies. After the Second World War, European architects sought a neutral common heritage by promoting the modest virtues of spare white spaces, such as the parliamentary building in Bonn.

Over the centuries, many art restorers and dealers felt obliged to vigorously scrub Greek and Roman objects, so as to enhance their marmoreal gleam—and their collectibility. Mark Bradley, a classicist at the University of Nottingham, believes that in some cases restorers were merely trying to remove residue left by oil lamps that had lit galleries before the advent of electricity. But, he noted in an e-mail, many museums propagated “an enduring Renaissance conspiracy” to “eradicate traces of paint.” In the nineteen-thirties, restorers at the British Museum polished the Elgin marbles, the most treasured sculptures from the Acropolis, until they were as white and shiny as pearls.

One day in July, Abbe was in Bloomington, Indiana, peering at two Roman busts: one of the militaristic Emperor Septimius Severus and one of his learned wife, Julia Domna. The busts belong to Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum, which is closed for renovation, and Abbe was examining them in a storage facility. The sculptures, made from a creamy white marble, appeared to have negligible speckles and stains. But Abbe knew better. He had examined their surfaces with a powerful microscope and with infrared and UV light, and had discovered rich purples, blues, and pinks.

In 2007, Giovanni Verri, who now teaches conservation at the Courtauld Institute, in London, figured out how to confirm the presence of an ancient pigment known as Egyptian blue. It has a remarkable capacity for luminescence under infrared light, and Verri found that in digital photographs taken under such light it glistened like ice crystals. Abbe had seen these sparkles on the two Roman busts. Now he was planning to take samples of the pigments he’d detected, so that they could be chemically analyzed.

A conservation scientist from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gregory Dale Smith, would undertake the extraction of the samples, the largest of which would be the size of the period at the end of this sentence. He would use an array of fantastical tools, including an eye surgeon’s scalpel, a tungsten needle with a tip six microns wide, and a brush with a single bristle, made from the hair of a deer. Smith, who arrived at the storage facility later that afternoon, told me that he had skipped coffee that day—he needed to have the steadiest of hands.

Julie Van Voorhis, an art-history professor at Indiana who is researching the busts, had joined Abbe and me, along with Juliet Graver Istrabadi, the ancient-art curator from the Eskenazi Museum. For a while, the four of us stood in a polite semicircle and gazed at the statues, as though we were guests at their party and they were about to give a toast.

Abbe told me, “From basically 1960 to 2000, people were just, like, ‘Yeah, the color’s there, but you can’t do anything with it—there’s not enough there, it’s too fragmentary.’ ” But in recent years it’s become easier to detect many colors, using noninvasive technologies such as X-ray fluorescence analysis (which can identify the elements in pigments). Ancient organic dyes—such as Tyrian purple, made from the glands of sea snails—are harder to identify, but scholars have had some success using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, which measures molecular vibrations. Armed with these technologies, curators and conservators are starting to “reëxcavate in our own museums,” as one scholar put it to me—taking objects that were presumed to be colorless and looking at them anew.

Abbe, who is forty-five, tall, and slim, was wearing a dapper dark suit and a narrow floral tie. He has a springy energy that reminded me of an actor playing a brainy young inventor. He told me that, when he first examines a sculpture for signs of polychromy, he looks at it for hours, aided by a device that involves a magnifying glass and an L.E.D. light affixed to a headband. He gave me one to put on; it looked like a dorky version of a miner’s lamp. “I try to convince everyone that they need to buy these for when they go to museums,” he said. (He advises people who actually do wear the device in galleries to put their hands behind their backs while peering closely at objects, so that guards don’t freak out.)

As I walked around the busts, he told me, “You can get much closer. Once your eyes are properly adjusted, you can go in and see details.” I leaned in and looked at the emperor’s cloak; tiny teardrop shapes, in the deep purplish blue of old ink stains, swam into view on a white surface.

“So blue and white is the base layer,” Abbe said over my shoulder. “And the white part seems to be painted with lead white, one of the most opaque whites. And then they’re washing that over with a paint pigment that seems to have a number of elements—it seems to have Egyptian blue in it, and it seems to have a mercury-rich red pigment, probably cinnabar. That’s a good example of how they’re layering.”

Abbe and Van Voorhis are interested in finding out not just which colors the ancients favored but what techniques they used to apply paint: how sculptors polished stone surfaces in preparation for pigment, how they added highlights and shading to faces. Learning more about these methods will help scholars create more nuanced facsimiles, and will also illuminate how painting and sculpting worked in tandem in the ancient world. Skeptics of polychromy question why Greek and Roman artists would have sculpted with such beautiful materials—Parian marble, which was commonly used, has a prized translucence—and then painted over the surface, or bedazzled it with gilt and jewels. But if painters and sculptors worked together as partners, with an understanding of how tactically applied color could enhance a work’s luminosity, polychromy makes more aesthetic sense.

Abbe said, “We have this wonderful anecdote from Praxiteles, the Greek sculptor from the fourth century B.C. When he’s asked which of his sculptures he liked the best, he names those that the premier painter of the day, Nicias, ‘applied his hand to.’ ” He noted that, in the ancient Roman Empire, statues would not have been sequestered in art galleries—they would have been on the streets and in people’s homes. Figures that were deftly painted would have looked eerily lifelike, particularly in low and flickering light. “There’s a real aesthetic, especially in the Roman period, for the visual trick,” he said. “When you went into a place, the divide between what was sculpture and what was actual life was fluid, and highly theatrical. You go to a dinner party in Pompeii, and there are statues of nude homoerotic youths, in the old, noble Greek tradition. And then there are actual slave boys that look just like those well-tanned bronzes, and at first they’re standing still. And then they move, the same way the sculptures seem to move in the reflections of pools and fountains. So, you know, you’ve had a little bit to drink, and you’re negotiating this—”

Van Voorhis joined in the reverie: “You’re calling over your slave boy, but it happens to be a statue. And then the slave boy comes from the other side and refills your cup.”

At one point, Abbe said, “The modern art gallery, you could say, kills these things—transforms them into something they’re not.”

One of the advantages of establishing scientific methods to prove that classical objects were polychrome is that they provide archeologists with a protocol—a formal way to look for color before cleaning an artifact. Significant Greek and Roman finds are still being made. Abbe noted that a set of Roman historical friezes recently found in Nicomedia, Turkey, are “awash in purple.”

Abbe and Van Voorhis lamented that, even now, such objects are sometimes mercilessly cleaned. “Remember how they would hose statues down in the courtyard?” Van Voorhis asked Abbe, recalling an excavation in Turkey that they’d both worked on.

“Like you’d hose down your wheelbarrow,” Abbe said. At times, he added, the impulse to clean is less about a dislike of color and more about “the excitement of discovery”: “You want to see what you’ve got. Archeology is a slow business. Then, imagine, it’s the last day, and you finally find something. The first thing you want to do is make it legible.” This impulse, he said, must be checked: “You should treat a discovery like a medical situation. Treat it like triage. What you want to do is stabilize the patient. Less is more. Take the thing, wrap it up in something like neutral cotton gauze, and put it on a shelf in a stable place. Then call us, and we will come and do the micro-excavation of the surface.” This process needs to happen relatively quickly, because, after extraction, the soil clinging to an object dries, and “the paint layers literally delaminate with it,” leaving a denuded object and “a painting in reverse” adhering to scattered flakes of soil.

As we examined the bust of Julia, Van Voorhis pointed out a tendril of hair peeking out from under her wig. This made it clear that she was wearing the wig for fashion, not to cover up baldness. Her face was so carefully modelled that you could see where her cheek was beginning to sag slightly. She had horizontal creases encircling her neck—Venus rings, I learned they were called—and a delightful unibrow, both of which connoted desirability. All this humanizing detail had been conveyed purely through form. I wondered if Abbe ever regretted having to see such sculptures, in his mind’s eye, saturated in the bright colors that many people find kitschy.

The first time I saw a statue that had been painted to approximate ancient polychromy, I was in Nashville, of all places. In 1897, a full-scale replica of the Parthenon was erected in a city park there, and inside it is an enormous statue of Athena. To my eye, the figure, which was painted and gilded in the two-thousands, looked awful: her golden robes had a blinding shimmer, her eyes were a doll-like blue, and her lips could have beckoned from a lipstick ad. It reminded me of a Jeff Koons piece that revels in its tackiness. Yet Abbe assured me that the colorized Athena was consistent with the aesthetics of the lost original, from the fifth century B.C.

Some of the painted replicas that I saw subsequently seemed more subtle and persuasive. Nevertheless, as much as I thought that it was important to acknowledge polychromy, I still sometimes preferred the ghostly elegance of white marble.

When I shared this feeling with Abbe, he said, “We can have our cake and eat it, too. We can still look at these things and admire them as monochromatic, neoclassical works. We can also recover the ancient aesthetics and correct an untruth.” He promised that not even the most fervent champion of polychromy was going to start slathering contemporary paint on ancient objects.

So how should we represent the colors of the classical world in museums? The reality-television, big-reveal style of the “Gods in Color” exhibition is certainly effective at upending our preconceptions. As Østergaard said, “A physical object right next to an original gives the public a real ‘Aha!’ moment. It’s spectacularly successful as a means of communication.”

But Abbe, like many scholars I talked to, wasn’t crazy about the reconstructions in “Gods in Color.” He found the hues too flat and opaque, and noted that plaster, which most of the replicas are made from, absorbs paint in a way that marble does not. He was also bothered by the fact that the statues “all look fundamentally the same, whereas styles would have differed enormously.”

The Brinkmanns have made several replicas in synthetic and real marble—an expensive undertaking—and these do reflect light somewhat better than the plaster models. Cecilie Brøns, who currently heads a project at the Glyptotek called Tracking Colour, which is investigating all the museum’s ancient pieces for traces of color, admires the Brinkmanns’ reconstructions but said she worries that museumgoers accept them too literally. The replicas were best appreciated as interpretations, she said, adding, “Reconstructions can be difficult to explain to the public—that these are not exact copies, that we can never know exactly how they looked.”

Giovanni Verri, of the Courtauld Institute, told me, “Knowing the particular pigments and the painting materials is useful, but it’s not the sum of the painting. There is the technique component—the style, the sensibility.” To paint exactly as an ancient painter did would require a psychic form of time travel. “We have so much knowledge that those painters would not have had,” he said. “We have experienced two thousand years of history, and art history, that would be extremely difficult to forget.”

Verri, like Abbe and others in the field, believes that digital reproductions—computer animations and the like—can offer advantages that physical ones do not. They can be revised as new information becomes available, and they can also show multiple possibilities of how an object might have looked. Verri created such a digital reproduction a few years ago, after he spent time investigating the traces of polychromy on the Treu Head—an idealized female figure, sculpted in the second century A.D., that is in the collection of the British Museum. Verri performed what he called “a digital face transplant.” He identified pigments that had originally covered the sculpture: Egyptian blue mixed into pinkish skin tones and the whites of the eyes; yellow and red ochre in the hair; rose-colored madder lake for the lips. He also studied and mimicked the sophisticated painting techniques used in the Fayum portraits. The result is refined and naturalistic.

When the Eskenazi Museum reopens, in a year or two, it will host a special exhibition featuring the busts of Severus and Julia. To show the original polychromy, Abbe and Van Voorhis have considered projecting colored light on the statues for part of the day. (A set of friezes at the Ara Pacis museum, in Rome, have been presented this way, to pleasing effect.) Another idea is to present a video animation in which the color gradually appears on the two Roman busts, suggesting how successive layers of paint might have been applied.

Abbe and Van Voorhis will have to engage in some speculation, particularly when it comes to hair color and skin tone. They have no reason to believe that there wasn’t pigment on the skin or hair of the busts, but they have not found any traces of it. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Abbe wrote to me, in an e-mail. “Classic neoclassical assumption!”

Later, in another e-mail, Abbe pointed out that much of the Roman élite “came from diverse-looking stock—Berber, Arab, Transylvanian, Danubian, Spanish, etc.” He also noted that sculptures of African people from the ancient world were sometimes carved from black stones, such as basalt, and then painted with reddish-brown pigments to create a lifelike effect. One such example, at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, in Hamburg, is the head of a young boy, from the first century B.C.; patches of mahogany-colored paint can still be seen on the nose and the cheeks.

Severus and Julia were Romans, but neither was of Italic descent. Severus was of Berber origin, from an élite family in Libya. Julia came from a priestly family in Emesa, Syria. A panel painting of the couple, known as the Berlin Tondo, has survived: Severus has a chestnut-brown complexion and a grizzled gray beard; Julia is paler, with dark hair and eyes. The Tondo will help guide Abbe and Van Voorhis in their work on the busts, just as the Fayum portraits aided Verri.

The easiest, and cheapest, way for museums to address the fact of polychromy is to say more about it in their labelling. One day in July, Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art at the risd Museum, walked me through the Greek and Roman galleries, and pointed out a label that she’d written in 2009: “The surviving traces of reddish pigment, still visible in the hair of this figure, reflect the fact that most ancient statues were originally quite vividly painted.” But Borromeo believes that nothing can match the power of displaying a polychrome work that has retained its original hues. In 2016, she successfully lobbied to acquire an Etruscan urn that still has much of its original color.

Vinzenz Brinkmann, who now heads the antiquities department of the Liebieghaus sculpture collection, in Frankfurt, told me that viewing classical sculptures in color does far more than expand your notion of what such objects originally looked like; it helps you understand that “everything that seems to be so clearly and firmly set is not always so clearly and firmly set.” In other words, he said, seeing these colors affects people’s understanding of themselves. With a small chuckle, he added, “And, for us, this is beautiful.” ♦

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41 days ago
It's all quite interesting but it has a fundamental lie to make it a better story. Lovely narrative but...

I learned at primary school ca 1980 that Greek statues and temples had been brightly painted, as had roman and medieval ones...

maybe it's not generally remembered or noticed in the general public. Thatperhaps even a student/researcher might go through part of a career without really knowing is surprising but considering they normally only have access to copies it shows that we can't know and keep in mind every detail
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
54 days ago
Washington, DC
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