Young Autists Next Door

My house is near an LSS housing unit. Lagen om stöd och service till vissa funktionshindrade, “The Law of Support and Service for Certain Disabled People”, mainly caters to the needs of people with autism and the like. In 6½ years on Boat Hill, the young people living there have never caused us any trouble at all.

But I still cringe a little when I recall my phone conversation with the man who runs the municipality’s LSS housing units. I called him because I was curious about who the young folks living next door are, what diagnoses they have etc. I made it very clear that I was not afraid of them, I was not hostile to them and I had experienced no trouble with them whatsoever. I just wanted to learn about them, and I didn’t feel it appropriate to ask the kids themselves. “Oi, woss wrong with you then?”

This guy immediately went on the defensive and clearly assumed that I was trouble. He explained what the law does, but refused to say anything specific about what sort of disorders will get you an LSS apartment in my municipality. He retreated into surly monosyllables.

But our conversation ended well after I told him I like prog rock and recognised his name. He’s the bass player of one of Stockholm’s longest-active 70s prog bands.


Critical Thinking Training Makes Kids Smart And Also Atheist

I’m weeks late to the party here. If you pay attention to atheist issues you’ve probably heard that a recent major meta-study* concludes that at the population level, atheists are a bit smarter than religious folks (mainly Protestant Americans and English in this case). Not dramatically so, but in a statistically significant way. The difference persists even if you control for gender and education level. This means that if you look only at poorly educated people, the unbelievers are a bit smarter, and likewise if you look only at highly educated people, or women, or men. Here are some thoughts about this.

Intelligence is, to the extent that it is measurable, caused by both genetics and environment. Take a pair of twins and give one good nutrition, care and education – and withhold all this from the other twin. Then the first twin will score better at IQ tests than her sister. On the other hand, kids with smart parents tend to grow up smarter than other people even if they are separated from their parents at birth. The new study documents a drop-off in the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers after higher education. Atheists are still smarter, but the difference shrinks. That is very telling to me.

I don’t think having atheist beliefs makes you smarter. Nor does being smart make you more likely to become an atheist. The study’s authors suggest that the main explanation for the difference is that “intelligent people do not accept beliefs not subject to empirical tests or evidence”. This is almost certainly the wrong explanation. It may be an observational truth, but it is not a causal explanation.

Here’s how I think it works. It has to do not only with the amount of education controlled for by the study, but with the content of your early indoctrination and later education – specifically, whether you are encouraged to think critically or not.

By definition, religious upbringing and education teaches acceptance of some scriptural authority. Not only on ethical issues, but on matters of fact, such as “Is there a god and what’s her name?”. This is why religious affiliation runs so strongly in families, communities and cultures. There are an awful lot of Hindus in the world, for instance, but geographically and culturally they are sharply delimited. This religion’s success has nothing to do with smart people in India looking over the global options and picking the best one. It is due to everybody in that area, smart or stupid, being indoctrinated in the readily available and culturally accepted default faith. Religious people often attend religious schools and universities.

Non-religious upbringing and education, on the other hand, tends to be equally big on the ethics but more critical and open on factual issues. My kids, for instance, often get the reply “Can you guess?” when they ask their dad questions. This, I believe, gives a child’s intelligence a big push. The fact that this correlates with atheism is simply an epiphenomenon. If taught critical thinking, kids become more intelligent and also happen to be less open to accepting untestable or empirically false religious beliefs. Critical thinking training makes kids a bit smarter – and also atheist.

* Zuckerman, M.; Silberman, J. & Hall, J.A. 2013. The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Aug. 6, 2013.

I was inspired to write this blog entry by the discussion on episode #100 of the excellent Skeptikerpodden podcast. Congrats guys, keep up the good work!

Thoughts of Violence Past in a Peaceful City

Ferdinand Balfoort contributes a guest entry upon a recent ancestral pilgrimage to Stockholm.

I gladly agreed to write something for the blog after being introduced by Martin to a book by Frans G. Bengtsson about Early Modern Scottish brigades (and brigadiers) in the Nordic region including Sweden. I visited Stockholm in December on my quest to find my 16th century ancestor Gilbert Balfour who lost his head during a public decapitation procedure with a sharp implement, somewhere in the Old Town. So far I am no closer to retrieving his head or his grave site, but some illumination has been provided by the good people of the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet), who sent me a scanned copy of another book by a Swedish author named Fridolf Ödberg: Stämplingarna mot Konung Johan III, “The Plot Against King John III” (1897). My ancestor and his antecedents are duly noted, and on the face of it the story is not a wholesome one.

Gilbert Balfour (and his brothers) are noted for their various involvements as ringleaders or participants in conspiracies against several notable persons in Scotland and Sweden. The Riksarkivet noted rather bluntly that it would be unlikely to find my ancestor’s last resting place in the hallowed ground of Riddarholmskyrkan church, and I appear to have opened a can of worms as far as family geneology is concerned, in all meanings of that popular saying. Which takes me to observations about Stockholm.

One key observation is that the city (and the people here) are very peaceful considering the often violent past. That is no different from the rest of Europe and many places are still wrestling through the violent cycles towards calmer waters. It begs the question as to why such violent pasts have created the current stability and relative peace that is built around consensus rather than the sword, especially in the northern part of Europe. Since this blog lists an eclectic mix of topics, including brain functionality, it might therefore be interesting to tie family history and neuroscience to Vikings. For it appears that a specific gene called the “Warrior gene” (see Science Daily) is responsible for somewhat sociopathic or very psychopathic tendencies, where the MRI scans of such perpetrators as Anders Breivik appear to show a differently coloured pattern in the neocortex. The milk of human kindness appears to dry up in such individuals, but it is also apparent that our evolution necessitated such genetic evolution.

In present-day Palestine, an author of research into the warrior gene – himself the proud possessor of an underendowed neocortex due to the apparent presence of no less that 16 violent murderers in his ancestral matrilineage – has found that through generations of conflict the warrior gene is now establishing dominance in the Palestinian gene pool. His hypothesis is that the more violent males attract mates due to a higher chance of survival for progeny fathered by those with the warrior gene. And so the process selectively advances and causes a cycle of violence which have less to do with politics and more with human evolution. As more violently tending persons are born, this begets more violence and so forth.

As the Riksarkivet person noted, Gilbert Balfour was a rather violent person, who was put to death in a rather violent period of history. And we have fortunately arrived at a much more benign state of affairs, which sees Sweden (and the Nordic countries) ranking highly on the quality of life index, anti corruption, civil society etc. It may in fact all be a case of selective breeding as I have noted. Our ancestors were partners and actors in progress and it is good to know they were there along the way. I am glad myself to now be able to visit Stockholm and enjoy the warm hospitality and the people without fear of being taken off to the Stortorget for a public decapitation. We have come a long way since those unruly days. May it long be so.

Ferdinand Balfoort is a nomadic governance and risk expert dealing mainly with accounting and auditing. In his free time he pursues studies of genealogy, ethics and neuroscience, Sufism and other metaphysics, and plays the trumpet.

Only Certain Humans Ever Have Sex To Reproduce

Ed Yong’s excellent post about fruit-bat fellatio received some even better, eye-opening comments from one Russell and Frog:

Russell: “Tan is falling into the fallacy that animals have sex for the purpose of procreation. Or of writing as if. Those bats are having sex because they’re horny, and the fellatio is somehow making their sex more satisfying. That might or might not enhance reproduction. But that is not on the little bats’ minds when they’re busy getting it on.”

Frog: “The bats aren’t making direct computations of relative reproductive success — they’re ‘feeling good’, and very often ‘feeling good’ is made better by making someone else ‘feel good’ (not assuming that the bats can actually model their partners mind like that).

Humans have sex for reproductive purposes — I would bet we’re the only ones who are that insane. Everyone else just does what they like to do.

This is like saying that animal X eats to keep their metabolism going — only a few crazy people do that. Everyone eats because they like eating.”

And of course. Animals take great pleasure from sex because it is adaptive to feel that pleasure. None of them is smart enough to understand that babies follow. And that obviates the entire discussion of what sexual behaviour counts as “natural” in humans.

The only rule we need to follow is “consenting adults”. (With the addition, of course, that if a person consents to having grievous bodily harm done to them, then this is a symptom of mental illness and places a responsibility of care, not exploitation, upon people around. But then someone who would feel inclined to exploit such a situation sexually is of course also nuts.)

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Elusive Randomness

Computers are built to preserve information, not to be creative, and certainly not to be random. Therefore it is a problem to get a really random number into a computer when you need one. A common source, looking at the hundredth of seconds in the computer’s clock, is not all that good as it leads to predictability if you pull two numbers from the hat with a recurrent time interval between them. You really need to link the computer to something non-digital if you want real randomness.

A legendary 80s science fiction computer game, Elite, used pseudo-randomness to generate its world. The game has next to no data on-board as it wouldn’t fit into the tiny work memory of the era’s home computers. Instead it has a random-number generator that is hard-wired to start with the same input value every time it’s run. Thus, instead of generating a new set of numbers every time, it reliably recreates the same fictional universe with the star systems Lave and Leesti and its edible mountain poets.

I once came across a hypothesis (whose status among neuroscientists today I do not know) that the human brain likewise has a localised “crazy box” that allows for creativity while the rest of the wetware works on computer-like principles. According to this hypothesis, your creativity will increase if you perturb the brain’s function and allow the crazy box to have greater influence over the machine’s output. Thus the Skaldic Mead and Sgt. Pepper and On the Road. offers an on-line random number generator for all your creative needs. It takes the numbers from atmospheric noise picked up by three analog radio receivers. Better than perturbing your brain!

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Etzel Cardeña, Professor of Parapsychology at Lund

i-4606ba0eebcf34b0ad2626f99b964c6c-etzelcardena.jpgI entered into organised skepticism because of anti-science tendencies in academe. Though a member of the Swedish Skeptics since 1997 and co-editor of the society’s journal since 2002, I’ve never been much of a skeptical activist outside academic archaeology. I’ve written articles and a few letters of protest. But I’ve visited no spirit mediums, gone to no New Age fairs, crashed no fundie revivals. I have engaged with Teh Woo only in the manner of a sniper. In fact, I hardly ever meet any true believers apart from my New Age mom. But last night I had two such encounters: first one that was planned, polite and academic in tone. Then one that was unexpected, hostile and decidedly low-brow.

Not knowing really what to expect, it was with some trepidation I went to hear Professor Etzel Cardeña’s lecture to the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research. Cardeña is the first Thorsen Professor of Parapsychology and Hypnology at the University of Lund. Poul Thorsen was a Danish margarine tycoon who was interested in hypnosis and published a book on how to use it to have your way with women. The controversial endowment that bears his name spent four decades in limbo after Thorsen’s death, until finally Lund accepted it in 2003 — on one condition. They tacked the words “and Hypnology” onto the Chair’s title, much to the true believers’ chagrin.

Parapsychology is unique among the sciences in that no-one has been able to prove that the discipline’s object of study, “psi”, exists. While other sciences investigate the properties of their objects, parapsychological research tends to aim at demonstrating its object’s existence — so far unsuccessfully. Hypnology, on the other hand, investigates sleep and sleep-like mental states such as hypnosis. When the Thorsen Chair was announced, skeptics hoped that Cardeña would concentrate his efforts on the latter subject, which was what he had been doing before that date.

Last night, Cardeña spoke to an audience of about 35 people. The man who introduced him remarked that this was an unusally large gathering for the Society for Parapsychological Research, and us non-members were asked to raise our hands and be counted. We could become members as part of our entry fee if we wanted. Compared to the audience at a typical lecture event organised by the Swedish Skeptics, this one was markedly smaller, markedly older, and had a markedly more even gender ratio, though men dominated here too. Everyone was nice and quiet. As we waited for the talk to begin, I overheard an old guy behind me telling his none too enthusiastic friend about the Swedish Skeptics in appreciative tones, about how having thousands of members and a growing membership gives us a certain financial oomph, as evidenced e.g. by the Enlightener of the Year Prize of $3100.

Etzel Cardeña is a shortish, lively and likeable Mexican who honoured his audience by wearing a dark three-piece suit. I could see that his shirt collar caused the poor man some discomfort. He reminded me of Martin Sheen as the President in West Wing. Heroically, Cardeña gave his talk not in his native Spanish, nor much in his fluent English, but almost entirely in his recently acquired and decidedly patchy Swedish. But I could understand him well enough. He spoke for an hour and a half about “The relationship between anomalous states of conscience and parapsychology”. Most of the talk concerned his research into hypnosis, with psi entering only at the end.

I learned four main things about Etzel Cardeña’s beliefs. He thinks that:

  1. Hypnosis is real, in the sense that Cardeña believes himself able to place susceptible subjects in an anomalous mental state through suggestion, and they do not make up the experiences they describe to him.
  2. Psi, paranormal mental capabilities, is real and distict from hypnosis. Indeed, much of Cardeña’s research in Lund aims at studying the relationship between the two.
  3. The world is not just physical matter. I asked Cardeña specifically about this after his talk, and he explained that though he is definitely not a philosophical materialist, he hesitates to call himself a dualist, preferring to speak of a “oneness”.
  4. The mind, hypnosis and psi should be studied with scientific methods and test protocols: Cardeña notably uses EEG, questionnaires and statistics.Of these four core beliefs, at least two are extreme minority positions among the world’s scientists. I’ll leave it up to the Dear Reader to identify which one is not.

To understand Cardeña’s mode of thought, one may ponder the fact that he called William James his hero and ended his talk with a quotation from Alan Gauld to the effect that mesmerism is underrated. (I kid you not!) In my opinion, Cardeña is using Thorsen’s money to study the relationship between a certain fantasy-prone personality type and thin air.

Horror fans may also like to know that Etzel Cardeña has adapted and performed Edgar Allan Poe as radio theatre in Spanish and published it on the web!

During Cardeña’s talk, somebody in Scania called my cell phone once and my home phone twice. Then, just as I got home at about 21:40, the persistent Scanian called my cell again and I answered. It turned out to be an irate Christian fellow who greatly admires professor of medicine Lennart Möller and his absolutely batty brand of Biblical pseudo-archaeology. Ostensibly, the caller wanted to learn about my opposition to Möller (which I have published in Folkvett 2004:2 and Skeptical Inquirer 28:6 (2004). But he hadn’t read anything I had written, and the conversation soon turned into him ranting “Who do you think you are with yer fancy university degree, you haven’t even been to the sites Möller writes about, you aren’t even a Biblical archaeologist, Möller is a DNA researcher you know, I might just read something you wrote and say it’s all blah blah blah”. The caller pointed out that he had been able to build a small hydroelectric dam and save a lot of money despite the skepticism of his neighbours. And then he rattled off a long list of Christian Swedish celebrities, suggesting that this list in itself was an argument for the truth of his religion. The list ended, a bit confusingly I must say, with a woman whose name is known because she’s spent decades in a US jail for her participation in a murder.

The cool thing about this is that either Lennart Möller himself is telling shocked rural congregations on his lecture tours about my satanic criticism of his pious attempts at Biblical archaeology, or there’s a rumour about me among his fans. Luckily, most of them seem to be a bit more restrained than the guy I talked to last night, because this is the first time anybody’s contacted me about Möller. To my knowledge, he hasn’t responded in print to my arguments.

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Genius on the Edge

I worry about of Montreal’s musical motor, pop genius Kevin Barnes. He first got records out in 1997-98, when he was an elegantly naivistic singer of sad love songs. Then he shot like a lysergic rocket straight into Pepperland with four beatlesque albums in 1999-2004. On his 2005 album he suddenly said goodbye to his old band members, returned to confessional mode and sang the praises of married life and parenthood in Norway of all places. And two other new themes appeared: 80s-style electronica and deep depression. That’s where he still is.

With his recent album, Skeletal Lamping, Barnes has turned into a open-heartedly suicidal incarnation of early Prince. Yes he is extremely lewd, yes he is psychedelic, yes he has a plastic synth sound, and dammit I’m afraid the man’s gonna kill himself. I mean, look at this:

“… the hope of another wet nightmare is all we have to live for …”

“Why am I so damaged girl
Why am I such poisoned goods
I don’t know how long I can hold on
If it’s gonna be like this forever

Why am I so damaged
Why am I so troubled girl
I don’t know how long I can hold on
If it’s gonna be like this forever”

“Don’t be afraid lille ven of violence
I’m only poisoning you, not gonna stab you.
Don’t be afraid lille ven of my troubled mind
I’m just poisoning you a little
With my gloom”

There’s some early Bowie and late Lennon in the mix too, and everything’s overlaid with Barnes’s inimitable multitracked vocal harmony. The sunny Brian Wilson influences and Pepperisms are no more. And there’s no getting around it: we’re dealing with a severely depressed musician who somehow manages to release one brilliant album a year and go on tour regularly.

Barnes and his new (-ish) band are playing in Stockholm on Monday, and I’ll be there. He has recorded his latest few albums alone at home, producing reams of highly intricate studio pop. I look forward to hearing live versions of the songs! And I really hope it won’t turn out to be Last Chance To See.

Check out Rolling Stone’s recent interview with Kevin Barnes.

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Slave to Love

A much-publicised trial in Falun, Sweden is giving me a funny feeling. The man on the stand has confessed to the murder of a woman and a small girl, and is also charged with the violent rape of both and of a second woman. The case makes me feel queasy in more ways than one.

Anybody half sane will of course feel incomprehending revulsion when faced with the fact of men with the drive to beat, rape and murder. But there’s something more to it for me. And I think I know what it is. This insane sadistic sex murderer was just following his strongest urges. And so have I done for all my adult life.

I’ll make no bones about it: since my lower teens, I have had a strong irrational urge to have hot, tender, consensual sex with women, preferably several times a week. This has been an important factor in the style of both of my marriages, and the ladies in question will be able to testify that I am indeed quite possessed by that urge. [Comments indicate that I should clarify that what I am confessing to here is randiness, not promiscuity.] In the interval between my marriages, I did little but pursue the fulfilment of my inclinations, and they led me to perform remarkably silly stunts for someone who calls himself a rationalist.

As luck has it, my urges are socially acceptable. Indeed, a number of people even seem to have found them charming. But the thing is, I didn’t choose my orientation. I just did whatever felt right. And so, when I read about the crimes of this unfeeling, twisted child-killer, I feel sick to the stomach. Because the main reason that I’m not committing rape and murder is that I have no inclination to do so. I don’t know if I would have been able to abstain if I had been built the same way as him.

Unsuccessfully Grokking Prostitution

Dear Reader DuWayne asked what I think about prostitution. By way of answer, here’s a re-run of an entry on that issue from May 2006. Two years later, I am no wiser.

News reports from the German brothel industry pending the World Soccer Championship have set me a-thinking about prostitution. It’s one of those tricky issues where I find it hard to make up my mind.

Is prostitution a problem? If so, who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? What are the ethical aspects of prostitution? Quite apart from ideals, what is the best practical stance for society to take regarding prostitution? Are there important differences between prostitution and participation in pornography? Should we allow people to do whatever they like with their bodies as long as they aren’t harming themselves physically? Are there physically harmless acts that nobody can perform without harming their minds? Or that nobody in their right mind wants to perform?

To me, prostitution is a deeply alien thing. One of the main points of sex for me is the mutual affirmation involved: “I want you and you want me, yippee, let’s get it on”. Not “I want you and you need cash, spread ’em”. But then, I’m reasonably pretty and outgoing, so I’ve been lucky with women. Imagine the horror of having a strong sex drive, a repulsive exterior and a shy personality. I can see that it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Apparently the people who either buy or sell sex are a minority among the population. And I gather that most prostitutes have a history of childhood sexual abuse. So we might perhaps tentatively say that prostitution is a symptom of a psychological problem in both buyer and seller. I mean, what kind of self-image does a john have? Either he deludes himself that he’s actually buying love, or he gets off on thinking himself able to “dominate” the prostitute, or he believes that the only way he can get someone to go to bed with him is by paying them.

I’d be absolutely shattered if someone I care about began to buy or sell sex. I’d see it as a big problem that I’d have to help do something about. But then again, I know a charming and popular guy who used to be a sailor when he was young, and he makes no secret of the fact that he would buy sex regularly when on shore leave. And I know another guy who runs a bar in the Far East, and he is explicitly aware that the bar girls used to cater to his needs (before his marriage) only in order to be able to use his place to pick up business. “I’ve got no looks and no charm, I’d never have a chance with gorgeous girls like these back home in Sweden.” Again, it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Take a young junkie, supporting himself and his habit by turning tricks, occasionally getting beaten by johns or his pimp, inexorably wearing himself down. What’s his biggest problem – drugs or prostitution? What’s the hen and what’s the egg? If society manages to get him de-toxed, will he also quit selling himself? If society gets him a real job, will he de-tox of his own accord so he can keep the job? Or should we decide that junkie prostitutes no longer have free will in any meaningful sense and that we must take care of them forcibly to keep them from dying on our doorsteps?

Or take a former member of the Romanian national gymnastics team. If her choice is between working a checkout counter at a supermarket six days a week, or recording ten mullets-and-Doppelpenetration movies a year and making considerably more money – should we pity her if she chooses the latter? Or maybe the question is, should we think in terms of choice, of free will, at all? Because most pretty Romanian supermarket clerks for some reason don’t move into porn.

In Sweden, it’s illegal to buy sex or facilitate a sex-money-transaction. It’s legal to sell sex, recognising that prostitutes are, by-and-large, victims with quite enough problems that they really don’t need police harassment and criminal punishment as well. In Germany, just a short ferry ride across the Baltic, buying and selling sex is legal, pimping is not. Quite a number of prostitutes are legitimate businesspeople and pay taxes. Legitimate businesspeople having sex with sixty paying strangers a week. I really find that demeaning.

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ICQ Gender Wars

A pretty Chinese maths teacher said hello to me on ICQ the other day, hoping to marry a Westerner. This inspired me to dig out and re-post the following entry from November 2006.


For many years I have spent most of my working days alone at a computer. Alone, but thanks to the internet and messaging software, not lonely. As mentioned before in connection with the story of Lennart, International Casanova, it’s good to have a chat now and then with other solitary souls over ICQ. They become your workmates even though they may be located on the other side of the planet in meatspace terms, to use a quaint 80s cyberpunk expression.

The spidery network of ICQ contacts can also teach you a lot about gender politics. In recent years, I have increasingly been contacted over ICQ by nubile females in Eastern Europe and Asia. These chats are usually very short and follow a simple pattern. The lady in question asks me in shaky English whether I am married, if I have children and what sort of job I have. And when I reply “yes”, “yes” and “not a well-paid one”, the conversation ceases. With all due respect to these enterprising and fearless ladies, this did get boring really quickly. But the problem mostly disappeared when I entered into my ICQ profile that I am in fact married and have kids.

For the past week I’ve been alone at home a lot and so have had reason to say “Hey there, how ya doing?” to a lot of random strangers on ICQ. Most people don’t reply at all to that sort of message. But among those who did, I quickly noticed another interesting pattern.

Far more males than females replied, and a lot of these males apparently hoped that I might want to have sex with them. This did not seem to be contingent on my income or family configuration, which I find kind of heartwarming in comparison to those grimly goal-orientated Eastern would-be brides. But as soon as it became apparent that I wasn’t interested in penis-themed conversation, these chats also ceased.

As for the ladies, the problem was really the opposite. Those few who responded were willing to have a chat, but at the same time they were clearly very guarded. Some started out by telling me, out of the blue, that they were not interested in sex talk or sex pics. This is not how live face-to-face chats with strangers usually begin. “Errrr”, responded I, “do you think we might perhaps simply have a civilised conversation?”.

Cyber sex is the text-messaging equivalent of phone sex. It’s a lot like having to read a very bad pornographic story line by line as it is improvised by someone who’s had sex but has never written a story before. It’s time-consuming, boring and in my opinion absolutely pointless. The internet is full of porn, a lot of it written and a lot of it written really well. But still, it seems that women on ICQ are absolutely besieged by men who want to have cyber sex and preferably also web cam pics of their anatomy. For women, ICQ seems to be a bit like going to a cocktail party where half of the male guests are insane sex offenders.

So I’ve made another addition to my ICQ profile. It now reads:

Archaeologist & all-round friendly guy.

Married, two kids. I don’t do cyber sex and I don’t want to see pics of your boobs or private parts, OK?

Let’s see if it works.

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