Archives for posts with tag: Division of Labour

We, humans, pride ourselves on many things.

On being smart/intelligent. And on being the only animals able to brag about their achievements with their peers…

But what is it that qualifies us as humans?
That would, of course, depend on what a human really is…

OK, let me use another tack.
What are we really good at? What sets us apart from the rest of the animals?

Practical intelligence? Our ability to solve really complicated problems?

Then watch this wild New Caledonian Crow treating itself to a piece of meat.

new Caledonian crow

Our ability to figure new meaning and to overcome our natural impulses?

Then read about Sheba the Chimp using language to suppress her greed:

In a celebrated study that investigated impulse control, Sally Boysen of Ohio State University asked chimps to choose between two dishes of M&Ms®.

SALLY BOYSEN: Now, you watch real carefully. We’re going to put one, two, three, four down here. Are you watching, Miss Priss? Sheeby? And we’re going to put two in here.

Give those to Sarah. Okay.

Well, I have to give these to Sarah, and Sheeba gets two. So Sarah gets four and Sheba only gets two. Aw, too bad.

NARRATOR: The twist was that the chimp got the candy she didn’t point to. Could the chimp learn to resist her impulse to reach for the bigger pile?

SALLY BOYSEN: You want Sarah to have these? It’s okay, it’s okay. You get to have that one. Yeah, Sarah gets five, and Sheba gets one. Oh, that is such a shame.

NARRATOR: Amazingly, chimps never overcame their greedy urges. They always reached for more and, so, ended up with less.

SALLY BOYSEN: And Sheba gets two, so Sarah gets four. See?

NARRATOR: Impulse studies have also been run on humans. In a classic experiment from the 1970s, a researcher gave a four-year-old a simple choice.

RESEARCHER : So, if you wait for me to get back, I’ll give you this bowl with all of these gummy bears, okay? But if you can’t wait, you can push that button, like this, and then I’ll come back and you can have this bowl with just this one gummy bear, okay? Okay, I’ll be right back.

NARRATOR: According to an inconclusive but intriguing study, the longer children resisted temptation, the higher their S.A.T. scores were years later. In any case, the differences between people are small compared to the gap separating humans and apes.

BRIAN HARE: Maybe one of the first things that happened during our species evolution is we became much less emotionally reactive. And maybe that’s one of the big differences that may explain why we solve problems so differently. We sort of got control of our emotions.

NARRATOR: Can apes be given skills to help them master their emotions? Sally Boysen trained a chimp to understand numerals. Then she repeated her M&Ms experiment, but now offered different pairs of numerals rather than treats.

SALLY BOYSEN: You want to give two to Sarah? Okay. Two goes to Sarah, and you get six.

NARRATOR: Remarkably, chimps were now able to learn what they couldn’t before: point to the smaller number to get the bigger prize.

Symbols can make you free. They can help distance an ape from its impulses. But outside of the lab, apes don’t seem to use symbols. Still, ape minds seem to share many of the amazing features of the human mind.

There is a video which depicts all this. Click on this link and see if it’s available “in your area.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/ape-genius.html.

How about our consciousness? Our ability to ‘observe ourselves in the act of observing‘.
Well, that alone wouldn’t have made us any more special than an octopus…

self aware octopus

But what if our individuality resides in us having taken all three to ‘a different level’? One which hasn’t yet been attained by anybody else? Not necessarily higher, mind you!

I’ll deal with ‘trade’ now and I’m afraid you’ll have to come back for the rest.

‘Trade’ wasn’t even mentioned in those three examples?
What was the crow trying to do?
Feed itself? As in exchange matter with the ‘outside’?
What was Sheba trying to do?
Figure our what was going on? As in trading information with the surrounding world?

In this sense all living things are engaged in all forms of trading? And continue to do so for as long as they remain alive?
What did I tell you about us doing nothing really new? Only different?

OK, we had already figured out – long before Adam Smith described it as ‘division of labor’, that by dividing tasks amongst us we’ll be able to accomplish far more things than if we had attempted ‘individual autarky’. And then we had invented ‘trade’, as a manner of exchanging the different wares each of us was proficient in doing…
Wait! Even this is not really ‘new’!
Mother Nature had already invented sexual reproduction – a very extreme ‘division of labour’, a very long time ago…. but not before bacteria were already adept at ‘trading’ genetic information.

 

 

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One of the oldest literary works, a poem written some 4 millennia ago, is about the prince of the land, Gilgamesh, helping his ‘commoner’ friend, Enkidu, to reach ‘full human-hood’. Along with the rest of the people under Gilgamesh’s stewardship.

Prometheus, the Titan who had given us “the gift of fire and the skill of metalwork“,  ended up chained to a pole and having his liver eaten out by an eagle.

The Jewish God had made Man in His own image. All men, and women, equal among themselves – since they had all been cast in the same mould, and all of them sharing a divine spark – since that mould had been made in God’s resemblance.

Some two and a half millennia ago, in India, Siddhartha Gautama – the highly pampered son of a local ruler, had figured out – and started to teach his followers, that the manner in which you lead your life is far more important than being celebrated as a winner.

About the same time, in China, Laozi had written a “handbook for the ruler. He should be a sage whose actions pass so unnoticed that his very existence remains unknown. He imposes no restrictions or prohibitions on his subjects; “so long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight. So long as I act only by inactivity, the people will of themselves become prosperous.””.

Two millennia ago, in Jerusalem, a teacher had reminded us that God’s teachings have been meant to be followed in earnest, not ‘faked’ in a callous manner. And that we should respect each-other, regardless of our respective ranks.

Less than three short centuries ago, Adam Smith had figured out that human society has passed through a series of ‘stages’:  “the original “rude” state of hunters, a second stage of nomadic agriculture, a third stage of feudal, or manorial, “farming,” and a fourth and final stage of commercial interdependence.
‘Commercial interdependence’ meaning that each and every one of us depends on everybody else.

“We don’t expect our dinner from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, or baker but from their regard for their own interest; we appeal not to their humanity but to their self-love, and talk to them not of our needs but of their advantages.”

Adam Smith,
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776

In other words, Adam Smith reiterates the very same thing that has been already told so many times in so many ways.

That it is in the interest of each and everyone of us for the free market to remain free. If we allow any of the ‘butcher’, ‘brewer’ or ‘baker’ to take any kind of precedence over any of the other – or over any one of us, then we are all doomed. Including those who had enjoyed, for a while, the spoils of ‘precedence’.

I’m not making much sense here?

Let’s take a short glimpse back.

Not many of Gilgamesh’s ‘nephews’ have followed his example.
During their rule, the area had been a quagmire of internecine warfare. It still is, unfortunately.

Prometheus’ is a very interesting story.
His very gallant exploit was punished dearly.
What if there is some hidden meaning to it? Related to that of the ‘original sin’?

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

So what do we have here?
The serpent gives Eve an advice – which comes to be true, Adam and Eve haven’t died from eating ‘the apple’.
Adam and Eve ‘realize they were naked’ and dress themselves.
God finds out and chastises Adam: ‘what have you done? Haven’t I told you not to eat from that tree?’.
Adam snitches on his woman, the one made from his own rib, at his own request:  “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” And Eve passed the blame along to her teacher…

Well, maybe there is a sort of an ‘original sin’… and not one necessarily based on our tendency to disobey orders… after all, ‘disobeying’ is the only way to learn anything…

Let’s go back to the Bible.

22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

What if God was not as much mad at Adam and Eve for acceding to self awareness as he was afraid of what they will do with their newly acquired skill? Specially if they would have been allowed to hone it for any considerable amount of time?
Specially when considering what each of them had done after they had learned about their individual oneness? Tried to blame others for what each of them had done?
Each of them had tried to use whatever difference there was between their individual beings and all the rest to their exclusive advantage? As a way to invent and win a competition instead of a reason to start and engage in a cooperative effort?

Would it be farfetched to interpret this episode as ‘God, in his immense wisdom, knew that allowing an imperfect ‘knowledgeable person’ to ‘hold on to power’ for too long would transform that person into a tyrant?’.
For we are, all of us, ‘imperfect knowledgeable persons’… regardless of what we think about ourselves…

Going back to Prometheus, ‘fire’ and ‘metalwork’ are powerful ‘competitive advantages’. Societies which control these ‘skills’ can very easily subdue those who don’t. And they have done it, several times in history.
With ‘mixed’ results, to put it mildly.
Could it be that Prometheus’ punishment is a metaphor meant to teach us about the perils of inducing extreme disparities among various groups of people?

The Jewish people have demonstrated an uncanny ability to survive. As a people, I mean. Against incredible odds.
I don’t know whether this has anything to do with any help from God but I’m convinced it has everything to do with the manner in which they treat each-other. More precisely, with the manner in which they help and respect each-other.

Only three countries in Asia have not been completely overrun by the Europeans during the XIX century. China, Japan and Thailand. The common thread among them is that all three follow the teachings of Buddha and Laozi. Which are very similar, in their essence.

Christian Europe, the land inhabited by people supposed to love each-other, has somehow reached a world dominant position during the XVIIIth and  XIXth centuries, process which has been furthered by the rise of the equally Christian US of America.
Unfortunately, during the same three centuries, the same Euro-Atlantic space has been the theater and origin of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of humankind.

The free-market capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith worked wonders.
Well, not the capitalism itself. The people cooperating according to Smith’s division of labour in the realm of the free market.
The entire world is currently living in way better conditions than, say, one hundred years ago.

Yet, there are some ominous clouds rising their ugly heads over the horizon.

In Europe – which had wised up after WWII, at least temporarily, ‘differentialism’ is on the rise again.
The Cold War had ended but those who won it didn’t apply the lesson that had become evident after WWI and WWII. That the victor has to help the vanquished out of its war induced relative misery if things are to be settled for good.

For many, capitalism has become synonymous to greed.
Which is both absolutely wrong and very descriptive of the current situation.

How about us making better use of the comprehension skills for which Adam and Eve had been banished from the Paradise?
And revert to more modest manners? More helpful for our longer term survival?

Would it make any difference if I reminded you that Rome had fallen while Byzantium had survived for another millennium?
What was the difference between these two?
The people in Byzantium had converted en masse to the religion which considered people as being ‘Equal Children of the Loving God’ while the Roman emperors had continued to bribe their ‘constituents’ with ‘panem et circenses’.

“He would rather govern rich men than be rich himself; since for one man to abound in wealth and pleasure when all about him are mourning and groaning, is to be a gaoler and not a king.”

Thomas More, The Utopia.

Survival of the fittest“.

Evolution is not about survival of the fittest but about the demise of those unable to adapt. Even if the difference seems trivial this approach has vast consequences. As Ernst Mayr explains it What evolution is, (Basic Books, New York, 2002) one can never know what “best” may mean, in any situation. First of all because (Werner Heisenberg, Herbert Simon, Dan Ariely) you can never have a complete picture of anything and secondly because in the real world ‘situations’ are changing constantly – Panta Rhei.
So the only relevant test is survival, being able to cope with whatever comes along and not the brilliance with which one might be able to solve a very particular problem, at a particular moment in time.

Division of labor

After understanding ‘survival’, it’s a lot easier to figure why social strategy functions better than sheer individualism: by creating the right environment for its members to become specialists a complex team will cope better when confronted with  different complex situations than a mob composed of identically qualified members.
With the caveat that this arrangement works only as long as every member of the team realizes that it’s better for him to belong than to get out and only as long as all the members of the said team act consistently as if ‘one for all and all for one’. Otherwise put, complex teams where each has it’s own more or less indispensable role work properly only as long as most of the members continue to be ‘socially intelligent‘.

For those who feel there is an apparent contradiction here please note there are two levels of analysis/interaction.
Individually, each of us has to take care of him/herself (and his/hers immediate family).
Socially, each of us has the duty to evaluate the other members of the group and to exchange information with them about the well being of the whole group.

This can be taken even further. Whenever a subgroup becomes too ‘specialized’ –  as is in ‘becoming so preoccupied with it’s own well being as to stop caring about the rest’, its own survival is in danger. Time and time again, history shows us that those who become estranged from the rest of the society end up badly. Creating problems for the entire society, true, but ultimately their behavior amounts to a form of suicide. Callous royals end up on the chopping block, seemingly indestructible dictators end up at the hands of angry mobs… Erstwhile top of the feeding chain (too big to fail?!?) companies end up broke or bailed out by the government…

Politics versus Economics

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that politics and economy have grown so apart from each other and each of them so disconnected from reality.
Politics has become a constant struggle for administrative power while economy has ‘metastasized’ into a battle field where the foot soldiers struggle to survive while the big brass  gorge themselves with ‘money’.

Nowadays, too many politicians have forgotten that their job is to figure out, in close cooperation with the rest of the society, how to solve the various problems which  challenge us on a daily basis. Too many of them do nothing but fight among themselves, each of them attempting to impose their particular vision on all of us.
In the same time, the economic mechanism is no longer geared towards ‘making the ends meet’ – the original meaning of the Greek word oikonomia.
Our not so distanced ancestors have invented a self governing mechanism which very efficiently allocated the available resources to those who were able to put them to good use. Adam Smith described this mechanism as ‘the free market’.
Presently, we’ve corrupted this previously self leveling mechanism into a collective MMA arena where the heavier knock the wind out of the weaker in the name of ‘king profit’.

All this because we mistakenly believe free market capitalism to be an ideology when it is nothing but a mechanism for allocating resources.
The best to date, admittedly, but only as long as we’re wise enough to preserve the freedom of the market.
And as soon as we’ve mistakenly ‘anointed’ profit as the most important goal of any economic venture… the market had ceased to be free!  You see, profit is the best measure for efficiency – which, in its turn, is the best indicator for economic survivability, yet efficiency itself is pointless if the needs of the market are not met. Smith’s famous characters – the baker, the brewer and the butcher, went to the market to meet the needs of their customers. They became comfortably well off because they were successful in meeting those needs in an efficient manner, not because they were successful in cornering the market… as some of the present day tycoons are teaching us

Why do I maintain that a ‘profit obsessed’ market is no longer free?
Well, simply because the participants to such a market are just as free as those addicted to heroin. Both kind of addicts think of nothing but the object of their addiction and are oblivious to everything else. As in blind to everything else!
And I’m sure you all agree with me that being blind is detrimental to being able to stay alive. Specially so for those unaware of their blindness!
Or unaware of their addiction…

 

According to various theories, history is cyclical.
Meaning that we keep doing more or less the same things – or ‘errors’, until we figure them out for what they are.
And then we do them again, under a different guise…

“In China, people must use identity documents for train travel. This rule works to prevent people with excessive debt from using high-speed trains, and limit the movement of religious minorities who have had identity documents confiscated and can wait years to get a valid passport.

While this is the first time Chinese officials have used glasses to implement facial-recognition, the technology is widely used by police. China is also currently building a system that will recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens in three seconds.”

We’ve spent most of our previously mentioned history living in closely knit and relatively small communities.
We made huge ‘progress’ during that time.
The period had started when we had climbed down from our ancestral tree – or had been made by God, take your pick, and had ended – for most of us, anyway, when we had moved to what we presently call ‘cities’.

Win some, loose some.

Apparently, ‘city-slickers’ are more ‘advanced’ than their rural cousins.
More people living together allows for a deeper division of labour, hence a higher specialization. Productivity increases faster and accumulated knowledge becomes simultaneously deeper and wider.
Unfortunately, all these come at a cost. At first for the individuals and, ultimately, for the society at large.

Living in smallish, and necessarily closer knit, groups provides a lot of ‘natural’ social solidarity. Individuals feel that they belong somewhere and, by sheer necessity, give relatively much to the community. Effort as well as attention.
Lost in the city‘, individuals are simultaneously freer to experiment/innovate and also more prone to growing alienated. So alienated as to become a danger to themselves and/or to those living around them.

On the other hand, small communities, where everybody knows everybody else, necessarily generate a lot of social conformity.
Individuals enjoy a lot of (relative) security and psychological comfort but don’t have very much lee-way.
Innovation, technological as well as social, is slower in this circumstances.
It took us some 130,000 years to ‘invent’ speech, another 65,000 to ‘invent’ writing and then, after no more than 6 short millennia we invented the printing press.
Less than another 6 centuries later we have the Internet.

Writing was invented by the Assyrians – an ‘imperial’ people who lived in cities and who needed a ‘technology’ to keep track of taxes due on the commercial trades which sustained the whole civilization.
Basically the same thing was repeated in many other places. Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, etc.
Written records and favorable geography had allowed the imperial administrations to control relatively vast tracts of land, relatively huge amounts of people and marshal considerable resources to whatever goals considered worthy by those who controlled the flow of information.
Writing down ones thoughts/discoveries also made it possible for humankind to better store its knowledge about everything. ‘Hard copies’ travel better through time than oral traditions.

Until something went wrong.
We all know that all those ancient ‘imperiums’ had crumbled, despite having been the most advanced civilizations of their times.
Other, more nimble, competitors were able to outmaneuver the older behemoths.
Maybe because the old behemoths had exercised too much social control?
‘Written’ central administration was able to marshal enough resources for the ruler to be able to impose stiffer rules towards his own personal safety. The most immediate consequence being that increased social conformity stifled innovation and, hence, created the conditions for the others to catch up, outmaneuver and eventually leave the behemoths behind…

The printing press had a relatively smaller impact than the mere pen.
OK, information was more readily available to those who wished to learn – hence the boost in science and technology, but was ‘useless’ as a ‘coercive tool’. It doesn’t make much difference to someone who wants to control a system whether the information used to do such thing is hand written or ‘pressed’. The small number of ‘insiders’ need to keep that information under tight control so…

The latest ‘gizmo’, the internet, is a totally different development than the printing press.
While the latter is unidirectional – from the author to the wide public, the former goes both ways with equal ease.

Each of us can, almost instantly, become a ‘shooting star’ and, simultaneously, all of us can be monitored by whom ever has the necessary means.

As if we’ve backtracked to a ‘Global Village‘.
In more ways than one.

In a traditional village, everybody knows more or less everything there is to be known about everybody else.
In the Global Village everybody can learn considerable amounts of information about almost anybody worth following while those with enough means can learn almost everything about everybody. Then analyze that information to whatever depth they are able to.  And store it for as long as they find any use for it.

Darwin had wrote “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection“.
Some of us had mistakenly understood ‘evolution’ as being a ‘fight for survival’.
‘Fight’ as in ‘kill/subdue all those around you’, not ‘strive to improve yourself’, unfortunately.

Ernst Mayr had put things right. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Adam Smith, a philosopher, had explained to us that free market capitalism functions because ‘the butcher, the brewer and the baker‘ cooperate across their respective ‘professions’, fully understanding that by respecting each-others work each of them would better serve their individual interests than by struggling individually.
Unfortunately too many of his contemporaries, and some later exegetes, mistook Smith’s words as meaning that ‘Greed is Good’.
And proceeded accordingly. Which was just another ‘application’ of Gresham’s Law. The ‘greedier’ among the capitalists slowly climbed to a dominant position and created a situation later described as ‘savage capitalism.’
Since people have a tendency to over-react, and to make matters worse instead of solving the problem, Karl Marx came up with an even more stupid idea than ‘Greed is Good’. According to him, the world should be run, in an equally authoritative manner, by a different class of people. Not by the ‘greedy capitalists’ but by the ‘virtuous communists’.
As if there ever was any real difference between dictators…

Almost a century later than Smith, Emil Durkheim, a sociologist, revisited the concept of ‘cooperation’ – from another angle, and demonstrated that society had leaped forward when each of its members developed his/hers particular talents instead of toiling together indiscriminately.  And then traded, on the free market, the results of their efforts. Nothing really new, just told in a different manner.
A marked difference from the ‘rantings’ of Marx. Who, by the way, had assessed the situation perfectly. Which makes it all the more baffling the fact that he was able to propose such aberrant remedies.

Almost simultaneously with Durkheim, another guy had noticed two very interesting things.  After a successful career as an engineer Vilfredo Pareto had started to study economics. Then he turned his attention to sociology. As an economist he had noticed the Pareto Principle – 80% of the results (income) are produced by 20% of the causes (agents), while as a sociologist he discovered that whenever social mobility, upwards as well as downwards, is hampered, the society where this happens will, sooner rather than later, experience serious difficulties. In fact this observation is quite straightforward. Whenever young people from the ‘lower strata’ cannot accede, despite being better qualified and harder working, to more meaningful positions because those positions are ‘safeguarded’ for members belonging to the ruling minority, the people from the lower strata stop striving while those from the ruling minority become lazy and careless. The recipe for disaster, don’t you think?
If we put both Pareto’s observations together we discover something similar to Smith’s budding concept of a free market. Whenever an individual, or a group of individuals, become so powerful as to dwarf those around them, economically as well as politically, the free market, economically as well as socially, stops working.

That’s why all monopolies have never failed to collapse.
That’s why all authoritarian regimes, including those built according to Marx’s rantings, have eventually failed – causing great harm to those fool enough to believe in them.

That’s why dinosaurs had disappeared – they had grown too big for their own good.
They behaved as if they were ‘greedy’. They seemed more interested in dominating the world instead of minding their own business.
Fishes – which are older than dinosaurs – survived and thrived.
Crocodiles, alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes and you name whatever other reptiles come to your mind have survived the same conditions that have cut the mighty dinosaurs down to size.

That’s why Mayr goes on warning us. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Let’s not destroy ourselves, as a species, attempting to prove him wrong.

Update
Pareto’s elite theory is rather straightforward.
As soon as a society ‘grinds to a halt’ tension starts to build up. A ‘lion’ – or a coalition of lions, will sooner or later seize the opportunity and ‘make a grab for it’.
By tearing the calcified sinews which tied the society down the lions actions unleash – for the moment, at least, the creative forces that could not assert themselves. Things become markedly better than they used to be.
Because the lions are ‘lazy’ they soon hire ‘foxes’ to run the show. Unfortunately the foxes tend to be rather narrow minded and soon their narrow-mindedness coupled with the decrepitude of the lion ‘in charge’ bring back the society to the original – aka bogged down, situation.
A younger lion/fresh coalition of lions restarts the cycle.
Basically we have the definition of the boom-bust cycle.
A very compelling example would be the manner in which communist states had crumbled under their own weight. Or the manner in which all monopolies – or even companies in dominant positions, eventually screw up. The automobile industry – a mature economic field, would be a very good example for this.
Nothing dramatically different from Schumpeter’s ideas, albeit at a different scale.
Ideally, in a free (aka fully functional) ‘market’ there are a number of lions which keep each-other at bay and a big enough number of foxes to keep the show together. The lions, acting in concert, make sure that the foxes do not take over while the foxes prevent the lions from driving the whole thing over the cliff.
If the circulation of the elites is hampered, in any way, shape or form, the continuous/evolutionary social and economical fine tuning no longer works and the society reverts to the boom-bust cycle.
A really free market would closely resemble Darwin’s, or more exactly Mayr’s, evolution while the present situation is one where the circulation of the elites has been brought almost to a halt.
The whole process tends to be rather ‘circular’. As in a vicious circle.
Or a virtuous one. As it used to be, until very recently.

NB. This blog is more like a collection of notes than anything else.
I write them down because doing this streamlines my thinking process and I make them public because readers’ feed-back (mostly on FB) is very helpful.

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