Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Blogging

Sabbatical over, going pro

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With the end of July, I am officially terminating my sabbatical to become a professional author of fiction. If and when I will be a good, published, and/or money-earning author—that is yet to be seen.

As for now, I have a number of ideas for books and short-stories, one of which I have been planning in my head for some time. While the planning stage is not yet finished, I will gradually start to generate text—should I make a mess of it, well, Rome was not built in a day and even Steinbeck’s first effort was poor. (Cf. a footnote in an older text.)

The road to this point, has been long: I have casually toyed with the idea since I was a teenager, possibly even earlier, and I fell in love with one particular book-idea at some point in the winter 2017/2018. This idea first made me consider writing books seriously (but I will save it for a time when my skills have improved considerably). During my sabbatical, starting in April 2018, I have grown the conviction that I need to go professional to have a reasonable chance at achieving something, as well as spent considerable time improving my understanding of fiction, writing, what it might take, etc.—including through a more active/conscious reading of fiction, reading about fiction, experimenting with small test stories, and writing about related topics (cf. a number of earlier texts).

I am a few months behind plan for three reasons: a shyness in pulling the trigger, great problems with finding an official source of information on the bureaucracy side,* and the disturbances through renovation works in my house that have made work hard and often forced me to spend a significant portion of the day outside my apartment (cf. several earlier texts; the last period has, knock on wood, been considerably better).

*Including options for health insurance, whom I need to tell about my plans, and similar. I have a text in planning to discuss this in more detail. Short story: plausible sounding information source A insists that I should ask implausible source B who points to source C, who ignores my specific questions in favor of a few PDF files that I had already downloaded and read on my own.

My other writings will likely be scaled back a fair bit as a consequence,* and I will likely focus on the neglected “Sweden visits” texts in the short term.

*Especially compared with this July, which has set a record—partially, because I wanted to get a few texts out of the way.

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July 31, 2019 at 12:51 am

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A few notes on my language errors III

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A few more notes:

  1. I have already written about my problems with spelling “shelf”. Recently*, I have been bothered by the fear that I have made a much more serious mistake: Using “shelf” to imply something other than a shelf…

    *Specifically, caused by a text on bookstores ([1]), where my doubts arose and I took the safe path by using “bookcase” (but kept some plausible uses, e.g. “shelf meter”).

    My true intention was what the Germans call “Regal”—a set of shelves (strict sense) above each other, typically held together by two sides and/or a back. A bookcase is a special case of this, but English does not appear to have a good generic term, short of using “shelf” in a wider (and, likely, dubious) sense. German Wikipedia on “Regal”* does not point to a counter-part in English (but e.g. Swedish, Russian, and Polish are included). Vice versa, English Wikipedia on “shelf”, does not point to a German counter-part (but e.g. Spanish, French, Russian are included)—and the text deals mostly or solely with “shelf” in the stricter sense.

    *This is a “disambiguated” page. There are other pages that might have an English counter-part, but these deal with other meanings. In particular, the disambiguation page exists in English too, but does not list anything with the right meaning. Here and elsewhere, note that I refer to the state of the page at the time of writing and that the state at the time of reading might be different.

    Some hope is given by translation-website Leo, which does cite “shelf” as one* of the possible translations of “Regal”. Similarly, Wiktionary on “shelf” and Wiktionary on “Regal” gives the respective other as a translation. However, such sites are often highly approximate, in the same manner as entries in a thesaurus usually are only approximately the same in meaning.

    *Together with e.g. “rack” and “frame” in a somewhat similar meaning, and e.g. “royal prerogative” in an entirely different one.

  2. Re-reading [1], I note a rare variation of the words-that-sound-alike* theme—use of “fair [poorly]” for “fare”. Here the cause is different than the main case discussed earlier: the similarity of the words, and/or too few exposures to the written version, led me to actually consider “fair” correct. Re-reading, the optics struck me as somehow odd, and I eventually concluded that it really must be “fare” (cf. “farewell” and the more reasonable core meaning of “fare”).

    *Discussed in e.g. the first installment of the language-error discussions.

    (I also used “reminder” for “remainder”, which is a more typical case. Other errors might be present.)

  3. Issues like hyphenation and treatment of compound words have been on my mind lately. In German and Swedish, these are usually written together in a near blanket manner, sometimes with, much more often without, a hyphen.* In English, they are typically still written as separate words long after e.g. German has made one out of them. Worse, the “full” (“XY”) and “spaced” (“X Y”) compounds can have different meanings (as might the “hyphenated”?). Consider “side wall” and “sidewall” according to Wiktionary:** The former points to walls that are at the side of something, possibly*** restricted to a specific context of certain sports, while the latter has the “side of a tire” as the primary meaning (but also allows a side wall as a second meaning.)

    *Hyphens are typically used when a word becomes very cumbersome, is a bit ad hoc, or is ambiguous. (The latter similar to the, too rare, introduction of hyphens between separate words in English, e.g. to differ between “Female-Body Inspector” and “Female Body-Inspector”.)

    **Better examples exist, but this one arose from the writing of the current text: I originally used “by two side-walls” where the above reads “by two sides”. Being uncertain how to join “side” and “wall”, I actually checked Wiktionary, and found it best to go with “sides” instead…

    ***The linked-to Wiktionary page is poorly written and likely is just too vague on the wider meaning. I also suspect that the pages are poorly coordinated, which is a common problem with Wiktionary.

    Here I am often a bit confused and/or deliberately deviate from the most likely “native” use, especially because the lack of “true” compounds is a considerable weakness of the English language, in my eyes. This in at least three ways (by order of likelihood): (a) using a hyphen (“X-Y”) instead of a space (“X Y”), (b) fully joining (“XY”) something instead of using a hyphen (“X-Y”), (c) inserting a hyphen (“X-Y”) between two fully joined words (“XY”). The former two to some degree overcome the weakness; the third might increase it, but can lead to a more consistent use, might be etymologically sounder, and lessens the secondary weakness of inconsistent treatment of compounds in English.

    In the faraway past, strongly influenced by my native Swedish, I very often went from a “spaced” compound (“X Y”) to a “full” compound (“XY”) without reflection and awareness. I likely still do on occasion, but I try to avoid it and have long overcome the knee-jerk application of Swedish rules for compounds to English.

    (In addition, I also often, very deliberately, add hyphens for other reasons, e.g. disambiguation, grouping, or introduction of a lengthier ad-hoc compound.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2019 at 6:14 pm

Follow-up IV: WordPress and more post-by-email distortions

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And yet another distortion by WordPress: I had put a portion of the previous text in an HTML PRE-tag, to ensure that it was displayed in a certain manner (specifically, to keep formatting from a third-party).

What happens? WordPress presumes to move the closing tag to (almost) immediately after the opening tag, leaving the text incorrectly formatted.

I can only re-iterate that what WordPress does here is utterly inexcusable.

See a disclaimer for more information and links to older texts.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 10, 2019 at 10:45 am

My writings, lack of time, and the future

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One of my great frustrations is the combination of the many, many things that I want to do and how little time there is to actually do them. This includes (but is by means limited to) things that I want to study, books that I want to read, and texts that I want to write.

Writing is increasingly becoming an outright problem, because I can barely keep up with the new (still non-fiction) texts that I am motivated to write—especially, because many texts end up being longer or considerably longer than I had planned. Meanwhile, my backlog blogging-wise is growing*, I have outstanding TODOs on my website that are ancient, and I am not making as much progress with fiction as I had intended. This is made more complicated by occasional finger pains. While these are no major problem by themselves, I see myself forced to limit the portion of my time spent on writing, lest true problems develop.

*Including a number on texts on my recent visits to Sweden that are growing less and less recent…

As a result, I will try to be considerably more restrictive with texts based on new impulses (e.g. news items), in the hope that this will free up enough time to slowly catch up.

Excursion on progress with fiction:
While my progress has been hampered, it is by no means non-existent. I have improved considerably in terms of understanding and, I hope, ability, and I will likely soon be ready to start* on the actual writing of my first book. Meanwhile, I have gathered many ideas and planned out at least some parts of it in my head.

*An important word. I make no statements as to when I will be finished, especially with an eye on the significant re-writes and revisions that I suspect will be needed for this first work. (Publication, of course, is yet another different matter.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 28, 2019 at 8:31 am

New vs. good and the difference between being new and being novel

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A note on an earlier discussion of new vs. good:

An aspect that I was not sufficiently explicit about is the difference between the newly made and the novel (the previously unknown/unseen/unheard of, whatnot). My text ultimately dealt with the difference between the newly made and the well made. (Where “made” might need a change depending on the exact items under discussion.) It does not oppose the novel, which is not only often a characteristic of quality products but can sometimes even legitimately trump quality.

A good example of the latter is my recent encounter with some works by Karl Kunz: Were his works among the greatest that I have ever seen? Did they make him worthy of being put on a level with the likes of Picasso, Monet, Rubens, …? No and no. They did, however, show me something that I had not seen before and they did open my eyes to some possibilities of imagery that were novel to me—thereby bringing me more value than spending the same amount of time on a few more Monets would have.

This also exemplifies that, from an individual perspective, the novelty of a work need not be global and that the novel is not necessarily newly made. (Kunz died in 1971, before my own birth.) Further, that novelty, by its nature, can be fleeting: later encounters with Kunz are unlikely to bring as strong a reaction—and even the works of the true greats loose in objective value over time, because their main impact on the development of art has already taken place and their global novelty is increasingly a thing of the past.

If we revisit my movie examples, there is rarely much novelty present. True, the special effects might be a little more spectacular and there might be some odd twist-and-turn not hitherto seen—but the rest is mostly the same thing over and over again. Indeed, looking at how the last one or two decades have been filled with re-makes, adaptions from other media, further installments of old franchises, whatnot, there might be more novelty to be found in older movies… Moreover, when it comes to just “seeing a movie that I have not seen before”, which is a valid wish, there are more older than newer movies to chose from. The reasonable conclusion is to go with quality over newness.

Looking at my own blogging (also discussed in the original text), I often do bring in something novel (compared to my own earlier writings). However, from the point of view of a random reader, any novelty in a text published today has no greater value than that of a text published ten years ago*—simply, because he is unlikely to be familiar with these earlier writings. Nevertheless, it is the new texts that get the most views—and often just for one or two days**. It is clear that newness is rewarded—not novelty.

*Indeed, with some topics recurring again and again, it is conceivable that I have grown less novel…

**The short interval of popularity (by my standards) also speaks against explanations like my potentially being a better writer today than ten years ago, or my writing about something more globally novel more often.

Remark on language: Due to the subject matter, I use “new”, “novel”, and their variations in strictly separated senses above. This is not necessarily the case in other texts.

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June 3, 2019 at 1:32 pm

The problem of new trumping good

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There is an unfortunate tendency to focus too strongly on the new, notably within the Internet and regarding e.g. entertainment (even outside the Internet). Consider movies: If there is a benefit to watching a movie in a cinema (compared to e.g. on the own computer), then that benefit applies not only to the latest box-office hit but roughly equally to a comparable movie from the past.* Why then is the cinema landscape so dominated by newer releases? Why do even new releases usually see their best returns in the first week and then drop of rapidly? Why this obsession with the new?

*There might be some differences, e.g. in that a more modern movie might have more spectacular special effects that benefit more from a larger screen. For similar reasons, the larger differences between different genres limit what movies are reasonably compared to each other, irrespective of the time aspect.

To a part, these questions are rhetorical: I am well aware of the money-making interests of the movie industry (where the newness factor can be quite rational) and e.g. its influence on interest through marketing and how non-niche cinemas naturally show what the industry currently pushes—and the consequence that someone who wants to visit a cinema for the experience, not a specific movie, will have limited choices outside the new releases. However, there is an aspect of irrationality among the viewers, who could equally well be watching an older movie for the first time and/or wait for a better opportunity to watch a specific movie than in the week after its cinematic release—for instance, to watch it in a smaller crowd one or two weeks later or to wait for a cheap DVD. This even with the current box-office wonder, “Avengers: Endgame”: yes, it continues another movie that ended on a cliff-hanger, but would it really hurt to wait another one or two weeks, having already waited for up to a year for the release? Notably, the same applies to other areas where there is no equivalent to the difference made by the cinema, e.g. the purchase of DVDs shortly after release when the same DVDs can be had for a fraction of the price at a later time. Ditto CDs. Ditto the purchase of overly expensive hard-cover books, because the cheaper and better* pocket edition is only published at a later date. In effect, the customers pay a premium to enjoy what is new, as opposed to what is good. This is the odder, as there is no dearth of entertainment and no need to sit around rolling one’s thumbs while waiting for the better opportunity—if anything, we are flooded with entertainment to the point that perfectly good movies/books/whatnots have to be foregone through lack of time to enjoy more than a minority of them…**

*The lesser weight and size make the typical pocket book easier to read, easier to store, vastly superior during travel, and, indeed, possible to carry in a pocket. For most people in most circumstance, this makes it the better product.

**Which is a co-reason why the respective industry pushes the new: They want to avoid the competition with older works at lower prices. Incidentally, I suspect that this is one of the largest reasons for extensions of copyright terms—not to protect the owners of rights to older works but to reduce the competition for newer works.

Looking at this from the view of e.g. a musician or an author, he can often not just put out a few quality works, build his reputation, and see a steady or even increasing stream of long-term income. Usually, the income that does arise will disproportionately do so from the early days after publication/release/whatnot—and the failure to put out further works can make the old works be forgotten that much faster.

The same need to be current is present on the Internet—even to the point that SEO recommendations include* making sure to regularly publish new material and to update pages for a better rating. But: Unless a site actually deals with news**, a reasonable reader should be more interested in quality than newness. What is interesting is the benefit of reading a certain text. This benefit is usually*** only weakly dependent on when the text was written—let alone when the same author or the same website last published something else.

*At least they did when I looked into the matter, possibly ten years ago. I have not verified that this still holds.

**News is almost tautologically an exception to much of this discussion.

***Circumstances change with time, new information can be revealed, new events take place, whatnot, which can leave even the best older discussion outdated. Texts dealing with concrete laws and regulations are particularly noteworthy, due to the frequency and arbitrariness of change, as well as the potential consequences of a violation. Still, quality texts often retain great value for decades—or longer.

For instance, looking at statistics* for my WordPress blog, it took me a single month of 2010 to build up twice as many page visits as I have at the moment (Mai 2019)—with just a handful of posts and very little value to the world. The historical peak was in June 2011 at roughly five times the number of visits of June 2018. Soon after, I had a lengthy break, followed by only rare posts for another lengthy period. During this time, the count dwindled to the point that a few months had less than one hundred page visits. This despite my having accumulated more posts and, with the old posts still there, almost necessarily providing more value than at the peak—let alone the first few months.

*I deliberately do not give specific numbers, because they somehow (possibly, irrationally) feel like a private matter and were never “brag worthy”. To boot, my website proper always had considerably higher numbers during my days of comparison, which would make the implication about readership misleading. Also see an excursion on visitor statistics.

Since writing more extensively again, my counts have improved, but vary very strongly with publications. Notably, there is often* a short boost the day after a publication, but the lasting effects seem to be weak. As for the difference in visitors compared to the pre-break era, it likely goes back to the many comments that I used to leave on other peoples blog, e.g. in that readers or other commenters might have followed a link back to my blog to see who I was. Most** of these comments are probably still there, but since the posts they were made on are no longer new, they no longer have a major effect.

*This varies, especially based on the text and/or the tags that I use. For instance, a text with a tag like “blogging” tends to have a handful of visitors marked as “WordPress.com Reader” in the statistics, while most others do not.

**There is bound to be some loss over time, e.g. because a few blogs have been deleted or made private (as opposed to merely abandoned).

To take a different perspective: To “go viral” appears to be the popular perception of the Holy Grail of Internet success—to see a temporary explosion in readers/viewers/whatnot of a single item. (To “be trending” is similar, if typically on a lesser scale.) This simultaneously shows a negative attitude among content makers and the problems of the new. To the former: having enormously many temporary readers (or whatnot) of a single item is of less valuable than having a decent number of readers of many items sustained over a long period of time.* To the latter: Here we have people jumping on the latest new bandwagon, only to have forgotten it a few days later.

*In their defense: this attitude might partially arise from the knowledge that sustained success is rare and that “a one-hit wonder” might be a more realistic hope. To boot, that which goes viral does not always require a lot of skill. (For instance, a video of someone doing something weird might merely require being at the right place at the right time and having a lack of respect for the privacy of others.)

The problem is made the worse through mechanisms such as “likes”—something that I spoke out against as early as 2011 (and which I, possibly to my long-term detriment, have disabled on my WordPress blog): We can now see an item receive a few likes, be given a better listing due to the likes, find more readers due to the listing, get even more likes from the new visitors, etc. It is made the worse by the superficiality, non-comparability, whatnot of a like—an image of a cute kitten is pre-destined to receive more likes than an insightful scientific article on feline neuro-chemistry. At the same time, a single like of the scientific article by a leading scientist in the field might be more telling than all the kitten-likes from people like school-children, bored house-wives, truck-drivers, …—but this difference in value of opinion does not show if the two items are compared by e.g. a typical ranking mechanism.

Excursion on page-visit statistics:
The value of such statistics is limited in general, because it tells nothing about what amount of reading took place. For instance, a single visit to certain page could result in someone reading every last word—or to someone reading two sentences and then leaving. Without looking e.g. at comments left, other pages visited by the same someone, subscriptions started, whatnot, these numbers are fairly useless for other purposes than spotting trends and comparing authors of similar style and areas of writing. The situation is even more complicated on e.g. WordPress, due to both subscriptions (which imply that a text might be read by many who have not visited) and archive pages (which contain a number of texts from the same time frame, but will only register as one page visit, even if the visitor read them all).

Excursion on the “wrong” texts having staying power:
There are some texts on my blog that have had a considerable staying power (relative the others—the numbers are still nothing to brag about). However, these have often been the “wrong” texts from my point of view. For instance, the most successful text in the last few years has been my discussion of Clevvermail—a complaint by a disgruntled customer. These visitors are gratifying insofar as I have the hope of having diverted a few people away from Clevvermail, but I would have preferred to have more visitors on a text that is, in some sense, more important and/or dealing with one of my core topics. Similarly, one of my most successful texts in the early days was a discussion of the movie “Doubt”

Of course, this relative success is likely only weakly related to my own efforts, and might depend on factors like what the broad masses want to read, what the competition for certain search terms is, what texts are classified as what by a search engine, and how the “raw” search terms match up with my text. For instance, if Clevvermail pushes advertising, some potential customers are likely to look for experiences by others on the Internet, they might not find that much written by other sources (excepting Clevvermail, it self), the use of “Clevvermail” (as a distinctive and rare string of characters) makes it easy for a search-engine to see that my text deals with Clevvermail—and the user is likely to have included that very string. In contrast, the current text is not on a topic that many will go looking for, it would require a deeper analysis by a search-engine to find a proper classification, and an interested searcher might have to be lucky to stumble on the “right” search terms. (On the upside, the competition might still be low.)

Excursion on main-stream vs. niches:
There is a considerable overlap between the above and the problem that a sizable portion of the population consumes the same information, entertainment, whatnot, without looking into more diverse sources—and that many content producers focus solely on the main-stream. A good example of the latter is how sports have been “dumbed down” again and again over the last few decades, in order to entertain the casual spectator, but also leaving the knowledgeable fan with a reduced enjoyment and often infringing upon the ability to pick a worthy winner*. This type of main-streaming puts niches in trouble, makes it harder for small players, and generally leads to less diversity (in the non-PC sense). At the end of the day: We do not all have to pick what is new and popular just because it is new and popular—some of us might want to pick based on quality and value.

*Often by trying to shorten competitions or creating an unnecessary uncertainty. An outright tragic example is a recent experiment by the IAAF (an ever-recurring sinner), by which a throws competition should be determined by the best effort in the last round and the last round only—the previous rounds merely served to decide which two (?) athletes were allowed to participate in the last round. Throwing events, however, have a large element of chance, which makes the reduction to one throw a virtual coin-toss—except that the athlete who goes second actually has considerable advantage… Why? There is also a large element of risk management, where a thrower can get a bit further by taking a larger risk of fouling. If the first thrower goes high risk and fouls, the second can just make a security throw. If the first thrower goes low risk, he risks a too weak mark. Etc. Of course, the winning mark will often fail to be the best mark of the competition…

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May 19, 2019 at 9:38 am

A few notes on my language errors II

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Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm