Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Is silicon-based life a possible alternative for carbon-based life?

In a recent debate, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg responded to the cosmic fine-tuning argument presented by William Lane Craig by asserting that complex life could be other than it is. He specifically mentioned silicon-based life.

Let’s see what scientists think of his speculation, using this article from Scientific American.

Excerpt:

Group IV of the Periodic Table of the Elements contains carbon (C), silicon (Si) and several heavy metals. Carbon, of course, is the building block of life as we know it. So is it possible that a planet exists in some other solar system where silicon substitutes for carbon? Several science fiction stories feature silicon-based life-forms–sentient crystals, gruesome golden grains of sand and even a creature whose spoor or scat was bricks of silica left behind. The novellas are good reading, but there are a few problems with the chemistry.

Indeed, carbon and silicon share many characteristics. Each has a so-called valence of four–meaning that individual atoms make four bonds with other elements in forming chemical compounds. Each element bonds to oxygen. Each forms long chains, called polymers, in which it alternates with oxygen. In the simplest case, carbon yields a polymer called poly-acetal, a plastic used in synthetic fibers and equipment. Silicon yields polymeric silicones, which we use to waterproof cloth or lubricate metal and plastic parts.

But when carbon oxidizes–or unites with oxygen say, during burning–it becomes the gas carbon dioxide; silicon oxidizes to the solid silicon dioxide, called silica. The fact that silicon oxidizes to a solid is one basic reason as to why it cannot support life. Silica, or sand is a solid because silicon likes oxygen all too well, and the silicon dioxide forms a lattice in which one silicon atom is surrounded by four oxygen atoms. Silicate compounds that have SiO4-4 units also exist in such minerals as feldspars, micas, zeolites or talcs. And these solid systems pose disposal problems for a living system.

So, first of all, it makes SAND. Second of all, it is so attracted to oxygen that it can’t easily join to make any other polymers that could be used in the chemistry of the minimal functions of a living system.

More:

Also consider that a life-form needs some way to collect, store and utilize energy. The energy must come from the environment. Once absorbed or ingested, the energy must be released exactly where and when it is needed. Otherwise, all of the energy might liberate its heat at once, incinerating the life-form. In a carbon-based world, the basic storage element is a carbohydrate having the formula Cx(HOH)y. This carbohydrate oxidizes to water and carbon dioxide, which are then exchanged with the air; the carbons are connected by single bonds into a chain, a process called catenation. A carbon-based life-form “burns” this fuel in controlled steps using speed regulators called enzymes.

These large, complicated molecules do their job with great precision only because they have a property called “handedness.” When any one enzyme “mates” with compounds it is helping to react, the two molecular shapes fit together like a lock and key, or a shake of hands. In fact, many carbon-based molecules take advantage of right and left-hand forms. For instance, nature chose the same stable six-carbon carbohydrate to store energy both in our livers (in the form of the polymer called glycogen) and in trees (in the form of the polymer cellulose).

Glycogen and cellulose differ mainly in the handedness of a single carbon atom, which forms when the carbohydrate polymerizes, or forms a chain. Cellulose has the most stable form of the two possibilities; glycogen is the next most stable. Because humans don’t have enzymes to break cellulose down into its basic carbohydrate, we cannot utilize it as food. But many lower life-forms, such as bacteria, can.

In short, handedness is the characteristic that provides a variety of biomolecules with their ability to recognize and regulate sundry biological processes. And silicon doesn’t form many compounds having handedness. Thus, it would be difficult for a silicon-based life-form to achieve all of the wonderful regulating and recognition functions that carbon-based enzymes perform for us.

The troubling thing I find about atheists is that they seem to be under the impression that an alternative speculative explanation is a refutation of an argument that is based in evidence.

So it goes like this:

  • origin of the universe? I can speculate about a naturalistic alternative cosmology which is falsified by observations
  • cosmic fine-tuning? I can speculate about an untestable multiverse
  • origin of life? I can speculate about unobservable aliens who seeded the Earth with life
  • Cambrian explosion? I can speculate about intermediary fossils that have not yet been discovered
  • habitability? I can speculate that habitable planets exist just outside the boundary of the observable universe
  • resurrection of Jesus? I can speculate that Jesus had an unknown, identical twin brother who showed up when he died and took his place

I think that if we are going to make a worldview, we should ground it in the evidence we have today. We should not have faith in speculative theories that we heard about on Star Trek. Seriously.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , ,

Jupiter deflects comets and asteroids that might otherwise hit Earth

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Circumstellar Habitable Zone

This is an older article from Astrobiology magazine, but it shows how important Jupiter is for habitability.

Excerpt:

To a biologist, the ingredients needed to form life include water, heat and organic chemicals. But some in the astrophysics and astronomy community argue that life, at least advanced life, may require an additional component: a Jupiter-sized planet in the solar neighborhood.

“A long-period Jupiter may be a prerequisite for advanced life,” said Dr. Alan Boss, a researcher in planetary formation. Boss, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

In our own solar system, Jupiter, with its enormous gravitational field, plays an important protective role. By deflecting comets and asteroids that might otherwise hit Earth, Jupiter has helped to create a more stable environment for life to evolve here. It’s generally believed that a massive impact was responsible 65 million years ago for wiping out dinosaurs on Earth. If not for Jupiter, it’s possible that many other such impacts would have occurred throughout Earth’s history, preventing advanced life from ever gaining a foothold.

Jupiter is significant not only for its size but also for its location in our solar system, far from the Sun. Because it orbits at slightly more than 5 AU (astronomical units the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 1 AU), there is plenty of room in the inner part of our Solar System to accommodate a range of smaller planets.

Within the inner solar system there exists a region, known as the habitable zone, where liquid water, and therefore life, can potentially exist on a planet’s surface. Without liquid water, life as we know it is not possible. The habitable zone around our Sun stretches roughly from the orbit of Venus to the orbit of Mars. Venus is generally believed to be too hot to support life. Earth, it appears, is just right. And the jury is still out on Mars.

Understanding the role that Jupiter plays in our own Solar System helps astronomers focus their search for habitable planets around other stars. “If,” Boss explains, “a Jupiter-mass planet on a stable, circular orbit [around another star at] around 4 to 5 AU was found, without any evidence for other gas giant planets with shorter period orbits, such a discovery would be like a neon light in the cosmos pointed toward that star, saying ‘Look here!’. That star would be a prime target for looking for a habitable, Earth-like planet.”

Previously, I blogged about how the circular orbit of Saturn and the mass of our star also play a role in making our planet habitable.

People who are not curious about science sort of take these blessings for granted and push away the God who is responsible for the clever life-permitting design of our habitat. In contrast, theists are curious and excited about what science tells us about the Creator. Theists care about science, but naturalists have to sort of keep experimental science at arm’s length – away from the presuppositions and assumptions that allow them to have autonomy to live life without respect, accountability and gratitude. Naturalists take refuge in the relief provided by speculative science and science fiction. They like to listen to their leaders speculate about speculative theories, and willingly buy up books by snarky speculators who think that nothing is really something (Krauss), or who think that the cosmic fine-tuning is not real (Stenger), or who think that silicon-based life is a viable scenario (Rosenberg), etc. But theists prefer actual science. Truth matters to us, and we willingly adjust our behavior to fit the scientific facts.

UPDATE: Rebuttal to me here at The Secular Outpost.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New study: invisible shield above the Earth protects us from electron threat

Science Daily reports on a new paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature.

Excerpt:

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called “killer electrons,” which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.

The barrier to the particle motion was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped rings above Earth that are filled with high-energy electrons and protons, said Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Held in place by Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen radiation belts periodically swell and shrink in response to incoming energy disturbances from the sun.

As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be composed of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth’s surface. In 2013, Baker — who received his doctorate under Van Allen — led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.

The latest mystery revolves around an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultrafast electrons from breeching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker, the study’s lead author. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”

A paper on the subject was published in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature.

Something for us to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , ,

Stephen C. Meyer and Keith Fox debate intelligent design and evolution

From Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” podcast.

Details:

Stephen Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design who directs the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His [first] book “Signature in the Cell” claims to show that the DNA code is the product of intelligent mind, not naturalistic processes. Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at Southampton University. He chairs the UK Christians in Science network but disagrees strongly with ID. They debate how life could have originated and whether design is allowed as an explanation in science.

Summary: (stuff in italics is my snarky paraphrase)

Meyer:

  • background and how he got interested in intelligent design
  • his research focus is on the origin of life – the first replicator
  • summarizes the history of origin of life studies
  • authored the book “Signature in the Cell”
  • the DNA enigma: where did the information in DNA come from?
  • naturalistic explanations of the DNA information have failed
  • but intelligent agents are known to be able to produce information
  • the best explanation of the information in DNA is that an intelligent agent authored it
  • Meyer’s book was named by atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2010
  • why is design so controversial? Many people think that Darwin explained why nature appears design
  • the Darwinian view is that nature can create the appearance of design using mutation and selection
  • however, Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the origin of the first living cell, it assumes replication, and the origin of life is about where the first replicator comes from

Fox:

  • Meyer’s argument is not about the evolution of life after the first cell
  • Meyer’s case for design is about the origin of life
  • naturalists do not know a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life
  • there are a number of naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of life, like the RNA-first hypothesis
  • maybe in a few years one of them will turn out to be correct
  • what intelligent design is arguing from a gap in our current naturalistic knowledge to infer that God intervened in nature

Meyer:

  • that’s not what intelligent design is at all
  • the approach ID theorists use is the inference to best explanation
  • you evaluate all explanations, non-intelligent causes and intelligent causes
  • you prefer the best possible explanation
  • we know that minds are capable of producing information just like the information we find in DNA

Fox:

  • living cells replicate, so they have the ability to introduce mutations as they replicate and then some of those mutations can be selected
  • so maybe the process of replicating that living cells do created the first living cell
  • maybe the first living cell created itself, X brought X into being, self-creation, what’s irrational about that?

Meyer:

  • the issue is the origin of life – where did the first living cell come from?
  • you cannot appeal to the operations that a living cell can perform to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • there was no first living cell operating before the first living cell
  • there was no replication, mutation or selection before the first living cell
  • in fact, in my book I show that there is no known naturalistic mechanism that is able to produce the information needed for the first living cell
  • nothing can create itself, that is self-contradictory
Fox:
  • Well, you are just saying that because something is complex that God did it
Meyer:
  • Sadly, no. What I actually said needed to be explained was the information, not complexity
  • And we know from software engineering that the process of adding information to code is performed by programmers
  • in the absence of any adequate naturalistic explanation for information, we are justified in taking the explanation that we are familiar with – namely, intelligent agency – based on our uniform, universal experience of what causes information
Fox:
  • well, maybe we can appeal to the mutation and selection in existing living cells to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • maybe there were living cells before the first living cell, and then these other living cells created the first living cell
Meyer:
  • we can’t keep invoking mutation and selection when those processes are not operating prior to the origin of the first living cell
Fox:
  • well maybe some bare-bones self-replication molecule was a precursor to the first living cell
Meyer:
  • even to generate very limited replicator would require a large amount of information
  • the argument I am making is – where does the evolution come from?
Fox:
  • well, maybe we will think of an explanation for information that is naturalistic in 20 years
  • we’ve thought of explanations to things that were NOT information before
  • so maybe we will be able to think of something to explain information based on our ability to explain NOT information before

Moderator: Change topics: the Dover decision

Meyer:

  • the Discovery Institute opposed the policy that causes the trial
  • the wording of the statute was poor
  • the judge was completely wrong in his decision
  • young earth creationists used the phrase “intelligent design” to cover their agenda
  • intelligent design is an inference using the normal methods of science
Fox:
  • intelligent design is a science stopper because it stops looking for a naturalistic explanation
  • everything in nature must have a naturalistic explanation
  • everything has to be explained using matter and time and chance
  • it just has to be that way!!!!
Meyer:
  • well, what luck would you have explaining an effect like Mt. Rushmore?
  • can you explain that using matter,time and chance?
  • Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligence, not wind and erosion
  • similarly, there is information in the cell, and we know that intelligence causes information
Fox:
  • So you are saying that we don’t understand and therefore an intelligence is necessary?

Meyer:

  • no I am saying we DO understand and we are making an inference based on that understanding
  • you are the one who is insisting on a material explanation because you pre-suppose materialism
  • we know that minds have causal powers, and we can infer mind as an explanation from information
Fox:
  • well nature is a seamless chain of material causes and effects
Meyer:
  • agents can act without violating the laws of nature
  • even humans can act as intelligent agents to create information in books, and they don’t violate the laws of nature
  • intelligent causes are real, and they explain effects in nature
Fox:
  • you’re trying to impose on science something to do with meaning and purpose
Meyer:
  • no that’s not what we’re doing, we’re inferring from from the fact that we ourselves are known causes of information to the fact that an intelligence cause is the best explanation for information in the cell
Fox:
  • but I am a materialist, I need a materialist explanation
Meyer:
  • mind IS an answer to the how question
  • we infer to mind in many other scientific disciplines, like cryptography, archaeology, etc.
  • a materialist might accuse an archaeologist of engaging in a “scribe-of-the-gaps” argument, but the best explanation of an artifact with information is a scribe
  • we are inferring that mind is the cause from the nature of the effect: information
Moderator: is it appropriate to call DNA “information”

Fox:

  • well DNA is just a molecular polymer, any reference to information is just by analogy
Meyer:
  • DNA is a molecular polymer, but it also exhibits the property of specified complexity
  • the arrangement of bases, which function as machine instructions in a software program, for performings task in the cell
  • we have observed that the property of specified complexity always comes from an intelligence
Fox:
  • well, maybe there are other sequences that would work, so maybe it’s really not uncommon to develop functioning sequences by chance alone, without an intelligence
Meyer:
  • you can measure how precise the functional specificity is in DNA and proteins

Moderator: is Shannon information the same as functional information

Meyer:

  • Shannon information refers to the sequences of digits or symbols that do not necessarily have any function, i.e. – a four character string QSZX has as much Shannon information as WORD. However, only the latter is functional against the pattern of the English language. There are arrangements of DNA bases and amino acids that have the same number of symbols/characters as a functional sequence would have, but they have no biological function – they do not exhibit specified complexity
Fox:
  • Well, maybe there are lots and lots of sequences of DNA and proteins so that it is fairly easy to get a functional one by chance

Meyer:

  • DNA sequences that are functional are extremely rare, protein sequences are even more rare
  • this is not my opinion, this is what the research shows – functional protein sequences are rare
Fox:
  • well maybe there are other functional sequences that are occur before the first functional sequence that are precursors to the first functional sequence
  • maybe there are billions of years of replication, mutation and selection before the first replication, mutation and selection

Meyer:

  • you can’t get to the first selectable functional sequence by appealing to precursor selectable functional sequences – there are no selectable functional sequences before the FIRST one
  • you have to get the first selectable functional sequence by chance alone, because there is nothing to mutate or select before the first replicator
  • the chance hypothesis has been rejected because the minimal amount of information for the simplest replicator is too high to get by chance alone, given the resources, including time, that are available

Moderator: Keith are you confident that naturalism will be able to substantiate these naturalism-of-the-gap speculations that you offer in response to Meyer’s actual science that we have today? 

Fox:

  • well, it is hard to know for sure because it was just a fluke event
  • but there’s nothing irrational or unscientific or miraculous about it – the fluke would have a material explanation
  • there is nothing that we can detect that would implicate God, my speculations about a fluke which I cannot observe or measure or test would all be compatible with an atheistic worldview that omits God as a causal entity

Meyer:

  • where are those material processes that could account for this fluke then?
  • the whole point of this argument is that the information in DNA transcends the material components in the sequence
  • it’s the arrangement of the material parts/letters/characters/symbols/instructions that needs to be explained
Fox:
  • Well, I just have a different philosophy of science that rules out intelligent causation a priori

Meyer:

  • Yes, that’s the difference between us – you pre-suppose that all explanations of natural phenomena must exclude intelligent causes

There is a bit more where Meyer talks about how parts of the cell are implementations of various design patterns (Gang of Four design patterns) that are used by software architects who design software.

Find more posts on Stephen C. Meyer here.

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The importance of having a narrative when confronting the assumption of naturalism

How do you present theism as a rational belief to a person who thinks that the progress of science has removed the need for God?

Canadian science writer Denyse O’Leary writes about the history of cosmology at Evolution News.

Excerpt:

What help has materialism been in understanding the universe’s beginnings?

Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang, the generally accepted start to our universe first suggested by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966).

On the face of it, that is odd. The theory accounts well enough for the evidence. Nothing ever completely accounts for all the evidence, of course, because evidence is always changing a bit. But the Big Bang has enabled accurate prediction.

In which case, its hostile reception might surprise you. British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) gave the theory its name in one of his papers — as a joke. Another noted astronomer, Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”

One team of astrophysicists (1973) opined that it “involves a certain metaphysical aspect which may be either appealing or revolting.” Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, initially remarked, “On both scientific and philosophical grounds, the concept of an eternal Universe seems more acceptable than the concept of a transient Universe that springs into being suddenly, and then fades slowly into darkness.” And Templeton Prize winner (2011) Martin Rees recalls his mentor Dennis Sciama’s dogged commitment to an eternal universe, no-Big Bang model:

For him, as for its inventors, it had a deep philosophical appeal — the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self-consistent state. When conflicting evidence emerged, Sciama therefore sought a loophole (even an unlikely seeming one) rather as a defense lawyer clutches at any argument to rebut the prosecution case.

Evidence forced theorists to abandon their preferred eternal-universe model. From the mid 1940s, Hoyle attempted to disprove the theory he named. Until 1964, when his preferred theory, the Steady State, lost an evidence test.

Here is a quick summary of some of the experimental evidence that emerged in the last few decades that caused naturalists to abandon the eternal universe that they loved so much when they were younger.

The importance of having a narrative

Now I want to make a very, very important point about Christianity and the progress of science. And that point is that it is very important that Christians present the evidence in exactly the way that Denyse presented it in that article – in its historical context, featuring the conflict between naturalists and the experimental evidence.

All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The cosmic fine-tuning
  3. The origin of life (biological information)
  4. The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
  5. The habitability/observability correlation

When you talk about these evidences as a Christian theist to non-Christians, you have to have cultivated a genuine interest in reconciling your beliefs with science. You have to accept that there are two books that reveal God’s character and attributes. The book of nature, and the book of Scripture. And you need to be flexible about getting these two books to fit together. The book of nature gives us natural theology (see Romans 1). It tells us that God is Creator and Designer. The book of Scripture tells us that God stepped into history as a man to save us by taking the punishment for our headlong rush away from God, which the Bible calls sin. Science is one way that humans can recover some of basic knowledge about God. Knowledge that is only possible because God created and designed the universe (and us) in such a way that we are capable of making discoveries, and that the universe is capable of being explored and understood.

It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to not be crazy and irrational”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.

In the beginning was the naturalism:

  1. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
  2. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
  3. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
  4. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
  5. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon

But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations:

  1. Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
  2. Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
  3. Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
  4. Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
  5. Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!

And now rational people – people who want to have true beliefs about reality – need to abandon a false religion (naturalism).

Now naturally, science is in a state of flux and things change. But you have to look at the trend of discoveries, and those trends are clearly going against naturalism, and in favor of Christian theism. No one is arguing for a deductive proof here, we are simply looking at the evidence we have today and proportioning our belief to the concrete evidence we have today. People who are guided by reason should not seek to construct a worldview by leveraging speculations about future discoveries and mere possibilities. We should instead believe what is more probable than not. That’s what a rational seeker of truth ought to do. Proportion belief to probabilities based on current, concrete knowledge.

It is very important that Christians keep abreast of the progress of science, and give proper respect to science when forming our worldviews, and keep in mind what is really going on with atheism. There is a lot of loud worshiping of science by people like Dawkins and Atkins and Krauss, but if you dig into things a little, you’ll find that they are actually filled with rage and enmity against what science has revealed about nature. And not just in one area, but in many, many areas.

Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists. Their belief in naturalism is so strong that it repels all scientific evidence that falsifies it. Atheists simply don’t let science inform and correct their worldview.

It falls to us Christian theists, then, to hold them accountable for their abuse and misrepresentation of science. And that means telling the story of the progress of science accurately, and accurately calling out the religion of naturalism for what it is – a religion rooted in blind faith and ignorance that has been repeatedly and convincingly falsified by the progress of science in the modern era.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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