Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Reducing the Gender Disparity in Incarceration: A Thought Experiment

According to the latest figures, 93.3% of federal prisoners are men. The male to female incarceration rate is also wildly lopsided in state and county facilities, and to my knowledge, pretty much everywhere else in the world. I also am unable to think of a single example where there is reason to believe that women outnumber men in jails and prisons. Furthermore, I don’t see any particular reason why incarcerated men will not continue to outnumber incarcerated women as long as there are prisons or people.

Before I go on with this thought experiment, allow me to provide full disclosure. I was born and raised and continue to be a male. My parents and my wife are willing to corroborate the details should anyone wish to delve more deeply. It is also relevant to note that the only incarceration facility whose inside I have seen in real life is the Alcatraz, but it was decommissioned as a prison well before I was born.

Now, despite my male identification and my desire to remain unincarcerated, I have no problems whatsoever with the lopsided ratio of men v. women in our prisons and jails. I think there’s a good reason for the ratio to be what it is. (If you want to argue that there are too many, or too few guests of the state, that’s a different issue outside the scope of this post.) I suspect most of us are better off with the male to female incarceration ratio being in the ballpark of what it is. See, it turns out that men commit more crime than women. A lot more crime. And a lot more violent crime. That not only is true today, it has been true for as long as there is has been a concept of crime.

Does it diminish me as a guy to state that fact – that men are far more likely to be criminals than women – baldly? Not as far as I can see. How am I being hurt by the fact that men are incarcerated more frequently than women? Well, provided I am not one of those men engaging in crime, not much, if at all.  I am more likely to get the  jaundiced eye from any random law enforcement officer, which in turn may mean less I am more likely to be searched, and possibly even falsely suspected of crimes than a randomly selected woman.  I note that I also benefit, to some extent, from the fact that men like me are watched more carefully than women like my wife.  After all, men are not just disproportionately the perpetrators of most crimes.  They are also disproportionately represented among the victims of many crimes, particularly most violent crimes such as murder.  But I suspect that the effect of men being subject to extra scrutiny (or worse) is not large enough to put a dent in the ratio of crimes committed by men v. the crimes committed by women.

The converse is also true –  I don’t see much gain to the women from the fact that men are more likely to be more incarcerated than women.   Nor does the gender difference in incarceration affect the likelihood of any single individual ending up in jail.

But the fact that men are more likely to commit crimes does have real world effects. Anecdotally (and autoethnographically?), every time I share an elevator with a woman I don’t know, I make an effort to stay glued to the wall, and I do my best to look non-threatening. Why? Well, common courtesy. Because women do have something to fear from being in an enclosed space with a guy they don’t know. And I would hope that if enough people behave with common courtesy, the women in my life will also get the benefit of such courtesy from men they don’t know when they find themselves on an elevator.

Note that threats can appear from everywhere.  Men also can be attacked by women, but crime statistics indicate that a man has less to fear from a woman he doesn’t know than vice versa. That said, while I have noticed the “unthreatening” look on many men’s faces and posture on an elevator, I don’t believe I have ever seen it on a woman. Perhaps if a woman were to do so it might come across, to the wrong man, as a show of weakness and invite violence.  There are, after all, a not insignificant number of dangerous men out there.

Beyond the elevator situation, there are also some other courtesies I extend to women that I don’t extend to men. As one example, if I am walking behind a woman who is wearing a skirt and she begins walking up stairs, I will hang back until she is well up the stairs before continuing up myself. Alternatively, I will move quickly, taking the stairs three at a tie to get around her. As far as I know, it isn’t illegal for a guy to walk up a flight or two of stairs with his eyes staring straight ahead buttocks-level. But it also isn’t hard to noodle out that doing so would make many women uncomfortable. So once again, a small change of behavior qualifies as common courtesy.

But let’s get back to incarceration rates. Let us say it became perceived as unfair that more men are incarcerated than women. Perhaps a situation arises where people would insist there is no real difference between female and male behavior, and if there is a difference in incarceration outcomes, it must be due to society imposing an extra burden on males. That might lead to society seeking to arrive at a 50-50 incarceration ratio between men and women.

Of course, that would be a commendable social goal if the commission of the types of crimes that lead to incarceration were equal among men and women. But what if the crime ratio was still lopsided as the one we observe today? In that case, to achieve incarceration parity, we would have two options. One would be to release 86 male prisoners for every 93 men that are currently incarcerated. Another would be to incarcerate an extra 86 female prisoners for every 7 women who are currently incarcerated. (Technically, we could do something between the two scenarios, but I will ignore that option for that essay.)

Neither of those ways of achieving a 50-50 balance is healthy. The first will lead to letting out a lot of people who probably belong in jail, which will result in more crime against innocent victims. The second option leads to incarcerating a lot of people who shouldn’t be in jail. Leaving aside how we collectively decide which innocent women should be incarcerated in order to achieve the desired balance, there will be a huge personal cost on many women (and their families). It will also hurt the economy in the process.

If there is no observed change in the Male to Female ratio of criminality, a substantial change in the incarceration ratio is more likely to cause quite a bit harm than good. To change the male incarceration rate without causing harm, the male criminality rate must also be reduced.

But there is also one other fact to consider.  A world in which a) serious crimes are committed by males in wildly disproportionate rates, and b) society was seeking to achieve a 50-50 incarceration rate  will have little or no serious discussion about point a.  After all, admitting that criminals are disproportionately male (which is a very different thing than stating that all or even most males are criminals) is also an admission that the desired incarceration rate is hard to achieve.  Worse, looking into why the crime rate is so much higher among men and women could lead to the unfortunate conclusion that the only way to achieve social goals is for the justice system to come down on women much harder than it comes down on men.  This is a hard conclusion to stomach, and it leads to cognitive dissonance since the whole point of 50-50 incarceration is, presumably, to make society more fair.  And really, there is only one way to deal with cognitive dissonance:  a mountain of self-righteous outrage would be heaped on anyone who pointed out the mutual contradictions or why they exist.  It is hard to imagine a world where points a and b are simultaneously true, but with a bit of effort most of us could probably come up with its broad outlines.

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Random Thoughts on the Google Memo

I haven’t been following the Google Memo saga all that closely, but I do have some random thoughts about the whole brouhaha:

1. If the distribution of skillsets, interests and temperament is the same between men and women, why do the latest figures (June 24, 2017) from the Bureau of Prisons indicate that 93.3% of federal prisoners are men?
2. Would a rational person, upon learning that 93.3% of federal prisoners are men, jump to the conclusion that our legal system won’t punish women for crimes?
3. If the distribution of skillsets, interests, and temperament is the same between men and women, why does Google give advertisers an option to target customers by gender? Shouldn’t they stop?

I note… this post was suggested by my wife. She asked my opinion about the topic, I made the three points above, and she said: “This sounds like it should be a post.” So here it is.

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Meanwhile, In Australia

Meanwhile, in Australia:

A LOCAL council has banned the construction of a synagogue in Bondi because it could be a terrorist target, in a shock move that religious leaders say has caved in to Islamic extremism and created a dangerous precedent.
The decision, which has rocked the longstanding Jewish community in the iconic suburb, was upheld in court this week as the nation reeled from the alleged airline terror threat and debate raged over increased security measures at airports and other public places.
The Land and Environment Court backed the decision by Waverley Council to prohibit the construction of the synagogue in Wellington St, Bondi — just a few hundred metres from Australia’s most famous beach — because it was too much of a security risk for users and local residents. Jewish leaders are shocked the decision appears to suggest they cannot freely practice their religion because they are the target of hate by Islamist extremists — and that the council has used their own risk assessment of the threat posed by IS against it.

William Gibson once said something along the lines of the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed. Given the path followed by the West since 9/11, this was inevitable sooner or later. And the social consequences of the path we’ve followed has economic implications as well. A lot of them could have been forecasted reasonably well in Sept 2011. Following Gibson’s comment, there are other things that would piss off Islamist extremists too: churches, strip clubs, gay bars, banks that charge interest, anyplace where women walk around uncovered and unescorted, etc. There is also an older dictum than Gibson’s: the pendulum swings. Between Gibson and the pendulum, where do you see society in 16 years?

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The Homicide Rate, Race and Poverty

In my last post, I noted a positive correlation between the homicide rate in a state and killings by the police in the same state. In states where the risk of homicide is higher, police killings also tend to be higher. But there is a mitigating race component, and one which (not surprisingly for those who care about data) goes against conventional wisdom:

for the same state homicide rate, people are less likely to be shot by cops in states where Black people make up 10% or more of the population than in states where people make less than 10% of the population.

Looking at homicides, and accounting for race, it seems there are different dynamics at play among different population groups:

Figure 1
(Click to embiggen.)

I can’t find murder rates (whether victimization or offender) by race at the state level, but I do note that the data appears to show a clear relationship between the overall murder rate and the ethnic makeup of a given state:

Figures 2a and 2b


Relative to the rest of the population, there is an elevated homicide rate (both offense and victimization) in our Black population. Thus, if we want to reduce the homicide rate, perhaps the opportunity is greatest in understanding why the homicide rate is as high as it is in the Black community.

Poverty is often mentioned as a factor driving crimes in general, and sometimes homicides in particular. To examine whether that is the case here, the next graph shows the percentage of a state’s population that is Black on one axis, and the homicide (victimization) rate on the other axis. States with fewer than 3 million than people are omitted. Additionally, states with a Black poverty rate in excess of 22% (which is approximately the median poverty rate for the Black population, measured by state) are colored orange:

Figure 3 - header changed

While the homicide rate is lower in states with less poverty (median of 42 murders per million v. 58), there is no clear pattern that would indicate that poverty rates the Black community are a primary driver of the murder rates according to the above graph. If that isn’t clear to you, the graph below includes the same information but from a different perspective.

Figure 4


So the data seems to indicate that reducing poverty in the Black community, while a laudable goal for any number of reasons, is probably not going to have a strong influence on the homicide rate.

This post is getting long so it’s time to wrap it up. I note, however, that I have collected other data (e.g., pop density, measures of segregation, education levels, single parenthood, etc.) which hopefully I can put into similar graphs in later posts. Perhaps among these variables will be an indication as to what can be done to reduce the homicide rate and reduce the number of victims, particularly in the Black community.

One final note… if anyone knows where I can get data on the homicide rate by different population groups by state please let me know.

Update, 7/31/2017, 5:21 PM PST

As should be obvious from the wording of the post, I was concerned that someone might misconstrue the second to the last graph.  To make the homicide relationship more obvious, I included the last graph as a companion piece. However, a habitually rude offender claims to believe that the states with a relatively low level of Black poverty (i.e., the blue points on the second to the last graph) have a different relationship between Black poverty and homicide rates than the states with relatively high levels of Black poverty, and all of that is being somehow masked by the existence of Maryland. So… below please find the same graph, redone, including only the states with low levels of Black poverty, but leaving out Maryland. (Note that the slope of the graph below is actually steeper than the slope of the graph with a broader set of data though the fit isn’t as high.)

Figure 5 - for update

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More on Police Shootings and Race

In my last post, I linked to a post by Peter Moskos noting that:

People, all people, are 1.6 times more likely, per capita, to be shot and killed by police in states that are less than 10 percent black compared to states more than 10 percent African American. Blacks are still more likely than whites, per capita to be shot overall. But this ratio (2.6:1) doesn’t change significantly based on how black a state is.
For both whites and blacks, the likelihood of being shot by police is greater in states with fewer blacks. And the difference is rather large. There are seven states less than two percent black. In 2015 and 2016, zero blacks were shot and killed in Maine, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. But if you think cops don’t shoot people in these states, you’re wrong. Compared to the four states with the highest percentage of African-American (Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Maryland are more than 30 percent black), the overall rate of police-involved killings in states with few blacks is higher. And this is despite a lower rate of overall violence.

It seems an odd result, so I have given it a bit of thought. I think I know what is happening and will try to provide a bit of an explanation over a few posts. I will start by noting that this is what the homicide rate looks like by state when put against the rate of killings by police:

Homicides v killings by police, figure 1
(Click to embiggen. Note that data sources are shown on the chart.)

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Police Shootings by State v. Percent of the Population that is Black

After my recent post on police shootings I was curious and did some googling on the topic. By coincidence, right about that time Peter Moskos (i.e., Cop in the Hood) wrote this:

I looked at the Washington Post data of those shot and killed by police in 2015 and 2016 and broke it down by states with more and fewer African-Americans. States that are more than 10 percent African American include 21 states plus D.C. (198 million people, 18 percent black, 36 million blacks). There are 29 states less than 10 percent African American (126 million people, 6 percent black, 7 million blacks).


Killed by Police v. Black Share of the Population


People, all people, are 1.6 times more likely, per capita, to be shot and killed by police in states that are less than 10 percent black compared to states more than 10 percent African American. Blacks are still more likely than whites, per capita to be shot overall. But this ratio (2.6:1) doesn’t change significantly based on how black a state is.

For both whites and blacks, the likelihood of being shot by police is greater in states with fewer blacks. And the difference is rather large. There are seven states less than two percent black. In 2015 and 2016, zero blacks were shot and killed in Maine, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. But if you think cops don’t shoot people in these states, you’re wrong. Compared to the four states with the highest percentage of African-American (Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Maryland are more than 30 percent black), the overall rate of police-involved killings in states with few blacks is higher. And this is despite a lower rate of overall violence.

There’s more at the link, including his data. I haven’t had an opportunity to go through the numbers, but I am not seeing a reason to disbelieve them offhand. I have a couple of theories (which are not entirely unrelated to each other) as to what is going on, but I’m curious about what readers think.

As an aside… regular readers may recall my earlier look at Washington Post data on police killings which led me to conclude one or two things that don’t fit the narrative the media, to include the Washington Post, seems to like to support.

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Shootings by Police Officers: Self-Control and More

I stumbled on a recent paper in the Police Quarterly entitled “Quick on the Draw: Assessing the Relationship Between Low Self-Control and Officer-Involved Police Shootings.”

The authors are Christopher M. Donner, Jon Maskaly, Alex R. Piquero, and Wesley G. Jennings from Loyola, U of Texas at Dallas, U of Texas at Dallas and U of South Florida, respectively.

Quoting from the paper:

While the extant literature on police use of deadly force is voluminous, it is fairly limited with regard to the influence of officer characteristics. Moreover, this is the first known study to explore an individual-level criminological theory(i.e., self-control) in the context of police officer-involved shootings. In building on previous studies linking low self-control to negative police behavior more generally (Donner et al., 2016; Donner & Jennings, 2014), this study uses data from a sample of 1,935 Philadelphia police officers to investigate the extent to which Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory can predict officer-involved shootings specifically.

Based on theory and related research, it is hypothesized that officers with lower levels of self-control will be more likely to have used deadly force because police shooting incidents would provide low self-control officers (those who are more impulsive, self-centered, short-sighted, thrill-seeking, and easily provoked) with an opportunity to engage in a behavior that it is often spontaneous, can provide immediate gratification, is adrenaline-inducing, and can provide an outlet for frustration.

Data and Sample
In this study, we use data collected by Greene et al. (2004) for an National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-sponsored study on police integrity in the PPD. The initial collaboration between Temple University and the PPD began in an effort to help create an information system that would assist the PPD with integrity oversight. To aid this process, baseline information concerning possible predictors of negative police behavior was needed. The data set includes background files, academy training records, and personnel information for 2,094 police officers across 17 academy classes from 1991 to 1998. Due to missing files and incomplete academy training among some officers, the final sample of cases included 1,935 officers. Additional methodological details may be found in Greene et al. (2004).

On average, the sample was almost 27 years of age (range: 18–55), and approximately two thirds of the sample was male. There was virtually equal representation among White (44.5%) and Black (46.0%) officers, and the sample included a smaller number of Hispanic (7.4%) and other race or ethnicity (2.1%) officers. The average education level and length of service was 13 and 3 years, respectively. About one fifth (21%) of the sample was married and one tenth (10.9%) had a parent who served in law enforcement. Additional descriptive statistics may be found in Table 1.

The paper goes on:

Dependent Variable
Greene et al. (2004) were granted access to various databases maintained by the PPD Internal Affairs Division and Police Board of Inquiry. Specifically, these databases contained information relating to, among other things, citizen complaints, officer-involved shootings, other internal investigations, and depart-mental disciplinary actions. These data were collected in the Year 2000; thus,officers in the sample had been out of the police academy for roughly 2 to 9 years. The outcome variable of interest in this study, police shootings, is measured dichotomously (0 = No; 1 = Yes) and reflects whether an officer had ever been involved in a police shooting in which they discharged their firearm.

The primary independent variable, low self-control, was constructed from selected behavioral indicators contained within an officer’s Personal Data Questionnaire (PDQ).2 Individuals, who apply to be a Philadelphia Police Officer and pass the entrance examination, are referred to the Background Unit of the police department. Here, qualified applicants are given a PDQ.The PDQ collects self-reported background information, including among other things the applicant’s identifying information, family background, residence history, educational history, employment history, credit history, military record, motor vehicle history, adult and juvenile criminal history, and drug-use history. This information is validated through an interview with a background investigator, a full background investigation, and subsequently a polygraph examination.

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What do we owe Raf & Laura Brannigan?

Self Control is one of the defining music hits of the 1980s. It was first released in 1984 by Italian singer-songwriter Raf (his first single). It was also released almost contemporaneously by Laura Brannigan.

The song includes these lyrics:

You take my self you take my self control
I I live among the creatures of the night
I haven’t got the will to try and fight

The first line of the quote I provided is wrong. Not in the sense that those words aren’t lyrics for the song, but in the sense that a person’s self-control does not get taken by someone else. I’ve stumbled on a number of papers published recently that noted something along these lines:

While the link between low self-control and several behavioral and social problems is widely supported, debate remains regarding the stability of and the genetic and environmental sources of variation in self-control. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998–1999 restricted data set, a sample of 360 twins was compared to a sample of 423 non-twins in order to examine the stability in self-control. The twin sample was also used to examine the genetic and environmental sources of stability in self-control. Findings indicated two stable classes for both the twin and singleton samples, and substantial stability in average self-control from kindergarten through fifth grade in both samples. The ACE decomposition model indicated strong genetic contributions to self-control (76%) with the remaining variation attributed to non-shared environment. Overall, the data suggest that self-control is identifiable early in life, stable across childhood, increasingly influenced by genes, and thus, is a critical focus for early intervention.

And it turns out that other papers show that self control really matters:

Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens’ health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children’s self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.

Its been pointed out before that some aspect of criminality is also genetic. And criminal tendencies are also tied to behaviors that can increase the likelihood someone is poor.

All of which leads to some ethical dilemmas. I think most people are comfortable with the idea that society works better if there is a safety net that helps people who through no fault of their own are down on their luck. The “through no fault of their own” argument applies very easily to a hard working conscientious guy whose job got outsourced to China. Does it apply as smoothly to someone who accepts his natural tendency to avoid labor altogether? What about the 17 year old whose lack of self-control caused him to fail several grades and landed him in juvie for assault? Do you want him in the same classroom with your eighth grader?

But those are the stuff of late night college BS sessions. Try this out if you want a thorny problem… We all know there is a genetic component to homosexuality. What we don’t all know is that there is also a genetic component to homophobia. The study of genes is in its early stages and it is naive to think there aren’t many other examples of “trait X is heritable” and “dislike of trait X is heritable.” Can we all just get along if our genes can’t all get along?

The universe does not have a sense of humor.

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Poverty, Crime and Causality

I was bouncing around my twitter feed and landed on this tweet which in turn took me to a paper entiteld Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study. The paper appeared in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2014. Here’s the basic summary:

Low socioeconomic status in childhood is a well-known
predictor of subsequent criminal and substance misuse
behaviours but the causal mechanisms are questioned.

To investigate whether childhood family income predicts subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse and whether the associations are in turn explained by unobserved familial risk factors.

Nationwide Swedish quasi-experimental, family-based study following cohorts born 1989–1993 (ntotal = 526 167, ncousins = 262 267, nsiblings = 216 424) between the ages of 15 and 21 years.

Children of parents in the lowest income quintile experienced a seven-fold increased hazard rate (HR) of being convicted of violent criminality compared with peers in the highest quintile (HR = 6.78, 95% CI 6.23–7.38). This association was entirely accounted for by unobserved familial risk factors (HR = 0.95, 95% CI 0.44–2.03). Similar pattern of effects was found for substance misuse.

There were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors.

Declaration of interest

Because the British (let alone the Swedes) seem incapable of doing proper American, it might be worth translating the paper into something we English speakers can follow. Here goes. The study looked at 526,167 Swedish kids, or about 89% of all kids born in Sweden from 1989 to 1993. (Kids were excluded from the sample if they died or emigrated before their 15th birthday, if they were born with birth defects, if they couldn’t be linked to their birth parents, or if the authors were unable to determine the parents’ level of income.)

The authors found (no surprise to anyone) that kids born into the lowest income twentieth percentile of the population are far more likely to get convicted of violent criminal activity or become substance abusers. But, by accounting for changes in a family’s income over time and how that affected (or didn’t) criminality and substance abuse outcomes of siblings and cousins, the authors were able to conclude that a family’s income was not associated with violent criminal activity or substance abuse except insofar as income was being driven by some other unobserved factor(s) that itself was associated with negative outcomes. That unobserved factor (or factors) runs in families.

The authors are not as clear as I’d like in describing the data adjustment, and the process they use is not one I have employed myself at any point.  But if I understand the limited description of the process correctly, they are basically noting that a kid in a 60th percentile income family is no less likely to become a criminal than his younger brother will be several years later when the family has dropped to below the 20th percentile of income.   Furthermore, within each income level, crime tends to run in families.

To take the paper’s findings a bit further, there is a serious implication here: it isn’t so much that poverty drives people into crime, but that families whose members have a tendency toward criminal behavior have an increased likelihood of ending up poor. Perhaps those who lack empathy are both more likely to commit crimes and less willing or able to behave in ways that allow them to get and retain good jobs. Of course, some of the smarter criminals can fake empathy enough to do quite well for themselves. It is also important to note that most poor people are not criminal. Nevertheless, the reason crime correlates with poverty is not that poverty leads to crime, but rather that for a not insignificant piece of the population, criminal tendencies are associated with traits that increase a person’s likelihood of being in poverty.


update…  grammatical error in the last line of the post corrected, July 7, 5:52 AM PST

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Shooting in Little Rock

I used to live in Little Rock,  so waking up this morning to the news of the shooting in Little Rock was a bit of a shock.  Fortunately, the expletive expletive who did the shooting was a bad shot and nobody got killed.

I don’t even know how to comment on this, though, so I’m going to just to put it up… This is a screenshot I just took from the night club’s website which shows the act that was performing last night. I guess what with the events of the last few hours it didn’t occur to anyone to take it down:
power lounge screen shot 1


Click to embiggen.

There’s a video floating around (look for it yourself) showing the shooting.   There were an awful lot of shots fired very, very quickly.  No innocent bystander with another gun could have stopped the shooter before he killed quite a few people; the only saving grace is that the shooter was incompetent.

I don’t have much to add except that there must be some happy medium, some better outcome for a country than where we are now.  We need to arrive at a point of where there are fewer guns that can shoot as quickly, or fewer such guns in the hands of people who would use them, or fewer people who would use them floating around.  I suspect all of the above is the best option, but I have no practical ideas how to get there.



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