Representing astronomers: absent-minded or drunk?

Prompted by the call for posts on ‘Visuals and Representation’ for the Giants’ Shoulders Blog Carnival, I fell to thinking about the National Maritime Museum‘s print collection, which includes a nice range of images of astronomy and its practitioners. Astronomers are, popularly, represented with and by their telescopes, whether a hand-held object pointed to the sky or an enormous (probably intentionally phallic), reflector mounted beneath a dome. This is despite the fact that few professional astronomers today go so far as to put their eye to their instruments.

The telescope clearly indicates the obsession of the astronomer with things beyond the earthly realm and, ipso facto, a lack of interest – even lack of understanding – of things going on closer to home. This image of the scientist or philosopher as being concerned only with higher things is an ancient one, being at least as old as the Greeks (Steven Shapin has discussed such tropes, especially the idea that philosophers are so other-worldly that they forget to eat). Tales of lack of mundane concerns or, its satirical equivalent, absent-mindedness, can be admiring, affectionate or critical. Related humour in prints and cartoons can be pretty broad, and tend to follow one of two obvious lines.

The first is the pratfall: the astronomer has is eye so constantly turned to the heavens that he trips over his cat or falls down a well. In this 19th-century print it is an astrologer, illustrating one of the fables written by Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695), ‘The astrologer who stumbled into a well’:

An Astologer once fell
incontinently down a well.
‘How can you claim to read the sky,
poor fool, who cannot keep your eye
on where your feet are!’, came the cry

While this story specifically attacked astrology, and its fruitless distractions, there are similar images and stories about astronomers. The print itself, by depicting a telescope – something not mentioned by Fontaine – expands the joke to all users of such instruments.

The other approach in this type of satire is the slightly more titillating idea that the astronomer’s lack of attention allow his wife, daughter or servants to get up to naughty things behind his back. There are a large number of prints working around this theme: one rather fine one in the National Maritime Museum’s collections depicts an elderly astronomical enthusiast being cuckolded by a telescope-seller, who distracts his client with the latest gadgets while making free with his wife.

Both of these images are, by chance, French but it is a universal approach. I can direct the reader to English prints in the same vein (for example this one by Cruikshank) or this rough but rather charming sketch by Phiz, better known as illustrator to Charles Dickens. The joke of someone with a powerful optical device who nevertheless fails to see what’s right under their nose is, unsurprisingly, still to be found in cartoons of today.

However, it was not the only way of poking fun at astronomers. Another trope, which I have more commonly seen in text than images, is the drunk astronomer. This works, of course, by reversing the expectation that philosophers and men of science are abstemious and too distracted by their thoughts to enjoy the normal earthly pleasures. It was also a nice joke: why else would anyone believe that the earth was revolving?

Thus one of the earliest volumes of Punch (1842, vol. 3, p. 229) meditated on ‘The Philosophy of Drunkenness’, or ‘The Genius of the Cork’, explaining that Newton would never have discovered universal gravitation without being drunk. Apparently, seeing the apple fall, and struck by the “nascent idea”, he “called for another bottle, – and then for another; and when the philosopher had pondered upon the apple, had worked his analogies, and had drunk a third bottle,—he was convinced, that not only had the apple spun as it fell, but that the whole world turned round”.

The mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who was an avid reader of Punch (he pasted many of the cartoons into his copies of Notes & Queries, now held at the University of London’s Senate House Library) published the ‘Astronomer’s Drinking Song’ in his Budget of Paradoxes, as, he claimed, an example of a kind of humour that was more typical of an earlier era than that in which he was writing (1860s).

Copernicus, that learned wight,
The glory of his nation,
With floods of wine refreshed his sight,
And saw the earth’s rotation.
Each planet then its orb described,
The moon got underway, Sir,
These truths from nature he imbibed,
For he drank is bottle a-day, Sir.

De Morgan, at least, enjoyed the joke, printing (or perhaps writing) the many verses, and adding in copious mock-scholarly footnotes. The British Society for the History of Science’s Songs from the History of Science collection would suggest that the later 19th and early 20th century was the heyday for this kind of silliness, although I am sure that readers can enlighten me further.

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58 thoughts on “Representing astronomers: absent-minded or drunk?

  1. While this story specifically attacked astrology, and its fruitless distractions, there are similar images and stories about astronomers.

    In the 17th century the words astrologer and astronomer were still synonyms.

    Lovely post by the way.

    • Good point – I was probably thinking more of the 19th-century image in this case than the 17th-century fable. However, I understood that generally it is possible to talk about astronomy as the business of measuring and mapping stars, etc, and astrology as the business of using that information to cast horoscopes, prognostications etc. They were different sets of activities with different, if sometimes overlapping, sets of practitioners. Flamsteed certainly seemed to differentiate the terms, and the practitioners, in this sort of way in the 1670s.

      • The distinction that you make dates back at least to the Ptolemaic Bible of astrology the Tetrabiblos where he divides the science of the heavens into two parts astronomy that studies the movement of the stars (and planets are stars) and astrology that studies their influence. However up to at least the end of the 17th century, and one can probably find isolated cases in the 18th century, authors refered to both sciences with either name or used each of the names for both sciences together. Christoph Schöner writes in his brilliant book on the teaching of astronomy at the University of Ingolstadt in the 15th and 16th century (I can’t be bothered to find the title but will supply if necessary): the terms astrologus, astronomus and mathematicus are synomynus in this period.

        You are perfectly correct in saying that Flamsteed differentiated carefully and his is the first generation to do so but you should note that Newton learnt his astronomy from the books of Vincent Wing and Thomas Street whom he calls astronomers but both were professional astrologers.

        Coming back to your quoted verse I assume that Jean La Fontaine being a poet and not a scientist would not differentiate.

      • Yes, great post! Do you happen to have Jean La Fontaine’s (supposely) French original version of the poem?
        Cheers!

    • You can find the fables online in French and English translations. I found, for example, this one in French here. There are various other versions of the illustrations too, which tend to include distinctly anachronistic telescopes.

      • I should have added youre article is somewhat intriguing as well.

        I am looking at a 12th century literary figure, with a restricted diet, interest in astrology and astronomy who is also a cuckold.
        I think he may also have a relationship with 12th century concepts of genius.

        Ive yet been able to find an answer for the cuckold motif.

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  4. Steven Shapin’s paper was most interesting.

    I am just half way through reading J.N. Nitzsche, ‘The Genius Figure in the Middle Ages and Antiquity’ which is good on 12th cen. examples of some aspects of this topic.

    Those jokes have a long historical development.

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  6. One astronomer who *did* fall down a well – or, at least, an ice-house – was Charles Messier. While I seem to recall later accounts suggesting that he had been distracted by a comet, this would reflect the existing formula rather than the actual circumstances. Visiting the gardens in the Parc Monceau, he mistook the ice-house for an ornamental grotto and stepped inside, thereby falling and breaking his legs. The injuries interrupted his observing career.

  7. Thanks for sharing this story, and it’s anecdotal retelling. There is, of course, at least one astronomer who voluntarily went down a well: John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. He was attempting to use it as a zenith telescope, but found the lens he used inadequate and the bottom of the well distinctly damp. There is one representation of the well’s interior, and a couple of recorded observations, but archaeological evidence about its exact location and nature has been somewhat inconclusive.

    • That’s interesting. I only knew of James Bradley’s use of a coal cellar and a chimney to observe gamma Draconis (and eventually discover stellar aberration).

      • As far as I was aware Bradley used zenith telescopes, like this one by top quality maker George Graham, so it’s interesting to hear this. Flamsteed, of course, was also observing gamma Draconis, and was hoping (like Bradley) to observe stellar parallax.

      • You are correct. Bradley’s partner Samuel Molyneux used a 24ft, zenith telescope from George Graham and Bradley used the 12 1/2 ft Graham telescope you link to.

        According to Alan Hirshfeld Flamsteed’s zenith telescope no longer exists but the 10 inch objective lens is in the Science Museum.

        For the full story read Alan W. Hirshfeld, Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos, Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002.

      • Hi Rebekah,
        Yup, not many options when one is using a zenith telescope, so Londonians must probably comfort themselves with gamma Draconis – which is luck enough, anyway.
        As for Bradley’s setup, I was quoting from memory. Now you made me get back to Allan W. Hirshfeld’s “Parallax – the Race to Measure the Cosmos” (by the way a quite neat book, to refer to a previous poll of yours about science history books). There is a chapter (8) about Hooke’s previous attempts with what he called “the Archimedean Engine”, also a zenith telescope – of which there is a beautiful illustration (on page 134) taken from Hooke’s 1674 paper on stellar aberration. Bradley’s (and Molyneux’s, by the way) story is on the following chapter, and it refers to Graham’s masterly contribution to the project initiated by Molyneux and Bradley at the former’s house in Kew. However, apparently in 1727 Bradley ordered Graham a second telescope, shorter (half of the previous 24′ one) and with a wider field of view, and by August that year, with the permission of his aunt, he set it up at his uncle’s house in Wanstead, where he had returned to. He needed to use the chimney and to drill a hole on the floor, and as it was a one-story house and the place on the roof where the chimney stood off was quite low, he needed to accomodate himself in the coal cellar to make observations for the telescope to fit. This story is told on page 157 of the book. So the telescope you linked to is most likely the second one made by Graham, i. e., the one actually used by Bradley at his aunt’s house.
        Amazing. I would go check for coal residues on the ocular lens, if I were close enough. :-)
        Cheers!

      • I forgot to mention that the 24ft telescope was mounted on the chimney in Molyneux’s house and he and Bradley laid on their backs in the coal cellar to observe with it.

      • Hey, Thony
        Apparently we share some common references in our personal libraries – but you quote them much better, by the way.
        Apparently coal cellars were very friendly atmospheres for astronomers at that time. Of course it helped being a very dark environment and I guess being away from the house hubbub too.

      • Oops, wherever you read “Hooke’s 1674 paper on stellar aberration”, please read “Hooke’s 1674 paper on stellar PARALLAX”. Hooke wouldn’t have wanted to violate the causality principle, I guess (although I do have a teacher who sustains that some XVIIIth century philosopher whose name I cannot remember now has actually read Wittgestein).

    • Thanks Beto and Thony! I’ve had a pretty good look at “the famous zenith sector” (as it was known in the 18th-19th centuries) as my office was just above it. It had a long life after Wanstead and the identification of nutation and stellar aberration, so no original coal dust! It was used at Greenwich for decades, then sent to the Cape Observatory for the measurement of an arc of Meridian. When it returned to Greenwich later in the century it was hung, trophy-like, on the wall of the transit circle room.

      • It definitely deserves. I can totally empathize with people who dedicate themselves to the preservation of scientific instruments the same way we value preserving paintings or sculptures. I remember once in Paris having seen on the same day the Degas’ room at Musée d’Orsay (I may be biased here, but for me one of the most striking art exhibition rooms ever) and a reproduction of Foucault’s rotating mirro experimental setup on the CNAM museum. I was equally touched by both.
        On a less romantic note, and please forgive me for trying to be funny, I cannot resist adding that it sounds somewhat naughty to sit in an office placed on top of such an instrument. ;-)

      • I really suck at replying on the right threads here. I am glad you were a bit to the east. It makes all the difference when you think of Bradley’s ghost wiping off the coal dust and peeking through his… ehr, instrument.
        But how is it that we start off with La Fontaine and end up with bad puns of sexual nature?

  8. Funny as it may be, the whole legend of the absent-minded astronomer may be traced back to… the ancient Greeks, of course! A comment made by a friend of mine who is an astronomer the other day about Thales of Miletus having fallen in a well while walking gazing at the stars led me straight to the oracle, and there it is:

    “[...] Through his work in astronomy Thales would almost certainly have become familiar with the night sky and the motion of the heavenly bodies. There is evidence that he gave advice to navigate by Ursa Minor, and was so involved in observation of the stars that he fell into a well.” (cf. http://www.iep.utm.edu/thales/)

    In some other references the story seems to come from Plutarch. So apparently the Renaissance myth was, too, a by-product of their reading of the classics.

    Cheers!

  9. Its in Plato’s Theaetetus. 173c to 175e

    Socrates
    Very well, that is quite appropriate, since it is your wish; and let us speak of the leaders; for why should anyone talk about the inferior philosophers? The leaders, in the first place, from their youth up, remain ignorant of the way to the agora,
    do not even know where the court-room is, or the senate-house, or any other public place of assembly; as for laws and decrees, they neither hear the debates upon them nor see them when they are published; and the strivings of political clubs after public offices, and meetings, and banquets, and revellings with chorus girls—it never occurs to them even in their dreams to indulge in such things. And whether anyone in the city is of high or low birth, or what evil has been inherited by anyone from his ancestors, male or female, are matters to which they pay no more attention than to the number of pints in the sea, as the saying is.
    And all these things the philosopher does not even know that he does not know; for he does not keep aloof from them for the sake of gaining reputation, but really it is only his body that has its place and home in the city; his mind, considering all these things petty and of no account, disdains them and is borne in all directions, as Pindar says, “both below the earth,” and measuring the surface of the earth, and “above the sky,” studying the stars, and investigating the universal nature
    of every thing that is, each in its entirety, never lowering itself to anything close at hand.

    Theodorus
    What do you mean by this, Socrates?

    Socrates
    “Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.”

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0172%3Atext%3DTheaet.%3Asection%3D173c

    • I guess it also explains the illustrations posted initially by Rebekah. Of course it doesn’t make much sense that an astronomer would be actually walking and simultaneously looking through a telescope, because he wouldn’t be able to see anything. But when one thinks of how the use of a telescope may have been from that time on a symbolic characteristic of the astronomer and mix it with Plato’s (eventually repeated by Plutarcho and others) original archetypical anecdote, then you get the above illustrations. It makes sense to me, at least.

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  11. “it doesn’t make much sense”

    Interesting you should say that. Its what you expect to see in oral forms of narrative where emphasis is on driving the plot forward and action rather than making perfect sense.

    Pure speculation but I suspect this was both written about and spoken in Plato’s time as well as in the later period so you would expect to see aspects of both written and oral forms of literature at play. The contempt shown for elite culture is also a wide spread feature of oral culture hinting at where its origin may lie.

    Its an easy one to remember and repeat without a text.

  12. I return to my own research interests and find something that may be related in 5 min.

    Alain of Lille “De planctu natura” (The Complaint of Nature) 1202.

    “Now is to be examined how the bombastic flatulence of insolent pride lifts the minds of men into arrogance………..Others with external peculiarity of deportment betoken an inner demeanor of pride. These, as if they despised everything earthy, with heads thrown back look up to the things of heaven, indignantly turn aside their eyes, lift their eyebrows markedly, turn up their chins superciliously, and holds their arms as stiff as a bow; their feet graze the ground on tiptoe only.”

  13. P.s. The bodily features Alain discusses are all classic indicators of someone with no rehtorical training in speaking. Raised eyebrows, stiff arms, upturned chin, its known today as penguin acting, its what most untrained actors do because their bodies are so stressed, voice is hoarse and unable to project, the only gesture you can make is to flap youre arms up and down.

    Signs and symptoms of a Melancholy condition.

    Alain is a master of the art.

    You would expect to see such advice in late 17th and 18th century books on manners written by Dancing masters. Who taught such things.

  14. I am looking at wild men from the 6th to 20th century looking at how the legend branches out and develops in elite and popular froms. Starting with one specific legend, the oldest european one that seems to stem from Egypt in the 5th century and becomes attached to man like apes from the 10th century onwards. Gognostic in tone originaly concerning Hairy anchorites. I suspected for some time the story has a relationship with genius but did not have time to look. It has a relationship with a range of ideas depeding on the historical context you look at. In every sense of the word a foundation legend, demonstrating and discussing ideas concerning origin.

    Steven Shapins article got me rather excited as it suggests a relationship between both concepts as well. First thing I had read that seemed to confirm the idea.

    I should note last comment was a bit speculative. I have a bad habit of thinking out loud in comments threads at times when something gets me interested.

    • Women. Always looking for wild men. Tsc, tsc. ;-)

      On a more serious note, it seems such an interesting research! It took me straight to the oracle to find out what exactly the “Hairy anchorites” was. What a fantastic story! I couldn’t understand what you meant by “gognostic”; could you clarify it?

  15. It must look a bit weird as I have developed my own approach and the concepts will be unfamiliar as they are drawn from the structure and methods used in the constuction of oral narrative. Foundation legends provide something that is termed legendary proof. Its how beleifs and words are made flesh so to speak. They become real by having tangable physical evidence that is easy to remember and demonstrate.

    You open the chest and find the fairy flag. Its the archeology of belief. A legendary physical history that provides belief with a substantive point in time to develop a historical horizon. A retrospective position in which our imagination can begin speaking about itself in a matter of fact way.

    • I see what you mean by legendary proof. It is actually not too different from what scientists call “experimental result”. Only they call the legend a “theory”. ;-)

  16. gnostic. dyslexic error. I think you could suggest the wild man became an experemental result as over time, philisophical and medical concepts become attached to it.

    One of the difficulties faced in the 16th and early 17th cen. was that whilst people certainly became sceptical of the existance of creatures like this they could not fully exclude them as they were a theoretical possibility entirly in keeping with medical concepts concerning the body.

    They are not being supported by some age old supernatural tradition or the stupidity of the religious mind. Thats a modern foundation legend getting retrospective with the past.

    • Your reply reminded me immediately of 3 things: (a) Umberto Eco’s “Baudolino”; (b) Albert Drürer’s drawing of a rhinoceros based on oral descriptions of the beast, and (c) Thomas Cahill’s “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and its (lateral) description of the hermit approach as “green martyrdom”. Not sure of how they all relate, but, well, that’s my mind.

      But let me see if I understood it: what you are saying is that legendary proofs provided some sort of present, physical, even bodily evidence for the veracity of the stories they refer to (and that happened in the past) in as much as they could not be discredited by the medical knowledge of the time, AND that they do not have any direct relation to folklore or religion.

      What I quite did not get is why folcloric or religious legends fall out of the category. Say, for instance, why is it that Adam’s apple (i. e., the larynx male structure) does not constitute a legendary proof? Or does it?

      Cheers!

  17. No not suggesting that. Their is a tendancy when examining these legends to over emphasis the orgin and see it’s original context as repeating throughout its history.

    The emphasis on study is often to discover the origin rather than look at how the context develops over time. As once you have the original context its hidden meaning unfolds and becomes clear.

    This is a particular issue in Celtic studies with its ‘window on the iron age’ problem and issues with regard to contemporary ethnic identity playing out in interpretation of the past. The title of the book you mention is suggestive of such issues.

    Their is a very strong religious element in the legend of the wild man he is a penitential sinner. Its roots almost certainly lie in shamanic tradition.

    I am not as confident as some that its origins have very much to say about its late 17th century context in for example the work of the Scottish philosopher lord Monboddo or its repeated appearance in American newspaper reports in the late 18th early19th century.

    Its development also certainly becomes entangled with classical beleifs in household spirits. The context in which genius develops.

    I suspect you are not suggesting that the religious element has not fallen out of contemporary concepts of genius? Or that religious belief is an essentail requirment to hold and repeat such concepts?

    • No, I am not suggesting that religious belief has anything to do with ‘genius’. Actually, I was not thinking about ‘genius’ at all. I was wondering (and now seem reassured by you) if some religious beliefs would not fall WITHIN the category of legendary proofs – like the example of Adam’s apple. The same with more supernatural folcloric myths – like the werewolves mentioned by you, for instance.

      To be frank, I do not see the connection between your research and whatever it is that you are labeling ‘genius’. In my understanding, ‘genius’ represents someone with exceptional intelligence, or originality, usually capable of unprecedented insight. Does the word has another meaning in the context of your research?

      Cheers!

  18. p.s specific claim to medecine supporting and reinforcing beleif comes from a 16th century english account of Ireland in which the writer expresses doubt with regard to the claim that werewolves abound in Ireland as Gerald of Wales suggested; but he could not rule out that such creatures did indeed exist as it was a commonly observed symptom of melancholia.

    So no I am not ruling out the supernatural just suggesting that these tales are reinforced in a more complex a manner than is sometimes suggested.

    In the same way in Scotland in the 19th century you see a massive decline in oral narrative yet the supernatural beliefs contained in such narrative shows no decline.
    It suggests that the enviroment in which such things reproduce is a complex one not dependant on one particular part or one specific context for its survival.

    • Or even on the actual belief. Enough to look at how many vampire movies are made even today, when hardly anyone would believe vampires can or do exist.

  19. I am not very focused at the moment as I am not well I misread youre comment. I thought you were suggesting meaning of the wild man was static over time and related to pennance.

    I don’t want to discuss my research or subject in much more detail here as it is somewhat offtopic and will not be of any interest to others or familiar so would require a lengthy comment defining all the terms used at length. Ive also just started on the subject not sure how deep the relationship is.

    Past use of the term is not identical to modern usage although it retains some relationship. It has a number of classical meanings, beggeting spirit, animus, daemon among others. Temperament, the horoscope, reason, the individual, the family, emperor and city. All have a relationship with or posses a genius.

    One classical definition, which survives into the medieval period “a god of human nature, born within each man and living until his death”

    • Hi Sbej,

      Oh, I see what you mean by ‘genius’, thanks. Also agreed it is getting too offtopic here. It is a very interesting subject, though.

      I hope you get better soon, whatever it is that is afflicting you.

      All the best!

  20. If you want to look at it further exploring the relationship between wild men and fools is a good starting point. I would start with the Life of Saint Kentigern it contains some interesting folly.

  21. Thanks Bento. I hope I get better soon as well, I am unable to walk at the moment!

    I may be wrong but are you based in South America?

    I’ve got to discuss a range of Portugese and Spanish sources identified by another academic, unaware of the narrative development of the wild man. They are quite important in firmly linking the folly of the wild man with that of the man like ape.

    You may find them interesting. I can’t do much at the moment but will discuss and reference them in the next month or so.

    • Yes, Sbej, I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Whenever you are better please feel free to send anything in Portuguese you need help translating: beto (at) if. ufrj.br
      Cheers!

  22. Thanks, most kind. Some one has already done a great deal of work on gathering the Portuguese sources and translating. I just have to join the dots with some older research from 1900 on the wild man aspects. But their are a number of influences on the Portuguese sources. They also have a relationship with South America.

    A great number of the Portuguese sources are disscussed (and translated at length) by Georges T. Dodds in “Monkey- spouse Sees Children Murdered, Escapes to Freedom! A Worldwide Gathering and Comparative Analysis of Camarena-Chevalier Type 714, II-IV Tales.”

    Its in two parts, in Estudos De Literatura Oral, No. 11-12/ 2007-2008 pp. 73-96

    second part No. 13-14, 2007-2008 pp. 85-116.

    Its an extensive bit of research, put in a lot of time gathering sources. Well worth reading!

    More than one late 17th century European philosopher were clearly aware of this tale type and not just in one form.

    They would have had strong correlation with a range of related narrative which appeared on the surface to be diffrent but shared a long and entwined textual history.

    I think you would enjoy the articles. Would be interesting to note if the tale is still alive in any shape or form in youre location or has any Brazilian versions active in the past.

  23. First ones in E.L.O. 11-12, 2005-06 pp.73-96. Confused the dates.

    Varient versions were still alive oraly in 20th century North America, but seems to have a strong Irish element. There are also a contemporary Portuguese oral version very much in keeping with the Portuguese written tradition that stems from the 16th century and is clearly stimulated by discovery and exploration of South America.

    In a wide sense it’s a diffrent aspect of a debate about reason, it’s relationship with the temporal and sexual folly. Or would have been read in this manner by the section of the audience educated to identify and engage with such themes.

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