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Effect of Virtual Avatars On Real-Life Behavior 189

Betsy Carroll writes "The Stanford research group on virtual teams discusses how the appearance of one's avatar in virtual worlds has an effect on real life behavior in an NPR interview. The researcher they speak with focuses on the concept of vicarious reinforcement for changing behavior. They also talk a bit about identity issues surrounding the avatar and the 'real' physical self."
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Effect of Virtual Avatars On Real-Life Behavior

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  • I guess everybody is excused for not reading TFA this time... I'm glad slashdot.org is evolving with its readership! :D
    • I LTFA and it boils down to visualization therapy (they call it 'vicarious reinforcement'). If you 'see' yourself as thinner in VR then you will be more likely to become thinner IRL.
      • Re:RTFA!!! (Score:5, Informative)

        by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:10PM (#23229008) Journal

        I LTFA and it boils down to visualization therapy (they call it 'vicarious reinforcement'). If you 'see' yourself as thinner in VR then you will be more likely to become thinner IRL.
        They also talk about how picking an attractive avatar leads to more confidence in the real world an hour later.

        I'm pretty sure that's called "priming". Like in all those self help books that tell you to look into a mirror and say "I'm a winner, I'm beautiful, I'm good at math, etc." And it really does work.
        • Re:RTFA!!! (Score:5, Funny)

          by truthsearch ( 249536 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:15PM (#23229068) Homepage Journal
          I'm going to be modded funny! I'm going to be modded funny! I'm going to be modded funny!

          *crosses fingers*
          • It worked.

            Not enough people are mean enough to reverse-mod you.

            However, something like "insightful" applied to your post comes close to a paradox.

            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by Anonymous Coward

              Not enough people are mean enough to reverse-mod you.
              Yes, we are. I just didn't have mod points right now.
            • It worked.
              I always find evidence staring me in the face somewhat... eerie. Especially if I for some reason wanted it to be true, in spite of how absurd wanting reality to be a certain way is, and then it turns out to indeed be supported by evidence, no matter how easily dismissed. I guess in my mind reality gets confused with will for a brief moment.
          • I'm going to reply to truthsearch! I'm going to reply to truthsearch! I'm going to reply to truthsearch!

            *crosses fingers*
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by story645 ( 1278106 )
            Not quite priming-which is basically a memory task where you learn to associate a word/object with another, kind of like associating the content of an array cell with it's index (A[0]=B, you teach yourself to think B when you see 0). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priming_(psychology) [wikipedia.org]
            "I'm going to be modded funny" doesn't 'cause any associative links to be made (which is how psychological priming works-it's Cognitive-Behavioral where you learn to associate your mental image with your wishes and behave base
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Falkkin ( 97268 )
            I'm going to be modded insightful! I'm going to be modded insightful! I'm going to be modded insightful!

            *crosses fingers*
            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              I'm going to be modded redundant! I'm going to be modded redundant! I'm going to be modded redundant!

              *crosses fingers*
        • Re:RTFA!!! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by pavon ( 30274 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @05:03PM (#23229668)
          That is actually a very interesting conclusion. It really is true that just "thinking happy thoughts" does make you more likely to achieve them, but for naturally cynical people this is easier said than done. If I try to sit there and talk myself up, it usually backfires because the cynic in my just can't help poking holes in everything I'm saying and I end up talking myself down instead. It was easier when I believed in god, because it acted as a way of suspending disbelief.

          What they are saying here is that just the act of imagining yourself as being better, even in the context of an artificial world that has no bearing on reality, has some of the same effects of imagining yourself being a better person in the real world. That seems like it would be a very useful technique. It is probably also part of the reason that MUDs can help asocial people be more social. I had always assumed that it was just because it sidestepped one's fear of external expectations/judgment, but the fact that it also bypasses internal judgment as well is something I hadn't thought of. Oh, and playing MUDs will help me be a better person IRL, so there naysayers:)
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by vertinox ( 846076 )
          They also talk about how picking an attractive avatar leads to more confidence in the real world an hour later.

          So if I pick Sauron as an avatar, I'll be 9 feet tall and able to bash a dozen men with my mace shortly thereafter?
      • ... when you're visualizing yourself as thinner in VR and you AREN'T chowing down on chips/nachos/doritos/pizza/chinese food/raw cookie dough/pure lard while throwing back soda/beer/coffee/pure liquified lard the entire time.

        Which, unfortunately, is why I'm *not* thinner after all these years of online gaming...
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) *

          chips/nachos/doritos/pizza/chinese food/raw cookie dough/pure lard
          That sounds awful. Everyone knows that you never mix doritos and raw cookie dough.

          Crushed potato chip crumbs are much nicer in that recipe.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by erpbridge ( 64037 )
        The question is, what if your Avatar in your VR is a Undead in WoW? Will you then be Skin and Bones... without the skin?

        I understand what the article is talking about, but this will only work for people with certain mindsets, and who use the VR interface (whether a real VR, or a avatar based system such as SecondLife or ActiveWorlds) in moderation. Using the VR extensively will mean you are giving up time in Real life that could be used moving around and instead settling into a sedentary state.

        All things in
        • What about the case where a male identifies as male, has a male avatar, and his RL self has shapely female curves even though he has no boobs and a penis???
        • As a last note, I'm not even going to get into the case of where a male has a female character as an avatar and tries to look like them....


          Why not? We know transgendered people exist, so why wouldn't a transgendered person find something like Second Life appealing. They might even use SL like they use IRC, for support.

      • So, in between my Orc Shaman and Blood Elf Paladin, no wonder my weight fluctuates a lot!
        • It's a vicious cycle. You suck in PvP, you get bulimic and lose a lot of weight, then everyone says you're sexy, you heal a bunch of instances, you catch Healer Ego (TM) and think you're all that and more, you start eating waaay too much again, and voila. Sooner or later you'll think your shaman can PvP again.
      • You mean it's altering my residual self image? So when I dream, I really AM an orc shaman? Woah...

        Well, actually I do end up as whatever character I've been playing after a late night online, drinking and playing WoW. But I don't run around trying to CAST FROSTSHOOOCKKKK on people in real life.
    • I let my avatar read it.

  • Audio-only (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CogDissident ( 951207 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:01PM (#23228882)
    Anyone else ever get annoyed at audio or audio/video news? I'm at work, can't listen to those.
    Transcripts, much more helpful
    • Transcripts, much more helpful
      Indeed. Which is why NPR lets you buy a transcript a couple hours from when it airs.

      Personally, I'll just email myself the link and listen to it when I get home. I'm appreciative of the headsup either way.
    • by Joe the Lesser ( 533425 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:35PM (#23229306) Homepage Journal
      Nothing is worse than not being able to get the news beyond the headline because you don't want to stream video. I don't want to waste 5 minutes for a video, I want to waste 20 seconds skimming articles and making assumptions, like I do on /.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Hell, yes. I can read several times faster than the taking head in the suit can speak and can skim if the article is crap or stuff I already know.
    • A quick bit of searching online reveals the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab website [stanford.edu] which contains links to a variety of information on the project. Here's a PDF [stanford.edu] of the paper in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the topic. And although it has a flash video, here's another Stanford article [stanford.edu] on the same topic.
    • I won't even listen to them when I'm at home, where I work when I am not travelling. When I want info on the web I'll read it, thank you. Keep the audio interviews for radio.
  • Long Story Short (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:06PM (#23228958) Journal
    They seem to be saying that seeing a skinny avatar of yourself can condition you to see that weight change is possible & attainable.

    Seems to be they're heavily implying that thinspiration [google.com] is a good idea.

    I'd like to see the followup studying looking into longterm issues of body dysmorphic disorder [wikipedia.org] or compulsive exercise.
    • by vux984 ( 928602 )
      They seem to be saying that seeing a skinny avatar of yourself can condition you to see that weight change is possible & attainable.

      And the guy playing a giant troll? (Guess that would be an EQ Troll not a WoW Troll...)

      Follow your dreams. You can reach your goals, I'm living proof...Beefcake, BEEFCAKE!
      • by hey! ( 33014 )
        Actually, there is a male equivalent to the body image distortion issues that women with eating disorders have, but instead of perceiving themselves as fat, men tend to perceive themselves as small (in more ways than one). So, a man is less likely to binge and purge, and more likely to overtrain at the gym and take steroids and various questionable herbal "male enhancement" concoctions.

        In any case, playing a non-human character probably puts you out of the scope of what we're discussing, because no matter
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Plugh ( 27537 )

          no matter what you do, you cannot change your species.

          Tell that to Michael Jackson
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by sexconker ( 1179573 )
          Or, you know, men have the same issues too.

          Wrestlers and jockeys (the ones that ride horses, and possibly emu) are worse than fashion models when it comes to killing themselves via starvation/binging & purging.

          In terms of societal acceptance, everything from rogaine to viagra, from going to the gym 7 days a week to buying a sports car falls in the same category. Plastic surgery has a rapidly growing market with men, and in a few years, you'll be excusing yourself from a meal to go powder your nose (the
    • I'm guessing that thinspiration *is* effective. And for a normal, healthy person, there's nothing wrong with that. Like many dieting techniques, it only becomes a bad thing when someone who is already unhealthy misuses/overuses/abuses it.
    • People have multiple different role plays in their lives and have had for ages. This predates computer games. Success or failure in one role can bleed through to others.

      Sportsmen/women have known this for ages. So have people with hobbies. etc etc.

      Many weight control programs, for instance, will suggest that people join social groups etc and feel better about how they are *now*. That improved self image then helps people work towards their goals.

    • by cmacb ( 547347 )

      They seem to be saying that seeing a skinny avatar of yourself can condition you to see that weight change is possible & attainable.


      I just keep looking at my thin avatar and thinking "hey! I can have all the twinkies I want!"
  • by dave562 ( 969951 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:08PM (#23228976) Journal
    I'm sure that the stereotype is familiar enough to /.ers. Most of us know those people who have been playing roleplaying games for so long that their personality becomes the character that they play. There are the Vampire players who really believe that they are walking undead. There are the D&D players who eventually get into Wicca and other "majik" kind of stuff to the point where they believe that they can cast spells and talk to spirits. I think it's basic psychology that anybody who spends any significant amount of time pretending to be someone else will eventually manifest behavorial changes.
    • There are the Vampire players who really believe that they are walking undead.

      To be fair, not many people can tell the two apart ;).

    • There are the D&D players who eventually get into Wicca and other "majik" kind of stuff to the point where they believe that they can cast spells and talk to spirits. I think it's basic psychology that anybody who spends any significant amount of time pretending to be someone else will eventually manifest behavorial changes.
      And those pesky Bible Serial readers that actually believe the Jesus myth...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      There are the D&D players who eventually get into Wicca and other "majik" kind of stuff to the point where they believe that they can cast spells and talk to spirits.


      I would've bet anything that Jack Chick didn't post to Slashdot.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by demi ( 17616 ) *

      Look, I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Phrogman ( 80473 )

      There are the D&D players who eventually get into Wicca and other "majik" kind of stuff to the point where they believe that they can cast spells and talk to spirits...

      Or possibly, you know, they might develop an interest in a bona-fide religion [wikipedia.org], whatever you may personally think of it. Are you suggesting that if someone plays a Cleric in AD&D they are suddenly going to become a rabid Christian fanatic? (Oh maybe not, I forgot that D&D used the trappings of Christian beliefs and religious organizations but didn't actually include the Christian Mythos in Deities and Demigods)

      Overall thats a pretty fucking obnoxious attitude to hold in my opinion. Sure, Wicca an

      • by dave562 ( 969951 )
        I'm not a Christian and I don't have anything against Wiccans. I have been to my fair share of solstice festivals, full moon rituals and other assorted, nature centric events. I'm just responding to this post of yours because it seems that I ruffled a few feathers with the comment I made, not just yours but others who have also responded to this. The essence of what I was saying is that some people play a game like D&D so much that it starts to influence their interests outside of the game and in eff
        • I think it much more likely that there is a simple correlation rather than the causation you stated. e.g. People with a personality attracting them to alternate fantasy religions also attracted them to fantasy rpgs. Especially since we are talking about such a tiny percentage of d&d players. Saying D&D can lead someone to become Wiccan is like saying playing D&D causes people to be interested in programming computers. :)

          Unsubstantiated claims like yours also probably arouse ire because hey a
          • by dave562 ( 969951 )
            I remember being on the front lines of that fear-mongering. I played D&D with some friends. One of the kids in our neighborhood wasn't allowed to play with us because his parents were afraid he was going to start worshipping Satan. He also wasn't allowed to watch the Smurfs because his mom was convinced that the Smurfs were demons.
    • I've been trying to figure out why those darn kids keep attacking my gazebo. They've obviously been playing too much D&D [netfunny.com]! When will they learn to separate games from reality?
    • Mmmm.... perhaps. But it could be the other way round, also. Vampire players could be attracted to the game because they have an innate interest in drinking blood to begin with; likewise, Wicca practitioners may be attracted to the Art because they innately sense life forces around them. In the end, I'd say that both life and LARP are iterative processes, and LARPing simply exhibits self-reinforcement of behaviors that are already there.
    • There are the D&D players who eventually get into Wicca and other "majik" kind of stuff to the point where they believe that they can cast spells and talk to spirits.

      As opposed to the other 80% of humanity who believes in resurrection after death? Not to mention the varying degrees of divine wrath and miracles?

      Though if you think about it Jesus, Buddha, and Mohamed would not be that out of place in a D&D campaign setting. Heck... Walking across water is probaly a 3rd level spell (don't make me look
    • by syousef ( 465911 )
      I think it's basic psychology that anybody who spends any significant amount of time pretending to be someone else will eventually manifest behavorial changes.

      Yes but the point is that some people completely lose touch with reality. I think it depends most significantly on the type of game, and on the person playing it.

      I spend a hell of a lot of time on flight simulators, but I don't want to be a pilot in real life - I just love the challenge and get immersed in the freedom of exploring such a large virtual
    • by aralin ( 107264 )
      I don't understand how you could have been moderated anything other than +5 Funny. Somehow I feel like the only way to deal with people like you is to laugh at you. Yes, it is true that some people cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. The dorky ones are the target of your joke, the dangerous are either locked up or in politics. But how can you categorize this way? What kind of prejudiced person are you? Are you lumping other groups into their minority stereotypes this way? The +5 interesting mod
      • by dave562 ( 969951 )
        People like me? That's rich. I thought my post was kind of funny in addition to touching upon a very real phenomena that a lot of people can relate to. I grew up playing roleplaying games and going to Ren faires and attending user groups and there are definitely overlaps in the various groups. Maybe I should have said something about furry MUckers who wear tails and ears out into the real world instead of "picking on" D&D players and LARPers? The fact of the matter is that the internet has given a
    • Game playing, especially RPGs certainly has at least some temporary effects on one's behavior in the real world.

      My personal experience is seeing the world from the point of view of a character I've just been playing in a particularly good RPG or FPS.
      This manifests itself in ways like like having a felling in the real world that something particular is going to happen because in the same situation it usually happens in the virtual world, find "strangely familiar" landmarks in the real world which are similar
    • by Chrisje ( 471362 )
      In my 27+ years of video gaming with a very culturally and geographically diverse crowd, I cannot say I or anyone I've ever known has shown tendencies to do the following:

      - Jump from building to building, all the while sniping people in the head and shouting "HEADSHOT!", "UNSTOPPABLE" and "M-M-MONSTER KILL!"
      - Grow a 5 foot white beard, ride to Rohan to assist the cavalry while casting spells to turn certain parts of the landscape into lush greenery and shouting "I am the keeper of the fire of Udun!" at my t
  • MMORPGs (Score:4, Funny)

    by techpawn ( 969834 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:10PM (#23229002) Journal
    What's this say about the MMORPGs? You know, Many Men On Line Role Playing Girls...
    Picture yourself as a thin girl with big boobs..?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by trongey ( 21550 )

      What's this say about the MMORPGs? You know, Many Men On Line Role Playing Girls...
      Picture yourself as a thin girl with big boobs..?
      Nah.
      I generally make a more substanial build, curvy, nicely proportioned all around. She's gotta have more mass than the weapons she's using, and you find some pretty big weapons in MMOs.

      So why was the totally accurate parent modded "Flamebait"?
      • by Barny ( 103770 )
        What I want to know, where does this leave people who run multiple accounts? Are we multiple-personality wanna-bees?

        Or, maybe there's nothing magical in it at all, maybe I just do it to help my guildies get xp/loot/kills faster :)
      • So why was the totally accurate parent modded "Flamebait"?


        Because it's not totally accurate, It's a stereotype from a few years back, women do play MMORPG's these days.

        • by trongey ( 21550 )

          Because it's not totally accurate, It's a stereotype from a few years back, women do play MMORPG's these days.
          Or is it really just more men pretending to be women so that investors will think that MMORPGs have a wider audience than they really do? Some men are tricky that way.
        • women do play MMORPG's these days.
          I know. I have (had?) quite a few female friends who played, and, frankly better than most men and men pretending to be women.
          The funniest thing to me was that the men did it to get other men to just give them things and do them favors and my female friends played male characters to avoid such nonsense. In context to the article though, it does raise some good Freudian identity issues...
    • by tknd ( 979052 )

      Picture yourself as a thin girl with big boobs..?

      Nah, more like a robe and wizard hat. [bash.org]

      bloodninja: Slip out of those pants baby, yeah.
      BritneySpears14: I slip out of my pants, just for you, bloodninja.
      bloodninja: Oh yeah, aight. Aight, I put on my robe and wizard hat.
      BritneySpears14: Oh, I like to play dress up.
      bloodninja: Me too baby.
    • I don't have to picture it in my mind, I have a frost mage for that. This way I can see what I'd really look like as a hot skinny babe with boobs (or not really look like? I'm getting confused).

      To be fair, my ex-gf started the toon. And, no, she didn't leave me because I played too much WoW. She's a devoted WoW fan who would look up quests before I even picked them up! Why did I leave her again?
  • else why do people have so much trouble telling effect and affect apart?
    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      Because, like so many other aspects of the English language, it's not a particularly intuitive difference.
    • It is the affect of standardized testing, nobody reallizes how it is going to effect the kids till it is too late. Their going to go sit on they're hands again and stop teaching the proper use of words because it can't be multi-choiced easily. Your getting frustrated with you're grammer obsession now aren't you?
    • Because they're weird words. Both of them can be either a noun or a verb, and in both cases they have very different meaning depending on whether they're nouns or verbs. To compound the trouble, the verb "to affect" means "to have an effect on", while the verb "to effect" means "to cause". But as nouns, "cause" and "effect" are antonyms.

      So yes, it's true, teh Anglish be a hard language too lern.

    • Anglish is a fucked up and weird aborted bastard child of a language. Seriously, spend a little time with most of the "rules" and you will end up with something along the lines of:
      If A then B, except in cases where C is true, then we do D. And there are a few special cases where we do F just because, and don't you dare mess those up. And when the moon is full on the third Tuesday of the Second Month after the third snow storm of the year in Walla Walla Washington we do Q.
      Now, moving on to i before e...
  • Role model? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kelz ( 611260 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:13PM (#23229034)
    Though I can't HTFA as I'm at work, I'm sure it raises some insightful points. When I create an avatar or online persona, I tend to imbue the characteristics into it that I wish my RL self was stronger in (in this case mostly social awareness and assertiveness). Giant penis jokes aside, does anyone else try to use their alter-ego as a role model?
  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Monday April 28, 2008 @04:38PM (#23229352)
    I play Second Life. Every day, I now have the urge to fly to work, turn myself into a giant penis, and grief the shit out of every newbie I see.
    • by nguy ( 1207026 )
      Me too. [youtube.com]
    • by SL Baur ( 19540 )
      I know what you mean. Now I fly to work, wear a shirt that says "My other mount is a NetherDrake". If anyone looks at me strangely, it's Hunter's Mark, attack with the pig and start blasting away. The best part is, everyone now looks at me as if I really do have hooves, horns and a tail. W00t!
    • by davburns ( 49244 )

      Yeah, I often get annoyed that RL is one giant no-fly zone -- especially whenever I can see where I want to go, but have to walk or drive around stuff to get there. And rokso made a list of about 100 people that desperately need an orbit cage, or at least 10,000 anvils.

      I dunno about the giant penis though. I like the one I have; but to each his own.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @05:14PM (#23229834)
    ... the avatar who lives on cold pizza and pop and lives in his mom's basement.
  • by DocJohn ( 81319 ) on Monday April 28, 2008 @06:03PM (#23230414) Homepage
    Here are the projects the researcher is talking about in the interview:

    http://vhil.stanford.edu/projects/ [stanford.edu]

    Avatars and Behavioral Modeling

    Virtual reality enables us to create a powerful and persuasive stimulus: the virtual self. Using digital photographs, we can create avatars that have a striking resemblance to the self. We can then manipulate the virtual self in myriad ways that would be difficult or even impossible in the real world. The virtual self can modify its appearance or perform a behavior that the real self cannot, thus serving as a novel type of model. According to social cognitive theory, models can be valuable stimuli for encouraging the imitation of particular behaviors. Thus, we are investigating how using self-models and virtually manipulating social cognitive constructs such as identification, self-efficacy, and vicarious reinforcement can influence imitation, particularly in the context of health and consumer behaviors. Is seeing the virtual self engage in a healthful activity more or less effective than a virtual other? When an avatar shows positive benefits of using a product in the third person, does the consumer then go out and buy that product? Can behaviors be encouraged by seeing the virtual self model health-related rewards and punishments such as weight loss, weight gain?

    The Proteus Effect

    Cyberspace grants us great control over our self-representations. At the click of a button, we can alter our gender, age, attractiveness, and skin tone. But as we choose our avatars online, do our avatars change us in turn? In a series of studies, we've explored how putting people in avatars of different attractiveness or height change how they behave in a virtual environment.


    Out of the three links to "research" provided, only one links to an actual published paper (the other two are to research papers not in peer reviewed journals).

    So, yeah, in a lab with undergraduate students, some of this stuff may be true. Out in the real world, with real adults working 9 to 5 jobs, with family and kids, maybe not so much....

    • by sv0f ( 197289 )
      Out of the three links to "research" provided, only one links to an actual published paper (the other two are to research papers not in peer reviewed journals).

      Hmm. I count three links for Avatars and Behavioral Modeling and three for The Proteus Effect. Two are in (or will be appearing in) peer-journals. Three are empirical studies that appear to have been written up for conferences; one assumes they will be making their way into the journals soon. The sixth is an encyclopedia entry.

      Bailenson's the real
  • Having played far too much WoW, I do have the urge to run everywhere. Now if I can just get me a riding wolf, all will be well with the world.
  • not a 6'1", 200 lb muscular male attorney, but a DEX-based female halfling assassin named "Poppy Moon"?
  • I wonder if they managed to get level 70 / raid geared before they ran out of grant money?
  • http://knepfler.com/index.php?title=The_Human_Avatar [knepfler.com]

    I wasn't on acid when I wrote this but I might as well have been.
  • Girl char on mmorpg (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I played a female girl char on a MMORPG for many years.
    I think it has made me less aggressive, more care about looks, more feminine.

    Sometimes I want to be a girl, because they're so pretty, and I want to have boobs.

I go on working for the same reason a hen goes on laying eggs. -- H.L. Mencken

Working...