Author Archive

Call for submissions: SET special issue on “Future education”

July 18th, 2013

A special message from the editor of NZCER’s journal: set: Research Information for Teachers

To mark the 40th anniversary of set: Research Information for Teachers, we invite contributions to a special issue on the theme “Future education”.

We are seeking expressions of interest from potential contributors.




Future focussed issues ,

Memory and futures-thinking

June 13th, 2013

Contemplating my filebox. Will I remember what's in it? What can it tell me about futures thinking?

I’ve been not-very-systematically accruing interesting articles to feed my ongoing obsession with thinking about thinking about the future.  Time to share some stuff I’ve picked out of my favourite filebox of delicious brain science articles (pictured left). The usual caveats apply: I’m sharing my thinking-in-progress, mulling over some of the questions I’ve been kicking around. If you’re interested in the research discussed below you can follow the links to the source material – or perhaps find a friendly neuroscientist who doesn’t mind you asking them lots of questions. Actually, that’s something I’d like to do, because some of this stuff is quite complex science but I think it’s really useful in making sense of how we think about the future (and  how we might become better futures-thinkers so that we can apply this to the task of re-imagining education). So if you’re a neuroscientist, consider that an open invitation to connect with me. If you are someone in the field of education, or just an ordinary human being who is curious, please read on as I attempt to engage with some complex brain research and draw out ideas and unanswered questions that I think we ought to think about. Roll up your sleeves cos this is gonna take a few posts.

Memory and future prediction: What’s the connection?

If you start looking into the neuroscience of futures thinking you’ll quickly find yourself reading about memory, because surprise! – these two kinds of thinking are intimately connected.  A study reported in this 2007 ScienceDaily article used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future involve “strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions”. Findings like these seem to suggest

…a tentative answer to a longstanding question regarding the evolutionary usefulness of memory…..It may just be that the reason we can recollect our past in vivid detail is that this set of processes is important for being able to envision ourselves in future scenarios. This ability to envision the future has clear and compelling adaptive significance.

While there are vigorous debates amongst evolutionary biologists about the extent to which different traits can be explained by their adaptive advantage, let’s assume for arguments’ sake that there is something to this idea:  one can see why being a better future-thinker would have obvious survival advantages.

In any case, if our brains use the same “wiring” to achieve both things, it stands to reason that in seeking to understand how we think about the future, we need to also understand memory – and vice-versa. Research on memory is a substantial and fascinating field unto in itself, but I’m specifically interested in the turn in neuroscience towards looking more closely at the connections between memory and predictive/future thinking.  After reading this article by Moshe Bar, I went ahead and ordered  a copy of his edited book, Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. (This excellent collection of chapters by experts in various fields of neuroscience it isn’t exactly bedtime reading, you do need to be committed science-literate reader to get through it).

In search of unifying principles

What drew me into Bar’s work – and keeps me reading through the complicated parts – is his interest in seeking unifying principles that can help to account for much of the brain’s operations, as opposed to seeing the brain “like a collection of many little modules, each expert in a specific task”. (This approach reminds me of another “unifying” book, Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections, which I posted about here).

One of Bar’s key ideas is that our minds are proactively generating predictions about the future all the time, and that they do this by associative thinking – taking the features of incoming information and linking it to existing, familiar information. In other words,

…when encountering a novel input (and all inputs are novel to some degree because we never encounter anything twice under exactly the same conditions), our brains “ask” what is this input like that we are already familiar with? (Bar, 2011, p. 14)

Bar is saying that our brains receive input and – based on the “gist” of the input – rapidly search for analogies in memory (what is this like?), and engage in proactive associative thinking (what is this connected with?).

The proactive brain?

Bar contends that associative thinking is actually  our brain’s “default” mode – it’s what’s going on all the time, when our brains aren’t engaged in “task-specific cognitive effort”. This proactive view of the brain “implies that, by default, when we are not engaged in some demanding and all-consuming task, the brain generates predictions” [1]

Bearing in mind that “for the brain, “future” is any time between a fraction of a second and a lifetime ahead” [2], what can we learn from this research? So our brains are generating predictions all the time, but are those predictions any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful? How aware are we of the mental underpinnings for our own predictions/projections regarding the future? How do our these shape our actions, and what are the consequences?

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

Oh dear. Something's gone terribly wrong here...

These are a among the many questions I’ve been looking at with my reading, and it appears that while the answers are not simple, they are pretty compelling and even a little bit mind-twisting. And inevitably all questions about future-thinking at  the psychological and neurological level keep connecting back with  memory – not to mention the very closely related processes of imaginative/prospective thinking.

Where am I going with this?

In the next few post(s) I am going to try to cover more of these ideas, including:

  • more on “associative thinking” and what this means for our capabilities to think of the future (for example: how does the brain generate predictions in  completely novel situations? If our brain systems work with the  ”assumption” of a reasonably stable/predictable environment, what happens if this is no longer true?
  •  ”mental time travel”  -  and why “seeing” the past and “seeing” the future involve mental processes which also apply to the mental construction of purely imaginative scenarios.
  • what research says about the inherent emotional component of memory, future-thinking/predictive thinking, and generative/creative thinking.
  • some of the systematic cognitive biases that appears to be inbuilt into our  thinking about the past, present, and future – and how can knowing about these “errors” in our innate predictive systems be adapted into our thinking and behaviour, and does knowing about our own thinking help us think differently?
I’m always on the lookout for ideas/input from anyone else who has already thought longer or deeper or is more qualified to provide a viewpoint on these matters, so if that’s you, please go ahead and get in touch.  And for anyone else, if you’re interested in the same kinds of questions I am, get in touch to let me know!

[1] Bar, M. (2011) ‘The proactive brain”. pp. 13-26 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Dudai, Y. (2011). “Predicting not to predict too much: How the cellular machinery of memory anticipates the uncertain future”. pp. 283-294 in M. Bar (Ed) Predictions in the brain: Using our past to generate a future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Future focussed issues , ,

“Going forward” – with our backs to the future?

June 6th, 2013

If you listen to the news on radio or television today I can almost guarantee you’ll hear someone talk about  going forward.

What some see as a “superfluous, meaningless, ubiquitous” phrase  has crept firmly into our language, but  this post isn’t just another rant about silly and useless sayings .

On the contrary, I want to use going forward as the starting point for a brief  and serious journey into the psychology of futures- thinking. (Don’t be fooled by the bunny pictures – I really am serious, and I’ll even leave you with some questions to ponder …going forward, if you will….).

Enough talk, let’s meet Mr Purple Bunnyman.

Going forward? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad.

Mr P. Bunnyman, naturally, is going forward into the future.  Well, it doesn’t make sense any other way, right?  It’s illogical to think about going forward into the past, yes?

Those who talk about going forward tend to do so in conversations about planning, strategies, “where-to-from-here”, “what-next”, “how-are-we-going-to-fix-this” kind of scenarios. All of this signals that we think about the future as something we are heading towards - it’s metaphorically in front of us. The past, by contrast, all the stuff that’s been, it’s metaphorically behind us. We  ”look forward” towards the future, we “look back” to see the past.

This is all so obvious that I see why people get irritated by the introduction of meaningless and redundant jargon like “going forward”. Perhaps it’s just another pleonasm, like ”true facts” and “free gifts”  or “where you at?” that we must learn to live with.[1]

Or maybe there is something more serious to think about, going forward?

For example, what happens if we turn Mr P. Bunnyman around?

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Backs to the future? Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

Although he’s now facing the other direction, Mr Bunnyman is no time traveller – he’s still diligently following time’s arrow, moving inexorably in one direction (since this isn’t a science fiction blog, we’ll stick with the conventional arrangement of  past->present->future, thanks very much). Metaphorically,  the past is now laid out before his eyes, while the future is behind him where he can’t  see it –  at least not until he gets there and it  becomes his present and later, his past.

If you stop to think about it, the second picture actually maybe makes a little bit more sense. We know we can’t “see” the future – except in our imaginations – whereas we can see, touch, feel, smell, taste, the present, and we have access to memories, artefacts, and records of the past.

We don’t often think or talk about the future this way, do we? If we did, perhaps we might spend a bit more time thinking about clever ways to engineer our way out of  our natural handicap of being unable to see where we’re going. We might  think a bit harder about what unexpected surprises we might back ourselves into. Or we might look for ways to predict the likelihood that we’ll be OK on the current path. We might actually use that information to think about changing our path or orienting ourselves in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot – this problem of how we think, or maybe don’t think, about the future. I’m less concerned about this at the individual/personal level (how we think about our own personal futures), as much as how we do it collectively – how our social systems and structures orient us in relation to “the future”, and why it appears as though we humans  have a bit of a laissez-faire, don’t-worry-we-have-it-sorted kind of attitude on things to do with the future.

After several years of reading everything I can get my hands on about futures thinking – from science fiction, to neuroscience, to futures-studies and the academic discpline of strategic foresight – I’ve started to form some views on this which I’ve been sharing in different ways – on this blog, in presentations and workshops, in some of my research writing, pretty much any time I get the chance in fact.

The problem with thinking about the future, in my view, is that we overestimate our natural capability to do it. Yes, we know the future is unwritten. Yes, we know it holds a degree of uncertainty, and we know that our decisions and actions in the present are part of what actually create whatever future we  are going to encounter.

We know all of these things, and yet we sort of behave like we don’t. We persist with this mental imagery of the future being in front of us, with all the confidence and certainty of a weekend tramper off for a lovely roam around the hills. Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s coming, but we feel pretty confident we’ll see it coming,  and we kind of assume we’ll know what to do with it when we get there.

To bring home just how unusual it is to take Mr Purple Bunnyman’s contrary backwards-facing perspective on the  future, take note of this  2006 study of South America’s indigenous Aymara people which found that:

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind….

Analysis of the gestural data proved telling: The Aymara, especially the elderly who didn’t command a grammatically correct Spanish, indicated space behind themselves when speaking of the future – by thumbing or waving over their shoulders – and indicated space in front of themselves when speaking of the past – by sweeping forward with their hands and arms, close to their bodies for now or the near past and farther out, to the full extent of the arm, for ancient times. In other words, they used gestures identical to the familiar ones – only exactly in reverse

Read more at:

This study is now about 7 years old, and I don’t know whether there has been more work done in this area, but reading the article you’ll see  that the linguistic experts certainly thought it was a pretty big deal to find a human culture – possible the only one – with a reverse orientation to the past and future embedded so deeply in thought and language.

Where I’m going with this is to encourage you to take a moment to think about those things we do all our thinking with – our minds. I think we need to understand better how our minds work if we are to become better future-thinkers. The Aymara reverse-view of time provides one opportunity to think about the consequences of certain ways of thinking, and I find it a particularly interesting one. Note that at least one researcher speculates that this different way of thinking had profound consequences

This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors’ disdain of the Aymara as shiftless – uninterested in progress or going “forward.”

Read more at:

Going back to going forward, I also invite you to think further with me about what all this “going forward” language and thinking tells us about our strengths and weaknesses as futures-thinking beasties. I can assure you that the invitation to think together is real – I certainly haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I want to keep picking away at these ideas and see where they lead.

In the next posting I’ll pick up where I’ve left off with some more interesting research I’ve been reading.

Not quite so sure any more. Artwork (c) Rachel Bolstad

[1] For the record, I do use, and will continue to use “where you at?” or maybe “wher u@?” when I’m in a hurry.

Future focussed issues , , , , ,

“Design thinking” for educators – an inspiring resource!

April 22nd, 2013

I’ve recently been talking a lot about futures-thinking in education, and if there is one “take home message” that I’d like to underscore it’s this:  We all need to start thinking of ourselves as futures-thinkers and future-builders. If you haven’t seen it already I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch this Keri Facer video.

So…What does it mean to be a future-builder?  “Building” usually requires starting with a bit of a plan, right?  The question is, who designs the plans? I think we all need to have a hand in shaping the future, and that means we all need to think about ourselves as designers as well as doers.

I’ve long been interested in “design thinking” and last week I stumbled upon a rather inspiring set of videos and resources on Design Thinking for Educators, developed in the USA by a Riverdale+IDEO. The Design Thinking toolkit is available for download for free and is well worth a look. For a little introduction to design thinking, check out the video below. I think this could be a fantastic and inspiring resource not only for teachers and school leaders, but anyone wanting to take on the challenge of designing solutions to fit their own community’s needs and make a difference.

Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling, Teachers' work

Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change

April 8th, 2013

So far, my favourite education-related read of this year has been Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change by UK professor Keri Facer. Her work aligns strongly with many ideas and questions that I have been thinking about over the last few years.  I found it a very provocative and inspiring book (on my insistence it is currently “doing the rounds” at NZCER – filled with doxens of post-it-flags which I insisted my colleagues leave in place so that when it finally returns to my desk, I can quickly thumb through some of the key ideas that really leapt out for me ).

For me one of the most important messages was the idea of schools feeling empowered to see themselves as “future-builders” . Incidentally, while looking around at what else I could find, I found my way to this resource.

If you can’t get your hands on the book or want a quick taster, here is a recent video from the author –  definitely worth a look.


Future focussed issues , , , ,

Prof. Jim Dator on “The Future of Futures Studies”

March 22nd, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I went to The Thinking Futures Workshop organised by the The New Zealand Futures Trust.
Professor Jim Dator from the University of Hawaii skyped in as the introductory speaker, and he and the NZFT have generously shared the link to this talk for wider circulation.
If you have time I recommend watching the whole thing!

Some key points if you’re short on time:
00:00-  He introduces himself and his relationship to NZ and international future studies communities
2:14  He introduces the main subject of his talk: The future of future studies
2:40 He explains what futures studies is and is not
3:15  He proposes four recurring “images of the future” that appear recur across all projections of the future:
  • continued growth/continuation
  • collapse
  • a disciplined or green society
  • transformational
5:57  He argues what has CHANGED about the future is not the 4 images but the future itself. – there is a “new normal” for the future of futuring.
6:58  He explains “the unholy trinity +1″ – his metaphor for the “new normal” on which all future thinking must be based. Energy, The Economy, The Environment, and (+1) Governance.
10:46  Argues that no democratic country in the world is yet able to effectively deal with this “new normal”

Introducing Professor Jim Dator

Jim Dator is Professor and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

His major areas of specialization include:

  • Political futures studies (especially the forecasting and design of new political institutions, and the futures of law, education, and technology)
  • Space and society, especially the design of governance systems for space settlements
  • The political-economic futures of North America, the Pacific Island region, and East Asia, especially Japan and South Korea
  • Media production and the politics of media– video, radio, and multimedia production and the effects of these media on political and other human relations and consciousness

He consults widely on the futures of law, governance, tourism, and space. He is also:

  •  Co-Director, Space & Society Department International Space University, Strasbourg, France,
  •  Fellow and member of the Executive Council of the World Academy of Art & Science

And was:

  • Secretary General/President of the World Futures Studies Federation, 1983-93.


Dealing with complexity, Future focussed issues

Researching the future of education and community engagement: “hard fun”?

August 31st, 2012

For many years some of us at NZCER have been chipping away at  the gnarly question of what it might take to achieve deep levels of community and public engagement with education – not just for the purposes of  engaging the community in debates around the perceived educational issues of today, but to start to collectively reimagine public education to ensure that it is relevant for the future. We call this “future-oriented community engagement with education”.

I’m very aware of the ease with which a term like “future-oriented” can be used to mean everything and nothing. For example, I’m fairly certain that almost everyone involved with education (including teachers, students, families, and communities) believes that what they are doing now is preparing learners “for the future”; this idea is so ingrained that it’s almost tautological.

But as I have discussed in a previous blogposting and in a lot of my writing, in my opinion most of us actually have a very poor set of  ”futures thinking” skills and tools. This isn’t necessarily a failing of our intellects, but rather of our own educational experiences and the fact that the human environment has changed (and continues to change) so rapidly that our basic default settings for thinking about and planning for the future simply can’t cut it anymore. To my mind we may as well just come  to terms with this, and with due humility,  just start getting  on with the work of assisting ourselves and each other to become better futures thinkers and futures-builders.  This is good work and important work, and really, really challenging work.  However, as an educational researcher I have seen how the inherent rewards of this kind of work are energy-building, “buzzy”, and above all, deeply meaningful for the people who are engaged with it. (Years ago at NZCER we  adopted the phrase “hard fun” to describe this kind of work, and it still crops up in our conversations from time to time).

That brings me to another question I’ve been worrying away at for the last few years: What is – or should be – the role of research in informing, supporting, critiquing, or evaluating the kind of future-oriented work that we are arguing needs to happen?  If education needs to change, what about educational research? Where are we positioned in all of this? Should we be trailing behind the changes  to document and make sense of them?  Should we be informing and directing the changes, or leaving it to others to pick up our work so that their work is “research-informed” and “evidence-based”? Is it our role to sit on the sidelines or to get in amongst it?

I think many people assume that research is about finding answers, but in my experience it’s  all about reaching the meaningful questions. If my theme question for 2010-2011 was, “what does it mean to take a future focus in education” then my theme question for 2011-2012 has been “what does it mean to take a future-focussed approach to research?”. This question has filtered through several of my recent projects; you’ll see it addressed it in section 1 of the Future-oriented learning and teaching report NZCER recently prepared for the Ministry of Education, and it’s picked it up and addressed it again in a new working paper called: What role might research play in supporting future-oriented community engagement with education?

The working paper builds on several pieces of our previous work, and in particular this piece by Ally Bull.

As you can see, my own thinking on these matters is still forming and changing and growing, and I’d be interested to hear any thoughts from educators, researchers, or anyone else who is interested in discussing this!


Community engagement, Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling , , ,

Supporting future-oriented learning: A new report

June 12th, 2012

The Ministry of Education has just released a report we prepared for them entitled Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective.

It’s great to have this work out in the public sphere, and given its focus I think it may be of particular interest to you in our Shifting Thinking community.

The report draws together findings from new data and more than 10 years of research on current practice and futures-thinking in education. It discusses some emerging principles for future learning, how these are currently expressed in New Zealand educational thinking and practice,  and what they could look like in future practice.

We hope that this piece of work can be a platform for continued thinking about the future of learning and teaching in New Zealand and I would be interested to hear from any of you who have a chance to engage with the report (or those of you who might have contributed to the research!)

Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling , ,

Traces… (post-workshop reflections part 1)

May 7th, 2012

It is Monday afternoon after the 2012 Shifting Thinking Workshop and this is my office floor…

Sifting through this eclectic pile of paper reveals fascinating traces of  thoughts and conversations that took place at the Workshop.   The researcher in me is puzzling now about what to do with the traces I have. Can I pull them together into some kind of coherent narrative about what happened, or even just find a way to share them back out as a resource for the people who were there? Should I keep everything? Should I have someone type all these up for me? Should I take photos of everything?

Yet I know that for every thought, question, or idea written down and currently residing on my office floor, are dozens and hundreds of others that exist now only in the memories of those who experience them last week, and even pulling together the best of what’s on my floor right now isn’t going to fully capture that. And that’s just the paper trail… we still have various video footage, photos, and other bits and pieces that record traces of Shifting Thinking in different media and many decisions to make about what to do with it all!

What next? Where to from here? How will you track or measure what difference has this made? These are the kinds of questions people were asking me at the Workshop. I’m not sure yet, I said. I don’t know. Those are a great questions. I wonder that too. What do YOU think? I feel like I should have had better answers, but I don’t yet. I hope you will keep asking me though, and I hope you will keep asking yourselves that too, because these are the questions that will take us towards our next opportunit(ies) for building something together again (maybe in a future Shifting Thinking workshop, or maybe in one of the new spaces that has been created in your own thinking, or in your new connections to ideas or to other people).

There’s more post-match analysis to come; of course. We will be sending out a post-workshop evaluation form, and thinking about how we can stay connected and keep feeding the energy for our work  and of our “shifting thinking”. We’ll have a go at getting a selection of the most interesting and useful  traces from the Workshop up onto this website so they are there for all of the Shifting Thinking community to use. But for now,  I will leave you with a few traces that I have picked up from crumpled-up balls of paper on my floor. Maybe they were your words or the words of someone you sat with or talked to at the Workshop, and perhaps they will inspire you to share more thoughts and reflections about your Workshop experience

Reminded of how thinking can shift when you work with other people.

I’ve been smiling so much my face hurts.

Liberated. Confidence to make the change. Empowered to do so. Opened my mind. Energised.

Being in the room with people who are curious – may not know the answers…. but curious!

Being with people who “get it”!! Who are excited by the process of learning and what that may mean for creating active citizens.

Use the students – consult! They are our resource.

I have had time to listen and space to think about connectoins between ideas – it has been helpful/productive/purposeful.

Risks have to be taken.

Inspiredness about connectedness and possibilities.





Workshop 2012

Countdown to the Shifting Thinking Workshop 2012

April 20th, 2012

Countdown to The Shifting Thinking Workshop, May 3-4 ……

We look forward to seeing you in just under two weeks! (Make sure you don’t forget to register, if you haven’t already)

Below you’ll find some helpful information prior to the Workshop and a small request…

1. Pre-Workshop: Please answer these two questions!

Prior to the Workshop, please take a few minutes to respond to two questions (and a third optional question).
Make sure you scroll down to the bottom and click “submit” when you have completed your answers.

If you can’t see the form below click here.

2. Workshop start times 

Day 1 (Thursday) begins at St James Theatre, 63-95 Courtenay Place.  Tea and coffee will be available from 8 a.m, the registration desk will be open from 8.15 a.m. and all participants should be ready for the welcome at 9am.

Day 2  (Friday) begins with tea and coffee at 8.30 a.m and we kick off with a warmup for our day’s activities at 9.a.m 

3. Coming directly from the airport?

If you are flying into Wellington on Thursday morning and coming directly to the St James Theatre, there will be space to store your bags for the day.

Options and approximate costs for getting to the St James from the airport are given below:

1.  Airport flyer (bus), $7.50 Timetable. Note that this bus stops directly outside the St James Theatre (Stop #5002). This is the next  stop after the Courtenay Place Paramount stop indicated on the pdf timetable.
2. Green Cab Taxi, $24 estimated cost to St James.
3. Wellington Combined Taxi, $30 estimated cost to St James.
4. Combined Shuttle, $15 plus $5 for each person.
    Minimum of 3 people, Maximum of 11 people.
    Cap at $55 when 8 people in cab.

4. Start thinking about the entry point session options

Details about each of the  entry point session options are  posted on the Shifting Thinking Workshop page. Think about which sessions interest you the most – Yes we know, it’s so hard to choose, they are all so good! You won’t have to decide exactly which sessions you are going to until Thursday morning, when you meet with your learning group.

5. Social interlude and dinner options on Thursday night

On Thursday evening there will be a chance to get together in a relaxed environment to chat and mingle with Workshop facilitators  and participants.  For catering purposes, we’ll check with you at registration on Thursday morning to confirm whether you will be attending. The event starts DOWNSTAIRS from the Workshop at the Jimmy Bar. Nibbles will be provided and a cash bar where you can purchase  a full range of hot and cold drinks.

We will provide a list and map of nearby restaurants  and we encourage you to make some new friends at the Workshop and take them with you as you explore Wellington’s excellent food offerings.

6. Spread the word to peers and colleagues
If you have peers and colleagues who may be interested in attending the Shifting Thinking Workshop, there are still places available – but registrations close in one week. Spread the word so they don’t miss out.

7. Follow us on Twitter, and join the Shifting Thinking online community

If you’re a Twitter user, you might might like to follow us. Remember, our Twittername is @shiftingthinkng (no final “i” in the word “thinkng”). And if you haven’t already, why not register as a member of the Shifting Thinking online community?

8. See you soon!

Workshop 2012

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