You won't find reviews of Hike Your Own Hike or The Hidden Europe here (that's a lie: there's one review for The Hidden Europe). Instead, this section is for my review other books, although I may occasionally review a movie or even a gadget.

I've put my best reviews here, but if it's not enough, then you'll find hundreds of reviews on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/rss/people/A37FFWZUGO8L7W/reviews/ref=cm_rss_member_rev_manlink
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The Planet Remade book coverOliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, is a radical thinker. However, he’s level-headed too. The Planet Remade discusses the various ways to avert an ecological catastrophe.

The book is divided into 3 parts: energies; substances; and possibilities. The first looks at the natural state of the world—documenting the vast amount of energies that exist on the planet. For example, humans consume 15 terawatts per year. That seems like a lot. However, when you add up all the energy on the planet, you learn that there are 120,000 terawatts.

The second part examines our current state. The final section considers the potent geoengineering angles.

Morton begins with asking two questions:

1) Do the risks of climate change merit taking serious action to lessen the risk?

2) Is it very hard to reduce our emissions to near zero?

He ultimately answers “yes” to both of those questions.

Morton spends the rest of The Planet Remade illustrating the scale of the problem. For example, Morton writes:

There are many reasons why deep global cuts to carbon dioxide are difficult to achieve. . . . One is that fossil fuels are built into the foundations of the industrial and economic system, which means cutting emissions is hard—especially since the costs of the cuts are concentrated on a powerful sector of the economy. The other is that cutting carbon dioxide provides no short-term benefits. Because what matters to the climate is the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the rate at which it is inherited, carbon dioxide cuts made today will have more or less no effects on climate for thirty years. History hangs over everything. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes climate negotiations difficult; costs people bear now lead to benefits that other people will see in the second half of the century.

He’s also well aware of Malthusians who have always been wrong. He quotes Vogt, who said long ago, “It is obvious that 50 years hence the world cannot support three billion people at any but coolie standards.”

Therefore, Morton is wise not to underestimate human ingenuity. As I argue in The Hidden Europe, We may well cram 10, 50, or even 100 billion humans on this rock. Reproducing as much as possible is the duty of life.

In addition to not underestimating human ingenuity, The Planet Remade reminds the reader that dramatic climate changed happened quickly well before the Industrial Age.

In the far south of Algeria, on a plateau of wind-carved sandstone called Tassili n’Ajjer, there is a remarkable collection of rock art—thousands of pictures of elephants, crocodiles, ostriches and gazelles, and of people living among them as happy hunters, even pastoralists. They are less than 10,000 years old. In the early-to-middle Holocene, the temperature difference between summers and winters in the northern hemisphere was greater than it is today.” This would have “pulled the West African monsoons . . . much farther north” than it today so that some Sahara rivers would empty into the Mediterranean. Lake Chad was far larger—nearly the size of the Caspian Sea and more than all of America’s Great Lakes combined. “The canoes used by the fishing people living on its shores were as large and sophisticated as those seen on the Mediterranean.

We didn’t need SUVs to see such change. I debated such issues extensively with a dinosaur. Still, the doomsday prophet will declare, “Yeah, but now it’s happening at an unnatural rate.”

To which The Planet Remade responds: “Around 6,000 years ago, today’s desert conditions established themselves with striking speed. . . . All that was left to record the plenty that had gone before was pollen, bones and those plaintive paintings.”

Significant climate change happened in a couple of decades. Morton writes:

The suddenness of the change, some scientists think, is evidence that there was some sort of amplification at play. When the Sahara, or large parts of it, were green, the plants were not just benefiting from the wetter climate—they were helping to maintain it, by holding together the soil and pumping rainwater back to the sky through their leaves, thus encouraging convection that cooled the surface created clouds. They kept doing this even as summer temperatures fell and the monsoon shifted to the south until a dry cooling around 6,000 years ago dealt the system its death blow; the drying made life more difficult for the vegetation, which led to further drying, which killed off yet more of the plants. Patches of desert spread and merged.

The Planet Remade is refreshing because it doesn’t just say it’s all doom and gloom. He points out that global warming has a chance of turning many parts of the Sahara back into a verdant place:

In a world with a higher carbon dioxide level, and thus more water-efficient plants, this process might be reversed; various models suggest that global warming could, in time, lead to a new greening of at least parts of the Sahara. More plants would mean more water vapor, more clouds and rain, and thus more plants—the feedbacks that brought the desert about now running in reverse. . . . The vast dried basins of the desert could be refilled.”

What few in the climate change debate acknowledge is that we’re living in an interglacial period of a long ice age. Yes, we’re in an ice age right now, which has brief (10,000-year) periods where there’s a temporary warming. Since it’s been relatively warm for 10,000 years already, we’re due to return to a glacial period of this ice age (which lasts around 100,000 years). A glacial period would be far more devastating to life (especially human life) than a further warming. In fact, in the 1930s, some were happy that the industrialization would help thwart the looming glacial period.

Arrhenius saw the effect of industrial fossil-fuel burning on the climate as largely benign. Guy Callendar, a British scientist who followed up on Arrhenius’s work in the 1930s, was happy to conclude that the use of fossil fuels would postpone the next ice age—“the return of the deadly glaciers sould be delayed indefinitely.”

It’s important to not misunderstand The Planet Remade. After reading this review, you might conclude that Morton is minimizing climate change or is believes that geoengineering our planet will easily solve all our problems.

Absolutely not.

I’m simply quoting some interesting passages to show how balanced this book is. In a world filled with doomsday books or climate deniers, The Planet Remade is a refreshing look at the challenge.

Morton advises us that remaking the planet using geoengineering is fraught with pitfalls. But at the same time, he argues persuasively that we must consider them since we ignore them at our own peril.

The only thing that I disliked about it is that there was a bit too much history—Morton ought to spend more pages looking forward rather than looking backward. Also, he gets into the weeds of detail that will overwhelm the average reader.

Still, if you’re looking to read some innovative solutions to climate change, then The Planet Remade ought to be on your bookshelf.

VERDICT: 8 out 10 stars.

 

I'm traveling to all 54 African countries from 2013-2018 and I’m spending about 5 weeks in each country, so Running with Rhinos interested me. I was hoping to learn amazing rhino facts that few know about and get some insight into the rhino ecosystem. However, I was disappointed.

Running with Rhinos book cover by Ed WarnerThe author, Ed Warner, promises that this book will be different than other rhino books because it’s “written by a long-term, non-professional volunteer . . . who has worked with veterinarians and biologists who care for rhinos in Africa. Few if any laymen like me have been invited to do what amounts to some of the most dangerous volunteer fieldwork around.”

Yes, it’s a different perspective, but a less interesting one than the alternative. Wouldn’t you rather hear from a full-time lifelong rhino expert instead of a “non-professional volunteer” who helps out a couple of weeks per year?

First the good news

I did learn a few things. For example, I learned that most rhinos live in Southern Africa: “The black rhino is solitary unless with a calf. Fewer than 5,000 rhinos remain in the wilds of Africa, with the largest populations in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.”

And now the bad news

Running With Rhinos is filled with macho man stuff. Warner seems to think of himself as a John Wayne cowboy in the African bush. He’s the kind of guy who would get his leg chomped on by a crocodile and he’d shrug it off as “just a flesh wound.”

He loves to exaggerate, like when he wrote in the caption of a photo showing a rocky terrain, “Yes, folks, that’s what they call a ‘road’ in Marienfluess, Namibia.”
I’ve driven all over Namibia (and over 150,000 km in Africa) and the “road” he shows in the foreground photo isn’t a road at all (not even a crappy one). It’s a completely impassible hill of rocks. In the background of the photo, you can make out a smoother, sand-filled passage, where the truck came in. But Warner wants you to believe that they drove across that rock-filled nightmare.
I’m sure Warner did plenty rigorous off-roading, but he prefers to spin a tall tale of his daring driving experience.

Another example is when he claimed, “There was no petrol in the whole country that year.” That’s simply an exaggeration. Yes, Zimbabwe experienced a severe petrol shortage that perhaps made people feel that there was no petrol, but there was petrol because the black market works.

He indulges in making humble brags. For example, there's the story of when he captures a snake. It’s an impressive feat, but the way he retells it is that annoying ah-shucks style. The black Africans were awed with his snake capturing skills and he shrugs it off like, “That’s just what I do.”

At other times, he comes across as the stereotypical arrogant ugly American who doesn’t adapt to the local customs, even when he knows what they are. For example, he “met three different ministers or cabinet members and the head of National Parks. I’m sure my calling everyone by first names is dead wrong in this very socially conscious society. Trouble is, I have my own set of rules. First names first. it’s always been that way with me and always will. My friends can only hope I never run into the president or the pope. (I’ve since run into four presidents and two prime ministers. I’ve called all of them by their first names. ‘Hi Bill [Clinton], I’m Ed, and this is Jackie.’”

(Notice the name drop there, another humble brag.)

Running With Rhinos will make statements without backing it up with more detail. I would have loved it if Warner could explain why he thinks that the US “regulatory system of trophy hunting cannot properly manage deer populations. White-tailed deer are also severely hindering the regrowth of US Midwest and eastern forests, which are in crisis due to the old growth reaching the end of its life cycle.”

It's an important and profound statement, but he just lets it die there instead of developing it. I realize it's a book about rhinos, but a few extra sentences would have shed some light on the obscure subject.

Similarly, he calls the white-tailed deer and the Canada geese “pests,” but does little to explain why they’re “pests.” Rhinos are certainly pests for many African farms. Should we kill those too? How do we decide when an animal is a "pest"? He doesn't
address that crucial issue.

There’s a Q&A at the end of the ebook, where he also throws out a tantalizing thought that he fails to develop: “Westerners have a lot to learn from African people and the wildlife with which they live.”
Really?
Great. Like what?
He doesn’t say.
From what I know, Africans are simply copying Westerners ever since they acquired Western firearms: driving all their wildlife to extinction. It’s Western organizations that are supplying much of the funding to preserve the wilderness left in Africa. If it wasn’t for Western NGOs (like the Lowveld Rhino Trust run by Dr. Susie Ellis, which Warner is giving the “net proceeds” of Running With Rhinos to), then African wildlife would be even worse off than it is.

Indeed, later in the same interview, Warner admits that: “We cannot save Africa from bad governments. Africans must evolve forms of government that work for them. Until they do, the wildlife will remain at risk.”
Exactly.
That illustrates that his previous statement about Westerners having “a lot to learn from Africans” was simply a politically correct statement with no substance to back it up.

Moreover, Running With Rhinos completely ignores the elephant in the African room: its fast growing population. All the conservation efforts will amount to little when Africa has 2-3 billion people. He completely avoids this massive environmental issue, which is the most important issue of all. All environmental issues improve when a region depopulates.

In conclusion, Running With Rhinos is a letdown. There are promising passages, but before Warner can develop them, he changes the subject. I would have loved to hear more about the rhino ecosystem, its life cycle, its diet, and its gestation period. Instead, the words “diet” and “gestation” don’t appear in the book.

Although they shoot rhinos often with tranquilizer guns, Warner provides scant details about them. How's the dose determined? Do they sometimes accidently kill them with an overdose? At other times do they survive the dose and run away?

This is a harsh review. I've never heard of Ed Warner or his organization before this book. I certainly commend his remarkable dedication and contribution to helping rhinos. I just dislike this book. It feels self-published, although the book cover is outstanding. Let's hope the publisher, Greenleaf, prints a better book about Africa soon.

Lastly, Warner fills the book with banal observations that makes such as, “As soon as I lay down on the ground I saw four meteors, two nearly in tandem together, streak across the sky.”
Wow.
I’ll leave you with one more of his fascinating observations, “If I stare at the stars long enough I fall asleep.”

And if you stare at this book long enough, you’ll also fall asleep too.

VERDICT: 2 out of 10 stars.

 

 

In 2013, I gave a TEDx Talk. The good news is that it has over 50,000 views, which is unusually high for a TEDx video. The bad news is that there are a few things I would have changed if I had been able to read Chris Anderson's new TED Talks book. It is "The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking." I received a free advance reading copy to review.

attractive unattractive book coverIt's hard for me to review Attractive Unattractive Americans: How the world sees America because I'm torn. 

Background on me

I've been to 100 countries and I speak 6 languages, so I'm quite familiar with what the world thinks about America. Moreover, I have three passports (USA, Chile, and France). My parents were American immigrants, I went to a French school for 10 years, I grew up speaking Spanish, and I've lived abroad for many years. As a 1st generation American, I am less attached to the US than most Americans - so I can see it a bit more objectively than most, almost like a dispassionate foreigner, which is what Zografos is.

Lastly, I've written The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, which is 750 pages of what Eastern Europeans can teach us Americans. In it, I discuss what Eastern Europeans think about Americans, which makes me quite familiar with this complex subject. Currently, I'm writing a book my travels to all 54 African countries - and I'm sharing some of their thoughts about America there too. 

Most importantly, I have a lot of sympathy for René Zografos, because I'm just like him: I've written books that cover generalities and stereotypes about other countries. I had to write about how the Polish, Romanians, and Russians really are like. I explained the differences between Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. It's hard to write such books, because if it's easy to either say incorrect generalities (which is what bold people do) or say nothing meaningful (which is what politically correct people do). It's a thankless task that is guaranteed to provoke endless disagreement. Therefore, I feel quite guilty and hypocritical about disagreeing with this book. But first.....

What I liked about Attractive Unattractive Americans

+ It covers every possible opinion. You hear voices from all over the spectrum. No stone is left unturned. 

+ It's good toilet-seat reading. Pick it up, read 1-2 pages, put it down. You can do that easily. You can also skip around without any problems.

What I disliked about Attractive Unattractive Americans

Book cover of The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us

Two French authors, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, take you on a historical journey that shows how humans altered the planet. Their 2016 book, The Shock of the Anthropocene, is disappointing, despite the excellent translation by David Fernbach.

Around 11,500 years ago, Earth entered an interglacial period during an ice age that has lasted for 2.5 million years. Interglacial periods last roughly 10,000 years, so we're due for another glacial period. Instead, the planet is warming. 

Welcome to the Anthropocene. 

In Greek, antropos means human being, while kainos means recent; hence, we're in the Age of Humans.

The Anthropocene began in 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine that signaled the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The Shock of the Anthropocene documents some of the events since the start of the Anthropocene:

⦁ Carbon dioxide has increased 43% - from 280 parts per million to 400 ppm.

⦁ Methane has gone up 150%.

⦁ Nitrous Oxide up 63%.

⦁ Acidification of the oceans has increased by 26%.

⦁ Human population has gone from 1 to 7.5 billion.

⦁ Energy consumption has increased 40 times.

⦁ The extinction rate is 100-1,000 times greater than the geological norm.

⦁ By 2030, 20% of all species will be extinct.

Indeed, the Anthropocene has another name: the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Krakauer is one of my top 5 favorite authors. I love his work. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is his only so-so book.

Krakauer has a writing formula: deeply investigate something extraordinary.

Examples:
Into Thin Air: covers the most deadly Mt. Everest disaster of its day
Into the Wild: follows an unusual hermit who fails to live off the land in Alaska
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith: covers polygamy in an American small town
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman: covers a superstar athlete who dies in Afganistan

You get the pattern: these are pretty unusual people.

Therefore, if he wanted to write about rape, then he should have written about an extraordinary case of rape and dug deep on that.

Example: the Suryanelli rape case in India, where a girl was allegedly lured with the promise of marriage and kidnapped. She was allegedly raped by 37 of the 42 accused persons, over a period of 40 days. It's going to India's supreme court. It's a HUGE case that would have been perfect for Krakauer to explore.

If he preferred something in the USA, he could have found a high-profile rape case to focus on. For example, he could have focused on the 1993 rape and murder of 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena and 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman in Houston, Texas. Of the six people convicted, five were sentenced to death. Now that's a Krakauer-like story to sink his teeth into.
Moreover, he could have used that case as a springboard to talk about the general problem of rape in America.

Instead of doing what he normally does (laser-focus on person/event/group), he takes the shotgun-blast approach: he covers MANY rape cases in Missoula. As horrific as they all are, it's sad to say that none of them count as truly extraordinary (like the two rape cases I mention above). Instead, they are pretty straightforward rape cases, with all the headaches, trama, and nuances that such cases have.

Besides the graphic detail (which is useful), there's a lot of he-said-she-said, which would have been fine if he had focused on one extraordinary/famous case, but when you're covering lots of rape cases, it gets a bit repetitive.

Here are some analogies to help explain why this book departs from his other books; imagine if:

- Into Thin Air had been about tales of hikers who die in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
- Into the Wild had been about many random people who try to live off the land - and some succeed and some don't.
- Where Men Win the Glory had been about the many soldiers who tragically die in Iraq due to friendly fire.

Such books would be informative (as Krakauer always is), but they would lack that laser-focus that Krakauer excels out. They would lack a clear protagonist and an extraordinary event to cover. That's why "Missoula" isn't as engrossing as Krakauer's other books, which all deserve 4-5 stars.

I hope that Krakauer's next book goes back to his tradition of finding extremely unusual people/situations and delving deep into them.


AUDIOBOOK: I listened to the audiobook, which was read by a woman, which is unusual. Usually, most audiobooks are read my someone with the same gender as the author - and sometimes even the same accent (e.g., Michio Kaku's books have a man with a Japanese accent read it). Perhaps the audiobook producer thought it would be more effective for a woman's voice read about rape. Regardless, she's an outstanding narrator.

 

Winter in the Wilderness book cover

Cover of Winter in the Wilderness A Field Guide to Primitive Survival Skills by Dave Hall, Jon Ulrich

Before sharing my thoughts of this book, I'll share my background and experience to illustrate my expertise, ignorance, and bias.

Background on the reviewer

I've spent many weeks backpacking in the winter or in winter-like conditions. For example, when I did a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail, I walked across Colorado in May. When you're in the Rocky Mountains in May, it sure looks and feels like winter, even though officially it's spring. The mountains are buried in snow and freezing temperatures are the norm.

My most memorable winter trip was when Lisa Garrett and I did a 4-day backpacking trip in Yosemite during Thanksgiving (late November). You can see some photos from that snowy experience.

I've also climbed many snowy peaks, such as nearly all the peaks in Cascade Mountain Range (e.g., Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, etc...), as well as snowy mountains outside the USA, such as Mont Blanc.

Despite all these situations, I have only once been in a true winter survival situation. That was in late March 2006 when Maiu and I got lost in the Olympic National Park. I've wanted to write about that life-threatening experience for a while years, but until I do, let's just say that we almost died. We spent two nights (one of which snowed on us) in a diabolical ravine. We both ended up with frostbite, but we got out on our own.

Another close call was when I was snowshoeing in Idaho for the day with Julia, my Ukrainian girlfriend at the time. We got lost as the sunset and kept walking until we ran into a man running a snowplow at 3:00 a.m. We were walking the wrong way and he took us back to safety.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I read Winter in the Wilderness. Here are the pros, cons, and verdict of the book.

My brother, Philippe Tapon, wrote two books. His second book, The Mistress, had a good review in the New York Times. However, I loved his first book, A Parisian From Kansas, much more. It's one of my favorite books of all time! Really. Here's why...

A Parisian From Kansas

Instead of reviewing it in a traditional way, I will give you my unique perspective into my brother's novel and tell you stories you wouldn't otherwise hear about the making of the novel.

Background of A Parisian From Kansas

A Parisian From Kansas by Philippe TaponMy brother sent three chapters of the book to a famous semi-retired editor, William Abrahams. After reading the 3 chapters, Mr. Abrahams asked for the rest of the book. Although he had vowed to never edit someone's first attempt at a book (and kept that vow for over 40 years), he decided to break it for Philippe's novel. Moreover, he decided to come out of his semi-retired state to edit it. Obviously, this book must have been extremely compelling to make such a famous editor take such a significant action. 

Mr. Abrahams did it, "Because I've never read anything like this." In fact, that's what most people say after reading it, and I can almost guarantee that you will too. I cannot promise that you'll love it (though nearly everyone has), but I can promise you that you'll agree that it is extremely original.

Allusions to great works

Throughout the work, the author makes allusions to great works such as T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, and Irving's The World According To Garp. It is a self-referential novel so it makes reading it exciting. Even though the work is considered fiction, about 80% of the novel events actually occurred; so one can certainly say that it is based on a true story.

Look for "Ghosts" in the novel

I'll share with you a secret you would probably never pick up unless you knew the author. If you pay close attention you will notice that in a few places Philippe mentions some fairly nondescript characters in the novel. 

For example, near the end of Chapter 2 Philippe and Darren say goodbye to the tarot card reader. Then he writes:

This is my first ereader and I love it! I've been researching them for years and finally I've found one that worth buying: Amazon's Kindle Paperweight. Here's my review of it.

Kindle Paperwhite technologyPros

  • Super long battery life: it was half-charged when I pulled it out of the box. It's been over a week and I have yet to charge it, even though I've been using it a couple of hours every day. Amazon claims a 2-month battery life, assuming you use it 30 minutes per day, no wifi, and at 40% brightness. That seems reasonable. Yet even if it's half that, it's amazingly good.
  • Multi-touch display: Although it's not as responsive as a iPhone/iPad, you can swipe and pinch all you want. Typing is less responsive than a standard LCD touch screen, but you can certainly type and even use the free to-do-list app.
  • The screen is as bright as you want it: The Kindle Paperwhite targets people who like to read black text on a white background. Ironically, I prefer black text on a gray background. I find it easier on my eyes, so I usually leave the brightness setting at only 5% brightness. That saves battery life and, for my tastes, it's what looks best in complete darkness AND a bright environment. It's only in semi-lit environments where I will boost the front light. Still, it is amazing how bright it can get and that you can have a nice white background even in a bright room.
  • The double helix nanoimprinted light guide technology: It lights up the eink perfectly and evenly, unlike any other ereader in the market today. (See pic on this page.) A few reviewers have complained that there are extremely minor shadows at the very bottom of the reader (see them in the video). It's true. They are there. However, it's so incredibly subtle that only the most picky person would care. If you're one of those, I suggest you go to therapy.

Lyubov Fadeeva, Professor of Politics in Perm, Russia, wrote this review of The Hidden Europe in Russian. It's translated below in English (the translation is imperfect). And now Dr. Fadeeva's....

Review of Francis Tapon's The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us

The Hidden Europe book cover

The book by Francis Tapon book The Hidden Europe. What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is estimated by reviewers as an excellent travelogue or travel book. In my opinion, it is a travelogue only in form; in content it is a profound cross-national socio-cultural study. It offers a comparative analysis of 25 countries based on sociological and statistical data, numerous interviews with both common people and intellectuals, inclusive observation, etc. I will strongly recommend it to my students in Comparative Politics.

Tapon warns: "I am not a historian. I am an explorer". He seems to be a real discoverer of "the hidden Europe".

The author pretends to be simple in his explanation: Eastern Europe is the territory situated to the East of Western Europe. But he warns that "Eastern Europe" as a term has a lot of complications and not very pleasant connotations for the people: "Because the world had such a low opinion of Eastern Europeans" as "losers who were on the wrong side of Iron Curtain nowadays nobody wants to admit that they live there" (P.13).

And Eastern Europe (25 countries) is still hidden not only for Americans, but for most Europeans too. From the beginning Francis Tapon allows himself a sharp jokes like "the only people who don't seem to care are the Moldovans. They are just happy that Moldova exists" ( P.15).

Most reviewers note the author's brilliant humor. I totally agree: I had a great laugh while reading the book, and I tried to pass on Tapon's humor to my friends and colleagues and to my students. His humor is hot and spicy but not offensive. On the other hand, his book is not entertaining fiction. I would estimate his humor as a research tool because it helps him to analyze, to compare different cultures and customs including offences and prejudices. "The main purpose of this book is positive – to learn the best things about Eastern Europeans; nevertheless, we'll also learn about the stupid and idiotic things in Eastern Europe" (P.16).

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