Category Archives: Education

Review: The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century

The Future We Want

The Future We Want

“The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century” is a collection of essays from an eclectic group of young writers and activists. They look at all the problems we normally think about, education, inequality, racism, a justice system that lacks justice, and societal bias over sex and gender. As an example of that last I need to point out that on the book the authors are listed as Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara. The online citation I found for the book, “Sunkara, Bhaskar. The Future We Want : Radical Ideas for the New Century. City: Henry Holt & Co, 2013.”, lists Sunkara, the male, as primary author. The book did open my eyes to a few problems that I have just begun to notice, “bad science”, the way financial interests are twisting what research we do as well as the outcomes of that research. .

As a lifelong liberal I wanted to like this book and, for the most part I did. Almost every goal mentioned in the book has my full support but, unfortunately, the book offers little, almost nothing, in the way of a roadmap to achieving these goals. We need a color blind justice system? Duhh. We need a justice system blind to color and wealth but how do we get there? A book I reviewed earlier, “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”, explains the problems in detail and gives a list of very doable corrections. Perhaps the problem is that each of these problems needs a full length treatment by an expert in the field to offer sufficient insight to allow a vision on solving them.

The one glaring problem I had with the book was its naive view of economics. Yes, today’s economy needs major reform but capitalism, Adam Smith’s capitalism not the “Free Market” Ayn Rand God is Greed, Austrian and Chicago school capitalism, is still the least bad of all economic systems. People do really work the best when they are working for their own improvement. That means that poverty wages do not inspire the best work, even with the whip of homelessness and starvation driving the workers. Regulating for living wages and safety nets for the calamities that naturally befall everyone are needed to, frankly, benefit the employers to ignorant or greedy to act in their workers and their own best interests.

The book is a good examination of what young liberals see as our current problems but it lacks any reasonable ideas to fix them. For that we have to look elsewhere. At least for ideas on repairing the broken criminal justice system I can recommend Adam Benforado’s “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice”.

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Review: Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past

Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

Book cover Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

“Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past” is the second middle school history plan I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I have to repeat that I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I do have a degree in history, I have been studying American history for a long time, and have grandchildren, children, and personal experience in middle school. I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can.

I was really impressed with the first book but this one is a disappointment. First, and this is not a problem with just this book, trying to covering over 500 years worth of history in one class, less than 160 contact hours, is silly. Packing that much content into one course guarantees information overload, nothing will be learned. This is how they taught history when I was in school, I don’t even remember the class. Each chapter in this book could, and have, filled hundreds volumes of scholarly history. Why not narrow the range, of focus on a topic that can be covered in a year and allow the students to learn some skills that will serve them in whatever they study? But that is an issue with the system, the book is not at fault it is merely trying to achieve the impossible goal regulators have set.

That is not to say this book does not have problems. Many of the lessons ask the students to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding. Seriously? This is not second grade. These students have basic communication skills. They need practice writing. One or two “art” assignments that connect well to the subject matter would be acceptable, but as someone who can not even trace a straight line, by middle school I was ready to put away childish things. One of my favorite authors when I was these students age. Robert Heinlein, explained that when he wrote his “juveniles” he never talked down to the readers. It is my feeling that this lesson plan, most of the time, does talk down to the students.

One of the book’s strong points is its use of the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool for investigating contemporary engravings and political cartoons. “Reading” pictures was not something I was introduced to until college and it is an important skill for developing critical thinking skills and your attention to detail. Unfortunately early in the book, lesson one of chapter two, the url leading to the sources did not work. I was able to find them but any teacher using this book needs to be forewarned. Two of the questions the students were asked to answer from the engravings were about gender roles. Is that an idea we want to promote in middle school in the 21st century? Instead of asking them to identify men’s work and women’s work how about just identifying the work being done? Instead of separating the work into male / female roles why not ask about the technology, the tools being used?

Slavery is the most divisive subject in U.S. history and I was ready to blast the authors for this untrue, illogical, statement, “For Whites in the slave states, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, signaled and immediate threat. Compromise, an essential feature of American politics, proved impossible and several Southern states immediately drew up declarations of secession modeled after the Declaration of Independence.” That sounds like an attempt at compromise was made which is untrue. Southern states were attacking U.S. military installations and issuing declarations of secession before Lincoln even reached Washington City. Just how did compromise prove impossible? At first I thought this was the author’s bias coming through but it is more an indication of how completely the South’s “Lost Cause” revision of history has sunk into our culture. When I read the assignment for that lesson I realized that Southern mythology could not survive this textbook. Students are given the Secession Declarations from South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, all name slavery as the primary reason for attempting to leave the Union.

The original texts used in the book are important documents and are sure to challenge readers at this grade level. I suspect that there will be push-back on some of the choices from both the left and right, they strike a good balance sure to offend many. They only used two pages from Paine’s “Common Sense”. The book is only 46 pages long, I would have liked to have seen more if not the entire text, but, like I said many people will be second guessing some of the author’s choices. Only in the lesson covering Jackson and the removal of the Eastern Indian Nations did I feel the sources were lacking. There were excerpts from Jackson and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation as well as excerpts of pro and con speeches to Congress. Why repeat Jackson and Ross’ arguments and leave out the Supreme Court’s decision?

As I said, covering the entire history of the United States in one class is a silly, irresponsible requirement that schools, and texts like this, must follow. It guarantees information overload, unless you choose to edit out a lot of information. The closest the text comes to mentioning the labor movement is in one sentence, “One group, the Lowell Mill Girls, became world famous for their independence and culture.” What does that even mean and how does it deserve mention when the “Bread and Roses” Strike is overlooked? Later in the text the Civil Rights Movement follows the Great Depression which followed World War One propaganda. Where are Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam?

As a history text this book does the best it can with the unreasonable expectations that one class cover over 400 years of North American / US history. However, the lessons are uneven. Some seemed so simple and childish that I can’t imagine a middle schooler not being bored with them. Others were exceptional, I can see the discussion on Washington’s Farewell Address working in an adult class. Maybe a second edition will improve the weaker lessons and correct the bad links. Only legislatures can fix the unreasonable requirement to squeeze everything in U.S. history into one school year.

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Review: The Treatment

book cover

Martha Stephens’ “The Treatment”

This is a difficult book for me to review for many reasons. I grew up in and around Cincinnati. Cincinnati history was the topic of my capstone paper for my BA in history a few years ago. A class on medical history by a great professor at Miami University hooked me on the topic. After graduation I took to researching Cincinnati’s Dr. Daniel Drake, 1785-1852. I read everything I could to learn about the state of medicine and how it advanced during his life of practicing and teaching medicine. There were a few histories I only read the parts that covered up to the end of his life but there were some that really grabbed my interest that I read cover to cover. Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” was one of those. That is where I first heard about the Department of Defense funded radiation experiments performed in Cincinnati University Hospital from 1960 until 1972 and where I first heard of Martha Stephen’s book “The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation experiments”. It took many months for me to put my hands on a copy and I grew more eager to read it as more time passed.

I was only a few dozen pages into the book before I turned to the appendix listing all the research subjects, my grandmother had died quickly of cancer in 1973. I was happy to see that her name was not among the human guinea pigs selected for “treatment”. The author, Martha Stephens, was involved in much of the fight to expose the radiation program to the public, first as a member of the Junior Faculty Association that brought the program to the attention of the entire University of Cincinnati, not simply a few members of the medical school. (By the way, I have to point out that both the university and the medical school were founded by Dr. Daniel Drake.) Later she worked with the families of the research subjects, helping find them and helping them publicize their lawsuit. Because she was involved in the events some of the book reads like a memoir and the more she talked about herself the more I began to understand that she had been my English professor at UC’s Evening College back in the late 1970s. That, I think, is a full disclosure of my biases over this book. I feel very connected to the story, in some small way I am. I was over eager to read the book. I feel a little protective of Dr. Drake’s school and hospital and, although my degree is from Miami University nearly half my credits were from UC.

I really expected to like this book. That could play into my disappointment with it. Professor Stephens teaches English, not history. The book is disorganized and at times is more of a memoir, covering events unconnected to the subject of the work, than anything else. One of the most blatant offenses to what historical training I have was when she put words into the victims attorney at the start of the hearings. Yes, she pointed out that the speech was what she wanted him to say but I was expecting a work of history, not a fantasy on what should have happened in the eyes of the, non-lawyer, author.

Stephens also falls into the trap that makes so much scholarly writing unintelligible, writing to prove possession of a PhD rather than to clearly and precisely pass on information. I am a college graduate who has been an avid reader for over half a century, why should I need to pull out a dictionary to unravel a sentence that simply says “the apartment was small and neat?” Occasionally a literary reference can be the best way to bring out shared experiences between the author and the readers but multiple references to multiple works on one page is simply egotism.

The last third of the book did start to put the story together in a historically valid way. Sort of anyway. There was still massive gaps in the information that seemed to be equal parts inability to do historical research and editorial blind spots. This is an important story. It concerns Cold War fears, the arrogance of medical researchers brought on by big grants and a God complex. Simply told the story is this, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was obvious that radiation was an invisible and mysterious factor soldiers in a nuclear war would have to contend with. After an exposure how could doctors triage their patients, which ones were walking dead men due to the radiation and which should the military spend valuable resources to treat? That is the question that the Department of Defense wanted answered when they funded the University of Cincinnati Medical School’s radiation experiments.

To answer that question the radiation lab selected cancer patients to be given massive doses of radiation in single exposure over their whole body. Exactly like a soldier near an atomic explosion would suffer. Then the doctors would collect and examine blood and urine samples looking for a tell tale marker they could use to determine exposure when the dosage was unknown, as on a battlefield. Other tests were often performed, after all how often do you get a patient exposed to a near lethal dose of radiation to study? Over the twelve years of the study 115 people were irradiated. They ranged in ages from 80 years old to only 9 years old. All were said to have terminal cancer but among the many types of cancer the patients were diagnosed with there were many of the solid tumor variety that it was well understood that whole body radiation was not effective against. The patients were not told this. They were simply told that they were being taken for a “treatment”. They were not told that it could be deadly. They were not told that it was a Department of Defense study. They were not told that the doctors did not expect the patients to get any benefit from the “treatment”. To be fair they were not told that there might be a benefit. Approximately 1 in 4 patients would die within 60 days of the treatment, some that were living normal, active lives up to the day of the treatment.

Over the years various members of the university’s research board would question the program, what was its goal? Was it ethical? The objections would abruptly end for reasons unknown to Stephens until the Junior Faculty Association, which Stephens was a member of, got wind of the “treatments” and investigated. Their objections were handled quietly within the university and the program was stopped and buried.

Nearly twenty years later a woman working at the hospital, transcribing records of an old research project, came across her aunts name. She was listed as a subject, something the family never knew about. Her curiosity led to a multi-year legal action against the university, the city, the doctors, and the federal government that included a historic decision that repeatedly referenced the Nuremberg Code, a code of behavior developed by the Allies after the war crimes trials of World War Two that were to offer guidance on performing medical research without committing war crimes, sometimes referred to as crimes against humanity. According the the doctors of the UC Hospital radiation experiments the only ethical standards in existence when the study began, in 1960, were written for the ethical treatment of animals.

There is a story here that needs a good historian to bring it out. Unfortunately Stephens “The Treatment” only scratches the surface.

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Review: Engaging with History in the Classroom The Civil Rights Movement

Rockwell's "The problem we all live with"

Rockwell’s “The problem we all live with”

Janice Robbins and Carol Tieso’s book “The Civil Rights Movement” is part of the “Engaging with History in the Classroom” series that provides outlines to help classroom teachers present eras of American history When I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program I expected a textbook, not a lesson plan. I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I did recently earn a degree in history and have been studying American history for a long time. Since I am not even sure if I understand the exact definition of the word “pedagogy” I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can. The authors both teach new educators about working with “gifted students”. I can comment on that aspect of the book. I was once considered a “gifted” student, before anyone knew how to deal with us.

Of the six key concepts listed, concept development, critical thinking, discussion, recognizing historical perspective, historical inquiry, and assessment I feel comfortable talking about only three. Critical thinking is the most important skill that a citizen can develop and I am happy to see it as a goal in middle school education. In past discussions instructors told me that even high school students were too young to master critical thinking. I am glad to see that it introduced this early. No one can master a skill until they start practicing.

Historical perspective is difficult for anyone to master. It requires understanding the history that led up to the time in question and understanding the then existing culture. At times I felt that the book was failing to impart the information needed for the students to gain a historical perspective of the United States in the 1950s and 60s but then I considered that this was just one in a series of US history lessons and some of the necessary background would be in earlier modules. Also, this is for middle school students. They have only had a little over a decade to study the world. This class is by default an introduction and does what it can to give students the background needed to understand how people lived and why they did what they did.

I feel most comfortable talking about historical inquiry. Robbins and Tieso do an excellent job of exposing students to different types of historical documents. From the start students are examining photos, news clippings, listening to narratives and “freedom music”. Lesson two has them compare photos of two schools from South Carolina in 1950, one for white and one for black students and asks which they would prefer to attend. Is there a better way to introduce critical thinking? They read and discuss both the “Statement from Alabama Clergymen” and Dr. King’s response, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The only resources offered to the students that I was uncomfortable with was the reading list, almost all historical fiction. That concerned me but again, I am not an educator, I have not read any of the suggested books and I have to trust that the authors did and that they chose books that lack the errors inherent to historical fiction written for an adult audience. I hope that any teacher using this in the classroom points out the difference in primary and secondary sources, the flaws of each, and explains that photos, music, paintings, sculpture, artifacts of everyday life as well as written documents are valid historical evidence.

There are two more important features to each of the twelve lessons that I want to mention. “Important Terms and Ideas” is a feature I would welcome in most of the non-fiction I read, short, simple explanation of terms that might be unfamiliar. As much as I like the idea the execution was flawed. Starting in lesson one with “prejudice: a bias that keeps someone from being fair”. Is someone unfamiliar with “prejudice” going to be familiar enough with “bias” to use it in a definition? Later, in lesson five, we find the term segregation but only after four lessons on Brown v Board and segregated schools? I feel that the “Terms and Ideas” would have benefited from more attention. I do realize that I am picking at nits here but there are only so many terms defined and they should all be helpful.

The “Hook” is, in my opinion, the best feature of the lessons. Most of my time in school I spent in the back of the class reading. Not my textbooks but not always fiction. Most lectures I thought were boring or were on subjects I had already read about. If the class started with a hook sharp enough to catch my attention I might have paid attention. I might have learned a little more from the class. Each lesson here features a hook. Some are much better than others. Some I am sure would have grabbed my attention and hooked me into participating. I had to chuckle at the instructions for one, listen to and discuss a recording of “The Times They Are A Changin”. The instructions are to hand out copies of the lyrics. How could anyone be expected to understand Dylan’s vocals? The “Hooks” are, in my opinion, some of the best feature of the book.

Given the grades that the book focused on and the fact that is started with Brown V Board I was concerned that the violence used against the Civil Rights Movement would be glossed over. We, as a society, are protective about exposing children to violence, the real stuff, not movie mayhem. Then I saw that one work of art offered to teachers was Norman Rockwell’s painting Murder in Mississippi. It is a great choice. There are so many question that the illustration asks. Who are these three young men? What is happening to them? Whose shadows do we see? Why are those people hidden? Rockwell’s illustration, “The Problem We All Live With”, which I have used here, is the first one used in the lesson and is less threatening. It is a powerful painting in its own right but I hope teachers point out to their students that Rockwell was a beloved artist whose work was best known to celebrate American, not to point out problems. An important part of historical inquiry is to know your sources.

I am not a teacher, but I have children and grandchildren, and I believe that the lesson plans in this book would grab their attention, even of the ones who are, lets say less than ideal students, and that I am confident that they would improve their critical thinking skills and expose them to “doing history”.

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Review: The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams

Book cover of The Education of John Quincy Adams

The Education of John Quincy Adams

Phyllis Levin’s “The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams” is a detailed look at the life and family of our sixth president from his childhood through serving as ambassador to Russia during the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. John Quincy’s time as Secretary of State, as President and in Congress doing his best to assault the “peculiar institution” of slavery, is still ahead of him. These are the years, according to Levin’s title, when John Quincy receives his “remarkable education.”

During the early decades of the United State’s existence it was very common for people to keep journals, diaries. Thanks to the Adams family observation of this popular pastime and their, and their ancestors, digilant preservation of letters, provided Levin with a wealth of primary documentation to work with. At one point she even mentions what John Quincy had for dinner, as a demonstration of the wealth of resources available, not from any compulsion for completeness. The family journals and letters, along with the standard documents related to his and his father’s government service, provided Levin detailed insight on John Quincy’s public, personal and private lives.

My real interest in John Quincy Adams lies in his work in Congress, after his time in the White House and long after the events of this book. Still, Levin kept me interested. Her writing is excellent, nothing about the book is dry and scholastic except the quality of the research. I think any one interested in the Adams family, the early history of the United States, or of its diplomats will be interested in this book.

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2014 Reading List

Father Time

Father Time marches on.

I only managed to read 22 books this year. Even considering that several of them were well over 400 pages long I am a little disappointed. I did manage to review all but the last on, which I am working on right now and should be ready to post next week.

The worst was Peter Bronson’s “Behind the Lines” where he tries to explain away the 2001 manslaughter of Timothy Thomas by an inexperienced police officer unfamiliar with the area who, against instructions, chased Thomas down a dark, narrow walkway and shot him dead as he reached for his phone. It turned out to be a story that kept repeating through the year. Just like today the reaction against the unjust killing was blamed on the victims of police violence.

On a personal level Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks into a Bar” might be the most important. That is the book that made me want to try a Lime Rickey and got me started on the path to a home bar. In the larger world Martin J. Blaser’s book “Missing Microbes” could turn out to be the book of the year. His argument that we and our bacteria evolved together, that we could have a myriad of symbiotic relationships with the bacteria that lives in and on us and that indiscriminately eliminating them can be, has been, detrimental to our health opens up vast field of investigation for medical researchers.

Here is the complete list.

1. Edsel, Robert M., and Bret Witter. The monuments men : allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. New York: Center Street / Hachette Book Group, 2010

2. Deetz, James. In small things forgotten : an archaeology of early American life. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

3. Sismondo, Christine. America walks into a bar : a spirited history of taverns and saloons, speakeasies, and grog shops. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 2011.

4. Stiglitz, Joseph E. The price of inequality. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

5. Larson, Edward J. Summer for the gods : the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks, 2006.

6. Blaser, Martin J. Missing microbes : how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

7. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2014.

8. Murtagh, William J. Keeping time : the history and theory of preservation in America. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley, 2006.

9. Bronson, Peter. Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots. Milford. OH: Chilidog Press, 2006.

10. Shriver, Maria, and Olivia Morgan. The Shriver report : a woman’s nation pushes back from the brink : a study. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

11. Connell, Robert L. Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random House, 2014.

12. Cronkite, Walter, Maurice Isserman, and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite’s war : his World War II letters home. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society, 2013.

13. Johnson, Jacqueline. Western College for Women. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

14. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

15. King, Quentin S. Henry Clay and the War of 1812. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

16. Bradley, David. The historic murder trial of George Crawford : Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the case that put all-white southern juries on trial. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

17. Potter, Maximillian, and Donald Corren. Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. Solon, Ohio: Findaway World, LLC, 2014.

18. Bailey, Mark, and Edward Hemingway. Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

19. Krist, Gary. Empire of sin : a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014.

20. Trudeau, Noah A. Southern storm : Sherman’s march to the sea. New York: Harper, 2008.

21. Henry, David, and Joe Henry. Furious cool : Richard Pryor and the world that made him. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.

22. Levin, Phyllis L. The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams. London New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

Book cover

How to Lie With Statistics

For a book to remain in print for fifty years it must be good. This one was originally published in 1954 and, as far as I can tell, has been in print ever since. A book less than 150 pages long, generously seeded with amusing cartoons is not what you would expect to find on a graduate school reading list but that is exactly where I learned about this one. Darrell Huff and illustrator Irving Geis produced a little marvel with their book “How to Lie with Statistics”. As Huff points out early in the book a cat-burglar who writes a how-to memoir in prison does not do it for other cat-burglars. They already know how to burgle. The intended audience is people who do not want to be burgled, or, in the case of this book, lied to.

Huff is careful to spread the blame for lying statistics widely, overeager researchers, poor information gathering by statisticians, advertising people willing to apply lipstick of any color to their pig, journalists looking for a marketable story. The fact that most of these lies are “true” is not ignored. For me the most memorable story he uses to make this clear is the restaurateur who explains his rabbit-burger is 50% rabbit, he mixes it in a 1 to 1 ratio with horse-meat. One rabbit to one horse.

After nine chapters of explaining how easy it is for statistics, charts, graphs, and percentages to lie the last chapter makes a serious attempt to explaining how we can avoid being lied to by asking a few simple questions like, who says so, how does he know, what’s missing, and does it make sense. As Huff points out it is important to be able to detect these lies, not just because of misleading advertisements but because we have elections every few years.

As an amateur historian who is just a few years younger than this book I have to admit I enjoyed the window into the past that the many cartoons offered. Yes, we really dressed and smoked like that. The books age was a little disconcerting when Huff dissected an article about the income of the “average” Yale graduate. Going to Yale hardly seemed worth the $25,000 income it offered until I ran it through an inflation calculator, then it made sense. This book is one of the most informative and fun books I have read in a long, long time. It was informative not because I know nothing about statistics, I do, it was informative because neither of the classes I have taken on statistics covered how easy it is to miss-use or misunderstand exactly what it is the numbers say. If you do not like being lied to, consider reading this book.

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