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Kenneth

Old & fat, but strong; American, Chinese, & Indian (sort of); Ph.D. in C.S.; strategy, economics & stability theory; trees & machining.

LEESBURG, VA, United States | Member Since 2005

354
HELPFUL VOTES
  • 113 reviews
  • 235 ratings
  • 518 titles in library
  • 45 purchased in 2014
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  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

    • UNABRIDGED (36 hrs and 43 mins)
    • By Steven Pinker
    • Narrated By Arthur Morey
    Overall
    (1171)
    Performance
    (958)
    Story
    (949)

    We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the best-selling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

    Teddy says: "Excellent Book All Over"
    "My Pick for Best Book in a Few Years"
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    I try to pick a personal book of the year about once a year and a personal book of the decade about every 10 years. But I also have some in between category of books that are better than the book of the year, but not as good as the book of the decade. “Better Angles” is in this category.

    In the last 5 or 6 years there seems to be a growing awareness that violence has declined significantly in parts of the U.S. since the ‘70s. This awareness may be in part due to other popular books that have pointed this out, like Freakonomics. However, this book shows that the decline in violence is global and part of a very long term trend. The details are varied, but the pattern is remarkably consistent. And the affect is not small. For example 500 years ago violence in the more civilized parts of Western Europe was 30 times higher than in the U.S. today.

    The first “third” of the book contains copious detail designed to convince you that in spite of rare exceptions the trend toward less violence is significant. The middle “third” of the book reviews what science can (and can’t) tell us about the causes of violence. The last “third” tries to construct a theory that explains the reason for the actual decline in violence.

    So what is his conclusion? In a word “enlightenment”. I found the argument compelling. But even more interestingly the result is an unexpected defense of education, learning, refinement, and bourgeoisie values. He clearly thinks enlightenment is at odds with modern leftist (or right wing) politics; and uses the phrase “classical liberalism”.

    Three cautions: The author is a statistical researcher or a number cruncher. The math is all almost trivial, but numeracy is the core of the argument and is the bulk of the book. The book is irreverent. I found it charmingly so. But other may find it borderline belligerent. Finally, it is a long and detailed, to the point of pushing the audible format.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  • How Great Generals Win

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 19 mins)
    • By Bevin Alexander
    • Narrated By James Slattery
    Overall
    (90)
    Performance
    (33)
    Story
    (33)

    Throughout history great generals have done what their enemies have least expected. Instead of direct, predictable attack, they have deceived, encircled, outflanked, out-thought, and triumphed over often superior armies commanded by conventional thinkers.

    Charlie says: "Intriguing"
    "The Problem with Case-Study-Centric Analysis"
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    The book presents 11 case studies of brilliant generals. For each general it presents a short history of key battles that illustrate the general’s particular brand of greatness and then provides a set of lessons that could be applied more broadly to military style command. The first time through this book I thought it was great. It’s well written, historically informative, and provided an emotional touchstone for a lot of things I already believed, including a lot that was consistent with my beliefs about strategy. I was inclined to give it 5 stars.

    The problem started a few weeks after I read this book when I was telling a Chinese friend about the inclusion of Mao Zedong in the list of great generals. The friend somewhat patronizingly claimed that that the key battle narratives in this book were not historical; rather they were a retelling of fictional propaganda created long after the fact. I didn’t believe my fried. But there was something about the particular interaction that started an extended investigation. I needed to know if Mao was a great general; the answer seemed to affect too many other aspects of my world view.

    After 2 years of part time armature research, I came to believe that Mao was in fact a great general, but that the accounts of his greatness in this book are completely fictionalized.

    IMHO Mao’s greatness as a general was in his use of what Sun Tzu called “dead spies”. This is best illustrated by the Manchurian Campaign, in which prepositioned assets (i.e., sleepers) played a decisive role. The trouble is that the author, I, and most of western culture view this use of dead spies as expletive, immoral, and evil or at least as unmanly. The repulsiveness of the implied lessons, inclines us to believe other versions of history. On the other hand the fictional propaganda was designed to fit with what we want to believe … The deeper trouble is that the facts matter but are only approximately knowable, and at least in this case even small progress in uncovering the facts requires excessive effort.

    So … what lesson do I draw from the meta-case study of the Mao Case Study. For starters I do NOT find that the meta-case study leads me to something a kin to epistemological relativism. That would be too much like embracing one case study (or meta-case study) as absolute proof that all cases studies are wrong. But these kinds of case studies feel much deeper much more insightful than they are. It’s a kind of vividness bias. Stories are manipulative; in case studies the story takes pursuance over the facts.

    On the other hand, thinking in stories seems to be necessary in order to explore less superficial truths, i.e., truths involving extended chains of cause and effect.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 3 mins)
    • By David E. Sanger
    • Narrated By Robertson Dean
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (106)
    Performance
    (94)
    Story
    (95)

    Three and a half years ago, David Sanger’s book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power described how a new American president came to office with the world on fire. Now, just as the 2012 presidential election battle begins, Sanger follows up with an eye-opening, news-packed account of how Obama has dealt with those challenges, relying on innovative weapons and reconfigured tools of American power to try to manage a series of new threats.

    Bradford C Rowland says: "Put yourself in the shoes of the President"
    "Excellent Apologetics of Amateurism"
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    This book systematically reviews Obama’s foreign policy. The author is an impressive journalist; and the quality of the research is excellent; WikiLeaks is uses somewhat heavy in combination with many other protected sources. Perhaps books are the new outlet for serious journalism.

    The book somewhat strongly refutes the idea that Obama’s foreign policy is wimpy. For me it also reinforced the idea that his administration is more amateurish than professional. Finally, it somewhat strongly argued that Obama’s administration has learned on the job far better than most and has adapted somewhat aggressively, once it finally figures things out.

    As a disenfranchised republican I was compelled to vote for Hillary. I tended to view Obama as a Jimmy Carter like character (i.e., well-meaning but perhaps in over his head). In some regards this book reinforced these pre-existing beliefs. The surprising thing, however, is that the book convinced me that Obama somewhat consistently gets to a good outcome in the end, after first pushing several bad strategies. For me this was a new insight.

    It is said that Obama is an advocate of Lincoln’s idea of a Team of Rivals (see book by that name). If true this book reveals the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. First of all, the team of rivals approach requires a very powerful leader (and Obama is no Lincoln). Secondly it’s a pretty ugly process (even Lincoln’s presidency reveals that). But in the end this approach maybe more robust than it appears, i.e., eventually getting to a good outcome most of the time.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Mao: The Unknown Story

    • UNABRIDGED (29 hrs and 51 mins)
    • By Jung Chang, Jon Halliday
    • Narrated By Robertson Dean
    Overall
    (258)
    Performance
    (123)
    Story
    (123)

    Based on a decade of research and on interviews with many of Mao's close circle in China who have never talked before, and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him, this is the most authoritative biography of Mao ever written.

    Jene says: "Fills many gaps! Very good..but!"
    "The Missing Manual for China and Chinese"
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    In 1998 I started reading 2 books on Chinese History or Chinese Cultural per year. For a long time the only affect seemed to be that I usually knew more Chinese history than almost all Chinese under about 55 (and quite a bit less than many over about 65). It didn’t even endeared me to Chinese; it was much more likely to lead to arguments about revisionism, often devolving towards the absurd.

    About 3 years ago I had my first significant breakthrough in this implicit quest when I read, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Mao: The Unknown Story completes the Genghis Khan book. The Khan dynasty and the Mao indulgency are the Yang and the Yin of the hard to see thing that differentiates China, Chinese Culture, and most modern Chinese from the rest of the world. Americans for example are incapable of this degree of dichotomy with respect to anything, but especially with respect to our leaders. (The only plausible expectation is dichotomy with respect to ourselves (individualism seems to facility a greater capacity for dichotomy with respect to ourselves)).

    If you read both books back to back and then try to fuse the insights you’ll understand most of Chinese history, a lot of Chinese Culture, and a great deal more than you did about modern Chinese.

    Notes:
    1) IMHO this book is better than Wild Swans.
    2) I have trouble recommending this book to others as strongly as its actual impact, because it’s such a painful reed.
    3) Both Genghis Khan and Mao conflated history and propaganda to an extent that most of the rest of the world cannot. Although Genghis Khan may have believed in secret non-propaganda histories for their strategic value.
    4) I think the first step in understanding these two books is to embrace the More is Different principle. All peoples, cultures, and governments have their moments and their dark sides, but orders of magnitude simply matter. Some numeracy with respect to scale is required to even start to understand.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency

    • UNABRIDGED (14 hrs and 16 mins)
    • By Parmy Olson
    • Narrated By Abby Craden
    Overall
    (425)
    Performance
    (375)
    Story
    (379)

    In late 2010, thousands of hacktivists joined a mass digital assault by Anonymous on the websites of VISA, MasterCard, and PayPal to protest their treatment of WikiLeaks. Splinter groups then infiltrated the networks of totalitarian governments in Libya and Tunisia, and an elite team of six people calling themselves LulzSec attacked the FBI, CIA, and Sony. They were flippant and taunting, grabbed headlines, and amassed more than a quarter of a million Twitter followers.

    Adam K says: "Awesome book. Felt like a hacker fiction novel!"
    "Armatures proving that Pros aren’t even Trying"
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    Obviously when dealing with shadowy organizations (or anti-organizations) there are some limits to knowledge. The act of looking intently may change the situation, or acquiring deep insights of murky situations may take so long that the situation changes during the process, only becoming clear in retrospect. However, this book is about as accurate and as informative as is possible for a book about Anonymous. This is the primary reason to read it. It’s a good introduction; a reasonably balanced, reasonable acute reporting.

    The important takeaways from this book seem to be: 1) that as a cyber-army Anonymous is shockingly low tech and 2) the corollary that as a society we are shockingly vulnerable to low tech attacks.

    Anonymous is mostly a large group of board rowdy teenagers with nothing better to do, who meet up on sexually explicit and gore oriented bulletin boards, like 4chan or B, and from time to tie sally forth to experience a bit of mayhem. Sure they are a few elite security exports who may (or may not) be leading them (the whole question of leadership is controversial). But even the elite hackers within Anonymous are rather underwhelming, compared to other cyber-war or cybercrime groups, like author of the Conficker Worm, which was a team of world class professionals.

    If you’re a believer in Anonymous as a cause this is probably reassuring (these are pretty ordinary people), if you’re not a believer this is the doubling unsettling. It reveals the extent to which IT professionals at your work, at companies you buy from, in the government, and behind the medical, financial, personal and computer services you must use in modern life, are not really trying to deal with computer security. It seems that they are not striving to fix the problems, but merely striving to put on a good show in the hopes of deflecting blame for the problem. That is, their goal is not security, but rather security theater. And the police are so out classed (with a few exceptions) that it’s like hiring a bunch of 12 year old girls as bouncers at a Megadeath concert (if you’re lucky they might avoid becoming victims themselves).

    As a society we don’t seem to yet ready to do anything about this situation. Sure Anonymous terrorizes some innocent people, but they are mostly terrorizing each other, and they do some good. The problems seem tolerable. But history suggest that this unstable. Over time either someone will figure how to use Anonymous (or similar organizations) as their personal armies. This is roughly the way nearly all of history’s most evil megalomaniacs rose to power. Or Anonymous will gradually become more and more evil, corrupted from within by its own power.

    The situation today is troubling, but far from dire. The scary bit is the trajectory; and it’s very dire.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story

    • UNABRIDGED (11 hrs and 5 mins)
    • By Richard Preston
    • Narrated By Richard M. Davidson
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (530)
    Performance
    (472)
    Story
    (478)

    A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days, 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic "hot" virus. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their "crashes" into the human race. Shocking, frightening, and impossible to ignore, The Hot Zone proves that truth really is scarier than fiction.

    aaron says: "If you love viruses and gore and non-fiction..."
    "Like Big Foot Hunting for the Science Set"
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    Something is out there. Something mysterious and elusive. Something we don’t understand. But it’s corporal enough so there is no reasonable doubt that’s its real.

    I’ve been fascinated by inter-species viruses for about 15 years: AIDS, Hantavirus, Ebola, Flu, and others. I find myself reading most of the armature literature this topics. I have some sort of need to search for insights into the import but elusive things that are “out there”. But the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, Alien Abduction, and the like are a little too speculative to hold my interest. The scientists in me demands a bit more proof, actually quite a bit more proof.

    If you relate to what I’m saying, “The Hot Zone” could well be your top summer fun read.

    On a personal note my wife is close with one of the top guys at USAMRAA and I moved into a building about a mile from the “Monkey House” features in the story about a year after the main incident. So I’d heard these events discussed at a distance for about 13 years, but I didn’t really understand until I read this book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 11 mins)
    • By Ray Kurzweil
    • Narrated By Christopher Lane
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (255)
    Performance
    (225)
    Story
    (222)

    Ray Kurzweil, the bold futurist and author of the New York Times best seller The Singularity Is Near, is arguably today’s most influential technological visionary. A pioneering inventor and theorist, he has explored for decades how artificial intelligence can enrich and expand human capabilities. Now, in his much-anticipated How to Create a Mind, he takes this exploration to the next step: reverse-engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works, then applying that knowledge to create vastly intelligent machines.

    Ryan says: "Articulate but familiar brain-inspired AI pitch"
    "Almost Brilliant, Almost Antiquated, Not Anything"
    Overall
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    I’m a fan of Kurtzweil. I find his book The Singularity is Near to be an essential part of any modern education. He is also the most financially successful Artificial Inelegance (AI) researcher to date. So he’s a great philosopher, a great researcher, and a great businessmen, but apparently he’s not infallible, because this book missed the mark.

    In a nutshell his answer to the question, “How do you/we make a mind” is “The same way we’ve been trying for the last 30 years”. This answer is so close to brilliant it’s spooky. I think there have been profound changes in AI over the last 5 or 6 years. Big data is suddenly revealing (or at least strongly suggesting) that we in fact may have been making pretty good synthetic minds for decades and just didn’t know it. The problem has been that having made a good synthetic mind we don’t know how to educate it. At the same time (because of advances in AI) we may be on the cusp of discovering that we don’t know how to educate biological minds either (and have been making nearly the same mistakes as the AI community has been making). In this book Kurzweil presents much of the data in support of this argument, and then walks away from what to me seemed the logical conclusion.

    To make matters worse his overview of 30 years of AI is quite narrow. One might get the impression that he believes that Multi-Layer Hidden Markov Models are all that is needed. Perhaps in some since any of a dozen AI methods are sufficient, in the same since that Truing Machines are sufficient, but the field of synthetic mind creation is much richness than presented here, as the author must have known.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1

    • UNABRIDGED (20 hrs and 16 mins)
    • By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    • Narrated By Charlton Griffin
    Overall
    (2752)
    Performance
    (1866)
    Story
    (1884)

    First appearing in print in 1890, the character of Sherlock Holmes has now become synonymous worldwide with the concept of a super sleuth. His creator, Conan Doyle, imbued his detective hero with intellectual power, acute observational abilities, a penchant for deductive reasoning and a highly educated use of forensic skills. Indeed, Doyle created the first fictional private detective who used what we now recognize as modern scientific investigative techniques.

    David says: "mouth watering"
    "Shockingly Modern"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    I’ve been sampling the “classics” more for a few years. I have mixed feelings about the classics, as a group. Both time and the “wisdom of the crowd” are a powerful filter, but sometimes the gap in world views is a problem. For example Aristotle’s word view was just too un-modern for me glean much from his writings. In contrast Plato requires only a modest ability to explore less modern paradigm and many of his gyms are trivially transported to a modern context.

    Sherlock Holms felt like it was written today and merely set in the past. It was truly amazing. The only tell was slight aversion to gore (which I rather think is not such a bad thing).

    It is targeted at the young reader, but very inter-generational. It’s the perfect book to read to your children or grandchildren.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2

    • UNABRIDGED (27 hrs and 50 mins)
    • By Arthur Conan Doyle
    • Narrated By Charlton Griffin
    Overall
    (1340)
    Performance
    (931)
    Story
    (950)

    Volume two in this series consists of one novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and two collections of short stories, which include "Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" and "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" (a total of 23 stories). These creations by Doyle represent the finest work of his Holmes series, and certainly the most famous.

    T. says: "a list of what you'll find in Volume 2"
    "Shockingly Modern"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    I’ve been sampling the “classics” more for a few years. I have mixed feelings about the classics, as a group. Both time and the “wisdom of the crowd” are a powerful filter, but sometimes the gap in world views is a problem. For example Aristotle’s word view was just too un-modern for me glean much from his writings. In contrast Plato requires only a modest ability to explore less modern paradigm and many of his gyms are trivially transported to a modern context.

    Sherlock Holms felt like it was written today and merely set in the past. It was truly amazing. The only tell was slight aversion to gore (which I rather think is not such a bad thing).

    It is targeted at the young reader, but very inter-generational. It’s the perfect book to read to your children or grandchildren.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Road to Serfdom

    • UNABRIDGED (9 hrs and 18 mins)
    • By Friedrich A. Hayek
    • Narrated By William Hughes
    Overall
    (555)
    Performance
    (384)
    Story
    (385)

    Originally published in 1944, The Road to Serfdom has profoundly influenced many of the world's great leaders, from Orwell and Churchill in the mid-'40s, to Reagan and Thatcher in the '80s. The book offers persuasive warnings against the dangers of central planning, along with what Orwell described as "an eloquent defense of laissez-faire capitalism".

    Scott says: "Classic"
    "Top Classical Political Work of the 20th Century"
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    Writing during World War II, Fredrick Hayek (a prominent academic at the London School of Economics), presents a passionate argument for what we now think of as libertarianism, but which he called Classical Liberalism. He argues that central planning, rather it be liberal or conservative is the great evil. This is because central planning can only be implemented through an ever escalating slide towards totalitarianism. He further argues that the British and American traditions of individual freedom are the antidote.

    In the context of World War II he argues that although the Nationalizes and the Nazis purport to be the opposite of the Socialist and the Communist, they are merely arguing over how to implement central planning. The important question is rather (or when) to have central planning.

    Another perspective on this work is that at any given time the political discourse tends towards the one dimensional. The result is that the actual interaction of the government with “real life” are (with rare exceptions) significantly more multi-dimensional than the discussion of this interaction. From World War I to the present much of the political discussion has focused on the “left/right debate”. But the difference between classical liberalism and central planning is the important distinction.

    As an aside while arguing with my wife about this book, I had an epiphany, which is suggested by the book, but not explicitly in the book. Neither central planning nor laissez faire are inherently more efficient, the apparent difference in efficiency are a matter of perspective. The difference is strongly analogous to the difference between vertical and horizontal integration in technology. Central planning can more efficiently accomplish a small number of objectives at the expense of an even greater loss of efficiency in other parts of the system (i.e., vertical integration). Laissez faire maximizes system efficiency at the expense of a loss of end-to-end efficiency in nearly every specific objective (i.e., horizontal integration).

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

    • UNABRIDGED (16 hrs and 13 mins)
    • By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
    • Narrated By Joe Ochman
    Overall
    (777)
    Performance
    (649)
    Story
    (652)

    In The Black Swan Taleb outlined a problem, and in Antifragile he offers a definitive solution: how to gain from disorder and chaos while being protected from fragilities and adverse events. For what Taleb calls the "antifragile" is actually beyond the robust, because it benefits from shocks, uncertainty, and stressors, just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension. The antifragile needs disorder in order to survive and flourish. Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner.

    Liz says: "big fan but what is up with the bleeps?"
    "My Pick, Book of the Year, 2013"
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    The 1960s’ (earlier or later depending on the field) represented the zenith of a particular collection of ways of thinking about applied probability, about large systems, and about epistemology. Defining this paradigm is tricky. I think of Thomas Kuhn, Kalman Filters, NASA’s approach to quality, Karl Popper, and the invention of the FFT, but list is too idiosyncratic to be helpful. But the point here is that this way of thinking (which I have trouble defining) has given way to a new paradigm that is more about complexity theory (although not so much about chaos theory), network affects, heavy tail distribution, facials, and the unknowable. This book is trying to explain this new paradigm.

    Taleb’s technical papers have contributed some to the development of this new paradigm, but his great contribution is the creation of an accessible philosophy built around this new science. This philosophical construction started with Fooled by Randomness, progressed in The Black Swan, and now culminates in Anti-Fragile.

    To “get it” you probably have to just read the books, but I’ll try to explain. In Fooled by Randomness he examines the oft practiced money manager con, where you are sold a betting system is right 80% of the time. Sounds like a winner, but beware, the losses when the scheme is wrong are more than 4 times the winning when it’s right. Many a high wage earner has been bilked by myriad versions of this con. In The Black Swan he follows the question of how such cons are constructed, to propose that reality is partitioned into two types of probability distributions: those like the distribution of the height of people and those like the distributions of the wealth of people. The latter distribution is incomprehensibly more varied than the former. He then asserts that randomness fools use when we confusion the two kinds of randomness. In the Anti-Fragile he considers how the two types of randomness are constructed. It is well known that the low variance type arise from combining lots of independent events and the high variability type arise form feedback between lots of connected events.

    And then his punch line is … large systems with lots of feedback among the connected parts can be fragile as when the connections cause cascading failures, or they can be anti-fragile as when small failures lead to compensations that strengthen the system. This insight leads to a way of about almost everything.

    Oh yea, the alternate title might be, “The Quasi-Organized Ranting of a Misunderstood Genius”. He has learned that anti-fragile things benefit from verity, adversity, and controversy; and has concluded that writing popular books falls in this category. So in each book he increases the narcissus, the adolescence, and the taunting. In this book I think the new high water mark was when he said his former boss was constipated. I hope he hasn’t crossed a threshold were the anti-fragile is simply annihilated.

    9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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