Monday, December 11, 2017

Book review: "So Close to Home" by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Michael Tougias is my favorite author. I've read three of his books -- "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast" -- and loved them all. In each, Tougias tells a riveting story of survival at sea.

So when I saw a new book by Tougias, "So Close to Home," I grabbed it.

In some ways, I was disappointed with this book, which is co-written by Alison O'Leary. There is less page-turning survival drama than in Tougias' past books.

On the other hand, there's a lot of good history, and that almost makes up for the lack of near-death moments.

In "So Close to Home," Tougias and O'Leary describe how German U-boats hunted and sank scores of ships in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. This was a revelation to me -- I had no idea Nazi submarines were prowling right off the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"So Close to Home" tells its story mostly from three perspectives. First, there is 8-year-year Sonny Downs, who is traveling in 1942 with his parents and sister aboard a ship through the Gulf of Mexico as they return from a year in Central America. Sonny's father had worked as a mechanic at a banana plantation in Panama and Colombia.

Then there are two German submarine captains Harro Schacht and Erich Wurdemann, young Nazi sailors who are eager to sink as many American and Allied ships as they can.  It is Wurdemann's U-boat that sinks the ship carrying the Downs'.

The Downs story is a good one, and through them the authors manage to capture a lot of elements of this period. Sonny's parents knew that U-boats were prowling the area, and were frustrated that they were not allowed to get off the ship at an earlier stop. The dialog, though certainly recreated by Tougias and O'Leary, is believable.

For me, one of the most interesting -- and occasionally disturbing --aspects of the book was the authors' sympathetic portrayal of the Nazis. We see the U-boat captains from the perspective of the German side. When their torpedoes miss, it seems as if Tougias and O'Leary feel sorry for them, even though the failed attack meant that innocent people are not killed.

At one point, after Wurdermann's sub attempts to attack a convoy of ships, the defenders fight back and "the crew of U-506 had to endure an agonizing hour of being depth-charged." They had to "endure" being attacked? Oh, I'm sorry, are we disturbing you while you're trying to kill people?

That said, Tougias and O'Leary shed light on one astonishing episode where a U-boat sunk the British ship Laconia, and then spent days trying to help the survivors. Even as the Nazis were helping, Allied planes were attacking the submarines, forcing the Germans to submerge and abort rescue efforts.

It's a bizarre picture: Yes, the German showed much compassion toward the victims of the sinking -- but keep in mind that they were only victims because the Nazis has torpedoed the ship.

In the interesting Author's Notes section at the end of the book, O'Leary acknowledges being conflicted about portraying the Germans. "Can one both admire and despise the actions of the sub crew, or mourn for the dead and their fractured families while at the same time acknowledging that the sinking of ships is a common and accepted part of being at war?"

If you like this type of book, there are others that I would recommend. "All Brave Sailors" tells the amazing story of British sailors who survived a World War II attack by a German ship. "The Wolf"  recounts the little-known exploits of a German "commerce raider" ship during World War I.

And certainly, I would recommend any of these Michael Tougias books: "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast."


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Friday, October 27, 2017

Book review: "Stories from the Dirt" by John Long

There are some really good tales in "Stories from the Dirt" by John Long. There are also some really weak ones/

The stories are collected from throughout Long's life, many recounting adventures he's had as a rock climber, explorer and world traveler. He's had exotic, and sometime bizarre, experiences in Papua New Guinea, Norway, Indonesia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Baffin Island in the Arctic.

The best of Long's stories are riveting, engaging and surprising.
But others are just a puzzling waste of time. I finished them with a shrug of the shoulders, and the thought:  "What was the point of that?"

To save you time, I'm listing the stories in this book that are worth reading, with the best at the top. Don't bother with any that aren't listed.

1. "The Howliing"
2.  "Adios, Cueva Humboldt"
3. "Dream On, Irian Jaya"
4. "Ripcord"
5. "My Friend Phil"
6. "Tirada Los Tubos"
7. "Frankenstein"
8. "Meltdown"
9. "Bird's Boys"
10. "The Green Arch"

Long can be an excellent writer, using evocative, vivid language to describe scenes. For example, there's this moment when his snowmobile balks while on an ice sheet in Canada:

"The engine coughs, farts, then revs to a shrill din. Good thing, because I've just yanked the starter cord off the sprocket. Water and ice shoot from the speeding belt. Our feet churn in deep slush and my hands are numb from heaving on the cord. I would have ditched it long ago, but now we've sunk so deep we need the machine's velocity to pull us out. In a 40-foot circle, the ice has sagged, like a coin on loose sheets."


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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Moore League: Who has the best girls tennis website?

Girls tennis doesn't get a lot of love in the Moore League, at least in terms of quality websites or Internet pages. Unlike my previous looks at football and baseball, none of the girls tennis teams in the Moore League have booster club-run websites.  And the school-based web pages for the teams are relatively modest -- or non-existent.

Still, Wilson and Lakewood highs have put together decent, if unspectacular, pages. Their team pages have most of the most important elements -- a current schedule, names and contact information for the coaches, and results.  They received the highest ratings in this year's review. At the bottom end of the rankings was Cabrillo High. 

Note: Websites change. The items I cite in this article were there at the time of this article, but they may have changed by the time you get there. 


Grade B+
The Lancers' girls tennis page is simple but to the point. There is a current schedule, the names of two coaches, and a table with the won-loss record for the team back to 2005. It has email links to contact both coaches. It has current results on the page, something none of the other schools offer.

Supplementing that page, is a general tennis page, for both boys and girls. This has some out-of-date information, but also has bios of the coaches and some pictures.

The web presentation won't wow you, but it does convey much of information a parent or fan will be looking for.


Grade: B
The girls tennis page for the Wilson Bruins isn't visually fancy, but it includes a link to the current schedule near the top of the page. Also prominently featured is the head coach's name and email

The page also has a link to MaxPreps for match results. It seems odd that the team is, in effect, out-sourcing the reporting of results, but it's better than not having any scores available at all.

There are several outdated elements on the page, including a link to now-past Summer Camp information at the very top.

Grade: D
The Millikan girls tennis page is conflicted, alternately referring to the team as "Tennis - Women" and "Girls 2017 Tennis." Not only do the page creators appear to be unsure which gender term to use, they also seem to misunderstand what sport they're dealing with -- the most prominent item on the page refers to lacrosse ("Lacrosse is coming to Millikan"). 

The page does include a current schedule, but no results. There is an outdated link to summer camp and one other link to the "Athletic Packet." That's it. The name of the coach -- or anyone a parent could contact -- is not listed.  There are no pictures or roster.

There is a new Millikan Athletics website that seems to have some link to the school, but the girls tennis page there is blank.


Grade: D+
Go to the Compton High School page and click on athletics. Four sports are listed. Click on "Girls Tennis" and you'll get the team's current schedule. And that's it. That's the entire Compton girls tennis page.

There's no indication who the coach is, or any way to contact someone to ask for more information about the team.  There's no place for results. There are no pictures or roster.

At least the schedule is current.


Grade: D-
Jordan doesn't have a page for its girl tennis team, though it does have one for its boys team.  It does have a general "tennis" page, but it has almost nothing on it. There's no schedule, no results, no roster. There is a link to a "Summer Tennis Schedule" that is seven years out of date. The name of the girls coach is remarkably well-hidden --  you'll only see it if you go to the end of a minute-and-a-half video with the ungrammatical title, "I wish I can play tennis."

Long Beach Poly

Grade: D-
The Poly girls tennis page comes oh so close to an F. Honestly, looking at this page, I began to question whether the Jackrabbits even have a girls tennis team (they do). The page contains a year-old schedule, but not a current one. The only thing that keeps this site from flunking is that it does show the name of the coach and a link for emailing him.  There is nothing else on the page.


Grade: F
Cabrillo has a girls tennis team, but no website or web page.

See also:

Moore League showdown: Who has the best baseball website?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Moore League: Who has the best football website?

By Scott Wilson

It's time for the 2017 football season! So let's kick off the action by looking at which Moore League team has the best football website.

It's no secret that there's a huge disparity in the quality of football in the Moore League. Long Beach Poly always dominates, while some of the other teams are happy just to get a win or two.

Fittingly, perhaps, Poly has the best football website in the league, but in this competition it shows some weaknesses. More surprising is that Lakewood, which has a strong football program that is often second in the league only to Poly, has a website that is an embarrassment to the team and the school.

To be clear, this is a rating of each team's "official" websites, whether created by the school or the booster club. Other sites, made by fans or professional networks, are not included.

Note: Websites change. The items I cite in this article were there at the time of this article, but they may have changed by the time you get there.

Long Beach Poly
Grade: B+
Poly's football website has a multitude of features and an attractive design. It has schedules for varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. There is a full varsity roster. There's a list of the coaches, with brief biographical details on each. One page recounts the history of the program.

This is all good, but a closer look shows some flaws.

The 2017 schedule on the home page is labeled "2014." There's a junior varsity schedule even though Poly is not fielding a JV team this year. The latest "news" item is more than six months old. A "Merchandise" link leads to a dead-end Ebay page.

In short, this website gets a lot of things right, but it needs someone to go through and clean it up.

The football website is separate from school's, but there's a link from the school site that directs visitors to the right place. That's good.

Grade: B-
Confusingly, Wilson football has two websites, with information on the team scattered across both.

The football page on the school website leads off with outdated summer program information, but it's immediately followed -- helpfully -- with the complete 2017 schedule. There's a mixed bag of other info on the page, including the the name and email address for the coach, results from last year, a link to a Google Doc that lists the football team's records and pictures of previous years' teams, but not this year's.

Oddly, there is no link to the other site,, which is labeled  the "Official Home of Long Beach Bruins Football." This site contains a lot of information, but it's not well organized. There are brief bios of many of the coaches, but some some pages are blank and some links lead nowhere. There are no rosters.

The site appears to have been created by the Wilson boosters club, but it never directly says that.

Between the sites, a Wilson football fan can mostly find what he or she needs to know, but it's strange that you have to go two places.

Grade: C
Anyone who goes to the Millikan High School website and looks at the football page will conclude that the Rams' football program was shut down after the 2016 season. The page contains only 2016 schedules, two photos and a video from 2015. Intriguingly, there is a link to something labeled as "Millikan Football Website," but if you click on it, you'll find an empty page with the notation, "The domain may be for sale."

So no more Millikan football?  Well, not so fast.

A Google search leads to another site,, apparently created by the Rams' Booster Club.  And it looks pretty good.

It has the 2017 varsity schedule right at the top; JV and freshman schedules are easily located, too. It has complete rosters for varsity, JV and freshman (pictures with the varsity), plus some good collections of pictures. Weirdly, all three "Coaches" pages (varsity, JV, frosh) are blank. Nor do the coaches' names, or contact info, appear anywhere else on the site.

It's a Jekyl and Hyde situation. If fans find the boosters' site first, they'll get most of what they want. But those who come to the school site first will go away with no idea that Millikan even has a football team.  Why not place a link on the school page to send people to the booster club page?

Grade: D+
The Cabrillo football site is dominated by a lengthy biography of Coach George Richardson.  The 554-word bio isn't the only thing on the page -- no, there's also a large picture of Richardson at the top of the page. And to one side, there's a rotating slide show feature four more pictures of the coach, plus a picture of one of his high school football championship rings.

If you're a parent of a new player entering the program, it's nice to learn something about the coach. And with so many pictures of him, you'd have no excuses for not knowing what the coach looks like.

But hey, shouldn't the website have something about the, um,  team?  There is a link to the current schedule, in a PDF file. And at the bottom there's a link to a weirdly random collection of Cabrillo football pictures at the website MaxPreps. But none of those pictures are more recent than 2014.

There's no roster, no pictures of the current team, and no way to contact the coach. And no schedule for the JV or freshmen teams.

Grade: D
Go to the Compton High School website and click on "Athletics" and you'll be taken to a page that lists four sports. One of them is football. Click there and you get the current football schedule for the varsity, JV and freshman football teams. And that's it. That's the entire Compton football website.
At least the schedules are up to date and easy to find.  But there is not even the name of the coach or a way contact anyone with questions.

Grade: D
The Jordan Panthers' football website consists of team photos of the varsity, JV and freshman teams, plus the name of the coach, and links to Word documents containing games schedules. The schedules are for the current season, but bizarrely, they omit the team's first four games.

Grade: F
The Lakewood Lancers football website is notable mostly for what it doesn't have. It doesn't have a
schedule of games. It doesn't have the coaches' names or contact information. It doesn't have rosters or a single picture.

Worst, the site doesn't have any current information -- it is filled with outdated announcements about summer camp and practices.

Ironically, the page does contain a mission statement for the program which promises "a high quality, competitive, dynamic football experience." Too bad they have no interest in a high-quality web page.

Update, Sept. 11, 2017: Since this article was written, the Lakewood football website has greatly improved.


See also: Who has the best baseball website in the Moore League?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Need an article behind a paywall? I can help

If you're trying to get an article that's behind a website's paywall, I can get it for you for $5 per article. Yep, just $5 -- very likely less than you'd pay to pay the article.

Post a comment below to contact me. I will respond promptly. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Backpacking do's and don'ts

I've just returned from a three-day backpack. Here are some things I learned:

Check and test everything before your trip. Everything. 

Fill up your backpack with gear and go for a practice hike, even if it's not a long one. Is there anything on the pack that's broken or missing?  Fasteners rattling or loose? Can you adjust the straps to fit your body? You should do this even if you've used the pack successfully in the past. Once you're out on the trail, you'll be limited in the kind of repairs you can do.

Try out your boots, even if you've worn them before with no problem. A blister will seriously impact your hiking. Try your boots with the socks you will actually be wearing on the hike. Make sure they have good shoelaces to make the boots snug on your feet. Go for a practice hike (possibly the same one with the backpack, above).

Try all the food you're taking ahead of time. You don't want to wait until you're on the trail to discover that the freeze-dried meal you're counting on for dinner one night tastes terrible. And you'll wonder why you carried food that you're not going to eat.

In freeze-dried meals, Mountain House Rice and Chicken is a winner. Mountain House Mac and Cheese is not.

Consider a Knorr pouch meal (or similar store-brand offering). These are not strictly freeze-dried meals. But they are much cheaper and can work. First, save the pouch from a freeze-dried meal. It's designed to retain heat. Place the Knorr meal inside and add water. Seal it up and it should cook like a freeze-dried meal. Still -- see above! -- try it ahead of time.

Unless you're sure you're going to have a lot of downtime, don't bring a book, not even a light one. Your time will be taken up hiking, cooking, cleaning, setting up gear, and conversing with your backpacking buddies.

Keep lunch simple. You won't want to stop to eat anything that requires much work while you're on the trail. One good idea: Put a couple Clif Bars in your pocket and nibble on them during the day.

Consider a way to get your water without taking off your backpack. I found I could carry a small water bottle in pocket for sipping, and refill it as needed from largest bottles in my backpack.

Test your stove ahead of time. Bring a lighter or matches; test them first.

Double-check the trip plan. You may not be the leader of your group, but it's in your interest to make sure the details have been thought through.  Is the distance of each day's hike reasonable for your group's fitness level? Do you have required permits in-hand? If you don't, do you know exactly how you're going to get them?  Do you know exactly what you're doing on the nights immediately before and after the backpack? If your group is not traveling together, how and when will you all meet up?


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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book review: "Frozen in Time" by Mitchell Zuckoff

At the outset of World War II, the United States rushed to send airplanes to England to help in the fight. With long-distance flying still limited, the planes hopscotched from New England to Newfoundland to Greenland to Iceland  before finally touching down in Britain. But not all of them made it.

Greenland's fierce winds and blinding snowstorms were a particular obstacle. In "Frozen in Time," author Mitchell Zuckoff tells an amazing story from 1942-43 when one military plane went down, followed by the crashes of two rescue planes (there was even a related fourth crash, but Zuckoff doesn't spend much time on it.)

The series of events leaves two planes of dead men on the ice of Greenland, while a shattered third plane barely shelters nine survivors from the freezing temperatures.

Those survivors, and the efforts to rescue them, are the primary focus of a story that takes an amazing number of twists and turns. Just when you thought nothing more could go wrong, it does. Severe cold, tremendous winds, hunger, and the perils of deep crevasses in the ice are just some of the perils that both the survivors and rescuers must overcome.

Zuckoff weaves the rescue together with a modern-day story of attempts to find the remnants of one of the crashed planes and return the remains of the perished men to the United States. At first I wasn't sure this would work, but Zuckoff does a deft job of blending the stories together.

Zuckoff has conducted thorough research and the details he found bring the story alive. My one concern in the storytelling is that while he captures the hardiness and resilience of the men, I wonder if he glosses over moments of conflict. The only hint of disagreement among the survivors he offers is when one ignores his companions and goes off to sleep away from them. Surely, during their long ordeal, the men must have had an occasional squabble?

This is a book with a lot of characters and I liked the way Zuckoff introduces the stories of the plane crash survivors and rescuers one at a time as they enter the narrative. That gives you a chance to get to know one character before moving on to the next.

But oddly, when Zuckoff describes the modern-day story, he fails to follow the model he used for the World War II story. He tries to describes all the modern characters up front, and it's hard to keep them straight.

I liked that the book puts the pictures at the appropriate places in the book. This is much more useful to the reader than cramming them all into the middle of the book.

With so many characters, Zuckoff helpfully includes thumbnail biographies of each at the back of the book. Unfortunately, he doesn't tip off the reader that the bios are there and I didn't find them until I was done with the book. Now, at least you know they're there. You might find them useful for reference


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Friday, August 4, 2017

Dare to rent a Dollar car

Can you stand the pressure?

Can you stand the pressure to rent a car?

For a recent trip, I reserved a vehicle through Dollar Rental Car at the airport in Calgary, Alberta.

About a week before the trip, I was curious whether Dollar's rental lot was at the airport, or off-site, requiring a shuttle. So I did a Google search for Dollar rental Calgary. My research took a surprising turn.

Rather than finding an answer to my question, I instead found reviews of the Dollar operation at the Calgary Airport. And they were NOT pretty.

Most of the reviews were one- and two-stars, with many people complaining that Dollar personnel talked them into buying unnecessary and expensive add-ons to their car rental, especially accident and damage protection. For instance:

  • "The agent told me and wife that my US insurance only cover the Camry I own, now I was renting a mini van so I should buy the full coverage for $35 plus tax and fees per day which is 30% more than I expected."
  • "Then informed us that that we needed the insurance despite paying with my RBV Avion Platinum VISA which I know has coverage. She adamantly insisted that 'absolutely NO credit cards cover luxury cars.'  Pressured me that if an accident occurred I would be fully responsible for everything."

As I read the reviews, I didn't have much sympathy for these people. I have rented many cars and have routinely turned down the "Collision Damage Waiver" and other upgrades at rental counters simply by saying "no." If these renters got talked into something, well, I figured, it's their own fault.

Very few people actually need to buy "insurance" for car rentals. (The collision damage waiver is not actually insurance, though many people call it that. It's an agreement by the rental car company not to sue you for vehicle damage.)  Most personal car insurance policies cover you when renting a car, though you should check to be sure.

Also, most credit cards offer rental car insurance as one of their perks. With the combination of personal car insurance and credit card coverage, it's likely you are covered better when renting a car than driving your own car.

Still, the reviews of Calgary's Dollar operation did get me wondering. Since I live in the U.S., I checked with my car insurance company (Geico) to make sure my policy applied in Canada. It did. The same was true of my credit card coverage. It was all good; I was covered.

Arriving at the Dollar counter in Calgary, I was curious whether I would see evidence of the pressure-selling that I had read about online. It didn't take long.

As I stepped to the counter, I noticed a Dollar agent talking to a customer to my left. She said, "Now, do you want the full insurance or just the basic coverage?" Notice that she left out a third option: No coverage. I also liked the "just the basic" touch, as if that would be a really weak choice.

I didn't hear what option the customer chose, but he was startled by the price: $30 a day. "Why is it so high?!" he asked, almost in a panic.

I had an urge to reach out and help this guy, but soon I dealing with my own agent, handing over my credit card and driver's license and answering various questions.

Finally, she got to the question I knew was coming.

"About the insurance -- do you want the full, bumper-to-bumper coverage, or ..."

I interrupted. "We don't need anything extra."

She looked shocked. "You don't want any insurance?"


"You will be responsible for the full value of the vehicle," she said, her tone of voice implying that this would be a horrible mistake. 

"I know."

"Do you have insurance that covers you in Canada?"


"Are you sure?"


She acted as if she had never seen this before. Someone didn't want the insurance!

Glumly, she went ahead with the paperwork, making sure to emphasize that I had to initial on the contract that I was taking FULL responsibility in case of damage.  There was even a separate line to initial saying that any windshield damage would be my responsibility.

It wasn't just the insurance. She asked if I wanted to list a second driver on the policy. I said no, knowing that Dollar charges extra for an additional driver. She seemed skeptical, perhaps because my wife was standing right there. She had me initial one line on the contract, emphasizing that I would be the only driver "no matter what."  (No matter what? I'm thinking that if I'm having a heart attack, I'm going to let my wife drive.)

Eventually we got our keys and went. But the whole experience left me rattled. Even as sure as I was about my choices, the agent's pressure almost made me crack. I suddenly had more sympathy for those people who had criticized Dollar online.

I was so concerned about Dollar looking for ways to add extra charges that, before returning the car, I did something I've never done before. I videoed the entire car so I would have evidence of its condition. I feared that Dollar was going to find some tiny scratch or ding and blame it on me.

As it turned out, there was no problem when I returned the car. We were checked in and let go. The final bill was what I expected. 

I can't say, of course, if all Dollar counters are like the one at Calgary. But the lesson is the same. Be wary of all extra charges, and check your coverage from your insurance company and your credit card before you set out on your trip. .


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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book review: "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu"

First, let's acknowledge that "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" is an outstanding book title. There's the unlikely combination of "Bad-Ass" and "Librarians" and then the staccato phonetics of "Timbuktu."  Love it.

In this book, author Joshua Hammer takes us to northern Mali, a part of the world probably few of us know much about. The center of the action is the city of Timbuktu, a dusty brown locale where most of the buildings are made of mud.

Hammer explains that Timbuktu has a surprisingly rich cultural history. As a trading post on the Niger River where people of various classes have crossed paths over the centuries, Timbuktu has come to be a repository of unique manuscripts.  The city holds thousands of one-of-a-kind books from centuries past, many of them painstakingly written by hand, and holding much of the area's history and culture.

Unfortunately, Timbuktu has also been overrun repeatedly by warring factions, often with religious pretexts, and through the centuries the citizens there have taken elaborate measure to hide the manuscripts to keep them safe. People buried the books or hide them behind fake walls to keep them from being destroyed by Timbuktu's latest overlords.

"The city seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression," Hammer writes.

Hammer describes the hard work of Abdel Kader Haidara who over decades gathered together the manuscripts of Timbuktu into a central library. Then, as extreme Islamic groups associated with Al Qaeda took over the city in 2012, Hadara and his colleagues undertook a massive operation to sneak 377,000 volumes out of the city by truck and by boat.

Before the operation was complete, the extremists found and burned 4,200 of the manuscripts. Still, the vast majority were saved.

"Timbuktu had been the incubator for the richness of Islam, and Islam in its perverted form had attempted to destroy it," Hammer writes. "But the original power of the culture itself, and the people like Haidara who had become entranced by that power, had saved the great manuscripts in the end."

Hammer ably assembles the history of Timbuktu and carefully describes the rise of extremist Islamic groups in the region, but the book is rather dry. Even in dramatic portions, with danger looming over the characters, I didn't find it particularly compelling.  Be prepared to skim ahead.

I was also disappointed that there are no pictures in the book. I found myself going online to see images to help me envision the people and places in the book.

There is another new book about this episode called "The Storied City" by Charles English. I haven't read it, so can't comment on it.


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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Whoa! -- or "Woah"? -- I just aced a grammar test

Just don't look too closely at the spelling.