SamarkandSamarkand by Amin Maalouf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Went into this book completely blind apart from the name of the writer which sounded sort of familiar.

I quite enjoyed the book’s first part, set in medieval Central Asia. I don’t think I would have been able to follow the court intrigue the visionary poet Omar Khayyam found himself in as well as I did if I hadn’t played Crusader Kings II as an emir or sheikh a couple of times. You might take that as a suggestion to play Crusader Kings II before reading Samarkand, if you wish. Actually, no: you should definitely take it as a suggestion to play Crusader Kings II, even if you never ever end up reading Samarkand!

Apart from the plot involving the various characters, I thought the progression within the specific time frame worked really well, and I found the story of the Assassin fort and its spiritual liberation through Khayyam’s ambiguous poetry deeply satisfying. It’s historical fiction done well, with just enough details to help create vivid mental images and just the right amount of vagueness and mystery thrown in to make for a pleasant, flowing read.

That said, I still haven’t checked whether there’s any semblance of truth in Samarkand’s portrayal of the story of the book’s central piece, Khayyam’s magnum opus, the Rubaiyyat, nor have I really checked whether the poet Khayyam actually existed or not, or to what extent the story Samarkand tells is a story purely invented by Maalouf. I suppose there must be some truth in it, as the millennium-old poems themselves, wherever they appear in the book, were quite a pleasure to read, and believe me, you would never catch me saying that I’m big on traditional poetry. In any case, after this experience, I have zero interest in finding out the “true” story of Khayyam and his timeless tome, whatever it might be; some illusions are best left unbroken.

Sadly, the second part of the book which is set in 19th and 20th century Iran and tells the story of how the original manuscript ended up sinking with the most famous shipwreck of all time, the Titanic, I frankly did not care for at all, and that’s the biggest part of the reason why I’m not giving Samarkand at least an extra star.

Close-off trivia: famous musician Isaac Maalouf (whose music reminds me of Thanasis Papakonstantinou’s jazzier pieces) is the writer’s nephew.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read World War Z on PDF Reader on my Android.

I’m not a fan of zombies, not by a long shot. I enjoyed Dawn (and especially Shaun) of the Dead, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, I have dabbled with The Walking Dead and Left4Dead, but all of this has been collateral from friends bringing me along for the ride each time. As far as I can recall, I had never picked up a zombie story on my own before reading World War Z, and this I did because the “oral history” of the title caught my attention. I was also aware that the movie adaptation of the book was completely different and apparently mostly shite compared to the source material, so I got intrigued.

World War Z is written like the first chronicle compiled after the Zombie War’s been “won” (that’s not a spoiler, the existence of the book itself is proof of the survival of the human race). It’s supposedly the transcription of the writer’s sound recordings from his interviews with survivors from around the world and their stories of making it through, which as a narrative tool alone is quite brilliant. Most were military and soldier types, but there were others that presented a different side to the story: a blind hibakusha gardener, a Canadian teen, a French firefighter (I think it was) stuck in the Paris catacombs together with hundreds of thousands of people, the Chinese doctor who witnessed Patient Zero… even the stories of the soldiers were varied and told of how tactics everywhere in the world had to be completely re-imagined in order to repel an enemy that needs no supplies, never rests, grows in numbers while human forces dwindle, counts no injuries etc.

One of my favourite accounts was of a Chinese nuclear submarine that went rogue to increase chances of escaping contamination and discovered a makeshift marine utopia somewhere in the Pacific comprised of seafaring survivors from all over the world. Another one was of a Hollywood director that created films together with the US Military and had huge zombie-destroying lasers in them, weapons which in actual combat were very inefficient but the zombie-annihilating spectacle they delivered was perfect for boosting the morale of the surviving West Coast. These films went to significantly decrease the number of people dying of Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome (had to Google that), i.e. people dying in their sleep because of apparent lack of will to wake up again the next morning. Propaganda in the name of… life?

Another account still described how some people had never been bit, had never contracted the virus, nothing was medically wrong with them, but they would still turn into zombies—at least they acted as zombies—all due to pure psychological breakdown. Survivors would tell the difference between live and dead zombies from looking at their eyes: “reanimated” corpses who had succumbed to “African Rabies” never blinked again, permanently exposing their eyes to the elements, which would slowly turn them dull and murky.

World War Z is full of such little well-thought details that I appreciate in sci-fi/alt-history stories that make it an engaging and believable read. My disbelief was suspended, even for as an absurd thing as zombies. I mean, how could such a thing as an organism that is dead, yet isn’t, doesn’t decay in water, needs no food, has no circulation, makes no apparent use of its five senses to “hunt” yet only dies when its brain is destr… ah, what a pedant, that’s precisely where the horror’s at!

…I suppose.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another good read I went through in audiobook format. The nature of the book made me feel as if was actually following a series of superb university lectures on our species as a whole instead of reading a book on the topic, which, incidentally and as the title states, is precisely the ambitiously broad, sweeping topic of Sapiens.

Mr. Harari’s choronicle of humanity is marked by the pivotal moments in human history, what we understand today to be its big turning points: the cognitive revolution, when our ancestors seemingly started to communicate about ideas and common myths and create art; the agricultural revolution, which brought private property in the picture, kickstarted civilization (life in the city) and effectively”caged in” our forefathers (more on that later on); the scientific revolution, which shifted our belief system to the result-oriented materialism of the scientific method, and the industrial revolution which has recently resulted in the fundamental shifts we are going through right now, the kind of changes that have made it possible for me to write this review and you to read it.

Fairly standard issue up to this point, right? What you’ll really find in Sapiens, though, is no ordinary retelling of our myths of history; the fact that one of the book’s central themes is that the agricultural revolution was actually “history’s biggest fraud” should give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here.

I’ll shamelessly quote The Guardian’s review of the book — where, by the way, I first found out about Sapiens through Mr. Harari’s article/promo for this book –also tellingly– titled Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history” (isn’t it?)

It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” There was, Harari says, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our species “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. It was a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.

There are plenty of interesting ideas to write about off of Sapiens. You may read the rest of The Guardian’s review for the gist, because I feel there’s just too many of them to mention here. But there are three in particular that I found exceptionally intriguing:

1) What seemingly sets humans apart from our faunal brethren and sistren is our ability to create fictions and myths–anything from religion to ideology to stories–and group around them, team up around them, live for them, die for them.

2) Imperialism is a nasty word with virtually zero positive connotations today. However, If you look at human culture around the world, from language to cooking to music to politics to art, empires and imperial activity have been responsible for most of what we recognize as the common and not so common heritage we treasure so. How come I’m writing in English right now and you get to understand my thoughts expressed on this screen? Alexander the Great spread what’s deemed today as enlightened Greek culture in what was then the known barbarian world–by conquering, butchering and intermingling loads of different peoples, of course. Same for the Romans, British etc.

3) It follows from the above that if there is a single one-way trend in human history is that we’re moving one step at a time from separate communities to larger, more complex organisations to a single, planetary consciousness, and it’s not just the invention of global telecommunications that’s led us here.

Consider, for example, as Mr. Harari invites us to, that in most cases what we recognise as individual, uniquely national dishes and cuisines is what’s left of global empires of the past: Italy had no tomatoes, no pomodori, before the 16th century; chili isn’t at all native to India, and so on.

Sapiens is full of such insights that in my opinion more than deliver what is promised on the cover: a brief history of humankind. I can safely put it next to Christopher Lloyd’s What On Earth Happened or Bill Bryson’s  A Short History of Nearly Everything and add it to my core list of mind-expanding, impossibly broad works of non-fiction, and I wish I could mention everything I agree on with Mr. Harari in this review and his input I think is very significant.

The reason I’m giving Sapiens just four stars is that I find the book did not place too much emphasis on the way humanity is being detrimental to the health of its environment and planetary ecological balance (ancient sapiens killing off megafauna everywhere on the world nonwithstanding) and how this fact can and will mess everything up for us. Harari seems to envision as rather more possible a future where people as a species will become obsolete by emerging artificial intelligence or enhanced homo sapiens 2.0 godlike biotech creations that would be even more alien and incomprehensible to us than what we, the sapiens of today, would look like to people of the ancient world.

If any of this comes to pass, the greatest revolution yet is still ahead of us. But honestly, what’s most probably heading our way is somewhere between the technological dysutopia (no sp) imagined by the author and the ecocidal nightmare we’ve been moving into for a while. What’s interesting is that we’re going into this with an unprecedented feeling of unity: a global consciousness, as can be shown by the mere existence of Sapiens as a book, is reaching species. rather than national, racial or whatever, levels. Provided we stay alive for the show, it will all be incredibly exciting, not just impossibly depressing.

Wait a second: we’re already living it, aren’t we?

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Sweet ToothSweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Sweet Tooth‘s insight into ’60s and ’70s British life more than I did any of the characters, who I honestly didn’t care about all that much. It happens to me a lot, enjoying the setting and background more than the actual story, and it happens to me not only with books, but also with movies, games, sometimes even with people. Often I feel as if everything else apart from the protagonists, the setting, the situations, the world events taking place somewhere unseen and the emotional backdrop are the real centrepieces of a story. Here, it wasn’t Serena Plome or any of her lovers: it was MI5 and the world of domestic intelligence, the Cold War and the sides the public, or rather intellectuals, would pick in the “war of ideas”, be it consciously or subconsciously. Or somewhere in between.

Yes, I definitely enjoyed being transported to that era as a little observer; an era when a lot of things were the same as now, but they didn’t have phones or the internet. However, they did have a growing eco movement. They did have rock—in fact a lot of the rock stars we’re still idolising were alive back then, like my father often observes, who incidentally gifted me this book the Christmas before last; they did have marijuana, leftist movements and activists, they did have secret government services running the show in ways which will probably never be disclosed. A lot of what is still part of public discourse had its roots in that era. We think we’re being original, when we just haven’t done our homework. Am I ranting? I think I’m ranting.

What truly surprised me was the meta ending. I wasn’t expecting it to come from a story such as this, but then again, and this is probably another reason why I enjoyed it, Sweet Tooth was a book about books, authors and literature.

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A History of Cubilone’s Dimension + New Theme!

Yesterday I rolled up my sleeves and decided it was time for a new theme. I started up the Weaver II customiser but nothing I could come up with was better than, or even comparable to, the -also customised- theme I had before.

Then I realised that there was this new theme Twenty Fourteen WordPress had put up with their new release of the platform, as has become tradition. It’s the theme you can see right now plus a few tweaks I made which mainly have to do with Greek font support, different fonts for headlines, content width and the awesome “background” to the right I made in Photoshop.

It isn’t obvious -even I forget what this place used to look like in all its different itterations- but this theme is the fifth one I’ve used since Cubilone’s Dimension first came to be back in 2007. Today I wanted to remember what the site used to look like, how it’s changed and evolved throughout all these years. I played around with the themes still in my virtual dresser for a little while but then found another, much better way of looking back.

Enter The Wayback Machine, an unfathomable web archive that screenshots pages at  random intervals from all across the Internet and uses them to create a historical archive for the ever-changing face of the digital world. Fortunately, this here too site didn’t escape the vortex, so allow me to take you for a short ride through Cubilone’s Dimension’s modest history.

Link to the (navigable but time- and space-bending!) site on the Wayback Archive.

Version of the site from early 2008. Back then the blog’s URL was simply The references haven’t changed in the archived html and so the saved img src’s and href’s pointing to the background and CSS files are now pointing to nowhere; screenshots after ’09 don’t have this problem as that is when I created the main hub and corkboard and moved the blog to its current directory (/blog). The theme and background remained the same throughout 2007, ’08 and ’09, the same as the one in the following picture.

The original theme and background.
The original theme and background. Link to the archived page.

June 1st 2009 – first screenshot from after I had moved the blog to /blog because of my work on this, a primitive portfolio site but mostly an exercise on CSS (I made it for uni). Eesh, I can’t even look at that… thing!

Link to archived page with Tarski. The smile on the header is the one that started it all…

January 22nd 2010 – Tired of all the dark blues and blacks, I opted for something a little bit brighter. I like the photogallery at the bottom of the sidebar to the left, back when I uploaded lots of my photograms. That’s also roughly the period when I started posting more, trying to fend myself off Facebook by replacing status updates with posts.

Link to archived page. Theme no. 3 was Twenty Ten with My Friend The Unknown Insect at the top.

January 9th 2011. I went for a standard theme here to freshen things up a bit and streamline the blog experience, just as I did 3 years later (now). This theme was very transient because a few days later I custom-designed this:


August 7th, 2011. I was in Denmark then but the theme had been online for some time already. I can’t remember where I was when I was designing it – memories of me being in Mytilini and Athens at the same time both seem false, but the gist is that it was somewhere in the first quarter of the year, a lonely time in general, a time when I had all the time to fine-tune the theme to suit my taste. There was also a tiled floorboard background then which has since been replaced by the background that came next and so doesn’t appear on the Wayback Machine.

And here we are today. At some point mid-2012 I replaced the header and the background to better suit the mood I had then.

I had been using the same theme until yesterday, when I finally made the change from this custom theme I had grown to love but which I had never realised I hadn’t changed for more than 2.5 years to the one I’m using now. For historical purposes (who knows what the future might bring?) I’m also leaving a screencap of the brand spankin’ new one right here:


Thank you for this short tour, have a nice evening or day!

Vsauce: Our Narrow Slice

What does the length of a human life really mean? How do we, often erroneously, perceive historical timeframes? Are we aware how uncharacteristic of our species’ normal pace current progress, and its breakneck speed, is?

One of Vsauce’s best episodes.

Game 2.0 – Europa Universalis IV Review


65 ώρες και συνεχίζουμε, εξαιρόντας τις ώρες που άφησα το παιχνίδι να τρέχει μόνο του για να δω τι περίεργος διαφορετικός κόσμος θα έβγαινε μέχρι τη 2α Ιανουαρίου του 1821. Ο λόγος -ένας από αυτούς δηλαδή- που δεν γράφω όσο θα ήθελα αυτές τις μέρες. Να, τώρα ας πούμε. Ήθελα να τελειώσω ένα ποστ που γράφω εδώ και έναν μήνα αλλά με συγχωρείτε, το χρέος με καλεί…

Häxan & No Clear Mind

There was a screening of a 1922 film called Häxan on 11/09 at LAIS. It’s a silent film and as used to be the tradition, a live band was invited to score the film. Greek post-rock group No Clear Mind were there to do the part.

It was one of the most intense audiovisual experiences of my life, comparable in recent memory only to Baraka and maybe the 21/12/’12 Eugenides Planetarium dome show with gravity says I. Is it a coincidence that the entrance for the Planetarium show and tonight’s screening was in both cases free? The best in things in life are, aren’t they?

The movie itself was a rather bizarre -in this awesome and captivating way- presentation of the story of witchcraft in medieval and more modern Europe. I don’t know if it sounds exciting to you -for me it didn’t really-, but the mere fact that this film was in cinemas (probably having already been banned or censored) around the time period my great-grandma was pregnant with her daughter, just made me lose myself in the implications. I imagined people from the future similarly watching contemporary films and getting a glimpse at today’s society. It was breath-taking: I made the realisation that I had moving pictures in front of me that enabled me to have a look at history. What an amazing thing, old films… Of course, not all old movies have this effect on me. In Häxan though I could somehow feel the creators’ need to tell this story, I could see through the techniques they used, I could imagine them working on the film, editing, acting.

The film really made me travel to the 15th century, it made me imagine life then perfectly: dominated by superstition and the church, anything out of the ordinary (whatever people would deem ordinary 500+ years ago, that is) pinnable on these satanic women. “Those people were my ancestors – it could have also been me!”, I thought. Every single person alive in Europe today most probably has predecessors who were burnt at the stake (8,000,000 million suffered this fate, the film claimed), people who had the same needs as us: the need to believe, the need to know, the need to love and feel loved… It was less a film and more a timeless window through which I had a good time recreating the past in my mind with the help of moving pictures. Mission accomplished, right?

And then there was the music. No Clear Mind is a Greek post-rock band I first found out about through Maria Kozari Mela – the girl to whom I more or less owe my meeting with Dafni, by the way. I liked this group before; you know, I would occassionally listen to this one album Maria sent me back then and I’d think “yes, that’s pretty solid music”, maybe also wondering just how many more Greek true quality bands simply get drowned down in the sea of noise we call popular music in this country. But that night, it was something else entirely. I don’t know exactly what happened, if they had written the score for the film or if they were just improvising while watching the it. Whatever it was, it was something else. I already mentioned that it was one of the most intense film & music experiences I can remember having. Crying is the qualifier for these moments for me. I usually cry when the beauty, not the sadness alone, is too much to bear; tonight it was both seperately and both together. It was sublime.

The biggest problem is that it was also probably something I won’t ever be able to share with anyone, unless No Clear Mind have recorded the concert somehow. The film on its silent own or with a different soundtrack would probably not have evoked the same reaction in me; it’s the staggering combination that made it so special.

I realise there are too many words above trying in vain to describe or convey something that required so few of them to make its impact. Here’s to more unexpected, serendipitous moments of beauty…



Review: Πώς το παρελθόν γίνεται ιστορία;

Πώς το παρελθόν γίνεται ιστορία; Πώς το παρελθόν γίνεται ιστορία; by Αντώνης Λιάκος

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Επιτέλους! Το τέλειωσα! Είναι από τις φορές που ένα βιβλίο το διαβάζεις τόσον καιρό που μέχρι να το τελειώσεις το έχεις ξεχάσει όλο και δεν καταλαβαίνεις καν ποιο ήταν το κεντρικό του επιχείρημα. Ευτυχώς φράσεις και σημεία του με τα οποία συμφωνούσα τα υπογράμμισα, αλλιώς ίσως να μη μου μείνει τίποτα από αυτό, άλλο ένα βιβλίο που θα είχε περάσει σαν μια καταπληκτική ιδέα η οποία σε έχει ενθουσιάσει και θα άλλάξει τον κόσμο αλλά μέχρι το επόμενο πρωί έχεις ξεχάσει.

Αυτά τα υπογραμμισμένα και το κεφάλαιο που έγραφε για τα μουσεία και πώς τα αντικείμενα γίνονται από χρηστικά σε έργα τέχνης/προθέματα μουσείων, λαμβάνοντας ως αφετηρία την επίσκεψη του συγγραφέα στην έκθεση «The Glory of Byzantium», ήταν τα πιο ενδιαφέροντα:

…παραξενεύτηκα που είδα μερικούς ηλικιωμένους επισκέπτες και επισκέπτριες , να σταυροκοπιούνται μπρος στις εικόνες. Ενδεχομένως για να προλάβουν και άλλες, παρόμοιες εκδηλώσεις λατρείας, οι οργανωτές της έκθεσης «Μυστήριο Μέγα και Παράδοξον» σοτ Βυζαντινό Μουσείο της Αθήνας το 2001, είχαν επιβάλει, αντί βιτρίνας, μεγάλη απόσταση ανάμεσα στον θεατή και στο έκθεμα ώστε να μην μπορεί να το ασπαστεί ή να το αγγίξει.

Το όλο κεφάλαιο βρώμαγε Καταπότη από χιλιόμετρα, κι αυτό το λέω όσο πιο affectionately μπορώ — δεν είναι τυχαίο ότι αυτό το βιβλίο το έχω από το πανεπιστήμιο και ότι εκείνη μας το ανέθεσε για το μάθημα Ψηφιακός Πολιτισμός και Πολιτιστικές Βιομηχανίες.

Η αντίστοιχη εμπειρία της δικής μας γενιάς με αυτό που έζησαν οι επισκέπτες της παραπάνω έκθεσης θα είναι σε μερικά χρόνια (ήδη υπάρχουν, δηλαδή) που θα έχουν βίντεο από παλιά ηλεκτρονικά παιχνίδια στα μουσεία, σαν κομμάτι της μόνιμης έκθεσης στην Ιστορία της Ηλεκτρονικής Ψυχαγωγίας, αλλά δεν θα υπάρχει δυνατότητα στον επισκέπτη να τα παίξει. Θα εκτίθονται ως τέχνη ή κομμάτια της ιστορίας του κλάδου, αλλά η αναπαράσταση δεν θα έχει σχέση με την εμπειρία, τη μνήμη των επισκεπτών που τα έκαναν σημαντικά. Εκτός βέβαια αν η μουσειολογία και η πολιτιστική αναπαράσταση συνεχίσουν να κάνουν την έκπληξη, όπως κάνουν από τη στροφή του αιώνα, και δούμε έναν επαναπροσδιορισμό σε όλα αυτά.

Θα έδινα στο βιβλίο 2 αστεράκια μόνο και μόνο επειδή μου πήρε 8 μήνες να το τελειώσω. Επειδή όμως αυτά τα σημεία που υπογράμμισα είναι καλά και δίνουν μια ωραία γεύση του τι σημαίνει ιστορία και ποιες είναι οι προκλήσεις που προβάλλει σήμερα («Να ρωτάμε ή να αφουγκραζόμαστε τις πηγές;»), θα του δώσω 3 αντί για 2 αστεράκια.

Από τον επίλογο:

Εν κατακλείδι και με λίγα λόγια: Στις κοινωνίες της νεωτερικότητας (και της μετανεωτερικότητας) η σχέση της ιστορίας με την κοινωνία λειτουργέι όπως ο διάλογος που έχει ο καθένας ή η καθεμία μας με τη συνείδησή του/της. Φέρνει, δηλαδή, τις κοινωνίες αντιμέτωπες με τον εαυτός τους. Και όπως, συνήθως, συμβαίνει με τη συνείδηση μας, συμβαίνει και με την ιστορία: μαζί δεν κάνουμε και χώρια δεν μπορούμε.

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Dan Carlin

I feel bad for not having posted anything about Dan Carlin earlier. I’ve been listening to his podcasts for months now. Common Sense is political commentary with an edge, keeping it very real but no less engaging and insightful, whereas Hardcore History is historical commentary and narration with an even sharper edge! He is a wise person and I enjoy his shows very much, they’re excellent food for thought and for my side whole which loves anything that gives alternative meanings and explanations to stuff we think we know. It is always a great reminder for how little there is that we know compared to what’s out out there and how distorted, biased and altered that little we know really is. It’s a reality (ironic, isn’t it) wake-up call I quite often find myself in need of. Same reason I love You Are Not So Smart. 🙂

Common Sense has plenty of episodes and is more pic’n’mix-y. Go in there, download what might look interesting to you, pop that little sumbitch in your MP3 player and enjoy — preferably going on a long walk! That’s exactly what I’m going to do tonight with the first episode after the US elections.

Hardcore History I feel is more suitable for me to suggest some episodes from:

Logical Insanity — Was dropping the atomic bombs on Japan such a despicable act, considering what else had gone on during the war as far as attrocities go? A history of strategic bombing in the first part of the 20th century.

Globalization Unto Death — The story of Magellan’s voyage and some insights I bet you’ve never heard of (at least I never had). Such as: who was really the first person to circumnavigate the globe? How did people first meeting indigenous South Americans react to them? What inspired people to become sailors in the 16th century, knowing full well that most of the exploration caravels never came back?

Ghosts of the Ostfront — A haunting journey to the oft-forgotten Eastern Front of World War II, by itself the largest military conflict of all time.

Suffer the Children — Is it possible that history as we know it is a result of all the children having been mistreated in times past, therefore, according to contemporary psychology, growing up to in turn mistreat others as a result? Listen to this if you feel you need some hope for the future.

I know that the two above episodes can’t be accessed unless you buy them. Well, if you’re reading this and would like to listen to them, I’d be glad to share them with you. You can tell how much I like this guy by the fact that I’ve bought plenty of his past work already. Dan, if you ever read this, I hope the fact might spare me from your wrath. 🙂