Category Archives: Trivia

Places You Shouldn’t Visit: North Sentinel Island

alex atkins bookshelf trivia

If you value your life you will stay far away from North Sentinel Island inhabited by the Sentinelese, a pre-Neolithic people, that have inhabited the island for more than 55,000 years without any contact with the outside world. There is no way to sugar coat it: if you dare approach and land on their island there is a 100% chance that they will kill you with their primitive weapons: spears, arrows, and stones. And get this — because they are a protected Aboriginal tribe, they will not be prosecuted for killing you. Since the Sentinelese have rejected all contact with the outside world, and have killed anyone who has tried to land there, the Indian Navy patrols the area and keeps all vessels and people away. Individuals who wander into the exclusion zone, which extends five nautical miles from the island’s perimeter, will be arrested.

The tiny island, covering roughly 23 square miles (about the size of Manhattan), may look inviting because it is completely forested and surrounded by pristine narrow white-sand beaches; however it is not easy to land there because it is surrounded by coral reef; moreover it lacks any natural harbors. North Sentinel Island is a part of the Andaman Islands that neighbors Nicobar Islands, an archipelagic island chain, located about 415 miles west from the Myanmar coast and more than 800 miles southeast of the Indian subcontinent. North Sentinel Island is not as remote as it should be — it lies just 31 miles west of Port Blair, the largest city on South Andaman Island. Using aerial photography taken in 2012, the population of North Sentinel Island is estimated between 50 and 400 natives. In contrast, the neighboring Nicobar Islands has a population of 36,844 according to a 2011 census. Both of these islands located in the Bay of Bengal (the northern part of the Indian Ocean) are territories of India. The Indian government considers North Sentinel Island completely autonomous and independent, allowing the inhabitants to eschew the impact of modern civilization, including any diseases to which they have no immunity. For example, the current coronavirus that is spreading all around the globe would wipe them out in a matter of weeks.

North Sentinel island and its inhabitants were first noted by British surveyor John Ritchie in 1771. Despite the natives’ aggression over the past century, there was a time when individuals did land on the island and survived to tell the tale. Most notable, was British naval officer Maurice Portman who led a small group of intrepid explorers to land on the island in 1880 to study the natives and their culture. They found a network of pathways that led to a few small abandoned villages. Eventually they encountered and captured six natives, an old couple and their four children. They were taken to Port Blair (talk about invasive and unethical research tactics!) where the couple quickly succumbed to illness and died. Soon after, the children were returned back to their island along with consolation gifts (“So sorry we killed your parents, but here is a food basket with our compliments — good luck with everything!). Despite the disastrous results of his research, Portman returned to the island several times between 1883 and 1887 and survived.

One fellow who was not so fortunate was American John Chau, a 26-year-old missionary that traveled to North Sentinel Island, on behalf of All Nations, to bring Christianity to the tribespeople and translate the Bible into Sentinelese. Based in Kansas City, the vision of All Nations is “to see Jesus worshipped by all the peoples of the earth. Our mission is to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples on earth.” According to one of their executive leaders, Chau was uniquely suited for this mission: “A seasoned traveler, John had previously taken part in mission projects in Iraq, Kurdistan and South Africa. He joined All Nations in 2017 and trained at our North American Hub in Kansas City. John was one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen. He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways. He was also delightful, kind, and funny. Small children felt at ease with him, and everyone who met him felt his warmth.” Fellow missionary, Mat Stavers, shares that introducing Jesus to the Sentinelese was one of Chau’s lifelong dreams: “John loved people, and he loved Jesus. He was willing to give his life to share Jesus with the people on North Sentinel island. Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people.”

Chau made an initial try on the evening of November 15, 2018 and was greeted with an onslaught of arrows, one which hit the Bible he was carrying. In his journal he wrote, “Why did a little kid have to shoot me today.” He returned the following night, but the natives got a hold of canoe and destroyed it, forcing Chau to swim back to the boat. Those incidents did not deter the well-intentioned missionary. In his journal he wrote to his parents: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. God, I don’t want to die. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed — rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I will see you again when you pass through the veil.” On November 17, Chau finally succeeded in landing on the island. Apparently, the Sentinelese were perfectly happy with their religion and therefore not very receptive to the story of Jesus. Tragically, the hostile natives proceeded to kill Chau; the natives dragged his along the beach and buried his body there. Subsequently, the Indian police arrested seven individuals who used a wooden boat with motors to get Chau on the restricted island (Chau used a canoe to reach the shore from the boat. In the canoe he carried gifts, including fish and a football.) Days later, the police marine unit attempted to retrieve the body, but faced a very fierce and heavily armed group of tribesmen that were protecting their beach. Faced with insurmountable obstacles, Chau’s family made the difficult decision to leave their son’s body on the island; they stated that they forgave the tribe for their actions and were not insisting for his remains to be returned to the U.S.

The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribes in the world  — there are about 100 others around the globe, with most found in the Amazon and New Guinea rainforests. Many of them are hostile to outsiders, explains Jonathan Mazower of Survival International, that protects these isolated tribes: “Often, they are very fearful of outsiders — with very good reason. Sometimes they will have in their collective memory a massacre, a violent incident, or a disease or epidemic — so very often, there are well-founded reasons for these tribes to not want to have anything to do with the outside world.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further information: Contemporary Society Tribal Studies by Georg Preffer and Deepak Behera


The Deadliest Pandemics in History

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs of this writing, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has claimed 7,100 lives around the globe (80 of those have been in the U.S.). There is an estimated 181,000 people who have contracted the virus (4,300 of those are Americans). Unfortunately, COVID-19 is just getting started. As many experts have stated, it is going to get worse before it gets better. So that invites the question, how does COVID-19 stack up against some of the deadliest pandemics in human history?

Before we get to that, let’s clarify the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. An epidemic is the rapid spread of a disease across a specific region or regions. Once that disease spreads from country to country around the globe, it is classified as a pandemic. Thus, all pandemics begin as epidemics; however — and fortunately — not all epidemics become pandemics. In general, pandemics result in more fatalities than epidemics. One notable exception is the Cocoliztli epidemic (also known as “The Great Pestilence”) that occurred in 1545 resulting in 12-15 million deaths in Mexico. The native Aztecs succumbed to the lethal disease brought by the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes. The Aztecs were particularly vulnerable due to a variety of factors: weakened immunity, exacerbated by years of disease after a long drought, on top of a deadly outbreak of smallpox in 1520, also introduced by the Spanish, that resulted in more than 8 million deaths. 

When you review the list of the deadliest pandemics in human history, you realize that the mortality rate of the COVID-19 is relatively low so far — but that can change as quickly as a virus can mutate. Here are the deadliest pandemics in human history, in descending order:

The Black Death (Bubonic Plague; in the Middle Ages it was referred to as “The Great Mortality”) pandemic: 1346-1353
Origin: Central or East Asia
Death toll: 75-200 million

Plague of Justinian: 541-542
Origin: Byzantine Empire (the capital was Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, Turkey) and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea
Death toll: 25-50 million

HIV/AIDS pandemic: 2005-2012
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Death toll: 36 million

Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen): 165-180
Origin: Aisa Minor
Death Toll: 5 million

Asian flu pandemic: 1956-58
Origin: Guizhou, China
Death toll: 2 million

Russian or Asiatic flu pandemic: 1889-1890
Origin: Bukhara, Turkestan (what is now Uzbekistan)
Death toll: 1 million

Hong Kong flu pandemic: 1968
Origin: Hong Kong
Death toll: 1 million

Third cholera pandemic: 1852-1860
Origin: India
Death toll: 1 million

Sixth cholera pandemic: 1910-11
Origin: India
Death toll: 800,000

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Euphemisms for Death
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
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For further reading: The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 by John Aberth
Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla


Places You Shouldn’t Visit: Runit Dome

alex atkins bookshelf triviaScattered like pebbles in a massive pond, the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 east of Hawaii, consists of 29 atolls (for those who slept through Geography 101, an atoll is a ring-shaped chain of islands formed of coral), containing 1,156 small islands and islets. (The official name of this island country, with a population of 59,000 people, is the Republic of the Marshall Islands; it was never formally adopted as a state, and is therefore considered a “United States associated state.”) One of these coral atolls, is the Enewetak Atoll, consisting of 40 tiny islands and a population of 664 people (known as the Marshallese). As you fly above the atoll, one witnesses some of the bluest seas, punctuated with tiny islands outlined by beautiful white sand beaches; and as you head toward the northern part of the atoll, one comes across something incredibly surreal — what appears to be a massive perfectly round beached alien space ship straight out of some apocalyptic sci-fi movie. WTF is this thing and why is it there? To answer these questions, let us go back in time 70 years to learn about the island that time has largely forgotten.

The Enewetak Atoll has to be one of the most unfortunate places on the planet. First, between 1948 to 1958, the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests on the atoll. In one of the tests, the bomb did not explode properly, scattering small chunks of radioactive plutonium all over the islands. Second, the Enewetak Atoll is located just 215 miles east from the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites — underwater, on the reef, inside the atoll, and in the air — the combined release of energy equivalent of 30 million tons of TNT! Holy crap! (For comparison, the blast from Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, released energy equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Fat Man produced an explosion equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.) You can imagine what happened to the island. It is extremely radioactive and is uninhabitable for more than 24,000 years — it makes the Chernobyl nuclear disaster looks like a small grassfire. And guess what else happened? During some of the tests, weather forecasts that predicted that the winds would be blowing away from Enewetak were wrong. Surprise! — all that nuclear fallout blew right into those inhabited islands causing an epidemic of radiation sickness.

So what did the U.S. government do? In typical government fashion, military leaders decided to spend $100 million to do a half-assed job. Of course, the military leaders vastly underestimated the costs of the clean-up: in the end, it cost taxpayers more than $239 million! Over a three year period (1977-1979), the government sent thousands of unsuspecting military members (they were told that they were serving on “an island paradise”) to scrape off top soil and debris from nearby islands and bury all of this material in one of the blast craters on Runit Island. In addition, the soldiers had to bag over 400 radioactive chunks of plutonium without wearing any protective or safety gear. (Recall the horrifying scene in HBO’s Chernobyl when the military sends those unsuspecting cleanup workers to the reactor site where radiation exposure was equivalent to 80,000 to 160,000 chest x-rays.) It is estimated that the crater contains up to 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris. The crater was then capped with a massive dome of concrete, known as the Runit Dome (locals call it “The Tomb”) — the alien space ship mentioned earlier in this post. Visually, it is spectacular. Imagine this large, round concrete structure, 377 feet in diameter, made up of 358 concrete panels of slightly different shades of gray, each 18 inches thick. People are forbidden to visit Runit Island, but surprisingly, there are no warning signs or barriers of any kind to discourage trespassing.

The geniuses who designed the contamination container in a “cost-saving” move, did not line the bottom of the crater, which is made of porous coral and sand. So even though the crater was capped with a massive dome of concrete, it has been leaking radioactive debris for decades. Studies have shown that the sediments in the lagoon are more radioactive that the debris contained in the dome. If that isn’t bad enough, the dome has been deteriorating as rising sea levels, due to climate change, are causing radioactive elements to seep into the ocean. Furthermore, experts are concerned that the dome can no longer withstand a typhoon. A typhoon would completely destroy the concrete dome, releasing tons of radioactive elements that will contaminate the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years.

Sadly, many of the soldiers who worked on the Runit Dome have come down with illnesses (cancer, tumors, brittle bones, skin lesions, birth defects, etc.) related to their exposure to radioactive contamination, and consequently facing crippling medical bills. Moreover, many of these soldiers have died at a young age, suffering terrible pain, as a result of radiation poisoning. A declassified cable (1972) from the U.S. government states: “Radiological conditions Runit island… the number of nuclear devices exploded on Runit and subsequent earth and debris moving activities have resulted in a complex radiological situation in which each unit division of island is unique from adjacent islands… Actual surveys have been superficial but have identified the presence of a plutonium bearing sand layer outcropping on the ocean side of the midisland area and the existence of apparently solid plutonium bearing chunks, grains and other particulate on the island surface.”  The government’s response has been to deny the problem by denying that the soldiers’ illnesses are not linked to the work on the island (they deny that it was a nuclear clean up project) and refusing them healthcare and refusing them the medical help they need. Decades later, the soldiers continue to battle for justice.

In the documentary, “This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” Enewetak veteran Ken Kasik, now restricted to a hospital bed due to declining health, makes a powerful statement that evokes the same lessons of the Chernobyl disaster: “There’s nobody trained [for] the [removal of] atomic waste. There’s people trained in the actual making of bombs, testing the bombs, and all like that, but not [for] picking [up the waste from the bomb.] You cannot get rid of this. The island should just be destroyed… America dumped all of their worst rubbish to the Marshallese and abandoned them with it — and we don’t want to hear about it. It’s a disgusting shame and it it makes us look bad.” In many ways, it seems that Runit Dome is America’s Chernobyl, a cold, concrete tomb that continues to haunt its victims psychologically and physically.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair
What are the Most Common Words Used in Songs?
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How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

Famous People Who Died on the Same Day

For further information: “This Concrete Dome Holds a Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” on YouTube

The Person Behind the Word: Maverick

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBeing branded (pun intended) a maverick can either be a compliment or denigration, depending upon your perspective. The primary definition of a maverick is an independently-minded person; one who bucks the status quo, as it were (sorry, could’t resist). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable uses the term “masterless man” — leave to the Brits to be so dramatic. The secondary meaning of a maverick is an unbranded calf or yearling. Because of this, some people mistakenly believe that the word is derived from the horse; however, the word is actually an eponym, based on a real American — you certainly wouldn’t recognize him if you saw his photo in a history book, but you certainly know his surname: Samuel Maverick.

Maverick was well-known in Texas during the mid 1800s (he was born in 1803 and died 1870), where he was a respected Yale-educated attorney, politician, landowner, and rancher. Maverick, was of course, the original maverick because he refused to brand his cattle, much to the consternation of nearby ranchers. Language maven, William Safire shares one explanation provided by J. David Stern who wrote Maverick Publisher: “Old man Maverick… refused to brand his cattle because it was cruelty to animals. His neighbors said he was a hypocrite, liar, and thief, because Maverick’s policy allowed him to claim all unbranded cattle on the range. Lawsuits were followed by bloody battles, and brought a new word to our language.” As early at 1867, ranchers called any unbranded cattle “mavericks.”

The term eventually drifted into the realm of politics. Safire continues: “Maverick drifted into the political vocabulary around the turn of the century; McClure’s magazine mentioned the occasional appearance of a ‘maverick legislator.” The simplicity and aptness of the metaphor made it both durable and universally understood.” In this context, it means a person who is unorthodox in his or her political views and is disdainful of party loyalty. The maverick is truly a man without a brand. Safire notes that being a maverick in the world of politics can either be a virtue or a vice — and many notable politicians have been mavericks at some point during their notable careers.

Reviewing the troubling state of partisan politics in America today, one would hope that there were more mavericks serving in Congress today.

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Read related post: The Person Behind the Word: Chauvinism
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For further reading: Safire’s New Political Dictionary by William Safire

The Literary Magic 8-Ball that Provides Sound Advice

alex atkins bookshelf booksWho or what do you turn to when you need helpful advice for life’s most important questions? If you grew up in the  mid-1900s or if you are President Trump or work in his administration, you turn to the Magic 8-Ball. The Magic 8-Ball, initially called the Syco-Slate, was invented by Albert Carter and Abe Bookman back in 1950, inspired by a device used by Albert’s mother, who was a clairvoyant. The plastic ball, resembling an 8-ball from billiards, contains an icosahedron (20 sided die) floating in alcohol that is dyed dark blue. A user asks a yes-no question, shakes the ball, and turns the ball to reveal the window and read the answer. The 20-faced die contains 20 answers, 10 of which are affirmative, 5 are non-committal, and 5 are negative. Sometimes consulting the Magic 8-Ball can be exasperating when it tries to be coy: “better not tell you now” or is recovering from a bad acid trip: “reply hazy, try again.” Below are the 20 possible answers revealed by the Magic 8-Ball:

Affirmative answers:
As I see it, yes.
It is certain.
It is decidedly so.
Most likely.
Outlook good.
Signs point to yes.
Yes — definitely.
You may rely on it.
Without a doubt.

Negative answers:
Don’t count on it.
My reply is no.
My sources say no.
Outlook not so good.
Very doubtful.

Non-committal answers:
Ask again later.
Better not tell you now.
Cannot predict now.
Concentrate and ask again.
Reply hazy, try again.

Not content to receive answers from an indifferent, sometimes sassy icosahedron inebriated by alcohol, Carol Bolt, a multi-disciplinary artist who incorporates words, drawings, and interactive elements into her work, believed there was a better source for sound advice: literary classics. So in 2000, she published an antidote to the Magic 8-Ball, The Literary Book of Answers, to allow sentences drawn from famous works of literature to provide the answers. You could say that it is a literary version of the Magic 8-Ball. Should I quit my job this year? Should I ask for a raise? Should I move to New York? Should I begin my novel this year? Shall I part my hair behind. Do I dare eat a peach? Whatever the question, the user simply opens the book and lands on one of the 704 pages that contains a sentence from a famous literary work. Doing this randomly, I received the following five answers:

“Change something from the way it was before.” (from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

“Quick, ain’t no time for fooling around and moaning.” (from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

“Let everything rip.” (from Ulysses by James Joyce)

“Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it.” (from Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“Adopt that course if you like.” (from Symposium by Plato)

The book has been very successful, and was recently published as a 20th-anniversary edition. Bolt also published six other editions, some of which are still in print: The Book of Answers, The Movie Book of Answers, Love’s Book of Answers, The Soul’s Book of Answers, Mom’s Book of Answers, and Dad’s Book of Answers. 

Of course having two very different sources of advice for life’s important question begs the question: which is the better source of advice? So, naturally, I asked The Literary Book of Answers: “Are you the better source of advice, over the Magic 8-Ball?” Then I turned to a random page that revealed this definitive answer: “Depend on it, my dear” (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Case closed.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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Trivia About the Number 20

alex atkins bookshelf trivia“Our lives our governed by numbers,” writes Herb Reich in the introduction to Numberpedia, “Not the evanescent assumptions of the numerologist, but the widely applied codified numerical systems underlying our very existence… Numbers serve two functions: they may denote measurements or designations. Thus, they both quantify and identify.” So what does that really mean? It means that to our own circle of family and friends, we are known by our names — but we are just numbers to everyone else. For example, each person is identified with a social security number, a customer number, a student number, a driver’s license number, an account number, an IP address, a physical address, and so on. Furthermore, each person is described by numbers unique to them; for example, a credit score, a test score (SAT, GRE, PSAT), GPA, IQ, weight, height, blood pressure, heart beat rate, and so forth. Since Reich is fascinated by numbers, he decided to write a book that examines the various meaning and associations of numbers, from 0 to 100. Since we have just ushered in the year 2020, let’s see what associations the number 20 has (listed in no particular order):

The base of the Mayan number system

Number of days in each of the 18 months in the Mayan calendar

The sum of the first seven Fibonacci numbers

The atomic number of calcium

Value of Roman numeral XX

Fluid ounces in a pint (British measure)

The age of majority (hatachi) in Japanese society

Number comprising a score (recall Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “Four score and seven years ago…” meaning 87 years)

Number of first moves possible for each player in the game of chess

Number of human baby teeth

Number of pennyweights in an ounce troy

The number of quires in a ream of paper

Measure of visual acuity (normal vision at 20 feet for left eye and right eye is 20/20)

A dart board is divided into 20 sectors

An icosahedron is a 20-sided die, each side containing an equilateral triangle (one is found floating inside the Magic 8-Ball)

A dodecahedron is a solid with 20 corners

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For further reading: Numberpedia by Herb Reich

What Were the Most Popular Wikipedia Articles of 2019?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureThe measure of a culture is what its people read or watch, which provides some insight into what they actually think about. As the year 2019 comes to a close it invites the question: what did people think about in 2019? What were they curious about? We can, of course, ask that another way that is perhaps more practical: what topics did people look up the most in Wikipedia in 2019? In mid-December, a researcher analyzed the Wikipedia metrics to ascertain the most popular articles of 2019. If you expect to see a number of profound, philosophical topics, you will be greatly disappointed — the list reveals an intellectual shallowness, characterized by an obsession with fictional heroes, movies, and celebrities. Given all the critical issues that nations — and the entire planet — are struggling with, is this really what people are pondering? There is no way to sugarcoat this — we are in deep trouble. Perhaps a superhero can materialize and help us! Here are the 25 most searched topics in Wikipedia for 2019 (number of pageviews in parenthesis):

Avengers: Endgame – 43,847,319
Deaths in 2019 – 36,916,847
Ted Bundy – 29,062,988
Freddie Mercury – 26,858,123
Chernobyl disaster – 25,195,814
List of highest-grossing films – 24,547,640
Joker (2019 film) – 22,062,357
List of Marvel Cinematic Universe films – 21,467,603
Billie Eilish – 19,638,478
Keanu Reeves – 16,622,576
Jeffrey Epstein – 15,905,486
Game of Thrones (season 8) – 15,643,215
Captain Marvel (film) – 15,631,936
Game of Thrones – 15,252,675
Elizabeth II – 14,808,717
List of Bollywood films of 2019 – 14,213,919
United States – 13,981,783
Donald Trump – 13,961,113
Spider-Man: Far From Home – 13,468,700
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 12,958,871
YouTube – 12,537,494
2019 in film – 11,338,657
Nipsey Hussle – 11,308,502
Jason Momoa – 11,304,629
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – 11,000,322

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

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