Mind Your Surroundings

In an era of nearly unlimited distractions, the best way to make yourself stand out is to mind your surroundings. Ironically, this should not be that hard to do yet so many people struggle today with keeping their eyes and ears clear of distractions. One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is the fact that technology has rendered us with the ability to avert the need to use our eyes actively in sizing up our environment by focusing instead on flashy advertisements, fluorescent smartphones, and glittering video board. Our eyes are being constantly assaulted by so many visual cues from inanimate objects that we have an increasing amount of trouble focusing on what’s real and what’s in front of us. Not only are our eyes being affected by this distracted kind of living but our ears as well. If you want to see the extent of this, go to any street corner, subway / bus stop, or any public park, instead of listening to nature with the sound of birds chirping and leaves falling, we instead close ourselves off from the natural world with our earphones, headphones, and even earplugs.

Now I’m as guilty as listening to loud music through my earphones and also focusing on my smartphone or a cheesy advertisement as much as the next person, however, I try to be as self-aware as possible in limiting the amount of time I devote my eyesight to screens and my hearing to artificial sounds. What I worry about and what I would encourage you, dear reader, to do is to know the time(s) and the place(s) to put the distractions away for good and to focus on the world around you. You may not think it is important now until something unfortunate or unseemly happens to you because you were not in touch with the immediate environment. Anything can happen in a split second and if you are not prepared for that to occur, especially in public, you may end up regretting your decision to look at your phone or to listen to music when you should have put the ear-pods away. ‘Mind your surroundings’ is a simple wish I have for everyone especially when you are not at home or in a private domicile. When you are in an unfamiliar environment, you have to be much more aware of your surroundings than you would otherwise because it could even mean the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, it’s become well documented especially in recent years with the rise of mobile technology how a few folks have met an early end to their lives because they simply were not paying enough attention to their environment. These terrible accidents and freak of nature incidents could be avoided if people put down their phones, their headphones, and their smart watches to listen and look carefully at where they were going. Unless you have an important call, are lost in an unfamiliar area, or have to look at you watch for the time, it can wait. Minding your surroundings is especially true in public places. You need to be watching out for where you are going, or it could cost you. This is especially true when you are not familiar with the local environment or may not speak the language if you are traveling to a new country. Being able to hear the sound of cars / buses going by, of what pedestrians are doing or saying, and to orient yourself to find out which neighborhood or part of town you’re in, this is absolutely critical to do, and you do not need modern technology in order to do this.

While it’s definitely true that most people have good intentions, this is not always the case. Do not let yourself become an easy target especially when it would only take a few precautionary steps to keep yourself aware of your environment. Multiple people have died from texting while driving, looking at their smartphone as they crossed a busy intersection, or have fallen off a cliff from a ‘selfie’ gone wrong. While we live in an era of technological abundance, let us not also live in a time that is bereft of common sense. You owe it not only to yourself but to your friends and your family to make wise decisions in terms of managing your interactions with the immediate environment. The steps you can take are quite simple, but they take serious discipline which may not be easy.

A few tips that I personally think would make a big difference involve some measure of personal responsibility but are really not that strenuous in terms of total effort. Sitting yourself in a restaurant facing the entrance and exit of a restaurant is key if something unfortunate were to happen or if you would like to have a good idea of what’s going on throughout the place, especially if you’re seated further into the room than right by the entrance. I find this tip to be really underrated when you are with close friends or family members who you want to look out for when they are sitting across from you and facing away from the entrance and/or exit.

Another tip of mine is to put your phone on airplane mode or simply turn it off when you are on the go. If you are walking for a little while, driving in a car (all the time!), or are involved in an activity, which requires serious concentration, you should not tempt yourself to be on your phone, smartwatch, etc. because it may lead to deadly consequences if you are not careful. A public service campaign that I fully support is titled, “It can wait”, which shows how 99% of texts or phone calls can wait a half an hour or even more when you’re busy doing other actions such as driving. Having the discipline to use a hands-free method or to contact the person(s) before you operate a vehicle or other machinery is common sense and saves lives.

Above all, the advice of ‘mind your surroundings’ is also appropriate in terms of being able to assess your environment quickly and accurately. You cannot do this if you are listening to music, texting, or have your eyes peeled to the ground. Maintain your awareness, be vigilant, and be sure to maintain eye contact that is dead ahead. You may not think that these tips are important now, but you do not want to regret being distracted if it comes to backfiring on you in the future. Whether you are at a movie theater, the beach, in your car, hiking a mountain, kayaking in the lake, you need to be able to be aware of who and what is around you at all times. If you’re lying in bed or relaxing on the couch, then I would say it’s not bad to let your guard down. However, in public, especially when you’re traveling to a new area, city, country, etc., you need to put the distractions away, mind your surroundings, and pay careful attention to what is going on around you. Unfortunately, this needs to be said in today’s world where every minute, our senses are absorbed all of the time especially in urban environments.

Nobody’s perfect but you really have to adapt yourself to the various locales that you put yourself into. A seasoned traveler, explorer, or observer can tell you that being aware and mindful is a key trait to have that will keep you moving forward. Please do your best to follow some of the tips I have laid out and some of the cautions that I have listed. Keep the texting, calling, and Tweeting to a minimum when you’re on the go and you should be fine. Always mind your surroundings to the best of your ability.

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English Corner – Countable and Uncountable Nouns

It’s important to distinguish between countable and uncountable nouns in English because their usage is different in regard to both the determiners and the verbs. Countable and Uncountable nouns are grammatical topics that are likely to come up again and again in your studies so it’s important to know the main differences between them. If you are looking to improve your usage of numbers and to know how to use them to refer to person(s), place(s), and things(s), which are one or more in amount, then you will need to have a good grasp of countable and uncountable nouns.

Compared to many other grammar topics, countable and uncountable nouns are among the easiest to master but they are also the easiest ones to make careless mistakes about. By not paying enough attention to these basic rules, you will put yourself at risk of not referring to them correctly in either a direct or indirect manner. Please be sure to use the examples below to better your understanding and to also write out your own example sentences as well to get more practice. With enough effort, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the significance of one cow and five pencils. Most nouns are countable but there are a few exceptions which are not countable which you will find out more about in the rest of this ‘English Corner’ blog post.

Countable nouns are for things we can count using numbers. They have a singular and a plural form. The singular form can use the determiner “a” or “an”. If you want to ask about the quantity of a countable noun, you ask “How many _______?” combined with the plural countable noun.

Singular: One cat, one woman, one job, one store, one idea.

Plural: Two cats, three women, four jobs, five stores, six ideas.

She has three dogs. I own a house. I would like two books please. How many friends do you have?

Examples of Uncountable Nouns: tea, sugar, water, air, rice, knowledge, beauty

We cannot use a/an with these nouns. To express a quantity of an uncountable noun, use a word or expression like some, a lot of, much, a bit of, a great deal of, or else use an exact measurement like a cup of, a bag of, 1kg of, 1L of, a handful of, a pinch of, an hour of, a day of. If you want to ask about the quantity of an uncountable noun, you ask “How much?”

-There has been a lot of research into the causes of this disease.

-He gave me a great deal of advice before my interview.

-Can you give me some information about uncountable nouns?

-He did not have much sugar left.

-Measure 1 cup of water, 300g of flour, and 1 teaspoon of salt.

-How much rice do you want?

Exceptions to the Rule of Countable v. Uncountable

Some nouns are countable in other languages but uncountable in English. They must follow the rules for uncountable nouns.

The most common ones are:
accommodation, advice, baggage, behavior, bread, furniture, information, luggage, news, progress, traffic

  • I would like to give you some advice.
  • How much bread should I bring?
  • I didn’t make much progress today.
  • This looks like a lot of trouble to me.
  • We did an hour of work yesterday.

Be careful with the noun hair, which is normally uncountable in English, so it is not used in the plural form. However, It can be countable only when referring to certain examples such as the individual hairs on someone’s head.

Examples:

1) Did you wash your hair last night?

2) Your dad is getting some grey hairs on his beard.

As shown in the multiple amount of examples, Countable nouns can be singular or plural although they mostly are plural in usage. This is in contrast with uncountable nouns which are only singular in their nature and can never be plural. This is an important grammatical distinction which will help you to understand the main difference between these two types of nouns. Do your best to study these examples, create your own sentences, and know why countable nouns are singular and plural while uncountable nouns are only singular. Whether it’s one potato or a hundred potatoes, you have to be able to count both.

‘No Country for Old Men’ – Film Review and Analysis

Cormac McCarthy, a distinguished American author of such noteworthy novels of ‘The Road’ and ‘Blood Meridian’, is not as well known for ‘No Country for Old Men’, but it is an excellent and renowned novel in its own right. Out of the movies that have been based off of his work, ‘No Country for Old Men’, released in 2007, is considered to be the best book to film adaptation done so far when it comes to the written works of Mr. McCarthy.

Like his other novels, ‘No Country for Old Men’ focuses on the darker parts of human nature including violence, corruption, and the evil that people can do to one another without just cause. ‘No Country for Old Men’ was a hit at the box office and has an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. This film was directed by the Coen brothers and received critical acclaim including four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Bardem. While not the most upbeat and positive film, it’s a film that probes questions regarding fate v. coincidence, if destiny is pre-ordained, and how much the world is beyond our control despite our wishes and desires for it to be different than it actually is.

‘No Country for Old Men’ takes place in Texas, USA in 1980 after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history, and which is referenced at points throughout the film. Each of the three main characters have personal experience committing violence although they do so for different reasons. Anton Chigurh, the name of the film’s antagonist is a man born without a conscience and is a hired killer. However, he doesn’t simply kill because he is getting paid with money to do so but rather because it comes naturally to him and sees himself as an instrument of fate. It does matter whether or not you are ‘innocent’ or not but if you happen to cross paths with him on the road, at a hotel, in a convenience store, he will judge your fate based on the basis of a coin toss flip. Chigurh’s chilling approach to life and how it is totally beyond any of your collective will and actions is an eerie recurrence throughout the film that the Coen brothers use to make him one of the greatest film villains of all-time.

Most relatable as a main character in ‘No Country for Old Men’, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is a married man, Vietnam war veteran, and welder who enjoys hunting as a Texan. He is not a perfect person but he tries to do the right thing most of the time and is unfortunately a victim of fate as well during the film. On a hunting trip in the west Texas desert, he ends up seeing the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad with men and dogs both badly wounded and dead at the scene. His overall fate is set in motion when he takes two million dollars that does not belong to him and stashes it away.

As an audience member, you know that’s not the right action for him to take because it ends up causing him to be tracked by Chigurh as he is the contract killer hired to kill Moss and bring back the money. It’s not only that Chigurh who is after Moss for the money and this main character is up against fate which has conspired against him due to the stolen money that didn’t belong to him. Moss, at his heart, is a survivalist and wants to live on yet his actions cause himself and his wife to be put into serious danger.

Because of their predicament, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a Terrell County mainstay who is closer to retirement and death then he would like to admit is good at his job but is not sure that he can keep up with the violence and evil that he sees around him and which seems to be getting worse and not better. Throughout this film, Ed Tom is one step behind Chigurh and is unable to help Moss as directly as he can as sheriff because he is overmatched and isn’t able to keep up with a part of the country that isn’t always meant for ‘old men’ to live happily ever after.

“What you got, ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” Sheriff Bell, throughout the film, becomes disenchanted with the way the world is and how senseless violence is unavoidable and can’t always be stopped. His ability to influence or change events is weakening and as an older sheriff, he’s slowing down and wondering what his ultimate fate will be whether its dying of old age or getting killed by a psychopath like Chigurh. Ed Tom Bell as a character in this film is aware that as human beings, we can only have control over the world around us and that we are limited to the choices we make regarding good and evil but our choices can also be sometimes constrained by the hand we are dealt by life itself and our circumstances. When it comes to the violence of the world, it is something that can never be truly vanquished as long as there is evil in the hearts of men.

The most prominent theme of the film relates to fate and self-determination. Each of the main characters chooses to see those two concepts differently. Anton Chigurh uses the cover of a ‘fateful’ coin toss to leave it up to the fates of his potential victims regardless if he was hired to kill them or not. He brutally rationalizes his violence through the use of ‘fate’ as if they had it coming all of their life. Llewelyn Moss, a simple hunter and welder, makes flawed choices as any normal person would but struggles to outrun his fate based on some bad decisions he made regarding money that was stolen and would be considered ‘blood money.’

Moss is a survivalist at heart but knows that he can only do so much physically and mentally to outrun his fate based on the choices he actually made that led him there. Ed Tom Bell, is the most morally sound character of the film but comes to the realization that he can only deal with the world as it is rather than the world he would like it to be. The choices he makes are his own but the world and its depravity and violence are out of his control and he can only react to those events rather than prevent them from ever occurring.

In various films of theirs, The Coen Brothers often present a bleak and nihilistic view about the world. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is their most serious and brutal look at the nature of violence, how deeply it seems to be embedded in the American landscape, and how everyone regardless if they are good or evil is subject to a fate that is out of their earthly control.

Overall, ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a great film in that it probes a number of moral questions relating to mankind’s capacity for both good and evil. The cinematography is stunningly impressive, the acting is excellent by every character and Bardem especially deserved to win an Academy Award for his chilling role as Anton Chigurh. This film is not meant for those with weak stomachs because the violence is both brutal and frightenly realistic. The Coen Brothers make movies mainly for mature audiences and this film is no exception.

The music of the film carries little weight and there is not much of a soundtrack and that is done on purpose collectively to build up tension and have the audience invest in every scene to see what happens next. It’s hard to classify this movie to a specific genre but it definitely could be best summarized as a dramatic thriller. The directing is excellent overall and ‘No Country for Old Men’ is truly loyal to its unique setting of west Texas and the U.S. – Mexico borderlands. If you would like to see a movie that deals in shades of grey rather than black and white, you will enjoy ‘No Country for Old Men’. However, be forewarned that it does not have a cliché happy Hollywood ending, which is refreshing since men and women do not always get to live to a ripe, old age.

The Why of Standards

How do we define standards? What exactly do they mean to our society and the world as a whole? See, the thing about standards is that if they are not observed by everyone to some degree than what would be the point of having them in the first place. Having standards when it comes to behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. helps society to function and for people to live productive and healthy lives. Without having standards or not being beholden to anyone else will create a society of winner-take-all or every man or every woman for themselves, which is not only counterproductive but also self-destructive in the long run.

As defined by Dictionary.com, A ‘standard’ is defined as “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; or an approved model.” It’s a general definition but you can see that creating a standard requires the consent of the society at large. Standards can be difficult or easy to enforce depending on how popular they are but the total absence of standards in different areas of life should be fought against as much as possible. Everybody has different standards but the key to keep in mind is whether a lack of standards or a complete abandonment of standards is making the local community or overall society worse off as a result.

We don’t think about it but basic standards helps create laws, rules, and regulations that keep society running well. When there are no standards in anything whether its’ with business, politics, dress, the environment, etc. then every individual man, woman, and child will suffer in some regard as a result. Another thing to keep in mind is that a lack of standards or standards that are burdensome and counterproductive also cause harm to us as well.

Standards change over time but there are certain ideals and beliefs that I think should stand the test of time. By this I mean that basic manners and politeness should always be observed, presenting yourself well in your outer dress and appearance depending on the setting is crucial, and that you add with basic integrity, decency, and honesty when doing business or leading as a member of your community. Standards over time for these particular areas should not change and should even become stronger so that the next generations do not forget how to act, behave, and be good.

Standards can be relaxed in a number of areas or they can be hardened in other areas depending upon the mood and whims of the larger society but those areas I listed above should be consistent and not be trifled with. When basic manners, integrity, and matters of presenting become optional rather than mandatory, it’s likely that the entire society will feel the ill effects of such an absence of standards rather quickly. Fundamentally, systemic societal issues such as corruption, violence, and poverty, which while they have a wide range of causes are still related to an absence of moral and behavioral standards.

In a free society, standards can most definitely change and be adapted to fit to the times but it has to be with the approval of the majority of those people in that society. Leaving standards to the whims of a few leaders can be cumbersome and even negligent especially if they themselves due not match the standards for which they should follow based on their leadership roles. Standards are best when they are created, managed, and enforced in a democratic fashion and where the majority of people in that society are able to follow those standards.

While we are all individuals, we are all still apart of a collective society and we have to sometimes sacrifice our personal standards when we come up against those standards of the larger society even when we may fundamentally disagree with them. No standard is perfect but if the society has collectively agreed upon those standards, then all of the people must abide by them to the best of their ability. If the standards are to be changed, that should be done over time with the consent of the majority. Even if we don’t like the standards, if no one agrees to them, then they are not standards anymore and society could suffer as a result.

If you don’t like the absence of certain standards or believe that they are too burdensome on you or people that you know, then you need to make the effort and put in the work to change these standards. If you don’t like with how someone is behaving, then you need to make an informed argument as to how that person should behave in a more polite and decent manner. If you see some form of corruption and certain political leaders are letting it slide, then you need to take some responsibility in holding yourself first to a higher standard and then calling out that corruption to get others behind you so that the corruption may end in the future.

Individuals have power in a society with standards but they will fundamentally have less power in a society where there are weak standards or none at all. That is also the case where one sole individual can set standards for everyone else without so much as a protest from others, which is also dangerous and detrimental to society as a whole.

While standards such as for behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. may not always be popular to uphold, these standards form the backbone of the collective society. With the absence of any sort of standards comes at the behest of laws, rules, regulations, and principles as well. Standards form the base for a civilized society and in their absence; there is no way that a society of individuals can function at all.

When you read this article, think about your own standards and how they came to be in your thinking. Also, think about how important they are to you. Lastly, think about the current standards of your society and how long it took for them to be formed and implemented as well as how important they also are regardless if you agree with their being in existence or not. Standards are not meant to be popular all the time but they are meant to ensure codes of conduct in various manners of life.

The sheer absence of standards leads to an anarchy of sorts that would render polite society meaningless and turn individuals against each other in a collective free-for-all. Understanding the why of standards will make you more likely to improve and better your own existing ones.

Book Recommendations – Volume VIII

As always, the summer season is an excellent time to be catching up on personal reading. One of my favorite activities during the summer is to lie out in the park or at the beach and dive into some books that have piqued my interest. Whether you are a fiction fan or a non-fiction fan, there are a lot of excellent books out there to keep you occupied. My three choices for reading this summer deal with non-fiction topics yet I hope they peak your interest as well even if you are a fiction fan.

1.) “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari

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The follow-up to Harari’s first book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ dives into the promise, the challenges, and the problems facing humanity as we go through the 21st century and beyond. ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ looks at how human beings got to this point in our collective history and how we will need to come up with new solutions whether political, economic, or social to adapt to this current age of rapid technological and climatic change. Clearly, this book deals with more speculation on the part of Harari as he lays out a number of possibilities that could come about in this century and beyond, rather than solely focusing on past human history as ‘Sapiens’ did.

Harari devotes a large part of the book to the fact at how much progress has been made across humankind in terms of eradicating disease, famine, and also how war has been limited in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The question that Harari poses is what will humanity focus its efforts on now that we have been able to get past in large part major sources of human suffering in the form of disease, famine, and war. Mr. Harari makes the argument that humanity will focus a lot of its collective effort on artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, machine learning, etc.

The goal particularly of the rich and wealthy will be to conquer death and achieve immortality through various means that the author goes more into detail about. However, how will social harmony be insured as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning wipe out a large percentage of human jobs over the next few decades? Will the rights of the individual be maintained when a large part of the population no longer are able to find work or where they can receive adequate educational training for the jobs of tomorrow?

Harari is a sociologist so the details of the actual engineering and technology that would need to occur to make this shift happen is lacking in the book. However, he poses urgent questions for policymakers, economists, and other leaders as to what will happen when ‘big data’ algorithms know us and our desires better than they ever have. How will the meaning of ‘work, leisure, and relationships’ change as artificial intelligence continues to advance? Increasingly, Mr. Harari concludes that humans and machines will complement each other in various ways whether its in education, technology, the workplace, etc. and there can be nothing done to avoid this shift from happening in our lifetimes. What remains to be seen is how human societies react to a future where people must adapt to these technological changes to survive, prosper and how man and machine will act as they merge together beyond what was considered possible just a century ago.

2.) “Us v. Them: The Failure of Globalism” by Ian Bremmer

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Ian Bremmer, a notable political scientist has written a new book on the populist resurgence in the United States and around the world. He tackles the failure of ‘globalism’ as an ideology and how unfortunately it doesn’t look like we will all be able to live and thrive in a truly borderless world without political, economic, and social differences getting in the way. The fear of the ‘other’ and the tendency for human beings to organize themselves in separate tribes whether it’s the form of nations, races, and religions takes precedence even today as the reaction to globalism.

Mr. Bremmer makes the argument that ‘globalism’ and ‘globalization’ are separate in their meanings as ‘globalism’ as a term is primarily political in nature while ‘globalization’ is primarily economic. Globalization will continue to expand and thrive because its’ practical for nations to engage in trade and finance at the international level to boost and grow their national economies. As long as it is economically advantageous for nations to trade and do business with each other, globalization will continue to be a mainstay in economic relations.

‘Globalism’ however has received a backlash from the rise of political populism primarily in the Western world (the U.S., the U.K.) but also in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland), and also in developing nations like India, Mexico, Turkey, etc. Issues of mass migration, cultural shifts in nations, growing income inequality have led populations to look towards protectionism and ‘strongmen-lite’ politicians to address these systemic issues. In my opinion, Bremmer correctly argues that while the world is collectively doing well in terms of economic growth and the subsequent rise in living standards, there is still a serious political recession going on with far left and far right politicians gaining stream in terms of popularity.

‘Us v. Them’ reflect the growing unease and anxiety that a lot of people have regarding ‘globalism.’ Besides the cosmopolitan populations that live in the major cities of the world and who have benefited from the cross-cultural exchange of peoples, trade, finance, etc., there are many others who feel threatened by the ‘other’ and how their country and culture may be changing as a result. Mr. Bremmer sees the happening of Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of strongmen around the world as a reaction to ‘globalism’, and how there are drawbacks in that many people feel left behind by their political and economic elites who enacted these policies without their support. ‘Us v. Them’ is something that has occurred throughout human history and to myself, it goes back to our fundamental nature of our willingness to divide ourselves into separate tribes and to look upon the ‘other’ with suspicion and fear.

According to Mr. Bremmer, political populism is not likely to go away anytime soon and the rise of automation, an increase in artificial intelligence, the weakening of the middle class in both the developed and developing world are likely to put continued pressure on weakening political institutions who may or may not be agile and forward-thinking enough to come up with satisfactory solutions to these 21st century issues.

3.) “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” by Suzy Hansen

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‘Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World’ by Suzy Hansen is a refreshing take on the way American foreign policy decisions have affected the U.S.’s relationships with certain countries such as Iran, Greece, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, and specifically the people who feel that they have been negatively affected by those decisions. The average American is likely to be unaware of how large of a role the country has played beyond its borders and how some of those decisions have left deep, festering wounds in the people of those countries who were directly affected and still haven’t forgotten.

Ms. Hansen who came from a personal background similar to mine has lived in Turkey for over ten years and has traveled to the Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Egypt looking for the perspectives of those citizens in regards to how America changed their countries, mainly for the worse. Her personal background growing up was very insular and she went to travel and live overseas in order to see her country differently.

From reading this book, it was refreshing to see Ms. Hansen do her research about the countries she was living in and visiting as well as interviewing many people in those countries to hear their stories and their perspectives. I believe that her book does a great job of enlightening Americans about negative foreign policy decisions made in the past that our country may not like to remember but is still forefront in many other countries’ perspective of the United States.

As Hansen left home and lived overseas, her innocence and that of America is stripped away because it’s a harsh truth to face yet it is one that we must all face is that America has not always done good in the world and there have been negative effects of past U.S. foreign policy decisions that heavily resonate with those peoples to this day. The key aspect of this mix of journalism and personal memoir makes this book stand out as a referendum on America’s role in the world, and how its likely to decline in the future. While our impact may lessen on our nations in the future, Hansen sees that as a possible good occurrence do the damage that has already been done.

My main critiques of this book is that while Ms. Hansen diagnoses that issues with U.S. foreign policy, I do wish there was an addition to the book where the author discusses how America can better its foreign relations in the future and to move forward positively with the countries she has become familiar with. However, to be fair, that would take a whole another book to diagnose how U.S. foreign policy should move forward. Also, I believe that this book was a bit too negative in its perspective on America and it could have been more balanced in its overall viewpoint. Ms. Hansen’s book pulls no punches and is a clear-eyed look on the blindspots of American exceptionalism and how our values have not always been well received beyond our borders.

‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950’s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.

Television shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ by the latter half of the 21st century.

While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film ‘Ex Machina’ deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, ‘Ex Machina’ is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.

While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, ‘Ex Machina’ released in April of 2015 in the United States garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.

The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.

At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.

After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.

What once starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.

Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.

The end of this film, ‘Ex Machina’ has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.

There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd.

I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film ‘Ex Machina’ is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at ‘Ex Machina’ with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on.

We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by the author Yuval Noah Harari titled, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.

The Wonder of Flight

Imagine a scenario where you were able to transport yourself back in time to the 1950s. You would be coming from the modern era and a time now where you can travel to your heart’s content if you have the means to do so. The 1950s, in contrast, was a decade before the age of commercial aviation had really blossomed and taken off, and where the average person could not board a flight to go halfway around the world, round-trip, for a couple hundred dollars. People of that era would think you’re crazy and out of your mind for suggestion that commercial aviation would either be that accessible or affordable.

However, that is where we are today in our modern society. We often take the chance to fly around our country or internationally for granted nowadays but for most of human history, there was absolutely no chance to fly to the next town let alone to Japan or Australia. Modern aviation can be considered one of mankind’s greatest successes and that is due partly to the Wright Brothers and the countless others who are skilled engineers and builders. The advances in flying will continue to make travel more efficient, faster, and more affordable.

While there is a growing disparity on numerous airlines in terms of how much you pay equaling the quality of services that you will receive as a result, it is good for us as travelers to keep it in perspective of how lucky we are to be in an age where at least the possibility of flight exists and how wondrous it is for the world to be connected so easily. You no longer have to board a ship for months on end to cross the dangerous Atlantic Ocean nor do you have board an extremely long train ride where the accommodations won’t be much better.

For example, you can travel across the continental United States in less than six hours thanks to modern aviation technology. Compare this to driving a car or bus across the country which would take a few weeks or your average Amtrak train which could take about a week or so and not be that much cheaper. The fact that we can be reunited with our loved ones or our friends within a day if they live across the country from us or around the world is a truly monumentous achievement in human history.

In addition to the simple fact that you’re now able to travel through the sky in relative comfort at over five hundred miles per hour, it’s easier now than ever to entertain yourself with books, movies, and music. On certain airlines, you can even connect to the internet if you need to get some work done. While they may not feed you a lot or feed you food that’s good or tasty, you have the option of snacking or eating a meal and you will definitely be hydrated with the help of flight attendants.

There has been a lot of bad press lately about certain airlines in the United States and the condition of airports here, and these criticisms are definitely warranted. However, instead of trying to tear down this form of transportation, I would hope that this industry continues to improve in terms of services offered, having affordable prices, and providing a comfortable experience by having airports that are both modern and efficient. It’s clear to me that not every airline or airport experience is going to be great but I consider myself lucky that I was born in an era and also have had the means to travel both domestically and internationally.

To me, the experience of going to an airport to go to a far-off destination that’s new to me is really exhilarating and fills me with a deep sense of adventure. While the airport security workers may be too overzealous, the check-in counter machine may not work, and we could be delayed due to unforeseen mechanical issues, the destination is worth the price involved with traveling anywhere new. Not everybody has had the chance to fly anywhere or to fly to multiple places so I actually look forward to arriving at the airport, checking in to my flight, and boarding the plane. Sometimes, you have to hope for the best and to expect the worst when it comes to flying.

While airports aren’t perfect, I love what they symbolize and what they stand for. The free movement of peoples from different parts of the world, converging in one central location, to then be whisked off to another far away destination is pretty cool. The airport is a place where people of all backgrounds, faiths, and creeds can come together for a shared purpose: the desire to travel.

In my opinion, the more airports a nation has, the more that nation signals to others that they are open to the world and are not afraid of it. Airports are the beginning point in the global exchange of ideas, beliefs, and economic opportunities, and it’s important to make sure that they accommodate both travelers and the workers themselves to make these impressive places run so smoothly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Airports are like a living, breathing global city which represents an important piece of the economy, of society, and of human nature. You can see the good, the bad, and the ugly represented in any airport.

Once I have made it through security, through check-in, and have made it through the gate, a great sense of excitement washes over me. It is the truth that any trip that I have taken or will take in the future give me a strong desire to experience the unknown. I watch the plane take its place at our gate of departure and I observe the children, teenagers, businessmen, and elderly seniors board my flight. We, as passengers, may not have much in common at all besides the shared belief in the wonder of flight and how it can bring different breadths of humanity together under the same banner of discovering parts unknown.