Book Recommendations – Volume IV

Wintertime is often the best time to settle down with a cup of hot coffee / tea and open up a new book or fire up your Kindle to catch up on some reading. When it’s cold and snowy out, there is no better way to pass the time than to sit down with a good book in order to learn something new or to be entertained by a particular story. If you’re looking for some good recommendations, here are three books that I have read recently that I think avid readers would enjoy especially if you like non-fiction material. If you happen to read any of these three recommendations, please let me know what you thought of these books in the comments section below.

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1.) The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson is a current New York Times bestseller and is not your typical self-development book. I have been following Mark’s writings for a couple of years now and I hold him in high regard. He has helped change my life for the better with his unconventional life advice and his second book is a great read. Contrary to some self-help books that advertise a philosophy of feeling good all the time and always being positive, Mark instead advocates for a more balanced approach to life. It’s important to embrace the negatives and setbacks in life because you’ll be a stronger and a more mature person for it.

It’s a common truth that not everything will go well in life so it’s better to make due with that than to have a ‘pie in the sky’ attitude all of the time. Mark asks the reader to think about the fact that going through negative experiences is actually a positive experience and can teach us a lot about ourselves. Having solely positive experiences without any adversity or setbacks is itself a negative experience as well because you didn’t struggle and fight for it, which means that it wasn’t that much of a big deal in retrospect. Learning from our past mistakes and our failures is just as important, if not more so, as having massive success according to Mark’s thesis.

The title of the book itself, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, doesn’t imply that we as human beings shouldn’t care about anything going on in our lives but rather that we should be more selective about the things that we can truly control and have some input in. You shouldn’t give a f*ck about everything, only the things that matter the most to you and that truly impact your life in some way. Overall, this book is a really thoughtful perspective on living one’s life in a mature and thoughtful manner and has some really practical advice for any demographic of reader.

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2.) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel is a well-researched, thought out look about the cyber security challenges facing the United States especially when it comes to the national energy grid that makes it possible for Americans to live a 21st century lifestyle. I remember watching Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline when I was a child and he always impressed me with his ability to look at a story he was reporting on from all angles and do a thorough job with interviewing different people involved with the issue. This book written by Mr. Koppel is no exception. Mr. Koppel does great investigative reporting on what is being done and what isn’t being done to prevent such a cyber attack from happening.

With the increasing amount of focus being put on cyber security as it affects different businesses, individuals, and governments, this book is a must-read as it considers the areas in which we are most vulnerable to attack. Mr. Koppel looks at how we can address the current gaps in cyber security such as when it comes to our different energy grids across the United States and what should be done about it in order to prevent an attack from happening in the near future. Mr. Koppel interviews a wide variety of people involved with cyber security from the Secretary of Homeland Security to leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City to ‘preppers’ across the U.S. who make it a lifestyle habit of preparing themselves and their families with emergency supplies and goods in case a cyber attack happens and the electric grid goes down.

The frightening possibility of a regional and national blackout happening in the United States is discussed in detail as to what would be the consequences and how long it would take for the electric grid to go back online. The current picture isn’t very rosy and a lot of work needs to be done according to Mr. Koppel. Hopefully, the policy makers and leaders of government take notice of this book as it is both a warning and a call to action for those people in power to do more about this situation and to help protect against such a potential disastrous scenario.

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3.) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance was one of the most important books of 2016 for its’ insight into a part of the United States that rarely gets much in-depth coverage. This book is a mix of a personal memoir of Mr. Vance’s life who is a native of the hills of Kentucky and who grew up in southern Ohio and also a retrospective on the economic and social conditions that are affecting Appalachia to this day. Mr. Vance goes into great detail about the struggles of the white, working class, both self-inflicted and those wounds placed on them by economic decline and societal decay that’s out of their control. It’s a community that doesn’t get much fanfare but who still have a political impact as showcased in the recent 2016 election.

Even with a troubled family that both uplifts him and casts him down, Mr. Vance through his hard-work and intellect makes it out of Appalachia and was a member of the Marine corps, a law school graduate and now a successful writer. However, it could be argued that he is the exception and not the norm when it comes to the current state of Appalachian communities. Upward mobility can be hard to believe in for today’s America with stories like Mr. Vance’s becoming less and less common. For this course to reverse itself, economic vitality has to come back to forgotten regions like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. The current social malaise and dispirited communities may be able to improve if the local economy were to improve for families like the Vance’s.

You root for the people of Appalachia highlighted in this memoir who have been dealt a bad hand in life but still try to make the best of things and want to help their family members achieve the American dream, even if it appears out of reach to most. One such example that sticks in my mind from this book is ‘Mamaw’, Mr. Vance’s grandmother and one of the few steady and pragmatic influences in his life that helped make him who he is today. To change a community and a society, it starts with the family but it doesn’t end there. Families in these communities need a future and they need prospects, both educational and job-wise. Let’s see if this book has an impact as well on the policymakers, think tanks, and government leaders. It’s a must-read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

An Urban Transformation

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“The kids were cheering me on.”

I had the pleasure recently of visiting Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellin that has had a difficult history with gang violence and the illegal drug trade but which is showing signs of both progress and renewal. Due to the investments made by both the local and city government, Comuna 13 has become a hotbed for beautiful street art and graffiti murals, which has attracted many local artists to make a positive mark on this community. Many of these artists are from Medellin and grew up in the neighborhoods of Comuna 13. Rather than discuss the past of Comuna 13, I would rather talk about why this particular community is poised to have a brighter future.

Beyond just the new street art and the graffiti murals that you can find around Comuna 13 are the relatively new escalators that connect the San Javier metro station to the communities located in the hills surrounding this transportation hub. These escalators make it a lot easier for both students and workers to gain easier access to the rest of the Medellin metropolitan area and are an easy way to get from point A to point B. The escalators are free to use for all people including the tourists who come to visit this part of the city.

While the escalators are not so numerous, it is possible that more of them will be added to other parts of the city in the future if I were to haphazard a guess. Medellin can set an example to other urban cities on how to connect neighborhoods efficiently with the use of escalators, especially those with sloping hills and steep mountains within the city limits. For the elderly and children as well, these escalators can be quite useful in helping them get around the neighborhood without too much trouble.

If you don’t feel like taking the escalators, there are concrete staircases adjacent to the new escalators so you can choose which way you want to go up or go down. The escalators are weatherproof as well which is quite genius when you think about. On your way to the metro, the overhang, which is a bright, fluorescent orange color, will protect you fully from the elements such as rain, snow, hail, etc. It only takes about five to ten minutes to get from the top of the escalators to the bottom of the escalators so if you’re in a rush, you won’t have to go through too many escalators to get to your final destination.

The city government of Medellin and local police has done a great job in my opinion with regards to keeping this part of Comuna 13 safe and secure. I noticed during my visit that locals and volunteers are instrumental in helping to keep the area around the escalators clean and orderly. There are park benches and small parks nearby to encourage community get-togethers as well as the fact that there is a big slide where the local children can use to slide up and down to have some fun in the neighborhood. Being the kid at heart that I am, I partook in one of the slides because it is pretty enjoyable and you do go down at a pretty fast speed.

Beyond just the new escalators, the cool slides, and the park benches, there are also now a few library parks, which are free for members of the community to enjoy, explore, and learn. In addition to being places for education, the libraries are great meeting places for the community and can strengthen neighborhood ties. You can also hold cultural, recreational, and educational activities such as group English classes or a family birthday party. Books in these libraries are free to borrow and use.

Everyone can use them regardless of their age, educational level or social status. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and because of the twelve library parks in Comuna 13 and other parts of Medellin, city residents here have a real chance to learn new things and satisfy their curiosity. One particular volunteer group that I’m interested in learning about is called ‘Stairway to English’, which provides free English classes with native speakers to members of the Comuna 13 community.

My visit to Comuna 13 left quite an impact on me. I did go through an organized tour this time, which I do recommend to people visiting this webpage. It was really useful to learn about the history, background, and the progress being made for this part of Medellin. Medellin is quite a large city and it can be easy to get caught up in only staying within your own neighborhood and to not see other parts of the city. Personally, I do hope that other escalator projects in urban areas will become popular in Colombia and other parts of the world.

Human beings are increasingly becoming more urban with over 70% of the world’s population projected to be living in cities by mid-century. This puts the onus on local, city, and national governments to adapt to this reality and try to make life easier and better for the millions of people who call a city their home. Other cities should take note of the social progress being made in Comuna 13 and I can only hope that more and more residents of Medellin will be able to improve their lives in different ways because of urban projects like building library parks or constructing escalator routes.

If you’re in Medellin sometime and you’re curious to check out the positive urban transformation that is ongoing in Comuna 13 and other parts of the city, I would recommend using Comuna 13 Tours, which has a very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful staff members who are bilingual and want to share their city with foreigners out of the goodness in their heart. This is not an official endorsement and I don’t get paid or receive any benefits from mentioning this tour on my website.

I’m doing it because I really enjoyed the experience I had recently with them and I think other visitors who come to Medellin should do the same based off my positive experience using this tour group. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you’ll meet a few locals during your tour and you can see how hospitable, kind, and open they are in Comuna 13. My only advice is to be careful about your photo taking, and to be respectful of both the tour guide and the locals who are kind enough to take some time out of their day to share with you. I look forward to visiting Comuna 13 again someday and I hope to use that giant slide again too.

For more information: http://www.comuna13tours.com/

Book Recommendations – Volume III

After a five-month break, I’m back with another edition of “Book Recommendations.” I’ve had some free time on my hands lately which has allowed me to read these really great books. I would like to share my latest selections with my visitors and hope that you will check these books out for yourself.

Note: I have also posted the links to these books so you can check them out on Amazon.com. You simply need to click on the books’ images below in order to be re-directed to the Amazon page of the book itself. Enjoy.

1.) And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades In The Middle East by Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News

As someone who has studied the Middle East region extensively in college and has made a few trips to the region (Turkey, Israel, Jordan), I continue to enjoy learning about this tumultuous part of the world despite its rough past and present.

This book by Richard Engel is excellent because it comes from someone who understands the complexities and historical background of the region. He is also a great correspondent and storyteller who weaves his own history of working in the Middle East alongside the tumultuous events over the past two decades, which have fundamentally transformed the region.

Mr. Engel has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for over twenty years now. In this book, he clearly displays his vast knowledge of its’ history, culture, societies, and the troubles that continue to plague the region. Engel is fluent in Arabic, Italian, and Spanish. He has worked for NBC News and other major news organizations for over two decades. He re-tells his firsthand experiences and stories of starting out as a freelance journalist for the Agence France-Presse in the late 1990’s during the time of Mubarak’s Egypt. He goes on to discuss his experiences of working and living in Iraq during the collapse of Saddam’s regime and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In addition, Mr. Engel has also spent a lot of time covering the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the recent civil war in Syria. Richard Engel has also endured some trauma during his career as he was captured and kidnapped by ISIS in late 2012. For the readers of his book, we get personal insight into the hellish situations he has been drawn into through his accounts of witnessing the deaths and injuries of many of his journalist colleagues over the past twenty years. This book is fundamentally a more personal story as he recounts how his 20 years of covering the Middle East had affected his marriage, his friendships, and his mental state.

What I like most about this book is that Mr. Engel gives you the historical background and the straight facts of what happened in the region and why it happened. You can tell that he was both physically and emotionally affected by the wars and insurgencies that he bravely covered for the U.S. media. More than anything else, it is a well-written account of what it means to be a journalist in a very difficult region of the world for journalists. Richard Engel doesn’t preach about what should have happened or what could have been different in terms of the politics but he simply relays his past experiences for those of us who want a more personal, firsthand account of what it is like to cover the Middle East.

2.) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Cultural Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

A world-renowned traveler, famous television show host, coolest American alive over 50 years of age. You can also add best selling-author to this list as if it wasn’t long enough. These are just a few of the titles that Mr. Bourdain has earned over the course of his life. However, most people forget that he was a very successful chef in New York City and elsewhere during the 1980’s and 1990’s. He is especially known for being the executive chef at the famed restaurant of ‘Les Halles’ in Manhattan, NY.

Due to his years in the kitchen, Kitchen Confidential is an in-depth, intriguing look into the actual process of how the food we eat in restaurants ends up on our plates. You may not feel very hungry after reading this book due to the expose on some food industry practices that could be considered unsatisfactory in terms of health regulations. I know now that I won’t ever order fish or any other seafood from a restaurant if it’s a Monday.

This book is an unfiltered look into life as a cook and Bourdain hilariously delves into stories from his past and the characters he encounters in the various kitchens he’s worked in. He discusses how he worked alongside drug dealers, degenerates, thieves, loose cannons, etc. in the kitchen but that didn’t detract from the excellent chefs that they made themselves out to be. If anything, Bourdain argues, their eccentricities and attention to details help make these people into great cooks.

Kitchen Confidential is also useful in that Bourdain gives tips and advice to his readers on how to cook and prepare food better. His advice ranges from what kind of knives are best to which simple gadgets make the most difference in having a decent kitchen to cook in. If you like his travel shows and his antics as a TV host, you will most certainly enjoy this book.

3.) Connectography: Mapping The Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna

The race to win the 21st century will not be a race between militaries, or of competing arms but of overall connectivity. Mr. Khanna argues that whichever country becomes the most connected to the global supply chains of trade, finance, technology, infrastructure, etc. will stand to benefit most in our current globalized world. A geopolitical strategist, consultant, and world traveler, Mr. Khanna displays his in-depth knowledge of international affairs and geopolitics from his past travels and from his extensive research.

From Ukraine to the UAE and from China to Nigeria, Mr. Khanna details how national borders are no match for the global supply chains that are increasingly emerging. Physical boundaries of geography are becoming less important than the priorities of developing high-speed rail lines, building intercontinental pipelines, expanding the World Wide Web, along with increasing energy outputs and resource trading among many different nations.

While some prominent figures in politics are advocating for resurgent nationalism and wall-building, Mr. Khanna understands that this perspective is detrimental in a world which is becoming more fundamentally connected. In the 21st century, countries and continents need each other now more than ever. With ten trillion dollars and growing being spent per year on infrastructure, transportation, energy, and communications, this trend is likely to continue unabated.

Among the notable ideas in this great book that Mr. Khanna highlights are the emerging North American Union with related maps in the book showing how the United States, Canada, and Mexico are becoming more interdependent. China is also connecting itself to many of its neighbors in Eurasia through gas, oil pipelines and freight rail networks.

In Connectography, Mr. Khanna gives us an in-depth perspective on the world’s growing interdependence and how its’ affecting our everyday lives. While there are numerous challenges to this worldwide trend, which are also highlighted in the book, Mr. Khanna strikes on a final note of optimism. Even with the difficulties and struggles of climate change, terrorism, civil wars, etc., only a more inclusive, connected global society can meet these challenges head on and succeed together.

A Wealth of Knowledge

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“The sharing and exchange of knowledge is easier now than it has ever been in human history.”

There has been no other time in human history than in today’s era where the average person with access to the Internet can seemingly have unlimited amounts of information available to him or her. When you truly think about the magnitude of it, untold amounts of data are being created every day. According to IBM, “The current estimate is 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day and over 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years alone.”

A common response nowadays from both family and friends when I ask a question to them about a random query is not a straight-forward answer but rather an off-handed suggestion to “Google it.” Living in this era of ‘Big Data’ can be quite overwhelming to the average person but one could also look into it as an opportunity to gain knowledge and further ones’ understanding on a limitless amount of subjects with the simple click of a mouse. The Internet is an amalgamation of thousands of libraries of Alexandria at the beck and call of one’s fingertips.

Compared to past ages when information and knowledge was more exclusive and harder to come by, today’s era allows everyone with an Internet connection to search and find information to their heart’s content. Instead of going to a library to find what you need on a subject, websites like Google, Wikipedia, and other online encyclopedias have largely replaced the main role of the physical library. I remember when I was younger and in my high school days having to seek out certain books in order to write a research paper or complete a book report.

However, now more than ever, you can easily find the sources of information you need online in order to facilitate your research and evidence. While I love libraries and hope that they never go out of style, the reality is that online encyclopedias and eBooks are largely replacing their original purpose. In order for libraries to stay relevant, they need to start incorporating computers, free Wi-Fi, and technical classes in order to remain useful.

From the 18th to the 20th centuries, universities and colleges across America were the standard bearers and purveyors of higher education. Originally for the elite, wealthy, and well connected, those students who were able to get accepted and afford undergraduate and graduate studies believed that they would have an advantage in the job market and in achieving the American Dream. More recently, as colleges and universities have become more inclusive than exclusive, tuition prices have inversely risen as well.

While higher education has become accessible to more and more young Americans, it also has become more expensive especially over the past decade. These events have led to an ongoing debate as to whether college is really worth the price tag and whether the average student gains anything from earning a four-year degree. With student loan debt at an all-time high of $1.3 trillion in 2015 in the United States and tuition rates at both public and private universities continuing to rise, people are beginning to look for alternatives to the current higher education system.

Over the past decade, there has been a drastic proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided by both private companies and traditional universities. At a much lower price and sometimes free, people from all over the world can sign-up for these courses and partake in lectures, tests, quizzes, and papers as if they were actual enrolled undergraduate and graduate students at the physical form of the university. As the credentials and certifications bestowed upon these courses continue to increase and become more widely accepted, we may begin to see ‘the end of college’ as we know it.

Examples like Khan Academy, edX, Coursera, Udacity, etc. and other MOOCs have leveled the playing field. Tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have allowed students from all over the world to access unlimited online courses to further their academic knowledge at a lower price. With the subsequent rise in online university programs for undergraduates and graduates, the physical college experience of dormitories, lecture halls, football stadiums, etc. may become less appealing to students as tuition prices continue to increase. While the social and networking benefits of college life are numerous, they may not be enough to compete with this era of free information that we are living in.

Compared to past decades, we’re living in a time when access to the Internet is at an all-time high and is increasingly rapidly due to the rise of mobile technology. Traditional havens of knowledge such as the library or the public university will have to adapt to stay relevant in this unlimited information age. In a worldwide job market that is evolving rapidly and where the average child today will work in an industry not yet created, the free exchange of knowledge must continue to spread through the worldwide web.

Countless others and I have benefited from taking online coding courses on ‘Codeacademy’ to learning new languages on ‘Duolingo.’ As MOOCs and online universities continue to develop their courses and credentials, we may begin to see an era where the average person can earn a degree or two without breaking the bank. MOOCs are cheaper, less time intensive, and can adapt more easily to the rapidly changing employment market.

A well-educated population is now more possible now than ever with the wealth of knowledge and information that is available. That fact is evident but it also is up to the individual to be willing to search for that information and actually apply it. Instead of getting frustrated with people asking me to ‘Google’ the answer, I find that it’s worth the hassle because it’s often true that I will find the answers I’m looking for and in greater detail than if I were to ask a friend or family member for a quick description. That’s the power of the Internet. That’s the wealth of knowledge that we are able to take advantage of.

Sources

Sites Mentioned