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.

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‘Children of Men’ – Film Review and Analysis

What would happen to our world if women were no longer able to have babies? How would human society, nations, and the globe as a whole react to such a consequential event to humanity? A dystopian take on the state of a world without children is the focus of the 2006 critically acclaimed film titled, ‘Children of Men’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. This film stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in its leading roles. The film is based off of a novel of the same name, ‘Children of Men’, which was written by author P.D. James in 1992.

The screenplay and the story have both been adapted from the novel but the striking visuals and the memorable cinematography make it fit for the big screen treatment. Despite a limited release and low profit earnings when it first came out, Children of Men has stayed in the public consciousness due to its timely socio-political themes on immigration, the environment, terrorism, and political violence. With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President and the unlikely occurrence of Brexit, the message and themes of the film have turned out to be quite relevant. Although this film is set in the United Kingdom in the future year of 2027, despite the non-issue with the infertility of women, the issues that humanity is dealing with in 2017 are tied directly to different issues that the film brings up in its’ plotline.

Theo Faron, a civil servant for the British government and former activist, seems to have given up his fight for a better future. With humanity on the brink of extinction and with most of the countries’ governments having collapsed, there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. As one of the characters, Miriam, explains to Theo in the film, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” Theo and his ex-wife, Julian, estranged for years after the death of their infant child, Dylan, are reunited due to a refugee named Kee. Julian and the Fishes, an anti-government and pro-refugee group involved in an uprising, would like to take Kee to the Human Project.

She is known to be the only woman in the world who is pregnant with the world’s first child in eighteen years, and is very valuable. However, things are not as they seem with the Fishes and their motives for helping Kee. Theo, in this film, is a lone character who promises to help Julian to bring Kee to the Human Project to ensure the future of humanity against all odds. Instead of using Kee as a political prop to help their cause against the government, Theo decides to help her escape from the Fishes, bring her to the British coast, and protect the future of humanity. Along the way, the viewer of the film sees the consequences of a world without babies. Where once there was no hope, Theo gains his sense of purpose and faith again as he hopes to redeem himself by getting Kee to safety and away from both the British government and the Fishes group.

Starting from the opening scene where the main character, Theo, is taken aback from a suicide bomb blast in the heart of London after just having left the café where the attack happened, you get a sense of what you’re in for with this movie. There’s a sense of hopelessness, dread, and despair as the audience is thrust into the focus of the movie as it’s made clear that the youngest person on Earth was eighteen years old meaning that something seriously has gone wrong to make that a reality. Although it’s never directly addressed in the movie, a few of the characters speculate that the reasons women can’t have babies anymore vary from environmental degradation to genetic experiments to too much pollution / radiation. The reason for women’s infertility is never addressed but the film makes it clear that the world is without hope because of the fact that there are no children to carry on the future of the human race.

Humanity faces certain extinction and the United Kingdom where the film’s setting is, instead of maintaining its’ parliamentary form of democracy has regressed into a totalitarian police state. Because it is one of the few surviving nations left on Earth, the country has developed a strict anti-immigration and anti-refugee policy. Any refugees or immigrants from outside the U.K. are rounded up and sent to detention camps, which have very poor and inhospitable conditions. The situation is so dire that the Fishes, labeled as a terrorist group, are fighting a guerrilla war campaign against the government to fight for immigrant rights.

The Fishes, with Julian, Theo’s ex-wife as their leader seem like the good guys but they have nefarious intentions in mind when it comes to the righteousness of their cause especially after they discover the first pregnant woman, Kee, in eighteen years. Throughout the movie, Theo is shown to be caught in the middle between the tyrannical government and the nefarious freedom fighter groups who are both trying to get hold of Kee for their own political gain.

The Human Project, believed to be a group of the world’s leading scientists, are thought to be the best people to help Kee with the baby and to perhaps study why she out of all the women on the planet was able to give birth to a child. Theo, having seemingly lost all hope and reason for living after the death of his baby, Dylan, believes again in the cause of getting Kee to be in the safe hands of the Human Project and to keep her from falling into the hands of either the Fishes group or the government. One of the main themes in this film is Theo’s regaining of hope and his quest for redemption after losing his only son years ago with his ex-wife, Julian.

The director, Alfonso Cuaron, does a great job of setting the scene of a dystopian future where humanity has lost all hope. A pill that allows people to commit suicide peacefully called ‘Quietus’ is mass advertised, terrorist attacks are an almost daily occurrence, and the immigrants, refugees who come to Britain are kept in detention camps separate from the rest of the population because the borders of the country have been closed down. In a plot and setting so dark, the only light to hold on to is Kee and her newborn to be. In a particular moving moment, Kee decides to name her baby girl after Theo’s deceased child, Dylan, showing just how much she really cares for the man who is getting her to the Human Project. It’s no coincidence that Kee herself is a refugee from a West African nation where the first humans emerged.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Kee, Theo, and the newborn baby are trying to leave a bombed out building where the rebels and the government are fighting each other in an urban war. The only thing that stops the bombs from falling and the bullets from firing are the sounds of a newborn baby echoing throughout the building and the street. This particular scene is a reminder of how special the sounds of a children’s cries are to the vitality of the world and how without them, it’s likely that humanity would descend into a downward spiral of chaos and violence. When all of the soldiers stopped for a few minutes to stop fighting, they realized that there was still hope in the world and that life can continue. It’s a very special scene for a special movie.

In addition to great directing, and great acting, Children of Men has some of the best cinematography of any movie in modern history. The single tracking shots, and there are quite a few throughout the film are ridiculously well done and help the viewer feel the tension and suspense in every scene. The soundtrack, the setting, and the messages of the film are extremely powerful and relevant to today’s world. I believe the director does a great job of asking the audience about how susceptible we are to either the rule of a totalitarian government or to the whims of absolutist extremist groups when societal collapse is imminent.

When there are no children or future generations, what is there worth fighting for? How also do we prevent ourselves from scapegoating other groups when things go bad? Maybe the issue is not infertility per say but rather climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, or war between nations, how do we prevent ourselves from losing hope when things look bleak? The film, Children of Men, makes the argument that we should never lose hope especially in dire times. The future must be protected however especially as shown by the role the character, Theo, plays in helping Kee in her quest to meet members of The Human Project.

Ironically, there have been news stories out about the precipitous drop in men’s sperm counts over the past forty years in countries such as the United States. While this may not lead to total infertility, researchers labeled it as a cause for concern due to the overall trend of less fertility in men. In addition, birth rates are down below replacement level rates in multiple Western countries causing concern among scientists. Similar to the theories laid out in ‘Children of Men’, it is unclear why male infertility may be on the rise but it may be due to a number of factors, both environmental and otherwise. Where as Children of Men focused on women being infertile and not being able to have babies, the possibility of men being infertile in the future should be a cause for concern. (Source: http://www.newsweek.com/2017/09/22/male-infertility-crisis-experts-663074.html)

It is difficult to see why Children of Men did not win any of the Academy awards that it was nominated for. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking film that raises questions to the audience that are difficult to answer. If you have the chance to rent or buy this movie, please do so because it is widely regarded as one of the best movies of the 21st century.

Book Recommendations – Volume VI

As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.

All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.

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1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.

While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.

Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?

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2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.

Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.

The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.

A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.

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3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.

The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.

The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.

Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.

‘Traffic’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.

When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.

‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.

Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.

Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.

To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.

Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.

The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.

On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.

The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.

This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.

However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.

Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.

Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.

While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.

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.

 

 

Bernie Sanders Rally in NYC

“What the American people want to see in their president is somebody who not necessarily can win every fight, but they want to see him stand up and fight for what he believes in, and takes his case to the American people.”

-Bernie Sanders

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Washington Square Park; New York, New York

 

Reverse Culture Shock In The USA

“Adjusting to one’s home country and culture can take a while. This graph sums it up quite well.”

After being away from the United States, my home country, for the past year, I have been dealing with ‘reverse culture shock’ since I have returned as many people who come back to their home culture experience after an extended time overseas. There is a natural recovery and adjustment process but it takes time to get back into the swing of things. As a writer, I like to gather my thoughts on paper about what I have noticed about my home country since returning from my time spent overseas. These observations have helped me to deal with my ‘reverse culture shock’ so far and to comment on what could be improved or changed to make my country better. I have traveled to 20 other countries, and have lived in Turkey and Costa Rica thus far so I believe I have some knowledge about how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world in different ways.

I would like to note that I do love my country and have enjoyed being born and growing up here. The United States is a great country and I only wish to see it become better and better in the future. I intend to use this blog post to merely bring up some outstanding issues and problems that the U.S. must deal with as a whole. No country I’ve lived in or have been to will ever be perfect and every country has different flaws/issues to work out. That’s part of the reason why I love to travel and explore the world. It’s interesting to see the variation among cultures and societies along with how they tackle their own internal and external problems to make their own countries better. Listed below are the items that I write in detail about which have caused me some ‘reverse culture shock’ since my return to the United States in late July of 2015.

  1. Lack of Using the Metric System in the 21st Century: The U.S. is one of only three nations in the world who don’t fully use the Metric System (International System of Units, SI). Liberia, Myanmar are currently our only counterparts in this anomaly. There’s no excuse for that and it harms our international commerce procedures and our ability to conduct foreign relations properly.
  2. Lack of High Speed Rail, and Efficient Public Transportation: This can be quite jarring after visiting developed nations like Germany, France and also from what I have read about China and Japan who are way ahead of the U.S. in developing high-speed rail networks. Part of this is the fault of state governors who refuse federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects. (Examples: Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, etc.)
  3. Large and Unhealthy Food Portions: This may be part of the reason for the ongoing obesity problem in the country. I’m all for enjoying a good meal of course but I think the food portions I’ve had in the U.S. have been the biggest than all of the other countries that I’ve visited so far. I also believe that having ‘free refills’ and ‘soda fountains’ at restaurants, while a tempting proposition, is not something that should be offered to promote a healthy diet.
  4. Reliance on Tipping (Mandatory?) to pay workers’ wages: I’m fine with throwing in an extra 10% on top of my meal and tax for good service but I don’t believe it should be 15-20% every time in order for these workers to meet and go above their very low hourly Minimum Wage as ‘tipped workers’. I believe that these service workers in the U.S. should be paid a higher minimum wage altogether by law and that they should be guaranteed a good wage each shift rather than fighting for tips each day.
  5. Obesity crisis and an astounding proportion of adults/children who are overweight: It’s a drain on an already expensive health care system and contributes to our total health care expenses. There needs to be more emphasis in our society on daily exercise and getting out of the house for both children and adults. Healthier eating and taking a walk/going for a run each day can go a long way to helping to solve this problem. I believe that companies and schools should play a larger role in keeping their employees/students in good physical shape with certain incentives.
  6. Heavy reliance on cars, trucks and other motor vehicles to get around suburban and urban areas: There is a lack of walking around towns and cities because there is much more sprawl and open space in the U.S. However, I believe that having trams/streetcars, more extensive public bus transportation systems in both suburban and urban areas could relieve part of the traffic jams and gridlock that affects a lot of the country nowadays.
  7. Big Businesses and Corporations get the benefit of the doubt too often: When it comes to beating out smaller businesses and enterprises, these big box stores are winning out. These major companies contribute to this problem by monopolizing their industry and not allowing others to compete in a free market environment. This, in part, contributes to suburban sprawl because these huge megastores contribute to the layout that contributes to the car culture. (i.e. Wal-Mart, Bed Bath and Beyond, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a family-owned coffee shop in my town or neighborhood. There are three Starbucks’ around though for a good cup of joe…
  8. General lack of curiosity about foreign cultures and peoples: Many Americans do not speak a 2nd language or don’t pay attention to international affairs beyond what they learned about briefly in high school and college. This is a generalization but I still believe it applies to the majority of people within this vast country. Still, only about 30-35% of Americans own a Passport. I would encourage more Americans to travel and see the world especially if they’re younger. Taking a “gap year” before or after college would be a good way to travel and there are ‘work-study’ programs available for Americans to take advantage of in western European countries (Ireland, UK, etc.) along with Australia.
  9. Very conservative laws about alcohol possession and consumption: “21” as the minimum legal age for consuming alcohol makes no sense to me especially considering you can start operating a motor vehicle at 16, join the military at 18 and also vote for President and other elected officials at that same age. Having someone check your ID to get into bars/clubs or at a sporting event to purchase beer or wine is also ridiculous. I’ve seen people in their 40’s and 50’s get carded when they are clearly over the legal age here. The United States is one of the few countries where the drinking age is 21 along with Pakistan, the UAE, and Indonesia.
  10. Mind-numbing advertisements: I have noticed that there are way too many drug commercials (Cialis, Prozac, Ambien etc.) that appear on television especially during the day. In the U.S., We are constantly bombarded in our homes, in public events, on public transportation, etc. with these silly advertisements. It’s predictably a way for marketers to get people to feel insecure enough about themselves to want to buy things to fill some kind of missing “void” in our lives.
  11. Political Gridlock / No ability to get big things done legislatively: The recent threats of a government shutdown, the debt ceiling threats, continuous gerrymandering, the electoral college deciding a Presidential election instead of the popular vote, too much of an influence of organized money in politics in the upcoming 2016 elections, (Citizens United decision). These occurrences harm our ability to boost our education system, solve long-term Medicare and Medicaid solvency along with the broken immigration system and the need for more investments in our antiquated transportation and infrastructure systems.
  12. Expensive costs of Higher Education: A lot of Western countries completely subsidize higher education institutions but the United States has seen a rapid growth in the amount of students going into debt to pay for college and graduate school. There have also have been cuts over the years to the Public University systems in certain states such as California. Wages have not kept up with inflation and the pace of tuition increases is out of control. $1 trillion of total student debt is disturbing and is a poor reflection of our country’s priorities.
  13. High level of income inequality between the richest and poorest Americans: The top 1% of Americans earns about 20% of the total national income. This is unacceptable and shows a widening gulf between the wealthy and poor. This level of inequality is at its’ highest since the gilded age of the 1920’s. Many economists say this is one, if not the top economic issue facing the country into the future. If not dealt with, our country runs the risk of turning into an actual “banana republic.”
  14. Too much emphasis on Military Spending: The U.S. continues to spend more on its military and armed forces at about 650 billion dollars total. This is 40% of the total world share and is more than the next 11-12 nations combined. It may only account for 4% of the total Gross Domestic Product but has much more of an influence on the federal budget than State, HUD, Education, HHS, EPA combined. The Cold War has been over for twenty years and the wars of the 21st century will be fought through specialized forces, by drones, or over the cyber-web so there’s no need for such an expansive budget into the future. It’s important to maintain a strong military but a nation should have other priorities as well and balance them out successfully.
  15. Our prison system needs real reform: The United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world. 2.3 million citizens are in its jails which is 22% of the world’s total amount of incarcerated prisoners, (Source: World Prison Population). Unfortunately, we are ahead of other nations such as Russia, Iran, China, UAE, etc. when it comes to this rather dubious distinction. While the Netherlands is closing down prisons because of a lack of need, my country continues to build up a massive private prison industry which is unheard of in most other industrialized nations. This is, in part, a result of the failed “War on Drugs” which involves serious sentencing measures for non-violent drug offenders. Recently, politicians in both major parties in the U.S. have called for prison and sentencing reform but no concrete legislation has been passed by Congress and signed by the President up until this point.