Taughannock Falls

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Taughannock Falls State Park; Ithaca, New York

Cornell Botanical Gardens

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cornell University; Ithaca, New York

Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

Lagoa da Conceição

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Lagoa da Conceição; Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil

Hiking in Florianopolis

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil 

Agua Branca Park

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Parque Agua Branca, Sao Paulo, Brazil 

Book Recommendations – Volume X

The Summer reading session is well upon us and there is no better time to dive into another edition of my book recommendations. Whether you are at the beach, at the pool, or lounging on a rooftop deck, you can take some leisure time to read a great fictional or non-fictional offering to indulge your mind or open your imagination. The three books I cover are all non-fiction, which is the category that my favorite books often fall under. I do hope to dive into some fiction books sometime soon, but I’ll save that for other post.

The three books I recommend vary from personal finance to progressive politics to self-help psychology, but they all are educational and thought-provoking in their own way. These books aren’t mindless reads, so you’ll have to pay attention and even re-read certain chapters twice or more to really get the gist of what the author is getting at. However, each of these three books have staying power and they would make an excellent addition to anybody’s personal book collection since the different lessons that these books impart are timeliness in nature. Without further ado, let’s discuss which books I enjoyed in this latest volume of recommendations.

1.) “Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope” by Mark Manson

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Following up on the tremendous attention and success gained from his previous New York Times best-selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which dealt with unconventional yet powerful self-help advice, Mark Manson is back with an excellent follow-up book in tackling how to apply similar lessons to humanity as a whole. Whether its today’s turbulent geopolitics, the growing climate crisis, or the negative effects of social media, everything can seem to be f*cked nowadays and hopelessness as a condition of these events seems to be gaining steam.

Manson uses the teachings of Nietzsche, Kant, and other prominent philosophers to denote why humanity is facing these systemic problems and how they came to be based on our collective psychology as a species. He argues that having hope in of itself is a paradox and that it’s best to deal with life’s uncertainties and foibles as they come. Wishing for a better, happier, wealthier, and safer future is unproductive if you do not take actions in the present to create that more hopeful reality. Manson breaks down complex topics such as politics, religion, and even the future of artificial intelligence into digestible concepts on how humanity has gotten to be where it is currently.

One of the aspects I like most about Mark’s writings is that he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and he allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence he presents and the stories he tells. My favorite parts of Everything is F*cked focus on why treating people as means to an end is a selfish endeavor and how our feeling brain has a lot more influence on our thinking brain than we have been told. Also, in accepting what is ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, as Mark cites in one of the first chapters is part of recognizing our innate humanity and what drives us collectively. This truth, while uncomfortable to all, is the main reason why we strive to do what we do in life, for better or for worse, and how we tend to live our lives denying that truth when it is staring us right in the face.

Instead of looking to politics or religion to give us hope, which tends to have its own set of consequences, it should rather be our own individual actions of being kinder, gentler, and more respectful of others that carry the day. We should not wait around for other people to change for you or be better to you. This book, like Mark’s first, is well worth a second and third reading to grasp all the lessons he lays out for the reader. Posing deep existential questions and acknowledging hard truths rarely covered elsewhere in the self-help genre, Manson stands out as one of my generation’s best authors and a good example of how to live a better life, not just for ourselves but for others as well.

2.) “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World” by Rutger Bregman

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I really liked this book by Mr. Bregman for several reasons. Whereas most books today examine problems and investigate how they came to be, Bregman describes the possible solutions there can be to these problems and how life in the 21st century should be different from the past. Given the rise of automation, how interconnected we have become globally, and increasing efficiencies in the workplace, Bregman dares to ask how we can make life better for vast majority of people in our societies based on these factors.

Rutger Bregman does an extensive amount of research for this book and draws upon years and decades of datasets and public policy to make his three main ideas not only relevant but persuasive to his overall argument. Bregman’s ideas are not new and have been discussed before but in ‘Utopia for Realists’, he really examines each of his proposals individually from a public policy perspective and how the time is ripe to make them become a reality. Today, it seems like we have lost to the drive to implement big changes to both our economy and our society. Bregman asks his readers to think of the plausibility of the 15-hour work week, a Universal Basic Income for all, and an ‘open borders’ policy that would benefits people’s lives in numerous ways as he lays out diligently in each chapter of the book.

While some may not agree with these proposals politically, Bregman backs up his arguments with facts and evidence, as a good social scientist would. One of the things I did not know before reading his book was how close President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress came to passing a universal basic income in legislative form back in the early 1970’s. Giving people the chance to have basic economic security, the ability to live across borders without bureaucratic roadblocks, and having more free time for family life or to better themselves through personal hobbies, interests, or side businesses are related to his three main proposals. These societal changes, he says, would lead to greater fulfillment and happiness and benefit our collective mental health.

While his ideas may be unrealistic today, the way in which the job market is shifting and has become more efficient in terms of productivity over the past few decades, how automation and advanced Robotics may affect millions of jobs being lost, and how the demographic crunch in the Western world may lead to more liberal immigration policies to spur economic growth, the main proposals that Bregman focuses on could become a reality sooner rather than later. It’s not a question of if these utopian ideas could ever happen, it’s more about when they will happen and how they can be implemented successfully around the world.

3.) “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi

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I will be the first to say that I have shied away from reading books on personal finance given that the advice given and the person giving it may not be reliable or trustworthy. However, based on the recommendations of other authors I like and how sensible his recommendations are from watching his videos, Ramit Sethi has delivered and recently updated one of the best personal finance books out there. For someone who is just getting started in thinking about optimal strategies for long-term savings and investments, Mr. Sethi breaks it all down from negotiating lower interest rates on your credit cards to how to find the best investment vehicles to deliver you a secure retirement.

If you are new to personal finance, this book is really meant for you. You don’t have to be an expert in 401ks, Roth IRAs, or index funds to make full use of this book. Ramit is not only an author but also provides an additional website, which offers a free blog, multiple courses to improve your finances, and career opportunities. His common-sense finance solutions garner millions of views per month and very positive media coverage. Ramit’s book does not make his readership feel guilty if they have made financial mistakes in the past. Instead, he offers tips and advice as well as personal stories from people he’s helped to get them out of trouble whether its credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. He wants his readers to figure out what exactly a ‘rich’ life is for them and what steps they can take to make it happen.

You are left reading this book feeling uplifted and ready to use his advice to improve your financial situation. You are also left wondering why Ramit’s book isn’t mandatory reading for high school students, given that we tend to neglect this kind of basic financial education for young people in the United States. Whether you are 18 or 28, it’s never too early to start thinking about your long-term finances. With Ramit’s well-written, digestible, and even humorous personal finance book, you are in good hands. He gives you actionable advice on how to greatly improve your finance in weeks instead of years and discusses in detail how many hours it will take you in setting up your savings, investments, and credit card debt payment options with as little of a hassle as possible. While Ramit can give you all the advice in the world, he leaves it up to you, the reader, to take actions yourself to improve your financial situation. Now that you have the knowledge based off his book, you’ll be ready to create a financially secure future for yourself and perhaps your family too.

The Golden Gate Bridge

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CameraiPhone 8

Location: San Francisco, California 

Lake Tegernsee

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Lake Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany 

“Get Action”

“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was unlike many of the men who came before him or who came after him who served as President. He was a truly unique individual in how much he was able to do during his life. While Roosevelt only lived to the age of 60 years old, looking at how much he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do with his life, you could easily make the argument that he lived the lives of five men put together. To put it simply, he was a man of action regardless of how strenuous and difficult that action may be.

When you look at Teddy Roosevelt, he wasn’t just President of the United States which is a massive accomplishment in its own right, but he was also Vice President, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, and a Harvard College graduate. On top of all of that, he was a noteworthy explorer who spent over two years in the Amazonian basin of Brazil, a hunter who herded cattle out in the Dakotas, and a historian who wrote several books including a military history titled, ‘The Naval History of 1812.’ On top of everything that he did, while he was boisterous and a bit cocky to a fault, he backed up his words with actions, and he did his best to maintain his integrity in everything that he did. Roosevelt was not a man who cut corners or looked for shortcuts. Once he committed himself to something, he made sure to give it his best effort.

While Teddy Roosevelt was a member of a wealthy family from Oyster Bay, New York, he struggled with adversity throughout his life. He had severe bouts of asthma and would suffer from attacks that were debilitating. Instead of staying still and not exerting himself, he found that being active, physically and mentally, would actually help to minimize his asthma and improve his spirits. Roosevelt was not a man who would go about and pity for himself ever.

He was home-schooled, naturally curious about the world, and self-educated himself in a number of subjects including taxidermy, geography, French, German, history, etc. Roosevelt to make himself physically stronger would take it upon himself to learn boxing and then rowing in his desire to keep himself fit and active. Roosevelt lost his father at a young age, which was an almost unbearable loss for him, but he used his father as an example of who he should strive to be in life in terms of his father’s morals, career, and his overall character. Also, when he was only 22 years old, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and his first wife within a few hours of each other.

Losing your mother and wife in such a terrible manner would break a lesser man but while Roosevelt grieved in a manner that was natural, he knew that he must go on and that he must live up to the memory of those family members who passed before him. Theodore was not one to sit around and grieve forever but a man who desired to make the most of his life and commit himself to action. Even when he was almost assassinated in 1912 when he was campaigning for the Presidency a second time, he would read his speech and refused medical attention for over ninety minutes before seeking assistance with a bullet lodged in his chest.

What lessons can we draw in our own lives from the energetic and boisterous life of Theodore Roosevelt? There are many lessons to draw upon but the most important one that can just be summed up in two words is to “get action.” Roosevelt believed that man is most content in the pursuit of action whether its’ in the form of academia, physical exertion, public service, and military duty. Roosevelt’s life was made up of numerous actions that fit his various interests and he committed himself to these actions over a long period of time. When we read about Teddy, we admire how much he was able to accomplish and how possibly he could have done of all that. My take on it is that Roosevelt made the most of his time and committed himself to pursuits instead of lazing about and being distracted by idle pleasures.

How many of us can say that we would be able to do ½ or 1/5 of what Theodore Roosevelt was able to do during his life? Not many. In this day and age of Netflix, smartphone, video games, and virtual reality, it’s easier now than ever to not get action but to be lazy. You have to put blinders on and prevent yourself from being distracted from the technologies of today. While Roosevelt may have had a harder time accomplishing everything he did in the early 20th century compared to what he may have done in the early 21st century, his core personality, his priorities, and his spirit would not have changed. Roosevelt’s life is a testament to the power of taking actions in various pursuits and to push both your body and your mind to the limit.

He did not let his setbacks, failures, and limitations hold him back from becoming the great man that we recognize him as being today. He fundamentally knew that he was at his happiest and his most vibrant when he was putting himself to work. His hobbies, interests, and his professional career were his number one priority and he still managed to re-marry, raise six children, and explore the world from Brazil to Egypt. Did he have a leg up in life due to his family name and his wealthy background? Yes, you could argue that fact, but he made the most of the deck of cards he was dealt but still had the common decency and integrity to commit himself to public service and helping out his countrymen and women as well.

Roosevelt could have enjoyed his wealth, spent opulently on material goods and hedonistic pursuits, and sat back for the rest of his days but he was not that kind of man. Not only was he aware that he had one life to live but he knew fundamentally that every day counts and that every day matters. Luckily, he used his mental and physical prowess in the service of others whether that was in the United States Army, the Governorship of New York, or Office of President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt put his energies and his time into productive matters and was able to do amazing things in his life. If Roosevelt were to give anybody a piece of advice today, it would be to simply ‘get action.’ Without action, there is stagnation and with stagnation, there is no future. Even if you are not successful in your actions, don’t ever be so discouraged that you do not try again or try something new.

Whether it was reading, writing, making speeches, hunting, traveling, Roosevelt was a man who embodied the human spirit when it is fully unleashed. He made the most out of this thing we call ‘life.’ If you are feeling down in the dumps and aren’t sure what to do next, just ‘do something.’ By doing something and sticking to it as a routine, you’ll get better at it and it may take you places in life that you never thought was possible to begin with. Taking any kind of action in your day to day life is the natural and healthy thing to do. Sitting in bed, lazing around, letting your mind and body wither away is no way to go through life.

When you commit yourself to getting out in the world in whatever way appeals to you, you move forward as a person and you develop yourself in various ways. You’ll fail, you may get hurt, and you will learn a lesson or two but at least you got yourself out into the arena as Theodore Roosevelt did. ‘Get Action’ are two words that can make a world of difference in one’s life. Make sure you make the most of the time for which you have been given.