Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Whitehaven Trails and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal; Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Whitehaven Trails and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal; Washington, District of Columbia, United States
“One consequence of the pandemic that has accelerated in terms of being an option for our lives is how the easiness and convenience of going a day or more without seeing or speaking to another human being.”
One consequence of the pandemic that has accelerated in terms of being an option for our lives is how the easiness and convenience of going a day or more without seeing or speaking to another human being. Obviously, if you’re counting virtual meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you’re interacting with plenty of people on a daily basis but to me, it’s not the same and shouldn’t be considered a real replacement for face-to-face interactions. Whereas ten or twenty years ago, you would need to leave the house or apartment to get pretty much anything done, you now have the chance to do everything from the comfort of your own domicile, for better or for worse.
If you’re an introvert, you may be welcoming this kind of societal shift, but I do worry how we are sacrificing convenience for social awareness and better interpersonal relations. Even if you consider yourself pretty comfortable on your own, I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to be cooped up all the time even in a pandemic. Of course, we have to be socially distant, stay home according to what guidelines may be in place, and keep washing our hands but that shouldn’t prevent us from saying ‘hello’ to a stranger or asking a cashier that’s not a robot or automated computer the common courtesy of ‘how you are doing?’
Right now, it’s acceptable to minimize human to human contact especially if you’re elderly, vulnerable, or with a preexisting condition but the rest of us should still make time to interact with someone outside of our ‘COVID bubble’ even if it’s in a limited way. I do believe that companies have made it way too easy for us to subsidize our usual running of errands by keeping us at home. While it does help people, who can’t leave due to concerns for their health, I think it does a disservice in making things a little too convenient and then perhaps keeping our reliance on applications, e-commerce, and delivery services to meet our every need.
Running errands to go to the grocery store or to pick up stamps or to pick up medical prescriptions may end up going the way of the Dodo bird and while some of us may be holdouts even after the pandemic, this is a huge societal shift that will affect our way to socialize and build shared communities with other people. The 2020s may have us needing to go out of our way and building our willpower up in terms of seeking out social connections rather than them happening organically. In order to meet new people, it may not happen as much if your university is online or you are a remote worker, you’re going to have to put it upon yourself to find a way to meet people again which will take some creativity.
The good news is that clubs, organizations, sports teams, and language groups aren’t going to die out even if some of them remain online in some capacity. You will have to seek out those groups that are similar to your hobbies and interests especially if you’re in a new city or a new country, but they are going to be out there, but you have to take the initiative to find those groups, attend those meetings, get involved, and also give back to that group when you can. Volunteering your time and effort in person will also be a boost to communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and even after it is finally over, if you find yourself isolated and needing to be social more, volunteering with others is a great way to do it and will be sorely needed due to economic and health needs that people will need help with.
What you need to avoid is getting too comfortable with the increasing automation of our society, which will make it harder to deal with anyone face to face, for better or worse. Even if you do leave the house, it’s becoming likelier that you’ll deal with an automated register at a convenience store or supermarket, an ATM at a bank, and with a touchscreen to order food. With just a smartphone alone, you can order groceries delivered to your door, get dry cleaning picked up for you, have prescriptions delivered, food for lunch and dinner, and also most consumer items with a conglomerate like Amazon or Alibaba. The eCommerce industry is set to grow exponentially in this young decade to suit consumer needs and with the rise of Internet of Things, your home will become more adjustable to your comforts too making it harder to leave your place.
Whether it is UberEats, HelloFresh, Amazon’s prescription service (coming soon), online banking, or Zoom for teleconferencing, the pandemic has accelerated wide shifts in society and one that becomes more evident each day is how much easier it is getting to stay at home 24 / 7. Again, after the pandemic, this may let up a bit as people socialize again but the automation of jobs will continue, remote working will become the norm, and online education will become cheaper and of better quality to suit those who want to be virtual for at least part of their higher learning.
I don’t encourage people to become hermits, recluses, or to avoid human contact with anyone who is not a family member or a friend even if it’s during a pandemic with safety precautions in mind. However, the societal shift to convenience at any cost and becoming an island to oneself does have a cost. While you may love your dog Fido or your cat Fifi, they are not substituting for other people. With increased convenience comes a cost like anything else and in this case, it’s our ability to socialize and be around others.
In a post-COVID world where automation, eCommerce, and the Internet of Things will make it harder to leave your home, you are going to need to be more proactive in seeking out activities, events, and groups where you can be free to meet new people and have new friends. We will all be socially awkward after the pandemic but at least we’ll be social again and I promise it will be worth the effort.
While you’re not going to be friends with most of the people we meet, it is important to be open to the possibility and to put yourself out there again. Staying at home with your delivered food, groceries, and prescriptions may be really appealing and easy to get used to but I promise after a while, you’ll miss the feeling of going to a physical store or a pharmacy and just being in a public place again and away from your screen(s). That’s a unique feeling that I hope never truly goes away because our daily interactions, somewhat mundane but potentially unique too, can help make our life that much fuller and richer.
“When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits.”
When you are first starting out in reading the English language, it’s important to incorporate reading materials into your weekly habits. It is a necessary complement to your learning and will help flex that muscle needed to retain both the grammar and the vocabulary that can drive your overall proficiency forward. It is not so much which reading material you choose but the fact that it should be appropriate for your reading level as a whole.
For example, it would not make sense to try something very difficult because you think you will advance that much quicker. Often times, if you go beyond your reading level in English, it will often cause an unnecessary step back and you will waste precious time in trying to understand a level of vocabulary and grammar that you are not yet ready for. It is often better to be err on the side of caution in terms of selecting multiple reading materials that you find yourself comfortable with and will challenge you yet you know for sure what the material is about and you can interpret the meaning and explain it to a teacher or a colleague.
If you are a beginner in the English language, I would start off your reading adventure with short poems and short stories, not more than a couple hundred words. Even if you are an adult as well, children’s books are a great way to get more familiar with the language level that you are currently at with basic vocabulary, phrases, and grammar principles. You may also want to read fliers and short email examples as well to become aware of the structure of those forms of writing.
I would also recommend short letters written about different subjects such as sports, weather, the daily habits someone has, and about going shopping or out to eat. It is key to read these short pieces of writing twice or three times to really understand the full meaning of what is being written. You may also want to read the story, the poem, or the letter out loud to work on your own pronunciation too to feel more comfortable absorbing the vocabulary that you are learning. A beginner should not be reading anything more than a few pages in length and at a very low vocabulary level. Preferably, a children’s book, a short email, or a quick poem are best for beginners in this sense.
For the intermediate learner, it is important to challenge yourself more and depending upon one’s age level, there are different options to consider. I encourage students who are younger to choose comic books, short stories, and even short mystery novels as well. Older students may enjoy reading magazines about sports, news, and even fashion depending upon their interests. I also encourage becoming more familiar with reading current events and news articles and being able to explain them to the teacher or to a friend.
Adding on to the difficulty means reading longer reading passages as well as longer letters or poems as well at any age group. You want to make sure that the reading level is higher so instead of at a 1st or a 3rd grade level, you should try to read materials that are at a 5th or an 6th grade level and perhaps up to an 8th grade level. Perhaps most importantly, at the Intermediate level, you should be able to hold a conversation about the topic you just read and to explain the main ideas and supporting ideas of the piece you read. Lastly, with your vocabulary, I would encourage being able to explain too your point of view for an article, what you thought about it.
The advanced learner should be at the point where they can read full books, magazines, and longer-form pieces of writing of at least a few thousand words or more. They should be able to understand and interpret vocabulary at the high school level. Depending upon which English-speaking culture they would like to learn more about, they should do their best to become familiar with writers of different backgrounds and be able to read successfully in a few genres, both fiction and non-fiction.
Reading and interpreting different kinds of texts that deal with different subjects and modern-day issues is also a key part of advancing in the English language. You should be a flexible enough reader at this point to be able to handle different types of reading that is longer than the other levels. From a 500-word poem to a 2500-word article to a 100-page book, being able to handle these types of reading at a high level will set you apart from the beginner or intermediate levels that you used to be at.
Another key to this advanced reading level is one’s ability to speak and write about what you just read with accuracy and by utilizing some advanced vocabulary and phrases learned from these reading exercises. If the professor or teacher were to assign you a persuasive, narrative, or argumentative essay for you to write about your reading assignment, you should feel comfortable by this point in doing so across a number of genres.
‘Building blocks’ take time to assemble and the same goes for building up your reading prowess. Again, it is necessary to start slow with short forms of writing from poetry to a short story to a quick email and then work your way up to a long article or a magazine and then on to the full novel or book that may take a month or two to finish. Getting better at reading in English is a key skill to have and is necessary to boost your proficiency and to do so in a comprehensive manner. It is not only true that your reading skills will get better the more consistent and driven you are with each page but your speaking skills should also improve and your writing abilities will be complemented if you can analyze, interpret, and describe what you have just written in your own words.
Patience is a virtue and reading are the biggest part of that quality when it comes to developing your English language skills. You may show quicker gains with speaking or writing but the long-term success of your English proficiency will be determined about how well you read, how you understand the reading, and what you can tell others about what you have read.
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Taughannock Falls State Park; Ithaca, New York
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Cornell University; Ithaca, New York
“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.
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?
Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core
Location: Lagoa da Conceição; Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil
Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core
Location: Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Parque Agua Branca, Sao Paulo, Brazil
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
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
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
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.