Retaining The Ability to Connect

How many times have you been out, either alone or with a friend or family member, and you have noticed in the café or restaurant a couple or a group of people just staring at their phones rather than each other? I’ve noticed this occurring multiple times and more often than not in the past year or so. Now, it’s not great to be out in public on your own on your phone either but it seems rather ironic to be out in public with a friend or a family member and you are both on your phone at the same time rather than living in the moment and being engaged with each other instead of their device.

It’s one thing as well for friends to be on their phones at the same time perhaps to keep up with their other friends but it’s quite silly for me to see couples out in public staring down at their phones when they should be connecting with each other. What is the point of going out to a café or to a restaurant or any other public place if you would rather interact with your handheld device than the person sitting right in front of you?

I can see if one of the two or more people in the group need to respond or send a text, check on a work e-mail, or take an important call but it is quite ridiculous when both people or all people in the group have nothing better to do than to look at their phones. There are a number of ways that I want to suggest in this article on how to retain that important ability to connect with another person especially out in public rather than connecting on social media, be social yourself with the person(s) you are with.

1.The Lost Art of People Watching: There is really something to be said about just wondering what other people are doing and checking out how they are going about their daily lives. Now, I am not suggesting you and your group or friend(s) just stare at somebody and make them uncomfortable. That’s not it at all. What I would recommend is to really just watch how people go running, cook your food, clean up the streets, deal with other restaurant patrons, etc.

For example, if you are at a park with someone else, it’s nice to make conversation about the joggers, the musicians, the frisbee players, the traffic police, etc. It’s a good way to stay engaged in conversation without turning to the phone to be entertained. Watching the world go by is a pleasurable activity and it can make you appreciate the rhythms of daily life. You should not be ‘people watching’ so intently that you make those who know they are being watched notice you doing so! Try to do so casually and without staring too intently. That’s a good way to do it in the mature way.

2. Leave the Phones at Home: What better way to have a good time with somebody then to leave the phone at home. It can be mutually agreed upon beforehand and you can both figure out where to meet up the old-fashioned way: by consulting a map or checking Google before leaving the house. It is really easy to leave the phone at home when you have the logistics squared away in terms of time, date, and where to meet. It’s also easier by car as well when you can leave the phone in your car for the two or three hours you are spending with them and can come back to it later to help you navigate home.

This is a really underrated way of maintaining that personal connection with someone and also strengthening it by flexing that resistance muscle and resisting the temptation of the phone by putting it both out of sight and at least, temporarily out of mind. I think both of you will be glad to rid yourselves of the phone for a few hours or even a whole day and the conversation and the activity will be much more rewarding. You will also remember what happened a lot more because you just were that much more engaged in what was happening because that person and the activity you did together had your full and undivided attention.

3. One Phone, One Group: If you feel the need to compromise about phones in a group, a good way to fix the issue or at least put a stopgap to it is have one phone for everybody in the sense that you are using that phone for everybody to see or use such as making a quick phone call away from the group, checking out travel pictures together, or doing a fun game through an application. Instead of everyone bringing their phones to the group meetup, if one person does it, you’ll have to share and be social about it. Obviously, you do not want others to see your private text messages and contacts on your personal phone but there are ways to do it and still be secure in having others use it.

I really do suggest having some group games on there or using it for showing off pictures and talking about travel or activity plans that you have all done. Another way to be social about a phone is to hook it up to somebody’s speaker and listen to different music together. It can even be some kind of a game where each person chooses a different song in a circle-like setting and your friends or family have to guess the musical artist or the name of the song itself. Being social and using your phone do not have to be separate from each other but the best way to make that happen is to only have one phone per group rather than one phone per person if you want to keep that ability to connect.

4. Enjoy the Silence and Nature: If you have been out with someone or a group for a few hours and you all happen to run out of things to say to each other, don’t go back to the phone! Instead, simply enjoy the silence and each other’s company. You do not have to fill every waking moment together with a witty remark or a sarcastic joke. Sometimes, it’s nice to be alone in your thoughts, people watching together, or just living in the moment and enjoying the ambiance of the place where you are at. This also applies to enjoying nature especially if you are outdoors. You both or the group will not need your phones when you are listening to the birds chirping, watching the monkeys climb to the peak of the trees, or checking out the beautiful mountain or sea view vistas.

You may say, “well, Ben, how can I enjoy nature when I do not have my phone to take a picture of the beauty?” That’s a good question but there’s an easy and simple solution to that problem as well. It’s known as bringing a camera that you like and rely upon and practice taking real photographs. I think it’s often better to take pictures of nature and scenery with a real camera than your phone even though camera phones have become quite popular. Practicing your photography skills with a real camera is a great way to use the tip well and to your advantage.

Photography can be a group activity and will allow both of you or your whole group to take better pictures, enjoy the nature around you, and listen carefully for the silence of the world around you. Lastly, you do not always have to be talking with each other to be connected. That is a false construct invented by our culture really that you have to be engaged with each other socially by always talking. Friends and/or loved ones of many years know so much about each other that they can really be there with one another in silence without filling the void with a conversation 100% of the time.

5. Shame the Phone User(s): This tip will be the most controversial of my suggestions, but I stand by it as having done so myself on a few occasions. The best way to avoid two people from using their phone at one time is to shame politely the first person who pulls out their phone first. Now, ‘shame’ has a negative connotation as it should have in our culture but a little dose of shame in my opinion is not the worst thing in the world especially when what that person is doing is impolite or inconsiderate. If the person you are out with, especially on a date, is constantly checking their phone every five minutes or is not engaged with you socially, then you have the right to shame them for it and ask them to stop.

If they continue with that kind of behavior, instead of doing it right back to them and escalating the tensions, it would be best to just say goodbye and let them know that you don’t appreciate them being on their phone. There are sometimes in life when you have to be both direct and firm with those who are in your social circle, even friends and family members. Respect is a key component in any relationship so if that person doesn’t value you enough to put their phone away like you are for an hour or even more unless it’s an emergency, then they simply do not deserve your time or the money spent to hang out together. Shaming the phone user in public when you’re with them is principally about setting healthy boundaries which are key in our relationships.

Also, you should hold yourself to the same standards and put the phone away as well lest that person you’re with get offended, walk away, or shame you into being more socially conscientious. Turn the phone off, put it in a locker, tell them that text or Instagram message can wait but above all else, shame them politely and remind them that we should be connecting and enjoying each other’s company and not off in a virtual world with other people. Maintaining that sense of cordiality will ensure better relationships and less wasted time staring at your phones in public.

Our healthy and lasting relationships are a key part of our mental health and our outlook on life. I believe that social media is still making us less social and while these networks do connect people on the surface, they do not foster deep friendships or relationships. Social media are like the gateways to having connections with others but you and only you are responsible for fostering and harvesting those connections to grow and become deeply rooted over time. You and the other person(s) who want to connect must do your best to put your phones away and focus on connecting directly by following some or all of these tips I have suggesting especially keeping the phone out of sight and out of mind temporarily.

Flexing your willpower and retaining that ability to connect will make you a happier and a healthier person overall. Your attention span is likely to improve as well as your friendships and/or relationships. I also believe and the research would show that your anxiety, feelings of depression, or of loneliness will decrease the more time you spend connecting with a person in person instead of through a virtual network. This ability to retain deep connections with people is a profound struggle in this age of instant yet flighty connections.

There are easy ways to counteract this trend though by letting go of the temptation when possible, embracing the silence and the natural world, and by politely reminding the person(s) you are with how it is good social etiquette to give someone their undivided attention when you are together in a public place or setting. If you struggle or have a setback, do not beat yourself up too much about it. Keep doing your best, lessen your use of your phone in the first place, and let the people in your life know how much they mean to you by giving them more of your attention and your love.

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.

Silicon Valley

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Camera: iPhone 8

LocationBay Area, California (Silicon Valley)

Mind Your Surroundings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Recommendations – Volume VIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wonder of Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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