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I picked up this coffee table book recently:

The book is filled with pictures of Obama interacting with people, some famous, like the picture below, others just babies, children, etc.

With every picture, there is a quote from a speech. Here is an example:

I am president, I am not king. I can’t do these things just by myself.

— Interview with Univision, October 25, 2010

Obama is graceful, he has integrity, and there isn’t a single scandal or any type that I can think of that arose in his eight years in office. During the Obama years, it was never about Obama. It was about the country he served.

I do miss him.

 

Remember when Trump kept telling us he would only bring in the very best people?

This is what eventually happens to everyone who works for Donald Trump. He discards people. He trashes them in public. He humiliates them. People go to jail for working for him.

Who will want to come to work for this man? Only the best?

 

Touring Guatemala City and Antigua, visiting the sights of the city, traveling around the country, I would not help but feel that the Guatemalan people are beaten by centuries of torture of all possible kinds.

The country is filled with old missions, churches, monasteries and mansions, and not one of them seems intact. Everything old, and much new, is in utter ruin.

I grew up in Germany, the “old country,” in a small and ancient city named Regensburg. Traces of the city were there over 2,000 years ago, before the Romans arrived and built the first fortress there called Castra Regina. Regensburg has 17 churches, many of them hundreds of years old and none of them ruined. I might note that the city was fortunate to not have been the victim of Allied carpet bombing during World War II, and many of its ancient treasures are still preserved. My point is, the city is very old, and all the old stuff is there to see, live in, worship in, and generally enjoy.

The old buildings in Guatemala have all been destroyed, some of them many times over. The country has 37 volcanos, eight of them active today. When we were there, Fuego, the volcano just outside Antigua, which last had erupted in June 2018, was spewing flames and smoke every 10 or 15 minutes.

We just waited a few minutes, and sure enough, there would be a plume (see arrow) and we would be able to photograph it. Then, four days after we left, Fuego erupted again, and thousands more people living on its slopes were evacuated. Volcano eruptions have devastated Antigua and many other cities and villages in Guatemala routinely, consistently and devastatingly. Ash, lava, fire, landslides, mudslides, and flashfloods, all stemming from volcanic activity, have ruined cities, homes and killed thousands of people with brutal regularity.

When it wasn’t a volcano, it was an earthquake. Guatemala experiences frequent and severe earthquakes. Being a Californian myself, I can relate to that, but I have to say that I have never experienced any actual damage from an earthquake. I hope my writing this does not evoke one. In Guatemala, however, buildings are not always constructed based on the same building codes we have in California, and a quake that would make our cupboards shake and rattle in our house, might completely collapse a Guatemalan church or monastery. The last significant earthquake hit Guatemala City on February 4, 1976 at 3:04am. 23,000 people died. Many were crushed in their adobe homes in their sleep.

Extreme poverty and inept leadership then resulted in things not being rebuilt. So you walk around the city and you find it dotted with ruins of buildings, sometimes not even fenced in, where the rocks that fell out of walls decades ago are still on the ground, weeds and bushes growing over them, and trees growing inside the walls of a church were the pews once stood centuries ago.

Then there are hurricanes that have beaten over the ravaged country, coming in from both directions, the Caribbean as well as the Pacific side. Here is a list of many of the hurricanes.

Before the 1500s, when the Spanish had not yet arrived, the Mayans were the people tortured by volcanos, earthquakes and hurricanes. Then came the Spaniards, and in their thirst for Mayan jade and gold, enslaved the people, brought murder, rape, slavery and diseases. The Mayan people were then tortured by volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and the invaders and conquerors from Europe. They died by the millions at the hands of the conquistadores and from their diseases.

Then, most recently, came the Gringos and their thirst for drugs. They spawned crime from the drug trade. Cartels took over the desperate villages, where lack of opportunities for the young and hungry caused them to join whatever promised a way to make a few coins to feed their children and provide a semblance of hope.

And all the while, the volcanos and earthquakes never stop.

Guatemala is a tortured nation, and the Guatemalan people are a tortured people. And they deal with it with grace, pride, and smiling faces. I learned a lot about life and happiness during this visit.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness … and many of our people need it solely on these accounts.

— Mark Twain

The Guatemalan people have earned my respect forever.

Cars and Ashtrays

I am not a smoker. I have never smoked in my life.

But I miss the ashtrays that we used to have in cars.

I always used the ashtrays to keep coins for parking meters and for the occasional pan handler by the side of the road.

Now I have no place to store my coins.

Not being a smoker, I never had any use for the cigarette lighters, either. I routinely removed those from my cars and literally threw them in the garbage. I never needed them. I used the lighter sockets for my device chargers, of course, and I still do.

But the lack of the ashtrays brings up a larger point, particularly now that we have so many wildfires in California. Even though smoking rates are way down from what they used to be, there are still smokers in the world and they drive.

Where do they put their cigarette butts with no ashtrays in cars? They have to throw them out the window. While that may not be a big deal in Ohio, it can quickly be catastrophic in California. Not to mention all the littering. Just look out your car doors at busy intersections. Cigarette butts abound. And I even understand that. Where is a smoker going to put the butts?

What were car manufacturers thinking when they started removing ashtrays from cars?

April May (yes, that’s the name) is a twenty-three-year-old girl just out of college trying to find herself, her life, and her career in New York City of today. Running around the city on 29th Street at three a.m., she finds an “absolutely remarkable” statue – a ten-foot-tall robot-like transformer wearing samurai armor on the sidewalk in front of a Chipotle.

She calls her friend Andy and they make a video together in the middle of the night and by the next day April is a YouTube sensation.

They name the robot Carl, and they quickly learn that there are 64 more identical Carls in all the major cities around the world. They appear to be made out of a material that is “impossible” and nothing can move or damage them.

April quickly figures that the Carls are alien in origin, and she proceeds as if this was “first contact” with an alien race.

Without planning for it, April is quickly world-famous as one of the most recognizable personality on social media, becoming the human face of the Carls and whatever their purpose is.

Hank Green, the author, is a YouTube star, and he brings the world of social media to the reader. Not everyone is a young social media expert, and this story illustrates somewhat how the world of social media works. It’s a very readable book, and I turned the pages quickly and somewhat enjoyed the story.

It does become more and more “unlikely” as it progresses, and the ending is outright hokey, setting it up for a sequel, like any good YouTube video would. The characters are pretty shallow and the dialog is often awkward. The plot does not make much sense, and the central conflict between good and evil appears very contrived.

Reading this book will give you ideas about social media, but it won’t do anything else of value or inspiration.

I definitely don’t need to read the next book when it comes out. April May was not a well-enough defined character for me to care about any further. The story has fizzled out.

 

A Beautiful Moment

Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), the iconic lead singer of the British rock band Queen. It starts with the early life of Freddie, whose birth name was Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, and grew up there and in India before moving to England with this family.

He is widely regarded as one of the best singers in rock history with a vocal range of four octaves. Freddie broke through stereotypes and conquered convention when he lead the band Queen through a meteoric rise in the 1980s.

Freddie’s lifestyle almost ruined the band. They reunited just before the Live Aid concert in 1985. Their performance at that concert is widely regarded as the greatest rock performance of all time.

The movie was criticized for flattening out the Freddie Mercury character, but I don’t know how you could give it any more depth in a movie. Yes, to the music critics and people studying the persona of the famed singer, no movie can ever do it justice.

But for the average person, like me, who really wasn’t that into any specific band, Bohemian Rhapsody has prompted me to study up on Queen, read more about Freddie, and relive some of those iconic moments in rock history.

Rami Malek did an amazing job playing Freddie. He warned the producers that he is not a singer. The soundtrack is original Queen, and the voice of Freddie. The New York Times also reported that Rami’s voice is mixed in with Marc Matel, a Canadian singer who is known as one of the best Freddie soundalikes.

I was rocking, I was reminiscing, and I was thoroughly enjoying the Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a killer soundtrack.

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a celebrity biographer whose books were once on the bestseller lists in the 1970 and 1980 decades. In 1991, her career in decline, she is broke and cannot pay her rent. She is a curmudgeon. When her cat gets ill and the veterinarian refuses treatment because she already owes $78, which she cannot pay, she gets desperate.

By coincidence she discovers that there is a market for original documents, particularly signed letters, by celebrities. Collectors will pay several hundred dollars for an authentic letter.

She collects a few different vintage typewriters, practices forging of signatures, and starts cranking out fake letters. That quickly takes care of groceries, rent and veterinarian bills and she is back in business. Eventually she recruits her gay friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) to do the peddling, while she is producing the product.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is about artists and writers and their careers. Every career has a peak, and there is a downslide from that peak and for some, who saved up enough resources, it is bearable, and for others, like Lee, it is catastrophic. She is not willing to accept her situation, will not bow to taking on a “regular” job like the rest of us, but is obsessed with using her writing skills to make a living. She almost succeeds.

Eventually, however, a house built on deception will come crashing down.

 

 

[click to enlarge]


After two weeks of miserable conditions, the rains on Wednesday finally cleared up the smoke just in time for the holiday. The city breathes again. Happy Thanksgiving!

Guatemala – Security

In the week we were in Guatemala, I never once felt at risk or uncomfortable. The people were always friendly and accommodating. Whether I knew it or not, I was probably “protected” as a tourist.

However, check out the picture above. The people in the center are members of our group. See the two men in black on the right side of the building? Those are armed guards.

The picture above is in front of a bank.

Here is a guard at a convenience store at a gas station. He was very friendly and held the door open to any patron that walked up to it.

The guards are also never shy about posing with tourists. There is quite a bit of that going on all the time.

It became quickly obvious that any business of significance required armed guards. Banks usually had two or three heavily armed guards, with full battle uniforms and bullet-proof vests. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations, car dealerships, and many other retail businesses had armed guards. I didn’t count them, but just riding in a shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua, which is a very industrial stretch, I am sure I saw hundreds of armed guards in front of businesses.

We went to visit a coffee plantation.

The Filadelfia Estate is owned by the family of Robert Dalton. The plantation was started in 1870 and Dalton is the 4th generation owner. It’s a huge farm and I learned a lot about coffee that I never knew. I will not ever look at a coffee bean the same way again. But I digress.

We took a tour of the plantation. At one point, we stopped and the guide explained the harvesting of coffee beans when I looked over and saw a huge wall behind the trees.

The green shrubs in the foreground are coffee plants. The trees are shade trees that are necessary to protect the coffee. The wall is huge, with a chain link fence on top, and razor wire coils above that. At the corner, there is a cluster of video surveillance equipment.


Looking in the other direction, the chain link fence is even higher. You can see the bars in the center of the image. This is on top of the wall.

We were obviously curious what’s behind that wall, so we asked the guide.

“The house of the owner” was the answer.

In the context of security, this is a frightening thought.

The owner of a large coffee plantation is obviously very rich. His house is probably beautiful and opulent, yet, nobody can see it since it’s behind a 20 foot high wall. Not only is it inside a wall, but it’s way in the middle of a plantation which is surrounded by fences, and a massive guard house with armed men protecting it 24 hours a day.

The owner has to basically imprison himself in concentric circles of security to be safe. I cannot imagine living this way. He must be in constant fear of being kidnapped, obviously, why otherwise would he imprison himself and his family.

Hotels in Guatemala are also interesting with regard to security. I wrote about that in another post.

 

Guatemala – Hotels

We are used to hotels being nice, large buildings with stately portal entrances and parking lots on the side and manicured grounds around them. Not so in Guatemala.

We visited the very best hotel in Antigua, the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo , several times. Rooms run from US $300 to US $600 a night. From the outside, you cannot see the hotel. It’s just a high wall in the middle the city, on a shabby cobblestone street.

This is the entrance. I am the one of the right side, calling an Uber. You see the sidewalk we’re on is about two feet wide and the wall is about 12 feet high and surrounds an entire city block in Antigua. The street in front of it is narrow and cobblestone covered. When you walk through this door, you enter a different world. But first, there are armed guards. We never had any trouble getting past the guards, since we’re obviously foreign tourists and they know we’re coming to spend on a single dinner as much as their own average monthly salary.

But my point is – hotels are invisible from the outside, and they are guarded fortresses.

We stayed at two different hotels in Antigua. The first was Hotel La Ermita de Santa Lucia.

[click to enlarge]

This is what it looks like from the main entrance at the street. Note the barred windows, the wall to the right, and the door. This door is locked all the time. To get in, you have to knock. Somebody comes to the door, after they inspect you through the lookout window.

Once inside, it’s a friendly courtyard with the rooms all around. The inside of this hotel makes you believe you are in a completely different world than what you see from the street. This seems to be the case in all of Guatemala.

This is another hotel where we stayed for a few days, el Hotel Casa San Bartolo. Yes, this is it. The door in the center is solid steel. You have to knock to be allowed in. The sidewalk is narrow.

Here is the view from our room. Note the barbed wire at the top of the wall.

Rich people (tourists) imprison themselves to enjoy life.

[photo credit: Alcatraz Island Park Service]

The image above is a week ago. The image on the bottom is today.
We’re flying to San Francisco next week. I hope it clears up a bit before then.

Trisha holding the setting sun at the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

[photo credit: Ziya Aras]

In the year 2019, scientists at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico searching for extraterrestrial signals, finally succeed. They identify signals from the star Alpha Centauri that are unmistakably artificial. Through clever trials the scientists conclude that the signals are music. Mankind has found another intelligent and technological species.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 lightyears away, the closest star to our own. A close-knit clique of friends in Arecibo, led by Jesuit priests, decide to launch a human mission in a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits want to meet those other “children of God.”

They build a makeshift spaceship using an asteroid and mining equipment and technology that is capable to accelerate to about 90% of the speed of light within a year, making the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri take about 17 years, including acceleration, deceleration and mid-cruise coasting. However, due to time dilation at relativistic speeds, the crew only experiences eight months of travel. The idea is that they can go to meet the aliens, spend a few years there, and come back, and be five years older, while of course the time on Earth would have advanced almost 40 years by the time they came back.

Eight people go on the journey, four of which are Jesuit priests, the Father Superior also being the captain and pilot. The other four are the young astronomer who found the signal, a young female scientist and a doctor/engineer married couple in their sixties.

They reach their destination, find two coexisting species of aliens, and start communicating with them. Through a series of misunderstandings and accidents, most of the crew perish over the period of a few years, and only the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, a young priest, eventually returns to Earth in 2060. He is severely injured, seriously distraught and psychologically damaged.

Now the Jesuits want to know that happened.

I read this book as it was recommended to me as a good science fiction book with a focus on philosophy and morality. I welcomed the tip since I love first contact novels, particularly when they are coupled with relativistic space travel concepts. The Sparrow promised to be all that.

I was also intrigued since I had speculated myself about traveling to Alpha Centauri, and what that distance would mean:

If the sun were the size of a red blood cell, which is about seven micrometers in diameter, then the distance to Alpha Centauri would be about 219 meters. That’s a little bit more than the length of two football fields. Ok, let’s picture that. The sun is an invisible speck the size of a red blood cell with the solar system the size of a tangerine. The nearest star and its planets  would be more than two football fields away. Just imagine the massive amount of empty space in all directions, left, right, forward, back, up down of empty space. 

See the entire post here for reference.

The Sparrow edition on my Kindle is 518 pages long. It was first published in 1996. So 2019, the start of the journey, was in the distant future, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program was still in its early stages. No significant exoplanets had yet been found. It was a bit odd to read this book for the first time now, in 2018, when 2019 is just a few weeks in the future.

While this book has earned a lot of awards and acclaim, and gets great reviews, I found it very hard to read and extremely disappointing overall.

All the Jesuit philosophy packed into the story just took up space and bored me. Pages and pages of Emilio dealing with his own celibacy vows while he was lusting for the only eligible young female on the crew didn’t add to the plot in any way, and simply didn’t interest me. This book could have been condensed to about 200 pages, would not have lost any impact, and it would have been a better book.

In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

And then there were the aliens. Two conveniently humanoid species, one evolved from a herd animal, to become the worker and slave race, the other evolved from a carnivore and predator species, both adapted to each other to look like humans with tails. Also, conveniently, they talked human-like languages that the humans could learn quickly, and their social behaviors and customs were like those of exotic human populations, not aliens.

The book’s structure made it difficult to read. There are two leapfrogging lines, one telling the discovery, the journey out, and the stay of the humans with the aliens, starting in 2019. The other starts in 2060, when Emilio returns and follows the enquiry into what happened.

Through this, the reader already knows that the journey does not end well, and the whole book is about finding out what exactly happened. But the narration is so poor and inconsistent, I found it hard to follow. Sometimes it seemed like the protagonist was talking and telling the story, other times the writer used lots of exposition to tell the story. It was always inconsistent and jarring when the switch happened from one mode to the other.

Endless pages about the “philosophy” and “morality” as some readers praised it just seemed like psychobabble to me. The book’s description calls it “deep philosophical inquiry.”  I felt like the author wanted to lecture me with her worldview, which I didn’t care about, and she packaged it into a pseudo science fiction book to make it interesting to me.

It didn’t work.

Reading The Sparrow was work. I finished only because I try to finish every book I start. I am glad I am done. And I will NOT read the sequel, titled Children of God.

 

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