Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom” by Ensaf Haidar and Andrea C. Hoffman, published in 2015. This ebook tells the story of the problems that can arise in a theocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) when people speak their minds and act of their own free will– considered serious crimes, according to certain powerful men who interpret the Quran in a fanatical way.

One indicator that the story revolves around the author, is that a photo of ONLY Haidar (more than a headshot) is on the front cover of this ebook– not a family portrait, or any other scenes.

Infuriating their families is just one of many consequences of the non-conformist behavior of Haidar and her husband; another– causing an international incident in an ongoing saga that has lasted more than a decade.

The story starts when Haidar is in her early 20’s. Her polygamous father runs a financially successful furniture business. He has fifteen children, including the author– one of his younger daughters. The culture precludes any kind of paid work for the females. However, the author is allowed to have a mobile phone, and is encouraged by her much older, widowed sister to try to get a job so she won’t be dependent on her father. He is the ruler of his wives and daughters. If the daughters get married, their own husbands become their rulers. Haidar’s older brothers also hold authority over her.

A certain man who knows her brothers, decides Haidar is the one he wants to marry. But it is against their religion for her to be with, let alone speak with, any male, even on the phone, without a chaperone. The father, or no one, will choose a mate for her. The author and her suitor risk shaming their families and public punishment, when they communicate via mobile phone. They rebel anyway.

The major human-rights cause for which the family is fighting, is freedom of speech. The author’s husband (Raif) starts an Internet forum in which he argues for women’s rights, among other irreverent activities. Yet, “… at home he’s behaving like every other Saudi macho man.” She outwits him– “I hadn’t told Raif anything about the Facebook and Twitter accounts that I ran under a pseudonym.”

Later on, another emotional wrench in the works, is that the author resists telling her three children about why their father is absent from their home. The father tells her not to tell them. Still a product of her culture, she feels the need to obey him. She keeps lying to the children, so when they finally hear the truth– how can they ever trust her?

At any rate, read the book to learn of the trials and tribulations suffered by people who buck their religion-bound culture and government.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least party, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.

As Luck Would Have It

The Book of the Week is “As Luck Would Have It” by Joshua Piven, published in 2003. This slim volume contains a series of anecdotes on lucky people, whose lives were changed in major ways by good or bad luck. A few generalizations are also provided, on the factors that generated the good luck that allowed lives to be saved in the life-threatening situations– in planes and snow, and led to success in the happy situations– the cases of the lottery winner, hit-song musicians and toy fad identifier. As an aside, this blogger was distracted by the author’s alternating verb tenses between past and present. All the stories are history, and therefore should have been told in the past tense.

Experiences of good luck do not necessarily generate happiness. But the ones that do, meet the human needs of “autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem.” People can better their luck if they are prepared, keep an open mind, keep abreast of information in a given situation, make inquiries to obtain additional information, practice social and professional networking, and trust gut feelings.

Read the book to learn how the above factors were applied in the real-life stories.

High

The Book of the Week is “High” by Brian O’Dea, published in 2006. This book describes the adventures of an international drug-smuggling participant and addict between the 1970’s and the very early 1990’s.

O’Dea was the son of a brewery owner in Newfoundland, Canada. In the mid-1970’s, he and his smuggling partners secreted cocaine “… in false-bottomed suitcases at the factory in Bogota (Colombia) and muled to Kingston (Jamaica) via Lufthansa…” and unloaded the drug at Montego Bay. Other partners “… would be getting strapped up with the product on their thighs and stomachs and backs. Each person would carry between two and four kilos, worth between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s Jamaica trials and tribulations with airplane mishaps, romantic subplots, prison and addiction experiences, his role in an elaborate three-continent marijuana distribution concern, and what finally became of him.

The Rabbi and the Hitman

The Book of the Week is “The Rabbi and the Hitman” by Arthur J. Magida, published in 2003. This is the true story of a murder that occurred in Cherry Hill (southern) New Jersey in autumn 1994.

What made the case tabloid fodder is that the crime scene’s neighborhood is a posh suburb, the chief suspect was a prominent rabbi in the community, and the victim was his wife– who had standing in her own right as a small business owner.

The Reformed rabbi, Fred Neulander, co-founded the large temple where he conducted services and taught classes. It is typical for rabbis to experience burnout about twenty years into their careers, and the suspect was no exception. However, Neulander’s hubris syndrome led him to behave in ways that made him the world’s biggest hypocrite. Read the book to learn what transpired when his double life was revealed, and whether the mystery of his wife’s murder was solved.

Skyway

The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.

The Lightless Sky

The Book of the Week is “The Lightless Sky” by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri, published in 2015. This is the suspenseful, extreme story of an Afghan boy who embarks on a life-threatening journey in order to flee his violent homeland.

Born in 1994, Passarlay was a year old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. He lived in a multi-generational household where the main source of income was herding. In 2002, the United States occupied the country. The author and his brother were sent to live briefly with his aunt in Waziristan, near the Pakistan border where there was fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. In autumn 2006, the family paid a network of people-smugglers to try to save the life of the author and his brother, by spiriting them out of the country.

The boys faced a series of traumatic, life-threatening hardships on their long, multi-lingual, multi-national sojourn. Passarlay began it as a Pashtu-speaking Sunni adolescent– a product of his insular culture. Read the book to find out the radical psychological changes wrought by his environments and experiences as a victim of the profit motive in the potentially life-saving operations involving the transport and accommodation of illegal refugees.

The Broader Way

The Book of the Week is “The Broader Way” by Sumie Seo Mishima, published in 1953. This is a depressing personal account of the Japanese author’s experiences during and after WWII.

The author studied in the United States at a university in the mid-1920’s. She returned to Japan before the war, married a divorced professor who already had four children. A feminist of sorts, she worked near Tokyo as a teacher and tutor, and could afford to hire a maid. Still, a major strike against her included her gender, especially in the workplace. Women had traditionally held the roles of wife, mother and household maintainer in Japan’s economically feudal system– of inheritance and property ownership by males only.

Toward late 1940, in preparing its people for war, the Japanese government politically divided the country into neighborhood associations on a very local level. This imposed egalitarianism on everyone, as all walks of life were lumped together. During the war, civilians were forced to cooperate in distributing rationed food, as, of course, there were severe shortages, reducing some to subsist on only a cornmeal-like substance for the war’s duration. Black markets sprung up everywhere. Teens were sent to work for the war effort– munitions factories and airfield construction sites for the boys, and quarries and opticals for the girls.

American warplanes flew over Tokyo starting in late 1944, and the destruction of the city reached its peak in March 1945. The homes of many people, including eventually, the author, were hit by bombs. The Japanese people had been miserably deceived by the military leaders. They had been told that the imperial armed forces were superior to the enemy. After the war, the Occupation authorities (i.e., the United States, in Japan’s case– for five years) allowed free discussion of different political views, even Communism. A new National Constitution was drafted, that supposedly was to afford equal rights for men and women. This was a radical change from Japan’s previous political system, whereby males had all the power.

Postwar Japan suffered not only starvation, but skyrocketing inflation. Luxuries included beef, chicken, eggs and apples. The Occupation forces supplied canned ham, bacon, sausage and butter in summer 1946. DDT was sprayed liberally on all buildings and gardens, in an attempt to head off pestilence and epidemics. The year 1947 saw entrepreneurial Japanese civilians become street vendors, which quickly fell victim to organized crime. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive, and they protected their territory through cooperating.

In the summer of 1946, the author worked as a translator at the International Military Tribunal, commuting by tramcar, which was stuffed to the gills all the time. After every ride, her clothes were “… ripped and stained with grimy handmarks… The Japanese people had lost all class distinctions and sunk into practically uniform poverty and sordidness.” Young boys sold newspapers and peanuts on the street and bartering for school supplies was not uncommon, for the lucky few who could afford a basic education. Young girls worked as seamstresses. The author’s family was comparatively wealthy, residing in a house, but even they became a multi-generational household when the kids married.

The concept of Communism was in the air, as its propagandists pointed to the Russians as an example of where the political system was working. Impressionable youths traumatized by the war and deprivation were easily persuaded of its benefits.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on the political, cultural and social changes wrought by WWII in Japan.