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Wall Without Purpose

December 12, 2018

The U.S. border wall with Mexico is pointless and an utter waste of money.  That’s because according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Migration Studies, approximately 2/3rds of all illegal immigrants in the United States actually came in legally.  They were issued an official federally recognized temporary visa for school, work, or travel, and then simply overstayed their terms.  One major reason for this seemingly inflated number has to do with the ratio of overstayers to border-crossers.  According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since the year 2000, apprehension at the southern border has fallen to forty year lows.

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There are several reasons for this and none of which has much to do with border security.  In the world of voluntary migration, economic incentive is the greatest driver of movement.  Since 2000, Mexico’s GDP has been on a steady incline (see figure below), with a contemporary nominal GDP worth of $1.15 trillion dollars (World Bank, 2017), which is an increase of approximately $400 billion dollars.  This puts Mexico comfortably in the top 20 wealthiest nations in the world.  Sure, when checking for per capita, the average Mexican only makes about $8,900 USD annually (which ranks it at 70th place according to the IMF), but the point here is that the standard of living in Mexico has been increasing, so why move north when there’s work for you at home?  Why pay for a wall when they don’t really need to come anymore?

GDP

Another item of note that most Americans are unaware of is that with support from the Obama Administration, Mexico has increased their personal efforts into monitoring their southern border with Guatemala to restrict Central American migrants from heading north.  Mexico is one of America’s greatest allies in border patrol, but much of that effort is built on a solid foundation of geopolitical friendship between our two states.  With the Trump Administration’s recent harsh rhetoric against Latinos, his hard-line push for an expansion of wall along the Rio Grande, and nonsensical claims of forcing Mexico to pay for it, is simply creating antagonism and animus between our two countries. To simply put, Mexico’s role in monitoring their southern border is far more crucial than any physical barrier Trump could ever build in the north.

Remittance is another item that needs clarification.  It is estimated that remittances back to Mexico averages anywhere from $20-$25 billion annually- which is ironically what the Washington Post estimates for the construction of the wall (more on that below).  However, unlike a useless wall, those remittances ultimately will help reduce illegal immigration to the United States by stimulating consumption and the multiplier effect.  It is estimated that 70% of the United States’ GDP is built on consumption.  That is, the more money a population spends, the more jobs will be created to keep up with demand, which then further incentivizes consumption, which leads to even more jobs, which then will naturally reduce the desire to migrate.  Furthermore, remittance is not lost money because America is Mexico’s number one trading partner.  When a native Mexican teenager is given money that his father earned for him, he will likely consume more American services and products like HP, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.  When people do away with irrational nationalism, they will realize that it is in America’s best interest to help Mexico become wealthy, because the larger the Mexican middle class is, the more American goods they will be able to afford and purchase.  Think of it this way:  You own a luxurious watch company and traditionally you get 10 customers a day, but now suddenly, the overall income of the residents in the neighboring city just doubled, and wouldn’t you think they’d want that nice watch they weren’t able to afford before?  Economics and trade are not zero sum games; what is often good for Mexico is also good for America.

One of the biggest problems with the wall is that it doesn’t just keep people out, but it also keeps people in.  Traditionally, many illegal immigrants operated like seasonal migrants.  They come into the country, work for a few months or years and then go back to Mexico to spend time with friends and family, and enjoy the spoils of their labor.  As one person returns home, another enters, creating a balanced cycle.  This is known as Circular Flow.  However, with the current administration’s more draconian approach to border security, it has indeed become more difficult and dangerous for migrants to cross the border, in either direction, so more of them are opting to stay in the United States permanently- or worse yet, make a single journey north with his entire family instead of just himself.  This is the ultimate paradox and failure of the proposed border wall.  The greater the wall, the longer they will stay.

Now, perhaps the bigger concern here is with drugs and criminals who are trying to sneak in, as opposed to families.  Surely, building this wall will decrease the illegal trade of contraband and narcotics.  After all, under the proposed construction plan, each wall section would reach 30ft in height and buried 6ft underground.  Now, why the Trump Administration and their builders believe that it would be difficult for Narcs to scale or toss something over 30ft and dig beneath 6ft are beyond comprehension.  According to The Brooking Institute, from 1990 to 2016, U.S. law enforcement unearthed 224 tunnels underneath the current border, with some as deep as 70ft below surface.  It is not difficult to dig beneath 6ft, and even if digging or throwing drugs were not feasible, drug smugglers could simply fly a drone or find a new maritime route.  Remember how much cocaine was in Miami during the age of Pablo Escobar?  His drugs arrived right onto the Floridian shore, and no wall could have ever stopped him.

In a country that has crumbling infrastructure, inflated housing costs, below-average international test scores, overpriced healthcare and overpriced college, the last thing we should be spending money on is a useless wall, which is estimated to be between $12 billion (Trump’s estimates) to $70 billion (Senate Democrat’s estimates), because let’s face it:  Mexico is not paying for it.  The reason for the dramatic range has to do with topography and land acquisition.  In order to build a 2,000 mile wall, a lot of private land will need to be seized by the government either through negotiated sale or eminent domain.  The final price will ultimately depend on how much the government will have to payout for the right to build the thing.  Moreover, much of the terrain along the border is mountainous, as the Sierra Nevada’s extends itself southward.  Will Trump bulldoze a mountain?  Will he build a fence at 10,000ft elevation in case there are Latinos who are in really good shape?  Or will they just ignore this entire section, thus leaving a giant hole in the wall’s path?

In the end, the generally agreed upon estimate for Trump’s border wall should be around $25 billion dollars with an estimated $150 million annual cost for repairs.  When you divide the cost of construction with the current U.S. population, it breaks down to about $79 per person.  For that price, you could buy every single American an Amazon Echo instead, which is a much better investment than some barrier.  Alexa, what is orange and dumb as a wall?

-Ping Zhou

British Independence: The Case Against EU Membership

June 24, 2016

On June 23rd, 2016, British citizens voted to leave the European Union, a supranational cooperation between 28 countries that have existed for over 20 years.  The results of the referendum were instantly met with criticism from around the world, with many blaming xenophobia as the primary motivator. The full rationale for British separation, of course, is a lot more complicated than that.

Immigration
Members of the European Union follow what is known as the “Schengen Agreement,” which basically permits passport free travel within the EU states. This also allows citizens of the 28 member countries to live and work wherever their heart desires.  The United Kingdom never liked this agreement, opting to still require documentation for entry into the British Isles, but they are still obligated to welcome anyone that is part of the Eurozone.  This situation became increasing volatile when Germany and many other members welcomed in millions of Syrian refugees.  When these individuals are granted formal asylum and is issued a green card or eventual citizenship, they will be free to travel and live in Britain without consent.  Although xenophobia is certainly the biggest driving factor for some individuals in the leave vote, it is not entirely unjustified that others want the freedom to control their country’s own borders.  Would you be comfortable allowing anyone from North/Central America and the Caribbean to move into the United States without any legal restraints?  Should Germany have the power to decide who can live in The United Kingdom and vice versa?

To further perpetuate the problem, since the The UK has one of the strongest economies on earth, there is far more in-migration than out, meaning the Schengen benefits the other 27 more than it does Britain.  Some individuals complained that by leaving, they will lose the freedom to travel throughout Europe, but the reality is, there should be very little effect.  Neither Norway or Switzerland are part of the EU and they can just as easily travel throughout the neighboring states with valid documentation.

Politics
Within the European Union, member states gather in Brussels to collectively agree on policies.  Unfortunately, the system is based on the concept of “one country, one vote.”  Therefore, neither economics or demographics play a large role in the political process.  Is it fair for The UK, which has 64 million people, to have the same voting power as Luxembourg and it’s half a million residents?  Moreover, the EU is managed by a total of five presidents and various other bureaucrats, none of which are elected by the people.  When the British went to the polls to vote “leave,” they were simply asking for the return of representative democracy.

One of the fundamental pillars of the EU is military protection.  The 28 states agree to defend one another in a time of conflict.  When the organization was originally created, this was one of continent’s attempt (in addition to creating a European nationalism, as opposed to domestic) to bring peace to a land scarred by a history of ethnic warfare.  UK’s departure will not affect this since they are still part of NATO, which essentially serves the same purpose.  Residents will be just as safe as before.

Economics
In the short term, Britain’s economy will undoubtedly be damaged by their decision to abandon the EU, but to many voters, this is the price for the freedom to determine their own domestic financial affairs.  Being part of the EU means you have to abide by their regulations; certain standards might be satisfactory to British policy makers, but they might not be to EU politicians.  Regulations are important, but too many can hamper economic progress.

Much like their defiance to the Schengen Agreement, the British has always been against adopting the Euro currency, as well.  The reason the Euro is problematic is because for countries who formally adopt it, it strips away their right to print their own money.  This is a principal reason why Greece continues to struggle financially.  When the recession hit, Greece was not allowed to print since that is the responsibility of the European Central Bank.  If Greece was independent, they could over produce the drachma to inflate it.  This will make Greece’s top industry, tourism, more attractive to outsiders, thus bringing in revenue to stimulate the economy and create jobs.  The British obviously doesn’t have this issue, since they kept the pound sterling, but all trading within the European Union is done with Euro and the currency is still accepted domestically.  The ECB also controls interest rates and inflation that affect all participating members.

One of the reasons why so many countries want to join the EU is because of its collective financial support.  When Greece fell into a depression, the Germans, French, and British, along with many others bailed them out multiple times. For Greece, Portugal, or any other faltering economy, this is obviously a benefit, but if you’re a high performing society like the UK, then its residents are constantly forced to allocate tax dollars to other countries.  Even if by whatever accord, the British Isles fell into a recession and needed assistance, they will be at the mercy of austerity measures determined by EU bureaucrats.  Most economists now agree that the sheer volume of austerity that was imposed on Greece was counterproductive.  In order to revive an economy, it needs to encourage spending, not deter it (Google Keynesian Economics).  No matter how you look at it, EU’s collective agreements simply don’t benefit The UK as much as others.

The biggest question moving forward is whether or not Britain will be able to establish trade deals with the continent post abandonment, but considering how we are living in an age of globalization and with London being home to the world’s 3rd largest stock exchange, it is doubtful they will struggle to find suitors.

Epilogue
Poll statistics show that Millennials, in contrast to their older peers, where overwhelmingly in support of staying in the European Union; this is because many of them have never lived in a world without the EU.  The unknown can be scary, but by leaving, the country will now be able to offer them greater freedom, a more powerful voice in political affairs, and potentially a richer domestic labor market.  For the time being, things will certainly be grim, but Great Britain is a proud and resilient nation.  They ascended back into the global economy after the second World War and they will certainly do so again.  Nothing good ever comes without sacrifice; as the famous German philosopher Frederick Nietzche once said, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Ping Zhou

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The Economic Case For Minimalism

April 3, 2016

American society is foundationally built on materialism.  We are often told that the key to a blissful existence lies in the quality, quantity, and size of our possessions.  Our country is gifted with an abundance of land, so we’ve always had our big lawns to go with our big houses.  SUVs, trucks, and muscle cars have become the identity of the American automobile and cultural landscape.  “Bigger is better” is one of our most cherished phrases.  But is bigger really better?  If the notion holds true, that the larger and more abundant our possessions, the happier we are, then America should be the happiest country on earth.

According to the 2015 World Happiness Report, The United States is ranked 17th out of 156 countries in happiness, losing out primarily to European nation-states. One key difference between Europe and the United States is that European culture tends to value minimalism as opposed to materialism.  These results are not surprising, considering study after study have proven that material purchases tend to be more susceptible to diminishing returns.  That is, materialism only makes us happier initially, but then it quickly regresses over linear time.  In contrast, research have discovered that the jubilant effects of personal experiences tends to actually ascend over time.  We are essentially endowed with a perpetual surge of serotonin whenever we reminisce.

Minimalism as a philosophy have been around for many years, but it wasn’t until the recent 2008 recession and concerns over global warming that Americans have opened up to the idea of downsizing their lives.  Specifically, minimalism have become quite popular with the Millennial generation, with many even going as far as building shipping container homes.  Millennial are also more willing that any other generation to spend their money on travel and experiences as opposed to things.  However, unlike their predecessors, the Gen-X and Baby Boomers, Millennial are also the most financially strapped, often hammered by massive student debt, globalization, and an unfavorable job market.  Despite these obstacles, though, it is still possible for a young American today to enjoy an insatiable life of adventure as long as they understand the economic value of minimalism.

People tend to underestimate how much money something can cost them over an extended period of time.  For example, you do not need to be wealthy to wander the world.  You just need to understand how to travel cheaply, and buy everything in size small, including the two biggest purchases of your life:  A house and a car.

When deciding on a car, people far too often just refer to the sticker price to assess cost. They would compare a 2016 Honda Civic LX, which is currently listed at approximately $18,640, with say, a 2016 Ford F-150 XL at $26,430.  The consumer would see this as a $8,200 difference and perhaps therefore deciding to follow the American cultural practice of buying large, since $8,200 doesn’t seem like that much more.  Unfortunately, the reality is, buying the larger vehicle in this case will actually cost you significantly more because you need to put into consideration interest rate, oil, gas, insurance, repair, tires, parts, etc.  Below I conducted a breakdown of true costs between these two vehicles based on the assumption of 15 years and 150,000 miles of driving:

COST
Civic LX From $18,640
F-150 XL From $26,430

CURRENT FINANCING DEALS (As of 4/3/2016)
Civic – $0 down, $299/mo, 4.9% APR, 72 month financing (Final Price:  $21,528)
F-150 – $0 down, $424/mo, 4.9% APR, 72 month financing (Final Price:  $30,559)

INSURANCE (w/ $500 deductable through Liberty Mutual)
Civic – $157 a month ($28,260 for 15 years of driving)
F-150 – $149 a month ($26,820 for 15 years of driving)

TIRES (65,000 miles, Goodyear Assurance® Fuel Max®)
Civic LX – $575 ($1725 for 3 tire replacements over the life of the car)
F-150 – $835 ($2505 for 3 tire replacements over the life of the car)

OIL (7,500 miles replacement)
Civic – 4 quarts (80qts for life of car), $22.88 for Mobil 1 Synthetic Oil at Walmart.  With tax:  $1830
F-150 – 6 quarts (120 for life of car), $22.88 for Mobil 1 Synthetic Oil at Walmart.  With tax:  $2745

FUEL ECONOMY (Average for last 10 years in the Metro Detroit Area at peaks and dips equated to approximately $3.10 a gallon – Please see chart below)
Civic – Up to 31 city / 41 highway (36 average).  Total cost of gas for 150,000 miles:  $12,917
F-150 – Up to 18 city / 25 highway (21.5 average)  Total cost of gas for 150,000 miles:  $21,628

ch.gaschart

REPAIRS / PARTS
This metric is impossible to calculate, but it not unreasonable to assume that over the course of 15 years, the F-150 could accumulate at least $2,000 or more in costs simply due to the higher overhead on larger parts (i.e. windshield wipers, air filters, etc), and therefore, this will be the rough amount applied to the total.

TOTAL
Civic – $66,260
F-150 – $86,257
———-
Difference:  $20,000 (Rounded)

As you can see, owning a large vehicle like a truck or SUV will cost you approximately $20,000 more than owning a compact.  Twenty grand is certainly enough to travel the world when done conservatively.  Moreover, assuming you actively drive between the age of 16 – 76, you will go through 4 major car purchases in your lifetime, further widening the gap between these two material products.

A house is no different.  People often forget that the bigger the house, the higher your property tax and insurance.  It will also cost more to heat and cool your home, replace the roof, replace the central air unit, replace the carpet, etc.  For a young couple, you really don’t need more than a thousand square feet.  Anything more and you’re basically just wasting money.  A home is a place to sleep and watch television, why do you need so much floor space?  Do you enjoy cleaning all the time?  A house, whether 1,000 or 2,000 feet will probably give you the same memories in the end, but imagine all the experiences you could have with the $100,000+ you saved by minimizing. –Ping Zhou

*Recommended article about Japanese minimalism

 

A Noob’s Guide To Affordable Travel

December 24, 2015

Traveling on a budget isn’t difficult. The method is a simple combination of knowledge, geography, and timing. By placing a trickle down emphasis from the most expensive aspect of travel to the least, any American should be able to afford a memorable vacation, even those on a teacher’s salary.

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Airfare

Airfare is by far the most expensive overhead and should be the principal item to minimize. As the saying goes, timing is everything. Nothing will have a greater impact on the cost of your flight than when you decide to fly. The difference between traveling during the middle of May versus the middle of June could sometimes be twice the cost. In addition, flying between the days of Tuesday-Friday will yield a much better fare than between Saturday-Monday. Saturday has high demand since it is the official start of the weekend. Sunday is when many people return home ahead of the new work week, and Monday is when business travelers often take off.

Below is an example of the price disparity by utilizing the two extremes on the same Delta flight from DTW to LON (London). The top flight is booked in the middle of May, departing and returning on a Wednesday. The bottom flight is booked for the middle of July, traveling during the weekend. As you can see, the summer flight cost nearly 100% more than the spring flight.

London

Keep in mind, however, that peak travel season is not static globally. Places located between the tropics will experience high volumes and prices during the winter months for departing locales in the upper latitudes. I tend to only fly during the off-season (because not just flights, but lodging, and everything else is cheaper, too) and just road trip somewhere during peak season.

In regards to the most ideal time to book, a recent study by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Center, found that booking 57 days prior to your flight- or two months out- will yield the best prices. Conventional wisdom tells us that booking your flight during weekdays is best, but recent research argues that the weekends are actually the best time, because airlines want to entice the causal, spontaneous, weekend vacationers with deals. Regardless of when you decide to book, many reservation websites now offer price trend data for you to evaluate anyway

Price Trends

Using sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, etc., is great to get a general idea of what’s available, but it is advised that you do not actually book directly with these sites. This is because in case you need to cancel a flight, airlines will deduct an additional $50 from your ticket credit since you booked through a third party. So just use reservation websites to find and compare flights, but book them directly on the airlines’ websites. Additionally, Southwest, a semi-budget airline is not listed on all these sites, so by concentrating your research solely on Expedia/Travelocity, you might be missing out on a good deal. This past summer, I bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for $170 on Southwest, when everyone else was charging $250+.

Despite the efficiently of the traditional booking websites, none of them can compare to the effectiveness of Google Flights.  This is because this program has an “Explore Map” feature, where it displays the cheapest ticket price to every single airport on earth for any given length of time you determine.  Simply, put in the airport you wish to depart from but leave the destination airport box blank, pick a time when you want to travel, then scroll down and click on the map with a bunch of dots and you will be able to access it.

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There are many airlines to choose from and each have their own set of pros and cons. Delta is considered the gold standard in aviation, with a solid track record and customer service, covering a large network of places. If prices are relatively constant across the board, then you should probably fly with Delta (or JetBlue). If you are on a budget, don’t really care about comfort or amenities, and can pack lightly, then Spirit will offer the cheapest fares, because nothing is included in their initial price. For example, below is a flight I recently booked from DTW to NOLA, in mid-February. As you can see, Spirit’s flight is almost half the price of United’s, with a similar departure/arrival time. What you might or might not know, is that Spirit is pretty much the only airline that does not permit a free carry-on item. Therefore, if you have to bring anything more than just a personal purse or backpack on-board, you will be charged an additional $35 each way. Furthermore, with Spirit, unless you’re willing to pay extra, you cannot select your own seat, and no beverages or snacks will be provided on your flight. That means, United is actually the cheaper flight in this regard. But, because I am only staying in NOLA for three days, I can pack everything I need into a single backpack, and with the flight being less than 3 hours, I certainly don’t need any beverages or snacks (I can also just bring my own; or as a tip, instead of buying expensive bottled water inside the terminal, just bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it at a drinking fountain inside).  Spirit is the way to fly if you can travel minimally.

NOLA Flight

Also while booking, pay special attention where the layovers are. Sometimes, it is cheaper to book two separate round trip flights to a location rather than an single round trip flight. What I mean is, if you’re trying to fly from DTW to ANC (Anchorage), you will almost certainly be making a stop in SEA (Seattle), since there are no direct flights between these two cities, and SeaTac serves as a hub for Alaska. Two summers ago, when I looked at flights to Alaska, round trip tickets were going for about $900, with a mandated layover in Seattle both ways. Instead of just committing to that price, I decided to look at the cost of a round trip flight from DTW to SEA, and then separately, a flight from SEA to ANC- essentially the same flight, but broken into two parts. The combined cost of these two round trip flights with the same end destination in mind: $700.

Sometimes, it is also beneficial to check the price of flights from and to various neighboring airports. If you live in the Detroit Metropolitan Area like me and you don’t mind some extra driving, then see how much tickets are from Gerald R. Ford International (Grand Rapids), Bishop International (Flint), Toledo Express, or even Windsor, Canada.  When I went hiking at Zion National Park in Utah, it was $200 cheaper for me to fly to Vegas- due to major competition from carriers- than to Salt Lake City. Car rentals were also cheaper in Vegas compared to SLC.

If you are flexible, you can game the overbooking a system a bit, as well.  Purposely book an early morning flight (6am – 11am) since they tend to fill up most consistently and when the airline announces that they are overbooked, you can offer up your seat for a future travel voucher or two.  Sure, it sucks to be stuck at the airport for a few extra hours, but considering you could easily trade in that voucher for a $500+ future flight, it definitely makes the wait worth it.  As a tip, grab the seat closest to the gate, so that you’ll guarantee yourself to being the first one to accept the offer.

Lastly, if you have a lot of time on your hands (say you were laid off or recently finished college), one of the best ways to see a lot of places for cheap is to book a flight with a huge number of stops and request an extended layover. The most efficient way to secure this type of schedule is to contact a travel agent; they can do wonders. And although it will cost you more money for their services, it’s still a lot cheaper than booking 4 different flights. You can also try calling your airline and request an extended layover, but keep in mind, airlines are under no obligation to grant this and they may charge you a fee for this accommodation. There was a story that went viral this year about a person who managed to travel the world on Air Emirates by gaming this exact system.

Lodging

The second major obstacle to minimize while traveling is lodging. Unlike aviation, deciding where to stay is a far more subjective affair, with a lot more options to choose from. Unless you’re a wealthy individual, most of us will have to compromise between value, safety, location, and cleanliness.

If your main concern is price, then there are almost no better alternatives than AirBnB (use this link to get $55 off your first stay https://www.airbnb.com/c/pingz202?currency=USD). AirBnB is the Uber of the lodging industry, where everyday people can essentially rent out their homes/rooms to you for a fair price.  The prices are comparable to hostels except you won’t have 3-7 other strangers sleeping in the same room as you. Fees are also way lower because you do not have to pay local taxes.  For example, in Canada, the lodging tax is a whopping 20%, but for AirBnB, you just need to pay the company’s service charge, which is way lower.

There is a customer review system to ensure quality and safety. What’s nice about AirBnB is that the website and housing options are extremely customizable. You get to meet real locals, who could offer you tips, and some of the houses are incredibly charming and unique.  What’s bad about AirBnB is that it doesn’t follow the same kind of standards that major hotel chains have to follow.  It is essentially federally unregulated. Furthermore, even with a review system, spending a night in a stranger’s home can still be a bit daunting or awkward, and you sometimes have to negotiate a time to check in and out with the host, since most of them work day jobs.  Some people will rent out property they own and you would have the whole house to yourself, but this obviously cost a bit more than the conventional method of staying with the host.  Overall, AirBnB is a great alternative for people who do not mind some social awkwardness in exchange for a bargain.

Hostels are similar in that they are affordable because it is usually a shared sleeping and bathroom space. They are great in that they are usually in good geographic locations, and can cost even less than AirBnB. You could find a decent hostel in the center of a major city for sometimes less than $30 a night. It is also a great way to meet people from all walks of life. The biggest problems with hostels is that they tend to be more applicable for individual travelers. If you’re traveling with 3 or 4 people, splitting the cost of a Marriott would be just as viable. Also, it suffers from a similar problem as AirBnB in that you’ll likely be sharing a room with a stranger (as opposed to a house on AirBnB). Lastly, hostels are also quite limited within the United States and Canada. Unless you’re in Europe or a developing country, you’ll probably have an easier time finding a regular hotel.  Now with AirBnB around, there is very little reason to stay at a hostel besides geography.  Why share a room with 3-7 strangers when you don’t have to?

For the rest of us, the go-to-option is usually the standard hotel. The best site to use is hotels.com, since for every 10 stays, you are given one free night. When booking, it is best to prioritize your values, by filtering out options one-by-one until you settle in on a place that fits your parameters of needs. First, set a maximum price you’re willing to spend, then filter out only those with decent reviews, then lastly, check all of their locations on Google Maps to find the one with the best geography (near subway station, airport, downtown, etc). Obviously, depending on the city or country you are staying, prices will vary dramatically. For example, when my friends and I went to Mexico City, our hotel was in the heart of downtown with good reviews and it only cost $30 a night. At this point, why even bother looking at hostels and AirBnB?

There is always camping, too, which is either free or cost next to nothing. But of course, that is assuming you enjoy sleeping outside and/or are geographically able. I doubt you’ll want to pitch a dent in the middle of Time Square. Finally, there is couch surfing, which is also free and perfect for people who are not afraid of potentially getting stabbed at night.

Transportation

The best form of transportation by far is the subway system. Unfortunately, many travelers don’t use it because they don’t understand or care to learn the system.  This is such a shame because nothing will get you around a city faster and cheaper than a metro rail, and once you learn it, you’ll be able to navigate any major city in the world, since they all follow the same basic principals, regardless of language or culture. For individuals who would like to learn, I recorded a video to teach you how to read a subway map.

How cheap is the subway? In Chicago, you can get a single-day unlimited use pass for just $10 (the cost of one taxi ride), and it even includes unlimited bus usage. In Mexico City, each individual ride only cost a nickel USD. Traditionally, what I tend to do is look up the location of every site I wish to see and mark it on a subway map, so I’ll know which station to get off at. No need for taxis or driving through hectic traffic.

Intercity bus systems can be tricky to navigate and a lot more complicated than the subway. What I have discovered through experience is that it is usually easier just to ask a local which bus to catch instead of trying to figure it out yourself beforehand. Riding the bus is also a lot cheaper than a taxi. In regards to seeing places outside of the city, instead of paying a hefty sum for a personal tour guide, just figure out which bus will take you there. Both WikiTravels and TripAdvisor have great guides and forums dedicated to this. Even though we didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, when we went to Teotihuacan in Mexico, we knew which subway station to get off at, how to get from there to the bus terminal, which station sold those specific tickets, and even what to say to the counter agent. A round trip bus ride to the famous Aztec pyramids ended up costing us $5, which is 1/10th the cost of the cheapest tour group I could find.

The only time you should rent a car is [obviously] if you plan on driving around a lot outside the big city, otherwise just stick with public transport. Parking fees can be painfully high and you also have to deal with traffic. Moreover, there is a very good chance you’ll end up lost because most GPS will not function properly within the central business district of areas with tall skyscrapers. If you must rent a car, I recommend you bypass the “full coverage insurance” based on the principals of probability. I’ve been driving for over 15 years and have had maybe 3 fender benders. Basically one every five years. Therefore, what are the chances of me damaging this rental car in the next few days? Unless you’re a terrible driver or you plan on going off-road, there is really no reason to pay that extra money. This is especially the case when most credit cards now car-rental coverage at no extra cost to you.  Just make sure you check your credit card’s policies online before booking.

Misc

  • Get a Capital One credit card; they have no international surcharges
  • If you have time, exchange your currencies at a casino instead of the airport or bank. They offer much better rates
  • Sign up for frequent flyer programs with every airline you fly with. It’s free and they don’t expire, so there’s really no reason not to, even if you don’t fly often.
  • No need to drop $15-$20 on a travel guide book like Lonely Planet, just borrow one from your local library right before the trip.  On a personal note, I find Fodor’s to be the best guides.
  • Use Groupon
  • Eat as much street food as possible. Not only are they cheap and delicious, but I consider them the truest form of a culture’s cuisine.
  • When you’re trying to haggle over the price of an item in a foreign country, take out a calculator (don’t use your phone)
  • If you have WiFi or data service in a foreign country, use Google Translate’s photo feature to quickly translate signs and entire menus.

Start traveling.  – Ping Zhou

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Havana, Cuba.

 

 

 

 

 

8 Less Conventional Travel Destinations

January 11, 2015

Traveling is easier now than it has ever been in human history. The vast majority of Earth’s landscapes, from the sprawling jungles of Africa, to the sands of the Gobi, to the glacial ice of Antarctica, can be traversed by simply boarding a plane.

However, despite our freedom of mobility, most people still tend to flock to the same locales. This is not surprising, as psychology has taught us that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. This is a shame, because there is so much more to this world than the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben.

Therefore, as a way of vitalizing true wanderlust, here is a list of 8 destinations that are a bit less conventional, but just as worthy of exploration. You won’t find Paris, Rome, or Sydney here, but hopefully you’ll still find a place suited for you.

Croatia
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Venice is not for lovers; Croatia is. The country is a synthesis of traditional Mediterranean and Italian culture, food, and architecture. Wine here is plentiful and the weather is near perfect all-year-round. Croatia’s winters are mild, its summers are cool, and its spring is simply gorgeous. The average sunshine hours is 2,600 per year, making it one of the sunniest- and therefore serotonin rich- regions in Europe. The Adriatic Sea shimmers with a delicate turquoise blue against the coastlines of over a thousand Croatian islands. Even within the interior, the famous Plitvice Lakes brings a series of cascading lakes that showers a travertine, carrying minerals below to make the water a glamorous azure green. The architecture of the famous walled city of Dubrovnik- for which George Bernard Shaw calls “Paradise on Earth”- and the various other towns showcases the country’s long storied history with its ruined Roman arenas, Byzantine mosaics, Venetian bell towers, and Habsburg villas. Simply put, Croatia is a city of romance, where having an affordable seafood dinner along a beach while watching the sun descend over stone and sea, seem as natural as the rotation of seasons.

Belize
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Just south of continental United States, Belize is a tropical paradise that has been minimally affected by globalization. You won’t find any McDonald’s or Starbucks here; just authentic, local shops and culture. The interior region of Cayo, where the charming town of San Ignacio is situated, is filled with jungles, waterfalls, wildlife, and secluded Mayan sites (unlike the overexposed Chichen Itza of Mexico). A boat ride from the coast will also take you to one of the country’s two famous cayes. Ambergris and Caulker are coral islands where travelers can lay on the beach, snorkel the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean’s Great Barrier Reef, or scuba dive the majestic Blue Hole. Ambergris is developed to accommodate the older, higher socioeconomic crowd, while Caulker is more for the young 20-30 something backpackers.

Iceland
Iceland
Iceland is incredibly unique socially, but its landscape is the primary reason travelers should go. It’s simply like an alien planet. Volcanic ash, moss, and basalt “black sand” beaches cover a landscape of glaciers, waterfalls, valleys, and geysers. Due to its high latitude, the troposphere naturally floats lower to the surface, creating a constant nebulous land of haze. During the winter months, the Aurora Borealis dances magnificently in the sky, and all year round, the milky sapphire waters of the Blue Lagoon invites visitors to soak in a geothermal heated hot spring rich in silica. The capital city of Reykjavik is small and artistic, with an abundance of bars and coffee shops to warm visitors during their stay in this kingdom of ice.

Bolivia
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Beautiful, complex, and diverse, Bolivia is arguably South America’s most interesting nation. Adventurers here will get their fill, as it is home to two of the world’s most imposing physical environments: The Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest. Bolivia is also where “The Mirror of the Sky” is found; a 4,000 sq mi salt flat (largest in the world) that when saturated with water, becomes so luminous that it reflects virtually everything above it. The country has a large indigenous population that traces back to Incan times. Much like the rainbow tapestry of the local clothing, Bolivia is a mosaic of ethnicities and languages, many of which are currently at-risk for extinction. It is important for travelers to not overlook this quiescent landlocked country, because many of its cultures might not survive beyond our lifetime.

Hong Kong
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Hong Kong is a city of contrasts that satisfies travelers of all types. For the urbanites, it offers an extensive skyscraping, neon landscape filled with shops, restaurants, museums, and amusement parks, all backed by the greatest public transportation infrastructure in the world. For the nature lover, Hong Kong includes a series of undeveloped islands that are just a short ferry ride away. Their interiors are covered with hills and luscious green vegetation, while the coasts are comprised of beautiful golden sand beaches. Lantau, one of the islands, is also home to the world’s largest outdoor Buddha. For the culture enthusiasts, Hong Kong is where East meets West. It is a conglomeration of British colonial heritage and Chinese culture; a place where you can have dim sum for breakfast and fish and chips for dinner. For the academics, the past and future collide in this land of transition, where hundred-year-old traditional boat junks share the waters of the world’s most photographed harbor (Victoria Harbor) alongside ultramodern super-speed hydrofoil boats.

Varanasi
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India’s holiest city is not for everyone. It is not a place for those seeking nature, luxury, or comfort. This is a place for the soul seekers, the learners, and the most genuine of travelers. Varanasi is a city of death. Hindus come here to either be cremated or to die, because it is believed that if one perishes in Varanasi, their soul will go straight to nirvana, skipping out of the eternal cycle of rebirth. This historic city is located on the banks of the Ganges, where giant cremating sites known as “Ghats” line the holy river. Spending a day in Varanasi will forever change your perception on life and death. It is a pilgrimage of intimate spiritual development.

Morocco
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An Islamic land of sand and sun, Morocco is a sublime slice of North Africa. Shaped like their famous Berber patterned rugs, the dunes of the Sahara offer travelers a transcendent experience in the world’s largest land desert. In Morocco, you can watch the sun rise over the Atlas Mountains, take a camel ride along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, bike within a palm oasis, partake in a traditional public steam bath, or enjoy some famous Moroccan hash and tea in the hectic downtown Marrakech. By shopping, eating, and joining the locals here, visitors will follow in the tradition of Arabic and Berber nomads and traders that stretches back for centuries.

Bhutan
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To visit Bhutan is to go back in time. It is a mystical land where globalization was completely rejected until the new millennium. Although the country has opened up a bit to the outside world, it remains incredibly pure to its cultural roots. In fact, as a way of protecting its environment and society from too much external influence, travelers must pay a $250 a day to visit. It is worth it, though. Nowhere else on Earth is there a country that still has 100% of its original forest cover and work actively to preserve its pure Buddhist culture. The mighty Himalayan mountain range dominate the area, making it a visual high altitude paradise, ideal for climbers and hikers. If Shangri-La exists, it is here in Bhutan. – Ping Zhou


Photo credits: Bhutan-trulyjuliechan, Croatia-villasigurata, Varanasi-Indianout, Morocco-wallpaperup, Bolivia-1ms.net

Homes Are Shelters, Not Investments

May 5, 2014

Owning a home is the foundation to the American Dream. It represents shelter, independence, and social success. In contrast to renting, buying a house is also the superior financial decision since monetary contributions theoretically remain within the physical structures of the building. Furthermore, according to conventional wisdom, a buyer can even expect the value of their purchase to increase over time.

While it is true that owning a home is an important thing to do, it is by no means a rational long-term investment. If you want your money to grow over time, you need to put it in the stock market, not the housing market. The misconception behind housing growth is stimulated by two factors: The housing bubble of the 2000’s and unrealized inflation.

As we now know, the massive growth in the housing market between 1997-2006 was highly artificial, stimulated by unsustainable sub-prime lending. Since its crash in 2008, the market has rebounded slightly, but remains on a slow, unsteady incline.  With the exception of that decade, in reality, when adjusted for inflation, the American housing market actually experienced very little growth in the entire past century, as demonstrated by the chart below (©Motley Fool), created by Yale economist and Nobel Prize laureate, Robert Shiller.

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Inflation is often what guides the misconception behind housing growth. Since the 1970s, the Consumer Price Index has increased six-fold. Therefore, if you purchased a home in 1970 for $30,000, it should be worth approximately $180,000 today (Housel, 2014). To the average homeowner, this seems like quite the investment, but the reality is, your capital gains has simply curtailed inflation, which typically grows between 1.5% – 3% annually. In comparison, if you were to invest that same $30,000 into the S&P 500, which had an annual average growth of 7.54% between the same period, your portfolio would likely exceed $380,000 today, excluding taxes and fees (very rough estimate). Individuals who are looking at the housing market as a long-term investment also need to take into account the cost of mortgage interest rate, property tax, insurance, and maintenance. When all financial costs are factored in, the value of your home is likely increasing below the rate of inflation.

Another problem with real estate investing is its lack of liquidity; that is, how easily your assets can be converted to cash. Unlike the stock market, which you could buy and sell on the fly, it is much tougher to sell a home.  Furthermore, market fluctuations rarely exceed 1.5% on a single trading day,but consumers could vastly negotiate down the value of your home based on market trends and your eagerness to sell.

Although a house is not the best long-term investment, it is still something crucial to own. Renting leads to the exodus of capital that never returns. The key is to live small, but comfortably. Bigger is not always better. Larger homes cost more, require higher maintenance costs, and restricts opportunity cost. A home should be a place of shelter, not a place of investment. By reducing the financial contributions into the home, the investor could instead redistribute the capital into the stock or bond market, which yields a far greater return. – Ping Zhou

The Rumspringa Conflict: Community, Dogma, & Identity

January 18, 2014

Religion is often viewed as a positive force for individuals. It assists in the establishment of community, provide social interaction, and promote a moral way of living. Conversely, religion can also be harmful. It can be discriminatory, manipulative, and even violent. Particularly to young followers, religion may be mentally harmful, as believers are often terrorized with threats of eternal damnation to Hell and are consistently inflicted with subsequent mental and emotional trauma from guilt. The traumatizing effects of certain religious dogma can be seen through the “Simmie” period of the Amish culture, in which the restrictions on deviance are lifted for adolescent teenagers in order for them to discover their identity, and decide whether or not they will accept baptism and live an Amish life. This period of deviance is dustructive to Amish youths physically, socially, and psychologically due to its paradoxical nature.

As oppose to the traditional view that religious beliefs leads to less risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption, drugs, and smoking (Bruhn 2005), religious restrictions can often create a reverse-psychological effect on teenagers, who at the adolescent age, are typically in a state of parental and authoritative defiance. Therefore, when released from their religious restraints, the practice of deviant behaviors is usually amplified. As seen in the documentary film, The Devil’s Playground, massive drunken parties are quite common during the Amish simmie period. Faron Yoder, the focal youth in the documentary, became highly addicted to crystal methamphetamine after his release into the English world. So much in fact, he even turns to drug dealing to satisfy his habit.

Although studies have shown that spirituality can reduce depression and anxiety (Bruhn 2005), it can also be the cause of despair. Under the Anabaptism faith of the Old Order Amish, individuals are not baptized until they officially commit to the religion after their simmie period. Because of this, many youths fear they would be damned to Hell if they were to die during their mandatory period of pre-baptism mischief (Reiling 2002). In a manner of contradiction, youths are unable to refuse deviant acts during this period as it would be going against the wishes of their parents and community, essentially opposing the 5th commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Book of Exodus 20, Holy Bible). Also, as a regulation during this period, youths are forced to suppress discussions of their experience with their parents and as a result, many youths experience shame from their acts of deviance (Reiling 2002). Lastly, despite the emotional struggles of the simmie period, the decision whether to accept or abandon Amish culture cannot be rushed, for individuals who change their mind after baptism will be excommunicated. This was the situation with Velda Bontrager, an Amish-born female documented in The Devil’s Playground. After receiving baptism, Velda decided she wanted a career and live an English life, and as a consequence, she was shunned by her family and friends. Velda suffered great loneliness and depression in her first year after leaving.

Religion is a source of social capital that paradoxically can also hamper external integration. Despite the frequent interaction between the Amish and their English neighbors, there remains a divide in friendship networks (Reiling 2002). It is believed that many English teenagers do not associate with the young Amish population due to stigmatization (Reiling 2002). As a result, many Amish youths find themselves in an identity crisis since they are not English, and while they are in their simmie period, they are technically not fully Amish, either. The lack of external friendship networks makes it difficult for Amish teenagers who might consider repudiation because once they leave the Amish community, they really have no one to support them. Social support can serve as a push or pull factor when youths attempt to make their decision whether to accept or repudiate. Some Amish youths may choose to accept baptism simply because there is no other way for them to survive outside of the community, while others may take an advantage of the social support and use the community as a safety-net during a prolonged simmie period, as they attempt to slowly assimilate themselves into English culture.

Children in particular are especially susceptible to pressures of religious dogma. Many are not intellectually mature enough to critique and analyze their own religion. Although the Anabaptist prefer their adherents to join the church when they are old enough to make an informed decision, their period of assessment is filled with pressure and doubt. In many ways, religious and cultural mandates such as those enforced during the simmie period, hampers teenagers’ natural development of self-identity. Religion cannot provide a perfect solution for social and mental harmony. It can certainly be as a source of comfort, but it comes at a cost. – Ping Zhou

Social Intimacy in Lost in Translation

December 24, 2013

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me [they] don’t get “Lost in Translation.” They want to know what it’s about. They complain “nothing happens.” They’ve been trained by movies that tell them where to look and what to feel, in stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. “Lost in Translation” offers an experience in the exercise of empathy.” – Roger Ebert

Lost in Translation is a film about social intimacy and friendship.  Contrary to superficial interpretations, the title is not a reference to intercultural linguistic communication, but rather the failed comprehension of domestic interpersonal communication.

The film starts by showing what is lost.  Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) is unable to emotionally connect with her husband, John.  He is too preoccupied with his photography career to recognize Charlotte’s social needs and her insecurities on finding her place in society after college. Charlotte’s social isolation is exhibited in the film through a myriad of scenes that juxtapositions her with the most density populated landscape in the world.  In one of the most elegant scenes of the film, Charlotte sits in her hotel room, staring quietly into the sprawling urban jungle of neo-Tokyo, seemingly apathetic to the notion of exploration.  When she does venture out, we get the sense that she remains alone, despite being surrounded by thousands of people.  With John physically and emotionally unavailable, Charlotte attempts to cope with her inner turmoil by calling a friend back home, only to be ignored by her, too.

Married, successful, and approaching the twilight of his career, Bob (Bill Murray) has lost his sense of self.  Like the actor that he is, his life is now guided by directors, businessmen, and his family, making him a shell of what he once was.  He is disinterested in Japan and any form of casual social interaction, finding solitude at the hotel bar, drinking his days away until his flight home.  Bob desperately needs someone to find him.  The real him.

The second act of the film is about being found.  When Bob and Charlotte finally meet, the process of translation begins.  Their loneliness bridges them and they are able to find immediate comfort in each others’ company.  While those in their lives struggle to communicate with them emotionally, they are able to understand each other vividly.  As the two interact more and more, their sorrow slowly turns to joy.  Galvanized by Charlotte’s youth, Bob is able to resurface a part of himself that has been submerged for decades.  Finally stepping out of the Park Hyatt, Bob dances and sings the night away with Charlotte, enjoying the life he once lived and controlled.  Bob helps Charlotte cope with her insecurities by giving her the social interaction she so desperate needs and making her realize that although life at her age are full of obstacles, it does “get better.”  She needed his aged wisdom, and he needed her youthful sincerity.

Sofia Coppola’s decision to incorporate two Americans in the Land of the Rising Sun is not an act randomization.  Japan is a society governed by collectivist ideology, while America functions on individuality.  At home, Bob and Charlotte are two individuals, but in Japan, they become a community- a representation of the environment.  Language serves no purpose when there is only one speaker.  Communication is also not limited to verbal exchanges.  Much of the film’s messages are conveyed through subtle acts and body language, such as when Charlotte gently lays her head on Bob’s shoulder after a long night of activities and the two sits quietly, enjoying each others’ company.  Or when Bob slowly carries a sleeping Charlotte back to her room before tucking her in for the night.  Those scenes provide a sense of understanding that no words can express.

Lost in Translation is an unconventional film because it focuses almost exclusively on the social aspect of love.  Coppola wanted to show the importance of social intimacy as oppose to the physical.  Bob and Charlotte never consummate because that’s not what their relationship is about.  When Bobs sleeps with the singer from the bar during the third act of the film, it shows us just how hollow physical affection can be in the absence of social connection.  That scene makes us almost pity Bob.  In contrast, when Bob passionately embraces Charlotte at the conclusion of the film, while silently whispering into her ear as she stood crying, we intimately feel their affection and pain.  And though we cannot hear their conversation, we find closure knowing this was something they shared together.  –Ping Zhou

If you enjoyed this article or film, consider watching my self-made Lost in Translation music video featuring the song “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” by Corey Crowder:  http://vimeo.com/8355520

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The Problem With Organic Food

March 14, 2013

In the world of marketing, the organic industry has done a marvelous job in classically conditioning us into believing that their products are better, tastier, and healthier than conventional produce.  The moment we hear the word “organic,” our minds instantaneously associates it with superiority.  The American consumer reinforces their campaign by increasing buying their products, thus creating an industry that now yields over $35 billion dollars in annual sales (Organic Trade Association, 2014).  This is rather unfortunate, because spending more money on organic food will only provide you with a sense of elitism and not much else.

The biggest problem with the current organic revolution is that it goes against the carrying capacity of the earth.  According to the greatest agricultural scientist of all time and Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. Norman Borlaug, the earth only has enough soil and nitrate to feed a population of 4 billion people if traditional forms of agriculture were implemented on a global scale.  As we know, there are approximately 7 billion people alive today, and demographers predict that another 5 billion will be added before we reach population saturation.  So how will we feed that surplus of 8 billion people?  To further perpetuate the problem, much of the earth’s fertile regions are now being destroyed to make way for industrialization and sprawl, especially in large states like Brazil, China, and India.  The only reason why mankind has been able to prolong its Malthusian Catastrophe is because of science, but even science can barely keep up with the rising population and declining soil, and organic farming is contributing to the problem.

Much of today’s food ideology is rooted in hysteria and scare tactics, with very little evidence to support it.  Recently, Stanford University conducted a 40 year study that incorporated data from 38 other college researches, and they found that organic foods, on average, were no more nutritious or safer than conventional foods.  Some opponents of this study will argue that the use of pesticides is a big reason why they choose not to consume conventional produce.  But what most consumers don’t know is that all farmers use pesticide, regardless of agricultural preference.  The difference is that most modern synthetic pesticides have been introduced after the ban on DDT in the 1970s.  They’ve been tested meticulously for over 40 years and are deemed safe by nearly every health organization in America.  In contrast, although most organic pesticides are more “natural,” they have not experienced nearly as much experimentation and their affects on the human body remains mostly a mystery.  “Natural” is another one of those buzzwords that is so often used by the industry, but natural doesn’t always mean better.  Uranium-235 is natural, would you consume that?  Besides, what is pesticide, anyway?  It’s poison.  So then, what is the difference between natural poison and synthetic poison?  It’s still poison.  In fact, Copper Sulfate, the most popular organic pesticide is highly toxic, and according to research published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, they are a threat to non-sting bees.  Many companies within the organic industry will use this misconception to turn a profit.  Recently, there was a marketing video produced by Coop, an Swedish organic grocer that has since gone viral that trouts the lack of pesticides found in a family’s body after they switched over to a full organic diet.  That company is now being sued for misleading consumers.  The problem is that the video only measured synesthetic pesticide residue in the body, so of course you won’t find any in an organic diet.  It would be great, however, to see what the copper sulfate levels are in that little boy’s system.

When it comes to fertilizers, one could also argue that organic fertilizers could potentially be more dangerous than chemical fertilizers, since it is primarily manure-based, and manure is a host for the E-Coli virus and salmonella.  The restaurant, Chipotle, who prides itself on being organic and GMO free, has had a string of E-coli outbreaks this year. If you go through Whole Food’s list of recalls, you will find many items contaminated with E-coli and salmonella.  It is one thing to cook the bacteria away, it is another when you’re serving raw, cold lettuce and tomatoes that has been sprayed with compost

In today’s society, people seem to have a partisan belief system.  They only believe what they want, regardless of facts or rationality.  The American Cancer Society, FDA, United Nations World Health Organization, and the APHA have all endorsed the safety of conventional and GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) foods, and yet, people refuse to accept them, because they don’t trust “the government” or “science.”  Hypocritically enough, when stricken with diabetes, cancer, or some other affliction, these people are far too eager to accept medical science.  What’s the difference?  Why should we fear science?  Science is the reason why western societies now have life expectancies that borders or exceeds 80 years on average.

What scares the organic consumer about GMOs is that they’re “genetically modified,” but all foods are genetically modified through years of selective breeding.  If those organic corns you’re consuming taste sweet, then you’re eating a genetically modified product.  That organic turkey you’re having for Thanksgiving?  Well, that’s been ultra modified.  Did you know God didn’t create the Welsh Corgi?  We did, and we messed that creature up for the sake of owning something adorable.  Yes, GMOs are created in laboratories but they’re not much different from selective modification.  Moreover, GMOs are heavily monitored by American health agencies, and they set some of the highest safety standards in the world.  As of today, after thousands of research trials (read the actual research, not just conclusion) conducted throughout the world and funded by universities, for-profit and non-profit agencies, there is still absolutely zero indication that GMO causes any negative health effects.  It is completely safe.

If you do not trust the U.S. government, then you will be glad to know that much of your organic produce is actually regulated by the Chinese and is imported into the states. A recent investigation conducted by WJLA found that Whole Foods, America’s top organic grocery chain, sell hundreds of products from China, including spinach, sugar snap peas, carrots, cauliflower, and ironically a “California Blend” of broccoli.  According to the Seattle Times, in 2008, China exported $800 million dollars worth of organic produce, with much of it sent to Europe and the United States.  Although the United States Food and Drug Administration regulate imports, it is nearly impossible for them to monitor every piece of fruit and vegetable that enters the country.  Therefore, the discretion of safety falls on a country that is notorious for corruption.  Remember the 2007 pet food scandal and the 2008 melamine tainted baby food?  Which government would you rather trust?

Lastly, what most people fail to realize is that the more organic food they buy, the more expensive food in general, becomes.  It is a simple matter of supply and demand.  Organic methods produce far fewer yields per acre of land compared to conventional methods.  If organic agriculture spreads to a global scale, the total world production would plummet, thus driving up prices.  How are poor laborers in Peru going to be able to afford food?  How are we going to afford it?  So the next time you’re in the supermarket on top of an Ivory Tower, ask yourself this:  Is spending more money on this organic fruit, which offers no health or safety advantages, really worth the potential cost of global starvation? – Ping Zhou

Recommended TED Talk:  https://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_ronald_the_case_for_engineering_our_food?language=en

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The Charm of San Ignacio

January 17, 2013

One of the most appealing things about traveling is its unpredictability.  It is easy to research and imagine, but until people actually immerse themselves in a place, they won’t ever truly understand it.  Recently, when my friends and I planned a trip to the Central American country of Belize, we thought we knew where the geography of bliss was.  Home to the world’s second largest barrier reef, Belize’s Amerbergris Caye was going to serve us well.  With its white sand beaches, emerald waves, diverse marine life, and coconut palms, we pictured ourselves relaxing the days away in whimsical comfort.  But the island gave us no such euphoria.  Unexpectedly, we instead found enchantment in an small interior town called San Ignacio.

Tucked away in a valley between two rivers, San Ignacio is a quaint little town filled with culture and beauty. It is surrounded by rolling hills and jungle vegetation.  There is a soft stream that runs through downtown, connected by an emblematic old yellow steel bridge.  The central business district consists of small alleyways that showcases its vernacular colonial heritage.  The town is populated by a mosaic of ethnicities that includes Mestizos, Kriols, Lebanese, Chinese, and Amerindian.

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(Click on pictures to enlarge)

Everything in San Ignacio is calmer.  No one is in a hurry and you shouldn’t be either.  The traffic is mild and cars roll gently through the streets.  You rarely feel rushed to cross an intersection and walking is the preferred mode of transportation when in the city center.  The atmosphere here is tranquil and the air feels clean (most of the time).  If you want food, expect to sit and wait for hours.  But that’s ok, because you’ll adapt and maybe even learn to enjoy it.  Supper in San Ignacio seems less about the act of eating and more about enjoying the company you are with and the people that surrounds you.

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The town is a haven for backpackers.  It is an environment that encourages social interaction.  “Where are you from?  What are you doing in San Ignacio?  Where have you been?”  Everyone is curious and everyone wants to converse.  Companionship seems natural in San Ignacio.  We even had breakfast next to Grant Imahara of Mythbusters.  The locals here are welcoming and warm, always greeting you with a smile.  Perhaps it is the abundance of sunshine, or maybe it’s because San Ignacio feels more like a community rather than a town.

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The food here is wonderful.  Meats, fruits, and dairy are all raised, grown, and produced locally.  There is minimal processing, with a direct farm-to-table approach.  There is no corn hidden in your dinner, just real food.  One of the days while we were having breakfast, a local farmer personally dropped off his eggs for our restaurant’s morning service.  It doesn’t get much fresher than that.  On Saturdays, there is a local fruit and vegetable market that opens to the public.  Nothing is heavily preserved and everything is cheap.  Just outside of town, I found personal solace upon seeing cattle grazing openly in their natural environment, surrounded by acres of sprawling green grass.  Yes, they will still be slaughtered, but at least their days won’t be subjected to the harsh confines and diets of our American-style CAFOs.  I have always said that I am willing to pay more for meat that comes from an animal that was taken care of.  Here in San Ignacio, I received ethical meals without intensive capital expenditure.

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San Ignacio’s surrounding area is rich in history.  There are two ancient Mayan sites that are nearly within walking distance.  Cahal Pech, which dates backs to 1200 B.C.E, was a former hilltop palace home for the Mayan elites.  The site is partially secluded and we were the only travelers present during our visit.  In contrast to the typical overcrowded tourist attractions, Cahal Pech ended up being our own personal playground, making us feel like it was someplace only we knew.  Then there is Xunantunich.  Located less than one mile from the Guatemala border, Xunantunich is a former ceremonial site for the archaic civilization.  Here, you can freely climb to the top of the largest pyramid and enjoy a splendor view of the land.  Also just south of town is the Mountain Pine Ridge, a place of waterfalls, caves, and wildlife.  We drove about two miles directly into it and although it was the most treacherous ride we have ever experienced, it generated a memory that will stay with us for a lifetime.

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Life is simpler in Western Belize.  It is a portrait of society before globalization.  There are no McDonald’s or Taco Bell here; no Wal-Mart or Belle Tire; just small mom-and-pop shops trying to sustain themselves in this capitalistic world.  Many people in San Ignacio live in poverty.  Seeing homes built from straw and planks of wood, and families bathing and washing their clothes in creeks is a humbling experience.  It disciplines us into appreciating what we have and encourages us not to waste our gifted opportunities back home.

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A primary reason why we disliked Amerbergris Caye is because it is too developed, loud, and artificial.  San Ignacio is peaceful, authentic, and charming.  The most popular destinations aren’t always the most glorious.  The road less traveled is sometimes the most scenic.  During my stay in San Ignacio, I learned a lot about myself and what I value in life.  I felt comfort and peace.  I have missed it ever since I left, but I am confident this town will find a way to charm me back again, someday.  – Ping Zhou

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