I just realized. I have not seen a video in more than 3 weeks. Let you know when a month rolls round.
I have been chewing through the books this week, catching up on non-fiction but reading a surprising amount of fiction.
After Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine (more a manual than a real book), I lit into Tropic of Kansas: A Novel, about a dystopian near future where the US has been balkanized and there is a high wall between the mess there and the freedom of Canada. Our hero is a teen who is good at escaping and living rough. He smuggles supplies north across the border, and guns and (more importantly) information south. Caught in a trap he is incarcerated, escapes and becomes a sought-after pawn in the contest between a usurper president who was a war hero but is now only interested in control and sucking the life out of the economy to enrich his company. The rebels were headed by the vice-president, in line until the usurpation. Spread across lo-tech analog networks (think video tapes) and jerry-rigged mesh networks, the uprising faces daunting odds, especially in the badlands of Kansas and Iowa. Well written and plausible actions lead to an ending that is a bit surprising.
Ready Player One is another dystopian near-future novel where the teen in question lives in a stacked mobile home after gas runs out and the climate crumples. The only saving grace is that a genius gamer creates an online world that becomes a default cyberspace for millions, a way to hide out from reality. The genius dies and leaves his unimaginable fortune to the winner of a game he created. Winning depends on deciphering clues from the genius’ childhood in the 80’s. Online games that I am familiar with, avoiding study in graduate school. The story is rich, with a set of intriguing characters. The author is an amazing world-builder.
The non-fiction in this series is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. The pursuit of ecstasy using new technology and drugs to advance the mind of man means we can harness the unconscious powers to reach higher goals. Kotler and Wheal are part of an organization that networks exploratory efforts from places like the Navy, Google, and Microsoft. The goal is to explore selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness and richness. A very insightful read on how culture has lead us to ignore these tools, and how some organizations are harnessing this power. Not a self-help book.
If you are a linguist or love good world-building and cultural stories, you must read Embassytown. Set on a small planet at the edge of the known galaxy in the third universe (the first two had time that was too fast), our young heroine gets called into become a simile. She learns she has a special ability to withstand the overlying grid of energy that allows for communication with the extos (many different kinds) and transportation in hyperspace. It only hurts a little to offer herself as a tabula rasa for others to converse, if that is what you can call it. The Hosts on Embassytown speak in two voices simultaneously, but cannot understand simple sounds. They need to be coordinated sounds from two similar but different sources, and must have feeling behind the sound. She marries a Linguist who is, for me, the more interesting character. I am still only halfway through, but the richness of the new vocabulary and the worlds she visits are remarkable.
Frank is away, I am staying at his apartment in the Pansodong area of Yangon, waiting for the next session of teacher training. Today marks the first third of my six weeks here. Also the first time I have seen the sun on this trip. Two weeks in and we have finished sessions in Bago (monastery near Yangon, in the jungle) and in Sittwe, in Rakhine State near the Bangladeshi border. Of the two Sittwe (pronounced sit-way in Yangon, but sight-way locally) was the most successful.
We had 42 high school English teachers for 4 days, 5 hours a day (including lunch). Rakhine State is what the Burmese called Arrakan after conquering them in 1787. They are similar to Okinawa in that they have a rich heritage, but very little support (and lots of control) from the central government. They have a different language and different customs, along with different food from the Burmese. The Brits called the country Burma because the ethnic group around Yangon had that name. They pretty much ignored the other 129 ethnic groups. That continues to a certain degree.
This lack of support means that the acceptance rate for high school grads into university is the lowest among all states in Myanmar. The Education Minister of the region hopes that our training can help teachers raise entrance exam scores for students.
The classrooms were hot, sticky and noisy. We occasionally had to stop classes or do writing or reading when the pounding rain on the roof made conversation impossible. But the students were really motivated and most were open to new ideas. There have been rumblings in the Ministry about changing the entrance exam away from one that tested memory more than language. Teachers are ready. It was good timing.
Wake up early, pounding rain outside, novel until it gets light out. About 7 AM a bunch of teens unload a truck full of sand at the bungalow next door, under construction. We are literally at the end of the road and have to jump puddles to get to our place.
We wait for the pickup, but as breakfast approaches, we start walking and meet him just before arriving at “downtown”, two lanes with thatch covered roofs between, some of the most interesting wood carving I have ever seen, set up like an exhibit. At the bottom of the hill is the cafeteria, all open air, but with fans to blow the sweat around.
Breakfast of mohinga, traditional noodles and curry soup with lime and cilantro toppings, delicious. But also some dal chana (soybean curry) and chapati bread, which I get my fill of 3 helpings. Really good food here.
The classroom is also open air, about 50 meters down the road, but on the way we observe the assembly of the children’s school, with about 300 kids all lined up in their uniforms, lead in chanting by the most senior student. A sight to behold. Then they break, the older ones distribute flowers to the younger ones, and they all pay tribute to a pair of old ladies, donors to the school, lining up and giving them the flowers, about 200 of them.
It seems that the head monk here is a real businessman, promoting the wooden sculptures for sale, some for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has the masters training acolytes to make this sustainable. He buys land and puts up dormitories for the children, enlarging the school from a couple dozen 5 years ago when he came, to the current 400 or so. Next year’s target is 600. It is some of the teachers of these students we are training.
Class time arrives and we have 17 students. 13 are elementary school teachers, 5 of whom teach English. 4 are not teachers. Our target audience, high school English teachers, is nowhere to be seen. The organizers arrive 10 minutes after we have launched into class. They leave before we finish our first hour. We need to have a discussion. Likelihood of a return next year plummet.
We slog through the day, and the students enjoy it without really understanding. We decide to have fun and not worry about the learning. The philosophical attitude helps. At the end of the day, though, they say there are busy tomorrow morning and can’t come to class. We find out later there is a huge assembly of students from all over the area with a famous author (we shake hands at dinner, he is in the bungalow next door), speaking to 2,000 on youth concerns. So we have the morning off.
We take a short walk around the compound on the way back in the dark after dinner. Have to remember to bring a flashlight next time.
Frank gets up, shows me how the wifi doesn’t work. We spend the morning buying a phone to get hooked up. Three trips back to the store to get the network up and running. Soaked with seat. The phone was only $50, and buying $10 of time got me $10 extra. All set, but the battery runs down. We return to the building to find the power out. Which means no elevator. Now way 8 floors in this weather. We go get a snack.
I forgot how humid Yangon can be, as the torrential downpours of rainy season make me look forlornly at my athlete’s foot. Regular application of medicine helps. A little. Surprising how it can make an angry hot red painful infection that runs up the leg behind the ankle, but this is TMI.
2 hours later the electricity comes on, we return to the apartment, fiddle more with networks, and get packed. Our driver arrives at 4, nice Toyota with air conditioning. Best part of the day taking the 2-hour drive to the monastery in the jungle.
Except it is a 3-hour drive. Yangon traffic is jammed, and we take the road toward Golden Rock. The turn-off at Bago puts us on a muddy road that challenges the driver not to break an axel. Reminds me of the time of a college vacation trip with Lenny and friends to Lake Hudson in Canada to private undeveloped property, where we almost broke an axel.
Dark arrival at the monastery, huge, a small city really. We get dinner, delicious bean soup, rice, and half dozen curries. The head monk talks with us briefly, and the jocular assistant takes care of anything we need. We bed down in a huge bungalow a 5-minute walk from the center of the complex.
Leg is getting better, but the Yangon hack is back, a cough about half the people in Yangon have. The driver had it, but I don’t think it is catching. It is due to the pollution and crappy environmental factors, and may include things like mold.
August 2nd, last day of teaching an intensive summer course in Tokyo, and get my grades in after that. I have been going “a tope” (Spanish for “full out”) for 3 weeks while battling a foot infection (40.5, or 105 fever), not because I am an athlete, but because it attacks almost yearly in July during rainy season. Get the usual medicine, but it is a slow recovery.
Pack at night, and to the airport the next day. Super smooth connections on the express trains get me to the airport. Pick up my baggage (delivered the day before) and spy a money changer without a line, buy crisp $100 bills because those are the most accepted at the Myanmar money changers. No real way to change directly Yen to Kyat.
Immigration, no line, time to buy a couple of bottles of whiskey at Duty Free, one for Wunna, one for Moe. Dig into a new novel for the flight. Board and get a bulkhead seat with nobody next to me. We leave 15 minutes early and arrive half an hour early. I mistakenly get into the diplomat line, and the immigration person processes me anyway. Baggage comes through in record time and I am out into the lobby before Frank and Wunna arrive to pick me up.
The drive to dinner is remarkable only in the lack of things. The city is much improved, with far far fewer piles of garbage. Cleaner, and more cosmopolitan is my first impression. And the dogs, far fewer of them too.
On to Moe’s new restaurant, Rakhine food in a simple atmosphere, lots of tile and bright lights, looks like a cafeteria line, at the back, lots of trays of food, but they are brought to us. We have a pleasant dinner with the organizers of the program, Chang, Yin Law Mon, Wunna and Pyoe.
We finish up the pleasantries, I pay the multifaceted Moe, our restauranteur and travel agent, for the trips he has arranged for us during the next 6 weeks. Wunna drives us back to Frank’s place.
At this point Myanmar kicks in. Frank lives on the 8th floor of a newish building, next to Wunna’s building and next to the rice shop of a good friend. The elevator does not stop on his floor, so we go one floor up and lug the luggage down a flight of stairs.
Frank has lived in this 100m2 apartment for almost a year, but he has never moved in. Almost no furniture, beyond the what came with the flat. The two tables in the kitchen are piled with stuff, making them unusable. True bachelor life.
I roll into the futon on the floor, in the one room with air conditioning, and listen to the drip drip drip of the humidity pulled out of the air but with drainage blocked. Next morning I wait for Frank to wake up, more novel. Forgot to get the wifi password, so can’t tell my wife I have arrived.