Ukraine, Europe, the UK, and the US

Image from artidea.org

I am reading Timothy Snyder‘s book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (GuardianNYTimes review). It is incredibly depressing. I keep coming back to it because, as the Guardian says, it is “unignorable.”

Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale, longtime chronicler of Tyranny. I bought his book after listening to a very insightful interview at Slate with Jacob Weisberg.

Snyder outlines the tactics Vladimir Putin has used to gain control of Russia through destabilization and othering, and then export chaos around the world. Snyder postulates a dichotomy between nations and groups. Those that think progress is inevitable (like the EU proponents and US liberals) and those that feel we are running in circles for eternity (Russia and US conservatives).

I won’t get into details here on how Putin has risen to power and what the ramifications are. I am now reading the historical view of the Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russia and how Putin was able to start a war and take parts of the Ukraine. Especially depressing is looking at how all this starts to destabilize Europe, especially because they are not responding.

Putin tried the tactic that worked in Russia, demonizing homosexuals as agents of the West, bent on violating the “pure” Russia (Rus) built 1,000 years ago by Valdamarr (Volodemere) and rescued by the current Vladimir. (Funny, though, Valdemarr was from the Ukraine.) Since the Ukraine had enjoyed almost 2 decades of peace and was working on the rule of law, they (especially the young) were looking toward Europe. But as soon as Paul Manafort got Yakunovych into power, Russia tried to strong-arm then bribe, then worked to depose him. The people resisted, and continue to resist with a war that hobbles on. Putin’s main goal of destabilization and distrust of authority of the rule of law is slowly working, as we can see from this recent VICE account below.

If we look at the actions of Trump through this lens, it becomes clear that the main goal of Putin is extended, whether there is any collusion or not. More when I finish the book.

Altered Carbon: Bad Good SciFi

Netflix continues to push the envelope, with a greater variety of TV that appeals to a wider audience, especially one that has tired of typical fare. It is another golden age of TV, now called streaming video.

One example of this is Altered Carbon.  It is cheesy. The plot is a mess. It is a tale as old as the hills, set 350 years in the future. A world where your mind (and soul?) are downloaded and you use “sleeves” until they die. But you get put into another.

The story starts with an insurgent getting reawoken after 250 years on a hard disk, doing time. Oddly enough, he can operate and understand everyone without a hitch. There is gratuitous sex, lots of violence, way too much chop-sockey. And yet, it all hangs together.

Part of the charm is the cast, a very multi-national group. Long stretches of dialog occur in Spanish, German and other languages. One “sleeve” of the main character is the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (the assistant detective in The Killing), and his sister (as an adult) is one of my favorite actresses, Tibetan/Australian Dichen Lackmann. And a host of other not-so-well-known actors who try to breathe life into the weird script that is all over the place (sci-fi allows for lots of inserted backstory).

The other part is the worldbuilding. It is an interesting world that has consequences. That is an extremely hard thing to do, as Charles Stross points out. Even though he is an SF author, one of the reasons he no longer reads much SF is that the worldbuilding is not consistent. I don’t mind a few inconsistencies, if they propel the plot forward, as is the case of Altered Carbon, in its exploration of how death makes us human.

Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

Joan Didion Documentary

I fell in love with Joan Didion when I read The White Album. Maybe college, or shortly after. She was such a good observer. Wordmaster, yes. But above all, she was courageous. She reached down deep to the center of her being and pulled it out, and allowed everyone to see. The essay in The White Album about migraines. The one about water in California. The one about the Black Panthers, and then one about Doris Lessing. If we look carefully at the treatment of all these diverse subjects, we see her reflecting, shaping.

She continues revealing herself with this documentary on Netflix. She is frail, but her mind is still as sharp as ever. We get glimpses of the comedy and the tragedy of her life as her nephew feeds her questions to continue the dialog between her and the reader. Continually surprising (watch what she thinks about discovering a 5-year old on acid in the Haight (SF) of the 60’s). Yes, she is self-absorbed at times, but she is still observing and showing how she observes and tells it how it is, deep down, not just how it appears.

I have been lax, but am happy to be able to read her most recent 2 books even though they are real downers, about the tragedy and impermanence of life. Almost Buddhist. The title (The Center Will Not Hold) comes from a Yeats poem, The Second Coming (“the centre cannot hold”), which ends with the line about Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of the collection of Didion’s essays just before The White Album.

Marilynne Robinson and What Are We Doing Here?

I try hard to keep up with Marilynne Robinson and her writing. The book that made me think the hardest in the last decade got me turned on to her. No, I am not a masochist, even though I do keep returning to Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. She deftly drives right up the path where science and religion intermingle. Her Giliead trilogy is a remembrance of an austere midwest influenced by Protestantism and the dust bowl. With writing as sparse as Absence was rich, I was able to glimpse the breadth of her intellect. When I was a Child I Read Books is much more accessible, but a cautionary tale when we look at the direction of content being consumed today.

So when I saw her article on Humanism and thinking after the Enlightenment in the NY Review of Books, I was happy it was Sunday breakfast. An hour later, I came up for breath. What Are We Doing Here? looks at the control of information in the early days of publishing. With prose like “However, I am too aware of the ragged beast history has been to fret over the fact that its manners are not perfect yet. ” how can we resist getting that extra cup of coffee and listening to rain as we finish the long read. Taking the extra time is mirrored in her celebration of Liberal Arts. The meaning of liberal here is from libere, or free. Free to study, which has nothing to do with politics. Robinson:

It has given me an interesting life, allowing me all the time a novel requires and every resource for following the questions that arise as I work. I have enjoyed the company of young writers, and I have learned from them. I know that one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values. O tempora, o mores! But I find a great deal to respect.

The problem is that this “Liberal” is not working to make the rest of us, outside of the university, free. Robinson goes on to bemoan the current “eclipse” of humanism after its sunrise through authors like Walt Whitman and Keats. She looks at Competition (with a big C) and quietly advocates for a revolution of thinking about our purpose here. Humanities is a necessary opening of our thinking, the first real Big Data of our existence, but it is in danger from those who have influence and now the tools to create a Benthamist Panopticon, something we must run, at top speed, from.

The 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Luther on the church door in Wittenberg is next week, Wednesday, November 1. All this reminded me if we dialed back a couple of centuries, and listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast about the Rebellion of Munster in post-Luther society, we could actually see how a new media was causing terrible contortions, violence, and revolution in Europe. Not a pretty site. But between Marilynne Robinson and Dan Carlin, we can get perspectives on What Is Happening Now.

Myanmar Update

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Myanmar 2017 Day 2

Day 2

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.

Is “picting” a word? Should it be?

So you have “texting”, and a new–some would say equivalent–literacy of taking pictures, or “picting”.  Norris and Soloway argue that it is becoming more and more important.  To which I say, why not, then, “vidding” for the moving pictures, and “graffing” for those infographics, and “audding” for those sound clips (“podding” for podcasts?). Then there is “selfing” for those digital navel gazers. “Virching” for those new VR players, “augging” for those adding information to digital feeds (AR), and eventually, whatever comes with teledildonics. I don’t even want to think about that.

 

Digital Natives? Not in my class.

Digital Girl

This is the first week in class, which means signing up for a lot of websites to get set up. One site had instructions printed with the URL at the end of a sentence, like this: http://myurl.com. My students (young Japanese college students, mostly women), are masters on their phones. I suggested they bring their laptops to make things easier, but only 2 did.

I discovered that some don’t know what a URL is. Tim Berners-Lee would be proud. The guy who invented the world wide web never envisioned naked URLs, thinking they would always be embedded in hyper-links. The first problem is students entering the

The first problem today was students entering the web address in the Yahoo search engine. With many URLs entered in this broken web search of Yahoo, they yield no results. Yahoo and Internet Explorer are still popular here in Japan, the last country in the world with majority users.

If you use a good browser like Chrome, the search and URL window are the same. Not with Yahoo (and safari on the phone). But some of my students don’t know the difference.

The second problem is that students would copy the instructions exactly, so they were entering a URL with the period at the end. http://myurl.com. Reminds me of the days when we said: Enter the URL “http://myurl.com” (without quotes). I would suspect digital natives would understand how a URL works, and that there are no spaces. Which leads to another problem, entering usernames; some try to use spaces. Alas.

Fortunately, in our department, students get a Computer Skills class the first semester. Most of the problems happen when I teach students from other departments. After their semester in Boston, many are able to handle technology better.

Me? I am learning how to use mobile better.

Media Monday: A dilemma. No. Two dilemmas.

Up today: New and interesting Media finds. First dilemma: Which one first, and why are there only 24 hours in a day?

  1. A Netflix documentary about movie directors doing documentaries during the second world war. Sam Adams over at Slate magazine lets us in on a new short series (3 episodes) dealing with 5 famous directors (John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston) and how they “embedded” with the military before embedding was a word, during WW2, to make documentaries about the war, some having great political influence. The series comes with links to source materials, some of the original documentaries and more, so you can get lost for days.
  2. S-Town, a new podcast from This American Life’s Ira Glass and Serial’s Srah Koenig and it is better than both. An odd farmer writes an email to a journalist complaining about a coverup of a local murder. The journalist visits. The plot thickens. The local characters are beyond colorful. It is a podcast done right. Even Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig say so. Just finished the first chapter, you can download all seven. I have to wait for the weekend to binge.
  3. Out April 25: Walkaway, a novel by Cory Doctorow. He has been writing young adult fiction and non-fiction for years, but I like his fiction. One of the founders of BoingBoing and who I consider the most interesting poster on the most popular blog in the world, Doctorow is all about digital rights. This book is a departure, but the advance notice has been really good. I even bought a real hardback book, one signed by him.
  4. Out April 25: What Remains of Edith Finch. This is an utterly enticing mix of game and fiction, short stories about relatives of Edith, all of who end up dead, each leading to more discoveries, and to the inevitable end. Edith is the last one left. Read this Motherboard review that has me salivating. Second dilemma, it only works on Windows PCs or PlayStations. I have neither. Which should I get?This is good enough to buy a new platform.

Politics in Rural America. Some thoughts.

Movies: I really liked Hell or High Water, and Jeff Bridges does a great job at the understated role of the hero. I kept thinking about the younger brother in the main role, that I had seen him somewhere before. Looked him up and was surprised to see. His Texas accent was so natural, yet completely gone in his other role as a space ship captain.

Politics follows, read if you like.

But yes, the feelings of despair in rural areas, and willingness to try anything, are a sober wakeup call. Pair that with the opioid crisis killing 50,000 farmers a year (more than AIDS in its heyday), add the information filter of social media, group sociology like acceptance of blue lies, and you can see why J.D. Vance resonates. (Andrew Sullivan, first part of article). But in the words of a guy in a similar situation to Vance, Where was the outrage 30 years ago when the factories in the rust belt were imploding?
He is moving from Silicon Valley back to Ohio and looking for startups, working from home on his investments, and searching out new companies. Surprisingly, startup success is better in rural areas and small towns, better than urban areas. The problem is J.D. Vance doesn’t know anything about small rural startups.
James Fallows is writing a book about flying around the country in a Cessna and visiting these small towns and how vibrant they are. Should be ready by the fall, but he has posted a lot of it in blog form at the Atlantic. So it is not as simple as pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
Oh, and for those who like to listen, on a different topic, is John Dickerson (Face the Nation) who does a wonderful audio podcast (Dad, try these out) at Slate called Whistle Stop. He used to do reflections back on past campaigns, but now it is historical echoes of current topics. He covers the Bricker Amendment and how the isolationists were battling the internationalist elites to try to pare the power of the president (Eisenhower) and how Lyndon Johnson was so masterful in getting its proponents to shoot themselves in the foot.

Wolfe on Darwin and Chomsky

I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.

I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.

Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.

Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.

Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists.  An example:

Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.

High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.

Ballot sent

largeAlthough I had some reservations, I now see that Hillary Clinton may be our best President ever. She is certainly the most capable administrator ever elected to the highest office. Unfortunately, she needs work as a candidate. But she has come a long way through her three debates, and is likely to triumph. Key, though, is the ability to take the win downballot, to the Senate and House, and make gains (or better, a majority) there, to punish the Republicans for 20 years of racism and inaction.

I could go on here, but find this guy, a leftist, outlines my position better than I could.

Colorado had a three interesting initiatives on the ballot, all of which I voted for. Single Payer healthcare, no slavery for prison labor, and making initiatives on the ballot more difficult to create. Will let you know the total results after the election.

Voting on Convictions

the-strategy-1080536_640I am usually a strategic voter. I sometimes switch to the Republican party so I can vote against the wingnuts in the primaries, as the chance a local Democrat getting elected are pretty close to nil (in Loveland, Colorado). I have been political since helping Dad deliver Kennedy brochures as a tiny kid to the ward where he was the Democratic precinct captain. Seeing Hubert Humphrey lose to Richard Nixon was an eye-opener. Watching McGovern go down in flames consolidated a real fear of voting with too much conviction and not enough strategy. Worst was to see Al Gore lose the squeaker to G.W., and I do blame the 3% that Nader garnered.

Sure there was Jimmy Carter, one of the best presidents and probably the best person to ever hold the office. Read some of his books. But you know how that ended. When Reagan waltzed into office, I was already overseas in Barcelona. I returned for a graduate degree but did not stay. I have watched the decline of America from afar, in Tokyo. Sure, I contributed, many times to the Obama campaign. Worked as much as I could to get the word out. He has done as much as possible in a system that has become dysfunctional.

hillary-41775_640Hillary has always seemed the logical extension of this run. She has balls. She is a scrapper. She is smart, and resilient. She knows the ins-and-outs of the system. She will get things done. And she will make history as the first woman president.

I agree with Bernie Sanders on almost every point in his platform. He is a good thinker, and presents his ideas well. I am worried, though, that he would be another Carter. And the right is more aligned than in the late 70’s. It is a different ballgame. When the rubber meets the road, I am not so sure he would be able to deliver. He expects a revolution, with a surge of young liberals voting their conscious. But if it were a true revolution, why is he wasting his time on a nomination? He doesn’t play well with others, is a real independent and not really a Democrat. Sure, the 2-party system is another thing that needs drastic overhaul, superdelegates and about 30 other quirks that help inside-the-beltway candidates. But this is the system we have to work with.

But for the first time in a long time, I understand why people vote on their convictions, even without a real chance of electing a winner. Those that vote against their own economic self-interest because they believe in something one candidate has done or said. A moral stand. Pure and simple.

When I found out Bernie Sanders was a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam war, my opinion of him jumped a couple of notches. I have done the same thing, albeit during the last year of the draft (thank you, Jimmy Carter, for canceling that.) CIMG2923But it was the latest exchange in the debate between Sanders and Clinton that has swayed me completely. It involves Henry Kissinger, who I have long considered a war criminal. This has only grown stronger over the years, this feeling that a corrupt man in a corrupt administration has been let off in the eyes of history. My visit to the killing fields in Cambodia last year sharpened this feeling as I learned the role the US had in the catastrophe.

So when Hillary embraced Kissinger and Bernie clearly rejected him, it left me with no choice. I am a pacifist. It is one of the reasons I came to Japan to live. I can no longer support Hillary Clinton for President. Looking back after my decision, I now see how many other areas Hillary has compromised on so much that she reminds me of a character out of Macbeth.

Now comes the hard part. How to ensure that Mr. Sanders becomes Mr. President. He is not very electable. He doesn’t compromise. Sometimes that strength can become a weakness. But I am now looking for the best way to contribute to the campaign.

bernie-sandersIn the last couple of days, I have discovered that there are signs Bernie could get nominated (the most difficult step), and then go on to get elected (easier, considering the field he is running against). Most promising is the amount of funds from small donors. Beating Obama’s record. Most difficult for him is getting the media onboard. You need a dirty fight for that.

But here’s to hoping that conscience and strategy can work together. Feel the Bern.

 

Going to Myanmar this summer

Tingles. Frank emails me back with a short message, and it is so good to have someone on the ground teaching classes in Yangon to communicate with, to get solid information so early.

For those here the first time, I went to Myanmar as a volunteer teacher trainer twice in 2014. The first time through Friendship Force with family and friends. I invited good friend Frank along and we spent 10 wonderful days teaching in a monastery. Frank and I returned in August (supported by JALT this time) and spent a whole month teacher training, and expanded our network of connections.

140802PGardenTeachers3

Frank returned in the fall of 2015 and has been working there since, not just volunteering. He works most closely with Ko Wunna, a businessman who sponsors some of the free schools in the NLD network, the political party that won a landslide victory last fall, and is now in power. Opening up the country.

That is why we have a larger need than before. Growth is accelerating.

The plan is for a group of 3-10 volunteer EFL teachers to do a short 3-5 day intensive course in Communicative Language Teaching, repeated four times, in four different cities in Myanmar. This will happen either in August or September, or maybe both, depending on arrangements.

As details get consolidated by our hosts, the NLD Education Network, I will be working to consolidate a list of committed volunteers.

Myanmar is a developing country, and while Yangon is relatively cosmopolitan, expect rougher conditions outside. Myanmar is warm all year round, 30 degrees (about 90) and the summer is rainy. Food is basic, mostly fried, but can be spicy. Hard to find wifi and air conditioning.

But the people are exciting and wonderful, full of expectation and a real feeling of hope. This was even before the election. I can’t wait to get back to see how it is.

If you are interested, please contact me. You will need to pay for hotels ($40 a night, minimum) and meals during the month, and maybe even transportation between the cities. Food is cheap unless you want foreign stuff. And of course, your flight in. For me, from Tokyo, I plan to spend about $2,000 for the month.

We will be looking for places to get support first for buying and shipping teaching materials, then to defray some of those costs above.

Lots of work, but well worth it. I plan to fold in some research on using the Internet for audio delivery and compare that with students in Japan, see who benefits the most. See a slide show of what we did in 2014.

 

Tired of Mr, Mrs, Ms? Why not Mx?

moto-cross-214937_640No, not motocross, which is what we used when I was a teen on a bike.

This is a salutation, a title. The only time I use this in English any more is when I sign up to present at a conference. Some organizations insist I pick a title. But now on to the crux of the matter.

Why not use Mx for everything? I didn’t realize that sex-based titles have only been around since the mid-1800’s. Go figure. Before that they were mostly about class and status. Read more about this over at Language: A Feminist Guide.

 

New Science Fiction with an old twist

Kurt Vonnegut

I am having a ball. Reading fiction again. Short stories nonetheless. Science Fiction. All because of Neal Stephenson.

It was mostly detective novels in junior high, but when I got to high school, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein got me hooked on science fiction. I wanted to be a chemist and felt science was the best thing man had created. We had just walked on the moon, and I was ready to follow. I told my 6th-grade teacher I would be on the moon before the new millennium. I only got to Japan, but that is pretty close.

Asimov, the Foundation Trilogy. The Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert, with the extra couple tacked on. Cycle back to the new Vonnegut, less science, more fiction. I credit him as much as my church for the decision to be a Conscientious Objector, refusing to go to Vietnam.

Mid-career took me away to Tom Clancy and Stephen King, still fiction, but light. Oh so light. I was busy raising a family. Then on to non-fiction. I have drifted into almost exclusive non-fiction until about a year ago. Not sure what happened. Maybe I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Retirement. I can see all the non-fiction was good, but not so sure it helped a lot. I know a lot of things.

So some Thomas Pynchon last year, and I did a course in poetry. I am starting to “get” poetry. Just have to keep at it.

31KQ4hL96SL._UX250_Don’t get me wrong, but there has been one big exception, the James Joyce of our day, Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon is my favorite. The Baroque Cycle the most rewarding. I read everything he writes, down to branching fiction about sword-fighting on a website (Mongoliad). Last year, Seveneves came out and it was more science than in a long time. Some great new concepts about the world too.

Best of all, he has been involved in the Project Heiroglyph, based at Arizona State University. The goal of the project is to bring back science fiction from its current state of common dystopia to something that works closer with scientists, to stimulate and be stimulated, to advance the human race. The first book came out over the summer, and I bought it, but only started reading yesterday. Can’t put it down, except to write this. Good thing my classes are all prepared.

The first story is by Stephenson, about building a skyscraper…..actually a skypuncturer. Twenty kilometers high, this building goes right up into space. A crazy billionaire starts the project and has his ashes taken up to the top to get sprinkled, just as an unforeseen event occurs. Typical Stephenson, but with a tack that feels good.

Kathleen-Ann-Goonan-Credit-Joseph-Mansy3-206x300The second story is by Kathleen Ann Goonan and it blows me away. Illiteracy is a disease. It gets cured. The guinea pigs are the dyslexics, and a little girl is the hero. Eventually, the treatment to improve brain function no longer needs drugs, but just mental stimulation from one to another. When everyone can read, it changes how people interact. Fear falls away. Education goes away, learning triumphs. I don’t want to spoil it, but I just bought her other books, and both volumes of Arc Magazine. See you in April.

 

Netflix in Japan, Death and Comedy

OK, I now understand why Netflix is such a big success. Sure, people said that the all-you-can-eat model helps, and now with “binge-watching” of entire seasons of TV, Netflix is the perfect delivery mechanism. So when it came to Japan last September, I signed up. I watched a few shows, but did not get rolling until New Year Vacation.

NetflixI am a documentary addict, so when Making of a Murderer came out, I was there. The problem is, you can’t binge watch a documentary, especially one like this, unless you want to blow your brains out. I am about 2/3 the way through this tale of two trials of one man, initially convicted for rape, serving 18 years before being exonerated by DNA tests. As soon as he gets out, he sues the police, and lo and behold, he gets charged with murder this time. The parallels between the two trials are amazing.

I vacillate between the horror of the banality of evil and the stupidity of so many of the people in this story. The family of the persecuted and prosecuted Steven all seem to have an IQ of about 70. But the police and DAs, along with state officials and even the FBI don’t seem much better. Are they covering their ass or is he really guilty. Like any good story (see the podcast Serial, season 1 for inspiration), the perception goes back and forth. The whole thing is set 100 miles north of where I grew up, in rural Manitowoc County in Wisconsin the midwest US. My aunt lives not far away. They all have Wisconsin accents (never realized there was such a thing, until I saw this movie, after living abroad so long).

Netflix 2So, to avoid blowing my brains out, I would watch 1 episode of the documentary, and sandwich in a comedy. Sherbet for the palate. Yesterday I watch Iliza Schlesinger rock Denver in a one-hour stand-up routine about women and relationships. Great stuff. But today, after more trials, tribulations, and documentary, I see John Mulaney, The Comeback Kid. John is playing at a theater downtown Chicago, looks like the Drake Hotel. Curved ceilings and all. But I find he is from Chicago. Catholic family. 4 kids. The parallels are awesome, and so is his humor. Side-splitting. Gotta see it. Really.

 

Now back to my murder.

The Graduation Thesis: Insufficient and Outmoded

This the title of a recent article I wrote for my university research journal (Gakuen). In it, I advocate for subsuming the Graduation Thesis, common here in Japan among undergraduates, among a collection of other possible ways for demonstrating ability to work in a field. Notice how I don’t use the word “mastery”, as that is not really possible in a foreign language at the undergraduate level (I work in the English Department).

This collection of what I call Graduation Projects (sometimes called Capstone Projects) could entail a variety of different ways to demonstrate that one can use tools (not understand a field), as tools and skills are what will be needed in this world with the entire sum of human knowledge is constantly at our fingertips (OK, I exaggerate, but not by much). Knowing stuff is no longer as important as being able to learn new stuff by yourself.

Read more about it in the article which I have attached here. Another thing I argue for is that all students should learn programming, or at least enough to be able to understand the thinking behind programming. Authoring is no longer just about writing words, and the people who program are creating a world that the rest of humanity has to live in (or will have to live in, soon). So if you want to control your creative production, you have to learn how to program.

Since the article came out, a number of new events have reinforced the points I made. The most popular major among women at Stanford is Computer Science, along with the most popular course at Harvard, Computer Science. A recent article is going viral about how virtual classes can be better than real ones. Another thing I advocate is for Open Source Publishing, or Open Education Resources, and now the entire staff from a linguistics journal has quit Elsevier in protest over the policies that make huge profits selling things produced at universities back to the faculties.

Lots more issues, but no time here. Let me attach my article, maybe we can get a discussion going.

Ryan Gakuen Oct 2015 Grad Thesis Outmoded

Frank in Myanmar

FrankKevin201408 On this most momentous day the first real democratic elections in Myanmar are happening. Frank Berberich, sends a message:

Yes, I’m very glad to be here now. The run-up over the last few months has been noisy and intense. The “Reds” (NLD) supporters seem to vastly outnumber the government “Greens”.

Today, it’s quiet on the streets, though, so a very easy trip to AA (six members!). Many shops closed, but lots of people lined up at schools for voting. One of our two Burmese members proudly showed us the ink on his little finger–the badge of a voter having done the citizen’s duty.

Many people on the street, shopping, drinking tea, talking, taxis and buses mostly, but not nearly so noisy. If only this were normal…. Some fears about possible problems as the results start coming out, but no bulletins from the Embassy so far.

I sent Wunna a note of congratulations on this historic day. Whatever the outcome, I hope it is “free and fair”, and I feel privileged to be here as this wonderful, but so long abused, place struggles to find its way into democracy.