Fiction and Non in Yangon

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.

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.