Day 54: Pledging Confusion To The Flags Of Burma

originally published February 23, 2012

Flags can tell a lot about a nation’s history. And the story is always that much more interesting when the nation in question has a history as full of defeat, imperialism and international bitch-slapping as Burma.

This is the Golden Hintha flag, used by Burma from about 1300 to 1500. The Hintha (also called the Hamsa) is an aquatic bird, considered to be similar to a goose or a swan. It looks like a chicken to me, but I suppose that may be offensive to Burmans. No, forget that, this bird hasn’t been the country’s symbol for more than 500 years. It’s a chicken. Sorry Burmans, but you used to be symbolized by a chicken.

Around this time the nation was ruled by a series of unsuccessful kingdoms, including one called the Mons, who had apparently named themselves after the “fleshy eminence atop the vaginal opening”. Suddenly a chicken mascot doesn’t sound so bad.

In 1752, Burma upgraded to the peacock. At this time the region was at the mercy of the Konbaung Dynasty. Within five years the Konbaungs had reunited the entire nation. It was a delightful affair, lots of hugs, and the caterers brought a fine assortment of pastries. Burma was peaceful for about three years before starting up about 125 years of warfare with Siam, China and Britain.

This was not a pleasant time to be living in eastern Asia. Now that I think of it, the 1700s was not a pleasant time to be living anywhere. For Burma, the 1800s weren’t any better. In 1878 King Mindon made peace with the British, only to then flee the palace when two of his sons decided to stage a rebellion in protest. Thibaw, one of these sons, took control of the throne, and the third Anglo-Burmese War began.

That’s right, Thibaw looked at the Burmese, then he looked at the British at the height of their Empire and thought, “Yeah. We can take ‘em.” He held out an impressive seven years before the British won and kicked the peacock to the curb, replacing it with this flag:

Strangely, the Burmese were less than thrilled at being a British colony. Riots ensued, and Buddhist monks became the symbol of the independence movement. In the late 30s, Burma became a “separately administered colony”, which meant that they got their own Prime Minister, and were allowed to change their flag again, this time allowing the peacock to return, though clearly as the subservient bitch of the Union Jack:

Then came World War II. Burma was conveniently located in between British-run India and Japanese-run Japan, with Japanese-hating China right around the corner. It wasn’t pretty. By 1942 the British were defeated, and Burma became a Japanese puppet-state. Replacing millions of Burmese people with Japanese puppets wasn’t easy (the demands on the felt industry alone were untenable), but they tried. They even established a new flag:

Of course, the Japanese occupation didn’t take. I’m sure the Burmese were thrilled to see the war end, since the four ethnic and/or governmental Burmese armies were split in allegiance between the Japanese and Allied forces. Burma looked like Mad Max country by the time that mess was done. They needed another flag.

This flag commemorates the Union of Burma as a wholly independent country after 1948. One big star to commemorate the Union, five smaller stars to signify the five ethnic groups within the state that they felt deserved recognition over the other 130 or so who did not. I believe one of the honored groups was the Wookiee.

So a new Union means peace, right? Of course not, I still have 400 words left. They held democratic elections and even had their representative to the UN, U Thant, get bumped up to Secretary-General of the United Nations. The following year, in 1962, Burma went back to kicking itself in the ass.

A military coup d’etat booted out common sense and replaced it with an aspiring socialist government. Everything was nationalized, and the new government combined “Soviet-style nationalization and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs.” Brilliant strategy.

Feeling that their transition period was successful, and having successfully downgraded Burma from ‘rebuilding’ to ‘impoverished as hell’, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was instituted in 1974. Of course, that meant a new flag:

Lest that globby configuration in the corner confuse you, that’s a machine gear encircling a rice plant. The fourteen stars represent the 14 states. The red part represents the color red.

When the Burmese government wasn’t busy shooting protesting students or transforming the nation’s landscape from an impoverished wasteland into a socialist impoverished wasteland, they were… actually no, that’s about all they did.

In 1988 the pro-democracy demonstrations were escalating. It wasn’t a great time to be a socialist, and something called the 8888 Uprising (which launched on August 8, 1988 – I know, hey?) led to another coup. Security forces were murdering thousands of demonstrators, but a military uprising installed the State Law & Order (SVU) Restoration Council, which led to the first free elections in 30 years.

Hooray! Except, no. The new boss was indeed the same as the old boss, and they refused to give up power to the newly elected Burmites. They did adopt a new name, the Union of Myanmar, but no new flag and no new democracy. Things held pretty steady to the status quo until about 2007. That’s when the Monks of Ass-Kickitude stepped in.

That’s right. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She was the woman who should have been head of the nation after the 1990 elections, and she had a Nobel Peace Prize and (for some reason) an honorary citizenship of Canada to her name. The Buddhist monks were pissed (as much as Buddhism allows, I guess), and they staged a demonstration at the gates of her home.

The military stepped in and killed a bunch of monks, which really helped to turn public opinion against the assholes running the nation. General elections were held in 2010, and liberal democracy, complete with a mixed economy and a New Golden Age of election fraud, happened shortly thereafter. As did their new flag, pictured below. According to the Wiki page, the three colors of the stripes are meant to signify solidarity, peace, tranquility, courage and decisiveness. Five meanings, three colors, one star, probably because they’re huge Tony Romo fans in Myanmar.

Day 34: Uncovering Unschooling

originally published February 3, 2012

When I was in school – the first time, back when it was an age-appropriate activity and not simply an opportunity to be the “creepy old guy” at the back of my University classes – I would have relished the opportunity to be unschooled.

Unschooling is not about liberating kids from the tyranny of learning, nor is it the same thing as home-schooling. The ideas behind unschooling are that kids would learn best when allowed to learn “naturally”, through life experiences, playing, working, and interacting socially. Sounds a lot better than sitting through a quadratic equations unit in math class.

Educator John Holt came up with the term ‘unschooling’ in the 1970s. On first glance, it strikes me as a predictable result of the baby-boomers having school-age love-children and an abundance of available Quaaludes. Schools were designed by “the man” to “rigidly pigeon-hole you” and “bring down your vibes.” Unschooling allows kids to frolic, to learn from the school of reality. It’s a real trip, man.

I, for instance, learned all I needed to know about marine biology from listening to Country Joe & The Fish.

A number of philosophies are at work in John Holt’s ideas. First he says that kids are natural learners. Well, I can’t argue with that. Kids tend to want to know things, to keep up with their parents and eventually surpass their technological skills and make them feel like a doofus who should still be punching all-caps letters onto a green screen.

Unschoolers believe that opportunities for real hands-on learning can’t take place inside a school. I agree with this, if you want your kids only to learn things like hot-air ballooning and sand-dune surfing, but if you’re hoping they can someday put together a coherent sentence in writing, then maybe a school’s not such a bad place. It seems to me that the chance to learn non-school stuff is plentiful, or it has been since the invention of the weekend. And the summer.

I sure as hell didn’t learn about Warp Zones in any accredited learning facility.

Children do not all learn the same way, this is the next piece of philosophy espoused by unschoolers. This is actually a tough one to pick apart. Kids do learn in different ways, and a lot of schools don’t take advantage of this. But if a parent is really concerned about their child’s unusual learning style (“Timmy can only learn biology by his sense of taste. He needs to lick an actual amoeba, and the local school will not cooperate.”), this sounds more like an argument for home-schooling.

The difference between home-schooling and unschooling is significant. Home-schooling implies there is a curriculum, and that a ten-year-old kid learning at home should end up with the same general knowledge and education as a kid who went to fifth grade (though the former should have a much more impressive grasp on how much things cost, particularly if lunch break was synchronous with The Price Is Right). The unschooled kid is not held by those restrictions.

If your final grade is a rainbow, you are being unschooled.

Johnny has trouble with math? He’ll learn at his own pace, so he might not learn long division until he’s fourteen. Or eighteen. Or never. Suzie doesn’t have any interest in history, so she directs her goals toward learning other things, and is one day shocked to learn there have actually been two world wars.

There are developmental differences between children. Some kids start walking at eight months, others start at fifteen. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect kids to learn things at the same time – some kids will read chapter books at age seven, others might still be scanning Maxim Magazine for the little jokes in the margins and the pictures of boobs at age 37.

Don’t judge.

Again, this is a point I agree with. Kids can get bored when they already know what’s being taught, while others are trying to climb a muddy slope to keep up with a barrage of new concepts they can’t quite understand. It’s difficult, and our education system lets too many people fall through the cracks at either end of the scale. But again, this is an argument for home-schooling. Curricula still need to exist.

Think of Shakespeare. How many kids aged 14 through 18 would voluntarily want to learn Shakespeare? Okay, some would, but we’re talking five percent maybe. His stuff is difficult to read and easy to get completely cluelessly lost in. But shouldn’t every kid get shoved into it? Like him or not, Shakespeare’s writing has influenced… well, pretty much everything that’s come since. Or big chunks of everything – I’m not sure the connection between his work and Jersey Shore has been found yet.

“[I] must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” – Hamlet

Back to the tenets of unschooling. John Holt argues that there is not a particular body of knowledge that everyone should possess. It’s more important that kids learn how to learn, then apply that ability to what’s really important to them. Okay, this would do wonders for the future of the video game industry, I’ll grant you that. But there has to be a certain base level of knowledge of things like geography, history, reading ability, math, and so on, for a person to be functional in society.

I’d add the arts to the above list too, though I think unschooling would naturally allow kids to learn more about the arts than any current western school system currently does. This is actually the strongest argument in favor of unschooling.

Then there’s the parental involvement. I applaud anyone who has the time and patience to devote themselves to quality home-schoolery. It has become increasingly difficult for families to try this approach with our current economy, but it can be a really great thing. However in unschooling, parents’ involvement is more about helping kids make their goals about what to learn, then assisting their navigation through those goals.

I assume there’s an exception if your 8-year-old announces they’re ready to learn how to drive.

My question to these parents would be this. If your kid wants to be a doctor, eventually he or she will have to apply to a medical school. If you allow your kid to grow up as an ‘unschooler’, how on earth will they gain admission? There may be a way, but it’s going to be a monstrous friggin’ hurdle to get over.

Were I to be writing 2000 words, I could go into a lengthy rant on how our current education system should be re-worked. But I won’t. I’ll give a few spoilers though… every kid needs to learn what good and bad music/books/movies are, and why they are bad and should not be supported… enough with the fucking calculus already… Not Being A Dick When You Drive should be a high school course… and this website should be turned into a mandatory text book.

But as much work as it needs, we still need an education system. Unschooling should have gone out of style along with ‘ludes and key parties.

Day 1: The Hole in Phineas Gage’s Head

originally published January 1, 2012

Since nothing sells better than graphic sex and nauseating violence, I was hoping Wikipedia would help me launch this project with something juicy. I tried to weave a sexy yarn into some prose about the Rugby Club Pobednik, but I was starting to creep myself out. Luckily, another click of the mouse brought me to Mr. Phineas P. Gage, the tamping-iron-through-the-head-guy. Perfect.

In 1848 Gage was a grunt worker in a work gang, laying down the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, a small line in the American northeast. Phineas was part of the blasting crew, which he no doubt hooked up with so he could pick up chicks (or whatever girls were called in the 1840s). He was 25, he was the crew foreman; Gage had it going on.

Pictured: A surefire chick magnet

I like the part of disaster bios when they paint the victim’s picturesque, ideal life before the incident, so I’m going to stretch this out. Let’s see… Gage had just won a case of sarsaparilla by betting on a cockfight tournament. His years-long letter-writing campaigns to establish both Wisconsin as a state and bring about the end of the Mexican-American War had recently been successful. Also, he had train tickets to head out to California to pan for gold ahead of the big rush, leaving on September 14.

There, that sounded convincing. All was rosy and glorious – everything was coming up Phineas. Then, on the afternoon of September 13, right as Gage was reflecting on his good fortune (and, for the sake of drama, let’s say he was also planning on releasing some dirty information that would have crippled Zachary Taylor’s current presidential campaign), it happened.

And it was probably Zach Taylor’s fault.

Gage had stuffed blasting powder into a hole in a rock, and was in the process of using a three-and-a-half-foot iron tamping rod to pack it in. The powder exploded, and the tamping rod –which was about an inch and a quarter in diameter – flew up through Gage’s head, then in a wide arc, landing about 80 feet away where it impaled a small squirrel. (Not really, but how cool would that be?)

This part of the story, as one might expect, gets a little grotesque. Gage was speaking within a few minutes. He stood up and walked unaided, then sat upright for the ride home. He even flipped off a construction worker and made a comment about how the chilly weather ‘goes right through you’. The tamping rod, which the report describes in classic old-timey medical journal-speak as “an abrupt and intrusive visitor”, was found “smeared with blood and brain.” Some lucky bastard retrieved it, possibly hoping to use it to invent eBay.

In Rod We Trust

Gage was medivacked via horse and buggy to his home. Dr. Edward H. Williams was the first physician on the scene. He tells how Gage was describing the story to the bystanders who had gathered in his bedroom, probably practicing for the numerous saloons he’d enthrall in the future. Doc Williams (because calling him that sounds more 1840’s-ish) then describes how Gage threw up, which pressed out about  “half a teacupful” of his brain onto the floor.

Dr. John Martyn Harlow took over the case about an hour later, most likely because Doc Williams was freaked the hell out. Doc Harlow was impressed at Gage’s lucidity: he recognized the Doc, and hoped casually that he wasn’t much hurt. Doc Harlow’s report contains one of the most singularly excellent sentences of this entire article: “His person, and the bed on which he was laid, were literally one gore of blood.” I’ve never heard the word ‘gore’ as a numerical quantifying measurement, but damn if it doesn’t work.

This world is three Gores away from environmental catastrophe.

Gage was near comatose as he recovered, but within two months he was up and walking around. The rod had entered his skull under his left cheekbone, shot up behind his left eye, then out through the top of his head. He had partial paralysis in his face, no sight out of his left eye, and he had lost the ability to pronounce the word ‘tapioca’.

There were personality changes of course – this case is notable in the field of brain study for a reason. He started swearing more often (and who could blame him), became fitfully impatient, and began devising elaborate plans for his future which were swiftly dropped when his attention shifted. One of Doc Harlow’s observations described Gage as having “the animal passions of a strong man.” So, there’s the tagline for the movie.

Gage’s legend was even more impressive than the truth – stories circulated about his refusal to hold a job, his gambling and thievery, his molesting young children. None of these stories are based in fact, and they did nothing but cloud the work of the doctors who were trying to figure out just how a person can survive with a well-ventilated left-frontal lobe.

While doctors and, yes, phrenologists (an article of weirdness unto itself) turned the facts about Gage and the myths about Gage into a sloppy and incomprehensible Phineas stew, the man himself had to keep on living. He returned to the railroad, but it didn’t work out. P.T. Barnum, always on the lookout for people who have had items propelled through their heads, exhibited Gage around New England for a while.

Gage worked for a livery stable in New Hampshire (where I’m sure he stabilized numerous livers), then headed down to Chile where he worked as a stagecoach driver. Keep in mind, the tamping rod never left Gage’s possession; the photo above features the actual object of his notoriety. There’s an unconfirmed rumor that Gage was buried with the rod, but no one has dug him up to check.

Might be kind of cool though.

His health began to falter in 1859, and Gage moved from Chile to San Francisco to live with his mother and sister (and presumably to look forlornly upon the gold rush he missed out on by one day, unless I just made that part up). He did some farm work, then suffered from severe convulsions which killed him in 1860. Doc Harlow had the skull exhumed, and it now sits in the Warren Anatomical Museum, part of Harvard’s Medical School.

There is a lesson to be learned in this, perhaps about care and precaution when working with explosives, possibly about keeping medical papers free of myth and colorful language. Mostly I think we just learned about the most bad-ass exhibit in Harvard, and why I need to go there to gawk at it. I’d set out next week, but my schedule is just a gore of appointments.

Did I use that right?