2014-06-29

planning out the speed force

So this year my daughter wanted a costume for DragonCon as well as my son, and after much thought we've all decided to go together as different members of the Flash family. Nora will be Impulse Irey West, Joe will be Kid Flash Wally West, and I'll go as the original old man Flash Jay Garrick (mainly because he doesn't wear tights, and I think I can actually make his costume look good without feeling ridiculous, which is likely, or becoming a bodybuilder in the next few months, which is unlikely).

Planning this out for the three of us is more fun that I ever imagined it would be. It takes a lot of thought to make these from scratch, so it's a summer-long project that we can all work on together here and there. I am having a blast with it. I never thought I'd dress up with them, but doing three similar costumes at once is making it even better, and this way we can join the parade if they want to.

That's Joe's Kid Flash at position #3, Nora's Impulse at #6,
and my original Flash on the far right at #7.
Yeah, we're not interested in those two guys in the middle right now.

One of the great things about comics characters is that there are so many variations of them that you can sort of pick and choose which parts of the costumes that you like. Nora wants hers to look pretty much just like the photo above, but Joe and I have been thinking more about the practical. I'm also trying to stay under about $150 total, which means we have to shop around a good bit.

2014-02-15

What are we really expected to learn from this?

I've been re-learning some history lately, and picking up some new things as well, from my son’s 4th grade homework and studies. Most of it is general information about the Indian tribes that once lived in Georgia, but I’m also taking another look at what he is (and I was) taught.

On around Columbus Day, when he was learning about the explorer, I taught him about the ruthless and murderous villain that Columbus was as well. The villain story is much more interesting and violent, so he shared it with his class. The only surprise for me about this was that no one seemed to believe him, and even his teacher said she wasn't familiar with that story.

In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised me at all, because history lessons aren't designed for two important things that I've come to expect. They aren't intended to be interesting, or to be accurate.

I don’t mean that many teachers don’t work very hard at making history interesting and accurate. They do, but they do it on their own. As taught, that is not the point of the classes.

History classes are intended to give you the same basic information that a moderately educated person is expected to have. The point is to give a reference, or starting point, for a broader discussion. By its nature, that approach is shallow and boring, because it never takes you into the motivations of historical figures.

This may already be obvious to everyone else, but it’s a small revelation to me. We weren’t expected to learn anything to apply to life, but to simply be conversant in what others are also expected to know.

So we all learned that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but must seek out at a later time that he and his men viciously murdered thousands of people. We learn about friendly Squanto meeting Pilgrims, but not the kidnapping, fascinating world travels and difficult journey home he had before that. Essentially, we are meant to learn about who existed and when, but not their motivations or the context of their actions, because that isn't a part of today’s common knowledge.

--

This isn’t much different from mainstream news, and I think our primary education sets us up to be uncritical consumers, and to expect (and even seek) the same sort of information as adults.

 I’ve always wondered why evening newscasts show almost exactly the same stories, only even varying the order on occasion if they have special insight or reporting. This ends up meaning that people choose channels based on which news anchor they like to watch, because substance has no bearing if it is mostly the same. Even CNN and other “news channels” bring us the same stories over and over that we will find elsewhere.

In a way, it’s a bandwagon that the outlets all must jump aboard. It has become a little dangerous for media companies to get out in front of everyone else with new stories and independent research, or producers and editors will risk resources having to defend their reporters against public outrage. Excellence is risky, so competence is the goal. This is similar to a school curriculum in a way, where new research or fascinating stories would likely be met with anger and skepticism by parents. In this light, great reporters are much like great teachers, going out of their way to tell important and critical stories within the system they occupy, but unable to get very much past their management.

When FOX News came along they brought something slightly different. They focus on different stories and narratives, ones that are important to Roger Ailes. But instead of staying off to the side, their new model changed the stories that viewers are “expected” to know. If network outlets ignore the FOX reports, then their viewers may not be aware on a basic level of the same stories as FOX watchers. As a result, FOX’s entry shifted the entire mainstream media to the right.

To be fair, FOX didn't do this alone. An entire nationwide network of radio hosts and columnists focus on these same items at the same time. Some appear to be fabricated out of whole cloth, and so they are reported in mainstream outlets as “some-say” stories without research or debunking. This keeps us all informed that a story is being reported, but tells us nothing about the truth of it. It also isn't particularly interesting when presented without the outrage. So viewers go back to the interesting channel, FOX.
As with primary school history lessons, part of the reason for this is time, but it also serves the same purpose as the history lessons. It is boring and inaccurate, but it provides what a moderately informed person is expected to know.

CNN, whether learning from FOX or not, now has personalities like Nancy Grace focusing on the legal problems of specific individuals for months at a time. As a result, we see her personal obsessions, as irrelevant as they are to most of the nation, seeping into other network news on the same nights, just as the FOX obsessions do.

--

What doesn't seem to be happening is any sort of deeper story making its way into the nightly news or national discussion, but not only because it simply isn't possible.

Because knowledge is not the purpose. The purpose is to provide us with just barely enough information to keep from looking clueless during conversations.

If the country's primary news sources (and my kids' history classes) share something different or deviate from outdated narratives, that model falls apart.

2013-05-19

Smarter from a third-grader

My son is finishing up the third grade this week, and he has a few projects to wrap up. The last one is on Greek mythology. Tomorrow his class has "Sculpture Garden" where he will stand outside like a sculpture of Hermes until someone taps on a box that's in front of him. Then he will tell, as Hermes, his life story.

Hermes' gold-painted Vans modified for speed, with Caduceus and helmet at the ready.
Helping with his costume, I pointed out that the Caduceus that Hermes (or Mercury, since "Caduceus" is a Roman word) carries is a medical symbol. He asked me an obvious question: "If Hermes is the god of travel, trade and thieves, then why is that used by doctors?"

I had never thought about it before, and it makes no sense at all. Hermes had nothing to do with medicine, and he wasn't even all that interested in helping people. He was fast, and he's often associated with athletics, but that doesn't translate to medicine. Perhaps he was linked to alchemy, but not physicians.

So, of course, we googled it.

It turns out that the Caduceus, with its two snakes entwining it, looks a lot like the staff of Asclepius in many drawings, which has only one. Hermes' staff sometimes had wings at the top and sometimes did not, but it seems that Asclepius's never did. [Asclepius's staff also looks a bit like the serpent of Moses, which often represents healing.] You can see both together in the engraving below.

Mercury (Hermes) & merchant approach disapproving Asclepius and the Graces (Meditrine, Hygeia and Panacea). Engraved from an original by Aubin Louis Millin, Paris 1811.
The two staffs are similar enough in most cases that the Caduceus sometimes looked like a fancier version of the same thing, at least apparently it did to a lot of mostly American medical publishers and doctors about 100 or so years ago. And thus the confusion of the Caduceus with the staff of Asclepius that continues to this day. Both the American and the British Armies' medical corps use the Caduceus as a symbol, and in fact the US Army's use of it may be what first cemented its reference to doctors.

Rod of Asclepius in the Star of Life.
American paramedics however, display the rod of Asclepius within the "Star of Life" on almost every badge and vehicle, which sets up an interesting comparison. The simpler single-snake staff is worn by emergency workers in the field, with the elaborate winged double-snake staff representing universities, labs and office visits. There's a subliminal implication that the fancier symbol relates to a higher level of education and cost. While the single-snake rod may suggest a more workman-like approach, it's actually the one that makes a correct reference to history and myth. It's actually the one to be trusted.

These staff designs are thousands of years old, so I'm going out on a limb here to suggest that this may not matter much any more. But even so, if doctors from a century ago had consulted with third-graders and been asked an obvious question, they may not have set up a symbol for trade, travel, trickery and thievery as a symbol for medicine today.