Course: Introduction to Forensic Science (8 weeks)
School: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Roderick Bates, Associate Professor of Chemistry

This course aims to help everyone understand more on how basic scientific principles underpin Forensic Science and can contribute to solving criminal cases.
Some questions which we will attempt to address include:
• How did forensics come about? What is the role of forensics in police work? Can these methods be used in non-criminal areas?
• Blood. What is it? How can traces of blood be found and used in evidence?
• Is DNA chemistry really so powerful?
• What happens (biologically and chemically) if someone tries to poison me? What happens if I try to poison myself?
• How can we tell how long someone has been dead? What if they have been dead for a really long time?
• Can a little piece of a carpet fluff, or a single hair, convict someone?
• Was Emperor Napoleon murdered by the perfidious British, or killed by his wallpaper?

Have you read the collected works of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell? Know every episode of CSI, L&O, and Quincy by heart? (Ok, I’m really dating myself with that last one) Do you have Halpern’s 1979 primer on the New York City OCME, or a complete set of Baden’s publishings? If so, you might find yourself overprepared for most of this class, but the analytical chemistry in the second week might make it worth your while anyway.

A look at the topics might give you some idea of just how superficially they were covered: fingerprinting, fibers, and firearms appeared in a single week (a little more than an hour in lectures, plus some short case overviews), as did time of death calculations and everything you wanted to know about blood, from typing to spatter patterns. It is of course an introductory course of only eight weeks duration, so only so much depth and detail can be expected.

Lectures on weekly topics were punctuated with several abbreviated descriptions of actual cases of forensic science at work: the unearthing of King Richard III, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Wayne Williams’ capture, and Alexander Litvinenko’s bizarre assassination, as well as a host of lesser-known victims and assailants. Again, I found these quite superficial, but I’m weird.

Assignments that counted towards the final grade had a varied format. Most weeks included a one-question “opinion poll” intended to be completed before viewing the lectures, as a way of priming the material. Three multiple-choice quizzes appeared at intervals, about 20 questions in length with two tries allowed. And then there was the dreaded Peer Assessment: two case analysis. I was impressed that the first of these was more of a practice run, as it counted very little towards the final grade but gave us a chance to see what was expected. A weightier case analysis served as a sort of final exam, though some technical issues raised concerns (as usual, I’m writing this before I have any idea what my grade is; I expect to “pass” but who knows with peer assessment).

Considering the drama of the video graphics – imagine that bloody handprint punctuated by pounding bass and drums – it was a remarkably bland class. There were some attempts at humor, but most of them fell rather flat. As always, I criticize reluctantly, since it’s a course offered for free, and I’m sure there are students for whom it’s the perfect class. I just can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm. Yet, I completed the course, and considering I drop courses pretty easily these days, that says something.

Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in my beloved Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

Pushcart 2015: Kamilah Aisha Moon, “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express” (Poem) from She Has A Name

Picasso, "Weeping Woman"

Picasso, “Weeping Woman”

You sit in a hard blue seat, one
of the ones reserved for the elderly
or infirm, a statue of need. Your mouth
open as if waiting for water or medicine, as if
mugged mid-sentence, or some ice age hit
right after terrible news.

I once read something about “Meryl Streep tears”: crying so that makeup is undisturbed, eyes and skin of the face don’t redden or swell, and tears find their way delicately down a smooth cheek in a single trickle without getting sucked into the divots of the nostrils, which, of course, never themselves drip. Movie crying. The writer confessed she’d never mastered the art of pretty crying. Neither have I; nor have most people. The woman observed by this poem certainly hasn’t.

I have been both the subject and object of this poem (available online). I’ve seen people on busses – on sidewalks, in stores and offices and front porches – displaying the kind of sorrow described here, openly crying, and not movie-star tears, but sloppy drippy raw-faced emotion that’s real and scary and, yes, ugly.

I know the uncomfortable feeling, a mix of curiosity but also empathy, the uncertainty of the line between helping and making it worse. No one wants to be callous, yet no one wants to be incautious. There’s a desire to reach out, but not to get involved; to get credit for concern without paying the cost of connecting to such pain:

I want to ask—
just so you know someone
is paying attention, but not enough
to know what ravages. It’s rude
to stare.

And I’ve also been the public weeper – no, not reading-weeping, which I’ve mentioned often enough, but that’s close to Meryl Streep tears, deeply felt but still controlled and circumscribed by the pages of a book, understandable to bystanders as a temporary aberration, nothing to worry about. I mean the other kind of public weeping, where it just isn’t possible to hold it until behind the privacy of a door. I always have this association of crying with peeing in public, even more unthinkable, but also a release of water that simply can’t be controlled in a socially acceptable manner.

What’s notable about this poem is the detail. The speaker doesn’t look away, but notices: “Tears navigate moles, veteran / swimmers of your creek-bed face,” rather than the more romantic movie-star single-tear-traces-down-a-pink-cheek. The metaphor of “eyes that never quite close, / even in deepest sleep, lids // an undersized t-shirt that leaves belly / exposed” connotes a certain slovenliness of emotion rather than delicacy. This is no genteel sorrow; this is real. And there is concern here: ” I study the pink // of your jaw, and wonder if you’ll come back / before your stop comes.” Or is that mere curiosity?

The detail goes beyond what can be seen, to the tactile of “the hard blue seat” and “the metro’s bump and buck”. The subject is placed in scenery of other passengers as supporting players. Very thorough, for such a short poem. The reader is invited into that bus, invited to experience the poem along with the speaker. We’re allowed to add our own questions: Where is the woman going? Will the speaker share this with someone at home later, think about this woman later tonight, or next week some time?

The poem is part of Moon’s collection She Has a Name:

The opening pages of She Has a Name identify the collection as a “biomythography,” a term created by Audre Lorde to describe a narrative based on myth and history, fact and fiction. Kamilah Aisha Moon’s biomythography tells the story of a young woman with autism from multiple points of view… Whether protector or questioner, each voice strives to understand what autism means to his or her own life.

And then I go Aha! as if I understand: the crying woman on the bus is the subject of the collection, described in Moon’s Rumpus interview as the primary speaker’s sister. Or maybe it’s merely an overwrought bus rider, and the speaker, intimately familiar with outbursts of strong emotion, observes it through a lens that blends stranger with family, that allows some objectivity but also draws her closer.

Psychological First Aid MOOC

Course: Psychological First Aid
School: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Instructors: George Everly, Jr., PhD

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature. The RAPID model is readily applicable to public health settings, the workplace, the military, faith-based organizations, mass disaster venues, and even the demands of more commonplace critical events, e.g., dealing with the psychological aftermath of accidents, robberies, suicide, homicide, or community violence. In addition, the RAPID model has been found effective in promoting personal and community resilience.

This course isn’t about providing support to friends and family dealing with the everyday problems we’re all familiar with: financial stress, family conflicts, difficult decisions. Nope, this was about catastrophe. That is, providing temporary, stabilizing support for people who’ve lost their homes, who’ve been amidst danger, death, and destruction. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly… un-intense. I was more moved by the descriptions of the Japanese tsunami given in an earlier Earth Science course.

It wasn’t so much a MOOC as an in-service practicum for first responders: a review of easily-remembered steps to take when dealing with people affected by disaster, following the RAPID model: Rapport, Assessment, Prioritization, Intervention, Disposition, with each step broken down into individual considerations. Each week covered a different part of the RAPID process, with a sample vignette showing “do” and “don’t” approaches accompanied each week. The “don’t” segments were unintentionally hilarious to me since they were so outrageously wrong (ranging from “oh, cheer up, you’re alive, so what if you lost your house” to the alternate extreme of “if you’re depressed now that you’ve lost everything, you should be on medication” – the woman who played the “victim” of the storm is a terrific actress), but, sadly, I could see well-meaning people thinking the approaches were correct, so I understand how necessary it is to teach the more reasonable path advocated by the RAPID method, rather than set those well-meaning people loose with no guidelines.

Although each week’s lecture material was followed by a multiple choice quiz, this wasn’t as much an academic course as a how-to with a minimum of theory and a maximum of application. As that, it was interesting, and I can see it being valuable for a variety of organizations who have people who need training, but strained budgets. An additional hands-on “simulation” component, allowing students to practice the skills, would be essential in that setting, but that would be easy enough to arrange. I could see the whole thing fitting into a couple of days of in-service training.

And given the likelihood that weather-related catastrophes will continue to occur more frequently as oil money perpetuates itself, it seems like a good way to provide the basics.

BrainSpace MOOC

Course: The Brain and Space
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Jennifer M. Groh

Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember.

How do we know where we are? How do we know where to look when we hear a sound? How do we scratch the right place when we have an itch? I took this course to find out; I had no idea it was so complicated. In fact, the more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we’re able to feed ourselves without stabbing our eyes out.

There’s a great deal of material here: everything from neuron potentials to how we determine where sounds come from, memory, and navigation. I found several lectures to be of special interest to me: the historical development of our understanding of sight, for instance, though that was more introduction material. Leave it to me to fixate on the most humanities-oriented part of a science class. Likewise, I was fascinated to find out that reading a word like “cat” might cause neurons to fire that indicate we connect the word with petting a cat, hearing the cat purr, or seeing a cat. As a (former) cat person, I know I can almost feel myself petting one of my departed girls when talk turns to cats; I had no idea it was a real neurological thing. I thought I was just… weird. I also found the lectures on meters vs maps to be of special interest, as it gets into how we have to translate one kind of system to another. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we manage to get anything done at all.

Lots of examples and demonstration of concepts were included: a bean-bag toss showed how we learn our physical relationship to space (“limb by limb”), and we listened to a cat’s neuron – a single neuron – fire as various visual stimuli were placed in its visual field (and, no, I don’t want to think about how that was done… shame on me, my dear departed kitties are probably very disappointed in me right now). As a nice little bow on this package, as I was finishing up the last week, Numberphile released a video about the various paths we use to store the words for numbers in our brains. Given my difficulty with math, I keep hoping I’ll find a way to leapfrog over whatever my problem is; I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but it’s an interesting notion anyway, and tied in nicely with this course.

The material was all released at once, in another of those scheduled/self-paced hybrids (it’s still running as I type this, in fact). I completed the six weeks of lectures in less than a month, though I wasn’t in any particular hurry; I just kept coming back to it. In standard MOOC fashion, each week’s lectures were followed by a multiple choice quiz with two attempts.

I didn’t have high expectations for this course – I’d found the first one less than enthralling – but it snuck up on me, and I quite enjoyed it. In addition to interesting material, I kept running into little touches I truly enjoyed. Silly things, not that relevant to the subject matter – like the “eye movement hat”, a sort of jester’s cap with eyeballs instead of bells, that was not only worn during discussions of eye movements, but kept showing up on different walls in the office. Music that was part of the acoustic processing material, and it turns out Dr. Groh plays the banjo, which might account for the instrumentals closing out some of the videos. But on one memorable occasion, a video ended with Dan Reeder (a rather crazy singer/songwriter who comes up with some… pretty odd lyrics sometimes) singing “The Brain is Not The Mind.” Three day earworm, that. Uh oh, there it goes again. Come to think of it, that would be a fun unit for a brain MOOC: the mechanism of earworms.

This is one of three courses, plus a capstone project, that are part of the specialization program called Neuroscience: Perception, Action, and The Brain. I’d already taken one of the courses (Visual Perception and the Brain). I have no interest in specialization programs – they cost money, for one thing, and I have no need of credentials in any case – but I’m generally interested in the brain, and I’d already taken one of the other courses, so I thought I’d take a look. Turned out to be a good thing.

Pushcart 2015: Stephanie Strickland, “CAPTCHA” (Poem) from Boston Review

cranium chambered cairn and passage grave
bulging Neolithic earth mound enclosing the vault
calibrated stone to this standard surpasses us
lost too inner touch on bone pale solstice beam
dervish Snow Queen covens of raven rim her platinum
cloak downed traces of her sledge paused print a fine grid…

So again, I confess: I don’t get it. But this time, at least I think I get why I don’t get it. Fortunately, the poem is available online via the Boston Review tumblr for those better equipped.

I believe it’s set in a gaming environment, which is why I don’t get it. There is a game “Snow Queen”, but this becomes more apparent in the second group of stanzas, where the Emerald Viewer and avatars come into it. But without more of an understanding of the game, I’m afraid I’m left grasping at pixels for most of the poem.

I typically associate stanzas in couplets with some kind of relationship between two people. Could it in this case be between a player and the game? Or, more generally, between people and technology? That’s where the final stanza, powerful even though I wasn’t sure what had preceded it, drew me:

                                                  …you install
an IM app in your dream equip folding but unfading
tutelary mesmerie with chat while falling as a peregrine
tinsel buttercup foil painted roof ruined roof of the Plaza
verdigris mansard copper slate rushing toward her she could tell
by a tension in the air wire-fine overhead—one rustling
shift—time to be swept back to sea so typed in mistakenly
( no peregrine eye ) randomly assigned CAPTCHA squiggle
Turing test box of twisted-letter text to tag her

personhood denied

There’s a real finality to that close, a slamming of a door. But beyond that, it took a poem to get me to consider the strangeness of a machine deciding who is human and who isn’t, the strangeness of the necessity of creating a machine to arbitrate humanity. And, considering how many times I’ve failed the Captcha tests, to reflect on that. Just who’s in charge here? There are lots of Frankenstein-regrets—building-the-monster stories out there about computers, but this one carves it down to a singular moment, and a familiar, personal level.

But wait – there’s more! Isn’t there an alternative reading, perhaps the intended one, I don’t know. It’s the character in a game, or the computer itself, speaking. It sees the IM app installed, the “she”, became intrigued, and tried itself to tag her – only to be kept out by the automated gatekeeper, its personhood denied. Again, this harsh slamming of a door, no less poignant because it slams on circuits and code.

Interesting, where a poem I don’t understand can take me.
I also discovered something interesting about Captcha: reCaptcha. As I understand it (which isn’t that well, keep in mind), only one of the two words in a Captcha box is a test; the other is a word Googlebooks has failed to scan properly, and it’s a way of sort of crowdsourcing the corrections:

Beyond its obvious use for foiling bot attacks and would-be spammers, the reCAPTCHA Project has another, more altruistic purpose. Several years after introducing the world to CAPTCHA technology, von Ahn realized that, despite taking just a few seconds to type a CAPTCHA, humans were spending hundreds of thousands of hours each day typing in more than 100 million CAPTCHAs. reCAPTCHA technology was developed not merely with an eye toward improving cyber security, but also as a way to harness and reuse the collective human time and mental energy spent solving and typing CAPTCHAs—a concept von Ahn has dubbed “human computation.” By constructing CAPTCHAs using words tagged as unreadable in the digitizing of books and other printed material, millions and millions of cyber users play a part every day in the digitization and preservation of human knowledge by transcribing words. Tests have shown that reCAPTCHA textual images are deciphered and transcribed with 99.1% accuracy, a rate comparable to the best human professional transcription services. In just the first year after launching reCAPTCHA, humans correctly deciphered and transcribed more than 440 million words, roughly the equivalent of 17,600 books.

~~ Carnegie Mellon University CyLab

I’m still not sure how this works with single-word boxes, but it’s pretty interesting how first, the machine plays gatekeeper, and then, the person fixes what the computer can’t do. That’s a pretty interesting metaphor right there, worthy of another poem.

Pushcart 2015: Alexander Maksik, “Trim Palace” from Tin House, #58

When I ran into Joshua for the first time in nine years, I was working at the Delta terminal and had just cleaned the men’s room next to Malibu Al’s. I can’t remember why I looked up, but whatever the reason, there he was coming out of 58A.
It wasn’t allowed, but I was taking my twenty minutes in the terminal rather than the break room – a windowless box I hated many times more than the job itself. Joshua was at the head of the line walking off the jet bridge wearing a black suit and the loosened tie the color of a good lime. At first I thought he was alone, but then a woman, mesmerized by her phone, glided to him as if guided by radar and gave him a little hip check. I was frozen and my adrenaline was going like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have been. Which, from a certain perspective, was exactly right.
I sat there waiting until he turned his head and looked right at me. Our eyes met for a second. He made no move and I thought, Thank God, he doesn’t recognize me. And then I thought, The fucker is pretending he doesn’t recognize me. And I started to feel all righteous, but I realized he was doing exactly what I was doing, and it made me sad to think we’d just let it go, that he’d just keep on walking, I’d keep on sitting there, he’d keep on wearing suits and getting off airplanes with his pretty wife or whoever she was and I’d go on racking elephant rolls of toilet paper and scrubbing shit from white tile.
But he stopped…

I wish this story were available online. First, because it should be read, and felt. Second, because I’m going to quote several long passages, necessarily, because that’s the story it is: gold nuggets in luxurious paragraphs that aren’t padded in the slightest, where everything matters, where the style is embodied in the story itself. And third, because I’m going to get spoilery. So see if you can dig up a copy of Tin House Winter 2014. It’s stories like this that renew my regret at being unable to renew my subscription.

The effectiveness of the story lies in what is barely hinted at. Peter, our narrator and protagonist, mentions some murky past event involving cinder block walls. Prison? A mental institution? Rehab? All of the above? It’s never spelled out. But whatever it was, it was enough to turn him from the optimistic college grad who moved to LA with best buddy Joshua to seek his fortune, into… something else. Someone who would rather clean airport toilets than take his lunch break in a windowless room. Someone who’s ambivalent about seeing Joshua nine years later, the friend who’s fulfilled all those dreams from that earlier time, because it’s so clear that Peter… hasn’t. And while that particular situation is probably not something he has to worry about most of the time, here in this story, it’s the personal hell the writer shoves him up against.

Hemingway spelled out his iceberg principle of fiction writing in a 1959 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton: “There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it, then there is a hole in the story.” Maksik took it to heart when he wrote Peter’s story, as he explains on the Tin House blog: “In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised.”

I could see the result in the story. The visible part is carefully sculpted, just enough to make sense: it’s just a story about a guy taking care of an old friend’s old dog. But that’s just the plot; the story, the invisible part, broke my heart as I read, unawares, until the tears blurred my vision.

I was thinking about Joshua at the bar, sitting on a stool all the way at the end, leaning his shoulder against the window, the window giving onto the street. Joshua watching me work in the early days, drinking for free. Those nights when he was always there, coming in early after whatever job he was doing – working in mailrooms, working as someone said assistant, someone’s gofer. Those early days before our impatience set in, before our fear.
I was thinking about the flickering fluorescent light, my palm against the cool white cinderblock. My cheek. Sometimes my lips, my tongue. The constant noise. The screaming at night.
I opened my eyes. A jet drew a neat white line across the sky.
Juliette watched me, head bobbing in rhythm with her easy panting. I reached for her. She flicked my hand.

Juliette is the old dog. Following their brief airport meeting, Joshua offered Peter $2000 to dog- and house-sit for a week while he and the perfect wife fly off somewhere stylish and exciting. This could be a simple plot twist, but the details and nuance here are important. Look at the new relationship that’s developed. In that first accidental reunion, Joshua is shocked at what’s become of his friend. He does follow up, which is a plus. And in that call, because he was, at least once, a close friend: “I got to ask. Short version, okay, but, what the fuck happened?”

Short version. Just the tip of the iceberg is all he has time for. But there’s no short version for Peter, so he changes the subject. It’s a mark of generosity that Joshua is entrusting his elegant house, and beloved dog, to someone who obviously isn’t the same person he used to know. But it has to hurt, to know you’re only worth the short version.

I’m guessing Peter’s had a lot of experience dealing with humiliation. It’s revealed beautifully in the scenes with Juliette, the old Great Dane. She has trouble walking. Can’t poop when and where she should. Needs help to get up. But she’s still the same dog who was once a playful puppy, and she’s still beloved enough to hire a dog-sitter rather than send her to a kennel during vacation week. Peter observes her every humiliation, gives her the assistance she needs, cleans up after her. Takes care of her, because it’s his job.

He calls his parents.

Again, both of us waited. I listened and I imagined him doing the same, as if some sound in the background might answer a question neither of us knew how to ask.
“I was thinking, dad. I was thinking I’d like to come home for a while. Come to see you.”
“Oh, I’d like that, Peter. I’d like that so much.”
“Me too,” I said beginning to speak more quickly, walking out to the trees. “I was thinking I’d come home next week and just, I don’t know. I’d see you and Mom and, really, I don’t know exactly. Just be home and get things together and figure out what’s next. It would be nice to be home with you both.”
“Peter,” he said. “You know I’d love that.”
Juliet was still watching me.
“I’d like that. You know I would. I’d love it, love it more than anything, but you also know I’m going to have to ask your mother. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll have to find the right time to ask her. See what she says, see what she thinks about it.” He paused and then said, “About you coming home,” as if I’d forgotten what we were talking about.
I was walking back across the lawn to the house.

I can hear the voice of Edna in Carver’s “Chef’s House” in the cadence of the father’s speech. I can hear his heart break as he hesitates to welcome his son home. And yes, this is where the iceberg started carving into me.

The final scene (which I won’t reveal; I have to leave something as a teaser) consolidates it all in a decision point. I made the mistake of reading this on the bus. I’ve never been able to hold back tears. It’s one of the risks of reading on the bus.In my mind I could hear Adam Crossley’s “Prisoner” playing as I read – “Take me home….” I could see the face of Kalief Browder, whose suicide still haunts us all.

To be clear, this isn’t Kalief’s (why is there so often a sense of intimacy when it’s too late to matter? If we’d had this intimacy sooner, could things have gone differently?) story , not at all. It’s Peter’s story, and I get the clear sense, if from nothing else than his mother’s persistent anger, that his sorrows are more the product of his own deeds. But they’re sorrows nonetheless, and I don’t buy into this obsession we have with rationing our compassion, as though we might run out.

The art of the iceberg story lies in how little is told, and, maybe, in how we can adapt it to what’s in our lives. I heard and saw what I did because of my own experience, and timing, but we’ve all had those moments when we run into someone from the past, and our failure to live up to our potential hangs heavy on us. Sometimes, we just think it does. And sometimes, as with Peter, it really does. It’s everyone’s story. It’s just that, sometimes, it cuts a little deeper.

Ten Premodern Poems by Women MOOC

Course: Ten Premodern Poems by Women
School: Stanford (via Lagunita)
Instructors: Prof. Eavan Boland

In this course, we will read ten significant pre-modern poems by women. We have chosen each poem to give you a sense of its structure as a poem and its importance as a form in its time. But the course also seeks to reveal the roots each poem has in history, in slavery, in conventional thought and unorthodox opinion. Through the introductions to the poems, forum discussions with your fellow students, and conversations between Professor Boland and practicing poets and scholars, we will learn about how poet’s have fashioned life experience into verse, how to discuss poetry, and what poetry means for each of us today.

Anne Bradstreet, Katherine Philips, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Phillis Wheatley, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Julia Ward Howe, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Women from 17th century Puritan New England and nineteenth century London. A slave girl, a neoclassicist scholar, a hermit, a woman disowned for marrying the wrong man. Some familiar friends, some new acquaintances. Poems about loss, love, laundry, beauty, and righteous battle. One poet, one poem, per week, presented and discussed by working poet/scholars.

I approached it as another recreational MOOC, treating it as more of a series of podcasts, fitting it into odd spaces of time, rather than focusing on it as a class per se. Each week, Prof. Boland outlined the life of the poet under discussion and examined the circumstances under which the poem under consideration was written. A poet drawn from the lecturers and fellows of the Stanford creative writing faculty offered a comparison to contemporary poetic themes and structures, often to their own poetry. At the end of the week, Prof. Boland and the contemporary poet of the week would discuss popular questions from the discussion forums in a casual conversation. The assignments consisted of forum posts and responses; I didn’t participate, but I feel like I got quite a bit out of it nonetheless.

Even though it can seem as though I don’t take these “recreational MOOCs” seriously, I do find them beneficial and enjoyable. In this case, I found my understanding of “modernism” bolstered by the comparison with pre-moderns, though that wasn’t the purpose of the course.

In the introductory lecture, Prof. Boland explained: “…one thing binds all of those poems together. And that is that these are the women finding their voice against the odds, finding their creativity, often in a time that offers powerful resistance to that creativity.” I think many of us are finding our voices aren’t heard, aren’t valued, in this time. I think it’s something of a paradox that this should be the case when, with social media, crowdfunding, and self-publishing, more avenues for self-expression exist than ever. Yet that may be the reason it’s so hard to be heard: there’s also more noise than ever, and impossibly many choices, so it’s the shocking voice, or the entertaining voice, that is heard and amplified, not necessarily the thoughtful one.

In this course I listened to, not only poet/professor Boland, but to the voices of ten thoughtful women scattered through time, and, equally enjoyable, I heard ten contemporary poets respond. It was a lovely way to spend a spare half hour a few times a week during a period that was particularly busy and, at times, stressful, and I’m very glad it was available.

Pushcart 2015: Ottessa Moshfegh, “The Weirdos” from Paris Review, #206

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.

I’ve been staring at this story for about a week now, hoping I’d either gain some insight, or it’d go away. Not that it’s a bad story, it’s just a story that I don’t “get.” Moshfegh has been on a roll with prize after prize rolling in, but I just don’t seem to be on the right wavelength for this story. Fortunately, this one is available online (thank you, Paris Review) so I’m not in the way of those who can get on the right wavelength.

It is indeed a story about weirdos. And there’s a moment I recognize. But beyond that, I got nothin’.

A quick google proved that others saw more than I did. In Bustle, Joanna Novak praised how ” the first line introduces the narrator’s droll sense of humor”. Maybe that’s the problem; I don’t seem to have the right sense of humor for the 21st century, a failing that began with the Seinfeld years. One blogger felt “[t]his character’s emptiness and aimlessness really got to me.” Being pretty aimless myself, I seem to have problems with stories that highlight aimlessness. But I’m not sure the characters are all that aimless, I just think they’re aimed at things I don’t understand.

The story is indeed about weirdos. The boyfriend is weird, obviously, but the narrator is just as weird because she seems to understand that he’s weird – she even despises him – but she’s still there.

I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever.

Part of my disorientation is that I don’t believe anything the boyfriend says. Is he really an actor, or is he just pretending/imagining a telemarketer is his agent calling and he’s going on auditions the way he imagines the plastic skull on his night table is sending him messages? Is the girlfriend (neither of them have names in the story) playing along? Why?

The new tenants show up, bearing lots of cash and bad teeth, a combination I associate with meth. At the end of the story, the boyfriend is doing meth, so maybe they’re all methheads all along, though the boyfriend’s muscles don’t fit with that, do they? I don’t know enough about them. Maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I went back to the basics: what’s the movement in the story, the narrative? The new tenants. The classic “new kid comes to town” story. Nothing changes, but in giving advice to the narrator, one of the new tenants forces a moment of clarity I found quite powerful:

“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She disappeared into the bedroom, where we’d piled all the garbage bags full of stuff. She came out with a black feather.
“Is that from the crows?” I asked.
“Sleep with this under your pillow,” she said, rubbing her third eye. “And as you drift off think of everyone you know. Start off easy, like with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your best friends, and picture each person in your mind. Really try to picture them. Try to think of all your classmates, your neighbors, people you met on the street, on the bus, the girl from the coffee shop, your dentist, everybody from over the years. And then I want you to imagine your boyfriend. When you imagine him, imagine he’s on one side and everybody else is on the other side.”
“Then what?” I asked her.
“Then see which side you like better.”

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to leave. It’s not even a matter of not having somewhere better to go; it’s more about not having anything better to compare to “now”. Maybe this is how life is for everyone. Maybe there’s nothing better out there for her. Maybe it’s her fault, it’s all she gets, all she deserves. So she stays.

I hope I can catch on to Moshfegh’s style. She seems to be quite a powerhouse, and I expect to be seeing more from her.

Perfectly Logical MOOC

Course: Logic: Language and Information I and 2
School: University of Melbourne via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Prof. Greg Restall, Dr Jen Davoren
(Part 1) This is an introduction to formal logic and how it is applied in computer science, electronic engineering, linguistics and philosophy. You will learn propositional logic—its language, interpretations and proofs, and apply it to solve problems in a wide range of disciplines…..you will learn how to use the core tools in logic: the idea of a formal language, which gives us a way to talk about logical structure; and we’ll introduce and explain the central logical concepts such as consistency and validity; models; and proofs.
(Part 2) This subject follows from Logic: Language and Information 1, to cover core techniques in first order predicate logic: the idea of formal languages with quantifiers, which gives us a way to talk about more logical structure than in propositional logic; and we will cover the central logical concepts such as consistency and validity; models; and proofs in predicate logic….We will also explore how these techniques connect with issues in linguistics, computer science, electronic engineering, mathematics, and philosophy.

I loved this course; along with the Solar System course, it became a focus of my winter/spring MOOC schedule.

I’ve taken a couple of other logic MOOCs: Mathematical Thinking, and the Stanford logic course intended for computer programmers. But this was the first logic course that included modules on linguistics and philosophy. I was very happy. Not that it was easy – in fact, the Peer Assessment assignments made me wonder if I had any idea at all of what was going on, and there were some moments when I was ready to hang myself from the nearest Proof Tree – but I loved every head-banging moment.

Part 1 included introduction to the basics of propositional logic and proof trees in two core modules, then offered a choice of four additional application areas, at least two of which were required. Of course, I headed for the more humanities-aimed subjects, and fell in love with implicatures and the maxims of Grice’s Cooperation Principle – and recognized how politicians and other liars depend on them – as well as the “fuzzy logic” and infinitely-valued logic covered in the Philosophy module. I did take a quick stab at the Programming module, but it became clear that it required more time than I was able to devote. I hope someday I can go back and pick up that and the Digital Systems module (I have fond memories of logic gates from my days of hanging out with… oh, never mind).

Part 2 expanded to first-order predicate logic, with some indication of what’s involved in higher-order logics. Here three core modules were required, along with three of five application areas: mathematics was added. I was very happy to see that. It gave me a chance to do more work on the concepts from Mathematical Thinking – bounds, convergence, that sort of thing. Then in Philosophy, I had a great time figuring out how to negate “The present King of France is bald”, and the Linguistics module turned pronouns into fine art.

Each lecture set in both core and applications was followed by a set of ungraded practice homework which in most cases included a variety of problems; unlimited attempts were allowed, so plenty of practice was available. Detailed notes in PDF form were provided for all the material. Each core and application module also included a final exam and/or a peer assessment assignment. I found some of the the Part 1 peer assessment assignments to be extremely difficult; in fact, I was pretty discouraged at the close of the class, since I’d felt I’d had a pretty good grasp on things and then came face-to-face with the realization that maybe I understood a portion and need to broaden my conceptual grasp. I received extremely generously scores from my peers on the Part 1 assignments, by the way, as well as some great feedback. It’s important to know what you don’t know, so it was a worthwhile, if humbling, experience. The peer assessment assignment for the second course turned out to be too far over my head to even make a credible attempt, but at least it was optional, as it went beyond the material covered in class. The material for Part 2 was pretty humbling to begin with, particularly the philosophy module covering vagueness. Loving the material may be necessary, but is definitely not sufficient, for understanding.

The core material was covered by both instructors, but in the applications, they each took over what were presumably their personal specialties: Greg did Philosophy and Linguistics, and Jen handled computer applications and mathematics. I came to be extremely fond of both of them along the way. Now, I rarely mention instructors’ personal styles in these comments on MOOCs – first, it’s a good way to get myself into hot water, and second, it’s generally irrelevant to the educational experience. But in this case, although the courses were strictly business, each instructor brought a certain aura that added greatly to my enjoyment of the course – Greg with his vest and tie, a slightly Eleventh Doctor air about him, and his tendency to talk with his eyes shut, giving him an air of… bookish shyness? – the one exception being when he discovered in the middle of a proof tree that he’d actually worked out the example differently from what he’d started to explain. His laughter and slight fluster was completely charming; he should make little flubs more often. Then there’s his penchant for fitting wombats into examples.

Jen Davoren brought a completely different, but equally appealing, personna. I came to adore her constantly changing hair colors (seriously, check out her faculty page), and her ever-interesting kaliedoscope of logic t-shirts. Not to mention her asides about Alan Turing – I’d just seen The Imitation Game – and Angela Merkel (did you know Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and was an active research scientist before she was Chancellor of Germany? I didn’t, because we Americans learn as little as possible about world leaders other than our own, unless scandal is involved, in which case they’re all over the supermarket tabloids). Since I didn’t take the Digital Systems or Prolog modules she taught, I was delighted to find her teaching the Mathematics module, which began with the comment: “Admittedly, it is one of the most abstract branches of mathematics. This abstractness, together with a foundational role of logic, may at least partially explain why logicians tend to be the eccentrics within mathematics departments.” The most interesting mathematicians I’ve met through MOOCs have all been a little eccentric in one way or another – including Jen.

I’m not sure if my fondness for the instructors, limited as their involvement beyond the videos was, followed from my fondness for the material, or vice-versa (or maybe I just loved the font used for slide headers – I believe it’s one of the Barbedors. Yes, I gathered enough samples to Identifont it, what, there’s something wrong with that?), but in any case, I loved this course and highly recommend it – for anyone who wants to understand the basics of formal logic.

Now, that’s an important caveat. You have to want it. Because every logic course I’ve ever taken at the introductory level (that’s three now) eventually turns into ten minutes of:

And ‘Ga’ is true, so that’s why ‘Fa or Ga’ is true. Not everything has property ‘G’ is true. Why not? Because of the ‘b’ instance ‘not Gb’. So, not everything has property ‘G’. Not everything has property ‘F’. Not because of the ‘b’ instance, but because of the ‘a’ instance. And indeed, not everything does have property ‘F’. because ‘a’ doesn’t. Finally ‘not everything is F or everything is G’ is true, because both of the disjuncts here are false. ‘everything is F’ is false, ‘everything is G’ is false, so ‘not everything is F or everything is G’, indeed that formula is true.

~~ Transcript for Part 2, Lecture 3.4, “Trees for Predicate Logic”, which is why I didn’t use the transcripts at all for this course

And that sort of thing can drive you crazy. Unless you really want it. But if you want it, this is a great place to get it.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Hazelton, “Book of Forget” (Poem) from Agni, #75

I made a stage out of an abandoned house, small
enough for me to look bigger, and I walked from end
to end in spangles, shaking what my momma
gave me in a symphony jiggling out over the dry
desert night.

There’s something very poignant about the strippers who appear in poems.

I still remember the marvelous “From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” by Kathleen Balma, in which the speaker focused attention, not on her body or her situation, but on the collaboration of the audience in the act she performed: if a dancer takes her clothes off in the forest and no one sees, is she still naked?

There’s nothing more phallic than a stripper pole.

This poem takes a different view, however, focusing not on the audience (though the audience does appear in the poem) but the stripper herself, the motivations, memories and reactions she has separate from what the audience is doing. It’s the speaker’s poem, the stripper’s poem, and, if we allow it, our poem.

I’m interested in the contrast between Balma’s dancer and this one. Whereas Balma had a confident, defiant woman holding a mirror to the audience, daring them to see themselves, here we have a more typical presentation: a woman who is damaged. We don’t get any detail about that damage, only that it results in a woman who feels halved, who expects the world will hurt her. Someone who doesn’t feel unique. Someone who is trying to forget – forget what? What would you dance to forget? Have you learned a better way to forget whatever it is you need to forget?

I wanted to be a contortionist,
to stand on my own neck before anyone else could,
but the world is full of women who can halve themselves.
My talent is in looking like someone you want
when the lights are on and like anyone who’ll do when they’re off.
There are other ways to dance but I never learned.
There are other ways to forget. This one barely works.

I found the poem online at I Read This Poem, a poetry blog that seems to have lasted through only three months last year – too bad, I hope Ms. Arthur starts blogging poetry again, because I discovered a lot about this poem, how it works, by reading her post: the long first sentence, the facelessness, the way sex is hidden though it is displayed. I’d missed all that, focusing on content. My observation was that it’s a sort of elongated sonnet, with a turn from outward to inward and a concluding anaphoric couplet, but that’s a lot of squishing something that doesn’t fit into the wrong space. I did love how “from end / to end” put the “ends” at the ends.

I go back to poignant. One of the tenets of modernism was freedom to use any subject matter. The modern poem finds humanity in a train station, conformity in a wheelbarrow, and here, poignancy in a stripper. Aren’t we all – on social media, in our careers – putting on a show. Aren’t we all trying to forget.

Heart Stats? I Hardly Even Know Them MOOC

Course: I Heart Stats
School: Notre Dame (via edX, free)
Instructors: Dan Myers

Statistics can be confusing and opaque. Symbols, Greek letters, very large and very small numbers, and how to interpret all of this can leave to feeling cold and disengaged—even fearful and resentful.
But in the modern information age, having a healthy relationship with statistics can make life a whole lot easier…. The purpose of this course, then is to help you develop a functional, satisfying, and useful life-long relationship with statistics….
What you’ll learn:
• Select appropriate statistical tests for data according to the levels of measurement
• Perform basic calculations to determine statistical significance
• Use standard methods of representation to summarize data
• Interpret and assess the credibility of basic statistics

I began to realize, midway through Genetics & Evolution, that I needed a much better understanding of statistics. Think of all the jokes you’ve heard: there’s no better way to obfuscate an issue than to come up with a statistic that sounds impressive, even though, when examined more closely, it doesn’t hold up, because few people know how to examine stats more closely.

So I took this course. Two MOOC-friends of mine took this course at the same time I did; they both loved it. For that matter, it seems a thousand people Liked the Facebook page. Me, not so much, but I say it every time I do one of these: every course I hate, someone else loves. In this case, a lot of people.

So what was my problem? Mostly, I just really, really hate stats.

In addition to arachnophobia (which actually contributed to my dropping the Animal Behavior course this week, believe it or not), I’ve discovered I have sigmaphobia: a fear of summation signs. Those are the Greek capital-Sigmas, the things that Greek restaurants use as capital E’s even though they’re really S’s. There’s a great line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar about protagonist Esther Greenwood’s visceral reaction to reading German: “…each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.” That’s how I am with summation signs. It’s just a personal quirk, and it’s necessary that I keep calm and carry on, but it makes things like stats extra-special difficult.

I hated all the calculating – and this course was about 85% calculating. Sure, adding a column of numbers, calculating an average, squaring each number in the column, summing the squares, etc etc, isn’t that hard – that’s what Excel is made for. It’s just incredibly tedious and I hate it. But… I do need to understand stats better, and I had to start somewhere.

I did learn a few things beyond calculating. I even recognized a few things I’d seen in other courses: “Oh, so that’s what he was talking about when he said he was using a stricter standard of significance testing… oh, that thing we did back then, that must’ve been a chi square.…” Just yesterday, I was watching someone talk about his research and he mentioned within and between factors, ANOVA and t-tests; I was so excited – I know what that is! I’d have to listen way more carefully to it to say I understood his research design, but at least I recognize the tests he’s using on his data, and that’s more than I could’ve said a month ago.

As for more comprehensive understanding, Dan made reference several times to more advanced courses for theory, and I’m going to need that. There was some attention to concepts in this class: discussion of data types and the requirements of the various stats, and a very good “Hypotheses Testing Q&A” with Dan and Sara early on (my favorite thing in the course), and the first half of the final was relatively conceptual: Here’s the situation, what stat should you use. But one eight-week intro course isn’t anywhere near enough, at least for a mathematical idiot like me.

Despite my antipathy towards the subject itself, the course did a lot of things very right. The calculations for each of the statistical methods – Standard Deviation, Chi Square, T-test, ANOVA, Regression, Correlation – were demonstrated three times by three different people in different formats, with PDFs of detailed Notes available as well, so if one route of explanation didn’t appeal, there were alternatives (my personal preference was for Sara’s runthroughs). Plenty of practice problems were available, both as practice and in graded form. The course even offers “I Heart Stats” t-shirts for sale, just like the one Sara wears in the videos. How many courses offer that? I’ve said before MOOCs should offer swag. I would’ve bought a bunch of course-specific t-shirts or coffee mugs or tote bags. Just… well, not for this course.

They did their job. And I did mine, even when it hurt. I’m kind of proud of that, that I kept going with a course I hated, since I’ve been dropping courses all over the place at the first sign of “This isn’t anywhere near as interesting as I thought it would be.” I finished. Granted, I kept an eye on the progress meter, and I stopped as soon as I’d done enough of the final for a pass (ok, not all that proud of myself), because I really didn’t want to calculate another σβ.

One of the minor quibbles I had was partly of my own doing, I think. I seem to recall being asked if I’d be willing to participate in a research study during the course. I love MOOCs so I always agree to this stuff – it’s possible it was another course, in fact, not this one at all. But throughout, little questionnaires kept coming up. “Checking In”: “Which emotions best describe how you’re feeling about the course?” with a list of maybe a dozen emotion words (anger, contentment, hope, isolation, shame). Then there was SAM, the Self-Assessment Manikin. It seemed like overkill to have two kinds of mood-assessment, but maybe one was the study I’d signed up for, or maybe they were thinking of people who weren’t fluent in English, or maybe they wanted to compare results between the two different representations (which is an interesting idea, by the way). Thing is, these things cropped up so often early on, I started to get really pissed off whenever I saw them… so I kept entering things like “angry” and “anxious” and “confused” because that’s how I was feeling, even though I was doing fine with the course material. Which is also kind of an interesting result. The instructors are sociologists, after all.

I also took great exception to one of the examples used, with self-described fake data showing differences between IQ scores for different races, with a reference to Murray’s book The Bell Curve, which to me was very controversial back in the day. I was pretty upset about this. It seemed, at best, insensitive to start flinging around fake data showing white people have higher IQ scores than black or Hispanic people. I was relieved when we went back to things like evaluation of popcorn brands, and relating hair products to gender or exercise to work productivity. I had some discomfort with how some results were phrased as well; I wish someone had said, at some point, “Correlation is not causation.” Because that’s where the fun starts. Maybe I just don’t understand the concept.

But overall, this was a detailed and effective basic introduction to a topic that befuddles a lot of us; if you want to know how to calculate ANOVA or standard deviations, strap on your calculator, crank up your spreadsheet, and go for it. Who knows – you might end up hearting stats.

Pushcart 2015: Rachel Zucker, “Mindful” (Poem) from Kenyon Review, #35:3

Frederic Pissarro: "Multitasking"

Frederic Pissarro: “Multitasking”

jammed my airspace w/ an audible.com podcast
& to-do list Deborah lent me this pen better
make use of turn off it filled up inside dear friends
[swipe again] invite me to Brooklyn [swipe
again] I briefly [GO] hate them am rush rush &
rushing headphones never let me airways
I run & the running [GPS: average time]
[activity started] [GPS: per mile] then a snowstorm
no school I cried & said Mayor Bloomberg
should be scalded with hot cocoa when someone said
yay for snow I’m cutting it too close, Erin, if
a blizzard makes me [too slow swipe again]

I took one look at this poem and thought, no way. I’m not going to do this. I’m just going to skip it, who’s to know (I skipped one story, could you tell?)? But I tried again. And, as happens sometimes, it worked. I mean, it really worked.

I stopped trying to read a poem, and started imagining a poet, a situation, a mind. Mindful, in the new-agey sense, means in-the-moment, paying attention, focused. Here we have a different kind of mindful: a mind, full. Really full – of the immediate (swipe cards to get through turnstiles), the semi-immediate decisions involved in getting from point A to point B by any conveyance, telephone conversations or perhaps im’s or tweets or something else. A million ways to stay connected means a million ways to be bound and strangled.

I know people who cry over a snow day (especially this past winter in New England). Not all of them are mothers. Some of them are bosses of mothers, or clients of mothers or coworkers of mothers, and they know it’s not nice to get angry because a mother has to be late or absent if we as a society have valued child-rearing and wish to be inclusive enough to allow women to have children and have jobs, and for pete’s sake the women who are poor are told they’re lazy if they don’t work while the women with skills and education are told they’re selfish to work so why don’t we give this lady a break when she has to make childcare arrangements on a snow day, but I had an appointment… and I understand the poem completely.

[all service on the local track] fall asleep fast I pray
to whom? [1 X-fer OK] is this what I was
waiting for: the one nap moment of silence?
IF that’s what I wanted should have made other
don’t you think choices? What do you mean by
‘dark’? asks Erin. What do you mean by
‘unhinged’? airways [GO] I give one son
a quarter for two or fewer complaints a day
& none for more the pediatrician confirms
they each have two testicles then shoots
the smallest boy in the arm that was the easiest
part of my day [X-fer OK][OK][OK][GO] stroller…

Zucker’s conversation with Martha Silano of American Poetry Review includes a wonderful exchange about what it means, or doesn’t mean, for a female poet to include a baby in a poem. Silano references an earlier APR essay by Joy Katz about the “Oh, no” moment when a baby turns up in a poem she’s writing, and how she fears it might cause a loss of credibility. Zucker rather demolishes that as a concern: “I would really have to take a deep breath and figure out why having a baby in a poem is a problem…. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that. What the fuck was I supposed to write about? My whole life was just in this pukey, poopy thing.” I wanted to cheer for her. No doubt it’s a man who valorizes his potency or considers its decline who thinks a woman who includes a baby in her poetry isn’t quite serious. Then again, such men tend to find ways to not take women seriously no matter what they write about. And I say this as someone who has no real interest in babies or poems about babies, but who has a great deal of interest in all poets writing about what is central to them, what inspires them, what they feel a need to write about.

…Rebecca wanted us to do something
radical at this reading I don’t have time did
wash my hair lifestyle choice I know time
isn’t ‘a thing you have’ I meant to ask isn’t there
some way, Erin, to get more not time but joy?
she’s not home maybe running or at the grocery
or school [X-fer] can you anyone hear me?…

I’ll admit I have no real grasp of what’s going on in this poem, who Rebecca and Erin are, but I do get the sense of frenetic multitasking, juggling a great many responsibilities while creating Art. Writing may be a lot easier for a poet who can isolate from the world for a time, but maybe there’s another kind of art, another route of inspiration in the scattered attention that some lives require. I love how this poem embodies real-time stream-of-consciousness in a way Kerouac only guessed at, the activity in our minds as we switch roles on a second-to-second bases and the reaction to the activity, with the profound tucked in there with the mundane. How at once alive and aware and lonely and overwhelmed this sounds. Some sections are desperately interrupted, some more conversational. I don’t have the skill in poetic analysis to find all the patterns, but I’m sure they’re in there.

This is a real mind at work, running soul-deep while swiping transit cards and negotiating the world. This is what inner life sounds like for a lot of people. Cubism reversed; instead of an object having simultaneous multiple perspectives, the subject simultaneously inhabits multiple vantage points. I can’t live this way; I disintegrate. I’m not even sure I like it. Every once in a while someone will knock on my door, so intent on their phone they don’t realize they’ve got the wrong apartment. I’ve had people literally run into me while engrossed in some conversation. I don’t care at all about someone on the bus or in a waiting room talking on their phone, to me it’s no different than an in-person conversation, but I’m beginning to resent the requirement being forced upon the unphoned to compensate for the phoned. Then again, is it any different from someone engrossed in thought?

meat in the freezer or oven on so what? don’t
make dinner – ha ha who will? the military? –
don’t rush multi-stop stop checking the tiny
devices brain sucking the joy out here’s the
[too fast][swipe again] express

This is super-contemporary, in terms of the technology and the immediacy and the concerns. And we have to wonder: where is the tipping point, where the benefits begin to outweigh the liabilities, where the frantic excludes the joy? Will we even have time to notice?

The-One-Where-I-Take-A-Caltech-Astronomy-Course-From-@plutokiller MOOC

Course: The Science of the Solar System
School: Caltech (Coursera)
Instructors: Mike Brown
This course is a scientific exploration of our solar system. You will learn both what we know about the solar system around us but also how we have been using the tools of science to learn the things that we know. You will get to use some of the tools yourself.… we will focus our examination of the solar system on four main topics: (1) Where is there water on Mars? (2) What is inside of a giant planet? (3) How can we use the smallest bodies in the solar system to answer the biggest questions? (4) Where might we look for life?
To answer these questions we will learn about details of atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, planetary interiors and magnetism, the geological history of planets, spacecraft exploration, telescopic observations of planets around other stars, spectroscopic determinations of composition, biochemistry of water- and non-water based life, and many more. In short, we’ll learn about the whole solar system and about planets in other systems besides ours.

Some courses, I just take. Some courses, I love. Like this one.

Mike Brown killed Pluto, and he’s proud of it, and he explains why towards the end of this course, just before he explains how to look for signs of life in the universe.

But we started out a lot closer – right next door, with Mars. And we heard stories, going back to Galileo and Percival Lowell and how our view of Mars has changed from the time of ancient Greece, and with plenty of droll, understated humor (like – and this is a direct quote from world-class astronomer with the chops to get Pluto kicked out of the planet club: “And as far as I can tell, they were looking at the region with the sea monster and the porpoise, oh, and the stingray. And yet, we think Mars has no oceans”). So by the time the math and physics came in, I was already hooked. Then we went to Mars, and it was too late to turn back.

You see, this ran concurrently with the real-life CalTech course, and while those kids, and some of the MOOC students, didn’t need any coddling, the rest of us needed all we could get. Because, of course, this is a science class. One of my favorite moments came in the middle of Week 1, when Mike said those immortal words: “As you might remember from orbital mechanics….” Other favorite lines:

What does it take for something to be really old? Nothing. Nothing can have happened in something like 4 billion years.

Usually when we think about quantum mechanical states – if you ever think about quantum mechanical states – …

This is a differential equation, but its about the simplest differential equation in the world.

It’s a very strange thing. Why you might ask? Why: because quantum mechanics.

It’s tough to design a MOOC that will appeal to both scientists (and there were lots of past, present, and future scientists in the course) and the rest of us, but this managed with a multi-leveled approach. The MOOC quizzes were more conceptual than quantitative (hey, you’d be surprised how hard conceptual can be), but if you felt that was not rigorous enough, the CalTech homework was available (right over there, see?), complete with designated discussion forums (which, I see, when unused after W2… I mean, CalTech kids took orbital mechanics and differential equations in kindergarten, they aren’t fooling around). Also available was the CalTech students’ public blog. I took a look at these things early on, but then I went back to my “explain it to me like I’m six” questions. Still, it’s great the more detailed material is available for those who dare.

One of the best features was this mix of Those Who Understand and Those Who Go “Huh?” There were lots of people able to help the rest of us who were welcomed to ask basic questions. When there’s a balance of people with questions and people with answers, it’s a synergystic thing that really cooks, and it’s one of the magical things that MOOCs can do. It’s a tough balance to draw: you have to attract people who have answers (marquee-value names like Mike Brown and CalTech help with that) without scaring away those who not only don’t remember orbital mechanics, they aren’t really sure what it is. The teaser video might help with that, though I think he’d be better off to run Lecture 3:10: “I love holding this little piece of iron meteorite in my hand, and showing it to people, and explaining to them that this, this is the core of a tiny mini planet that was forming back at the very beginning of the solar system, that sadly had an impact which catastrophically shattered it into pieces, but then let parts of it fall onto the earth.” How could anyone resist?

I can’t say I did well; I started out pretty strong, but there was just too much stuff for me to keep straight. But I did come away with a basic understanding of about half of it, and glimpses of the rest. And some wonderful extras that weren’t in the syllabus, but were wonderful nonetheless:

Google Mars. As much as I hate Google Earth, that’s how much I love Google Mars. Except, ok, I don’t love Google Mars so much as I love the idea of Google Mars. We used jmars a lot more during the course, because it offers different types of maps, but it’s still cool that there is such a thing as Google Mars.

Blackbody radiation and emission spectroscopy sort of makes sense to me now. It’s probably the most useful thing for me to understand at my (very low) level, since it comes up over and over again, and I’ve always found it confusing. Ok, this was in the syllabus.

Have you ever looked up the etymology of “adiabat” (coined in 1838 by Scottish engineer/physicist John Rankine from Greek adiabatos “not to be passed through,” from “α-” “not” + διὰ [“through”] + βαῖνειν [“passable”] = not +passable + through)? If I can’t handle the physics, at least I can play with words. I can’t say I’m able to connect my feeble understanding of the adiabat as it applies to what’s going on inside Jupiter, and the more frequently given example of clouds smacking into mountains and raining on one side, but maybe another MOOC.

And speaking of Jupiter’s interior: degenerate matter. Cool.

The Cavendish experiment was first performed in 1797, and here I am just finding out about it now. But it’s awesome; I still can’t believe gravity works in a way you can see, with stuff you put together in your basement. It seems to be one of those things every high school student does for extra credit, so there are lots of examples on Youtube.

5678. That is: 56 = 7 * 8. WHY DID NO ONE EVER TELL ME THIS BEFORE??!?!

Hematitic Concretions would be a great band name.

One of the nice touches was guest lecturers, including Mike’s fellow CalTech professors Bethany Ehlmann, John Grotzinger (who talked about these pictures of Mars sent back by Curiosity Rover), and Heather Knutson, rising-star (pun intended) gradTAs Danielle Piskorz and Mike Wong, and JPL Deputy Chief Scientist Kevin Hand. We took a virtual trip to Hawaii to check out the Subaru telescope. While that was taped a while ago, by chance Mike was scheduled for time on the Keck telescope on the same Hawaiian mountain during the course’s run, so he answered on-the-spot questions, even as he recovered from a bout of food poisoning.

If you have the slightest interest in solar system astronomy, or any science really, I highly recommend this. I found it to be difficult, but not impossible; I think I even “passed”, much to my surprise. Lots of work, and I put in a great deal of time, far more than the 4-6 hours/week estimated in the introductory blurb. I was lucky I’d just taken two chem courses and three earth science courses, so the only piece I was really missing was physics. If you don’t have any science background, try it anyway – MOOCs don’t have to be about grades, you know. The lectures are great, you’ll probably pick up more than you expect, and you might find yourself wanting to know more. That’s how they rope us in, you see, the scientists, dangling these bright shiny things in front of us…

In fact, that’s become for me the sign of a great course: does it leave me wanting more? This one does. I really, really need to take some very basic physics. Unfortunately, that involves calculus, which I’ve been thwacking away at for a couple of years now, but maybe a more concrete approach would help. I’d love to do this course again, when I have more of the background, and pick up all the things I missed. And enjoy the lectures again. Just for the fun of it.

Pushcart 2015: Sina Queyras, “Like A Jet” (Poem) from Malahat Review, #184

Art by Ziba Scott: "Making ‘Elegy For A Dead World'"

Art by Ziba Scott: “Making ‘Elegy For A Dead World'”

A hole in the sky where softness hung,
A crater where the world was, a moment
The size of Manhattan: amazed
We are not all sliding in.

So many elegies. I’m not sure if that’s because elegies were the form to write in 2012, or if death was on the minds of the editors as they chose. This one is available online.

It appears in Queyras’ sixth collection, M x T. The title is not a cryptic abbreviation but a mathematical expression: Memory * Time. The collection “meditates on the nature of grief marked indelibly by modernity and technology”, writes Julie Enszer in a detailed and quite lovely review for The Rumpus.

Time, they say, time, and with it healing but also
Recrimination and upset, my tumourette an airbag
Behind my eyes, blind me, my lack of patience:
Why is my exuberance rewarded? Hers snuffed?

The poem appears as a series of eight numbered sonnets, beginning with a grief so overwhelming it’s almost visible on the page, as the opening quatrain above shows. “The body is leaking fluid; I am leaking, / I no longer care who sees me leak” that sonnet concludes, and I see so many possible references in that – tears flowing out. Because of that leaking, I’d briefly wondered if the death was of a newborn, a miscarriage perhaps, then later changed my mind. Whoever the topic, it’s an extremely intense portrait of grief; I’m not sure I could read it if I had just lost someone I loved. There’s a hint of a problematic relationship (“finally / She could not scowl me away”), and a sense of deep, ubiquitous loss (“Every last vein crammed with absence”).

Poetic references abound, and I’m not able to scan them all. Eliot’s jet? The only connection between TS Eliot and a jet is in some discarded lines from Prufrock that include reference to a gas jet. “Jet” is one of those ambiguous words, and interpretation depends on the reader’s generation and background: sophisticated travel, technology from the 19th century, an ancient gemstone. Perhaps Eliot’s quote about evil and good intentions surfaces, indicating further relational disruption. The poem begins with a sensual Whitman epigraph, and includes a line from Plath and mention of Sexton, but I’m over my head here.

In the space between the fifth and sixth sonnet, the world appears to begin turning again as the speaker looks forward:

                    …No more death
Please: bite hard, I want to feel the future coming.
I felt something snap just now. It wasn’t you parting
Your body – it’s months after that, as if all this time
Grief has been spinning our heels and now we slow, steady,
Let it nestle into a fold with the lost coins and lint.

That is how it works with great loss, isn’t it. At first it’s unbearable, but we do find a way to bear it, and it becomes part of our landscape until eventually we can talk about it, even write about it. Grief follows the form of elegy, which may be, I wonder, how the elegiac form arose. No matter how great the loss, if we are to go on, we find a way to incorporate the loss, to wear it, carry it with us, rather than to sit in its space.

Who will sort the apples? Leonard. Leonard will sort the
Apples. Frederick will drive the car. Jack will feel for you.
Describing is owning. Give me a woman with a lens
In her hand. Give me a woman with a will to read.
Give a woman a lost woman, an open vista, a stack of vellum,
Give me Time, give me swagger, give me your ears.

Love, loss, grief, life: Memory, multiplied by Time.

Summer School: Upcoming MOOCs, Summer 2015

Between MOOCing and Pushcart, I haven’t had much time for blogging, but two of my most time-intensive courses are almost over and I feel luxuriously at leisure. Relatively speaking. I’ll be posting about the courses that I’m finishing up as they close; in the meantime, I thought I’d list the courses I have coming up for the summer.

As I said when I did a similar list back in January, this is both an overestimate and an underestimate. Of the twelve courses I mentioned back then, I dropped four, and took several additional ones (some of which started after the April cutoff I used; winter and spring blended into each other, with no natural “break” as tends to happen in June, September, and January). Some of the courses I was most looking forward to, turned out to be, well, not my cup of tea. And conversely, I was thoroughly engaged with some courses that I’d expected to drop pretty quickly.

Somehow I have a nearly 100% edX schedule coming up. I’m not sure why that is, though it could be because Coursera, to my great dismay, is shifting to mostly self-paced courses. Possibly there’s also a shift in subject matter, towards a more marketable-skill product likely to generate revenue from Signature Track enrollments. I’ve ranted elsewhere about education turning into vocational training. But the pendulum swings, and in twenty or thirty years when everyone has business and tech skills, maybe someone will decide literature, history, art, philosophy do indeed have resume value.

And, as always, this is only my personal opinion; every MOOC is different, and every one I loved/hated someone else hated/loved. The only way to find out if a course is for you, is to try it. Since they’re free – why not take a look?


Animal Behavior
Start June 1, 2015
8 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
University of Melbourne (Coursera)
Official blurb:

In this course, we will explore how scientists study animal behaviour, and in particular how behaviour is shaped by the evolutionary forces of natural and sexual selection.

I don’t even remember signing up for this, but there it is on my Upcoming list (which is how I get so overwhelmed with MOOCS)… it’s probably something that was recommended during Genetics & Evolution. I’ll take a look, but I doubt I’ll last past the first week. As for the header image: I’m no fan of censorship, but I’m a lifelong arachnophobe, so pictures of spiders – even relatively pretty peacock spiders – are verboten here.


Calculus 1A: Differentiation
Start: Open now for pre-req assessment; official start June 2, 2015
13 weeks, 6 to 10 hours/week
MITx (edX)
Official blurb:

But what is the derivative? You will learn its mathematical notation, physical meaning, geometric interpretation, and be able to move fluently between these representations of the derivative.

I’ve been taking calculus for over 2 years now. I keep trying. I have a feeling I’m not going to last in this one; just taking the prereq assessment scared me. But I might pick up something before I run screaming from the room. And they get a lot of credit for their choice of header image: when it comes to math, humor counts for a lot.


Paradox and Infinity
Start June 9, 2015
10 weeks, 3-6 hrs/wk)
MITx (edX)
Official blurb:

An introduction to highlights from the technical side of philosophy–from the higher infinite to Gödel’s Theorem…. we will study a cluster of puzzles, paradoxes and intellectual wonders, and discuss their philosophical implications.

Now we’re talking. I’m a little nervous that, since this is offered by MIT, it’s going to go off into the stratosphere pretty quickly, leaving me behind in the dust. But I’ve encountered a number of paradoxes and infinity puzzles over the past couple of years thanks to MOOCs, so I might be able to handle it. And extra points for a great header image – even though it’s a stock photo, at least it’s an interesting one.
This course comes with an option I’ve heard of, but haven’t seen before: For $300, “you will be assigned problems that are graded by teaching assistants and given professional written feedback.” Interesting to see how MOOCs develop and monetize.


The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part 3 (Paradiso)
Start: Open now for 2-week reading period; material starts June 10, 2015
5 weeks, 10-12 hrs/week)
GeorgetownX (edX)
Official blurb:

In this course, you will be asked to participate in learning activities on both edX and on MyDante, an innovative platform for deep reading that emphasizes mindfulness and contemplative reading habits as key to deriving lasting meaning from poetic texts. The pedagogical approach of the course goes beyond mere academic commentary on the poem as literature; it introduces the reader to a way of thinking about the meaning of the poem at a personal level.

I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Georgetown’s “personal” approach to the Inferno module last fall, to say the least, but I did find a way to make it work for me for Purgatorio, which I loved (I’m not quite done, I have two more cantos to go): tackling one canto a day (most days), I used the Hollander translation/commentary as my primary material, used the Youtube videos from Prof. Mazzotta via Yale OpenCourses as a supplement, and used a skim of the Georgetown material just to get the jist of their more intensely theological interpretation. So I’m not really “taking” this course (presumably there are quizzes and essays, but I’ll be ignoring them); I’m only looking at some of the material and occasional lectures, using it as a structuring vehicle for my own self-study. That’s the nice thing about MOOCS; you can use them however they best work for you.


Start June 23, 2015
5 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk)
Australian National University (edX)
Official blurb:

Ignorance! provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how people think about unknowns, how they deal with them, and how certain kinds of ignorance are enshrined in cultures and social institutions…. Your understanding of ignorance will be expanded via online games, discussion forums, opportunities to find out what your own “ignorance profile” is, additional readings, and Wiki materials….Knowing more about ignorance will help you to manage and work with it. It also will help you in dealing with the unexpected, and with complex problems.

Given the prevalence of ignorance in evidence these days, it makes sense to offer a course on the subject. For myself, the more courses I take, the more I realize I don’t know, which is how Socrates envisioned it anyway. I have no idea what this is, but it might be a lot of fun. And I’ll admit, I just ge t kick out of being able to say, “I’m studying Ignorance!”


Chinese Language: Learn Basic Mandarin
Start July 6, 2015
6 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
Mandarinx (edX)
Official blurb:

Basic spoken Mandarin phrases and vocabulary for everyday life; The importance of proper “tones” in Mandarin; Greater insight into Chinese culture and its influence on pop culture

I never met a language I could learn (besides English), and I’ve tried quite a few. Add languages to the long list of things I don’t seem able to do – math, music, and isn’t it funny that they’re all related. I probably won’t last long in this course, and I have no idea who “Mandarinx” is – other than it isn’t an actual school, but these e-schools, like schoolyourself.org, have been cropping up on edX. I’d most like to understand the tonal nature of Chinese, something that’s eluded me up to now.


Pre-University Calculus
Start: July 14, 2015
7 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Delftx (edX)
Official blurb:

Pre-university Calculus will prepare you for the Introductory Calculus courses by revising four important mathematical subjects that are assumed to be mastered by beginning Bachelor students: functions, equations, differentiation and integration….The class will consist of a collection of 3-5 minute lecture videos, inspirational videos on the use of mathematics in Science, Engineering and Technology, exercises, assignments and exams.

So what’s the difference between Calculus and “pre-university Calculus? Um… well… one is for pre-university, obviously. Maybe I’ll pick up something that makes everything else make sense. It’s what I do, I take calculus. And I can’t wait to see what counts as “inspirational videos”. And if the MITx course turns out to be too hard, maybe this one will be ju-u-u-u-ust right. They lose points, however, for the ridiculously trite header image.


Reading Macondo: the Works of Gabriel García Márquez
Start July 27, 2015
6 weeks, 6 hrs/wk
Universidad de los Andes (Futurelearn)
Official blurb:

The main goal of this course is to explore the literary contributions of Gabriel García Márquez to world literature, through his first five works. These are set in (or near) the fictional village of Macondo – a town inspired by the author’s birthplace, Aracataca.

I’ve already unenrolled from this class, since it’s clear to me I won’t have the time to read the works involved, and that probably falls below my own moral threshold for participation even for a “recreational MOOC”. Probably; I include it here because it looks interesting, and I’m still debating whether I might drop in and take a peek at some of the lectures (which, by the way, are in Spanish with English subtitles).


Creative Coding
Start Aug. 3, 2015
6 weeks, 6 hrs/wk
Monash University (Futurelearn)
Official blurb:

One of the most exciting ways to learn programming is through authoring your own creative programs. Known as “creative coding,” this growing field uses computer software as a medium to develop original creative expression.
So if you’re an artist, designer, architect or musician who’s interested in how you can expand your creative skills, or even a computer programmer looking to work in creative applications, you will find this free online course extremely useful.

I signed up for this course last year but was too busy at the time, so I’m going to try again. I’d love to be able to do some simple animation. In a past life a long time ago, I was a computer programmer, but I was a lousy one, so I have no idea if I’ll be able to make any headway in six weeks, but we’ll see.


Scrolls in the Age of the Book
Start Sept. 1, 2015; 5 weeks (self-paced), 2-4 hrs/wk
Harvardx (edX)
Official blurb:

This course is an introduction to the making and use of scrolls in the European Middle Ages…. Why and how did the scroll format remain popular and relevant in the age of the codex? This course proposes four main reasons, which account for essentially every kind of scroll that still exists today. We will see and examine in detail a number of beautiful objects, and come to understand the thinking of those who chose the scroll format for their texts.

I’ve never done an edX self-paced course before; I’ve approached most of as self-paced anyway, since the forums aren’t conducive to communication. Except for the Art of Poetry course, because somehow, enough of us cared enough to make it work. I’m interested to see what the difference is between a “real” self-paced course, and the way I’ve been working them. I wonder if this is a little academic one-upmanship – “So Stanford did a MOOC on medieval manuscripts? Fine, we’ll do one too – but we’ll focus on scrolls instead of codices!” – or just a coincidence. In any case, of course I’m going to take it. And by the way, that’s my idea of a header image.


Discovery Precalculus:: A Creative and Connected Approach
Start: Sept. 1, 2015
15 weeks, 10 hrs/week
UTAustinX (edX)
Official blurb:

This is an inquiry-based exploration of the main topics of Precalculus. The emphasis is on development of critical thinking skills….The course places major emphasis on why the mathematics topics covered work within the discipline, as opposed to simply the mechanics of the mathematics.

By now, the observant reader will be confused and wonder if perhaps I’m obsessed with calculus. I am. It’s my white whale. And this isn’t calculus; it’s “pre-calculus”, the stuff you’re supposed to know before you take calculus, which is why I’m taking it three months after my third (or fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count) go-round with calculus. Hey, I’m not in charge of edX course scheduling. And, by the way, I took a pre-calc last year. I need all the help I can get.
I’m particularly interested in this course, however, because it’s “inquiry-based”, which is an educational buzzword for “you learn more by figuring it out than by listening to lectures”. I’m not sure how closely it cleaves to IBL, but I did take a UTAustin course a couple of years ago where they gave it a shot, and it was pretty interesting.
They lose points for a boring header image, but I’m more disturbed by the idea that mathematical computer art has become so ubiquitous as to be… boring.

Medieval Book Porn MOOC

Course: Digging Deeper (Part 1): Making Manuscripts and Digging Deeper: The Form and Function of Manuscripts
School: Stanford via Lagunita (their own OpenEdx-based platform), free
Instructors: Professor Elaine Treharne, Dr. Benjamin Albritton, Dr. Suzanne Paul, Dr. Orietta Da Rold
(Part 1) You will learn major characteristics of book production, the terms and methods used by manuscript historians to describe the book, and key themes in early book history. Where were manuscripts made and who made them? What kinds of materials were used and what can those materials tell us? What kinds of texts were created and copied during these centuries? How did multilingualism matter in the medieval period? In pursuing these questions, you will study some of the most significant and beautiful books held by the university libraries of Cambridge and Stanford.
(Part 2) The Digging Deeper team of scholars from Stanford and Cambridge shows how to analyze the function of manuscripts, the methods by which they are conserved, and the digital means that are transforming the field of manuscript studies. We will look at the development of music, move beyond the European tradition to study non-Western manuscripts, and see how digital methods are allowing for new inquiry and posing new problems.

Rather than focusing on these as courses with a body of knowledge to be learned and/or skills to be acquired, I approached them as purely recreational MOOCs – sort of like watching Veritasium videos for whatever sticks – fitting them in wherever time permitted. The material focused on manuscripts rather than printed books, so we’re talking hand-written books from the Middle Ages, with a brief historical gloss on more ancient technologies. Book porn. For those of you who ended up here looking for porn books – sorry.

The course was in two parts of six and five weeks each. Part 1 dealt with how books were made: everything from the preparation of the substrate (vellum, parchment, paper), how it was turned into manuscript folios, scribing practices, manuscript layout design, ink production, and binding methods. Quiz questions ranged from identifying chain lines and laid lines, to scavenger hunts such as: “In Gallica, find the manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 1584. How many rabbits are found in the folio E recto, and who is the author of the poetry and music in the manuscript?” Answer: 3 rabbits, Guillaume de Marchaut.

Since I’m a font geek, my favorite part was the examination of various “hands” meaning how letters were formed. I also very much liked discovering the marginalia of old texts; I wish my book scribbles were as entertaining. All of it was quite wonderful. Except maybe for identifying bifolia and quires and folia, figuring out what order everything comes out in, because, counting. Not my strength. Nah, even that was a lot of fun, since in most cases, I constructed models so I could tell how the leaves were ordered when folded.

Part 2 was a magical mystery tour of various manuscripts from the Stanford and Cambridge libraries. I found this less interesting simply because it was “so here we have this book” and several of them seemed quite ordinary, even though they were chosen for a variety of reason. It was still worthwhile. I perked up considerably, however, when we got to the Chinese scroll from the 3rd century, and the Sanskrit text written on birch bark.

I didn’t put much time into the courses, nor did I focus on “learning” anything – like I said, recreational MOOCing – though a lot of supplemental material was available for further exploration. I still found them very enjoyable, and can recommend them for anyone interested in medieval book porn. No, not medieval pornography books – I’m sure there’s a MOOC for that, though I haven’t run across it. Just really, really old books, how they’re made, and how we take care of them and study them.

I envy these people who play with old books all day, and spend their lives studying them. At one time, when life seemed full of choices, I wanted to be a librarian, and this is the kind of librarian I would’ve most liked to have been.

Pushcart 2015: Xuan Juliana Wang, “Days of Being Mild” from Ploughshares, #119

We are what the people called Bei Piao – a term coined to describe the twenty-somethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing. We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll, and who fed ourselves milk, McDonalds, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.
We come with uncertain dreams, but our goal is to burn whitehot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money, but we are very good at being young. We are modern-day May Fourth-era superstars only now we have Macbooks. We’ve read Kerouac in translation. We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial piety payments, but we are cool. Who was going to tell us otherwise?

I found the plot to be in the way of the story here. Once I got the plot out of the way, I loved this.

The plot concerns a jumble of roommates, some of whom make a marginal living shooting videos for rock bands whose main purpose seems to be to find fame by being banned. I started making my little charts, as I do when I get bogged down in too many details about too many complexly interacting people – but eventually, I decided it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure it mattered a great deal to Wang, I’m sure she constructed the plot with precision and finesse, and that every action has a reaction and it all fits together beautifully, but I get impatient with music-industry bluster (as I did with Goon Squad) and I’ve lived through too many generations of “we’ve just discovered what makes the world work and no one gets it but we’re still bored and aimless” to keep track – corporate culture, Beats, hippies, yippies, GenX, entrepreneurials, millenials, hipsters. Because of my weak grasp of Asian history even in my own lifetime, I’m not sure precisely how that maps on to China – May Fourth, Cultural Revolution, May 35, Bei Piao? But it seems any system, once it’s popular enough to become a system, is burdensome.

I found some references online which allude to a variety of contexts for this phrase Bei Piao. An American basketball player, relocated to Beijing after retirement from the NBA, refers to himself as such a floating migrant. The founder of the Miss Meusli cereal company refers to herself that way as well, having come to Beijing temporarily and somehow finding her dreams there. A Macleans article imparts aimlessness to the word rather than dream and drive. The University of Michigan’s International Institute applies the term to rural farmers who come to the city as construction workers, a late shift in population centers. So maybe, like hipsters and hippies and all the rest, Bei Piao are whatever you make of them. For Wang, I see a distinct Brooklyn view.

While the plot deals with doomed romances and the lengths some will go to for fame and fortune, the story running underneath concerns the first-person narrator. If he’s given a name, I missed it in the jumble of people coming and going and worrying and art-ing, but he doesn’t need one. I know who he is. He’s young, he’s having a great time, he’s lost, he’s trying to find his way, and Dad wants to send him to Louisiana to manage the family oil wells. He isn’t sure that’s the way he wants to find.

We also learned English. We realized how different it really was to speak Chinese. We didn’t used to have to say what we meant, because our old language allows for a certain amount of room to wiggle.
In Chinese we can ask, “What’s it like?” because it can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple-sounding as the one-syllable “men” which means, you’re feeling stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?
But we did learn useful acronyms like DTF (Down To Fuck) and Holy Shit, and we also became really good at ordering coffee. We learned how to throw the word love around, say “LOL” and laugh without laughing.

That’s the story.

I tried to find this word “men” with a symbol of a heart trapped in a doorway. I didn’t do so well – while Indo-European words are relatively easy to research, Chinese offers special challenges, especially a word like “men” which in its English meaning is so ubiquitous as to mask what might be germane, and that’s without getting into delicate shades of meaning and context. But I did find a few Chinese dictionaries on googlebooks that might give a clue: one specifically lists one cites “stifling, lacking good ventilation; (of a person) full of ideas but not inclined to talk.” Another discusses a compound, meaning “sad, melancholy, a heart… before a shut up door”. I think I see the connection with what the narrator is saying, yes?

In the 60s, at the height of the nonconformist craze, there was a little quip going around that ended up incorporated into a couple of songs over the decades: “I want to be different, just like everybody else.” Nonconformism becomes its own prison, and hipsters return now to the styles of yesteryear to underline their nonconformity. So too are the lyrics of the song the band is working on in this story: “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where’s our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.” A life of freedom can turn you into a grain of sand as well.

We learn that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, like that the world appreciated their individuality. That they were raised thinking they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy. It was endlessly amazing.

I wonder how many Americans would tell them, it isn’t quite that easy. In fact, I suppose that’s the point of the whole story, that what’s happening to this ragtag group in Beijing and what the narrator is feeling is the same thing experienced by thousands of disaffected twentysomethings crowding into unzoned Brooklyn lofts, and that’s the same thing that drew thousands to Haight-Ashbury in 1967. How many of those died young? How many made a difference? And how many ended up twenty years later in a suburban home with a picket fence, worrying about taxes and insurance and the best schools for their kids?

And I know this story works, because at the end, I wondered how American individualism would work out for our narrator – whose name I never knew.

Pushcart 2015: Tarfia Faizullah, “The Streetlamp Above Me Darkens” (Poetry) from New England Review, #34

Cover art from Faizullah's first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

Cover art from Faizullah’s first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

for this, I am grateful. This elegy
doesn’t want a handful of puffed rice
tossed with mustard oil and chopped chilies,
but wants to understand why a firefly
flickers off then on, wants another throatful
or three of whiskey. This elegy is trying
hard to understand how we all become
corpses, but I’m trying to understand

How to understand permanence, when there is no such thing?

In a wonderful conversation from Kenyon Review (made even more poignant because it is with Jake Adam York, who passed away just nine months later at age 40), Faizullah talks about the origin of the elegies she wrote for her sister: “When my sister first passed away, I silently spoke to her often. It was a way of conjuring her as much as it was a way to comfort myself.” Silent conversation eventually evolved into several elegies, like this one. She compares them to the layering of palimpsests, another wonderful image, and discusses the impossibility of testimony and conflicts of remembrance and guilt.

The poem (which is available online, thank you, New England Review) starts and ends with jhal muri, if I remember correctly from my culinary explorations; it’s a street-food snack of spicy puffed rice seasoned with chilis and mustard oil. This closing of the circle seems particularly appropriate to an elegy about permanence, as if it creates its own permanence – or at least the possibility of permanence inherent in a circle – to compensate for the lack of permanence of anything on earth. We do go on, somehow.

Whenever I see couplets, I now think of two people, and more often than not, that turns out to be the case. Here, we have sisters. Faizullah was born here in the US well after her family immigrated here, but the poem seems written from Bangladesh, where her sister died: “Across two oceans, there
is a world in which I thought I could live / without grief.” When you love someone, there is no place without grief; but there is also no place without love, even in the grief. The love shines through here.

As an elegy should, it turns from past to future: “How to look down into the abyss without / leaning forward?” The experience of grief must itself be a moving forward. I’d never thought of it that way before. It feels so much like the past, yet it is indeed motion.

The poem ends with a snippet of one of those mental conversations Faizullah might have had with her sister, a conversation that puts a point on it: in spite of our protests, the pain is something we crave, because human connection is necessarily linked to pain, and to blot out the pain is to blot out the connection.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved” (non-fiction) from Orion, May 2013

Orion photograph: “Air Your Dirty Laundry” by Chloe Beacon

There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.

I had a strong and complicated reaction to this essay (available online, thank you, Orion), and I’m not sure why. I let it sit a few days, thinking maybe I was in a bad mood or was under the emotional influence of some other event. But no, I still have a strong reaction to it. I’m still not sure why. But my purpose here is to record my reactions to what I read, though I sometimes, as now, do so with trepidation.

Solnit characterizes this piece as being “about categories, which I have found to be leaky vessels all my life.” It stems from a response on Facebook to a comment she made about the breadth of America – “nation of Thoreau and John Brown… slaveowners and slaves.” This fit in somehow to a counterargument to the notion that Americans don’t care about prisoners. I’m not sure what that was about, but while it’s true there are people who are working tirelessly on prison reform, we are still the nation with the highest incarceration rate; we are the nation that created Homan Square; and we are also the nation that fought for justice and eventually ordered reparations to its victims. America’s a complicated place.

What has this to do with Thoreau’s laundry? Apparently someone on Facebook replied to Solnit’s post so: “And the nation of Thoreau’s sister who came every week to take his dirty laundry.”

The sneering follow-up message I got from the person who claims that Thoreau was a man whose sister did his washing made me feel crummy for a day or so during an otherwise ebullient period of being around people that I love and who love me back. I composed various ripostes in my head. Having grown up with parents who believed deeply in the importance of being right and the merit of facts, I usually have to calm down and back up to realize that there is no such thing as winning an argument in this kind of situation, only escalating. Facebook’s verb “friend” is annoying, but its corollary, “unfriend,” is occasionally useful.
I decided against unfriending but for simply avoiding the person into whose unfriendly fire I’d strayed. The thing to do was to seek out more convivial company.

I would imagine there was more to the exchange than that, because that hardly seems to rise to the level of “sneering.” I think of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu receiving threats of violence. I think of the tumblr Penn professor Anthea Butler kept of the racist messages she’s received to make clear what she deals with daily. And I worry: have I become so inured to online jousting that anything short of epithets and death threats seems friendly? I’m not immune to hurt feelings, after all; just yesterday I wondered if I was being trolled on a MOOC message board (rule of thumb: if I can’t tell, I’m not).

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Because the essay makes a big deal of it, before getting down to the heart of the matter:

None of us is pure, and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.

I have absolutely no doubt that Thoreau was a good guy with a generous, compassionate heart; he was on the side of the angels in many important causes – pacifism, abolition. I have no doubt he had many flaws. I have no doubt the world is a better place because he was in it. And I have no doubt that his more quotidian requirements during his stay at Walden – meals, laundry – were supported by others. I see no contradiction there, no hypocrisy. Interesting people are complicated.

Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin. If you’re going to escape from society, it’s helpful to have a friend with a place you can go. I see no hypocrisy in that, either. If Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, why shouldn’t the rest of us? In America, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, as well as the shoulders of slaveowners, of slaves, of native Americans and those who murdered them. Slaves built the White House, the modern world economy.

None of us is pure, so let’s stop making our heroes live up to that impossibility. It wasn’t Thoreau, after all, who said, “I built that.”

What did he say:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

~~ HD Thoreau, Walden

I see nothing there about doing one’s own laundry. I don’t even see anything about self-reliance; that was Emerson’s essay.

Yet, I understand the kick-back, and I think it does come down exactly to “You didn’t build that.” A person who has been raised with education, role models, societal acceptance, and the confidence that comes with that has advantages. It isn’t about money, or even about being educated or smart; it’s about being given slack to experiment. Then, it was about “That odd Thoreau boy’s off doing something in the woods, Henrietta, he’s always got to be different,” versus gathering a posse to chase him out of town. Today, it’s about a white open-carry advocate walking by a school with a gun on his hip, arguing with cops for ten minutes before walking away, while a 12-year-old playing with a bb-gun is shot dead after 2 seconds of assessment. It’s about getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s about who looks suspicious and who doesn’t. It’s about privilege – not in terms of money, or an easy life, as Franchesca Ramsey explains, but in terms of assumptions strangers automatically make about us.

Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax he believed supported war and slavery. It seems his arrest was, by the way, illegal. Even privilege isn’t enough, sometimes. But he lived, and in the past few years, we’ve seen many who don’t fare as well. And, by the way, he spent one night in jail before an unidentified woman, possibly a cousin, paid the tax (I wonder if it was out of solidarity, or social embarrassment; in any case, Thoreau got out of jail on her dime).

But Thoreau didn’t claim he built anything; he just investigated the world and wrote down what he thought. Maybe it’s the heroism we thrust upon him, that makes him such a target for a take-down.

My favorite part of Solnit’s essay has nothing to do with Thoreau, or laundry, but concerns etymology:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, free has the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word priya, which means “beloved” or “dear.”… The scholars say that the word may hark back to an era when households consisted of the free people who were members of the extended family, and the unfree ones who were slaves and servants. Family members have more rights than slaves and servants, so even though “free” in the United States is often seen as meaning one who has no ties, it was once the other way around. Which is another way of saying that freedom has less to do with that Lynyrd Skynyrd sense of the word (in which we don’t care about prisoners were anyone else) and more to do with the idea of agency.

I love that the root of freedom is linked with family ties; it ties in nicely with a conversation I’m having right now with an old friend. And I’d love to have a sister who would do my laundry. But I have to wonder: what might Sis have accomplished, if she hadn’t been so focused on doing all that laundry? And, doesn’t she deserve a small recognition of her contribution to Thoreau’s accomplishment, as well?