Balinese Music: Gamelan mooc

Course: World Music: Balinese Rhythms
Length: 10? weeks, 6-7? hrs/wk
School/platform: edX/MIT
Instructor: Evan Ziporyn, Dewa Alit
Quote:

This course provides an introduction to Balinese music, and the role of music in Balinese culture. Students will have the opportunity to both learn about and watch Balinese performances, as well as start to learn and practice the rhythms and techniques of Balinese gamelan online, using the “Jamelan” game. The “Jamelan” game, developed by MIT Professor of the Practice Eran Egozy, consists of rhythm recognition software similar to that used in ‘rhythm-based’ video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which Egozy also developed. Using the Jamelan, learners’ progress is tracked and measured so that they can play along, hearing their accuracy audibly, but also having that accuracy measured digitally. By merging hands-on pedagogical tools based on traditional Balinese teaching methods, with new digital tools based on the gaming industry, the resulting learning experience is potent.

What, you never heard of Balinese gamelan music? Yeah, neither had I, and I’m still trying to process that MIT has a music department – and a music department deep enough to have a world music section, one that’s willing to put on a mooc, to boot.

It’s one of those courses that just drifted irresistibly across my feed, whispering enroll, you know you want to. I was a little daunted by the “10 weeks, 6-7 hours/week” time estimation, but I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, I don’t finish. In retrospect, I’m not sure where they got those numbers from. All the material is released at once; it’s a six-lecture course, with one or two videos totaling about 20 minutes, and two or three jamelan exercises each. The jamelan will take a while to get used to, and I found it helpful to repeat the exercises every day or so. Still, I would consider the time estimate wildly inflated: I finished it all in a little more than a week, a couple of hours a day at most.

Gamelan turns out to be a type of music involving predominantly percussion instruments, particularly various kinds of metal or bamboo marimba-like instruments. Sometimes dance is involved, either solo or group. There’s a small subset of gamelan that’s used to accompany shadow puppet plays. The music can have religious or secular purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects, and the one emphasized by the design of the mooc, is the way new musicians are taught. There’s no musical notation. Musicians might play their instruments, particularly the mid-size iron gangsa we used, with their very young children on their laps. Later, a student will sit across from a gangsa and imitate the instructor’s movements: the rhythms, the notes, and damping techniques to keep the sound crisp. For the purposes of this mooc, they created a digital gangsa (designed by the Guitar Hero guy, I discovered) dubbed the Jamelan for us to learn a few parts by imitating Dewa Alit, master gamelan musician and MIT Artist-in-Residence for the past decade. It was great fun. At times my aging fingers failed me, but it was still quite an experience.

Lectures were provided by Prof. Evan Ziporyn, who in 1993, founded Gamelan Galak Tika (get it? Say it fast), MIT’s gamelan ensemble. Yeah, here I go again, MIT has a gamelan ensemble and has had one for twenty-seven years?? I’ve got to get out more. He described some of the traditional and modern uses of gamelan, as well as musical elements such as the structure of interlocking parts and the importance of damping.

I struggled a bit with the lingo. It’s not just that it’s in an unfamiliar language; I found it hard to organize it all: this is a type of music, this is an instrument, this is a subset of that type. I posted a question on the discussion board, along with a crude outline of what I thought the divisions were, and received a prompt and helpful reply the next morning. My biggest confusion was about the word “gamelan” itself: is it a type of music, or a type of instrument? Turns out it’s sort of both, similar to how Western music might use the term “string quartet” to describe a type of music with a certain structure played by certain instruments. That helped a lot.

One of the extraordinary benefits of moocs – and one overlooked in the age of “get skills and a certificate to improve your job prospects” – is the ability to check out things you’ve never heard of before and might never have otherwise heard of. This mooc succeeds wildly on this dimension. It was one of those completely unexpected moocs that sometimes crop up, one of the best aspects of moocdom. I wouldn’t say it was the best mooc I’d taken, but you know what, teaching music is hard, putting up moocs is hard, and teaching music in asynchronous mode to people from all over with a wide range of musical experience is really hard. I love that they did this, and I love that they have other courses in the works.

Another Biochem mooc (MIT version)

Course: Biochemistry: Biomolecules, Methods, and Mechanisms
Length: 12? weeks, 3-6? hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Michael Yaffe
Quote:

We developed 7.05x Biochemistry with an emphasis on:
• Developing your scientific thinking skills including articulating hypotheses, performing thought experiments, interpreting data, and designing experiments.
• Using data based on real scientific experiments and highlighting the scientific process.
• Asserting that biology is an active field that changes daily through examples of MIT (and other current) research, not static information in a textbook.
• Visualizing real molecular structures with PyMOL to better understand function and mechanism.
• Appreciating the quantitative aspects of biochemistry and practicing this quantitation with MATLAB.
• Translating topics in biochemistry to diseases and medicine.
• Conveying the authentic MIT firehose experience.
• Implementing the science of learning in the course design.

I started to take this course a couple of years ago, and ran away screaming when I saw it started with “Buffers and pH.” For some reason I felt more up to it at this point, though I haven’t done any additional work on those topics. Predictably, I did quite poorly on that unit – and a couple of other units – but it was still very worthwhile.

MIT’s biology department emphasis is always on the practical approach. That is, they go through a pathway or a process in detail, give you a couple of general questions to see if you’ve got the idea, then throw you into a story set in a lab and make you figure out the setup: what assay do you need, what product are you looking for, what reactants do you need, what would you expect to see, what does this result – graph, gel image, whatever – mean. This is, after all, what biochemists are training for, not memorizing reactions. Something I discovered late in the course: the names of the fictional lab team in the Problem Set questions are the names of biochemists. They don’t have the distinct (and amusing) personalities of those in the Molecular Bio lab scenarios, but it’s still a great approach.

The home page emphasize some prior biology is needed to succeed. As usual, I needed more (any?) organic chem in some places; they do provide a nice set of review materials on pertinent topics – orbitals, thermodynamics, functional groups – and that helped.

The material is broken down into eight modules, one released every week, but the due dates allow a week of extra time for all modules. I wish I had the chops to spend just 3 to 6 hours as predicted on the home page; for me, it was more like 10 – 12 hours, though I do a lot of extra work basically copying the whole course into a Word document for future reference. Each module consists of a set of between ten and twenty video lectures; these are each followed by a short quiz that allows unlimited attempts for each question. The module is capped off by a Problem Set, where the number of attempts are more restricted and the lab scenario is usually prominent. As you might expect, the Problem Sets count for a lot more than the Test Yourself quizzes. Some weeks have far more material than others, but it might be they seemed harder to me because they hammered my weaknesses.

Some of the Problem Sets included questions that required the use of MatLab; you can connect for free through the course (in fact I still had an account from a prior course, to my surprise). I skipped these entirely. Maybe another time. Optional PyMol assignments were also included. I used PyMol in another course, and liked it a lot, but I didn’t mess with it this time; I had too much to deal with already.

Then there’s the “final”, in the form of what they call a Competency Exam (paywalled; $150). Don’t worry if you can’t or don’t want to pay the fee; there’s plenty of testing throughout to make sure you’ve got the salient points. I’m perfectly happy with the free material available, even if I do have a score of only 26% to show for my trouble. The bright side is, the maximum could only be 30%, so if I look at it one way, I got a score of 86%. I suspect the Competency Exam is significantly harder (they call it a challenge), it’s timed (oh no…), and it would have required a review of all the material (and I was pretty much done by the time I finished the last problem set) so I’m fine with not paying $150 for the work and likely humiliation.

I’m a big fan of MIT’s approach, even though I’ll never set foot in a bio lab or work on an actual science degree. The Harvard Biochem mooc is, after the thermodynamic component, more about specific pathways, particularly the generation, metabolism, and regulation of major elements, and the testing is far more information-retrieval. I might take that again, because that’s fun, too. And I feel more up to the thermodynamics and kinetics material, thanks to this course.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

Japanese Books MOOC: From Manuscript to Print


Course: Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print
Length: 9 (?) weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Melissa McCormick
Quote:

This course expands the definition of the “book” to include scrolls and albums, focusing on the reading experience of a variety of formats in Japan. You will begin by examining rare and beautifully preserved manuscripts in the Harvard Art Museums in an introduction exploring the material properties of Japanese books and scrolls, binding techniques, and important terminology. An examination of the illustrated scroll comes next, through a unit on the short story and visual storytelling in premodern Japan. The course concludes with The Tale of Genji, an overview of how this celebrated epic from the eleventh century was read and illustrated in every conceivable format, from scroll, to album, to printed book, into the modern era.

One of the unexpected effects of lockdown for me has been my return to moocs. It’s not that I have more time or am bored; my daily routine is much the same, and I had to put a couple of ongoing projects on hold to make time for new classes. And it’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to moocs all along; it’s just that I’ve fallen into a pattern of watching a lecture or two, then deciding I’m not interested enough to continue. Let’s face it, I’ve taken pretty much all the moocs I was interested in already, and the new ones lean heavily towards vocational/technical instruction rather than academics.

So what happened? I think it’s more that there’s so much mooc promotion going on right now, what with everyone learning online, I’ve just felt more inclined to put in the effort.

This one interested me because, of course, manuscripts! I’ve taken several moocs on European manuscripts, and had a slight introduction to Islamic works, but there isn’t much out there on other cultures which of course were producing their own works. I’ve had a very quick introduction to some Japanese work in the Japanese art mooc I took a couple of years ago, and The Tale of Genji was discussed in the World Literature mooc from the year before, but that’s about it. That turned out to be fine, since the course is geared towards novices.

One note: while the course description gives a duration of 9 weeks, that must be a misprint. There are three modules, released weekly, and each is well within the two-hour guideline. Durations are something of a moot point anyway, since nearly all moocs are self-paced; this one is open until March 2021, for those who want to take their time.

The first module looks at a 13th century sculpture of the 7th century Prince Shōtoku, which was filled with various small items: ordination promises, pieces of scripture, tokens. About a hundred of these exist now, and they were something like Buddhist time capsules. Curator and Professor Rachel Saunders went through the items, indicating their purpose, symbolism, and construction, including various forms of the books inserted into the sculpture and the kinds of paper decorations. I’d never heard of this before. A creative assignment rounded out the videos and questions: how would you design a time capsule of similar meaning?

The second module examined what was referred to as the short story scroll, right up my alley. Two stories served as examples of the ways text and art were combined, the variety of materials used, and the themes and purposes of these works. These tales are what today might be called magical realism or fantasy: gentlemen suitors who become other things, for good or evil.

Last comes the Tale of Genji, which could probably be a course in itself. We started with the various forms in which this was published, and the legend of its inspiration (it was written by a woman self-isolated in a monastary). Then, in an interesting twist, the Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji was presented. This is something between a pastiche and fan fiction, requiring its own style.

I greatly enjoyed this material, so different from European works of the same period. The care put into the scrolls and books is amazing: paper is decorated with rock dust or ink swirls, various techniques are used to bring the reader into the story (illustrations using the same house from different angles, for instance), and calligraphic techniques that vary depending on the work. Both form and content of the works is discussed, with an emphasis on how one affects the other.

It was a very satisfying return to moocs; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in literature or art, and particularly in ways the two intersect.

A Lot More Than Windmills: Three Months with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

In short, our hidalgo was soon so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep and the excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad. Everything he read in his books took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities. The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him….
And so, by quite insane, he conceived the strangest notion that ever took shape in a madman’s head, considering it desirable and necessary, both for the increase of his honor and for the common good, to become a knight errant, and to travel the world with his armor and his arms and his horse in search of adventures, and to practice all those activities that he knew from his books were practiced by knights errant, redressing all kinds of grievances, and exposing himself to perils and dangers that he would overcome and thus gain eternal fame and renown.

Don QuixoteI.1, Rutherford

Three months, one thousand pages of source text, two additional critical/historical texts, one mooc and one OCW later – I have some idea of how that madness feels.

It’s all Salman Rushdie’s fault.

I saw some comments about his newest novel, Quichotte, and thought, yeah, it’s time I read him, and that sounds kind of interesting. But I’d never read Don Quixote, and knew nothing about it beyond windmills, Sancho Panza, and To Dream the Impossible Dream. I remember observing a high school English class, a multi-level experiment that had the “smart” kids reading the original work (in English translation) and the “regular” kids reading/watching Man of La Mancha, which struck me as a really good way to grind teenage egos into dust. One of my favorite movies of all time, They Might Be Giants (the band took their name from the film) was a big reference to Cervantes, turning a crazy judge into Sherlock Holmes instead of an hidalgo into a knight errant.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.
Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

They Might Be Giants, James Goldman, screenwriter

It’s such an intimidating work: a thousand pages, written four hundred years ago in a language not mine (two years of college Spanish and 121 days of Duolingo don’t really count). Fortunately, there’s a mooc for that – or rather, a series of twenty-four one-hour lectures from Yale’s Open Courses (not quite a mooc, but close enough) by Prof. Roberto González Echevarría. This course not only cover the entire text but throw in a few other of Cervantes’ works, and uses a casebook of academic essays on various literary aspects of the novel (which was great), plus a history of Renaissance and early modern Spain (which was a little too detailed for my purposes). The Rutherford translation of Quixote – or, more accurately, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” but I’m going to abbreviate where I can – was recommended as Prof. González wrote the Introduction, but the lectures often quoted the Jarvis translation, which is available online.

And then there’s Overly Sarcastic Production’s humorous version (part 1 only, unfortunately) which was useful for solidifying plot points in a book that has so much plot, so many characters, it’s easy to forget them when they come back around 400 pages after they first blew through. And I just love Red’s style.

And oh by the way… since I was watching both OSP and the Yale lectures on Youtube, other Don Quixote videos cropped up, and I discovered a mooc offered by Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, featuring Prof. Eric Clifford Graf. This course focused more on scene-by-scene events and characters with brief mentions of literary and historical elements; it also included numerous original illustrations of various scenes (I’m including several in this post), which was helpful in visualizing exactly what was meant by certain descriptions. It was a very nice complement to the Yale OCW, which took a much broader view and discussed selected literary and historical features more deeply, rather than plot.

I was surprised that the book, while huge, was so readable. Some of that might be the translation, though Prof. González mentioned that the original Spanish, while quaint to contemporary readers, is less arcane than Shakespeare seems to today’s American readers. It’s also divided into fairly short chapters, which made it easier to read in short sessions. I also found the chapter headings useful, as they set up what would follow (usually; once in a while, there would be a goofy “Which relates what will be in it” kind of thing). But mostly, the characters and their activities just carried it right along.

Contemporary editions of DQ almost always include both Parts I and II, but Prof. González points out that Cervantes did not originally intend to write a second book. Given how well Part II recapitulates, and un-enchants (I’ll get to this), part I, it’s hard to believe this was not in the works, but he finished Part I and did some other things before realizing he’d written a best-seller, and a sequel might be a good idea. They were published ten years apart, but another writer, using the pseudonym Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda, wrote a “False Quixote” in between. Cervantes became aware of this as he was writing Part II, and – this is where I get goosebumps – references it several times. It’s part of the self-reflexivity of the novel, a feature I particularly enjoyed.

And about that reflexivity: the first printing of Part I contained errors, most notably, the disappearance and reappearance of Sancho’s donkey, and the misalignment of several chapter headings. Apparently it’s great sport to assign blame to the printer or to Cervantes. Part II mentions these errors. And in the most amusing example, combining reflexivity with metafiction and just plain weirdness, DQ happens across someone mentioned in the False Quixote and demands that he sign a statement that, having now met the real DQ, the history in which he appeared featured someone else.

“In short, Don Alvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks – not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you Sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of his village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part, nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.”
“I shall be delighted to do so,” Don Alvaro replied, “Even though it amazes me to see two Don Quixotes and two Sancho Panzas at the same time, as identical in name as they are antithetical in action; and I repeat and confirm that I have not seen what I have seen and that what has happened to me has not happened.”
….And the mayor took all the appropriate steps; the deposition was drawn up with all the legal requisites, as is proper in such cases, which delighted Don Quixote and Sancho, as if such a deposition were vital to their welfare, and as if their deeds and their words didn’t clearly show the difference between the two Don Quixotes and between the two Sanchos.

Don Quixote II.71, Rutherford

That’s the thing that most intrigues me about this book. It’s often considered the first Western novel, building on a foundation of piquaresques, romances, and chivalric novels. It incorporates those genres in tales related by characters in Part I (Cervantes avoided this technique in Part II, as it apparently drew complaints). It’s full of self-referential material. There’s a lot of metafiction going on. The narration is triple-layered. In short, it’s a mid-20th century novel that somehow kicked off 17th century fiction, which then took took 400 years to find its way back to the fun stuff.

I love the layered narration. The text has a narrator, of course. But this narrator, at the end of Part I, Chapter 8 (remember, Part I has 52 chapters) announces that “at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished, excusing himself on the ground that he hasn’t found anything more written about these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has narrated.” In Chapter 9, this narrator tells us he came across a street vendor selling notebooks written in Arabic. A Moorish passerby translated the title: History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian – a relative of whom, by the way, may be one of the minor characters in one chapter. Our in-story narrator hired the anonymous Moor to translate the whole thing, which the narrator has set down. And of course all of this is written by Cervantes. It raises the question of the God-like status of writers creating worlds, and also leads to the question, so who, or Who, wrote Cervantes? From the little I’ve read about it, this technique features prominently in the Rushdie work as well.

This narrative technique, linked to the Master Pedro puppet show (II.25-26) is featured in the George Haley essay in the Casebook, appropriately titled “The Narrator in Don Quixote: Maesa Pedro’s Puppet Show.” Prof. González also put a little sketch on the board in his Lecture 17; it’s one of my favorite elements in the lectures.

This is one aspect of the composition en abîme, the hall-of-mirrors effect, which, coincidentally, Jake Weber had just mentioned in a BASS 2019 post. Prof. González further used the story-within-a-story structure of some parts of the novel – in one case, a character tells a story that includes a character telling a story – as another example of this composition en abîme, using Spanish painter Velázquez’ Las Meninas as an extended metaphor.

Another of my favorite elements was that of the journey from enchantment, or illusion, or engaño, to disenchantment, disillusionment, desengaño. This is not disillusionment in the negative sense; this is more of an awakening to truth. Don Quixote starts out in a state of illusion, enchantment: he’s a knight errant, out to right the wrongs of the world. This is Part I, and corresponds to the Renaissance humanist vision that the world can be fixed by people acting morally. Part II moves to the Spanish Baroque, which is characterized by the loss of that illusion, the realization that the world is grotesque and we are only ornamenting our sarcophagus. Or, in Christian Neoplatonic terms, we leave the cave through the grave and enter the really-real of God. From the Yale lectures:

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’
This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.
….Deceits are all of Don Quixote’s illusions, and those of the other characters in the novel. While desengaño is what they wind up or what they reach, disillusionment, realizing that it is all vanity of vanities. This is the reason why so much of what happens in Part II is staged. Deceit is the theatricality of so many events which are made up, constructed; deceit is the dream of books that Don Quixote dreams, it is the unbroken chain of texts masked in reality, and even of language also masking reality.

Prof. Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW, Lecture 14 10:13

I got so carried away with this idea I saw it in my other reading, particularly the BASS 2019 story “Natural Disasters” which I read just after I encountered this section.

The feminism of some of the female characters also makes the novel seem more modern than it is. Throughout the book, women come up with clever solutions to problems, design intricate plots, and decide what they want and then go after it. But one of the most contemporary instances occurs early, in Part I, chapters 12 through 14. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a group of shepherds holding a funeral for their fallen comrade Grisóstomo who died of a broken heart (there are hints it might have been suicide) after the beautiful Marcela rejected his love. The bros are all hanging around complaining about Marcela, calling her a basilisk and blaming her for all the woes of mankind, when she shows up and gives them a piece of her mind:

You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her.
….Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside…. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.

DQ I.14

Marcela, 1; incels, 0.

While he creates a new form, Cervantes drew upon a wide variety of literature in his plots, particularly the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the penultimate chapter, in fact, DQ and Sancho stay in a room decorated with sub-par paintings of Helen and Dido, and Sancho predicts: “I bet that before long there won’t be a single eating-house or roadside inn or hostelry or barber’s shop where there isn’t a painting of the story of our deeds. But I’d like it to be done by a better artist than the one who painted these.” And of course, he’s right; not only visual artists, but writers (such as Borges) and thinkers (Freud was obsessed with DQ) have used this work as a springboard.

There’s so much more. Every aspect of Spanish political, religious, social, and economic culture is brought into the tale, either symbolically or literally. Sancho turns out to be a natural logician, as he solves a problem closely resembling the Liar’s Paradox. Don Quixote offers a good deal of advice to writers in various places, mostly following Aristotle, which is particularly ironic since Cervantes left Aristotle in the dust. The Cave of Montesinos as an analog of Dante’s Inferno; Sancho’s ceremony at Altisadora’s catafalque as an analog of the Inquisition. George Mason Professor of Spanish Literature Antonio Carreño-Rodríguez’ paper (“Costello + Panza = Costanza: Paradigmatic Pairs in Don Quixote and American Popular Culture”) citing DQ and Sancho as the original comedy team, leading to Abbott & Costello, and later, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. The death of Don Quixote, which Borges considers the reason for the entire book. And the opening question: can books drive one insane?

And here I thought it was just about windmills.

About those windmills: Just as I was finishing up the last chapters, a Presidential rant about the evils of windmills made the rounds, and every pundit who wasn’t on Christmas vacation dragged Don Quixote into it. I got a bit upset. Ok, the windmill connection is funny, but when you spend three months with people who make you laugh, who have a core of kindness and decency even though they’re sometimes selfish or greedy or make things worse, you find yourself caring about them, even if they exist only in the pages of a book. And you don’t want them compared with someone whose only yardstick is personal gain and grandiosity. So I got a bit snippy with a good friend, and I apologize for that. But maybe now he can see why I’m a bit protective of these characters, and don’t want them seen in shady light.

And I wonder if I’ve gone a little crazy, too. Books can do that to you, I hear.

The History Of The Book In The Early Modern Period MOOC

Course: The History Of The Book In The Early Modern Period: 1450 To 1800
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk (self-paced)
School/platform: Trinity College Dublin/FutureLearn
Instructor: Drs Elizabethanne Boran, Mark Sweetnam, Jane Carroll, Joseph Clarke
Quote:

The early modern period was an exciting time for invention and innovation. On this course, you’ll explore book production using examples from Trinity College Dublin and the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
You’ll discover how books were made, bound and illustrated, and will study rare treasures including the engravings of Anthony Van Dyck, and early editions of Aesop’s Fables.
You’ll also consider how books were read and how the invention of printing impacted on religion, medicine, science and politics.

It’s hard to imagine a world where books aren’t readily available or easily ordered at local bookstores and libraries, let alone Amazon and other online sources. This course takes us back to such a time when the printed book joined, and eventually took over from, manuscripts.

It’s not a comprehensive history since it’s a short course and focuses on materials in the Trinity College library, but consider it an overview that can be expanded in breadth and depth as one wishes. Given most of us watched first-hand the introduction of online media reading, it’s fun to see how book technology began and developed hundreds of years ago. It’s emphasized several times that, just as ebooks have not replaced paper books, manuscripts and print books coexisted for quite some time.

The four weeks are arranged thematically: How books were made, sold, read, and changed the world:

• Week One outlined the process of bookmaking from printing, types, and bindings to illustrations; Aesop’s Fables plays a leading role.
• In Week Two, we looked at auctions, catalogs, major collections, and the Index of books banned by the Catholic church; my favorite topic was printer’s devices.
• Week Three covered provenances, annotation methods, musical printing, and in particular the Fagel Collection from the Netherlands, now housed at Trinity, including the intricately illustrated works of entomologist Maria Sybilla Merian from her travels to Surinam.
• Week Four looked at the impact of books on religion, science, and politics.

The material was largely in the form of written articles rather than the videos that typically comprise moocs. I usually object to this, but because there’s so much visual material, it works well here. I had no trouble completing each week in the predicted three hours, and there’s plenty of further reading suggestions on all topics.

I took the free version of the course, which included brief quizzes at the end of each week, but no formal evaluation. FutureLearn’s policy is that access to free courses expires several weeks after the course ends. An upgrade to unlimited access, graded material, and a Certificate of Completion would have cost $59; an Unlimited option, offering access to all courses for one year plus Certificates of Completion, is available for $249.

I greatly enjoyed Trinity’s previous mooc on the Book of Kells, so when I heard about this one (one of my twitter peeps mentioned it, but I can’t remember who) I signed up to take a look. I found it a very nice, light introductory course, offering many avenues for further exploration.

Bible Old and New – Yale OCW

Course: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)
and
Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature
Length: ~25 50-minute lectures each
School/platform: Yale OCW
Instructor: Christine Hayes, Dale Martin
Quote:
This course examines the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as an expression of the religious life and thought of ancient Israel, and a foundational document of Western civilization. A wide range of methodologies, including source criticism and the historical-critical school, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, and literary and canonical approaches are applied to the study and interpretation of the Bible. Special emphasis is placed on the Bible against the backdrop of its historical and cultural setting in the Ancient Near East.

This course provides a historical study of the origins of Christianity by analyzing the literature of the earliest Christian movements in historical context, concentrating on the New Testament…. the importance of the New Testament and other early Christian documents as ancient literature and as sources for historical study will be emphasized. A central organizing theme of the course will focus on the differences within early Christianity (-ies).

Since several of the books I’m reading this summer concern Biblical materials or religious history, I decided it might be a good idea to run through these online lectures. I’ve done several versions of “Bible history” over the decades, some through religious sources, some academic. When I was organizing my books after my recent move, I noticed the “religion/philosophy” shelf was almost equal to the mass of the “medical” shelf. But I keep forgetting.

The first course on the Hebrew Bible was more or less formal lecture and covered the expected material: the J, P, D, and E sources, which prophets were Northern Kingdom and which were Southern, who was pre-exile, post-exile, and trans-exile, etc. The instructor demonstrated great fondness for the texts, and made convincing arguments that, contrary to later opinion in Christian culture, Judaism was not all about law and rules. The origin of some of the most familiar Biblical stories in ancient mythologies from around the middle East, the changing covenant with God from suzerainty to a more Zionist approach to the less concrete displayed in Job are outlined, along with the history that provoked these changes. I always thought the book of Job was one of the earliest in the Bible; turns out, the basic story is very old, but the philosophical construction reflects a much later period in ancient Israel’s history.

The New Testament instructor took a more casual, interactive approach, injecting frequent humor and asking for input from the in-person class. The formation of the Canon was a running theme, as was the wide variety of Christianities that existed in the first two centuries and the texts that were winnowed from what has now become the standard Bible. Viewing the Bible as a library, rather than as a single book, was a helpful way of dealing with some of the contradictions found between different books. Different views of Jesus as seen through different Gospels – including a few that aren’t in most contemporary Christian canons – were lined up with possible authorships. Paul’s letters were thoroughly covered, as well as the pretend-Paul letters and other letters that show various types of Christianity in the first couple of centuries after Christ.

Both courses generally focused on textual and historical methodologies, but offered several alternatives for reading the texts, and acknowledged the validity of theses approaches for various purposes. Transcripts of each lecture are available; in some cases, handouts are provided, particularly in the NT course. Videos of the lectures can be watched on the Yale Open Courseware site or on Youtube: Hebrew Bible lectures, New Testament lectures.

Many years ago, when I was still paddling around organized religion trying to find something that made sense, I heard a sermon that advised something like: “If you study the Bible a little, you might decide it’s all nonsense, but if you study it a lot, you start to understand its Truth.” Maybe I just haven’t hit the turnaround point yet. Particularly in this age when the Abrahamic religions are often not showing themselves as particularly inspired by a God of Love, I feel like it’s all a giant Rorschach test and what we see in the Bible is more a reflection of what we want to see than of any actual Truth. Man creating God, circa 2019 instead of 500 BCE. But it’s an interesting way into ancient history.

Both courses make it clear early on that the purpose is not spiritual guidance or any kind of theological exploration, but an examination of the Bible as a text. It’s a useful course for anyone interested in an originalist view of scripture, and understanding how history and circumstances at the time of writing shaped the texts. Because it’s an introductory course, there are lots of open questions left and other avenues to explore, but it’s a good way to define those questions and directions for further work.

Constitutional Interpretation (back when some things still mattered): Princeton MOOC

Course: Constitutional Interpretation
Length: 7 weeks, 2-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Robert P. George
Quote:

Though the Constitution is widely credited for the success of the United States’ republican democracy, people often disagree about how it should be interpreted. What does the Constitution mean? What does it require, and what does it forbid? In this course, we will examine competing theories of, and approaches to, constitutional interpretation.
More specifically, we ask:
• Should the provisions of the U.S. Constitution be read to give effect to the intent of their framers and ratifiers? If so, what counts as their “intent,” and how is it to be discerned?
• If “original intent” is not the touchstone of interpretation, how is the constitutional interpreter to avoid simply reading his or her own moral beliefs or political ideology into the Constitution?
• Who, by the Constitution’s own terms, has the power of judicial review, that is, to authoritatively interpret the Constitution and give effect to its principles and norms?
• If we accept the principle of judicial review, does that mean that judges always have the final say in disputed questions of what the Constitution means and requires?

One of the main points of this course was that some what we would consider fundamentals of the American constitution aren’t in the Constitution at all, but were established by court rulings. Like the idea of judicial supremacy, for instance: nine judges (at the current time), none of whom were elected, get to decide if laws passed by elected officials are legal or not. How’d that happen? It was hotly contested back in the earliest days of the 19th century, in fact, but somehow it’s managed to survive, even though Lincoln himself took a few whacks at it.

Interesting course, huh. And, in the present moment, kind of depressing, scary. So much rides on these decisions, and everything depends on the red wheelbarrow of precedent and the power of law which doesn’t feel very secure right now. In fact this course finished a couple of months ago, but I didn’t write it up because it felt so frustrating. Time to get up off the mat.

Each week looks at a different aspect, and shows what cases and decisions were crucial in forming what we more or less take for granted now. It’s all very accessible; even the cases are available in full legalistic glory, or in for-the-rest-of-us form. Though it’s large-class lecture, there’s some interaction, which always makes a course more interesting.

After six weeks of general material, five special-topic sessions are offered, of which two are required. It’s hard to pick since they’re all interesting: religious freedom, political speech, equal protection, property/contract (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds), and bodily integrity/family/reproductive law.

Each lecture started with a welcome that included online students and “community auditors”. I was curious about that, so I went looking: it seems that, for $200, pretty much anyone can sit in on most Princeton lectures in person, as long as they sit in the back and don’t say anything unless expressly invited (keep out of the way of the “real” students, so to speak). And then there are moocers, who get much the same deal for free. While edX has upped the pressure to pay – audit courses are no longer available indefinitely, and graded materials aren’t available – Princeton says, screw that, and somehow carved out its own deal. Grades were calculated, the course is available in archive, and they even email a Certificate to everyone who passes. Now that’s open.

Invasions and heresies: the Early Middle Ages (Yale OCW)

Course: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
Length: 22 lectures, ~50 minutes each
School/platform: Yale OCW (lectures/transcripts, no exams)
Instructor: Professor Paul Freedman
Quote:

Major developments in the political, social, and religious history of Western Europe from the accession of Diocletian to the feudal transformation. Topics include the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam and the Arabs, the “Dark Ages,” Charlemagne and the Carolingian renaissance, and the Viking and Hungarian invasions.

I’m beginning to get the hang of it: the Fall of the Roman Empire was more of a slide, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire, and the early leaders of the Franks had great cat names. Ok, that last one is a particular sentiment of this professor, but he isn’t wrong.

The lecture videos are all on the Yale Open Course site and on Youtube, and apparently on iTunes in some form; transcripts are available on the Yale site. This isn’t a mooc, so there aren’t any questions or assignments or discussion forums. Theoretically, there are midterms and finals in the materials somewhere, but I’ve never been able to navigate OCWs, so I never find them. Think of it as a lecture series rather than a mooc. It’s worthwhile for those who find listening to lectures easier, and more retainable, than reading a history text. I was quite happy with it, and found it filled in a lot of little gaps.

The biggest disadvantage is that maps and handouts are occasional mentioned, and while they may be somewhere in the “download course materials” folder, I wasn’t able to find them. It can be harder than you might expect to find a map showing exactly the time and events being discussed, though I think I pretty much managed to come up with relevant images from determined googling.

The opening introduction to the course featured the “invasions and heresies” line as the features that most characterize the beginning of this middle period (don’t ever call it the “dark ages” to a medievalist). There were other features – entirely new religions, cross-pollination of trade and mingling cultures, decreasing population, emergence of dynasties – and there are so many interrelated pieces, it’s hard to get it to fit together.

These aren’t the most exciting lectures, but they’re clear, there’s enough repetition and cross-referencing to help with retention, and towards the end of the series, some humor comes into play (hence the cat names). I got quite a bit out of it; I have a much better grasp of where France and England came from, though I confess, I still don’t understand the whole “fall” of Rome; I think I’m taking the word too seriously, maybe I should go with “decline”. In any case, Gibbon’s six-volume history seems to have lost its lustre; I’m glad I never got around to reading it.

A second course on the second half of the middle ages was referenced several times, but doesn’t seem to exist in the Yale Open Coursework catalog. Too bad, I would have loved to have taken it.

Intro to Engineering MOOC – Vaults

Course: The Art of Structural Engineering: Vaults
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Maria Garlock
Quote:

In this engineering course you will learn how to analyze vaults (long-span roofs) from three perspectives:
Efficiency = calculations of forces/stresses
Economy = evaluation of societal context and cost
Elegance = form/appearance based on engineering principles, not decoration
We explore iconic vaults like the Pantheon, but our main focus is on contemporary vaults built after the industrial revolution. The vaults we examine are made of different materials, such as tile, reinforced concrete, steel and glass, and were created by masterful engineers/builders like Rafael Guastavino, Anton Tedesko, Pier Luigi Nervi, Eduardo Torroja, Félix Candela, and Heinz Isler.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: This was not the right class for me to take. I was curious to learn more about the technical details of vaults, having seen some wonderful examples of structures from medieval and renaissance architecture, and this was, as advertised, a very basic introduction to the engineering of vaults. However, after a brief look at the Roman Pantheon, the course focused on concrete shells of the 20th century and more modern innovations. I lost interest quickly. Then I got sick between weeks 4 and 5, which further diminished my participation. I did end up “passing” the course, so it might be worth your while even if your particular interest is only partly covered. And I did come away with a better understanding of how vaults work, though keep in mind, I started at absolute zero.

Each week consisted of three distinct sections: a lecture series covering the historical and technical development of vault engineering, generally by focusing on one engineer who introduced a specific innovation, be it reinforced concrete or hyperparabolic shapes; a mathematical section, in PDF form, covering several equations in detail, though at a fairly simple mathematical level requiring only basic algebra; and a creative section, which invites students to post pictorial examples of some facet of the week’s material. Grading is divided fairly equally among these three sections. But don’t worry: although the material, particularly the mathematical sections (none of which go beyond basic algebra), may seem intimidating, the questions are manageable. Even though I skipped everything but the lecture sequences of weeks 5 and 6, I “passed” by a comfortable margin.

The lectures were very good, with lots of illustrative exampes, interviews with a variety of engineers and scholars, and a very step-by-step explanation of the development and construction of the technique under study.

This is part of a three-course series, with other courses covering engineering concepts of bridges and tall buildings. And again let me emphasize that although this was not the best course for my particular interests, the course was well-designed, and the series seems to be ideal for someone interested in getting a basic introduction to civil engineering.

Free Will on the Brain MOOC

Course: Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructor: Peter Tse
Quote:

In this course, we will dismantle arguments against free will, both from a philosophical and neuroscientific perspective. In supporting free will, we will tour philosophy, physics and neuroscience. We will rethink the neural code and discover that evolution has discovered a middle path between determinism and chance.

Philosophy plus neuroscience: what could be better?

But let’s get rid of one potential misconception: this course has absolutely nothing to do with the political stance known as Libertarianism. Instead, it focuses on philosophical libertarianism, which is related to non-determinism and the potential of different outcomes for different choices. The second level of this is to become a different kind of chooser, a bit more sophisticated kind of free will, in which we can decide to learn a language or a musical instrument and thus open up those choices, or follow a particular way of life and make our choices there. Sound complicated? It isn’t, really, but it helps to take the first couple of weeks of the course to see the ways this works.

The material was based largely on Dr. Tse’s book The Neural Basis of Free Will and as such had a clear point of view, yet made it clear there are other points of view as well. There were a few lecture segments that seemed a bit polemical to me, but these were clearly presented as coming from a particular point of view, rather than as fact. The instructor was engaging and clear, covering basics of both philosophy and neuroscience first then moving on to more complex topics.

The first week presented an overview of determinism vs non-determinism, and the general outline of free will within that schema. Week two continued with a philosophical approach to the classifications of free will. The remaining four weeks focused more on neuroscience, and how our brains have evolved to allow consideration of choices, as well as random fluctuations that prevent determinism.

I still have some issues with this. While the “swerve” (borrowing that phrase from Steve Greenblatt’s wonderful book on Lucretius) prevents absolute determinism and adds in an element of randomness, I still don’t see that it automatically creates free will. If we are just as beholden to the swerved paths as the originals, how is that free will? But it seems to be basis, along with quantum fluctuations (spooky-action-at-a-distance is the one I have some vague, rudimentary grasp of), of free will.

In any case it was seriously interesting all the way through. If some of the material should seem overwhelming, don’t worry; the graded questions are looking for broader concepts. A set of non-graded questions follows up each lecture, with a quiz at the end of the week drawn from those same questions. There’s reallly no excuse to miss any of those questions, in other words. They account for 75% of the course grade, with discussion counting for 25%. Since the passing grade is 70%, it’s very possible to pass the course without doing the discussion. I avoided discussion deliberately, as there was a particularly argumentative student who basically disagreed with everything, and I just didn’t want to deal with it.

Even though I’m less than convinced that the questions are answered, I greatly enjoyed the course since it hit two of my primary areas of interest.

Critical thinking mooc

Course: Critical Thinking: Fundamentals of Good Reasoning
Length: 9 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Berg
Quote:

This course is an introduction to critical thinking—thinking about arguments, about reasons that might be given in support of a conclusion. The objective of the course is to improve the student’s ability in the basic skills of critical thinking….
Of course, we all know, to some extent or another, how to think critically—how to think about reasons for or against some claim. The course is built on the assumption that learning more about what exactly is involved in thinking about reasons leads us to do it better. Thus, in each topic covered, our natural logical instincts serve as a starting point, from which we develop a rigorous, theoretical understanding, which then boosts our critical thinking skills.

I’ve taken, what, four or five introductory logic courses now; each one is a little different. Some are more comprehensive, some focus on different things. This one kept things at the simplest level and featured lots of very clear explanations and examples, plus three different modes of grading. As a first course in logic, I think it might work quite well. And then, it included my favorite: truth trees! Some of the other topics included Venn and Euler diagrams, types of deductive argument structures and fallacies, and inductive arguments. Most of the emphasis is on recognizing these elements in actual, if simple, arguments.

Each week consisted of two or three individual lessons, generally about 10 – 15 minutes of video each. Graded material came in three flavors:

  • A short set of questions with unlimited attempts at each question followed each video (25%);
  • Three overall quizzes, one every three weeks (and I found these surprisingly difficult, since I frequently misinterpreted statements), with one attempt per question (these are timed, but the two-hour time limit was more than ample)(45%);
  • Three submission exercises in finding an argument “in the wild” pertaining to the covered topics were required (30%). This wasn’t really peer-assessed, since full credit was given merely for submission and evaluation of other students’ work, with student evaluations not factored into the grade. The hardest part was finding an argument that could be fairly easily broken down into premises and conclusions; except for the last week, where I’d seen something on Twitter that immediately screamed “Argument by analogy with faulty property inference”.

Since two of these elements can be aced with minimal effort, a passing grade is almost a given.

The last week was devoted to production of an argument, with steps for design. The structure was useful, but there’s no way to practice. This is the Achilles’ heel of many humanities moocs: once they gave up on real peer-assessment, there’s really no way to create an assignment for this. The discussion forums would be an option, but, somewhat surprisingly, there was little activity, beyond the initial meet-and-greet, even though the instructor provided feedback for questions.

I thought it was a very good, if very basic, introductory course. The Duke reasoning course on Coursera gets into some of the more complicated and hard-to-parse examples so might make a good follow-up. Microsoft’s logic and computational thinking course covers much the same ground, then gets a bit more into scientific applications. I still miss the now-disappeared Australian course, my personal favorite logic course which included wonderful topic areas I’ve never seen anywhere else: language, mathematics, and computational logic. The Stanford course on Coursera is tailored to computer science; better minds than mine have hated it as much as I did. But for anyone looking for a place to start, this introductory mooc would fit the bill. And trust me: the more you go over it, the easier it gets.

Hope through Existentialism mooc

Course: HOPE: Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism
Length: 10 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Uriel Abulof
Quote:

Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism (HOPE) is a journey into the human condition and its politics, turning to existentialism for guidance. The course explores, on both individual and political levels, the following themes: Human / nature, identity & authenticity, freedom, reflection, happiness, death & dread, meaning, morality & ethics, truth & trust, God & religion, alienation & love, and finally – hope.”

HOPE is a richly interdisciplinary course: anchored in political science and philosophy, it also draws on history, sociology, psychology, and economy – synthesizing theoretical insights with empirical findings; both vintage and novel. HOPE shows that science and art can create a wonderful synergy when studying – indeed foregrounding – our humanity.

When I signed up for this course, I figured it would be one of the “light” philosophy moocs: less about reading Sartre, and more about “how do you feel about X”. That’s ok, that can be useful. Then, a few weeks before the start date, Princeton sent out a unique preview video that made me – can I say it? – hopeful that the course might be quite interesting.

There wasn’t any reading Sartre, it’s true, and rather than reading chapters of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, there were nutshell versions of pertinent ideas. But a great deal of work went into putting together a course that showed applications and consequences of those ideas in the form of film, literature, and music. And, yes, discussion questions.

Each of eight content weeks (plus an introductory week) focused on a topic – say, identity, or freedom, or happiness. Material included a warm-up exercise, perhaps a poll on what quality makes humans different from animals, or a discussion question like “Is a happy virtual reality better than a miserable reality?” Lecture videos tended to run longer than the canonical 6-minutes, but usually included film clips and/or music videos pertinent to the topic. Clips varied from 1984 to more obscure European films; the music videos were mostly alternative/progressive rock: Pink Floyd, REM, Radiohead. This sounds minor, but trust me, while permission is almost always granted for this sort of thing, the process – even if it’s just putting up a credits list of public domain items – still requires significant work. A lot of care went into this course.

Specific discussion questions followed each video – and, by the way, this is the only course I’ve taken that has figured out how to solve the problem of “what part of ‘Reply, don’t start a new thread’ do you not understand”. Unfortunately, it was difficult to follow up, since only direct replies were notified, but that’s true no matter what. Brief multiple choice quizzes with several attempts were also included, as well as a “Gallery Assignment” – basically a discussion question plus art, which ended up offsite on a Princeton board. Grading was a complicated mixture of these elements, but basically required self-reported participation in discussions and the Gallery as well as quiz scores to earn a passing grade.

I was psyched at the beginning, but I have to admit, I got a little tired of it as time went on; I more or less skipped the last two weeks. That isn’t the fault of the course, which is imaginative and carefully designed and executed. I just have a preference for the dry, straight lectures and reading assignments so many people take courses like this to avoid. I knew what it was going in, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to try something a little different. And for those who would rather bypass the dry lectures and voluminous reading, it offers an experiential way to encounter some of the basic ideas of existentialism.

Neuro in three acts: Fundamentals of Neuroscience MOOC series

Course: Fundamentals of Neuroscience (three course series)
Length: 5, 6, and 8 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: David Cox
Quote:

Based on the introductory neurobiology courses taught at Harvard College, Fundamentals of Neuroscience is a three-part series that explores the structure and function of the entire nervous system — from the microscopic inner workings of a single nerve cell to the staggering complexity of the brain.
You’ll study the electrical properties of individual neurons, examine how neurons pass signals to one another, and how complex dynamics result from just a few neurons. You’ll explore sensation, perception, and the physiology of functional regions of the brain.
Through fun animations, documentaries, and interactive virtual labs discover what makes the brain tick and how we perceive the world around us.

I’ve been taking this three-part series for so long, I don’t even remember when it started – oh, there it is, September 4, Part 1, The Electrical Properties of the Neuron. Then, in mid-October, Part 2, Neurons and Networks started, while Part 3, the examination of the broadest system, The Brain, began on Dec. 5. It’s all self-paced; in general, I finished each segment early, since I’ve been doing introductory neuro over and over for a while now. What can I say, I like brain stuff. I still have about a week to go before I finish up Part 3, but I wanted to get my postings done before the end of the year to clear the decks for Pushcart on January 1.

IIRC, I started this course several years ago when I was still fairly new to moocs; I quickly dropped it, since it was loaded with off-site content, much of which I had a lot of trouble working (I’m not sure if it was the system, or me, that was faulty). Things went much better this time around, perhaps due to streamlined and imported bells and whistles, perhaps due to me being better prepared.

I get the sense the developers of the course were really most interested in the first segment on electrical properties of the neuron –potentials, resistance, and the effects of electrolytes – since that’s where most of the fancy stuff was found: graphics to adjust levels of electrolytes across membranes with adjustable resistance, etc. I found some of it rather difficult to follow, and the material on length constant and time constant was far too brief. It’s possible I struggled because I was less interested in this particular area. Most neuroresearch, of course, measures electrical activity, so it’s appropriate that it’s emphasized.

In this segment there was even an optional do-it-yourself lab for “Recording and stimulating a nerve.” Materials required included a spiker box, stimulation cable, computer and smartphone, and a cockroach. Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that one.

The second course in the series moved up a level to interneuron communication via neurotransmitters and modulators, synapses, and excitation/inhibition patterns. Included were several interesting “Extras”, interviews with researchers looking at such topics as optogenetics – using a light-activated channel from algae to stimulate and record neuronal activity – and connectomics, a technique to understand the informational organization of the nervous system.

Part Three was more about structure and pathways in the brain: sensory and motor pathways, as well as the connections between areas that record memories and produce emotional responses. Some of the information – the structure of the lateral geniculate nucleus along the visual pathway, for instance – was extremely detailed and very helpful, while some – the sensory pathways – seemed more of an overview.

Each week’s material consisted of a number of short video lectures with two or three graded Practice Problems following, plus a final exam at the end of each course. Multiple attempts are given for each question in both cases; most of the questions are information-retrieval, the exception being the first course where a fair amount of applying various equations is required.

A great deal of material is covered, and it can be overwhelming for those who haven’t encountered these elements before, but that’s what learning is for. Fun fact: the only neurons that seem to be able to reproduce are located in the olfactory region (smelling) and the hippocampus (memory). No one’s exactly sure what this means yet; it’s possible the memory cells, most replicated in infants, actually destroy memory by “writing over” existing patterns. But why those cells? Why not spinal cord neurons, which might allow function to be regained after devastating injury? The answer will probably be found in evolutionary function; I have no idea what it might be, but I’ll bet it’ll be fascinating.

I find it all fascinating, that what we think and feel and do all boils down to electrical impulses carried by tiny wires. In many cases, particularly in the third course, the consequences of things going awry, despite all the redundancies and plasticity, are covered briefly. Given how complicated the neural system is, it’s kind of amazing things don’t go wrong more often. Yet here we are, still. At least for now.

19th Century European Opera MOOC: Prof. Kelly does it again

Course: 19th-Century Opera: Meyerbeer, Wagner, & Verdi
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard, edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly
Quote:

Travel through central Europe in the 1800s to experience the premieres of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and Verdi’s Otello…. You’ll learn about the musical details of each opera and the cultural influence of the works by understanding the circumstances of its composition, premiere performance, and its legacy and significance today.
What you’ll learn:
▪ The technologies behind 1830s French opera performances
▪ The relationships among major players in the premiere of Les Huguenots
▪ How Romanticism differed from the optimism of the Enlightenment
▪ The different singing styles in French Grand Opera
▪ Innovations in staging between the three periods of opera.
▪ How Wagner represented characters and situations with musical themes
▪ How Wagner’s approach to opera influenced Verdi’s Otello
▪ How Act I of Otello looked and sounded at the premiere

At the start of this course, I had absolutely no knowledge of Meyerbeer, an active dislike of Wagner, and a great fondness for Verdi, recently stoked by Stephen Greenblatt’s mooc on Othello. I came away at the end of the course with a better understanding of all three. And, as in all his moocs, Prof. Kelly made the journey entertaining.

As I’ve said of these courses before (I’ve taken all seven, though I haven’t blogged each one), they’re only partly about the music. Kelly creates a comfortable gestalt of history, biography, technology, and music, including interviews with directors and recording historians, to present the works in a context of time and space. For instance, I didn’t know that Meyerbeer and the Grand Opera of the French 19th century expanded the technology of stagecraft; that Wagner built the Bayreuth theatre specifically for his Ring cycle, and had some unusual ideas about its presentation (lack of boxes for royalty and the upper crust, save a box for the Prince who helped fund the work, for one; a prohibition on applause between acts, for another); or that Verdi incorporated several of Wagner’s musical techniques into his Otello while still keeping his own signature approach.

Each lecture video is followed by a short set of questions. For this entry in the series, I didn’t even do my usual note-taking, but answered the questions while the videos were playing. The only tricky part were the musical recognition questions, few in number: which motif is this, what instrument is playing, that sort of thing. I also didn’t participate in discussion, but the forums were active with others who did.

I again recommend this course to anyone with even a little interest in the material; it has a way of grabbing your imagination as things go on. I tend to have a preference for more academic moocs, but for these, I make an exception: they’re wonderful little stories, and, for those who are motivated to take it all more seriously, additional resources are available.

Three years ago the first of Thomas Forrest Kelly’s music moocs popped up out of nowhere, delighting me with a charming, informative look at Handel’s Messiah. And now, the series, based on Kelly’s two “First Nights” books, wraps up with a look at three nineteenth-century operas from three European settings. I can only hope he brings some of his other books to moocdom.

Even More Probably (Purdue, Part 2) mooc

Course: Probability: Distribution Models & Continuous Random Variables
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk (ha!)
School/platform: Purdue/edX
Instructor: Mark D. Ward
Quote:

In this statistics and data analysis course, you will learn about continuous random variables and some of the most frequently used probability distribution models including, exponential distribution, Gamma distribution, Beta distribution, and most importantly, normal distribution.
You will learn how these distributions can be connected with the Normal distribution by Central limit theorem (CLT). We will discuss Markov and Chebyshev inequalities, order statistics, moment generating functions and transformation of random variables.

The same comments I made about Part 1 of this course – the part covering basic probability concepts and discrete models – hold for this one: it’s a great course in so many ways, but it’s missing some kind of connective tissue. And the support – that is, forum assistance – is sketchy at best.

I have to smile when I see the expected workload for six weeks is 4 to 6 hours a week. Yet, I can see how that might be true for those who can listen to something like this…

Okay, the first one I’ll tell you about is the Weak Law of Large Numbers: it says that what we should do is fix an epsilon – it’s positive, it’s usually small, maybe you use epsilon as 1/1000 or 1/10000. And consider an infinite sequence of random variables, say X1, X2, X3, etc., that are independent. So then the probability that the average of the first n random variables is more than epsilon away from the mean of the random variables converges to 0 as n goes to infinity.

… and grasp it without parsing over it and remembering the (ε, δ)definition of limits and how it isn’t really that complicated, it’s just really nasty to put into words. Or mathematical notation, for that matter. If you can read Math, you’ll do fine. For the rest of us, it’s gonna take a lot longer, and involve a lot more sweat. But it can be done: In eight 12- to 14-hour weeks, I managed to come out of this with a decent grade, though I have to say, I strongly suspect the deck was stacked to puff up grades. I’m not fooling myself: I have a long way to go before I “understand” this stuff.

Included was what I’m discovering is the standard probability curriculum: various continuous probability distributions complete with PDFs, CDFs, expected values, variance, sums, and conditionals, Markov and Chebychev inequalities, covariance, moment generating functions, and transformations. Again, as with Part 1, each set of lectures is followed by three or four sets of ungraded practice questions in PDF form, and that’s where the real learning takes place. Weekly graded quizzes follow; these are well-designed with both basic-concept questions (“find the expected value of this PDF”) and more complicated problems. There are also several “gimmes” along the way – seriously, “Your answer should be 3”, why is this even a question? And “your answer to d should be the same as your answer to b” gives you two chances to come up with the goods – hence my impression that there’s some padding going on.

The prerequisites recommend three semesters of Calculus (“including double integers”, which presumably should be “double integrals”) and sure enough, many of the problems require integration, a few need differentiation, and infinite series pop up every once in a while. While I can differentiate reasonably well, integration has always been a problem. I found this course helped my precarious understanding of integrals a lot, particularly with things like integrating xy with respect to y, exponentials, u-substitution, and integration by parts (the whole calculate-this thing). For the bulk of the work, I relied on Wolfram Alpha and Symbolab, because I’m picking my battles. So sue me. For my purposes, it worked ok, and even was helpful. I wouldn’t recommend trying this without some prior exposure to calculus, however.

Another way I used this course, besides the obvious learning about probability, was to improve my ability to “read’ math. I’m by nature a reader, but when it comes to math, I look at page of notation which presumably contain their own explanations, and my eyes just glaze over. It’s why moocs are so much more useful to me than textbooks. Here, where each lecture includes a PDF handout which is often the entire lecture, I went through the handouts first, literally copying them into my notes document, and tried to understand what was going on. Then I’d listen to the lectures, which meant two passes over the material. I still struggle with reading math, but it’s a start.

The lectures mentioned a few times “If you have any questions, come and see me” which means this was intended for a flipped classroom, not solo study. That can work really well, but the support wasn’t really there; the discussion forums were empty. I asked three questions, got two answers five days later, and they assumed I was asking different questions. So it was just as lonely as Part 1, which I took in archived form. I’m still shocked that the forums are (after I deleted my posts) empty; isn’t anyone taking this course, or does everyone but me just understand this stuff?

In spite of all my complaints, I still thought this was a great two-part course, just what I needed to provide enough background so I could go back to Harvard’s Introduction to Probability course that I had to put on hold [addendum:yeah, after taking another look, I’ve put this on permanent hold, aka dropped it, not gonna happen, just way way too mathy] when it became evident that I wasn’t getting it (and, by the way, with the exception of a few lead-in videos covering a broad overview of topics, is entirely in written form – hence my need to improve my ability to read math). That’s the benefit of moocs: you can keep taking stuff over and over without fighting with the Enrollment Office or with the bursar. Taking stuff from different profs also offers the benefit of realizing that one person’s “find the density of X” is another’s “find the PDF of X”. It’s an approach I find helpful: the first time through, I get some idea of the lay of the land, and by the second (or maybe the third, or fourth, whatever it takes) time, I’m ready to actually start learning.

There’s a whole other course coming up in May. Maybe then I’ll be able to say I get it. Probably not. But maybe.

Othello’s Story: Shakespeare MOOC

Course: Othello’s Story
Length: 3 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Stephen Greenblatt
Quote:

We’ll look at the ways in which Shakespeare’s characters tell stories within the play––about themselves, to themselves, and to each other. We’ll consider, too, how actors, directors, composers, and other artists tell stories through Othello in performance. By focusing on storytelling, we can see how the play grapples with larger issues including power, identity, and the boundary between fact and fiction.

This is one of three moocs (the others are Hamlet’s Ghost, and Shylock’s Bond) taught by Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare and early modern specialist I first encountered through his captivating book on medieval humanism The Swerve. If you’re unfamiliar with the play and want a straightforward interpretive approach, the Wellesley or Adelaide moocs might be a better option, but for those who are familiar with the play, this course offers some highly interesting explorations of different adaptations.

The first week is a general introduction to Shakespeare’s life and times, a unit that’s included in all three moocs. We then move on to look at how Othello uses language to define himself, and at the boundary between truth and lies, including the question of whether fiction is itself a lie. Included is an examination of some of the black actors who have played Othello: to wit, Ira Aldridge, who toured Europe in a highly successful production in the 1850s (yes, during the age of slavery in the US), and, in the 1930s, Paul Robeson, who toured England and the US. It’s worth noting that Robeson sometimes had trouble finding lodging while on tour in the US, and the company refused to play in segregated venues.

In the final two weeks we turned to the examination of different retellings of the play, both in opera and in contemporary theater. Both Rossini and Verdi wrote operatic versions of the play in the 19th century, making changes in action and motivation for dramatic and practical purposes. And then there’s Othello in the Seraglio, a 21st century reworking of the play by an American musician of Turkish/Cypriot ancestry, set in Cyprus and fusing jazz, music from the Ottoman empire, and European classical music of the same era. An extended interview with the composer is a highlight of the course.

The final week focused on an extended interview with playwright/director/actor Keith Hamilton Cobb, whose American Moor is not a setting of the play but an “exploration of the American black male through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s Othello”, as he puts it. It’s a one-man dramatization of an audition, by a black actor, for the role of Othello; at one point, he sits on the stage and tells us, “That’s how it begins: a little white man, asking me if I have any questions about how I, a large black man, enacting the role of a large black man in a Shakespeare play about a large black man that has been for the last 50 years the province of large black men; no, I ain’t got no questions. But you should.”

Everyone comes to a class like this with different goals, but for me, the last two weeks were extraordinary, and worth taking the course in themselves.

Graded material for each week consists of a short set of multiple-choice questions, participation in several discussion forum topics, and an assignment question to be posted to the forums. The second and third of these aren’t graded, except for completion, which is self-reported. I took the course as a recreational mooc, so I did only the multiple choice; these make up about half the score, so some written work is necessary to earn a passing grade. Whether you wish to cheat or not is between you and your conscience.

Othello might be my favorite Shakespeare play, at least my favorite of the tragedies. It’s also perennially contemporary. This course may not give a scene-by-scene description of the action, but it shows how it has been transported across times and cultures, while still retaining its original core.

Book of Kells MOOC

Course: The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Trinity College Dublin/Futurelearn
Instructor: Rachel Moss, Fáinche Ryan
Quote:

The Book of Kells manuscript, housed at Trinity College Dublin is world-famous – it attracts almost one million visitors a year. But what can this book tell us about Irish history? And what significance is the manuscript in today’s world?
On this course you will use the Book of Kells as a window through which to explore the landscape, history, faith, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland. You will also consider how the manuscript was made, its extended biography and how it has affected different areas of the contemporary world.

About a year ago, I wished there could be a mooc focusing in detail on an individual manuscript, its history, text, and images. And guess what popped up last week! This was a lot of fun.

Week 1 was a general introduction to the Book of Kells, which until embarrassingly recently I thought was something like The Book of Runes, with kells as a form of ancient alphabet. No, no, no: the book is a four-volume compendium of the Gospels, and Kells is the town of the monastery where the book was probably partly written, then was housed (and stolen! but recovered) for centuries. Written about 800 CE (a 1200 year old book!), it has a complex history, and in the 17th century was given to the Trinity College library where it is on exhibit to the public. It’s become a prominent symbol of Ireland and an example of the earliest Irish art.

Week 2 covered aspects of manuscript creation. This was more superficial than I’d hoped, but that’s probably because I’ve taken a couple of fairly detailed courses including things like vellum production and scripting. The material pointed out the use of orpiment, a highly toxic yellow pigment used instead of gold leaf; the effect, at least in digitalized images, is remarkably similar. For someone not that familiar with, or interested in, manuscript production, this might be just the right depth.

The third week was where I focused my attention: the religious significance of the images. I was aware that fish were long associated with Christianity (though I’d never seen them used as abbreviation bars before), and three dots for the Trinity made sense (how they ended up as pawn shop markers I don’t know), but other things were brand new to me. I seem to have a lot of trouble “seeing” chalices, though the vines are usually pretty evident, and I’m still not sure which blobs are peacocks and which are just blobs. The illustrations are gorgeous; there’s a reason, besides age, that this is one of the most famous manuscripts in Europe.

Week 4 looked at how the book became a symbol of Irish culture, from the knot imagery to its incorporation into literature – everything from James Joyce to Guardians of the Galaxy. More about its display was explained, including the Turning of the Page every eight weeks or so: each of the four volumes is kept in a glass case to protect it from the elements, but different pages are displayed throughout the year. And of course the pages have been digitized and can be viewed online for those of us not planning to visit Ireland in the near future.

I haven’t used Futurelearn in quite some time, but this I just couldn’t pass up. They have chosen a different way to encourage the purchase of certificates ($74 for this particular course); free course materials are only available for the length of the course, and while there were quizzes for each week’s material, there is no grading. I treated this as a recreational mooc, as opposed to an academic one. I was most interested in book construction, which was covered less thoroughly than other courses I’ve taken, and iconography, which was marvelous and memorable; I also pasted lost of images into my notes for future reference.

I’m so glad I stumbled across this course; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Irish history, religious imagery, or manuscripts in general.

Operamooc: First Nights of the 18th Century – Handel and Mozart

Course: 18th-Century Opera: Handel & Mozart
Length: 5 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly
Quote:

In this breathtaking course, you’ll get to know the music of two beautiful operas — both in their spellbinding artistry and colorful histories.
First, you’ll travel to London in 1724, where George Frederic Handel premiered his most famous opera, Giulio Cesare. Meet the performers and experience what it was like to attend the first production, all while gaining an appreciation for the typical characteristics of Italian opera represented in this popular Baroque opera seria.
Then fast-forward 63 years to the Estates Theatre in Prague for the premiere of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enduring classic, Don Giovanni. Learn about the challenges Mozart faced during the rehearsal process and the revolutionary relationship he created between music and drama in this opera.

I’m not sure what it is about Prof. Kelly’s lecture style that makes his courses so much fun, but this is the sixth one I’ve taken and they’re all delightful. Here he focuses on 18th century opera through two very different approaches: the recitative/aria model used by Handel and others early in the period, and the more melodic and dramatic style that emerged later with Mozart, culminating in Don Giovanni.

No music background is required or expected. That isn’t to say that musicology is overlooked. We find out about key changes that came to characterize the classical period, the different structural parts of the music (ritornello, cavatina), and, most importantly, the ways the structure and sound of the music contribute to the emotional and dramatic whole of the piece (the discussion of “La Ci Darem La Mano” is not to be missed!). But everything is explained for those with little or no background in music or opera.

Overall the course is probably best described as music appreciation: a conversational approach to the music’s history, the stage presentation, the conventions of singing and stage performance at the time, explanations of why the opera was written to begin with, and details of the opening night performances. Much of it is told in an anecdotal manner rather than the typical lecture style. A few questions, mostly multiple choice (but a couple aiming for listening skills) follow each video. For me, it was a recreational mooc, a wonderful way to wind down for an hour or so at the end of the day.

Although I was primarily interested in classical singing – choral, art songs, madrigals – I hated opera until my late 20s, when I found ways to understand one work, then another and another. I still wouldn’t call myself an opera buff; I love a group of a half-dozen or so, and like some arias from another dozen, but you’d have to chain me to my seat to get me to sit through Fidelio again (the first time I saw it at least I was at Tanglewood, which is beautiful no matter what’s playing). The truism that understanding changes attitudes is a truism for a reason: it’s true. And if Prof. Kelly ever explains Wagner, well, I just might surprise myself by liking that, too. And oh, by the way – there’s a 19th century session in the works. I can’t wait!

Probably (Purdue part 1) MOOC

Course: Probability: Basic Concepts & Discrete Random Variables
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk (New session starts Oct. 13, 2018)
School/platform: Purdue/edX
Instructor: Mark Ward
Quote:

In this course, we will first introduce basic probability concepts and rules, including Bayes theorem, probability mass functions and CDFs, joint distributions and expected values.
Then we will discuss a few important probability distribution models with discrete random variables, including Bernoulli and Binomial distributions, Geometric distribution, Negative Binomial distribution, Poisson distribution, Hypergeometric distribution and discrete uniform distribution.

I grew to love this course, and I feel like it greatly helped my understanding of probability, but when I sat down and put all my thoughts together, I remembered being less enthusiastic at the start. So now I have to wonder: do I have a highly positive view of the class because it’s really good, or because I did well? And did I do well because it was a great course, or because, after running at this stuff multiple times, I was finally ready to learn some of it? I don’t know, but this was the right course for me at the right time and I’m very pleased – and ready to tackle part 2, which is the highest endorsement anyone can give.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series, and covered general probability techniques and discrete models; continuous models and the fancy stuff like Markov chains are covered in Part 2. I took it in archived form, meaning the forums weren’t active. I’m happy to discover that both parts will be re-starting on Oct. 13; I’m registered for both. For me, math is a process, with lots of loops and restarts.

By way of brief recap, since in math classes, background is everything: I ended up in this course after I tried the Harvard follow-up to the very introductory mooc Fat Chance, but it was too “mathy” for me; the focus was on proving theorems with little guidance on what to do with them. This was more my speed, an in-between step, since explanation shared the stage with deriving and proving theorems.

The course is structured so that all the lectures are presented for the week, at which point I would feel generally confused. I felt like I was missing an overview, a sense of where we were going, the connective tissue of narrative. But I have learned patience, and it paid off: the lectures were followed by three problem sets of non-graded practice questions, complete with answers and varying degrees of detailed explanation. This is where the course really worked well for me: doing these questions – or in many cases, not doing them because I didn’t know what to do at first – and reviewing the given solutions made sense of the lectures. I do wish there had been a few “basic nuts and bolts” questions after each video, but that’s me.

Because it took me a while to catch on to the rhythm of the course, I think I still have more to learn from the first weeks in particular, which is why I signed up again. It will also be helpful to have forums for questions (I still don’t think I fully understand how to calculate variance, particularly using the “diagonal” approach shown in the video), though I found I could get most of my questions answered through old forum posts.

Each week ended with a graded set of 11 or 12 questions. These varied in complexity, which is always helpful. For the most part they shadowed the practice questions, though some would venture into unexplored territory or require some extra consideration of just what manipulation was necessary. Most of the questions required calculation; a few were multiple choice. Grading was generous: three attempts were possible for each question (although the syllabus claimed they were single-attempt; maybe they are single-attempt in live sessions, with more leeway in archive. Or maybe they changed their minds. Or maybe it’s a mistake).

And again, these questions is where the lectures came together for me. I wish there had been another round somewhere along the line, since often I didn’t figure out how something worked until the last question, but there were no further questions on that aspect to make sure I knew what I was doing.

I found one outside source to be an enormous help: the Youtube channel run by jbstatistics (aka Jeremy Balka, assistant prof of Math at Guelph University). These videos are extremely clear, step-by-step explanations of basic topics in Discrete (and continuous) probability without a lot of technical verbiage.

I’m really glad I found this course, and I’m hoping to be able to tackle Part 2 on continuous models, which is where I completely fell apart in the Harvard series. It might not be the course for everyone; for someone at my level, a good deal of frustration tolerance is required, but a little patience went a long way and in the end, the result was very much worth it.