K-Phil MOOC: An Introduction to Korean Culture and Philosophy

Course: Introduction to Korean Philosophy and Culture
Length: approx. 12 hours total
School/platform: Sungkyunkwan University/Coursera
Instructor: So Jeong Park
This course will give you the cultural and historical background to begin your journey into Korean philosophy, and there is no prerequisite knowledge on philosophy required. Anybody who either has an interest in Korean culture, maybe through K-Dramas or K-pop, or an interest in philosophy from a cross-cultural perspective, are all welcome….
The Korean cultural, social, and political environment has informed and transformed the intellectual assets of China and the West. You’ll explore the creative tensions that Koreans have experienced, and broaden your worldview as you discover a new philosophical approach.

I know nothing about K-Pop except that it exists (it even shows up in some Duolingo Spanish dialogs) but apparently it’s hoped that some fans will use it as a springboard to study Korean philosophy. That’s cool. Me, I just like philosophy, so when I saw this course was available, I jumped at it.

I expected there would be some carryover from Chinese philosophy, and that was very much the case. The first couple of weeks dealt with how Korea both adapted Chinese ideas, and developed its own writing system rather than using Chinese characters, via mechanisms referred to in the course as adaptive and disruptive innovation. Since I have a longstanding interest in linguistics, I found the writing system’s use of not just familiar concepts of forward and backward placement and vocal mechanisms, but of aspects of Yin and Yang as well as the Five Elements found in East Asian cultures.

History also played a role. The name of the university offering the course became a lesson, as the word Sungkyun was a Chinese loanword that, while it lost most of its meaning in China, became an educational standard in Korea, with the extra twist that it was used for the University during the Yuan dynasty as an act of rebellion. For details, you’ll have to take the course; it’s worth it.

One of the central issues with Korean philosophy – with Chinese philosophy as well – is that of connection rather than opposition. This may start with Yin and Yang, which are not seen as opposites but as feeding into each other. The course focused on reason vs emotion, which in Western philosophy are seen as opposites in conflict with each other. Much of Korean philosophy observes how the two generate and moderate each other, more as a circular spectrum than as separate ideas. We spent some time listening to students discuss the term for mind-heart, Maum, 마음. The Four-Seven debate, concering the moral emotions and the everyday feelings, made up another major philosophic topic, as did the Horak debate about whether animals have morality and if anyone can achieve sagedom. The complexity of the term Uri, 우리, the first-person pronoun, was a major topic as well, as it is not quite I and not quite we but about seeing onesself in connection with others, yet distinct. All of these topics require further investigation; this was merely an overview to introduce the ideas.

The format was what I call “Youtube plus a quiz”: several lecture videos, and sometimes a student Q&A, made up each module, with an information-retrieval test of ten questions at the end. The graded final exam of 25 questions is paywalled; you can see the questions but not submit for grading (or find out if you got the questions right, which is a brilliant way of encouraging the competitive among us to shell out $49.00 for a certificate).

A four-week course can only cover so much, of course, but now that I’m reviewing the material to write this post, I’m surprised at how much was included. The course was designed for absolute beginners in both Korean culture and in philosophy in general, so there’s a lot of unexplored depth, but it still conveyed a substantial introduction. I was quite pleased.

Switching it Up: Instead of Biochem, let’s try Chemical Biology MOOC

Course: Chemical Biology
Length: 6 units, total approx. 21 hours
School/platform: University of Geneva/Coursera
Instructor: Robbie Loewith, Marcus J. C. Long, et al
…[C]hemical biology straddles a nexus between chemistry, biology, and physics. Thus, chemical biology can harness rapid chemistry to observe or perturb biological processes, that are in turn reported using physical assays, all in an otherwise unperturbed living entity.
…We will discuss fluorescence as a general language used to read out biological phenomena as diverse as protein localization, membrane tension, surface phenomena, and enzyme activity. We will proceed to discuss protein labeling strategies and fusion protein design. Then we will discuss larger and larger scale chemical biology mechanism and screening efforts. Highlights include a large amount of new data, tailored in the lab videos, and a large number of skilled presenters.

I’ve often said that one of the drawbacks of moocs is that classes in a sequence can be separated by months or even years. A student enrolled in a biology program at an on-the-ground university would be taking bio and chem classes all the time, allowing for more reiteration and keeping the ideas in active brain storage; if six months elapse between bio classes, I forget what PCR is and have no idea what the RAS pathway is. And suddenly it occurred to me: I can do something about that! Wow, revelation. So instead of waiting around for the next in MIT’s cell biology series, or their continuation of general chemistry, I went looking for related classes. Though I had a couple of retakes in mind, I stumbled across this, and thought it might be interesting. Is there a difference between biochemistry and chemical biology? Turns out, yeah, but it’s a matter of emphasis: in biochem, it’s finding the result; in chembio, it’s figuring out how to get there.

I knew from the start this would be over my head, and boy, it sure was. A couple of lectures were just rivers of words floating by. But that’s one of the benefits of moocs: you can take a class that’s a little beyond your grasp, take away as much as you can, and save the rest as aspirational motivation.

I learned the difference between fluorescence and phosphorescence and all about the Jablonsky diagrams that spelled it out; I learned about membrane tension and the pathway that detects and adjusts for it; I got a good refresh on the properties of amino acids and things like the catalytic triad; and in more general terms, I dealt with assays at a level of detail that was scary. Oh, and plasmids, I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about plasmids. So it was very much worth it, though I often missed entire swaths of material. And, by the way, I passed, which should give someone pause about the utility of passing scores on moocs: I didn’t deserve to pass, yet I did. I put in the work, to be sure – I spent 51 hours on site rather than the 21 hours predicted – but a lot of my answers were the result of test-taking skills,  guessing, and perseverance rather than knowledge.

The more aspirational material, saved for a later time, was fascinating. I’m still reeling at the different ways biological molecules and processes can be examined, both in vivo and in vitro. There’s the SNIFIT which generates one ratio of fluorescent colors when closed, and another in the presence of target molecules which open it. And photocaging, which keeps a molecule inert until activated by light, allowing precise targeting of the process under study. I’m a lot hazier on TREX, GREX and barcoded libraries, but even with minimal understanding they’re fascinating. Then there were uses of my old friends from the MIT Biomoocs SDS-PAGE and Western blots, which now seem a lot simpler.

Besides video lectures by several different professors, there were also several lab segments showing fancy machines and the people who operate them (these mostly went by me), and short Readings explaining individual concepts. Several Practice Quizzes showed up during each module; these required the 80% to pass, but didn’t count in the eventual overall score. They displayed what was right and what was wrong, and could be taken over and over until the desired score was obtained (the “choose all that apply” questions were kind of tricky); I ended up getting 100% on all, not to get the score, but to make sure I had the correct information. Each module also had a Final Quiz, which partly drew on those Practice Quizzes. The Final Quizes displayed nothing except a score for the first three modules; the last three modules displayed whether a question was right or wrong. These could only be re-taken after 72 hours.  I had to retake a couple of them to get to the 80% passing score. And as I’ve said, that was mostly unearned, so I’m not putting any feathers in my cap.

For someone with a better chem baseline than I, this would probably be a great class for looking at these techniques in depth. For me, it was still a great class, just not in the way the instructors probably intended it. But some day I’m going to run across something like barcode libraries again, and I’ll be a little better prepared to understand it, now that I have some idea of where it’s going.

And now I’m going to take some additional chem and bio courses to keep me primed for the new moocs this summer; but now that I’ve had a stretch, I’m going to find something more within my level. Because stretching is great – once in a while.

Chem 1 MOOC (MIT)

Course: General Chemistry I: Atoms, Molecules, and Bonding
Length: 15 weeks, 10-12 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Sylvia Ceyer, Mei Hong, Patti Christie, Alisa Krishtal
This course is designed to build core skills in chemistry, including drawing chemical structures and predicting molecular properties and reactivities, as well as to gain the necessary fundamental knowledge for advanced courses….
This chemistry course is the first in a series of two courses that together cover first-year, University-level chemistry. In this course, you will uncover the principles of chemical bonding, in the way it historically occurred: starting from the first experiments that revealed the fundamental dual wave-particle nature of energy and matter.

Short version: a great, if challenging, way to get back into chemistry.

Here’s the problem with chemistry as a subject: It sounds really cool. We all remember the baking soda volcanos from elementary school, and a lot of us would like to know just what all those ingredients in our shampoo are doing there. Not to mention fireworks and medicines and all kinds of other interesting stuff. But when you come to chemistry class, you get… math. Icky math. Equations with symbols you’ve never seen before, not to mention really complicated radicals and exponents. And sigfigs. Chemistry is obsessed with sigfigs.

But that’s what’s required. Here, the mathy stuff – about half the course – was handled very smoothly, with gradual introductions of more and more complicated elements and recitations (thank Zeus for those recitations) that went step by step through problems to make sure you’ve got it straight. It’s all about energy, speed, distances, and the *#@% Ideal Gas Law, all of which are quantitative. They deliberately avoided requiring calculus, so it’s only algebra; it’s just nasty. But that’s why God made Wolfram Alpha. It’s hard, and there are  some aspects I think I need to go over again, but it’s not out of reach. Prof. Ceyer’s simple-to-complex approach was perfect for me; as time went on, I became more and more appreciative of her, and by the end of the class, I adored her.

I had more trouble with the qualitative material — types of bonds, orbitals, periodic table trends —  much to my surprise. I think part of that was Prof. Hong’s more off-the-cuff lecture style, though I suspect more advanced students would be perfectly fine with it. However, the material is pretty standard and is easily available on Youtube, plus I’d covered most of it in earlier moocs, so it was manageable. If the instructors had been reversed – if Prof. Hong had handled the math and Prof. Ceyer the bonds – I would’ve been sunk.

A Module 0 containing basics of high school science and chemistry was provided; I spent way too much time on that, and so was behind for most of the course. In retrospect, I probably could have skipped the review entirely, but there was no way to know that in advance.  

The course page lists this as an Intermediate course. In spite of the Module 0 material, unless you were really good in high school chemistry, it’s probably not the place to start. But for that, there are other options, like the University of Kentucky chem mooc I took (twice) several years ago. Now that I think about it, I never did take the second part of that mooc; maybe I should, because MIT will be releasing a second part to this course sometime this year. I’m looking forward to it, but I’d like to be prepared. And I’m still hoping they’ll come up with an orgo course one of these years.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 2: Signaling)

Course: Cell Biology: Signaling
Length: 5 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Iain Cheeseman, Frank Solomon
This is the second cell biology course in a four-part series…. these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?
….You will embark on a lively journey through cellular signaling mechanisms, regulation, and specific examples and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

Short version: Another great bio class from MIT.

I took the first part of this unfolding four-part series last summer, covering transport within the cell. I wish I’d thought to review it before starting this part, because, while it isn’t essential, there was enough overlap that some refreshing would have been helpful, particularly when it came to assays. But no matter, I’m probably going to take the entire sequence over when it’s complete. For that matter, I’m probably going to take the entire MIT Bio curriculum again, since I feel like I’d do a lot better, and get a lot more out of, the earlier courses now that I’m beginning to feel more familiar with cellular processes and lab techniques. Repetition truly is everything. In a normal university setting, I’d be in these classes all the time, but with moocs, they end up spread out months, years apart, so the accumulation process is slower.

Primarily the course covers various signaling pathways: G-proteins, which send second messengers out to start cascades;  various pathways that use dimerization and autophosphorylation to start a signal; and a few more specific paths, like insulin, epinephrine, and RTKs, and some general cell reactions like the Unfolded Protein Response. As with all MIT bio courses, the emphasis is on experimentation, both historical and contemporary, to discover how pathways work and to confirm or discard hypotheses, rather than on memorizing individual players in each pathway. Thought questions — “how might you verify that X is necessary or sufficient?” — show up frequently, since the idea is to generate the skill of thinking as a scientist. A couple of the features introduced in Part 1 were repeated here (see that course for details): “Neat Experiments” showing how certain features were initially discovered; and Mudslips (a forum for  clarifying points that seemed unclear in the lectures). The forums were active and well-covered by staff, presumably grad students.

The course is labeled as Advanced, but don’t let that intimidate you. I wouldn’t consider myself an Advanced bio student by any means, and while parts of it were difficult, it was at a good level for me. It wouldn’t be the best first bio course; if you’re not comfortable with concepts like ligands, receptors, domains, and the compartments of a cell, it might be better to pick that up first. Since there’s an emphasis on experiments, some familiarity with common procedures — blots, gels, that sort of thing — is assumed. Some review material in experimental design and processes is included, including a very helpful tutorial on Western Blot. While there’s no substitute for actual lab experience – which of course moocs can’t provide – they do a pretty good job of conveying the thought process behind various procedures.

Grading follows the usual combination of after-video questions, unit quizzes, and tests. The audit track (that is, free of charge) includes two tests, as well as after-video questions and weekly quizzes; the third test is for those on the Verified track only ($99).

Someone pointed out in the forums that it can be difficult to understand the pathways one of the professors is outlining, since his lecture style is somewhat erratic due to his enthusiasm (I suspect he’s beloved by in-person students). As compensation, online students have access to Youtube, which covers the pathways mentioned, even if not in the same terms. I found it much easier understand – and enjoy – the lectures about UPR, for instance, once I’d found a couple of Youtube videos that were more straightforward about the actual steps. By the way, this problem is not unique to this course; it comes up in most team-teaching courses, and I suspect it’s deliberate to pair instructors with different styles since some students will gravitate towards each. It’s quite possible more advanced students would prefer a more effusive style, since they’re already on board with the basics.

I’m really psyched about the next installment, coming this summer, covering the Cell Cycle. In every mitosis lecture, there are a couple of checkpoints where “the cell checks to see if everything’s ok before going on to the next step” but I’ve never seen an explanation how it knows whether everything’s ok. Now I get to find out! 

Renaissance Travel Manuscript MOOC: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar

Course: Changing Minds: Geographic Discoveries and New Worlds through the Eyes of a Renaissance Jewish Scholar
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk (a 90 minute lecture divided into six modules)
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructor: Fabrizio Lelli, Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature. University of Salento (Lecce, Italy).
This course will explore the world of the Jewish renaissance scholar Abraham ben Mordecai Fairissol and his manuscript A Letter on the Paths of the World ( Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam ). Farissol, a product of the northern Italian Renaissance, wrote this geographical treatise about a world seen anew through advances in science, exploration, and trade. The manuscript gives us insight into the place of Jews in the northern Italian Renaissance and demonstrates the ways they were at once deeply embedded in the changing intellectual landscape of the day, but also striving to assert distinctive Jewish belonging in this vibrant intellectual world. Among other things, this text is the first mention in Hebrew of the discovery of the Americas.

For the third time, Penn offers a wonderful mini-mooc on a particular Jewish manuscript from the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (my experience with the prior two can be found here).  I heard about it, as I’ve heard of so many courses, via Class Central’s Twitter feed: if you like moocs, they’re very worth following.

This manuscript, Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam (A Letter on the Paths of the World) is considered particularly significant in that it includes the first reference to the New World found in a Hebrew book:

“It is now an established fact that the Spanish Ships which were sent on an expedition by the King of Spain almost gave up hope of ever returning. But divine providence had decreed for them a kinder fate than death amid sea. Those at the topmost mast discerned a strip of land. When they had sailed along its shores, and saw its exceedingly large size, they called it because of its great length and breadth, ‘The New World’. The land is rich in natural resources. They have an abundance of fish, large forests teeming with large and small beasts of prey, and serpents as large as beams. The sand along the shores of the rivers contain pure gold, precious stones, and mother of pearl.”
Abraham Fairissol: Iggeret Orhot ‘Olam, Ch. 29 (translation)

The material covers a broad array of topics, showing how the manuscript fits into the time and culture in which it was written, as well as its content. First we find out some basic information about the author, Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol, and Northern Italy of the 16th century, particularly the role of Jews, who had arrived in large numbers following the Spanish expulsion: they were welcomed and could be found in many industries, professions, the arts, and scholarship. Lelli shows how Jewish life was represented positively in visual and written arts.

Lelli discusses the fascination with nature at the time, which was seen in religious terms, as evidence of God’s power. There’s a reference to cameleopards in Fairissol’s manuscript, and there’s evidence he had been to visit the Medici Giraffe, which I first learned about last year when I read the wonderful historico-theologico-fantasy, Lent by Jo Walton, one of those books I read in front of my computer so I could look up things like the Medici Giraffe. Travel and far-off lands were also viewed through a religious lens during this initial age of exploration and trade. One of the themes of Fairissol’s work was to indicate that these lands were mentioned in the Bible. Lelli tells us:

Farissol’s first aim was that of drawing inspiration from the Bible, as it appears from the choice of the title. Indeed, Orhot ‘Olam, “the paths of the world”, is a quotation from the Book of Job, where the Hebrew phrase is endowed with a profoundly different meaning than what we would expect from Farissol’s introductory words. In the standardized English version of the Bible, the verse reads “Will you keep to the old path that the wicked have trod?” Farissol changes this plain meaning of the biblical text, giving it a new interpretation. The orhot ‘olam of Job are certainly not the ways of the New World, the itineraries a modern traveler should follow, nor are they the paths of wickedness as in Job, but are rather those of the valued tradition that should not be abandoned even in new worlds. Farissol walks between the old paths of Jewish tradition and the new paths of the recently discovered lands and new knowledge.

The manuscript refers to a number of interesting individuals in connection with travel, from the legendary Prester John (another recent discovery of mine via Eco’s Serendipities), to “messianic activist” David ha-Reubeni. The last two segments include technical information about the sources of Fairissol’s manuscript, and the various copies that exist today and how they differ from the one in the Penn collection in content and script.

These aren’t moocs so much as they are individual lectures about specific manuscripts reformated into mooc form. In this case, the module review questions were paywalled ($29) but while it would have been nice to have seen what points were considered most important, the lecture stands on its own just fine. A list of interesting discussion questions in the wrap-up material serves the same purpose.

It’s listed as an Advanced course. While the lecture isn’t difficult to follow, it does assume some passing familiarity with the northern Italian renaissance and general European history of the time. But don’t be intimidated: A willingness to look up unfamiliar terms (or to tolerate some uncertainty) will do just fine. A generous glossary and list of additional sources found at the end of the lecture provides additional support.

While the description lists it as a five week course of one hour per week, it’s probably best enjoyed in a more condensed format. Each module’s lecture is about 15 minutes, and while they are information-dense (particularly for those of us who need to do a little extra work to understand the references), I found that viewing several in one longer session provided better momentum.

It isn’t likely to become a super-popular course – it’s not one of the “fun” moocs like the Science of Beer, or something that’s likely to boost your resume like business or computer courses –  but courses like this offer a unique perspective on history, and a chance to see ways in which manuscripts can be valuable outside of their artistic beauty. I’m a big fan of the “oooh, pretty” class of manuscripts, but it’s nice to have a chance to see how scholars view specific content as well. Niche courses are wonderful for those who appreciate the niche, and they cover topics not likely to be found elsewhere.   

Contemporary Chinese Literature mooc

Course: ChinaX Book Club: Five Authors, Five Books, Five Views of China
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: David Wang

How can literature and literary analysis allow us to understand the dynamics of contemporary China?
China’s historical and cultural transformations, and its imaginary and actual engagements in everyday life are vividly dramatized by five Chinese authors featured in this course…. This course will employ the tools of close reading, discussion, and analysis to explore issues that concern the Chinese people, and ponder the power (and limitations) of literature in imagining China anew.

I started Harvard’s ChinaX series a couple of years ago; I loved the first couple of segments, but lost interest as we moved into the medieval period and never completed it. Recently I saw this offered as another part of the series. I’m way too intimidated to read Chinese literature on my own, so I thought it might be an interesting way to get some kind of glimpse into what I was missing.

To my surprise, I had read two of the authors discussed. An excerpt of Mo Yan’s novel POW! appeared in TNY right after he won his Nobel Prize, and I read Ha Jin’s story collection A Good Fall a long time ago and made a mess of it (I’m embarrassed every time I see those posts come up, since I had no idea what I was doing). Neither of those works was involved in this course, however.

The works that were discussed were:
∘ China in 10 Words by Yu Hua
∘ Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
∘ Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke
∘ Waiting by Ha Jin
∘ The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

I took this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read the works. Each week focused on one author/book. After an introduction of the author, with some reference to the specific book, a passage from the book (usually about 10 pages) was presented with numerous detailed instructor notes and questions. This was an annotation exercise, the idea being to respond to the instructor material or add your own notations. I found the instructor notes very helpful, and also a bit intimidating: they pointed out things I never would have considered if I’d been reading the book. Some of this is just a more analytical way of reading – a discussion of free indirect discourse, for example – and some was in references to Chinese culture and history that’s outside my knowledge. Of course, reading books is a great way to get that knowledge, but it helps when they’re highlighted and explicitly explained.

Other material for each week included an interview with the author (these were in a Chinese dialect – I’m assuming Mandarin, but how would I know – with English subtitles and transcripts), and discussions between the instructor and a couple of PhD students. A set of “reader’s guide” style questions was provided for each book, giving further guidance to personal reading. All grading was in self-reporting; I skipped that entirely.

Yu Hua’s China in 10 Words, the only nonfiction covered in the course, served as both an entry into the class, and a wrap-up, as the course is situated within a series about understanding China. An entry survey asked us to come up with ten words we connect with China, prior to reading the works or taking the course. Given the coincidence of taking this during a pandemic that began in China, and living in a country with a leader whose racism is front and center, it was a bit disconcerting [Note: I took this course in the Spring; this post has just been sitting in my notes document since then, but I… well, I forgot about it until I saw it the other day]. I connect China with the philosophies of the Warring States period, with the poetry of the Tang (or is it Song, I get them confused) dynasty, and with bits and pieces I’ve encountered in other moocs. At the end of the course, the instructor and his grad students came up with their own list of ten words to summarize contemporary China; they of course know a lot more than I do about it.

Initially, I thought Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke would be the book I’d be most likely to read on my own, just based on the description: a satiric novel about a kind of travelling circus of disabled people from a poor village who turn to entertainment for economic survival. From the excerpt included, I get the impression there are important nuances that I couldn’t follow, so I’m not sure it’s where I would start.

By the end of the course, Ha Jin’s Waiting seemed like the best entry point: a novel about a man trying, for twenty years, to divorce his wife so he can marry the woman he loves. Yet I would be reluctant based on my past inability to connect with Ha’s stories in A Good Fall. Perhaps I’ve learned a little about reading since then? The author has an interesting story: he was in the US as a student when the Tiananmen massacre occurred, and he decided then he would write only in English from then on and never return to China.

Wang Anyi also has an interesting story, and her The Song of Everlasting Sorrow reflects it alongside the history of Shanghai: a woman struggling against prohibitions, coming into her own voice. This turned out to be the most easily readable for me (at least, of the excerpts in translation that were provided), so that makes it tempting as well. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, a “native soil” novel about peasant China (their word, not mine) rounded out the field.

I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any of these works; I’ve read very little translated fiction. At some point I’ll read something someone’s written about one of these books, or maybe another Chinese novel, and that will spark me into action. I’m glad this class gave me an overview to find some footing.

Physics for Poets MOOC

Course: How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics
Length: total ~14 hours
School/platform: UVA/Coursera
Instructor: Louis A. Bloomfield

An introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects: It’s essentially case study physics, an introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects and activities. My goal is to make physics useful, and to help you understand and manage the physical world around you.

In the 1994 Law & Order episode “Big Bang,” ADAs Ben Stone and Claire Kincaid are investigating a physics professor whose defense involves serious particle physics. In private, Stone confesses to Kincaid: “You know what I took for my science requirement? Physics for Poets.” Kincaid confesses back: “Elementary Geology. Rocks for Jocks.” This course is essentially Physics for Poets: general concepts peeled down to their simplified forms, presented via concrete examples with minimal math.

It’s one of the oldest classes on Coursera’s roster, making its debut back in 2013, and I’ve been thinking about taking it since about then. But stubbornly, I kept trying the “real’ physics courses and quitting by week 3 when I still couldn’t keep joules, newtons, and watts straight. Now that I finally cried Uncle and got here, I wish I’d done it sooner.

Each of the six weeks focuses on an object that demonstrates a related group of concepts. Skateboarding, for example, introduces force, inertia, and acceleration. I’d never considered weight as a force before (it’s usually ignored in favor of mass), but it makes a lot of sense in this context. And by spending a couple of weeks focusing on force – that is, newtons – I was much better able to grasp the idea of joules when we got to energy later on. For me, that alone was worth taking the course.

The other objects are falling balls, ramps, seesaws, wheels, and bumper cars. I can say I saw a lot of things more clearly, such as what’s a force and what isn’t, and what properties are conserved. By comparing linear velocity and momentum to angular velocity and momentum, the course helped me keep a lot more organized. I’m still a little confused about some stuff, but it’s not a total jumble.

The professor is very hands-on – and feet-on and butt-on – as he skateboards, rolls on a cart, tosses balls out of windows and across rooms, tips small levers and puts TAs on seesaws, pulls wagons around, plays air hockey to simulate bumper cars, and does everything he can to demonstrate various kinds of forces and accelerations while also showing off the UVA campus. There is some math, but very little, and it’s of the a=b*c variety, very simple even for me. In fact, after I finished the course, I went back and dragged out the formulas that tended to get buried in the long runs of explanation. This also was a very worthwhile process for me.

The course starts with a Preliminary Assessment before any teaching takes place. This is graded; for those of us who don’t sign up for the “Certificate Experience” (I guess they gave up on verification), this is the only grade you’ll see. There are ungraded (but very useful) questions embedded in the videos. Each week ends with a quiz that you can take if you’re auditing, but you can’t find out what you got right or wrong (unless you’re determined and creative, in which case you might discover students from years before have left a trail of breadcrumbs some of us might find useful. And some of us might find, for those intending to earn a grade for this, to be cheating, if relatively worthless cheating). A final exam similar (at times identical) to the Preliminary Assessment finishes things off in Week Seven.

There are some tricky concepts, but it’s basic mechanics presented in such a way as to give students more of a sense of what is actually happening than the equations they’ll see in a more typical physics course. I’m going to take another stab at a physics course, and see how much of a difference this made. I’m hopeful.

Happiness is a Chinese Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches us about the Good Life
Length: 13 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Michael Puett

Today, finding happiness is about mindfulness and discovering your true self. You may have heard that happiness is found by looking within. Ancient Chinese philosophy challenges all of these modern assumptions. From Confucianism to Daoism, the philosophies developed over two thousand years ago are among the most powerful in human history.
This course brings voices from the past into modern contexts to explore the path to a good life today. The philosophical concepts discussed provide tools to change your life and increase personal happiness by focusing on your actions, the power of ritual, and the importance of sensing the world around you.

The world is full of wonders, and one of them is that just as I, determined anti-self-helpist, started reading a self-help-disguised-as-American-philosophy book about William James, Class Central tweeted about a self-help-disguised-as-Chinese-philosophy mooc. I couldn’t let a Chinese philosophy mooc pass me by, self-help or no. Especially when the instructor is Michael Puett.

I first discovered Michael Puett through Harvard’s ChinaX series when I took the first few parts of it about four years ago. I’m not sure what it is that makes him such a wonderful speaker: he’s not dynamic, or funny, or even particularly attractive (hey, we all go there sometimes), at least in ways we usually think of in terms of great speakers. But I sometimes just look for videos on youtube where he’s explaining something, even something I don’t understand (Chinese history, rather than philosophy, is his academic area, though the two aren’t all that separable). In this particular course, he has a somewhat Mr. Rogers vibe, and it’s mesmerizing. And soothing. ASMR for philosophy geeks.

And of course it’s even better that he’s talking about Confucius. And Mencius. And Zhuangzi. And Mozi and Laozi and Xunzi and Hanfeizi and how they all relate to one another, how they’ve all developed ways of going through life.

Only a very narrow slice of the scholars’ works is under discussion. There are other courses go into broader and deeper views, but the point here is to present one aspect of a philosopher’s work that can be turned into thought or action for contemporary day-to-day living. I think it would play just fine for those without any prior exposure to Chinese thought, and as someone who’s had some prior exposure to the basics of Chinese thought, I liked it as a quick review of the high points. The lectures seemed a bit repetitive, but for someone encountering the material for the first time, I suspect that would be a plus.

The time estimation of 13 weeks seems wildly excessive to me, but that’s fine, I suppose you could stretch it out; I went through it in about a week, doing maybe 90 minutes a day (hey, I like this stuff). The graded parts of the course – quizzes after each lecture – are unavailable to audit students; the Verified track costs $99. But in a course like this, grades aren’t really the point.

The self-help aspect of the course is actually quite useful as a pedagogical tool: a Self-Reflection diary follows each video segment and stores the student’s input as a PDF that can be downloaded complete at the end of the course. It starts from the beginning – what habits do you have? – and shows up after each lecture video. What patterns do you notice in others close to you? What can you identify in your life that could become a ritual space? What activities would you like to do spontaneously? These questions stem from the content of the lecture (habits, patterns, ritual spaces, spontaneity) and help emphasize the meanings of those terms in the context of the philosopher under discussion. For example, the dinner table or a business meeting can become a ritual space; playing a musical instrument or a sport can, after a lot of focused practice, become spontaneous. So it, too, serves as reinforcement for the particular vocabulary.

Whether you want to take the life advice or just learn something about Chinese philosophy, it’s an informative and pleasant way to do it. And soothing.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 1: Transport)

Course: Cell Biology: Transport
Length: 4 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Rebecca Lamason, Frank Solomon

This is the first cell biology course in a four-part series. Building upon the concepts from biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology from our 7.00x Introductory Biology and 7.05x Biochemistry MOOCs, these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?…You will embark on a lively journey through cellular transport mechanisms and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

I’ve said many times how much I like the way MIT does bio courses, so I was thrilled when I saw they had a new one. And this is Part 1, with three more parts to follow!

I wasn’t sure what Transport was going to cover. Turns out, it’s how proteins (mostly) get from one compartment of a cell to another: from ribosomes that form them to the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi, or maybe to vesicles that will transport them somewhere else; and how stuff gets in and out of the nucleus. So there’s a lot about signal sequences, about channels and pores, and about enzymes, chaperones, and all kinds of supporting players. I’m still amazed every time I get even a peek at how complicated it is to keep us alive.

These videos must have been recorded quite recently – this calendar year – because COVID-19 came up twice, once in connection with how an RNA virus moves its genome out of the nucleus (a student asked if viral infection was being covered because of the pandemic; no, it was a routine part of the course) and once in conjunction with the lab technique of using detergent to destabilize a cell’s bilayer lipid membrane to solubilize transmembrane proteins – just like washing our hands destroys the outer coating of the virus.

For me, the material was a bit easier because there was less quantitative work as there was with biochemistry: no worrying about pH or equilibrium, no MATLAB. Yet I found the lectures themselves a bit more disjointed than expected. Part of this might be that there were two instructors; I also felt that the videos themselves were a bit more cut-and-paste (it’s not unusual for individual videos to show edits, removing classroom issues for instance), thought that’s just an impression. We started off with lectures on experiments, and with little context, I had no idea what it was we were experimenting on. Once the more process-oriented material started I was able to catch on, but it was a tough few hours there. Then again, I have the disadvantage of having never been in a lab, so I’m always a little behind the eight ball when lab work is the topic. I’m beginning to get it, though: biochem mashes things up and assays for products; genetics creates mutations and assays for function; and cell biology often uses microscopy, including some very cool fluorescing techniques.

Each video is followed by a set of “check” questions; these count in grading, but in most cases have unlimited attempts so are pretty much free points. Three quizzes make up the bulk of the grades, and these are, of course, more difficult and in most cases only offer one attempt. The Audit version of the course does not allow access to the third quiz; that requires paying for Verified access. But the Check questions and the first two quizzes give a pretty good idea of how well you’re understanding the material.

I thought I was moving along pretty quickly through the course, but kept discovering the deadlines coming up fast. I have always found the time estimates to be on the skimpy side for these courses, this one included though it wasn’t as pronounced a gap since there was less quantitative material.

This series includes several fun features. Wiltrout Questions, named for one of the off-screen professors, are open-ended “What do you think about this” questions that invite students to figure out how something might work, to “encourage active engagement in thinking about cell biology and a deepened understanding of a specific concept or approach”. After each unit, students are invited to submit Mudslips indicating “the muddiest, or least clear aspect of that class period.” Then there were the “Neat Experiments” videos, detailed and carefully animated explanations of historically important lab work in cell biology that nailed down a principle or used a new technique. These aren’t new features, of course; questions in both directions have always been part of these courses (Journal Club in another course, for example), and experiments have always been central in these courses. But it’s a nice touch to formalize them.

Another fun aspect was the naming of the proteins. One set was named Mens, Manus, and Cor; it turns out the MIT motto is the first two, “mind and hand”; the “heart” was added because, well, it’s about time (and there was a third protein that needed naming). Another set was named after Greek muses or fates or something, I don’t remember. Each of these courses has little personalizing details like this; it isn’t as though there’s strong pedagogical impact, but they’re part of what makes these courses so engaging.

I have no idea what the other three parts of Cell Biology will cover – I had no idea what Transport would cover until I took it – but I’m looking forward to them!

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

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

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

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

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)
Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature
Length: ~25 50-minute lectures each
School/platform: Yale OCW
Instructor: Christine Hayes, Dale Martin
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

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

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

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

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.