Sunday, February 24, 2013

Top 10 Things about 'A History of the World Since 1300'

I've written a few times about MOOCs, massive open online courses (here here, here, and here).  I loved the first course I took at Coursera - A History of the World Since 1300.

And here's the Top 10 things I liked:

The professor: 
Jeremy Adelman was fabulous.  He's a superb story-teller with an extraordinary command of language and history is after all a fascinating story.  I would take any course from him, just to luxuriate in his teaching style again.

The global point of view:
The course was a fantastic survey of a wide swath of history.  And it delivered on its promise of taking a world view.  Despite coming from an American university, it did not overemphasize the US story, nor betray an American point of view on subjects.  Like so many westerners, my (modest) knowledge of history centred on Europe.  This course greatly broadened my horizons.  "Europe was just a side show in WW II".  That statement startled me, but it's clearly true when you look at what happened in Asia and Russia.  That's typical of the mental readjustment I experienced.

The focus on major currents of history:
There was more emphasis on the major ebbs and flows of history, and less on particular political figures and dates.  The big theme of the course was the long term - though sometimes discontinuous - march of our world from isolated, self-sufficient villages to a interrelated, interdependent global society.  History seen through this lens has a certain inevitability.  Specific decisions in particular countries of situations caused blips in the details, but history moves inexorably forward.

The relative datelessness:
Liberation from the tyranny of dates!  The course infrequently mentioned specific dates.  This sometimes had the disadvantage of leaving me a bit at sea: was this happening in China at the same time as that development in India, or after it?  However, overall, I loved the approach of looking at broad sweeping patterns rather than specific dates.

Emphasis on Ideas:
Adelman talked a lot about ideas and their influence on history.  Sometimes we can be discouraged about how little attention is paid to big ideas.  But this course illustrated the incredible impact of ideas, sometimes suddenly but usually gradually over a long period.  We heard more about philosophers, scientists and economists than about politicians. Queen Victoria got a passing mention, but the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin and Adam Smith were central figures.

The students:
I loved the variety among the 90,000 students in the course.  From highly educated, to those who had not had access to higher education.  Current students to retirees.  Scientists to humanists.  Soldiers to housewives.  We heard from these students in the discussion forums and the live-streamed Precepts.  I had my papers marked by students from Germany, Australia, Chile, Austria, China, US and India.  What a 'global feeling'.

The 'extras':
However, the course was greatly enriched with the Global Dialogues, mostly conversations with some of the leading lights of the Princeton History department, the discussion forums, and the precepts with students.  The textbook was excellent, although it was a lot of reading per week.

The homework:
While relatively straightforward, the homework questions, and for that matter the quizzes, were well thought out and unambiguously stated.  The essays forced me to crystallize my learning, and it was illuminating to both grade others' papers and to receive the grades myself.  The essays were generally of very high quality and good learning tools.  About 3-5% of the students wrote the essays, so I assume the ones who would produce the best essays self-selected to write them.

The technology:
I loved that the video was such high quality, that the navigation was intuitive, and that it just plain always worked.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks called A Possible Life a novel.  I call it a book of short stories, linked by the finest of connective filament.  I'm a big fan of Sebastian Faulks; I'm not a big fan of short stories.  I probably wouldn't have picked up this book if I'd known it was short stories, so for me labelling it as a novel was clever (deceptive?) marketing.  I forgive Faulks (isn't that just so presumptuous of me?) because I'm so glad I read this book.

Faulks has enchanted me in the past.  My first Faulks book was Birdsong, a powerful, desperate, moving book about the First World War.  Smitten by Faulks' beautiful use of language and engrossing stories, I read The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray both featuring war and France, and then On Green Dolphin Street,  about a duel between love and duty during the Cold War.   A Week in December is a contemporary story with a fast-paced plot and a scathing condemnation (and lucid explanation) of the current financial industry and the people who work there (previously reviewed here).  You could picture picking up A Week in December in a drug store, if you were the type to buy books there - a total departure from his previous works.

A Possible Life shows the same dazzling range of styles, characters, time periods, and places as his novels.  A British agent in France who spends horrific time as a prisoner of war.  A man who builds a life for himself after emerging from a grim Victorian workhouse.  Women scientists who discover the centre of selfhood in the near future.  A forlorn servant in early 19th C France.  And the rise of an exquisite singer in the 1970s.  Beautifully done.  I really must read all the rest of Faulks' books.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Probability of Asteroid Impact

The Economist had a fascinating chart yesterday, comparing the probabilities of various types of death. It shows the extremely low probability that you might die because of an asteroid strike and probabilities of other causes of death.  This chart was printed before the meteor strike in Russia!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Google Maps Covers North Korea

At the end of January, Google unveiled a new more detailed map of North Korea including detailed features like monuments, landmarks, and prison camps.  Assembled with the help of citizen cartographers it's a great leap forward in open information availability about this secretive nation.  The Washington Post did a great job of presenting the difference visually in this article.  Play with the slider for some real fun.

National Geographic published a comparison between their own map and Google's, in their article advising caution about maps created by amateurs.  Of course the comparison between the Google and National Geographic maps is not totally fair, because Google's detail is only revealed when you zoom in.  So what do you think is the value of having this information out there, even if there are some inaccuracies?  Do you think that the act of publishing will yield a deluge of feedback to improve the maps?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

TED Moves to Vancouver

There was blockbuster news this week with the announcement of TED's move to Vancouver with TED Active in Whistler, at least for the next two years.  The choice of Vancouver is not all that surprising when you think about it.  Chris Anderson, TED's owner and curator, has a place in Whistler, so he's clearly familiar with the area.  Also, TED's logistics are managed by Vancouver-based Procreative Design Works, owned by sisters Janet and Katherine McCartney.

Of course, there is more behind it than convenience.  At the 2012 conference, there was quite a buzz of discontent: the conference was too big, it was getting somewhat impersonal, the seats were dreadfully uncomfortable (when the program run 8:30-6:30 for four days and you've paid that much to be there, a back ache is really irritating), the conference was dividing into two classes of citizens, those who'd paid the regular (stiff) price, and patrons, who'd paid double and got in before the doors opened, and got all the best seats.  In short, old-timers who'd been to Monterey were yearning for the old locale.  And for the first time in my memory, the 2013 conference was not sold out by the time the 2012 conference got under way.  Because you usually have to confirm for the next conference before the previous one begins, it creates a long lag time for feedback about abating demand for the TED team.

Clearly, on the 30th anniversary next year, TED is working to overcome that softening of demand.  The conference will have 200 fewer paid attendees, addressing one of the currents of discontent and incidentally creating fewer seats to fill.

Vancouver is well known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the convention centre, as you can see on the right, is new and gorgeous.  Moreover, they're building (with support from Vancouver apparently) a custom-designed-for-talk theatre to "maximize the impact of talks, permitting multiple configurations for sitting, listening and connecting with the speaker".  This could add destination pizazz.  Long Beach is not exactly gorgeous as Monterey was.  Chris says they're also inviting back the 100 best TED speakers of all time, which sounds pretty darned exciting.  Apparently we're going to be able to vote for who those 100 are.  I skipped TED 2013, but I think I'll be back for 2014.  I wonder how many others will be like me.

This is considered a major coup for Vancouver, as described in this Vancouver Sun article.  A senior Vice President of Canadian Tourism was summoned to Vancouver to participate in the talks and the agreement was kept under tight wraps until announcement day.   The deal is for two years.  I'm sure  the city will be fighting to keep the conference there beyond the two years.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Killing

If you get a chance to watch the TV series The Killing (Forbrydelsen in Danish), take it.  But make sure you have time to spare, because this series will have you glued to the screen.  Whatever the hour, you'll want to watch 'just one more episode'.  Even if you watched the American version of The Killing, watch the Danish original: it's better than the American one in every way.  And the ending is different.

I loved the stoical detective Sarah Lund and her obsessive tenacity in tracking down killers, sacrificing her career and personal life in the process.  The Killing has plenty of plot twists and political intrigue, and strong character development of the detectives, the family and the victim.  The actress playing Sarah Lund, Sofie Grabo, had built her career on playing highly emotional characters, so this distant, uncommunicative, emotionless detective was a departure for her.  In the extra interview on the DVD, Grabo described how she came to portray this cool and distant character and how she was involved throughout the development of the series.   The writers kept the culprit and plot twists from the actors, which they felt enhanced their performances.

Bonus:  By the end of two seasons of The Killing, I actually was starting to understand a bit of Danish and felt an almost irresistible urge to say tak instead of thank you.

Good or Original

"My congratulations to you, sir.  Your manuscript is both good and original.  But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

attributed to Samuel Johnson

I received this quote in my weekly email from the Bookshelf of Guelph, a spectacular bookstore and community centre in Guelph Ontario.  Too good not to pass along.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Highway Driving in America

Michael Adams' 2004 book Fire and Ice explored the values of Canadians and Americans - how they were similar or different and whether they were converging or diverging.  Fire and Ice showed the values gap widening between Canadians and Americans.  This conclusion, based on Adams' decade of research, was quite surprising back in 2004.  Today Canadians look south in dismay at a country in denial that their taxes are too low to support enormous military and social spending, a country where politicians spat childishly at the edge of a fiscal cliff, a country where carrying a gun is an inalienable right, but healthcare is a privilege.  I wonder if our values have drifted even further apart.

So, while many around the world assume that Canada and the US are interchangeable, a Canadian traveling in the US is truly travelling in a foreign country.  And this is obvious even while barreling along the highways, where American culture is on display.  My earlier post about Highway Driving in India pointed to some observations about Indian culture too, and is one of the most popular posts on this blog.  So what struck me over the many days I've spent on American highways over the last few months?

The first thing is the prevalence of religion.  There are so many churches, especially in the south.  Most of the southern churches seemed to be Baptist, but with more variations of Baptists than I had thought possible.  And then there were the many churches of religions I'd never heard of.  

Where these isn't a church, there are religious bumper stickers, billboard advertisements for churches, and exhortations to repent such as the one to the right.

The billboards advertising health care facilities hammers home the point that this is a country without a public healthcare system.  (Not that competition is entirely bad; in fact the Canadian system is trying to insert such competition in a public system.)  It also features interesting disruptive innovations in healthcare like the Minute  Clinic kiosks in pharmacies where nurse practitioners provide convenient, quick treatments for a small list of conditions.

And then there is the gun culture - ads for a Gun and Knife Show, billboards advertising guns and ammunition, restaurant signs prohibiting guns inside, and intellectually challenged commentators on Fox claiming fewer people would die if everyone carried guns (and why is it that so many public places in restaurants and hotels have a TV running and it's always tuned to Fox?).  

Ironically, the other observation is the tendency for Americans to adhere to speed limits.  Canadians are the ones with a society built on respect for law and order as opposed to the raw individualism of the US, yet it's Canadians who regularly drive 20-30 kms over the speed limit.  It makes for slower travel in the US - to say nothing of the fact that those miles click away much more slowly than kilometers!

Technology allows one to bring a little bit of Canada along on the road, by downloading and listening to CBC podcasts like The Current, As It Happens, Ideas, Quirks and Quarks and the ever-droll Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe.  How parochial of me!