The Most Popular Course on Coursera

From the New York Times, a profile of the most popular course on Coursera, about learning how to learn. The remarkable thing is that the videos for the course were created in Dr. Barbara Oakley’s basement :

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

Dr. Barbara Oakley has an interesting technique:

She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.

The four elements of good learning, if you don’t want to take the entire course, are summarized:

FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.

TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”

 

PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.

KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.

Coursera is pretty great. I am currently taking a Machine Learning course in my spare time, and have added a couple of other courses in data visualization and artificial intelligence to my learning queue.

On Bob Dylan’s Influences from Literature

Bob Dylan recently recorded a lecture for his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, which you can watch below:

Dylan beautifully describes how three works of literature—Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s The Odyssey—have influenced his song writing. The transcript is worth reading through entirely if you don’t watch the video above.

When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory –  tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.

That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”

 

Book Review: Nathan Hill’s The Nix

It’s been years since I’ve posted a book review on this site, but I recently finished reading Nathan Hill’s The Nix, and the book left a lasting impression on me. Here is the summary on Amazon:

From the suburban Midwest to New York City to the 1968 riots that rocked Chicago and beyond, The Nix explores—with sharp humor and a fierce tenderness—the resilience of love and home, even in times of radical change.

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

The book is structured in a non-linear fashion, jumping from the events in the late 1960s to the 2011 present, the year 1988, and then back through the cycle again. While the non-linearity was slightly confusing in the early chapters, it was much easier to follow once the story was unraveled. I found myself reading hundreds of pages daily—in fact, it’s the first time I finished a 500+ page book in less than four days (my average reading speed was about 150 pages per day). In The Nix, Nathan Hill explores the themes of abandonment, empathy (or lack thereof), and broken relationships, which would be familiar to anyone who has read any of Jonathan Franzen’s novels—except reading The Nix was a lot more entertaining.

The biggest takeaway from this fictional work for me is how much of our default emotional state may be (undeserved) anger or frustration or resentment or even hatred toward someone (or some group), which ultimately leads to misunderstanding and broken relationships. Many passages in the book reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s essay “This is Water,” where DFW talks about this default state of self-centeredness:

We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of

Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to 5 drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

A few notable passages from The Nix that struck with me are below.

So what is this Nix, exactly?

Samuel’s mother told him about the Nix. Another of her father’s ghosts. The scariest one. The Nix, she said, was a spirit of the water who flew up and down the coastline looking for children, especially adventurous children out walking alone. Unsaddled, but friendly and tame. It bowed down as low as a horse was able, so the kid could leap onto it.

Do we live our lives in the state of hiding?

This was a formula for living a life full of secrets…People constantly hid. It was a sickness maybe worse than the Parkinson’s.

A humorous conversation between two folks (one of dozens of highly entertaining passages in the book):

“A real hedley-medley out there.”

“A real hugger-mugger, you might say?”

“Yep. Gone all topsy-turvy.”

“A sincere higgledy-piggledy.”

“Yessir, one hundred percent hurly-burly.”

“A pell-mell.”

“A rubble-rabble.”

“A skimble-skamble.”

A passage of being caught in a protest:

He’s squeezing her hand so hard it hurts, but she doesn’t dare let go. She feels herself caught in this moving human river and pressed at all sides and sometimes even lifted off her feet for a moment and carried, a sensation like swimming or floating, before being dropped again, and the thing she’s thinking about most right now is keeping her balance, staying on her feet, because these people are panicked and this is what ten thousand panicked people look like: like wild animals, huge and insensate. If she falls she’ll be trapped. The terror she feels about this goes way beyond terror and into a kind of calm clarity. This is life or death.

One of the themes in the book is the classification of people into enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps. On facing the world and coming to a powerful realization:

But you cannot endure this world alone, and the more Samuel’s written his book, the more he’s realized how wrong he was. Because if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at a constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar.

On treating people as puzzles:

This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.

The Nix has been awarded A New York Times 2016 Notable Book, Entertainment Weekly‘s #1 Book of the Year, A Washington Post 2016 Notable Book, and A Slate Top Ten Book last year. If you are someone who is quick to judgment, who has made some mistakes by acting on incomplete information about someone, or know someone who falls into those criteria, you will enjoy The Nix. This parting thought from me: it’s hard to claim that a book of fiction can make you noticeably more empathetic in life, but I think Nathan Hill’s The Nix comes close. I highly recommend reading the book.

For Want of an Oxford Comma, a Court Case Decided

The importance of the Oxford Comma prevails again! This time, it has helped win a court case:

Maine’s law says the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers claimed the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing”, rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. (They are correct!)

And because drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were therefore eligible for overtime pay – backdated over several years. The court sided with the drivers.

Judge Barron, in the opening statement, wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

An amazing victory for the drivers and grammar nerds everywhere.

 

Gary Shteyngart is a Watch Geek

I really enjoyed Gary Shteyngart’s latest piece in The New Yorker, in which he describes how he became fascinated with mechanical watches over the last sixteen months. A few notable paragraphs and pictures of the watches below.

A good primer of mechanical watches vs. quartz ones:

The difference between quartz and old-fashioned mechanical is that your child’s Winnie the Pooh watch will likely keep better time than a seventy-six-thousand-dollar Vacheron Constantin perpetual calendar in rose gold. A quick way to tell the two kinds apart is to look at the second hand. On a quartz watch, the second hand goose-steps along one tick at a time; on a mechanical watch, it glides imperfectly, but beautifully, around the dial and into the future.

His first watch purchase, a Junghans:

The watch was a Junghans, from Germany, derived from a design by the Bauhaus-influenced Swiss architect, artist, and industrial designer Max Bill. I had bought it at the moma shop for what in my early, innocent watch days seemed like the astronomical price of a thousand dollars.

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A second purchase:

And yet on April 12, 2016, I walked out of the Tourneau TimeMachine store, on Madison Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, with a receipt for $4,137.25 and a new Nomos Minimatik Champagner on my wrist, the sales clerks bidding me farewell with a cheerful cry of “Congratulations!” By the standards of luxury watches, the amount I spent was small indeed (an entry-level Rolex is about six thousand dollars), but by my own standards I had just thrown away a small chunk, roughly 4.3 writing days, of my independence. And yet I was happy. The watch was the most beautiful object I had ever seen.

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That is a beautiful watch. That orange second-hand adds a nice touch. “These are wild colors but in homeopathic doses,” one of Nomos’s marketing texts reads.

No piece on mechanical watches would be complete without mention of every watch geek’s favorite destination: hodinkee.com:

I was obsessed. And I had time to indulge my obsession. I believe that a novelist should write for no more than four hours a day, after which returns truly diminish; this, of course, leaves many hours for idle play and contemplation. Usually, such a schedule results in alcoholism, but sometimes a hobby comes along, especially in middle age. For us so-called W.I.S., or Watch Idiot Savants, all roads led to one Internet site: Hodinkee, the name being a slightly misspelled take on hodinky, the Czech word for “watch.” Hours of my days were now spent refreshing the site, looking at elaborate timepieces surrounded by wrist hair and Brooks Brothers shirt cuffs, and learning an entirely new language and nomenclature.

On to the next purchase:

In October, my feelings of dread spiked, and so I decided to buy a Rolex. Not a new one, of course, but something vintage—in this case, an Air-King from the seventies. 

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Investigative reporting like this would not be complete without a visit to a watch factory, which is what Mr. Shteyngart did with a visit to Glashütte, Germany:

Visiting a watch manufactory is a soothing experience during chaotic times, and the painfully slow assembly of these beautiful objects may well fall under the heading of “God’s work.” At the Nomos workshop, a monastic silence prevailed as men and women (there are more of the latter than the former) sat at desks, wearing what looked like pink finger condoms and sifting through parts, some of them thinner than a human hair. The work is difficult and takes a toll. Because their hands need to be steady, watchmakers cannot drink profusely. According to Nadja Weisweiler, who works for the German retailer and watch manufacturer Wempe, they are encouraged to take up musical instruments or horseback riding. I observed with special delight as a watchmaker inserted a balance wheel into a new watch, and it came to life for the first time.

The author’s next purchase was at Wempe’s emporium on Fifth Avenue:

I was served an espresso and a Lindt chocolate by a young man who also presented me with a Tudor Heritage Black Bay 36, a glowing black-dial water-resistant watch bearing the famous “snowflake” hour hand of Tudor (a sister company of Rolex). I bought it, whereupon a small bottle of Veuve Clicquot was opened, and although the iconic snowflake hand was still two hours short of noon, I drank it down to the last. In total, I had now given up 10.1 days of artistic freedom to four watches in the course of less than a year.

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Read the entire piece to find out what Shteyngart’s last (nostalgic) watch purchase was and for wonderful, descriptive one-liners like this: “If you want a watch that looks like a Russian oligarch just curled up around your wrist and died, you might be interested in the latest model of Rolex’s Sky-Dweller.”

 

Hotels for Book Lovers

The New York Times has a piece today on hotels that book lovers would enjoy visiting:

Yet when the books don’t belong to an individual, but rather to a hotel or a bar, it is not armchair psychology — it is an invitation to a chance encounter. Which book might catch your eye from the shelves at the Wine Library at the B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa in Zurich, where guests can browse some 33,000 books with a glass of white in hand? What books might be in your room in the Library Hotel in New York where each floor celebrates one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and a reading room is open 24 hours? Which volume will be brought to your table at the Gryphon, a cafe in Savannah, Ga., where diners receive their bill tucked inside the pages of a book? Might any of these books change your trip, your mind, your life?

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Oregon has several such spots, such as the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, where rooms are separated into Best Sellers, Classic and Novels, and there’s a library but no Wi-Fi or television in the rooms. There’s also the Heathman Hotel in Portland, which, with more than 2,700 books, has one of the largest autographed libraries in the world in partnership with Powell’s Books, the country’s largest independent bookstore.

I have added Gryphon and The Library Hotel on my to-visit lists. What other hotels should book lovers visit that weren’t profiled in this piece?

On Watching Arrival after the Election

I went to the theaters two weeks ago to see the movie Arrival. I was captivated by the film—in my opinion, it’s the best film of 2016. (I read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” that was the basis for the film a few years ago; I highly recommend reading the entire short story compilation). Writing in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino echoes the beauty of this film and what you may feel as you watch it:

Chiang writes the human-alien encounters as leisurely endeavors, conducted through a looking glass, in a utilitarian tent, over the course of months. Heisserer, thankfully, puts the humans and aliens in direct communication, and adds an element of geopolitical conflict that speeds up the plot. Banks and her assigned partner, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), ascend deliriously through an opening in the spaceship itself, astronauts in hazmat orange floating up in zero G. The site of encounter is cavernous and lunar. The seven-legged aliens, called heptapods, have no front, no back, no faces; they move like elephant trunks, insects, anemones, angry brooms. And yet it’s wondrous, not monstrous, to meet them. Outside, the world has been plunged into fear, panic, and crisis; inside, there’s a sense of loneliness, ineffability, and strength.

Note: the full piece contains spoilers.

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(hat tip: @joshuatopolsky)