Discovering MOOCs

I remember when I was an undergraduate, I asked if I would be able to sit in on other classes in sociology or philosophy, to which I was asked by certain lecturers and administrators: why would you want to do that? it would only be more work for you and you won’t get the credit! What a failed presumption that is: one would only sit in on a course if they could get credit and move ahead? This is the instrumental idea of education-as-technical qualification that is slowly eroding the understood importance of the humanities. Disciplines that are not technical should not be learned it seems, or perhaps even still in this assumption: disciplines that are not technical are not interesting unless I fill up my course credit.


This technical/instrumental ideal is unfortunate. I did come across others who were interested in the pure value of learning while at university. I used to hear stories of a certain lecturer in the philosophy of physics sitting in on courses in Number Theory and Axiomatic Set Theory, studiously taking notes and not taking attention to himself, except for maybe the fact that he was the most popular professors in another department and was visibly known as such. I sometimes wonder if Immanuel Kant, during his Privatdozent days or when he became tenured, would be seen as that eccentric older man sitting in on lectures in natural philosophy, Law, Theology or even Medicine. The appeal of learning should be of an intrinsic value. Ideal learning is the kind that sticks.


Its with this mindset that I’ve discovered what is called the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. I have mostly been using Coursera to undertake courses. I have been involved in differing degrees with the courses. Some I had lost interest pretty quickly after it was going a bit too slow and spuriously (for instance, the songwriting course), others I follow on a more casual basis such as Music Production. I intend to follow the courses on logic (Intro logic, introduction to mathematical philosophy, introduction to mathematical thinking) with a little bit more atention.


What appeals to me about MOOCs? At the moment I’m not too fussed about credit or accreditation, although if there came a coding course or something on SPSS I might be interested in getting a proper accreditation or recognised acknowledgment that I’ve learned it properly (for CV boosting purposes). The MOOC appeals to me in a way that says you shouldn’t be limited in your curiosity. As long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort, which I must admit isn’t something everyone wants to do or can do, or something many realise requires an effort or sacrifice; curiosity should have no barrier.


I am interested in music production because I was trained in acoustic instruments, and where dynamics and timbre were affected by physical conditions. Pure curiosity should be encouraged, it is a dimension of what makes human creativity special. There’s an openness to the MOOC, that location, background or other accessibility concerns do not hinder one’s ability to learn. I’d be very interested to see what the future of the MOOC holds, not least because of the learning potential of open access learning materials. I wonder also what a generation of people who have learned from MOOCs to accelerate their own learning might look like. Time will tell


The Audiobook

I love audiobooks. During a period between my undergraduate finals and throughout my postgrad days, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I estimated that I typed between 20,000-25,000 words a day, and that’s just on notes, not to include googling, IM conversations, emails and button bashing playing a game or such. I was forced to think of alternatives to my regular methods of note-taking and I was assisted by the university to think about alternative ways of learning to sitting with a book between my knees and moving my neck between the screen and the two pages beneath me.

During this period of time I developed a lot of new rituals, all of which were with the intention to increase my efficiency while doing physically less. It was simply not an option at the time to force myself to take less notes. This was the start of a story that got me into book chairs, and perhaps more pertinently, audiobooks.

At the time I only read for learning and reading in the exegetical way of interpreting philosophy texts and journal articles is a very specific form of learning. I had very little time for any other kind of reading, and that includes the fun stuff. Audiobooks for me represented a departure and radical alternative to taking in information through books. I’ve spent years reading as a way of memorising every detail and nuance of a piece, to some extent I still do this and it’s a habit that has its benefits and curses.

The audiobook is an aural experience. Reading can be an aural experience, it is often good for one’s comprehension to read aloud what one is reading, this was a habit that James Mill taught his genius son. Reading is also a tactile experience, feeling paper, its texture, the thickness or smoothness of a page. Reading can also be an olfactory experience, an old book has a distinct smell, a wet book as well. A new book has a satisfying chemical odour to it. I can find these things distracting for reading ordinary things. I find it more difficult to turn pages than most people for example, partly due to RSI and mostly due to dyspraxia. Associating multiple sensations can help me memorise things, but they can also be distracting. My favourite association is when I play my old piano repetoire and I feel like I am psychically re-living when I was learning these pieces in the early 2000s as a teenaged younger me. Dry and dusty books also remind me of Kant, perhaps because the B1xxx section of the libraries around the world don’t tend to be visited very much.

Audiobooks have become very much in vogue in recent years. Often when I tell people that I enjoy audiobooks, you can tell on the basis of their age the kind of cultural connotations it has. Some people think its an easy option for reading as reading is often hard work, others think that its an intellectually lightweight option, normally because audiobooks have been for simple or accessible audiences. A few others have bought into the recent marketability of a certain audiobook provider that is very good right now and sponsors many of my favourite podcasts.

Audiobooks have become a market in a similar way to the ebook. Many major publishing houses and publications appeal and open themselves to the audiobook market. There are unique reasons for the appeal of the audiobook. Some audiobooks have ‘secret’ content specifically for audiobook format compared to say, printed format. Some newer audiobooks are read by the author, and what an interesting experience it can be to physically hear the author as if they are thinking those thoughts. Christopher Hitchens’ biography is a notable case in point, I read Hitchen’s biography around the time he died and I recall the haunting nature and significance of not only reading an author who is no longer living, but listening to his voice. Hitchen’s autobiography also includes a post-book interview in audio format where he describes his changing views on the audiobook as a medium.

Accesibility is a very important aspect of audio reading for me. I find it intellectually difficult to read anything, including children’s literature or fiction, because my mind is always working several different angles that would be apt for reading Adorno, but not Doctor Seuss. Reading an audiobook allows one to choose their degree of commitment to a text. I can read an audiobook while I’m working on something, while I’m at the gym. I can by contrast, spend full attention to an audio text as well. One of my most intimate audiobook experiences was one day when I was down with the flu, and I read the whole of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar while laying in bed, the experience was like living the life of Esher Greenwood and that book will always have a special place from my experience of listening to it.

Accessibility has many manifestations. Audiobooks I presume were initially made for the visually impaired. When I absorb an audiobook, I have found that my comprehension level is distinctly different to the tactile experience of reading a book, or even the visual experience of an ebook. Audiobooks (and for the same reason, podcasts) have allowed me to enjoy literature again and I have discovered the comedic monograph as well. George Carlin’s series of essays ‘Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’ is a personal and hilarious collection of essays which is highlighted by the medium of audio. The sonic experience of a book has its aesthetic merits.

As with many things, I think the audiobook brings us closer to Homer. What I mean by this is we so often emphasise texts as the archetype of knowledge or communication. Namely through books or articles and word-representation. It is anachronistic to think of a great tale as the Iliad as a book, for its origins were as an oral poem. There is something powerful about the oral story and the diversity of ways a message can be communicated. The pre-eminence of the text can be a distraction, when what matters is the message it has. Audiobooks can be liberating in that way and also allow for a wider range of experiences in ‘reading’. I’m really glad that audiobooks are a bit more in vogue.


Musing: A life in data

Earlier this week my External Hard Drive sort-of crashed. I say sort of because it came to a point where I knew it would become non-functioning and I migrated all of the data to another space before it fully died. I had a moment of shock for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk about two of them in this post. One reason is that I came to realise how much of my life can be gleaned from the data within that external drive, and perhaps more valuable than most physical objects I have, that data is a record of my life. The secondary point pertains to my ‘dependence’ on computers, cloud hosting and other such technological marvels of the modern world. Every solution has a problem, and I came to realise the problems of my over-dependence on digitising my life, this shall be the second part of my post.

A life in memories

When my hard drive faltered, my first thought was like the Titanic ship officers were apparently depicted in Cameron’s 1997 film, the proverbial ‘women and children’ most vital files must be preserved! This involved an extensive scan of my paper records which include most of my paper files and folders from about 2004-5 to 2009-10 (I’ve not digitally archived my files since 2010). I then took a lot of unsorted files, miscellaneous audio recordings and songs I’ve made. Then I found some pictures. Antisophie made a joke to me once saying that the perfume she got from a romantic partner lasted longer than the relationship itself. Digital memories have a shelf life which is potentially longer than the human lives that they describe. They may be our equivalent of cave drawings for whoever may come to know of us humans one day. Or it may be a lot of dirty poisonous plastic bottles and argon filled disposed fridges which are semi-degraded in deep sea waters which continue to poison its environment in the future earth.

When I looked at my archive I found various pictures and videos. I sw lots of happy times. I saw an old flame and her vibrant beauty; I saw my little nephew from birth to when he started to talk and then I saw some people who are now deceased. I had a realisation to myself that these pictures and videos are essentially all I have left of them, even if the angles and focus are a bit off or they didn’t look particularly prepared to a picture, its still all that remains, as a digital and as an human memory.Time is frozen in a photograph, and it gave me pause for reflecting on what once was.

One person whom I barely recognised was myself! I found a few pictures of myself back in about 2008 when, according to a few testimonies, I was at my ‘sexiest’. Back then I had ridiculously long and thick hair which almost went to my waist plus I was much more arrogant and times were much more innocent. In recent months for unrelated reasons, I have been thinking about contextualising the past few years of my life. In terms of social context, my own personal narrative and my wider family narrative, I was thinking about how times are different. One thing I noted amusingly with my sister recently was what life was like before she had children, she jokingly implied that she missed those days and also implied that it seems so long ago that she didn’t remember that there was such a time! It’s funny how 4 years can change lives.

Thinking about the past I have thought in some ways that I am a bit wiser, and a bit more organised. I feel that I’ve worked a lot on many of my flaws and I still am working on a few ever vigilantly. I’ve seen the past few years as a journey and one with many difficulties. Seeing the archives which I forgot existed then forced me to change my perspective yet again. Without looking at the archives, I had been thinking about the past. After looking at my archives I then changed my gloss on recent history. Times seemed much more innocent back then and a large degree of that is due to the political climate. I remember the days when Sainsbury’s basics had a super-cheap range of everything from chocolate to brandy, which, in South London parlance, I caned. Things like job stability, economic growth were much different too and from the perspective of 2012 there seemed to be a luxury of ignorance.

I miss the old me. Sometimes I wonder if it was the hair that I miss, or being so naively arrogant (both of which constituted a sense of sexiness). I perhaps miss the innocence of the time and I hate how the present feels like a redux of the late 1980s or early 1990s downturn and pessimism. Fry and Laurie sketches where the Police became Privatised or where idiots appeared on television shows are now more like satanic prophecies than quaint liberal absurd humour and my own political concerns are diminished by the fact that Real Life Stuff is more pressing a concern than say, activism or waxing political, proto-socal theorist style. The tone of our blog has significantly diminished as part of Real Life Stuff getting in the way, and I do realise I could talk about more interesting things, more socially prescient things. I see much change through digitising my life and there’s a great advantage to it.

The Umbilical USB

I keep records of financial transactions, boring administrative documents, bills and so forth and I would ideally like a unified and organised manner of keeping it all together. Google’s various appendages have been ultimately useful to me over the recent years, and I’ve discovered more and more applications and services that also help me archive and organise my life. Then there’s a point where it becomes too much: do I really need to use twitter? Do I really need PInterest? The answer to both of those is no. I do however, find Google Reader immensely helpful. I also find GCal a lifesaver. I find facebook more significant for contacting and organising things than my boile phone, in fact I use so many cloud based applications that I can get away with my phone being used only for SMS and phone calls. The irony of me being a phone Luddite is lost on most people! Most people don’t use IFTTT to syncronise their twitter to flickr, or use boolean functions to automatically save news articles to a CMS for which is later used for creating a dossier.

There are great uses for cloud applications, or even backing up data through hosting services as a way of preserving those important things. I have learned however that there have been instances where a paper based method could have been ultimately easier for me in some aspects. If I had a physical photo album, I would be more tactile and perhaps I could physically note the presence of photo albums of the past decade and pick them up to reminisce more often, instead of whenever I’m having a computer crisis and I end up almost never seeing these photos otherwise.

I’ve developed a system which links most aspects of my life together using cloud applications, I might talk about that in another blog, but it has a lot of personal implications for me. Realising that I’m dependent on GCal to organise my day makes me more stupid in some ways: I don’t need to remember things if I’ve already set it in a timetable. I also don’t need to decide things if I have planned and decided what I am to do in advance. This means I get to think less. I must admit that there is a skill to memorising and keeping a mental note of plans and keeping it all in your head. I used to be known for my exceptional skills of recollecting, and GCal is basically outsourcing some of my brain computation to the cloud. I consider it part of what philosophers have called the ‘Extended Mind Hypothesis’. Antisophie also jokes that I am a real life ‘Otto’ with his notebook.

Having GCal is great, except when the internet is down, or when my computer breaks down (both situations faced in the past year). What if there is a massive EMP or natural disaster to cut out connection to communications infrastructures or electronics devices? There is a place for the older physical methods of keeping records and data, there’s a place for keeping data on your computer and on servers as well as just the cloud. Backing up is not longer considered an 100% efficient way of preserving those precious memories or important work files. I think you probably need about at least 3-4 copies in order to really have some protection: A backup on a detachable medium; a cloud back up; ‘the original medium’, maybe a P(hysical) copy if applicable, and a second copy using one of the aforementioned means just to be secure.

A few years back I was reading a website (the exact name of it escapes me) which had this radical revolutionary idea: you only need to own a few things in your life: have enough clothes for a few days (and circulate/clean them regularly); have a few personal and sentimental items and have your laptop computer. At the time I read this website, the ultraportable laptops (which never really took off) were in vogue and were of low memory capacity. This website proposed to keep all of one’s memories and records and personal items as digital versions: ebooks, mp3 files, youtube videos and image hosted photos.

There is an extent to which I adhere to that digitally minimal philosophy. I suppose I’m personally attracted to the fact that I can still have my alienware in this minimalist ascetic idea. Especially since my alienware is a decadent overpowered piece of technology which is metaphorically and (as I’m typing right now) literally on a pedestal which centralises all of my life. It’s nice to have one’s life centralised, unified, rationalised. I think Weber would consider it a nightmare, and Kant may have considered this digital age as the potential ideal of his ‘science is organised knowledge, wisdom is organised life’. Personally, I like being away from my cloud from time to time. I find it liberating when I leave the house and I don’t need my phone, or I don’t even need a watch. As much as I am attached to technology and so reliant on cloud computing and the web to organise and enact much of my life: I also really like when it has nothing to do with it as well! Recently I’ve gotten involved in a community garden, a choir and I play badminton and try to do some weight and circuit training with a few mates.

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about my 21 year old (with the lovely long hair) self its the inflexibility and sense that I had it all set and sorted in my ideas and the way I organised myself. I don’t, and my reliance on GCal is probably going to change. There will be some new app that does it better and I’ll change. Perhaps the greatest experience I found from revisiting my memories is knowing that I am adaptable and things will change. Photos will stay the same forever and the past is fixed. Today and tomorrow are (at least from an epistemic point of view) undetermined.


Transcribe Bentham

We at the Noumenal Realm have discovered an interesting project hosted by UCL. It is called ‘Transcribe Bentham’ and general members of the public (that’s you) are invited to take part in assisting with the transcription of the 19thC Ethicist/Economist/Legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham is a fascinating person who I don’t admit to knowing much about; but he was integral to the founding of University College London, introduced a few words into the English vocabulary, and as well as being the original Utilitarian philosopher; he wrote on a vast range of subjects beyond Ethical theory.

This project consists of transcribing boxes of manuscripts into a digital format that would eventually form a series of published volumes of Bentham’s work that would benefit scholars in the future. This project also introduces people into the issues around transcribing a work from its original source material; for instance, Bentham uses antiquated spellings; writes on margins; scribbles out whole swathes of lines of text, or is just plain illegible. This is a fascinating project to participate in. Not least because of its open participation. I recommend readers of this blog to take a look.


A fascination with the ‘new’

Aquinas (or someone medieval) was right to believe that all actions contain an element of being good and bad; the proportion of which, depends, ultimately upon what the action is. We may draw good or positive consequences from evil, or horrific, or distressing acts and conversely, we may find unexpected and negative effects from what were intended to be good actions. That concludes my preamble.

In considering all the ‘fad’ things of the past few years, they seem to all point to some large global database that is accessible to all. It almost seems dictatorial in a way, but what seems more disturbing is that the forces of the free consumer has led to its wide proliferation, it is a ‘voting by feet’, if you would.

What kind of things do I refer to? Well, all sorts: iTunes, with its local area network capacities; Facebook, for being, well, Facebook-ey; Twitter, Linkdin, publically accessable RSS feeds. While the positives of these things are seemingly obvious, greater interconnectedness, the establishment of communities, interests and relations that are not constructed by geographical location but by shared interests, beliefs, or practices; breaking down of social barriers, particularly for the severely physically disabled (I am considering Second Life in particular); and, well, a more accessible face to contemporary technology.

This sounds all good right? Well, consider that each small ‘innovation’ does have an effect on privacy and the possibility of being monitored. The debate about policing the internet will inevitably rise (as it does in all sorts of other issues), a discussion which must be had. As people wholeheartedly embrace so many of these interesting innovations and dotcoms, we may find our rights and privacies slowly diminishing, and once this occurs, we have no-one to blame but ourselves. Perhaps a Leviathan appeal can be made: that the individual is at their most fundamental, stupid and ambivalent to the security and welfare of the whole such that an outside agency representing the manifold of individuals holds to protect all.

The fascination with the new should be seen with disdain and interest, while excess in either element may hinder us; a more critical use of the internet is crucial; the question is, how do we teach or foster this kind of attitude? I could assume that more familiar internet users (e.g. those who have been involved with or users of the web since the 1980’s or 90’s) have a native savvy about them; those who have grown up taking the internet, and new technologies for granted often have an uncritical acceptance of what it can do.