All the way from school to Universe E.T.; some notions about the MOOC

[Por razones prácticas he preferido escribir este post en inglés, aunque en muchos de los webs enlazados abajo tienen una versión en español. Disculpa las molestias.]

What will be the best way for an E. T. to learn as much as possible about human nature? In the movie, he watched TV all day. But is prime TV the best way to learn about the world In the past few months (and for some even years) we witness an impressive amount of bloggers, articles (both academic and newspaper) and general conversation that are writing about and discussing the recent education revolution. I´m referring to the Massive Open Online Course, commonly known by the acronym MOOC. The MOOCs are the free virtual university classroom and it is the symbol of this new and exciting era where accessibility to knowledge was never simpler and more accessible.


You are probably thinking what the majority were saying in the first couple of years since 2008 (and what some still do today): ‘we don´t have time for that’ or ‘I have a daytime job’. Well, while this certainly is true, the MOOCs provide unprecedented opportunity where people of half a century ego only dreamt of.

This is why I decided to make it easier to all of you that are knowledge addicts and put together a list of useful links to some of the many resources.

My own experience with online learning and virtual classroom started years ago when I first started viewing courses and podcasts through sites as and LearnersTV and such. Later I upgraded to Google Academic Earth, with a large variety of courses from all subjects and a multitude of universities. While my extracurricular passion is Social Psychology and Social Science I also inscribed and followed classes about Economics, Philosophy and Psychology (I even tried Mathematics but I admit that it wasn´t my cup of tea).

Today, thanks to innovators such as Andrew Ng (London, 1976), Daphne Koller (Jerusalem, 1968), Bestian Thrun (Solingen, 1967), Anant Argawal (Bombay, 1960) and many more we have platforms that not only provide us with the courses but also the framework for us to be able to take one step further towards making it an official diploma. Probably the biggest of all is Coursera with more than 17 million students from all over the world. The 400 classes are given in 83 different education centers all over the world in all the major languages.

The MIT open courseware, whether it is learning Italian language and home cooking simultaneously, psychology or the world of Finance, you have the opportunity to follow your passion into a more profound level. If you are more into language try Duolingo or maybe to learn computer code (in codeacademy), possibilities are endless.

Other important universities also began their own web of free and shared lectures. Some of the most known are: Cornell’s eCommons (like this interesting one about Quantum Theory made simple), Harvard’s edX (initiated with MIT), Stanford Online and many others (click here for a list of 775 free online courses from different universities).

moocOther centers and platforms that are just as good are: Udacity, Iversity (where I personally take a course this semester), Khan Academy, e-learning, Edmodo (highschool education), Open2Study, P2PU amongst others.

And so, as Koller tell us in a wonderful TED Talk, today, education can travel over barriers as financial difficulties, distance to the closest education facility, and physical disability. With a click of a mouse and average internet connection (whether private or public), everyone can become a student and participate in this wonder we call universal knowledge.

Images and mems: considerations in a soci(ologic)al view, Ambrogia Cereda

As soon as I realize that my recent acquaintance, Dr. Ambrogia Cereda, is on the verge of an important research that bridges the study of images with social studies, I implored her for an opinion on my recent mem project. This is what she kindly replied:

Pictures overwhelm our society and the understanding the role of images is an enigma, which has fascinated many classic and contemporary social observers. But: What are images today? What do they derive their strength from?

In his book, The Contemplation of the World (1997), controversial French sociologist Michel Maffesoli reconsiders this issue in the context of our contemporary systems of representation and shows the contribution of images in fostering the typically postmodern process of re-enchantment of the world. In his perspective images operate as living tools, they have the power to relate people to each other and to encompass all of them by means of a sense of sacred. This special quality acknowledged to images is derived by their social role, as still they can offer traditional displays deemed as necessary for the community during late modern rituals and moments of effervescence (i.e. concerts, national and international sport events, or natural catastrophes), along with emotions, sentiments and symbols.

Drawing on the legacy of Durkheim and Moscovici, Maffesoli seems to reaffirm the importance of the idea a society produces of itself: such a symbolic self-portrait constitutes an influential variable of the community way of life. Along with the material artifacts they create, and the material conditions on which they are constituted into a group within a territory, the members of society recognize themselves as such thanks to the aggregating elements of images and rituals. The importance of social representations is not due to their visualizing potential but proceeds mainly from the fact that they have a concrete impact on social life they organize (ordinary and special) time and the way in which people get in touch and communicate about a common fact. The fundamental function of images is that of being relative, so establishing relations between elements, may they be a men and the divine, or an individual to another, or mankind to the environment: “what we would call the iconic function has no validity in itself, but is essentially an evocation, or rather a support for other things: the relation to God, to others, to nature” (Maffesoli, 1997: 72).

The image, the phenomenon, the appearance, all belong to those things that while not having a precise purpose or an “instrumental rationality”, or perhaps because they have neither one nor the other are in a position to express that “hyperrationality, […] and which seems more pertinent for describing the real or the “hyperreal” that agitates social life” (idem).

If images can do even more than merely suggesting attitudes towards reality, and can live a life of their own, it’s because they are the result of a “synthesis sui generis” through which a world between the material and the immaterial dimension is built.

Such an outstanding capability is related to the possibility of exponential reproduction in a way that they can give life to new forms of experience. Images thus create a second or parallel dimension, a “hyperreality”,[1] mainly thanks to the technological contribution of new and traditional media. As a typically late modern phenomenon, the proliferation of images has increasingly shaped individual perceptions and fostered the configuration of the so called “imaginal world”, a reality similar to “a matrix in which all the elements of earthly data interact, resonate in concert or correspond to each other in multiple ways and in constant reversibility” (Maffesoli, 2007: 76).

If on the one hand, images can be seen in Western late modern culture as the representations closest to reality invoking and evoking things for what they are. On the other hand, even if they are not deemed as a cheating produce, they seem to conceal the relevance of reality to our current understanding of our lives. For they participate in an accumulation of symbols and signs by means of which all human experience is reduced to a sort of simplification which is often more similar to a simulation of reality.

In this ambiguity they offer the viewer the opportunity (or the risk) to give an interpretation to what is portrayed. And, moreover, to challenge the meaning of the image by using it in the practice of everyday life. It is only in the use of images indeed that the meaning – so necessary and comfortable for life in the social group – can be progressively transformed and a new system of representations can be built.

"Where the fashion is art", Las Meninas del corte inglés

“Where the fashion is art”, Las Meninas del corte inglés

Considered in this framework, the mems (some examples are available in this blog) can be seen as participating in this social necessity of conveying useful information for social life, useful tools for handling with culture. Moreover, they enter the process of transforming things in their use: images and words are assembled, re-visualized from screen to screen, and reach one mind after the other. Hence, throughout these passages, we only know how the visualization starts but what will happen to these mems is up to you and I.

[1]Cfr. Baudrillard (1994) Simulacra and Simulations, in which the first theorization can be found about the production of a new reality of images. The French theorist portrays it as parallel to the real matter of fact reality, and as even more real than that – hyperreal – because of its complete independence from the latter and continually reproducing itself through the proliferation of other images.

Raining cats and dogs, Indirect Speech in social and political satire

An indirect speech is one of the most used verbal language skills in our culture. When I say our culture I obviously do not mean 21st century western culture but more basic interaction in between human from most of the known eras, cultural and geographic areas.

For example, when I say to a friend that it is raining cats and dogs, I obviously do not mean that cats and dogs are falling ferociously from the sky. As they say in, there is no direct relation to cats and dogs though, at times, small creatures can be ported into an impromptu involuntary flight, yet there are no meteorological record for cats and dogs. The supposed origin, however, is “that the phrase derives from mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin, the god of storms, and sailors associated them with rain. Witches, who often took the form of their familiars – cats, are supposed to have ridden the wind.”

Another common example is in today’s adolescent jargon, one can have chemistry with another. Well, taking under consideration that they don´t  have science lab assignment homework, they are trying to convey the fact that get feel attracted to one another. Many times we feel a certain need to transform the true meaning and intentions to a certain extent for it might be too straight forward (seducing) or too weary (enthusiasm about an event) in other cases.

Language is a tool that when use with talent and ingenuity it can provoke wars, accomplish peace and empower seduction. In this context, Indirect Speech is one of my favorite subjects I study as a part of my thesis. The most famous example will surly be Francisco de Quevedo, being the master of language manipulation usually for offensive purposes, he used his artistry to create textual forms that are both amusing for some and very thorny for others.

Steven Pinker, a psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguistic professor at Harvard College says in his talk (video of that language has to do 2 things:

–          To convey some content (Bribe, command, manipulation etc.)

–          To negotiate a relationship type

What happen in an Indirect Speech where the social situation requires a certain contextual behavior is that the writer or presenter knows that the interlocutor knows the same thing he knows. To say it in a different manner, by writing an Indirect critic or satire on the figure of Count Duke Olivares, the anonymous poet takes under consideration that his lectors know the situation but does not know that other know as well. As Pinker puts it, when only one person knows about a dictator, he knows a certain fact but he doesn´t know that others know that fact. Hence while you publish a pamphlet about the dictator, you actually make sure that everyone will know that everyone else also know about the dictator (Pinker uses the example of public assembly).

The explicit writer, or as Pinker calls it, the writer of an overt language, (in our 17th century context, Quevedo in his last years, Adam de la Parra, Matias de Novoa) is making sure that he is changing the state of the common knowledge, assuring that everyone will have no more doubts all others know what they do. Thus, while everyone knows that everyone knows, it will make place for public opinion which will allow them the use of a collective power.

At the same time, the implicit writer, whether a famous ones as Quevedo (especially until 1634) or the many anonymous all through the 17th century, can maintain an ambiguous relationship with the figure in question, leaving uncertainties, ambiguities and dilemmas in the reader’s mind. This epigrammatic writing then fomented a literature that actually helped influx large scale governmental decisions.

Full lecture link:

10 Super Awesome Insider Tips (from WordPress)

10 Super Awesome Insider Tips.

Olivares vs. Richelieu, lesson in Modesty

In his book, Olivares and Richelieu (Cambridge University Press, 1984), Elliott compares the figures that practically ruled over two of the strongest, most influential empires in the world (at their time), France and Spain. Richelieu as the Cardinal, prime minister to the king Luis XIII and his friend-rival-foe Count-Duke of Olivares, valido of the king of Spain, Phillipe IV[1].

The differences between the two were many and well known yet one that is not that clear is about the way they saw themselves, or in other words, modesty. While Olivares only spoke highly of his precious king, in Richelieu’s words there always seemed to have a double meaning, a non-dit, which made his enemies both fear and despise him. In one occasion in 1628, the Cardinal wrote of himself: “I was zero and I am the same zero [next to the king]”. This phase is a solid example to the differences in character between the two heads of state. The false modesty is recognizable by the use of radical self disdain on the first person in singular. For a person with a law self-esteem will not repeat twice a auto referential pronoun.  And beside, it is very unlikely that one will be in a power position and really think of himself as “zero”. This tactic is merely the recognition of the power hierarchy, nothing more. On the other hand, our good, large boned Count-Duke had never (at least for my knowledge so far) referred to himself in such a way. In different occasion we can read about his complains yet never demonstrating but sincere affection for his king.

Nevertheless, being sure of oneself can bring to greatness in other aspects where social skills are less needed. For example, as the principal minister, both Richelieu as his nemesis, Olivares, were after a better form of education. The two chiefs of state recognized the power of good education together with the right use of tools such as language and eloquence; skills that can fortify the nobility along with the capacity to solve conflicts (other than the battle field that is). Yet while the Count Duke was seeking to bring moral into the young nobles via Catholicism, Richelieu was busy founding the first Académie Française (1635, only to be followed by the Spanish some 78 years later[2]). The French Cardinal was always thought of himself as more capable, maybe because his pride, maybe because his wealth, his political scheming capacity, probably because all of the above.

And yet, when it comes of matters of War, it seems that neither modesty nor sobriety makes any difference. The role that had France in Europe according to Richelieu was perfectly illustrated in Europe, a comedy which the Cardinal himself provided the inspiration and plot. The comedy (which according to Elliott is an excruciatingly bad play) was never showed because of the death or Richelieu (1642). Grosso modo, the message of the comedy is that it is better to perish than to be enslaves and that it is preferable to be driven to war, ‘not by ambition, but by necessity’.

Thus, in order to block the advance of the Spanish forces, the French sent troops to the borders. The good Spaniards, on their side, saw the French troops advancing towards their borders and replied it as a call for war. In this way, as always, it seems that Fear is, and for ever will be the greatest motivation for war.

[1] Another interesting source is the series Vidas Cruzadas (Crossed Lives) made by the Spanish Minister of Cultural; the 12th chapter (out of 13) is dedicated to the rivalry between the two prime ministers (if anybody wishes to see it and is in my proximity, I happen to have it, as well as all the other chapters).

[2] Which on the other hand, is not that much if we take under consideration that the French have their official language since the year 967.