Art Deco in Berlin – The house of the Steel Workers Union (Haus des Deutschen Metallarbeiterverbandes)

The house of the German union of steel producers, in German: Haus des Deutschen Metallarbeiterverbandes, is one of the best examples of the German Art Deco style in Berlin. It was designed in the 1…

Source: Art Deco in Berlin – The house of the Steel Workers Union (Haus des Deutschen Metallarbeiterverbandes)

The woodpecker and the weevil

This is a wonderful blog post, the first I’m reblogging here. There are a dozen mulleins in our garden this year. We’ve been watching the ”Woodies“ have at the mulleins, and Linda found this post (h/t to her). Btw, although called weeds, that’s  a relative term. In Mexico, for example, Cattleya orchids (= those flowers in corsages) are considered weeds. So it’s all relative…mulleins will never, ever be weeds to us.


It’s unusual to see Downy Woodpeckers foraging on herbaceous plants in the middle of a prairie landscape, even if the flower stalks do reach 5-6 feet tall.  But the mature seed pods of Common…

Source: The woodpecker and the weevil

Solving the “Content Curation” problem: practical

Previously broached  here. In the interim I’ve chased links and tested apps, both ad infinitum and, especially, ad nauseam. So let’s plunge into my opinionated findings.

First, I rule out the various news apps and sites. I get my news just fine from the print version of The New York Times, and save items via my digital subscription. If there’s a breaking news story I want to follow, and elections  come to mind these days, I do visit online sites, in no particular order. I also subscribe to daily digests of news analysis from Vox dot com. What about the omnipresent ios News app? Takes forever to update with new items, and way too many of those. If you have a modicum of interest in any kind of content, you’ll lose it fast with this app. Too much pain, not enough gain. Frankly, I’d rather watch paint dry.

News is one kind of content. But what I’m really concerned with here is essays long and short. Analyses, discussions, reviews. What follows obviously reflects my interests and disinterests. By no means complete. De gustibus…etc.

ios Apps

Two stand out from am otherwise dreary lot. There was a third, which would have been a clear winner until it was taken over (infra). The two still standing would be Feedly and Nuzzel.

Feedly is a roll-your-own magazine(s) situation; you indicate some initial interests and start browsing and adding to those interests in groups called, gasp, magazines. You can make multiple magazines, and most users dodo. The interface is pretty and functional, and it’s always clear what you’re doing. There are two issues. The first is understanding how Feedly changes what the feed offers you. You can like items you’ve found, or specifically ask for more like it. Or none of the above. I’ve found no way to keep a balance using any of those methods. The second issue is that there’s just everything: tweets, drek from the far corners of the web jostling with first-rate articles. Things get better if you gain some friends and follow some as well, but how you gain them is a hit or miss proposition; very few from my Twitter feed are on Feedly. Feedly took over a wonderful app, Zite. Which I used exclusively until the takeover . Zite remedied all of the items I’ve just complained of. If Zite still existed, I wouldn’t touch Feedly. A pis-aller, but an okay one. Feedly has a web interface too, but it’s downright overwhelming. I literally never use it.

Nuzzel. Very useful if you’ve got a good Twitter feed. I have just under 2K followers and about 1.4K people I follow. It presents topics they’ve tweeted about. The interface is polished, it’s easy to browse; thus, a pleasure to use. They have a web site, sort off, but you really need to use the app to get the most.I don’t miss a day with Nuzzel, unlike Feedly which I sort of have to remember to use. Downside: without a substantial Twitter feed, I’m not sure how useful Nuzzel can be.

A very traditional alternative


Arts and Letters Daily, found here. It’s curated, but without any of the bells and whistles you might expect from ios. A wonderful and intimidating selection of articles. You have to save and share in the traditional way from whatever way your online…they have no app. Their RSS feed is pathetic. The only problem: you can spend a whole morning here. Thus, you may not need to roll your won via RSS (infra) if this is to your liking. They have a Twitter presence, which doesn’t list everything, but more than the RSS feed. I always find at least a dozen items of interest each time I visit. Cheap advice: make sure you’ve got a Pocket or Instapaper or Evernote account; you WILL find things you want to read and save. Bottom line: I love this site to pieces.

Rolling your own with RSS

Sounds good: in one place you can see what’s new of various web-only sites. Not so good: those feeds often do not contain all the new content, but only a selection. The sites that I like, I really like and want to see everything that’s new. Rock and hard place issue. You may not share my desire for comprehensive listings, in which case you’ll be fine.

My next post in this series will have more on RSS: readers, and links I like. Stay tuned.


Digital nirvana devices: later pally

An unexpected “aha moment”. Today was day two of installing a zone-based central a/c system here. Power needed to be cut for awhile, so our iPhones and iPads were fully charged. Only the iPhones have cellular connectivity in addition to wifi = online work meant iPhone work.

pen and iphone

I needed to do some online fiddling with an online subscription I have to a journal coming from Cambridge University Press.

[Aside: since I’m an Oxford M.A., I and others of my ilk refer to Cambridge as “The Other Place.” Less charitably, since UK-speak refers to them as “the two ancient universities”, Cambridge becomes “the ancient redbrick” {also UK-speak, redbrick being anything not Oxbridge}]

Up in came on my iPhone 6+. But where was the dropdown for adding a journal subscription? Nowhere. To make the long story short, back and forth on the iPhone, twenty minutes wasted, no joy. Power came back, up came Big Iron (the iMac], and in seconds I got everything done.

So yes, I could get work done, sort of, on the iPhone. But not the kind of work I needed to do today. And it reminded me of a column I’d read in The New York Times by Nick Bilton about the death of the pen. You can see the whole piece here, but here’s what aroused my ire:

“Until recently, financial transactions were among the last holdouts for the pen. But these days I pay my utility bills by opening an app and signing a screen. When I go to my local coffee shop, I sign an iPad with my finger. Theory, Apple and dozens of businesses I interact with have all eliminated pens (and styluses) in lieu of a finger and a screen. And, a couple of months ago when I bought a new home, I signed every document but one (which needed a notary public) using my iPhone. Think about that: I bought an entire house on my smartphone.”

Er, Nick, I’d rather not. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. How much longer did it take? How many false starts and frustrations? I know I’m at least as comfy with my iPhone as you are. You did it, but at what cost?

That’s the point about tek boosters. A glorious future, death to the old, in with the new. Sometimes new is better. Sometimes new is worse. Should I be impressed you did that whole purchase on the iPhone. I’ve done house purchases the pen and paper way, and I know it’s a damnfool thing you did. For that job, the iPhone is not the best tool. Period.

While digital is an important part of life, is totally impractical to make it  all of life. Tek boosters and millenials, you’ll learn.

I’ve been ages 17-35. You’ve not been 66. So listen up.

Practical memory redux: what is practical?

The smart-ass answer: in the eye of the beholder.

The wise-ass answer: practical, like love, is where you find it.

But enough  homo ludens. As I’ve learned more about the various memory techniques from some excellent online resources and not-so-online books (does Kindle count?), for me at least, this is a a live issue.

If you’ve read Josh Foer’s book, or any of the links posted in the previous post, you’ve seen that it can be a sport, even a blood sport since boys far outnumber women, unfortunately here. Aside: I’ve seen no evidence of misogyny in anything so far, but if I do, expect a shout out, here and wherever I’ve seen it. Think competitions (the boys again).

How fast can you memorize a deck of cards? Or several decks? How many digits of Pi can you learn in a given amount of time? These are some of the competition chestnuts. But here’s a random sampling from non-competitors: Dante’s Inferno, That Speech from Hamlet, a book of Paradise Lost, the bones in the human body, collections of organic chemical formulae, British prime ministers.

I cannot imagine the practical value of learning all those Pi digits or decks of cards. Is very much along the lines of climbing Everest “because it is there.” Still, not everything in life has to be utilitarian. Even though I’ve no raging desire to learn all those digits, e.g. , providing something isn’t illegal, immoral or fattening, I’m for it. The science ones are totally utilitarian. As for the others. No one except an historian of the UK or a super-jingo UK resident needs to know all those PMs. I love Dante and Milton, but I’ve never thought about memorizing such big chunks. In my own line, I know the Greek and Latin epics in the original more than just very well. Yes, I can quote from them, yes, I know what they’re all about. But having a book of, say, Vergil’s Aeneid in memory…so what?

For me, it’s been a combination of what’s practical  with the Everest factor. Practical is my having the labors of Hercules and the seven wonders of the world at my fingertips. Those were easy…not many items, none new to me, just getting total recall of them. In the Everest category: the fifty US states and the 44 US presidents. Fun, but no more.

In short, one person’s practical is another person’s Everest. The trick is to keep a balance. For example, from 509 BC until AD 476 the Romans had pairs of consuls, and those lists are preserved. But I doubt I’ll be learning them. The times I need to access lots of them at once are few; I learn what I need for the work at hand. But for fun…there’s always Pi, although for me, Phi (aka The Golden Ratio) would be more fun. Of course, you can go to town with the historical: here’s an example of such a memory palace:

memory palace

For more on memory than anyone could imagine, or remember, go here. People of all levels, beginners encouraged, a near-total absence of trolls. What’s not to like?

Practical memory and impractical memory: the Memory Palace

Things have been busy since my previous on the MOOC learning-how-to-learn. As I wrote there, while a substantial amount was review, there were still plenty of expansions on what I knew. But it’s one thing to know the mechanics of learning, which has been my business for many decades. Those have served me well. But I needed some new servants.

For example, how  to memorize a list of a dozen items? It can be done by rote, by mnemonics…strategies most people already know. But that’s inefficient. Why would you want to take the time to memorize, say, a shopping list? Paper works just fine…after all, you don’t want to remember your list a month from now, unless the acronym OC was invented for you.

But some lists I wanted to remember..forever. Various work-related lists. I’ve written about the twelve labors of Hercules, for example, and taught them often. But if you had asked me rapidly to write them all done, or recite from memory…duh. Was there something more efficient than brute force?

There was indeed. One of the course topics covered the “memory palace”which comes from associating facts as mnemonics with places. Seems humans have an incredible spatial memory hard-wired into them from the very distant past…back, back in time, back when they invented the wheel. And earlier. Cave women. Cave men. Cave people. With a memory palace, you tap into that latent strength and make it work for you. And it works. Oh my, does it ever work. There’s a reason memory palaces were secrets in the Middle Ages…in that less enlightened era, think The Stake and “burning”, and “Stake”is not a typo for “steak”. Nothing like being punished for being Satan’s Little Trained Minion to wreck the rest of your day.

Here’s how I got into it. There’s a wonderful book by a memory champion, Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein:
Foer MoonwalkingGet it! Inexpensive paperback. You’ll ultimately want, I hope, to read it cover to cover. But do what grabbed me good:  read chapter five, “The Memory Palace”. Josh encounters a memory champ  (yes, there are international contests for such titles) who shows him a shopping list of fifteen rather odd items. Josh learns to associate it with places around his house. And, apparently, learns them all very rapidly. But, and this is extremely important. Written into the narrative are frequent asides to you, the reader, to do what Josh is doing in your house. Usually I ignore such things. Not now. I took the noodges seriously. And….

Dang me. It worked. I learned that list too. What’s more, now, and it’s been about a month, I still remember the damned thing. Please, please, do yourself a big favor and do what I did. You will be impressed beyond words.

Here’s a brief example of how I learned the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid of Giza is in the parking space in front of the house. The front garden has the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Inside, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia sits on the couch looking at the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus on the coffee table. The entry to the dining room is blocked by the Tomb of Mausolus while the Colossus of Rhodes is playing the piano, and the light in the kitchen comes from the Lighthouse of Pharos. That’s been in my head for a month, and the images tend to fade leaving you with just the facts. But if you start to stumble, the image comes right back to help you. Notice that the associations are…weird. The mind remembers the weird, the shocking, the pornographic far better than anything else. In the eighth grade an art teacher waned us to learn the five characteristics of art: form, line, space, texture, color. I still remember them if I want to (not often, but still…). I didn’t know about memory palaces then. Just used an incredibly sexual series of mnemonics, as only an eighth grader could. Clever rotten little rugrat, no?

You see the uses? Infinite. Liberating. And great fun. It works on poetry too, with modifications; I’m chewing up some favorite Shakespeare sonnets. But be warned!

You can also use it, again with modifications, to learn a deck of cards; memory champs can do that in a minute or so. Or the digits of Pi to one hundred places. That’s the tek approach…do it because you can. For me, that’s the impractical side of things. Fine, but do you need to know Pi out that far? I was a big math and science jock back-when, and I never needed Pi beyond 34.14159. As for learning a deck of cards…if you hang around Vegas a lot, maybe useful, otherwise…. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, but I think you’re better off on using the technique in ways which directly benefit you.

By the way, memory palaces can be recycled. Remember the couch with the statue of Zeus on it in my example? I used the couch for Josh’s exercise, and placed wine bottles there. I’ve also used it for the labors of Hercules, as a place for the Cernyian hind. Believe it or not, even though the couch is crowded, there never is bleed-through between the uses.

Not yet convinced?

Josh did an interview about his book with The New York Times here.

A very recent short piece on the memory palace idea here.

Lots of other resources in the form of books, online forums…it can get dizzying. If you get hooked an want more, don’t hesitate to ask for some guidance. Although I suspect that it won’t be a question of “If” but rather “When”. You have been warned.

The Professor Takes a Course…sort of

Even if you don’t do much online, it’s very hard to avoid knowing of, and having an opinion about, MOOCs. Every so often I’ve cruised by Coursera, the MOOC-maker that has always seemed to have the most items of interest. Many have been the siren calls; last year I came very close to signining up for one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with the excellent pianist (ex Curtis) Jonathan Biss. Flagged that temptation by, with difficulty.

But they got me this time. When I saw a four week course “Learning How to Learn” with one of the insructors the author of a favorite book …well, how bad could it be?

The book is A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley.


Despite the subtitle of “Math and Science”, the book really covers strategies for learning, in this particular case making the very convincing case that improved learning techniques can cure a phobia of math and/or science. Did I say “how bad could it be”?

So I enrolled. Four weeks of assignments and lectures, the lectures for each week amounted to maybe one hour plus, both by Oakley and a quite eminent neurobiologist. Three quizzes and a final, all multiple choice. Plenty of optional extra readings, from the general to the really hi-tek. Keep in mind that since I spent forty-one years in the classroom, I’m incredibly opinionated about how to teach in all its minutiae: lectures, quizzes, readings. Also keep in mind that I was familiar with the (optional) text supra. And finally, that’s it’s been the same amount of time since I sat on the other side of the desk. A triple theat, to say the least.

And what happened? Briefly,  a wonderful experience. In my field you can’t know everything you need, even ex of a topflight graduate program and equally topflight undergraduate major. If you aren’t a good autodidact, you’re dead. As a result, from the School of Hard Autodidacts I knew maybe two-thirds of the material. Hearing other points of view, following a lecture, and preparing for quizzes was humbling and something every professor should have…more than once. But that’s not all. Some bullet points, in no particular order….

  • None of the students was very good at speaking in the optional short video selfie, graded by other students. The stuttered. They preened. They ran out of time, or else mumbled two sentences and quit. As for the comments. The most useful one I got was “nice beard.” Well, thanks, I think. Even so, everyone gave my selfie the highest possible mark. Understandable about me (all that time in the trenches) and my fellow students (usually no time in those trenches).
  • One of the lectures, Barb Oakley, aka  the book’s author, was superb by any standard. I’d give here eleven on a scale of one to ten. The eminent neurobologist Terry Sejnowski, not so much. Did he know a lot? Yes, and I base this on having been a serious science jock through college. He was clearly reading from the teleprompter. Bad. I never read from notes either in class or at conference presentations. If you’ve been in the field more than a couple of years, you damned well better be able to speak it smoothly. Worse, he didn’t read smoothly. Worst, he went at trans-warp speed. I with my science background had to hear his lectures twice. Non-science types…technical terms come at you like bullets, and light-speed bullets at that. Many, many science and math types lament why there are so many math and science phobes around. Just look in the mirror, gang. What’s so obvious to you isn’t obvious to those who aren’t initiates. Try to recall when it wasn’t obvious. In my case, I know there was a time when the chronology of the Pentekontaetia, the period between the end of Greece’s Persian War and the start of the Peloponnesian War seemed impossibly hard. Now it seems totally obvious. But I try to put myself back to when it was new and strange. And the students then understand and enjpy. In short: math and science professors, recall your own learning struggles and teach to those. Terry gets overall a minus three on the scale of one to ten.
  • Quizzes. Muliple choice. I guess in a course like this the format is necessary. But too easy to game, and really didn’t test understanding.
  • Reading. Excellent from start to finish. I’m going to PDF those lists for future reference.

Would I take another MOOC? In a second, with the caveats supra if it’s a math or science course. It got me out of my comfort zone. I got to learn  more about what I already new, and a lot of new techniques like memory palaces. MOOCs are not the same as a classroom experience which remains fundamental. But if used carefully and with self-awareness, they can be a very good thing indeed.