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Course Review: Visualizing Japan

Provider: Harvard and MIT at EdX [course page]
Lecturer: John W. Dower, Andrew Gordon, Shigeru Miyagawa, and Gennifer Weisenfeld
Subject: Humanities / History + Politics + Business + Militarisation
Delivery: intake-based asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 3-5 hrs/week over 6 weeks
Completion Date: 12/10/2014

Japanese military paraphernalia (including Jap...

Japanese military paraphernalia (including Japanese armour, yumi, yari, katanas and tachi among others). Hand-colored glass slide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Description: This course tells the history of Japan between the1850’s and 1930’s using a variety of publications and artwork created at the time.

Strengths: This course is an oddity to begin, with the collaboration of two reputable universities making it possible. It goes further, making use of numerous collections of artwork and other visual artefacts to understand what was going on in Japan during and after Admiral Perry’s expedition forced the Japanese government to open up its borders after several centuries of isolation. It moves through various areas as well, allowing us to see how some aspects of militarisation began to infiltrate even the cosmetics industry. We also see how various socialist parties attempted to gain traction in the nation. It is a fascinating look at Japanese history through the eyes of the Japanese people.


Conclusion: My recent studies have forced me to rethink my understanding of history in Asia. This course offers insight from Japan rather than China, but we can see some obvious similarities. Each nation sought to hold on to its own identity but was inevitably forced to reincarnation. I highly recommend this course to anyone with an interest in Asia and modern Asian history. I also recommend folks check out Harvard’s ChinaX mini-MOOC series as well as UTokyo’s two-part MOOC series Visualising Post-War Japan, all twelve MOOCs made available through the EdX platform.

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Course Review: SW12.7x China Part 7

Provider: Harvard at EdX [course page]
Lecturer: Peter K. Bol, William C. Kirby + others
Subject: Humanities / History + Politics + Religion
Delivery: intake-based asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 2-4 hrs/week over 5 weeks
Completion Date: 10/10/2014

Description: Part 7 of the ChinaX mini-MOOC series discusses the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Strengths: This course discusses some of the internal and external factors that led to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Though the rejection of the Manchus as long-time foreign invaders does play some part, we see how the role of foreign trade and religion played a huge part in creating strife in the nation. The Qing are forced, if somewhat unsuccessfully, to combat these elements that have weakened the country from within via the likes of the Opium trade. We also see the dramatic role that religion plays, with 30 million dying due to the Taiping Rebellion. I had heard of the latter as well, but I didn’t know the role that Christian proselytising played in the establishment of a cult that caused deaths of so many. This course leads into part 8 of the series which discusses the contest between various political ideologies that led to a version of Communism gaining control over China.

Weaknesses: I was really beginning to dig those Queues…

Conclusion: This instalment of the ChinaX series filled in some gaps in my knowledge of important moments in Chinese history. The role of religion also mirror, to some degree, the establishment of cults and denominations in the west. It also shows the role that racism can play in destroying a nation from within. I recommend this course to anyone looking to make sense of modern Chinese history and for those curious about what led up to modern events. I also recommend folks also check out the following offerings at EdX: MIT and Harvard collaboration Visualising Japan; and University of Tokyo’s (UTokyo) two-part MOOC series Visualising Post-War Japan.

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Course Review: History of Rock Part Two

Provider: University of Rochester at Coursera [course page]
Lecturer: John Covach
Subject: History / Music
Delivery: Intake-based asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 2-4 hrs/wk for 6 weeks
Completion Date: 10/07/2014

Description: This course discusses the history of Rock between the 1970’s and early 1990’s.

Strengths: This is my third MOOC with John Covach as teacher. In the first instalment of the two-part series, we see the beginnings of Rock leading up to the early 1970’s. In between, I studied Covach’s course on The Beatles, which covered the history of the band between the early 1960’s until the mid 1970’s. The MOOC offered a great crossover for that transition period. This second instalment of the History of Rock covers a bunch of music that was released after I was born, which I enjoyed with my parents and siblings during the 80’s and early 90’s.
With all of Covach’s classes, students learn about the various divisions in music. These boundaries are called to question with the success of artists such as Michael Jackson. However, we also see other boundaries forming. And yet these boundaries are also brought down with the crossover of bands such as R.E.M. Genre is constantly being redefined throughout this period, and bands are experimenting with various styles. Given that this is still happening today, one can easily argue that this is the very nature of music as an art-form.
Students are encouraged to consider how past events affect the present. We see continuity of ideas such as the Hippie Aesthetic. The material in this course offers further context for the music whilst at the same time asking questions of us as listeners.

Weaknesses: Musical taste can be just as divisive a subject as politics and religion.

Conclusion: This course took me back to a childhood spent listening to top 40 radio shows, the show Countdown and eventually the ABC music show Rage. Most of my fondest childhood memories were spent listening to much of the same music mentioned in this MOOC. I recommend this course and other offerings by John Covach to anyone with a love of music.

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Course Review: Heart Health

Provider: University of Reading at FutureLearn [course page]
Course Design: Natasha Barrett + a team of experts
Subject: Science / Medicine
Delivery: Intake-based asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 3 hrs/wk for 4 weeks
Completion Date: 10/05/2014

Description: This course discusses the anatomy of the heart and the numerous disorders that can affect heart health.

Strengths: This MOOC teaches students about the anatomy of the cardiovascular system in order to offer context for the numerous cardiovascular diseases that are discussed later. Such explanations are shown via lectures from various speakers and weekly practicals-slash-experiments. These range from the dissection of a heart in the first week to fun with water balloons. Although I didn’t do any of the practicals, I did get a lot out of watching the related videos.
Student understanding is tested by a weekly quiz. The questions are straight-forward multiple choice questions. At the end of each week, there is an additional supplementary interview with an expert in the field.

Weaknesses: Hearts are weird. Seriously, have you seen those things?!!!

Conclusion: I really enjoyed this MOOC. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel as comfortable watching dissections in high school as I did during the practical during the first week. Natasha Barrett had a way of teaching that put students at ease and made the material such as the practicals interesting. I especially found myself looking to the practicals because it allowed for a physical demonstration of the various phenomena covered during a given week. I highly recommend this course for those looking to brush up on cardiovascular anatomy, folks with a family history of cardiovascular disease, and/or those that are just curious about how the heart work but don’t have any formal education on the subject.

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Course Review: Diabetes – A Global Challenge

Provider: University of Copenhagen at Coursera [course page]
Course Design: Jens Juul Holst and Dr. Signe Sørensen Torekov
Subject: Science / Medicine / Cellular Biology
Delivery: self-paced asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 3-5 hrs/week for 5 weeks
Completion Date: 09/31/2014

Description: This course discusses the nature of Diabetes as a disease and its global impact.

Strengths: The growing problem of Diabetes has become the focus of numerous news articles and several documentaries. It is a disease that can cause other diseases as well. It isn’t just about health either. There are major economic ramifications for countries with large populations of Diabetics. There is medical care to consider, which requires money. To deal with the problem we need to understand the problem, which is why a course on the biology of Diabetes is so important.
This course goes into the biology of several major forms of Diabetes, how they are treated and their various causes. Whilst some forms of Diabetes are due to lifestyle, we learn that some have direct genetic causes that result in early onset of Diabetes. It is a lot of material to learn in five weeks, and it isn’t the end of the extensive knowledge available. Even though there was a lot to learn, the material was genuinely interesting.

Weaknesses: Be prepared to brush up on your knowledge of Cellular Biology!

Conclusion: Diabetes is a complicated problem, but there is no doubt that we need to find solutions to reduce the frequency of onset and find ways to treat those with pre-existing forms of the disease. Understanding the differences between the various forms of the disease allows us to devise plans of action, but it must be understood from the cellular level in order to be of real use. We can I highly recommend this course to anyone willing to put in the time to understand the biological components of the disease.


Course Review: PSYCH101 Introduction to Psychology

Provider: Saylor Academy [course page]
Course Design: Dr. Helena Martin and Dr. Michael Poulakis
Subject: Science / Psychology
Delivery: self-paced asynchronous study
Recommended Load: 97 hours over 7 units
Completion Date: 09/31/2014

The social self.

The social self. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Description: This course lays the foundation for future study of Psychology.

Strengths: Will all of the offerings of Saylor Academy, this course makes use of free and open source online materials. The seven units culminate in a final 50-question multiple-choice exam of which 70% is a passing grade. Students are able to retry the exam, but are locked out for a two-week period. Students that pass the exam can download a PDF certificate of achievement. This exam is preparation for the Excelsior College exam that allows up to 3 hours of course credit towards their degree programs. Students looking to transfer credit hours to other institutions should enquire at the specific university or college.
This course goes over the history of Psychology over the past two centuries. It discusses the various figures whose research has transformed this once-solitary science into one that informs many sectors of society. Psychology also consists of numerous sub-fields that vary based on what and how they study human behaviour. The course discusses the basic ideas and knowledge that informs all of these fields as well as the biological underpinnings of human behaviour and mental disorder. As for the question of nature versus nurture, the materials support the idea that both play equally important roles in how we negotiate the world around us.

Weaknesses: This course requires some grounding in high school level Biology. There is also lots of reading. Oh, the humanity!

Conclusion: In lieu of recent discussions of mental health in the media, this course offers students a solid introduction to Psychology. I recommend this course to anyone curious about human behaviour, have a family history of mental illness, and/or are looking for a grounding in Psychology for their employment.


Book Review: The Cosmic Computer

Cover of "The Cosmic Computer (Junkyard P...

Cover of The Cosmic Computer (Junkyard Planet)

The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven’t posted a book review in a while due to studies. In lieu of recently cutting down on my workload, I decided to listen to Mark Nelson’s Librivox reading of The Cosmic Computer, the fourth of his readings that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. It is also the third H. Beam Piper novel, set in the Terro-Human science fiction universe. This is the same setting as novels such as Little Fuzzy and Four-Day Planet. I ended up listening to the novel during my walks along the ocean.

Conn Maxwell arrives back home from a sponsored off-world information-gathering trip to Terra to find the rumored top secret war-time supercomputer Merlin. He is received by his sponsors, including his father, and feeling that it would dash their hopes decides not to tell them that he couldn’t dig up anything useful. Conn’s father Rodney Maxwell confronts his son in private soon after and the two conceive of a plan to reboot the planet of Poictesme’s economy by using the belief in Merlin’s existence to spur commerce, exploration and manufacture. So begins the rather messy regeneration of Poictesme.

With all of H. Beam Piper’s novels, The Cosmic Computer is told with humour derived from human behaviour and logic. The story flows easily, and we see how something so simple can snowball near out of control within a short period of time. It is the juggling of many tasks that often creates conflict for Conn and his father, and their pact to secrecy is put to the test many times throughout.
Another trait of H. Beam Piper’s novels is the art of the conspiracy. Whilst we see some of this with Conn and Rodney Maxwell’s plan to some extent, we also see the machinations of the various antagonists also creating obstacles for the plan. The motivation for one of the players also adds in another problem relating to the nature of Merlin, an invention that Conn and Rodney are doubtful even exists. There are clues to his identity right from the beginning, but I don’t want to spoil that part.
Another aspect of H. Beam Piper’s novels is technology and violent conflict. To the case of Merlin, it might seem laughable given the reality of Moore’s law and in micronization in general. Whilst we see Piper’s descriptions of technology such as computers often being limited to his own era, this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the novel.

I really liked this novel. The characterizations, plot and action worked like a charm. I also extend my thanks to Mark Nelson for taking time out to record so many classic audiobooks, especially silver-age science fiction. I highly recommend this novel to lovers of science fiction and humour.

View all my reviews


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