Saturday, January 17, 2015

Reading challenge book 2

Challenge: Read a book that scares you.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not only is the writing creepily effective, but the ideas themselves are scary, though important. Do we all have evil inside us? Is it a separate part of us? Can we control it? When we indulge it and it starts getting strong, how do we stop it? How responsible are we for what our Mr. Hyde side does?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015 Reading Challenge

In a moment of optimism, I joined a couple of reading challenges for 2015. One has 52 categories of books, the other has 12, and both let you choose your own books to fit those categories. I'm still finishing Shakespeare (Julius Caesar currently) but these challenges seemed like a good way to read some other books that I might not otherwise pick up. And here's the first one:

Challenge book #1 - A book with a number in the title

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The book the Hitchcock movie was (loosely) based on, written in 1915, and very influential in its genre. Richard Hannay learns of a plot that could lead to war. He goes on the run to escape the plotters, as well as the police who think he's a murderer, while figuring out what to do with his information. It's a short, fun, fast-paced thriller full of convenient coincidences that drive the story along. Quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Continuing Education

2014 has been a good year for my education in at least three and a half ways. I want to write about them here, not to brag, but to cheer for myself moving from "kind of, sort of learning some stuff" to a more structured approach that seems to be making a difference.

1. My Spanish is getting better. Early in the year I took some community-ed Spanish classes where I had to get over my fear of trying out the language aloud in front of other students and a teacher who was a native speaker. Those have ended, but I've been using Duolingo to work on vocabulary and practice translation, and I'm starting to use some new strategies from Fluent Forever that should help even more.

2. A few months ago I got our old family accordion repaired, got some instruction books, and started practicing. My family has been very patient (accordions are loud) and I'm having a lot of fun! The weirdest thing is that while it's always been hard-to-impossible for me to memorize piano music, accordion music is much easier to memorize. Which is good, because imagine having to turn pages during an accordion performance.

3. Early this year I was introduced to Coursera, a platform for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) where you can sign up and take classes from universities all over the world for free. They're not for credit, of course, and usually not as rigorous as a regular undergraduate class, but they're a fun way to explore different subjects and get some brain exercise. Most of them run for 6 to 12 weeks, and my biggest problem has been trying not to sign up for too many at once. Here's what I've finished this year:

The Science of the Solar System (Caltech) - Serious science class with an amazing (and famous) instructor, Mike Brown (also known as Plutokiller). My second favorite so far.

Songwriting (Berklee College of Music) - This one was fun and took me way out of my comfort zone (I had to post my singing online for strangers to listen to).

Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us (University of Pennsylvania) - All the things the doctor checks when you go in for a physical, explained.

Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (University of Michigan) - I liked reading sci-fi classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, but I didn't like writing essays and trying to come up with something meaningful to say. That's one thing I don't miss about college.

Programming for Everybody (University of Michigan) - Easy introduction to the Python programming language.

Pre-Calculus (University of California, Irvine) - A great review of algebra and trigonometry and all that fun math I haven't used in years.

Fundamentals of Music Theory (University of Edinburgh) - Not the best-thought-out class (it got really difficult really fast) but it was fun to listen to the instructors.

Developing Your Musicianship (Berklee College of Music) - Some basic music theory, demonstrated by a super fun teacher who's clearly enjoying every minute, leading up to learning how to write and play a 12-bar blues.

Copyright for Educators & Librarians (Duke University and others) - Very specific topic that was actually quite interesting.

Learning How to Learn (University of California, San Diego) - Fairly good class with some good ideas about more effective studying and learning.

An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Rice University) - My very favorite class so far. Each week we had a game to program, getting more and more complicated and ending with an Asteroids game - here's mine. (Of course they gave us step-by-step help and provided the sounds and graphics, but still, it was really fun to write the code and get it to work correctly.)

Introduction to Guitar (Berklee College of Music) - I gave this 6-week guitar course a good effort and can now say I have tried guitar. Back to accordion for me.

Social Psychology (Wesleyan University) - Quite a good overview of this subject, with lots of video interviews of well-known psychologists and clips from famous and infamous experiments.

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Duke University) - Logic, fallacies, evaluating deductive and inductive arguments.

How Things Work (University of Virginia) - Basic mechanics (physics) using everyday examples. I just finished this one today.

I'm kind of amazed at how long that list has gotten, just from spending some time on classes most evenings instead of watching TV.

3.5. The half is for the Shakespeare reading. Apparently my goal of reading all the plays in one year was a little ambitious, but I'm more than half finished and still going (The Merry Wives of Windsor, currently) so I know I'll get there eventually. And then on to Dickens, I think.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

John Adams, a few thoughts

Thoughts on John Adams by David McCullough:

1. It was difficult for me to get into it, more difficult than for most books. McCullough is an excellent writer, but maybe his style is a little more scholarly than what I usually pick up to relax with. I seem to remember that the same thing happened when I read his 1776. Once I got far enough, the story pulled me along and it was fine.

2. I feel like I learned a tremendous amount of history and will actually remember it pretty well now that I have Adams's life story to pin events to. I didn’t know much about his work in Europe during and after the war, or the strife between political parties during and after his presidency, and now those things are vivid.

3. McCullough uses a ton of original sources and shows Adams’s faults as well as his virtues. Adams himself knew and admitted his faults. But after reading this, I truly admire him. He was honest even when it wasn’t advantageous for him to be. He was brave enough to make hard decisions that he knew would bring criticism. Even though he wasn’t a military man, he fought for his country with the talents he had, and he gave most of his life to his country. It was poignant reading about his final years and his death.

Definitely a book worth reading. I will surely refer to it again, possibly even read it again someday.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

John Adams

I'm finally reading John Adams by David McCullough. It's been sitting on our shelf for years and I've kept meaning to start it, but (1) it's long; (2) it's nonfiction, not that I don't like nonfiction, but at the end of a long day it's not what I normally choose to relax with; (3) it's David McCullough, so the writing is intelligent and complex, so see (2) on relaxing.

A few weeks ago I decided it would be good for my character if I did something about this vague intention. I raised the stakes by setting a deadline and inviting others on a productivity website to join me (not necessarily in reading John Adams, but any challenging book). I even started reading, though I wasn't enjoying it very much. But then things got busy and before I knew it, there were two weeks left and I was only on page 78.

Math time. I figured out how many pages I'd need to read per day to meet my goal. It sounded difficult but possible, so I decided I'd go for it.

Here's the interesting part. Now that I'm reading around 40 pages per day instead of 4 or 5, the story has been easier to get into and the writing is easier to read. I'm also remembering a lot more since I'm getting whole chapters in a day instead of spreading them out over a week.

Mostly, though, I'm learning to appreciate John Adams and what an amazing person he was. I've read a little about him before, but this book is showing me how little I knew about how important he was to the United States. I've only gotten up to the part where he's helping with the treaty negotiations to end the Revolutionary War, and already he's done enough to be remembered forever, and there's still plenty of book left. When I finish -- before the deadline! -- I'll post some thoughts.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Old year, new year

Is it just me, or did 2013 go by on fast-forward? It's been a strange but good year. We've had a daughter start college and start driving (there is nothing quite like the feeling of riding in the passenger seat knowing exactly how inexperienced the driver next to you is). We've had children get older and taller and smarter. We've had the big change of my mother moving to a care center, then having the care center and its staff and residents become part of our lives as we visit. This change caused some major readjustments in our family and home as I realized how much of my time and focus had revolved around caring for and worrying about her for the past several years.

This year may bring some big changes too, but right now I'm fine with not knowing exactly what they'll be. I have plenty of ongoing goals and ways I want to improve this year, little by little. My house is slowly getting decluttered again and I need to do the same with my time. Right now, though, if I can get all the dishes washed and update the budget and cook our belated Christmas dinner, the day will be a success.