My MOOC journey – 3

5 06 2017

Part 1   Part 2

I do take some technical, skill improving courses, which I cherish too. But I don’t take them too often. Especially not when I’m already bogged down by regular work. My areas of interest in this aspect include data science, statistics, machine learning, data analysis, visualizations…. You get the idea. I like the ones offered by John Hopkins University as part of the data Science Specialization, though I must admit that the two statistics related courses are a little too hard to follow.

Out of my fun stuff, the following are the best:
• The Science of Happiness (series of posts)
The Science of Everyday Thinking (edX)
Life of Happiness and Fulfillment
Besides being fun, these are truly life-changing and influential. I gained lot of insights from these MOOCs.

I also loved Understanding Memory: Explaining the Psychology of Memory through Movies from Wesleyan University that I have taken recently. It explained lot of memory related phenomena as portrayed in movies. It was educational and entertaining. I enjoyed this course much more than the similar course – Marriage and the Movies: A History from the same university which I took a couple of years ago. It could be because of the choice of movies or the professor.

Becoming Human: Anthropology (Open2Study) is yet another introductory course that I enjoyed a lot. This is my first serious attempt to learn about anthropology. This course has complemented my earlier isolated ventures into evolutionary theories, paleontology, biology etc. through reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Helen Fisher’s An Anatomy of Love. I absolutely loved both the books.

Intro to Psychology course from Udacity had been a wonderful experience too. Despite being content heavy, the interactivity and the engaging lectures made it worthwhile.

How much do I actually learn and retain from all these MOOCs? To be frank, not much. Especially from all those introductory fun courses I take. But they are definitely helpful and expands my thinking and general knowledge. I find that when I supplement the specific topic or area with additional reading – an interesting non-fiction book or random articles, listening to podcasts etc., I can easily make the connections and feel the synergy arising out of all the past learning experiences.

I believe that true learning involves discomfort and a little frustration. If everything seemed easy and does not require any effort, one may not be truly learning much. The journey to really learn something involves getting over that discomfort by focused studying and deliberate practice. There are no short cuts to learning. Sure, there are smart ways and right ways to learn, but none that would eliminate the process of climbing the learning curve.

The 2 courses by Barbara Oakley on learning – Learning How to Learn and Mindshift – are really ground-breaking MOOCs in many aspects and require special mention. Widely popular and immensely practical and useful, they provide lot of tips, techniques, and insights into the art of learning, thinking about careers. (How to Learn: The right way, Learning Challenges, Learning). She advocates the growth mindset in Mindshift with respect to surmounting our mental blocks as to our abilities, choosing multiple career skills etc.

How do I typically choose my MOOCs? Just through simple and plain old methods. Browsing the platform catalog and recommendations that come through email. 🙂

Which platforms do I like more? As you might have guessed already (totally evident from stats from Part 1), it’s Coursera. With numerous offerings and choices, it’s like a huge shopping mall. The mobile app is very convenient. I also like the edX platform, the way the course content is arranged in the UI. Open2study is pretty basic and it doesn’t have a mobile app.

My List of MOOCs

My Fav moocs

Image credits: Open2Study, Coursera, John Hopkins, Prevention

My MOOC journey – 2

2 06 2017

Part 1 Part 3

So, how did it all start? I don’t recall how I came to know about Coursera but I distinctly remember my exhilaration at discovering such a platform. My first MOOC was “Model Thinking” from University of Michigan. By any stretch, it’s my first taste of international academic teaching and I was thrilled. I was really impressed by how well the complex and otherwise models related to social science are explained and demonstrated. And then I took “Networked Life” offered by University of Pennsylvania and then Computing for data Analysis, an R programming course from John Hopkins. Ever since I explored lot of courses and many platforms.

Out of my over-enthusiasm, I sometimes enroll in multiple MOOCs simultaneously, which was fine in the beginning when there weren’t too many options to pick from. But these days, with the plethora of offerings available out there, one can’t risk being impulsive anymore. I need to pick and choose carefully, and also time them appropriately to accommodate my regular life’s demands so that I can enjoy the learning without getting stressed or burned out.

Focused learning is so exhausting, I really welcome the break of “no MOOC months” after a stretch of intensive courses, like the one I took in 2014 after my data science courses from John Hopkins. Also, I catch myself if I’m being over-ambitious by taking on too much and don’t hesitate to drop from the courses. Most of my unfinished courses are drop-outs rather than discontinuation due to expectations not being met.

My main motivation for going on a learning spree is more to broaden my knowledge base rather than to deep dive in any particular discipline or skill. So, I can usually manage at least a couple of light-weight MOOCs at the same time. I derive most pleasure learning about new topics- just introductory courses, without requiring much effort beyond watching the video lectures and taking the quizzes. I like it when I tend to come across same studies, theories, concepts across seemingly different disciplines. I clearly enjoy the cross-discipline synthesis a lot. For example, studies like Milgram’s prison experiment on effects of perceived power, Sheena Iyengar’s jam experiment on choice, pantyhose experiment on our hidden biases etc. have been referred to in seemingly varied disciplines like neuro-economics, philosophy, social psychology, science of happiness, scientific thinking and more.

MOOC word cloud2

So, what do I like in a MOOC? I like intelligently devised quizzes to test comprehension rather than testing the memory about specific studies or facts described in the lectures. I like them when too much content is not crammed into the slides and the course. Also, I would like enough repetition of key concepts, to ensure higher chance of comprehension and retention. I experienced such repetition in my recent course – Neuro-economics. For a person coming from a non-science background, the course introduced lot of terms and concepts, but strategic repetition of key terms (brain areas and their functions) helped me to progress through the course with more confidence. Pictures and animation definitely help. Cheerful professors and lively and engaging discourses also get me more involved. However, “too upbeat” kind of makes me uncomfortable. But it’s just a personal preference.


My MOOC journey – 1

31 05 2017

Part 2    Part 3

MOOCs have revolutionized learning in true sense. Though the true origins of MOOCs can be traced back to distance learning, they have undoubtedly gained wide popularity with the advent of Internet and other associated technologies. Ever since the inception of Coursera in 2012, they have become widespread and they have been in vogue ever since. And why not? It’s truly praiseworthy and remarkable that renowned educational institutions and pioneers in various fields have come forward to impart the knowledge and skills to everyone surpassing all boundaries. Several MOOC platforms sprang up offering completely free courses, while simultaneously adding more and more disciplines and courses.  And most of the MOOCs are still free, and at least let you audit for free. MOOCs have brought world-class teaching and material to the doorstep of anyone who can afford a network connection.

Coursera has started out as everything free, and later  introduced optional pay for verified certificate for most courses. And now, many of them are strictly pay courses, while some of them allow one to audit for free. Udacity was the first platform which introduced paid courses and nanodegrees designed by tech giants like Google etc. Likewise, statements of accomplishments were offered on successful completion of all free courses in the beginning, but not so much these days. However, most paid versions of MOOCs have affordable pricing, which provide authentic verified certificates.

Class-central, an aggregator of MOOCs across all platforms and universities, and provides a one stop place to find and track your interests and enrollments. It also provides helpful recommendations and articles based on popularity and student feedback. It is so easy to get lost in the ocean of MOOCs offered. And for beginners, it’s a very good avenue to start looking to get the sense of what courses are available out there.

For obsessive learners like me, MOOCs have proved to be a boon. I took courses from several platforms including

  • Coursera
  • Edx
  • Open 2 Study
  • Udacity

These platforms provide such a wide variety of courses, ranging from simple, introductory ones to more advanced courses as well. When I browse the ever expanding catalogs, I feel like a kid in the candy shop. 😛 I have completed over 30 MOOCs so far, but I’m not by any means a super MOOCer. This is over a period of about 5 years, so it’s not bad. 😉


These are just the boring statistics. Stay tuned for the interesting reflection on my motivations, MOOC highs and lows, challenges, and more in the subsequent posts. 🙂

The Buddhist diagnosis

17 05 2017

The world is full of suffering. Each one of us perpetually move from one or more problems to others. When one problem or form of suffering ends, the other springs up, seemingly from nowhere. The first noble truth of Buddha acknowledges this reality of existence. Despite the reality of pleasures, it is the suffering that precedes or follows pleasures and seems to occupy a major portion of one’s conscious life. The diagnosis of this pervasive suffering as proclaimed by the second noble truth of Buddha is our desire and attachment for worldly pleasures. Our craving and clinging towards myriad pleasures is at the root of all misery, asserts Buddha. I can relate to this fact and experience it all the time.  Often my desire to seek validation results in me putting too much effort into anything I do making me stressful and ultimately miserable despite my material success. My desire and attachment towards nice clothes, accessories or other material things, even though gives me a transient euphoria upon accumulation and perusal of them, puts me on a hedonic treadmill and often leaves me unsatisfied and craving for more. This aligns with the essence of Buddha’s teachings that the “pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst”. (Basics of Buddhism.

However, when I think deeper about different forms of suffering, the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering seems to beg a deeper understanding. There are other kinds of unpleasantness in life besides acute suffering, like getting frustrated, annoyed, and irritated by someone or something that doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. As we judge others based on our opinions and perceptions, we experience negativity. This intolerance is also a cause of lot of rift in our day to day life.

But when we question these emotions, we may come to a conclusion that it’s our ego and attachment towards things and pleasures that drive our underlying expectations. But it’s not always clear to me, to fathom the root cause – desire, attachment, craving – behind all of my unpleasant experiences. For example, when I get irritated by an impatient driver cutting in front of me, it is a form of suffering if I dwell on it and allow it to affect my composure. When I really think about why it affects me, it’s not entirely evident as to what desire or craving resulted in this misery. In this regard, I’m not entirely sure about the comprehensiveness of Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering.

Poverty and other forms of lack of basic needs (including social and belonging-ness needs), also cause lot of suffering for mankind. It is difficult to understand how this form of suffering can be a result of one’s craving. Even more difficult is to comprehend how it is possible to be detached at this level and transcend these basic needs.

Despite these misgivings on my part, I believe in the second noble truth because when I imagine myself curbing my cravings and desires, I can sense the promise of feeling lightness and freedom from my many sufferings. In order to comprehend these not so obvious forms of suffering and their root causes, we need to understand the true nature of suffering or “dukkha”, which simply means absence of happiness. Since happiness and pleasure are associated with impermanence, the absence of them aka dukkha is the only reality of life. And ego-desires are the cause of most human suffering. However, suffering is only an approximate translation of dukkha, which in fact encapsulates the misery of mankind in a more comprehensive way. Dukkha can be interpreted as a form on pervasive unsatisfactoriness. In this regard, Buddhism promotes a state of mental well-being that can be achieved by accepting and rising above this suffering. Understanding and acknowledging the diagnosis of dukkha is a key step in this journey.  (The Buddhist Concept of Life, Suffering and Death, and Related Bioethical Issues. Pinit Ratanakul. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.)

Disclaimer: This writeup is my submission for an assignment as part of Buddhism and Modern Psychology MOOC on Coursera. 

Four noble truths

Digital dump

20 03 2017

We are in a data explosion era. No surprise there. Unprecedented amount of data is being captured virtually about everything everywhere. Each day we are leaving a detailed digital footprint across the web and through several other applications and connections. Apart from the Internet, myriad gadgets and software applications, each one of us is also accumulating huge amounts of personal data. It’s all over. Filling the hard drives of the multiple computers we work with, storage on smartphones and tablets, and cloud storage services like Google Drive, One Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, Box etc. Not to mention external hard drives and pen drives.

The moment of truth finally struck me as yet another of my cloud storage accounts has reached its limit and refrained me from editing. I could have paid for increasing the storage space, but that’s not the point here. I have several online accounts that I leverage for cloud storage and almost all of them are full – with pictures, videos, documents, and music. Lots of them. And it never seems to end. This hoarding.  I periodically take backups of the contents of my laptop and store them in an external hard drive. I’m not sure how much of it is repeated and how many times. I collect articles, documents, books, my personal projects forever in progress, learning material, notes and many more. And all this outside of what’s in my email inboxes.

Why keep it all in the first place?  Preserving history. You never know what part of your past you might want to look at in future for reminiscing or what part of your past might hold a key to your present or future problems. Or so we rationalize. Storage is cheap. So, we store. Almost everything. Creating a huge digital dump.

Do I always know what all I already have? Not really. Oftentimes I can’t even remember the number of accounts and storage devices I have, let alone the contents of each. Even if I remember that I had something stored safely, often I can’t find or get to it efficiently. This is not just a simple “organization” issue. Though of course, it helps. The sheer scale of the data one gathers makes any attempt of periodically cataloging and maintaining the data dumps appear insurmountable. Even more so because cleaning up and organizing stuff is perhaps one of the least appealing tasks one can do. (Please note that here here I’m speaking more of myself than anyone else 🙂 ) Especially because one has to do it regularly to maintain.

When I started thinking about digital hoarding, I immediately saw that the minimalist approach that we (some of us) try to apply to our physical possessions can be extended to even these virtual possessions.  With physical objects, you can at least get a sense of magnitude by virtue of the physical space they occupy, the amount of money you expend on accumulating them, and the resulting impact on quality of life. But with digital hoarding, it’s difficult to get the head around the extent of your possessions beyond a point. And the fact that the costs are minimum doesn’t help either.

But one may argue that if the costs are minor, why bother. Valid point. But I believe that there are hidden costs. Most of the data just lays there, dormant, waiting, and completely ignored. Passwords forgotten and accounts seldom logged in, DVDs/CDs gathering dust etc. If all that data could think, it might have had some serious existential questions. 😛 . This massive amount of digital data – where does it eventually go? What happens to it? If it’s in the cloud, privacy is definitely a concern. As for the physical storage devices, they create clutter and have some of the downsides of other physical possessions; harder to maintain and difficult to find and retrieve information.

Of course, as with physical possessions, it would be very difficult to let go of your digital history. Especially, pictures. But do you really need all of those tens of thousands of pictures? Anyways, one has to start somewhere while pruning. The easiest task would be to eliminate duplicates. Then tackle obsolete notes and documents. Movies and old music that you seldom peruse can be next. Consolidating, grouping, and labeling help a lot to bring structure to your digital universe.

It’s not about the quantity, but the quality. My guess is that when you tackle the former, the latter will emerge by itself. When you have low inventory, finding stuff and maintenance will be more efficient. There is definitely hope. I hereby avow to embark on the journey to transform my personal digital footprint (at least what’s under my control).

Women’s Day

8 03 2017

Today is International Women’s Day. To be truthful, I have little knowledge of what exactly that signifies. I can speculate and draw inferences though from other “Days”.

We have Mother’s day, Father’s day and Valentines’ Day. On those days we express our gratitude and appreciation for those special people in our lives. Usually there is one each. One mother, one father, and one valentine (hopefully). On a side note, I don’t understand why kids in US exchange valentines’ day cards and treats in school. To be truthful, given my Asian heritage, even the concept of Mother’s day and Father’s Day sounded very absurd at first. I see it as a distinctly western concept. But I eventually came to realize the purpose of it. The culture has spread everywhere. I reckon there is also Grandparents’ Day. And many others I would imagine.

And then we have other types of days – Earth Day, Aids day etc.. These actually represent a cause, are intended to raise awareness, and propel people to take some kind of action. For example, save energy on Earth day by switching off electricity for an hour.

So, what kind of day is “Women’s Day”? Who should celebrate it? Who should be celebrated? Should men celebrate the women in their lives or  should everyone, irrespective of their gender, express their appreciation for women in their lives? All women? Special women? Should women celebrate themselves? For what? For being women? Why? All I observe around is the hullabaloo in the media and women wishing each other or taking time out to chill out. Our men are generally quiet. 🙂 I would think women’s day belongs to the latter category – the one that represents a cause, rather than the former – a celebration of the subject in consideration.

I figured from a rudimentary web search that my hunch is indeed right . International Women’s Day is not the celebration of women themselves but rather of their achievements. It calls for gender parity. For centuries women had been underprivileged and it’s only recently that they have started penetrating and making strides in all possible spheres – economic, cultural, social, political etc.

I don’t mean to discount the women or the day. I just want to highlight that it’s important to truly understand the significance of the moment and feel the spirit of the day, not just be taken for a ride by commercialism, media, and just wishes.

I hope every woman pauses today for a moment to cherish and take inspiration from all the achievements of herself and other women around her. I hope everyone else take a moment to acknowledge the women’s progress so far and the journey ahead to achieve true gender parity.

Kudos to all the wonderful woman achievers. A couple of mentions here off the top of my head:

  • Just finished listening to Angela Duckworth’s Grit this morning. I appreciate her contribution, as a research scientist, to the body of knowledge. Her work on passion and perseverance is influential.
  • I should mention that I work for a company led by a woman. I appreciate and draw inspiration from all the wonderful women who are part of the organization.

Happy Women’s Day! 🙂

Wardrobe routine

22 02 2017

One day: Wow, look at all these amazing pieces of clothing and accessories I have. I can wear this or this or that one today. Looks like I have a whole range of stuff to wear for days coming. I don’t have to shop for at least a few years. I have more than enough. I feel blessed!

Another day: What can I wear today: to suit my mood, weather, depending on level and nature of social interaction anticipated during the day, to go with the new set of accessories I absolutely have to wear today, something I haven’t donned on in at least the last 2 weeks, a different color and style from the ones I wore over the past few days, …. This wardrobe is useless. I can’t find anything suitable. Damn!