Things I Spied VI-New Ways to Learn

After a life spent as an educator, “You can take the girl out of the classroom…”, I remain committed to constantly learning. But there is no way you will ever get me back into a classroom. Not with the many alternative ways I have found to learn. And not surprisingly, they all involve my technological toys-I mean tools.

First up is Duolingo, which I prefer to use on my iPad. Learning Spanish has been an ambition since high school, where I studied French. In college, it was German, later on, Hebrew. And even a smattering of Chinese (“Lung se le” or It’s cold as death” has come in very handy at my favorite Chinese restaurant this Winter. But I digress.

Duolingo has short daily lessons, using scrambled sentences, transcription from Spanish to English and back, repetition into the microphone and picture associations for new words. A perfect score yields bonus points, as you stay “on track’ or fall off it. You can even compete with friends. And the program includes Portuguese, French, German and Italian, once I am fluent in Spanish. Chinese and Japanese are pending. I have made more progress with this approach than with any other one I have attempted. And it’s fun!

Meanwhile, John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars”, a must-read before the film debuts) has created a series of weekly World History and Literature video YouTube lessons at Crash Course. His brother, Hank covers Chemistry and Psychology. Some may find them kitschy, as he uses cartoonish graphics, and talks even more rapidly than I do, but I have been entranced by them. I particularly liked his take on the Odyssey, and Hank’s overview of the structure of the brain. John’s explanation of the history of the Ukraine and the present situation I thought was particularly brilliant.

These alternative forms of learning have real appeal for me, partly because I have lost whatever “sitzfleisch” I once had for sitting in a classroom or listening to someone lecture at length. It was probably slipping away before the advent of the constant ping of technology, but now I really need a hook of some sort to stay engaged.

I signed up for Dan Ariely’s online Coursera course on “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” and was completely taken with him as a lecturer, in 20 minute segments, and with the delivery of course material through online reading. I considered it the best course I had ever taken, for as long as I lasted. But the demands were actually so great that I “dropped” the course, alas! I tried a Coursera course, in Logic, and dropped after only one class. The prof’s tics drove me crazy, and, up close on my computer screen, were impossible to ignore. I hearkened back to a college English prof who regularly rolled up her eyes to the point where we decided she had her lecture notes written inside her eyelids. That was a required course, so dropping it was not an option. But with age and the Internet comes power!

It’s Been A Long Cold Lonely Winter

I woke Sunday morning to the sound of a bird. At first, befuddled by the time shift, I wasn’t even sure what I was hearing. It was a chirp, not a song. And it felt like years since I’d heard a bird at all.

This has been a hard winter. Lots of snow and brutal cold. But what has me bemused is that this is the way winters used to be. How quickly we are to forget!

I remember that when I went to elementary school wearing my navy blue uniform jumper, my thighs were like chunks of red meat. Knee socks warmed the lower legs, but since pants were forbidden, not much could be done elsewhere.

Buffalo used to routinely get 100 inches of snow, and you never saw the sun in February. That was the way it was, and you just accepted it. This year there were 120 inches, and counting (more expected in the next two days)and even some February sun, but it all felt just awful, as the past 8 years have been so much milder, with as little as 40 inches of the white stuff.

Last week we are got the second blizzard this year, the first time in recent memory that Buffalo has had two in a winter. Yesterday it was 50 degrees.


That’s Phil and two neighbors shoveling out in the middle of the storm. I am encouraging them from the upstairs window.



And that’s the backyard the next morning. Fortunately, we aren’t using the air conditioner (foreground) and composting will have to wait (rear).

I have friends (a few, very few) who don’t believe in climate change. I wonder what kind of evidence they need to be convinced that things are changing? I’ve never asked, because it is easier to avoid the topic and maintain our friendship. I tend to get emotional around these issues. Whoever thought that science was dry and dull? Alright, some scientists are, but the issues are riveting and intense.

I read recently that parents who don’t vaccinate their children become even less likely to vaccinate once presented with the evidence of why they should. What’s that about?

The human mind is a strange and wondrous thing. But how can we change minds, if facts are not enough?

I was excited to see the debut of the new “Cosmos” last week, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Of course he sent the creationists into spasms, and his casting light on the little known story of Giordano Bruno and his burning at the stake caused some direct attacks on Tyson. Fortunately, we don’t burn people at the stake any more, just flame them on Twitter and in blogs. But it is past time that issues of science and cold, hard facts are brought to the fore again. As Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” Looking forward to exploring the cosmos and our place in it-fortunately, “Downton Abbey” has finished for the season, so it has no competition at all.

I Want to Ride My Bicycle…

I read an article the other day in the New York Times called “End of the Road for Lance Armstrong”the preview of a book being published on Monday by Juliet Macur, titled “Cycle of Lies” about the life and times of Lance Armstrong.

While not a cyclist, I have always been fascinated by Armstrong’s story: his early triumphs, his testicular cancer and subsequent charitable contributions, the yellow bracelet, romance with Sheryl Crow, exit stage left from that romance, wins and more wins in the Tour de France, and the “scientific” studies supporting the superhuman nature of his body, leading to those wins.

I wanted to believe.

And it wasn’t just me. Somehow I think we are all wired to look for heroes, or gods, to admire capacities far beyond our own – for athletic feats, making money, piety, or brilliance. Maybe it is a means devised by evolution to keep the human race striving.

But the lengths to which Lance, and apparently most, if not all of his compatriots went, to win, astonished me. Apparently the most successful of the team soigneurs (a combination of physical therapist, masseur, and doper) was John Hendershot. He “conjured up what he called ‘weird concoctions’ of substances like ephedrine, nicotine, highly concentrated caffeine, drugs that widen blood vessels, blood thinners and testosterone, often trying to find creative ways to give a rider an extra physical boost during a race. He’d pour the mix into tiny bottles and hand them to riders at the starting line.”

He would first experiment on himself, and “Hendershot, who had no formal medical or scientific training, knew a concoction was way off when he felt his heart beating so fast and so loud, it sounded like a runaway freight train. That wouldn’t work for riders under extreme physical stress. He wanted ‘amped up,’ but not to the point of a heart attack.”

I presume that Armstrong does have unique attributes and habits that make him a great cyclist, and so whatever concoctions he was imbibing or injecting just added to that. But I also have to wonder if the testicular cancer he developed in 1996 was a result of a disposition toward it, also not shared by others, that was enhanced by all that added testosterone. Not blaming the victim, just wondering.

The second item that struck me was that “Seven years ago, he told his three children from his failed marriage — Luke, Grace and Isabelle — that they would graduate from high school while living in the house by the big oak tree. He owed them that. They had followed him from Texas to France to Spain countless times. At last they could plant some roots. ‘I promise,’ he said. ‘Dad’s not moving again.'”

That house was sold last year, and Armstrong, his new partner and his now five children decamped for Hawaii. It was sold because he lost $75 million in contracts when his doping was revealed, and stands to lose another $150 million if findings are against him in multiple lawsuits.

As a mother of three, a lesson I learned early on is, “Don’t make promises you can’t guantee keeping in the next 24 hours.” My children have long, long memories, and broken promises are never forgotten.

Even after all those successes and millions, “Life’s a bitch, Lance.”