Bits and stuff: cathedrals and more… December 10, 2017

If any of you have ever taken a mooc (massive open online course), you’ll know the compelling power of having good quality teaching of a vast range of subjects at just a couple of clicks away. Access to that kind of wealth is intoxicating, and can be the black hole of time management. A couple of years ago I was a total addict, at one point enrolled in about 15, from institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, University of Edinburgh…

Needless to say, I didn’t complete them all, but I did get through a fair number. Most of my choices were in programming, economics and finance, but, surprisingly, the ones I enjoyed the most (and most remember) were the ones from “left field”, nothing to do with my training or profession. I especially recommend “How to Change the World” from Wesleyan, and “Digital Education” from the University of Edinburgh, if they ever put them on again.

I bring this up because today I started a new one, the first mooc I’ve felt brave enough to sign up for since I started work at CoinDesk. By “brave”, I mean willing to struggle with the time management issues – there are only so many hours in the day, and many things take priority over scratching a curiosity itch, however enlightening it may be. In so doing, I realized how much I missed scratching that curiosity itch, and how much more interesting the world is when we have the luxury of doing so. Also, how intertwined different disciplines are, and how big pictures emerge through seemingly unrelated connections.

The course I’ve started is “Cathedrals”, from Yale University, available on Coursera. I’m not religious, I’ve never been particularly fascinated with cathedrals before, but I’m married to someone who is and I’ve wandered around more than I can count.

So why did I sign up? I didn’t know at the time – it just felt like something that I needed to do. But now that I’ve started, I realize why: it’s the desire for context. Just two chapters in, it’s already about engineering, history, religion and philosophy. And already it’s tying in to reading I’ve been doing about economic development and how money evolved.

I’ve also realized that it’s one thing to gape in awe at the beauty and splendour of gothic structures. It’s another to understand how they came to be, what purpose they served and why so many are still standing today, centuries later.

So, while a course on cathedrals may sound fusty, it’s not. It’s modern and eye-opening, and I’m loving it.

notre dame

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The course also taught me a new word: cephalophore. It means “saint carrying his own head”. I challenge you to use that in a sentence.

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Angela Walch (@angela_walch) is serialising an update of The Christmas Carol, faithful to the original style but with modern characters and a moral that is disconcertingly not too different from the original.

Parts 1 & 2 here.

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Sticking with the cathedrals theme, take a look at this installation of stained glass “ribbons” in a San Francisco cathedral… Magical.

stained glass ribbons

(Installation by Anne Patterson, image by Fiestaban Photography, via MyModernMet)


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