Learning how to Learn, a MOOC course

I really enjoy doing online courses.  Not only because a new course will stretch my brain, but also because of the freedom of an online course.  It suits my lifestyle, I am not bound to certain hours in which I have to go to class or have to study, I can totally work it around my day-to-day tasks.  Currently I am finishing a MOOC course on the website www.coursera.org called Learning How to Learn : Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski.

The book A mind for Numbers : How to excel in Math and Science by Barbara Oakley, is referred to during this course.  And no, the course is definitely not specifically focused on maths and science.  I personally wouldn’t have taken the course if it was only intended for maths and science students.

The course teaches you how to engage your brain while learning, chunking ideas, procrastination and how to prevent it, memory tips, learning and many more learning ideas!

The brain has always fascinated me, not only because it is such a wonderful creation, but it can contain so much information – recent and much older information.  The course starts off telling you about the brain in focus mode versus diffuse mode and how these modes are important for learning and creating.  Apparently everyone frequently switches between these modes in their normal day-to-day activities.

The focused mode of your brain would be exactly that – focused on something specific. The diffuse mode would be a wider perspective and would be useful when learning something new.  One of the examples given in the course of creative people who tapped into the diffuse mode refers to the artist Salvador Dalí, originally from Figueres, Spain.  It tells of how he would have used the diffused mode to create some of his masterpieces.  Dalí was well-known for his surrealistic art.  According to the Free Dictionary online surrealism ‘is a 20th century literary and artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious and is characterised by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition (absurd combination) of subject matter’.

So a technique Dalí (and others) used to tap into the diffuse mode of the brain, and which is also explained in this course (and written about in the book) is how he would put a tin plate on the floor and then take a nap holding an object over the plate.  The moment he started falling asleep the object would clatter in the tin plate and he would wake up ready to tap into his diffuse mode (subconscious) and create surreal images.  On a recent holiday to Spain we actually saw his museum in Figueres where you can view many curiosities of Dalí’s amazing imagination.



Of his museum he said:  “I want the museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object.  It will be a totally theatrical museum.  The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.”  Not sure if it was like a theatrical dream when we visited, but it certainly was surreal.


The face of Mae West when viewed from a certain spot in the museum.

So as I understand your diffuse mode (or the unconscious) is constantly at work in the background of your brain, even if you struggle with something hard, it will keep working.

Ideas how to stimulate your diffuse mode according to A Mind for Numbers is to go to the gym, swim, dance, draw, take a bath, listen to music (especially without words), pray, sleep and many more.  Sleep apparently is the most effective in allowing your diffuse mode to tackle a difficult problem.  But it is not only using the diffuse mode that gets your thoughts going, it is the back and forth between the two modes that eventually helps you.  I suppose it comes down to this.  The two modes cannot work successfully on their own.  When your brain is in the focused mode, so if you are focusing on something intently, you do need to relax your brain (thus diffuse mode) after a while for the ultimate benefit.  Especially when learning new or tricky things.  It is therefore extremely necessary to use both the focused and diffuse modes and teach yourself to work between the two modes.

Another aspect of the course I was intrigued by is the chunking of information or to create chunks.  This is the grouping together of words/ideas so that they are seen as one.  In this course Dr Oakley talks about chunks as being ‘pieces of information that are bound together through meaning’.

So once you have chunked an idea or concept, you don’t need to remember all the little underlying details because you have got the main idea, or the chunk, and that is enough.  It is like getting dressed in the morning.  You usually have one thought – I’ll get dressed.  But there are numerous actions and activities that need to take place by this simple thought.

The course goes into a lot of detail how to take certain steps in how to chunk effectively.  Personally I think it boils down to first of all understanding the problem and then keep recalling it until you know the fact/problem/solution so well that it is set into your memory and you can just use this ‘chunk’ of information in different situations as you need it and it doesn’t take up lots of brainpower to recall.

Memory and tips for learning was another part of the course which I found extremely interesting.  I suppose as you get older you don’t just accept memory as part of life, but you focus on memory a bit more, because like your body needs physical exercise to stay healthy, your brain also needs exercise.

Now I realise in the course the focus is on students who need to learn material, but you can apply it in normal life as well.  For instance if you want to remember things like somebody’s name or telephone number you can use the same techniques.  Repeat the name/number, do something else and repeat again.  After a day or so try to repeat it again and see how much you can still remember.  Or if it is something really hard or longer to remember, built a memory palace.  The palace part is a place you know well, like the lay-out of your house.  Use the letters of whatever it is you need to remember and built a story in the place you know well.  Walk the story through the rooms of your house.  The more weird and wonderful the more chance of you remembering it.

And yes it sounds like a great deal of trouble to go through for something to remember, but seriously you will remember this far longer than when you just repeat it a few times.   You have to build a knowledge base over time, steadily, and with plenty of practise to make it to your warehouse of long-term memory where your neural pattern can easily access it when you need it.

I found it a fascinating course!


CeLLo cEllO CellO

I started playing the cello when I was already in my forties.  And every time before an exam or concert I am just shaking with nerves.  This is ludicrous I tell myself then.  I am only doing this because I have always loved music and wanted to try and play another musical instrument to widen my own musical horizons and challenge myself, push myself that I don’t become lazy and scared of challenges.  There is no competition with anyone else playing the cello.  Rather the opposite because I am more than double the age of most of the other students who study at the Music School.  They are mostly in school still.

So then my pep talk starts again….I am seriously doing this for fun as well.  But to push myself to practise and to get better, because ultimately it is about playing better and getting a better sound  from the cello, I do these exams and performances where possible.  And I am not talking about Carnegie Hall-performances (well if they came up I might consider), I am talking about playing at different Church Christmas Services (so with many other people playing at the same time, not talking about everyone singing!), school concerts and at these pre-exam-get-togethers just to play in front of the other students….those kind of thing!

The exams are stressful, that is true.  But I suppose your steel has to come out some way, you can’t only do things which you are not scared of where there is no fear, which is within your own boundaries…you have to push yourself I always tell myself…. because  otherwise  you’ll die being a wimp, die wondering why did I never try.  And that is one thing I never want to be – somebody who never tried.  At least on my grave stone they can write – she tried her hand on the cello, she wasn’t the best, but hey she had fun and could pull a few party songs out of the bag!

But to practise for this dreaded exam I am almost a cello-zombie.  I drink, eat and sleep cello.  And in my mind that is ridiculous!  Seriously.  It feels if all my grey matter has been transferred to the cello, I cannot think about doing any other creative thing.  And to be creative  is something I need to survive.  It relaxes and focuses me, so I need urgent creative therapy….

But tomorrow is D-day, so maybe after the exam my other creative sides can come alive again.


Keep Sinterklaas and his helper – Zwarte Piet

As a child I loved the Sinterklaas celebrations we had at the beginning of  December.  Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (St Nicholas and Black Pete) were a highlight of my year.   I suppose it was mainly because it is a celebration for children –  toys, sweets and ginger biscuits (pepernoten), children being the centre of a festival!  What more can a child ask for?  But now it seems that Sinterklaas and especially Zwarte Piet are in a bit of a pickle …..


Before I explain why let me give you some background about this festival. Although I grew up in South Africa, my parents taught us the Dutch traditions and culture they grew up with, so Sinterklaas was one of them.  Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands when Sinterklaas and his entourage arrive on a steamboat from Spain (Belgium celebrate it on Dec 6th).  His helpers are called Zwarte Piete (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet would check if you were a good child and did what your parents told you.  If not you wouldn’t get any presents, if you were good you were rewarded with sweets, toys and chocolate.  So from Sinterklaas emerged Santa Claus, and not the other way around.

Maybe when my mom and dad grew up in the Netherlands (1940’s) Zwarte Piet was depicted as a more scary character who would beat the naughty children with a bunch of twigs.  These days Zwarte Piet is mainly characterised as a clown or entertainer I think.  And yes he or she is always painted black.

As children we were told that Sinterklaas was a very good man.  He gave all his money to the poor and loved children very much.  This I believe is based on the Saint Nicholas who was born in the fourth century somewhere around Turkey and whose parents raised him to be a devout Christian.  He was also very religious from an early age and devoted his life to the poor.  He used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering.  Eventually he became a Greek Bishop and dedicated his life to serving God.  Bishop Nicholas became known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships.  He died on December 6th 343 AD.

And now for the dilemma …. A UN working group is currently investigating this Dutch custom where white people dress up as Zwarte Piet, with the leader of the group, a Jamaican Academic, Verene Shepherd, condemning it as “a throw-back to slavery”.  Now the Netherlands is one of only a handful of countries who strife very hard to be a country of inclusion, of integration and combating racism and discrimination in every part of life.  So surely they should be able to sort this out amongst themselves – if it is a problem?

Over the weekend I also read an article in the Irish Times written by Donald Clarke where he mentioned that Dutch people were ‘blacking up’ for Christmas.   The writer is really off the mark. In the first place Sinterklaas and Christmas are actually two totally separate events.   The one has nothing to do with the other.  Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piete is a children’s festival where everyone gets toys, sweets and cakes if they were good.  Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.   Surely it can’t be that hard for the writer to establish certain facts before putting a column together?   Zwarte Piet is definitely not to offend.  It is a custom, a tradition, a festival.  On  social network there  is a petition (Pietition) where the ‘likes’ to keep the Sinterklaas-festival featuring  Zwarte Piet are already over 2 million.

So why all the commotion?  Does the blackness of Zwarte Piet make the tradition racist?  Are we not becoming a bit too sensitive here?  This is a tradition and a debate for the Dutch people to handle, not for some working group to decide, a group who might have no idea what the culture involves or is about.  Even if the Dutch decide that Zwarte Piet must be in all the colours of the rainbow, won’t  it just be so sad to crush a tradition just because we are thinking RACIST in capital letters.  Do we need working groups  to decide about all the different traditions  just in case something is too racist, too sexist, too chauvinistic, too blasphemous, too violent, and so forth?  Imagine a world where all traditions and cultures were revised to make sure nobody’s feelings got hurt!  A bland little world to keep everyone happy with no spices to make different cultures stand out and keep us excited and interested in other nations, to learn about other cultures and respect them.

I for one hope that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive safely on December 5th in the Netherlands and that this tradition will live on!


Thank you Dad!

Today is Father’s Day in Ireland, and perhaps in many other countries too.  My dad never really found it important to celebrate these special days for moms or dads.  He felt every day had to be special and important!

He passed away some years ago and I have a storeroom of wonderful memories which I’ll carry with me for the rest of the my life.

So with that in mind….

“Dear Dad

Once when I was little I cried because I fell of my bicycle.  You held me close and kissed my tears away until I was smiling again. 

When I grew older and had a broken heart  the compassion in your eyes was more than any words could say, showing your love by just being there for me.

You lived with a real joie de vivre.  You didn’t waste time,  not while I knew you anyway.  You were always busy, at work and with you family and friends.  You played with us, cycled with us, swam with us, picnicked with us, camped with us, made sand castles with us…..  You did everything one hundred percent.   And if you had a spare moment you would read.

You didn’t drink coffee, although as you mellowed in age one cup every now and then was acceptable.  And you enjoyed good food, especially made by mom. 

You were a man of principles and a man of real faith.  I really admire that now.  Maybe as a teenager I didn’t because I wanted to do the same things, wear the same things, say the same things as all those other teenagers, just to be cool .  I didn’t want to stand out and be different.  In the end it didn’t really matter.  And you knew that.  It wasn’t about being popular or wearing the same trendy stuff as the next one, or going to the same party as the rest.  I was never about that, was it?

You loved your wife dearly. 

And you loved  your five children equally.  I suppose that fairness shined through your whole life.  You had this wonderful gift to accept everyone as an equal.  It didn’t matter what their colour was, if they were rich or poor, if they were an intellectual or illiterate.  In your eyes they were all human beings made in the image of God.

We did have our disagreements, I admit.  You were very strong willed and I am as well, I know.

But you were also extremely patient, especially when it came to explaining maths and science.  Before my final exams at school you explained for hours on end about the various forms of energy and the interactions between atoms and molecules.  Not sure if I understood it all then or even now, but the precious time – sometimes till deep in the night – we spent studying and talking about life I will hold dear to my heart forever.

Thank you for being my dad.




miss- and love-lists…..

The weather in Ireland has been very disappointing this year …. yes it is the middle of May and temperatures are not where they are supposed to be.  We are in spring, some say it is already summer….and we are still wearing winter clothes!   It can be very depressing indeed.

I have lived in Ireland now for more than 12 years and the weather is definitely not a reason why one would move here.

Recently I made two lists.  One list of what I miss about the country I left behind,  South Africa, and another one what I love about living in my adopted country Ireland.


–       No surprises what tops my list – the weather, the climate.  Winter is just toooooo long here and I can never wait to get outside.  The sad thing is, sometimes it looks wonderfully sunny outside, but unfortunately it is never as warm outside as I anticipated.

–       Walking bare feet, it is just too cold and I might do it for a few weeks in July or August, but that’s about it.

–       To confront and talk honestly is hard to do here.  I think the Irish in general are wired differently and prefer to keep quiet or sidestep an issue rather than to talk about it.  Maybe it is the Dutch blood running in my veins, but they don’t like it if you speak your mind.

–       White and not grey sand on the beaches and big frothy waves to swim in.

–       The vibrant creative mood you find in many parts of South Africa.

–       A South African magazine for women – Die Sarie.  I haven’t found an equal.

–       Most of all my mom, sisters and brother, you just sometimes yearn for a good old natter with those who have known you from the start,  in your own language, and just to be totally yourself, like only they know you.



–          Beautiful Eire filled with character and steeped in history.  Look at the amazing cathedrals and castles, ruins and stone walls all over the place, it takes your breath away.

–          The peaceful way of life in rural Ireland.

–          The new green leaves on the trees in April/May and coming from a country where the grass is often yellow and brown the greenness of the country is beautiful.

–          The love for children Irish people generally have and are not afraid to show.  It is a great country to bring up children.

–          The trustworthiness of people.  It has happened a few times that I forgot to lock my front door going away for the morning (even a weekend once) and everything was still in order coming back.

–          To be able to travel relatively cheaply to other interesting European countries, what a privilege.

–          To make Elderflower cordial with my son at the end of May (hopefully it will happen this year, because the sun has been really shy so far….).

–          That it stays light for so long during the summer days – absolutely love that!

–          Indoor heating and to have the stove burning, even in the summer.


I can continue for a while, but it might get a bit tedious.

I read a book some years ago about an Australian journalist who moved to France and her toils and troubles of being so non-French, no matter what she did or how she tried to become more French, she was always the outsider.  In the book she tells how she was constantly surprised about the differences between the two cultures which she sometimes just couldn’t figure out, even though she had been living in France for about ten years.

And I have to admit I also have that.  Just when I think I understand  the Irish, the culture and society, then I have it totally wrong.  I will never be Irish.  Not only do you have to be born here, but you also need to be educated here and know this nation’s history, have the culture and background to be so Irish, which is probably correct for every nation.  Although I would dare to say that exposure to many cultures from a young age will definitely help in accepting and understanding other cultures.

Luckily (I am sure opinions differ here)  this island has seen an amazing influx of non-Irish people settling here which really helps making it more cosmopolitan and acceptable of others.  And with this I am not saying that it is not important for a country to have an identity and in this case to be Irish and to hold on to that, but it is the inclusiveness that is elusive for non-Irish.  And it works both ways, respect the culture of your adoptive country, but stay true to your own roots.

For outsiders it’s a bit like being a woman in a man’s world – as a non-Irish you have to work twice as hard in an Irish society, or non-Dutch in a Dutch society.

And I am not complaining, not looking for sympathy votes, it is just how it is.


Quiche lovely quiche

I love making Quiche.

I love the fact that it is so easy and soooo yummy and when you have run out of ideas what to cook a Quiche can easily become a full meal.  Just add some fresh bread or baked potatoes and a big green salad!  And most people love it!

Quiche apparently originated in Germany (kuchen means cake) but it is known as a classic French dish and today regarded as typically French.  But even the English used savoury custards in pastry as early as the 14th century!  So it seems many nations enjoy this and it can’t really be ‘claimed’ by anyone.

And indeed when you bake a Quiche it is very easy to create your own with a filling  of your own choice or whatever it is that puts your stamp on it!

Quiche Lorraine is probably the most popular variant of the Quiche.  I think the French indeed call it Lorraine.  And apparently cheese wasn’t one of the initial ingredients, it was only added later.  I really like to use Gruyère cheese because of its distinctive taste, but that is very personal.

Interestingly in France the Lorraine version is different to the one served in the United States.  The bacon is cubed, (in the States it is sliced), no onions are added and the custard base is thicker.  Well, I think it is whatever you are used to and your personal liking.  It is also nice to make something different!

So the making of a Quiche usually has three parts – crust, filling and your savoury custard.  This is my version:

I usually make a short crust for the pastry.  When making this crust everything should be as cold as possible.  In Ireland this is usually not such a big problem, but in warmer countries it might be… Also don’t overwork the pastry.  You want it light and crispy.  Sometimes I add a bit of mustard powder or some dried herbs in the dough just to give it a rustic flavour. You could also add some grated cheese to the dough to make the crust cheesy.

200 g (335 ml) flour

Pinch of salt

100 g (100 ml) butter

45-60 ml ice water

Work the butter through the flour and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.  You can use a food processor doing this, I just use my fingers.  Then add the water little by little until the dough just starts to come together.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead a few seconds until it is smooth.

Put some cling wrap around it and let it rest in the fridge for between 30 and 60 minutes.

Line a Quiche tin (flan tin – about 22cm) with the pastry and first bake the crust for about 10-15 minutes at 180C (gas mark 5/6) with baking beans or dried beans in it.  If you don’t prebake the crust it becomes soggy.  Mark my words, I have tried both ways!!

Then the filling.  I use bacon cut into pieces as well as some spring onions cut into slices which I fry together for a few minutes.

For the custard:

2 eggs

125 ml cream

125 ml milk

2 ml salt

Pinch of red pepper

Pinch of mustard powder

Mix the above ingredients all together.

Put the bacon-filling in the crust and pour the custard over it.  Grate some cheese (cheddar or Gruyère) on top and bake for about  30 minutes until the cheese has coloured nicely and the custard is softly set, it mustn’t be too firm.

Let it cool a bit before you cut it, although it is also lovely to eat when it is cold, if there is anything left…




More than 500 years later….

Isn’t it fascinating how the remains of a king of more than 500 years ago can turn up in a parking lot?  Must be one of the most significant finds in archaeological history – certainly in the British archaeological history.

I think it is amazing how archaeologists have traced a friary where King Richard III was rumoured to have been buried, and which now lies beneath a car park in the town of Leicester, England.  Then they made sure the remains were indeed those of the missing king by having DNA tests done on some living descendants.  Well there was also the curved spine of the skeleton and its ten battle-related injuries to take into account.

According to history Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was only 32 years old when he died.  He was also only two years King of England, from 1483 until his death in 1485.  After his brother, Edward IV, died Richard was ‘Lord Protector’ of the realm for Edward’s son and successor, the 12-year old Kind Edward V, who was still a minor so he needed a Protector.  Before the young king could be crowned, his father, Edward IV’s marriage to his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was declared invalid, making the children illegitimate and not entitled for the throne.  That made the brother, Richard III, the king.  Apparently the princes were not seen in public after August 1483 and there were rumours that the boys had been murdered on their uncle’s orders.  But will we ever know the truth?

There is also Shakespeare’s play about Richard III – King Richard the Third, portrayed also by the famous British actor, director and producer Laurence Olivier.  Will this historical find make actors decide to play King Richard less of a villain, less of an outrageous king?  I doubt it.  The fact that Richard III’s remains were found doesn’t change the picture of him in the Shakespeare play.  Also Shakespeare was a dramatist, not a historian, so his play is not based on facts.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard III is severly deformed, as the character Richard, Duke of Gloucester describes it in the opening scene:

I- that am curtail’s of this fair proportion.

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-“ etc

…you almost feel sorry for him!

But not.

The play, believed to have been written in approximately 1592, depicts  Richard’s jealousy and ambition.  He plots to get his hands on the crown no matter what and succeeds – with consequences.

With this find however, I do believe search engines will work overtime with interest in King Richard III, in Leicester, in England, in Shakespeare and everything else related to this.

And maybe he’ll get a belated state funeral, over five centuries late.