Free online distance learning courses

8 02 2013
Back and already hard at work!

Back and already hard at work! (Photo credit: clemsonunivlibrary)

I recently came across the Coursera website and was amazed at the quality of the resources available for free.  Through this site you can enrol on free online distance learning courses on a massive range of topics from some of the top universities from all over the world.


Only one of the courses on which I have enrolled  has started so far, but the quality is really impressive.  Aside from the excellent learning resources, the tutors are regularly on hand to answer questions and the course community as a whole is very active in both the discussion forums and the course wiki.


As I have said, there is a really wide range of topics, including computer programming, equine nutrition, aboriginal world views, academic writing, maths, history, economics and business management.  Participating institutions include the University of Edinburgh, University of California, Stanford University, University of Toronto, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Michigan and Princeton University, to name but a few.


It’s all free and definitely worth a look!



Summer Solstice and Midsummer

21 06 2011

So, the summer solstice falls today. The summer solstice and Midsummer’s Day mean different things to a lot of different people. What do they mean to you?


  • The word solstice comes from the Latin sol, meaning sun and sistere, to stand still.
  • The solstice is an instant in time. This year it takes place at 17:16 on the 21 June in the Northern Hemisphere and at 05:30 on the 22 December in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • The day on which the summer solstice takes is often referred to as Midsummer’s Day.
  • According to Wikipedia, the summer solstice occurs “when the Earth’s and the moon’s axial tilt is most inclined towards the sun, at its maximum of 23° 26′.”
  • Midsummer’s Day falls after the summer solstice on the 24 June.


On a personal level, I don’t hold any particular religious beliefs about Midsummer or the solstice. What I feel is a strong tie to generations of ancestors who did and a sense of loss that those beliefs and traditions are all but gone. I feel sad that people of my grandparents’ generation could remember people who retained some of the old beliefs and traditions and that now that is gone.

I feel that we live in a cynical age. As our world-view has widened and media and digital trickery have become more sophisticated, we have taught ourselves look at everything with suspicion and to believe in very little.

Believing in something is not necessarily the same as believing that it is literally true. It strikes me that, in these days of celebrity and reality TV, people are searching for truth and are constantly disillusioned. This creates a pervasive sense of cynicism and distrust.

The traditions, rituals and customs surrounding a religion or belief-system are not, themselves, the belief. They are a vessel for teaching, learning and celebrating it. It doesn’t matter whether the event being celebrated is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. It doesn’t matter whether Christmas was Jesus’ actual birthday; it doesn’t matter whether witches can really turn into hares and run away across the moors. What matters is that we share in the rituals. They give us stability, they make sense of the non-sensical, they remind us of our place in the world and why we live the way we do. We take the time to celebrate, to spend time together, to remember what our spiritual figurehead(s) taught us.

In this, we have lost something. We have spent so much time questioning whether our god(s) is/are real or not and trying to prove or dis-prove his/her/their existence that we have forgotten to have faith in the way we live. Faith need not be in the literal truth of every fable, legend, scripture, but in the moral code we learn from them.


According to British Popular Customs Present And Past – Customs, practices & rituals from the traditions & folklore of the British Isles:


On this eve people were in former times accustomed to go into the woods, and break down branches of the trees, which they brought to their homes, and planted over their doors, amidst great demonstrations of joy, to make good the scrip­ture prophecy respecting the Baptist, that many should re­joice in his birth. This custom was at one time universal in England. —Book of Days, vol. i. p. 815.

It was a popular superstition that if any unmarried woman fasted on Midsummer Eve, and at midnight laid a clean cloth with bread, cheese, and ale, and then sat down as if going to eat, the street door being left open, the person whom she was afterwards to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing; and after filling the glass would leave it on the table, and, making another bow, retire. —Grose.

The same writer also tells us that any person fasting on Midsummer Eve, and sitting in the church porch, will at midnight see the spirits of the persons of that parish who will die that year come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they will die.

The fern was a most important object of popular super­stition at this season. It was supposed at one time to have neither flower nor seed, the seed which lay on the back of the leaf being so small as to escape the sight of the hasty observer. Hence, probably, proceeding on the fantastic doctrine of signatures, our ancestors derived the notion that those who could obtain and wear this invisible seed would be themselves invisible, a belief of which innumerable instances may be found in our old dramatists. —Soane’s Book of tlie Months. —See Brand’s Pop. Antiq., 1849, vol. i. p. 314.

People also gathered on this night the rose, St. John’s wort, vervain, trefoil, and rue, all of which were thought to have magical properties. They set the orpine in clay upon pieces of slate or potsherd in their houses, calling it a Midsummer-man. As the stalk was found next morning to incline to the right or left, the anxious maiden knew whether her lover would prove true to her or not. Young men sought also for pieces of coal, but in reality certain hard, black, dead roots, often found under the living mugwort, designing to place these under their pillows, that they might dream of themselves. —Book of Days, vol. i. p. 816.

In addition to the superstitious customs already mentioned there was the Dumb Cake: *

Two make it,
Two bake it,
Two break it;

and the third must put it under each of their pillows, but not a word must be spoken all the time. This being done, the diviners are sure to dream of the man they love. There was the divination by hemp-seed,* which consisted of a person sowing hemp-seed, saying at the same time,

Hemp-seed I sow.
Hemp-seed I hoe.
And he that is my true love,
Come after me and mow.

The lover was sure then to make his appearance.—Soane’s Book of the Months.

Towards night, materials for a fire were collected in a public place and kindled. To this the name of bonfire was given, a term of which the most rational explanation seems to be that it was composed of contributions collected as boons or gifts of social and charitable feeling. Around this fire the people danced with almost frantic mirth, the men and boys occasionally jumping through it, not to show their agility, but as a compliance with ancient custom. f—Book of Days, vol. i. p. 86.

In the reign of Henry VII. these fires were patronised by the Court, and numerous entries appear in the ” Privy-purse Expenses” of that monarch, by which he either defrayed the charges, or rewarded the firemen. A few are subjoined, as examples of the whole :

” June 23 (1493). To making of the bonefuyr on Midsorner Eve, 10′. ” June 28 (1495). For making the king’s bonefuyr, 10s. “June 24 (1497). Midsomer Day, for making of the bone-fuyr, 10s. ” June 30 (1498). The making of the bone-fuyr, £2.
Med, Mm Kalend., 1841, vol. i. p. 303.

In the months of June and July, says Stow, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evening after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefit bestowed on them. On. these occasions it appears that it was customary to bind an old wheel round about with straw and tow, to take it to the top of some hill at night, to set fire to the combustibles, and then roll it down the declivity.



On Midsummer Eve, at Ripon, in former days, every housekeeper, who in the course of the year had changed his residence into a new neighbourhood, spread a table before his door in the street with bread, cheese, and ale for those who chose to resort to it. The guests, after staying awhile, if the master was liberally disposed, were invited to supper, and the evening was concluded with mirth and good humour, —Every Day Book, vol. ii. p. 866.


There are various large, organised celebrations that take place in the UK. Here are links to a few of them and some related bits and pieces.

Blog Recommendation

15 03 2011

I’ve been really enjoying Old Picture of the Day. I absolutely love old photos and I’ve been browsing back through the archives on here on and off for about a week. Fascinating.

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