12,000

I recently passed 12,000 total students across the six business and technology courses I teach on Udemy. I’m so grateful for everyone who has enrolled—if that’s you, thank you!

Those 12,000 students collectively represent 154 countries, with the United States accounting for less than a quarter of the pie.

Just a few decades ago, the notion of a single educator reaching 12,000+ students in the majority of the world’s countries would have been absurd. The Internet is a cool thing, isn’t it?

Education is changing for the better, and I’m stoked to play a small part in the e-learning revolution.

Stephen Hawking On Curiosity

Genuinely sad to learn that the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking has died at age 76. His work helped shape our understanding of concepts like black holes and relativity, and he inspired millions to embrace their curiosity and ask questions about the cosmos.

It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious.

When Breath Becomes Air

I’m deeply moved by Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a posthumously-published memoir describing the author’s quest for meaning in the face of his impending death.

Paul, an ambitious neurosurgeon, lost his hard-earned career trajectory to a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. After years of counseling terminally ill patients through their final days, preparing them to die, he suddenly found himself in their shoes. He now had to prepare himself to die.

In his eloquent prose, Paul explores his experience on both sides of the patient-physician relationship, grappling with questions of meaning, purpose, and direction. By the end, he had addressed not only what it means to die, but what it means to live. On his pursuit of medicine, he writes:

Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

Death is a reality for all of us. We know this, but in our youth and in our health it often feels like a foreign, distant entity, looming just far enough over the horizon to be of little concern. As Paul writes, there’s a subtle but important difference between knowing you will die and knowing you will die soon:

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

After the diagnosis, Paul faced the notorious dilemma of what to do with his remaining time, shackled by a series of unpromised tomorrows:

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die—but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

The book ends rather abruptly; as Paul’s wife Lucy notes in the epilogue, he died before he could finish the manuscript. But I wonder if there could have been any better place to close than this final paragraph, addressed to his then-eight-month-old daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Paul Kalanithi’s life was cut tragically short, but his legacy will endure through this book, one final occasion to do precisely what he spent his career doing: helping people to cope with illness and mortality, find meaning in troubled times, and live and die with grace and integrity.

Multipotentialites

What do you want to be when you grow up?

As a kid, this question was always hard for me to answer. To this day, I have such a range of interests that no single label is sufficient to describe what I do—much less what I am or what I aspire to be in the future.

I guess that makes me what Emilie Wapnick calls a multipotentialite. What a word!

In this excellent TED talk, Wapnick explains why some of us don’t have one “true calling.”

A Good Year For Commercial Aviation

Wow: 2017 was the safest year on record for commercial air travel, with a grand total of zero passenger deaths aboard commercial jets.

To be clear, this stat does not include cargo planes or commercial propeller planes, which had ten fatal incidents in 2017, resulting in 79 total deaths.

Still, aviation is safer today than ever before. It’s amazing to think that we can reliably and safely traverse our planet in just a matter of hours.

The Trolley Problem, Tested

The Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment in ethics that goes something like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When surveyed, the vast majority of respondents say they would choose to kill the one and save the five.

But would they really?

The Trolley Problem is difficult to test, due to ethical concerns of causing emotional and psychological harm to participants.

But on the first episode of the second season of YouTube Red series Mind Field, Michael Stevens of Vsauce conducts what may be the first real-world Trolley Problem simulation.

Participants are led to believe they’re at the helm of a railroad switch. An operator (actor) teaches them how to use the switch before excusing himself to take a phone call. “Live” video feeds above the control panel show a train approaching five construction workers on one track, and the participants have the opportunity to switch the train over to a second track where only one worker is standing.

To the participants, it feels like a real life-or-death situation, and it’s up to them to decide who lives and who dies.

To keep the study ethical, all participants were screened in advance for a history of post-traumatic stress and other traits that could make them susceptible to lasting harm. They were also debriefed immediately after the simulation, and on-site counseling was provided.

Despite the small sample size in this study, there was a clear pattern: most people froze, unable to make a decision with such serious consequences.

However, a couple of people did flip the switch. It was fascinating to see their presence of mind in that moment and hear their thoughts after the fact.

Note: you will need a YouTube Red subscription to watch this video. If you can afford the $9.99 a month, I feel it’s well worth it—even if only to watch Mind Field.

Earth Day 2017

Today is Earth Day, and people in more than 193 countries are working to raise awareness for the world’s mounting climate concerns, among other issues. The March for Science is taking place in just about every major city here in the U.S.

When I was a kid, Earth Day was nothing significant—just a day vaguely dedicated to tree-hugging, as far as I was concerned. But in reality, it’s a massively important event that aims to change human behavior and provoke policy changes through peaceful protest and demonstration—the very core of democracy—to minimize the effects of climate change and ensure we’re leaving a habitable world for our children and grandchildren.

This is more important than ever in light of the anti-intellectualism we’re seeing in Washington.

Wikipedia As An Academic Source

Someone on Quora asked, Should Wikipedia be trusted as an academic source? This is my answer:

I laugh when I hear people say Wikipedia is untrustworthy or suggest that using it for research is a bad idea. Wikipedia has a number of safeguards in place to ensure a high standard of quality, and it does the seemingly impossible job of crowdsourcing accurate information extremely well.

With that said, Wikipedia is not a primary source. All of Wikipedia’s content is derived from other sources, and those sources are cited at the end of each article. Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for research, and the content of an article will often give you a great overview of the topic at hand—but you’ll also want to follow the links to the primary sources and evaluate those independently. In terms of citations, you’ll always want to attribute information to the original source, not Wikipedia itself.

So yes, Wikipedia can be trusted. It’s not an academic source in itself, but it’s a great place to start when you’re tackling an unfamiliar topic.

Unspoken Rules Of Grammar

Utterly fascinated by this story in The Economist:

Who can say what order should be used to list adjectives in English? Mark Forsyth, in “The Elements of Eloquence”, describes it as: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose and then Noun. “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” Mr Forsyth may have exaggerated how fixed adjective order is, but his little nugget is broadly true, and it has delighted people to examine something they didn’t know they knew.