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Randy Pausch on the World Book Encyclopedia and Wikipedia

'The Last Lecture', by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

Some or many of you have probably heard about Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Randy is a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He gave a stirring and inspirational talk on September 18, 2007, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” I was emailed a link to a condensed version of this talk and I loved it, getting a bit choked up about somebody so enthusiastic and full of life and with a wife and young children, having to be “done too soon.”

However! Randy’s still hanging in there. He worked with Jeffrey Zaslow on a book version of the talk which expands on the lecture. You can see the full talk for free on YouTube — I embedded it at the end of this post. Even so, I think it was well worth the $12 I paid at Amazon for the book. I’m enjoying the read, and I’ll enjoy having it on my bookshelf. It’s an attractive little hard cover book and I like the thought of my daughter someday picking it up and learning from it.

In one chapter, he talks about his family’s World Book encyclopedia set they had when he was growing up. (My family had one of these! What a fountain of knowledge in the days before the Web.)

I smiled at this left-handed endorsement of Wikipedia:

Given how I cherished the World Book, one of my childhood dreams was to be a contributor. But it’s not like you can call World Book headquarters in Chicago and suggest yourself. The World Book has to find you.

A few years ago, believe it or not, the call finally came.

It turned out that somehow, my career up to that time had turned me into exactly the sort of expert that World Book felt comfortable badgering. They didn’t think I was the most important virtual reality expert in the world. That person was too busy for them to approach. But me, I was in that midrange level—just respectable enough … but not so famous that I’d turn them down.

Would you like to write our new entry on virtual reality?” they asked.

I couldn’t tell them that I’d been waiting all my life for this call. All I could say was, “Yes, of course!” I wrote the entry. And I included a photo of my student Caitlin Kelleher wearing a virtual reality headset.

No editor ever questioned what I wrote, but I assume that’s the World Book way. They pick an expert and trust that the expert won’t abuse the privilege.

I have not bought the latest set of World Books. In fact, having been selected to be an author in the World Book, I now believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information, because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias. But sometimes when I’m in the library with the kids, I still can’t resist looking under “V” (“Virtual Reality” by yours truly) and letting them have a look. Their dad made it.

     (with Jeffrey Zaslow)

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams