10 Amazing Online Courses You Can Sign Up For in May 2019

iStock.com/Deagreez
iStock.com/Deagreez

The internet is a near-limitless resource of information and knowledge, but it’s not always easy to consolidate all of that into a structured educational experience. That’s why online courses can be a huge benefit. They offer the convenience of learning in your pajamas with the guidance of the kind of formal curriculum you'd find in a college class.

If you want to acquire a new skillset or become more proficient in a topic this May, there is no shortage of options, with sites like Udemy, Coursera, and edX offering a wide array of subjects. Best of all, most are free, with a fee charged only if you request proof of completion. We’ve narrowed down 10 of the best, including courses on cats, medieval magic, creativity, and more.

1. How to Argue Like a Pro

When you find yourself contesting another person’s reasoning—or someone is contesting your own—it helps to understand how to navigate contentious dialogue. This Duke University course led by philosophy professors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta will teach you how to deconstruct an argument and identify key phrases when challenging someone’s opinion. You’ll also learn how to mount effective reasoning of your own.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $30.

2. Learn to Wield Medieval Magic

Revise your stereotypes of magic in the Middle Ages with this course from the Universitat de Barcelona that dives into spells, geomancy, and astrology in medieval Europe, exploring how society alternately revered and persecuted alleged spell-casters. Disclaimer: There’s no extra credit for turning your significant other into a toad.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

3. Communicate With Your Cat (and Craft Homemade Toys)

Cats are inscrutable creatures, prone to fits of adoration and violence in equal measure. Now you can learn to better relate to their moods and desire for play with this course that advises on good human-to-feline interactions and offers recommendations for cat toys you can craft yourself.

Sign up on Udemy for $11. A certificate of completion is included in the price.

4. Unlock Your Creativity

Hungry to express yourself but not sure how to begin? This course from bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) outlines a path to take your creative spark and organize it into a fulfilling and successful reality. Even if you’re not an artist or writer, Gilbert still has lessons for anyone looking to pursue their curiosity and see their ambition through.

Sign up on Udemy for $45. A certificate of completion is included in the price.

5. Boost Your Brain Power

If your knowledge of increased cognitive performance extends to a double espresso shot, you’ll likely benefit from this course by Karima Benameur, an assistant professor at the Department of Neurology at Emory University. You’ll learn the best diet for brain health, how exercise helps mental performance, and how meditation and sleep can improve your focus.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

6. Sharpen Your Math Skills for Knitting

To go from knitting novice to knitting ninja requires a basic understanding of math. Measuring yarn and figuring out patterns is the foundation for knitting success, and instructor Kate Atherley will provide the tools you’ll need to make numbers a part of your skill set.

Sign up on Bluprint. The individual course is $40, or you can get access to this many other courses with a subscription for $8 a month.

7. Become a Speed-Reading Machine

Ever wonder how some people can flip through hundreds of pages and still wind up with a working understanding of the text? Now you, too, can unlock the power of speed reading by learning how to read up to three times faster than your average, turtle-like college graduate. In addition to plowing through books, you’ll also learn how to retain your newfound knowledge and develop the ability to grasp new concepts like languages with (relative) ease.

Sign up on Udemy for $11. A certificate of completion is included in the price.

8. See America Through Foreign Eyes

The culture, history, and policies of the United States get a new lens in this course, which examines how foreign countries perceive America. Learn how citizens China, France, Mexico, and parts of Africa regard the U.S. as a result of trade, intervention, and education.

Sign up on Coursera for free. A certificate of completion is included.

9. Discover the Physiology of Fitness

Everyone knows that they should exercise, but few of us know exactly what exercising does to the body. The Science of Exercise, a course from the University of Colorado Boulder, will help you go beyond popular ideas like "run more, weigh less" or "eat protein, build muscle." If you’re interested in understanding why our body reacts the way it does to exertion and nutrition, check out this tutorial on what kind of fuel our body uses to function, the role of the respiratory system, and how to prioritize certain tasks depending on your goals.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

10. Create an iOS App

Think you have the next big app idea but too intimidated by the programming it would require? This tutorial will walk you step-by-step through the Swift programming language and Apple developer tools so you can make the jump from concept to downloadable product. No previous coding experience is required.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $99.

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The Bird or Bunny Optical Illusion Could Have You Second-Guessing Your Eyesight

jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images
jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images

The internet can't resist a mind-bending illusion. Some of the most popular ones to go viral feature content that can be interpreted two ways: The infamous dress ignited a web-wide controversy over whether it was black and blue or white and gold, and the "yanny or laurel" audio clip messed with people's ears instead of their eyes. The latest illusion the internet can't agree on is a video of someone petting a raven—or is it a rabbit? Watch the clip below and decide for yourself.

Paige Davis, the curator of bird training at the World Bird Sanctuary, shared this video of a white-necked raven more than two years ago. A biological psychiatry researcher named Dan Quintana recently found the clip on Imgur's Twitter account and tweeted it with the caption: "Rabbits love getting stroked on their nose."

"By first directing the viewer's attention to the nose, I was trying to distract viewers from the ears/beak, one of the clear giveaways that this was a video of a raven," Quintana wrote in a blog post.

With its head tilted back, it's easy to mistake the raven's beak for bunny ears and the top of its head for a nose. But a few details—like its translucent nictitating membrane that closes across the eye horizontally—indicate that it's really a bird.

This video is a real-life version of one of the most famous illustrated illusions of all time. Like the raven vs. rabbit clip, this drawing, sketched by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899, depicts either a duck facing left or a bunny facing right. There is no "right" way to view this illusion: Jastrow drew it to see how fast viewers could switch from one perception to the other.

Even though we know which animal the subject of this latest illusion really is, it still works with Jastrow's test: Watch the clip again and see if you can force your mind to go back and forth between seeing a bird and a rabbit. After that exercise, here are some more optical illusions to break your brain.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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