New ethics day!

Today I had a couple of tasks with Scully in the morning. I needed to run an errand to pick up something first thing in the morning and took Scully with me for the walk. And then not long after I got back my wife had to leave for an appointment. We’ve found the hard way that if she leaves while I stay home with Scully, Scully cries and whines non-stop until either my wife gets home, or Scully finally gives up about an hour later. The simple way around this is if I take Scully on a short walk and my wife leaves while we’re out. Then when I return home with Scully and my wife isn’t here, she just settles down and is fine. Who knows what goes through a dog’s mind?

After that I knuckled down to write the lesson plan for my next week of online ethics classes. The topic this week is “Creators and their works”, probing questions such as:

  • If you found out the writer of a book/movie you loved was a bad person, would that affect your enjoyment of it?
  • Should people care about liking the work of a bad person?
  • Is it okay to buy a book or movie created by a bad person, thus supporting their work with money?
  • Should the works of bad people be removed from libraries, or art galleries? Should they be removed from sale?
  • Should you find out about the person who created something before deciding if you like it?

I also had a contingency extension asking if it’s okay to use an invention or scientific breakthrough that was made by a bad person, and if that’s different to liking a work of art made by a bad person. And I explored whether the art form made a difference, in particular with the case of popular music, where people who like the music often also admire the band members, perhaps seeing them as role models, and if this is different to books or paintings, where the creator feels more distant.

And this evening I had two consecutive classes, rather than the one I’ve had on Wednesdays. I created a new Wednesday timeslot last week, and it filled to the capacity of four students by today! It seems my class is popular enough that I could probably keep adding new timeslots every week and keep having them fill up.

During the classes, I think this topic went more smoothly than last week’s on peer pressure. Last week I ended up with a lot of similar questions, and simple yes/no responses, and all the kids agreeing with one another. But today the questions were more open-ended and prompted more discussion, especially as in each class there ended up being some disagreements between the kids’ opinions. So I’m really happy with this one.

New content today:

The meaning of life

COVID news: 199 new cases in NSW in the past 24 hour period. It’s dropped below 200, but may still be statistical fluctuation. At least it’s not growing rapidly, although secondary indicators show that our health system may be beginning to struggle. There are outbreaks in several hospitals, with dozens of medical staff now in isolation. And for the first time our contact tracers have been unable to do 100% follow-up of suspected COVID exposure contacts within 24 hours. If the contact tracing system starts failing, there will be more potential cases circulating in the community without isolating during their infectious period, and things could go south quickly.

Every day this past couple of weeks has felt like teetering on a knife-edge. All we can do is maintain distancing from all our friends and family, stay at home, and hope tomorrow’s news is better.

In a more positive piece of news today, Telstra (our major telecommunications carrier) has announced that from now on all payphones will no longer be “pay” phones – they are going to be free of charge. All calls to Australian land lines and mobile phones made from a public phone will be completely free. We still have around 15,000 public phones in Australia, because of a government requirement of Telstra to maintain infrastructure to allow convenient access to communication for all Australians. Public phones have become more scarce in major cities (although I know of several within walking distance of my home), but are still common in rural towns and Outback communities. In a somewhat uncharacteristic moment of civic generosity, Telstra has decided that they can afford to write-off the $5 million a year it takes to maintain the public phones, and simply allow anyone to make calls for free. I tried to find out if any other countries have made this move, but Google was particularly unhelpful with any search query I tried, so I don’t know.

I spent time today writing and making Darths & Droids comics.

But this evening I had a special ethics lesson, as part of the NSW Primary Ethics volunteer teaching that I would normally be doing eevery Wednesday morning at a local school. Those classes have not begun this term due to the Sydney COVID lockdown and schools being closed, so Primary Ethics has organised a series of Zoom classes for the volunteer teachers, led by a staff member who runs a class form the new high school ethics curriculum.

So tonight I joined a class of 16 teachers, and we answered questions based on the high school ethics topic of “The Meaning of Life”. A big question! This is a brand new topic, which hasn’t been trialled in high schools yet, due to the course only starting this year, and being interrupted by COVID. Obviously we weren’t going to actually come up with an answer to the meaning of life – the class was structured around pondering questions like: “Can there even be any simply definable meaning of life?” “If we could know the meaning of life, would it change how we behave?” and, my favourite, “Why did the aliens in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy go to such great lengths to try to find the meaning of life?” (really a proxy question for: Why do we try to figure out the meaning of life?)

It was fun, and it gave me some cool ideas for tackling a similar topic in my own online ethics classes.

Random photo I took while out walking around the neighbourhood yesterday:

City over roof

New content today:

Double ethics!

Today I had a first – I scheduled a second online ethics class at 6pm immediately after my established Thursday class at 5pm. The evening timeslots in my time zone seem popular, and by the time the class started I had three new students signed up. These later slots are picking up more students in Europe and the UK. So today I had a total of 6 students – it would have been 7 but one of the ones in the first slot couldn’t make it this week.

This morning, despite trying not to spend time going to the supermarket because of the current COVID outbreak here in Sydney, I had to go to a different supermarket to buy a few things that I couldn’t order from my own local one. Specifically, I couldn’t order a large 5 kilo bag of bread-making flour online – it just says it’s only available in-store. And also my local supermarket doesn’t stock the bran that we use when making our own muesli, so I have to travel a couple of suburbs over to another supermarket that does stock it. And we needed an extra carton of milk, before I pick up the online order tomorrow morning. So I combined all this into one very quick shopping trip, and spent as little time as possible int the supermarket, at 7am when it’s at its emptiest.

The COVID stats here today were bad. NSW had 124 new cases, which is the highest number of cases recorded in Australia for the whole of this year so far. The government is hinting at further lockdown restrictions if the numbers don’t start turning down soon.

New content today:

New week of ethics

I start my new topic for the week of ethics classes on Wednesday (for historical reasons). The first thing I needed to do today was write the lesson plan! I’d advertised in advance that this week we’d be looking at “Prejudice”. But when I sat down to start writing a lesson, I realised it was going to be slightly tricky not to just give examples and questions that resulted in all the kids simply agreeing that prejudice was a bad thing.

So I looked for examples of positive prejudice as well, where people assume good things about people based on their appearance or other initial impressions. So I had a couple of examples of that, with some questions. Then I asked my friends what I could do with this subject, and one suggested a real world case where prejudicial thinking is actually used by a common industry: insurance.

Specifically, I used the example of car insurance. Statistically, drivers under the age of 25 are in around three times as many accidents causing injury or death than drivers aged 30 or more. And insurance companies (at least in Australia, whose figures I looked up) charge drivers under 25 roughly twice the premiums of drivers aged 30.

So I gave the kids the statistical fact about accidents first. Then I asked if they met someone aged 20 and someone aged 30, and didn’t know anything else about them, would it be reasonable to assume the older person was less likely to have a dangerous car accident? There was a 50/50 split among the 4 students in today’s class – two said yes, that’d be reasonable, the other two said no, you can’t make a judgement like that because for all you know the younger person might be a better driver. Then I asked them if they were an experienced 30-year-old driver, and they saw an 18-year-old driving nearby, would they drive more carefully around them, or not? The first two kids plus one of the others said yes they would, while the fourth doubled down and said no, they’d drive just as carefully around anyone.

Then I asked them about the insurance – was it fair to charge younger drivers more? Back to 50/50 split, the first two kids saying yes, the other two no. So this was good! There was a lot of good discussion, and I asked them all to give their reasons for their answers, so they heard a good deal about the opposing points of view.

Then came the crunch question. Imagine you run a delivery service and you’re hiring a new driver. You have two applicants, a 20 year old and a 30 year old. Their resumés are identical, except for their ages, and they agree to the same salary. Which one do you give the job to?

Well, almost predictably they split down the middle again. Two saying obviously the older one, because they’re a safer driver. The other two kids chose the younger one, saying you can’t just assume they’re not a good driver, and they probably have more energy and enthusiasm since they’re younger! I ended the lesson saying they should all go and think about everything we did today, and maybe talk with their parents about it and ask them the same questions.

So it ended up a fun class for everyone, and I enjoyed it too.

New content today:

Photographing Lego and writing ethical dilemmas

My two big tasks for today were photographing the new batch of Irregular Webcomic! strips, and writing a new lesson outline for the next week of online ethics classes.

I got stuck into the comic photographing early, after I’d finished breakfast. Normally a batch takes me all morning, finishing around lunch time, but I raced through it today and finished a bit early. This gave me time to take Scully for a walk and buy some milk which we needed.

And then I did a bit of administrative work for ISO photography standards. I forgot yesterday that I had to write some comments documents for a group of five photographic chemical standards which are up for renewal this year. These standards failed to be renewed because not enough countries indicated they were still using them, so now we have a ballot to object to their withdrawals, which was something that was agreed we should do during the meeting in June, since obviously a lot of people still do chemical based photography. Anyway, I had to pull out my wife’s laptop again because I had to write comments in MS Word.

That done, I turned to writing my lesson plan for the upcoming week of ethics classes I’m teaching, starting this evening. So I had a hard deadline of a few hours. I wrote a class about ethical consumerism, and during this evening’s class we discussed the ethics of developed nations asking tropical communities to cut down forests in order to grow cash crops such as sugar, coffee, and palm oil. We went from there to product choices in supermarkets, and pondering whether ingredients should be labelled with source information, so consumers can choose products with awareness of such issues.

Last week in this timeslot I had only one girl in the class, but today there were two new students, and it was a nice variety of opinions. One was pretty adamant that companies should be forced by law to label products sourced from ethically questionable practices, and that people not buying those products would effectively stop the practices, while another kid was of the opinion that companies should not be forced to do anything, but rather provided incentives such as lower tax if they use ethical sourcing, and that consumers boycotting products was pointless because not enough would ever do so to have any effect. So it was a good class!

New content today:

COVID Sydney update

Today the news about the current COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney got worse. New South Wales recorded 38 new cases in the last 24 hour reporting period, which is the highest number of new cases we’ve had in the past 14 months. This takes the total number of cases in the current outbreak (from 16 June) to 396. The Delta variant is spreading much more aggressively than previous variants, and in today’s daily press conference the authorities were very harsh on people flouting the lockdown rules.

I know from the context of some other countries that 396 cases may not sound like much, but here it’s horrifying. We’ve been living with close to zero cases for over a year. And Australia’s vaccination rate is the lowest of any country in the OECD – because for so long it wasn’t considered an emergency to get people vaccinated, so our acquisition of vaccine doses has been very delayed compared to most countries. At present just 8% of Australians are fully vaccinated, and 17% have had a first vaccine dose (me among those with one dose).

So we need to clamp down and stop the spread of this Delta variant lest all the good work to date go to waste and suddenly we have it running rampant through the largely unvaccinated population. This right now is one of the scariest phases of the whole pandemic for Australia.

Having said that, it feels a little odd to move onto my next topic for today, which is that I went to play golf (at a non “pitch & putt” course) for the first time in ages – since April I think. Even through the strictest lockdown here (a level we’re not quite back up to yet), golf was always available as an acceptable outdoor exercise activity, since it’s about the most socially distant sport one can play.

I went to my closest course. Normally I go first thing in the morning, when it isn’t busy, and go around the course alone. But a 7:30 am start in the middle of winter didn’t appeal to me, especially given the course is in a narrow valley and it’s very dewy in the mornings, even sometimes in summer, and I didn’t fancy playing in the wet in 8°C temperatures. So for the first time I booked a tee time later in the day, just after lunch. This meant the course was busy, and I was partnered with two strangers for the round. Fortunately, neither of them were especially good players either, so I didn’t feel too outmatched.

I played a middling sort of round, totalling 54, compared to a 55 last time I played that course back in April. So I’m moderately happy with that. And it felt really good to be outside and getting fresh air and exercise (apart form just walking) for the first time in many weeks.

In my online ethics class tonight I did the same stealing topic as yesterday. And I got some very interestingly different answers. In the lemon example I mentioned yesterday, all three students initially said that taking a lemon from the tree was stealing. But this time when I said that everyone that knew the owners of the lemon tree never used the lemons, the first kid immediately switched to, “Oh, well then it’s fine to take a lemon.” And the other two kids then followed suit in agreement. I suspect that once one kid gives an answer, others are more likely to go along with it, unless they really have a strong preconceived opinion otherwise. So that was interesting!

New content today:

Cooking leftovers, a new Ethics class, and one less Ethics class

Today I did some housework, vacuuming and then refreshing all of the damp absorbers in the wardrobes and storage chests. Sydney is a humid place to live, and we use damp absorbers with calcium chloride crystals to avoid problems with mould.

I had my first lesson in a new timeslot for online ethics classes, at 5pm today. My other three classes are all either full or close to full, so I listed a new timeslot just last week, and by the time it started today I had two new students signed up. Unfortunately one had connection problems and dropped out after a few minutes, but I had a very good class with the remaining student.

We discussed stealing, and I presented a range of scenarios. One began with imagining a lemon tree inside someone’s property, but close enough to the fence that you could reach through and pick a lemon. Is doing so stealing? (The girl said yes.) What if everyone in the neighbourhood knows the people who own the house never use the lemons, they just let them fall off the tree and rot – would it still be stealing? (Yes.) What if one fell off and was sitting on the ground – would it be stealing to reach through the fence and take it? (Yes.) What if it fell off and rolled through the fence, onto the footpath – would it be stealing to take that lemon? (She said no.) I was also asking her to explain her answers, and at this one she said that the difference was that the lemon was in a public place now, so it was fair game to take it.

I switched and said what if someone dropped their wallet in a public place? Would it be okay to take it and not give it back, or would that be stealing? (She said it would be stealing.) So what’s the difference between the wallet and the lemon, if they’re both in a public place? She said the wallet was valuable, and could cause a lot of problems if they didn’t get it back.

I said what if someone is buying groceries and while loading their car a lemon – something not very valuable – falls out onto the car park, a public place. Is it stealing if someone else takes that lemon? She said yes. So I asked what’s the difference between that lemon and the one that fell off the tree and rolled through the fence?

By this point she was grinning and almost laughing each time I ramped up with a new question – she clearly realised what I was doing in making things trickier and trickier for her to answer consistently. I told her that I was trying to make her think really hard about her answers and try to come up with clear reasons why one thing is stealing but some similar thing is not.

By the end we’d gone through 5 or 6 similar scenarios, and given her brain a good workout. She said she really enjoyed the class. So hopefully she’ll be back next week, and the other student will get his connection problem sorted. And maybe we’ll even have another new enrolee.

In other news, school was supposed to start again after the winter holidays next week. But today the NSW Government extended our current COVID lockdown another week, and said all schools in Sydney would be doing home learning rather than face-to-face classes. This means my face-to-face Ethics class on Wednesday morning is cancelled, for next week at least. Given the current state of spread of the COVID Delta variant here in Sydney, I have trouble seeing that just one more week of lockdown will get it under control. They’ll play it by ear as the days go by, and I guess we’ll see.

For dinner tonight I used the leftover sweet potato, beans, and corn from Monday’s dinner, added some chopped onion and tomato and chilli and spices, and made enchiladas!

Sweet potato, beans, corn enchiladas

It was a nice change from the usual Mexican-spiced pinto beans we normally use. Really good – definitely a recipe to add to our list of semi-regulars.

New content today:

Tonsil recovery day 7

Good news today! My throat is noticeably less sore than it has been the past two days. I can eat more easily and have more mobility in my tongue. It’s still sore and a little painful to swallow, but definitely on the upswing now.

Also good news that I should have mentioned yesterday. The surgeon at the follow-up meeting confirmed that the biopsy of the tonsil-with-cyst he removed showed no malignant cells at all. So that’s excellent news, really.

The other good news was that I got back into online ethics classes today, teaching a new class at 5pm my time, which is an hour later than the one I do on Fridays. I think this later time suits people in Asian and European time zones better, and the class was fully subscribed with 4 students just before I started. I’ve restricted enrolments to a fairly small number as the one time I had 5 students in a class it was difficult to let all of them speak about every question.

Today we discussed media bubbles, going through some short story scenarios to explain the concept and how it arises, and what effects it might have if people only ever see news stories or opinion pieces that align with what they already think. The kids were pretty unanimous that this was a bad thing, but they disagreed on what should be done about it. One kid was adamant that websites and media companies should be allowed to publish what they wanted, and that it was up to individuals to recognise media bubbles and seek out different opinions, while another kid said that the companies should be forced to provide balanced coverage because you can’t trust people to go looking for news stories they might not want to see.

My voice is still a bit croaky, but I managed to last the 45 minute class. That’s a big improvement since yesterday too, when I could barely talk at all. Hopefully tomorrow will be even better!

New content today:

Pre-tonsil prep

Today I had my face-to-face ethics class at the school. It was the last week before school holidays – two weeks off, then returning for term 3. The Year 5 students were back after last week’s camp. I asked them where they went and they said Canberra. I said it must have been very cold, and they agreed enthusiastically. Canberra is inland and nestled in mountains, so it gets very cold in winter – sometimes it even snows there. I’ve been to Canberra many times myself, and almost always in winter, oddly enough.

We finished off the topic on moral responsibility, with a couple of stories setting dilemmas of who to spend money on – local people/family, or foreign people (via charities) who need it more. There was some good discussion of this, with various different ideas on how to decide.

After class, I went into the city by train, because I had an appointment in there. (By this I mean the Central Business District, or “downtown” area, although we don’t use the term “downtown” here.) I picked up some Japanese food for lunch while in there, and also checked out a bookshop. And I took some photos!

George St COVID

This is George Street, the main street of Sydney. Normally around lunch time it would be absolutely crowded with people, but we’ve had a new COVID-19 outbreak here developing over the past few days. Today 16 new cases were announced, taking the total up to 37 cases. This was enough to make the government reintroduce some very strict mask requirements and movement restrictions. Facemasks are now mandatory (as from this afternoon) in every non-residential indoor setting, including office workplaces. They were made mandatory again on public transport and in shops a few days ago, but this workplace requirement is new – something we didn’t have at any time before. There are also travel restrictions now in place for subregions of Sydney, with people not being allowed to leave their local government area (essentially an area covering a few suburbs). The general feeling is that this is one step short of a full lockdown, which I think a lot of people are expecting within the next day or two if cases continues to rise.

GPO Sydney

Back to photos, this is the Sydney General Post Office, which is considered the building marking the central reference point for the city. Distances in Sydney are measured “from the GPO”.

QVB interior

This is the interior of the Queen Victoria Building, and old government office building dating from 1898, now converted to a shopping area. Many people in government in the 1950s and 60s wanted to demolish the building to make way for more modern development, but fortunately that ever happened and we now have this beautiful Victorian era building in the middle of the city.

QVB exterior

Here’s an exterior view, of the southern end of the building. It’s a long, thin building running north-south, so it’s a lot longer in the other direction than you can see here.

Back home this afternoon I had a Zoom call with a former work colleague, who is now a professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, teaching various image processing and engineering subjects. He’s offered me a casual job teaching tutorials for his image processing course for the second semester of this year, which I’m thinking I’ll probably take up. So we were discussing what would be involved and so on. It looks promising, and if approved I should be starting this job in August.

Finally today, I got information from the hospital for my tonsillectomy tomorrow. I need to fast from 4am and show up at the hospital at 10am. I don’t know yet what time I’ll be released, but I’m expecting I’ll be home for dinner. Assuming I feel okay to eat anything but ice cream…

So I suppose my next blog entry will be after the operation, and I can tell you how it went.

New content today:

Rainy winter solstice

It was winter solstice here in the southern hemisphere today, which means the hours of sunshine start getting longer again and we can start looking forward to spring. But today was cold and intermittently rainy.

I had my Monday morning online ethics class, repeating the topic about natural resources that I did last Friday. This time there were three kids in the class, and we had some interesting disagreements! One of the kids definitely shows a bit of a New Agey/environmentalist bent, while another one today declared that he likes to think about things from an “economics point of view”. So when I asked questions like whether a country should let its farmers take all the water from a river, or if they should leave some to flow across the border into the next country, their answers were almost polar opposites. The first said they should share it, while the second said that because the river started in the first country, it’s their water and they can use it all, unless the other country offers them something for it.

And when I gave an example of an apple tree that nobody owns – it’s just growing on public land – one said that you can’t take the apples because it’s stealing, you should negotiate to share with other people; while the other said it’s fine to just take all the apples, first in first served. So it was definitely an interesting class, with lots of back and forth. But they were respectful and disagreed politely, and I got them to explain their thinking with reasons, so it was actually really good.

I worked a bit today on Darths & Droids, and did some housecleaning – vacuuming and cleaning the shower. Oh, and baked some sourdough bread.

This afternoon the rain eased off and I took Scully to the dog park. Today one of the regular women there brought a folding table, and a selection of cheese and crackers, and a big pot of mulled wine, which she reheated over a portable gas burner. This was a special celebration to mark the winter solstice – she does it every year. I recall being there one previous year when it was on – can’t remember if it was last year or the year before.

So anyway, the group of dog owners, about a dozen of us, stood around munching on cheese and crackers and drinking hot mulled wine! Very civilised!

New content today: