Introducing species

The weather today was forecast to be rainy again but the morning seemed dry, so I went out for a run while I could do so without getting wet. It was time for another 5k, and I agonised over whether to do laps of the oval, which is nice and flat, but incredibly boring, or do my street route, which is much more interesting, but also much more hilly. I decided I’d go for interesting, and grit out the hills. Given the humidity (91%), maybe it wasn’t the best choice, because I was struggling by the end.

And then it wasn’t helped by the fact that the footbridge I usually run across to cross the creek in the last few hundred metres was closed for construction work when I got there! I had to take the alternative route which goes down into the gully via a series of steps—about 30 or 40 steps—followed by climbing back up the other side. That slowed me down a lot, but I managed to finish the 5k in 30:15. Phew!

Today I worked on the new ethics class material for the week, on introduced species. Then I ran the class this evening with the first three groups of kids. The kids never fail to surprise, and really keep me on my toes. I’d written a sequence of questions beginning with the idea of culling to control introduced species that have become invasive and are serious pests, destroying native species and costing billions of dollars in crop damage (specifically starlings in North America). I’d kind of assumed that the kids would be okay with controlling the species in this way, and staged my follow-up questions based on that. But I was surprised when two of the kids in the first class said that culling should not be done, because it’s cruel, regardless of the fact that the birds cause immense damage. So I had to think on my feet and restructure the follow-up questions, to avoid it descending into a series of “Same as my previous answer” responses.

The next two classes went a bit more according to plan, but now I have some alternate pathways through the material depending on what responses the kids give to the early questions. I do this a lot with the classes. Usually by the end of the week the sequence of questions is quite different to what I started with, as it evolves every class.

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Chilly and a bit wet

The cool wet week continued on this Monday, but it wasn’t as rainy as yesterday. I had to bake a sourdough loaf this morning so that we had bread, so I didn’t have time to go for a run before my two ethics classes.

That finished off the week of the topic on cancel culture. It was an interesting topic to discuss with the kids, because there was a wide range of opinions about it. Some of them thought it was fine to cancel celebrities who do something offensive, because they’re in the public and eye and need to behave themselves, and if they suffer the consequences then it’s their own fault. While others thought that the public acting as judge, jury, and executioner, potentially ruining someone’s career and life because they said something online, was going way too far. And there were a range of kids in between, thinking it was fair enough for really offensive things, repeated, but not for mildly offensive things, or things that might be one-offs or accidents.

After my classes I had some lunch and then picked up Scully from my wife’s work. I used the afternoon to write annotations for a new week’s worth of Irregular Webcomic! When my wife got home I went for my daily 2.5k run, then came home and made pizza for dinner (I’d made the dough just before my wife got home).

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Getting stuck into assignment marking

I spent most of Sunday (today) going through the end of course assignments for the university image processing course that I need to mark. I’ve read through four of the reports and watched three of the videos, making notes on them so I can compare then and assign marks uniformly across all the groups. I’m a bit burnt out on image processing and machine learning, but I’ll try to finish them off tomorrow, if I have enough time.

This evening I had two more ethics classes on the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over the week of teaching this topic I’ve added some material about how far away stars are and how it would take any aliens thousands of years to travel to Earth, if they could even do it at all. Because nearly all of the kids’ answers to the various questions are coloured by their intense belief that if aliens knew we were here, they’d immediately come over and destroy us. I mention that it’s kind of illogical to do that, and many people say that advanced civilisations will probably be friendly, and repeat that it’d take them thousands of years to get here… but most of the kids basically respond with, “Yeah… but no, it’s still a terrible idea to let them know we’re here.”

They’re also strongly of the opinion that if/when news of receiving an alien radio signal is made public, the overwhelming reaction of humanity will be panic. I’m guessing their thoughts on this topic are strongly affected by exposure to TV and movies, and that they haven’t matured enough in this area to form more thoughtful opinions yet, because it’s not a topic that’s as commonly discussed in serious conversation as a lot of the other topics we cover.

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Raining, running, and ruminating

It’s been raining most of the day, and heavily at times, with thunder and lightning. But there was a break in the morning, perfectly timed for me to go out on a run. I decided it was time to do another 5k effort, and I also decided that the oval track is so boring that I preferred to do my street route, even though it is quite hilly. I managed to complete the distance just a few seconds slower than last week’s 5k on the oval, so that was pleasing, if exhausting. And I just got home as it started to rain again, so the timing was ideal.

For lunch I drove over to a friend’s place, where he made us some food, and we played a couple of board games: 7 Wonders Duel, and Wingspan. I managed to win both games, which was pleasing. I really wasn’t sure about Wingspan until the final points tally.

At home I wrote the class plan for this week’s new ethics topic, on extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s basically exploring the questions arising out of the prospect of receiving a radio message from an alien civilisation. There’s plenty in just that to last for a full class. I’ll probably do another class later on about different scenarios such as physical contact. I ran the first three classes tonight, and it was very interesting because I got a very wide range of responses from the students. That’s always a lot more fun that everyone agreeing.

New content today:

Considering online product reviews

Last week, the day after my 3.2k run I was very stiff and sore, with my legs protesting at the exercise after so long without doing any. Today, after yesterday’s 5k run, I felt pretty good. Good enough to go for another run! I didn’t go as far this time though, just doing 2.4k along the first and last part of my street route, cutting out the middle section where the nastiest hills are. In previous bouts of running, I really only did one run a week, but I figure this time I’m going to try to at least a little bit on most days if I can. Maybe that will get me into a habit that sticks better.

The work part of the day was writing the new week’s online ethics class. This week the topic is online product reviews. I want to get the kids thinking about whether they are good things or not, how reliable and trustworthy they might or might not be, and how people should evaluate them. I’m also raising the whole question of whether a company like Google should be allowed to host reviews of unaffiliated businesses, and whether they should be held liable for false negative reviews that might adversely affect another business.

This evening I taught the class with my first three sessions of students. And… I don’t think it went down as well as I’d hoped. Maybe the topic is not that exciting or interesting for the kids. Ah well… I guess they can’t all be hits. Hopefully it will improve – it usually does as I adapt dynamically to what the students say during the classes as the week progresses.

In the afternoon I made a couple of Darths & Droids strips. I’m way behind on buffers for both this and Irregular Webcomic! due to how busy I’ve been recently, and need to spend time rebuilding completed work into the future. However my plan for tomorrow is to work on the curriculum planning for the revised Data Engineering course that I’m working on for next semester at the university. I really need to get cracking on that!

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A long haul day

It was a busy day today. After the last week of ISO meetings and having deadlines for other things, I had two things I needed to get done today.

Firstly I started by making some Irregular Webcomic! strips, since without new ones the buffer would have run out today. I didn’t have time to write and photograph my usual batch of over 20 strips in one go, so I had to just write three strips to last until the end of this week, photograph them, assemble them, and write annotations for them. Fortunately I didn’t suffer any writers block and managed to get the whole lot done within a couple of hours. But that will only last until the weekend, and I’ll need to get another batch going in time for Monday.

After picking up Scully from my wife’s work at lunchtime, I brought her home via the slopey park again, where we did some ball fetching and lying in the grass for a bit. She was very good for me this afternoon when we finally got home, just sleeping in her dog bed until my wife arrived home from work.

This gave me time to work on the next thing – my ethics lesson for the new week of classes this evening. This week we’re talking about enhancing sports performance, in particular the ethics of performance enhancing drugs. We get there via a route starting with high altitude training – in which athletes live in mountains for several weeks while training, to increase their red blood cell count, which gives them an advantage when they return to lower altitudes. It’s a common (and legal) method that athletes have been using for many years. Then we go to low-oxygen tents, which simulate altitude training by let the athlete sleep in a low oxygen environment – it’s cheaper and easier and produces the same effect: higher red blood cell count. And it’s also legal in sports training.

Then we go onto blood doping – removing blood from an athlete, then a few weeks later transfusing the red cells back into the same athlete. This produces the same effect—increased blood cell count—just without the low-oxygen training. The result is exactly the same, but I ask the kids if it’s still acceptable.

And then we hit erythropoietin, or EPO. An artificial copy of a protein secreted by human kidneys, that regulates red blood cell production. If you inject it, you end up with more red blood cells. Again, the same result as altitude training, but by a different method. And the kids need to decide if this is okay or not. All the way along this path they need to justify their answers with explanations.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow, where I don’t have any hard deadlines for things I need to get done. I might even relax a little…

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Back to the office!

My wife that is, not me. Her office is opening up again after the long COVID lockdown here in Sydney, and she went in to work this morning for a full day (she did a single afternoon last week in preparation). And she took Scully back into the office for the first time in months. So I had the entire morning to myself!

I had the last class of the week on the ethics topic of Democracy. It was a bit tough because three of the students in this class are a bit slow to collect their thoughts and express them, while one of the kids is a fast thinker, so he gets a bit impatient. Fortunately though, the USA goes off daylight saving in a couple of weeks, which will split this class into two, with the US students moving an hour later, while the ones in Asia stay at the same time.

At lunch time I went to my wife’s office (a short walk away, which is good because she doesn’t need to use public transport while COVID is still going around) to pick up Scully and take her home for the afternoon. Scully likes being in the office with my wife, but she gets a bit stir crazy being in there all day, so I took her for a long walk before heading home.

We walked past Naremburn, a suburb about 2.5 km away that I walk to sometimes. There used to be a small bakery here, which made some okay meat pies and some good sweet treats, but it closed down maybe a year or so ago, leaving nothing much of interest in the small cluster of shops for me. (There’s a couple of cafes, but I don’t drink coffee. There’s a brewpub, but it’s not exactly the sort of place you can grab a bite to eat while walking home – though it is nice to sit in for a long lunch. And there’s a hairdresser and a dog groomer and a clothing shop.) Well, I was pleasantly surprised to discover today that a brand new bakery has opened in the same place as the old bakery! I peeked through the door and it looks like they have some nice things, so maybe later this week I’ll walk over here again before I eat lunch and I’ll have the chance to try some things.

This afternoon I tried to write some comics, but had a bad case of writer’s block, so didn’t get much done. And tonight was the second last tutorial session for the UTS image processing course. I had to help a few groups of students with their project work – several of them are discovering that the grand ambitions they had with their project specification reports are not so easy to turn into practice. I reassured them that the important thing was to adapt and learn, and report on the fact that they had to try something else because their initial plans didn’t work out. I think all the students I’m working with are pretty competent and doing decent work, so I hope that’s reflected in their final reports.

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Sleep in Sunday

After my busy week of morning ISO meetings, I finally got to sleep in a bit this morning. It was very nice not having to get up at 6:30. I had a weird dream while I dozed in the morning, that I was in Japan and ordering food but I’d completely forgotten how to say “thank you” in Japanese, so everybody thought I was being rude.

First task for today was revising the game rules and pieces for the Ruin the Wedding game that we worked on during yesterday’s Creative Thinking class. The kids decided that because some of the event cards were themed as things happening at the ceremony or reception, that should only be playable when people are tat the correct location. I realised this myself in the first version, but didn’t bother implementing any sort of fix, because I was hoping the kids would come up with something. And they did! We’re now separating the events into different locations and making separate draw piles for each, and players can choose which pile to draw from. It wasn’t actually my preferred solution, but the kids liked it so that’s what we’re going with.

I tried to write a few comics this afternoon, but found it hard to concentrate, so didn’t get much done. And tonight I had two ethics classes. It’s amusing – I’ve been asking kids if prisoners should be allowed to vote. So far three different kids have independently said no, and given the reason that if prisoners went out to vote then they could just run away from prison!

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Super busy week: Wednesday

I’ll keep it quick again because it’s late and I want to relax and go to bed soon.

I got up early for the Photography standards meeting beginning from 7am. It finished a bit before lunch, and I took Scully for a walk to the fish & chips shop. They’ve changed their menu, updating to electronic screens displaying the items and prices, rather than the old printed boards they had. And all the prices went up! At least for take-away items. They used to have one price for take-away food, and a slightly higher price for dine in, sitting on the al fresco tables outside. (I don’t know how common this is overseas, but it’s not unusual in Australia to have two different prices for this.) Well, now they just have the single price, and all the take-away prices have gone up to match the previous dine-in price. Since I always opt for the take-away, a basic fish & chips went up from $12.95 to $14.95.

After returning home from eating my more expensive lunch, I worked on writing thew new ethics lesson for this week, on democracy. I start with some history about the development of political systems, from simple strong-man ruler, through the evolution of royalty, and then Athenian democracy as practised in Ancient Greece. I ask a bunch of questions about who should have the right to vote, and explore flaws in democratic systems, such as people voting against things that are beneficial to society.

And this evening I ran the first 3 classes. The responses were widely different, from kids who thought everyone over the age of 10(!) should be allowed to vote, to one who had a plan to restrict voting to people who can demonstrate competence and knowledge on the specific issues in question for any given vote by passing a test beforehand. A few kids independently said people over a certain age (varying from 80 to 85) shouldn’t be allowed to vote, because they’re either senile or “too old fashioned”. So yeah…. some very intriguing ideas among this group!

New content today:

Ethics of Disgust

Today is the start of a new week of online ethics classes, and this week we’re talking about the ethics of disgust. I wrote the class material this morning, and have just run the first three lessons tonight, and it went really well. This is a really interesting subject to explore from an ethics viewpoint. Disgust is an instinctive reaction we feel at certain things and situations, but it translates into actions that can affect people in illogical ways.

I go into the reasons why we feel disgust – it being an evolutionary instinct to protect us from potentially dangerous things like disease. Most of the things we feel disgust towards tend to be things with a high risk of carrying pathogens. The problem is when that instinct is transferred by association to things that don’t pose such risks, and when that influences how we behave.

I have examples including why people are advised to dress and groom well for a court appearance. Research shows that juries and judges are less sympathetic to more scruffy appearing people – and lawyers know this. There’s also differences in the way people react to other people in need of help – they’re more likely to help clean looking people than dirty looking ones. And then there’s disgust in the area of medical research – a lot of things done to further medical knowledge and save lives are things that people consider disgusting, both in modern times and centuries ago. I tell the story of how doctors used to have people go and dig up freshly buried bodies so they could dissect them to learn about how the body works – and how the dissection of bodies was deemed so disgusting by society at large that they made it illegal, thus forcing the doctors to these extreme measures.

It felt like the kids really enjoyed this lesson, and there was a lot of good discussion about the topic as we went through the examples.

In other news, it was very rainy again today. Apparently it’s going to rain until Friday, then be sunny on the weekend, and then the rain will return from Monday again! The Australian Bureau of Meteorology released a long-term forecast for the summer, indicating we’re likely to be in for a cooler, wetter summer this year, with above average rainfall and likely a lot of storms, due to ongoing marginal La Niña conditions. When the pendulum finally swings and we got a hotter, dryer summer it’s going to be one to watch.

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