Some pleasing feedback

Bad news first: New South Wales recorded 1029 new COVID cases in the past 24 hours. This is the first time since the pandemic began that Australia has recorded over 1000 cases in one day. On the bright side, vaccinations are proceeding at extremely high rates – I think I heard that Australia’s per capita vaccination rate is currently higher than any other country in the world has had at their peak rates. Unfortunately we’re starting several months behind, but we’ll get there.

Now the good news:

I set myself a small goal today: make 3 new Darths & Droids strips. I’m happy to say that I managed to achieve it.

But the thing that really made my day was during my third online ethics lesson for the day. As we started the Zoom call, with myself and three students, one of the girls sent me a private message via the Zoom chat window. She asked if she could stay briefly after the class to ask me a question. I said yes. So after the class ended and I said bye to the two other students, she stayed on the call.

She said that she would be starting school next week after the summer holidays (she lives in Sri Lanka), and that she wouldn’t be able to attend my ethics class at the same time, because she’d be in school. She wanted to know if I had other classes at different times, so that she could continue. She said that she really, really enjoyed my classes, and that she looked forward to them every week, and didn’t want to have to miss out on them.

Wow. This was the best and most personal feedback I’ve received for this course, and it really made me feel good! I told her that I had several other timeslots, and it would be best if she and her parents looked through them on Outschool – and also that if she couldn’t find one that suited her schedule, to contact me through the Outschool messaging to see if I could add another class at a suitable time. I also said that if that didn’t work out, then she could rejoin the class during her next school holidays. And when I said that, her face lit up and she said, “Oh! I hadn’t thought of that! Yes, I’ll definitely do that!”

So, I’m feeling pretty chuffed tonight.

New content today:

Australia’s worst day

Today New South Wales reported 825 new COVID-19 cases in the previous 24 hours. This number by itself exceeded the previous record high number of cases recorded in the entire country for the entire pandemic so far. Add in a handful of other cases in other states, and it was easily the single worst day for Australia yet recorded. And there’s no sign of it slowing down, despite the introduction of further lockdown restrictions.

Parts of Sydney now have a night time curfew, although not the area where I live. Outdoor exercise is now limited to a maximum of one hour per day. And we now must wear masks at all times outdoors, except if doing vigorous exercise. Which means essentially that the only place I can not wear a mask is inside my own front door.

The Government’s message has changed over the past few days. It used to be trying to reduce the numbers of this outbreak, in an effort to get cases close to zero again. But now it’s turned to “keep things under control until November (when 80% of the population should, be vaccinated)”. It’s changed from “eliminate the virus” to “live with the virus”. It’s frustrating and sad to see this change of attitude in the government, after their abject failure to keep the delta strain under control when the outbreak began. Everyone dying now, and everyone who will die from the cases piling up every day, didn’t have to if the government had done their job properly 12 weeks ago.

New content today:

The hard day of the week

1. I had my second COVID vaccination today. I drove to my first appointment 10 weeks ago, but my car is being repaired at the moment, so I had to find another way of getting there. Fortunately it was within walking distance, albeit a good 45 minutes away. I decided the exercise and fresh air would do me good, so I went on foot. I actually found a route that I’d never walked before, along a bushy walking track away from streets, so that was good. I got to the clinic a few minutes early and checked in, and there was hardly anyone waiting so I got my shot quickly. They say the second AstraZeneca shot doesn’t affect you as much as the first, and all good so far.

2. While I was out, the latest COVID update for New South Wales was announced. 633 new cases, beating the previous daily record of 478 which we had on Sunday. It’s hard to see this trend reversing and going down any time soon. The government seems to have run out of the will to do any more about it. I think we’ll be looking at 1000+ daily cases by next week. I’m glad I have my vaccinations.

3. Tonight I had three online ethics classes in a row. I’ve scheduled more evening sessions since it seems to be the most popular time. The first class was good – good students who have been doing the class for a while. The second one… I had one student, who was new, so he hadn’t had the practice of expanding on his answers and explaining his thoughts. And with no other students to ask the questions, we got through the prepared material very quickly. I ran out of stuff with 10 minutes to go, and had to ad lib more material and questions to fill in the time, which was tricky.

And then in the third class I had my most challenging student, one who would easily continue talking and telling stories for as long as I let him, so I’m constantly having to cut him off and move to the other students. Also, someone signed up for the last place in the class just a couple of minutes before the scheduled start time, by which time I was already in Zoom with a couple of the students joining up. So I didn’t see the email notification, and then I had an unfamiliar name trying to join the Zoom call, which of course I rejected. When they persisted, I finally noticed I had emails, and saw that they’d in fact enrolled – but by this time the new student had missed 20 minutes of the class. So then I let them in, and had to do the introductory spiel again… it was all very disrupted. I hope the students don’t get a bad impression from that lesson and decide to de-enrol for next week!

But phew. Wednesday is done – definitely my toughest day of the week!

New content today:

Erosion and dilation

Today I went through the material for Monday’s third lecture and tutorial on image processing. It’s about image segmentation and morphological operations (such as the titular erosion and dilation). I know about this stuff and how it works, but I’ve never actually done work with it or implemented it, which is what I have to teach in the tutorial session on Monday. So I worked through the exercises and got familiar with how to do them all in Matlab.

There was also another big walk with my wife and Scully today. We have a new favourite route, out along the peninsula west of us, and along a bushwalk track by the harbour shore, which emerges near streets at a small grassy area, which is quiet and where we can get Scully to run around chasing a ball for a while. It’s near the panoramic photos I posted in this entry a week ago.

COVID news was very bad today, with a new record high 466 cases in New South Wales. This has finally prompted the state government to strengthen the current lockdown restrictions, introducing them across the whole state, and reducing the distance you can travel from home from 10 km to 5 km. There’s a range of additional restrictions and removal of exceptions to get people moving around less as well. If only they’d done this 8 weeks ago when this outbreak began, we wouldn’t be in this current mess now.

New content today:

The ethics of machines

Health first. NSW recorded another 344 new COVID cases in the previous 24 hours. Less than yesterday but not by much. The other significant news was that the NSW Government addressed the tentatively planned end-of-lockdown, which had previously been stated as late August. Now that’s changed dramatically – they were tossing around “October” and “November” instead, as target dates for 70-80% vaccination rates and subsequent easing of movement restrictions. Sydney has been in lockdown for 7 weeks now, and perhaps we have another 3 months to go. I think the higher contagiousness of the Delta variant, combined with the Government’s apparent refusal to consider more stringent lockdown measures, is making any effort to reduce the infection numbers futile. The Government indeed seems to have given up on driving the numbers down, being content to hold the increase below exponential, and banking on vaccination numbers in a few months being enough to eventually stop it. I guess we just have to wait and see, though given the experience of the UK and USA, I’m not particularly optimistic.

In other health news, I had my final follow-up appointment with the doctor after my tonsillectomy. Everything seems fine, except I’ve had an annoying bitter taste in my mouth ever since the surgery. This is a known side-effect of adult tonsillectomies, occurring in some percentage of cases. The doctor said it was caused by stretching of the nerves during the surgery by the various clamps and things they have to stick down your throat, and should fade over a few months. It does seem to have been getting less intense, so hopefully it will fade away soon.

Today I mostly spent working on planning for my online ethics classes for the current week. The topic is “Machines and Robots”. I started with a story of a man losing his job to factory automation, asking questions about how he would feel, how his boss might feel letting staff go, and whether it was okay for companies to replace humans with machines. I went on with a story of the historical Luddites, who smashed clothmaking machines in England in the 1810s, with questions on why so many people felt so threatened that they took such action.

Then I went on to machines that pose dangers to people. If a machine injures someone, whose fault is it, if anyone’s? I used an example of a robotic vacuum cleaner gong haywire and slamming into someone, breaking a toe. I got a wide range of responses, from one kid this evening who said it’s the person’s fault, because you shouldn’t trust a machine and should be careful; one said it’s the manufacturer’s fault; one said it’s nobody’s fault because it’s probably a glitch that nobody could have predicted; and one thought the government should make and enforce safety guidelines. So that was interesting and good!

I moved on to (future) robots doing dangerous jobs. Imagine you’re a government official with the job of deciding if new police robots should take the job of human police officers. What issues would you think about before deciding? Would you let robot police carry guns? Would it be okay for a robot police officer to shoot a bank robber if it saved the lives of innocent hostages in the bank? Is it okay to program a robot to kill people in certain situations, or is that something that should never, ever be allowed?

When I ran the class this evening, it was a really good discussion, with the kids split on a lot of the questions – which is always much more fun than when they all agree! One was of the opinion that robots are still just tools, and could be used like any other tool, and didn’t see any issue at all with letting a robot police officer go into a dangerous situation and shoot some criminals – even thought it was preferable to risking a human officer’s life. Another kid was adamant that robots should never be given weapons, because they could go berserk and start killing people willy-nilly.

Finally, in a sad confluence of my two topics today: COVID and ethics, one of the kids in my class today had COVID. She was the first to join the Zoom meeting, and I made smalltalk and asked her how she was, and she said she had caught COVID, and was isolating from people at home! She did seem slightly ill, like she had a cold or something, but said she felt reasonably okay.

It was rather shocking. This is the first person I’ve known personally in any capacity to have contracted COVID. She’s been one of my best students too – very bright and articulate. I really hope she recovers and doesn’t suffer any long-term effects.

On a happier note, a flower I photographed on Sunday, after the rain:

Rainy lily

New content today:

Secret projection

Its been a busy day, mostly working on my current secret project. I wanted to reach a certain milestone today, and just managed it. Not much else to say about that.

COVID news was very bad here today, with another record high of 356 new cases for NSW.

For dinner I made shortcrust pastry and used it to make a mushroom quiche.

I really can’t think of anything else interesting I did today.

New content today:

A day without water

At 5 pm this evening, one of my neighbours knocked on my front door. She’s on the owner’s corporation executive committee and was here in an official capacity, to tell me that Sydney Water was doing some work in the street and that all water would be turned off for our building from 6pm to midnight.

My thoughts rapidly progressed from “okay, that’s not long, no problem” through “wait, how am I going to cook dinner?” to “oh crap! Wife and I both need to have showers, and I need to get a sourdough loaf-in-progress made and kneaded and then clean up the mess before 6pm!!”

I spent the next hour running around like crazy, having a shower, filling a bunch of water jugs and containers, making sourdough, washing up mixing bowls and utensils, cleaning the kitchen generally, and then filling the sink with hot water so after we ate dinner I could at least put the dirty dishes and utensils in there so they don’t dry out and go all crusty. Fortunately we had just enough warning, and I got everything done in time.

It’s actually been a wet day, with light to medium rain in the morning and afternoon. There was a break of a couple of hours around midday, which we timed well for a long walk with Scully. Apart from that I’ve been looking at material for tomorrow’s image processing course lecture and the accompanying tutorial for which I’ll be teaching. The first real work looks straightforward enough, about image compression formats and simple preprocessing operations such as contras adjustment and histogram equalisation. Tomorrow I’ll play with the MatLab code and make sure I can manage it all.

In COVID news, NSW recorded 262 new cases, which is lower than yesterday’s 319. The numbers are still bouncing up and down, although with an overall upwards trend, so it’s not clear if this is actual good news yet.

A friend pointed out to me today that the USA has again recorded over 100,000 new cases in one day, which just sounds absolutely crazy. I’m here giving daily horrified reports of how we’re dealing with a couple of hundred cases where I live, and other parts of the world are in much worse situations. I’m thankful that we’ve really had it relatively easy in Australia compared to many countries, while at the same time concerned about the cases we do have. It’s an odd sort of disconnect. I guess I just can’t really imagine what it must be like to live in a place with roughly a hundred times as many cases per capita. I think I’d be too scared to leave the house at all.

New content today:

New COVID record

New South Wales recorded 262 new COVID cases in the last 24 hour period, a new record high since the beginning of the pandemic. Today’s press conference was an exercise in the politicians evading questions about further lockdown measures, and sticking to the single line that people should go get vaccinated as soon as possible. The Chief Health Officer stressed that people should get their second doses as soon as possible, to get protected as soon as possible, even if it sacrifices long term immunity by being less than the recommended wait between doses – since everyone is going to need booster shots in another year anyway.

Not wanting to take any more risks with disease than necessary, I contacted my vaccination clinic to see if I could move my second dose appointment up from 1 September. They gave me an 18 August booking, cutting 2 weeks off my wait. I really don’t want to end up being exposed somehow and getting COVID just days before being fully vaccinated.

Apart from that I mostly spent today jumping between writing Darths & Droids comics, and being distracted by my wife’s work-from-home IT hardware woes. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that her being on the phone to IT support all day is more distracting than her regular work.

With Darths & Droids I set myself a target of writing and making 3 new strips. For the next part of the story I had to review our planning notes in some detail, which took some time, and then do some additional note making to tie things together a bit more, before starting to write. I did end up writing four new strips, but haven’t had the time to make any of them yet. So… partial success. Honestly, I’ve had less productive days when distractions and creative block have conspired.

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 century day

It was really all about the COVID here in Sydney today. NSW recorded 239 new cases, which is now the highest number of cases reported in the state in a single day, beating the previous record of 212 which was set during the worst outbreak last year.

Today’s daily press conference was very raucous, with a lot of reporters asking why Sydney wasn’t locked down faster and harder, and if the government had failed. Victoria got up to a high of 723 cases in one day during Melbourne’s horror outbreak last year – exactly one year ago to the day. The Victorian government enacted the strongest lockdown measures Australia has seen, closing down basically every retail shop except supermarkets and pharmacies. We’re nowhere near that here in Sydney yet – cafes and restaurants are still open, albeit for take-away food only. The NSW Government is facing increasing criticism that it’s not doing as much as Victoria did last year.

Where we go from here, who knows? They’re saying they hope to be able to lift the lockdown restrictions by October. Hopefully, yes. But maybe we’ll have another Christmas where we can’t see our families.

More personally, my wife and I have a big significant wedding anniversary coming up before then. Originally our plan was to celebrate it with a trip to Europe. A month or so ago, I was looking into booking a fancy restaurant so we could at least have a nice dinner out. Now I think we may end up celebrating this anniversary sitting at home.

In other anniversaries, this sign has been in the lift of my apartment building for a year today:

COVID anniversary

In some final good news, it’s taken her over three years, but Scully has finally learnt the pleasure of snoozing in a winter sunbeam:

Scully in a sunbeam

I’m very surprised she’s never done this before. I figured dogs would be like cats and be all over this, but I guess not.

New content today: