Covid, the back yard, and a camera – Serendipitous moments

Sometimes photographs just present themselves! On Monday we got our first batch of peaches from a yard we seem to be spending more time in now, courtesy Covid-19.

Having just co-taught a photography class, I am revisiting how depth of field, and ISO settings on my trusty (old) Nikon might make a still image more interesting.

There’s also the serendipitous moment when the morning sun filters through the trees on to a beaten up old log that the Montessori kids use for woodwork.

And yes, the peaches, about the size of large strawberries, are really, really sweet.

Photoshop, Photography and Web Design in final week of school

This was indeed a weird semester! So to end it on a high note, I taught classes on image manipulation, digital photography, and Web design on three consecutive days. Using Google meet, of course.

Photoshop was something all my students had asked for. It’s an opportunity to also connect it to real-world issues such as doctored images in news –a blood relative of ‘fake news’ — digitally altering historical figures –Churchill without a cigar, MLK at a cleaned out podium on the Mall — and simply knowing how to be aware of what could be Photoshopped.

Photography may not seem related to a computer class, but we all know that taking pictures, editing, and sharing is now a given in a young person’s life. Any device is now a ‘camera.’  To make it more interesting, I invited a photographer from Sri Lanka to co-teach the class. (This is distance learning after all, so what’s another 10,000 miles?) Nazly Ahmed, a photo-journalist uses various cameras, spoke of lighting and composition, depth of field, framing, why aperture settings and ISO are important.

As for web design, the goal for the class was to give students an opportunity to design a site that could be home to their digital portfolio, or even a rudimentary business.

I also added a photography contest, so that students could go and use the techniques they learned. The winners are announced on my class website, here.

George Bush vs Donald Trump on pandemics

Suddenly, we wish we had this republican president who does not doubt science. George Bush.  Turns out Bush read the book, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

George Bush in 2005 warned that  “If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain,”

Donald Trump  in 2020 on the other hand thought deeply about the subject, and declared coronavirus a “new hoax”.

You can tell what he watches. This classic mashup reveals the group that downplayed this as hyperbole. That’s what you get when no-scientists attempt to weigh in on a topic that’s beyond their intellectual capacity. Or don’t read.

 

Ignoring the warnings while believing in conspiracies

Why is it so easy for people –governments, even– to believe in conspiracy theories, but ignore science? We will have to figure this one out as we deal with Covid-19.

As recently as 2018, Jonathan Quick in the Guardian wrote a detailed explanation of how we must prepare for a ‘looming pandemic,’ so I’m aghast how governments –meaning people in decision-making roles in governments, ignored this.  Here’s an enlightening paragraph, with eerie predictions at that time.

“Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey or pig, preparing to jump to a human being. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of such a threat, for it has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

Some would have dismissed these and other Cassandra-like statements as overblown. The prediction at that time was that a mismanaged pandemic could cost the world 3.5 trillion dollars.

Jonathan Quick (of Harvard Medical School, and Chair of the Global Health Council) used this infographic that puts outbreaks and a pandemic in context. I urge you to read his article, though.

If only our leaders listen to experts rather than attempt to be the experts and geniuses themselves. We didn’t elect them to spread unfounded theories, but to lead.

 

What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

Wanted: Healthy skepticism as virus conspiracy “goes viral”

Before the term ‘going viral’ became part of people’s conversations –being randomly applied to any nugget of information  from tweet or some silly meme that skimmed across the Web- we had another term for it: Buzz. PR companies did not create viral campaigns, they created Buzz (or ‘buzzy’) campaigns.

Emmanuel Rosen, one of my favorite authors, addressed this well in The Anatomy of Buzz. This was pre-Twitter, and Pre-Facebook, remember. (I interviewed him for my book, Chat Republic.) He foresaw that some people could hijack your buzz. Information and disinformation make reservations on the same train.

Fast-forward to today. The Coronavirus is a serious topic because we are in uncharted territory. But like a stone skipping across multiple bodies of water, important news, gossip, and vital information races across our landscape blended with conspiracy theories about the virus. Unfortunately these conspiratory theories are going viral, so to speak. I won’t even bother to name what the major conspiracy is, but (it has already been debunked by scientists) only say this: It is poorly concealed character assassination by conspiracy theorists with political exes to grind. The kind who complain about fake news, while spreading more of the same.

In the age of information overload, and disinformation,  our brains are being rewired to disbelieve everything at face value. It’s healthy to be skeptical, sure. But at this time let’s be skeptical about all things that ‘go viral.”

Student project on ‘The Future is Now,’ a sneaky lesson plan

This semester too I have my students work on a 4-page report on the future by having  them address technologies that they believe is impacting them right now. While my present concerns include Blockchain, bio-metrics and Cube-sats, theirs includes contact lenses that  monitor health, stratospheric balloons, the ‘cyber truck,’ drones, and AI. Speaking of which, smart speakers and robots become huge topics of discussion.

So many sidebars, so many diversions, but there is no shortage of passion about these utopian/dystopian technologies. [This week I showed them a story about how Tik-Tok, an app that most teens could not seem to be able to live without, is suspected of being a ‘parasitic’ data-harvesting operation.]

Earlier this week we discussed logos, and I showed them how to create their own logo, and  insert it in the report. The goal is to treat this as a  professional report, as if they were working for a consulting company.  Our 2-week project that’s due before Spring Break, teaches them:

  • How to research five topics, beginning with Google’s Moonshot factory
  • Formatting a report using features in the ribbon of Google docs & Microsoft Word.
  • Citation of sources .

The Lesson Plan Evolves. Over the past few years I have discovered that a report like this, intimidating at first, helps students gain a broader vocabulary about technologies they are being exposed to. They also learn how to develop critical thinking about  hardware and software, which is part of the scope of this class.  I’ve revised this lesson plan many times, and changed the pace to deepen the research, and get students comfortable with long-form content.

Not reading, not writing well is becoming a default mode, sadly. As I continue to teach ‘computers’ and have students sit in front of screens, I am determined to make sure that they leave my class with much more than technical skills.

Might robots might fix satellites (and not replace us?)

Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?

One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.

I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.

In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s Thrive Magazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

This is the topic, this week that I brought up at my robotics club meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School