Newest course: Philosophy and the Sciences


A few weeks ago I finished my most recent Coursera class, Philosophy and the Sciences.

It was an interesting look at the intersection between the “meta-investigation” of philosophy and “hard” science in two areas. From the course description they were:

  • Philosophy of cosmology, where we’ll consider questions about the origin and evolution of our universe, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the role of anthropic reasoning in the explanation of our universe
  • Philosophy of neurosciences, where we’ll consider the nature of human cognition and the relation between mind, machines, and the environment.

I liked the first cosmological section most, and enjoyed the paper we were required to write.


Films I’ve seen recently


  • Tusk. Jerk podcaster falls into the clutches of a madman. This is more of a straight-up horror film than I expected fanboy director Kevin Smith to be capable of. It’s still pretty silly, though, and hampered by a low budget and a ludicrous Johnny Depp cameo. 3/5.
  • Gone Girl. Couple with relationship problems mess each other up; or do they? David Fincher is a master stylist of direction, and Rosamund Pike is very good in her part. But the Doogie Barney Desi character is annoying. And the last 30 minutes jumps the shark (I’m sure the book did too) in a way that made me shake my head. 3/5.
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Final film in fantasy series builds to a big battle. Beautiful to look at (obviously). Despite being shorter than the first two Hobbits, it felt stretched (obviously). The joy has gone. Had to see it, though. 3/5.
  • Snowpiercer. We overreact to global warming and the remnants of humanity end up living on a train. Better than it had any right to be, with gripping direction. The staging of how the train classes evolved into social classes, with dictatorial leadership, was incredibly convincing. Great, brutal action scenes. Funny too. 4/5.
  • Big Hero 6. Kids in the near future build cool robots and solve a mystery. An animated story that really is for the whole family without trying too hard to drop in jokes for the adults. Just good, exciting, fun, funny storytelling. 5/5.
  • The Interview. Bumbling talk show guys get enlisted to kill the leader of North Korea. Pineapple Express was clever. This isn’t. 2/5.
  • Interstellar. Earth is dying and we need to find a new home. Top-notch film-making. Deep space sci-fi with physics and philosophy? This movie was made for me. Great acting all ’round, too. Epic on IMAX. Unfortunately the last 30 minutes included a touchy-feeling pluck of the heart-strings that took me a little bit out of it. 4/5.

Coursera – The American South: Its Stories, Music, and Art

I love the blues. It would be the single musical form I’d pick if I could listen to only one for the rest of my life. It gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll, and is amongst the most human of art forms, I think.


But I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the art forms from the area that gave birth to the blues. So I just completed a six-week Coursera course called The American South: Its Stories, Music, and Art.

It was really enjoyable, and a lot more leisurely than some of the maths or programming courses I’ve done. Here’s the syllabus:

  • Week One: Introduction to the American South – Reflecting on geography, the diaspora, the mythic and the global South as ways to approach the contested memory of the region
  • Week Two: Oral Traditions – Considering the content and form of the stories, toasts, dozens, auctions and religious sermons and what they reveal about Southern Culture
  • Week Three: Southern Artists – Understanding the distinction between folk art traditions and the high art of the academy with examples of basket-weaving, quilt-making, sculpture, painting, and photography
  • Week Four: Southern Writers – Examining the lives and works of great Southern writers and looking at how specific stories, music, and art are referenced and provide structure for literary forms such as the novel and the short story
  • Week Five: Roots Music – Exploring southern music and its roots in work chants, fife and drum, and one-strand on the wall musics
  • Week Six: The Blues – Focusing on this distinctive form of music, so intimately defined by sense of place, class, race, and tradition

The lecturer was Dr. William Ferris of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he was a really pleasant and interesting instructor. I’d recommend this course for anyone interested in the American South’s culture.


Sydney Half Marathon 2014 results

My watch matched the official times: 1:52:05 for the half marathon in Sunday’s Sydney Running Festival.


Juggling work and dad responsibilities, and battling hay fever in recent weeks, meant my training wasn’t what it should have been. A half marathon is 21km, and I haven’t run more than 14km since May. My split times show this, as I felt strong in the first half of the race but really crashed out in the second half. It was my slowest half ever, by just over 1 minute.

But I was pleased to be able to run the time I did; it indicates my base-level fitness is still there. I’m still under a 2-hour half, and I’m above the 50th percentile for all categories (overall, males, and males 45-49).

It was another fun day. The Family Fun Run was finishing at the same time as us. And on my way back to the car I saw the crowds starting the 9K Bridge Run.


City2Surf 2014 results

I’ve posted each year about the City2Surf, the massive (like, 80,000 people massive) fun-run from downtown Sydney out to Bondi Beach.

I ran it again yesterday. My time was not my worst, but was several minutes off my best. Two winter colds played havoc with running lately. Nevertheless, I achieved my three goals for any C2S:

  1. I completed the 14.2 km run in fewer than 75 minutes which continues to qualify me for the fastest starting group outside of seeded individuals. I also finished in the top 30th percentile in every category.
  2. I didn’t have to stop, especially on Heartbreak Hill.
  3. I had a lot of fun. People dress in costumes, there are bands along the route, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s just a hugely positive vibe.

My results:
runtimeHere’s how that fits into my results from past years:


Another Coursera course: Foundations of Business Strategy


I can’t get enough of the free online education at Coursera. Each class I take continues to be more challenging than I expect.

I’ve just completed Foundations of Business Strategy, a 6-week class taught by Professor Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. To get a passing grade we had to complete weekly quizzes, write a short strategy recommendation paper for a company of our choosing, and participate in the online student forums. It showed me that analysing a business strategy can be a lot more quantitative than I believed.

It’s the first course I’ve taken that can be directly useful at work rather than a class I’ve taken just for my own interest.


I’m volunteering for secular ethics instruction in primary schools

ethicsI didn’t go to school here in Australia, but I’m starting to learn more about it.

Public schools here in New South Wales provide, in an example of separation of church and state, only secular instruction. However I’ve learned that they are also required to make time and facilities available each week for Special Religious Education (SRE). This isn’t comparative religious studies, it’s actual religious instruction – not by a teacher, but by a person authorised to teach the articles of faith of that religion, like a priest or an imam.

Most schools call this “Scripture class”. Across the state the majority of SRE classes are Christian, though in cities like Sydney there’s enough multiculturalism that there are plenty of Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and other classes.

If a parent doesn’t want their child to attend any SRE class in their school they can opt their child out. In that case they attend “Non-scripture”, sometimes called “colouring-in” because they’re often discouraged from doing extra work that would put them – during school hours – at an advantage to those who are in SRE.

A few years ago some people decided there should be another option for those kids that weren’t in SRE; that they could be taught secular, philosophical ethics in school, without the need for a religious framework. That program is now being offered at a growing number of NSW schools, and it’s called Primary Ethics. It teaches primary-age kids how to think about ethical questions like: is it ever right to lie? How can you tell when someone’s really your friend? Why do we eat some animals and not others?

I thought this was a great idea. If schools are compelled to allow for religious instruction then I think it’s only fair that a non-religious option for learning ethics should also be made available.

I’m not in the classrooms teaching it, but I am the volunteer Ethics Coordinator for a primary school here on Sydney’s northern beaches. That means I’ll ensure the ethics teachers have completed their training before they go in front of any classes, and I’ll work with the school to ensure we have enough classes and rooms to meet the demand of parents who want their kids in Ethics.

I’m looking forward to getting involved in the community, and learning more about this state’s educational system.


An example of excellent customer service from…*gasp*…a US airline!

I know, that title is shocking.

If, like me, you’ve travelled around the world then there’s a good chance that you find flying in the USA a shockingly bad experience. You have to pay for every extra little thing. Check-in is a semi-automated nightmare. We still have to take off our shoes because of one failed shoe-bomb attempt over 12 years ago. Seats are cramped. Airport terminals are well-worn. It’s just not pleasant, especially compared to flying elsewhere in the world.

But on a recent trip through the US I experienced an event that blew me away with its customer focus and totally changed my feeling about the trip in a positive way.

I was flying from LaGuardia, New York to Dallas, Texas. My flight was with United Airlines, and I had to go via – and change planes – in Chicago.


The day before I flew I noticed that I only had 37 minutes to make my connection in Chicago. Gulp. That’s what I get for trusting my corporate travel booking system too much. Oh well, I thought, I’m flying with carry-on only. If things are on time I can make it. Although it’s been over a decade since I’ve been through Chicago’s O’Hare airport I verified that my arrival and departure gates there were in the same terminal. And I am a runner. I decided to remain positive.

I also decided to pay the extra $49 for legroom on my LaGuardia-O’Hare flight and get the front row of economy so that I’d be first off the plane, increasing my chances of making the connection.

The first snag happened before we left LaGuardia. At the gate, preparing for boarding, United staff announced that the overhead bins were going to be very full and that by the time they seated group 4 there would be no overhead bin room left; anyone who wanted to have their bag checked through to their destination could do so now for no charge.

I looked at my boarding pass: seating group 5.

I went up to the check-in desk and asked if I really had to check my roller carry-on, because it would not fit under the seat in front of me (which is where I planned to put my laptop bag). She said yes. I said, “But I only have a 37 minute connection in Chicago”.

“Your bag will make it,” she said.

I did not believe this. But it was clear that I was going to have to check my bag. My meetings weren’t until the following morning so I figured I could deal with a late-arriving bag. I checked it.

The second snag was that it took the plane a long time to board. People were attempting to squeeze bags into the overhead compartment despite being told they wouldn’t fit. By the time the plane was underway we were 20 minutes late. And then – third snag – there was congestion leaving LaGuardia. I resigned myself to missing my connection.

By the time we arrived at our gate at O’Hare there were only 2 minutes left before my connecting flight was scheduled to leave for Dallas.

Nevertheless I had nothing to lose by sprinting. Maybe my connecting flight was delayed, I thought. I ran into the terminal and had to make a choice: left or right. I chose right. Right was wrong, and I ended up at security. Luckily there was also a big board of gate numbers.

There was my Dallas flight. Gate number: the opposite way I’d chosen to run. Gate status: closed. Damn.

Once again I figured there was no downside to running, so I did. As I puffed up to my gate I was delighted to see that they were boarding the last (but me) person. They were about 5 minutes late. In total perhaps 4 minutes had passed since I left my plane. I had made it.

“Thank you for running,” the gate staff lady said.

“I’m glad I made it,” I gasped, “but it’s too bad my checked bag won’t.”

“Yes it will,” said a man standing behind the woman. He appeared to be some sort of baggage or ground crew supervisor. My stunned look prompted him to go on.

“I saw that your flight had just arrived and I figured you might make a run for it. The system shows you had a checked bag, so I dispatched one of my guys over to your plane to retrieve it and bring it straight here in case you did. It’ll be on the plane.”

“Mate,” I said, “that’s incredible. Thank you!”

The supervisor followed me down to the end of the airbridge. As I boarded his man popped up from outside and gave a thumbs-up that he’d loaded my bag.

“Thanks very much,” I said to both of them.

“Not everyone would catch that,” the supervisor said. “Fifteen years on the job, so I know how to spot these things.”

I’m glad he did.


Edit: Actually, come to think of it, luggage and ground crew staff might not be part of United Airlines at all, they might work for O’Hare airport. It’s hard to give credit where it’s due when, as consumers, we’re sort of forced into compressing all our feelings about the travel experience into the airline we choose to fly with. 


Being back in Halifax


Photo from Dennis Jarvis on flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Family circumstances mean that for the last week and a half I’ve been living and working from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and will be here for a few more weeks. It’s been a changing experience to be here, and a very different one from when I’ve returned here for holidays.

I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, and spent 6 years in Halifax going to university. I’ve visited here many times in the years I’ve been away, since we still have family here and nearby. But this is the first time where the initial weirdness of visiting has worn off. Being here for this long, and doing ordinary things like working and buying groceries, has made me feel a little more local once again.

These things, which initially felt strange, have started to feel normal:

  • Everyone’s so freakishly polite, especially in the service and retail industry.
  • Food portions are massive.
  • Relaxed drivers: three times I’ve had cars that were already waiting at a four-way stop reverse to let me cross the street without having to walk around them.
  • Everyone has a funny Canadian accent.
  • The price you see on the tag is not the price you’ll have to pay at the counter.
  • It’s cold: it’s well into spring but some days temperatures max out in the low teens. Nevertheless there are a lot of people in shorts and T-shirts.
  • Lots of hockey. And I don’t feel the need to specify that it’s ice hockey.

I’m looking forward to seeing how things feel when we head out to the country.


New Coursera course: International Human Rights Law

I’ve registered to take another free Coursera online course, but decided against something technical or mathematical this time (mainly because I won’t have as much time to do weekly assignments). So this week I begin International Human Rights Law: Prospects and Challenges from Duke University.

This course introduces the international and domestic laws, institutions, and legal and political theories that protect basic liberties of all human beings.  The course provides an overview of the internal law of human rights and the principal mechanisms and strategies for holding governments accountable for violating those rights.