Discussion topics

The importance of smartphones

Smartphones are everywhere. People use them in rich countries and poor countries. Sometimes very poor people have smartphones, even when they live in slums. I think that most people understand how important smartphones can be. For example, some taxi drivers would have less business without a smartphone. This is because they can find riders through an app and make more money than just looking for customers on the street.

Phones have changed a lot in the last 20 years. I remember when you could only make calls on cellphones. Now, you can take free classes from top universities. You can record a video, edit it and upload it to social media.  

There are many apps available—over 2.8 million are available for download on the Google Play Store. Apple's App store has more than 1.8 million. Some people use these apps a lot. Research shows that 20% of millennials open an app more than 50 times per day. In general, most people use 10 apps each day.

Discussion: 
Summarize this article. Do Homework
How much time do you usually spend on your smartphone each day? What do you usually use it for? Do Homework
How have smartphones changed our lives? Do Homework

Artist Takashi Murakami and AI

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has always taken risks with his art. He blends traditional and contemporary styles to create wildly colorful pop art. He is often compared to Andy Warhol, the famous American pop artist.

Murakami has always embraced new technologies, like NFTs and cryptocurrency. So he isn't afraid of AI-generated art. But he does see the harmful effect it might have on artists. In his words:

AI will certainly do damage to technical trades, but I don’t think it will be able to block our ideas. The wackiest ideas, those that even AI cannot generate, will become even more valuable.

He compares it to the Apple II computer, when it came out in the 1980s. The Apple II was able to do a lot of the work that graphic designers had done by hand. But, according to Murakami, it "swept away an older generation of design professionals, but empowered those who embraced it."


To read more about AI and art, see "Is art created by A.I. really art?"

Discussion: 
How does Takashi Murakami feel about AI-generated art? Do Homework
What does "embrace" mean in this context? What technologies have you embraced? Do Homework
Can you think of other new technologies that have disrupted the art world? Do Homework
Is AI-generated art really art? Do Homework

City of festivals

Melbourne, Australia—where I live— is a city of festivals. Every year there are arts, music, film, food, beer, wine, and cultural festivals. For example, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Street Food Festival, and Autumn Festivals. There's always something to look forward to in my city.

There are so many festivals, some of the names are almost the same. We have a Jazz Festival and a Mussel and Jazz Festival. The good part about these two festivals is that one has international jazz musicians and the other one has local jazz musicians, so attending both allows one to have different experiences.

In my opinion, such events give us the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. We also get the chance to take a break from the routine of the week by being outdoors, listening to some music and eating good food. 
 

Discussion: 
Summarize the last paragraph. What points does the writer make? Do Homework
What festivals have you enjoyed going to? Do Homework
In your opinion, are festivals important? Why or why not? Do Homework

Changing the role of the police

Black Lives Matter Protest, Seattle WA

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to advocate for change, one of the many calls has been to redefine the role of the police in the U.S. Excessive use of force by officers has sparked criticism, leading to calls for alternative methods. Several proposals have started to emerge and be implemented in response.

Most of these alternatives are focused on ways to restructure public safety by reducing the scope of situations in which the police are automatically in charge. One suggestion is to train specialized nonviolent officers to handle nonviolent issues, such as conflicts on the road. Unarmed traffic police officers could receive conflict resolution training to address these situations. By emphasizing peaceful resolutions, encounters can be de-escalated.

Another idea is to involve mental health workers in responding to mental health concerns within the community. Dispatching trained professionals to incidents involving individuals in crisis can prioritize understanding and support, reducing the likelihood of confrontations. Additionally, exploring community mediators has gained traction. An example of this is CAHOOTS. They specialize in facilitating dialogue and resolving disputes within the local community, fostering harmony and mutual understanding.

Discussion: 
This article mentions a few ideas for police reform—what are they? Do Homework
What's your relationship with police—have your interactions been positive, negative or neutral? Do Homework
What's the ideal role of the police? Do Homework
In your opinion, what can be done to ensure the police play their role in society? Do Homework

The evolution of video games

Video games have changed a lot in the last 30 years. In the 1990s, Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers looked very high-tech.

In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was released. It was the first game where a player could explore a limited 3D map. The engine also allowed the player to have different experiences. For example, the enemies acted differently every time you played the same map.

Since then, video games have become even more complex. Skyrim (2011) lets gamers play freely in a huge, beautiful world. The design and detail are fantastic. One of the most popular releases this year is Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. This game has an open scenario with a linear story at the same time. Also, it offers a large dungeon-like map. It has three different layers of adventure: the Depths, the Surface and the Sky.

It's hard to imagine how video games will change in the next 30 years!

Discussion: 
Have you played any of the games mentioned in the article? If not, which one would you like to play? Do Homework
Have you ever played games on a virtual reality set? If so, describe the experience. Do Homework
How do you think video games will change in the future? Do Homework

Visuals: Obesity around the world

Obesity is a growing problem around the world.

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. BMI is used to determine whether you are in a healthy weight range for your height. For instance, a person who is 180cm (5ft 11in) and 97kg (213lb) has a BMI of 29.7. 

The rate of obesity varies greatly around the world. Please have a look at the map below and discuss what you see with your teacher.

Discussion: 
Which parts of the world have the lowest obesity rate? Which have the highest? Do Homework
How does your country’s obesity rate compare to that of its neighbours? Do Homework
Are you surprised by any country’s or region’s obesity rate? Do Homework
What can be done to deal with the growing problem of obesity around the world? Edit Homework

AI's impact on the movie industry

Futuristic computer graphic of glowing human face

The film industry is grappling with concerns about the future in light of the rapid advancements of AI technology. When questioned about these potential effects, ChatGPT emphasizes how AI can assist humans, making tasks like scriptwriting, special effects, and audience analysis faster and more effective. It highlights that AI is a tool without any sinister plans to take over the world.

Conversely, the perspectives of human interviewees paint a somewhat gloomier picture of the future. Their biggest fear is that their creative work will soon be replaced and go unrecognized. The ability to synthesize voices and digitally alter faces through visual effects is already a reality. In fact, this technology was utilized to de-age Harrison Ford in the latest Indiana Jones movie, and AI has replicated James Earl Jones' iconic Darth Vader voice for the upcoming Star Wars series.

Even though this sounds scary, some industry leaders remain skeptical, believing that AI technology lacks certain human qualities necessary to create an exceptional screenplay. AI is also being compared to other significant revolutions throughout human history, such as the agricultural, industrial, and internet revolutions. It is seen as an inevitable and necessary development for humankind. After all, humans have always demonstrated the ability to adapt, haven't we?

Discussion: 
What benefits and drawbacks does the article mention about AI’s impact on the movie industry? Do Homework
Do you believe AI technology poses a threat in your line of work? Do Homework
Are there any areas where human creativity is irreplaceable? Do Homework
Is AI in the film industry a positive development or a threat to human creativity? Do Homework

Do you know how to rest?

Our society has taught people to always work hard. People are learning how to be more productive, but they also have the idea that they should always be busy. These people think "busy" and "productive" are the same thing. When these people finally rest, they feel bad. They think they are lazy. They might even work until they break down from tiredness.

American psychotherapist Sarah McLaughlin says 70% of visits to the doctor are because of stress-related issues. She suggests we start taking care of ourselves as much as we try to complete tasks. She says that we need to think more realistically about ourselves, “If this task does not get done today, it does not mean I have failed. It just means that I will get to it tomorrow.” Here are some pieces of advice from two psychotherapists, McLaughlin and Pantha Saidipour, on how to forget about work before resting:

  • Practice acceptance. Remind yourself you are not a robot, and you can’t just keep going perfectly.
  • Allow yourself to rest. Tell yourself that you have worked hard, and you are going to rest now. Take a few deep breaths, focus on them and clear your mind of work.
  • Notice what is around. Notice the chair you are sitting on, the smells, the sounds.
  • Focus on yourself. Think of what gives you pleasure. For example, cooking, reading, or playing sports. Make sure to find time during your week to do these activities.

We certainly all need a break!

 

Discussion: 
Please summarise the article. Do Homework
The article says "busy" and "productive" are not the same thing. Do you agree? Edit Homework
What do you find relaxing? Do Homework
How do you know when you are not well-rested? Do Homework
What would the world be like if no one had to work to survive? Do Homework

J. J. Abrams & the Mystery Box

J.J. Abrams has created many action and sci-fi films and TV series. A few of the best-known are Star Wars, Mission Impossible III; and the TV show, Lost. Abrams loved magic when he was a boy. He once bought a Magic Mystery Box. For $15, he got $50 worth of magic. He carried the box everywhere he went, but he never opened it. Why not? He finally realized that it was the mystery that was so special. Not knowing what's in the box allowed him to imagine it. Mystery inspires imagination. So the box helped him use his imagination.

Abrams sees today's technology as part of the magic. Without special effects, he couldn't bring his stories to life.

In math terms, you could say:

Mystery + imagination + technology = magic!

For Abrams, magic exists wherever there is mystery. And technology can help us see it.

Discussion: 
Why is "mystery" important to J.J. Abrams? Do Homework
Would you buy a mystery box? What do you think would be inside? Do Homework
If you could write a sci-fi film, what would it be about? Do Homework

Changes in the job market

Man in White Shirt Using Macbook Pro

In the US, the labor market is slowing down. Around 250,000 workers found new jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, last April.

However, few jobs are hiring at the moment. Employers are looking for highly skilled individuals and cutting unnecessary jobs. Some of the industries hiring are professional and business services, health care, leisure, and hospitality. There is also high demand for specialized construction contractors and food service experts. Professional and business services had the biggest increase, adding 43,000 jobs. Employees in this industry made an average of $40.20 per hour.

Unfortunately, there were job losses in other areas. Many people working in employment services, like recruiters, lost their jobs. In fact, around 24,000 HR workers were laid off. There were job cuts in public transportation and building construction too. The real estate business is also struggling because people are working from home, and construction projects are delayed because of high interest rates.

Discussion: 
Which industries are actively hiring employees? Which ones are cutting jobs? Do Homework
Why is the American labor market slowing down? Do Homework
Is this situation similar to your country’s job market? How is it similar/different? Do Homework
In your opinion, how can governments improve labour markets? Do Homework

Women called cows home

Cows grazing on a mountain

For centuries, women in Sweden called their cows home with a sound called kulning. Now, kulning has been embraced by many, including universities as a form of art. But from medieval times until the mid-20th century, the sound could be heard every summer, ringing across the mountains. Reaching up to 125 decibels, kulning can be heard over 5 km (1 mi) away. Since cattle tend to wander off, they needed to be able to hear the herdswomen calling them.

It was traditionally women who went up the mountains with the herd in the summer. They each lived in a small settlement, tending the animals. They milked the cows, made cheese and spent hours doing all the rest, like cooking, knitting, mending, making brooms, etc. It was hard work, but the women also had a lot of freedom without men around. They could do whatever they wanted up there.

Kulning not only helped the women communicate with their cows; it was also used to communicate with each other. If someone's cow wandered off and another woman found it, she'd call out a special melody that let others know the cow had been found. It created a community among isolated women on the mountains.
 

Discussion: 
What is kulning? How was it used? Do Homework
How would it feel to live on a mountain for 6 months, taking care of cattle, working 16-hour days, all by yourself? Do Homework
For centuries, kulning skills were passed down from generation to generation orally. Now it's taught in classrooms, since very few women use it anymore. Do you think traditions that are no longer necessary should be kept alive? Why or why not? Do Homework
Discuss the freedom these women experienced, living away from men. What was their life like the rest of the year? Do Homework
How much freedom do women have in your country today? Do Homework

Cherry blossom season

People enjoying hanami under a cherry blossom trees

Cherry blossom season is known for attracting tourists to any city that has these ornamental cherry trees. More than 1.5 million people visit Washington, D.C each year for its National Cherry Blossom Festival, and Japan also experiences an influx of millions of tourists when the trees begin to bloom in March.

Did you know:

  • The “Cherry Blossom Capital of the World” is Macon, Georgia, in the U.S. It has over 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees, compared with fewer than 4,000 trees in Washington, D.C. Surprisingly, the most popular spot for hanami in Japan—Yoshino-Kumano National Park—only has about 30,000 trees.
  • There are more than 600 varieties of cherry trees in Japan.
  • Legoland Japan made the largest LEGO brick cherry blossom tree in 2018—800,000 bricks were used to make the structure. It is 14 feet tall, and it weighs 7,000 pounds.

Cherry trees only bloom for one to two weeks and keep their “peak color” for about 3 days, so plan your trip wisely if you want to travel to see them.

Discussion: 
Which fact do you find most interesting about the cherry blossoms? Why? Do Homework
Apparently, the “Cherry Blossom Capital of the World” is Macon, Georgia. Would you like to go there? Why or why not? Do Homework
Why do people travel long distances to see things like cherry blossoms, or tulips, or waterfalls? What is the attraction? Do Homework
Is beauty necessary for human life? Do Homework

Gen Z: trouble in the workplace

Woman working online with a computer

Gen Z employees have many advantages in the modern digitalized workplace. They are used to remote working and can usually choose their work conditions.

But it can be hard for them to communicate and behave correctly amongst others. That’s because they might not have any experience with casual situations and interactions other generations were exposed to in a physical workspace.

In the past, these circumstances helped young employees understand how to behave, work together, and network. For example, a casual exchange of ideas by the water cooler or an office seating arrangement helps us know who is more available or understand the chain of command.

As a result, inexperienced Gen Z workers are great with specific tasks they can do alone but struggle to understand the work environment as a whole. Unfortunately, that means they are not given the chance to develop leadership qualities.

Discussion: 
Why do younger workers have a hard time socializing with their peers? Do Homework
Have you had any experience working with Gen Z? How was it? Do Homework
What can we do to help Gen Z workers succeed in the workspace? Do Homework
What will the new world of work look like 10 years from now? Do Homework

Leading across cultures

In the work environment, unexpected misunderstandings often arise as a result of cultural differences in leadership styles. Americans, for example, see themselves as egalitarian and think of the Japanese as hierarchical. But American leadership seems to be unclear. This is mainly because American bosses are outwardly egalitarian—relating with subordinates on a first name basis and encouraging them to participate in meetings—they can be extremely top-down in the way they make decisions.

It's very common for people of different cultures to struggle with mutual incomprehension. The main reason for this is managers' failure to differentiate between two important aspects of leadership culture.

The first of these is authority or hierarchy. This involves paying attention to a person's rank or status and how much respect the person receives. In this regard, the Japanese are more hierarchical than Americans. However, the second aspect, decision making, is the opposite. Whether it's the boss who makes the decision or it's the team, this is not clear. In relation to this aspect of leadership Americans are less consensual than the Japanese.

Discussion: 
How would you describe the leadership style of your company? What about your style? Do Homework
Do you agree with the author's generalisation of Japan and the U.S. in terms of leadership style? Edit Homework
Imagine a colleague of yours goes to the U.S. to work. Considering American culture, how would advise your colleague to lead their staff and deal with their own managers? Do Homework

The surprising origins of sushi

According to Executive Sushi Chef Kazunari Araki, sushi is not originally Japanese.

He says the combination of rice and fish began in the 3rd century along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. It was cleaned, gutted and finally covered in a salt and rice mixture for several months in order to preserve it. When the fish was ready for consumption, the rice would be thrown away as it would have become too salty to eat. 

By the 12th century, this process had spread to China, and subsequently Japan, where it was called narezushi. According to Araki, things changed in the 16th century, vinegar replaced salt, which was key to the development of sushi. This also led to the name sushi—which translates to “vinegared rice”.

Another milestone on this journey was reached in the Meiji era, in the 1900s, when people started using ice machines. Fish could be kept fresh without marination. People only needed to cut the fish, place it on top of rice and enjoy the meal!

 
Discussion: 
Please summarize this article in as few words as possible. Do Homework
Did you know about sushi’s origins? If not, did this article surprise you? Do Homework
One might argue that origins almost always come from abroad—Korean kimchi was shaped by traders importing chilis, for instance. So, when does a country's food become its own? Do Homework

The do-nothing man

Shoji Morimoto is 38 years old and lives in Tokyo. He has a unique job: people pay for his companionship.

Morimoto charges 10,000 yen per booking. People have hired him over 4,000 times in the last four years. He has nearly 250,000 followers on Twitter, and he finds most of his clients there. He also has many repeat customers.

Morimoto's job is to be wherever his clients want him to be and to do nothing in particular. For example, he once went to a park with someone who wanted to play on a see-saw. Another time, he visited a train station to wave goodbye to someone. However, Morimoto doesn't accept every offer. He refused to move a fridge and refused to go to Cambodia.

Morimoto's job is his only income, and he supports his family with it. He sees about one or two clients a day.

Discussion: 
What does Shoji Morimoto do for a living? Do Homework
Why do people hire Morimoto’s services? Do Homework
In your opinion, could Morimoto do this job in a different city? Do Homework

A walk in the park

Nature provides a place of inspiration, reflection and healing. Studies show that nature has the ability to affect the mind, body, and spirit positively.

The health benefits for kids are astounding: outdoor activities improve distance vision, increase physical fitness, reduce attention deficits and hyperactivity, and raise test scores.

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing is the act of walking and spending time in forests. It is a well known form of preventive health care in Japan. In Scandinavian countries, the essence of spending time outdoors is summed up in the word friluftsliv (free-loofts-liv), translating to “open air life.” These views show that life can be improved by spending time in forests.

Since most people now live in urban areas, green spaces are becoming essential to our health and well-being. Just taking a 30-minute walk along a path lined with trees is physically and psychologically beneficial.

Discussion: 
Summarize this article in 3 sentences. Do Homework
Do you spend time walking outdoors in parks or forests? How often? Do Homework
When you have spent time in nature, did you notice any benefits? Do Homework
How can cities provide opportunities to be in nature? Do Homework

Using DNA to track supply chain

Pile of denim jeans at a store

Consumers are becoming more interested in sustainability and want to know for sure where products come from. One way to do this is to use DNA. For example, a supplier in the US grows organic cotton. The cotton is then sprayed with a unique DNA combination. This makes it easy to find out if a final product is made from that cotton. No one can substitute cheaper, non-organic cotton anywhere in the supply chain.

Another concern is labor practices. Consumers want to be sure the workers who produce the goods are treated well. The US has established new rules requiring companies to prove that imported goods were not made with forced labor. If they can't, then the goods are seized at the border. From January to March in 2023, border officials seized almost $1 billion worth of shipments.

The supply chain for manufacturers has become extremely complex. Proctor & Gamble, for example, has up to 50,000 direct suppliers. Each of those suppliers might have hundreds of other suppliers to make their product. Without the DNA spray, it's easy to replace genuine goods with cheaper or unethical ones. And it's hard to find out if that has happened. With the new DNA technique, that problem is solved.

Discussion: 
How does DNA help companies and consumers? Do Homework
Do you care where products come from? Does it influence what you buy? Do Homework
Explain the supply chain for a pair of denim jeans. What suppliers are involved? Do Homework
What will the supply chain look like 10 years from now? Do Homework

Son Doong—the world's largest cave

Son Doong ("Mountain river") cave in Vietnam is the largest cave in the world. It was discovered first in 1991 by a local farmer, then in 2009 British explorers relocated it with the farmer's help. About 9km (5.5mi) long, with a rushing river and caverns that could hold an entire New York City block with 40-floor skyscrapers, it's more than twice the size of the largest previously known cave, Deer Cave in Malaysia. Just imagine—a Boeing 747 jet plane could fly through some areas without the wingtips touching either side!

Even more incredible is the rainforest that has grown beneath a place where the limestone ceiling collapsed. Vegetation, insects, birds, and other animals (including tigers!) all live in this miniature forest. Elsewhere, there are "cave pearls" the size of baseballs, stalagmites 70m (230ft) high, and even a sandy beach.

In 2019, an underwater tunnel was discovered linking Son Doong cave with another nearby cave called Hang Thung, which adds another 1.6 million cubic meters to Son Doong's 38.5 million. With the additional space, any other cave currently known in the world could fit inside.

Discussion: 
From what you've read, what would you say is the most memorable feature of this cave? Why? Edit Homework
Have you ever been inside a cave? How much would you be willing to endure to explore a cave like this? Edit Homework
Would you rather explore underground caves, the depths of the sea, or outer space? Why? Do Homework
Vast amounts of underground and undersea terrain is still unexplored. Do you think we will ever discover everything that exists on Earth? Do Homework

Wilson the tomato plant perseveres

When I was a kid, my father had a huge vegetable garden. He taught me how to plant and grow vegetables from seed to harvest. One year I decided to grow a tomato plant. I named it Wilson after a song I liked by Livingston Taylor.

Well, Wilson had a couple of serious accidents along the way. First, his pot fell off the shelf when he was a seedling and he crashed onto the floor. But I picked him up and put him in another pot, and he survived. Then our horses got loose in the garden, and one of them stepped on Wilson and squashed him flat! All that was left was a little stem. My dad was sure that was the end of the story. But I put stem-Wilson in a pot and he quickly grew back and returned to the garden. At the end of the summer, he gave us lots of big, healthy tomatoes.

Decades later, I still think of Wilson when I’m feeling discouraged. He went through a lot but I never gave up on him, and he ended up being very productive. So—never give up. With perseverance, you can have a great harvest.
 

Discussion: 
What is the main point of this article? Do Homework
What did your father or mother teach you to do when you were young? Do Homework
When in your life have you had to overcome obstacles to succeed at something? Do Homework
Recent scientific experiments seem to show that plants have a kind of consciousness, intelligence, and memory. What do you think about that? Do Homework