Discussion topics

Indonesia bans palm oil exports

In late April, the Indonesian government announced a temporary ban on exports of crude palm oil and its refined products, such as cooking oil. The decision came as a surprise to commercial goods traders as the government had previously stated the ban would only apply to refined products. After the government’s initial statement, prices of crude palm oil significantly fluctuated given uncertainties about what products the ban would cover. Prices have again skyrocketed in light of the most recent announcement.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world has seen a wave of food protectionism, as governments seek to protect domestic food supplies in light of surging agricultural prices. As the world’s largest edible oils shipper, providing one third of global supplies, Indonesia threatens to worsen global food inflation with its decision and raises the risk of a full-blown hunger crisis.

Palm oil exports have become a key political issue for President Joko Widodo as cooking oil prices could push the costs of other goods higher ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which is usually marked with feasts and celebration. “Once the local need is fulfilled, surely I will revoke this export ban because I understand how the government needs taxes, needs overseas earnings, and needs a trade surplus,” said the president. “[But] the people’s need is a more important priority.”

Should governments prioritise domestic needs over international ones? Why or why not? Do Homework
Are there any exports that your country protects? Do Homework
How might the products you use be affected by increases in the price of palm oil? Do Homework
Many people consider palm oil a controversial ingredient because palm plantations are a major driver of deforestation. How concerned are you about the ingredients that go into your products? Do Homework

Venture capital discrimination

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator—the tech accelerator that supports early-stage, growth-driven companies through education, mentorship and financing—has funded a number of successful start-ups including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit. Despite this, in 2013 he made a controversial comment about how he evaluates potential companies. He managed to both offend many foreign-born Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and reveal a prejudice common among venture capitalists.

“One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent,” Graham told Inc. magazine. “I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and [you] can’t [do that] if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent.”

Identify at least one useful collocation or idiom in this passage. Do Homework
How do you feel about doing business with non-native speakers of your language? Do Homework
Do you think that there is bias in your society or industry against non-native speakers? Do Homework
How can you inoculate yourself against this prejudice? Do Homework

Health is a sustainability issue

Rare and neglected diseases remain a serious problem in our modern world, despite advances in science and technology. Big pharmaceutical companies don't fund research and development into treatments for these diseases because they aren't profitable. The drugs end up costing much more to make than they'll earn back, so they remain un- or underfunded.

Each rare disease affects relatively few people, so the market is too small to make a profit on treatments. Neglected diseases affect about 1 billion people, but most are in underdeveloped, tropical countries. So, although the market is big, treatments are a poor return on investment because the countries can't afford to pay for them.

An article published in the Sustainability journal in 2019 recommends that we change our perspective to see healthcare as a sustainability issue, rather than an economic one. What if, instead of evaluating a drug in terms of the market, we look at its effect on society and the environment? The authors suggest that pharmaceutical companies be key players in this change of perspective. Companies would lead the way in seeing these drugs as opportunities, not problems. Funding the development of drugs to treat rare and neglected diseases is a chance for the pharmaceutical industry to contribute to the sustainability of our world, especially where the need is most urgent.

Summarize the article in 2–3 sentences. Do Homework
What are some examples of rare diseases? Do you know anyone who has/had one? Do Homework
Does your country suffer from any neglected diseases? Do Homework
How is healthcare a sustainability issue? Do Homework
Is healthcare a universal human right? Do Homework

Elon Musk vs Twitter

Elon Musk is a famous Twitter user. He wants to change Twitter rules on what is allowed to be posted. However, recently he surprised everyone by saying that he would buy this social media company. Musk has been offered loans of $25.5 billion from big American banks and he promised to pay the rest of the $21 billion out of his pocket.

The next day after Musk’s proposal, the board announced they will implement a "poison pill"—a measure that forbids anyone to buy more than 15% of the company’s shares. People fear that Twitter’s shareholders will pressure the board to accept Musk’s offer. Shareholders may want to do it because the share price that Musk has offered is much higher than the current one. On the other hand, this deal means that Twitter will become private, which may lead to unknown consequences for the company. 

Twitter did not make official statements for some time. However, on April 26, the company said it accepted Musk's proposal. This is the biggest purchase in tech history and it can shape the way how billions of people use Twitter.

out of his pocket—pay with his own money
shareholders—individual or entity that owns the shares of a corporation

Do you use Twitter? Why or why not? Do Homework
Describe the situation to your teacher. Do Homework
Do you agree that billionaires should have the power to buy a company? Do Homework
Do you think Twitter will improve now that Elon Musk is buying the company? Do Homework
If you could buy a business which one would you purchase? Do Homework

Humans are compassionate by nature

Bones found in Ireland show that humans have taken care of each other since ancient times. The bones, buried 5,500 years ago, belonged to a child with Down Syndrome. The baby lived to be about 6 months old and was breastfed. When it died, it was buried in a monumental tomb with other adults and children. 

In 2007, at an archaeological site in Vietnam, the bones of a man with a crippling disease were uncovered in a Stone Age grave. His bones indicate that he had a painful condition that would have left him paralyzed for the last several years of his life. Clearly, he was carried by others and given food and other resources that were always scarce in those days. 

Archaeologist Lorna Tilley has collected evidence from as far back as 45,000 years ago that disabled people were as valued as the rest of the community. She accepts these relationships as the fundamental reality of human behavior, rather than rare, atypical incidents. Humans are innately compassionate. The principle of the "survival of the fittest" is untrue—we have carried the unfit with us since the dawn of humanity.

Explain the evidence for human compassion in prehistoric times. Do Homework
What evidence can you give that humans are still compassionate? Do Homework
Why do we care for disabled people? Do Homework
What would our society be like now if humans had lived by the "survival of the fittest" principle? Do Homework

Video conferencing problems

These days, video conferencing is part of the everyday lives of most business people. If you have ever worked online, you have probably encountered a myriad of problems. Sometimes, your connection cuts out; at other times, there is too much glare on your face.

Watch this short video and learn about some examples of the issues that occur during video calls. While watching, think about how the participants could avoid these issues.

What issues did you notice in the video conference? Do Homework
How could the participants have avoided these issues? Do Homework
Imagine you are in a meeting. What would you say to someone if these issues occurred, either on your side or theirs? Do Homework
What is the worst technical glitch or online problem that has happened to you? Do Homework

Visuals: Ukraine and food supplies

Wars have many impacts not only on the countries involved but also on regions and even the whole world. In our globalized world, countries rely on each other for imports and exports. The global supply and demand chain has many steps in it. Disruptions in even one of these steps can lead to severe consequences, such as increased production and transportation costs and a lack of products. It can lead regions to economic crisis, food insecurity and famine. 

Please, look at these two graphs and discuss them with your teacher.


What impacts can the war have on the world? Do Homework
How do you think your country is impacted? Do Homework
What should the international community do in these situations? Do Homework
What are the major imports and exports for your country? Do Homework

The war in Ukraine and the law

The Russian attack on Ukraine has created many challenges for international law. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter forbids the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State”. In response to recent events, the international community states that Russia has violated this by attacking Ukraine. Vladimir Putin disagrees with that and has made several attempts to justify his actions.

When an ordinary person is accused of violating the law, they are taken to court, and their case is investigated. However, things are much more complex when countries' leaders are involved. There is a system called The International Court of Justice that works through disagreements between the countries. Unfortunately, it can only work when all sides of the conflict agree to participate in the process. 

Many world leaders and international businesses filed economic sanctions on Russia and Belarus because of the current situation. Unfortunately, many of these sanctions target the whole country, which means that ordinary people (who might be against the war) suffer, while political leaders and business owners have enough money to push through sanctions. 

All of the above raises a difficult question of what should be done in these situations and how a fair trial can be established.

Please, tell the main points of the article to your teacher Do Homework
What do you think of economic sanctions? Do Homework
How did your country react to the war in Ukraine? What about your company? Do Homework
In your opinion, what would be an ideal resolution to the current situation? Do Homework
Have sanctions ever been imposed on your country? Do Homework

Two types of digital transformation

To prosper in the digital age, companies must undergo two types of digital transformation. Firstly, they need to become digitized. Secondly, they have to become digital.

Though both transformations depend on new technologies, they require different strategies and rules to implement. Digitization requires companies to update their operational backbones. In the past, core operations, such as delivering goods and services, maintaining accounts, and completing back-office processes, were handled by people. These days, however, they can be enabled by software-as-a-service. In addition to digitizing themselves, companies also need to become digital, which means creating a digital platform for the company’s digital offerings. Not only does this facilitate business development and connection with partners and customers, it also allows companies to better target revenue growth.

To conduct both transformations, leaders have to be comfortable using different sets of rules for people overseeing the operational backbone of a company and people working on the company's digital platform. In particular, they need to change their leadership styles according to the group they are working with as well as understand its cultural and operational needs.

Do you think digital transformation projects are more popular these days than in the past? Why? Do Homework
If you have worked on a digital transformation project before, which part was most difficult: digitizing the company or making it digital? Why? Do Homework
Imagine you are the leader of a team managing the operational backbone of a company and a team working on its digital platform. How would you change your management style to suit each team? Do Homework

Restoring degraded land in Mexico

Indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, have been working to restore the soil and forests, with remarkable success. Twenty-five communities have restored 49,000 acres (20,000 hectares) over the past 20 years. Restoration efforts are driven by the communities themselves, who together make up the Chocho-Mixtecas Community Alliance.

Before the Spanish arrived, the area supported a city of about 100,000 Mixtec. The current population of 2,800 struggles to find enough water to drink, let alone to grow crops. Large-scale goat ranching by the Spanish destroyed the soil. Goats pull plants up by the roots when they graze, so over-ranching with goats caused the land to erode all the way down to bedrock.

Rather than abandon their home, local communities decided to try to restore the soil. It's a long process. First, the bedrock must be broken up into small gravel that can hold water. Then trees that can survive in those conditions are planted. Eventually, the trees grow large enough to hold soil and protect native plants and animals.

It's a serious commitment of time, energy, and patience to see the process through. The ownership of the project by the entire community has ensured its success so far.

Explain the process of restoring soil. Do Homework
Look at the map above to see how much of the soil in your country is degraded. Does the amount surprise you? Are there any ongoing projects to restore it? Do Homework
It takes decades to even begin to restore soil. Do you think we have enough time to do enough before too much soil is gone? Do Homework
This project was begun by the community itself, and they do all the work. How does that contribute to their success? What does it teach us about future climate restoration efforts? Do Homework

Tatsuya Tanaka: Life in miniature

Tatsuya Tanaka creates miniature scenes with everyday objects and tiny figurines he has collected over the years. In 2011, he began posting an artwork a day on what he calls the "Miniature Calendar". That means that by 2021, he had created 3,650 miniature scenes.

It all started when his wife gave him a set of miniature plastic cows designed for train sets. Tanaka says, "When I was young, I didn't have enough toys, so I played around with everyday things." He believes that we all have the feeling that "broccoli and parsley might sometimes look like a forest, or the tree leaves floating on the surface of the water might sometimes look like little boats." So he set the cows up with mahjong tiles and numbered blocks and took photos of them.

It takes an average of 2 hours to create each piece. Over the years, Tanaka has collected enough boxes of figurines and objects to cover every wall in his studio. He also creates figurines of himself with a 3D printer to place in some scenes.

When Tanaka posted his first simple cow scenes on Instagram, they were an immediate success. Someone suggested he post something every day, and the Miniature Calendar was born. Tanaka now has more than 3.5 million followers on Instagram, his main platform. Hundreds of thousands of admirers also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He has published books of his works and had shows in major galleries. And it all began with tiny cows.

Choose one of Tatsuya Tanaka's scenes on the Miniature Calendar and describe it in detail. What unusual objects are used? Who are the characters? What is happening in the scene? Edit Homework
Have you ever had the thought that broccoli looks like a tree? Pick another food that looks like something else to you. How could you use it in a miniature scene? Do Homework
Why are Tanaka's miniatures so popular? Edit Homework
What role does play have in human life? Do Homework

Ways of developing workers' skills

It is not a secret that our world is constantly changing, business strategies are continually developing, and technologies are evolving. So how can your employees keep up with all new knowledge and skills? Here are the ways a few big businesses are doing that:

School for employees at DBS bank 

DBS Bank, a multinational company with headquarters in Singapore, ensures that all 26,000 employees are encouraged to keep learning, no matter their age or seniority. 

DBS launched the “Back to School” program. It is a week-long program full of classes that employees teach. The decision not to hire professional teachers was based on research. It showed that people want to learn from their colleagues.

In addition to “Back to School”, the company launched a program that gives the employees a chance to do a different job. For example, a project manager can become a salesperson for a period of time and develop a very different set of skills.

Agility Olympics at State Street

This company with 40,000 employees compared developing staffs’ skills to the Olympics. State Street focuses on agile transformation. It created three “agile maturity” levels that employees can get: bronze, silver, and platinum. The employees who participate in the competition develop their skills and achieve satisfaction and recognition.

The chief agilest Natalie Vinitsky says they “make it a little bit harder every year”. “Think about the Olympic Games that happen every couple years. It definitely shows managers and even team members where they are and how to progress and how to continuously improve.”

Please, tell your teacher what you have learnt from this article Do Homework
Did you like any of the programs? Why? Do Homework
How does your company encourage employees to develop their skills? Do Homework
If you were a CEO, what skills development program would you create? Do Homework

The decline of democracy

Worldwide, democracy and global freedom have been declining since 2006. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse, with many leaders choosing to use authoritarian measures to contain the virus. It was difficult for the opposition to protest the measures because they weren't allowed to gather in groups.

But the trend towards dictatorship began long before the pandemic. The decline is not just happening in nations with authoritarian governments, but even long-standing democracies have suffered. In 2020, nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country where democracy deteriorated. The United States, which has long stood as an icon of democratic values, is becoming so divided that the government can barely function. The 2020 election results were challenged, ending up in an attack on the Capitol building itself.

Look at this graph from Freedom House showing the democracy gap since 2005. Interpret and discuss it with your teacher.

[Image from FreedomHouse.org]

Define "democratic" vs. "authoritarian" government. Do Homework
Do you agree with the premise of this article? Why or why not? Do Homework
Describe the government of your country. How well does it function? How could it be improved? Do Homework
Why do so many people in democratic countries not vote? Do Homework

Personality types and business

Many companies use personality tests to determine the characters of their employees. They say that, if colleagues know each other’s personality type, they can work together more effectively.

One famous personality test is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It works like this. Firstly, you answer a series of questions; then, you are given four letters which indicate your personality type. You can be extroverted (E) or introverted, intuitive (I) or sensing (S), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and judging (J) or perceiving (P). How you answer the questions in the test determines the personality type you are assigned.

The MBTI was developed as a workforce recruitment tool in the U. S. during the second world war. Since the 1960s, around 50 million people have taken the MBTI, including people from public and private institutions, militaries, universities, charities, and sports teams. Altogether, the Myers-Briggs Company—owner of the MBTI trademark—generates around $20 million from such organisations per year.

extroverted—socially confident
introverted—lacking social confidence
intuitive—acting based on what you feel is true without thinking deeply
perceiving—being aware

Have you taken a personality test? If so, do you agree with the results? Do Homework
How can personality tests help companies? Do Homework
What are downsides or limitations to personality tests? Do Homework
Can you think of other tools that improve productivity? Do Homework

War in Ukraine

The whole world has been shocked by the recent events in Europe. Russia waged war against Ukraine—a dramatic escalation of 8 year long tensions between the countries. 

The conflict started in 2014 during the Ukrainian revolution when Russia annexed Crimea and the Donbas region claimed its independence from Ukraine. However, the international community and Ukraine did not agree to recognize these territories as parts of Russia. One of the reasons is that The Russian Federation has been sponsoring anti-Ukrainian groups in the Donbas region, making it difficult for people there to express what they actually wanted. 

Since the beginning of 2021, Russia has been gathering forces on the Ukrainian borders. On 24 February 2022, Russian armies attacked. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, claimed that his nation could not be "safe, develop and exist" next to modern Ukraine and announced his goal of "demilitarization and de-Nazification" of Ukraine. 

There are many questions to Mr Putin’s words. Political tensions aside, the situation has become a catastrophe for ordinary people in the region. People in Ukraine have been living in a state of war, many trying to escape the country. Many countries announced sanctions against Russia and have sent military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. A lot of them, especially the neighboring countries, have also opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees. However, Belarus, a Ukrainian neighbor, hasn’t done so. There has been evidence that Belarus has been siding with Russia. This situation escalates the political situation in Belarus and Russia. People in these countries protested against the war, and many were arrested for doing that. 

The situation continues to unfold. It is the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War in terms of the size of the involved countries, with many people worrying about where it could lead to. 

Could you please tell to the teacher what you know about the situation. Edit Homework
In your opinion, what should the international community do? Do Homework
Do you think that sanctions are effective? Do Homework

Dune sequel set for release

After the box office success of Dune last year, director Denis Villeneuve confirms a second chapter of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic is in the making.

“Right now,” he announced, “I’m in what you call ‘soft prep’… It’s that beautiful part where it’s just dreaming, looking at the ceiling and thinking about the movie storyboards… It’s the moment where everything is possible, before we have the shock of reality that will come.”

Like many films of the COVID era, Dune was originally slated for release in 2020 but wound up being postponed to 2021. Despite the roadblock, the sci-fi epic has managed to live up to the hype, with anticipation now building for a sequel.

“[The sequel] has direct continuity to the first movie,” stated Villeneuve. “[So] it's important for me that the audiences see Part Two as soon as possible.” Though an official release date is yet to be set for the new film, Warner Bros anticipates its appearance late 2023.

Have you read Dune or seen any of the film adaptations? Do Homework
What types of film do you like? Why? Do Homework
Denis Villeneuve states that the soft prep phase is the time before filmmakers realise the "shock of reality". What does he mean by this? Do you agree? Do Homework
Dune is reknowned for its state-of-the art digital effects. How can advances in film technology benefit other industries? Do Homework

Stop-motion animations with wool

Andrea Love uses wool to "paint" pictures, make felt figures, and create animated films. She works as a freelancer in Washington state, from her basement studio. Clients often come to her for commercials and short documentary films. One of her projects was a 4½-minute documentary for the Northwest Straits Initiative. The organization is dedicated to preserving the waters and beaches of the northwest corner of the U.S. For the film, Love created water, waves, boats, birds, a seal and fully dressed human figures—all out of wool fibers and felt.

Love is a master of stop-motion animation. She cooks tiny felted meals in felt kitchens and has characters play felt violins. Wool fibers become steam from a felt coffee cup, filled with felt coffee. She even makes a tiny felt vase on a felt pottery wheel. It seems that nothing can't be made from wool fibers in Love's hands.

Recently, Love and children's book author/illustrator Phoebe Wahl created a short feature film, Tulip. The story is an updated version of the classic fairy tale, "Thumbelina". The 9-minute film took over a year to make. It has won a number of awards at film festivals and is now available to rent or buy from Vimeo. Love and Wahl plan to continue their collaboration on future projects.

What is your opinion of Andrea Love's wool art? Do Homework
Do you like stop-motion animation? What are some examples that you've seen? Do Homework
Felting wool is usually thought of as a craft. Andrea Love uses it for art. What is the difference between craft and art? Do Homework

What is ethical in medicine?

Recently a 57-year-old man received a breakthrough operation. He was bedridden for several months and desperately needed a heart transplant. However, he had several health conditions which made him not suitable for the operation. In a last attempt to save the patient’s life, the Food and Drug Administration gave permission to attempt a genetically modified pig heart transplant for the first time in history. 

The operation was successful. Not only was the patient saved, but the medicine came closer to solving the problem of organ shortages. Unfortunately, the story is not as happy as it might seem.

Three days later, a woman was reading the article about this successful operation. She saw the name of the patient and froze. This same man was guilty of stabbing her brother in the neck seven times in 1988. After being attacked, her brother survived but was left paralyzed for his whole life. He spent 19 years of his life in a wheelchair and died from a stroke at the age of 40.

The woman wished that “the heart had gone to a deserving recipient”, especially considering that 17 people die each day in America due to a shortage in organs for transplant.

The team of doctors didn’t share her opinion. Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University, said: “The key principle in medicine is to treat anyone who is sick, regardless of who they are. We are not in the business of sorting sinners from saints. Crime is a legal matter.” The hospital officials added that "Any other standard of care would set a dangerous precedent and would violate the ethical and moral values that underpin the obligation physicians and caregivers have to all patients in their care."

In your opinion, should someone's criminal history influence medical decisions? Why or why not? Do Homework
Do you think people who commit crimes can change? Do Homework
What are your thoughts on organ donations? Do Homework

Invisible disabilities at work

It is easy to see that someone in a wheelchair has a disability, and workplaces are becoming much better at making accommodations for them. But what about people whose disability doesn't show? Chronic illnesses like heart disease, lupus, or diabetes aren't visible to others. Neither are mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. Because of this, it's much more difficult for these workers to get the support they need.

According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2017, 30% of white-collar professionals had a disability. Some 62% were invisible disabilities. Only 3% of those surveyed told their employers and colleagues about their condition. The other 97% feared discrimination due to their condition, and they were right to be afraid. Discrimination in hiring is commonplace. In France, a study showed that only 2% of those who disclosed a disability on a job application were hired, and in the U.K., 17% reported having a job offer withdrawn. If a person is actually hired, they're much less likely to be promoted as quickly as their colleagues without disabilities.

Globally, about 1 billion people have a disability of some sort. That's 1 in 7 people on the planet. New developments in digital technology are opening up the world of work to those with a variety of challenges. There's a huge market of under-used workers just waiting to be tapped.

What is an invisible disability? Do Homework
Are any of the statistics in the article surprising to you? How many of your colleagues might have disabilities, according to these statistics? Do Homework
How well does your company accommodate workers with disabilities? Do Homework
Discuss the attitude toward people with disabilities in your country. Do Homework

Save energy with new windows

In 1991, researchers at Berkeley Lab invented a triple-glazed window they hoped would revolutionise the building industry. Though windows with three panes had existed for years, what distinguished Berkley’s design from precursors was the presence of a centralised, thin layer of glass. This made the window lighter, as less material could be used to make the external panes. It also made the window more energy efficient, as compartments either side of the central layer could be filled with insulating gas. On paper, the window had the potential to cut annual heating bills by 39 percent and reduce air conditioning costs by 28 percent. The only problem was that it was prohibitively expensive to manufacture.

Berkley’s design remained "unmanufacturable" for decades. But in recent years, thanks to a marked drop in thin glass manufacturing costs, brought on by the rise of mobile phones and LCD screens, thin triple-glazed windows are now a viable option for reducing energy use.

According to a 2019 survey, approximately two-thirds of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from building heat and cooling losses. If big cities like New York installed triple-glazed windows in all newly built houses, think of how much energy we could save.

Which items in your household use the most energy? Edit Homework
Think of three ways you can save energy in your everyday life. Do Homework
Do you think human society is facing an energy crisis? Why/why not? Do Homework
Can businesses be environmentally friendly while remaining profitable? Do Homework