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Goodbye, Grandma

At almost exactly the same time as I landed in Toronto yesterday, my grandmother took her last breath. She had her son, my father, at her hospital bedside. Freda Belshaw was 93.

Mourning is an intensely private thing, but celebrating someone’s life — as we shall do at her funeral when I get back home — is a more public affair. People process their grief in various ways, and I’m doing so in the only way I know: by writing about it.

My grandma was a matriachal figure, a large presence in any room. She was not someone to be crossed. More than anyone I’ve ever met, she knew her own mind, had definite values, and stuck to them. Apart from the last few months of her life, she stayed in her own home, fiercely independent until finally accepting going into a home for her own safety.

Grandma left school at 14 years of age and, at 15 suffered the dual traumas of her mother dying and the Second World War breaking out. She almost single-handedly raised her younger sister. Marrying my grandad after the war, they lived a happy, working class life in County Durham, where my father was born.

Grandma birthday

She was very proud of my father, her only child. You could not only see it in her eyes when he was around her, but in the way she talked about him when he wasn’t there. They travelled together quite a bit and I was always amazed that she was making trips to the Caribbean right into her late eighties.

As an historian, I’d often ask her about her family, and about experiences during the war, but the subject would quickly change, or she’d say that she couldn’t remember. Freda was not someone to dwell on the past.

I’m sure that over the next couple of weeks, I’ll get some more thoughts together to be able to provide some vignettes and memories for the funeral. Things are a bit raw right now, and I’m writing this with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Goodbye grandma, rest in peace. xxx

Why I’m not using Twitter next month

TL;DR I’m spending time experimenting with and exploring Mastodon during the month of May. You can connect with me at mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw.

Update: I’m now at social.coop/@dajbelshaw, for reasons I expain here.


Back in 2011, when I’d just discovered Open Badges, I led a semester of learning on the concept. Sometimes it’s not enough to play around the edges; you have to jump in with two feet to understand what something’s about. That immersion confirmed my initial thoughts, and I’ve spent the last six years evangelising and advocating for digital credentials based on that particular open standard.

The same was true back in 2007 when I joined Twitter. I thought that this was something revolutionary, something that could not only change the way that professional development was done in schools (I was a classroom teacher at the time) but literally change the world. Unlike Open Badges, of course, Twitter is backed by a for-profit company that floated on the stock exchange a few years ago. It’s a ‘free’ service that requires on advertising to provide shareholder value.

It was easy to forget all that in the early days, as we were giddy with excitement, connecting with like-minded people around the world. Pre-IPO, Twitter seemed like the good guys, being seen as a key tool in people organising to overthrow repressive regimes. In those days, it was easy to use one of a number of Twitter clients, and to route your traffic around the world to avoid censorship. Now, not so much.

Last week, via Hacker News, I came across 8values, a 60-question quiz in the mould of Political Compass. My results are below:

Libertarian Socialism

While I’m aware that this isn’t the most rigorous of ‘tests’, it did set me off on an interesting path. As you can see at the top right of my results, I came out as favouring Libertarian Socialism. I was surprised, as libertarianism is something I usually explicitly argue against.

I decided to do some digging.

The Wikipedia article for Libertarian Socialism is pretty fascinating and, as you’d expect from that site, sends you off on all kinds of tangents via the numerous links in the text. Given that I had an upcoming transatlantic flight coming up, I decided to make use of Wikipedia’s Book Creator. Within five minutes, I had a 500-page PDF on everything from anarcho-syndicalism to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

To cut a long story short, my current thinking is that Mutualism seems to best describe my thinking. I’m re-reading Proudhon’s What is Property?. He’s a little naive in places, I think, but I like his style.

Anyway, this is all to say that we need to re-decentralise the Web. I wrote a few years ago about the dangers of newsfeeds that are algorithmically-curated by advertising-fuelled multinational tech companies. What we need to do is quickly replace our reliance on the likes of Facebook and Twitter before politicians think that direct digital democracy through these platforms would be a good idea.

Ethical Design

So I’m experimenting with Mastodon. It’s not radically different from Twitter in terms of look and feel, but it’s what’s under the hood that’s important. The above image from Aral Balkan outlines his approach to ‘ethical design’ — an approach ensures things look good, but also respects us as human beings.

Decentralised systems based on open standards are really our only hope against Venture Capital-backed ‘software with shareholders’. After all, any promising new startups that aren’t decentralised tend to get gobbled-up by the supermassive incumbents (see WhatsApp, Instagram). But to get to scale — which is important in this case, not for shareholder value, but for viability and network effects — people have to use these new platforms.

So that’s what I’m doing. During May, a month when my Twitter timeline will be full of UK General Election nonesense, I’m using Mastodon. The only things I’ll be posting to Twitter are links to things I’ve written. If you’d like to join me, head here, choose an ‘instance’ (I’m on mastodon.cloud) and sign up. You can then add me: mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw. As in the early days of Twitter, one of the easiest ways to find good people to follow is to find ‘nodes’. I’ve found Anil Dash (@anildash) to a good starting point.

I look forward to seeing you there. It’s a learning experience for me, but I’m happy to answer any questions below!

Header image CC BY Eric Fischer

Weeknote 16/2017

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely structured around education, technology, and productivity. Issue #254 was entitled ‘Eggistentialism’
  • Travelling back from Devon. I flew down to spend Easter with my family, who had travelled down in the car to the in-laws while I was in Northern Ireland. We drove back together via London after climbing Haytor, eating lots of chocolate, and playing PS4 games.
  • Upgrading my Oneplus One to LineageOS, a fork of the CyanogenMod project. That means I’m now running Android 7.1, so I can lock down my device even more than I could before! The only thing I don’t seem to be able to re-enable is shooting photos in RAW mode…
  • Working with London CLC. I ran a two-hour workshop for them, which was focused on writing in networked spaces. I borrowed liberally from MailChimp’s excellent resource on Voice and Tone, as well as introducing the team to Telegra.ph, Write.as, Hemingway, Product Hunt, Betalist, Mastodon, and more!
  • Preparing for my trip to Canada next week. I’m not packed yet, but there’s a level of mental preparation required for a 10-day trip away from home that covers three discrete ‘events’.
  • Collaborating with my We Are Open Co-op colleagues, as well as Rosie Clayton, during our April co-op day yesterday. We invited Rosie along to get to know her better and to help us think through a Ufi bid we’re thinking of making. Read more here.
  • Doing admin. <yawn>
  • Answering questions about digital literacy from Sally Pewhairangi, a librarian from New Zealand. I blogged my responses here.
  • Issuing more badges to those who have completed Badge Bootcamp, a self-paced email course for those new to Open Badges.
  • Pondering many things, as I often do during holidays, including my (so-called) career, where we live, etc.
  • Visiting my 93 year-old grandmother, who’s currently in hospital.
  • Spending more time on Mastodon, the new(ish) Twitter-like network. I’m going to spend the month of May on there, as I think we need to spend time building decentralised, non-VC funded systems. I’ll just be posting blog posts and newsletter updates to Twitter. You can connect with me once you’ve signed up — I’m dajbelshaw@nullmastodon.cloud
  • Writing:

Next week, I fly to Canada (via London) on Monday. I’ve got a meeting and wandering around Toronto on Tuesday, then I’m running a two-day ‘intensive collaboration’ with the Ontario MLN on Wednesday/Thursday. Between Friday and Sunday I’ll be at the Creative Commons Summit, before travelling on to Calgary.

Image CC BY Archangel12


I make my living helping people and organisations become more productive in their use of technology.  If you’ve got something that you think I might be able to help with, please do get in touch! Email: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

 

Weeknote 15/2017

This week I’ve been:

  • Recovering from climbing Ben Nevis and other mountains last weekend. I wrote up that trip, which I made towards getting on the Mountain Leader course, here.
  • Posting various quotations, most of them from Richard Sennett’s magnificent book Together, to my Discours.es blog.
  • Keynoting the Annual Learning & Teaching Conference at Queen’s University Belfast. I presented on The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies and my slides can be found here. It was great to bump into Ibrar Bhatt (who’s just started working at QUB) while I was there!
  • Spending half of the working week in Northern Ireland, because of the above. I didn’t rush to get back home, as the rest of my family have headed down to Devon for Easter. I’m flying down tonight.
  • Setting up new 2.1 Sony soundbar + subwoofer system in my home office, as the power of my existing solution just wasn’t cutting it.
  • Working with Laura Hilliger on our session for the Creative Commons Summit in a couple of weeks’ time.
  • Catching up with Averil Morrow and John Peto while I was in Belfast, Jessica Garcia-Kohl from LRNG, and Verena Roberts about upcoming work I’m doing in Calgary.
  • Curating and sending out Issue #008 of Badge News, a regular newsletter for those interested in the world of Open Badges and digital credentials.
  • Advising MyKnowledgeMap on developing one of their products around eportfolios and badging. I wish some of these tools had been around when I was younger, I really do.
  • Helping with a job advert for London CLC and planning for a writing workshop I’m leading for them next week.
  • Collaborating with Richard Speight on some potential work We Are Open Co-op may do with him now he’s self-employed!
  • Conversing with Eylan Ezekiel in a critical friend role. I really enjoy this kind of work, and I reckon it’s possibly the most effective work I do, from terms of a cost/value point of view.
  • Writing:

Next week, apart from a bit of work in London on Tuesday, I’m not working during the first three days of the week. Thursday is a Co-op day, and then I’m working from home on Friday, planning upcoming work in Canada.


I make my living helping people and organisations become more productive in their use of technology.  If you’ve got something that you think I might be able to help with, please do get in touch! Email: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

Quality Mountain Days 7 & 8: Ben Nevis, Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean

I’m aiming to get on a Mountain Leader course by 2018. To do so I need to complete (and log) twenty ‘Quality Mountain Days‘. The last time I was out was a couple of weeks ago in The Trossachs, which you can read about here.

I planned my routes last weekend. Ben Nevis was straightforward to plan(up and down the tourist trail as fast as I could), but Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean looked like it would be more interesting.

Planning route up Stob Ban

On Monday, one of my clients sent me a link to this BBC News article about a new feature of the Ordnance Survey app. It looked incredible, and I already use the mobile app, so I signed up for a premium subscription. This gives me access for a year to a whole range of features, one of which is the new 3D functionality in the web version.

All of a sudden, those contour lines came to life:

Ben Nevis - 3D route

There was a brief discussion on Twitter (including official Ordnance Survey account) as to whether such easy access to 3D visualisations was a good thing. Some argued that it might lead to less emphasis being placed on the ability to read contour lines.

My view is that it helps enormously with planning, as it allowed me to decide where would be good places to stop and eat, as well as the parts of the route which would require more effort.

Friday (QMD 7)

QMD 7 (actual)

I got up at 04:45, had breakfast, did some final packing and checking (including of the mountain weather service) and set off. I was on the road by 05:30 and it took almost five hours to reach Fort William, the town at the base of Ben Nevis. I left a route card with the guy who runs the hostel I was booked in at,  and drove to the Ben Nevis visitor centre car park.

After I got changed and paid my car parking, I set off straight away. The Ordnance Survey app reckoned it would take me 4.5 hours to ascend Ben Nevis, and I reckoned on a descent of about two thirds of that time. So, about 7.5 hours was the time I allotted.

Ben Nevis path

In the event, it was a lot easier going that I expected. The first part of the route, up to the waterfall, is almost a motorway. The next part was steeper, but not particularly a problem. The only bit that was a bit tricky was the snow and ice above 900 metres. It made me wish I had walking poles — and it was almost slippy enough for crampons.

Ascending Ben Nevis

Walking through the cloud layer was interesting, as I had to go from waypoint to waypoint, as well as following walkers in front of me. I can see why in low visibility it can be easy to get disorientated. At the top, I checked out the highest war memorial in Britain, and then headed back down.

Ben Nevis - summit

Although walking uphill can be tough stamina-wise, I prefer it to walking downhill, which is hard on the knees. I skidded a few times coming down the snow and ice, but after that it was long and boring, but easy-going down to the bottom.

I won’t be hurrying back to do Ben Nevis again but, if I do, it will be with someone else, and we’ll stay at the Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse. It doesn’t look anything special on the outside, but I went there for dinner after a shower at my hostel and checking Foursquare. The food was good, it’s cozy, perfectly placed at the start of the route to the top.

In the evening, I had a great conversation with a thatcher who had come up on the sleeper from London with his mountain bike, and an Australian who was on a tour of Europe. I also got to start an excellent book by Richard Sennett entitled Together : the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation, while listening to a record player in front of an open fire.

Things I learned

  1. Just because a route is popular doesn’t make it interesting.
  2. Circular routes are the best.
  3. Walking poles aren’t just for old people.

Saturday (QMD 8)

QMD 7 (actual)

(N.B. the timing on this is incorrect, but the distance and elevation seem correct)

I was in a mixed dormitory at the hostel. That was fine, but makes changing clothes, etc. something you have to think about rather than just get on with. Of the six of us, the two middle-aged guys snored like troopers, and one of the women talked in her sleep. But, hey, I don’t go to hostels for a good night’s sleep.

Getting up at 05:45, I knew that I had to get out quickly if I wanted to complete my route and then drive back home the same day. I got ready, had some breakfast, handed my key in, and drove to the start point, a car park in Glen Nevis. I reckoned that my walk would take around seven hours, and started at 07:45.

Stream

The path up Stob Bàn was really interesting as it wound alongside a river with plenty of stream flowing into it.

The day before, I’d passed lots of people going up and down Ben Nevis, and even walked with one guy for a while. However, on Saturday I saw no-one for six hours. And yes, it was bliss.

Stob Ban

As I approached Stob Bàn, the wind picked up and the ascent looked more formidable than I had expected. In the end, however, it wasn’t as difficult as it looked, and the views were amazing. I pushed on to Mullach nan Coirean.

Top of Stob Ban

Having visualised this route in 3D, as well as my route up Ben Nevis, I’d noticed that there was a different way down than the one I’d planned. Unhelpfully, this left me in two minds while I was going over rocky ground. I ended up veering off-course, and ending up in a situation where I had to do a course-correction. Instead of retracing my steps or climbing up another steep ascent, I decided to make my way down the mountainside.

This was tough going, and I skidded a bit down the wet heather. I eventually made it to the bottom of the valley, only to find that the fence I was looking for as a waypoint on the map actually impeded my progress. Noticing that someone had cut a small hole in the wire fence, I squeezed through like an octopus.

Walking along the fence on the other side, I then came across this:

Ladder

Needless to say, it wasn’t marked on the map. Nor, though, was the path down from it to the track, so I half-walked, half-ran down back to the car. I stripped off, rubbed myself all over with a wet flannel, changed my clothes, and started the journey home.

Apart from a quick stop in Stirling for an emergency milkshake and to go to the toilet, I made it back in one go. Sitting down for 4.5 hours after walking for six isn’t the best idea in the world, but today I’m not as stiff as I was last time.

Things I learned

  1. A thick sweatband would be a good addition to my gear.
  2. Check and double-check your route when stopping for a drink/snack.
  3. Five hours each way is perhaps too far to drive each way for a two-day trip!

Weeknote 14/2017

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely structured around education, technology, and productivity. Issue #253 was entitled ‘Spring has sprung!’
  • Attending a meeting of the local Scout group’s Executive Committee. Given the concerns I raised about using Facebook as the primary means of communication, it looks like I’ve got a couple of actions relating to the website…
  • Planning a Creative Commons Summit session with Laura Hilliger. We’ll be over in Toronto running a workshop which aims to forge links between co-ops and the commons.
  • Hitting publish on the March issue of my Dynamic Skillset newsletter. What do you mean you haven’t subscribed yet?!
  • Running an online workshop for Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. The session was on Open Badges and part of a week of activities supported by All Aboard: digital skills in Higher Education. The session was recorded, so I’ll share that at some point in the future. My slides can be found here.
  • Catching up with Kev Jones from Sussex Downs College about a potential application our co-op is making to the Ufi VocTech Seed Fund 2017.
  • Reflecting on being in business two years as a consultant. When I see how little many in full-time employment seem to enjoy their job, I’m thankful every day! I wrote up my reflections here.
  • Travelling to and from Manchester to present at the Co-operative Education and Research Conference. It took 6.5 hours to get there due to a fatality on the line, but it was definitely worthwhile going. The slides for my two sessions can be found here and here, and I did a brief write-up on the We Are Open Co-op blog. The keynote from Keri Facer was great, and (amongst others) it was good to catch up with her, Joss Winn, Mike Neary, and Richard Hall.
  • Messing around with ZeroNet. It’s describes itself as allowing ‘open, free and uncensorable websites, using Bitcoin cryptography and BitTorrent network’. Despite still be new and experimental, it’s extremely well-constructed and answers a question I’ve been asking for years about how to create an un-takedownable website!
  • Planning my keynote and workshop for my visit to Queen’s University Belfast next week. I’ve only got 45 minutes on ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’, which I could actually talk about, without notes, for hours.
  • Drafting a job advert for London CLC, as one of their long-serving members of staff is off to join Google! I was keen for them to attempt to recruit someone in a less ‘stodgy’ way than usual, so they’ve video interviewed the person who’s leaving, and I’ve tried to make the job advert more conversational and focused on the individual who’s considering an application.
  • Climbing Ben Nevis, Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean on Friday and Saturday. It was a five-hour journey each well, too, so I spent almost the same amount of time driving as walking! Ben Nevis on Friday was a bit boring, but I enjoyed Saturday.
  • Writing:

Next week I’m working from home on Monday, travelling to Northern Ireland on Tuesday, presenting and running a workshop at QUB on Wednesday, doing some work remotely with MyKnowledgeMap on Thursday, flying home, working from home on Good Friday (I know, I know) and then flying down to meet the rest of my family in Devon for Easter!


I make my living helping people and organisations become more productive in their use of technology.  If you’ve got something that you think I might be able to help with, please do get in touch! Email: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

You can chain a knowledge worker to a desk, but you can’t make them think

This month marks two years since I left my post at the Mozilla Foundation and became an independent consultant as founder of Dynamic Skillset Ltd.

Now then, I’m aware that in sitting down to write this post, there’s is an expectation for me to follow certain conventions. One example is that last sentence: I’ve just used the phrase ‘sitting down’ when I’m actually standing at my standing desk.

Tired phrases and worn out cliches aren’t what I’m about. They’re of no use. I don’t deal in dead metaphors, but in lived experience. As a result, and having never been a fan of convention, I’m going to attempt to turn the usual tropes upside down. Here goes…

1. “I should have made the leap years ago”

Well, no actually. I remember being promoted straight into senior management straight from being a classroom teacher. It was an extraordinarily steep learning curve and, coming at a time when we had a young son and I was writing my doctoral thesis, I wasn’t ready for it.

This time, I was ready for it, having worked at two organisations that gave me progressively more responsibility for managing my own time. Had I not spent two years working on projects at Jisc, and then three years working remotely for Mozilla, it would indeed have been a ‘leap’ instead of a fairly smooth transition.

2. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride”

Yes and no. Mostly, it’s been about finding a sustainable rhythm that allows me to do work I enjoy with people that I like.

I can remember meeting a freelancer at a Nesta event just after I’d become a consultant. That old cynic’s words of encouragement? “Welcome to being skint”. In actual fact, it hasn’t been like that. There’s certainly been months where I’ve earned more and months where I’ve earned less, but I try not to measure my life solely on profit.

Instead, I measure it at how successful I’m being in removing from my life what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘akrasia‘. My aim is to live, as much as is in my power, a simple, upright, and moral existence. To do that, I have to be in control – of myself and my working conditions.

3. “It’s been really hard work”

Hang on, walking up a mountain in a blizzard is ‘hard work’. While I certainly haven’t slacked off, I wouldn’t say I worked any harder than I did while employed. I definitely work differently, and more flexibly, though. I’d already cut out my commute, but not having to attend meetings unless I really want to is pretty awesome. I’ve definitely applied Derek Sivers’ philosophy in that respect.

About six months in, I increased my day rate and went down to working four days per week. After all, I’m the boss, right? So now, most Fridays you’ll find me reading the things that I never used to get around to reading or, better yet, clocking up the Quality Mountain Days as part of my training for the Mountain Leader award.

4. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been”

I think a certain utilitarian philosopher said it best:

I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.

(John Stuart Mill)

Yes, we still have all of the creature comforts, but my attitude towards them has changed. I’ve stepped off the hedonic treadmill. When you’ve got more time on your own, and time to think, you realise that you’re not in competition with anyone.

That being said, the time alone also means you have to exercise greater self-care. That’s physical – making time to walk, swim, and go to the gym – but also mental. In fact, learning to live comfortably within your means (and your own skin) is an incredibly difficult thing when you don’t have as many things to distract you.

Am I ‘happier’ than I was when I was employed? Well, that’s an emotion that comes and goes. Do I feel like I’m more in control of my life? Yes. Do I feel like I’m flourishing more as a human being? Definitely. Happiness can be synthesised. Flourishing can’t.

5. “I couldn’t have done it without X”

In these kinds of posts or speeches, the individual thanks their family (usually) and their friends and colleagues (sometimes) in a quasi-apologetic way. Doing so in this way puts the focus back on the individual themselves, as they thank others for ‘putting up’ with them, or for looking after things (children, pets, other organisations) while they pursued their dream.

On the contrary, this has been a collaborative endeavour from the start. My wife gave up one of her positions in a Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ school to help me with admin and logistics. She’s supported me in very practical ways, suggesting things I never would have thought about, and developing a real head for business.

In addition, and I’ll perhaps expand upon this when we reach our one year anniversary next month, setting up We Are Open Co-op with friends and ex-colleagues has been a revelation. The work we do together is often different from the work I do by myself with my own clients. Both are enjoyable. What the co-op brings, however, is camaraderie and collegiality.

So thank you, Hannah, Bryan, Laura, and John. Not for supporting me on some ‘crazy dream’, but for the everyday comments, advice, and guidance that you give me to help things tick along.

Final thoughts

I still get several people per year emailing me to ask whether I think they should pursue a PhD. It’s always a difficult one to answer. Likewise, I know there’ll be a lot of people reading this post thinking that they quite like the idea of being self-employed. So, given I don’t know your situation, I’m going to point you in the direction of Epictetus for some advice:

In every act observe the things which come first, and those which follow it; and so proceed to the act… A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold, you must not drink cold water, nor wine as you choose; in a word, you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest. And sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated. When you have considered all this, if you still choose, go to the contest: if you do not, you will behave like children, who at one time play at wrestlers, another time as flute players, again as gladiators, then as trumpeters, then as tragic actors: so you also will be at one time an athlete, at another a gladiator, then a rhetorician, then a philosopher, but with your whole soul you will be nothing at all; but like an ape you imitate everything that you see, and one thing after another pleases you. For you have not undertaken anything with consideration, nor have you surveyed it well; but carelessly and with cold desire.”

(Epictetus, Enchiridion, XXIX)

Given that Epictetus was writing 1,900 years ago, I’m going to add ten very practical points to the above. Some of this is advice I was given to me before I started out, and some I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Get an accountant — preferably via a recommendation.
  2. Use online bookkeeping software — the same one as your accountant!
  3. Backchannel like crazy — reach out to people who may be able to help you, call in favours.
  4. Sort out your first six months — get contracts in place, verbal agreements don’t pay your mortgage.
  5. Create productive routines — as any creative person will tell you, it’s extremely difficult working in an environment without any constraints!
  6. Update people often — create something (newsletter, podcast, etc.) that makes it easy for those interested in your work to keep tabs on you and remind them that you’re available for hire.
  7. Build a realistic pricing model — otherwise you’re just licking your finger and putting it in the air.
  8. Share your work — it’s the best form of marketing.
  9. Meet with people often — both online and in-person, to build solidarity and to stave off loneliness.
  10. Book your own professional development — think of conferences and events you can go to, podcasts you can listen to, and books you can read to develop your practice.

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity I will stop there. Questions? I’ll happily answer them!

Weeknote 13/2017

This week I’ve been:

Next week, I’ll be working from home on Monday, working on some We Are Open client stuff. On Tuesday I’m running an online session on badges, then travelling to Manchester. Wednesday I’m presenting at the Co-operative Education & Research Conference. Thursday, I’m working from home. On Friday I’m heading up Ben Nevis.


I make my living helping people and organisations become more productive in their use of technology.  If you’ve got something that you think I might be able to help with, please do get in touch! Email: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

Badging ‘co-operative character’

Next week, I’m running a couple of workshops on behalf of We Are Open Co-op at the Co-operative Education and Research Conference. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m going to focus on the overlap of co-operativism and Open Badges, to explore the concept of ‘co-operative character’. This is something that was emphasised by the early pioneers of the co-operative movement, and feels like something that badly needs resurrecting.

As part of the research for my sessions, I came across a paper by Keith Crome and Patrick O’Connor that they published after presenting at last year’s conference. It’s entitled ‘Learning Together: Foucault, Sennett and the Crisis of Co-operative Character’, and was published in the Autumn 2016 issue of The Journal of Co-operative Studies (49:2, ISSN 0961 5784). The authors were kind enough to help me find a copy to help with my preparations and thinking.

It’s a well-written paper, and the kind that the reader feels could almost be unpacked into something book-length. As the paper is so wide-ranging in scope, it sparked all kinds of ideas in my mind, so I had to be disciplined to retain a focus on how co-operative character might be encouraged through the use of badges. Pivotal to this, I feel, is the authors’ persuasive argument that co-operative character is a virtue, rather than a collection of skills.

Co-operation is a matter of character – it designates an attitude, a disposition, a way of being and acting. And getting to grips with co-operation is essential, so that what is needed is not an account of the various skills that are held to make it up, but a description that conveys the vivacity of the co-operative character as it is inculcated in teaching and learning…

Initially, I was slightly dismayed by this, as I thought co-operative character might not be the kind of thing that is badge-able. However, although badges do tend to be used to scaffold skills development, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used to in developing co-operative character. We just need a slightly different approach.

Crome and O’Connor explore two main arguments against co-operative character being a collection of skills:

  1. Co-operation is inherently positive — “A skill can be put to good use, but it can also be used to harm… A virtue, on the other hand, is fixed: it always looks to the good, otherwise it is not a virtue but a vice.” The authors suggest that the opposite of co-operation is ‘collusion’ – an approach that actively prevents co-operation with other groups.
  2. Co-operation is distinct from technical proficiency — Imagining the case of a callous doctor or rude builder, the authors state: “Even if it is not the case, we would see why someone might say that it ought to be the case that the character of the builder or the doctor is of no significance – what matter is how well they do their job, how technically proficient they are within their respective sphere of expertise.” In other words, co-operation transcends particular techniques and practices, “as co-operation is a virtue relevant to broader society”.

So, to develop co-operative character, we need a more orthogonal approach than the usual skills grid or competency framework. We need something that recognises that people are on a character-building journey. This journey is likely to look very different in various contexts.

I don’t have all the answers yet, that will only come through – yep, you guessed it – co-operation, but our own co-op has done some thinking in a related area. We want to encourage people to learn more about co-ops as business entities, but also about the co-operative movement more generally. Back in December, we wondered what it would look like to badge Principles 5, 6, and 7 of the International Principles of Co-operation.

Co-op Curious badge

We’re believers in minimum viable badges so have begun to issue the Co-op Curious badge to recognise those who have taken the first step in the journey to finding out about more about co-ops. The first ones we issued were to those people who came across to our in-person meetup in a co-operatively owned pub. Other badges we thought up as part of this process were Co-operative Collaborator (issued to members of two or more co-operatives who work together on a joint project), Co-operative Convenor (issued to people who form relationships between co-operatives), and Co-op Convert (issued to people who contribute knowledge or time to co-op educational projects or programs).

There are a whole series of badges that could be used to evidence the seven principles that make up the International Principles of Co-operation. Embarking on this kind of journey feels more like what Crome and O’Connor were getting at in their article.

The closest analogy I can think of with the process I’m going through with my preparations to become a Mountain Leader. While this does focus explicitly on evidencing knowledge and skills, the outcome is actually character-based. Among other things, Mountain Leaders should be resilient, encouraging, and prepared. So, in rejecting co-operative character as a process of skills development, Crome and O’Connor are effectively putting it on a different phenomenological footing:

When we speak of character – when we give witness to the good character of an acquaintance, or when we say that someone is of a generous character – we are speaking about someone’s disposition to act or behave in a certain way. Moreover, if character is tied to ethical values, it nonetheless does not denote a purely interior attitude or set of principles; character is expressed in action and behaviour…

All of this begs the question of why you would even need badges for co-operative character at all. Surely, we know co-operation when we see it? In this regard, co-operative character is no different from anything else: the reason we require credentials is for those times when the person we’re trying to convince is at a distance. We are already known to our immediate community, but need ways to provide data points so that others can do enough triangulation to be convinced of the type of person we are.

Co-op Partners

Returning to our own worker-owned co-op, we’ve been thinking recently about our membership rules and how to grow. Other co-ops in a similar position to us have based eligibility criteria for membership on the amount of time worked. We, on the other hand, are considering a badge-based approach. This would be more tricky to do to begin with, but instead of being focused on the kind of work that could be done in any organisation, co-operative or otherwise, a badge-based approach would lend a distinctive co-operative character to the application and onboarding process.

To conclude, then, I think that badges can be used to develop co-operative character. However, the importance is not the earning of the badge itself, but the way that it evidences the International Principles of Co-operation. Eventually, as with all credentials, the rubber hits the road, and the credential itself, as a proxy for the thing, is no longer required. Credentials are a means to an end.

I’m looking forward to the workshops, as I’m sure people will bring their own thinking, and experience to this particular area!

Main image CC BY-NC Karen Horton. We Are Open Co-op artwork CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers.

Quality Mountain Days 5 & 6: Ben Ledi and Ben Vorlich

First of all, a bit of background: to get onto the Mountain Leader course, I have to complete and log twenty ‘quality mountain days‘. It’s been winter, so my last couple of QMDs were back in October. However, now spring has sprung, I’m off back up mountains.

My previous four QMDs were in the Lake District, but this time I thought I’d mix it up a little by heading to Scotland. This is a little further for me to drive from my home in Northumberland, but, as you’ll see, it was definitely worth it!

Given that it’s only March, I decided against the Cairngorms, leaving that area for the summer months. Instead, I focused on Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.

The great thing about the Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app is that you can see routes that other people have added, and use these as inspiration for your own. I decided to go up Ben Ledi on Friday, and Ben Vorlich on Saturday, staying over at Callander Hostel.

Before I left, I watched some videos from The Bushcraft Padawan, aka Craig Taylor, who I know from the world of edtech. As you can see from the photos of my map further down this post, I followed his suggestions to pimp my map. I checked the Mountain Weather Information Service, which promised optimal conditions!

I knew I’d be tired on Saturday, as I never sleep that well when I’m away from home (especially in hostels where you can guarantee someone will snore) and I’d have spent a full day walking on Friday. It was for that reason, that I decided to walk further on Friday than on Saturday.

Friday (QMD 5)

The route I planned at home went up Ben Ledi, across to Stuc Dhubh, down the trail, through the trees and round past a waterfall, and then along the road back to Callander:

Planned Route - Ben Ledi (QMD 5)

Driving from my home to Callander took a little over three hours. It was a straightforward journey, with light traffic and wonderful views. On arrival in Callander, I found the hostel, parked my car, and tried to find someone to give them a route card. However, there was no-one to be found, so I sent the route to my wife and told her to call Mountain Rescue if she hadn’t heard from me by 19:00.

Instead of driving from the hostel to the start point I’d originally identified, I walked to it, which added a good half an hour to the overall journey time. The initial walk up the path was pleasant.

Approach to Ben Ledi

However, I soon got to a scene of devastation. The timber forest around Ben Levi is a ‘crop’ and as such is harvested. What is left, though, looks like what I imagine parts of England looked like after the Harrying of the North.

I sat down on a few logs and sent my wife the image below. I put down my hat, gloves, and sunglasses. When I got back up, I must have knocked them off onto the ground somehow, as I realised about an hour later that I didn’t have them.

Deforestation on Ben Ledi

The route up to the top of Ben Ledi from that point involved some steep sections, but it was the snow that surprised me. I hadn’t expected it to be so deep!

Just before I made the final ascent to the top of the mountain, I sheltered from the wind behind a rocky outcrop. My hands were dirty, so I rubbed some alcohol gel into them in preparation for eating my lunch. That decision ranks as one of the stupidest I’ve made while on the side of a mountain, as without gloves, the wind on my hands then made them feel extremely stiff. I ended up putting spare woolly socks over my hands.

Once I got to the top of Ben Ledi, I followed a trail on my map rather than a demarcated path. The snow got even deeper at this point, to the extent that I had to start being very careful about the route I was taking.

Heading out from Ben Ledi

My route took me via a couple of tarns, which were partly iced over and beautiful to behold. I just stopped and looked for a couple of minutes, before the cold wind encouraged me to keep moving.

Ben Ledi

The purple line on the map below shows the edge of a boundary between areas looked after by different organisations. It’s also, however, a path. I’d intended to head up to Stuc Dhubh and then down the track to Allt Ghleann Casaig.

However, by the time I got to the top of Bioran na Circe, the snow was thigh-deep, so I made my way down the slope towards the two fords. To make this easier, I kept the stream to my left, and the gully to my right.

Stuc Dhubh

It wasn’t easy going, and I slipped and slid down. I was thankful to get to the bottom. From this point onwards, I was walking along tracks and roads back to the youth hostel. It took me what seemed like ages to get back, and by the time I was on the last stretch, I had my head torch on. I’d already contacted my wife by that point, but I got back just before 19:00.

QMD (actual)

As you can see from the above, I use the OS Maps app to track my route. I was out for over seven hours, walked over 18 miles, and ascended over 4000 feet. I was pretty tired by the time I checked into my hostel, staggering out after a warm shower to get some fish and chips.

I slept reasonably well, despite the inevitable snorer, and the two drunken idiots who burst in at 02:30.

Things I learned

  1. Check you’ve got everything once setting off again after resting.
  2. Don’t put alcohol gel on your hands in cold weather.
  3. Plan interesting routes that don’t involve lots of walking on roads.

Saturday (QMD 6)

The route I planned at home took a straight route from the southern shore of Loch Earn up the path to Ben Vorlich. From there, it looked like a straightforward walk to Stùc a’ Chroin, along the ridge, round and up along the river back to my starting point:

Ben Vorlich (QMD 6)

I was anticipating a couple of things on Saturday. First, because it was the weekend and a beautiful sunny day, I knew that there would be plenty of people out and about. Second, from the map, I anticipated an easier day than Friday. I was wrong on both counts; there were about the same number of walkers, and it was much harder going than Friday.

I bought provisions in Callander, and then drove around to my starting point. I hadn’t needed my ‘proper’ camera or my waterproofs the day before, so I left them in the car to make my backpack lighter.

Start of route up Ben Vorlich

My optician had warned me earlier in the week of the need to protect my eyes given my pale blue irises and ‘larger than average’ pupils. Having lost my walking sunglasses on Friday, I was forced to wear my aviator-style driving sunglasses. This was less than ideal.

It was tough-going up Ben Vorlich. Thankfully, I had a couple of individual walkers ahead of me, meaning that the route through the snow was clear. The path was steep, and very slippery in places. It made me realise why people have walking poles.

Route up Ben Vorlich

I overtook a guy who had a couple of dogs with him, and felt I was doing well. However, life has a way of knocking you down a peg or two and, on this occasion, that was done in quick succession. First, I came over the brow of the hill to see the final ascent involved scrambling through ice and snow. Second, a guy in his early twenties ran past me. Unbelievable.

Top of Ben Vorlich

I did, however, finally get to the top of Ben Vorlich. It felt like an achievement, and the views were stunning. I stopped for a few minutes, and then pressed on towards Stùc a’ Chroin.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I hadn’t read my map very well when planning this route. What I had assumed  was a ridge from Ben Vorlich to Stùc a’ Chroin actually involved a steep, snowy descent followed by an even steeper ascent. I sheltered at the bottom of the pass, enjoying my steak pie and bottle of Lucozade.

Stùc a' Chroin

When I’m out on mountains, I talk to myself in my head. Not in a personality disorder kind of way, just in the sense that I think all of us do: having a conversation as to what’s coming up and what my response is going to be. Usually, I have no problem willing myself on after geeing myself a bit.

However, on this occasion, tired after yesterday’s walk, and surprised at having another steep ascent to make, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I decided to re-route and take what I assumed would be an easier route along the river.

River route

Oh, how wrong I was.

Not only was the way down tricky, but the ground all the way walking down, keeping the river on my right-hand side was extremely boggy. I saw a herd of deer at fairly close quarters, but wasn’t quick enough to take photos.

I struggled through snow on top of sucking mud for what must have only been two or three miles, before turning the corner. I was hoping, but again it was assumption rather than close map reading, that the trail back would be reasonably straightforward. I had only paid attention to elevation, rather than what the ground would be like underfoot.

https://www.cloudhq.net

The journey by the river, however, felt like a walk in the park compared to what came next: walking over snow-covered heather, with small stream underneath. It was really hard-going, and I had to keep an ear out for the tell-tale sound a small stream under the snow. On a couple of occasions, I put my foot down through the snow and heather into a stream.

Snow-covered heather

I was wet. I was tired. I was fed up. The photos all make it look beautiful, I suppose, but I had my head down most of the time, trying to not to stumble. The trail marked on the map was like Blackadder’s four-headed, man-eating haddock fish-beast of Aberdeen. It didn’t exist.

Eventually, I turned a corner and saw something so mundane, but so welcome: a bridge. If there’s a bridge, there’s a path. And from there, I walked down what felt like a motorway back down to my car. I collapsed into the boot, removing my sodden boots and gaiters, tore off a large piece of Soreen malt loaf, and greedily pushed it all into my mouth.

QMD 6 (actual)

The above information really requires the context given above to understand the impact it had on me as a mountain walker. Despite a shorter route both in terms of length and duration, and the total ascent being less than Friday, nevertheless Saturday’s route was hard.

The drive back home was frustrating, both because of my desire to get home and drink all of the whisky in my house, but also due to the weekend traffic and number of speed cameras in the Scottish borders.

Things I learned

  1. Assume nothing. Check and double-check your route, especially when it comes to elevation and ground underfoot.
  2. Consider buying walking poles. It could save your knees.
  3. Mountain water tastes amazing.

Next week, I’m planning to head back up to Scotland for my seventh and eighth QMD. Can’t wait.

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