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Things could be worse

I’m reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman at the moment. It’s an amazing read, and perfectly suited to our pandemic present.

It’s a long book, so I feel justified in skipping over the occasionally-lengthy descriptions of battles and campaigns, in favour of the much more interesting economic, social, and cultural history.

As a former History teacher (and someone with an MA in the subject) I’ve always found the undue focus on political and military history a bit boring, which is why I appreciate Tuchman’s comment on how it’s the extremes of time periods that tend to be recounted by historians.

In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.

Barbara Tuchman, ‘A Distant Mirror’

Tuchman throws in all kinds of interesting tidbits of information, such as two-thirds of the population of Europe being under the age of 21 throughout the 14th century. Half were under 14! She uses this to explain the general lack of maturity in everyone from peasants to nobles.

Some might wonder why I’d want to read something so ‘depressing’ as the population of Europe being reduced by a third during the Black Death. After all, isn’t that a bit close to home right now? I’ve actually found the opposite is true: reading things like this make you realise that we live in much more pleasant, civilised, and reasonable times, and that things could be far, far worse


This post is Day 21 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

One year.

This time last year, a good friend of mine passed away unexpectedly. This is just a short post to say that Dai Barnes will not be forgotten, and lives on in the fond memories of friends and family.

I’m not sure what he would have made of 2020, but I miss not having the opportunity to discuss with him this year of all years. He probably would have called it ‘interesting’ which was his euphemism for anything with which he disagreed (or thought was a bit shit).

I think of Dai regularly, and certainly every Sunday night, which was often the time we’d record the TIDE Podcast. Some people have suggested I find a new co-host, but I think listeners will agree he was irreplaceable.

Rest in peace, Dai. I still miss you, buddy.


This post is Day 20 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Opinions and preferences

If there’s one thing that my family and friends can rely on me for, it’s an opinion.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an opinion as:

A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

But is everything that we have a view on actually opinions? Are some things mere preferences?

The OED defines a preference as:

A greater liking for one alternative over another or others.

Recently, I’ve been doing some introspection about my preferences. This is, in part, due to the work that I’m doing while on loan to Outlandish from my home co-op.

Diagram showing 'preference' circle inside larger 'range of tolerance' circle

Outlandish use Sociocracy to make decisions, and the above diagram was part of my induction.

Sociocracy, also called dynamic governance, is a system of governance which seeks to create harmonious social environments and productive organizations. It is distinguished by the use of consent, rather than majority voting, in decision-making, and of discussion by people who know each other.

Wikipedia

What I like about Sociocracy is that it gives everyone a voice through the use of ’rounds’, recognises that emotion is an important part of decision-making, and (crucially) tackles preferences head-on.

This was particularly useful to me recently with some decisions we had to make about the colour scheme part of We Are Open’s rebrand. I realised that, while I’ll happily express an opinion on anything, these are usually based on mere preferences.

This realisation was more liberating than I expected it to be. As a result, I’ve resolved to check whether I’m expressing an opinion or simply a preference when interacting with others. I have a feeling that, most of the time, it will be the latter.


This post is Day 19 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Musonius Rufus on meat

Further to yesterday’s post, I’ve continued reading the Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. It seems like he was a cool guy.

On the subject of food he used to speak frequently and very emphatically too, as a question of no small significance, nor leading to unimportant consequences, indeed he believed that the beginning and foundation of temperance lay in self-control in eating and drinking.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

It would appear that he didn’t eat meat.

On the other hand he showed that meat was a less civilized kind of food and more appropriate for wild animals. He held that it was a heavy food and an obstacle to thinking and reasoning, since the exhalations rising from it, being turbid, darkened the soul. For this reason also the people who make larger use of it seem slower in intellect.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

Having just come back from a beach barbecue this is top of mind at the moment. Thankfully, with friends and family we’re past the inane questions about the smell and taste of bacon butties. Yes I like the taste of meat. Yes I’ve realised it’s cruel to kill animals and eat them. No I’m not tempted just this once. No I’m not virtue signalling.

It’s worth noting that I do eat fish, although I try not to think too much about this, as I don’t have strong arguments as to why I’m pescetarian rather than vegetarian. To be quite honest, it’s a matter of convenience, as it makes me easier to cater for, and affords me more options when we go out for dinner.


This post is Day 18 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Living a good life is not a theoretical exercise

At another time the problem rose among us whether for the acquisition of virtue practice or theory is more effective, understanding that theory teaches what is right conduct, while practice represents the habit of those accustomed to act in accordance with such theory.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

My go-to reading on Stoicism is Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, probably in that order. I hadn’t read Musonius Rufus before, despite seeing him referenced in Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.

Picking up a copy of That One Should Disdain Hardships, I found that Musonius Rufus was a reasonably progressive thinker for his time on, for example, whether women should study philosophy. Like Epictetus and Socrates, it’s actually his students writing down what they’ve learned.

In one of the early chapters, Musonius Rufus explains that practice is more important than theory when it comes to virtue. He uses three examples to illustrate his points: physicians, sailors, and musicians. In each case he pits someone who knows the theory and can speak well about the subject against one who is practically skilled — but cannot speak well on the subject, and perhaps doesn’t know the theory. His interlocutors agree in each case that practical skill is better than theoretical knowledge and rhetorical ability.

How, now, in view of these conclusions, could knowledge of the theory of anything be better than becoming accustomed to act according to the principles of the theory, if we understand that application enables one to act, but theory makes one capable of speaking about it?

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

I have spent much of my adult life studying Philosophy, either formally at university or informally through reading and discussing. But living a good life is not a theoretical exercise, and that is why my Mastodon bio simply quotes Epictetus in saying:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.

Epictetus

This post is Day 17 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

HOWTO: Create radically smaller images for your minimalist blog

Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I searched the web to find out how to create a ‘stippled’ effect for images. This reduced the size of an 2.2MB image to a mere 30.6KB, which if I’m not mistaken, is a reduction in filesize of over 95%! Here’s how to do it, using free and open source software.

Tree

0. Download and install GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)

1. Open the image you want to convert in GIMP

2. Resize the image to the maximum width of your blog (~600px in my case) by going to the Image menu and then to ‘Scale Image…’

3. Convert the image to greyscale by going back to the Image menu then Mode and selecting ‘Greyscale’

(optional step: wash out the image by going to the Colours menu then Levels and change the number in the box under ‘Output levels’ to 180)

4. Convert the image to indexed colours by again going to the Image menu then Mode and this time selecting ‘Indexed…’

In the box that appears:

  • Under Colourmap choose ‘Use black and white (1-bit) palette’
  • Ensure box ‘Remove unused and duplicate colours from colourmap’ is checked
  • From the drop-down Colour dithering option choose ‘Floyd-Steinberg (normal)’
  • Press the Convert button

5. Export the image by going to the File menu and selecting ‘Export As…’ In the box that appears, type in a filename that ends in ‘png’ (e.g. image.png)


This post is Day 16 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 30/2020

I’ve written quite a bit this week as part of my #100DaysToOffload challenge:

Over and above what’s detailed in these posts, I’ve been splitting my time between working on projects for We Are Open and Outlandish this week. For the former, my ‘home’ co-op in the CoTech network, I’ve been mainly focusing on work for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. We’re working with Erica Neve and Pedram Parasmand on three contracts, helping charities who are rapidly undergoing digital transformation. We had a really successful retrospective on Friday with UpRising, who we’ve been helping in more depth.

With Outlandish, I’m helping with some productisation of similar projects they’ve worked on for a range of clients. I find this really interesting as it’s simultaneously about meeting user needs and about organisational development. I’m also advising around ways in which they can develop the workshops they offer.

I’m fortunate to work with organisations which are so emotionally intelligent, and which go out of their way to be so. One of the reasons for working with Outlandish is to give them some short-term help with project management while they’re a bit stretched. But another reason is to learn from their processes and procedures; although they’ve only been a co-op for as long as us (four years), they’ve been together and honing things for a decade.

When I was at Jisc, one thing that always impressed me was their internal knowledgebase. They used PBworks for that, while Outlandish uses a WordPress installation with a theme called KnowAll. I’ve been wanting to experiment with wiki.js and so this week Laura Hilliger and I set up an instance at wiki.weareopen.coop and copied over existing pages from our GitHub wiki. I’ve set user permissions so that only logged-in members can edit the wiki, and indeed see any pages that are ‘internal’ only.

We finally got sign-off from Greenpeace for one of the best things I think I’ve written for a while: HOWTO: Create an Architecture of Participation for your Open Source project. As Stephen Downes mentioned when mentioning it in OLDaily it’s perhaps applicable to wider contexts than just open source projects.

Other than that, I’ve just been reviewing a document Laura put together for some work we’re doing with Red Hat, doing a small amount of work for our ongoing work with Greenpeace, and contributing to a ‘playback’ of some recent work we did for Catalyst.

Next week, I’m tying up work for We Are Open on Monday, and for Outlandish on Tuesday, before turning everything off and going on a family holiday for 10 days. As my therapist said in our meeting on Friday, as I’m a bit of a perfectionist, there’s no guarantee that I will actually relax during my holiday just because I’m away from home. So I’m actively trying to cut myself some slack. I deliberately went for a slow run this morning and I even had an afternoon nap yesterday. Small steps.


Header image is a selfie I took on a family walk in the Northumbrian hills last Sunday. Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I loosely followed this guide to create the ‘stippled’ effect. This reduced the size of an 8.6MB image to a mere 36.6KB.

Moving on

Yesterday was my last contractual day at Moodle, as I’ve been using up my remaining annual leave since Friday 19th June. This post is for the record, as my post celebrating the release of v1.0 beta on the MoodleNet blog was taken down.

In late 2017 I was happily consulting with various organisations when I was approached by Moodle to lead a new project. The ‘brief’ was a couple of pages of notes with some general thoughts which I turned into a white paper. It detailed how Moodle’s existing moodle.net repository could become a federated social network and decentralised digital commons. So, in January 2018 I joined Moodle’s management team, working four days per week, and slowly building a talented (part-time) team.

The history of what the MoodleNet team achieved can be seen through the 2018 and 2019 retrospectives. I’d like to thank Mayel, Ivan, James, Karen, Ale, Antonis, and Kat for being amazing colleagues. It truly was a pleasure working alongside them. This year, the team ensured we released v1.0 beta and successfully integrated with Moodle LMS v3.9.

(As a quick aside, Moodle’s legal counsel has been kind enough to get in touch. They reminded me that my contract included a confidentiality clause which remains in force after it ends.)

In May 2020, I resigned. A few days later, there was some unrelated drama which involved a tweet from Moodle’s CEO which I wrote about in Weeknote 23/2020. What hasn’t been documented anywhere, and which I’m not going to go into here for the reason given above, is what subsequently happened internally at Moodle HQ. Suffice to say that all but one of the talented and committed MoodleNet team decided to quit.

There’s more I could say about what happens when organisations get external funding. I could talk about some of the mis-steps the team made while experimenting and innovating. I perhaps could even discuss psychological safety at work. Ultimately, though, once I’ve finished my course of therapy, I will look back on my time at Moodle with pride. The team we managed to assemble took MoodleNet from an idea through to something pretty amazing. I’m so pleased most of the team are exploring other avenues to continue working on it.

I learned a lot at Moodle and I’m looking forward to using the best of it in my work through We Are Open, the co-op I helped set up four years ago.

Onwards.


This post is Day 15 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Perfectionism

In my latest CBT session today I once again confronted the spectre of perfectionism that haunts my life and work.

It’s a difficult thing to discuss because most people would frame this as having ‘high standards’ of oneself. Perfectionism is different, though, and my therapist helpfully differentiated it for me by describing it as ‘not looking after yourself’.

There are so many facets to this in my life. Yes, I do regular exercise, but I’m competitive when doing so. I remember seeing a video once where the actor Will Smith said that if you got on a treadmill next to him at the gym he would die rather than getting off first. That’s me.

Even during lockdown when there’s no-one to compete against, I’ll compete against myself. It’s a losing battle as I approach 40, I literally can’t run as fast as I used to.

I compare myself against other people and against younger versions of myself all the time. I try and act in ways to control people’s impressions and opinions of me. To use the terms I use with my therapist, I ‘put on a mask’.

Admitting this to myself is actually more difficult than admitting it to others. So just to be clear, I am explicitly telling myself that it’s OK to be me, that I’m allowed to slow down and take a break, and that there’s no point in being in competition with anyone, let alone myself.


This post is Day 14 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Liquid society?

According to a recent survey, only 12% of people want to go back to how things were before lockdown:

“I hate it when people talk about the ‘new normal’ – it just makes me want to scream. But actually, people don’t want the ‘old normal’. They really, really don’t,” said BritainThinks founding partner Deborah Mattinson. “They want to support and value essential workers and social services more. They want to see more funding for the NHS. There’s a massive valuing of those services and austerity is totally off the agenda.”

Donna Ferguson (The Observer)

I can’t imagine that this is an original thought, but while walking with the family yesterday it struck me that conservative tendencies within society want to ‘freeze’ things as they are. Why? Because the status quo suits them and their place in society.

Meanwhile, revolutionaries want to ‘boil away’ what currently exists to create room for what comes next. Why? Because the status quo does not suit them, either directly because of their place in society, or because it does not fit with their values.

These two tendencies are usually in tension. This means we end up with a free-flowing ‘liquid’ society. That is to say that, usually, we experience neither the ‘ice’ of reactionary times nor the ‘steam’ of revolutionary times.

For a society that suits the majority rather than the few, we need to keep things liquid, which is going to be particularly difficult given the current economic situation.

To stretch the metaphor, we may end up with a period of sublimation where ‘ice’ turns to ‘steam’. In this situation, people who have previously been reactionary (because the status quo has served them) become revolutionary (because the status quo no longer works for them).

I think I need to go and re-read Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity…


This post is Day 13 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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