Weeknote 22/2020

I think everyone finally had enough this week. Look at what’s happening in the UK. Look at what’s happening in the USA. There’s nothing ‘united’ about either country right now. It’s all kicking off.

Even closer to home too, in our working lives, I’ve seen people, including myself, less willing to put up with, for want of a better term, crap, from outdated people and processes. It’s time to do better, and be better.


This week has been busy. Very busy. The kind of busy where you start work at 08:00, stagger out of your home office for a 15-minute lunchbreak, and finish at 16:00, an empty husk of a man who has seemingly been at work for a month instead of a day. Then, with your eyes completely fried, you wonder what to do until bedtime.

It’s amazing to me to think that this was actually a four-day week and that we spent the second Bank Holiday of May on the beach and eating fish & chips.


MoodleNet will reach v1.0 beta next week. We’re running a Content Sprint to get resources into the Moodle HQ-run instance in time for the launch of Moodle LMS 3.9. Why? Well, because it features integration with MoodleNet, and we want to ensure there’s stuff there.

Of course, the digital commons will grow as more people use MoodleNet, on HQ-run, and other federated instances. Once we’ve got the content on a stable version of the HQ production server, we’ll switch out attention to finally starting federation testing.

Although the report is coming in very late, it’s been good to have a preview of the report from the security review we commissioned. That shows that MoodleNet is actually already more secure than many other federated social networks. That’s down to the talented team it’s been my privilege to put together over the past couple of years.


Over an above my Moodle work, there’s been loads of We Are Open co-op work to do. It’s getting to the stage where I could pretty much work through the co-op full-time, which is amazing. Just last year the opposite was true.

There’s been much wrangling over the project initiation documents for two related pieces of work we’re doing with/for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. That should be resolved so that we can start work properly next week with the 10 charities we’ll be supporting through digital transformation.

Over and above that, for the work we’re doing with Greenpeace Planet 4 team, I’ve been reviewing best practice in terms of onboarding new contributors. It’s actually very eye-opening seeing how volunteers start contributing to some open source projects because of the way they’re welcomed, and some, well… despite that.


Due to all of that busyness, I didn’t write anything for Thought Shrapnel this week other than my link roundup, which I entitled Saturday shruggings. There’s been plenty of stuff rattling around my head, especially since deciding to lie on the front lawn re-reading Montaigne’s Essays but nothing has yet coagulated in my brain into something coherent.

I might as well share here five particular sections that have got me thinking, as it could be a while before I get to any form of synthesis:

We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be — even when we ourselves shall be no more.

Michel de Montaigne (‘Our emotions get carried away beyond us’)

Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.

Michel de Montaigne (‘On the inconstancy of our actions’)

I have an open manner, readily striking up acquaintance and being trusted from the first encounter. Simpleness and unsullied truth are always opportune and acceptable in any period whatsoever… All I want to gain from doing anything is the fact of having done it.

Michel de Montaigne (‘On the useful and the honourable)

I have my own laws and law-court to pass judgement on me and I appeal to them rather than elsewhere. I restrain my actions according to the standards of others, but I enlarge them according to my own. no one but you knows whether you are base and cruel, or loyal and dedicated. Others never see you: they surmise about you from uncertain conjectures; they do not see your nature so much as your artifice. So do not cling to their sentence: cling to your own.

Michel de Montaigne (‘On repenting’)

But thought I do not have all that great a mind. I do have one which is correspondingly open, one which orders me to dare to publish its weaknesses.

Michel de Montaigne (‘On high rank as a disadvantage’)

I’ve also been reflecting on Acts chapters two and four, which actually form the basis of Christian communism. It’s pretty clear to me that Jesus was anti-capitalist and anti-establishment.


So next week is a big week in many ways. Lots of decisions to make and things to do. When all this is over, I wonder if I qualify (financially, morally, otherwise) for a sabbatical?


Photo taken at Beadnell last Monday. The beach was virtually empty.

Weeknote 21/2020

It’s Bank Holiday weekend. Today, we travelled the furthest we’ve been in the last nine weeks to go for a walk along part of Hadrian’s Wall. It was wonderful.


I took Friday off to ensure I could have a longer weekend to spend with my family. That means I worked Monday and Tuesday for Moodle, and Wednesday and Thursday for We Are Open Co-op.

We’re so close to getting out the v1.0 beta of MoodleNet now, as I showed in a screencast at the bottom of an article I wrote for Thought Shrapnel. The team is looking forward to getting finished the small changes required in the next week orso.

On the co-op front, we’ve been getting ready to start some work with 10 charities, funded by Catalyst and the UK’s Social Justice Commission, which need some help in pivoting their face-to-face programmes to online provision.


Whereas many people in my life have been less busy over the last nine weeks, it’s been the opposite for me. I’ve finally found my bearings again, and feel like I’m getting back on track.

Usually, working from home is great so long as it’s interspersed with travel. The lack of it, as well as the stresses and strains of having the children around, has affected my levels of energy and motivation.

Now that we can see ourselves coming out of the lockdown in the next few months, it’s easier to plan, to have horizons, to think about what comes next. And what comes next is not more of what went before.


Next week I’m off on Monday, then working for Moodle on Tuesday and Friday, and the co-op as usual on Wednesday and Thursday.


Photo of tree at Sycamore Gap, near Twice Brewed, Northumberland.

Weeknote 20/2020

For people who read these weeknotes on a regular basis (hello mother!) I realise that I discuss things without readers necessarily having any idea what they might look or feel like.

So, despite there still being a number of bugs and errors to fix with MoodleNet, and despite the staging server being full of test content, I thought I’d just record a quick screencast walkthrough.

Five things to bear in mind:

  1. MoodleNet is federated, meaning that you can search for communities, collections, and resources across instances.
  2. Communities curate collections of resources, and engage in discussions.
  3. Resources may be added to collections via link (like a bookmark) or via upload (with a Creative Commons license)
  4. MoodleNet is integrated with the upcoming v3.9 of Moodle LMS, meaning resources can make their way to courses via a simple workflow.
  5. Admins are currently the only moderators of each instance, but in future, every community will have at least one moderator.

We’ve obviously got some refactoring and work to be done on the search page, but I’m pleased with the progress.

Ivan, our UX designer, is already working on improvements to the user interface for upcoming versions of MoodleNet. For example, in the screenshot below you can see notifications, community activity, and better previews of collections.

Mockup of potential new MoodleNet UI

In my three days on MoodleNet each week I’ve always got plenty to do. Mainly it’s prioritisation, as with any team things get pulled in different directions. So I’ve been sorting our OKRs, getting ready to onboard a new part-time team member, and re-organising the next few milestones.


In my We Are Open Co-op work this week, we finished off one piece of work with The Catalyst for Action West London, and then started scoping out some new work for the Social Mobility Commission. All of it at the moment is about helping organisations with an emergency pivot to digital provision.

We also managed to squeeze in a co-op half day, which was mainly focused on the new version of our website, which should be ready soon. I’m pleased that my wife, Hannah, an aspiring UX designer, had a hand in designing it!


I’ve had a chat with a bunch of people this week about my career, and also had a ‘maintenance’ therapy session. Both have given me a lot of clarity about what I should do next.

Also helpful in that regard was the first session of the Homeward Bound course facilitated by Dougald Hine on Thursday evening. That was also the day my wife and I celebrated 20 years of being together, which now constitutes more than 50% of our lives!


For Thought Shrapnel I wrote a post with a quotation from Edward Snowden as its title: Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say. It’s about surveillance culture post-pandemic, and is the fifth in a blogchain I’m writing about how western societies could look after all this ends.

I also put together my usual link roundup, this week entitled Saturday shiftings. There’s a range of links in there, including the new Unreal 5 game engine through to how to host a party in a Google Doc…


Our family went for a long walk on Saturday, which was enjoyable. We discovered a ruined building with a colourful history which I didn’t know existed before this weekend!

I’ve realised that I’m tired because I’m not only trying to keep everything going, but have more work on at the moment. Where I would usually have taken a couple of days holiday in the last couple of months, I’ve just been soldiering on.

It’s not like all of this is going to finish with a bang; it’s going to be more like an extended whimper. So I should probably stop putting off taking holiday as we probably won’t be going anywhere exotic this year!


You’ll never guess where I’ll be next week? Yep, in my fortress of solitude (a.k.a. my home office) working on MoodleNet and co-op stuff. It’s a good job I have a supportive family and interesting work on.


Header image of Chibburn Preceptory taken during our family walk on Saturday.

Weeknote 19/2020

I think this was the week when it began to sink in how long all of this is going to affect us for. I’m not sure if it was going through the playable simulations in What Happens Next? or realising the extent of the incompetence of the UK government, but either way, the world seems different than it did last Sunday.


Two days on MoodleNet, two days for We Are Open Co-op, and a day’s Bank Holiday — the latter moved from the usual first Monday of May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (or ‘VE’) Day. The way some people here were talking about it, I think we need to remember that it was was fighting alongside allies to defeat fascism, rather than some kind of victory over Europe.

I enjoyed working on the co-op stuff this week. We were wrapping up a short project through The Catalyst, which paired us and another organisation with a charity making an emergency pivot to digital. I think there will be plenty more work in a similar vein in the coming weeks and months.


On the MoodleNet side of things, I did a debrief with Johanna Sprondel after her MA students at Macromedia University in Germany worked on a draft crowdfunding plan. I was impressed with what they came up with, and enjoyed working with them over the last few weeks.

Moodle News this week published an article I (mostly) wrote entitled 3 tips for first-time remote educators. Other than that, my time was mainly taken up with management, team and 1:1 meetings. My role at Moodle has largely gone from one that involved a lot of innovation to one that now involves a lot of management.


I’ve agreed to keynote a UK university’s internal staff conference (whatever ‘keynote’ means these days!) I get confirmation that it’s definitely going ahead in the next couple of weeks, and then I can start planning a talk on post-pandemic digital skills.


The most enjoyable thing this week was the socially-distanced quiz we had with neighbours. I live on a row of eight terraced houses, with one detached house at the end. We all share a back lane. In the glorious sunshine on Friday evening, we ate, drank, chatted, and answered questions that we’d each come up with. It was marvellous, and really lifted my spirits.


On the Thought Shrapnel front, I published an article entitled Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony in which I cited Buster Benson’s ‘Codex Vitae’ and came up with 10 aphorisms of my own. I also put together my usual link roundup, this week entitled Saturday seductions.


Next week will be a new normal week, working on Moodle stuff Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, and co-op stuff on Wednesday and Thursday. It will be 20 years on Thursday since, at the university ball, I plucked up the courage to kiss the woman who became my wife. I am a lucky man.


Photo of a tree in Bluebell Wood, near where I live.

Weeknote 18/2020

This week I ended up working alternate days for Moodle and the co-op, which felt a bit odd, but worked out well. Highlights included:

  • Celebrating the fourth anniversary of We Are Open Co-op and welcoming Jen Kelchner as our sixth member.
  • Working with some German MA students on their final version of the MoodleNet crowdfunding plan.
  • Finding a tree with a branch just the right height and thickness for me to do some pull-ups on (yes, really!)
  • Watching The Matrix (1999) with our 13-year old son and then getting a bunch of recommendations of what to watch next
  • Getting really close to starting federation testing for MoodleNet.
  • Revisiting the debate that I co-kickstarted in 2011 around the purpose of education in this Thought Shrapnel article.
  • Eating our daughter’s chocolate puddings and son’s sticky toffee pudding cake.
  • Finishing the MVP of the co-op’s new free email-based course on running successful virtual meetings.
  • Helping a London-based charity with their emergency pivot to online delivery
  • Completing the amazing novel A Gentleman in Moscow which is from my crowdsourced lockdown reading list.
  • Walking in the local woods, where the bluebells and wild garlic are both out! Elsewhere, the cherry trees are also in full bloom. Beautiful.

Next week, I’ll be working for Moodle on Monday and Tuesday, the co-op on Wednesday and Thursday, and taking Friday off as it’s a Bank Holiday in the UK (moved from the Monday to celebrate VE Day, apparently…)


Photo taken during a walk this week.

Weeknote 17/2020

After a crappy week last week, I’ve actually really enjoyed this one. Sunshine, family, meaningful work, and tangible progress have all combined to vastly improve my mood and outlook on life.

Another thing which has been a huge boon was the delivery of the exercise bike we ordered over a month ago. It’s installed in my home office, and I’ve been over there pedalling away while playing GRID via Google Stadia. Incredible.


On the advice of friends and family, I brought forward my follow-up therapy session to Friday. It proved to be a great idea as it showed how much progress I’d made. The evidence? I managed to dig myself out of a hole I’d created for myself within the space of a few days, instead of weeks.

We went through some other things, including avoidance, balance, and the ‘masks’ we all wear. I’m going be checking in again next month, having found that the value I got from a remote session was the same as in-person.


It hasn’t rained here for ages. Since the pandemic started, in fact, unless I’m remembering things incorrectly. As a result, when we did some family gardening on Saturday morning, it felt like we spent half our time watering the existing and new plants in our garden!

I never thought I’d say this, but there’s nothing like gardening in the sunshine with other people. Light physical activity coupled with instant results makes me happy.

After that, we toasted some marshmallows in the fire pit and sandwiched them between two chocolate digestive biscuits to create a British version of smores.


On the work front, I’ve been busy with the co-op helping a London-based charity with their pivot to fully-online provision. We’ve also been creating an email-based course for ‘the new normal’, with the first output (available soon!) being The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Virtual Meetings.

With MoodleNet, I want to explore framing what we’re offering as a ‘distributed digital commons’ as I think a ‘federated resource-centric social network for educators’ is not only wordy but difficult to grok.

Ivan asked me to help him add more educator-focused examples to the styleguide-as-code he’s been working on. This can be accessed via design.moodle.net, which is currently a redirect and work in progress, but had me using git for the first time in a couple of years!

We’re in the midst of reconfiguring the team as MoodleNet is moving beyond the ‘innovation’ phase into production. That means that a couple of existing members of the team are taking the opportunity to focus on other projects. The aim is to start federation testing in a couple of weeks’ time, if all goes to plan.


I’ve been spending a lot more time on Twitter recently. Not only is the platform doing an increasingly good job around verified news accounts, but there’s just so much interesting and fun stuff that people are sharing on there at the moment. You still won’t get me using Facebook’s products, but it’s hard to argue with network effects.

Writing-wise, I quoted Seneca extensively in an article for Thought Shrapnel entitled Thus each man ever flees himself. I also posted my usual link roundup, and tweaked the theme for the weekly newsletter.


The biggest things I miss most from pre-pandemic life are, I would say: travelling; watching my kids do their various sporting activities; and seeing my parents in person. Apart from that, life is very much the same as it was.

Next week, therefore, I’ll be working from home my usual mixture of working for Moodle, We Are Open co-op, and trying not to put on too much weight…


Otherworldly header image created by using detergent to clean a roasting pan earlier this week.

Weeknote 16/2020

This week has been an somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster for me. Today, after a morning spent in the sun doing exercise (running around the local sports pitches) and in the garden (weeding!) I’m feeling great. Earlier this week, I was so anxious that I got in touch with my therapist to request we restart sessions.

The trouble is that the ‘eustress‘ that keeps me on my toes and able to work two jobs (Moodle/co-op) can easily boil over into, well, just ‘stress’. I’ll admit that this is largely self-inflicted; there are both benefits and drawbacks, it would seem, of being your own worst critic.

This week has been a shorter one due to the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, and I’ve decided just to focus on the positives in what follows.


First off, yesterday morning was spent building a new PC with my children. We had a great time doing it, and it worked first time(!) so I was very happy about that. It didn’t cost me that much, yet it’s benchmarking as at least twice as fast as my laptop.

Another thing that’s gone well is reconfiguring the MoodleNet team. I’ll share more about this once it’s been shared more within Moodle HQ, but I’m happy that it looks like everything is going to come together. To my mind, how you do something is just as important as what you do. I’m not a consequentialist.

Third, We Are Open Co-op is not only about to onboard a new member (more about that next month when we announce!) but we’ve got a lot of work on. We’re part of the Catalyst programme, where organisations with digital skills are partnered with other organisations that need them. From next week, we’ll be helping out a charity quickly pivot their activities online.

Next, I really enjoyed advising Adam Procter with the work that’s coming out of his PhD thesis: nodenoggin. He’s set up a limited company, snagged relevant domains, and got an initial business plan for supporting the Open Source project.

And finally, just a comment on family relationships. I’ve never spent more time talking to my parents and sister on the phone or Google Duo than during this pandemic. It’s great. And while I get to spend a lot of time with my wife (because we’re both usually based at home) we’ve developed new rituals and routines that we’ll probably continue post-pandemic. Things like spending half an hour at the ‘pub’ at the bottom of our garden on a Friday after I finish work. (It’s actually just a picnic table.)


On the Thought Shrapnel front, I’ve been messing about with OBS and my green screen, as well as compiling my usual link roundup:


Finally, a couple of things have helped my mental health this week, which I’ll share. This quotation popped up via Momentum:

Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.

Walter Anderson

The other thing was that I gave up reading 84K and instead started reading A Gentleman in Moscow. Both were recommendations that made it to my Lockdown Reading List, but the latter not only feeds my interest in Russian history, it references Montaigne’s Essays and has a wonderful lightness to it.


Next week? The plan is to do a code freeze on the backend of MoodleNet, to give the front-end team chance to catch up and get things in place for federation testing. I’ll also be working on the co-op stuff mentioned above, and supporting my family as the ‘Easter holidays’ end…


Photo from an epic family game of Risk on Sunday afternoon.

Weeknote 15/2020

When I go into my office, close the door, and get on with my regular work, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s a global pandemic going out outside. That doesn’t last for long, of course, as there’s always something that pops up to remind me.

One thing that I’ve noticed the longer this situation goes on is the my internal monologue is changing. I’m assuming that everyone has one of these, but I can’t be sure, having never been anyone other than me.

My internal monologue is more like a debate: one side of me is accusatory, the other acts in my defence. In so doing, it’s easy for me to come up with excuses: “If I had more I time, I would do this” or “if this barrier wasn’t in the way, I would do that”.

The truth is that, as Aristotle said, just like everyone else, I am what I repeatedly do. No matter how hard it is for me to realise, I am not the person I used to be, nor have I turned into the person I thought I would be at this age.

I can remember Chris Brogan speaking at an event years ago. He introduced himself as ‘a typist’, as he said that’s what he spends most of his time doing. However, he quite rightly went on to point out that what matters is the stories we tell ourselves and others about what we do.


I’ve working from home for eight years, meaning that even before the pandemic, I already spent zero hours commuting, compared to the average of 219 hours per year. On top of that, I now don’t have to take my children to their many and varied activities, and I’m unable to swim, or go to the gym.

Not only does my life feel quite sad, small, and hollow, it’s also shown demonstrated to me that I’ve long since stopped doing things that I used to consider part of my identity. For example, I don’t read philosophical books in my spare time; I play FIFA.

Coming on the back of a series of therapy sessions, then, this enforced period of time at home is forcing me to reflect on the kind of person I am and the kind of person I want to be. It’s hard to break out of rhythms and routines that you’ve formed over years; it’s much easier to dig deeper into them, forming a rut.

So I’m trying to do things differently. I mentioned last week that I was reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. By the time I finished it, that book had really affected me, and I asked on Twitter for more of the same. My network didn’t disappoint, and I’ve shared the collected list here.

Another thing I did today was to pick up the guitar that’s moved from house to house with us over the last 18 years. I received it for my 21st birthday, and after a few lessons, gave up when I couldn’t figure out barre chords. But, on the recommendation of a few people, I’m trying Justin Guitar which (so far) seems excellent.


On the work front, with it being a long Easter Weekend I did two days for Moodle and a day and a half for We Are Open Co-op. We did a full ‘co-op day’ on Wednesday which we spent planning and syncing-up, and then I worked on Greenpeace stuff on Thursday morning, knocking out a blog post about 10 reasons why people contribute to Open Source. (If you’re reading this an are a contributor to open source projects, there’s a survey in there we’d appreciate you completing!)

On the MoodleNet side of things, I met up with the German MA students who are helping us with the crowdfunding campaign, and went to a bunch of other meetings including management ones, team ones, ‘Moodle Daily Drop-ins’, and even one on mindfulness.

It’s my job to ensure that the ‘self-organising ducks’ of the MoodleNet team have everything they need, aren’t in conflict, and know what we’re heading towards. Mostly, that involves small nudges, but occasionally it requires intervention. Striking the balance requires judgement, and mostly I like to think I get it right, although that’s not always the case.

Thankfully, both with Moodle and the co-op, I get to work with people I’ve chosen to spend time with. That’s a real privilege, especially in these darker times.


I have to say that, throughout all of this, my family have been absolutely wonderful. Hannah, my wife, is the most reliable and resilient person I’ve ever met, and has, as ever, organised our domestic life so we haven’t missed a beat. Our children, now aged 13 and nine, have, on the whole, been a pleasure to be around, and have dealt with what must be a weird and disorientating experience without much fuss.

We’ve also been using Google Duo and Houseparty to talk to my parents, my sister, and my wife’s side of the family. I’m so, so grateful that the pandemic hit at a time when we have a easy-to-use applications sitting on top of a mature technology infrastructure. It’s made everything bearable.


Next week will also be a shorter week due to the Bank Holiday, so I’ll be working for Moodle on Tuesday and Friday, and the co-op on Wednesday and Thursday.

I’d quite like to break out my greenscreen to do something interesting, so perhaps I’ll rope in the kids to do something. The barrier to entry for everything seems a lot lower at the moment, which I think is great and absolutely as it should be.


Photo taken on one of many walks this week in and around my home town of Morpeth.

Weeknote 14/2020

When I was younger I used to find it very strange that my mother was so pessimistic. She wasn’t exactly a ‘prepper‘ but she’d always make sure we had extra tins in the cupboard, and everything to hand in case something bad happened.

A particular phrase she used to use has stuck with me over the years: “if you’re a pessimist, you’re always pleasantly surprised.” I used to think that was no way to live a life, but now I’m approaching forty, I can see where she’s coming from.

Being mentally and physically prepared for things going south is sensible and expedient in a world which assails you from all sides. Whether it’s time ravaging your physical health, or the state of the world taking its toll on your mental health, it’s pragmatic to understand that we all will endure suffering.

That’s why I read books by Stoic thinkers on repeat. For example, one of my favourite quotations is the following, from Marcus Aurelius, who despite being a Roman emperor, suffered like the rest of us:

Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains – a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind – the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself.

Marcus aurelius (Meditations, book IV)

Other than having an underground doomsday bunker, we couldn’t have been much better prepared for the current crisis. However, this week, despite my mental and physical preparations, I’ve found myself…. stretched.


This week a couple of new books arrived at my house: a collection of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays and Baltasar Gracián’s A Pocket Mirror for Heroes. I’m looking forward to adding quotations from both to Discours.es. I found the selection from Seneca’s On Anger (about which he wrote three books!) a particularly rich vein for quoting.

Until a while ago, I used to maintain a wiki. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to keep Mediawiki-powered sites working properly, and when my backups didn’t work, I gave up on it. Thankfully, due to some unexpected help, I’ve managed to salvage a few pages which I’ve added to this blog:

My daily reading has remained remarkably consistent over the last few years; there’s something meditative about reading the same books on repeat most mornings.

Talking of reading, I finished Future Histories by Lizzie O’Shea, which comes highly recommended. I loved the history, the deep understanding of technology, and the author’s politics. Great stuff.

I’ve started on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and am about half-way through. It’s dark. So dark, in fact, that when I tried to read it when my son was young, I had to put it down after five pages.

The rationale behind this is that, I think that in times of crisis it’s better to go for either end of the spectrum. Either comedy and light-hearted stuff to raise my spirits, or tragedy and dark content to make me realise that things aren’t really so bad after all.


A glimmer of light this week was OER20, which ALT managed to pivot to being fully-online in the matter of a couple of weeks. I didn’t get to go to more than a couple of sessions, but was impressed by what I experienced, and donated anyway.

One of the sessions I managed to attend was about the domain of one’s own initiative at Coventry University. It led to me asking some questions at the end, which I turned into a blog post entitled Domains, decentralisation, and DNS.


On the work front this week I attempted a new format for our MoodleNet team weekly meetings which worked well. I should write that up, but it’s based on Matt Thompson‘s approach.

I also checked in with Johanna Sprondel‘s MA students who are helping out with the crowdfunding plan we’re working on together. They asked some great questions. Moodle’s also working on a donations strategy, so I’ve been involved in management meetings about that.

On the We Are Open Co-op front, I continued to do some work on our contract with Greenpeace around Planet 4. We’re planning a ‘day of action’ so I put together a short video using Bryan‘s illustrations to explain the why, how, and what.


Although I’ve got enough done, I haven’t felt so productive this week. I think that’s because I’ve had to slow my brain down to stop it racing ahead and thinking of possible futures in which everything I’m currently doing fades into insignificance.

I’m taking a lot of solace in long walks with my family, in nursing a single malt and talking to my wife, and in hanging out with my parents on video chat. I even, with the help of our children, painted the garden fence this morning!


We’re now on ‘Easter holidays’, whatever that means in our current context. I think it means that the kids do a little less work, and that I take a day off from my Moodle work and half a day off from my co-op work. Days and dates have lost their meaning.

Anyway, I’ll keep on keeping on. There’s not much to do otherwise, except perhaps more DIY. And goodness knows I’m no good at that.


Photo from a walk around Morpeth one night this week after I realised I’d only done 647 steps by 21:00...

Domains, decentralisation, and DNS

Today I attended a session at the OER20 (online!) conference entitled At the scale of care. Not only was it a great session in its own right, but it got me thinking again about ‘untakedownable’ websites.

You see, the problem, as presenters Lauren Heywood, Jim Groom, and Noah Mitchell pointed out, is that, if we use the metaphor of a house, we can never control our address.

Image of house (=website), land (=web hosting), and address (=domain)
A Plot of Land: get to know your new web space (CC BY-NC 4.0)

This is something I’ve been concerned about for ages, but particularly over the last five years. For example, see:

In fact, my thinking around this took me to decentralisation, and directly to my work on MoodleNet.


As Jim mentioned in answer to my question at the end of the session, it’s like the ‘dirty secret’ of the internet is that we’re all sharecroppers in a rentier economy. Why? Because we can never truly ‘own’ our address on the internet; we can only ever (as Maha Bali and Audrey Watters have both discussed) pay money to a central registry.

We can do better than this. I’ve experimented with ZeroNet and, to a lesser extent, IPFS. The latter was actually used to circumvent the government’s crackdown on ‘illegal’ Catalan elections while I was in Spain in late 2017.


I don’t think I’m quite ready to give up on the web as a platform, but I am sick to my back teeth of the way that it is controlled by interests that don’t align with my own. Given that I make my living online, this concerns me professionally as well as personally.

There are several approaches to decentralising ownership of the ‘address’ system on the web. First, let’s just check we’re on the same page here and define some terms. When I’m talking about ‘addresses’ then technically-speaking I’m talking about the Domain Name System, or ‘DNS’:

The Domain Name System (DNS) is a system used to convert a computer’s host name into an IP address on the Internet. For example, if a computer needs to communicate with the web server example.net, your computer needs the IP address of the web server example.net. It is the job of the DNS to convert the host name to the IP address of the web server. It is sometimes called the Internet’s telephone book because it converts a Website’s name that people know, to a number that the Internet actually uses.

Wikipedia (Simple english version)

The DNS system is extremely important, but also, because it depends on an ‘official’, more centralised registry, quite brittle. For example, governments can censor websites and web services, or hackers can target them to take them offline.

As you would expect, many people have already thought about a fully decentralised DNS. Using this system, people and organisations could truly own their address. I actually have one of these: dougbelshaw.bit

Of course, nothing happens when you click on that link, because you’d need a special plugin or separate browser that understands the non-standard DNS system. So this is where it starts getting reasonably technical and regular web users switch off and go back to looking at pictures of cats.


It’s important that there needs to be some kind of ‘cost’ to reserving domain names, no matter how decentralised the system is. Otherwise, someone could just come along and snap up every possible permutation.

That’s why, inevitably, things point back to the blockchain, and in particular, Namecoin. This satisfies Zooko’s Triangle:

CCo Dominic Scheirlinck

This is better than the way ZeroNet works, for example, where each site has a long address more confusing than a unique Google Docs URL.

However, let’s just think about the steps involved here:

  1. Open a namecoin wallet
  2. Buy some namecoins
  3. Use your namecoins to buy a .bit address
  4. Set up your website to resolve to the .bit address
  5. Ask your website visitors to either install the PeerName browser extension or set up NMControl to act as their computer’s local DNS server

So after all of this, you’re still left with the need to ask website visitors to change their browsing habits — and to do so on a non-decentralised DNS site. In addition, the Namecoin FAQ states that .bit ‘owners’ may have to pay renewal fees in future.


So that’s the current state of play for web-based decentralised DNS systems. Outside of the web, of course, things can work very differently. Take Briar messenger, for example:

Diagram of Briar connections over bluetooth, wifi, and Tor

It uses the BTP protocol, meaning it can be fully decentralised, and works over a number of different connection types:

Bramble Transport Protocol (BTP) is a transport layer security protocol suitable for delay-tolerant networks. It provides a secure channel between two peers, ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and forward secrecy of their communication across a wide range of underlying transports.

Briar project

So for example, just like other delay-tolerant protocols, such as Scuttlebutt, Briar is extremely resilient.

Sharing data with Briar via wifi, bluetooth & internet

As ever, Open Source projects are more secure and robust than their proprietary counterparts. This is the reason that Open Source software runs much of the ‘backoffice’ services for online services.


The real difficulty we’ve got here, and I make no apologies for highlighting it due to this particular crisis, is capitalism. In particular, the neoliberal flavour that hoovers up ‘intellectual property’ and farms users for the benefit of surveillance capitalism.

Over the course of my career, people have told me that they “just want something that works”. Well, it’s well beyond the time when things should just technically work. It’s time that things ‘just worked’ for the benefit of me, of you, and of humanity as whole.

How domain names resolve might seem like such a small and trivial thing given the challenges the world is facing right now. But it’s important how we come out of this crisis: are we going to allow governments, Big Tech, and the 1% to double-down on their ability to repress us? Or are we going to fight against this, and take back control of not only our means of (re-)production, but our homes online?

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