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Weeknote 02/2021

I know this isn’t exactly an original thought, but time seems to be acting weirdly at the moment. Everything is a bit discombobulating, but I guess everyone’s in the same boat. We’ll figure it out.

Druridge Bay, Northumberland

Meanwhile, I’m spending time working on interesting stuff with awesome people, and doing things which make me smile. Like what, you say? Well, walking in the winter sun with my family, playing PS4, reading, and listening to Kylie’s fabulous latest album, Disco. Good music is good music, people.


It’s been our daughter’s 10th birthday this week, which, if you can remember back that far, is a Big Deal. Double digits! She’s awesome and I’m very glad that she’s growing into a confident young woman who knows her own mind.

This week has also seen our son starting the process of choosing his GCSE option subjects, which takes me back to when I chose mine 26 years ago. It’s so important to choose things that interest you. For example, I did Media Studies and not only really enjoyed it — I made a plasticine stop-motion version of Match of the Day — but also got an ‘A’ and learned things that have stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.

One thing that’s different with his options, even in the decade since I left teaching, is the EBacc. However, long story short, I asked around and it’s basically meaningless. Doing well in subjects they’re interested in is much more important for teenagers than some kind of combination that pleases traditionalists.


While we’re on the subject of education, I’ve been tweeting a bit about the (monetary) value of Higher Education. While no-one needs to listen or read my opinions on the subject, I do have four university qualifications and have worked in the sector. However, as I said here in a write-up of a Twitter thread, I’m a bit disillusioned with the view that universities have a right to exist and everyone should just get with the programme.

Since leaving working in formal education, I’ve been working on product-related things, which live or die by ensuring user acceptance/delight. I know there’s a pandemic on, but Higher Education really needs to be dramatically shaken up. The UK government doesn’t help, of course, by creating a pseudo-market. We’ll see some institutions either merge or go to the wall, I expect.


Over at Thought Shrapnel, I published the following… (🔗 = link posts)


Work-wise this week, I’ve been:

  • Kicking off the Catalyst-funded project I’m project managing which is a collaboration between Dynamic Skillset and Bay Digital. We’re helping three civil society organisations with a ‘sector challenge’ to help remove barriers to remote claiming of Universal Credit. We’ve had to swap out one of the organisations at the last minute for various reasons, but the one that can’t be a core part will still be involved for user research.
  • Hanging out with my We Are Open colleagues. We spent a half day doing some strategy work, which Laura wrote up here.
  • Scaling back my work with Outlandish. I’ve realised I haven’t got time to get really involved in everything I was doing from August to December with them, so I’m going to have a chat next week about my continued work with them.

I also participated in a paid knowledge-sharing session which was very professionally-organised. I gave some insights into a particular area of my expertise, which was facilitated by an agency who connected me with an organisation by phone. They asked me a series of questions, appreciated my insights, and the money should be in my account soon. Colour me impressed!


Next week, I’m sinking my teeth even further into the Catalyst project, and starting some business development for We Are Open. That may or may not involve doing the pilot episode of a new podcast! I’m excited.

The (monetary) value of a university education during a pandemic

Claudia Webbe MP: "Charging £9,250 tuition fees for university by zoom or microsoft teams is daylight robbery

Yesterday, Claudia Webbe, a Labour MP, called purely online university education provision during the current pandemic “daylight robbery”. She cited the maximum fees that universities can charge students in England and Wales.

I had some thoughts about that, which I put in a Twitter thread, but am saving here to refer back to. (I regularly delete my tweets.)


The fees are a product of government policy. Hence universities are in the impossible and unenviable position of both having to operate like businesses in a marketplace *and* be subject to government interference.

When I did my doctorate, I did pretty much all of it online and paid £££ for some very good supervision, access to stuff I couldn’t easily get other than through the uni library, and… the qualification at the end.

As has been written about at length elsewhere, credentials are signals to the job market and other groups. University degrees have historically been top-quality signals, but that’s less and less the case in the industries I work with. People want to see what you can do.

This is not to say that universities are just about credentials, or that those credentials aren’t valuable (I hope they are for my sake!) What I am saying is that there are other ways of packaging up knowledge, skills and understanding. Open Badges, for example.

Universities, because they’re acting like businesses, don’t have as much goodwill from the general population anymore. Especially given the general distrust of experts generated by the right-wing media over the last decade. They need to tread really carefully.

New approaches like ‘masterships’ where you get a Masters-level qualification while learning on the job are currently provided by orgs like Accenture in collaboration with universities. It’s a win/win for employer and employee, but for the uni…?

I can foresee a situation, which is probably already happening, where elite research centres are decoupled entirely from teaching, learning, and credentialing operations. As that happens, the latter function becomes more and more focused on employment.

For ~£9k you can do a 480-hour bootcamp over a few months with an org like General Assemblys and get a well-paid job at the end of it. No debt after a year. Now, I’m a graduate of Philosophy, History, and Education degrees, but I’m not sure I’d advise my kids to do traditional uni.

So back to the tweet from the Labour MP. She’s absolutely correct, despite the protestations of academics and those who love higher education (like me). You can get daily feedback to quickly develop employable skills, which is more important than ever in a pandemic.

So how will higher education respond? Who is nimble enough? I feel like the main problem is the pseudo-market created by the government. Many unis can and want to respond more quickly, but they have baggage and regulation that others do not. Sadly.


This post is Day 84 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

Weeknote 01/2021

Whew. As someone, somewhere pointed out this week, we know doomscrolling is bad for us, but the doom has been top-notch recently, hasn’t it?

Welcome to 2021.

People standing behind a wall, tentatively pushing open a door marked '2021' using a large stick.

I’m back, well-rested, with plenty of energy and optimism for the new year. Taking three weeks off work at the end of 2020 was magnificent. If I can, I’m going to do it every year. And it would seem that I’m going to need that reservoir of energy and optimism. All of it.


This week, like most people who still have jobs or some form of paid income, I’ve been returning to work. I took things easy on Monday and Tuesday and then, because there’s a million projects and the world is on fire, dialled that up for the rest of the week.

My areas of focus have been:

  • Getting set up with a Catalyst-funded project I’ll be project managing. It’s a collaboration between Dynamic Skillset and Bay Digital to help three charities with a ‘sector challenge’ to help remove barriers to remote claiming of Universal Credit.
  • Re-establishing convivial relations with my We Are Open colleagues. Thankfully, the members who were the cause of the tension I’ve mentioned in passing over the last few months, resigned.
  • Getting back up-to-speed with Outlandish projects and people. I participated in a workshop about the (bright!) future for SPACE4 and helped with a lightning talk about Building OUT.
  • Helping with We Are Open and Outlandish bids to Catalyst for some more funding to help with a ‘Definition’ phase for various cohorts of charities.
  • Ensuring that my wife and kids have everything they need for successful remote learning.

In terms of the last point, I’m back on Twitter and noticed so many parents struggling with their technical setup. So I created a Twitter thread to help give some tips to alleviate wifi drop-outs and other problems. I hope it proves handy for people, as it was a useful distraction for me after waking up at 05:15 on Saturday morning…


With all of that energy and optimism I’ve written a bunch of things. Here, I published:

…and over at Thought Shrapnel (🔗 = link posts)


Team Belshaw is fine, thanks for asking. We put our house on the market on 19th December which was only a few days before lockdown here in the UK. So, although we have had a couple of live viewings, we’ve created a video tour to share via our estate agent. It might seem mad to want to move during a pandemic, and our house is lovely, but life goes on.

I’m continuing to exercise, despite not being able to get to the gym and it being very slippy out due to the inconvenience that is winter. I’m running when I can, despite some (suspected) tendonitis. I’d forgotten how useful Twitter is for asking people about stuff like this: it appears I probably tie the laces on my running shoes too tightly! Over and above that I’ve been on the exercise bike and going for walks with the family.


I’m not going to comment here too much on the self-coup / insurrection / whatever you want to call it in the US on Wednesday. Next time, as I mentioned on Mastodon, ‘protesters’ will be well-armed and actually have a plan. This is a mere foreshadowing of future events in the US and elsewhere.

We can (and should) wring out hands about digital literacies, about political education and civics, but the elephant in the room here is the role that social networks have played in enabling fascism. It’s the right thing to do to kick Trump off major social networks, but it’s too little, too late. Deplatforming is important, but we need more than that to stem the rising tide of disinformation and radicalisation.


Anyway, next week, the Catalyst project I mentioned above gets started, and will take ~3 days/week for the next 11 weeks. So I need to prioritise the most impactful work I can do through We Are Open and Outlandish, and use all of that energy and optimism to good effect!

Power and paths

One of the big influences for me when I started personal blogging, as opposed to blogging about education, was Zen Habits. It doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of the most viewed blogs on the web, with more than two million readers.

It’s written by Leo Babauta, who was recently interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show. The podcast episode a great listen for a number of reasons, but I want to focus in on one thing that’s touched on briefly.

Babauta explains that he has six children, with four from his and his partner’s previous marriages, and the two they’ve had together. Some have gone to school, and some have been unschooled:

Unschooling is an informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Often considered a lesson- and curriculum-free implementation of homeschooling, unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods in standardized tests, forced contact with children in their own age group, the compulsion to do homework, regardless of whether it helps you in your individual situation, the effectiveness of listening to and obeying the orders of one authority figure for several hours each day, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.

Wikipedia

The point he makes is a simple one: if children are always brought up to be told what to do next, to be given a path, then how will they find a path of their own as adults?

He doesn’t make the connection explicitly, but my next thought was that this is perhaps why the default option for most people after school / college / university is to get a job in a hierarchical organisation with a boss telling you what to do.

The radical thing to do, and the thing which is much more empowering, is to reject persistent hierarchy and coercive power relations altogether. Instead, approaches such as consent-based decision making are the way forward. No-one needs someone telling them what to do all of the time — including children.


This post is Day 83 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

The end of competition

The period of time I spent at the end of December consciously not working is one of the first where I wasn’t either (a) explicitly in competition with others, or (b) implicitly in competition with myself.


Competition can be good. It can be motivational and help us strive to be better / faster / stronger. But, too often, it can be damaging and cause us to act in ways that aren’t beneficial to ourselves or those around us.

I’ve been a gamer all my life and so the idea of beating myself (as a kind of ghost car) has always appealed to me. But, having reached the age at which almost every elite athlete has retired, I need to stop kidding myself that I’ll ever run a sub-20 minute 5k. That’s OK.

In addition, I’ve come to understand the approach my mother took to family board games when I was a child. She refused to play to win, instead making sure (as far as she could) that my sister and I never finished last. As a parent, I get that now.


A competitive approach to life is often justified by talking about “preparing young people for the real world”. It’ as if the so-called real world is red in tooth and claw. In my experience that’s not the case; the ‘real world’ is more focused on collaboration than competition.

So, perhaps we’ve got things backwards. Maybe the reason adult life involves competition is not because of the nature of the ‘real world’ but because capitalism demands competition, and so we bake it into childhood.


All of this has made me realise that while competition still has a role in my life, it’s a diminished one. I need to put it back in the box where it belongs, to be taken out where appropriate.

The rest of the time, I should be collaborating, helping bring attention to those who deserve it. That’s instead of (and it pains me to admit it) seeking the reassurance of “doing better” than others. We’re all in this together, after all.


This post is Day 82 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

Everything flows

When I read physical books, I have a tendency to rip off pieces of whatever I’m using as a bookmark to mark interesting sections. The trouble is, I rarely actually return to them, so even my favourite books feature lots of little bits of paper sticking out of the top.

I recently finished Wintering by Katherine May, which I enjoyed immensely. Reading it at the right time of the year certainly helped. I’ve already shared a quotation from it about the liminal space between Christmas and New Year. I thought I’d share a couple more from towards the end of the book.

The first involves May’s reflections on beehives and how they’ve been used as a metaphor for human society:

[B]efore we’re too enchanted by the machine-like efficiency of the utopian human beehive, we must remember the true lives of bees. They are certainly astonishing. Their specialisation — and their sheer will to survive — is miraculous. But their lives are also full of stark efficiencies. In the middle of winter, the area around my favourite beehive is littered with the corpses of the bees that were no longer useful…

Let us not aspire to be like ants and bees. We can draw enough wonder from their intricate systems of survival without modelling ourselves on them wholesale. Humans are not eusocial; we are not nameless units in a superorganism, mere cells that are expendable when we have reached the end of our useful lives.

Katherine May, Wintering, p.235

Writing pre-pandemic, May couldn’t have had our society’s COVID-19 response in mind. However, I can’t help but think of that when reading this.

The second quotation references Alan Watts, someone who pops up time as an influence on people who influence me:

As I walk, I remind myself of the words of Alan Watts: ‘To hold your breath is to lose your breath.’ In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts makes a case that always convinces me, but which I always seem to forget: that life is, by nature, uncontrollable. That we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.

Katherine May, Wintering, p.263

This chimes well with my two biggest insights from last year, and reminds me of one of my favourite ideas from pre-Socratic philosophy:

Everything flows.

Heraclitus

This is often rendered as something like, “You cannot step into the same river twice” but I prefer the simpler, and more widely-applicable two word version. It is only when we try to stop things flowing that we run into difficulties.


This post is Day 81 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

My two biggest insights from last year

Last year, the pandemic was more ‘annoying’ to me and my family than damaging to our health or finances. So, if there’s one thing that 2020 showed me, it was my privilege.

I turned 40 in December, which means I’m now inescapably middle-aged. I’m also a straight, white, male. Thankfully, somewhat unrelated to the pandemic, I also spent 2020 learning a bunch of things about myself and how I relate to others. This happened primarily through CBT, research and learning around the Black Lives Matter movement, and doing some work around Nonviolent Communication.

My two biggest takeaways from the above were:

  1. I don’t need to have an opinion about everything. As Marcus Aurelius said, “We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.”
  2. I should stick to only discussing my own experiences and context. I have no idea of the internal world of others, and how things which seem major/minor to me might be minor/major to them.

I guess this is a lo-fi version of Hume’s fork. In other words, there are statements that can be made about ideas (which are either true or false by definition) and statements that can be made about the world (which are true or false based on experience).

Over the last six months, I feel that there’s been a shift in my writing here since starting the #100DaysToOffload challenge. This has been incredibly useful in weaning me off assertions meant to provoke a response from others towards more introspection and self-documentation.


This post is Day 80 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

Christmas slobbing about

Sometimes, after a period of what I can only describe as ‘not writing very much’ I have this need to, well, write something. The problem is when I don’t have a particular thing that I need to write about, in which case I literally sit down, as I am now, and start typing words onto a screen.

The words come, eventually, as they always do. The process starts by noticing the things around me, by performing a kind of ‘situation report’. So here’s mine: oblique rays of the sun stream in through the velux window in the ‘penthouse suite’ (as I call it) of our recently-listed house. I’m propped up on pillows and cushions in bed, able to hear noises from outside such as our kids playing football in the back lane, and birds cawing and tweeting.

I’ve already written a short post today, comprised mostly of a quotation from Katherine May’s Wintering. Other than a post commemorating my fortieth birthday (which I actually wrote back in November) it’s the only thing I’ve published in the last week. Thought Shrapnel is on hiatus until 2021, but I couldn’t resist sharing the most popular articles from this year with subscribers to the weekly digest.

It’s close to 10:00, although it feels much later, having woken up at 05:15 and not being able to get back to sleep. I enjoyed making a morning fire and being able to sit in front of it, reading while the house was peaceful. Reflecting on someone else’s experiences of this time of the year was especially poignant, and the similarities and differences enhance and reinforce my own.

Today I will achieve nothing, which exactly corresponds with my aim. I will, no doubt, play some Sniper Elite 4 which is a game I did not expect to like when I tried it on our TV thanks to the technological magic of Google Stadia. But I’ve found it strangely addictive, and have poured hours of time into completing various missions over the last week or so.

My wife has just informed me that this is the last day of “Christmas slobbing about” by which she means we need to get ready for potential house viewings over the coming week. She’s right, of course, and we do need to get this house sold soon, but the lethargy is strong at this time of year. It’s the only period of time in my calendar when I allow myself to do nothing of importance. There are no expectations of me, and I have none of myself.

I’m not sure if it’s worth pressing publish on this post but, as I have a mere 4% of laptop battery life remaining, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.


This post is Day 79 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

What day is it? What date?

Unable to get back to sleep, I got up and continued reading Wintering this morning:

Then, we enter that strange period between Christmas and New Year, when time seems to muddle, and we keep finding ourselves asking, ‘What day is it? What date?’ I always mean to work on these days, or at least to write, but this year, like every other, I find myself unable to gather to the necessary intent. I used to think that these were wasted days, but now I realise that’s the point. I am doing nothing very much, not even actively on holiday… I go for cold walks that make my ears ache. I am not being lazy; I’m not slacking; I’m just letting my attention shift for a while, away from the direct ambitions of the rest of my year. It’s like revving my engines.

Katherine May, Wintering, p.149

The book was a gift from my friend Eylan, an unexpected but very welcome source of joy during this yuletide period.


This post is Day 78 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

40 things I’ve learned in 40 years.

Signpost showing the number 40

I turn forty years old today. Some people will be surprised at this, as my hair has been turning grey for the last 15 years!

A decade ago, I wrote a post entitled 30 things I’ve learned in 30 years. While I still agree with most of that, on reflection it just doesn’t seem particularly… deep? So, here, in no particular order are 40 things I’ve learned in 40 years:

  1. There are things you can control and things you cannot. There is no point in worrying about the latter.
  2. Inspire other people to be inspired yourself.
  3. Most people care less than you think about almost everything that you deem important.
  4. Get some therapy, even if you don’t think you need it. Especially if you don’t think you need it.
  5. Keep your options open.
  6. Sometimes it’s OK to burn your bridges and to do so in a way that other people notice.
  7. Resist the urge to suppress randomness.
  8. Nobody knows what goes on inside your head until you say it or write it down.
  9. Happiness is not something that you can find, but rather is something that you discover when you stop looking for it.
  10. Organisations are groups of people that can have a positive or negative effect on the world. Do not work with or for the latter.
  11. Money can only buy choices, not happiness, time, or anything which constitutes human flourishing.
  12. Life is too short to deal with adults who display little in the way of emotional intelligence.
  13. Listen to what people actually say.
  14. Read inspirational things often, especially quotations and proverbs. Dwell upon them.
  15. Education is not the same as learning. Nor are qualifications the same as real-world knowledge, skills, and experience.
  16. Focus on routines and rituals. Nail these and you’re (mostly) sorted.
  17. Practice eloquence. People like listening to those who have a way with words.
  18. At the end of it all, the only person who stops you doing something is yourself. Confidence is a preference.
  19. Stand for something bigger.
  20. Find somewhere that is completely quiet and you can be undisturbed. Visit it often.
  21. Ask. People can only say no.
  22. You are a human, not a machine. You don’t need to sound grown up, or professional, or ‘respectable’.
  23. Money is important only in the way that it flows (both in society, and at family/individual level).
  24. 90% of ‘success’ (as other people define it) is being in the right place at the right time, the other 10% is extremely hard work.
  25. Perfect is the enemy of done.
  26. How you do something is as important as what you say or what you do.
  27. Transparency is the best policy.
  28. Exercise more than you think you need to. When you’re young you think your body will be in peak condition forever. It won’t.
  29. Endeavour to be the least knowledgeable person in the room at any given time.
  30. There is no final authority. Seniority is a mindset.
  31. Try and explain complex things to other people as often as you can. It’s a valuable process for both parties.
  32. Travel, both literally and metaphorically. Go on journeys and adventures by yourself and with others.
  33. Let other people boast and do your PR (but don’t believe everything you see/read/hear)
  34. Writing is a form of thinking
  35. Know what you like, but don’t get stale; mix things up sometimes.
  36. Habits can make or break you, so create positive ones.
  37. Avoidance is rarely the correct option.
  38. Technology can free people or it can enslave them, so work to give as many people as much freedom as possible.
  39. Removing ego from the equation gets things done.
  40. We all will die and don’t know when, so act today in a way whereby people will remember you well.

Much of these come through my daily(ish) reading of Stoic philosophers but also come via therapy sessions, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s rules for living an antifragile life, and Dancing Fox’s Inappropriate Guidelines for Unacceptable Behaviour.


Image CC BY-NC-ND Jeronimo G+E

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