Open Thinkering


Month: January 2015

Cashing in on your privilege

Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?


It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.

Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.

Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.

Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.

I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.

The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’  I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.

But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.

It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?

I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.

Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.

So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.

Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild

* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.

Weeknote 05/2015

This week I’m hacking the format of these weekly updates. Bullet points didn’t really cut it last time, and they certainly won’t this week!

Web Literacy Clubs

Work continues apace on Web Literacy Clubs (name TBC). This involves me spending a lot of time in GitHub. I met with Michelle and Lainie this week to discuss whether this was a good idea for those testing the curriculum. The consensus was that we’d be better using the #TeachTheWeb discussion forum for that:

Please do dive into this, even if you’re new to it and/or can’t dedicate much time. We really appreciate the diversity of viewpoints. 🙂

I finished the glossary (for the time being), led a section of the call for testers around co-design, and contributed in a small way to Michelle’s blog post.

I’m planning to run a couple of Web Literacy Clubs. I’ve already organised one to run every other week at North Tyneside CLC with Chris Wilde. This will being on Tuesday 10th February. I’m meeting the Headteacher of my children’s school to see if there’s scope for running one there, too.

Web Literacy Map

I hosted this week’s community call, edited the audio and wrote an overview blog post. We came to a decision about separating out one competency and collapsing two other ones together. Read the post for more details on that.

Given we’re using GitHub for so much stuff at the Mozilla Foundation now, it makes sense to do development work in the Web Literacy Map repository. This now has v1.1 (current) and v1.5 (proposed) sections. We’re tracking changes in the issues section.


I’ve made an effort so far this year to write a blog post every day. That’s working pretty well so far, as it’s become a habit again!

Web Literacy

In preparation for Ian O’Byrne presenting on the Open Badges community call, I (finally) wrote up our deliverable from the Badge Alliance working group for Digital/Web Literacies. Entitled Considerations when creating a Privacy badge pathway it’s an overview of the process of coming up with the final document.

The other post I wrote on my blog was Is grunt ‘n’ click getting in the way of web literacy? This was a reflection on an amazing episode of the 99% Invisible podcast about Doug Englebart and the limitations of making computing devices as simple to use as possible.

Other writing

I’m writing a fair bit about learning pathways at the moment. DMLcentral published my post Learning Pathways: Descriptive or Prescriptive? and I’ve continued to develop a new Webmaker whitepaper on the topic with Karen Smith and Robert Friedman.

Apart from that, I’ve been rather eclectic in my blog posts this week, discussing why you should write your damn book, wondering whether big ideas need big spaces, interviewing Bryan Mathers on visual thinking, creating a mashup visual with a quotation about mythology, and reflecting on the ups and downs of working remotely.


I never really talk about this in my weeknotes, but it’s extremely important to my productivity. I’ll talk more about this in #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity v2.0 (which now has a contents page!), but daily exercise makes such a difference.

This week I went to the gym on Monday and Thursday, and swimming on Wednesday and Friday. I also went to a pilates class on Monday night and went for a long walk on Tuesday. I also go to the gym on Sundays while my son’s swimming. I lost a stone in weight last year just by doing this – and that wasn’t even my intention!


There’s all sorts of other stuff that comes with the territory – responding to emails, commenting on other people’s Google Docs, liaising with other organisations for upcoming projects, commenting on grant proposals, accepting or (more usually) graciously declining invitations to speak at events, etc.

I did enjoy connecting with Valerie Steeves on Wednesday about her academic work and connection to Media Smarts. It was also great to catch up with Martin Waller on Thursday about all sorts of stuff. We’d planned to meet in person, but the uncertainties of the weather (i.e. snow) meant we connected via Skype. I also attended a TTW Talk: Who is Watching You Now – How to be Smart about Data Privacy. It was well-hosted by my colleagues Lucy and Sarah.

Prompted by JP and invited by Adam, I set up a account. I think this kind of identity verification is going to be increasingly important. I now have verified accounts on reddit, GitHub, and Twitter – and I’ve verified ownership of

Finally, Dai Barnes and I are cooking up a not-so-secret plan to host another podcast. We’d be recording this every Sunday night – as we did with EdTechRoundUp back in the day.


On working remotely

As I mentioned recently, I’m a regular reader of Hacker News. Yesterday one of the links on the front page was to a blog post by a UK-based employee of Etsy. He (Jon Cowie) was explaining what it’s been like to work remotely for a tech company over the last three years.

The post resonated strongly with me and I just wanted to pick out some parts from the post and compare/contrast with my own experience working for the Mozilla Foundation for almost the same amount of time.


We’re a heavily distributed team with people spanning 4 time zones, although I’m currently the only person outside the US, which means my work day is between 5 and 7 hours ahead of the rest of my team.

Mozilla is even more distributed than Etsy, it would seem. Normal working hours start for my colleagues in San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver at the same time as they finish for my colleagues in Germany. Needless to say, there’s a need to be flexible! (I’m based in the UK, in a market town in the North East of England.)

The Good

The fact that I’m 5 hours ahead of the rest of my team has also turned out to be a benefit to my productivity here too – because I’m usually the only person on the team at work until 2PM or so in the UK, my entire morning is a block of time without any interruptions where I can get through tons of work. I’m also a morning person, so my brain is freshest when I start work.

This isn’t quite the case for me – my colleagues in Germany are an hour ahead of me – the majority of my colleagues are still asleep when I start work. If you’ve never experienced this, then it’s wonderful. You can get so much done without meetings and other interruptions!

I often joke that a bad commute for me is having to walk around a clothes dryer on the way to my desk, but there’s a serious point to make here – rather than spend 2 hours a day commuting as I did when working in London, I have a 10 second walk to my desk. This also gives me an extra 2 hours a day to play with

The commute thing is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I kind of miss the liminal space inbetween home and work – especially for listening to podcasts, gathering my thoughts, etc. On the other hand, being able to work when you want from pretty much anywhere is amazing.

Another major plus point to remote working is the flexibility that it affords – I’m always at home to receive deliveries. Car needs to go to the garage? No worries, I can pop by…. Individually, these are all very small things, but the cumulative effect makes the trials and tribulations of daily adulting much easier to deal with.

As Jon says, this is difficult to explain on an individual level, but it makes life so much easier. (I love the phrase ‘daily adulting’ – even if it does sound a little seedy…)

The Bad

The fact that your home and your office are in the same physical building can often lead to cabin fever in varying degrees. In my case I don’t find this too problematic due to my aforementioned tendency to naturally avoid crowded and noisy places, but there are occasions where I just need to get outside of these four walls.

I don’t have quite this problem as my home office is physically separate from our house. Still, I mix it up a bit by spending part of the morning working from either the local library or Wetherspoons (cheap, unlimited coffee; decent free wifi; comfy seats). Like Jon, I also exercise before lunch, ready for my colleagues to come online.

One of the toughest parts of my particular working situation, and that which I’ve had to be the most disciplined about, is stopping work at 6PM and not starting again until the next day.

Taking an “almost militaristic” approach to this (as Jon says he does) would be difficult for me. I certainly aim not to work after 6pm, but circumstances sometimes dictate it. For me, with two young children, I’m more interested in being around for them between 6pm and 8pm than I am protecting 8pm to 10pm. It’s horses for courses.

I’d really like Mozilla to implement something like (the code’s on GitHub!)

When you have people working across physical locations, timezones and even countries, communication gets harder. People aren’t able to gather around the water cooler, it’s easy for people to feel left out if they’re the one who isn’t in the office, and including remotes in meetings and discussions can often be tricky.

The way that I always explain the difference to people is that, when your communications are mediated by technology, every interaction is intentional. What I mean by that is you can’t just wander over to a co-worker and ask how they’re doing, or bump into them in a corridor. Sometimes this is great and a real aide to productivity. But sometimes it can feel isolating.

Thankfully I have some colleagues who regularly ping me on IRC and Skype just to talk through various things (work and social stuff). We also have a Friday meeting which is at the end of the day for Europeans and midday for those on US Eastern Time (New York / Toronto). This usually involves talking about non-work stuff with alcohol for us and lunch for them. It’s a nice end to the week.


Be prepared to work at it, and be awesome to each other. Remote working can be an amazingly empowering and positive experience, but it doesn’t come for free. Effort in, results out – from both company and employees.

Like any position in any organisation, there’s ups and downs working remotely for Mozilla. As Bryan Mathers commented when I interviewed him this week it doesn’t work for everyone. It takes a level of maturity and emotional stability that, to be honest, I sometimes struggle with. When most of the signals you’re getting are text-based you can read too much into things. I’ve heard that more than half of face-to-face communication is non-verbal which I can definitely believe.

But despite all of this, working remotely is absolutely fantastic. It means I have no excuse not to be insanely productive. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to carving out time to go to the gym. My time is (largely) my own to get on and get stuff done. I’m judged by what I produce rather than when I do it.

It may not fit with all industries but I think that, if you can make it work for you and your organisation, it’s a huge bonus.

Do you work remotely? Would you like to? I’d love to read your comments and questions in the section below!