Open Thinkering


Month: December 2021

Looking back, looking forward

I was surprised to see my name pop up in Stephen Downes’ latest post which summarises some of his hopes for the year to come. Given that he also references two other people for whom I have a lot of respect, I thought perhaps I could do something similar.

Looking back

Unlike Stephen, however, I am going to look back first. This has been an incredible year. We’ve rolled out vaccines, in the western world at least, in a way that might give us a way out of the pandemic. We’ve also started to address the climate crisis; it’s no longer a thing that people can deny. Now we just need to work on vaccine and climate justice.

On the work front, we’ve rebuilt the co-op this year with Laura and I being the engine room. Anne, Laura’s neice has come onboard as an intern and provided a burst of energy, and John quit his job so that he can spend more time with us. Given that this time last year I didn’t think WAO was going to exist for much longer (given the drama of late 2020) this is a huge achievement.

There more detail in my weeknote review of 2021, but one thing I will say is that I miss travelling. We’ve managed to go to a few places as a family, but it’s nothing like going to completely new places and experiencing different cultures. While I won’t be flying anywhere, I would like to get to visit somewhere other than Brexit Britain by train, boat, or car in 2022.

Team Belshaw have succeeded despite all of the odds this year. Hannah, my wife, switched careers in the middle of a pandemic and started a new job in the same week as her mother passed away. Both of our children are flourishing both academically and sportingly. Teenagers will be teenagers with our eldest, but I’d rather have battles over devices than over anything more serious…

Looking forward

‘Hope’ is a funny word. It’s the kind of thing you ascribe to things outside of your control, I guess. Given that I try and focus on things within my control, it’s not a word I use often.

So, instead of talking about hope, these are the things in my control this coming year which I intend to change:

  • Family — moving house is a priority this year, not only for the usual reasons (size, rooms, location) but leaving our current terraced house would mean we could get a dog and a charging point for an electric vehicle. We’ll miss our neighbours, though.
  • Work — I’m looking to inject more creativity and rest into my work in 2022. This last year I worked between 20 and 25 hours most weeks. This year, I’m looking to experiment with upping that to more like 30 hours, but taking April, August, and December off. I need to talk it through with others, but I feel like this will fit in with the rhythms of my kids’ major school holidays better and allow me to work in 12-week chunks.
  • Health and wellbeing — I want to help our family be as healthy as possible. We’re being cautious with Covid, but we also recognise that school is the major transmission vector for us. Personally, I’m reasonably fit at the moment but I’d like to shed at least half a stone in weight, and ideally a full stone. One way to do that is to start swimming again. I probably also need to start meditating, but not sure whether using an app for that is the best approach. I’ve heard that it can be pretty brutal once you get a couple of steps down the path…
  • Hobbies — I’m considering taking up piano lessons. It’s a long time (32 years!) since I did Grade 4 and, to be honest, I’m not looking to do anything other than play for fun. I’m also looking forward to spending even less time on social media and more time being creative with the various Korg synths I bought during lockdown. I’m also going to do more wild camping next year. It was really fun, especially the September series.
  • Personal development — I spent a week last year taking a course on climate leadership. I’d like to do another one, not necessarily on the same subject, this year. I enjoy learning things via platforms such as Futurelearn, but there something about the experience of being with other learners as part of a cohort that I find useful.

I can’t control when the pandemic will end or any of the political decisions that may help or hinder that. By the time we get to this time next year, however, I can live in a different house, be fitter, be doing interesting work and tinkering with cool side projects / hobbies, and learning new stuff.

The above doesn’t sound like too much of a stretch but, of course, we’re living during a pandemic when everything seems mentally and physically harder than it needs to do. It’s like a ‘Covid tax’ on doing anything other than sitting in a chair consuming content. But that is no way to live a life, and I for one intend to never stay still for too long.

Gamify or be gamified

Seven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. I come back to it often, as it was a bit of a warning that, if we all outsource our news-reading and information-gathering to algorithms, then we’re in trouble.

I wrote that post at a time when Twitter was proposing to turn its previously “raw” feed into an algorithmically-curated one. It completely spoiled the social network for me, and my use of it has dwindled since 2014. It’s also had nefarious effects, amplifying hate and disinformation — as we’ve seen with countless examples around the world. Our democratic institutions are at stake.

Listening to the latest episode of It’s Not Just In Your Head, a podcast from two mental health professionals exploring how capitalism, I was fascinated by their most recent guest’s insights. Dr. Alfie Bown, a lecturer in Digital Media Culture and Technology at Royal Holloway in London, and author of a number of books, spoke eloquently about gamification in our everyday lives.

Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users This is generally accomplished through the application of game-design elements and game principles (dynamics and mechanics) in non-game contexts. (Wikipedia)

What I found particularly interesting was Bown’s inclusion of social media in his tallying-up of everyone who plays “video games” around the world. As he points out, the feedback loops and rewards for certain types of behaviour on social networks certainly mesh with what we’d consider to be video game mechanics.

I’m a gamer, and have been most of my 41 years on this earth. The games I see my kids playing, though, are quite different to the ones I used to play at their age. There’s a very positive angle to this, as they’re a lot more positive and social than many of the ones I played when I was younger. But there’s downsides as well, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

As an example, I’ve played the FIFA football (soccer) game series ever since the very first one came out over 25 years ago. Over the last few iterations, instead of just being a particular team and playing against another player or the computer, it’s possible to create your own ‘Ultimate Team’. Having experimented with this again recently, I was shocked at how little time I ended up actually playing a football game, and how much time I was spending ‘grinding’ — i.e. doing things to unlock or upgrade things.

As Dr. Alfie Bown pointed out in the podcast episode, everything is gamified these days, from work to dating to shopping. It’s like everyone’s competing in a slightly-different ARG. So this post is a marker and a reminder for me that I can choose to gamify my own life, or have it gamified for me.

There are multiple ways to do this. One very simple one that I’ve found to be unreasonably effective is to use Loop Habit Tracker to define habits that I want to build over time. They could be exercise or nutrition-related, or something else entirely. Right now, I’m trying to do each of the following at least twice a week:

  • Go to the gym
  • Go for a run
  • Go on the exercise bike

Each time I succeed, I put a tick in the box under that day and activity, and it strengthens the habit.

Gamification is not something that is good or bad, in and of itself. For me, it’s all to do with whether you’re being controlled or manipulated into acting in a way which is in alignment with your values and goals in life. For example, I’ve found Duolingo useful for language-learning, and it includes a lot of gamification techniques.

As we enter a new year, I’m on a bit of a mission to remove unhelpful gamified elements from my life, and to add in ones which will help me flourish as the human being I want to be.

2021 in weeknote review

Collage of 2021

I would definitely like to be the kind of person who does an in-depth look back and analysis of each year. However, I’m usually so mentally and physically exhausted that the idea is anathema to me.

Given that I write weeknotes every week, I had the idea of just writing a short synopsis with a link to each of them. It’s better than nothing. I did 212 days of work and took 41 days of holiday (incl. public holidays) this year. I also took five days of professional development to do a course, and had one sick day.

Week 1 — I went straight from Christmas holidays into preparing for Catalyst work. At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was going to remain part of We Are Open Co-op (WAO) after some internal drama saw two members leave. I was doing some work for Outlandish around what became Building OUT. We were still homeschooling the kids, had our house on the market, and I’d developed tendonitis from running with my shoes tied too tightly. The attempted coup happened at the US Capitol, just as we thought things in the world couldn’t get much worse after the Australian wildfires.

Week 2 — My son started the process of choosing his GCSE options, and it was my daughter’s birthday (double digits!) I kicked off the Catalyst sector challenge, working with a team I’d put together through Dynamic Skillset, as well as several charities trying to provide some digital assistance for those struggling to apply for Universal Credit. I scaled back my work with Outlandish, and did some strategy work with my WAO colleagues.

Week 3 — Joe Biden was successfully sworn in as 46th President of the USA. My son turned 14. My colleague Laura and I put together a pilot episode for a new podcast that we asked WAO members to fund. They agreed, and it turned into The Tao of WAO. I retired the wiki at which had received almost a million visits before it fell over for the last time. I created a thesis page instead and moved my ebook to it, also making it free in the process.

Week 4 — I had a third-round interview at the Wikimedia Foundation for the Director of Anti-disinformation role which I’d applied for during the WAO turmoil. Ultimately, I didn’t get any further, but the thinking I did was shared in this blog post. All WAO members attended one of Outlandish’s Sociocracy 101 courses. The Catalyst UC project started to become a bit of a rollercoaster. Another Catalyst project, PM’d by Laura, started. I was on the team.

Week 5 — The two Catalyst projects continued, and I tied up my productisation work with Outlandish. I finished planning for a Getting Started with Digital Badges workshop I ran the following week. It rained a lot and, with it, days of migraines and pain disappeared.

Week 6 — This was a tough week on the Catalyst UC project, and I had to have several behind-the-scenes phone calls to straighten things out. I ran the badges workshop, helped Laura plan the other Catalyst work, and practised some sociocratic decision-making in our co-op half-day.

Week 7 — Half-term week, so I took Monday and Friday off to be with the kids. On the other three days, I was in work mode on the Catalyst projects, and thinking about my future career. I potentially slipped a couple of discs in my lower back after landing with a bump on a sledge going down a snowy hill.

Week 8 — More work on the two Catalyst projects, with the UC one really coming together through some prototyping. I watched the sun rise at Cresswell as I couldn’t get back to sleep. The government announced that the UK was coming out of lockdown, which was a relief but also caused anxiety as Hannah and I were still unvaccinated.

Week 9 — I started a new side project called focused on providing links to websites that work well on e-ink screens (like Kindles). More work on the two Catalyst projects, including some difficulties doing remote user testing. Lots of business development, and we took the house off the market after a chat with a mortgage advisor.

Week 10 — Our children went back to school this week, which they were enthusiastic about. We ran a ‘show and tell’ session for the DWP and other interested parties about the work we’d done on the UC project, and got great feedback. The other Catalyst project felt a lot like ‘teaching’. I still wasn’t doing much exercise due to my back hurting. I read the Deep Adaptation paper and freaked out a little.

Week 11 — I was surprised to get my first Covid vaccine, after being contacted by my GP surgery and being notified that I was on the ‘vulnerable’ list (I’ve got asthma). The UC project entered what I thought was going to be the second-last week, and the other Catalyst project chugged along nicely.

Week 12 — I started a new side project called as I didn’t think people were taking the climate emergency seriously enough. I attended an RSA Cities of Learning Summit, worked on the playback deck for the UC project, and continued work on the other Catalyst project. I wasn’t yet back at the gym due to residual back pain.

Week 13 — It was the first week of the Easter holidays, so I did a three-day work week with one of those days including a workshop for NEAR. It was the first time WAO did work in the crypto space, and the first time we got paid partly in fiat and partly in crypto! I messed about with older appropriate technology and started a conversation with a neighbour about the climate emergency.

Week 14 — Perhaps because it was the second week of the Easter holidays and I wasn’t doing much exercise, I started another side project called This is a WordPress site that automatically pulls in RSS feeds from privacy-focused websites, combines them, and displays the resulting ‘megazorded’ feed. I configured a Minecraft server for the kids.

Week 15 — My wife, Hannah, was away for the first time for a week looking after her mother. My mother helped with a range of things while I otherwise solo-parented. WAO ran another workshop for NEAR, worked on the staging site for our new website, and continued the Catalyst project.

Week 16 — I checked myself out of therapy after a marked improvement, and bought my kids a memento mori each as a reminder to ‘seize the day’. My son was stretchered off the football pitch after going into shock when he damaged the nerve between his neck and shoulder. He had the week off school. I bought some KORG Volca synths after cashing in some of my crypto.

Week 17 — We celebrated five years of the co-op on International Workers Day and wrapped up the Catalyst project. The UC project received some continuation funding so we started experimenting with merging two of the prototypes. WAO did some work on a project that still can’t be named with Greenpeace and kicked off some new work with Participate. I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching smartwatches and redesigned my personal website to be under 1KB in size.

Week 18 — I managed to get back to some kind of normality with my exercise and so decided on, and bought, a Garmin Venu 2S smartwatch. I worked on Greenpeace, Participate, and Catalyst UC projects. We booked an (expensive!) short holiday for when lockdown restrictions were to be lifted.

Week 19 — Hannah was away again looking after her mother, so I was solo parenting again. While we were apart, we celebrated both 21 years of being together (half our lives!) and her getting a User Researcher contract with the NHS Digital team. I tied up the ends of the UC project, and continued work on Greenpeace and Participate projects, as well as doing some business development.

Weeks 20 & 21 — Laura took three weeks off to go travelling, including the second of these weeks. Team Belshaw also went away just over the border to Scotland for a much-needed break. I started a new regime and approach with Thought Shrapnel.

Week 22 — I spent most of the week on holiday and experimented with not taking L-Theanine for a few days. We converted the weird landing / small room thing next to the bedroom in our loft conversion into an office for Hannah.

Week 23 — I got up early on Wednesday to the first 10k run since hurting my back, running on the beach. I got blisters. Laura was still away, and so I carried on with work for Greenpeace and Participate, as well as providing advice for the founders of Team Belshaw went kayaking as we didn’t get the chance while on holiday due to sea fret. My office roof was re-felted.

Week 24 — Hannah was away for a third time looking after her mother. Laura was back from her three-week holiday full of energy. I facilitated a Catalyst network engagement working group session, recorded another episode of our podcast, and did some consulting around LMS strategy.

Week 25 — A quiet week, work-wise, so I did more writing than usual on the blog and Thought Shrapnel. My family spoiled me with a half-cake for my half-birthday!

Week 26 — I did a marvellous overnight wild camp on the Scottish border which involved a four-hour walk there and a four-hour walk back. Hannah started her NHS 111 contract but then had to fly at short notice to see her mother. We watched a lot of the Euro 2020 football tournament. On the work front I updated an introductory course on badges ready for some client work and handed over the Universal Credit project for further development.

Week 27 — My mother-in-law sadly passed away after what proved to be her final battle in a longer war against the ravages of cancer. I began growing tomato plants up the wall of my office after a neighbour’s gift, and I spent a lot of time researching one-person tents after realising my camping gear is too heavy for me in my forties…

Week 28 — I spent the working week on a Sustainable Leadership and Deep Adaptation course. We kept the kids off school for the last few days of the summer term in case they caught Covid and couldn’t attend their granny’s funeral. After an inordinate amount of research, I bought new camping gear, and I flipped over to a new super-small filesize version.

Week 29 — This was a busy week which included the funeral in Devon as well as kicking off work with Julie’s Bicycle and Outlandish. We’d already planned to be in Devon on holiday anyway, so after the funeral we stayed down there.

Week 30 — We watched a lot of the Olympics during this holiday week. I took the kids cycling along the River Exe from Exeter to Starcross. Our eldest got stung by a wasp and our youngest fell off her bike into a hedge while looking at a plane! I discovered Genesis Foods and, determined to lose pandemic pounds, started ordering their nutritionally complete meal replacement powder.

Week 31 — A relaxing, enjoyable week back home. Hannah was in back-to-back meetings with her new job, and I split my time between Julie’s Bicycle, the Keep Badges Weird project with Participate, and some digital support for charities, funded by Catalyst.

Week 32 — We met up with Hannah’s side of the family in Lincolnshire for an enjoyable weekend, and finally got to the bottom of my son’s neck/shoulder injury after another trip to A&E.

Week 33 — I went camping with my 10 year-old daughter on the North York Moors. There were lots of flying insects and it rained, but we had fun! I ended up doing so little work this week that I thought that it might be worth just having August off next year.

Week 34 — The plan was to do a walk and some wild camping with my son this week, but in the end his neck/shoulder wasn’t up to carrying a rucksack. Work continued to be pretty chill.

Week 35 — I recorded some microcasts over at Thought Shrapnel and stopped updating as people seemed to have finally cottoned on to the climate emergency. Hannah’s NHS Digital contract was renewed, and I did some more wild camping. I read, and really enjoyed, The Book of Trespass.

Week 36 — Back-to-school week, which in these pandemic times isn’t to be taken for granted. I got stuck into work for Julie’s Bicycle with Laura, and tried to get back into the habit of exercising as part of my recovery from damaging my right rotator cuff. I started what became my September series of microadventuring in my new one-person tent.

Week 37 — Hannah and I went away to celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary and then I did some more wild camping, walking west from Morpeth. I spent some time researching and purchasing equipment to transform the small room-cum-landing next to our bedroom into Hannah’s home office.

Week 38 — I decided this week not to fly anymore, except in extenuating circumstances such as family emergencies. More wild camping. I started working with a neighbour on a plan to start a Climate Café in Morpeth. Northumbrian Water came to do some work on a leak just outside our property.

Week 39 — Work with Participate and Julie’s Bicycle continued while Hannah went to Devon for an NHS Digital meetup and to see her family. We surprised my Dad with a meal out for his birthday, and the saga with Northumbrian Water and our insurance company continued. Laura went on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I was holding the fort both personally and professionally.

Week 40 — I suffered a pretty bad migraine which I tracked down to annatto in one of the additional birthday cakes which we had for my father’s birthday. It knocked me out for a whole working day. I finally got around to going to the physio for my rotator cuff injury, and I had a couple of interviews for jobs from which I subsequently withdrew. A slug slithered across my forehead while I was asleep. Yes, you read that correctly.

Week 41 — I didn’t sleep very well all week after the slug incident. I spoke at Israel EdTech Week and was a guest on the EPALE podcast. It was Hannah’s birthday so we both took the day off and did some walking, eating, and drinking. I continued helping Julie’s Bicycle with recruitment.

Week 42 — My shoulder started feeling better after doing daily exercises recommended by the physio. Laura and I met with Catalyst and others to figure out how to form a coalition to help cohorts of charities with digital transformation. We helped Julie’s Bicycle with a (successful) Arts Council England funding bid for their work next year.

Week 43 — We went away for a few nights during half-term to Dumfries & Galloway and did some great mountain biking in the Forest of Ae. I was still suffering with residual sleep issues due to the slug incident.

Week 44 — Our 14 year-old son was absolutely wiped out by having both Covid and flu jabs on the same day, and took two days off school. His temperature was sky high and he was shaking. I was notified that the bid to take me over to the Netherlands for the Dutch National Libraries conference was successful, so I started planning my ferry trip…

Week 45 — I got my first cold in a few years this week, so took it easy rather than trying to push through it as I’ve often tried (and failed) to do. Work continued with Julie’s Bicycle and Participate, and I recorded three podcast episodes with Laura. We were supposed to run the first Climate Café, but the neighbour I was organising it with got sick the day before.

Week 46 — A podcast episode I recorded on Open Badges and Verifiable Credentials in the summer was finally published. Some work we’d been developing over the previous six months didn’t go ahead due to procurement issues relating to Brexit. In addition, increasing Covid restrictions in the Netherlands meant that the Dutch National Libraries conference was postponed. We got confirmation of more work with Greenpeace in the new year, some of which I might be involved with.

Week 47 — We celebrated my mother’s 70th birthday after watching an England Women’s game at the Stadium of Light. Storm Arwen wreaked havoc and brought down trees. I pre-recorded a very enjoyable conversation as the panel keynote for the ICoBC Symposium. John told us he’d handed in his notice and so was looking forward to doing more work through the co-op in the new year!

Week 48 — My energy levels plummeted as we crossed the line into December. I tried to get out of the house and work in coffee shops, which was a little problematic due to the rise in Covid cases, but I just needed a change. Hannah’s work travel plans were cancelled for the same reason.

Week 49 — This was my last full work week of 2021. I ate a lot of mince pies, trying every supermarket’s brands rating them accordingly. We had a Christmas light switch-on with our neighbours, followed by a buffet and a nice evening of catching-up with everyone. I bought a Covid-related ornament for our Christmas tree.

Week 50 — I worked two days, then travelled to the Peak District for a walk with Bryan, before getting my Covid booster jab. We had a remote WAO Christmas party, and the en-suite roof was re-plastered and painted.

With Buster Benson’s classic post as a touchstone, it’s clear to me after putting this together that I spent the first part of the year in ‘Flow Mode’ and then the rest of the year I’ve been alternating between ‘Work Mode’ and ‘Recovery Mode’. There’s no normal to return to any more, but I’m really looking forward to some kind of post-pandemic stability. Is that too much to wish for in 2022?

Photo of an end-of-year collage I put together to represent 2021.