Author: Doug Belshaw (page 1 of 208)

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?

Wiki backup: information environment

Last year, my wiki went down at dougbelshaw.com/wiki. For reasons too boring to go into, I was unable to resurrect it. This made me sad, particularly because there was some stuff on there that didn’t exist anywhere else.

After a brief period of mourning, I got on with my life. Noel De Martin, however, decided to do some digging via the Wayback Machine, and found several pages, which I’m copying-and-pasting to my blog for posterity.

What follows is a snapshot of my ‘Daily reading’ page from July 2017.


This page helps list out the sites and services that constitute my digital information environment. It’s too difficult to decide, especially in this day an age, where ‘entertainment’ starts, and ‘information’ begins, so I’ve included everything I look at regularly.

Newspaper

Aggregators

Newsletters

I try out other ones, but these are my favourites:

Podcasts

As with the newsletters, I subscribe to other podcasts on a regular basis, but here are my go-to ones that I wouldn’t want to miss:

Routines

Internet culture

Music

Wiki backup: collaboration style

Last year, my wiki went down at dougbelshaw.com/wiki. For reasons too boring to go into, I was unable to resurrect it. This made me sad, particularly because there was some stuff on there that didn’t exist anywhere else.

After a brief period of mourning, I got on with my life. Noel De Martin, however, decided to do some digging via the Wayback Machine, and found several pages, which I’m copying-and-pasting to my blog for posterity.

What follows is a snapshot of my ‘Collaboration style’ page from October 2016.


This page is influenced by Peter Drucker’s excellent short book Managing Oneself and the section of Gwern Branwen’s website on his own collaboration style. Although slightly tangential, I’ve also always found Buster Benson’s Codex Vitae a useful thing to return to on occasion.


Right now, I’m 35. I was in formal education for 27 of those years, and had an employer for 11 of them. I’m now a consultant and everything I do is what comes under the broad umbrella of ‘knowledge work’:

Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge. (Thomas Davenport, Thinking For a Living

The problem is that this means that it’s difficult to know how to fit into the big picture. Here’s how Peter Drucker puts it:

[M]ost people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.

[…] [K]nowing the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.” (Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself)

In other words, you should always be on the front foot. Don’t accept other people’s expectations, but (as Socrates exhorted) we should know ourselves well enough to be able to accept or reject work based on introspection.

The person who has learned that he or she does not perform well in a big organization should have learned to say no to a position in one. The person who has learned that he or she is not a decision maker should have learned to say no to a decision-making assignment. (Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself)

Using these two examples as an initial lens, I do enjoy taking decisions when I feel like there’s been a proper process leading to that point. I certainly do not enjoy working within large organisations. I dislike hierarchy and bureaucracy intensely. I’m also quite different in terms of emotional make-up at different times of the year. As an ambivert, I find that the more extroverted side of my personality comes out between the spring and autumnal equinoxes, and for the other half of the year I’m more on the introverted side. I guess this can be frustrating for people who assume (or expect) consistency.

Elsewhere, Drucker mentions that another important question to ask oneself is, “Do I perform well under stress, or do I need a highly structured and predictable environment? I find this a false binary. While I don’t appreciate arbitrary deadlines (usually a function of an oppressive hierarchy) I structure my own fairly predictable environment. However, I mix this up by frequent flights into serendipity in both my reading and travel, as well as taking fallow days where I’m purposefully ‘unproductive’. These ‘Doug days’ as I’ve come to call them, are the reason I strive to work a four-day week.

Even people who understand the importance of taking responsibility for relationships often do not communicate sufficiently with their associates. They are afraid of being thought presumptuous or inquisitive or stupid. They are wrong. Whenever someone goes to his or her associates and says, “This is what I am good at. This is how I work. These are my values. This is the contribution I plan to concentrate on and the results I should be expected to deliver,” the response is always, “This is most helpful. But why didn’t you tell me earlier?” (Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself)

I’m strong on values and don’t like them compromised. I set great store by my logical approach, although I do try to temper that with empathy. The thing that I cannot stand more than anything in co-workers (and, indeed, my children) is when it’s obvious that the other person isn’t trying their best. There’s always cases where there’s genuine reasons for soft-peddling, but most of the time I expect people to bring their A-game.

My contribution to projects is often to problematise (assumed) simplicity, or to do the reverse – to simplify the complex. In this, I bring to bear my undergraduate philosophical training, as well as my postgraduate studies around ambiguity and metaphor. I find that we as humans think primarily through metaphor, even when we don’t realise, and don’t realise that there are different types of ambiguity.

Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference? (Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself)

The difficulty in working in a field like edtech is that (as I argued in a recent post) it’s not really a coherent field or discipline. As such, it’s difficult to see where the boundaries are, and therefore what needs to be done. I suppose I bumble along as best I can using my knowledge and skills, but I certainly think there’s many of us who would benefit from adding scaffold around us.

Wiki backup: daily reading

Last year, my wiki went down at dougbelshaw.com/wiki. For reasons too boring to go into, I was unable to resurrect it. This made me sad, particularly because there was some stuff on there that didn’t exist anywhere else.

After a brief period of mourning, I got on with my life. Noel De Martin, however, decided to do some digging via the Wayback Machine, and found several pages, which I’m copying-and-pasting to my blog for posterity.

What follows is a snapshot of my ‘Daily reading’ page from January 2017.


Current list

Every morning, I read parts of books from the ‘Daily reading’ collection I’ve created on my e-reader. It currently contains these books:

All links take you to WorldCat, meaning you should be able to find if a local library has these in stock.

On the bench

Here are the books that used to feature on this list, and may return someday:

Meta

I’m very aware that this is a list of dead, white men, but these are just the books I’ve come across so far that are so helpful to me I’m happy to read them on repeat. If you’ve got suggestions of alternatives or anything to help widen my worldview, please do let me know! It needs to be the kind of thing I can finish and then start right back at the beginning again.

Weeknote 13/2020

This week was the same as last week. I’m tempted to leave it there, but of course the devil is in the detail, and the interest is in the nuance; the gaps and the cracks are what make us human.

I think you can read a lot into the fact that I dusted the desk in my home office on Friday morning. My office isn’t overly-dirty or untidy, but suffice to say that I managed to move around enough dust that I sneezed myself through my next video conference.

For me, Lent is now receding into the distance, despite the fact that, at the time of writing, there’s still two weeks until Easter. After all, when part of my family’s homeschooling curriculum involves baking cakes, and my wife buys me a bottle of whisky ‘just in case’, it’s fair to say that all bets are off.


Talking of my wife, I’m sure you can imagine the look on her face when an Oculus Go arrived at our house this week. Initially, I thought her shock was from me having bought something made by a company now owned by Facebook. It turns out that I was mistaken! Instead, she was concerned about the frivolous nature of VR and me buying another screen to look at.

I informed her that I didn’t pay full price but, instead, bought it from an eBay seller who had rarely used it. However, instead of being pleased by my cost-saving, she pointed out that buying something that works by attaching it to your face during a pandemic is… well, I don’t think I caught the end of her sentence. Back in the doghouse.


Like many people, I get emails from Google Maps showing me where I’ve been over the past month. I sincerely hope they’ve switched this service off for the foreseeable, as otherwise it’s going to be rather depressing.

My pandemic routine, such as it is, is like a parody of my normal day. Up at 06:30; breakfast with the children while my wife gets ready; start work in my home office at 08:00; work until 12:00; lunch; start again at 12:30; finish at 16:00. Rinse and repeat.

This means, on average, I walk 652 steps over the course of the working day. So it’s imperative that I do some form of exercise. I’ve been running; either hill sprints or my usual route around our town’s bypass, which is around 6.5km. It was just a little dispiriting when I left my smartwatch charging when heading off for a run the other day. I know the thing is having actually done the steps rather than record them, but I don’t like my smartphone to be yet another thing to be disappointed in me.


I went to visit my parents last Sunday for Mother’s Day, and then during the week to deliver some items that they hadn’t been able to get. Talking through a pane of glass, with the window cracked open slightly, felt like either they or I was in prison. It was pretty surreal, as is everything in this situation. It’s like being part of an alternative reality game where the daily arrangement of Joe Wicks’ shelves gives clues on how to escape.

Other than that, my only non-exercise activity was taking my children up to a WWII ‘pillbox’ that is less than a mile away from our home. I’m trying an enquiry-based approach to teaching them History, starting with an era neither of them have studied yet. They’ve come up with some great questions so far, which we’ll dive into over the coming weeks.

There’s something completely different about walking and talking, and being out in the open air when teaching and learning. I know it’s not ‘saleable’ but perhaps not everything needs to be? I think education is potentially going to look very different post-pandemic, especially if the lockdown lasts months instead of weeks.


We bought a picnic table to go on the patio at the end of our (small) garden. When it arrived, my wife was concerned it was too small, that it was one meant for kids. In the end, everything turned out alright and, after we put it together, we enjoyed a beer while wearing coats and hats. It’ll be good when the weather gets a bit better and the kids can do some of their schoolwork outside.


There’s not much to be said on the work side of things. The stuff I’ve done for the co-op would require a lot of context to make any sense, but we’re continuing to do work for Red Hat and Greenpeace.

With MoodleNet, we’re now very close to having a version ready for federation. There’s a showstopping bug in some of the code we depend on from another project that needs fixing. But other than that, we’re talking small tweaks and configuration. It’s pretty exciting being this close to releasing something for testing that we know is going to be so useful to so many educators.


Next week, let’s see… yes, I’ll be at home. Doing pretty much the same things as I’ve done this week. I’m all for routine, but this is ridiculous!


Photo of WWII pillbox taken by me on Thursday.

Weeknote 12/2020

I’m not sure what can be said that hasn’t already been said about the last few days. Schools are now shut in the UK, along with pubs, restaurants, etc. While we’re not on imposed lockdown like Italy or Spain, we decided to keep the kids home early, and I’ve persuaded my parents to limit the amount they go out.

I just wish we’d listened to Bill Gates back in 2015.

It’s hard to imagine a global pandemic when everything is fine, I guess.


As usual, I split my week between MoodleNet and working on things for the co-op. This week, however, I added into the mix contributing a small amount to the homeschooling of our children.

With everything that’s going on around educational institutions pivoting to online learning, now would be the perfect time to launch MoodleNet. Teachers across different institutions could be sharing collections of resources and engaging in pedagogical discussion via the platform.

However, we only have a small, part-time team working on this. In addition, we’re essentially inventing a new category of social networking. It’s complicated, and we’re a few weeks away from federation testing, never mind user testing.

That’s why, this week, I brought forward work on a crowdfunding plan. Doing so means we should be able to increase the capacity of the existing team, and/or hire more people to work on the project. More details on that soon.

On the co-op front, we all worked on a very productive short pre-mortem for joint ventures that we enter into. I always enjoy doing these kinds of activities, as they’re so enlightening and collaborative. I also did a little bit of work on our collaboration with Greenpeace. Our planned in-person work is currently being re-scoped to online.


Overall, though, my life hasn’t been so different to normal. To be honest, at times it’s felt more like me working from home while the kids are on half-term rather than living through a life-threatening pandemic.

A decade ago, I would have been a ‘key worker’, a teacher and senior leader in schools. My life, like so many people’s I know, would have been turned upside down. But over the last 10 years I’ve slowly retreated into spending 95% of my time at home, interspersed with national and international travel.

It’s not such a bad life if you get the right balance of exercise, nutrition, and sleep — what I call the ‘three pillars’ of productivity. What I’m going to miss is mixing up the routine over the next few months through travel. At least my wife and I got to visit Bruges just before all this began.


When we were in Bruges, the Belgian city of beer and waffles, I did put my Lent fast of refined sugar and alcohol on hold. Other than that, however, I have been avoiding them both, and lost a noticeable amount of weight.

Continuing to avoid sugar and alcohol during what could be months at home with one’s family, however, would be a test to anyone’s willpower. So I’ve re-scoped what I’m doing to help me differentiate weekdays and weekends. During the week I’ll avoid refined sugar and alcohol, but allow myself (as I did last night) a bit of cake and whisky at the weekends!


Right now, everyone is so full of advice for what others should be doing. Most of this is well-meaning, some of it is a desperate pitch for work, and a small percentage of it is self-aggrandising. I’m just looking after myself and the people around me. If everyone does that, I think we’ll be OK.

As Seth Godin pointed out this week, panic loves company. He links to a post by Margo Aaron in which she encourages us to disconnect from outrage culture:

The worst possible thing to do for your immune system is to live in a constant state of stress. And if this global pandemic requires a healthy strong immune system in order to fight it, then the most responsible thing you can do if you’re feeling afraid is to stop watching the news.

The story you’re telling yourself is you can’t disconnect because you won’t be “informed.” I’m telling you: You’re not informed as it is. The only thing you have to gain by strategically disconnecting is your sanity.

Margo Aarson

So there we are. I’m not going be disconnecting from Twitter and social media, not during the week anyway.


Next week looks a lot like this week, and so on, and on, into the distance. My aim is to keep spirits up, resources stocked, and exercise done. After an enjoyable Friday meetup via video conference of some of the members of our Slack channel, I may try and make that a weekly thing.


Photo taken by me during a family walk in the wilds of Northumberland earlier this week.

Weeknote 11/2020

Never has this quotation been more apt:

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Wow, what a week! My wife and I returned from Belgium on Sunday night, thinking everyone was being more than a bit over-cautious. By today, the next Saturday, we’re effectively tinfoil hat preppers.

Shortages in local supermarkets, handwashing drills, a new freezer in our outhouse, stockpile lists, and we’re seriously considering keeping the kids off school. I’m running outside instead of going to the gym.


I can’t even really remember what I’ve done this week apart from read the news and think about the impact of the pandemic on society. I’m not particularly anxious, it’s more that my brain goes into overdrive thinking about the “what if?” scenarios.

Apart from a couple of presentations on MoodleNet using the slide deck I posted here, I’ve mainly been sorting out GitLab issues and making sure the team is alright. We’re a fully-remote team based in Europe, with two in Italy, two in the Netherlands, and then one in France, Czechia, and Greece.

My co-op colleagues seem to all be alright, but of course any in-person work we were planning to do is a bit up-in-the-air at the moment. Who knows when all this will end?

I cancelled a trip to go walking in the Peak District with a friend this weekend, next week’s FutureFest has been postponed, and likewise next month’s MoodleMoot UK & Ireland. If things return to whatever the new version of ‘normal’ looks like, there are going to be a lot of events in the second half of the year.


One good thing that’s coming out of all of this is that people are being forced to figure out how to do things online. Virtual events, online learning, remote work are all things that should be commonplace in 2020. And in some sectors, and in some organisations, they absolutely are. But in others, all this is brand new.

I’ve worked from home for the last eight years now, with a dedicated home office that’s separate to our house. It contains all of the kit I need, and I’ve got a super-fast mesh network which makes our home wifi fast and stable. It’s easy to take all of this, plus the experience I’ve gained over the years for granted.

The great thing about remote work is that you have to measure results by outcomes, not how hard it looks like people are working. You have to have trust, and processes, and be able to convey human qualities like empathy at a distance.

I wrote something for the We Are Open blog about remote working for leaders and managers. Our co-op is definitely standing by for any organisations that need help in this regard.


It’s now a decade since I was responsible for technology at a large educational organisation. On Twitter, which I can’t seem to turn off at the moment, I thought out loud what I’d do if I had to pivot to online learning from a base of no current capacity.

As I auto-delete my tweets every 30 days, I used Thread Reader to ‘unroll’ my thread. Check it out here.

All of this has made me think that the best technologies are the open, mature, and tested ones. Which is why I wrote an ode to email, explaining why it’s the original robust, decentralised technology. I also reflected on sharing educational resources via bittorrent.


Next week, then, I’ll be at home. Perhaps with all of the rest of my immediate family. We’ll see.


Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko

Email is the original robust, decentralised technology

I don’t know about you, but this pandemic has led to my inbox being full of messages from companies telling me about the steps they’re taking to ensure business continuity. It’s like the GDPR never happened. 🙄

However, let’s just examine how these companies are conveying this mission-critical information? Is it some sexy new platform? Have they taken out adverts? Nope, they’re using email.


Email is the original robust, decentralised technology. It’s built on open standards. It’s free. You can do almost anything with it,. This is why, despite Silicon Valley trying to come up with alternatives, email refuses to ‘die’. It’s just too useful.

People used to complain about email and the flood of messages in their inbox. But that’s nothing compared to the hundreds (or even thousands!) of messages you can be bombarded with if your organisation uses a workplace chat app. You don’t solve a problem just by throwing new shiny tech at it.


I remember Malcolm Gladwell mentioning years ago in The New Yorker that if paper had been invented recently, we’d be talking about its “tangible” qualities and how “spatially flexible” it is. Same goes with email: we forget how awesome it is because it’s seen as boring and everyday.

But let’s just go through some of the things you can achieve with email:

  1. Private messages
  2. Group messages
  3. Attachments
  4. Encryption
  5. Filter messages
  6. Forward important information
  7. Asynchronous
  8. Lightweight and fast
  9. Search
  10. Read receipts

A few days ago, I posted about how to share educational resources using bittorrent. I reckon if you used that, email, and a decentralised video conferencing technology based on WebRTC (like Jitsi), you could achieve almost anything. Especially during an emergency.

I see that the #DisasterSocialism hashtag has been trending on social networks, which is certainly something we need instead of #DisasterCapitalism. If you and your organisation is disrupted by the pandemic, just get through the initial days with whatever you’ve got. And I can guarantee you’ve already got email.


Further reading? There’s a list of decentralised applications (mostly newer tech) here.

How to easily share educational resources via bittorrent

MoodleNet isn’t exactly my first foray into the world of Open Educational Resource (OER) sharing. I can’t believe that it’s now 17 years since I was, as a fresh-faced teacher, first involved in a European project around using bittorrent to share educational resources.

I feel like the global pandemic has helped sharpen our collective minds as open educators and edtech enthusiasts. It’s certainly made me realise that we should be using torrents to share resources. After all, the more people are ‘seeding’, the less it puts strain on the bandwidth at any one location!

The great thing about bittorrent is that it’s a mature decentralised technology. There’s lots of ways of achieving the same ends, but I want to show perhaps the quickest and easiest way of getting openly-licensed educational content added to a torrent that you can then share with others.

How does bittorrent work?

You don’t need to understand how it works to use it, any more than you need to know how encryption works to shop or bank online. But in case you’re interested…

Setup

Make sure you’ve got some openly-licensed content. If you don’t have any of your own to share, you can find some at OER Commons or via this list.

Also, you will need a bittorrent app, like Transmission (alternatives here)

Uploading

Create a free account at the Internet Archive. Here’s a direct link to the signup page.

Internet Archive (archive.org)

Go to the upload page:

Uploading files to archive.org

Press the green button to get to this page:

Drag-and-drop files to archive.org

Fill in the required fields to provide more information about the files to be uploaded. Then press the blue button to continue:

Enter metadata to archive.org

Downloading

Once the files have been uploaded, you (and everyone else on the web) will see a screen similar to this one. There’s some additional processing to take place, but you should be able to see ‘torrent’ in the right-hand sidebar:

Internet Archive page

If you click to download the torrent, you should see something like this. While you may download the torrent to your computer, you can also just choose to open it directly in your bittorrent app:

Download torrent from archive.org

The torrent is added to the bittorrent app. As you can see, the Internet Archive has auto-converted my original upload into other formats. You can choose to download all files (default) or choose some to skip:

Add torrent to Transmission

Here is the torrent about to start downloading to your machine. If you leave the bittorrent app running, you provide an additional node to ‘seed’ the files to others!

Downloading torrent

Conclusion

As you can see from the above, creating a torrent from files you already have (or can find!) is pretty straightforward.

The huge value of doing this via the Internet Archive is that they will always be seeding your torrent. This means there will never be a time when someone tries to download your torrent and there’s no seeds.


What could I do to improve this quick guide? Do you have any questions? Ask in the comments below!

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