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Lying in bed with Marcus Aurelius and Mahatma Gandhi, thinking about work

When our kids reach their eighteenth birthday and start their foray into adulthood, I’m going to give them some books which have helped me in my adult life, and which I think will help them.

One of those books is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a relatively slim book which contains the wisdom of someone who was not only a Roman Emperor, but a Stoic philosopher.

I’ve written both here and elsewhere about how much value I get from reading Meditations on repeat along with other books like Baltasar Gracián’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence and Montaigne’s Essays. There are certain books that have layers of depth and meaning that it’s only possible to get to via repeated readings.

The thing I particularly like about the Meditations is that it was originally intended as a journal, as a series of exhortations by Marcus Aurelius to encourage himself to be a better person. As such, it doesn’t have a hypothetical audience, it has an audience of one. We’re merely literary voyeurs benefitting from his insights.

There are 12 books in the Meditations, and some sections are more heavily highlighted in my dead-tree version than others. There’s one bit, though, that’s always kind of baffled me.

At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that “I am rising for the work of man”. Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? “Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!” Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy with their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding? “Yes, but one must have some repose as well.” Granted; but repose has its limits set by nature, in the same way as food and drink have; and you overstep these limits, you go beyond the point of sufficient; while on the other hand, when action is in question, you so sorry of what you could well achieve.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5

Perhaps it’s because we live easier lives in 2020 than they did a couple of millennia ago, but this passage doesn’t really speak to me. But I feel like it should.

Others point to it as motivation and inspiration to avoid the lie-in and get on with the day. Reader, I have never had that problem, apart from when I’ve been mentally or physically ill.

To me, motivation for work springs not from religion, or fear, or desire for glory, but, as Gandhi famously suggested, from a striving for the kind of happiness that can be achieved when “what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”.

That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. How about you?


This post is Day 52 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Lies and misinformation

[L]et us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!

[…]

Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access.

Nathan J. Robinson, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)

I pay monthly for access to The Guardian on my smartphone. I could access it for free, but the advertising annoys me, and I want to support their journalism.

Now that I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, it’s the main place I get access to political news. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram, and I’m well aware of the radical left-wing stance of most people I follow on Mastodon.

For me, the problem is not lies per se, but misinformation. There’s certainly a subset of the population either gullible enough or brainwashed enough to believe untruths. What’s more pernicious is the misinformation spread via social networks, often around the intent of various political actors. I can do without this.

For the last decade or so, I’ve taken at least a month off every year from blogging and social media. What I tend to find is that I revert to a more centrist position after this period, and that I replace a lot of the time I usually spend on social media reading history and non-fiction instead.

The answer to our epidemic of misinformation is not 20th century-style ‘information literacy’ resources. Instead, what we need to give people is a real grounding in Humanities, a range of subjects that at their core contain a critical stance to information that circulates in society.

While the technologies we use are new, our desire to manipulate and misinform one another to suit particular agendas is as old as the hills. Let’s remind ourselves that every problem isn’t caused by technology, nor can it be solved by more technology.


This post is Day 22 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

The perfect non-technical book on decentralisation?

This morning on Mastodon I asked:

If you were looking to write the perfect non-technical book on decentralisation, what would you include?

There were some great replies and I’m not going to do justice to them all here, but I want to summarise below some responses that I hope to return.

If I do get around to writing some or all of a book like this, I envisage it will have discrete, overlapping chapters like Anything You Want by Derek Sivers or 33 Myths of the System by Derek Allen. As a few people said, it’s probably best not to put ‘decentralisation’ in the title if it’s meant for a general audience.

My thanks to all who took the time to respond!


This post is Day 10 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Slow down or I’ll do it for you

A couple of years ago I wrote a post entitled Where migraines end and I begin:

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a migraine to someone who has never had one. They’re whole-body experiences and, although people often point to the crushing headaches, it’s actually impossible to separate them out as a distinct ‘event’. They come at you like waves, gentle at first, but increasing in ferocity.

A migraine, I’ve learned, is my body’s way of telling me to take my foot off the accelerator pedal. Otherwise, it quietly threatens, it will apply the handbrake no matter how fast I’m going.

I’ve come to know the warning signs: chewing my fingernails, loss of muscle tone, mood swings. These signs usually happen 24-36 hours before. And depending on how I respond, the migraine can be relatively mild, not much more than a persistent headache that painkillers can’t shift, or it can be cataclysmic.


I pride myself on my speed of work, with a lot of this down to the singular focus I can maintain when standing or sitting at the desk in my home office. For example, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times over the last year when I’ve been working at less than 95%.

But this comes at a cost, and yesterday, after the Moodle drama, the pandemic, a local planning application I’m helping organise against, and the daily grind of seeing no-one other than your close family, my body decided I could do with some time out.

So last night I slept and wrote and slept and wrote and read. Then this morning, after a single meeting with my webcam turned off, I went to the beach for a couple of hours without my family. I’m feeling a lot better.


So my conclusion to all this? Well I guess it’s the platitudinous exhortation to ‘self-care’. You and you only know your limits, how you feel, and what’s a priority at any given moment. Ensure your life mask is in place before helping others.


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


Header image by Ryan Johnston of the covered bridge going over to Glasgow Exhibition Centre. I’ve crossed this many times going to and from the Scottish Learning Festival.

Not everything has to be digital: my analogue daily and weekly planners

I was born in the second to last week of 1980 which, by some people’s reckoning either makes me one of the youngest in Gen X or possibly the world’s oldest Millennial.

What I’m trying to say is that being on the cusp of two generations means that you’re stuck between mindsets when it comes to technologies. One perfect example of this is the way that I plan my weeks. What I would like do do is plan everything digitally, what I actually take is a hybrid approach. I use a combination of Google Calendar, Trello, and other digital tools But also… this:

Doug's Weekly Planner v2
Doug’s Weekly Planner v2 (click to download)

Above is the second version of my weekly planner. I’ve used an iteration of this every week for the past few years. When I’m feeling particularly under pressure, I use a daily planner (below) which is now my third version. The fonts don’t match between the two. I don’t care. Perfect is the enemy of done.

Doug's Daily Planner v3
Doug’s Daily Planner v3 (click to download)

They should be pretty self-explanatory, and you’re welcome to use them, but they’re pretty much focused on my specific needs. I encourage you to make your own, as sometimes having a piece of paper on your desk in front of you adds to a sense of urgency and motivation to get stuff done.


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

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.

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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