This week has been half-term for my kids, so I’ve been working less. Although it didn’t pan out exactly this way, the plan was to keep the same working days for Moodle and We Are Open co-op, but just work half days. My thinking was that this would allow me to keep up with the projects I’m working on, and also spend time with the family. As it happens, this approach has left me feeling like I’ve neglected both a bit.
Last week, I explained how my son had suffered from some trauma to his neck. I’m absolutely delighted to report that now, almost two weeks after the injury, he’s back to (carefully!) playing football with his sister and me. Some parts of his left hand have still have reduced sensation and he can’t turn his neck all the way to the left, but his recovery this week has been pretty staggering.
On the MoodleNet side of things, I’ve been finalising details around the budget for this year. Up until now, budgets have been centralised at Moodle, so it’s great for the team to have some direct control over resourcing. As we received around 90% of what we asked for (pretty standard practice, I’d say) we’ll have to bring forward some of our plans to make MoodleNet sustainable in a way that isn’t annoying or creepy.
I’ve learned with this project not to make promises about exactly when things will be ready. That being said, we’re probably a few weeks away from federation testing, which I’m looking forward to.
In addition to this, we’ve been working closely with the Moodle LMS team around integration for the two platforms, ready for their 3.9 release in May. Things are going well in that regard.
For the co-op, I’ve been working on a project which will be launched soon. It’s a community for aspiring open leaders within the public sector, and has had me revisit some work I’ve done over the last decade.
This is a joint venture with LDR21 and sponsored by Red Hat. I’ve been collaborating mainly with Laura on some workshop resourcing around the fundamentals of working openly. It’s always interesting revisiting the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ of your everyday working life.
I received my new phone this week, a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. It’s a beast in every sense of the word: larger and heavier than my previous phone, but with three cameras, insane amounts of RAM and storage space, and a 90hz full-screen display. Given where we live, the 5G isn’t much use to me right now, but I’m future-proofing…
This has meant we’ve done a hermit crab-style upgrade, with my son inheriting my OnePlus 5 and passing on his OnePlus One so that my daughter now has her first phone. She’ll get a SIM for it in time for next academic year.
Inexplicably, my new phone doesn’t have wireless charging built-in. So I read this guide and added it myself with a super-thin charging receiver that fits underneath the phone case and plugs into the USB-C port. It’s actually pretty unnoticeable, protects the USB port from dust and dirt, and works really well.
Due to my son’s injury and him previously not being able to do much in the way of physical activity, we brought our PlayStation 4 downstairs and attached it to our TV. (It’s usually hooked up to a projector in the room next to the master bedroom.)
A game that we’ve greatly enjoyed playing is Ultimate Chicken Horse. It’s as daft and fun as the name suggests, and we’ve had a whale of a time playing it together this week! It’s up there with Party Golf for fun multiplayer games.
Next week, it’s back to a regular week of working full days for Moodle on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, and the co-op on Wednesday and Thursday. My wife’s parents are coming up to visit next weekend, but other than that it’s business as usual.
It’s fair to say that this week was unexpected in its events. On Monday afternoon, I received a phone call from my son’s school, just as I was just finishing up a meeting. Like most parents, I’ve come to dread these calls, as it usually means something is wrong.
And something was very wrong with my son. I rushed down there, taking the car despite it being less than a 10-minute walk. When I arrived, he was bent over, and unable to move his neck. He couldn’t really feel his left hand and had reduced sensation in his left arm. At lunchtime, a friend had playfully put him in a headlock, squeezed, and they had both fallen to the floor.
I drove him straight to hospital. That hospital sent him by ambulance to a larger one with more specialised equipment. He had an MRI scan. At one point it looked very much like spinal surgery would be necessary.
Given my son had been knocked out on the school premises last year, I met with the headteacher to talk about their emergency procedures. On both occasions I had to drive my son to hospital. On both occasions they should have called an ambulance. Serious head and neck trauma always requires immediate help from medical professionals, especially with children.
At the time of writing, my son’s prognosis is good. He had the rest of the week off school, and was delighted that he was encouraged to play PS4 games to improve the sensation in his left hand. That’s returning, thankfully, and he has a greater range of movement in his neck. The spinal consultant told us in a follow-up visit on Friday that my son should make a full recovery. Just no sport for a few weeks.
There’s been a steady stream of my son’s friends coming around to visit, bringing cards, presents, and their best wishes. I was particularly impressed that the friend who caused the injury was the first to come around and express his deep regret. I certainly wouldn’t have had the courage or wherewithal to do that aged thirteen.
In life, I think it’s reasonable to expect the unexpected. Stressful events and worrying times befall us all, so it’s good to prepare ourselves for them. I was strangely calm throughout all of the events of this week, which is in marked contrast to when my son had his first febrile convulsion at the age of two.
Since then, I’ve read a lot of Stoic philosophy, become a more experienced parent, and gone through some therapy. As a result, while I’m obviously not unfeeling, I was able to separate my own emotions from the situation.
As I’ve shared before, there’s a particularly useful saying from Epictetus which is worth quoting again:
If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own… Exercise, therefore, what is in your control.
That’s not to say that I was preparing for my son’s death. But it’s good to be reminded that there are some things that we can control, and some things we cannot. In fact, pretty much all of the teachings of Epictetus come down to this.
Everything else this week has faded into insignificance compared to the injury to my son. I worked two half-days on Monday and Tuesday for Moodle, as well as Friday. On Wednesday and Thursday I continued doing some work for the co-op in preparation for launching a community space for public sector leader. We also had some conversations with potential clients.
I’d just like to take this opportunity, buried down here at the bottom of my weeknote, to thank my family for being so fantastic. My wife obviously found what happened this week traumatic, but was dependable and loving in equal measure.
My parents rallied around, taking my son out for walks and looking after him while my wife and I needed a break. And my daughter has got on with things like an absolute boss, being Star of the Week for her “perfect behaviour, hard work, and great attitude”. Thank you all.
Next week is half-term, so given we’re not going away, instead of taking full days off, I’ll be working half-days for both Moodle and the co-op. There’s another storm coming, apparently, so Team Belshaw will mostly be huddled inside, sheltering from the weather…
This week, I’ve been based at home, settling into my new rhythm of working for Moodle on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and We Are Open co-op on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have to say, I like it.
When I tell people that I’m part of a co-op, people are often interested in what I can only refer to as power dynamics. How do decisions get made? Who’s in charge? How do you allocate work?
I can certainly answer those questions, but it’s the difference between explaining, for example, the act of swimming verbally, and getting into the water and doing it yourself. Like goldfish, we forget the ‘water’ we already swim in is one that takes for granted coercive power relationships. Instead, with the co-op, as members we rotate roles and discourage permission-seeking.
This week, we realised that, given the amount of potential work coming in, we really needed a project management solution. In an organisation with coercive power dynamics, this would be decided by fiat, or by the ‘management team’.
In our co-op, we instead took a different approach. Some members of We Are Open are available to work almost full-time. Some, like me, are available a couple of days per week. Others, right now, have very little availability.
So we allowed those who would be using the project management solution the most, and who were most interested, to do the research, and then suggest an option.
This doesn’t have to be complicated, nor does it have to be based entirely on functional requirements. In the end, Gráinne Hamilton and I spent some time, both synchronously and asynchronously, with a few solutions.
What I found particularly interesting was that Gráinne and I had quite different requirements and assumptions going into this, but managed to find something that satisfied the collective needs of the co-op. (Note that the requirements down the left-hand side of the spreadsheet came from our meet-up in London the week before last.)
Once we’d chosen a solution to put forward, we shared our spreadsheet (which also included some comments you can’t see in the screenshot) and put it to a vote in Slack. The options were ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Need more info’. Every member voted in favour of our proposed solution, which in this case happened to be Monday.com.
When describing this kind of approach, people tend to call it ‘democratic’ and, to some degree, it is. But that’s just part of it. The main piece of the puzzle for me is ensuring alignment, which you get through healthy power dynamics.
This is the kind of approach that you can use in any organisation. You don’t have to be yogurt-knitting vegans to get started with it.
For example, as Product Manager for MoodleNet, I meet 1:1 with every member of the team once per month. While I may not use the language in the above diagram, during these meetings what I have in mind during these meetings, as well as the weekly team meetings, is to increase reduce the ‘power-over’ that is implicit within hierarchies while increasing ‘power from within’.
Because of the intersecting injustices of modern societies, the degree of encouragement you receive when you’re growing up will vary greatly depending on many factors like your personality, gender, physical traits, and cultural background. If you want everyone in your org to have full access to their power-from-within, you need to account for these differences.
Richard D. Bartlett
What I’ve found in my career to date is that, no matter how they act in other situations, in 1:1 meetings, people are looking for reassurance and encouragement. The hard part is doing that without reinforcing a coercive power dynamic.
So this week was full of meetings, but thankfully not the boring type, but the kind that are focused on actions and outcomes. For example, in addition to meeting 1:1 with several of the MoodleNet team, I met with:
Sander Bangma who leads the Moodle LMS team about integration between our two products. We used a document we’d already been working on to make decisions about scope.
Martin Dougiamas, Moodle’s Founder and CEO, about MoodleNet resourcing and budgets. I then met with Mayel de Borniol to finalise a spreadsheet for the budget committee.
A potential client which I’ll not name right now. We keep these initial meetings to 30 minutes, investigate requirements, and then, if invited to, send a proposal.
Adam Procter who is a friend and generous supporter of Thought Shrapnel. He was looking for some advice about productivity and workload.
My therapist for my last CBT session for three months. I’m starting a period of consolidation after a marked improvement in my outlook on life over the past six sessions.
Olivier Wittorski and Emilio Lozano about gathering requirements for ways in which Moodle Workplace and MoodleNet could work together. This led to a document and a slidedeck with initial ideas and mock-ups.
As I discussed with Emilio, who became a father recently, when you have kids, your time becomes a lot more precious. This is doubly so when you split your time between two organisations. There’s less slack time, which is a good thing as it means you’re laser-focused on what needs to be done, and intolerant of distraction.
Next week, I’ll again be working from home all week. I’ve got some exciting co-op work to begin, as well as new functionality and features in MoodleNet to oversee. It’s the week before half-term, when I’ll probably be taking some time off to spend with the family.
As I’ve said in previous weeknotes, we’re getting our house ready to potentially sell, so I’ll be continuing to paint, and sand, and scrub, and buy random pieces of IKEA furniture…
This week I have been travelling to Barcelona and London for Moodle and We Are Open Co-op, respectively. It’s been a good week.
In Barcelona, I was demoing MoodleNet to the Moodle LMS team, and to Martin Dougiamas (Moodle’s Founder and CEO). There’s a few things we need to add before we make it generally available, but the team have done a great job in getting the basic features ready. It’s looking great!
One of the things I always enjoy about going over to the Moodle Spain HQ office is the sense of solidarity. It’s the small things, which of course in the long-run aren’t so small, like having lunch together every day, and celebrating each other’s successes.
I went straight from Barcelona to London for an always-enjoyable co-op meetup. This one was made even more special by Laura having just won an award the night before:
We discussed co-op infrastructure, workflows and process, clients, and… the fact that I interrupt people too much. Er, noted.
That was Monday to Thursday taken care of, and so on Friday I took things a little easier, working on co-op infrastructure stuff and proposals for clients. I thought I’d add a quick note about how I deal with days like these, when I’m not ’employed’ (either by Moodle or clients) and I’m feeling tired.
In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey quotes the biographer of author Patricia Highsmith (best known for The Talented Mr Ripley):
Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost foetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”
I don’t smoke, nor have I touched coffee for the last 18 months. That’s why I’ve highlighted the section above about avoiding “any sense of discipline” and focusing on making work “as pleasurable as possible”.
When I’m feeling tired, lethargic, or perhaps mentally or physically fragile, I find that convincing myself that work is ‘optional’ helps immensely.
In practice, this looks like prioritising things that bring me joy, such as walking my daughter to school (now a good 35 minutes each way), enjoying an extended lunch with my wife, or going down some rabbitholes on the internet.
This never fails to fool my brain and I end up thinking, “oh, I might as well just get that thing done,” or “maybe I’ll just send a few emails”. It doesn’t feel like work. Nor does the research and writing I do here, on my other blogs, or for Thought Shrapnel.
This weekend, when we haven’t been (as usual) chasing our tails getting our children to sporting activities, we’ve been putting into action a plan we came up with a couple of weeks ago. Along with the instigation of family meetings every Sunday, we’ve made a list of everything that needs doing to the house and garden, and are cracking on getting everything fixed.
The reason for this is that we’re considering selling our house. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, not because it wouldn’t sell straight away, but because of the other side of the coin. We live very close to one of the best schools in the north of England, meaning houses get snapped up quickly.
For us to be able to get the house we want, in the location we need, ideally we need to be renting. That means we can, as we’ve done previously, jump on a house when it comes up and be immediately ‘proceedable’.
Of course, that means getting the things done to our house, and then moving once (into rented accommodation) and then moving again, potentially within six months, to where we want to remain.
The upside of this plan is that, if we get it right, it’s the last move we’ll need to do before our children leave home. Fingers crossed!
(And, of course, if we decide to remain here, we’ve got all of the things done to house that needed doing anyway…)
After being invited for the past few years to speak at the event, I’m delighted that this year I’m going to be able to make it to Open Belgium 2020 in early March. My wife and I are going to combine it with a visit to Bruge, a place we’ve always wanted to go. Part of that, I think, is the film In Bruges (2008) which, if you’ve never seen, you really must.
Next week, I’m working for Moodle on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, and doing co-op work on Wednesday and Thursday. I’ve got my sixth CBT session on Thursday and I’m trying to decide whether to pause it there and focus on applying what I’ve learned so far, or go for the full 12-week course that’s usually prescribed.
I’m still weighing up whether to attempt to go through a publisher for the book I’ve got in my mind, or whether just to self-publish. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the latter and using Leanpub.
I’d like to do some more keynotes and public speaking this year, so if you’re reading this and know of any opportunities feel free to direct people to my speaking page.
This week has been one of things coming together. That’s happened on a number of fronts, including: studd that I recorded at the end of last year being released; MoodleNet now actually working; and a real breakthrough during my fifth CBT session.
Dealing with them in order, the audio I recorded for the Digital2Learn podcast back in November has now been released as two separate episodes. In them, I discuss my work on digital literacies, but also cover a wide range of other issues. In addition, the video recording of my presentation and Q&A session at the ITHAKA Next Wave conference in December is now available.
I’m pleased with both of these, particularly the ITHAKA recording, as it pulls together threads of things I’ve been thinking about over the last year, primarily over at Thought Shrapnel.
Talking of Thought Shrapnel, this week I wrote an article about management, organisations and emotional intelligence entitled How you do anything is how you do everything. The microcast this week riffed on a conversation featuring Chris Dixon from the a16z podcast. And the link roundup was the usual mixture of the serious (parenting, screentime) and the not-so-serious (birbs).
Although there’s still plenty of work to do, this week things really came together with MoodleNet, the federated, resource-centric social network for educators that my team is building.
We’re planning for enough functionality to be ready to demo next Wednesday when I meet with Martin Dougiamas (Moodle’s Founder and CEO) in Barcelona. Joining us remotely will be Mayel de Borniol (MoodleNet Technical Architect) as well as representatives from the Moodle LMS team.
The focus of the meeting is to ensure that we have MoodleNet integration in the upcoming Moodle 3.9 release, which is scheduled for May 2020. That involves both a simple link from the LMS to MoodleNet, and the ability to send a resource from a MoodleNet collection to a course in Moodle LMS.
In terms of my ongoing CBT, what was particularly interesting was how we’re circling in on something very specific. We’d previously discussed and reflected on my tendency to turn everything into a competition, and avoid situations where I know I can’t ‘win’.
Interestingly, it appears that there’s something even deeper underpinning that which we’re currently chiselling away at. I’ll be happy to share that when I’ve got a better understanding of it and given it a name.
My experience of CBT has been like my experience of Pilates. Something that was highly recommended to me by several people but, for whatever reason, I decided wasn’t for “people like me”. Obviously I was completely wrong about both, although I need to get back to doing Pilates. The difference it makes to my core muscles is a bit like the difference CBT is making to my mental outlook.
This past week it’s been my son’s 13th birthday, which means I am now the proud parent of a teenager. I’m not saying that flippantly, either: I am incredibly proud of my son, who continues to surpass me in every way when I was his age, and with a poise I could never quite muster.
Unfortunately, after pushing his body through the Northumberland Cross-Country Championships, despite his coming down with a cold (and being sick half-way through the race) he was actually off school on both the day of his birthday and the day after that.
That meant that we punted some of the celebrations to Saturday, which included going to see the latest Star Wars film at the cinema, and having a chinese takeaway. Given that we’ve got a pescetarian, flexitarian, and two carnivores in our family, it’s always interesting making sure that these things satisfy everyone!
I’m composing this on Sunday evening during my flight over to Barcelona. I was originally going to just go for the day, but due to the vagueries around the pricing of flights and accommodation, it was actually pretty much the same price (if not cheaper) to be in the office Monday to Wednesday.
On Thursday I’ll be in London for a We Are Open co-op meetup. It’s incredibly important for us to meet in person at least a couple of times a year, even if it’s only for one day. Laura is in town anyway, as she’s been nominated for an award, so it’s a good excuse for us all to hang out at Bryan‘s house and get some planning done.
I’ve submitted a couple of proposals to inbound requests for work this week, so I’m hoping that something comes of those and I can share what I’m up to on the consultancy front soon!
It’s exciting times at the moment as split my time between Moodle and the co-op. I’m re-reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile at the moment, as the book’s title is part of my mantra for this year. For those wondering, it’s ‘A-OK’, so Antifragile, Optimistic and Kind. Well, I can try….
Finally, on Friday Eylan Ezekiel led tributes to the inimitable Dai Barnes at TeachMeet BETT. I couldn’t make it, and feel like I have made my peace, but it was my pleasure and privilege at last year’s BETT to introduce Dai in person to a bunch of people he’d only previously interacted with online. He was always the focal point of any room; I’ve rarely come across such a warm, personable, and interesting person. I still miss him.
Photo from a four-hour walk I did from my house on Monday, exploring parts of the local area I’d never seen before — including a dismantled train track!
I confess to almost forgetting to writing a weeknote this week. Thanks to Mike Cooke for the reminder! It’s funny how, when we’re nudged out of a routine, things can go sideways.
The main thing I did this week was go to Kuwait City to run a workshop for the AMICAL consortium on the strategic development of digital literacies. For a variety of reasons, I flew there on Tuesday, led the workshop on Wednesday, and flew back on Thursday.
Regular readers will know that, despite my efforts to eat well and keep fit, such stresses on my body don’t always end well. And so it was that on Thursday I succumbed to a cold, and then on Friday lunchtime, after a number of meetings for Moodle, I suffered from a migraine that knocked me sideways.
It’s my fault, of course. I should know better than to put myself through these things. It was the lack of sleep that got me, I think, but had I stuck around an extra day, my only option would have been to fly back at 3am local time. That wouldn’t have been ideal either.
The workshop went really well, and I was so pleased to meet such lovely people who were so receptive to the ideas I was sharing. I received some great feedback on everything from ambiguity to managing a workshop of around 25 people.
Kuwait City isn’t a place I’d hurry back to as a tourist, but I will say that the Lebanese food I had on Wednesday night was almost worth the trip in and of itself. Delightful.
I recorded a microcast for Thought Shrapnel about the workshop, as well as publishing an article about hierarchy, context, and ways we approach the question of how we should live. To this week’s roundup of links I added some comments, which I’ll continue to do if I can prioritise it.
Things are looking up for MoodleNet as the feeds (e.g. ‘My MoodleNet’) are now working. There’s still plenty to do, but I’ve worked closely with Martin Dougiamas, Moodle’s Founder and CEO, on the roadmap and resourcing.
We’ve always had the code on GitLab, but now we’ve moved the issues there too. You can view the issue board for the current milestone here. As Product Manager, it’s my job to walk a fine line between idealism and pragmatism when it comes to choosing tools. Everyone seems happier so far.
I’ve responded to a couple of requests for work through We Are Open Co-op this week, both of which sound really interesting. I’m going to start getting stuck into some existing work that my colleagues are doing this next week.
Other than that, it’s ensuring everyone has what they need for MoodleNet, and starting to scope out a new e-book. I was going to revise and expand The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies but, instead, I’m considering one with a similar title as my AMICAL workshop using Leanpub.
The week after next I’m in Barcelona for Moodle meetings and then off to London for a co-op meetup. And no, I won’t be at BETT.
This week has been the first where I’ve started splitting my time between Moodle and We Are Open Co-op. For the former, my main focus was on the MoodleNet roadmap for 2020 and beyond, as well as a bunch of meetings. I’m trying to ensure we have the resources we require to get the job done. For the latter, I was putting together a proposal for a client, and finalising my AMICAL conference workshop on digital literacies.
I really enjoy planning workshops, as well as delivering them of course. Thinking through what you want participants to learn, how you can facilitate their interactions, and ensuring that transitions run smoothly, is fascinating.
Due to some building work happening next to my office, I decamped to my parents’ house for two days this week. Although I went to live back there the year after my undergraduate degree, I think that it’s the first time I’ve spend whole days working from my old bedroom since beginning my career proper. It was both slightly strange and oddly comforting.
I got into a pretty good exercise regime over the past week: swimming twice, running twice, gym twice, with one rest day. I’ve upped my daily press-ups, sit-ups, etc. as well as the number of lengths I do in the pool (currently 56, aiming for 72 next month).
In addition, I’ve been getting to bed between 21:00 and 21:30 and reading for about an hour before going to sleep. I’m currently re-reading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which I last read backpacking around Italy. I’ve been setting my alarm and waking at 06:30 each morning and, while my wife is in in the shower, I’ve been reading the following on my e-reader: Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, and On The Shortness of Lifeby Seneca. I did try Cicero again, but he really annoys me for some reason.
Talking of managing one’s emotions, I had another therapy session this week, where we started digging into the implicit ‘rules’ I have for my life. As we use a whiteboard during the session, it’s always interesting to have one’s assumptions and never-before-properly-expressed thoughts laid out in black and white. CBT is an incredible thing.
For Thought Shrapnel this week, I wrote an article that reflected, as many people have been doing, on the past decade. The microcast featured Adam Procter and we discussed his PhD project and the IndieWeb. My roundup of links always reflects what I’ve been reading, which in 2020 seems like it’s continuing to be the insidious effects of technology on society.
Having just recovered from turning 39, and a great Christmas and New Year, it’s my daughter’s ninth birthday this weekend. It’ll then be my son’s in a couple of week’s time. The fun never stops Chez Belshaw!
Next week, I’ll be working from home for Moodle on Monday and Friday, and then travelling on Tuesday and Thursday so that I can be in Kuwait City on Wednesday. Although there are tensions in the Middle East at the moment, I’m unconcerned. As I said to the conference organiser, so long as planes are flying there, I’m happy to go.
If you think I can help you with the work that you or your organisation is doing, please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
(I’m particularly interested in getting some presentations and workshops booked at the moment)
Photo taken on New Year’s Day in the Simonside Hills, Northumberland
Every man rushes elsewhere into the future because no man has arrived at himself.
Michel de Montaigne
This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I’m not going to talk too much about my Moodle work, partly because I’ve written a lengthy retrospective about the (ongoing) project, and because I want to focus on more personal things here.
I’ve been to fewer places for work than in previous years, but that’s to be expected given how little time I’ve had for consultancy work. Outside the UK I’ve been to Barcelona (twice), Lisbon, and New York. With my family I’ve visited New England (summer) and Iceland (winter) on holiday.
Back in July I made a decision to take a back seat with We Are Open Co-op for a few months. That turned out to be a great decision as my colleagues flourished in my absence, re-configuring the co-op to be less dependent on me. I got back involved in early December and represented the co-op at the recent CoTech Winter Gathering in Newcastle. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to playing a much bigger part in 2020 now that I’m reducing my Moodle days.
Everything was put into perspective this year by my good friend Dai Barnes passing away unexpectedly at the start of August. While I’ve had to deal before with the death of older family members, I was so unprepared for the passing of someone who was only a decade older than me that it hit me really hard. He was such a great guy.
Eylan Ezekiel and I recorded a memorial episode of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast of which Dai and I had recorded so many episodes. It was also my honour and privilege to give a eulogy at the memorial service held at Oundle School.
The grief I experienced around Dai’s death made me realise that I needed to step down from my position as a Scout leader. I’d been thrown in at the deep end a few months before and, because I always appear (as Sarah Wilson puts it in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful) “high-functioning,” I was just left to get on with it.
The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.
In actual fact, the Scout leader role triggered a whole lot of things from my teaching career that I hadn’t fully dealt with. For example, I’m plagued with perfectionism, and, it turns out overly-anxious about health and safety issues. Ultimately, I took too much on and, as ever when it comes to voluntary roles, others were all too happy for me to take things off their plate. I don’t blame them; everyone’s busy and I looked like I knew what I was doing.
It was actually a pretty big deal for me to step down from my position in Scouts citing mental health reasons, as it was an admission to myself that I couldn’t cope. There was something there that needed confronting, so I sought help through the NHS. When the waiting list was too long, I decided to start paying for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s been great so far.
So 2019 has been the year when I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am, despite my protestations, an anxious person. Some of this is to my benefit and keeps me on my toes, driving me forward. Some of it, however, can be pretty debilitating at times. I’m learning to manage it by first acknowledging it.
While I made the decision to seek some professional help, I’ve realised that (just like my migraines), to a great extent my anxiety just part of who I am. Yes, I take medication and seek therapy for the worst excesses of my mental health issues, but in many ways, my differences give me some ‘superpowers’. I do seem to have a bit of a spider sense for how things are likely to turn out.
Ultimately, I’ve realised that it’s OK to not be ‘OK’ — and to let other people know. I’ve learned to let go a little and draw more boundaries. It’s alright just to be me, and not some idealised version of me that either younger Doug, or the wider world, expects.
One material difference in my life as a result of these realisations, and also partly inspired by Morrissey, is that I’ve largely stopped watching, listening to, or reading the news:
Stop watching the news! Because the news contrives to frighten you To make you feel small and alone To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own
Morrissey, ‘Spent The Day In Bed’
I succeeded in this venture to such an extent that my wife even had to tell me there was a General Election coming up! It’s remarkably freeing to disconnect from the news cycle, which, after all, is basically having your attention focused by someone else. People tell you about the really important stuff anyway.
It’s common for us all to complain about not having enough time, but when you strip away the inessentials, it’s remarkable how much time we really do have. No-one actually needs the 24-hour news cycle.
Something that’s counted as a real achievement for me this year is to complete a Mountain Leader course. This took place over a series of weekends this Autumn in the Peak District, Lake District, and Snowdonia. I was able to book a place after completing 20 Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) over the last three years.
Whether or not I go on to do the week-long Mountain Leader Assessment (which requires me doing at least another 20 QMDs beforehand) it’s been a fantastic experience. I feel so much more prepared to take friends and family on expeditions now, including wild camping!
Again, this is interesting when I reflect on what has been my default approach to life. A side-product of my upbringing was that I’m competitive in everything, so to do this just for my own benefit – without thinking about whether I’m the best person on the course, or how to ensure I get the assessment done as quickly as possible – is wonderfully liberating.
I think all you can do in life is aim to be better than the day before. That’s been tough this year; I’ve fallen out with family members, berated annoying tradesmen, been unduly harsh with my children, and generally acted like an entitled middle-aged white guy. But I am trying to be better, and find reading that the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Baltasar Gracián really helps. (And yes, I’m very aware that these are all dead white guys. I’m trying on that front, too…)
When the world around you appears to be going to hell in a handbasket, when political engagement seems pointless, mincing around with a sign on a Global Climate Strike seems… not enough. However, as Sun Tzu reminds us:
However critical the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself, despair of nothing; it is on the occasions in which everything is to be feared that it is necessary to fear nothing; it is when one is surrounded by all the dangers that it is not necessary to dread any; it is when one is without resources that it is necessary to count on all of them; it is when one is surprised that it is necessary to surprise the enemy himself.
Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’
We can choose to be fearful, to allow others to dictate the narrative. Or we can choose to grab it and live our own lives. That starts with simple things like how we choose to live and work, what kind of food we put on our plate, our purchasing decisions, and the way we relate to one another.
For me, because many of my interactions with the wider role are mediated and I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, the choices I make around technology play an important role in reflecting my thinking and values. This year, once again, I’ve flip-flopped between trying to make my life easier and more seamless, and then retreating based on my investigations into surveillance capitalism.
There are no easy answers here and choosing to retreat from the world feels like giving up. So I’ll keep on keeping on, even if it seems like sometimes I’m inconsistent. What was it that Emerson said about a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds”? (and I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative”)
This year, I ended up getting into what I think is a good routine with Thought Shrapnel. After attempting to write an article a day in January and February, I took a break for Lent. During that period, I realised that what I was attempting was unsustainable, and so came up with a rhythm that has me posting three times per week (one article, one microcast, one link round-up). I then pull this all together into a newsletter to go out every Sunday.
In terms of the most read Thought Shrapnel posts this year, the list goes:
I’ve been fortunate enough to be backed in this endeavour by my Patreon supporters, whom I appreciate greatly. Thank you all.
I’ve experimented with a range of things this year such as Wednesday surgeries and a Slack-based book club. I’d like to experiment much more next year, through both the co-op and Thought Shrapnel. I think it’s time to be a lot more radical in my thinking, or at least the way I choose to write and talk about my thinking.
One frustration for me this year has been that I don’t feel that I’ve given myself time to just ‘sit’ with the ideas from the things I’ve read and listened to. While Thought Shrapnel continues to be a fantastic outlet for initial processing, it takes time and reflection to synthesise these into new coherent structures.
One outlet for that might be a new e-book. I’m amazed that the book of my thesis, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, continues to be reasonably popular. After six years, though, it’s probably due an update – or a sequel!
I never used to understand why people would pay money to go and see where famous authors or artists cranked out or otherwise created their masterpieces. I remember being shown J.R.R. Tolkien’s desk at house of the friend of a friend. It was a nice desk, but so what?
These days, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the artefacts themselves that are of interest but the milieu in which the author or artist created their work. It’s led me to think about my own, much humbler work, and how our house and my home office is set up.
What kind of activities does the layout of our home prioritise? What’s the default thing to do in our shared spaces? Because I work from home, these things are important. One small step we took this year, which took a whole campaign of persuasion was reconfiguring our lounge. I bought, at a steep discount, a Samsung ‘The Frame’ television which genuinely looks like a piece of art when in standby mode. This means that our seating is not longer pointed at a screen but is more suited to reading and conversation.
This stuff matters and, since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking about organising the various kindw of work I do into different, intentionally-created, spaces. At the moment I tend to spend about 70% of my working time in my home office, separate to the house. The rest of the time I spend at the kitchen table or in the lounge, while my kids or at school, or once or twice a week I venture to a local coffee shop.
I admit it’s a bit of a digression from this retrospective but I can imagine working in a three-room home office based on the Eudaimonia Machine. Mine would combine gallery and salon, as well as library and office. The most important space, after all, is the chamber, which I would probably call my Fortress of Solitude…
Other than the time spent with family and friends, there have been a lot of things I have greatly enjoyed this year. In particular, whole host of new music that was either been released 2019 or I’ve discovered this year has made my life better.
Here are a few examples:
Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls
The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy
Quantic – Atlantic Oscillations
Tycho – Weather
In addition, Bonobo and Disclosure dropped some tracks which makes me hopeful that they’ll both release albums in early 2020!
I listen to very different music when running and in the gym. In fact, when I’m not lifting weights I’m often listening to podcasts, with my favourites this year being:
THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST by Adam Buxton
Akimbo by Seth Godin
Athletico Mince by Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson
Friday Night Comedy by BBC Radio 4
The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferriss
I’m subscribed to a whole bunch of podcasts, so just to highlight some particular episodes from those not mentioned above:
How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash (The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads)
Lauryn Hill: An Education (Dissect)
Orlando Figes on Cultural Change in 19th Century Europe (Dan Snow’s History Hit)
The Rapture (In Our Time)
Victoria Coren Mitchell (Off Menu)
When I’m doing focused work, I use Brain.fm. This app, to which I have a lifetime subscription, is also really useful for sleeping on flights and strange hotel rooms.
I’ve read so many books this year that the following list leaves out many fantastic books that I enjoyed greatly. Nevertheless, of the books I read (and re-read) this year, here’s an eclectic top ten:
Against Creativity by Oli Mould
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
Being Numerous by Natasha Lennard
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Independent People by Halldór Laxness
Maybe Zombies by Laura Hilliger
Obfuscation: A User’s Guide For Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton & Helen Nissenbaum
The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born by Nancy Fraser
Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han
I watch very few films and TV programmes by myself, which obviously has an impact on the kinds of things I end up viewing. On a flight earlier this year I did end up watching a documentary called Free Solo which was incredible. I’ve also enjoyed watching all of the series of Billions and La Casa de Papel with my wife (the latter is more prosaically translated as ‘Money Heist’ in English).
I’d rather spend my screen-based free time playing on our PlayStation 4 than watch television. This year was, I think, the 23rd or 24th year I’ve played a game in the FIFA series. We bought FIFA 20 when it came out and my son is now able to beat me on occasion. My daughter’s pretty good too…
Other than that, while Dai was still with us, I played a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with him. It’s an absolutely incredible game, and I used to love dramatic shoot-outs with the law, while drinking whisky and talking with Dai about life, the world, and everything.
I wrote this retrospective over the course of a couple of weeks, stealing time here and there to type words into the WordPress app on my phone.
Smartphones are, or can be, an existential threat to our peace of mind and individuality. While I love feeling connected to the world, I very much regret the thoughtless way organisations have adopted messaging apps to augment or replace email.
On top of this, social media apps are increasingly designed to be addictive, meaning that the amount of time we spend sharing stuff with one another, whether professionally or personally, is growing exponentially. I’d love to thing that all of this was contributing to the health and wealth of humanity, but I fear the opposite is probably true.
I’m being careful about the apps I put on my phone, reminding myself that replying instantly to family, friends, and work colleagues is a choice I can choose to make. Conversely, I can choose to prioritise what I’m doing right now, be it a thought I’m having or a conversation I’m engaged in. Some things can wait.
I’ll finish, then, with another quotation from Montaigne, one that I’ve read many times before, but truly come to understand this year:
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.
Let’s deal first of all with the huge, blonde-haired elephant in the room. While I expected a Conservative majority in this week’s General Election, I predicted +50 before going to bed on Thursday night, rather than the +66 that resulted.
That the British people are bored of Brexit is manifestly obvious, and has been for a while. Doing anything other than, as the Tories said, “getting Brexit done” would lead to not only dragging out the saga, but deeper divisions between an already-divided nation.
That being said, I voted Labour to prevent the Conservatives getting in where we live. I usually vote for the Greens, but it ended up being quite a close-run thing. For example, the constituency next to us, Blyth Valley, was part of the ‘red wall’ that crumbled this time around.
The reason Blyth Valley is interesting is that it’s a historically-Labour area, a place of mass unemployment, poverty and food banks. It’s incredible the way that the impacts of Tory-imposed austerity have been packaged up and sold as being related to our membership of the European Union. This is the same EU that has invested in infrastructure up here in the North East, including broadband and roads,
I could go on, especially about the way that the left have reacted to the identity politics of the right. But I won’t. Instead I’ll stare into my cup of tea, consider my family’s options, and try not to get into any conversations about politics with my neighbours this Christmas.
On Friday, in the immediate aftermath of the election, I was in Newcastle with representatives of the co-ops that form the CoTech network at the Winter Gathering. I was expecting despondency, but after acknowleding the result, we moved swiftly on to more pressing things such as building the co-operative economy and improving the ways we work together.
As ever, I did a bit of light facilitation, and got stuck into questions around potential membership fees for the network, skill-sharing, and decision-making procedures. CoTech contains a great bunch of people, including an increasing number in the North East, so I look forward to our co-op working more closely with some of them in 2020.
Other than the above, I spent three days working on MoodleNet this week. That included:
Presenting as part of the ALT Online Winter Conference, with a recording of the session posted on the blog.
Attending a Moodle dev training workshop on accessibility.
Catching up with a number of team members either 1:1 or in small groups.
Meeting with Martin Dougiamas and doing a deep dive into the future of MoodleNet. There was also a management meeting this week.
Working on a 3-year plan and roadmap for 2020.
Next week, I’m working on MoodleNet-related activities between Monday and Wednesday, and then heading off to Iceland with my family on Thursday. I’m really looking forward to the holiday, but also just to relaxing for a couple of weeks.
After all, who knows what will be in store for Team Belshaw in 2020?
This week has been all about my trip to New York for ITHAKA’s Next Wave conference. You can find my slides here. Given that I was speaking immediately before a session featuring a representative from Facebook, I took the opportunity to lift the veil on surveillance capitalism. As a result, at least one person deleted their account!
Clay Shirky was in the audience for the event which blew my mind as he’s been such an influence on my thinking over the last decade. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve ever asked someone for a selfie. I also had the privilege of meeting up with Jess Klein, friend and former Mozilla colleague who is now at the Wikimedia Foundation.
As I flew out and back in two days, there wasn’t much point in putting my body through the torture of changing timezones. That’s why you would have found me in Times Square at 04:30 on Wednesday morning taking a video to share with my family back home, who were five hours “in the future”.
Other than that, I worked on MoodleNet-related stuff on Monday and Friday (and, let’s face it, plenty other times inbetween). The team is nearly done fixing the issues that prevented us from doing a live demo at the Global Moot. I’ve been working on a draft roadmap with Mayel and other members of the team, and I’ve got a three-hour meeting scheduled with Martin Dougiamas next week to get that nailed-down.
I’m off social media now for December and have downed tools on Thought Shrapnel until 2020. However, if I was composing a newsletter this weekend, I’d include this post from Jason Kottke that he wrote a few weeks ago about how he’s learning to love winter:
Sometime this fall — using a combination of Stoicism, stubbornness, and a sort of magical thinking that Jason-in-his-30s would have dismissed as woo-woo bullshit — I decided that because I live in Vermont, there is nothing I can do about it being winter, so it was unhelpful for me to be upset about it. I stopped complaining about it getting cold and dark, I stopped dreading the arrival of snow. I told myself that I just wasn’t going to feel like I felt in the summer and that’s ok — winter is a time for different feelings.
So how has this tiny shift in mindset been working for me so far? It’s only mid-November — albeit a mid-November where it’s already been 5°F, has been mostly below freezing for the past week, and with a good 6 inches of snow on the ground — but I have been feeling not only not bad, but actually good. My early fall had some seasonally-unrelated tough moments, but I’ve experienced none of last year’s pre-winter despondency.
Great stuff. I think the run-up to last Christmas was the first one I actually enjoyed. I’m endeavouring to ensure this year will be similar.
Next week I’m working on MoodleNet from Monday to Thursday, and then attending the CoTech Winter Gathering on Friday and Saturday, rather handily located this time around in Newcastle-upon-Tyne!