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Give and you shall receive

Ryan Holiday has a monthly newsletter where he shares what he’s reading. It’s got tens of thousands of subscribers. Seth Godin has a daily blog where he shares short thoughts. Hundreds of thousands of people read it. Tim Ferriss records a podcast listened to by millions of people.

When these three authors write books, they go straight to the top of the bestseller lists. Why? Because they’ve proactively built a community of people interested in work they’re giving away for free. Their audience is, for want of a better word, ‘primed’ to reciprocate when there’s something available to buy.

Most of us aren’t working on things that millions of people would pay attention to. But almost everyone is working on something that 100 people would pay attention to, or 1,000. And, at various times, we all have ‘asks’, things that we’d like other people to do. It could be buy a thing, but also test or give feedback on an idea.

Too often, I see people ask for help and get no reply. We could chalk that down to a lack of kindness, or no-one caring. Or we could stop a moment and ponder… Have I been generous? Have I given without any thought of receiving? Have I primed anyone (or any group of people) to respond?


This post is Day 67 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Define your audience or your product will (probably) fail

In the past few weeks there have been a couple of occasions where the ‘why’ has been missing from some of the work in which I’ve been asked to be involved.

I’m not talking about the ‘why’ from the supply side, from the organisation that wants to provide the thing; I’m talking about the ‘why’ from the demand side, from the people who might want the thing.

This is not new to me. It was one of the major reasons it was so difficult to get systems of digital credentials based on the Open Badges standard off the ground in the early days: they made sense for the badge issuers, but not necessarily to the badge earners!


During the Catalyst Discovery work I led for We Are Open Co-op last month, we kept returning to one central theme with the nine charities that were involved in the programme. It’s summed-up in this excellent illustration from Bryan Mathers:

Person enthusiastically showing a complicated diagram and saying "What do you think of my cool idea?" to someone looking rather bemused.
Image: CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

In other words, if you show people who you already know something that you’ve made and ask them their opinion of it, they will say things to please you. “What do you think of my cool idea?” is not a fair question to ask people with whom you’re in a relationship. It’s the equivalent of asking your partner “does my bum look big in this?”

Instead, you have to do the hard work of audience definition and then user research. If this were an easy thing to do, then every workshop would have a waiting list, every newsletter would have millions of subscribers, and every product would have made its inventors rich.

It sounds obvious, but if you don’t know who your audience is, then you can only be successful: (i) by accident, (ii) by designing for yourself (as part of the audience group), or (iii) by copying other people. These are not long-term strategies for success.


Once you have defined your audience, congratulations! You now need to find out as much about them as possible. You can do this in passive ways, through reading other people’s research and sifting through data. That’s valuable, but nothing beats being active and going out of your way to actually talk to people about their pains, gains, and jobs to be done.

I tend to use Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Design (VPD) approach for this. I used it when designing MoodleNet, and I use it with clients. In its simplest form, you boil down the thing you create to a series of ad-libs which define your audience, product, and how it helps them:

Our ______ helps ______ who want to ______ by ______  and_____  (unlike  ______).

I see too much what I would term ‘magical thinking’ in the world of product design and development. It’s equivalent to the fallacy of build it and they will come which plagues us all from time to time.

If your idea is worth putting into the world, and the main audience is someone other than yourself, then it’s worth talking in advance to the people who you want to buy, read, or use your product.


This post is Day 66 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Convenience, UX, and ethics

Old TV displaying the phrase "the convenience you demanded is now mandatory" with each word in the design of a big tech company (e.g. Amazon/Netflix)

At about this time of year (Frimaire, for those paying attention) I get a little more introspective. I tend to reconsider my relationship with technology more generally, and apps/platforms in particular.

This is because decisions I make about my relationship with tech are a proxy for my wider views about the world, including philosophy, politics, and society.

The meme at the top of this post went by my Mastodon timeline recently (thanks to Ali for re-finding it!) and perfectly encapsulated the relationship many of us have with tech. In a nutshell, convenience and good user experience (UX) trumps ethics and thoughtful decision-making every time.

It’s all very well wringing our hands and promising to use Amazon less, but we’re living in a world where regulators need to step in and ensure more competition.

In the meantime, there are small decisions we can all make which won’t inconvenience us too much. For me, that means having goals in mind about consumption, ethical principles, and the tools I use to communicate.


This post is Day 65 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

(A)synchronous project updates within organisations

As a consultant, I find that there are, broadly speaking, three types of teams and organisations when it comes to project updates:

  1. Synchronous updates (only)
  2. Aynchronous updates (only)
  3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The purpose of this post is to explain why the third of these is by far the better option.

1. Synchronous updates (only)

The most popular (the default, even!) are those only doing synchronous project updates. This means that the team, group, or other unit of organisation finds out the whole picture of what’s going on in the weekly team meeting.

Advantages: every project update can come with full context and, if someone doesn’t understand, or has a question, this can be addressed immediately. If the project team is meeting face-to-face or via video then facial expressions and body language can convey additional information.

Disadvantages: if the project team is only receiving updates on the day of the meeting, then the information they have can be up to six days out of date at any given time. Also, anyone who misses the meeting has to rely on the notes.

2. Asynchronous updates (only)

Other teams, groups, or other units of organisation only do asynchronous project updates. This means that meetings are rare, and the main way to find out what’s going on is to check the place where updates are made.

Advantages: anyone with the necessary permissions can get involved, which is why this approach is common to Open Source Software projects. What you see is what you get, and combined code repositories and issue trackers (e.g. GitHub) provide a decent workflow to get things done.

Disadvantages: with the human element removed, it’s difficult for the full context (including relative importance) of an update to be conveyed, and for serendipitous links to be made between projects.

3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The best teams I’ve come across do a combination of asynchronous and synchronous project updates. They meet regularly face-to-face or by video and provide updates in a dedicated space between meetings.

Advantages: everyone on the project gets full context around an update, either in the dedicated space or by asking a question about it in the meeting. There is now more time in meetings for forward planning and innovation.

Disadvantages: none that I can think of!


N.B. Workplace chat solutions such as Slack are great for many things. Given the potentially low signal/noise ratio, project updates are not necessarily one of them. Instead, I recommend using a dedicated space — e.g. Trello or Nextcloud Deck.


This post is Day 64 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Our better natures

We’re at a moment in history where everything that went before seems somewhat… quaint. Both 2019 and the years that preceded it seem to me like a quieter, more innocent age. It was certainly a time when I was unaware of how quickly situations can change for the worse at both a macro and micro level.

Like many people, I’m sure, this year is definitely a candidate for The Worst Year of My Life. It has been difficult on the professional front, with attempts to stick to my moral compass bringing me into conflict on a number of occasions. And on a personal level, I feel like I’ve been hampered by those closest to me in their unwillingness for me to change and grow.

The two things that keep me going through all of this, other than the sustaining love of my family, are the words of the Stoic philosophers and the help I’ve received from my therapist. They work in tandem.

For example, in my most recent therapy session, I was challenged to reflect on the places from where I get reassurance. Having read a lot of Stoic philosophy, I already knew the ‘right answer’ to this: the only place you can get reassurance from is yourself. However, this was head knowledge; I didn’t feel it.


In The Joys of Being a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci quotes the opening of Epictetus’ Enchiridion. In my opinion, it’s one of the most succinct, powerful, and practical philosophical statements ever made:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1.1)

This is sometimes called the Stoic Fork, as it forces you to realise that there are some things you can control (not much) and some things you can’t (everything else).


I turn 40 at the end of next month, meaning that I’m looking at the start of 2021 as marking the beginning of the second half of my life. When I look back at the first half, there are many things to be grateful for; many achievements and good decisions. But there are also things that make me almost bite my fist in their cringeworthiness; I have been at times naive, arrogant, and quick to anger.

There is no point in making resolutions or grand statements about how things are going to be different in the future. All I can do is to try and make each day better than the one before it. This includes acting increasingly in line with my moral compass, values, and the better parts of my nature. But it also includes, perhaps painfully, cutting out of my life things that do not add value and which stop me from being the best version of myself.


This post is Day 58 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

Marcus Aurelius on character

Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling, be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and in speech; carry yourself with authority.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5

There’s so much to unpack in just this small section from one of Marcus Aurelius pieces of life advice. Taken at face value, it could be seen as an exhortation to an austere way of life; joyless, serious, and overly-focused on work.

Taken in context with his other writing, though, it’s clear that this is Marcus Aurelius’ reminder to himself to act in a way that would befit a Roman emperor. After all, when you have supreme executive authority, you can pretty much do what you like.

Many mornings, I get up before anyone else and sit by myself with a cup of tea studying something from my daily reading. Doing so helps start the day off on the right foot, with priorities that are important to me rather than other people. I find Marcus Aurelius particularly useful in that regard.


This post is Day 54 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

An incredible example of societal collapse

Update: commenters have pointed out some issues with the research of Colin Turnbull, who studied the Ik in the 1960s after a famine. Criticism of his work is summarised here.


For what seems like obvious reasons, my thoughts have turned towards civilizational collapse recently. As a result, I picked up a copy of a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. It’s in the same vein, although slightly more academic, than Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

As a self-identified left-libertarian, I’m sympathetic towards anarchist philosophy and the right of people to be free from state interference. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, so I’ll not get into it in too much depth now, but suffice to say that it makes this book an interesting read!

In the first chapter of the book, Tainter gives numerous examples of societal collapse, which he defines as happening when a society “displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”. As such, it encompasses not only the Roman and Mayan empires, which we’ve all heard of, but also many that we (or at least I) have not.

I wanted to share one example in full, because it blew my mind that people could live in this way, without the normal social bonds. What I find particularly interesting are the hints that things have not always been this way, due to clan names and the choice to live in villages.

The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978).

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

One of my reasons for sharing this is that what’s portrayed here is often how ‘anarchy’ is painted by those who have a vested in the status quo; as the utter breakdown in political, economic, and social relations.

I don’t think this is the case, and in fact I have a feeling that Tainter is likely to argue that one of the reasons for societal collapse is over-centralisation. After all, decentralisation is always more resilient. We’ll see.


This post is Day 43 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Deleting my Patreon account

After building up 50+ supporters via Patreon over the past couple of years, I’ve decided to delete my account. While it’s been a nice way to have a fund of money to then pay out to some of my favourite creators, that’s no longer enough reason to keep open my account.

What does this mean for Thought Shrapnel? I’m not sure. I want to keep something there, perhaps in a similar format to Aaron Davis’ Read Write Collect, or Tom Armitage’s Infovore. We’ll see.

I think I’ll continue sending out the newsletter, but probably in a slightly different format. Readership hasn’t been growing of late, which is usually a sign that either I haven’t been putting enough effort in, it’s not quite good enough for people to share, or both.


This post is Day 40 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Changing desktop environment in Pop!_OS

I’ve used many different distributions of GNU/Linux over the last (gosh!) 23 years, from Red Hat Linux as a 16 year-old through Mandrake, Fedora, Ubuntu, elementaryOS, and now Pop!_OS.

No matter which distribution you use, there are an infinite number of ways to customise Linux. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change desktop environment. The gallery at the Wikipedia page on desktop environments shows the sheer diversity of approaches in offer.

Not only do desktop environments change the look and feel of operating systems, they also affect the amount of resources being used, and therefore how responsive your system feels in practice.

I like the default desktop environment in Pop!_OS but I’m always experimenting with my setup to improve it. So when I stumbled across this page on the System76 website (the people behind Pop!_OS) I decided to give other desktop environments a try.

It’s important to inform those who have never tried this that all that’s happening here is a change in the final layer between you and the operating system. As such, your files remain untouched, and all of your browser settings (for example) remain the same. In fact, you could change desktop environments every time you logged on, should you wish.

I tried KDE Plasma again and Cinnamon, the latter being the default desktop environment from Linux Mint. I followed the instructions from System76 and everything was very straightforward. Next time I logged in the options were there at the bottom-right.

I’m sticking with Cinnamon for now, as it feels snappy and is aesthetically pleasing. The great thing is that, should I change my mind, I can just switch to another one without having to reinstall the whole operating system!


This post is Day 39 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Strengths and schooling

In a recent short post Seth Godin talks about amplifying your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses:

People don’t hire you, buy from you or recommend you because you’re indifferently average and well rounded.

Seth Godin

He’s talking about things from a business standpoint, but as a parent and former teacher, I can’t help but think about developing strengths from a learning and developmental point of view.

These things seem obvious to me:

  1. There is a baseline that societies can and should expect most people to achieve.
  2. People are born with different innate interests and tendencies.
  3. The context and environment in which people are raised affects what they find interesting.

As a result, it appears to me that following a broad and balanced curriculum up to a certain baseline would seem like the best approach for educational institutions. Beyond that, it makes sense for people to specialise based on their interests.

People develop at varying rates in different areas due to the three points listed above. That’s why I think we should allow young people to mix between year groups for different subjects, using an approach some people call “stage, not age”.

Imagine if we truly allowed people to follow their interests? Wouldn’t the ability to do so motivate young people more than the current system? Right now, educational authorities’ focus on exam results leads to the narrowing of curricula and the limiting of options.

It’s fashionable to say that we have a industrial education system for a post-industrial economy. That’s confusing means with ends. My argument would instead be that we have an education system focused mainly on the priorities of politicians and employers. What would a more community-centered vision for education look like?

Writing in 1971, Ivan Illich discussed in Deschooling Society the importance of learners finding others who share their interests so they can learn together and solve problems:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Now that we have the internet, of course, the ability to find like-minded people is easier than ever before. Nevertheless, there is something immensely powerful about working within a shared geographical context.

This is why I return time and again to Chapter 8 of Keri Facer’s 2011 book Learning Futures, where she outlines what the ‘future-building school’ of the future might look like. I love the way that it manages to respect the specialist pedagogical skills available through schools, with the latent knowledge and talent available through communities:

Although half of the children’s time is scheduled in advance with master classes, tutorials or group learning programmes, one-fifth of their time, even from the youngest age, is dedicated to working on their own projects. The remainder is dedicated to collaborative and community projects where children seek out areas they want to work on together – whether this is exploring a new form of material that has just been developed in one of the labs upstairs, or in solving the problems of a particular group of local residents. Conversations with mentors at the beginning of each week allow the children to discuss their progress and their plans and to manage the different demands of projects and learning programmes. In these conversations, each child’s resource map comes into play. This rich map of their experiences, progress, interests and aspirations, as well as the resources that they have to draw upon at home, in the community and in their family, acts as a basis for identifying both where additional support might be needed and where the child and their family may have particular strengths and interests to share with collaborators or the wider school.

Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change

Given that the pandemic has put the lie to parents needing to travel to work every day, I think mass remote working in future could lead to this kind of situation happening in the next decade. We just need the will to change the system.


This post is Day 32 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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