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  • Doug Belshaw 2:56 pm on July 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: future, governments, Libertarian Socialism, nation state   

    The role of the nation state 

    CC0 Lennart Heim

    Albert Wenger is a venture capitalist. Let’s not hold that against him, though, as he says some smart things on his blog. In a recent post about the future of the nation state, he says some smart things. Wenger states his position before going on to make several great points:

    I believe it is critical that we get past the dominance of the nation state as the key organizing principle in the world. That doesn’t mean doing away with nation states (at least not overnight), but gradually de-emphasizing their importance.

    I identify with the left of politics, but have always been uneasy about socialists’ over-reliance on the state as the instrument of power. As an historian, I know how often this can be abused. On the other hand, the neoliberal agenda of a small state and unfettered capitalism seems abhorrent. It’s only recently that I’ve come to see libertarian socialism as a better way forward. It emphasises self-management, co-operation, and decentralisation, and organisations I support such as trade unions and co-ops.

    Libertarian socialists are strongly critical of coercive institutions, which often leads them to reject the legitimacy of the state in favor of anarchism. Adherents propose achieving this through decentralization of political and economic power, usually involving the socialization of most large-scale private property and enterprise (while retaining respect for personal property). Libertarian socialism tends to deny the legitimacy of most forms of economically significant private property, viewing capitalist property relation as a form of domination that is antagonistic to individual freedom.

    It was Vinay Gupta who convinced me of the dangers of the nation state. He’s been talking about microstates and ‘Weak State-Like Entitites’ (WSLEs) since about 2008, even mixing-up ideas around basic minimum income that are all the rage these days. It’s hard to argue against his definition of states:

    The State is that entity which can retroactively legalize criminal behavior.

    Returning to Wenger’s post, he discusses the history of Germany, which is where he’s from originally. Like many European countries, it was originally made up of smaller principalities which he shows using a map from the year 1200:

    It shows a large number of tiny principalities that had their own rulers, spoke widely varying local dialects, used different currencies, etc. Over time these fused into larger units and in the early 1800s Franconia became part of Bavaria. Today Bavaria is part of German, which in turn is part of the EU. This process of change and and should continue on a global scale. How should we determine at which scale to address a particular problem? The key principle here is the one of “subsidiarity”: decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. Since we have one global atmosphere we need to make some decisions globally, like how many greenhouse gases we should have. But staying with the same issue, the actual ways of achieving a limit should be decided a lower levels, such as regions.

    New technologies mean we don’t necessarily require the economies of scale that we previously needed. We can make decisions at a local level, while making agreements and deals at a much larger level. One last word from Vinay about WSLEs, which I think we’ll see versions of by 2050 at the very latest:

    WSLEs are guests of local governments, not nation states and it is on this distinction that their successes and failures will rest. But given that the planet has very little land free for the taking, the WSLE approach of “negotiate a corner to live in” has much to recommend it, and a foreign policy based on not being too annoying and not being at all threatening is a critical component of this approach. Finally, we come down to population. I believe the appropriate number is a shade under 30,000 – the size of a small town. It is an M2 community (i.e. in Monkeysphere / Dunbar number terms, it’s a bit over 150 * 150 people, approximately two moneyspheres in radius.) I believe you need a population of about this size to support things like first world style medical care and regular flights to the nearest airport. It also creates some resilience in local infrastructure. It also gives some guide as to the amount of territory required: at 1 acre per person, it’s about 50 square miles or 130 square kilometers. Not a small patch of land.

    All of this is eminently doable. I grew up playing the game Frontier: Elite II and have recently revived that interest with the long-awaited follow-up, Elite: Dangerous. In both games, different planets have vastly different rules. Until we become a multi-planetary species, we need to figure out how to do all this on planet Earth as unfettered neoliberal capitalism isn’t working. Perhaps we need to carve out areas for experimentation at the ‘state’ level?

    Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash

  • Doug Belshaw 8:44 am on July 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: algorithms, Facebook, feed, open web, RSS   

    Back to the RSS(R) 

    Chicken pecking

    Very appropriately, I discovered this post by Bryan Alexander about returning to using an RSS reader in… my RSS reader! It’s been four years since Google Reader closed, but it seems a lot longer than that. In that time, we’ve seen the rise of algorithmic feed readers — something that, even before Brexit and Trump, I identified as an existential threat to western democracy.

    Bryan’s using Digg Reader for his feed reading habits, whereas I’m using Feedly, which I switched to after the demise of Google Reader. I experimented with NewsBlur and self-hosting Tiny Tiny RSS but, like many people, I can be fussy about my reading experience. Feedly is great.

    Helpfully, Bryan outlines exactly how he’s got his feed reader set up. For me, though, it’s the reasoning behind using it that makes me nod my head in agreement:

    A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable.  Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service.  Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable.  I’ve missed friends’ news about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news.  In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience.  Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best.  To improve our use of it we have to turn to experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology.

    I’ve been off Facebook for a while now and, in fact, have become ever-more militant in my stand against it. I’ve stopped using Twitter for anything other than the occasional direct message, and to post links to my work. The use of technology, as Bryan points out, is never neutral:

    There’s a politics here.  RSS reading is based on the open web, and I continue to fight for that, even in an age of rising silos and walled gardens.  Less clearly is a theme of conversation through connections, which is increasingly vital to me.  I love being able to arrange feeds across filter bubbles, and to see ideas move across boundaries.

    As I get older and more certain of my politics and stance towards the world, I’m less inclined to compromise my values. There are no huge wars to fight on the technological front any more, no massively ideological battlegrounds where we can choose sides. Instead, the picture is multi-faceted, with millions of decisions being taken everyday that make the world what it is. The same is true in every sphere. The choice, as Bryan outlines here, is either to be steamrollered by well-funded companies, or decide to make a stand, however small it might be in the big scheme of things.

    Don’t get me wrong, algorithmic news feeds can be useful, but they should be used as part of a wider, richer environemng that you control. It’s tempting to use the metaphor of healthy eating here: are we carelessly consuming whatever junk information is served up to us, or are we carefully ensuring we get a balanced information diet, including your five-a-day?

    Photo by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash

    • Bryan Alexander 1:29 pm on July 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      I’m glad you joined the cause, Doug. RSS reading is definitely the better move.

      PS: awesome title! You don’t know how lucky you are…

  • Doug Belshaw 1:10 pm on July 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The trials and tribulations of being a digital parent (Part 2) 

    Smartphone by Rami Al-zaya

    A few months ago, I wrote about how difficult it is being a parent of pre-teen children in the age of smartphones:

    Parenting is hard, especially with your eldest child. You’re making it up as you go along, especially in areas that no one has a lot of expertise. On the one hand, I don’t like censorship and spying – which is why we’re switching from BT to A&A for our broadband next week. But, on the other hand, there’s an innocence to childhood that needs to be protected, especially when we’re putting such powerful devices into such small hands. My son needs to know we’re looking out for him.

    I mentioned how we had decided to use the McAfee Safe Family app to limit the hours at which his smartphone was available to him, and to see what he’s been up to. In conjuction with Norton App Lock, which limits the apps he’s able to access, I’ve found the Safe Family app to be extremely effective. However, I’m questioning whether we’ve got the overall approach right.

    It might be worth adding some background information at this point. As a teenager growing up in the 1990s, I used to go on the internet without my parents permission, signing up for a Compuserve or AOL account with my parents’ credit card, and then cancelling the trial before the end of the 30 days. It was dial-up internet access back in those days, so I kept the calls less than 60 minutes long — which meant they wouldn’t be itemised — and I went on the internet at times that I knew the rest of the family wouldn’t use the phone.

    Why do I bring this up? Because my son is trying as hard as he can to circumvent the controls we’ve put in place. He’s found ways to do this, perhaps by using my PIN code, I’m not sure. I have to admire his effort, but it raises a wider issue about digital parenting. If your child is sneaking around, then there’s obviously a problem and the ‘solution’ isn’t working. As Mimi Ito quite rightly points out, “limiting screen time without addressing deeper problems is not likely to lead to positive outcomes”.

    The difficulty is that this generation of young parents are on the front line here. We’re the first ones to have to deal with screens everywhere. At the same time as we’re warned about the dangers, we’re also exhorted to prepare our offspring for jobs of the future. Mimi Ito again:

    It’s natural to hope that controlling access to a device might make our kids smart and well-adjusted, but if only it were that simple. Maybe it made more sense when TV was the only screen, but given the wide range of activities that screens are part of these days, a focus on screen time is too blunt an instrument.

    There’s a very specific problem, almost a paradox at the heart of digital parenting. Although Mimi Ito was a parent to a teenage daughter before the explosion in smartphones and tablets, the way she describes the problem is spot-on:

    My daughter taught me this lesson when she was twelve. One summer, I was irritated with the hours she was spending watching TV shows on YouTube. After I started clocking her screen time, she quickly developed a strategy. She would use her limited screen time on what I considered the most inane uses of the computer and I would inevitably give her more time for more “productive” screen activities like learning new skills or creating digital media.

    We’ve witnessed this with our son: the more we limit his screen time and access to devices – either in response to sneaky behaviour, or family priorities – the more he’ll use the reduced amount of time to play games that are in no way constructive.

    It’s difficult. I know that what we should be doing is sitting alongside our children, exploring the digital world together. But that’s just doesn’t seem possible sometimes. And, just as children tend to the question “what did you do at school today?” really tedious, so they don’t particularly want a conversation about what they’ve been up to on their tablets.

    One thing that’s missed when dealing with digital parenting at a macro level is the issue of personality. I think there may also be gender differences too, but I’ve got too small a sample to be able to tell. Some people have more addictive personalities than others.

    So, we’re caught in a Catch-22 situation: on the one hand, we’d quite like to try the ‘unlimited screen time’ approach, and see what happens. On the other, we’re in the midst of sanctioning our child for using his devices at times we’ve specifically tried to block.

    Answers on a postcard, please! Thankfully, the summer holidays are approaching, meaning that we’ve got an opportunity to try being a bit more relaxed about all of this…

    Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

    • Aaron 9:47 pm on July 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      My daughter is addicted to watching unboxing videos and people make things with Play-Doh. We have set in place that she can only do it at certain times, in the interim though she gets so anxious about her ‘iPad time’. If that is the case, I wonder then if that misses the point of reduced screen time or just build resilience?

    • Doug Belshaw 11:07 am on July 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      Yes, indeed. Listening to a podcast on ‘the extended mind’ yesterday, I realised that there’s a different argument to be made for depriving others of access to smartphones and tablets:

  • Doug Belshaw 9:28 am on June 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , translation   

    Without historical sensitivity, the interpreter will be at the mercy of his sources, or of his own prejudices, or both/ And without some philosophical impetus, he will not be able to create a lifelike account of what is protagonists were about, why they inquired and reasons as they did; at best. he will produce a hodge-podge of unrelated insights.

    Edward Hussey, ‘The Presocratics’ (p.154)
  • Doug Belshaw 9:21 am on June 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The inner logic of the Atomist theory, therefore, led straight to the conclusion that consciousness and perception, as they are known in ordinary experiences, are epiphenomena, determined and accounted for completely by the states and rearrangements of components not themselves capable of consciousness or perception… It followed that the whole history of the universe was determined, if at all, by a ‘meaningless’ necessity inherent in the laws governing the collision and rebound of atoms, a force which was devoid of any inherent tendency to the better, or of any regard for the wishes and requirements of such accidental by-products as conscious beings.

    Edward Hussey, ‘The Presocratics’ (p.148)
  • Doug Belshaw 9:15 am on June 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Anaxagoras said that the most happy man was someone who would seem a strange person to the common run of men, and that what made existence as a human being preferable to non-existence was the possibility of contemplating the universe.

    Edward Hussey, ‘The Presocratics’ (p.141)
  • Doug Belshaw 6:32 pm on June 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: houses, living   

    Where do you live when you can live anywhere? 

    I’ve just been reflecting on a conversation with someone on Mastodon earlier this week. I don’t know his name, and can only infer that he’s UK-based from his tweets — especially as he’s using a German instance of the decentralised social network! That’s interesting in and of itself, especially at a time that for reasons of ‘security’ (and advertising) there seems to be a real push for our offline identities to be closely aligned to our online ones.

    Running in Circles toot

    The reason this ‘toot’ interested me was because as a family we’ve had reason to reconsider where we live over the past few weeks. I think we’ll stay put for now, for reasons I’m not going to go into (all good!) but it brought back memories of not moving to Gozo three years ago.

    The list that ‘Running In Circles’ gives above makes me realise how fortunate we are in our current position. We don’t really have enough storage space outside, and I’d like more community activities that interest me, but where we live in Morpeth, Northumberland, ticks the rest of the boxes. I know my wife would like a bigger garden, one that allows her to see the kids playing from the kitchen window (which is at the wrong side of current house) but it was big enough for our barbeque yesterday!

    It’s not up to me to judge, but I see so many people — parents of children who are friends with my kids, for example — striving for larger and larger houses. We live in a terraced house that we stumbled across when the move to Gozo fell through. We rented for the first few months but realised that it would be a great place to live on a longer-term basis. We’ve converted the roof, I’ve got an outside office, and in a quiet, leafy spot near the centre of town. It’s great.

    So I guess the point of this point is to consider that what makes you and your family happy and healthy might not be what everyone else is striving for. It might not be covered by the default options provided by online property search websites…

  • Doug Belshaw 4:36 pm on June 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: andragogy, development, learning, School of Life, workshops   

    On the importance of transitions 

    I’m a fan of the School of Life. I think they do a great job of popularising key philosophical ideas in relevant, applicable ways. Just check out their YouTube channel.

    As you’d expect, the School of Life caters for businesses, with an attractive learning and development brochure. Their curriculum is broken down into 24 emotional skills:

    School of Life - L&D - Emotional Skills

    These skills are then unpacked on following pages, giving a high-level overview of the two-hour sessions they offer around each one:

    School of Life - L&D - Self Awareness & Supportiveness

    From there, the two hour sessions around a particular skill are then organised into sample playlists:

    School of Life - L&D - Pathways

    This is a pretty standard model. It means that the people delivering the courses get to develop core content they can re-use. Meanwhile, the customer gets to tailor courses based on their priorities/interests.

    What’s missing from all this? Transitions.

    I think I’m right in saying that, for 24 skills, there are 16,777,216 possible ways to link together two sessions. This obviously increases exponentially as you add more sessions into the mix. As a result, you need talented people who can make the transitions between sessions make sense, ensuring the whole day combines to become more than the sum of its parts.

    Obviously, when you’re putting together a brochure like this for people whose specialism isn’t learning and development, you want to hide some of the complexity involved. However, it’s worth drawing attention to it now and again as running a bespoke workshop, just like teaching in a school or university, is as much of an art as it is a science.

    Given the average feedback score (9.1 out of 10) for these sessions, the School of Life not only have great sessions, but great transitions. That’s where the secret sauce lies: people need to know that they’re not having something done to them, but that facilitators are being responsive, and truly catering the day to who’s in the room.

  • Doug Belshaw 9:00 am on June 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: documentation, GitHub, Open source, survey   

    What’s the biggest problem in open source right now? 


    Fig.1 - Problems encountered in open source

    The 2017 Open Source Survey, carried out by GitHub is a valuable source of information. Large parts of it, however, prove somewhat difficult to intepret and act upon given the huge skew in gender:

    The gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women and 1% are non-binary. Women are about as likely as men (68% vs 73%) to say they are very interested in making future contributions, but less likely to say they are very likely to actually do so (45% vs 61%).

    There’s a systemic issue here. While the survey indicates that ‘serious’ incidents have been experienced by a relatively few number of respondents, these have an outsized impact on the community:

    By far, the most frequently encountered bad behavior is rudeness (45% witnessed, 16% experienced), followed by name calling (20% witnessed, 5% experienced) and stereotyping (11% witnessed, 3% experienced). More serious incidents, such as sexual advances, stalking, or doxxing are each encountered by less than 5% of respondents and experienced by less than 2% (but cumulatively witnessed by 14%, and experienced by 3%).

    There’s work to do here. Privileged white males like me who are involved in open source (in whatever way) need to realise that issues that affect anyone in the community affect the whole community. It’s easy to see why “not all open source contributors” isn’t a valid response when you see data like this:

    Fig.3 - Importance to project

    Finally, with one important caveat, this last chart chimes with what I look for when seeking out new software:

    FIg.5 - What open source users value in software

    The reason the ‘support’ option scores so low, I’d argue, is because of the survey methodology. People who are actively contributing code to open source projects are a subset of users of the software. Given that ‘documentation’ would come under ‘support’, it’s ironic that the first and last chart here seem to contradict one another!

    Either way, it’s clear that the open source community still has work to do to make people new to projects feel involved, and for them to know what to do. I’d call this ensuring you’ve got your ‘architecture of participation’ right.

  • Doug Belshaw 7:27 pm on June 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , theme, Twitter   

    Halcyon makes Mastodon look and feel like Twitter 

    For the last seven weeks or so, I’ve been off Twitter and instead been using Mastodon, an open source, decentralised social network. One of the great things about this is that, like the Linux laptop I’m typing this on, it can be configured to my heart’s content.

    While there’s a ‘default’ way that Mastodon looks (which depends on which instance you’ve signed up to), you can a plethora of apps and web views to customise your experience. In this way, it’s like Twitter was in the early days. The difference being there’s no company in the middle looking for an IPO and therefore shutting down ‘competition’.

    I’m signed up to, an instance of Mastodon for those interesting in co-operatives, and which practices what it preaches; members pay to co-own the instance and have voting rights. You can find me at Here’s what it looks like for me normally:

    Default layout

    Today I discovered Halcyon, which allows you to login with your federated Mastodon credentials. You’re then presented with an interface that closely resembles Twitter’s web interface:


    This is familiar, but I’m in two minds whether it’s a ‘good thing’ or not. On the one hand, it’s great to have things that are easy to use and don’t have a steep learning curve. On the other, it’s so close to Twitter that it might be difficult for people to understand the difference. They might just write off Mastodon as a Twitter clone where less of the their network are. That would be as shame.

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