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What other types of 'open' are there?

Just putting this out there before a morning swim. I haven't even bothered to look in a dictionary yet...

 

More analogue stuff

After yesterday's analogue blog post here's some more ways to think about weareopen.coop that I sketched while watching the football last night.

 

Analogue blog post

The likelihood is that you won't be able to read my writing. Which is probably for best.

 

The psychology of going up a mountain

3 min read

CC BY-NC Graham Chastney

I've felt a weird form of unease over the last few days. While I'm used to the type of anxiety I get preceding, during, and after a migraine, this was different. It was a contributing factor in my decision yesterday to refocus my energies and withdraw from some projects.

I'm a pretty self-reflective person, managing to decouple myself from negative emotions and reflect upon them to understand the causes. This morning, I woke up early and walked to the station to catch my train to London, and I think I discovered the cause of this unease.

On Friday and Saturday I'm heading to the Lake District for the first two of 20 'Quality Mountain Days' (QMDs) I need to get in before starting my Mountain Leader award. For it to count as a QMD, I need to do the following:

In terms of experience, the quality of a mountain day lies in such things as the conditions experienced both overhead and underfoot, the exploration of new areas, the terrain covered and the physical and mental challenge. Such days make a positive contribution towards a person’s development and maturity as an all round mountaineer.

Usually some or all of these criteria would be fulfilled:

  • the individual takes part in the planning and leadership
  • navigation skills are required away from marked paths
  • experience must be in terrain and weather comparable to that found in UK and Irish hills
  • knowledge is increased and skills practised
  • attention is paid to safety
  • five hours or more journey time
  • adverse conditions may be encountered

The weather is forecast to be pretty bad this weekend and, up a mountain that's likely to be even worse. I'm purposely putting myself at the limits of my knowledge and experience in order to learn something new. 

In addition, after some introspection I've realised that I'm uneasy about spending so much time by myself. I'm used to walking with other people rather than by myself, and when I'm away 'by myself' on business trips I am, of course, surrounded by either colleagues or clients. The only times I've been by myself in the past have been psychologically bleak.

So I'm treating this as an opportunity for personal growth. There's lots of metaphors to be had from literally choosing my own course and single-mindedly reaching a goal. During the 10+ hours I'll be out in the elements I'll be able to think all kinds of big, expansive thoughts. I'm both looking forward to that and feeling some trepadation what I'll come down that mountain having thought and resolved to do.

Image CC BY-NC Graham Chastney

 

No more 'worked examples'

2 min read

A couple of years ago, not long after publishing The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies (finished and still available!), I announced a follow-up project using LeanPub. The idea that it would focus on 'worked examples' and be useful in the classroom. I've never really mustered up the energy to get it done, and given that I'm refocusing my energies, I though this would be a good time to send the following email to those who have already bought into it:

Hey everyone,

My apologies. This experiment is over and I have failed to deliver the book you signed up for. Given that LeanPub doesn't share your email address directly with me, this is the only way I have to contact you.

I'd like to refund your purchase, so please do read on.

From the LeanPub FAQ:

> Q. What if I want to return a book? Can I get a refund?

> Leanpub has a 45-day "100% Happiness Guarantee", which means there's no risk in purchasing any Leanpub book, and we make it easy to get a refund if you've tried a book and want your money back wihtin 45 days of your purchase. To get a refund, you can login to your Leanpub account and go to your purchases page at https://leanpub.com/dashboard/purchases. Once there you will find a 'Request Refund' link at the bottom right of the book selection box.

It's obviously been a lot more than 45 days since your purchase, so here's what to do:

  1. Go to the following URL and click on 'The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies: worked examples'
  2. Click on 'Email me a receipt'
  3. Forward the email you receive to mail@dougbelshaw.com

I'll then send the amount you paid via Paypal.

Apologies again for the inconvenience. I'm refocusing my energies on other projects.*

-----
Doug Belshaw

*http://dougbelshaw.com/blog/2016/04/18/refocusing-energies

Fail, and move on towards success. Rinse and repeat. 

 

Sandboxing emotions

3 min read

CC BY Scott Robinson

There are some (what I would call) 'natural' human responses which we'd all agree as universally good. For example, empathy - our ability to out ourselves in the position of another - would be one of these. Empathy can spur us into action, which is often manifested through a kind word or deed. We'd generally consider a lack of empathy as something less than human, or perhaps due to a person repressing a thing that should come naturally.

There are other human responses that we would deem as unhelpful. Jealousy springs immediately to mind, but there are many others. Something I've noticed recently is our tendency to allow emotions from one area of our lives to bleed into the rest of it. There are times when this is unavoidable - for example in the case of the death of someone close to you, or perhaps the breakup of a significant relationship. Most of the time, though, we can get emotional about pretty inconsequential stuff in the grand scheme of things. Someone forgets to invite you to a party; your child nags you all morning; someone you know well says something that could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

If there's one thing I've learned from reading Stoic philosophy, setting up my own business, and being immersed in the world of tech, it's the importance of 'sandboxing'. Technologically-speaking this is a "security mechanism for separating running programs... often used to execute untested code, or untrusted programs from unverified third parties, suppliers, untrusted users and untrusted websites" (Wikipedia). In other words, it keeps unrelated things separate.

There's a lot of uncertainty when setting up and running a business, as there is in life itself. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds us in his (excellent) book Antifragile, a 'steady job' just means that you're hiding your risk under the basket in which you've just placed all your eggs. Consultants/freelancers are exposed to smaller amounts of risk, but on a daily basis. How you deal with that matters. I'm quite fond of the protagonist in one of Lemony Snicket's books to "be scared later".

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher I'm currently reading, reminds us that our reactions matter more than our actions:

What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" (Discourses, Book I)

Returning to the idea of 'sandboxing', Google's 'Chrome' browser sandboxes its tabs. This means there is an "additional layer of protection to your browser by protecting against malicious web pages that try to leave programmes on your computer, monitor your web activities or steal private information from your hard drive." As human beings we're at our most vulnerable when we experience strong emotions. We can't help feeling the way we do, but we can attempt to employ some principles from Stoicism and from computer security in the way we deal with them.

So my new outlook on life is to treat my working life as a browser full of tabs. If something is happening (good or bad) in one 'tab', I'm not going to let that affect what happens in another. I'm a big fan if mental models and using metaphors to effect behavioural change, and this looks like one that could help me. If you've read this far, I hope the same holds true for you!

Image CC BY Scott Robinson

 

Brewing up a telescopic (sand)storm for digital charities' projects

2 min read

Yesterday, I was at the Tech Infrastructure for the Future Social Sector Hack. It's a two-day event, so most of the good work will no doubt happen today, but I just wanted to share something that I worked on in the afternoon with Alex Marshall from Student Hubs

We spent the morning collectively thinking about a user journey around digital commissioning, and then broke into teams. I had an idea for some kind of 'watercooler' where people could share with the sector the projects they're working on. Some of these would obviously be very early - little more than ideas. Others may have launched.

To capture this, we used Telescope, a free and open source 'social news' app that can be deployed with one click using Sandstorm.io. We did try creating a more friendly URL via spinning up a Heroku instance, but that ended up being painful and unfruitful.

In the end, we demoed a live version of the screenshot above. The features to note are that projects can be shared with little more than a URL, title, description, and category. They can then be commented upon by people who may be able to help (or even just give the project lead a high-five!) Each project that's shared can be voted up, if people like the look of it, and there's a newsletter (and RSS feed) that people can subscribe to.

I guess the 'creative' part of what we did was to assign the categories to Nesta's Seven Stages of Innovation, to provide an objective, at-a-glance way for people to understand the maturity of each project.

It was great to be at a hack day where I could contribute more than just words and ideas. I actually built something which could serve as an MVP for an app that could legitimately bring people together. 

 

The Migraineur's Dilemma

6 min read

Amy Burvall and I share at least two things in common. One of these is awesome (we were both History teachers), the other the exact opposite: migraines.

For those that don't get migraines, it's impossible to explain what they feel like from the inside. Amy's image (above) is an attempt to represent it in artistic form, but there's nothing that can really do it justice. Migraines are about as much like 'headaches' as someone flicking your ear is to being punched (hard) in the face.  


I'm writing this post in the spirit of having a URL for everything. I do tend to mention the following on a regular basis to people and it's good to be able to point people towards something they can digest at their own pace. I also realised recently that I haven't written directly about migraines since this 2008 post on their relationship to synaesthesia and creativity.

The dilemma I reference in the title of this post is only likely to be experienced by a subset of migraineurs (i.e. those who suffer from migraines). It can be expressed quite simply, but I haven't yet found an adequate solution.

As well as stress, lack of sleep, and a couple of food and drink-based triggers, my migraines are linked to photophobia:

Photophobia is a symptom of abnormal intolerance to visual perception of light. As a medical symptom, photophobia is not a morbid fear or phobia, but an experience of discomfort or pain to the eyes due to light exposure or by presence of actual physical sensitivity of the eyes.

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain how photophobia can be caused by many things, including migraines. I've also got extremely pale blue eyes, which may or may not be a factor, as well as corneas so thin that I couldn't get laser eye surgery!

This is admittedly not an ideal state of affairs but, in and of itself, it's reasonably easy to deal with. I use a bluelight filter on my (Android) phone, the new Night Shift (since iOS 9.3) feature on my iPad Mini, f.lux on my laptops, and g.lux on my Chromebook. It's manageable.

The kicker is that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which I'm only just coming out of now it's April. Unsurprisingly, the best treatment for this is bright light, which is why I sit or stand in front of a Lumie Arabica SAD box for an hour a day between November and March. This, of course, means I suffer some pretty intense glare, which then triggers my photophobia...

I wasn't always like this. I only started getting migraines in early adulthood, and had only very mild photophobia. I do sometimes wonder if this is to do with the amount and type of sport I did when I was young (football, swimming, etc.) compared to my routine now (mainly gym-based).

Returning to the Wikipedia article:

The best treatment for light sensitivity is to address the underlying cause. Once the triggering factor is treated, photophobia disappears in many but not all cases.
...
A study by Stringham and Hammond, published in the Journal of Food Science, discusses the improvement in visual performance and decrease in light sensitivity (glare) in subjects taking 10 mg Lutein and 2 mg Zeaxanthin per day.

Following the link to Lutein, we find:

Lutein was found to be concentrated in the macula, a small area of the retina responsible for central vision. The hypothesis for the natural concentration is that lutein helps keep the eyes safe from oxidative stress and the high-energy photons of blue light. Various research studies have shown that a direct relationship exists between lutein intake and pigmentation in the eye.

The article goes on to list fruits and vegetables high in Lutein. Those I'm likely to consume include kale, swiss chard, watercress, zucchini (i.e. aubergine), brussels sprouts, pistachios (yum!), broccoli, carrots, and avocados. It turns out that these are also sources of Zeaxanthin, which was also referenced in the article on photophobia.

This may all seem a little navel-gazing and unworthy of your time and attention, but it's important to remember that these effects are very real and have an impact on the working lives of people like me:

Photophobia may also affect patients' socioeconomic status by limiting their career choices, since many workplaces require bright lights for safety or to accommodate the work being done. Sufferers may be shut out of a wide range of both skilled and unskilled jobs, such as in warehouses, offices, workshops, classrooms, supermarkets and storage spaces.

I cannot, for example, work in an environment on a daily basis which is lit via fluorescent lights. I'm writing this in a train carriage on the way to London. It's dark outside and the fluorescent lights are already making me a feel a bit strange. Then, if I continued, would come the fuzzyness, and then the migraine aura. I avoid places with no natural light like the plague.

The answers to my problems seem simple to come up with, if difficult to implement:

  • move somewhere sunny during the winter months (to receive plenty of natural light)
  • stay away from fluorescent lighting
  • limit time on screens
  • eat lots of green leafy vegetables
  • wear spectacles with special coatings

Like anything, though, these things are simple to write, but can be difficult to achieve. The first would uprooting (or being away from) my family on an annual basis. The second means working in offices is out of the questions. The third means changing careers. The fourth isn't too bad, but the final one is a confidence thing - I much prefer wearing contact lenses.

I haven't really got a conclusion to all this, to be honest. This is mainly for reference and as a public URL I can point people towards when I start acting in a way that may appear strange. The upside to all this, of course, is that migraineurs tend to be, on average, more creative than the rest of the population: Virginia Woolfe, Nietzsche, Elvis Presley, Van Gogh, and Monet, to name but a few famous examples.

Finally, then, for those who may be reading this looking for some kind of insight into our condition, I'd highly recommend reading the late Oliver Sacks' book Migraine, described as "An investigation of the many manifestations of migraine, including the visual hallucinations and distortions of space, time and body image which migraineurs can experience." For me, it was a true insight into the fact that this is part of who I am.

 

How to use a Chromebook in a more secure and privacy-respecting way

5 min read

Chrome OS login

Last month, I bought a 2013 Chromebook Pixel. Prior to that I'd been using a Lenovo ThinkPad X220 running elementaryOS for around six months and. Before that, I'd used MacBooks or MacBook Pros since 2006.

My original intention when buying the Pixel was to use something like Gallium OS, a special distribution of Linux for Chromebooks. Unfortunately, because of the Pixel's super-high resolution, it was rendered almost unusable. In the last couple of weeks, therefore, I've started using Chrome OS as my main operating system. While I've got a Mac Mini Server which I use for Plex and recording/editing podcasts, 95% of what I do is now on the Pixel. It's an amazing device with a great screen.

This news may come across as odd for those who know me as the type of person who is concerned about the privacy and security of the software and hardware I use. After all, I presented on the dangers of government and corporate surveillance at the Indie Tech Summit and, just today, I persuaded my wife that, for privacy reasons, we should ditch Telegram in favour of Signal by Open Whisper Systems. So how is using a Chromebook as my main device compatible with this? Doesn't everything I do just get hoovered up and/or monitored by Google?

Well, no, actually. Chrome OS is based on the Open Source Chromium OS, which can be compiled from downloaded source code. It's essentially Linux. The chances are that, unless you spend a lot of time tweaking your hardware and software, your laptop is less secure than this one.

I think, as I explained on slide 14 of this presentation, there's an important difference to be made between privacy and security. To me, privacy is the reason we put curtains on our windows, and security is the reason we put locks on our doors. Let's deal with security first. A Computer World article entitled A Chromebook offers Defensive Computing when traveling from 2014 states: 

Without question, a Chromebook is safer than Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS or Android. Security is baked into the design.

To begin with, the operating system, Chrome OS, does not allow software to be installed. Sure, this is annoying if you want to run Skype (not possible), but the flip side is that a malicious email attachment can't install a virus. Malicious Flash ads on a web page may infect Windows or OS X systems, but Chromebooks are immune, even though Flash is supported.

There's no executable files to run with Chrome OS and as a result it's much more difficult for malicious code to take over your system. 

Then there's privacy. This is the big one for me: two years ago I even ditched GMail for self-hosted webmail and then moved onto, and settled upon, Fastmail. On Chrome OS, just as with the Chrome web browser, by default things such as your browsing history, passwords, credit card information, and more are encrypted and synced using your Google credentials. You can change this, however, as this EFF guide demonstrates. The screenshot below, accessible via the 'Advanced Settings' menu, demonstrates how I've created a new passphrase, separate from my Google password, to encrypt my data before it is synced:

In addition, I've also followed the EFF's guide to Google Privacy Settings which explains how to opt-out of personalised advertising, location tracking, etc.

If you're thinking of using a Chromebook as your main device, I think it pays to do some research beforehand. With the dawn of Skype for Web and WebRTC-enabled sites such as appear.in, some of the last objections to being entirely web-based have disappeared. I'm even playing about with apps such as Sandstorm.io as a way to use Open Source sandboxed web apps on a daily basis. Soon, if Cast improves still further, I may be recording, editing, and publishing podcasts via a web app, too!

One of the best resources I found recently on this topic was a Reddit discussion about privacy and Chromebooks. There's an interesting spread of viewpoints demonstated in this thread, along with a pertinent and thought-provoking comment right at the bottom:

In short, [Chrome OS] pros vastly outweigh its cons in my opinion. My pc is my assistant, and my assistant needs to know me well.

So yes, I'd be theoretically even more secure and private using a different setup. I've tried using pure Linux off and on since I was 16, but every time it's ended up annoying me. So for productivity on-the-go, this Chromebook Pixel, configured in an EFF-approved way, works just great for me. 


Update: this tweet led me to a great Chrome extension that packages up the recommendations made in this post. Even greater privacy and security!

 

Why work in a university?

2 min read

Deep-learning research

I found this article interesting as it's something I've discussed with many people over the four years since I finished my doctoral thesis

Million-dollar babies: as Silicon Valley fights for talent, universities struggle to hold on to their stars

The focus of the piece is on Artificial Intelligence (AI) but I think it's more broadly applicable:

The firms offer academics the chance to see their ideas reach markets quickly, which many like. Private-sector jobs can also free academics from the uncertainty of securing research grants.

It may be different from the outside, but right now seems to be a particularly bad time to work for any kind of institution, especially an educational one. Universities, in the UK at least, seem to be in crisis, unsure of the reason for their very existence, and hampered by league tables, research grants, and government reporting. 

The problem with academics being poached and exfiltrated from universities by corporates is that profitable research may never be shared:

Another risk is if expertise in AI is concentrated disproportionately in a few firms. Tech companies make public some of their research through open sourcing. They also promise employees that they can write papers. In practice, however, many profitable findings are not shared.

All of this is the logic of the market taken to extreme. I, for one, would like to see universities return to being (reasonably) well-funded and academics sheltered from the constant pursuit of funding. Perhaps then there may be something for academics to make a principled stand about — rather than simply moving from one organisation chasing profit to another.