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  • Doug Belshaw 10:01 am on March 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Revolutionaries, retreat, and renewal 

    Combination lock

    My daily reading of Stoic philosophy and the like helps me prepare for the day ahead. Most days, each reading contains a nugget that puts me in the right frame of mind. On rare occasions, however, like today, it’s like moving the numbers of a combination lock, and something ‘springs open’ in my mind.

    Here’s François de La Rochefoucauld, in his Collected Maxims and Other Reflections:

    Fools and stupid people see things only in the light of their own temper.

    This was followed by a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

    People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul — especially if on close inspection it is filled with east, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.

    The kicker, however, was this from Fernando Pessoa’s singular The Book of Disquiet:

    Revolutionaries and reformers all make the same mistake. Lacking the power to master and reform their own attitude towards life, which is everything, or their own being, which is almost everything, they escape into wanting to change others and the external world. Every revolutionary, every reformer, is an escapee. To fight is proof of one’s inability to do battle with oneself. To reform is proof that one is oneself beyond all help. If a man of real sensitivity and correct reasoning feels concerned about the evil and injustice of the world, he naturally seeks to correct it first where it manifests itself closest to home and that, he will find, is in his own being. The task will take him his whole lifetime. For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.

    Plenty to dwell on there.

    Image CC BY-NC Daniel Goude

     
  • Doug Belshaw 8:34 am on March 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Stoicism, mysticism and getting lost in the woods 

    Christopher Knight's camp

    This story in The Guardian about Christopher Knight is incredible. He parked his car and disappeared into the woods in Maine, USA at the age of 20. He’s been living there for 27 years.

    What interests me the most, however, is this section:

    Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”

    The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

    Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.

    For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.

    “If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”

    It’s a tenet of Stoicism (as exemplified by the discourses of Epictetus and Seneca, for example) that one needs to learn how to be comfortable in your own skin — that possessions or a change of location can’t make you happy in and of itself. Knight’s experience, and that of others who have spent a long time by themselves without going mad, seems to be a step even beyond that.

    What I like about Stoic philosophy is that it emphasises the responsibility we all have towards civic society. Secreting yourself away and cutting off ties with society, at the end of the day, feels a little selfish, to be honest.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 4:46 pm on March 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ebook, pricing   

    Outcomes of a pay-what-you-want pricing model 

    Gumroad customers

    This is just a quick post to point out something shown by the above screenshot: pay-what-you-want pricing works! I increased the price of my ebook as I wrote it, as dictated by my OpenBeta process. What I also did was reduce it from the maximum price down to ‘pay what you want’. The suggested price on the product page is ‘£0.99+’.

    As you can see, recently, nine people have bought my ebook (the other product is an audiobook I’m working on):

    • Three of them (one third) paid nothing. Their email addresses suggest they’re students.
    • Three of them (one third) paid £0.99 (the suggested price) or £1.
    • One person paid something less than the suggested price (£0.59)
    • One person paid £1.99.
    • One person paid £20!

    That last amount isn’t actually the most someone’s paid for my ebook in the last couple of years. I suspect that’s because university libraries buy my book and pay the average that regular publishers charge for these things.

    Charging people different amounts for the same product is Pricing 101. This, however, is different: people are choosing their price. Enabling students and those less well-off to get the book for free, while others pay what they can afford seems like a win-win to me!

     
  • Doug Belshaw 9:19 am on March 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Clay Shirky, Open Badges, Seth Godin   

    The failure of pre-filtering 

    Filters

    A few years ago, when I’d just joined Mozilla and become Dr. Belshaw, I ran an experiment. At that point, I was attending, on average, an event per week, so I was meeting lots of people for the first time. I had three variables in play:

    1. My ideas
    2. The fact I worked for Mozilla
    3. Mention of doctorate

    Sometimes when I talked to people for the first time, I’d not mention who I worked for, nor give people my business card (which featured my title). I’d just talk about my ideas. People would listen and give me their ideas on the subject. That was great, but they’d usually done zero work or reading on the subject. Often, people would say what I was trying to do (Web Literacy Map, Open Badges) ‘just wouldn’t work’ for various reasons.

    Interestingly, I found that just adding in one of the other two variables changed that. My status as a ‘doctor’ would often change the conversation. While people weren’t deferential, there was certainly a noticeable switch to “oh, this guy must know what he’s talking about.” Similarly, if I mentioned that I worked for Mozilla, all of a sudden what I was talking about was eminently possible. Taken together, people would often scrabble to think of ways we could work together.

    Funny, isn’t it? The way that I’ve come to rationalise this that people recognise and value ‘pre-filtering’. We all recognise working for certain organisations and having particular qualifications as a kind of shorthand. These days, as a consultant, I get similar results if I mention some of the clients I’ve worked with, such as Creative Commons or City & Guilds, along with my academic qualifications. I’d like not to be just my LinkedIn profile, but it’s what people respond to.

    All of this brings me to Seth Godin, who recently wrote:

    The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway. Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to to seek them out. And all that time on social networks still hasn’t taught us not to judge people by their profile photos… Most of all, we now know that easy-to-measure skills aren’t nearly as important as the real skills that matter. Everyone believes that other people are terrible at judging us and our potential, but we go ahead and proudly judge others on the basis of a short interview (or worse, a long one), even though the people we’re selecting aren’t being hired for their ability to be interviewed. The first step in getting better at pre-judging is to stop pre-judging. This takes guts, because it feels like giving up control, but we never really had control in the first place. Not if we’ve been obsessively measuring the wrong things all along.

    When I talk to people about Open Badges, there’s still plenty of them who are being introduced to alternative credentialing for the first time. The idea that the way we hire people or recognise their knowledge, skills, and behaviours might be problematic, comes as a surprise. In effect, I’m saying that the large filters we use for everyone just don’t work that well.

    This reminds me of Clay Shirky’s presentation almost a decade ago, the title of which is now also a well-known quotation of his:

    It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.

    Right now, there’s plenty of jobs for which HR managers receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. I don’t know in every case how these are boiled down to decide who comes for interview, but I can’t help but think that they’re probably using the same lenses, time and time again. Although it’s not the only reason my interest in Open Badges remains strong, I do think more granular credentials can’t help but provide smaller, additional lenses that lead to greater diversity, and better person/organisation fit.

    Image CC BY-NC-ND Nadar

     
  • Doug Belshaw 2:23 pm on March 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: automation, future of work   

    Automation and identity 

    Giving Up On Automation

    Around 12 years ago, when I started blogging, comments were a thing. This was pre-Twitter, and before most people were on Facebook. These days, to get that kind of interaction, you need a newsletter – and I delight in the responses I get to my weekly Thought Shrapnel.

    This week, amongst the replies, was one from Bryan Alexander, who picked up on my links around the future of work, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and increasing automation:

    Automation versus jobs… one angle here is major cultural disruption. How many societies deeply link a person’s worth and self-conception to their jobs? I’m thinking of Japan and the US, for starters.

    If we only work 30 hours/week (for example), do we suffer crises of identity?

    I asked him if it was OK if I replied here rather than in the silo of our respective inboxes. He kindly agreed.


    The first thing I’d say about ‘automation versus jobs’ is that, to my mind it’s ‘automation and jobs’. Things are very rarely either/or. History shows us that even quite profound cultural change happens alongside the status quo. In this regard, people often point to William Gibson’s mention of the future being already here, just unevenly distributed, while others nod knowingly.

    We’re in a period of history where those on zero-hour contracts (and, let’s face it, anyone outside of the finance industry) are seen as being part of the ‘precariat’. There’s an increasing casualisation of labour which is having a knock-on effect on pensions, childcare, the housing market, and almost every other aspect of society.

    While I’m an opponent of the means by which this is happening (post-2008 austerity economics), I’m not necessarily an opponent of where we could end up. I’ve often said that, when it comes to ‘knowledge work’, four hours of solid work is pretty much all anyone can do for it to remain high-quality. As a result, crazy as it may sound, I think we need to be preparing for the 20-hour week.

    Of course, much would have to change for this to seem like a happy state of affairs, rather than one that’s been foisted upon us. One core thing that would have to change, as Bryan points out, is around identity. The Protestant work ethic, which ties our identity to how hard we work, remains strong despite our secular society. Over and above this, however, is the fact that the past 30 years of Anglo-American neoliberal politics in the west has normalised the atomisation of individuals so that work is almost the only place we can build an identity.

    So, to turn a decreased demand for our collective intellectual and physical labour into a positive, we need to create a situation in which identities can be formed outside of work. That means stronger families, communities, and clubs. These don’t happen overnight. They take time, effort, and funding.

    In the shorter-term, however, I think there’s a bit of a hack that we can apply here and now. Last year, I set up a worker-owned co-operative with some former colleagues and friends called We Are Open Co-op. We not only are paid by this, but collectively own it, and make decisions around it. Voting rights are equal, and we have a commitment to the seven principles of international co-operation. Communities built of co-ops are happier, resilient, and more democratic.

    Instead of attempting to build an identity for ourselves in the increasingly-precarious environment of employment, we should focus on build it in an environment of ownership. To my mind, it’s a reasonably subtle shift in emphasis, but could lead to a huge shift in practice.

    (Image CC0 Alan Levine)

     
  • Doug Belshaw 9:34 am on March 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Guardian, , writing   

    George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

    George Sanders

    There’s some wonderfully quotable sections in Saunders’ essay, including:

    The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: It it better like this? Or like this?

    I adore section three, where Saunders talks about how relevant the craft of writing is to our current political situation:

    Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.

    Is any of this relevant to our current political moment?

    Hoo, boy.

    When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

    But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

    How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

    Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 11:45 am on March 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags:   

    Keep on doing the right thing 

    A couple of pertinent quotations from my daily reading yesterday for those trying to keep on keeping on:

    “If you are doing what is right, never mind whether you are freezing with cold or beside a good fire; heavy-eyed, or fresh from a sound sleep; reviled or applauded; in the act of dying, or about some other piece of business.” (Marcus Aurelius, ‘Meditations’, Book Six)

    I always find it amazing that a Roman Emperor took the time to write such things. Also, Seneca wrote this in exile:

    “Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed upon me – money, public office, influence – I relegate to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been t y the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasured desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does no collapse either when they change. his fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.” (Seneca, ‘On The Shortness of Life’)

    Still lots to learn from the Ancients. I need to get started (re-)reading Boethius next.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 7:22 am on February 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: culture change, Dan Hon, organisationa   

    Cultural change within large organisations is hard 

    CC0 Andrew Branch

    Dan Hon is back! He restarted his rambling (but super-smart) daily newsletter again this week, after some mental health issues which he’s always very upfront about.

    He’s been helping set up the Child Welfare Digital Service in California. It’s a tough project, but one that has the opportunity to have a huge positive impact on thousands of vulnerable children.

    Dan writes, however, that cultural change is hard because you’re having to criticise the current environment:

    It doesn’t matter whether the environment was willed into being in a singular act or whether it accreted over time (say, thirty years worth of reactive policy and practices building up like some sort of regulatory ring of limescale scum in a student house bathtub), all that matters is that it’s there.

    That environment, though, effectively implicates everyone who has a stake in that environment.

    And there it is. So, you’d think, perhaps it’s better to create an ‘innovation unit’?

    Put it this way: you land on a planet that has hardly any free energy so the only type of life that can survive there is slow and large. The approach that I’m using right now is essentially nuking it so that quick, fast life can thrive, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument because you end up nuking the entire planet. Where a planet is a department or an agency, of course. 

    There is no “lab” here. And the struggle I’m dealing with is: how well do you want to solve this problem? Do you want to solve it properly, for ever? Does that inevitably, inexorably mean changing the entire organizational structure, and is the best way to do that top-down? Or, can you do it bottom-up? Can you start a couple cells and have them do a sort of reverse-takeover?

    This is why I think innovation labs don’t work: they silo off the danger to the organization and they let all the different stuff happen elsewhere where they can’t affect the environment of the host organism. It’s as if you were able to deal with cancer by saying: okay cancer, come right in, you can have just my left foot, but I’m going to make sure you can’t get to the rest of my body. 

    In my naive understanding, when cancer wins, the host organism dies. You don’t just get big undifferentiated blobs of cancer or innovation. They don’t take over the organism in a useful parasitic way. 

    This isn’t to say that you can’t get good results by, say, embedding a small multi-disciplinary team inside a department and empowering them to get stuff done. But my worry is: so what? So they get some stuff done. Do you win the war? How do you get from that one small team and change the way the entire department works? 

    I’m more or less sure that at this stage of my so-called career, I haven’t seen any successful examples of cell or bottom-up based organizational change. They only ever come from the top. You can win small battles, but I worry about longevity. 

    What this says about government in the large doesn’t inspire me with confidence. At least, not in my lifetime.

    On the contra, for what it’s worth, here’s an opportunity. Any time anyone’s going to upgrade or replace a legacy system and they’ve got money to do it (and in most government cases, it’s stupid money), the legacy system replacement is the best excuse you’ve got to do org and culture change.

    In other words, what passes for true cultural change depends on what kind of organisation you’re dealing with. For some places, like government and university departments, the rate of change might be glacial.

     
  • Doug Belshaw 3:49 pm on February 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Black Death, history, inequality   

    Injustice and catastrophe 

    CC BY-NC Shawn Harquail

    Although these days I concern myself with the role of technology in (mostly educational) organisations, I began my career as a History teacher. There are certain periods of the past that fascinate me, and one of these — in a rather macabre fashion &madsh; is the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. In England it led to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and that, in turn, led to the end of the feudal system that William of Normandy introduced post-1066.

    In other words, humans do a good job of forgetting man-made hierarchical power relationships at times of intense strife. I was reminded of this when reading an article from The Atlantic entitled The Only Thing, Historically, That’s Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe, which outlines a bit of a paradox:

    If history is any indication, then, the resurgence of inequality since the 1980s should not have come as a surprise. The effects of violent leveling invariably abate over time: Populations recover when plagues subside, failed states are replaced by newcomers. By now the aftershocks of the 20th century’s great wars have faded. Top tax rates and union membership are down, communism is defunct, and globalization, however reviled, is (still) in full swing. The four levelling forces will not return any time soon: Technology has made mass warfare obsolete; violent, redistributive revolution has lost its appeal; most states are more resilient than they used to be; and advances in genetics will help humanity ward off novel germs.

    So, if you’re among the poorest in society and want your whole class to rise with you, the best you can hope for is an immense catastrophe that shocks the system into change. During times of peace the rich just get richer. Sad, but historically true. Hopefully we can find ways round that in future — perhaps through a global system of UBI.

    Image CC BY-NC Shawn Harquail

     
  • Doug Belshaw 8:32 am on February 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: htaccess, , WordPress   

    Protecting my websites from hackers 

    For the past three weekends, my websites have been subject to attacks by hackers. I wasn’t sure what was going on at first, but then I realised that a script was gaining access to all the .htaccess files and injecting additional text.

    With websites hosted on Apache-powered servers (i.e. most of the web) the .htaccess file allows rules to be defined for specific things to happen. This can be incredibly powerful and useful. For example, if you move something from a subdirectory of your personal website to its own domain, you can create an automatic redirect. There’s a million other things you can do, too.

    The specific attack I’ve been subject to several times recently is where a whole batch of rules are added to the .htaccess file of each website I run. Cleverly, these are added after lots of spaces have been added, so they’re not immediately visible when you go to edit the file. They also seem to only work on mobile, which obviously isn’t how most website owners edit (or even view) their own websites. Visitors were redirected to websites dedicated to gambling, mobile gaming, and porn.

    I sought advice from various quarters and updated my passwords for both my main blog and my webhosting account. I also installed the Wordfence plugin to add an additional layer of security. This, unfortunately, made no difference.

    So, today I’ve done the following:

    I’m also in the process of changing all the usernames and passwords on all of my WordPress installations. This is a royal pain in the arse.

     
    • Neil Ford 1:36 pm on February 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      If installing the Wordfence plugin didn’t help (and I’ve found it to be very good), then it’s quite possible that WordPress isn’t the way in the hackers are using. That means unfortunately adding rules to .htaccess may not resolve the issue.

      Good luck getting to the bottom of this. As you say, pain in the arse.

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