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  • Doug Belshaw 5:33 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: censorship, ideology,   

    Be careful what you wish for 

    Protesters topple Confederate soldier statue in Durham, NC

    After years of not intervening because of their ‘neutral’ stance, all of a sudden tech companies are shutting down access to white supremacist online content. For example, GoFundMe has shut down attempted crowdfunding campaigns for the man accused of driving a car into protesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the weekend, Discord has banned servers that promote Nazi ideology, and GoDaddy (and then Google) washed their hands of hosting a white supremacist website.

    I’m not a white supremacist, and as an historian find neo-Nazisism abhorrent. However, I can’t help thinking that knee-jerk reactions like these are unhelpful. By denying space on the web to ideologies with which we disagree, we’re applying technical ‘solutions’ to social ‘problems’ —  much as we’ve tried to to with Islamic terrorism. It doesn’t work. Or, at least, it doesn’t work by itself, but should instead be part of a wider, more nuanced approach.

    In addition, I can’t help but think that it sets a dangerous precedent. After all, what happens when the tech giants decide that your way of thinking should be censored? These aren’t democratic processes; you can’t vote tech companies out after four years. To use a recent example, when things are going well and who you like is in charge of the country (Obama) and tech companies have your back (LGBT rights), everything looks great. A bit of ‘harmless’ state and corporate surveillance looks reasonable. But then what happens when someone else comes along (Trump) and we realise that we’ve built a surveillance state? All hell breaks loose. We tear down statues and call for everything we find abhorrent to be immediately banned.

    So, I can’t help but think we should be careful about the tactics and approaches we normalise. We can and should respond to specific events, but we shouldn’t do it in the compressed timelines that social media demands. And I certainly don’t think it’s tech companies that should decide these things on our behalf. At the end of the day, I don’t want to end up a world that feels like Black Mirror. Perhaps we’d do well to heed what Audrey Watters has to say about teaching history as well as ‘love’, and Mike Caulfield writes about teaching facts and skills.

    • Aaron Smith 6:11 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      In the specific case of the Discord server, Discord pointed out that inciting violence is a TOS violation. They don’t monitor servers for content, but if reported, they investigate and take action.

      Several users on Twitter tried the “OK are you going to shut down all the anti-fascist servers now?” line of reasoning, but were unhappy that the same burden of proof was required.

      It’s not so much that corporate entities have our backs. It’s that if you decide to be a horrible person, regardless of your politics, chances are corporations will eventually show you the door. Turns out you get to do more business when you’re not seen as a safe haven for extremists.

  • Doug Belshaw 11:14 am on August 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: free software, , Totara   

    Free software, open source, and sustainability 

    Image by William White

    I’m doing some work with Totara at the moment. Before I started, I had a couple of conversations with their CEO, Richard Wyles, as I didn’t fully understand their business model. I discovered that, instead of providing solutions directly to customers, they develop open source software for their partners, who then customise solutions for customers. Money flows back to Totara through partners to cover costs around development, administration, and co-ordination activities. Customers get access to the source code, and aren’t locked into a relationship with a vendor reliant on proprietary code.

    The reason I wanted to know more about Totara’s model before starting work with them is because there’s been a lot of sensitivity around ‘openwashing’ over the last few years. Openwashing is whereby a company uses the language of the open source world, without actually adhering to its principles. You can read more about how to spot (and avoid) openwashing in this excellent article. It’s a contentious area and involves some interpretation.

    Today, an article by Richard Wyles has been published on Entitled We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom, Wyles reiterates Richard Stallman‘s point around the true meaning of software freedom:

    Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support. In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.

    The problem we’ve got here is partly one around semantics: Stallman focuses on the Free Software movement, which actually has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with liberty. Unless you really care about this stuff, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

    In any case, it’s an article that’s worth reading. I’ll just pull out one more quotation from Wyles:

    Many single-vendor commercial open source firms adopt [a] dual-licensing approach, with a free community version and a paid-for enterprise proprietary license. The risk here is that the company prioritizes the proprietary version, because that’s where their money comes from, and the community version is soon perceived as “crippleware” or even worse, “abandonware.” For example, SugarCRM suspended or slowed development on its Community Edition and now makes it clear that it is not suitable in a production environment. I’m not criticizing them—you have to earn enough to keep the lights on, right? But are they still an open source vendor?

    This stuff is hard, but I’ve been persuaded in my conversations with Totara that not only are they not openwashing, but they’re actively trying to make open source software development into something that’s sustainable.

    Photo by William White on Unsplash

  • Doug Belshaw 10:18 am on July 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: calendar, , reminder, search   

    Why I’ve started an ‘anti-calendar’ 

    Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

    For the last few years, I’ve tracked my migraines on a calendar called, funnily enough, MIGRAINES. It helps me remember when they were and if there were any particular triggers. I also occasionally add something we’ve done as a family into the shared family calendar retrospectively, as it helps me to remember when it happened.

    This morning, I bought some new trainers as, prompted by my six year-old daughter’s question, we did some research yesterday that advised changing running trainers every 300-400 miles.

    I didn’t have a way of tracking the number of miles I’ve run in a pair of trainers, until I realised that, much as Umberto Eco had an anti-library, I should have an anti-calendar. It was effectively just formalising something I’d already kind of started.

    It couldn’t be simpler to set up an anti-calendar. Here’s the steps to do so in my tool of choice, Google Calendar.


    1. Click on the drop-down next to ‘My calendars’.

    Select ‘Create new calendar’.


    2. Give your calendar a name.

    I went for the super-descriptive ‘When I did stuff’.


    3. Add something to your new calendar.

    Here I’ve added ‘Bought New Balance trainers (590 v5)’ which is short but specific.


    4. Perform a search for your event to make sure it’s working.

    I just searched ‘trainers’.


    All that’s left to do is to add anything that’s already happened that you need to remember. It could be purchases. It could be when you got your hair cut (if, like me, you don’t go by appointment). It could be the time you had a realisation about a thing. Whatever you want. It’s your backwards calendar, after all!

    Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

  • Doug Belshaw 3:24 pm on July 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: consultancy, freelancing, Human API, MozFest, Mozilla   

    How thinking of myself as a ‘Human API’ helped me get over my ego 

    Five years ago, at the Mozilla Festival, I walked around in a pimped white lab coat with the bedazzling words WEB LITERACY stuck onto it.

    Human API

    Beautiful, I’m sure you’ll agree. The point of the exercise was to be a point of contact for people who wanted to know more about the area of Mozilla’s work you were representing.

    I’d pretty much forgotten about the idea of ‘Human APIs’ until recently, when a couple of things happen. First, I started to do some work around an introduction to coding for a new client, which had me thinking about APIs again. These, for the uninitiated, are defined by Wikipedia as:

    In computer programming, an Application Programming Interface (API) is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools for building application software. In general terms, it is a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components. A good API makes it easier to develop a computer program by providing all the building blocks, which are then put together by the programmer.

    That sounds super-geeky, but it’s basically a way in which, for example, you can share something from your web browser to Twitter by clicking one button. It connects things together. It’s the reason awesome services like IFTTT can exist.

    Second, I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s new book, which in turn reminded me of the advice in his previous work, Ego is the Enemy.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how thinking about yourself as a Human API can help get rid of your ego in several useful ways. This is particularly important when, like me, you deal with lots of different people on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.

    1. APIs don’t complain unless you provide an invalid input.
    2. APIs provide an expected output for a given input.
    3. APIs are (usually) well documented.
    4. APIs are inclusive and don’t discriminate between users.
    5. APIs enable things to be built that are bigger than themselves.

    Another way to think of this would be to consider yourself a jigsaw piece and just one piece of a solution to a wider puzzle. You get to decide what ‘shape’ you are and where your edges are, but ultimately, the way to be successful is to help construct the solution. The great thing is that you also get to decide what puzzle you’re trying to solve.

    Thinking about life in Human API terms can be liberating. It forces you to think about what you’re willing to accept as an input, what you’re providing as an output, and what overall puzzle you’re helping solve. I think it’s a great metaphor and it’s one I’ll be using more often.

    Photo by Astrid Maria Bigoni used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

    • Aaron 6:02 am on August 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      Not only is it a great metaphor Doug, but a great way of introducing APIs.

  • 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)
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