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  • Doug Belshaw 11:59 am on September 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    The revolution will be gamified 

    American flag draped on van 

    In The Free-Time Paradox in America, Derek Thompson explores a very modern problem:

    Twentysomething male high-school grads used to be the most dependable working cohort in America. Today one in five are now essentially idle. The employment rate of this group has fallen 10 percentage points just this century, and it has triggered a cultural, economic, and social decline. “These younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives,” he said.

    So, what are are these young, non-working men doing with their time? Three quarters of their additional leisure time is spent with video games, Hurst’s research has shown. And these young men are happy—or, at least, they self-report higher satisfaction than this age group used to, even when its employment rate was 10 percentage points higher.

    The problem, just as pointed out in a recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, is that short-term gains can mask long-term losses. The examples given in the podcast were financial, but in this case they’re psychological and sociological:

    It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable. But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.

    The author goes on to look at the ‘paradox’ that the wealthier and more successful you are, the more you’re likely to work. He outlines three theories explaining this:

    1. The availability of attractive work for poor men (especially black men) is falling, as the availability of cheap entertainment is rising.
    2. Social forces cultivate a conspicuous industriousness (even workaholism) among affluent college graduates.
    3. Leisure is getting “leaky.”

    The last one for me is the most interesting as I think it explains the causes rather than the symptoms. The work that can’t (currently) be easily outsourced or automated is knowledge work. This kind of work doesn’t have a specific location in terms of where it can or should be done, and it also the kind of work that sometimes doesn’t feel like work, and also relies on the  autonomy of the individual to be effective.

    We’re about to enter a time of ‘moral panic’ around virtual reality and augmented reality. Although decent VR/AR hardware is currently expensive, it,  like everything technological, will come down in price. We may then have a very real problem. 

    Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses. For better or worse, entertainment, including television and video games, and even the 24-hour news media, is the drug that stops societal progress.

    Image via Nomad Pictures

  • Doug Belshaw 10:26 am on September 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply  


    Email guidelines

    When you join any new organisation, there’s jargon terms that you need to get up-to-speed on. These are often acronyms or shorthands to people within a defined community. At Mozilla, a term I heard a lot was “bikeshedding”. I didn’t really know what I meant, so I asked.

    In a nutshell, and as explained here, the concept comes from a book called Parkinson’s Law:

    Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

    Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann [sic] gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

    A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

    In Denmark we call it “setting your fingerprint”. It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say “There! *I* did that.” It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

    It’s a useful concept to bear in mind, but even more useful would be an email program that implemented the prompts the author suggests — see the image at the top of this post!

  • Doug Belshaw 12:43 pm on September 19, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Learning styles, heuristics, and employability skills 

     Two chairs in sunshine

    There’s nothing wrong with a recent article on the (excellent) site The Conversation. Nothing at all. With the descriptive, if slightly unwieldy title, Students are not hard-wired to learn in different ways – we need to stop using unproven, harmful methods, the article is one of a series.

    In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.

    They say this as if telling people the best ways to teach leads to better teaching. By the same analogy, the books I’ve collected on my shelves should lead to me being a more knowledgeable person. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

    The problem, as I see it, is that people expect both the ends and the means of a change to be pure and unsullied. Let’s take learning styles as an example. The article is absolutely right to point out that there’s no such thing as a fixed best way for each of us to learn.

    If learning styles exist at all, these are not “hard wired” and are at most simply preferences. What we prefer is neither fixed for all time nor always what is best for us.

    That’s fine, but what the author seemingly fails to grasp is the importance of second-order effects. I’ve seen time and again examples of people exploring learning styles as ‘different ways to teach the same thing’ and realising that it’s OK to mix things up a bit. 

    In this sense, learning styles can best be thought of as an heuristic, an “approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals”. Another definition is “enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves”. We need to do this for teachers, who are, lest we forget, also learners themselves.

    As I keep saying with my work on ambiguity, terms (like learning styles!) are not fixed once and for all time. So terminology becomes, for an indeterminate amount of time productively ambiguous before they slip off into dead metaphors.

    I can see something similar at the moment about ’employability skills’. There’s much to critique there, but if it’s the term du jour why not use it for something constructive? The notion of ‘learning styles’, at it’s most reductive, is harmful. But used metaphorically and as a gateway to further self-discovery for teacher, I’d argue, it’s potentially a useful term.

    Image via Nomad Pictures

  • Doug Belshaw 8:49 pm on September 18, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Why bother doing anything at all? 

    Burnt-out car

    I think this article by Costica Bradatan in the New York Times conflates several things in the quest for concision. However, it’s worth sharing, mainly due to the connection I make below. The article begins by talking about things that haven’t been created because a perfectionist streak in the artist fears that it will either never be good enough (or be subject to decay rending it worthless).

    The author then wonders why we bother doing anything at all:

    Idleness, as we know, has a bad rap in Western culture, but it can be a philosophical experience in its own right. Bertrand Russell wrote a long essay in praise of it, and Oscar Wilde thought that “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world” as well as the most intellectual. The great, consummate idlers of literature (Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov or Melville’s Bartleby) are figures of metaphysical quest: They exemplify ways of being human with unusual complexity.

    To be human is to be different from a machine. In other words, it’s OK to be a mass of contradictions. This is all very reminiscent of a book I just finished, and greatly enjoyed, entitled Out of Sheer Rage. The author, Geoff Dyer, comments:

    If one could accept one’s own shortcomings, perhaps one could be happy, contented, at one, as they say, with oneself; but what if one’s principal shortocming is, precisely, this unlimited capacity to generate friction between giving in to oneself as one is one moment and the equally strong urge to re-shape and seize control of how one was at some later date?

    One of the things that so terrifying about an ‘idle’ life is that it forces you to confront who you are and what you choose to do in the world. When you’re living from one notification to another, trying to juggle a million different things, there’s no time to think about the agency you have. And sometimes that’s extremely convenient. 

    (An anecdotal aside: I’ve noticed a lot less graffiti and burnt-out cars in general since the advent of smartphones. I’ve no evidence either way, but perhaps our devices distract us from the lack of agency we have in the world?)

    There’s no simple answer here. On the one end of the spectrum is the over-examined life, where it’s almost impossible to get started on anything because there’s so many permutations and possibilities. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the under-examined life, one that’s full of busywork. I’m guessing that there’s an Aristotelian eudaimonic golden mean in there somewhere. Or at least I hope so.

    I highly recommend How to be idle by Tom Hodgkinson on all of this, if you haven’t read it. Funny and wise in equal measure!

    Image via Nomad Pictures

  • Doug Belshaw 8:22 pm on September 18, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Why we feel ‘overwhelmed’ 


    Oliver Burkeman, who’s got a series on the topic for BBC Radio 4, explores why we’ve got a society full of people who feel overwhelmed by life:

    You might assume the explanation was straightforward: we feel so much busier these days because we’ve got so much more to do. But you’d be wrong. The total time people are working – whether paid or otherwise – has not increased in Europe or North America in recent decades. Modern parents who worry they’re spending insufficient time with their children spend significantly more of it than those in generations past. “The headline changes over the last 50 years are that women do a whole lot less unpaid work, and a whole lot more paid work, and men do quite a bit less paid work, and a whole lot more unpaid work,” says Jonathan Gershuny, of the Centre for Time Use Research at Oxford University. But “the total amounts of work are pretty much exactly the same.” What’s more, the data also shows that the people who say they’re the busiest generally aren’t.

    As I was discussing with another parent today when picking up my son from Cub Scout camp, the problem is that we can’t leave work behind any more. As we’re all doing ‘knowledge’ work, it’s all around us. The inbox is never-ending, and there’s always things you could be doing. So the nature of our work is different, we can’t leave it behind.

    There’s another thing at play here, though. Through social networking we now life (and especially parenting) has devolved into a competitive sport. It’s not just keeping up with the Joneses, but pretending your life is some kind of version of the Kardashians. We keep our ‘bloopers’ to ourselves, but share the highlights reel far and wide.

    These two things: a lack of imposed work/life boundary, and individualism in society, are, to my mind, destructive of community. I was in France with my family over the summer, and everywhere closes down on a Sunday — just as it used to in England when I was younger. I couldn’t help but think this was a good thing.

    When it comes to the atomisation of society, the only thing that can save us is collective action and co-operation. We’re living in the world envisioned by Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle, written almost 50 years ago:

    In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

    Later in the book, of course, Debord enjoins us to ‘never work’. So there’s that. But seriously, we should be working less, living more, and working with one another create the society that would pass the test of a Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’. Sadly, the older I get the more this seems like a distant possibility.

    Image via Nomad Pictures

  • Doug Belshaw 7:58 pm on September 17, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    A better way to choose your Linux distribution 

    Linux Distribution Chooser

    If you asked me what my ‘main’ computing machine was, I’d say it was my IBM Thinkpad X220 laptop with the latest version of Elementary OS installed on it. Yes, I’ve got a Chromebook Pixel, a Mac Mini, and an iPad Mini with a keyboard, but that’s the machine I consider my ‘workhorse’.

    It’s taken a while to get to this point. I first tried Linux as a 16 year-old in 1997, purchasing a book for about £30 that had several CD-ROMs in the back. I’ve dabbled on and off since then, but it’s only now that most of my stuff is web-based that, actually, my choice of operating system isn’t hampered by proprietary silos. 

    You’re probably in the same position. If you’ve never considered using Linux, you’ll be surprised by how good-looking, stable, and user-friendly it can be. It comes in many different flavours (or ‘distributions’) and this Linux Distribution Chooser does a good job of sorting out which is best for you. I answered the questions honestly and straightforwardly in about a minute, and it came out with Elementary OS!

  • Doug Belshaw 3:32 am on September 16, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Remote jobs vs. remote teams 


    There’s plenty of evidence that working remotely is a more productive arrangement than forcing everyone to a single geographic location. One study, reported by Forbes earlier this year, for example, found that remote workers tended to be happier, feel more valued, and have more contact with their managers.

    In an (ultimately self-serving) post on the RemoteBase blog, Sung Won Cho bemoans the fact that regular online jobs boards don’t delve into the team aspect of remote working:

    Because of such distributed environment, remote teams are in a constant pursuit of achieving a semblance of real human interactions among its team members. The way they do it can make a huge difference on the effectiveness of the operation, and our personal fit to the organization.

    I worked remotely for three years for Mozilla, albeit with plenty of travel. Now, as part of a co-operative that geographically-dispersed, it’s a similar feeling: there’s some amazing things about remote work, but also some things that are tough to work out.

    The abstract notion of team and its culture is all that binds us together at a remote team. Therefore we need to care more about the team culture. Remote job seekers need to look more deeply into it, and employers should explain it better.

    It’s a fundamentally different discipline to work from the place that you live than to commute between two separate places. It’s not the same to be geographically co-located with your colleagues compared with seeing them mainly via video conferencing and whatever little avatar they’ve chosen to represent themselves online.

    While I’ve said it many times, it bears repeating: when your communication with colleagues is mediated by technology, every interaction becomes an intentional one. You have to schedule meetings, or ‘ping’ people to get their attention. There are no serendipitous meetings in the corridor or by the water cooler.

    The massive upsides of remote working outweigh the downsides, but I welcome this post if only because it highlights the fact that, as with jobs dependent on physical locations, team culture matters just as much — if not more — to remote work.

  • Doug Belshaw 7:19 pm on September 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    More evidence to show open-plan offices are bad for productivity 

    Open Plan Office

    Dezeen reports on a survey from of 1,000 Australian workers carried out by the Auckland University of Technology.  

    Those with their own offices, those who work from home and those who share a space with just one or two others reported the highest levels of concentration and colleague friendship.

    More interestingly, the report also predicts that:

    Future workers may have little or no expectation that their employer will provide either privacy, or their own designated space.

    That’s pretty sad, until you realise that not only does technology allow us to spend less time having to be face-to-face to get things done, but alternative ways of structuring organisations (like co-ops!) allow for greater worker autonomy.

    Image CC BY-NC-ND John Blower

  • Doug Belshaw 12:09 pm on September 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Philosophy is the best-value degree going 


    I always enjoy articles that vindicate my decision as an 18 year-old to study Philosophy as an undergraduate. It’s quite possibly, other than marrying my wife, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

    In Why I Majored in Philosophy Despite Everyone Telling Me Not to, Grant Ferowich explains that Philosophy, more than any other discipline, prepares you both for work and life:

    Aside from existential questions (What is the purpose of life? Why are we here?) that brush some as being overly abstract, philosophy is probably the most practical subject there is, from politics, economics, history, science, to the more personal topic of ethics and religion. Philosophy knows no bounds.

    That, of course, is because there can be a ‘philosophy’ of everything and anything. Big things like ‘Philosophy of Religion’ (with capitalisation) and small things like, I don’t know… having a philosophy of Mac keyboards. 

    More than that, though, Philosophy is a way of choosing never to stop being curious about the world, where it came from, how it works, and your place in it.

    For some of us philosophy majors, we are just genuinely curious about some notions in life that are often taken for granted. For instance, is our ability to have rational thought just a product of our brainwaves, the interaction of different neurotransmitters? Or is there something more going on, something “supernatural” that allowed humans the capacity for rational dialogue? Above all, philosophy seeks truth. The purpose of philosophy is to get at the truth of one’s place in nature.

    Ultimately, as many philosophers — and particularly Stoic philosophers — have maintained, Philosophy is a great preparation to die well. That might seem a bit morbit but, actually, our society is unusual in its avoidance of talking about the end of life. It’s particularly striking when you pick up books written a few centuries ago, like Montaigne’s Essays.

    Ultimately, Philosophy is a liberating thing to study. It refuses to be bounded, seeping into every part of your life. To my mind, if someone is going to be saddled with a huge student debt, then they might as well get their money’s worth and study something useful like Philosophy!

    Image via Nomad Pictures

    Bonus: if you haven’t discovered it yet, the Philosophy Bites podcast is one of my favourites. You’re welcome.

  • Doug Belshaw 8:50 pm on September 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    The problem of living without constraints 

    Hacksaw and log

    One of the great things about browsing secondhand bookshops is the wonderful moments of serendipity and surprise you receive. Recently, I was in Barter Books, a wonderful place you really must visit if you’ve never experienced it. A book entitled Out of Sheer Rage almost leapt off the shelf at me. Not only was it prominently displayed, but I’d literally added it to my Amazon wishlist the day before, having been mentioned as a great read in the book I’d just finished.

    I’ve just opened it to read it now, and there on page five is this wonderful paragraph. For context, it’s a book about a guy struggling to write a book about D.H. Lawrence:

    One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose — but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere. There were no constraints on me and because of this it was impossible to choose. It’s easy to make choices when you have things hampering you — a job, kids’ schools — but when all you have to go on is your own desires, then life becomes considerably more difficult, not to say intolerable.

    Pre-Brexit, when both our children were in first school, I felt this to some extent as an independent consultant. Where is the ‘right’ place to live? Where’s the ideal place to go on holiday? How should I structure my day?

    There are no correct answers. That’s the problem. We expect there to be. Then we hope there to be. Finally, we embrace whatever constraints we can get so we can get on with living.

    Image via Nomad Pictures

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