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“You needn't settle for a mediocre life just because the people around you did.”

(Joshua Fields Millburn)

Git yourself off that platform!

This week, tens of thousands of open source projects migrated their codebase away from GitHub to alternatives such as GitLab. Why? Because Microsoft announced that they’ve bought GitHub for $7.5 billion.

For those who don’t spend time in the heady world of software and web development, that sounds like a lot of money for something with a silly name. It will hopefully make things a little clearer to explain that Git is described by Wikipedia in the following way:

Git is a version control system for tracking changes in computer files and coordinating work on those files among multiple people. It is primarily used for source code management in software development, but it can be used to keep track of changes in any set of files. As a distributed revision control system it is aimed at speed, data integrity, and support for distributed, non-linear workflows.

Despite GitHub not being open source, it did, until this week host most of the world’s open source projects. You can currently use GitHub for free if your project’s code is public, and the company sells the ability to create private repositories. As far as I’m aware it’s never turned a profit.

I’ve seen lots of reactions to the Microsoft acquistion news, but one of the more insightful posts comes from Louis-Philippe Véronneau. Like me, he doesn’t trust Microsoft at all.

Some people might be fine with Microsoft’s takeover, but to me it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For a few years now, MS has been running a large marketing campaign on how they love Linux and suddenly decided to embrace Free Software in all of its forms. More like MS BS to me.

Let us take a moment to remind ourselves that:

  • Windows is still a huge proprietary monster that rips billions of people from their privacy and rights every day.
  • Microsoft is known for spreading FUD about “the dangers” of Free Software in order to keep governments and schools from dropping Windows in favor of FOSS.
  • To secure their monopoly, Microsoft hooks up kids on Windows by giving out “free” licences to primary schools around the world. Drug dealers use the same tactics and give out free samples to secure new clients.
  • Microsoft’s Azure platform – even though it can run Linux VMs – is still a giant proprietary hypervisor.

Yep.

I’m thankful that we’re now starting the MoodleNet project in a post-GDPR and post-GitHub world. We’ll be using GitLab — initially via their hosted service, but longer-term as a self-hosted solution — and as many open-source products and services as possible.

Interestingly, Véronneau notes that you can use Debian’s infrastructure (terms) or RiseUp’s infrastructure (terms) if your project aligns with their ethos.

Source: Louis-Philippe Véronneau

“One who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”

(Confucius)

Blockchain was just a stepping stone

I’m reading Adam Greenfield’s excellent book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life at the moment. He says:

And for those of us who are motivated by commitment to a specifically participatory politics of the commons, it’s not at all clear that any blockchain-based infrastructure can support the kind of flexible assemblies we imagine. I myself come from an intellectual tradition that insists that any appearance of the word “potential” needs to be greeted with skepticism. There is no such thing as potential, in this view: there are merely states of a system that have historically been enacted, and those that have not yet been enacted. The only way to assess whether a system is capable of assuming a given state is to do the work of enacting it.
 

Back in 2015, I wrote about the potential of badges and blockchain. However, these days I’m more likely to agree that’s it’s a futuristic integrity wand.

The problem with blockchain technologies is that they tend to all get lumped together as if they’re one thing. For example, some use blockchain technologies to prop-up neoliberalism, whereas others are seeking to use it to destroy it.

As part of my research for a presentation I gave in Barcelona last year about decentralised technologies, I came across MaidSafe (“the world’s first autonomous data network”). I admit to be on the edges of my understanding here, but the idea is that the SAFE network can safely store data in an autonomous, decentralised way.

Last week, MaidSafe announced a new protocol called PARSEC (Protocol for Asynchronous, Reliable, Secure and Efficient Consensus). It solves the Byzantine General’s problem without recourse to the existing blockchain approach.

PARSEC solves a well-known problem in decentralised, distributed computer networks: how can individual computers (nodes) in a system reliably communicate truths (in other words, events that have taken place on the network) to each other where a proportion of the nodes are malicious (Byzantine) and looking to disrupt the system. Or to put it another way: how can a group of computers agree on which transactions have correctly taken place and in which order?

This protocol is GPL v3 licensed, meaning that it is “free for anyone to build upon and likely prove to be of immense value to other decentralised projects facing similar challenges”. The Bitcoin blockchain network is S-L-O-W and is getting slower. It’s also steadily pushing up the computing power required to achieve consensus across the network, meaning that a huge amount of electricity is being used worldwide. This is bad for our planet.

If you’re building a secure, autonomous, decentralised data and communications network for the world like we are with the SAFE Network, then the limitations of blockchain technology when it comes to throughput (transactions-per-second), ever-increasing storage challenges and lack of encryption are all insurmountable problems for any system that seeks to build a project of this magnitude.

[…]

So despite being big fans of blockchain technology for many reasons here at MaidSafe, the reality is that the data and communications networks of the future will see millions or even billions of transactions per second taking place. No matter which type of blockchain implementation you take — tweaking the quantity and distribution of nodes across the network or how many people are in control of these across a variety of locations — at the end of the day, the blockchain itself remains, by definition, a single centralised record. And for the use cases that we’re working on, blockchain technology comes with limitations of transactions-per-second that simply makes that sort of centralisation unworkable.

I confess to not having watched the hour-long YouTube video embedded in the post but, if PARSEC works, it’s another step towards a post-nation state world — for better or worse.

Source: MaidSafe blog

Living with anxiety

It’s taken me a long time to admit it to myself (and my wife) but while I don’t currently suffer from depression, I do live with a low-level general background anxiety that seems to have developed during my adult life.

Wil Wheaton, “actor, blogger, voice actor and writer” and all-round darling of the internet has written in the last few days about his struggles with mental health. My experiences aren’t as extreme as his — I’ve never had panic attacks, and being based from home has made my working life more manageable — but I do relate.

This, in particular, resonated with me from what Wheaton had to say:

One of the many delightful things about having Depression and Anxiety is occasionally and unexpectedly feeling like the whole goddamn world is a heavy lead blanket, like that thing they put on your chest at the dentist when you get x-rays, and it’s been dropped around your entire existence without your consent.

The smallest things feel like insurmountable obstacles. One day you’re dealing with people and projects across several timezones like an absolute boss, the next day just going to buy a loaf of bread at the local shop feels like a a huge achievement.

We like to think we can control everything in our lives. We can’t.

I think it was then, at about 34 years-old, that I realized that Mental Illness is not weakness. It’s just an illness. I mean, it’s right there in the name “Mental ILLNESS” so it shouldn’t have been the revelation that it was, but when the part of our bodies that is responsible for how we perceive the world and ourselves is the same part of our body that is sick, it can be difficult to find objectivity or perspective.

I’m physically strong: I run, swim, and go to the gym. I (mostly!) eat the right things. My sleep routine is healthy. My family is happy and I feel loved. I’ve found self-medicating with L-Theanine and high doses of Vitamin D helpful. All of this means I’ve managed to minimise my anxiety to the greatest extent possible.

And yet, out of nowhere, a couple of times a month come waves of feelings that I can’t quite describe. They loom. Everything is not right with the world. It makes no sense to say that they don’t have a particular object or focus, but they really don’t. I can’t put my finger on them or turn what it feels like into words.

Wheaton suggests that often the things we don’t feel like doing in these situations are exactly the things we need to do:

Give yourself permission to acknowledge that you’re feeling terrible (or bad, or whatever it is you are feeling), and then do a little thing, just one single thing, that you probably don’t feel like doing, and I PROMISE you it will help. Some of those things are:

  • Take a shower.
  • Eat a nutritious meal.
  • Take a walk outside (even if it’s literally to the corner and back).
  • Do something — throw a ball, play tug of war, give belly rubs — with a dog. Just about any activity with my dogs, even if it’s just a snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, helps me.
  • Do five minutes of yoga stretching.
  • Listen to a guided meditation and follow along as best as you can.

For me, going for a run or playing with my children usually helps enormously. Anything that helps put things into perspective.

What I really appreciate in Wheaton’s article, which was an address he gave to NAMI (the American National Alliance on Mental Illness), was that he focused on the experience of undiagnosed children. It’s hard enough as an adult to realise what’s going on, so for children it must be pretty terrible.

If you’re reading this and suffer from anxiety and/or depression, let’s remember it’s 2018. It’s time to open up about all this stuff. And, as Wheaton reminds us, let’s talk to our children about this, too. The chances are that what you’re living with is genetic, so your kids will also have to deal with this at some point.

Source: Wil Wheaton

“You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere”

I confess to not have heard of Abby Wambach, a recently-retired US soccer player, until Laura Hilliger brought her to my attention in the form of Wambach’s commencement speech to the graduates of Barnard College.

The whole thing is a fantastic call to action, particularly for women, but I wanted to call out a couple of bits in particular:

If you’re not a leader on the bench, don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.

People either look to you for guidance, or they don’t. You’re either the kind of person that steps up when required, or you don’t. Fortunately, I had a great role model in this regard in the shape of my father. He perhaps encouraged me a little too much to be a leader, but his actions, particularly when I was younger, spoke louder than his words.

You can’t be a leader at work without being a leader at home. And by ‘leader’ I don’t think Wambach is talking about ‘bossing’ everyone, but about stepping up, being counted, and supporting/representing others.

She also writes:

As you leave here today and everyday going forward: Don’t just ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” Ask yourself: “WHO do I want to be?” Because the most important thing I’ve learned is that what you do will never define you. Who you are always will.

Absolutely! Decide on your values and live them. I find reading Aristotle useful in this regard, particularly his views on Eudaimonia. Choose what you stand for, and articulate the way you’d like to be. Then seek out opportunities that chime with that.

Source: Barnard College (via Freshly Brewed Thoughts)

Systems change

Over the last 15 years that I’ve been in the workplace, I’ve worked in a variety of organisations. One thing I’ve found is that those that are poor at change management are sub-standard in other ways. That makes sense, of course, because life = change.

There’s a whole host of ways to understand change within organisations. Some people seem to think that applying the same template everywhere leads to good outcomes. They’re often management consultants. Others think that every context is so different that you just have to go with your gut.

I’m of the opinion that there are heuristics we can use to make our lives easier. Yes, every situation and every organisation is different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some rules of thumb. That’s why I like this ‘Managing Complex Change Model’ from Lippitt (1987), which I discovered by going down a rabbithole on a blog post from Tom Critchlow to a blog called ‘Intense Minimalism’.

The diagram, included above is commented upon by

  • Confusion → lack of Vision: note that this can be a proper lack of vision, or the lack of understanding of that vision, often due to poor communication and syncrhonization [sic] of the people involved.
  • Anxiety → lack of Skills: this means that the people involved need to have the ability to do the transformation itself and even more importantly to be skilled enough to thrive once the transformation is completed.
  • Resistance → lack of Incentives: incentives are important as people tend to have a big inertia to change, not just for fear generated by the unknown, but also because changing takes energy and as such there needs to be a way to offset that effort.
  • Frustration → lack of Resources: sometimes change requires very little in terms of practical resources, but a lot in terms of time of the individuals involved (i.e. to learn a new way to do things), lacking resources will make progress very slow and it’s very frustrating to see that everything is aligned and ready, but doesn’t progress.
  • False Starts → lack of Action Plan: action plans don’t have to be too complicated, as small transformative changes can be done with little structure, yet, structure has to be there. For example it’s very useful to have one person to lead the charge, and everyone else agreeing they are the right person to make things happen.

I’d perhaps use different words, as anxiety can be cause by a lot more than not having the skills within your team. But, otherwise, I think it’s a solid overview and good reminder of the fundamental building blocks to system change.

Source: Intense Minimalism (via Tom Critchlow)

Finding friends and family without smartphones, maps, or GPS

When I was four years old we moved to the North East of England. Soon after, my parents took my grandmother, younger sister (still in a pushchair) and me to the Quayside market in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

There’s still some disagreement as to how exactly it happened, but after buying a toy monkey that wrapped around my neck using velcro, I got lost. It’s a long time ago, but I can vaguely remember my decision that, if I couldn’t find my parents or grandmother, I’d probably better head back to the car. So I did.

45 minutes later, and after the police had been called, my parents found me and my monkey sitting on the bonnet of our family car. I can still remember the registration number of that orange Ford Escort: MAT 474 V.

Now, 33 years later, we’re still not great at ensuring children don’t get lost. Yes, we have more of a culture of ensuring children don’t go out of our sight, and give kids smartphones at increasingly-young ages, but we can do much better.

That’s why I thought this Lynq tracker, currently being crowdfunded via Indiegogo was such a great idea. You can get the gist by watching the promo video:

Our family is off for two weeks around Europe this summer. While we’ve been a couple of times before, both involved taking our car and camping. This time, we’re interrailing and Airbnbing our way around, which increases the risk that one of our children gets lost.

Lync looks really simple and effective to use, but isn’t going to be shipping until November, — otherwise I would have backed this in an instant.

Source: The Verge

Issue #306: Bachelor lifestyle

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Why NASA is better than Facebook at writing software

Facebook’s motto, until recently, was “move fast and break things”. This chimed with a wider Silicon Valley brogrammer mentality of “f*ck it, ship it”.

NASA’s approach, as this (long-ish) Fast Company article explains, couldn’t be more different to the Silicon Valley narrative. The author, Charles Fishman, explains that the group who write the software for space shuttles are exceptional at what they do. And they don’t even start writing code until they’ve got a complete plan in place.

This software is the work of 260 women and men based in an anonymous office building across the street from the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, Texas, southeast of Houston. They work for the “on-board shuttle group,” a branch of Lockheed Martin Corps space mission systems division, and their prowess is world renowned: the shuttle software group is one of just four outfits in the world to win the coveted Level 5 ranking of the federal governments Software Engineering Institute (SEI) a measure of the sophistication and reliability of the way they do their work. In fact, the SEI based it standards in part from watching the on-board shuttle group do its work.

There’s an obvious impact, both in terms of financial and human cost, if something goes wrong with a shuttle. Imagine if we had these kinds of standards for the impact of social networks on the psychological health of citizens and democratic health of nations!

NASA knows how good the software has to be. Before every flight, Ted Keller, the senior technical manager of the on-board shuttle group, flies to Florida where he signs a document certifying that the software will not endanger the shuttle. If Keller can’t go, a formal line of succession dictates who can sign in his place.

Bill Pate, who’s worked on the space flight software over the last 22 years, [/url]says the group understands the stakes: “If the software isn’t perfect, some of the people we go to meetings with might die.

Software powers everything. It’s in your watch, your television, and your car. Yet the quality of most software is pretty poor.

“It’s like pre-Sumerian civilization,” says Brad Cox, who wrote the software for Steve Jobs NeXT computer and is a professor at George Mason University. “The way we build software is in the hunter-gatherer stage.”

John Munson, a software engineer and professor of computer science at the University of Idaho, is not quite so generous. “Cave art,” he says. “It’s primitive. We supposedly teach computer science. There’s no science here at all.”

The NASA team can sum-up their process in four propositions:

  1. The product is only as good as the plan for the product.
  2. The best teamwork is a healthy rivalry.
  3. The database is the software base.
  4. Don’t just fix the mistakes — fix whatever permitted the mistake in the first place.

They don’t pull all-nighters. They don’t switch to the latest JavaScript library because it’s all over Hacker News. Everything is documented, and genealogy of the whole code is available to everyone working on it.

The most important things the shuttle group does — carefully planning the software in advance, writing no code until the design is complete, making no changes without supporting blueprints, keeping a completely accurate record of the code — are not expensive. The process isn’t even rocket science. Its standard practice in almost every engineering discipline except software engineering.

I’m going to be bearing this in mind as we build MoodleNet. We’ll have to be a bit more agile than NASA, of course. But planning and process is important stuff.

 

Source: Fast Company