Issue #385: Free Edition
Patreon logo


This week I ran one of the most inconclusives Twitter poll ever:
Now, fair enough, if I'd actually thought it through I would have started the poll just before sending out this newsletter. But there we are. If you have strong opinions on the subject please hit reply and let me know.

Note: one of the reasons for above is that I have my tweets from @dajbelshaw set to automatically be deleted every three months)

Many thanks, as ever, to existing supporters of 💥Thought Shrapnel who keep this going!

Saturday signalings

Train signals
I've been head-down doing lots of work this week, and then it's been Bank Holiday weekend, so my reading has been pretty much whatever my social media feeds have thrown up!

There's broadly three sections here, though: stuff about the way we think, about technology, and about ways of working. Enjoy!
A Briefer History of Time

How Clocks Changed Humanity Forever, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

The article with the above embedded video is from five years ago, but someone shared it on my Twitter timeline and it reminded me of something. When I taught my History students about the Industrial Revolution it blew their minds that different parts of the country could be, effectively, on different 'timezones' until the dawn of the railways.

It just goes to show how true it is that first we shape our tools, and then they shape us.

'Allostatic Load' is the Psychological Reason for Our Pandemic Brain Fog

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research, and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we try to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”
Emily Baron Cadloff (VICE)

A short but useful article on why despite having grand plans, it's difficult to get anything done in our current situation. We can't even plan holidays at the moment.

Most of the Mind Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

The industrialized world is so full of human faces, like in ads, that we forget that it’s just ink, or pixels on a computer screen. Every time our ancestors saw something that looked like a human face, it probably was one. As a result, we didn’t evolve to distinguish reality from representation. The same perceptual machinery interprets both.
Jim Davies (Nautilus)

A useful reminder that our brain contains several systems, some of which are paleolithic.
Wright Flier and Bell Rocket Belt

Not even wrong: ways to predict tech

The Wright Flier could only go 200 meters, and the Rocket Belt could only fly for 21 seconds. But the Flier was a breakthrough of principle. There was no reason why it couldn't get much better, very quickly, and Blériot flew across the English Channel just six years later. There was a very clear and obvious path to make it better. Conversely, the Rocket Belt flew for 21 seconds because it used almost a litre of fuel per second - to fly like this for half a hour you’d need almost two tonnes of fuel, and you can’t carry that on your back. There was no roadmap to make it better without changing the laws of physics. We don’t just know that now - we knew it in 1962.
Benedict Evans

A useful post about figuring out whether something will happen or be successful. The question is "what would have to change?"

Grandmother ordered to delete Facebook photos under GDPR

The case went to court after the woman refused to delete photographs of her grandchildren which she had posted on social media. The mother of the children had asked several times for the pictures to be deleted.
The GDPR does not apply to the "purely personal" or "household" processing of data. However, that exemption did not apply because posting photographs on social media made them available to a wider audience, the ruling said.
"With Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties," it said.
The woman must remove the photos or pay a fine of €50 (£45) for every day that she fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum fine of €1,000.
BBC News

I think this is entirely reasonable, and I'm hoping we'll see more of this until people stop thinking they can sharing the personally identifiable information of others whenever and however they like.

Developing new digital skills – is training always the answer?

Think ESKiMO:
- Environment (E) – are the reasons its not happening outside of the control of the people you identified in Step 1? Do they have the resources, the tools, the funding? Do their normal objectives mean that they have to prioritise other things? Does the prevailing organisational culture work against achieving the goals?
- Skills (S) – Are they aware of the tasks they need to do and enabled to do them?
- Knowledge (K) – is the knowledge they need available to them? It could either be information they have to carry around in their heads, or just be available in a place they know about.
- Motivation (Mo) – Do they have the will to carry it out?
The last three (S,K, Mo) work a little bit like the fire triangle from that online fire safety training you probably had to do this year. All three need to be present for new practice to happen and to be sustainable.
Chris Thomson (Jisc)

In this post, Chris Thomson, who I used to work with at Jisc, challenges the notion that training is about getting people to do what you want. Instead, this ESKiMO approach asks why they're not already doing it.
xkcd: estimating time

Leave Scrum to Rugby, I Like Getting Stuff Done

Within Scrum, estimates have a primary purpose – to figure out how much work the team can accomplish in a given sprint. If I were to grant that Sprints were a good idea (which I obviously don’t believe) then the description of estimates in the official Scrum guide wouldn’t be a problem.
The problem is that estimates in practice are a bastardization of reality. The Scrum guide is vague on the topic so managers take matters into their own hands.
Lane Wagner (Qvault)

I'm a product manager, and I find it incredible that people assume that 'agile' is the same as 'Scrum'. If you're trying to shoehorn the work you do into a development process then, to my mind, you're doing it wrong.

As with the example below, it's all about something that works for your particular context, while bearing in mind the principles of the agile manifesto.

How I trick my well developed procrastination skills

The downside of all those nice methods and tools is that you have to apply them, which can be of course, postponed as well. Thus, the most important step is to integrate your tool or todo list in your daily routine. Whenever you finish a task, or you’re thinking what to do next, the focus should be on your list. For example, I figured out that I always click on one link in my browser favourites (a news website) or an app on my mobile phone (my email app). Sometimes I clicked hundred times a day, even though, knowing that there can’t be any new emails, as I checked one minute ago. Maybe you also developed such a “useless” habit which should be broken or at least used for something good. So I just replaced the app on my mobile and the link in my browser with my Remember The Milk app which shows me the tasks I have to do today. If you have just a paper-based solution it might be more difficult but try to integrate it in your daily routines, and keep it always in reach. After finishing a task, you should tick it in your system, which also forces you to have a look at the task list again.
Wolfgang Gassler

Some useful pointers in this post, especially at the end about developing and refining your own system that depends on your current context.

The Great Asshole Fallacy

The focus should be on the insistence of excellence, both from yourself and from those around you. The wisdom from experience. The work ethic. The drive. The dedication. The sacrifice. Jordan hits on all of those. And he even implies that not everyone needed the “tough love” to push them. But that’s glossed over for the more powerful mantra. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that not only are there other ways to tease such greatness out of people — different people require different methods.
M.G. Siegler (500ish)

I like basketball, and my son plays, but I haven't yet seen the documentary mentioned in this post. The author discusses Michael Jordan stating that "Winning has a price. And leadership has a price." However, he suggests that this isn't the only way to get to excellence, and I would agree.
Header image by Romain Briaux

The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases

Shoes on the beach

Twitter, the Fediverse, and MoodleNet

In a recent blog post, Twitter made a big deal of the fact that they are testing new conversation settings.
While some people don't necessarily think this is a good idea, I think it's a step forward. In fact, I've actually already tried out this functionality... on the Fediverse.
The Fediverse (a portmanteau of "federation" and "universe") is the ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can intercommunicate with each other.

That's a mouthful. Let's get to the details of that in a moment and deal with a concrete example instead. Here is a screenshot showing what Twitter has learned from Mastodon (and other federated social networks) in terms of how to make conversations better.
The Fediverse feels like a very different place to Twitter. There's a reason why you will find the marginalised, the oppressed, and very niche interests here: it's a safe space. And, despite macho right-leaning posturing, we all need spaces online where we can be ourselves.

Of course 'federation' and 'decentralisation' aren't words that most of us tend to use on a day-to-day basis. So it's important to define terms here so you can see the inherent difference between using something like Twitter and something like Mastodon.

Note: I can pretty much guarantee by 2030 you'll be using a federated social network of some description. After all, in 2007 people told me Twitter would never catch on, yet a few years later pretty much everyone was using it.)
Check out the diagram above. On the left, is the representation of a centralised platform. An example of that would be Facebook. You're either on Facebook, or you're not on Facebook. I don't use any of Facebook's products out of a concern for privacy, civil liberties, and the threat they pose to democracy. As a result, my ethical stance means that anything posted to Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp is inaccessible to me.It's either have an account on their servers, or you don't.

On the right of the diagram, you can the representation of a distributed social network. Here, every server has a copy of what is on every other server. This is how bittorrent works, and is great for resilience and ensuring things are fault-tolerant. There are a couple of examples of social networks that use this approach (e.g. Scuttlebutt), but they're primarily used for situations where users have intermittent internet access.

Then, in the middle is a federated social network. This is what I'm focusing on in this article. It's kind of how email works; you can email anyone else in the world no matter which email platform they use. GMail users email Outlook users email Fastmail users. Only the data you send and receive with the person you are communicating with resides on each email server; you don't have a copy of everyone in the whole network's email!

So, just as with email, federated social networks have an underlying protocol to ensure that messages from one platform can be understood, displayed, and replied to by another. Those making the platform, of course, have to bake that functionality in; Facebook, Twitter, and the like choose not to do so.

What does this mean in practice? Well, let's take three examples. The first is around 10 years ago when I decided to delete my Facebook account. That means I haven't had an account there, or been able to access any non-public information on that social network for a decade.

On the other hand, about five years ago, I ditched GMail for Protonmail because I wanted to improve the privacy and security of my personal email account. Leaving GMail didn't mean giving up having an email account.

Likewise, a couple of years ago, I decided to leave my Mastodon-powered account as I was getting some hassle. Instead of quitting the social network, as I would have had to do if this had happened on Facebook, I could quickly and easily move my account to All of my settings were imported, including all of the people I was following!

An aside about moderation. What Twitter is doing with its new functionality is giving its users tools to do some of their own moderation. Other than that, the only moderation possible within the Twitter network is to 'report' tweets for spam or abuse. Moderators, acting on a network-wide scale then need to figure out whether the tweet contravened their guidelines. Having reported tweets before, this can take days and is often not resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

Contrast that with the Fediverse, where people join instances depending on a range of factors including their geographic location, languages spoken, political and religious beliefs, tolerance for profanity, and so on. Fediverse users are accessing the wider network through a server that is moderated by people they trust. If they stop trusting those moderators they can move their account elsewhere, or even host their own server.

This leads to much faster, more local, and more effective moderation. Instance-level blocking is common, as it should be. After all, you have the right to discuss with other people things I find hateful, but it doesn't mean I have to see them on my timeline.
Post using PixelFed
You may be wondering about what how this looks and feels in practice. The above screenshot is from PixelFed, a federated social network that is a bit like Instagram. The difference, as I'm sure you've already guessed, is that it's federated!
Check out the two posts on my Mastodon timeline above.

The top post is an example of someone on Mastodon 'republishing' the same thing they've posted on Twitter. They've literally had to do the manual work of separately uploading the image and entering the text on each social network, and have to maintain two separate accounts.

The bottom post, on the other hand, is my PixelFed post showing up in my Mastodon feed. No extra work was involved here: anyone's Mastodon account can follow anyone's PixelFed account, and it's all down to the magic of open, federated protocols. In this case, ActivityPub.

There are many federated social networks ⁠— many more, in fact, than are listed on the Wikipedia page for Fediverse. One of my favourites is Misskey just because it's so... Japanese. You can choose whatever suits you, and everything works together.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation said back in 2011 when writing about federated social networks:
The best way for online social networking to become safer, more flexible, and more innovative is to distribute the ability and authority to the world's users and developers, whose various needs and imaginations can do far more than what any single company could achieve.
Richard Esguerra (EFF)

As many people reading this will be aware, I have skin in this game, a dog in this fight, a horse in this race because of MoodleNet. The difference is that MoodleNet is not only a federated social network, but a decentralised digital commons. Educators join communities to curate collections of openly-licensed resources.

This poses additional design challenges to those faced by existing federated social networks. We're pretty close now to v1.0 beta and have built upon the fantastic thinking and approaches of other federated social networks. In addition, we've added functionality that is specific (at the moment, at least) to MoodleNet, and suits our target audience.
MoodleNet screencast
So not so much as a 'conclusion' to this particular piece of writing as a screencast video to show you what I mean with MoodleNet, as well as the judicious use of this emoji: 🤔
Quotation-as-title from Carl Jung. Header image by Md. Zahid Hasan Joy

Quotation of the week

"There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little."

(Sir Francis Bacon)
Until next week!

PS Another reminder that at the moment I'm tending to write my weeknotes on a Sunday (i.e. after this goes out). Here's the category archive for them on my blog.
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with Moodle and We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon. Use the hashtag #thoughtshrapnel

Some say he's rhyming, others say he's climbing. No-one thinks he has great timing.
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is sent out to around 1,500 subscribers and kept going thanks to generous supporters.

Many thanks to Bryan Mathers of Visual Thinkery for the Thought Shrapnel logo. All product names, logos, and brands are property of their respective owners and are used in this newsletter are for identification purposes only.

Unsubscribe | Manage subscription

Patreon logo
🤘 Super-secret link to reward those who scroll to the bottom of newsletters!