Friday, January 22, 2016

What I Learned Using Paypal

Doug Belshaw wrote an item this week called 3 things I’ve learned from 200 weeks of sending out an email newsletter which made me smile and think "newbie" to myself. That's not even four years!

But it's actually a major commitment  and I respect anyone who can carry out something on a regular basis for 200 weeks. I have a good sense of what it takes, not only in terms of effort, but also in terms of computing power and servers.

He draws three lessons:

- "You are the most important audience". By "you" he doesn't mean "you, the reader," he means "you, the author." If the newsletter didn't mean something to me personally, I would not keep it up. Belshaw has learned the same lesson.

- "People like commentary". I can attest to this. I've run surveys a couple times over the years, and I always ask whether people like the commentary or whether I should shut up and just deliver the news. The responses are unanimous. Readers want the opinion. Informed opinion.

- "A little bit of personality goes a long way." Like Doug, I don't just stick to a narrow diet of education technology tools and applications, or some similar specialization. My items reflect an interest in a range of disciplines, and the articles orbit around a set of core ideas, not some market managers conception of a vertical.

But also, like Doug, I have asked for donations. As I explained in my Donations page, my website costs me $200 a month to run, or $30,000 over the years. The traffic demands it; I have tried to run OLDaily and the rest of the website on a cheaper server, and simply crashed the server. It has created some financial stress, so I asked for help.

But I was also curious. Some people say that you simply have to ask, and you will receive, but I don't really fit the demographic. I'm not private-school pretty, I'm prickly and annoying, I'm not exactly a supporter of the corporate and entrepreneurship agenda, and I don't really have an interest in self-promotion (that doesn't mean I don't do it, it just means I feel guilty whenever I do).

But, you know, I always wonder, if I ever wanted a backup gig, could this be it? I look at some of the other people who started out as ed tech pundits and became self-employed as writers or consultants. There are some who make a living doing it, but I don't see people retiring early on the money. It looks like a tough life, with a lot of work in the trenches.

So how did I do?

From 30 donors I received about $1478. Most of the donations were the minimum $25 but I receive a large number of $75 contributions and a couple of people gave $250. Nobody selected the $1000 option (I thought maybe a company or two might want their name and link on the logo, but it didn't happen). It really is a tremendous response, and it comes close to covering my server costs for the year, and I'm grateful.

Here's what I did: when I redesigned the site to make it mobile-friendly over the holiday break, I added a donation page. I put a donate button on the home page, and ran one link in the January 4 issue of OLDaily. That was it for advertising. I thought anything more would be crass. But given that the link had (as of this writing) 67 views, maybe it wouldn't have been so crass.

I thought I would get a flurry of donations right away, and then nothing, but that's not what really happened. I've had a steady flow of donations spaced out over the last three weeks. Sure, I got 12 donations in the first two days, but it's averaged a steady one-a-day since then, in varying amounts.

I got my thank-you emails sent out today. At first I didn't think I could even send them - while PayPal faithfully reports the incoming donations, it downplays the sender's email. It has a co-branded service whereby it will print shipping lables and handle delivery for you - for a fee. Smart. But that was more than I wanted to pay just to send an email.

Sending out 30 individual emails took some time, and I was always afraid I would get the person's name wrong (happened once) or misrepresent the amount they donated (happened once). Cut-and-paste seems so impersonal, but retyping the same message would have been too much, but I was able to add some personal touches. Were the frequency of donations to increase, I would create a 'thank you' script.

I received a few comments on the list of options. Feeling very clever, I created the following range of choices: $25, $75, $250, $1000. And as we see on donation pages everywhere, I offered incremental rewards for each level (I resisted calling them 'gold', 'platinum', 'sustaining', etc.). Within a day I had to add two additional notes on the donations page: one telling people they could choose whatever amount they wanted, and another telling them they did not have to have their name listed on the page. A few people chose their own amounts, and two people took the extra effort to mail me a cheque instead of using PayPal.

Would I do it again? Definitely. I feel people appreciated the opportunity to say thanks. The money was significant. And server costs aren't going away. And hey, maybe a few companies will start using that $1000 option. :)

Saturday, January 16, 2016


Quoted at length from Self-organization of complex, intelligent systems: an action ontology for transdisciplinary integration, Francis Heylighen, Integral Review:

A mobilization system would combat this confused and unproductive way of acting by
redirecting effort in the most efficient way at the most important issues. This requires the
following steps:

  • helping people to reach consensus about the specific goals that they consider most important. This can be done in part by seeking inspiration about fundamental values in the evolutionary worldview [e.g. Heylighen & Bernheim, 2000], in part by creating effective discussion systems that help a group to come to a well-reasoned consensus. Examples of such systems are being developed on the web [Klein, 2007; Malone & Klein, 2007].
  • motivating and stimulating people to work towards the goals that have thus been agreed upon. Here, a very useful paradigm is the concept of “flow” [Csikszentmihalyi, 1990], which specifies the conditions under which people work in the most focused and motivated manner. These conditions are:
    • clear goals: there should be minimal ambiguity about what to do next;
    • immediate feedback: any action should be followed by an easily interpretable result, so that you either get a confirmation that you are on the right track, or a warning that you need to correct your course;
    • challenges in balance with skills: tasks should be neither too difficult nor too easy for the people entrusted to perform them, in order to avoid either stress or boredom.
    • Additionally, there exists a wide range of techniques from psychology, behavioral economics and memetics that help us to formulate goals and tasks in a way that is maximally motivating, persuasive and easy to follow [Heath & Heath, 2007; Thaler & Sunstein, 2009; Heylighen, 2009]
  • coordinating and aggregating the individual contributions so as to ensure maximum collective results. This can be built on the mechanisms of stigmergy and selforganization mentioned before [Heylighen, 2007a; Parunak, 2006].
By minimizing uncertainty, confusion, friction and procrastination, work that is mobilized by
such a system would not only become much more productive and effective, it would also
make the participants more satisfied with what they are doing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Banality of Death

Late last fall my cat Bart died, then Jay Cross died, and finally 130 people in Paris died, all within a few weeks of each other.

Bart's death was not felt widely beyond my own immediate family, Jay Cross's death was more widely felt, and of course the impact of the Paris attacks was worldwide.

They all felt about the same to me.

It seems shameful to admit this. The sheer number of people killed in Paris should give the event more significance, shouldn't it? And surely the loss of Jay Cross is of more significance than that of a cat.

But it set off in me a chain of thought that I cannot escape, and which runs around and around in my head even to this day.

After the Paris attacks, I felt like I was the only remaining opponent to war, the only person who did not at once rise to the challenge and call for the degradation and destruction of those responsible.

I felt that way after 9-11 as well. I felt the United States would feel it had to attack someone (in this case Afghanistan, and then for good measure, an innocent bystander in Iraq) but I didn't have any sense of what good it would produce. And as the intervening fifteen years have shown, no good at all.

We heard a lot in those years about the fight to bring democracy to Afghanistan, to improve the lives of women, to increase self-sufficiency and end poverty. All of those are noble goals, but none of them were really the reason for the war in the first place. They were fictions we told ourselves as the occupation wore on and on.

I have a similar feeling about the bombing campaigns in Syria. The flow of refugees has made it plain that all anyone has accomplished was to make life miserable for the general population.

How many Syrian dead does it take for their deaths to become as meaningful as those in France, or here in Casselman? What is the calculus of death?

It seems to me that the fighters for ISIS have, like so many idealistic youth before them, been the victims of the great con, that theirs could be and would be a 'meaningful' death. In this regard, it doesn't matter what they are fighting for - it could be for religious purity, it could be for the advancement of society, it could be 'for peace'.

What I realized on that fall day is this: there are no meaningful deaths.

Bart's passing was as peaceful and timely as could be hoped. He slipped away without a murmur the morning after his failing kidneys took away his sight. His last night was peaceful; he slept beside me, twitching and dreaming of play-games, listening to classical music. He always loved music.

But it was still wrong, it still hurt like a deep knife, and it was still pointless.

Why is there death at all? It is part of the package deal that makes us human (and him feline). It's part of the same mechanism that underlies thought and sentiment, perception and cognition.

It's how humans (and cats) evolve. It's how they have come to be at all. Death is what enables the dynamic interaction and reproduction of the species to create new versions of themselves. It is the ultimate feedback mechanism informing a mechanism driven by the interplay between small things.

It was a great mechanism for getting us to the point where we are conscious, self-aware, adaptable, and even caring beings. But it's no longer needed, and there's no 'off switch', and it's clear to us now that the same objective can be achieved without doing away with the participants.

Assuming we even wanted more evolution, we can imagine means much more subtle than the cudgel that is death. We can tweak the DNA with gene splicing, we can induce change with tailored phage, we can decide. And similarly, socially, we can create a new government, or a new society, without the need to exterminate any proportion of its members.

A nation is not better because it arose out of the ashes of revolution. A cultural identity is not forged on the battlefield. These are not the engines of birth, they are the engines of destruction, elimination, of utterly needless death.

We do not need to destroy in order to be able to see.

All I ever feel when I think of death is a feeling of loss. It was never "someone's time". It is never made up for by the fact that he led "a beautiful life". It matters naught that he died for "something greater than himself." It's means nothing that "he died with dignity." That's all the big con.

In truth, it is death itself that is the enemy. It is death itself that is the blackness that erases the light. It is death itself that is ultimately the most pointless, banal, distressing part of a person's existence.

Nothing can convince me that some social, political, economic or religious ideal is "worth" a life. Nothing is left behind by death, even the death of a vanquished foe, but loss and emptiness. Where once there was life, now there is only silence.

Today we talk about the morality of accepting refugees, as though there were actually a moral question regarding the desirability of allowing people to be bombed, starved, beaten or drowned into submission.

The existence of borders blocking the flight of people to safety is an affront. The waste of human lives in the name of a nation, a religion, or an idea is offensive to the sight and mind.

No matter how pointless or meaningful we are told that it is, each death is to someone the ultimate tragedy. All deaths are the same. Once we come to realize this, together, we can begin thinking about how we can live together, work together, and begin to cherish this most beautiful thing in the world: life.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Ought and Is

Experts are typically expert in two types of things:
  • what is the case
  • what ought to be the case

And for that matter, we all have attitudes and beliefs regarding both types of statement. For example:

  • it's 20 degrees in here
  • it ought to be warmer
That's fair enough.

Science and research are sometimes depicted as consisting necessarily only of the first sort of statement: that is, researchers should confine themselves to discussing what is, and not what ought to be the case.

I don't agree with this. I think that unless research is guided by some sense of ought there is no motive nor even mechanism for determining what is. For example, if it didn't matter what the temperature is, why would anyone bother measuring it, and indeed, what sort of scale would we even use?

Indeed, it's pretty hard to make sense of any human endeavour without invoking both an is and an ought. Any action plan, indeed, contains these two elements: the action plan is a description of the route from the is to the ought. And all research is based on this formulation.

Having said all of this, there are two hard and fast rules that apply regarding inferences involving is and ought:

1. You cannot derive an ought from an is

Suppose it's 20 degrees in here. Does it follow that it should be warmer or colder? No. It depends on your point of view. If you're a duck, you're probably OK with 20 degrees. But if you're me, you want it warmer. And if you're a rock, it doesn't matter at all.

It's sometimes hard to see this. "Look at that starving child," someone will say. Well, yes, the child is starving. But that by itself doesn't allow us to infer that the child should be fed. The inference follows only if we have an expression of need or value, for example, "allowing children to starve is wrong."

This is sometimes called the 'naturalistic fallacy'. People say, for example, "It's human nature to do such-and-such, so such-and-such is OK." Or, conversely, they say something is wrong because "it's not natural."

2. You cannot derive an is from an ought

"If wishes were horses," goes the old saying, "then beggars could ride." There's wisdom in that. Certainly we may believe things ought to be one way or another. But this belief doesn't mean that anything actually is one way or another. This would be nothing more than wishful thinking.

These lead to a third rule:

3. An ought is derived only from an ought, and an is is derived only from an is.

It follows from these two rules that the veracity of is and ought statements is determined very differently for each.

There are two very different forms of logic. The first - the logic of wants and desires - is called deontic logic. Other forms of logic (propositional logic, for example) describe the other sort of inference.

So why is all this important?

Well, as I said, or pretty much any enquiry, including scientific research, you need both an is and an ought. So, on the one hand, you need data, to tell you what is the case, and on the other hand, you need some sort of problem or domain of enquiry, which tells you why you need the data and what you hope to do with it.

This means that the citations for any research should include some from column A and some from column B. Good research requires a clear context, problem, or domain of application, and it requires facts, data and evidence. And - even more importantly - the references supporting each of these need to be of the right type.

4. Define context, problem or domain of application from expressions of need or obligation, including social, political and economic perspectives, and not from data.

This should be obvious, but isn't. Even your unit of measurement is going to incorporate these perspectives, and will in some sense define the desired state. The units of measurement are not inherent in the facts of the matter.

We often hear sentences like "the data dictates that...". No. The data does not dictate anything. The only thing a set of data can produce for you is more data.

For example, the data may say "5 percent of the people finish the course." Nothing about the quality of course design follows from this. You only get this sort of statement if you've already agreed that "not finishing reflects a design flaw" or some similar ought statement (which in turn needs to be substantiated).

I see in the academic community a lot of expressions of value or obligation criticized on the basis that it's not derived from data. The idea these critics express is that all reference in an academic paper ought to be peer reviewed, and the statements of value and obligation therefore grounded in some sort of fact. But that's an error. There is not some sort of fact-based mechanism for determining value or obligation. 

5. Define data in terms of empirical measurement, and not in terms of expression of need or obligation.

This is probably the most consistent flaw of research provided by the education policy 'think tanks'. The 'data' they provide owes as much to the center's political orientation as it does to 'facts'.

Take a statement like this: "The professional expectations for today’s teachers are undoubtedly high." This looks like data; it looks like a statement of fact (as indicated by the word 'undoubtedly'). But it's a statement of what ought to be, in two senses: first, it describes 'expectations', and second, it uses a relative value-laded term of measurement, specifically, 'high'.

Of course, it's OK to make statements like that. But they need to understood as expressions of what ought to be the case, and subject to assessment in terms of value and obligation, rather than represented as data and misused as the starting point for an action plan.

There's a lot more that could be said on the subject of ought and is, but I'll leave it here for now, happy if I've managed to alert the reader to be sensitive to these two types of statement.

More reading:

Is ought - University of Texas
The Is-Ought Problem - Wikipedia
The Is-Ought Gap - YouTube
Hume on Is and Ought - Philosophy Now
Is/Ought Fallacy - Fallacies Files