Archive for the ‘Advice’ Category

Doing e-learning – six rules

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

As you may know, I spend a lot of my time working on e-learning materials and tutoring distance learning students. And it strikes me that if you’re going to start an e-learning course, especially a degree course that’s likely to keep you occupied for several years, there are several habits you need to cultivate.

  1. Read compulsively. Unlike students in traditional higher educational institutions, you don’t get the advantage of face-to-face lectures, seminars, the ability to have a conversation with your lecturer after class and so on. You may have a ‘group learning space’ (a bulletin-board type of thing), tutors you can email and occasionally phone, and so on. But believe me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face. Instead, you have access to electronic libraries and (of course) the internet. And second-hand bookshops. And newspapers. Read everything. Try to understand how the world works. No one ever got that from reading a single textbook.
  2. Understand that in everything you read, knowledge has a price and that price is ‘spin’ – newspapers, media sources and everyone else is writing to persuade you of the truth of their views. Develop ways to understand what’s reliable and what’s bullshit. Develop that elusive thing we call ‘critical awareness’ that enables you to sense when you’re only being told half a story, and if you had the other half things would look a little, or a lot, different.
  3. Be compulsively curious. Curiosity is a great habit. If you’re not curious about your chosen topic, why are you even studying it? Being curious and asking questions about what you’re taught, going back to original sources, and searching out information to fill in the gaps is always worthwhile.
  4. You may not have much electronic contact with tutors but you live in the real world, among real people, in a community. That community is a microcosm of the problems in wider society. Pay attention to local issues. Understand your local community.
  5. Write. Develop the habit that says ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’. If you think you have a good explanation, argument, or whatever, write it down. Then leave it a day and re-read it. I’d bet that when you do that, you read what you wrote and then start thinking things like ‘I can express this in a better way’ – and ‘I didn’t explain the logical steps’, and ‘I forgot to mention X, Y and Z which are also important factors’. The way you get better at expressing your thoughts is through writing.
  6. Remember that the aim isn’t just to get a qualification, it’s to get the knowledge that justifies the qualification. And knowledge is a slippery thing, because you really start to understand something, you realise it doesn’t stand still. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s more like a roomful of people, all having conversations about different aspects of some subject. Of course there are certain basic agreed points – until someone comes up with a convincing reason why we shouldn’t rely on those points and rely on something else instead, which might happen once every few decades. Beyond that, there’s a lot of stuff where different views need to be weighed on the basis of evidence, and sometimes on the basis of the ‘best we can do with the evidence that’s available’. In short, by studying a subject you’re not just ‘learning the facts’, you’re engaging in a long, slow, drawn-out conversation with a bunch of strangers.

Just a few thoughts. I hope they’re helpful, but I bet you could add more ‘rules’ (or argue with mine) if you thought about these issues for a couple of minutes. 


Planning, chaos and creativity

August 13, 2013 1 comment

I’ve had a number of conversations recently that have revolved around the following kind of scenario and problem.

You’re a writer – or musician, or artist, or any other sort of creative person. You do your thing and you want to make money from it. Ideally, quite a lot of money. But you don’t have a clue how you’re going to achieve it. How do you get people to take notice? How do you get people to buy what you’re selling?

Well, don’t ask me – I’m hardly a model of commercial success. But here are some random thoughts.

When you first look at your situation, what probably strikes you is that it’s chaotic. I don’t have a formal definition of chaos to offer, beyond the usual one of events appearing so unpredictable as to appear random with no obvious structure or organising principle. The second thing that probably strikes you is that to get from where you are to where you want to be, there are few obvious ways forward – and they’re all impossible and blocked. Whatever you do is likely to have unknown, but probably minimal, effects. It’s difficult to read the situation in any constructive way that gives you a sensible plan.

It’s likely you’ll feel the normal advice you’ll get about how to get people to pay attention and part with money – marketing, SEO, social media – just doesn’t stack up. You haven’t got the kind of money, time or expertise that sort of marketing requires. You haven’t got the ‘social mass’ of a million Facebook friends (or even a dozen followers on Twitter) to get more people to gravitate towards you. And you don’t believe the promises of people who say they can get you high up in Google rankings, either.

[There is, incidentally, a whole literature on marketing with social media. One thing that stands out for me are is that much of it is about creating effects at the margins, so it’s only useful to large companies – a 5% increase in clickthroughs on web advertising is worth something if you have a zillion ads being viewed a day, but not if you’re looking for people to click a link from a blog that gets three viewers a day. And anyway, the major social networks are mostly rejigging their search algorithms to favour their big business advertisers.]

What’s next? Well, society isn’t ‘chaotic’ in any formal sense of the term. But functionally it is, from your point of view. In terms of cause and effect, you don’t even know if you have any levers available to pull or buttons to push, let alone what effects they could create. And you don’t know how the world is going to look in a week’s time, let alone a year’s time.

Business planning often revolves around identifying a goal, scanning the environment to assess your strengths and weakness, and for opportunities and threats. Then you identify ‘unknowns’ and seek to find out more about them, so you can set up contingency plans and mitigation plans.

But often this process falls at the first hurdle, because you can’t positively identify how or when something you think of as a strength might become a weakness, or vice versa; you may not be able to determine whether something is an opportunity or a threat (or both), and you can be pretty sure that whatever contingency plans you have, the contingency that actually arises will be one that won’t be covered.

For example, how many businesses have planned for the impact of contact with an alien species? And yet if you look at the World Economic Forum 2013 report on global risks, which summarises the views of over 1,000 risk analysis experts, it identifies several ‘X factors’ – important risks with unknown consequences. They include runaway climate change, significant cognitive enhancement, rogue deployment of geoengineering, the costs of living longer and the discovery of alien life forms. None of these things can be ‘risk managed’ or mitigated by any organisation operating alone, and I wonder how many religious leaders have seriously considered what their stance would be on first contact with an alien race, and how they would advise their followers and how their followers would react – and what the global consequences of the religious issues alone would be.

Under these circumstances, how is it possible to make chaos work for you? The short answer is that you can’t, in any direct way. But you can learn how to enjoy the ride.

[There’s more after the break – just hit the button below]

Read more…

Elvis the phisher

January 26, 2012 3 comments

I haven’t been posting much because, frankly, I’ve been too busy to do much on here. However I thought I’d share this – a phone call from Elvis.

He called from, apparently, 0151 808 0315 (a Liverpool number – that’s what he said, but the phone itself said it was a withheld number) and announced himself as from the technical department of Windows. Oh yeah? Yes, his department is a ‘partner’ of Microsoft. Or something. Tells me they’ve had reports of malware being downloaded onto my computer and creating ‘errors’ with the hardware. If I can just log on and follow his instructions he can clear up the problem.

OK, so the guy is phishing. It’s the first time, though, I’ve experienced this as a cold call on the phone. I ask a couple of other details. Which computer are we talking about? The ‘laptop’. Fair enough, which laptop? He can’t tell me.

I put the phone down. But he tries again an hour later. This time I say, if you’ re really from Microsoft and this is a real problem, you’ll be able to tell me the IP address you logged the problem at. He takes a stab in the dark, presumably thinking I don’t know my own IP address. Not having had nearly enough coffee at that point and being pressed for time anyway, I wasn’t thinking creatively but I could probably have got a load more information out of him and had some fun with it.

As it stands I’ll write a short horror story around it – when I have the time! I got the basic idea for the plot almost as soon as I put the phone down on him…

Categories: Advice Tags: , ,

On being creative and discovering resources

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

If you’ve seen some of my older posts about finance and creative work, you’ll be interested in this: Art of Hustle’s post ‘Baller on a Budget: Turning Resources into Riches’, which expands on and exemplifies themes similar to the ones I’ve been preoccupied with for some time.

Headline details: as a creative person you sit on a number of resources – ones that are yours (skill, networks, imagination etc.) and ones that are part of your network (places you go, things you do, people you know). You may not even recognise those things as ‘resources’, but that’s what they are. Equally, ‘folks aiming to equally give and receive can build lasting partnerships, expanded patronage, and repeat business’. So there’s a creative business model there, and the post is a detailed working through and example of how to put it in motion.


Birthday, mud, and thoughts about electricity

February 1, 2011 5 comments
mud clock

Mud Clock

It was my birthday recently, and one of the presents I got was a mud-powered clock.

Yes, you read that right: a clock powered by mud (not supplied as part of the kit).

Sorry about the pic, it was done on my mobile phone which seems to have a few problems focusing (ok, I know, so it’s like me in that regard. Heard that one before).

It’s actually not a recent idea. Mud is slightly acidic, so that if you have two metal strips a short distance apart, one copper and one zinc, you’ll get a small electrical charge between them. It’s a variant of a novelty item that was sold quite a few years ago, a lemon-powered clock (lemon juice is of course rather more acidic).

The pic of the clock shows two small containers of mud, each about two inches high and generating half a volt. Two of them in series create one volt which is enough to power the clock.

I didn’t set it up for a couple of days because I was lazy and the garden was frozen. Some friends offered to send me some of their mud instead, but I declined. It’s working now, though, and sits on top of the fish tank. And it set me thinking.

Bigger metal strips and/or more strips in series, in the garden or even a window box, would generate more current. So in theory, it would be possible to power a 12-volt electrical system by this means.

In fact, add in a solar trickle charger, some control equipment and a battery – the kind you use in campervans (RVs if you’re in the States) and you could have yourself a complete 12 volt household system. And the significance of this is that 90% of the stuff you plug in to your regular mains supply runs off 12 volts or thereabouts, with a transformer either in the equipment casing or as part of a ‘wall wart’ style plug.

Think about it this way: the majority of electrical products you use at home, you can alo buy in-car chargers for and they run off a 12-volt car battery.

The things that would still require mains voltage: some lights, electric cooker, washing machine, dishwasher, big aircons. Not all lighting, though, because a lot of those little halogen bulb spotlight type systems you see run off 12 volts with a transformer. And that’s about it, since you can get all kinds of household equipment – fridge-freezers, TVs and DVD players for example – that work off car batteries.

Imagine, though: once you have the system set up, your electricity bill would be massively decreased because you’re generating electricity literally out of the earth in your garden, window box, or even pot plants. (NB: this is not an excuse to set up a cannabis farm – ‘Your honour, I was only growing the plants to see if the pots could generate enough electricity for the lights they require and then use the excess to power my TV’ – that’s not going to work, is it…)

I started investigating whether this – the 12-volt system, I mean, not the cannabis farm – was actually feasible and came across a number of websites by people who have done this kind of thing. A guy called Nev Sweeney, in Australia, has done it in his house and details are on the Selfsufficientish website.

He even runs most of his house lighting off it, though in his case he runs the system off car batteries and charges them primarily from the mains. And there are other, quite specific, plans at the Halfbakery website, which lists a whole load of ideas that seem half-baked but could actually work. A 12-volt system, they note, does tend to lose some power through the wiring itself, but ‘Power losses from the wiring are more than made up for by eliminating step-down transformer losses’.

One problem with a mud-powered electrical system would be a drought. The mud needs to have some water content to remain electrically conductive, and it does need to be acidic. My clock instructions suggest that a small quantity of vinegar added to the mud periodically will increase the available voltage. On a medical website, though, I came across this piece of information: ‘During sleep, decreased pulmonary ventilation causes respiratory acidosis. As a result, a first waking urine specimen is usually highly acidic.’

See where I’m going with this?

That probably means it’s time to end this post, apart from noting that if you use ‘12 volt home’ as a Google search it brings up some quite amusing sponsored ads – such as ‘Buy 12 Volt Home
up to 50% cheaper’. Huh?


A word to the unwary – 0042 0239011111

January 26, 2011 9 comments

I had this number call my mobile (or cellphone, if you’re reading this in the US). As it happened I wasn’t near my phone and didn’t hear it. I did google it, though. Turns out 0042 is the country code for the Czech Republic and the buzz on websites I’ve been reading is that it’s a scam. It only rings a couple of times but if you return the call, people seem to think, you’re connected to a premium rate phone line.

Apparently there are some other similar numbers involved in the same scam. So consider yourself warned.

More info:,, among many other places. The last-named has a report from someone who’s registered a complaint at Ofcom (if you’re in the UK) and further complaints to them should cite reference 1-164365657, which is the original number the complaint was logged under. It also has links to the Czech telecom complaints office.

Categories: Advice Tags: , , , ,

Freelance, creative, blogging and successful?

December 2, 2010 3 comments

If you’re a freelance ‘creative’ – writer, musician, artist, sound engineer, or any of a thousand other skills – your income is going to depend on being able to generate business. I’ve been fortunate enough to generate some large projects and continuing relationships with a few big organisations that continue to commission me, but the world doesn’t stand still and neither can I – or you.

I might add that one company I work with has been bought and sold twice in the last five years and reorganised in between times. Some years they’ve accounted for about 75% of my income and other years, 25%. I’m pleased I’ve been able to stay with them, though conscious that the world moves on and one needs to keep an eye out for the next possibility.

Hence a blog about blogging strategies for freelance creatives in modern, internet-based times, and trying to attract attention and new business. By way of a disclaimer, I’ll admit I haven’t done all of this stuff myself as diligently as I should have done. But I will, honest…

First of all, here’s a diagram. Below, there’s a discussion that highlights a few of the issues it might raise.

Using blogs for success?

Using blogs for success?

What are you selling? Mostly, for creatives, what you’re selling is you – your vision, style, and expertise. Even if you have equipment, like a PA system, or are a band or performer, what you’re selling is still you and your vision, style and expertise. Your internet presence needs to put those things across. If you blog, the usual advice is to post a number of ‘pillar articles’ that people are likely to want to refer to. Those pillar articles may be informational, or commentary, or useful links, or whatever. Leaven the heavy stuff with lighter, maybe slightly personal (but not too personal) stuff.

How are you selling yourself? Visual stuff attracts attention – for blogs, having a picture or illustration with each blog is good advice (which I should take myself more often).

Who are you selling yourself to? This is potentially a difficult question. Is it obvious who your market is? For example, I’m a writer. I’d like my potential readership to know I exist, but primarily I want the people who are likely to publish my stuff to pay attention – companies in need of training packages, higher education, publishers. But without some clever keywording, the people most likely to read my blog will be others in the same position as me. Areas to think about: do different potential client groups use different social networking sites? I notice for example that one company I work for found me through Freelancers in the UK (which costs me a small subscription each year but has been worth it), though individuals in the company tend to link to people via Linkedin (personally I haven’t yet found it a good source for generating actual income, but maybe I need to get out there more). All that said, my conclusion is: you’re trying to sell yourself to people.

I’ve had the experience, for example, of writing a blog that got read by someone in the US, who commented on it, whose comment appeared in their blog and was in turn seen by someone in the UK who wasn’t in the training field but knew someone who was. And I ended up – about a year later – with a request to do some work. If connections are going to be that random, I’d suggest you just need to accept this and not worry too much about ‘target marketing’. Just be clear in your profiles about who you are and what you do.

Some other thoughts:

1. All the advice on networking blogs is that if at all possible, do one blog per day. This keeps the blog itself fresh. Empirically, people I’ve discussed this with get large numbers of hits on their blog of they do this and don’t if they don’t. I’ve been managing two or three bogs a week, so I need to change my habits!

2. The stuff in the diagram about going out there, finding people and commenting on their blogs – it works.

3. If you use RSS feeds to spread yourself around different social networking sites, remember that tags don’t always get included in the feed. You will need periodically to visit all the sites you feed to and deal with tags manually.

4. If you have the skills or know people who do, YouTube and Vimeo seem to be good ways of getting examples of your work out there. Be creative! And make sure everything you do links back to whichever blog is your ‘hub’.

5. If you don’t instantly get enquiries and business, it may be frustrating but it’s normal. Remember the anecdote above about how putting something out got me some new business a year later…

6. The name of the game these days seems to be community building. If you’re able to build or become part of a community of people with multiple skill sets, you can raise your game hugely through collaborations.

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