What I’ve Learned from My First Nine Months Writing Online

I’ve been blogging for a little over nine months now.

In this time, I’ve learnt a lot about writing. Like most writers, I look back on my early pieces and shudder a little. Its fair to say my writing has improved, and I have managed to build a good-sized audience on one of the platforms I publish on. Having spread my wings a bit further however, I realise how big this online publishing thing is, and how many people are working hard to get their voices heard.

The biggest surprise to me has been how many different facets there are to this game. With hindsight this sounds incredibly naïve, but it’s also most certainly true.

One of the things I try to do regularly is take some time to read as many different authors as I can.

While its possible to stumble across some great articles by doing this, often its worth doing just to take in what other writers are putting out there. You can learn a lot from reading widely in terms of the different styles that people use, and what types of articles are resonating with what types of audiences. If you are new to writing, then I would strongly recommend you do this early on.

If you take the time to do this some things start to become clear very quickly.

There Are Some Incredibly Talented Writers Independently Publishing Online

Some authors have a way with words that I can only aspire too. I think I write well, but others take writing to an entirely new level. This is not surprising. I never thought I’d be the best, but the sheer talent of some of those whose articles I read is incredible.

There Is A Lot of Stuff Being Published That Is Not Very Good

This should also come as little surprise. What is surprising is how successful some of it is. Some of the best-known bloggers on the internet write passably at best. Yet thousands of people read their work. Being successful as a writer is about more than just writing eloquently. Writing well is one thing. Writing well on a topic that other people will want to read about is another altogether.

Content Marketing Has Blurred the Line Between Writing and Marketing To An Extent That I Had Not Expected

Writers are not blogging just to have their voice heard anymore. People write to promote their business. They write to drive traffic to their website. They write to generate clicks on affiliate links to earn a cut on the sales that follow.

This is possibly the element of my journey so far that has surprised me the most. There are many authors out there who are writing for the joy of the art, to stimulate conversation and to spread awareness of issues that are of importance to them. There are equally as many, if not more, writing purely to sell you something.

I’m Getting Sick of Being Sold To

I’m really conflicted on this one. I want to make a buck out of my work as much as the next guy or gal, but its beginning to feel like every second article I read is little more than a sales pitch. I recently purchased a book written by a very well-known author and online blogger. The entire foreword to the book was dedicated to the sell.

I work in sales in my day job, so I possibly have a more finely tuned radar for this kind of thing than most people. It probably bugs me more than most.

In general, I prefer articles that are written to stimulate conversation, rather than simply for self-promotion. The counter to this is that it’s very difficult to make a living as an author these days if your only source of income is from applause you have received on Medium. I won’t say it can’t be done, but its certainly the harder road. There is a choice to be made here in terms of what type of writer you want to be. Its one I’m still pondering for myself.

 

Donald Trump’s Uneasy Relationship with Patriotism

The NFL preseason is upon us, and again we have seen NFL players choosing to protest during the playing of the United States National Anthem. This continues a movement started in 2016 by then NFL Quarterback Colin Kapernick, to use his public profile as a means to protest against what he saw as social injustice in the American community.

Anyone familiar with this issue will be equally familiar with Donald Trump’s vocal opposition to the player’s protests. Following the opening of the NFL preseason last weekend, the President again spoke out on the issue with the following tweets;

The NFL players are at it again – taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their “outrage” at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love……

…Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!

In a presidency often criticised for volatility and unpredictability, Trump’s intractable opposition to the player’s actions has been a constant. At various times he has proposed that players who protest should be ejected from games, fined, suspended and even banned from the NFL.

This has been a winning strategy for Trump, with a CBS poll showing that just 11% of Republican voters say they support kneeling during the anthem as a form of protest. In a White House that struggles with consistent messaging, this is one issue that has consistently allowed Trump to appear tough on an issue that speaks to base.

While the players at the centre of the protest frame their actions as a response to issues of social injustice and police brutality, their opponents consistently claim that kneeling during the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful, most specifically disrespectful to veterans.

Speaking earlier this year on the issue, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated of the President that:

“He thinks it’s about respecting the men and women of our military. It’s about respecting our national anthem and it’s about standing out of pride for that.”

The problem is that Trump’s record of showing respect for his nation’s military is chequered at best.

Trump was notoriously issued with five deferments to eligibility for the draft during the Vietnam war. This is a contentious issue, as Trump is not the first American politician to avoid service in Vietnam. President’s George W Bush and Bill Clinton both received deferments, as did Vice President Joe Biden.

Even without treading on the potentially controversial ground of the President’s eligibility for the draft however, it’s difficult to reconcile his passionate defence of his nation’s veterans with his actions.

President Trump has notoriously belittled the service of fellow Republican, Senator John McCain, who spent five years as P.O.W. during the Vietnam war. The personal feud between the two men dates back over 3 years, with Trump repeatedly making disparaging remarks about McCain’s service.

Trump originally called McCain’s service into question on the basis of his capture by North Vietnamese forces with the now infamous quote

I like people that weren’t captured, OK?

This was followed in May this year by a Trump staffer making statements to the effect that McCain’s opinion on a Trump nominee for CIA Director was unimportant because he was “dying anyway.

The verbal stoush continued as recently as this morning when Trump signed into law a piece of legislation named in McCain’s honour, without actually paying tribute to, or even mentioning the man himself.

Trump’s feud with McCain could be passed off as more about political differences than veteran’s issues, but unfortunately Trump’s chequered history with veterans doesn’t stop there. Trump has repeatedly attacked the families of deceased American veteran’s, known as Gold Star families.

The most famous of these incidents occurred on the campaign trail in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election when Trump,  then the Republican presidential nominee, chose to publicly criticise the parents of a deceased American Serviceman who had spoken at the Democratic National Convention.

For a man who has agitated so vigorously for the importance of honouring his nation’s veterans, it is difficult to reconcile Trump’s words with his actions. In truth, it is difficult to see these comments as anything other than political point scoring on an issue that the President knows will score points with his supporters. He has even admitted as much himself, in comments reported by Jerry Jones, a Trump supporter and owner of the Dallas Cowboys NFL Franchise.

According to Jones, the President stated that he believed that the subject was ;

  a very winning, strong issue for me

The issue at the heart of all this, black athletes choosing to protest social injustice by kneeling during the playing the national anthem, remains controversial. It is an issue that deeply divides communities on a very personal level. When forming an opinion on this issue however, Presidents Trump’s statements should be seen as nothing more than what they are. Cheap stunts to score easy political points. His duplicity on this issue is on the public record.

There is an old adage that actions speak louder words. If the President spent more time actually honouring his nation’s veterans, and less time talking about the Anthem protests, then his opinion on this issue may gain some credibility.

 

Decred: Using DAO to Democratise Project Development

How would Bitcoin be different if Satoshi Nakamoto knew in 2008 what the Bitcoin community knows today? Jake Yocom-Piatt, the original project lead at crypto currency Decred believes he knows the answer and that answer looks a lot like Decred.

Decred, a crypto currency project launched in February 2016, shares many similarities with Bitcoin. The developers of Decred were themselves early supporters of the Bitcoin project. It differs from Bitcoin however in the way in which it seeks to establish consensus for decisions that relate to development of the blockchain.

The problems with Bitcoin and consensus are well-publicised. The most notable of these have resulted in several hard forks of the Bitcoin blockchain. Developers, miners and other community members have struggled to agree on the direction of the project going forward. Jake Yocom-Piatt sees this lack of efficient consensus formation as a critical weakness of the Bitcoin project. Decred was launched as an attempt to create a crypto currency that tackled these problems from the outset.

The most obvious way in which Decred differs from Bitcoin is that where Bitcoin employs Proof of Work to verify transactions on the Bitcoin block chain, Decred utilises a hybrid Proof of Work – Proof of Stake system, sometimes referred to as Proof of Activity.

In this system miners are still employed to validate transactions and are rewarded with small amounts of Decred for each block that they successfully validate. In addition to Proof of Work mining however, a portion of Decred’s block validation is undertaken by a Proof of Stake system whereby holders of the Decred currency can stake their holdings in order to earn the right to vote on block validations. In return for staking their currency, Decred holders receive a portion of the block reward as payment.

While this might sound like an additional layer of complexity, what it’s actually about is decentralising control of the block chain.

As is commonly publicised with regard to Bitcoin, a small group of very large Bitcoin miners have enormous influence over development of the Bitcoin block chain. This can and does create a conflicts of interest. When proposals are put forward that may improve the efficiency or scalability of the Bitcoin block chain, it is unlikely that consensus will be reached where these changes reduce the profit the miners receive from their activities. In many cases even in the absence of conflicts of interest it is often extremely difficult to achieve consensus amongst such a diverse set of stakeholders.

It is this lack of consensus that has led to both delays in the implementation of block chain improvements such as segregated witness, and also the multitude of Bitcoin hard forks, where new currencies are created by groups of developers who are dissatisfied with the direction that the current Bitcoin block chain is headed.

Decred was designed from the beginning to overcome this style of decision-making inertia.

When the product was launched, 8% of the tokens were pre-mined and a significant portion of these were air dropped to create a truly decentralised starting point from which to begin development. The hybrid Proof of Work – Proof of Stake consensus mechanism also makes it significantly easier for controversial proposals to be decided upon. In June 2017, Decred was able to pass a protocol adjusting the Decred consensus algorithm in a way that reduced the block reward received by Decred’s miners. This style of proposal would never be successful in the Bitcoin community due to the vested interests of the powerful players concerned. Jake Yocom-Piatt believes that Decred much more closely resembles the ideal that Satoshi Nakamoto envisaged than Bitcoin itself does today.

A Decentralised Autonomous Treasury

Another distinct difference between Decred and some of his peers is the way in which the project proposes to handle paying developers.

In the spirit of true community-based consensus decision-making Decred aims to completely autonomise the funding of development work on the block chain so that the community can guide the development of this project. 10% of every block mind is currently directed to the Decred Treasury where it is used to provide ongoing funding for developers. These funds are currently distributed manually by the project organisation.

By the end of 2018, Decred aims to have these funds managed by a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) that will distribute funds in accordance with the direction given by the community through the Proof of Stake mechanism. Any developer will be able to put forward a proposal for development of the Decred block chain, and if a sufficient number of users in the community vote in support of this proposal then the DAO will automatically direct the appropriate level of funding to the new developer. This is a significant difference to many block chain projects where development funds are held by a central organisation and distributed in accordance with that organisation’s priorities. If the DAO is successful then funds will be automatically distributed in accordance with the community’s wishes, without any human interaction or oversight.

It remains to be seen whether this concept can be executed successfully, but it will be fascinating to watch it develop through the remainder of 2018. A common complaint amongst developers from projects as diverse as Bitcoin through Steemit is that the community has no say in the development of the block chain, and that development decisions are made with little regard to the community’s preferences. A Decentralised Autonomous Treasury, if successful, will go a long way to solving some of these concerns

Decred is a fascinating project. It is working in a number of areas of block chain development that have the potential to revolutionise the direction of block chain projects going forward. Proof of Stake and hybrid consensus making mechanisms are being explored by many projects, but Decred is at the forefront of implementing a real-time solution.

Similarly, its intent to completely decentralised decision-making amongst the Decred community is not unique, but this project is further down the path to implementation than many of its peers. When you consider that Decred is also at the forefront of development of successful atomic swaps (Decred and Litecoin successfully completed the first atomic swap in September 2017) and implementation of the Lighting Network this project represents something of a dark horse. It currently sits in 31st position in terms of total market capitalisation and few people are talking about it. Whether it is able to be successful as a viable digital medium of exchange into the future remains to be seen. With so much going on in the development community however, it is certainly a project to keep your eye on.

What You Can Learn About Success From The Creator Of Humans Of New York

I recently listened to an excellent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast featuring Brandon Stanton, the creator of the Humans of New York project. I’ve been a big fan of Brandon’s work for many years and it was interesting to hear from the man behind the pictures.

What interested me most about the podcast was Brandon’s discussion of the path that led him to creating Humans of New York.

He characterised his late teenage years as a period where he was largely directionless. He spent a significant portion of his time pondering his destiny. He felt destined to achieve great things and much of his energy was directed towards identifying his path to greatness. His problem was that he couldn’t identify his purpose. He was certain it was there, in the way that only a nineteen year old can be certain of something, but the details eluded him.

The flow effect of this was a chequered academic record. When one is destined for greatness, the details of the periodic table, or the date of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln seem trivial and beneath you. Brandon graduated high school, but flunked out of college, and found himself as a man in his early twenties with a strong sense of his own significance, but little that would convince an outside observer to share his point of view.

The turning point in the Humans of New York project came with the cliched realisation that the path to success was hard work.

Things really started moving forward for me when I threw in the towel and said I’m going to stop trying to figure out what the big thing I am trying to accomplish is. I’m just going to start doing what I am supposed to do. I started riding the bus and going to community college. I got my grades back up and I focused on becoming a disciplined person and having a routine in my life.. and you know it’s funny, because when I stopped trying to think about this big thing that I was going to accomplish in life, and started just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other every single day, it began to propel me on the journey that ultimately led me to Humans of New York, which was something that was bigger than I could have ever imagined

The entire podcast is well worth listening too, but this passage struck me as particularly significant. It reminded me of something I read in the New York Times bestselling book “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. This book puts forward the opinion that a major reason why people are unhappy is that they spent their entire life trying to find their purpose, when in actual fact, very few people have one.

This is an interesting concept. Anyone who has spent any period of time in the self-help aisle of their local book store has undoubtedly heard multiple versions of the same mantra. Find your purpose, often phrased as that thing about which you are most passionate, and pursue it relentlessly. This is the path to happiness.

In actuality, at least in the opinion of Burnett and Evans, most of us don’t have a purpose or calling. The continued pursuit of something which doesn’t exist leads us to be like mice on a wheel, forever chasing something that we can never reach. The result? In most cases, a sense of dissatisfaction with our lot in life, and in many cases, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Returning to Brandon and his take on what the path to success looks like for him;

My advice to people who are stuck is to quit looking at the big picture. People get stuck because they want to accomplish too big a thing and they don’t know the right step to take. I always say instead of focusing on the year, instead of focusing on the arc of your life, focus on the twenty four hour period.

As cliched as it is, the path to fulfilment and happiness usually involves hard work and focus. More importantly though, is that the path to happiness involves working hard on the little things. It is important to sweat the small stuff.

Brandon didn’t set out to create Humans of New York. He set out to take a good photograph. It’s the small things that matter. If you figure these out, then often the big stuff takes care of itself.

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