Swamped thing: dealing with ‘overwhelm’

FIona brain.
Fiona brain (circa 2006).

One of the things I’ve wrestled with during and post-sabbatical is that I’m a generalist. I’m interested in many things. Here are a few of them, not including family and friends, who deserve another big pocket of time:

…art, rabbits, Stirchley, writing, photography, diary mining, bushcraft, animal tracking, composting, ballet fitness, collage, reading, ukulele, walking, ASMR, sunrises and sunsets, trips away, dementia befriending, the politics of data, the practicalities of privacy, tai chi, surfing, bodyboarding, diving, ageing, stargazing, snowshoeing, drawing, publishing, origami, MOOCs…

The list goes on and on…

Often I get temporarily obsessed by some solo female traveller/adventurer or global photojournalist or fit-at-50 Instagrammer (cue another list:

@corinneredfern, @smillieonsea, @jasonflorio, @megan_hine, @missholldoll, @victorilou, @womenandwaves, @jannerobinson, @goodbyecroptop, @baddiewinkle and @nickheyward – yes, the Haircut One Hundred dude, who has muscles and a nice life, although he’s no @renner4real or @samneilltheprop.

I guess these are the new media models we aspire to (or rather fail to live up to). I get inspired but then feel limited because hiking, photographing, adventuring or just looking Instafabulous is their singular focus. There’s no room for anything off-brand. Choosing one thing to be, no matter how fab, means saying no to the wild panorama of other things in the scene, my scene.

And so I desperately try to find connections and overlaps between my peculiar combo of interests just so I don’t go mad. I’ve taken to whiteboarding my life just to get it out of my head, print it off and then rub it all out.

I think feeling overwhelmed is due to the inability to make some hard decisions about what to do first. As my sister points out, it’s good to have choices. It’s also good to make them.

The past few months have felt like receiving a year’s total of work  and having to sort it into something I can get my head around. Where to start?

A word came to me while swamped in the interests mire: SEASONS.

‘Seasons’ is a looser, more easygoing and less worky word than priorities or commitments. Like some longhaired hippie supervisor, a seasonal focus allows me a time to write and a time to create (my two main conflicts at present), and these gently overlay the daily necessities of health, fitness and meeting financial commitments.

So I decided to spent the summer season writing and the autumn season on art stuff (I’m calling it pre-art).

Of course, as soon as I decided to put writing first, I met with my art mentor (yes, I have an awesome art mentor) – and she rooted out some really interested ideas.

So, I’ve now got a few backburner art tasks to break up writing season. And I’ll likely do some editing and proofreading and learning about e-publishing when art season starts in the autumn.

My plan may not be Instagram-sexy but it’s a pressure drop.

If I’ve been out of touch recently, this is why.

My goals for 2019

My goals for 2019 have mostly developed out of my sabbatical break in 2016-17. But there’s also a few random things in there for fun, such as developing independent toes (yes, you read that right).

It’s a longish list, mostly so I can get all the ideas in my head out of my head. In reality, there’s no pressure. The ones I want to do will no doubt develop into some kind of habit, the random one-offs will or won’t happen, and the rest will fall away.

I’ve been doing this annual list thing since about 2002. This is the first time I’ve blogged it. I’m not sure why I’m putting it out there. Maybe it will inspire someone else (I know two other people who are doing the splits challenge) or maybe it will create a potential collaboration.

Usually I break it up into sections – work, health, life, etc – but this year, I’ve split it into more general areas: mental/emotional, physical, creative, financial and random. The ones in green have already been started/done – that’s the January effect but also reflects some longer projects that I’m working on.

Mental/emotional

  • Sunlight – more sunrises, sunsets and sunshine walks.
  • Morning hour – plan the day so it doesn’t get derailed (try to take in medium/long term goals not just daily stuff).
  • Daily pockets of stillness – meditation, walks, unstructured time.
  • Weekend interesting read – set up RSS feeds.
  • Internet shorts – ahead of TV viewing – see #filmshorts list on Pinboard.
  • Make “good enough” decisions but make decisions.
  • Clear out attic stuff + finish Marie Kondo.
  • Read first chapter of unread books.
  • Create/contribute more, consume less.
  • More stargazing, more celestial events.
  • Join the Royal Geographic Society.

Physical

  • Do the splits (document the change over the year)
  • Flex individual toes on command.
  • Surf fitness (+ Point Break night!)
  • More elegance, strength (ballet fitness, gym).
  • Parkrun (Jan and Dec).
  • Diet – more greens and juices, less carbs and crap.
  • Dive off a high board.
  • Update Active Parks calendar.
  • Learn full Tai Chi Yang 24 short form.
  • Physical challenge that I can work towards, eg coastal walk, bodyboarding, mountain summit, snowshoe, swimming trip.

Creative

  • 1SE photo project – colour spectrum.
  • Learn to draw, use new pencil set.
  • Draw (a bunny?) or make an art each day for a month.
  • Publish one of my ebook ideas.
  • Zine: guidebook to Stirchley.
  • Develop a writing habit towards a longer project.
  • RTW Google Earth tour.
  • Origami a giant rabbit.
  • Create an artwork inspired by Sophie Calle or other female artists.
  • Digitise backpacking/travel diaries; stories/art/workshop?
  • MOOC – photo/videography, photojournalism, art.
  • Get three songs playable on guitar.
  • Find all animals on social media called Fiona.

Financial

  • From ‘The Examined Life’ – don’t just reduce, give back, eg, for every new clothing item I buy, give half the cost to charity.
  • Review monthly spend/savings – spreadsheet.
  • Household and travel budget – annual spreadsheet.
  • Possible New Zealand trip in 2022 – research costs/start saving.
  • Digital detox: get Facebook off phone, trim Twitter. set up RSS feeds.
  • Professional development/training courses: SEO + Google Ads through Udemy. Or certification through Google Digital Garage
  • Work half days only on screen.
  • Find one more regular client.

Random

  • Help fix an issue that has always bothered you through volunteering, eg, Fat Fluffs rabbit rescue – next steps (medical care)?
  • Research Nat Trust jobs.
  • Monthly date night.
  • Meet the oldest people in the city.

Stirchley seven years on

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Every few years I take a photographic snapshot of my local Stirchley High Street, Birmingham, to see how it has changed.

So here is Stirchley in 2018…

There is an empty space where the thriving gym and historic bowling alley used to be, demolished after Lidl supermarket pushed ahead with a presumptuous land purchase (they had their permission to build overturned). There is also a massive Tesco wasteland now boarding up a large percentage of north Stirchley. Let’s hope Seven Capital can do better, eh? Watch them closely. They were due to show at the Neighbourhood Forum meeting this Monday but have dropped out. It doesn’t bode well.

While the supermarkets and large developers try their frickin’ best to flip (thanks Kimmy Schmidt) with Stirchley, the independent scene is thriving (more on this in Viva Stirchley). Loving the fact that a spooncarver, fudge shop, martial arts supply store and houseplant shop are newcomers this year, increasing the bloody superb random nature of our high street. No homogeneity here, in 2018 at least. Pretty much all our chain stores are caged inside the Coop or shoved up the, ahem, business end of Stirchley.

Sad to hear Drums International, The (vegan) Pie Shop and Moso vintage clothing have closed and/or moved on. Drums International was one of my favourite does-what-it-says-on-the-sign storefront. The Belgian and Netherlands consulate is also a very sad loss, for quirkiness and international tourism alone. And Hairport – I miss that one for its punnage, although Iron Maidens laundrette is still the winner. There are other casualties – check the 2011 photos at the end of this post.

All the hardcore old-school Stirchley businesses are still here: P Browell tobacconist, Phull Watch Co, Mirror Image, Oulsnam (they’ll always be Laing to me), Stirchley Alterations & Dress Making, JJ’s Flooring (which has added a rooftop King Kong as you do), Maginnis opticians, Printigo (now snuggling in the bosom of the main high street), OJ Fallons plumbing supplies, Noct Offs, Wards, the British Oak – to name a few. Domestiks is still here but now sells appliances not ex-catalogue clothes, so that’s less useful (to me).

Alongside them and hoping for similar longevity are the hardcore ‘newbies’ creating most of the buzz: Loaf, Artefact, The Bike Foundry, Alicia’s Micro Bakehouse, The Wildcat Tap and other local breweries (no longer is Stirchley just a balti Mecca).

I have to give a special mention for the lovely Stirchley Wines & Spirits. Just because. #injoke #keepstirchleyshabby

Also Stirchley Library and Baths – important sources of community spirit, as well as free knowledge and tasty chocolate brownies at the monthly market.

>> Stirchley in 2018

The previous album ‘Stirchley Village’ was taken in 2010 and 2011. Enjoy now in case I don’t cough up for the forthcoming Flickrgeddon and my pictorial histories are deleted in a few months:

>> Stirchley in 2011

 

Two years on…

It’s been two years since I went on a semi-break/sabbatical. I know this from all the lovely Aberdovey (Ooberdoobey) sunset photos popping up in my timeline. I remember a most beautiful empty-brain feeling of heading to the Welsh seaside just to read and write and walk and relax.

Occasionally I look back and think how much taking a break brought a seachange in my work-life balance. I’m fitter now and hopefully a bit healthier than when I was a full-time sedentary editor. I try to only work on screen for half a day at a time; the rest involves some kind of balancing exercise, anything from tidying the house to health-checking rabbits as a Fat Fluffs volunteer to going for a 1km swim or walking up the Malverns with my 72-year-old mum-in-law last weekend (see main pic).

I now have strength in my arms and tone in my legs. Yes, I still have a waist tyre and bury tension in my shoulders but the feeling of being stronger is making me feel good, and that’s inspired me to step up my exercise routine to include tai chi, aquafit and even a bit of upper body conditioning using weights. Chiselled shoulders a la Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 is a life goal!

I’m still writing and editing because leaving behind the trade I learned at 19 feels impossible. It’s what I’m trained for and I enjoy it, but I’m determined not to take too much client work on because I’ve enjoyed having the time to work on my own creative projects for a change.

Taking on a bit more work means finances have eased a bit. The bodyboarding dream trip may still happen after all, fitness permitting… although it’s not a cheap hobby when you live in landlocked Birmingham.

I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. I’m looking for my next adventure but it needs to be more meaningful than just bumming around as a solo backpacker of old. I’m torn between the simple aim of escaping the winter to work overseas for a few weeks and doing some kind of reportage story work (I have a several Instagramming photojournalists I admire).

I don’t want to end on a downer note but if I were to die tomorrow, I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed taking some time out of my working life to stop and look around for a while. Like having a glimpse of retirement.

It’s the simple things that have been the best, such as  enjoying the sun all day long, not just in a lunch hour; watching the buns hop around and surprising the squirrels (don’t ask); listening to my great-nephew as he discovers talking; catching a wave in the middle of February; working on my own writing for a change; watching the allotment sunset with Kerry and co; meeting up with friends and family in unpressured environments; colouring-in and collage nights in the local caff; having a lie-in on a weekday; hanging out with Pete; playing music; reading books; midnight blogging…

If you get a chance to take a work breather, even if only for a short while, I highly recommend it. I’ve had a very contented time thanks to working less.

Thankyou for reading this post-sabbatical ripple.

An Insta-fashionista for a month

Personally, I’m most at home in jeans and a t-shirt but I’m also fascinated by people who have an interesting style and who post it online. I’m not talking about big social media influencers necessarily but Instagram friends and accounts who post and pose in their outfits under ‘what I wore today’ #wiwt and other hashtags. Here are three examples of accounts I enjoy:

RhiannonBrum – a friend who is also a swishing, swirling dressmaker who makes and wears her own outfits.

GlacialGlow – an ethereal, elfin, silver-haired Alice in Wonderland who also has an awesome dog.

SashaEDavison – a fashion model who became pretty successful in the time I started following her. I used to dial up her Instagram as a brief to my local hairdressers and also bought some sparkly Top Shop shoes in the sale on her recommendation.

You get the picture. Anyway…

Earlier this summer, at the start of the heatwave, I decided to have another wardrobe clear out and had a sudden realisation – I buy dresses but don’t wear them and especially now that I work remotely in my metaphorical pyjamas most of the time. At least before bundling them up for the charity shop, I thought I should wear them. And so began a month of daily #wiwt poses and photoshoots – here’s the slideshow, and more info on what I learnt from the challenge below.

I never thought I’d end up doing a 30-day fashion challenge but perhaps there was something in me that wanted to document turning 50 this year. It would kind of be like a diary thing. In 10 years, I’d look back and go: Well, would you look at that – and be impressed, appalled or amused.

Along the way I learnt a few things:

1. Being your own photographer is good for a woman’s self-confidence – you only have to post the pics you like.

2. Being a daily Insta-fashion influencer is hard work – the staging, the variations, the bursts, the selection, editing, captioning and posting. I started off easy taking just a few minutes; the final shoot took an hour and a half to get the shot.

3. It was a bit of fun – and the feedback was like getting a reward. I looked forward to the reactions. I got loads of positive comments from ‘This is epic’ to ‘A___ said it was the highlight of her week (and she’d just given birth).’  And then someone took one of my pics – the kaftan one – and created a meme: the ultimate honour.

4. I can laugh at myself – I couldn’t resist posting a bloopers reel on my Instagram. You can’t take life too seriously.

5. Finally, turning 50 ain’t so bad.

Once more, here’s the full shoot. Enjoy! (Update: I’ve cleared out at least nine of these outfits, which leaves 21 things to wear. Turns out I quite like wearing dresses.)

 

 

 

Viva Stirchley!

Stirchley is cool right now. I would even say it’s at its peak. So what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about my home neighbourhood of Stirchley, B30, not necessarily coherently but I need to write about it because, well, I’m a writer and occasional local reporter and I was actually born and bred here, so there.

So here I am on a Saturday afternoon, thinking about how Stirchley is at that point of pre-gentrification while tottering at the edge of becoming something far less likable in future years. Such pronouncements of coolness are kind of ridiculous and subjective, but there is still a sense of it being true in the way that old travellers remember with nostalgia how this or that place ‘was so much better and less touristy back in [year]’ and ‘you should have been there back then’. Except in this case, back then is right now.

I think I’m saying this because there is a definite Stirchley ‘scene’ going on. It’s not exactly Liverpool in the ’60s or Bromley in the late ’70s but something is happening and there is an excitement and feeling of connectedness in the air. For years, there was little reason to go to Stirchley high street, unless you wanted an antiques shop treasure or a hydroponics set-up or a Saturday-night balti. Now it’s like a private members club whose playground is a shopping parade of weirdness unlike any other local high street. Everyone knows everyone and strangers are welcomed – if they fit (the criteria is kind of loose but there, judgmental in that you should be non-judgmental and open to joining in). Or maybe this is just the view from my seat.

Stirchley responds…

A lot of positive change is happening. In fact, I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the UK right now (that isn’t on the coast or in the mountains) because what is happening is a rare, beautiful and organic thing of a community coming together in interesting ways. In a way, this is my love letter to Stirchley – a place I left at 19 and never thought I’d return to because, to be honest, it was rough as guts in my childhood.

A practice session in Hazelwell Park.

Now there are micropubs and breweries, a community bakery and cooking school, a community market, a bike foundry, coops, cafés, a houseplant shop, vintage clothing, record and music shops, art spaces, even a spoon-carving, clog-making wood crafter, plus other odd independents creating a miscellany of shops on the main strip. There is a mini version of Birmingham’s famous King-Kong gorilla, who sits above the carpet shop and get’s lit up with festive lights at Christmas (who needs a local BID and a budget for fairy lights – we make our own fun). Online, multiple Twitter accounts organise and extol. There is a hashtag: #vivastirchley, which started as a pisstake and has now been adopted. Unicyclists and alpine horn players have been spotted.

Artefact is a big part of this shift from people being visiting consumers to active community members. This art café space, together with Stirchley Baths, Stirchley Library and other community spaces host so many interesting events and groups that there is little need for the Stirchillian to venture beyond B30 for her social entertainments.

I’ve even stepped up and put on my own events (cybersec sessions, Interrogang discussion group, Glass Room pop-up), something I couldn’t imagine doing in a more commercial, less community-oriented high street. Artefact made it more than easy to start something up, actively welcoming and encouraging participation. Word must be spreading – they’ve had both an Edinburgh Fringe comedian hire the space and a secret gig booked by well-known band.

Artefact in Stirchley.

My own favourite Artefact nights FWIW are the Felt Tip Bender, the crazy rambling What is a Watt? quiz with Johnny’s live art news round, Stirchley Collage Club, the regular art show launches and our co-founded Interrogang discussion group talking about the opportunities and dangers of the data economy.

This is the good stuff. But I’m also starting to worry about the dangers of gentrification and local development planning. Some crazy planning applications have gone in – one recent one was for 40 student flats in a tiny corner-shop bit of real estate. Another by Lidl UK ended up razing the popular Fitness First gym and bowling alley to the ground, and has stalled because of ‘reasons’. Then there is a rash of new housing being built at the old Arvin Merritor site, which could bring new customers to the high street but also swamp it with traffic. More development is expected at the vast Seven Capital wasteland that Tesco sold off after sitting on the land for 17 years.

Who will these new residents be – and will they want a homogenous high street of big money chains like Boots and Greggs over the strange but unique collection of shops we already have? Will Birmingham City Council factor in or ignore the impact on Stirchley’s changing character and community and independent businesses when more developer applications come in, or will they fold in the face of big money?

The Tesco wasteland in Stirchley.

At present, Stirchley is still fairly downmarket in feel and a bit dowdy of look, and the West Midlands Police helicopter circles overhead regularly late at night to catch the drug dealers and car thieves. That people are calling Stirchley ‘cool’ is amusing in many ways. And it’s odd to hear friends talking about moving out of their beloved Moseley to supercool Stirchley, discussing the property prices and availability while bemoaning our terraces with their lack of driveways and on-street parking. Stirchley is not the new Moseley; you don’t move here for the real estate. Here, we only joke about where is best to live: the Riviera or the Marina end.

How Stirchley develops is at a turning point. The large empty spaces offer potential for greater community cohesion but I fear this will not be realised because, so far, no supermarket developer has done anything more than offer token efforts at working together with the community and what we value. For them it is a money exercise; our views and petitions don’t really matter.

For me, the close sense of community and the independent/cooperative rebirth has almost been born out of a reaction to the greed of large commercial interests, which have tried to gobble up Stirchley’s tiny shopping strand for themselves and instead mobilised a grass-roots alternative to the endless planning fuckups and resulting wastelands.

At the moment, this couple of hundred metres of high street and its hinterlands has a new sense of identity that is the strongest I’ve ever seen it. I really hope we can hold onto that.

Houses knocked down for a Tesco supermarket that never arrived.

Viva Stirchley!

Some Stirchley community, coop and independent business accounts to follow on Twitter:

  • @artefact_bham
  • @bikefoundry
  • @boardlygames
  • @britishoakbirm
  • @brumbrewery
  • @caneatcafe
  • @corkncage
  • @fruitnutvillage
  • @glasshousebeers
  • @greenstirchley
  • @hipstirchley
  • @isherwoodandco
  • @jigsstirchley
  • @loafonline
  • @marylockelabour (local councillor)
  • @stirchleybaths
  • @stirchley_forum
  • @stirchleyhist
  • @stirchleyonline
  • @stirchlibrary
  • @stirchleymarket
  • @stirchleypark
  • @superstirchley
  • @stirchleywines
  • @theinterrogang
  • @wildcattap

Career ideas on a postcard

Potential future office view from El Nido

I guess I should do an update of the post-sabbatical kind since I’m 18 months on from wanting to change my work/life, and six months on from the End of the sabbatical.

I haven’t touted for more screen-based writing/editing work (yet) so I’m still figuring out what to do for money – you’ll know when I start earning properly again as I’ll cut my ridiculous hair off – but I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and my work-life balance is much healthier now that I’ve halved my desk-based work.

Sabbatical hair.

The natural consequence of all the cyber security stuff has been to set up Observed.city data privacy email via the Mozilla Open Leaders project. There’s no income in that but it is in some small way campaigning for a better, less-1984-like path in our increasingly quantified and machine-judgmental world.

Subscribe here…

I seem to have started writing a blog post so my next big aim is to be more of a digital nomad, working from different cities occasionally and maybe even a surf beach in winter to escape the SAD and work on my Point Break moves.

Winter boogie

First, I have to figure out what that work will be. Maybe it’s time to resurrect my failed Thai Massage business ( ‘No Pain, No Gain’). But more likely it will involve some kind of digital comms or editing work, given I now have 30 (!) years’ experience in journalism and online content – just not too much! Or some other skill as yet unknown.

Ideas on a postcard, preferably to somewhere nice.

Words from a woman who lived in the wild for six years

I got this book for Christmas as a surprise gift and while personally I don’t even like camping, it has been interesting to live vicariously through someone who has gone off the grid and lived as a pretty wild woman.

The story… Miriam, 34, a PE teacher originally from Holland, and Peter Lancewood, 64, former NZ university lecturer, met while travelling in India and later lived for six years in New Zealand’s wilderness. They also walked the 3000km Te Araroa trail traversing the length and breadth of New Zealand.

While Miriam’s book ‘Woman in the Wilderness’ doesn’t contain the thrills or the personal overcoming of adversity of Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ (or Strayed’s writing skills – something Miriam freely admits), theirs is a quieter, ongoing feat which downplays the endurance side and spearheads the lifestyle change and how living in nature affects how they think and feel.

In the process of becoming a modern nomad, Lancewood became a hunter (from being a lifelong vegetarian), faced down her fears, learnt to be still and see things more slowly and deeply, and of course became adept at survival in the wild.

I figured it was worth documenting the learnings of someone who has so completely dropped out of human society and influence – and how this has affected their world view. I didn’t dog-ear many pages – it’s not a big book of philosophical musings – but here are some of the quotes from the ones I did.

The nature of fear

Lao-tzu: What you want to destroy you must first allow truly to flourish. So I took a deep breath and let the fear come. I was inviting the very ghost I was afraid of… Nothing happened at all. I lay in the silence and saw that it was, in fact, the unknown I was afraid of. Somehow this simple discovery made me feel unmeasurably better. … My fear was caused by my throughts. Is that always the case? I wondered.

…I had learned to look at fear and surrendered to my shadows on the wall. I wasn’t afraid to look again and again.

What is beauty?

We saw a chamois 20 metres behind us. I was mesmerised: I had never seen one up close before. … It was magnificently elegant, and it watched us with shy curiosity.

While looking at its eyes, I understood that beauty does not come through becoming, but only with being. The chamois was not working towards a better version of itself, it just lived. I, on the other hand, was always trying to become nicer, better, stronger, smarter and prettier, which caused me to lose my authentic self. I understood that the process of becoming disfigured my being. This chamois showed me, in that moment, that being is the most beautiful form of existence.

Western civilisation is broken

The future of many of these (indigenous) cultures was under threat. … ‘We’re in a bizarre position,’ Nick said. ‘In the West, we’ve ended up with a civilisation that is focused on progress and development, but is in fact an appalling make-believe on a gigantic scale. It encourages – almosts insists upon – distraction at any cost. In the public sphere we see violence, venality and greed. There is dishonesty, propaganda and obsession with the trivial… The list goes on and on. The system in which we live is a forced consensus of a self-created monster.’

What happens when you return to nature?

‘My sight and smell have become better and other intuitive senses I never knew existed have come back to life… I also feel more open. If I look at the person I was, say, 10 years ago, then I must say I feel more connected. Not only with nature, but also with other people. …What has happened to you in the last six years of living in nature?’ I asked him.

‘Compared to 10 years ago, I’m physically a lot stronger. It’s a great feeling to be fit and flexible enough to sleep on the ground and sit on rocks… In the world of academia, thought, concepts and ideas are quite overwhelming. It almost becomes more real than the natural world. But I don’t think there is order to be found in an abstract world. Even though outwardly the wilderness looks chaotic, I think it is within the natural realm that we find true order.’

What is the most important thing in life?

‘Courage is more important. Humankind evolved and survived through courage, not through fear… What do you think is most important?’

‘Maybe clarity,’ I said after some time. ‘You need a clear mind in order to see what is important. You need clarity to know what you are going to be courageous about, and you need clarity to question reality.’

Miriam and Peter are currently walking across Europe to Turkey.

On becoming a Glass Room Ingenius

I RARELY LOOK at email newsletters, even the ones I’ve subscribed to, but in September I opened ‘In The Loop’ from a Berlin technology collective called Tactical Tech, and inside was a dream opportunity to build on work begun during my sabbatical.

BE AN INGENIUS FOR THE GLASS ROOM LONDON
The Ingenius is the glue that holds The Glass Room together. We’re recruiting individuals who we can train up with tech, privacy and data skills in order to support The Glass Room exhibition (coming to London in October 2017). As an Ingenius you’d receive four days of training before carrying out a series of shifts in The Glass Room where you’d be on hand to answer questions, give advice, run workshops, and get people excited about digital security.

Having spent the first eight months of 2017 studying cybersecurity and cleaning up my own online practices, I had started offering free help sessions in our local café. Engagement was poor – it turns out that free infosec sessions aren’t in demand because busy people tend to put these things on the backburner and just hope they don’t get hacked in the meantime.

Francis Clarke, who co-runs the Birmingham Open Rights Group which campaigns around citizens’ digital rights, warned me that topics like infosec and data privacy were a hard sell. Friends and family confirmed it with ‘I don’t care if I get sent a few contextual ads’ or ‘I have nothing to hide’.

So how do you get people to become aware and start to care about their online practices?

Answer: The Glass Room.

***

The Glass Room – presented by Mozilla and curated by Tactical Tech – in every way resembles a bright, shiny tech store inviting passers-by in to check out its wares. Yet another shop on a busy London street. But the items on show are not gadgets but exhibits that help people look into their online lives and think more critically about their interactions with everyday digital services.

To be honest, I mostly saw The Glass Room as providing a readymade audience who were up for talking about this stuff because talking would enable me to get everything I’d been learning out of my head and also level up on my own understanding of the issues.

I didn’t think I would stand a chance of being selected but I applied anyway. I’ve listed some of the questions from the application and my (short version) answers for a bit more context on why I started on this journey – otherwise feel free to skip ahead.

Why are you interested in becoming an Ingenius? (provide 3 reasons)

Individually – I was blown away by Edward Snowden’s revelations and the Citizenfour documentary. I have been data detoxing and self-training in infosec, and I’m very interested in the engagement tools and workshop resources.

Locally – I’m involved in several campaigns. I want to help individuals and campaigners know how to keep their data and communications private and secure.

Nationally/internationally – I’m concerned with the normalisation of surveillance (both governmental and commercial) and how the line is constantly being redrawn in their favour. I would like to understand more about the politics of data and how to think about it more equitably in terms of the trade-offs concerned with policing, sensitive data sharing, commercial data capture and the individual right to privacy.

What do you think about the current state of privacy online?

I have concerns both about privacy clampdowns by governments and mass surveillance by commerce. I love the internet but find the fact that I have to jump through so many hoops to avoid being tracked or identified worrying. I feel I am part of some subversive resistance just to have control of my own data and this is intensifying as I have a writing project that I want to keep anonymous (almost impossible I since have discovered).  I’m also concerned that enacting the paths to anonymity may flag me on a list and that this may be used against me at some future point, especially if there is no context in the data.

I think our right to privacy is disappearing and the biggest issue is getting people to care enough to even talk about that. We seem to be giving up our privacy willingly because of a lack of digital literacy about how our information is being used, the dominance of data brokers such as Google and Facebook (for whom we are the product), the lack of transparency about how algorithms are processing our data, and so on. The issue feels buried and those who control information too powerful to stop.

How would you take the experience and learning as an Ingenius forward?

I’ll be taking it into my local community through advice surgeries in cafés and libraries. There seems to be little privacy/security support for individuals, activists, campaigners and small businesses. I also hope it will give me the wider knowledge to become more involved with Birmingham Open Rights group, which operates at a more political level.

Finally, I aim to connect more widely online around these topics and investigate options for setting up something to help people in Birmingham if I can find suitable collaborators.

***

I’M IN!

This is one of those things that will completely take me out of my comfort zone but will also likely be one of the best things ever.

***

THE GLASS ROOM when it ran in New York City saw 10,000 come through the doors. In London, on the busy Charing Cross Road, just up from Leicester Square, the figure was close to 20,000.

I was fretting  about all sorts of things before my first shift, mostly about standing on my feet and talking to people all day – normally I sit at a desk and say nothing for eight hours that isn’t typed. I was also nervous that despite the excellent four days of Glass Room training, I wouldn’t know enough to answer all the random questions of ‘the general public’, who might be anything from shy to panicked to supertechy.

But it was fine. More than fine, it was exhilarating, like the opening night of a show you’ve been rehearsing for weeks. If anything, I had to dial it back so that visitors would have a chance to figure things out for themselves. The team were lovely and the other Ingeniuses supportive and funny. Most importantly, the visiting public loved it, with 100-strong queues to get in during the final weekend of the exhibition.

It must be a complete rarity for people to want to come in, peruse and engage with items about wireless signals, data capture and metadata. But by materialising the invisible, people were able to socialise around the physical objects and ask questions about the issues that might affect them, or about the way big data and AI is affecting human society.

Day after day, people wandered in off the street and began playing with the interactive items in particular: facial recognition to find their online lookalikes, nine volumes of leaked passwords to find their password, newsfeed scanning to find the value of their data, the stinky Smell Dating exhibit to find out who they were attracted to from the raw exposed data of three-day-old T-shirts (c’mon people – add some metaphorical deodorant to your online interactions!).

They also spent time tuning into the trailers for highly  surveillant products and brands, and watching an actor reading Amazon Kindle’s terms and conditions (just under nine hours, even in the bath).

And they gathered en masse around the table-sized visualisations of Google’s vast Alphabet Empire that goes way beyond a search engine, Amazon’s future Hive factory run mostly by drones and other robots, Microsoft’s side investment into remote-controlled fertility chips, Apple’s 3D pie charts of turnover and tax avoided, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s House where you can buy total privacy for just $30 million.

***

THERE WERE THREE themed areas to explore inside The Glass Room, with three further spaces to go deeper and find out more:

  1. Something to hide – understanding the value of your data and also what you are not hiding.
  2. We know you – showing what the big five of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) are doing with the billions they make from your online interactions with them.
  3. Big mother – when technology decides to solve society’s problems (helping refugees, spotting illegal immigrants, health sensors for the elderly, DNA analysis to discover your roots), the effect can be chilling.
  4. Open the box – a browsing space on the mezzanine floor full of animations to explain what goes on behind the screen interface.
  5. Data Detox Bar – the empowerment station where people could get an eight-day Data Detox Kit (now online here) and ask Ingeniuses questions about the exhibition and issues raised.
  6. Basement area – an event space hosting a daily schedule of expert talks, films and hour-long workshops put on by the Ingeniuses.

During the curator’s tour by Tactical Tech co-founder Marek Tuszynski, what impressed me most was the framing for The Glass Room. This is not a top-down dictation of what to think but a laying out of the cards for you to decide where you draw the line in the battle between convenience and privacy, risk and reward.

I handed out kit after kit to people who were unaware of the data traces they were creating simply by going about their normal connected life, or unaware that there are alternatives where the default isn’t set to total data capture for future brokerage.

Some people needed talking down after seeing the exhibition, some asked how to protect their kids, others were already paranoid and trying to go off the grid or added their own stories of life in a quantified society.

***

THERE ARE THREE LESSONS I’ve taken away from my experience in The Glass Room to apply to any future sessions I might hold on these topics:

  1. Materialise the invisible – bring physical objects (art, prototypes, kits, display devices) so that people can interact and discuss, not just read, listen or be told.

2. Find the ‘why’ – most people are unaware of, or unconcerned about, the level of data and metadata they produce until they see how it is aggregated and used to profile, score and predict them. Finding out what people care about is where the conversation really starts.

3. More empowerment and empathy, less evangelism– don’t overload people with too many options or strategies for resistance, or polarise them with your own activist viewpoint. Meet them where they are at. Think small changes over time.

***

IT’S BEEN A MONTH SINCE The Glass Room and I’m proud of stepping up as an Ingenius and of overcoming my own fears and ‘imposter syndrome’.

As well as doing nine shifts at The Glass Room, I also ran two workshops on Investigating Metadata, despite being nervous as hell about public speaking. There are eight workshops modules in Tactical Tech’s resources so it would be interesting to work these up into a local training offering if any Brummies are interested in collaborating on this.

I wrote a blog post for NESTA about The Glass Room – you can read it here: Bringing the data privacy debate to the high street.

I did the Data Detox Surgery at an exhibition called Instructions for Humans at Birmingham Open Media, and also set up a mini version of The Glass Room with some pop-up resources from Tactical Tech – there’s a write-up about that here. The Ingenius training gave me the confidence and knowledge to lead this.

Leo from Birmingham ORG has also had Glass Room training so we will be looking for opportunities to set up the full pop-up version of The Glass Room in Birmingham in 2018. Get in touch if you’re interested– it needs to be a place with good footfall, somewhere like the Bullring or the Library of Birmingham perhaps, but we’re open to ideas.

There’s also a more commercial idea, which arose at the Data Detox Surgery, to develop this as an employee engagement mechanism within companies to help make their staff more cyber-secure. If employees learn more about their own data privacy and can workshop some of the issues around data collection, then they are more likely to care about company processes around data security and privacy. In short, if they understand the personal risks, they will be more security-conscious when working with customer or commercial data.

Update: In March 2018 I launched a data privacy email for my home city – you can read all about it here.

As ever, watch this space, or get in touch if you think any of this should be taken to a coffee shop for further discussion and development. You can also connect with me on Twitter if you want to follow this journey more remotely.

Thanks for staying to the end.

 

Happy 30th to Acorns Cotteridge – a note from the founder’s daughter

Acorns Cotteridge 30th Anniversary attendeesIt was 30 years ago, in September 1987, that my mother, Ann Cullinan, opened the first-ever Acorns Children’s Hospice Shop in Cotteridge, South Birmingham. There are now three hospices and 57 shops, and next year Acorns hopes to reach 60 shops. It is a fantastic legacy of which I’m sure she would be very proud.

Sadly, today also marks the 16th anniversary of her death, and in a week or so, the 16th anniversary of her fundraising funeral, for she used the occasion to make one last appeal for a different charity: the Huntington’s Disease Association.

I was honoured to be asked to visit the Acorns Cotteridge shop to say a few words and help kick off the 30th-year celebrations. It was lovely to meet people who had known Mum, meet the new shop manager, volunteers and Acorns senior management, and also to catch up with family friend Ivor Gornall, who was one of the original ‘Ann’s Army’ volunteers. And it was great to see how the charity is moving forward and building on its early foundations.

I’ve edited the video clips together to include a few others who spoke on the day – it’s just under nine minutes – and one for the family record as well as Acorns. The transcript of my talk is also below.

I’ve blogged about Mum’s involvement in Acorns as the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops previously, and my own visit to Acorns in Selly Oak, which was quite emotional – you can read about it here.

I feel I’ve become a bit of a historian or documenter of that period of Acorns’ history on Mum’s behalf. I have kept all her press clippings, letters and photos, and look forward to continue sharing these so that Acorns’ beginnings as the charity that Birmingham took to its heart won’t be lost.

Video

Transcript

In Feb 1986 Acorns became a family affair when our mother Ann Cullinan and two friends from Cadbury’s decided to raise £3,000 for the new Children’s Hospice Appeal.

My brother’s main memories are a front room full of black bags, being a phone secretary jotting down all the messages, and still wearing his fave jumper from “Anne’s Boutique.”

My sister brought her young daughters to help cut ribbons and open shops. She remembers when the scout hut with hundreds of donations was burned down a week or so before a new shop opened, and Mum using the fire as a PR strategy to get into the newspapers. She ended up with twice the donations.

I was a teenager at the time and helped collect donations, sort clothes and do the colouring in on posters.

But we weren’t the only ones galvanised into action. Ann’s Army – also known as the AA team – were a band of around 30 volunteers and helpers, many of them fellow employees and friends from Cadbury’s. Mum was known as The Commander in Chief and, although she was actually quite a shy person, she was determined – in fact, she like a woman possessed when it came to fundraising for Acorns. She always said she could never ask for anything for herself but she could ask for everything for the children and families who would desperately needed the new hospice.

Some examples of those crazy times –

  • Shops never had an opening, they had a GRAND opening
  • barge pulls
  • antique road shows
  • a giant turkey auction –
  • discos
  • belly dancers
  • marching majorettes –
  • fashion shows
  • rocking horse rides
  • the BRMB Walkathon –
  • letters went out to Adrian Cadbury, local business, Princess Diana
  • celebrity casts from the Xmas panto were roped in
  • photo opps, radio broadcasts and handwritten press releases

Mum was always sitting quietly writing with pen and pad in her armchair slowly changing the world one letter at a time. And such direct letters!

People always said yes. She would just look straight into people’s eyes, tell them what she was raising funds for, smile – then wait. She would unleash this massive human warmth that made people feel good about giving. If she needed a van, one would appear; a shop, one would become available; some carpet, she’d get the number for the NEC and somehow end up with thousands of square yards of conference carpet.

It was fun. But always driven by the kids who needed care.

To put a couple of figures on those early days:

  • From a £3k initial target, a cheque for £20,800 was presented to the trustees by Les Dawson and Ruth Madoc within a year.
  • The first shop, in 15 weeks, raised £30,000 – around £2000 turnover per week.
  • A year later it had contributed £100,000 (Sept 1988)
  • By 1990 Ann’s Army had raised £350,000, had opened in Stirchley and were ready to open a third shop in Kings Heath.

All voluntary.

I know she would be so proud of what has been achieved since that first shop opened 30 years. I have some photos and letters and posters showing the fundraising work of those early days, and a picture of the first Cotteridge shop volunteers if anyone would like to see them.

I am honoured to be invited here to represent the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops, and the involvement of Ann’s Army of volunteers. Mum always brought it back to the children so I’ll finish with her words to the volunteers 28 years ago:

” Since we opened our first temporary shop we have, by our combined efforts, contributed nearly £200,000 to help those unfortunate children and their families get support and be given respite care. I have witnessed the relief and gratitude by parents who are using Acorns and its facilities. I wish it were possible for each of you to do the same. Whilst the staff at Acorns may have direct contact with the children, you are an essential part of the team. Without your efforts, life would be much more difficult for all concerned.” [Ann Cullinan, 15/9/89]

Thank you.