Doing hard things

Picture of a person jumping off a cliff with overlaying text
Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, this quote is frequently found in the wild, overlaying pictures of mountains, cliffs, and pictures of people jumping off things.

I hate this quote. In fact, I dislike a lot of ‘ inspirational’ quotes, and especially those which are found paired with pretentious photos of sunsets, beaches, or people jumping around in odd poses. But this quote in particular seems to be one of those that pops up all over the place, on top of pictures of mountains and difficult terrain.

A lot of my (possibly slightly irrational) hatred for this phrase goes back to a former partner of mine. A fair few years ago I was struggling with some bad mental health problems – the type of anxiety where you can’t even work out what to wear in morning, without melting into a crying wreck and where after trying 5 or 6 different outfits, you’d finally make your way out of the door, 20 minutes late, trying hard to hold your shit together while being certain that what you were wearing was wildly inappropriate, made you look horrendously fat and/or looked terrible. It was bad times to be fair. However, it didn’t seem like anything that new – for as long as I could remember I had been really rather scared of things: being thought of as weird at school, people finding out my family were a bit messed up, and not having enough money to live on when I moved out as a teenager.

My partner at the time was a fan of inspirational quotes. Quotes like “do something every day that scares you”. There were others – one about acceptance, one about letting go – but this is the one that stuck with me, as I lived so much of my life in fear and panic – and it frustrated me that he couldn’t see or quite grasp this, and told me fairly regularly instead that I needed to do things that scared me. He didn’t seem to see that even getting out of bed, and choosing what to eat for breakfast scared me.

Looking back it’s a) really odd to think how long ago that all was now and b) fascinating how far I’ve come, and how much has changed

There was a sudden realisation a few years ago that I had beaten the worst of the anxiety – that I could mostly handle the times I felt panicked, and not let it get the better of me (how this happened is probably a topic for another blog post). Then came a tremendously busy period in my life – a few years containing lots of house moves (including one from Cambridge to Manchester), a move away from freelance work, and then getting engaged.

I’m just settling back down after that intensely busy period, and I’ve just has the realisation of *quite* how far I’ve come and how much things have changed. The goals I’ve set myself for 2017 are things that I could never have imagined myself doing before at all. Fear would have crippled me on even one of them – let alone all. The current list stands at:

  • Completing a triathlon
  • Running a half marathon
  • Taking control of my finances
  • Starting to learn to play the violin
  • Curing my arachnophobia
  • Learning how to record a podcast

These may not sound scary to most people but they very much are scary things for me. I was terrible at P.E at school, and that had basically been the pinnacle of my exercise career. Added to which, during my 20s I started having joint problems – problems that left me reliant on a walking stick at times, and even now can leave me for a week barely able to get up stairs. As for anything to do with money? Well I grew up having none, so adopted an ostrich like approach to anything related to finance.

To some degree – the activities I’m doing this year still scare me. But I can’t get over the difference about how they would have felt a decade ago. And that’s for two key reasons.

Firstly, I’ve dealt with the anxiety. I no longer get the completely crippling, panic inducing anxiety of my past. I’m no longer sobbing about the idea of working out what to do in an evening – not wanting people to hate me for saying no – or completely incapable of dressing myself.

And secondly, life has changed. I’m in a (relatively) stable job that I enjoy, and living with a partner who can help me on the days when my joints decide they aren’t going to work, and who is willing to stand next to me while I try to get close to a spider (that in my mind is obviously going to jump up and kill me).

As such I’m now in place where I can try things that are harder. Like trying to run 20-odd km, or trying to cycle on the road (where else am I going to get the triathlon practice?), or turn up at my new violin teachers house and accept that I know nothing and will look and sound like an idiot at first (and yes, if I had told 16 year old me that in a decade and a bit I was going to be trying to do a triathlon and learning to play the violin I’d have laughed at how middle class I was going to become).

And the thing I find most interesting? The realisation that what I feel now is much more aligned with the ideas of ‘feeling the fear’ that many comfortable and well-to-do types have – often those who tell you to ‘do something every day that scares you’, or to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

There really are many different ‘levels’ of feeling terrified of doing a thing, and you still are scared trying new things – but the fear is different. For instance, I still get a bit concerned before a long and difficult run – because I don’t know what will happen the other side. My body may seize up and I may struggle for a few days. But I no longer work in bars or as a shelf stacker, so if I’m physically less able for a few days, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not going to risk impacting my ability to earn enough money for rent or food. If I mess up when I try to make a podcast – its not going to be the end of the world. People (for the most part) won’t suddenly think far less of me.

Feeling this different type of fear –the type of scared where you force yourself into doing things that are hard for fun or for a challenge is something that comes with comfort. You have to not be draining yourself emotionally with worry about whether you’ll have enough money to make your next rent payment, knowing that your health is in reasonable shape – be that mental or physical – is hugely helpful (or in my case, knowing I don’t have to rely upon my body for my job any more), and knowing that partners, friends, family, and bosses will be understanding if there are any problems is beneficial also.

I feel very lucky to now be able to do things that I considered impossible years ago. I’m just mind blown to find myself in a place where they are far easier to do than even the basics were a few years ago.

 

(I wish I had a list of good resources for anyone who comes to this blog post and who is experiencing anxiety or struggling, but sadly I never found any. It would be great if people could post any good resources they know about in the comments section)

What colour is your household waste bin?

How far will I go to prove someone wrong?

Well, it turns out quite far. A few weeks ago @TillyWrites and I had a disagreement about the colour of household refuse bins. I think they are usually black, and Tilly thinks they are usually green.

Edit: This is about non-recyclable waste bins. Sorry for not making that quite clear!

So, on and off since then, I’ve been searching online for every authority in the UK with responsibility for waste collection, and capturing information about the colour of their bin, producing a glorious spreadsheet. (I like spreadsheets – spreadsheets are fun).

Suffice to say I’m winning. There are more authorities that provide black bins than green bins. And there are more people who use black bins than green bins as their main household waste bins across the whole of the UK (using ONS population estimates).

However, I’ve gotten a little obsessed. I now want to make a map to put on my wall – and I currently can’t find information online about bins in 34 authorities. I don’t want to have ‘unknown’ as a category in my final map if I can help it!

Can you help me make a complete data set and thus a pretty map?

If you live in one of the 34 authorities that is currently marked as ‘unknown’, could you add the colour of the bin to the spreadsheet? The rules are:

  • I’m looking for data on household waste collections only – not business waste.
  • If bins might be one of two colours, add both
  • If the bin lid is a different colour to the body, add both colours
  • The ‘black’ and ‘dark grey’ boundary is hard to differentiate – and I’m not sure authorities are using them distinctly. Add both if you aren’t sure!

When I’ve completed the dataset, I’ll publish a full list online, under an open license, with other data like population data, just in case anyone is geeky enough to want to use it for some reason. I can’t think why someone might want it, but who knows?!?

Thanks!

How can open data help democracy?

This post was originally published on The Democratic Society website.

It’s always good to read about open data and democracy in a mainstream newspaper , but often the focus of the pieces are too narrow, and it was in this case. While exploring broadly the idea of apps for democracy and open data, the focus was on voting as the main means of democratic engagement, without exploring how else citizens can engage in politics or policy making, and the article didn’t touch upon how to help citizens understand and use the data that is being made openly available.

At the Democratic Society, we believe that people should be engaged meaningfully in decision making more substantially than through the exercising of the right to vote taking place once every five years. While voting is a crucial part of a representative democracy, it is not the end of democratic engagement. Once elected, governments should be actively listening to, and working with, citizens, to develop policies and services.

The reasons for this go beyond just a democratic imperative – although this is obviously important – to the fact that it provides opportunity for public officials to tap into the collective expertise of the public; gaining insight to which they would not otherwise have access.

There are a range of activities that local and national governments carry out to listen to, and engage with, citizens. These range from the standard consultation model – in which a government department or body releases a survey, asking a set of questions around a set of proposals for either a policy or service – through to much more hands on approaches, like participatory budgeting. In addition, there are many other methods and approaches described in the open policy making manual.

If governments want to move away from the criticisms often levelled at consultation and engagement exercises – one of which is that consultations are often carried out as a tick box exercise, rather than a genuine attempt at hearing from the public – they could do far worse than consider how to ensure that consultation and engagement attempts are genuinely informed by relevant data, which is released under an open license, and presented in a way that allows citizens to explore it and understand it.

We are seeing an ever increasing number of government data sets being released openly – as any quick look at data.gov.uk will tell you. And this release of open government data is often held up as a public good, and as a democratic good. The evidential narrative being that this open data allows people to hold governments to account, and to better understand what government is doing.

However, what this narrative fails to address is that the vast majority of people don’t know how to use the data that is released, don’t know that this data is being released, and either wouldn’t have the time or inclination to use this data. This means that the main beneficiaries of open data are those individuals, journalists, and companies who have significant data skills – which is not the vast majority of citizens.

This evidential narrative also fails to address that the fact that the data sets being released are those which government choses to release; either because they are comparatively easy to release, there are existing business cases to justify the cost of organising and releasing the data, or as a result of lobbying from the open data community or big organisations. While there are mechanisms  that exist for individuals to request data sets be made openly available, these routes do not seem well known to many who would benefit from using public open data.

So how can we make open data more useful and valuable for actual citizens?

One thing that would be really transformational would be for the change we are seeing around increasing citizen participation and engagement in policy making, to be combined with the open data movement.

As local and national governments engage or consult citizens on policy proposals or changes to service delivery, I’d like to see like to see these bodies releasing open data sets relevant to the issues or services they are consulting upon. And I’d like to see opportunities to be made available for citizens to explore the data that don’t require them to have technological skills, or to know much about open data full stop.

At a local government level, this may include releasing the number of times a bridge is used by pedestrians and bicycles at various times over the course of a day, when consulting about whether access to a bridge should be widened. This data release could then be accompanied by a small event, inviting local residents and other citizens who use the route to come and explore the data, alongside civil servants and other interested individuals with relevant data skills, providing citizens with the opportunity to both learn some additional skills, and to gain additional insight to inform their opinions to respond to the engagement exercise. It would also act as a way of raising awareness of open data to communities and groups who have not previously come across it.

At a national level, running these events may be more challenging – it would be expensive and difficult to run events in all possible locations across the UK. However it shouldn’t be too onerous to go so far as to release data that have been used to inform the policy proposals, or are more broadly relevant to the consultation.

These proposals would result in open data sets that are embedded and connected more strongly to the process of helping to inform public decision making, rather than just data sets that are easy to release, or seen as desirable by individuals and organisations external to government. This can then allow more informed and honest conversations to take place, resulting in citizens who can be more effectively engaged in consultation activities, and civil servants and elected representatives having more useful and informed responses from which to build any policy proposals or service design changes.

That, to my mind, is one way open data could certainly benefit democracy.

Digital Catapult shows us how to build trust

The irony meter just broke.

The Digital Catapult is currently advertising for a new Chief Executive.

In the first paragraph of the job description they explain that the Digital Catapult focuses on “four areas of opportunity in sharing proprietary data: Sharing closed data between organisations; sharing personal data in a way that’s secure and trusted; sharing licensed data more simply and sharing data generated across the Internet of Things.”

I imagine this “sharing of personal data in a way that is secure and trusted” must include “using very long privacy policies that most people will not read but are obliged to agree to before allowing people to see the important information they’ve come to a page to visit”, given that you need to accept the rather long and small print privacy policy before you can even see the person specification and full job details.

They also must feel that burying clauses like “we may disclose your personal data to the prospective seller or buyer of such business or assets” way down in the scroll through box is also a good way of establishing trust:

 

You note that "may sell" clause?
Privacy policy on the job advert page

 

So I guess they’re not doing much about informed consent then?

Monthly roundup: January 2016

Between being broke, dealing with a huge load of work, and dealing with the fall out of a move half way across the country, it was a month when I didn’t go out much. That’s not to say it was dull by any stretch of the imagination.


What did I watch?

I’m aiming to see 52 films in 2016 (for no particular reason than that I didn’t watch enough in 2014 or 2015 due to life getting in the way). No Internet and no heating in my new house meant that curling up under a duvet with a friend, eating take-away, and watching films seemed like a great way to spend time, so I seem to have made great steps towards meeting this goal.

The Last Time I saw Paris – costarring Paris as itself. I struggled with the gender politics of this, with a plot that basically boils down to a woman being sacrificed so as to enable the redemption of an unsympathetic male character, the same character who having flirted with one woman, ran off with her sister, and upon deciding he felt bad about his now dead wife, despite his role in her death, was subsequently allowed guardianship over his daughter with no real questions about his suitability. Nope.

True Romance – great fun. Although the only woman in the film being little more than a plot device and an excuse for a tremendously gratuitous violent scene, clearly designed to arouse a certain type of individual, wasn’t quite my cup of team to be honest. But there were enough other amazing moments in the film to make up for that. Including the Sicilian scene which just made me remember why Walken is amazing.

Kind Hearts & Coronets – a gloriously fun yet cutting film commenting upon the class structure (as it was/is?) in Britain. Who can imagine a better looking, more polite, and logical mass murderer?

Easy Rider – I’ve heard so much about this film, but I really struggled with it. It’s very pretty to look at, but I couldn’t accept that Wyatt and Billy in any way represented freedom or liberated individuals. Myself and a friend did keep ourselves entertained by shouting “FREEDOM” and “MURICA” at the screen at random intervals. This was more fun than the film.

Gone in 60 Seconds – you have 72 hours to steal 50 cars. What’s the best use of time? Oh yes, a heart to heart with your brother, going to see your mother that you haven’t seen for years, and engaging in some banter with the cops. Part of the “make Michelle watch Nic Cage films” plan that a friend of mine has, it was enjoyable, even if I spent the whole film moaning about the stupid project management of the car stealing process, and worked out the big finale about 30 mins into the film on the basis of a single line.

Chinatown – what a thoroughly depressing film. Brilliant, gorgeously shot, and I may now be slightly in love with Nicholson. However, I couldn’t help but find myself comparing it unfavorably to film noirs of old though…

Double Indemnity – Too much melodrama and odd acting. And I just checked out after MacMurray falling for the female lead in a stupidly quick time.

Princess Bride – always an incredible film to watch. However, the person I was with merely thought it was a ‘good film’. I may stop talking to them.

Transporter and Transporter 2 – No-one ever needs an excuse to watch Statham run around, hit things, and have his car explode. Realised part way through Transporter 2 that a friend of mine literally wants to be Statham, which will keep me amused for weeks.

The Big Short – I didn’t know what to expect from a film about the banking crisis, but I am really so glad I saw this. I loved how it managed to make an incredibly dry topic into something that is hopefully able to be understood by more people – aided by a guide to banking for normal people, delivered by cameos breaking the 4th wall.There were points when it did seem a little smug, notably a line delivered by Pitt that is simultaneously one of the pivotal moments of the film, but also seems a little heavy handed.

One thing did jar. In a film talking about a ridiculously macho culture, with few female characters, it was decided to have Margot Robbie sat in a bathtub drinking champagne to explain subprime mortgages to the viewer, and yet built in no male equivalent? Yeah, that’s problematic. I’m not against stupidly sexual and suggestive shots. I am against them just being of women.

What did I read?

I’m also aiming to read 52 books in 2016 – although I think this one may be a little harder to hit. With the whole ‘no heating’ thing, sitting down, staying still (without the associated body height of friends that you get when watching films) and reading wasn’t high on the to do list.

Activism or Slactivism – I think it’s really easy to dismiss actions dismissed as slacktivism, but I got very frustrated that this book seems to start with the idea of liking something on facebook, and then jump straight to the Arab Spring, seeming to equate what emerged from these as a result. It also helped crystallise some of my thinking – although largely in opposition ot it (ie. There was no mention of who drives the agenda when activist groups do wht they do online), and that’s useful. If problably not the point of the book.

Madame Bovary – I couldn’t decide if I was more angry with the way men treated Emma in this book, or with Emma for her romantic outlook and unsatisfied attitude to her life. Either way, any attempt to blame the books was clearly ludicrous.

What did I attend?

UKGovCamp 2016 – UKGovCamp is always a highlight of the year, and this was no different. Lots of fun, meeting old friends and making new ones, experiencing a very cathartic #FailCamp session run by @blangry, listening to the philosophical musings of @johnlsheridan, and generally being challenged to think.


What did I write?

Nothing that is published. Must try harder.



What am I looking forward to in February?

I’ve started reading ‘A Year in Magical Thinking’ which has already made me cry, and plan to write about open data, and something about democracy and campaigning. Deadpool and Zoolander 2 both come out, and there should also be a trip to an Escape Room. Pretty excited tbh.