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I love living in a city for so many reasons, but one of which is the richness of live street art and music that you can stumble across – sometimes it’s part of a festival and sometimes it’s just because. Last night whilst I was ambling around the city centre, trying to decide what I should do for dinner, I spotted three people setting up equipment for a gig. It’s not uncommon to see people playing around this area in Birmingham, but usually it’s a soloist with maybe a single amp, mic and possibly a guitar; a drum kit and enough kit for a full gig is quite unusual. That, and the make up of some of the band, made me want to stick around to find out more. Plus, I still hadn’t decided what to have for tea.
Unsurprisingly it turned out they were a rock band, and the man in front of me was right in his assertion they looked like they were going to be worth sticking around for. Once they’d told the group of bemused onlookers who they were, I did a quick online search and turns out StOp,sToP! have quite the following. I stuck around for a few songs, ignoring my rumbling tummy, and thoroughly enjoyed their rendition of Proud Mary in particular.
In a week when terrible things have happened in our fellow second city, armed police patrol the streets and trains, we’re told trauma centres are on high alert, and the country’s threat level is raised to critical, a rock band plays a free gig in Birmingham city centre. It feels ridiculous and defiant, and as the crowd sung and danced along, it felt like the right.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the press screening of Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes ballet, on behalf of Polaroids & Polar Bears, a local arts and culture magazine.
I naively assumed it was about the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale about the girl who wears the cursed red shoes and didn’t bother to look anymore into it because I was supposed to go with my mum and I figured she’d know. Only she cancelled on me as she had a meeting, so I ended up going with my friend Ian. Turns out it’s based on a film, which I’ve never seen – but my friend Louise has righted that by getting me a copy for my birthday.
Anyway, if you want to read my thoughts on the ballet, head over to Polaroids and Polar Bears!
There’s something about the crisp winter darkness and the sparkle of lights that feel magic, hopeful. And the Magic Lantern Festival being held at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens didn’t disappoint. I loved the creativity, weaving round the path seeing the different stories and the simplistic fun of a Saturday night that involved soya lattes and toasted marshmallows, rather than crowded bars and badly poured drinks.
I hope it returns next year…
I’ve decided to do Blogmas this year!
Well, kinda, I’m doing my version of Blogmas. For those of you who don’t know, Blogmas is a thing where bloggers, or vloggers (aka vlogmas) try and blog/vlog every day in the run up to Christmas. I’m not really sure why, but there’s loads of things like Blogtober and Blog Every Day in May and I think bloggers just like a challenge.
But, knowing how long it takes to blog for me on my main blog, I figured I’d do a type of Blogmas, but make it more about gift giving…or rather comment giving. You see, I always like it when people leave comments on my blog posts, and I’ve been finding that it happens less and less these days, although I know people are still reading. So this time I’ve decided that for every day in the run up to Christmas, I’m going to post a comment on at least one blog post I read that day. I guess it’s more like Blog-advent. It’s simple, it takes a couple of minutes and hopefully it’ll make people smile, the way it does me, when they notice someone has posted.
I’m expecting I’ll mainly post on fellow Brum Blogger posts, but that’s not a rule of my Blogmas challenge, any post I fancy counts but it has to be a blog…and unlike my advent calendar chocolate, I can’t save up the comments and blast a bunch in a day.
To keep me accountable, I’ve made up a quick image (using a creative commons image from Dineshraj Goomany), and will be linking back to the posts below. Now that I probably will do in batches!
Day 01 – Jess from Jess & Josh Cook explain why she/they are doing blogmas
Day 02 – Jamie explains how to make an amazing sounding Nutella hot chocolate
Day 03 – Rebecca’s experience at the Festive Gift Fair 2016 at the NEC
Day 04 – getting some inspiration for 29 ‘to-dos’ before you go on holiday
Day 05 – checking out the five types of gin you might not know on Sally’s blog
Day 06 – reading about Elizabeth’s wedding dress shopping, because pretty dresses
Day 07 – embracing festive books and snacks because it mentions Nightmare Before Christmas
Day 08 – a really honest post about how to keep going when it feels like life is against you
Day 09 – Bullet Journal Christmas planning at Delightful Planner
Day 10 – Poppybead Creative’s year in photography
Day 11 – how Iman from And Then She Said organises her spices
Day 12 – Reading about Becky’s experience at the Blog at the Beach event hosted by Ice Lolly
Day 13 – Rosalilium’s November self-care favourites – an idea I adore!
Day 14 – Tashpantz’s CLC World competition
Day 15 –
Day 16 – Charlotte’s vlogmas day 15
Day 17 –
Day 18 – Sam from Thoughts on Tombs’ Series that went downhill
As someone who quietly kinda loves Halloween, but isn’t so keen on having to dress up, I was excited to hear Waterstones Birmingham had arranged a witch-themed author talk and singing for the night itself – authors Laure Eve, and Katharine & Elizabeth Corr.
The topic was firmly on witches, feminism and friendship, with the authors dressed up as witches from cult films like The Craft (Laure) and Practical Magic (Katharine and Elizabeth) and host Jamie as Maleficent, plus a few of the audience had dressed up too – I’d come from work, so it was just some novelty skeleton earrings for me.
I’d finished The Graces by Laure Eve a couple of days before the talk and was interested to hear more about the book. Laure talked about the idea that witchcraft in popular culture like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Craft, and indeed her own novel, gave ‘ordinary’ girls the chance to be something more, something powerful, and why witches seem to have a feminist and outsider appeal to them. It paralleled an article Laure has written for Buzzfeed, which is probably a better read than my memory.
Both The Graces by Laure Eve and The Witch’s Kiss by Katharine & Elizabeth Corr all have strong elements of friendship about them. I haven’t read The Witch’s Kiss yet, but this was certainly something I found interesting in The Graces, which was more of a focus than the romantic element of the story.
Laure, Katharine and Elizabeth all talked about the research that goes into writing novels about witches, with Katharine and Elizabeth’s novel focusing quite a bit on anglo-saxon witchcraft, but all authors admitting that their computers’ search engines are rather colourful.
The talk ended with a series of questions about Halloween, with some general fingerling about Halloween, witches and suitably spooky reads, which means I’ve added even more to my ‘to read’ pile, including Cell and The Sun Dog by Stephen King.
Both The Graces and The Witch’s Kiss have sequels coming out next year; roughly February for The Witch’s Kiss and September for The Graces.
And then I got my books signed…
Waterstones Birmingham are really spoiling us young adult novel readers this year. After a fantastic talk earlier in the year about the nature of feminism and female positive friendly authors, the bookshop put on a talk hosted by #FeminisminYA creator Mariam Khan, plus authors Alwyn Hamilton and Samantha Shannon.
True to nearly all the talks I manage to get to, I’ve only read Alwyn’s Rebel of the Sands, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the story of Amani who is frustrated living with her uncle in a remote town, in a land where magic still filters through the desert nation of Miraji. One evening she meets an intriguing foreigner in a shooting contest, a place where she, as a female, has no place being and ends up escaping Dustwalk, the backward town she lives in, for an adventure where she learns her true power. I think the best description I’ve read of it is ‘Middle East meets Wild West fantasy’ and it’s so rich and colourful that it made a really great read.
Mariam did a really good job chairing the discussion and lots of really great questions were asked. She started with one about “strong female characters” a phrase I think we’ve all come to dislike and both authors talked about how problematic it is; Samantha Shannon talked about how the comparison with other female characters flattens them and diminishes the characteristics of both, and Alywn Hamilton talked about how the phrase is wrongly used to imply masculine traits in female characters. A similar discussion was brought up about the phrase ‘feisty’ when used to describe, almost solely, women.
Mariam also asked the authors their feelings on whether the characters in their books are role models and whether there’s a sense of double standards with female characters in YA novels and if they’re allowed to be considered as such. There was also discussion about the role of Katniss from The Hunger Games and how lazy journalism means ‘strong female characters’ are almost all compared to her, in a way that male protagonists aren’t constantly compared to Harry Potter. On a more positive note, Samantha told the audience about a message from a reader who took inspiration from her character Paige and how it inspired them to change their own life – which really makes me want to read the book now!
In Rebel of the Sands, Amani talks about the frustration of being female and, as the character spends a lot of time dressing up as a boy, as soon as it is revealed she’s female she loses her authority. It’s a very telling line, and feels applicable even in 2016, but it inspired Alwyn talked about how much she enjoys the ‘female characters disguised as boys’ trope.
The evening was a real success with lots of interesting topics that made me go away and think more about the books I read and the descriptions of female characters. It also made me go back and watch Joss Whedon’s Equality Now speech; “‘So, why do you always write these strong women characters?’ Because you’re still asking me that question”.
I can’t believe it’s the official end of the Live Lagom project with Ikea. I haven’t written about it nearly as much as I’d have liked, but I’ve been busy enjoying the journey – and hoping that a lot of the lessons learnt will continue on.
Back when I was setting my New Year’s Resolutions, and looking for one that would encourage my sustainability, I knew that for me it would be a case of small differences, so I settled on two areas: cook more, thereby being responsible for, and reducing, my food and packaging waste; and continue to make sure my flat was comfy and cosy, without using energy unnecessarily.
So how did I do?
I really thought running an award-winning food blog that focuses on dining out, I would really struggle, but I was pleasantly surprised how much of a rhythm I got into with it. Any excuse for stationery is a good thing in my eyes and I started meal planning, initially a week in advance, but then I moved to a monthly plan – mainly because I was convinced I kept eating the same thing!
I thought I’d hate the predictability of pre-prepared lunch, but I continued to enjoy them and will keep up with it after the project. I bargained with myself that I needed ten home-prepared meals a Monday through Friday. A typical turkey meatball lunch worked out to be about £1 per meal, compared to the previous £3 meal deal. Breakfasts were a mix of toast or porridge, still working out to be about £1 compared to nearly £4 for a coffee and pastry – saving about £20 a week.
In terms of the comfy, cosy flat without using unnecessary energy had the biggest surprise around mid-point day when my energy bill dramatically dropped from £78 to £5 – hard to believe I know! The original cost was likely calculated based on the previous occupants of the flat and I do expect it to go up after the surplus has been depleted, but the energy company is suggesting it’ll be about £25 a month, which is still a monthly saving of £53.
It’s only an estimate, but if my maths is correct that’s a yearly saving of around £1,500!
During the project there’s been a LiveLagom Facebook group of other people who are also involved in the project with other Ikea’s up and down the country. It has been a wealth of ideas, inspiration and mainly enthusiasm. There has also been a couple of meet ups at Ikea and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about everyone else’s journey.
My main plan is to carry on doing what I’m doing. I’d also like to start cooking more vegan meals because it seems meat-free meals are better for the environment and I don’t get on too well with dairy. I also want to get better at writing shopping lists and sticking to them! And now that the evenings are lighter I want to take advantage of it and walk home from work more.
I want to say a massive thank you to Ikea for asking me to be part of this journey, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the challenge, not only the saving money but also the lessons learnt and interactive with a vibrant and passionate community.
Last month I attended the Digital World Series event, held as part of the Greater Birmingham Digital Academy series, in conjunction with Digital Birmingham (I know, how many times can I use ‘digital’ in one sentence).
The event was loosely billed as a way for small/medium businesses to learn from leaders (and experts) to gain a greater understanding of digital technologies. The line up looked impressive, with speakers from internationally recognised digital leaders like Twitter, Facebook and Uber, as well as some local speakers like Simon Jenner, one of the founders of Urban Coffee Company and Justice Williams. Having been involved in digital communications for a while now, it’s always interesting to hear how other organisations are making the best of the internet, and new emerging trends.
The day kicked off with an introduction to the day from Raj Mack, head of Digital Birmingham, followed by Neil Morgan from Sage, the accountant software organisation. He give a frank and interesting presentation about how through acquisition and general enthusiasm, the organisation had ended up with a fragmented approach to social media, and how they aligned the digital strategy to that of the business ones. Neil spoke about the importance of getting buy-in from the CEO but also from staff to encourage them to share online, and also forming a community of people who follow and engage with your business.
Next up was Fouzan Ali from Uber, who spoke about his journey on getting to work at Uber and how the organisation works between local teams with local decisions making and accountability, and centralised departments.
Video was something which became a bit of a theme, started by Sophie Rayers, director of marketing at Brightcove. She spoke about the benefits of utilising video, how to make them more engaging, using user generated content and how businesses like clothing companies and financial services are using video differently. Video was something Paul McCrudden from Twitter also spoke about, talking about the company’s live streaming Periscope app and how its authenticity means it doesn’t need to be glossy, keeping costs down, which is particularly useful for smaller businesses. He also spoke about linking into social media influencers;
“Most celebrities are household names; we are handheld names. People take their phones everywhere” – Simone Shepherd.
One of my favourite talks was from Amy Hobson, partner at Social B. Amy’s talk was realistic and practical and gave some really good insights for smaller organisations that might not be able to do it all. She started off explaining how social media relates to and links back to traditional marketing, something which I think is often confusing for people not confident with digital communications. Asking people what “success looks like for you” she was able to explain simple but effective ways to manage and collect useful information from social media interactions.
Simon Jenner, founder of Urban Coffee Company spoke about the evolution of coffee companies in Birmingham but how Urban had experimented with technology to drive forward their business. He spoke about how they had been prepared to experiment with a number of ideas, some of which worked and some of which didn’t, but the importance of realising that some experiments might seem like a failure but that they might be a case of wrong timing. He also spoke about how Urban would like to use data to help drive forward the business and whilst a number of the other organisation are large national or international businesses, it was good to hear how smaller businesses could utilise digital communication innovations. Another local speaker, Justice Williams, also spoke about the importance of authenticity, looking at how a number of women are leveraging digital to create successful businesses that give them the freedom to work for themselves whilst utilising their content and retaining their authenticity.
Big data is something that seems to be everywhere and another stand out talk of the day was from Ian West, VP Analytics & Information at Cognizant, an international consultancy. He spoke about the vast amount of data being produced, and the importance of collecting the right sort of data and analysing it to improve the customer experience. Ian’s talk was funny but informative and gave some important insights into people’s fears of data, but how lots of well known businesses are using it to their advantage.
The final talk belonged to Greg Russell of Facebook, who nicely managed to knit together a lot of the threads from the other speakers, talking about the increase in photos and video being shared and how competitive everything is, so the importance of personal relevance – and having a mobile strategy.
And with that the day was done. There was time for networking afterwards, but my brain was full of the day’s insights and I wanted some time to digest them. I’d come away fascinated by what some organisations were doing and how well the speakers had done at translating how that could be applicable to other organisations to positively increase their digital footprint.
Interestingly it wasn’t always the big ‘star’ names that were the most inspiring; the more hands-on approaches from Amy at Social B, Simon at Urban Coffee Company and Ian at Cognizant provided practical applications which could easily be implemented, even in smaller teams. That said, Greg from Facebook and Paul from Twitter presented a really positive outlook to the digital landscape and how businesses, both big and small, could utilise some of these exciting new developments.
Themes which are mentioned a lot in digital communications…big data, the importance of authenticity and the increasing popularity of video were all touched on and explored. With a good mix of big names with large internationally recognised brands and smaller more local organisations, on the whole the speakers did a good job of breaking down the big ideas and wins for their organisations into ways that might work, or inspire, some of the smaller businesses in the room to develop their approaches. I’d been a bit wary, given the price of the ticket, but felt that I’d gained some valuable insights into some really exciting businesses and some practical ideas on digital communications.
The Digital World Series are organising a second event, being held in Birmingham on 27th October and tickets are available at their website; http://digitalworldseries.com/
Years ago, I got involved in one of those workplace campaigns to see which department did the most steps and it mainly involved wearing an annoying little pedometer. As someone who doesn’t drive and co-ordinates events on a fairly regular basis, I was pretty interested to work out how many steps I do – both on event days and not.
It feels like there’s been a bit of an explosion in wearable tech, particularly in trackers measuring steps and sleep, as well as others doing things a bit snazzier (like heart rate). And I love a good graph with data, so at the end of January, I decided it was time to get myself and a friend recommended the Jawbone UP2.
Wearing my Jawbone
I did a little research and the web seemed pretty convinced that for the price the Jawbone UP2 was a pretty good deal. I wasn’t sold on the strap, which looked a bit fiddly, although I didn’t get it caught nearly as much as some of the reviewers suggested. Also, is it just me or does most wearable tech just look a bit ugly? The Jawbone is less blocky than some other popular wearables, but still isn’t the nicest thing; I’m hoping as their popularity increases, manufacturers will more inclined to make something less functional and something more appealing.
The Jawbone Up2 lasted a week, if not a little longer – which I think tended to be on weeks when I didn’t sync with the app as much. To me this is a major bonus as I could charge the Jawbone once a week on a Sunday whilst watching Netflix and not feel bad for not moving. The USB charging cable wasn’t my favourite; it’s small, wasn’t overly helpful if charging from a desktop and the magnetic element is helpful, but you have to remember to get it the right way round – thankfully the flashing lights tell you if it’s charging.
Sing me to Sleep
As someone that has suffered from sleep problems for over a decade, the sleep tracker was something I was really interested in. I’ve previously tried one of those apps where you leave your phone under your pillow so the tooth fairy can leave you a graph to tell you how well (or not) you slept – and frankly I found it a bit crap.
After three months of using the Jawbone UP2’s I was impressed by how well it seemed to pick up on my sleep habits; on mornings I’d woken up feeling like I’d had a rubbish night’s sleep, the Jawbone seemed to agree. And as someone who fidgets a lot, even asleep, the Jawbone did a good job of recognising what was me moving around during my 40 winks and what was me being awake. It also did a fairly good job of knowing when I woke up, hit the snooze button and went back to sleep for a few more minutes. It also does this automatically, so there’s no need to tell it when you’re going to bed and worrying how long it’ll take you to fall asleep, which I thought was a major bonus.
There’s a lot out about how accurate wearable tech is, given that most rely on a accelerometer, and frankly those guys did more research and testing than I’d done – the most I did was try and see what my iPhone and Jawbone UP2 thought about the steps and I don’t know enough to know which was more likely. But it seemed fairly alright as a general guide.
The UP2 app also allows you to track bursts of activity – and is responsive enough that it will often prompt you to do so if it thinks you’ve been doing something energetic. Apparently if I’m on a bit of a mission, my Saturday morning power walks to the bakery would count. As there’s no heart rate monitor it asks you to decide the intensity of the exercise, which I struggled a bit with, as there’s no guide so deciding whether a hilly hike is harder work than a faster walk is up to you.
I Get By With A Little Help
In hind sight I should probably have looked at using the tracker to monitor my longer walks, but some of the reviews I’d read suggested that they weren’t too keen on if you stopped – although I didn’t find this on my walks to and from the bakery. I tended to use Map My Walk for longer walks (5+ miles) and the app integrated well with the Jawbone UP2’s. Actually, there were a few apps that I ended up syncing with it, including the Apple Health app and My Fitness Pal (although I was less good at remembering to use that). Having had a look, Jawbone also created a bunch of other apps and I quite liked the one to measure caffeine too, although it was annoyingly geared towards the US market and measuring drinks wasn’t as easy.
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone
The Jawbone UP2 app itself was simple and easy to use, and I liked the interface which gave you the details simply – and that celebratory pattern on the step/sleep bar if you’d hit your targets was a nice touch. I didn’t find the food tracker particularly helpful, and so when I did use this I found it far easier to use My Fitness Pal, which had a lot more UK foods and generally felt a bit easier to use.
Smart Coach, one of the things Jawbone seems to pride itself on, was for the most part pretty good. There were a few things that made me go “hmm” a little, mainly ones on mental health and physical beauty, but for the most part it was encouraging and gave some nice little snippets of trivia. Although it was really very excitable and (over) enthusiastic, something which I suspect works a little better in the US market than the UK one, but I did enjoy that for the most part it didn’t feel judgemental if you missed your target, rather than supportive – and gave you the option to choose your own targets to begin with.
Generally though, it was the weekly insights, which I also had on an email, that I was interested the most; these told you how you’d slept and stepped compared to the previous weeks. Whilst you could see a how you were doing daily, I enjoyed seeing the weekly compare and contrast.
So in conclusion have I made my decisions clear
Aesthetics aside, for three months I really enjoyed the insights and the reminders to get myself moving more. The Jawbone UP2 for the price is a nifty little gadget and seemed to work well. However, one thing I have to mention is that just over three months of daily wearing, the strap seemed to inexplicably brake and dropped off my wrist with no warning. And whilst the tech bit worked fine, the wearable element was redundant and sadly had to be taken back. Having had a look online, this seems to be a reoccurring problem (at least from photos on Amazon) and I’m hoping that the lack of stock in store means that Jawbone are looking to resolve its problem.
Sadly for me though, it means I was unable to replace my Jawbone and have gone for another make of wearable tracker, so will review in due course.
“Oh my gosh, it’s like the sun!” was the first comment I had when installing the LED lights in my kitchen as part of the Live Lagom project.
Seeing the bright side of things
Okay, so beforehand I’d gotten to the point where there were only two lights working, but when I swapped over the light in my hallway too and could finally see to the front door, I realised that these were useful AND money saving. Couple that with my snuggly STOCKHOLM blanket, which means I rarely put the heating on, and a new quilt on my bed and my energy bills have dramatically decreased…they’ve gone from £78 a month to £5. Yes five! I’m fully expecting them to go back up after the surplus has been decreased on my account but even still it’s pretty evidential this project is saving me money.
Food glorious food
It’s really no surprise, but my favourite thing from the project so far has been cooking. I’ve become a master at meal planning and sit down to work out what I’m going to eat for the week. I really expected that I’d hate this, that knowing what I was going to eat all week would ruin the fun but if anything it’s the opposite. It means that I can legitimately spend time more time thinking about my dinner, not less.
Failing miserably on the whole staying in to cook and then having leftovers for lunch the next day (which would’ve made this so simple), I’ve realised is that batch cooking is the future. I’ve become slightly obsessed with the FÖRTROLIG glass food containers which are the perfect portion size for most things, and as well, they move between freezer and oven and also don’t stain. Honestly, that not staining thing is way more of a plus side than I’d ever have realised, and doesn’t make me look like I’m keeping the local takeaway in business.
One of the successes I’ve rustled up was a recipe for vegan shepherds pie, a portion of which fits in perfectly and can be frozen and cooked in the same dish – hurrah for less washing up! Also, after a bit of a flirtation with soup, I seem to have developed a thing for turkey meatballs for lunch. I make a batch every couple of weeks, load the sauce up with vegetables and pop portions in the FÖRTROLIG containers and defrost them for lunch throughout the week. Oh and the Ikea 365+ food containers mean I can finally make porridge without it exploding everywhere – a fate I’d resigned myself to a long time ago.
Is that it?
Because all of this was a bit too easy, I decided that I might as well take the whole Lagom ‘the right amount is best’ philosophy one step further. As I’m already planning what I’m eating Monday through Friday, I’ve also invested in a fitness tracker, which I joked was a chic new version of an ankle monitor, as it’s definitely controlling my life but in a good way. I’m much more aware of how much (or not) I’m sleeping and often find myself going out for lunchtime walks to get my step count in…it’s definitely a case of ‘the right amount is best’!
Honestly, I thought this whole Lagom project would be a lot harder. The saving on my energy bill was a wonderful surprise and other than change the lightbulbs I haven’t really had to do much. Even the food thing hasn’t been a massive effort and the pay off in how I feel has been worth it.