I’ve always considered fall to be my true “new year” with that back-to-school feeling, crisp weather, better fashion and the launch of the cultural season in Montreal. This fall is no exception, I’ve been busy signing up for classes and trying new things to stay focused and motivated at work and at home.
As an avid digital enthusiast, I am often trying out apps and programs in an attempt to make my life easier or more enjoyable. Disclaimer: this list will seem old hat to some of you, or brand new to others. This is not intended as a Product Hunt-style hot-off-the-presses announcement, more of my list du jour.
This app was created by meditation and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe with the intention of bringing the benefits of meditation to a larger audience. After stints with meditation years ago (jumping into a 10-day Vipassana meditation course with no prior experience probably wasn’t a good idea, wups), and a desire to explore alternatives to medication to manage my anxiety, I was curious to try this one out. I recently completed “Take 10” their 10-day free trial of guided ten-minute sessions and adorable animations and purchased a 1-month subscription to move onto Level 2. I don’t love the subscription-based fee system, but it’s such a great app that I’m willing to give it a shot. I still haven’t found an ideal time to meditate, finding myself falling back to sleep first thing in the morning and not consistently at home later in the day, but I have already noticed benefits. The most obvious one is simply an awareness of how I’m feeling on a daily basis. By taking a few minutes to check-in, it’s easy to take stock if I’m generally feeling relatively calm, stressed, super stressed, or anxious. Just being aware of whatever that feeling is, seems to make the rest of the day a little bit more manageable. I would highly recommend this app to anyone who is curious about meditation and has never tried it before. Not to get all new-agey on you, but I’m hoping this is the beginning of a long-term path to mindfulness and a more peaceful life.
I have my amazing friend Janet to credit for this one – it’s a recipe and grocery delivery service which has transformed my approach to cooking over the last month. Based in Montreal, the concept is simple, you choose three or four dinner recipes out of a selection of six, and all the ingredients you need to cook the meals are delivered to your doorstep once a week. My husband and I are on the 2-person 3 times a week plan, which I initially thought would barely get us through the week. It turns out that with our active social calendar and frequent weekend trips, this is about as often as we are home to eat dinner together. For someone who has never been too keen on meal planning or weeknight cooking (I usually try and escape to Joe Fresh whenever we shop at Provigo), it’s been a lifesaver. The recipes range in cultural scope, and all feature fresh seasonal ingredients. Some of them need a little flavour tweaking, but I’ll take that any day over more time at the grocery store. If you’re curious, use this link and get 2 free meals when you sign up.
Having worked in digital communications for almost ten years, my introduction to code has been a long time coming, to say the least. When fellow web-lady friend Sarah Bagnall told me about Ladies Learning Code a few months ago, I got on the waitlist to attend my first HTML & CSS class. With fellow Dynamo pal Nancy Naluz heading the Montreal chapter, I was in good hands on September 12th at the Notman House. We were guided through the basics of creating a simple website with help from our workshop leader and many volunteer mentors in a matter of hours. While I am a long way away from building beautiful websites, it feels empowering to have a slightly more nuanced understanding of how the web works; and know what a “cascading style sheet” is.
On another musical note, I have finally buckled down and joined the music streaming masses. Actually it was a pretty easy transition with my new Fido “Pulse Smart plan”. I went way over my 1 GB data plan over my summer vacation this year, and when I called to complain and see if I could get a better deal, I found out that I could be paying less for twice as much data, all the other standard features you would ever want with your iPhone, and a free 2-year subscription to Spotify Premium. Combined with new favourite radio station Beats 1, I’m good to go. I don’t love how little these streaming services pay musicians, but I try and do my part to going to a lot of live shows, and sharing the love on social about my new faves. In terms of platform, I enjoy how “My Music” actually feels like your own collection, despite the ephemeral nature of the whole thing. And I hope to make new shareable playlists soon, picking up on my long lost love of mixtapes.
This app is a new one for me. As a big fan of podcasts, I was getting tired of the Apple Podcasts app, which never seemed to sync properly or download the episodes I wanted, which led to me a search for an alternative. So far so good – Overcast has the same vast selection of my favourite podcasts and I haven’t run into any of the bugs I used to have with Apple. Plus it features a volume equalizer, and ability to speed through silent moments in talk shows, for those of you who like to power through your worky podcasts. There seems to be a wave of popularity with this media form lately, from all the Gimlet casts, to the craziness surrounding the Serial series. Some of it is hype, and some of it is genuinely great storytelling and conversation. I’m always on the hunt for good music podcasts (my go-tos over the years have been the Colette podcast, the dorky but varied All Songs Considered and once upon a time the Fader mix), what are your favourites?
This one is for all the ladies in the house. A savvy friend told me about the Clue app a few months ago: it keeps track of your menstrual cycle and has recently added a host of other trackable data options, such as mood, exercise levels etc. Based in Berlin, the startup has created not only a super useful free tool but is also elevating the online conversation about women’s health. Their blog posts and newsletter feature smart writing and content including health tips, staff profiles, and new design features. As sexual education is dwindling in our education system, the more women and girls can do to be informed about what’s going with their bodies, the better.
This app could not be simpler, but I love it. A tip from my hyper-organized sister, Wunderlist is a mobile app that allows you to share and create lists. I use it mostly for family groceries and chores, but if you want to get all fancy it can be used as a project management app for pretty much anything.
Wishing you all a fruitful fall and enough chutzpah to keep up with whatever you start.
– With love.
I watched Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour a few weeks ago – documenting Edward Snowden’s decision to leak information about the NSA’s practices of collecting large amount of arbitrary data on American citizens. The film depicts a week spent in Hong Kong with journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill as they begin breaking the story internationally in June 2013.
The film is surprisingly captivating, given that it is shot almost entirely in the confines of a hotel room. Through a careful sense of pacing, we quickly perceive the gravity of the situation Snowden is in. On the one hand he seems calm and collected, having made his peace with whatever may come from his decision to share these NSA documents. On the other, we see him become increasingly cautious as he covers his laptop with a blanket while typing in a password, and jumpy when an unforeseen fire alarm goes off in his hotel.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning that the claims Snowden is making are outrageous. Despite a lot of media attention being focused on Snowden himself, as a traitor, spy, hero, villain, whistleblower etc., his claims about the NSA and other international intelligence agencies are far more shocking than any label they have been able to pin to him. Leaked documents reveal numerous NSA global surveillance programs, many of them purportedly run with the cooperation of large telecommunication companies and European governments. It has been nearly two years since these stories first broke, so these claims are nothing new. What I found shocking, was the ease with which the built-in cameras and microphones in our mobile and digital devices can allegedly be remotely activated and used to spy on anyone, at any time.
Why should we care, you may ask? Maybe you have nothing to hide? It’s true, raw data from your GPS location, phone conversations, Google searches or your health data may not be very useful on its own. There are serious implications however when all of this data can be mined and sold by brokers to any interested party. As MIT Media Lab professor Sandy Pentland recently pointed out in The Guardian, tech giants like Google are wading into new territory as they collect more and more data about their users. He suggests that Google needs to separate their data business from the rest of their revenue, as they begin to invest in smart home gadgets like Nest and Project Loon – using hot air balloons to bring the web to parts of the world without internet access. He explains: “As they go out and try to change the world, they have to revisit their ethical core because now all of a sudden they’re not just doing one function, they’re changing people’s lives in fundamental ways… You could imagine what they suggested with Nest as being real so that in fact there’s a data bank, that you own your data and you contribute to that and it has the same sort of agency that a bank does where they are certifying to the government that you own your data and they are not doing things that you haven’t approved in a knowledgeable informed way.” The world Snowden is describing in CitizenFour seems a long way away from this, claiming that large corporations such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Verizon are freely giving up information about their customers to the American government.
I find it intimidating to write about this subject, because it seems so vast and sprawling. I don’t have the resources or knowledge to investigate the NSA, or our Canadian equivalent the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), but I do find it very concerning when journalist Jacob Appelbaum states in CitizenFour that the words “privacy” and “liberty” are being used interchangeably, and that everyone is saying “privacy is dead”. So what does that make of our freedom? And what can we do about it?
My initial reaction to the film was fear, hopelessness, and shock at how bad the situation is, not only in the US, but internationally. Canada’s recently proposed Bill C-51 makes broad connections between the notion of the security of Canadian citizens, terrorism, and the need to take sweeping surveillance measures without the intervention of Canadian courts. In a recent interview with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Snowden likened Bill C-51 to the American Patriot Act. He goes on to state that: “Canadian intelligence has one of the weakest oversight frameworks out of any Western intelligence agency in the world”. I find it troubling that Bill-C-51 would increase the powers of the CSE, without adding any oversight mechanisms.
Other reactions to the film are more hopeful. In a recent Medium article, academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig praises the fact that the film was even made and distributed – describing this as a “hopeful fact about democracy”. Lessig steers clear of getting into the detailed content of Snowden’s NSA leaks, yet acknowledges the serious impact of his actions: “Snowden’s aim was to get us to see just how far our government had strayed. Finally, we have a use for that absurd battleship banner: Mission Accomplished”. The fact that the film took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature was a step in the right direction, despite quips from MC Neil Patrick Harris that Snowden couldn’t make it to the ceremony, “for some unknown treason”. Sigh.
So what can we do? Having worked on a few documentary websites and digital strategies, I find it disappointing that the CitizenFour website offers nothing in the way of resources to learn more about the issues addressed in the film. I understand that making the film in and of itself was very challenging for Poitras and the crew, but this where the Producer and Distributor should be more involved in its roll-out. If you haven’t seen the film, you could start with that. (I watched it recently on Videotron’s VOD Illico service.) Beyond this, check out organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Intercept, Reported.ly or Democracy Now. It’s easy to follow Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum or WikiLeaks on Twitter. Even if I don’t grasp the nuances of all these online conversations, I feel a responsibility to frequently consult alternative news sources, to try and get a more nuanced and multifaceted understanding of the issues.
In terms of securing digital devices, I’m no expert. You can put a sticker on your built-in laptop camera, try using a password manager (I use LastPass), and turn off location services on your mobile (which I don’t always remember to do, as evidenced above). None of these things are fool proof, but they might buy you a bit of piece of mind. I am most concerned about all of the cloud and social apps that I use constantly, not only for personal use, but for work, such as Gmail, Google calendar, Dropbox, Google docs, Facebook, Slack, etc. I use these programs ALL THE TIME. They’ve become so much of my life that it would be very inconvenient to try and find secure yet equally practical alternatives. While this sounds like a pain, the most convincing argument I’ve heard for researching and adopting alternative secure software and social platforms, is again from Snowden in his CJFE interview: “We’re creating a kind of herd immunity that helps protect everybody everywhere… He highlights the importance of using encrypted communications, even if you don’t think you’re doing anything that needs to be protected. With widespread adoption of these technologies, the people who really do need to use encrypted communications, such as the journalists who are persecuted abroad for fair reporting of controversial topics, are better protected, less easy to identify, and less stigmatized.” With this in mind he recommends SpiderOak for file sharing, Signal for messaging on iPhones, and RedPhone or TextSecure for messaging on Android phones. I’ve also heard that encrypted messaging app Zendo is very secure.
While there is clearly no one size fits-all solution, I would urge you to start with one of these steps. Talk to people about it, watch the movie. I am rarely so militant on this blog, but I truly believe that widespread and unregulated surveillance and data collection are the greatest threats to our freedom today.
Short dark days are punctuated by swaths of bright snow. The city’s filth is muffled in white, faintly lit by streetlights. I admit, I have struggled through the last few months. It feels like I’m finally turning a corner, but between the “holidays”, the cold, and my wavering conviction that what I’m doing for a living makes any sense, this winter has posed some challenges. Freelancing is great when you’re feeling up, but excruciating when it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. I haven’t found a magical solution to this, but plugging away at various initiatives on a regular basis seems to help:
Sign-up for something new: So this January I started taking a “house music” dance class at Urban Element Zone. Just saying this makes me chuckle. I’ve always loved dancing, especially to electronic music, so it seemed like a natural choice. My coordination skills don’t quite match my enthusiasm, but trying something new, in a context where income, education, language, and outfits really have no bearing on anything, has been refreshing and liberating. Now I just need to work up the courage to participate in our end of session performance later in March, will keep you posted…
Fabricate a routine: It’s really tempting as a freelancer to sleep in (guilty), work from home and take “me” time as you see fit. While I have done all of the above at times, generally I try to stick to a 10 am – 6 pm schedule, and not work from home. Although I am by nature independent and somewhat introverted, I do love office banter, and the comfort that people around me are also working. At home I am more likely to do laundry, play with my cat, and wonder what is going on in other people’s offices. I am forever in debt to EyeSteelFilm for allowing me to pretend like I work there.
Get help: There is no way I would be able to do what I’m doing without the support of my friends and family. As loving as they are, there are limits to how often I can lean on my husband or good friends to prop me up when I’m down. So this January I amped up my therapy sessions from once every two weeks to every week. While I don’t love going to therapy this often, the benefits are indisputable. If there are no systems in place at your work to deal with mental health, consider recommending getting involved with Partners for Mental Health. They have many resources for companies to raise awareness and take concrete action towards creating healthier work environments.
Get outside: While many of us start thinking about travelling south around this time of year, the freelance reality doesn’t always allow for lavish travel. I’m still working on ways to get to SXSW Interactive somehow (maybe next year), in the meantime I am trying to content myself with enjoying the snow. I actually really like winter. Perhaps instilled in me by my adventure-seeking father, I find the idea of downhill or cross-country skiing, skating or sledding quite appealing. While not all Montrealers share this enthusiasm, I find the benefits of a little fresh air to go a long way when we’re otherwise hibernating at home or at work.
Volunteer: Freelancing can be isolating, let’s face it. I’ve been involved with CreativeMornings Montréal almost since it’s founding in 2013, and haven’t looked back. Not only does this ever-growing community provide me with a network of people working in some of Montreal’s most innovative fields, it’s also allowed me to significantly expand my content strategy and writing portfolio. While volunteering has it’s challenges, i.e. occasional clashes in working styles or objectives, overall, like in anything, you get out of it what you put in. If you’re looking for new ways to invest your time, consider joining the board of a cultural organization through Montréal Arts Affaires, or check out Bénévoles Affaires, which matches up professionals with non-profits. Whatever you choose, make sure that it maximizes your strengths and challenges you, otherwise it will not likely stick.
Take stock: The aspect of freelancing that I find most difficult is managing fluctuating budgets and saving for taxes. While I can sometimes float through a few months without paying too much attention to the big picture, I’m trying to take the bull by the horns and be more pro-active about managing my money. I love Freshbooks for bookkeeping, and my accountant Dan Lacroix is great at recommending strategies for the self-employed and small businesses. I also recently signed up for Mint.com, in an attempt to actually create and stick to a personal budget. Any suggestions on how to do this better and less painfully are welcome.
Visit your local library: When not braving the cold in the winter months, I love a good novel. Frustrated with trying to manage annoying Adobe digital rights issues in borrowing library books with Kobo, I have been making visits to both the amazing Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and my more modest local Parc-Extension Library. (I just found out that I can return BAnQ books at my local library actually, which will hopefully save me from my usual library late fees!) I just finished Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life, which I would highly recommend. The protagonist Slava, a young writer, struggles to accept his Russian Jewish heritage and relatives in Brooklyn while attempting to establish himself in Manhattan at the fictional Century magazine. When his grandfather asks him to write letter to claim restitution funds for holocaust survivors, Slava is faced with a moral dilemma. The characters’ mix of pride in their heritage, and humour in facing day-to-day struggles feels eminently relatable. This novel explores some of my favourite issues – the blurry zone between fiction and non-fiction, in how we frame our past, present ourselves to the world, and tell our stories.
Don’t be so hard on yourself: Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, as an eager self-critic, I need to be reminded not to take myself overly seriously and analyze my choices to death. It’s difficult to be your own champion when things are slumpy, but I try and take things one day at time. I still worry about my future, how my career choices will impact my relationship, keeping my clients happy, and diversifying my client base. Some worry is normal. Paralyzing anxiety is not. So try and celebrate your successes, even if this means framing success differently than what you imagined as a child. In my case, it’s not working for a prestigious company, making the big bucks, or dressing in fancy clothes that bring satisfaction, but the knowledge that I’m taking a risk everyday to do what I love.
This post can also be found on Medium.