Monthly Archives: November 2010

A book in the Human Library at WOMAD2010: A tale in tweets…

One Sunday morning in June, while I was lazing in bed, I received this tweet:

how about it @lauracowen? would be good to have a female geek @ #WOMAD

I spent the next hour absorbed in reading the Human Library website and the WOMAD website on my mobile phone. Then:

@littlecough oo sounds cool. To be a book you mean?


@lauracowen yep...need to challenge preconceptions about IT geeks! I need a couple of 2hr shifts from each book


laura agreement

And that was that. I was committed. In public.

The Human Library is a fascinating idea that originated at Roskilde Festival 2000 in Denmark:

Borrow a person you normally would think you would not like. We have a wide selection of unpopular stereotypes. Everything from gays to hip hoppers to immigrants. Take a walk, have a talk or dont. Just remember to give back the person within two hours.

As a book, I had to have a blurb to be printed on my metaphorical back (in practice, it was to go into a printed catalogue of the available books for visitors to browse). The idea of the blurb is to be controversial and encompass some of the popular stereotypes about the subject. At which point, I started to struggle. So, I turned to Twitter again:

Tweeps, what stereotypes of female geeks have you come across, or you believe are true? Much appreciate any responses. Thanks :)

Initially I got self-consciously positive comments about women in IT such as:

actually the best IT Manager I ever worked for was female

Whilst a nice sentiment, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So I tried again:

Okay, I'll rephrase...what stereotypes have you heard of female geeks? I promise not to believe it's your beliefs unless you say otherwise!

I figured an example or two might be helpful to get the ball rolling:

laura second crowd sourcing request 2

Um...or...'weird'...or...pls help...I'm struggling here!

That seemed to do the trick:

  • glasses
  • bad hair
  • love pink
  • like to be hit on by male geeks
  • all lesbians
  • the movies portray glamorous sexy chic
  • no fashion sense
  • most assume you have to be tougher and not at all girlie to be a female geek also
  • butch short hair
  • glasses
  • Glasses
  • pigtails
  • glasses and very girly
  • there aren’t enough/many of them
  • not as technical as male geeks

As you can see, there were quite a few responses, once unleashed. You can probably also see that some of them contradict others (eg ‘love pink’ and ‘not at all girlie’). I think that just goes to show that whatever you think about girl geeks, you’re probably wrong. 🙂

Anyway, thank you to everyone who helped crowd-source my blurb. You can read my published blurb on the Human Library at WOMAD website.

My next task was to un-earth my 15+-year-old tent, and put it up in the back garden:

Me and my tent

And I bought some purple festival wellies on ebay.

On the weekend itself, I pootled up to Charlton Park, the venue for WOMAD 2010. After some difficulties with the lack of signage and not being able to find the right entrance, I was presented with not only a free weekend ticket but a CREW pass and backstage privileges:

WOMAD pass

Which, once I’d found Katy (@littlecough), I discovered meant that I could pitch my tent in the crew’s campsite. Basically it just meant I had to walk further but I could go pretty much anywhere and there seemed to be a higher ratio of toilets and showers to campers. I appreciated that a lot throughout the weekend.

So, the Human Library. Well, I had two 2hr sessions on the Saturday. The Human Library was based in a couple of pretty yurts on the edge of the festival.

The Human Library

It was a slightly odd experience being a book. It felt a wee bit like we were being pimped out – 8 of us books sitting out of sight on The Shelf (a row of chairs by the door with a label around our necks). The customers signed up at the desk outside the yurt and were then led inside to meet their book who would then take them to a free table and cushions somewhere in the yurt, or outside on a bench to chat for 30 minutes.

Some books were instantly popular, like the Tsunami Survivor and the Psychiatrist, who both seemed to be booked out in advance for every half-hour slot. On paper, it was less obvious what a Girl IT Geek was so I tended to be the pot-luck book; people who were interested in the Human Library and wanted to try it out would often just pick one of the books not currently out on loan.

Inside the Human Library yurt

I don’t think I got any advance bookings at all but I was borrowed for most of the slots. I found that I was every so slightly nervous at the start of each of my ‘readings’ because I don’t usually find it very easy to just start a conversation with someone, even though I’m usually happy to talk to random strangers who strike up conversations on trains. My first borrower was an academic who was, himself, slightly apprehensive, I think, and very serious. We had an interesting discussion about energy use and flying. He pointed out that academics typically made their careers from becoming experts in very very specific areas, and then it’s a career highlight to arrange a conference in that area in an exotic location that you have to fly to. We discussed how video-conferencing could be improved and the problems we’d each experienced with it.

After that it becomes something of a blur. I talked to a primary school teacher about energy monitoring and how it can be hard to reduce household energy usage when you share with friends. I talked to a musician about Open Source Software (he’d tried Ubuntu but didn’t think it had the software he needed for his music) and the software we use to produce the UUPC podcast. I talked to a single mum from New York and her young daughter about using computers and how awkward it is to get photos off a camera, on to your laptop, edit them, upload them. And I did a joint booking with the Vegetarian Ecologist for a group of teenage boys with whom we discussed Second Life, Open Source Software, home automation, and agreed that my Christmas tree lights project really was very geeky. (You can see me as a book in one of the photos on the Human Library at WOMAD website.)


It actually went really well, though it was exhausting. In all but one of my bookings, we were still happily chatting away when the 30 minute bell rang to say the session was over. In the one that finished slightly early it just came to a natural end of conversation, which was fine. Over all my bookings, I think I probably ticked all the boxes of things I’m interested in and have blogged or tweeted about at some point…usability, climate change, energy monitoring, Open Source Software, Ubuntu, my Christmas lights project…

In the odd session when I stayed on the shelf, I chatted to some of the other books, including the Dyslexic Egyptology Student book, who was inspiring in what she does, and it was fascinating to listen to her talk about her life as the daughter of the Council Tenant Mum of 7 book. The Dyslexic Egyptology Student also had a great story to tell about some ace young girls who borrowed her and shyly asked her about her dyslexia and whether she’d got bullied about it and whether she thought they could go to university as they too had dyslexia.

The librarians

The sessions all ran really smoothly and the yurts were lovely and shady from the hot sun outside. I really enjoyed being a book and would recommend it as an experience to anyone. I think it would also be a brilliant way for a company to do diversity training. A few weeks later, I read a profile by a guy at work who has multiple sclerosis; the insight I got into his life just from reading that article had a similar effect on me as listening to some of the books talking at the Human Library.

As for the rest of the festival, I ate breakfast at the frightfully middle-class Riverford organic cafe (as in the delivery people), and learnt how to plait garlic (a fine skill, I feel), though I didn’t win the Riverford garlic-plaiting competition. I ate loads of vegetarian food from the various vans and stalls, discovered the lovely hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent:

Hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent

And watched the bubble experts (as seen on Blue Peter many many years ago making massive bubbles around small children):


As I left Charlton Park on the Sunday afternoon, leaving the WOMAD 2010 music festival, I realised it was the first time since Friday lunchtime that there was no soundtrack. Since I arrived on Friday, there’d been a constant music bed of drums, singing, guitars, or PAs. WOMAD wasn’t somewhere I would’ve gone had it not been for taking part in the Human Library but it was a fun experience, and I saw both Cerys from Catatonia and Chumba-wumba live (she sang Mulder and Scully; they refused to sing Tub-thumping). Sadly I missed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

FoE panel with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

On Friday evening, we went to a Friends of the Earth meeting in Eastleigh. The meeting was a panel session with Chris Huhne MP (MP for Eastleigh, and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Cllr Louise Bloom (Cabinet Member, Environment for Eastleigh Borough Council), and Andy Atkins (Executive Director, Friends of the Earth) to discuss how to reduce carbon locally. Entry was free and refreshments provided and the turnout was impressive: I counted about 120-130 people pressed into the Masonic Hall (some standing) in Eastleigh for two hours. In his introductory speech, Chris said it was the biggest turnout he’d seen at an Eastleigh meeting in years.

As the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris was the first of the panel to do his 10 minute introductory speech. He mostly focused on the importance of continuing to take climate change seriously, and how we need to work hard to reduce our carbon emissions in order to keep global warming to just 2 degrees C; if we let the global temperature increase 3-4 degrees, the next generation will have a lot of nasty things to deal with.

Overall, I was really impressed with his obvious genuine interest and passion for energy and climate change. After the introductions, the panel took questions and when one audience member asked about what happens when the wind stops blowing in the middle of the night and the wind turbines and solar panels stop working, Chris talked knowledgeably about storage technologies and facilities, and backed up Andy Atkin’s additional comments about the plans and development of a European supergrid.

When another audience member mentioned that one of the heat exchanger technologies required planning permission to install, the panellists acknowledged this and Louise pointed out that, in Eastleigh, they waive the planning fees for renewable energy technologies, then Chris announced that they would be removing that requirement, in the same way that you don’t generally need planning permission for satellite dishes. I’m not sure whether he made up his mind on the spot but had something of a ‘you heard it here first’ effect on the meeting.

Cllr Louise Bloom was also impressive and inspiring. On the way home, we agreed we wouldn’t be quite so cynical about the ‘Eastleigh, tackling climate change’ signs around the town in future. They genuinely do seem to be doing a lot as a local council, both in the community and within the council itself. For instance, they restricted the size of the general waste wheelie bins to the 120 litre bins if the household has only one or two people living in it (though they can have as big or as many recycling bins as they like). Although it’s not really possible to make the massive refuse trucks especially efficient, they have got them using the best (in green terms) fuel mix possible and they sent the drivers on courses to learn about driving more efficiently.

The council has also set up their own carbon offsetting scheme in recognition that they couldn’t cut back everything in their commitment to become carbon neutral (which they’ve just about achieved now). Services such as the refuse collection, bus services (voluntarily), and parts of the council itself all pay into the scheme. The money raised is then used to pay for things like free home insulation in local houses, rather than going to some dodgy tree-planting scheme in South America.

Louise’s approach is about influencing people locally to make changes, which she prefers over top-down government targets for everything. Eastleigh was one of the 10 councils in the 10:10 scheme and they apparently should reach their 10% reduction in energy usage by the end of the year. She also found that although the nature of their business didn’t require a lot of flying, there was enough that she implemented a rule that if you can only fly if you can’t get to your destination within 6 hours by public transport. And even then the chief executive has to give approval. That cut flights by more than 70%.

Andy Atkins also made some interesting contributions, in particular an insight into how Friends of the Earth meets with and advises the Government on environmental issues, and also on the kinds of campaigns that Friends of the Earth runs (including campaigning for what became the Climate Change Act 2008, which committed to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050). His passion is related to the link between climate change and poverty; both to the fuel-poor in the UK and to enabling people in poverty around the world to develop, recognising that that will increase their energy use and that, he said, the nations that led the industrial revolution need to lead the green industrial revolution.

Questions from the audience ranged from what to do about public buildings that always left their lights on when no one was home (write to them and keep plugging away; Chris related how he walks home from work past the Ministry of Defence buildings which do exactly that), comprehensive spending review cuts (Dept of Energy and Climate Change got the second-highest budget *increase* after the Dept for International Development; the Environment Agency had to suffer cuts though – which seemed to be an area of concern for FoE despite success in other areas of environmental issues), and when will the Government enforce having to pay for plastic bags (unlikely to pursue this for what it would get; Louise also pointed out that in Ireland, where this has happened, sales of cling film, bin liners and the like increased to compensate).

There were also quite a few questions about The Green Deal, which is a scheme about to be rolled out nationally to address the poor insulation of houses in the UK. Under the Green Deal, every house in the UK would, at some point, get wall/floor/roof insulation subsidised in some way and installed (usually after a house move when redecorating most typically takes place anyway).

So after what was a fairly last-minute decision to go, I’m glad we did. It was interesting to hear the Minister for Energy and Climate Change speak in person in his own constituency, and that he genuinely does seem to know his stuff and care about it. It was also inspiring to hear Louise’s story about what they’ve been doing in Eastleigh and how she spreads the word to other councils to help them realise they can do it too. The overall message from the meeting was that every council (local area) as well as central government needs to do their bit (though Chris was cautious about emphasising the local councils too much because he didn’t wnat to let the national government off the hook). It’s not easy, it’s not even always straightforward to assess what should be done, but it’s clear that a lot can be done and already has been done in some places.