The King of Yammer

Yammer 2 croppedWhen David said we’ll be using GotoMeeting on this project, I laughed. I’d never been on one yet which hadn’t had some kind of hitch. It’s a videoconferencing facility and we were part of a national project, aiming to meet the requirements of OFSTED while also reducing the amount of paperwork tutors have to complete, freeing them up for more teaching. What’s not to like..?

And I do love technology. It’s just that too much doing, too much busyness undermines our sense of who we are. We need periods of just being, if only for a few minutes each day; resting…thinking. When it goes wrong or doesn’t work, I tend to assume it’s something I’ve done, which is often the case but…as I discovered, not necessarily so.

A week and a bit after the two-day residential where we had all met on, worked together, split into teams and come away with action plans, one of the two groups I was coordinating, Starting Points, had asked for a ‘Goto’. I had carefully installed GotoMeeting software and gained ‘admin rights’ on my pc at home. I’d learned how to organise a meeting. I was ready to go.

Then, when 7pm on the Wednesday eve arrived, I was still 5 minutes late, so nobody could get on. Things always take twice as much time as you think. The audio was a bit “crackly”. Sometimes, it cut out altogether. I hadn’t noticed my video screen had frozen. Louise told me I had a fearsome stare. And I had…I clicked on the ‘Unfreeze frame’ button. Yet, the four in the group managed a ‘go round’ of mystery shopping exercises and writing a pre-course questionnaire. And a set of notes was produced, which were duly posted on Yammer, the social media site we were using on the project to keep us all connected.

The World Cup started that evening. I put my feet up and tried to forget all about GotoMeeting. How unlucky were Croatia against Brazil in the opening game!

Starting Points asked for a second ‘Goto’ two weeks’ later. This time, I couldn’t get on at all. I still can’t tell you why. As the Organiser, that meant none of us could. Louise and George rang me on my mobile. Thank goodness for yammer. We used it as a thread for our discussions. I didn’t appreciate at the time how we were creating a record of our discussions which was great for research.

So, what kit am I using at home? I have a mini-HP laptop; 1Gb RAM (that’s the juice or power!) and 3Gb hard drive). It only has one jack point for the audio lead from my headset which means using the microphone on the laptop. I was speaking into my mouse pad for a long time till my colleague, Richard, mentioned that the in-built mic was above the monitor, most likely. How do you know?! If people don’t use a head-set (recommended), then all the noises off are amplified or reverberated. I could hear small children, loud banging, like steak being tenderised; people leaving the conference, rejoining the conference. ‘Is everybody here?’ I asked. If you mute your mike, you can hear but can’t be heard.

I was clinging on. Computers can really undermine confidence. And they’re great too for doing stuff.

Both small groups I was coordinating had started out together looking at the same area, namely, how do students find out what we’re doing and when they do contact us; what are the best ways to help them. They’d gone off in different directions but I could see from the Yammer thread that they were understandably converging. So, it seemed sensible to call a joint GotoMeeting…for a Wednesday evening, 7-8pm.

‘You do know only six of you can share video screens, don’t you?’ ‘Er, well, actually, no.’ It was a good job there would only be nine of us, if everyone joined. Plus one on the telephone. In the second week of July, we got going. The experience was a bit crackly again; at times the audio quality was intermittent, occasionally disappearing altogether. But everyone did get a say. There was some discussion and we did get a set of notes.

You also get to see people in their string vests, their mopped hair and what’s on top of their wardrobes.

So, what had changed?

The Monday before, I had arranged two GoToMeetings from home; one with David, the Project Coordinator, and the other with Richard, my teammate. Both were good practice. Richard told me about ‘Screensharing’. ‘This uses up so much ‘juice’. Close it if you don’t need it.’ I hadn’t even been aware I was. ‘And you’ve got Skype running in the background. Right click on its properties and disable autostart, when you turn on your computer. See what else you don’t need on start-up and disable it.’ ‘OK, thanks…’ ‘And your video icon – if you click on it to grey it out (close it), you can’t be seen but the audio quality improves. ‘You mean, people can still hear me?’ He virtually nodded. ‘And the wave…’ ‘What about the wave?’ I asked. ‘Well, people like to wave. It’s a friendly greeting but if your computer is low on power, it is trying to convert all the movement into pixels, slowing down the screen or even freezing it for a time.’ ‘I see…’ ‘Better to nod than wave…but if you have plenty of power, then no problem. There are some things you can’t do much about, like the size of your bandwidth or whether America is online.’

Two days later, on a Friday morning, the other team, ‘From Looking to Booking’ had their own ‘Goto’. I was at my desk in the office and started the meeting on time. All four team members joined. The picture quality was great, as was the audio. I could hear each of them but then, they couldn’t hear me!

The day before I’d downloaded an update for GotoMeeting. As we’re on network, this is normally impossible but I noticed something seemed to have happened. I asked Dan in our office, who’s a ‘Techy’, if he could fix it. ‘It should be working,’ he said. ‘I’ve checked the audio settings and everything looks fine.’ Then, Sandra emails me. She is the Quality Reviewer for the Project and she’d like to join a ‘Goto’ some time. ‘There’s one right now,’ I email her back, ‘if you can join?’ She asks for the joining instructions. I’ve asked for these myself during a meeting but never had to do it. So, I know it is possible. I breathe more deeply. After three attempts at emailing the instructions, she still hasn’t received them and Dan has the mouse and Richard says, ‘Unplug your video/audio leads from the front and plug them in at the back.’ So simple and it worked! Sandra appears out of nowhere on screen. I had perfect audio and they could hear me. Ahhh!

‘Would anyone like to do a ‘GotoWebinar’, I asked them as we neared the end of our hour-long discussion. All quiet. ‘Have a think…and let me know. Well, don’t look at me. I’m not doing one!’ And Sam offered to write up a set of notes.

But as I was walking along the road the next day, I thought to myself, ‘Well, why not.’ And this is the story I told and this is how it ended. One of my fellow coordinators, Lou, had called me the ‘King of Yammer’ for engaging. Until today, I haven’t had a smart phone and usually logged on at my desk. This was kind of her to say. I was only doing what I thought was expected of me. She later went on to post about her own feelings of ‘I can’t do this’ when talking about organising a GotoMeeting. She had put it off, hoping it would go away. I had no idea, she seemed so ‘techy’. But she had finally given it a go, partly on the back of one-to-one practice with David, the lead coordinator, and, partly, she said, because ‘if Bernie can do it…’ She has to be the ‘Queen of Goto’.

And there it ended…but I’d like to add that my two project teams asked to hold a joint ‘Goto’ at the end of July…on a Wednesday evening…you have the instructions. I am on holiday. Go on, how hard can it be? You’ll get a set of notes and so much more!


Deepening the Life of the Spirit

“Therefore, O spiritual soul, when thou seest they desire obscured, they affections arid and constrained, and thy faculties bereft of their capacity for an interior exercise, be not afflicted by this, but rather considerate [sic] a great happiness, since God is freeing thee from thyself and taking the matter from thy hands. For with those hands, howsoever well they may serve thee, thou wouldst never labour so effectively, so perfectly and so securely as now, when God takes they hand and guides thee in the darkness, as though thou wert blind, to an end and by a way which thou knowest not. Nor couldst thou ever hope to travel with the aid of thine own eyes and feet, howsoever good thou be as a walker.’

From ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ by St John of the Cross, extract from handout

“…the voice of the Spirit has its own colour and texture. The slight breath of its wings against my heart, the flutter in my inner ear, and the smoothness of its touch all help me know which way to move my fingers…I choose to follow. I have no choice.”

From ‘To Be Broken and Tender, a Quaker Theology for Today’ by Margery Post Abbott, p91, speaking about writing.

One hundred Friends gathered at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre at Selly Oak in Birmingham. We forewent the usual serious business format this time, I was told, for a refreshing exploration of our spiritual practices or disciplines.

Of the nine workshops available to choose from, it was possible to take three over the weekend. The process of choosing which workshops was interesting to observe in itself. Mine kept changing in the weeks leading up to the rep council. I found myself on ‘Sound and Light meditation’, ‘Instruments of Devotion’ (our bodies in case you hadn’t guessed –well, what else have we got?) and Bible Studies. The latter focused on a tricky entry in Romans 1:14, considering the rules of hospitality and on valuing the person. This was remarkably fresh and contemporary for me. I shared a story about recently being invited to a christening where the food on offer was all meat. As I don’t eat meat, it was a tricky situation. But all was well and I had a thoroughly pleasant time. Do I have Paul to thank for this? It’s enough to ask the question, as I’ve not even read most parts of the Bible for some time. This was partly why I chose it, I think. All the sessions I attended were superb and I look forward to sharing my experiences with anyone who asks.

Details of all the workshops and more are held in a marvellous new resource, published by Quaker Life (QL). Ginny Wall, then Spirituality Tutor at Woodbrooke, has gathered together a series of practices – Appleseed, Bible Study, Body Prayer… – in ‘Deepening the Life of the Spirit’. This is a small booklet but I recommend everyone gets a copy. At £4.00, it’s a snip! QL has sent a copy to each Area and Local Meeting too and I brought a couple of extra copies back, which I’ve put in my Local Meeting library.

During the Sound and Light workshop, we were invited to close our eyes and listen to all the sounds   around us, using them as part of a meditation or centring down process. Although I knew I was in a safe place, I noticed to my surprise how vulnerable I felt. It was almost like a prayer. A response came to me in the following workshop. Part of this was first to guide and then be guided by a friend, holding one’s eyes closed. I didn’t want this to end, so at peace did I feel, so completely supported and guided. The sense of trusting and letting go was wonderful.

My Equipping for Ministry (EFM) tutor had suggested I look out for hand and heart language. I found myself becoming conscious of this during the Bible Studies workshop. As the hour passed, I became more and more aware that, unless prompted to read a bible passage, all the women in the group, about half, remained quiet. The men were making all the comments, notwithstanding the best efforts of the tutors (both men) to involve everyone. I recalled my tutor’s ‘watching for head and heart‘ question and mentioned it in the group. Later, one woman took me to task for being, as she saw it, critical of the women present. I was glad she did as I was able to reassure her, to explain that I had become accustomed in the Society of Friends to meeting women who are confident in speaking their minds and had only raised the point because I had felt more and more uncomfortable as only the men were speaking. Mind you, the group did contain both the QL General Secretary and Clerk, so there may have been other influences at work too. And, on the whole, many of us in Quakers can be quite introverted at times, regardless of gender.

And then, a female friend, sitting opposite me over lunch started talking without any previous knowledge of what I’d just experienced about how much she preferred being part of an all-female group. She found that men debated the issues. Whereas, with other women in a group, she felt better able to express her own deeper thoughts and feelings. Yet one more thing for me to ponder on my EFM journey. How much of an issue is this in our own meetings, I wondered?

There were so many highlights. I met two of the Kindlers. Simply walking round the beautiful gardens in the sunshine was a real pleasure. I’m sure some of us made use of their new meditation skills to walk the labyrinth on the lawn. The two speakers were inspiring. The second one, a man, spoke to my condition as he told his story about his spiritual practices and journey. Both speeches are to be published in ‘Quaker Voices’. There is also a report of the weekend in Quaker News. A particular pleasure for me was finding at very short notice I was called on to tell a story (from the Arabian Nights) in front of 80 friends, gathered for an evening of entertainment on the Saturday evening. As someone who is still fearful on occasion of getting up and speaking in public, I felt real satisfaction in letting it happen. Great fun if only for me.

From the subsequent email correspondence, I’m aware that the weekend has also been inspirational for many others present there. I hope that as many of you will take the opportunity to look at ‘Deepening the Life of the Spirit’ for yourself or as part of a group. I also brought back a copy for the library of ‘God just is. Approaches to silent worship’ by Curt Gardner. There is a lot more to Quaker Life that I’m only just beginning to find out about, as there is to Quakers in general for that matter. If you wish, you can find out more on the website, I would also encourage you to join in the QL Network. We want more members!

Quaker Life Representative Council

13-15 April 2012

At Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham

Report to Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting

6th day 5th month 2012


On the Mayoral Green Commission

Portrait Bench: Kirkby

Photo by tommypatto~IMAGINE from Creative

Recently, I attended a plenary meeting of the Liverpool Green Partnership at Blackburn House. Its purpose is to raise awareness, promote fresh, creative thinking and energy leading to Liverpool becoming a sustainable city, perhaps, obtaining UN Green City status or even becoming a Green European capital. It’s doing better than I thought, according to its base line survey. It s not doing very well on its ‘bins and recycling’, which is what I know most about, living here. At least, it’s honest. That’s a good start. I wonder how many people know that the elected Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has created this Commission. And even if everyone did know, what difference would it make? Liverpool has one of the lowest participation rates in the democratic process, yet is viewed not least by those who live here and, more widely from outside, as a radical city. Could this be an area where the city’s radical roots and its civic responsibility come together?

I watched a number of good presentations. The one which caught my eye most – for good and bad reasons – concerned Forest Schools. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re worth finding out about. Basically, they take children and their parents/carers/grandparents out into open spaces in and around the city and teach them woodcraft and play. They do wonderful stuff and I couldn’t help thinking of a group of young dads I’d met recently who probably didn’t know about Forest Schools, who would love this for themselves and their kids.

Sad in that we’re having to teach our kids how to play out in the woods and parks in organised groups. Memories from my own childhood popped up – playing out all day, climbing trees, falling out of trees, building dens and making friends and falling out again, amid the bombed out debris still around in Bootle in the 1960s.

Someone asked a question from the floor. ‘Liverpool City Council is currently building thousands of houses to the lowest building regulations,’ he said. ‘Could the Commission not influence the Council to adopt low carbon building regulations? This would save money in the long run with less maintenance. It would help tackle fuel poverty and reduce carbon emissions, they would be so well insulated. And it would create a green workforce, creating new jobs, increasing capacity.’ Was that visionary? It seemed common sense to me. So, why not do it? I remember pictures of the sparkly new towns of Skelmersdale and Kirkby and Runcorn in the 1970s, which gleamed and won awards but turned so quickly into rust buckets and dark alleys.

The Commission doesn’t have any funds of its own. It may put targets to its recommendations to the Mayor or it may not. Its five members, one of whom is a woman, are representative of the local community, said its Chair. It was unclear to me if any of the other panel members came from local communities in the city.

On our table, one man spoke about there being no ‘buy-in’ from the majority of people in Liverpool to this. ‘It’s the same faces here as there were two years ago at the Low Carbon event,’ he said. ‘There is no civic movement for the green economy.’

It does seem a real opportunity for Liverpool to make the most of its creative capital in people, ideas and resources in building homes and creating jobs for a sustainable today. Will it take advantage of it? I hope so.


Submit your own piece to the Commission and further details can be found here

On Forest Schools…