How Do You Move A Bookstore? With A Human Chain, Book By Book

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Human chain moving books

When October Books, a small radical bookshop in Southampton, England, was moving to a new location down the street, it faced a problem. How could it move its entire stock to the new spot, without spending a lot of money or closing down for long?

The shop came up with a clever solution: They put out a call for volunteers to act as a human conveyor belt.

Delightful application of volunteer effort.

The Story of Scgary

Unless they happened to bump into each other at QParty, the first time Ruth and JTA met my school friend Gary was at my dad’s funeral. Gary had seen mention of the death in the local paper and came to the wake. About 30 seconds later, Gary and I were reminiscing, exchanging anecdotes about our misspent youths, when suddenly JTA blurted out: “Oh my God… you’re Sc… Sc-gary?”

Ever since then, my internal monologue has referred to Gary by the new nickname “Scgary”, but to understand why requires a little bit of history…

Public transport industry professionals at Peter Huntley's wake
While one end of the hall in which we held my dad’s wake turned into an impromptu conference of public transport professionals, I was at the other end, talking to my friends.

Despite having been close for over a decade, Gary and I drifted apart somewhat after I moved to Aberystwyth in 1999, especially as I became more and more deeply involved with volunteering at Aberystwyth Nightline and the resulting change in my social circle which soon was 90% comprised of fellow volunteers, (ultimately resulting in JTA’s “What, Everyone?” moment). We still kept in touch, but our once more-intense relationship – which started in a primary school playground! – was put on a backburner as we tackled the next big things in our lives.

Training page from the Aberystwyth Nightline website, circa 2004
This is what the recruitment page on the Aberystwyth Nightline website looked like after I’d improved it. The Web was younger, then.

Something I was always particularly interested both at Nightline and in the helplines I volunteered with subsequently was training. At Nightline, I proposed and pushed forward a reimplementation of their traditional training programme that put a far greater focus on experience and practical skills and less on topical presentations. My experience as a trainee and as a helpline volunteer had given me an appreciation of the fundamentals of listening and I wanted future trainees to be able to benefit from this by giving them less time talking about listening and more time practising listening.

Aberystwyth Nightline training in the Cwrt Mawr Party Room
Nightline training wasn’t always like this, I promise. Well: except for the flipchart covered in brainstorming; that was pretty universal.

The primary mechanism by which helplines facilitate such practical training is through roleplaying. A trainer will pretend to be a caller and will talk to a trainee, after which the pair (along with any other trainers or trainees who are observing) will debrief and talk about how it went. The only problem with switching wholesale to a roleplay/skills-driven approach to training at Aberystwyth Nightline, as I saw it, was the approach that was historically taken to the generation of roleplay material, which favoured the use of anonymised adaptations of real or imagined calls.

Roleplay scenarios must be realistic (so that they simulate the experience of genuine calls with sufficient accuracy that they are meaningful) but they must also be effective (at promoting the growth of the skills that are needed to best-support callers). Those two criteria often come into conflict in roleplay scenarios: a caller who sits in near-silence for 20 minutes may well be realistic, but there’s a limit to how much you can learn from sitting in silence; a roleplay which tests every facet of a trainee’s practical knowledge provides efficiency, but does not reflect the content of any call that has ever really happened.

Aberystwyth Nightline calltaking office circa 2006
I spent a lot of my undergraduate degree in this poky little concrete box (most of it before the redecoration photographed above), and damned if I wasn’t going to share what I’d learned from the experience.

I spent some time outlining the characteristics of best-practice roleplays and providing guidelines to help “train the trainers”. These included ideas, some of which were (then) a little radical, like:

  1. A roleplay should be based upon a character, not a story: if the trainer knows how the call is going to end, this constrains the opportunity for the trainee to explore the space and experiment with listening concepts. A roleplay is necessarily improvisational: get into your character, let go of your preconceptions.
  2. Avoid using emotionally-charged experiences from your own life: use your own experience, certainly, but put your own emotional baggage aside. Not only is it unfair to your trainee (they’re not your therapist!) but it can be a can of worms in its own right – I’ve seen a (great) trainee help a trainer to make a personal breakthrough for which they were perhaps not yet ready.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: you’re not infallible, and you neither need to be nor to present yourself as a perfect example of a volunteer. Be willing to learn from the trainees (I’ve definitely made use of things I’ve learned from trainees in real calls I’ve taken at Samaritans) and create a space in which you can collectively discuss how roleplays went, rather than simply critiquing them.
JTA learning to pick locks during a break at Nightline training
I might have inadvertently introduced other skills practice to take place during the breaks in Nightline training: several trainees learned to juggle under my instruction, or were shown the basics of lock picking…

In order to demonstrate the concepts I was promoting, I wrote and demonstrated a significant number of sample roleplay ideas, many of which I (or others) would then go on to flesh-out into full roleplays at training sessions. One of these for which I became well-known was entitled My Friend Scott.

The caller in this roleplay presents with suicidal ideation fuelled by feelings of guilt and loneliness following the accidental death, about six months prior, of his best friend Scott, for which he feels responsible. Scott had been the caller’s best friend since childhood, and he’s fixated on the adventures that they’d had together. He clearly has a huge admiration for his dead friend, bordering on infatuation, and blames himself not only for the death but for the resulting fracturing of their shared friendship group and his subsequent isolation.

(We’re close to getting back to the “Scgary story”, I promise. Hang in here.)

Gary, circa 1998
Gary, circa 1998, at the door to my mother’s house. Unlike Scott, Gary didn’t die “six months ago”-from-whenever. Hurray!

When I would perform this roleplay as the caller, I’d routinely flesh out Scott and the caller’s backstory with anecdotes from my own childhood and early-adulthood: it seemed important to be able to fill in these kinds of details in order to demonstrate how important Scott was to the caller’s life. Things that I really did with any of several of my childhood friends found their way, with or without embellishment, into the roleplay, like:

  • Building a raft on the local duck pond and paddling out to an island, only to have the raft disintegrate and have to swim back
  • An effort to dye a friend’s hair bright red which didn’t produce a terribly satisfactory result but did stain many parts of a bathroom
  • Camping in the garden, dragging out a desktop computer and extension cable to fully replicate the “in the wild” experience
  • Flooding my mother’s garden (which at that time was a long slope on clay soil) in order to make a muddy waterslide
  • Generating fake credit card numbers to facilitate repeated month-long free trials of an ISP‘s services
  • Riding on the bonnet of a friend’s first car, hanging on to the windscreen wipers, eventually (unsurprisingly) falling off and getting run over
Gary covered with red hair dye
That time Scott Gary and I tried to dye his hair red but mostly dyed what felt like everything else in the world.

Of course: none of the new Nightliners I trained knew which, if any, of these stories were real – that was never a part of the experience. But many were real, or had a morsel of truth. And a reasonable number of them – four of those in the list above – were things that Gary and I had done together in our youth.

JTA’s surprise came from that strange feeling that occurs when two very parts of your life that you thought were completely separate suddenly and unexpectedly collide with one another (I’m familiar with it). The anecdote that Gary had just shared about our teen years was one that exactly mirrored something he’d heard me say during the My Friend Scott roleplay, and it briefly crashed his brain. Suddenly, this was Scott standing in front of him, and he’d been able to get far enough through his sentence to begin saying that name (“Sc…”) before the crash stopped him in his tracks and he finished off with “…gary”.

Gary with some girl called Sheryl and some friend of hers
Scott Gary always had a certain charm with young women. Who were these two and what were they doing in my bedroom? I don’t know, but if there’s an answer, then Scott Gary is the answer.

I’m not sure whether or not Gary realises that, in my house at least, he’s to this day been called “Scgary”.

I bumped into him, completely by chance, while visiting my family in Preston this weekend. That reminded me that I’d long planned to tell this story: the story of Scgary, the imaginary person who exists only in the minds of the tiny intersection of people who’ve both (a) met my friend Gary and know about some of the crazy shit we got up to together when we were young and foolish and (b) trained as a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline during the window between me overhauling how training was provided and ceasing to be involved with the training programme (as far as I’m aware, nobody is performing My Friend Scott in my absence, but it’s possible…).

Gary and Faye embracing on a sleeping bag
That time Scott Gary (drunk) hooked up with my (even more drunk) then crush at my (drunken) 18th birthday party.

Gary asked me to give him a shout and meet up for a beer next time I’m in his neck of the woods, but it only occurred to me after I said goodbye that I’ve no idea what the best way to reach him is, these days. Like many children of the 80s, I’ve still got the landline phone numbers memorised of all of my childhood friends, but even if that number is still valid, it’d be his parents house!

I guess that I’ll let the Internet do the work for me: perhaps if I write this, here, he’ll find it, somehow. Hi, Scgary!

Underground and Overground in the City of London

Despite being only a short journey away (made even shorter by the new railway station that appeared near by house last year), I rarely find myself in London. But once in a while a week comes along when I feel like I’m there all the time.

British Rail branded poster from an abandoned tunnel under Euston Station, circa 1960s.
Bargain travel to London from the station around the corner! Don’t think this poster is up-to-date, though.

On Friday of last week, Ruth, JTA and I took one of the London Transport Museum‘s Hidden London tours. Back in 2011 we took a tour of Aldwych Tube Station, probably the most well-known of the London Underground’s disused stations, and it was fantastic, so we were very excited to be returning for another of their events. This time around, we were visiting Euston Station.

Our tour group gathers around the corner from Euston Station.
Stylish hi-vis jackets for everybody!

But wait, you might-well say: Euston station isn’t hidden nor disused! And you’d be right. But Euston’s got a long and convoluted history, and it used to consist of not one but three stations: the mainline station and two independent underground stations run by competing operators. The stations all gradually got connected with tunnels, and then with a whole different set of tunnels as part of the redevelopment in advance of the station’s reopening in 1968. But to this day, there’s still a whole network of tunnels underneath Euston station, inaccessible to the public, that are either disused or else used only as storage, air vents, or cable runs.

Disused lift shaft under Euston Station.
This lift shaft used to transport passengers between what are now the Northern and Victoria lines. Now it’s just a big hole.

A particular highlight was getting to walk through the ventilation shaft that draws all of the hot air out of the Victoria Line platforms. When you stand and wait for your train you don’t tend to think about the network of tunnels that snake around the one you’re in, hidden just beyond the grills in the ceiling or through the doors at the end of the platforms. I shot a video (below) from the shaft, periodically looking down on the trains pulling in and out below us.

No sooner were we back than I was away again. Last Saturday, I made my way back to London to visit Twitter’s UK headquarters in Soho to help the fantastic Code First: Girls team to make some improvements to the way they organise and deliver their Javascript, Python and Ruby curricula. I first came across Code First: Girls through Beverley, one of Three Rings‘ volunteers who happens to work for them, and I’ve become a fan of their work. Unfortunatley my calendar’s too packed to be able to volunteer as one of their instructors (which I totally would if it weren’t for work, and study, and existing volunteering, and things), but I thought this would be a good opportunity to be helpful while I had a nominally-“spare” day.

The coffee lounge on the administration/marketing floor of Twitter's offices in Soho.
Twitter’s offices, by the way, are exactly as beautiful as you’d hope that they might be.

Our host tried to win me over on the merits of working for Twitter (they’re recruiting heavily in the UK, right now), and you know what – if I were inclined towards a commute as far as London (and I didn’t love the work I do so much) – I’d totally give that a go. And not just because I enjoyed telling an iPad what I wanted to drink and then having it dispensed minutes later by a magical automated hot-and-cold-running-drinks tap nearby.

Twitter's reception with its "tweet wall" sculpture.
I’m not sure I ‘get’ the idea of a sculpture of tweets, though. Wouldn’t a “live display” have been more-thematic?

And that’s not even all of it. This coming Thursday, I’m back in London again, this time to meet representatives from a couple of charities who’re looking at rolling out Three Rings. In short: having a direct line to London on my doorstep turns out to be pretty useful.

DevCamp – have we really been doing this for 7 years?

An annual tradition at Three Rings is DevCamp, an event that borrows from the “hackathon” concept and expands it to a week-long code-producing factory for the volunteers of the Three Rings development team. Motivating volunteers is a very different game to motivating paid employees: you can’t offer to pay them more for working harder nor threaten to stop paying them if they don’t work hard enough, so it’s necessary to tap in to whatever it is that drives them to be a volunteer, and help them get more of that out of their volunteering.

Table full of computers at DevCamp 2011.
This photo, from DevCamp 2011, is probably the only instance where I’ve had fewer monitors out than another developer.

At least part of what appeals to all of our developers is a sense of achievement – of producing something that has practical value – as well as of learning new things, applying what they’ve learned, and having a degree of control over the parts of the project they contribute most-directly to. Incidentally, these are the same things that motivate paid developers, too, if a Google search for studies on the subject is to believed. It’s just that employers are rarely able to willing to offer all of those things (and even if they can, you can’t use them to pay your mortgage), so they have to put money on the table too. With my team at Three Rings, I don’t have money to give them, so I have to make up for it with a surplus of those things that developers actually want.

A developer hides inside a handmade camera obscura to watch the solar eclipse at DevCamp 2015.
At the 2015 DevCamp, developers used the solar eclipse as an excuse for an impromptu teambuilding activity: making a camera obscura out of stuff we had lying about.

It seems strange to me in hindsight that for the last seven years I’ve spent a week of my year taking leave from my day job in order to work longer, harder, and unpaid for a voluntary project… but that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Over the same timescale I’ve spent about twice as long at DevCamp than I have, for example, skiing, yet I’ve managed to knock out several blog posts on that subject. Part of that might be borne out of the secretive nature of Three Rings, especially in its early days (when involvement with Three Rings pretty-much fingered you as being a Nightline volunteer, which was frowned upon), but nowadays we’ve got a couple of dozen volunteers with backgrounds in a variety of organisations: and many of those of us that ever were Nightliner volunteers have long since graduated and moved-on to other volunteering work besides.

DevCamp and DocsCamp 2016 volunteers play Betrayal at the House on the Hill
Semi-cooperative horror-themed board games by candlelight are a motivator for everybody, right?

Part of the motivation – one of the perks of being a Three Rings developer – for me at least, is DevCamp itself. Because it’s an opportunity to drop all of my “day job” stuff for a week, go to some beatiful far-flung corner of the country, and (between early-morning geocaching/hiking expeditions and late night drinking tomfoolery) get to spend long days contributing to something awesome. And hanging out with like-minded people while I do so. I like I good hackathon of any variety, but I love me some Three Rings DevCamp!

Geocache GC4EE6C, with accompanying caterpillar and mushroom
The geocaches near DevCamp 2016 were particularly fabulous, though. Like this one – GC4EE6C – part of an Alice In Wonderland-themed series.

So yeah: DevCamp is awesome. It’s more than a little different than those days back in 2003 when I wrote all the code and Kit worked hard at distracting me with facts about the laws of Hawaii – for the majority of DevCamp 2016 we had half a dozen developers plus two documentation writers in attendance! – but it’s still fundamentally about the same thing: producing a piece of software that helps about 25,000 volunteers do amazing things and make the world a better place. We’ve collectively given tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of hours of time in developing and supporting it, but that in turn has helped to streamline the organisation of about 16 million person-hours of other volunteering.

So that’s nice.

Developers marvel at one another's code, etc.
An end-of-day “Show & Tell” session at DevCamp 2016.

Oh, and I was delighted that one of my contributions this DevCamp was that I’ve finally gotten around to expanding the functionality of the “gender” property so that there are now more than three options. That’s almost more-exciting than the geocaches. Almost.

Edit: added a missing word in the sentence about how much time our volunteers had given, making it both more-believable and more-impressive.

Why we don’t do business with big business (part 1)

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Note: this is the first of a two-part blog post. Part 2 can be read here. In this blog post, we look at some of our philosophy and values here at Three Rings CIC, and what it means for us to focus our efforts on selling Three Rings to community enterprises, charities, and voluntary organisations, rather…

Three Rings routinely gets contacted by commercial organisations who feel that the rota/volunteer management system would benefit them, but we don’t sell it to them. JTA wrote a pair of blog posts to explain why.

Days Like Weeks

You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.

Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.
Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.

There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully –  the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.

The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they've managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.
The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they’ve managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.

Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.

My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, at the UK Bus Awards.
My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, prepare to announce the winner of the Peter Huntley Memorial Award for Making Buses A Better Choice.

And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).

So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.

Lucy’s Birthday

The other Three Ringers and I are working hard to wrap up Milestone: Jethrik, the latest version of the software. I was optimising some of the older volunteer availability-management code when, by coincidence, I noticed this new bug:

Lucy 173's birthday is in 13/1 days.
Well, at least she’s being rational about it.

I suppose it’s true: Lucy (who’s an imaginary piece of test data) will celebrate her birthday in 13/1 days. Or 13.0 days, if you prefer. But most humans seem to be happier with their periods of time not expressed as top-heavy fractions, for some reason, so I suppose we’d better fix that one.

They’re busy days for Three Rings, right now, as we’re also making arrangements for our 10th Birthday Conference, next month. Between my Three Rings work, a busy stretch at my day job, voluntary work at Oxford Friend, yet-more-executor-stuff, and three different courses, I don’t have much time for anything else!

But I’m still alive, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all of the things I’ve been getting up to sometime. Maybe at half term. Or Christmas!

Update: Squee! We’ve got folders!

 

Three Rings – Then And Now

Those of you who’ve been following Three Rings over the last decade (either because you’ve volunteered somewhere that used it, or because you’ve listened to me rave about it over the years) might be interested in this new post on the Three Rings blog. It’s about how Three Rings has evolved over the last 10+ years of its life from a tiny system designed specifically for the needs of Aberystwyth Nightline into the super-powerful charity management tool that it is today, and how it’ll continue to evolve to meet the needs of the helplines and other charities that use it for the next ten years.

Three Rings as it appeared about seven years ago.
Three Rings as it appeared about seven years ago. Do you remember this?

It still blows my mind that something that began as a bedroom project has come to support over 13,000 volunteers around the UK, Ireland, and further afield (we’ve recently been getting started with supporting Samaritans branches in New Zealand and Australia). Now, of course, Three Rings is a volunteer-driven company with a “core” team of half a dozen or so… as well as tens of others who help with testing. It’s eaten tens of thousands of development hours and it’s become bigger and more-important than I’d ever dreamed. Of all of the volunteer work I’ve been involved with, it’s easily the one that’s helped the most people and had the biggest impact upon the world, and it still excites me to be part of something so huge.

So here’s to another ten years. Do go and read the post on the Three Rings blog if you’d like to see more retro screenshots.

Ageism, Nightline, and Counselling

As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.

A counselling session in progress.
A counselling session in progress.

I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.

And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?

Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.

However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.

The Nightline Association
The Nightline Association, umbrella body representing student Nightlines around the UK and overseas

Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.

As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.

This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.

Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.

The Course, Of Course

I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.

The classroom at Aylesbury College where the practical parts (and some of the theory) of my course are taught.

The short answer: it’s going well.

I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.

It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!

Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:

Gloria with Carl Rogers, from the film "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy"

In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.

“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”

“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”

“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”

And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.

Albert Ellis wraps up at the end of his section of "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy".

Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.

Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.

Hence the book.

And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which  lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.

And now you’re up-to-date.

Trustee In Me

Since last year, I’ve been volunteering at a helpline called Oxford Friend, providing emotional support and information to the LGBT community in Oxfordshire (those who are aware of my volunteering background are unlikely to find this surprising). More-recently, though, I became a trustee of that charity, and that’s what I thought I’d tell you about.

Every helpline and similar service I’ve volunteered with has had it’s… quirks. They’ve all got their own unique personality and identity, their own strange policies and practices, and Oxford Friend is no exception. One thing that I always found unusual about them – and still do – is the peculiar way they differentiate between trainee and “full” members: once they’re done as a trainee and become a full member, volunteers become trustees of the charity.

At first, this seemed like a lot of paperwork with little benefit, but the idea has grown on me a little. By becoming a trustee, you’re becoming responsible for (and liable for!) the actions of the charity, which should encourage one to have it’s best interests at heart (as if that were ever a concern!). It fosters a sense of ongoing shared responsibility, making a charity that’s less like a corporation and more like a co-operative.

It’s only feasible, I think, because the charity is so small: a few dozen volunteers collectively running a helpline, email service, and providing external outreach and training on LGBT issues. It’s a very communal approach to the management of the operation of the charity, and it seems to work perfectly well: they’ve been running for 30 years now! But I don’t think it would work for a larger charity like either of the Samaritans branches I’ve worked with.

I’ll be interested to see if the addition of my unusual name to the record at the Charity Commission goes to plan (Companies House always seem to have difficulty with it!). But regardless: for now, I’m proud to be able to support Oxford Friend and the remarkably valuable work that they do.

Y’know: in my copious amounts of free time.

On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

On this day in 2003 I first juggled with flaming clubs! But first, let’s back up to when I very first learned to juggle. One night, back in about 1998, I had a dream. And in that dream, I could juggle.

I’d always been a big believer in following my dreams, sometimes in a quite literal sense: once I dreamed that I’d been writing a Perl computer program to calculate the frequency pattern of consecutive months which both have a Friday 13th in them. Upon waking, I quickly typed out what I could remember of the code, and it worked, so it turns out that I really can claim to be able to program in my sleep.

In this case, though, I got up and tried to juggle… and couldn’t! So, in order that nobody could ever accuse me of not “following my dreams,” I opted to learn!

About three hours later, my mother received a phone call from me.

“Help!” I said, “I think I’m going to die of vitamin C poisoning! How much do I have to have before it becomes fatal?”

“What?” she asked, “What’s happened?”

“Well: you know how I’m a big believer in following my dreams.”

“Yeah,” she said, sighing.

“Well… I dreamed that I could juggle, so I’ve spent all morning trying to learn how to. But I’m not very good at it.”

“Okay… but what’s that got to do with vitamin C?”

“Well: I don’t own any juggling balls, so I tried to find something to use as a substitute. The only thing I could find was this sack of oranges.”

“I think I can see where you’re going wrong,” she said, sarcastically, “You’re supposed to juggle with your hands, Dan… not with your mouth.”

“I am juggling with my hands! Well; trying to, anyway. But I’m not very good. So I keep dropping the oranges. And after a few drops they start to rupture and burst, and I can’t stand to waste them, so I eat them. I’ve eaten quite a lot of oranges, now, and I’m starting to feel sick.”

I wasn’t  overdosing on vitamin C, it turns out – that takes a quite monumental dose; perhaps more than can be orally ingested in naturally-occuring forms – but was simply suffering from indigestion brought on as a result of eating lots and lots of oranges, and bending over repeatedly to pick up dropped balls. My mother, who had herself learned to juggle when she was young, was able to give me two valuable tips to get me started:

  1. Balled-up thick socks make for great getting-started juggling balls.  They bounce, don’t leak juice, and are of a sensible size (if a little light) for a beginning juggler.
  2. Standing with your knees against the side of a bed means that you don’t have to bend over so far to pick up your balls when you inevitably drop them.

I became a perfectly competent juggler quite quickly, and made a pest of myself in many a supermarket, juggling the produce.

So: fast forward five years to 2003, when Kit, Claire, Paul, Bryn and I decided to have a fire on the beach, at Aberystwyth. We’d… acquired… a large solid wooden desk and some pallets, and we set them up and ignited them and lounged around drinking beer. After a little while, a young couple came along: she was swinging flaming poi around, and he was juggling flaming clubs!

Fire poi! They look fantastic when they're flying around you; scary when they're flying towards you.

I asked if I could have a go with his flaming clubs. “Have you ever juggled flaming clubs before?” he asked. “I’ve never even juggled clubs before,” I replied. He offered to extinguish them for me, first, but I insisted on the “full experience.” I’d learn faster if there existed the threat of excruciating pain every time I fucked up, surely. Right?

Juggling clubs, it turns out, is a little harder than juggling balls. Flaming clubs, even more so, because you really can’t get away with touching the “wrong” end. Flaming clubs at night, after a few drinks, is particularly foolhardy, because all you can see is the flaming end, and you have to work backwards in your mind to interpret where the “catching end” of the stick must be, based on the movement of the burning bit. In short: I got a few minor singes.

But I went home that night with the fire still burning in my eyes, like a spark in my mind. I couldn’t stop talking about it: I’d been bitten by the flaming-clubs-bug.

Looking Forward

I ordered myself a set of flaming clubs as soon as I could justify the cost, and, after a couple of unlit attempts in the street outside my house, took them to our next beach party a few days later. That’s when I learned what really makes flaming clubs dangerous: it’s not the bit that’s on fire, but the aluminium rod that connects the wick to the handle. Touching the flaming wick; well – that’ll singe a little, but it won’t leave a burn so long as you pull away quickly. But after they’ve been lit for a while – even if they’ve since been put out – touching the alumium pole will easily leave a nasty blister.

Me juggling flaming clubs at the barbecue I mentioned, in 2007. I almost look like I know what I'm doing. And more importantly, I feel like a badass.

Still: I learned quickly, and was still regularly flinging them around (and teaching others) at barbecues many years later.

Once, a Nightline training ended up being held at an unusual location, and the other trainers and I were concerned that the trainees might not be able to find it. So we advertised on the email with the directions to the training room that trainees who can’t find it should “introduce themselves to the man juggling fire outside the students union”, who would point them in the right direction: and so I stood there, throwing clubs around, looking for lost people all morning. Which would have worked fine if it weren’t for the fact that I got an audience, and it became quite hard to discreetly pick out the Nightline trainees from the students who were just being amused by my juggling antics.

Nowadays, I don’t find much time for juggling. I keep my balls to-hand (so to speak) and sometimes toss them about while I’m waiting for my computer to catch up with me, but it’s been a long while since I got my clubs out and lit them up. Maybe I’ll find an excuse sometime soon.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

Photos From Malawi

[this post was lost during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004]

[the image in this post was recovered on Thursday 30th December 2004]

Here’s some photos of my trip to Malawi, as the group have now started uploading photos to me at last!


Dan looks down on Lake Malawi.


Dan on the descent.


Two baboons, at Vwasa National Park.


Livingstonia Hospital: This woman and her baby have both been diagnosed with AIDS
Thanks to ARVs, the woman’s condition is improving. Her baby cannot be treated and will die.


Beautiful waterfall, on a river running from Livingstonia to Lake Malawi.

Will post more when I can be bothered. Meanwhile, photos are continuously being uploaded to Scatmania’s Malawi Album [update: link killed 2006]

Fresher’s Week – Part Two

I’ve registered for modules this year which better than last year reflect my individual interests within my field – an emphasis on telecommunications and the internet and on software engineering practice, and away from artificial intelligence and from hardware-layer stuff. Some of my new modules – many of which were not available as courses last year – look quite stimulating.

As the end of the week approached I helped Nightline to lay their new carpet – the benefit to the organisation that the money we raised by selling hot dogs – in their office. This involved first removing their old carpet, laying it out on the road, and using it as a stencil for the new one, such that the new one fit almost exactly before we began to stick it down (an important consideration when laying flooring in a room no larger than 11 by 11 feet). I made hats for us all out of the offcuts of the carpet and masking tape.

Saturday Night’s Troma Night saw Liz bringing a date along, Rob (or was it Bob?), who we managed to scare off before the opening credits of the first film had finished rolling or any pizza had been consumed. Apparently all is well, though.

Aberystwyth’s first sex shop, part of the Little Amsterdam chain, is due for it’s delayed opening on Wednesday. I’m arranging for a party to go and visit on it’s opening day to applaud it on it’s success over the efforts of many members of the council, and for it’s manager’s success so far in court in another (possibly related) case.

Update: 25 October 2017 – fixed a minor spelling mistake.