Lessons from Life and Work: Part One

If you follow my social media output elsewhere, you will know that my situation has recently changed, from an “all-clear” from Cancer, to a position where it has now spread and is incurable. I don’t yet know how long I’ve got, or what I will be capable of doing, and for how long for. But what this kind of diagnosis does do is to concentrate the mind about some of the big issues I have grappled with in my life and career, and what could be done actually to make a lasting difference, rather than a short-term fix.

So, this is the first of a series of blog posts in which I am going to set out some of the lessons I have learned from my life and career. A particular theme will, I think, be the blockers and gate-keepers I have met in my life who have frustrated my aim to assist people with low incomes to live life to its fullest potential.

Just about everything I have done in my career, and also in a lot of my so-called “spare” time, has been driven by my conviction that we live in a painfully unfair society which blocks off opportunities to live a good life for so many of our citizens. A big chunk of my career, particularly the early days, was spent in activities designed to encourage local communities to build their own capacity to improve the living conditions of themselves and their neighbours by creating job and training opportunities and stimulating economic activity in areas where there was currently little or none.

The Blockers

This was when I first came up against the gate-keepers and blockers. I never had any training in Community Development or related techniques, and I approached those disciplines in what I saw as a fairly self-evident way. I always saw it as my role to secure support and resources which might help the people I worked with achieve some of their ambitions and then act as a back-seat-driver who had some access to the levers of power which might be pulled to smooth the way. The first kind of blockers I came across were the trained Community Development Workers, some of whom looked down on me because I didn’t speak the same language as them, which was a dead giveaway that I hadn’t had the training they had had. The point of view I came up against time and again was the idea that I didn’t understand how powerless these people were, and I therefore shouldn’t be challenging them to take risks or do anything outside their comfort zones, because I would be setting them up to fail. My view was that most of the problems faced by disadvantaged people were down to money, or rather, lack of it. That’s why I worked to try to generate economic activities which would put money in local people’s pockets and keep that money re-circulating around local economies. But the Community Development blockers told me that there is no way the people in those communities would ever be able to take such bold steps and the priorities should be to help them campaign for better housing conditions, increased benefit payments, and local play areas, etc. While I wasn’t in any way opposed to those kind of actions, it was the way this was presented to me as a binary choice which was so frustrating. I always thought it obvious that people’s life choices are improved by increasing their income and increasing the prosperity of the areas they lived in, but, in the beginnings of my journey, at least, I was constantly being told that all that was a step too far, and I should stop distracting community members from the quest to persuade the local and national state to put resources into improving the housing. What was particularly frustrating was that these particular blockers used the language of empowerment while seeking to shield the people they worked with from any kind of economic improvement.

My worldview is a million miles away from Thatcherism, but the community development blockers were always ready to throw “Thatcherite” as an insult at me, because I dared to introduce economic development into the equation. That hurt me a lot, and I struggled to understand why they couldn’t see that being poor is at the heart of the problem. What I wanted to do was to establish mechanisms whereby local people could generate their own local economic activity, control who was employed in the enterprises and ensure that money stayed in the local area as much as possible. Apparently, this approach went against everything that the community development workers I encountered at the time had been trained to do. It made every improvement I sought to pursue all the harder to achieve.

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I was initially diagnosed with cancer in February 2020. In July 2020 I was told I was Cancer-free. One month later I was told that the cancer had spread to my spine and would be incurable.

There are a small (but growing) number of lovely people who have been providing me with some financial assistance to help me and my family get through this situation, which is obviously made worse by the current pandemic. I won’t say who they are because I am not sure they want me to publicise it; but I am extremely grateful.

If you feel like helping me out in any way, please get in touch or you can support me on a regular basis via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/johnpopham or PayPal http://www.paypal.me/civicstories

Cricket and Digital Inclusion

For years now I have been exploring myself the different hooks that can turn people on to using digital tools which they previously hadn’t considered they needed, as well as advocating that others do the same. One of the incidents which sticks in my mind through the years of taking this approach came in a village in deep, rural Lincolnshire, where I was travelling with the mobile library trying to encourage local residents to sign up to get better broadband connections. I was engaged in quite a long conversation with a woman who was, I thought, surprisingly young to be a digital refusenik, but who was proving to be a hard nut to crack in her determination to insist that the internet had no part to play in her life. This was during the 2012 Olympics, and in a corner of the mobile library, live coverage was playing on my iPad via BBC iPlayer, using the library’s satellite broadband connection. As we talked a women’s rowing race began which resulted in the Great Britain team winning its first Gold Medal of the games. The lady I was talking to broke off from our conversation to get very excited about the race, leaping up and down with joy as the British team crossed the finish line. When she had calmed down, I said to her “there, you do need the internet, after all”. She would not believe me that the signal for what she had watched came over the internet, believing that my iPad was a portable TV. She was shocked at what the internet could be used for. And this was in 2012. Watching TV and video over the internet has become a much more prominent feature in people’s lives since then, with the ubiquity of YouTube and Netflix, among other streaming platforms.

2020 has been an extraordinary year, with large numbers of people turning to practices they never previously thought would be part of their lives. An important factor in this trend has been the adoption of video conferencing both among those who, while doing their daily jobs, had previously eschewed anything other than face-to-face meetings involving expensive, time-consuming, and environment-damaging travel, and among people who had previously spurned new technologies. The latter is to be welcomed, and it is to be hoped that the newly acquired skills thus gained will both continue to be used beyond the current crisis, and spread into other aspects of their lives, acting as an important stepping-stone over the barriers to new technology adoption which had previously hampered them.

One of the things that people newly turned on to technology might now being doing is exploring the cornucopia that is the vast video library offered by YouTube (other video platforms are available). And something which is newly available on YouTube is complete live coverage of the 2020 County Cricket season. For a couple of years now, some of the Counties had been offering live streaming of home games from one fixed camera which covered just what was happening as the bowler ran up and the batter hit (or didn’t hit) the ball, which was good, but frustrating in that a good deal of the action took place outside the frame of the camera. Now, possibly prompted by the fact that spectators cannot get into the grounds, the Counties are offering multi-camera live-streaming which covers the action all over the field.

It’s been some time since I last went to a County Cricket Championship match. But, when I did, I looked around and I was pretty sure I was more or less the only person there between the ages of 16 and 65. To say that ordinary County Cricket matches get low crowds is probably something of an understatement, but a big proportion of the audience it does get is over retirement age. So, my feeling is that there must be quite a few older people who want to watch live cricket, but, because of Coronavirus, are not able to. So, do you know someone in this position who is struggling to watch games because they don’t have the digital skills to access YouTube? And they possibly won’t know that you can watch YouTube on your TV. So, in the hope that I can help a few people benefit from the digital world who would otherwise not do so, here is a guide to watching YouTube videos on your TV.

If you have a Smart TV

If you are fortunate to have a Smart TV manufactured in the past few years, you can probably access YouTube directly from your TV. The first thing to say is that for this method to work, you must have a working internet connection in your house, and your Smart TV must be connected to it. All Smart TVs are different, but, as a general rule, the remote control will have a “Home” button on it. Sometimes it will be a big button with a picture of a house on it, sometimes it will have “home” written on it. If you press that button it should take you to a menu on the TV which has various different apps on it. You should be able to scroll through to the red YouTube icon, press it and you will be taken to YouTube.

Once you are in YouTube you will probably be asked to log in or set up a new account. You can ignore this and go through to the “search” menu. Type your favourite County Cricket team into the search box and the first thing that comes up should be that team’s channel. Click on that and you will be taken to all the videos the club has posted, including any live videos.

The following guides are all for people without Smart TVs.

Sky TV

If you are a Sky TV customer you can access YouTube via your Sky Q box. As far as I am aware, if you have an older Sky box (i.e. not Sky Q), you won’t be able to do this. Press the “Home” button on your TV remote, and then scroll through the menu until you see “Online Video”. Click on this one and you should then see the red YouTube icon. Click on it and you will be taken to YouTube. Now follow the guide in the paragraph in italics above.

Virgin Media

If you are a Virgin Media customer you can access YouTube through your Tivo box. Press the “Home” button on your remote control. Scroll down the menu to “Search and Discover”. Scroll down the menu that pops up from here and click on YouTube. Now follow the guide in the paragraph in italics above.

BT TV

As far as I am aware you cannot access YouTube from a BT TV box. Please tell me if I am wrong.

NOW TV

Now TV is a service from Sky which involves purchasing a set-top box or “stick” to connect to your TV to watch Sky Channels over the internet. Although you have to pay for the Sky Channels, there is also a lot of free content available on this system, including YouTube. You should be able to see YouTube on the main menu of the box when it starts up. Please don’t forget that the box must be connected to the internet. Now follow the guide in the paragraphs in italics above.

Amazon Fire TV Stick

This is my favourite way of turning a non-smart TV into a Smart TV. The Fire TV Stick is an inexpensive and very small device which plugs into the HDMI socket of your TV and gives it all the elements a Smart TV would have. You must connect the Stick to the internet. Once you have set up your Fire TV stick, scroll through the menu until you see the red YouTube icon. Now follow the guide in the paragraph in italics above.

Google Chromecast

The Google Chromecast is a small, inexpensive device which plugs into the HDMI socket of your TV. It allows you to stream content from your smartphone or tablet to your TV. Your smartphone/tablet and TV need to be connected to the same wifi network, and the Chromecast needs to be set up using the Google Home app on your phone or tablet. I’d suggest this needs to be done by someone with at least a little bit of technical knowledge. Once you have set the Chromecast up and connected it to your phone/tablet, open the YouTube app on the phone or tablet, start playing a video and then hit the “TV” button to start the video playing on the TV.

I hope this guide goes someway to helping at least a few people who are otherwise isolated at home and are missing their County Cricket.

I run the Doctor Tech Show which is broadcast live on YouTube at 12 noon every Monday and discusses issues around communication technologies for people without digital skills. If you’d like to get involved please email doctortechshow@gmail.com.

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I was diagnosed with cancer in February 2020 see here

There are a small amount of lovely people who have been providing me with some financial assistance to help me get through this situation, which is obviously made worse by the current pandemic. I won’t say who they are because I am not sure they want me to publicise it; but I am extremely grateful.

If you feel like helping me out in any way, please get in touch or you can support me on a regular basis via Patreon or as a one-off here.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you all again when this is all over.