Personal File

I have deliberately kept my site anonymous since it is my ideas I want to portray not myself. However it has occurred to me that as I get older, and my memory less efficient, it might be wise to record an outline of the respectable bits of my life,  some places which provided important backdrops to them. And make some comments on the institutions which moulded my life.
I was born in 1938 just before the war and spent the early years of it with my Mother in two places which still provide vivid memories: Biggleswade and Birmingham.

In the latter (built up environment) I was sent up the hill to the shop to buy some baked beans (imagine someone sending a four year old nowadays!). I dropped one of the two sixpences I was carrying and ran home in tears.

The former was where my Father, a cabinet maker, had been called to repair aeroplanes which were then  made largely of wood and in particular Mosquitos. There (in a very rural environment), aged presumably around 3, I remember being sent round the corner to the village post-office. On that occasion I returned in tears because there was a herd of cows blocking my way.

May RevelsI returned from Birmingham to go to school in Chingford and I still remember my first day and the need to ask for help fixing the top press-stud in my overcoat. I was just getting around to paying it a visit in the early 90's to lay some ghosts, when it burnt down. How it survived so long is a mystery since it too was made largely of wood and I can still bring to mind the smell of creosote. The highlight of the year was "May Revels" usually in late June! The Head Girl for the following year was crowned Queen by the intended Head Boy and everyone else danced and sang.  The new school, to my delight has an imaginative website.

Somehow or other I passed the Eleven Plus  Exam and went to Grammar School and it too has a (rather less imaginative) website. And because the Old Chingfordians has been resurrected I had the opportunity to return in 98. It was a very strange experience indeed because the original building has hardly changed at all and it would have been no surprise to bump into my old Headmaster around any corner. The field has not changed much either except that it was covered with litter. Had it contained but a hundredth of the same amount in my day, I do not doubt we would have been sent out to pick it all up. Quite right too, though I cannot pretend we would have thought so at the time!

County Hign SchoolI want to pay tribute to that school and particularly to the three members of staff recognised by memorial funds. Three very different characters, but all engaged not just in teaching their subject, though they did that very well, but also engaged in education. They encouraged us to think about and question things we were told and even to dream. One encouraged us to question whether Persil really did "wash whiter". The second took us to the Old Vic to see Shakespeare, rather than just read it  and the third persuaded my parents, to whom no such idea had occurred, to allow me to stay on into the Sixth Form. An obvious ambition to Middle Class parents, but certainly not to Council Estate dwellers who had no aspirations to own a telephone never mind a car. Who would they call? where would they go? In those days we could play in the street requiring to move only for the Milk Float. The same streets today are of course lined with cars on both sides .

During my first five years in Grammar School I would say Electrical Engineer to people who asked what do you want to be........? Then one day in the Library I discovered it was possible to gain employment as a Physicist. Wow what delight, I had already started to study Einstein in my spare time. I applied to two Universities, one of them took me to study Mathematical-Physics and I returned to Birmingham. The course was frankly poorly organised falling as it did between the Maths and Physics departments whose two graduate courses we followed in parallel. GraduationThere was no proper tutoring system and we were left to make our own progress. Student life was wonderful, freed from the strictures of an unimaginative headmaster, bent on turning out gentlemen, and also freed from the responsibilities of home. Carnival week which was then in October was a real eye opener and I remember taking part in a wheel barrow race along New Street after a band of accomplices stopped the traffic. Of course the University  has a website. In my day there Computer Programming was a career that degree failures took up. I was not quite a failure but I was later to take up Programming in a big way.

Not having obtained a first, which was next to impossible in my subject anyway, I had to go into the Nuclear Industry to avoid National Service (I wanted to get married). I didn't want to spend my working life making Bombs so I applied to APC and GEC. The former rather sniffily only took 2A's and above, but fortunately the latter had more modest requirements. As a new scientist replete with Relativity and Quantum Theory, I naturally supposed that calculations on Nuclear Reactors would be at the forefront of using modern physics. Not so, Neutron flux was  calculated using crude diffusion theory and in those days very crude. And basic reactivity was calculated using a much annotated paper based on some rather crude correlations with measurements. Working through it by hand, using a mechanical calculator and six figure Bessel Function tables took me a fortnight. So I was much impressed when shown how to do it on the Mercury Computer which took some ten seconds. It was not so good at RZ flux calculations. The program, known as "Hassit" after its author, was put on for an hour or two and results printed. It was allowed to continue its iterations for another hour before results were printed again. If the two sets were considered close enough to each other the calculation was deemed to be converged. "Putting a program on" involved actually going to it, placing a paper tape into the reader and pressing a button. Output was on paper tape too, yellow, which was printed through a teleprinter.

Output tape from Mercury Computer
Later when I moved to the CEGB and learned to write in  in Fortran on punched cards, there were operators who fed them in and we hardly saw the machine. Unless we had  very good reason to use more space, we had to write our programs to use no more than 200K of core. It made us write carefully and oh how I wish that modern programmers had some discipline in this area, rather than using up megabytes simply because they are available. Later still we had monitors connected to the Mainframe IBM machine (with, finally, 5 Mb RAM wow!) and I was the last in the building to switch.
Fortran Punched Card
But I grew to like my monitor and I remember saying to an IBM engineer: why can't we have some memory in the monitor, so that we could work on files locally before submission to the Mainframe. Ah he said what you want is our new creation the PC. Well, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike most computer folk I had some real experience on real reactors Hunterston (A) and Dungeness B. Pictures of them and some comments appear on my Treasured Memory Page

Just before I retired, PC's were beginning to creep in although I regarded them simply as toys. In 1993 I purchased my own toy and, despite a lifetime in computing, have to rely on my son to guide me and when necessary upgrade. However I could still teach the youngsters a thing or two. Some of the Javascript programming used on the web is nothing short of appalling, presumably because it is no longer fashionable to learn how to do things properly. In fact the whole thrust of modern developments, led by Mr Gates, tries to avoid the need to learn anything. The fact that Internet Explorer, for example, is so tolerant of HTML errors will in the end lead to disaster. And the UK Government thrust to get everyone on line will do likewise unless proper training is given.  But that is a problem. I know people who have been on Microsoft Word courses for months without learning what I would teach them in the first half hour, namely changing font and colour. Most teachers have an uncanny knack of turning the interesting into drudgery and that reminds me: I left out the brief history of the micro computer. I bought a Dragon back in 1982 (with Microsoft Basic!) and the instruction book gave, as it's first example, a program which played random sounds and showed random colours, wonderful. The corresponding program for the Spectrum concerned the price of eggs!! There are far too many teachers who see nothing wrong with the latter approach and lack the imagination to come up with the former.

I always seem to come back to my hobby horse which is the desire to get people to think, imagine and dream, rather stay in chains. That is what my site is  about and I hope, dear reader you find something interesting.



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