I grew up on a housing estate in South Ockendon, between Upminster and the River Thames. Went to Catholic schools, worried about mods and rockers, and then skinheads, shy and very innocent, didn’t have a clue about anything. Somewhere around 14 I first got interested in birdwatching and then painting and drawing. Even before that I liked to make models (Airfix!) and create my own board games, including war games, that including defining rules and writing instructions for all those people who never showed up to play them. My dad got me interested in nature, reading and religion/philosophy. As you will see these early interests have evolved throughout my life, although it’s only now that I can see the patterns. My first heroes were mostly artists: Constable, Turner, Cezanne, Lautrec, Degas, the Fauves, Kandinsky, Kokoshka, Braque, ..
I did pretty well in school until I was about 16 and then I started to lose interest (or mental capacity?). It was the 60’s and I was beginning to wake up into a more romantic and political picture of life, reading stuff like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Herman Hesse, George Orwell.. And of course the music and folk singer/songwriters (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Fairport Convention, Tyrannosaurus Rex (as they were then), Simon and Garfunkel, .. ). All opening me up to a greater sense of identity and meaning, politics, beauty and poetry, as well as a rejection of social norms, mainstream culture and values, and a view of a much much larger and richer world than I had known until then..
When I left school at 18 I really just fell into the local Foundation course in Art and Design. It was incredibly liberating, in all kinds of ways and I met loads of interesting people, all celebrating this incredible sense of freedom and independence. Drawing, painting, printmaking, welding, ceramics, long hair, flared jeans and flowers. After that I left home and wandered around, a bit of a hippy, for a few years, still shy and quite immature, in search of some kind of meaningful spiritual connection, but always with this underlying fascination with painting, systems, numbers, structure, and pattern, all mixed up in a kind of metaphysical head space. Like a lot of people. I started reading books like The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse, The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, the Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Kapra, the View over Atlantis by John Michell, Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, and I got very interested in number systems, mythologies, and symbol systems. I began thinking about belief systems, cultural behaviors, different ways of looking and seeing. Our underlying grammars and conceptual frameworks began to seem far more real and significant than the belief and knowledge systems that we hang upon them.
This was a big deal for me, these interests in systems and measurements, underlying concepts and archtypes, relationships and topologies and in the arbitrariness of our measuring frameworks. I started considering the infinite number of words that don’t exist in our vocabularies, in the random spaces and expressions that don’t fit into our measuring systems and grammars.. What is the name for a three dimensional space that might include a part of a table, a nearby chair leg, some carpet? What is the word for the end of my question and the beginning of your answer? How do we decide what is a thing and what is not? Some of this was mathematical but still very loose and personal, mixed up with other systems like numerology and mandalas and all kinds of Greek observations and concepts. Now I can see how this connected back to my interest in nature, abstraction, game structures, and rule based systems, and later it all all coalesced when I got into computers and then studied for a Master’s Degree in Systems Science, and began to teach and write.
Next I went to Art College in Sheffield (1974) and after sometime bouncing around I began to design and construct “minimalist” sculptures and conceptual drawings, following my interest in number systems and ordering principles. I became fascinated with conceptual and psychological features of simple structures, like the vertical and horizontal separations of walls and floors, above and below ground, and room corners. I, which brought me to considerations of surface, division, and zero, as well as the relationship between “pure” abstract mathematical structures, such as the platonic solids, and the always specific and infinitely variable physical realizations of form and structure in the natural world. I was fascinated by the way a simple number system could start at 1 and keep going on, or could be hinged around 0.
At home I would still paint and draw, much more loosely and expressively than my more formal student work. That more intuitive and expressive work always seemed more true, always consciously undermining any effort to be tamed by ordering principles or methodologies. I mostly kept that work to myself: in my continuing insecurity, I think I felt that my more system-based, conceptual interests would be more acceptable and legitimate as a student, although in fact, no one was very interested. I had almost no money and could not afford materials but I still managed to make some low cost sculptures and many proof-of-concept drawings that were never realized as objects. I still have some regrets about not completing some of those.
When I graduated I found myself with a number of pieces of work too large to keep. I had to destroy everything I had done, except for my drawings. That really got me started thinking about the material resources and space requirements of art, which turned me off the idea of making objects, and even painting, for quite a long time.
Escape to the United States
So now it’s 1977 and I’ve just graduated. I still have no clue about work or money or generally how to take care of myself or what I want to do. I started working as a proof reader in Sheffield but then met and married (in order to stay together) an American, Cheri, and moved to the US. The US was very good for me. For a start there was no safety net and I quickly learned that I had to work to survive. My first jobs were as a cashier in all night supermarket, and an assistant in an agricultural store. At the same time I was hired to manage a small community art center, the Oswego Art Guild (Oswego lies on the shores of Lake Ontario, north of Syracuse in upstate New York), where I discovered I had some decent organizational skills and even some handyman abilities! Cheri worked with me and later took over when I moved on. I loved that time, made new friends, arranged classes, even taught some photography, and continued to paint.
Next I worked for the Youth Community Service, a pilot project designed to give rural kids a chance to get some work experience in return for education credits, instigated by then President Carter, a lovely man. It was a real eye opener to work with very rural young people in difficult circumstance, (not to mention the sometimes somewhat corrupt, world of small town politics. When Reagan was elected the YCS funding was dropped and the program ended. A year or so later I was hired as an exhibitions designer in a University Art Museum (at SUNY Binghamton), where I was first introduced to office technology and created a database of the Museum’s extensive Art Collection. And then, in the early 80’s, … computers showed up!
Personal Computers in 1982
Personal Computers first hit the market in the late 70’s but things really started around 1981, with 1982 being the breakout year. I wanted to buy the Commodore VIC-20 but held out until the Commodore 64 appeared, with an incredible 64k of RAM! Can you imagine what you can do with 65,536 lovely little bytes! (Compare that to a current 8GB laptop which has 8,589,934,592 bytes..). I bought a computer because I was afraid I had no future without some technical skills and, like many other disenfranchised young people, personal computers provided me with an opportunity to learn something by myself that might change my life and give me a “way in”. I started learning the BASIC language and, again like many other people, it was like coming home! What was, and is, great about coding is that you learn in small increments but each learning “byte” (see what I did?) allows you to accomplish a great deal more. In other words, lots of positive feedback which was just perfect for someone as inconfident as I was. Plus you can learn by yourself, in your own way, at your own pace! Very cool!
My then wife and now dear friend Cheri was a (wonderful) weaver and wanted to develop her own designs. So my first serious effort was to design a weaving program to simulate a four harness loom: she could sit at the computer and set up warp thread, arrange the threading of the harnesses, hook the harnesses to treadles, and decide the treadling sequence. And then woosh, (well as whoosh as a computer could get in 1982!), the computer would display the pattern, which she could save, or print out with the setup instructions. If you recall the C-64’s 4 color limit and the block colors, it would seem very clunky by current standards but at the time we were both pleased as punch when it worked! And just writing this I did a check online and found out that I can run my old code through an online C-64 emulator, so I’ll convert a faded old printout of that old BASIC code back to text and see if I can relive the experience!
Getting Serious, Finding a Career, Writing a Textbook
Anyway that initial coding experience, combined with my interest in systems and my fear of being forever condemned to low-paid and unreliable arts-related work, led me back to university to study for an M.S. in Systems Science, and from there to a career teaching computer science, using languages like Pascal, Modula 2, Ada, and C. After a rewarding stint at IBM developing short courses, I worked as an instructional coordinator at North Carolina State University. I had just started there in 1992 when the World Wide Web showed up. I got it immediately and jumped into HTML and online course development with the same excitement I’d felt for BASIC 10 years earlier. I became an early evangelist for online learning, and got bumped up into a senior role facilitating instructional support for the effective use of technology and online course development across the 16 universities of the North Carolina university system. That was fun at first but not hands-on enough and far too political and high-level for me; I soon stepped back to my own comfort zone, giving up a good salary to return to teaching programming in a technical community college, as well as teaching workshops in programming and online course design.
By now it’s 2000 so it’s all about C++, Java, and Object Oriented Programming (OOP) principles, then a few years later later, Web-based, client/server applications using PHP, HTML/CSS, MySql/MariaDB. I also served for a period as Director of Online Learning at the College. I was especially interested in the way that beginning students engaged and got excited about programming Web applications. When I taught this way I received tremendous student evaluations, and so I wrote a textbook, now it its fourth edition, that used this approach to introduce fundamental programming concepts and procedures: A Web-Based Introduction to Programming, Essential Algorithms, Syntax and Control Structures using PHP, HTML, and MariaDBMySQL.
During my time teaching I found my way back to writing, and fell in love again with watercolor painting. The creeks, forests, and “hollers” of the Blue Ridge Mountains, around my home in Asheville were a source of endless inspiration.
Bottom Up, Not Top Down
Anyway that’s my career in a nutshell. More interestingly, my MS coursework introduced me to chaos theory, biological systems theory, bottom-up processing, cellular automata, L-Systems, fractals, fuzzy sets, all that good stuff. All that opened my eyes to a far more profound understanding of evolution, and appreciation of the value, for all of us, of a bottom-up rather than top-down orientation in the way we perceive, think and act, as individuals and communities. Now that I’m retired I’ve been revisiting some of that early work, playing with the Processing language, and Java, to develop or recreate some simple examples of bottom-up processing and cellular automata. I think this is still a fascinating area that is wide open for anyone with this kind of interest, for both fun and a professional path. Programming, even AI, tends to focus on top-down engineering functionality; the whole point of evolutionary programming is that you cannot have an end in mind! If you have a goal then it just ain’t biological; you’ve got to just set the initial conditions, define the rules, start the thing and then discover what happens. There’s literally a universe to explore just within a binary system.
Staying local is a manifestation of bottom-up thinking. Focus on what is needed locally and the global will reflect that kind of care. Think on this: in top-down engineering, if a system behaves unexpectedly we speak of errors and call it broken, in bottom-up systems we would call that evolutionary, or creative! Interestingly, in information science, the formula that describe the relative value of information measures its degree of “surprise”; this formula turns to be the same as the formula used in engineering to measure the likelihood of error in a system. Surprise can signify error or evolutionary change, it’s worth thinking about that.
Retirement and Next Steps
I retired from full-time teaching in 2013 and moved to the UK with my then wife Constance. Since then I’ve been teaching online part-time, writing, painting and coding (all badly!), spending a lot of time out in nature. After a few years in Durham followed by a brief return to the US, I have settled in Scotland, now living on the Isle of Bute.
This has been a year of significant change that began with a broken femur and a diagnosis of cancer (Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma). The arrival of Covid meant six months of isolation in a single room while I underwent chemotherapy. I’m still hobbling around on crutches, now in remission, but finding my way. As many others who suffer a serious illness report, I have found this to be a massive growth experience and in some ways I am grateful to have been “woken up” to a deeper sense of the value and wonder of being alive, and of the privilege of being a part of life on this impossibly beautiful planet.
A Bit More About Coding..
I believe programming offers a massive and liberating opportunity for many people, of all ages. Just as music, writing, painting, cooking, gardening, etc, can be enjoyed as hobbies and for pleasure, so coding can be a joy and source of endless delight and engagement. It is a myth that programming is difficult, it is essentially about writing recipes that a computer can follow. The code page is currently in progress but is intended to provides an introduction to the joy of programming for anyone, of all ages, as well as offering a number of my own recent programming projects that describe and demonstrate some interesting bottom up behaviors and examples of self-similarity, including cellular automata and deterministic chaos,. It is my hope that I can provide some interesting and useful resources that might light a fire out there somewhere..
A Bit More Career Detail..
I grew up in England and moved to the U.S. in 1978. I hold a master’s degree in Advanced Technology, specializing in Systems Science from Binghamton University in upstate New York, for which I received an Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement. I hold an undergraduate degree in Fine Art from Sheffield College of Art, Sheffield, England (since integrated into Sheffield Hallam University).
Before moving into technology, I was involved in the arts in various capacities: as director of the Oswego Art Guild (now the Art Association of Oswego) and as exhibition designer for the Binghamton University Art Museum.While I don’t consider myself a “serious artist”, I still like to paint. I am now semi-retired and live on the Isle of Bute in beautiful Scotland.
My technical career included: instructor at Broome Community College, Binghamton, New York; short-course developer for IBM, Research Triangle Park, NC; Instructional Coordinator and then Coordinator of Academic Computing, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University, Executive Director of the UNC Teaching and Learning with Technology Collaborative for the University of North Carolina system; Instructor and Interim Director of Online Learning, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Asheville, North Carolina. I have designed and delivered professional workshops and online resources on various teaching and technology topics including Java, PHP/MySQL, Moodle, Blackboard, Principles of Instructional Design, and Course Modularity. My work product includes a significant amount of technical writing in the form of online content/lookups, reports, guides, handouts, and presentation materials. I have long been believed that all course content should be developed for delivery online no matter what course delivery method is employed; emerging global conditions only reinforce that belief.
I also designed and developed a companion Web site for the textbook: Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, by Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, on behalf of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design.