Picture by Julian Cash
Hello, I'm Andy Wardley
I design and build web sites for a living. I also write software that helps make the process of building and maintaining web sites a whole lot easier. When I'm not doing that, or spending time with my family, I fly and design freestyle/trick kites and have a passion for board sports.
That's probably everything about me that you'll ever want to know. But if by chance you're an old friend or acquaintance wondering if I'm the same Andy Wardley you once knew, then read on for the potted history of some of the more memorable episodes of my life so far.
Be warned that it's something of a long, rambling monologue with diversions into psychology, sleep research and bubbling brain soup. Feel free to dip in and out. You're not expected to remember everything. There is no test afterwards.
I was born on 19th March 1969 in Chiswick, London, UK to parents Robert Bruce Wardley and Pamela Margaret Wardley, joining my elder sister Justine. We lived for the first few years of my life in Heston, Middlesex where I had the bedroom that was previously occupied by Ritchie Blackmore. My parents bought it from his parents and I got his old bedroom. Shame I was too young to appreciate how cool that was at the time.
We moved to New Malden, Surrey when I was 6. I went to Coombe Hill Infants/Junior School where I met my longest-serving friend Chris Halford. He lived just around the corner on one of the smoothest roads in the neighbourhood. This made it the natural meeting place for local kids back when roller skating was all the thing in the late 70's. Chris and I spent many happy summers skating and hanging out together.
I went to Tiffin School in Kingston from 1980-1987.It was (and still is) an excellent school and I enjoyed most of my time there. But despite being reasonably smart I never applied myself as well as I could have done (except in the computer lab) and my Mum usually came back crying from parents evening. Nevertheless, I did manage to score some decent O-Levels and scraped a couple of A-Levels.
My school days were much more occupied with girls, music, parties and other extra-curricular activities. I guess that made me a perfectly normal teenager.
It was at school that I first got interested in computing. In those
days "computers" meant "microcomputers" of the kind that you plugged
into your TV. You turned them on and they said
Ready >". None of this waiting around while
the machine booted itself like modern PCs.
I had a Sinclair ZX81 (and a spare telly) at home and got hooked on programming it. I wrote a number of very simple games, one of which was published in a computer magazine of the time. At school we were among the first to get the new (and far superior) BBC Micro Model "B" computers. This became my programming platform of choice for several years until I got one of the early Amstrad PCs. At that point I guess I got sucked into "real programming" in languages like C, and it's been something of a crazy ride ever since.
I still crave the simplicity of those early machines. There
really was nothing you could do to harm them (without resorting to
physical violence) that resulted in anything worse than it
Mistake", or that couldn't be fixed
by turning it off and on again.
Don't worry if you make a mistake - it really doesn't matter!
-- Friendy advice from The BBC Microcomputer User Guide
I did a bit of acting at school, most memorably when I appeared in Witches. This started as a school play written by Jeremy James Taylor and scored by our music teacher David Nield. We progressed to a summer season performing at the Edinburgh Festival and ended up filming it for Granada Television. My folks bought one of those new-fangled VCR machines so that we could record it when it was shown on TV over Christmas of 1981. I still have the tape somewhere, but trust me, you don't want to see it.
Policeman 1: I don't know what to make of all them cats.
Policeman 2 (me): How about a nice Lancashire Hot Pot?
-- Side-splitting humour from Witches
That was the end of my brief acting career, but I was still drawn toward the performing arts. Around the age of 13 or 14 Chris and I started a progressive (but crap) rock band called "Weapon". We recruited school friends Mark "Gez" O'Connell on guitar, Dom "Bubs" Millar on bass and Tim "Ix Pax Nobiscum" Hicks (now a professional opera singer) on vocals to join Chris on drums and myself on keyboards.
We practiced all summer and played our one and only gig in the converted loft room of my parents' house. Soon after (like, 10 minutes after we finished playing) I was invited to join the even more progressive (and much less crap) "Electric Finger People". I completed the line-up of Joe Pritchard on vocals, Steve "Smiley" Painter on guitar, Alex "Duff" McNeil on bass and Nick "No Epithet" Gillings on drums. Chris followed along soon after to replace Nick who spontaneously combusted on stage (only joking, it was actually a bizarre gardening accident).
We wrote some half-decent songs, performed a handful of gigs (including one in a graveyard) and recorded a couple of demo tapes. But mostly we just hung out together and had fun, including some memorable summer holidays in Cornwall. The music brought us a lot of pleasure, but it's the friendships that have lasted to this day.
Mystical Dreamer, gamma ray screamer. Stage fright? You've gotta
just turn it around!.
Nobody's coming, just try to keep running. Running away, running around.
-- Wise words from the Electric Finger People
The 80's were an interesting time to be a keyboard player. A new breed of digital synthesizers were appearing on the market, and they were getting better and cheaper all the time. I had a saturday job and saved up all my money to buy a Korg Delta. I later upgraded to a Korg Poly 800 and eventually a Roland D50, both of which I've still got. I also had one of the early (affordable) music computers: the Yamaha CX5M.
Over the next few years I gradually built up my own small home studio, adding a mixing desk, reel-to-reel 4-track tape machine, DBX sound reduction unit, drum machine, a couple of effects units, a patchbay and about a mile of cabling. Those were the days when "cut and paste" literally meant cutting the tape with a razor blade and sticking it back together with splicing tape. I still have my splicing block which I keep as a reminder of those "good old days".
I wrote and recorded a bunch of songs during my teens, none of which were any good. All my synth-based music came out sounding like some kind of bastard hybrid of Jean Michel Jarre and the Birdy Song. However, some of the tracks I recorded with Chris and a friend of his, Callum (whose surname I forget), were really pretty good. But that was mostly down to Callum's great guitar playing and Chris's drum programming :-)
When you're at school you think it sucks. The good news is that it doesn't last forever. That bad news is that when it does end you're thrown head first into the real world and that can sometimes suck a whole lot more. So enjoy it while you can.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that my time at school was really not half as sucky as I thought it was. Boring? At times, yes. But at least I was with a great bunch of friends and we could all get bored together. As well as the guys from various bands: Chris, Dom, Mark, Tim, Joe, Alex and Steve, there was Pete McDonagh, Andy Green, Paul Flynn and many others. Girlfriends included Caroline Overholt and Samantha Sweeney.
In 1987 I went straight from school to a degree course in Electronic Engineering at Kingston University. Within a couple of weeks I realised I was in way over my head and effectively dropped out. I took the next year or so off while I learnt to program in C, C++ and PC assembly code (mainly graphics routines). I wrote some business software doing freelance programming jobs and learnt how to do systems analysis and database design along the way.
When I went back to college for a 4-year degree course in Computer Information Systems Design I had already gained a lot of practical experience in these matters. That nicely complemented the more theoretical side of things that they were teaching in class, and for the most part, it all made a lot of sense. I didn't have to push myself that hard to bag the 2:1 BEng (Hons) degree that I eventually left with. After all, writing computer software was one of the things I did for fun! But just one of them, mind. Life's too short to spend all day staring at a screen!
But college isn't just about studying, right? I spent far more time in the Student Union than I did in lectures, and it wasn't always drinking in the bar. I worked for the Technical Services department who provided the entertainment services for the students. That included the sound and lighting for bands (humping for Gary Glitter was once something to be proud of) and spinning the decks at the Friday night student disco.
It was at the first Student Union Tech. Services meeting I attended that I met my great friend and mentor, Simon Matthews, a.k.a. SAM. He taught me everything I know about DJ-ing (which admittedly isn't a great deal), and a whole load about using and abusing computers (among other things). We ended up running Tech. Services together, and helped put on some memorable events including the infamous Bad Manners Clayhill Bash. We strived to have a good time, all the time. Some of the other college friends that stand out in my mind are Darren (with the pleasntly wibbled frusset pouch), Dave, Martina, Emma, John, Julie, Ceri, Adam, Simon, Kester and all the various people who worked for the student union. I'm sure I've forgotten plenty more. Girlfriends of the time included Jackie, Kim, Andrea and Samantha (again).
My final year at university was Chris' first. He had taken a few years out to persue other interests but was now signed up on the same electronics course that I had originally flunked (he went on to ace it with a first class honours degree - smart guy). We shared a flat in New Malden for a couple of years, worked out together in the gym on saturday morning and worked out equally hard around the dart board in the pub on saturday afternoon. We also put on some spectacular lights shows at christmas time, shining projectors and lasers through our front window to illuminate the large tree on the main road outside in a swirling glow of psychedelic colour.
The worst thing that happened to me around with time was when a scaffolding pole fell on my head. It hurt.
I was at my old school helping build a stage for their summer fair. We were fixing a big (7m/21') upright pole that broke lose and fell right on top of my head. I was walking away at the time so I didn't see it coming. I felt this colossal impact and turned around to see this big pole bouncing back up into the air off the top of my head. It was vibrating like a tuning fork with a pronounced head-shaped bend near the end.
Everything was running in super slow motion. In times of danger your brain ramps up its processing speed, taking things in quicker, analysing them and making snap decisions that could literally mean life or death. It's like running film through a movie camera extra fast, as they do when shooting slow motion footage (BC: Before Computers). Each frame catches a smaller slice of time. When you watch it back at normal speed those small slices get stretched back to normal length slices, giving the slow-motion effect. And so it is when your brain suddenly starts ticking at a faster clock speed (I'm guessing adrenaline is the catalyst here). You're getting information at a faster rate than normal allowing you to pick up finer detail and more subtle changes in what's going on around you. The end result is the perception of slow motion. Interesingly enough, it's also something you can voluntarily control to some extent when you get into "The Zone".
The funny thing (funny as in "strange", not "ha-ha") was that my state of mind was one of remarkable calm. I remember asessing the situation very quickly and concluding almost instantly that I couldn't possibly survive such an impact and would shortly die. I honestly thought my head was split open and my brains were falling out. I was going to die, plain and simple. But there was no emotion about it, just total calm and clarity of mind.
You may have already guessed the ending, but it turns out I didn't die after all. In fact I didn't even fall over or pass out. I just bled everywhere, and I mean, everywhere. Thanks to the great supply of blood in your head you can re-colour a white T-shirt in seconds! Fortunately the bleeding eventually slowed to a trickle and the ambulance came to take me off to hospital. Thirteen X-Rays and a dozen stitches later I was declared to be the luckiest bugger with the hardest head in the land and released.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, but it's hard to see the funny side about having to make yet another appointment to see a chiropractor. In fact it's hard to find anything to laugh about being hit slap bang in the middle of your head by a heavy metal pole moving at high speed (and I'm not talking about an Iron Maiden fan from Warsaw riding a skateboard down a steep hill).
Fortunately for me the human skull is a bit like an egg. Not in the sense that it's a tasty, nutritional and versatile foodstuff that makes an ideal ingredient for a cooked breakfast. More that the relatively thin and fragile shell gets a great deal of strength from its curved shape. You'll know this if you've ever tried to break an egg by pushing the pointy end in.
Had the pole hit me anywhere but right in the middle of my head, there would have been a far greater chance of my head cracking open (just like an egg), or the pole slipping down to break my shoulder and quite possibly my neck at the same time. So I was rather unlucky to end up in an ambulance on my way to hospital, but luckier still that I walked out again later that afternoon with nothing worse to show for it than a neck brace and a gnarly looking head wound.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
Whenever I thing back on that moment I can't help but feel a deep emotion about what happened. I thought it was the end. No university, no Sheila, no kids, no kites, no web sites, no Template Toolkit. None of that would ever have happened. But at the time I remember feeling extremely calm.
It was as if my brain had shut down all of its higher powers of reasoning to concentrate on survival. The deepest, most primitive part of my brain was in control right now and everything else had to wait.
It's hard to explain, but that moment when I thought I was about to die was probably the moment in my life when I have felt most alive. Staring death in the face is a stark way to come to terms with your own existence. Your birth, your life, and ultimately your death are laid out before you. Rather like the Total Perspective Vortex you see your fleeting time on this planet as a tiny, almost insignificant part in the grand workings of the universe.
But it's all you have (or may be, who knows?) Perhaps you don't count for much in the big cosmic scheme of things but you can still make a big difference to the people around you. You can enrich your life and those of others with all sorts of wonderous things to experience, to create, and above all, to enjoy.
So in conclusion, don't wait until it's too late to start living your life and always wear a hard hat in a construction area.
Your time is short. Make it worthwhile.
-- 'Carpe Diem' in my own words
My immediate post-college years were a pleasant mix of work and play. At ICL I got the chance to be involved in the forefront of the World Wide Web and in my leisure time I started flying and ultimately, designing kites.
I went to work at ICL in Bracknell for a placement year as as part of my "sandwich" degree course. I worked in the "Mid Range Systems Division". I forget what unit/group/team I was in. We got reorganised every few months and had new set of acronyms to remember, or forget as the case may be.
I worked for a really nice guy called Brin Snowdon. As well as being a great manager he was also the one who first introduced me to modern kites. He had this little stunt kite that we flew at lunchtime every once in a while. I remember thinking: "I've got to get one of these...."
As well as Brin, there was Vijay (known as "Veg"), Julian, Adam, Grant and a bunch of other interesing, unusual, and generally nice people.
After going back to college to do my final year, I went back to work at ICL in Bracknell but in a different department. There I spent a year or so working on scary low-level Unix stuff like SCSI RAID device drivers. I also started using some of the early versions of Slackware Linux around this time (1993-ish). I remember it once took me 3 weeks to get my X Windows configuration just right! How things have come on!
I also spent a lot of time on the pre-web Internet, reading USENET news and the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup in particular. Those were the days of the "Winky Wars" and the "Vicki Robinson .sig virus". It all climaxed (for me, at least) with the infamous party in Greenwich Village, New York in the spring of 1995.
In June 1994 I moved to the training division of ICL, officially known then as "Peritas" and now as Knowledge Pool. Based in the much more pleasant surroundings of Windsor, it was where SAM was working at the time. It didn't take much for him to persuade me that it was a good place to work.
We developed multimedia training software using some of the early Macromedia products (Authorware and Director) that were pre-cursors to the whole Flash thing. I got a lot of valuable experience working with Photoshop (back in the v2.5 days) developing graphical user interfaces for these systems.
When the World Wide Web came along, SAM and I were given the task of taking the training business online. We went from a complete standing start (i.e. the modem on my desk was the only connection to the Internet in the whole company) to having an award-winning site running in just over 3 months (and running on site: there were no co-lo hosting companies in those days). It was an incredible achievement to pull all the hardware, software, and online content together in such a short space of time and tie it all in with a bunch of new business processes. I've still got no idea how we pulled it off, other than by great teamwork and the total dedication of everyone involved in the project.
The best thing that SAM ever taught me is that you can't change the world overnight. I always wanted to change the world, whereas he just wanted to get it working. We ended up meeting somewhere in the middle and learnt from each other. To this day I still have regular "SAM moments" where I stop myself from trying to design the ultimate system, put down my pen and pad, then hack out some quick-and-dirty code to get something that works today. A working system, however badly written, is a "stick in the ground". It may be in the wrong place, but at least you've got a starting point. You can think about where you're going to move it tomorrow.
Make it work today. Make it work better tomorrow.
-- Simon Matthews
Nowadays you'll hear people refer to this as "rapid prototyping", "refactoring", "evolutionary programming" or even "extreme programming", but it all comes down to the same thing - you rarely get things right first time. Accept this fact from the start and plan time in the schedule to make things better when you've got a more complete understanding of what "better" is. You'll learn more about the problem as you go on and discover ways of doing things that you couldn't have possibly foreseen at the start.
It was at Peritas that I wrote the first versions of what would later become the Template Toolkit, a fast, flexible and adaptable system for building web sites. It was called MetaText back then and it wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the Template Toolkit that it eventually became. But it solved some very real problems we had with the whole messy business of building and maintaining web sites. It was a stick in the ground. Something to get started with today and improve upon tomorrow.
It was the week before my 26th birthday in March of 1995 when I really started flying kites. My wife-to-be, Sheila and I were driving through Surbiton when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday. At that point we were waiting to pull out of the road opposite Paul Hankin's kite shop, Kosmic Kites. I looked over the road, saw the kites in the window and remembered flying Brin's kite a few years earlier and thinking how I always meant to get one. So I answered: "A kite."
We parked up, went into the shop and she bought me a fairly small and simple stunt kite, much like the one I flew with Brin. I was hooked from the moment I flew it. A week later SAM had got a kite after having a go on mine. About a week after that we both upgraded to something bigger and better.
We came into it at a very exciting time. The first kites dedicated to trick flying were just starting to appear around 1994/1995. I got a Stranger and then shortly after a Box of Tricks and starting trying to nail some of the tricks I had read about on the Internet (in those pre-web days, it all happened on the rec.kites USENET newsgroup).
Because trick flying was so new back then, there were plenty of tricks and combinations of tricks just waiting to be discovered. So thanks to a modicum of talent and a large dose of being in the right place at the right time, I made a name for myself as one of the hot new trick fliers and landed a highly prized sponsorship deal with Benson Kites. I travelled to kite festivals and competitions around Europe and the USA, promoting the kites and demonstrating the latest tricks that were coming out of the UK hotbed of freestyle flying. But the best thing of all was that I got to meet, become friends with, and eventually design kites with one of the most talented and highly respected kite designers in the World (and a super-nice bloke too), Tim Benson.
I have many fond memories from my years of kite flying, but the ones I remember with most warmth are those from the "golden days" at Epsom Downs. There was a great bunch of regulars up there that I used to fly with: Gary, Graham, Lee, Paul, Craig, Ben and many more.
In 1996 I got married to Sheila McCulloch, originally from Shrewsbury in Staffordhire. The following year we moved 20 miles down the road from New Malden (thankfully away from the sprawling metropolis of London) to Guildford where I had a new job starting at the Canon Research Centre Europe (CRE). It was a great place to work back then with lots of smart people doing cool things. I researched various topics relating to the World Wide Web and wrote lots of Perl code, including the first versions of the Template Toolkit.
I also got more seriously into kite flying and kite design. I worked with Tim Benson to design a number of kites that have been sold, flown and enjoyed around the World.
But best of all, we started a family...
A less-than-pleasant experience happened the night before the London Kite Festival in 1998 when I decided to give skateboarding another go for the first time since a kid. I went out to a skatepark with a kite flying friend, Chris Matheson, and ended up face-planting the concrete and smashing my front teeth to bits. That one hurt, too. Probably more than the scaffolding pole and with no fancy slow-motion effects to enjoy.
The most prominent piece of software I wrote, and arguably the most successful thing ever to come out of CRE, was the Template Toolkit. Released in 1999, it won an award for "Best New Perl Module" at the Perl Conference the following year. I got to attend and talk at various conferences and user groups, and met loads of interesting people in the process. A few years later I co-wrote the Badger Book with Darren Chamberlain and Dave Cross, published by O'Reilly. It's about the Template Toolkit, not badgers, but it does have a picture of a badger on the front cover.
I believe that one of the reasons for the success of the Template Toolkit (other than the badger on the cover of the book) is that it was designed to solve real-world problems that I encountered in building and maintaining real-world web sites. It wasn't a theoretical exercise in programming language design, but a pragmatic solution to difficult problems. It was designed primarily to make my life easier.
In fact, the web site that is most responsible for pushing me into action is my own, the one you're looking at right now. I've always used it as a place to try out any ideas relating to web development so it's usually where the boundaries get pushed. The MetaText system I had written had done me well and allowed me to push the envelope that bit further, but by then it was starting to show the strain.
So I did what Frederick P. Brooks suggested in his famous (to computer geeks) essay of 1987, The Mythical Man Month, and threw away the prototype. I wrote the Template Toolkit from scratch, applying what I had learnt from using and abusing MetaText and came up with something better.
Plan to throw one away; you will anyway!
-- Frederick P. Brooks, The Mythical Man Month
I wrote it primarily to help me do my own job, figuring that if I designed it with myself in mind then I would be guaranteed at least one happy user. I believe it's the best way to design anything, be it a piece of software, a kite, or a can opener. How can you expect other people to use it if it's not something that you would want to use yourself? This has become known more generally as "Eating one's own dog food".
It turns out I wasn't the only one having the same kind of problems, and now, ten years on, the Template Toolkit is being used to help build thousands of web sites from the very small to the very large. I didn't start with these people in mind but I figured they were out there. I followed the SAM principle (make it work today, make it better tomorrow) and hoped that if I built it they would come.
If you want to change the world then start by changing the world
-- My corollary to the SAM Principle
There's a saying that to know someone you must walk a mile in their shoes. And so it is with software. To understand it you must use it. Walk a mile in its shoes and understand what it does well and just as important, what it could do better. This expands the problem horizon - giving you a broader scope of knowledge about an issue so that you can make a more informed decision about the best direction in which to head.
Let me finish this section with one final thought. As much as we would like to be able to reduce every problem to a simple and elegant solution, a magical software package that makes life easy at the press of a button, we have to accept that it's not always possible. As Fred Brooks also notes in The Mythical Man Month, there is no magical silver bullet that can slay the demons of software development. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to every problem and no substitute for a bit of careful thinking.
As I wrote in an article on MVC (Model-View-Controller an important design pattern, but by no means the only one), there is no silver bullet, and even if there was, there would still be plenty of ways to shoot yourself in the foot with it.
There is no silver bullet of software development, and even if there
was, there would still be plenty of ways to shoot yourself in the foot
-- My corollary to Brooks
1999 was a special year for us when our first son, Ben, was born on April 13th. Like every parent, we utterly adore him and have enjoyed (nearly) every moment of raising him. I remember my Mum telling me "You'll understand when you have kids..." Now I get it.
Another new arrival appeared around the same time in the form of the Gemini. This is a unique twin-spined freestyle trick kite that I designed with Tim Benson. It went on to become a great success in commercial production and remains one of the most popular kites of its kind today.
It was all "go" for the next few years. The Template Toolkit was successful and my work was (mostly) interesting. Being a parent was challenging, but especially rewarding even if it forced me to grow up a bit. I also kicked back a bit and started skateboarding again for the first time since I broke my teeth, figuring that it was now or never because I'd be too old in another 10 years.
Of course I'm already way too old to ever be any good at skateboarding, but I love doing it and that's all that matters. While I can hold my head high and say that I've mastered certain aspects of kite flying without fear of being hit by too many flying eggs, I know that I will never master skateboarding. Apart from the fact that my body is wearing out quicker than my enthusiasm and I can no longer throw myself around like I used to, I have to accept that I'm decades behind those people who have been working at it since they were kids and have far more natural ability than I ever will. Maybe that's why I like it, because it will always be a challenge.
Kite flying and skateboarding are both perfect antidotes to an intellectual and mainly desk-bound profession like computer programming. When your brain has had enough thinking, your eyes have had enough staring at a screen and your body is fed up with sitting motionless in a chair, you really can't beat getting out for an hour or two of excercise. It gives you a change of scenery, gets the blood flowing again and gives your mind that all-important rest from thinking. I can't tell you the number of problems that have collapsed while skateboarding or kite flying.
CRE closed in July 2004 when parent company Canon took their UK R&D budget back to Japan. To be honest, it was probably about time. The organisation seemed to have difficulty in capitalising on the great (and not-so-great) ideas that were generated within. I think we could have done with fewer meetings and more sticks in the ground, but what do I know?
However, it was a great place to work for a number of years and I have a lot of fond memories. I worked closely with Tim O'Donoghue, Neil Bowers, Ave Wrigley and Channing "Chango" Walton, among others. But it was Martin Portman who I particularly clicked with and formed a lasting friendship. Perhaps it was the fact that, like me, he knew the entire script to "Spinal Tap". But I suspect that the real reason is that he's one of those rare people, a mapper, who just "gets it". He sees clarity and simplicity when the rest of the world is caught up in a sea of madness and complexity.
Great thinkers are mappers.
They rarely proceed by erecting edifices of great conceptual complexity.
Rather they show us how to see the world in a simpler way.
-- Alan G Carter and Colston Sanger, The Programmer's Stone
I also had other kiting projects running on the sideline throughout this time. Following on from the Gemini, I designed another kite with Tim Benson, the Airbow. This made it into Time Magazine's list of the "100 Coolest Inventions of 2003". The kite and I featured in a program on the Discovery Channel and an article in Wired magazine.
I also devised a freestyle "Trickout" kite flying competition format. Two pilots fly off against each other in a head-to-head battle set to music. Radical tricks and off-the-cuff improvisation feature heavily, with an emphasis on technical flying performed with style. That's in keeping with my general philosophy on the essence of freestyle: freedom and style.
Freestyle is about freedom and style. It's an artistic statement.
You can do what you like, how you like, as long as you put a bit
of yourself in it.
When CRE closed down we were all laid off with generous severance packages. I took 6 months off to spend the summer of 2004 flying kites, skateboarding, making music, editing video and generally resting my brain.
I had been spending a lot of time working on the design of version 3 of the Template Toolkit (TT3). I'm the kind of person that tends to be very highly motivated by things that inspire me (and it's not hard to inspire me), but often to the point of compulsion. At times I was spending almost every waking moment thinking about TT design issues and it wasn't healthy.
So it was time to step back. I put TT3 in a mental box and closed the lid. I thought I'd leave it to my subconscious mind to work on while my conscious one had some fun.
I had all but dropped out of the kite scene, as I tend to do when I get heavily absorbed in "work mode", so now I made an effort to get back into it. I got up to date on the latest tricks, made up a few new combos of my own, shot some video, learnt how to edit it (not very well, but good enough), and put it up on my web site for people to download.
Big kudos to Lars Fakkeldij whose own videos had inspired me to get out my Gemini and start flying again. He had been playing around with weights and yo-yo stops and was making the Gem (which I thought I knew inside out) do things that I didn't think were possible. Since then it has been my great pleasure to meet and spend time with Lars and his posse at various event and get to know them all better. Lars is superb kite flier, probably the best I've ever seen on a Gemini and also a totally solid bloke. You can catch both him flying on the Trick or Treat DVD, along with Tim Benson, Jason Winter and myself.
I had bought a nice electric piano a few years earlier and had been dabbling a little on it. When I started doing the kite videos I needed some music to go with it. I didn't want to just rip off my favourite track from someone else's album and risk getting sued (or worse, having my web site shut down along with the couple of hundred other sites that run off the same machine).
By chance, I was round at Dom's house one night when he showed me the demo version of this totally amazing piece of music sofware called Reason. The demo only ran for 20 minutes and didn't allow you to save the song. But in that time, he put together some basic backing tracks, busked some keyboards over the top and recorded it. I ended up using "Dom's Song" on one of my first kite movies.
In over 20 years of using computers I can't think of a single moment when I have been more impressed by a piece of software. I still am. Reason is an absolutely incredible piece of work and I have profound respect for the people at Propellerheads who created it.
So I bought a copy (best 200 quid I ever spent on software) and started playing around with it. Reason gives you a virtual 19 inch rack into which you add your virtual mixing desks, effects units, drum machines, synthesizers and so on.
Unlike real equipment costing real money that takes real time to earn, virtual instruments are free! Simply pull down a menu to create the device you want and it magically appears in your rack. Need 37 drum machines, 15 mixers and 11 separate effects? No problem. You might not have enough computer processing power to play the whole song back in real time, but you can still mute/solo tracks to preview and then bounce the whole lot down offline. Or you can get a faster machine :-)
I also started playing around with GarageBand, part of Apple's iLife suite. I had bought an iMac a year or so earlier but I wasn't strictly a "switcher". I use Linux for most of my work, and generally still do. I bought the Mac mainly to use Photoshop so that I wouldn't have to reboot my laptop into Windows.
Apple's OSX operating system has the reliability and stability of Unix running underneath, with the shiny user interface goodness on top. It's the perfect combination. I love the way that things "just work" and look beautiful at the same time. Form and function.
Anyway, GarageBand allowed me to throw some very basic music together for backing tracks on my kite videos. The early efforts were slightly more polished versions of the kind of awful stuff I recorded when I was younger. Things got better as I went along and I invested in a copy of Logic, the more advanced digital studio software of which GarageBand is a stripped-down version. I've had a huge amount of fun and learnt a great deal about writing, recording, mixing and mastering music in the digital age.
Computers? Bloody wonderful things! I remember being a wide-eyed kid in the computer lab at school at the moment when I first realised the possiblities of what these "programmable machines" could do. I wrote instructions and the machine executed them. The only limit was my imagination!
Another computing epiphany came along with the web. I wrote instructions and someone else's machine half way around the World would execute them. The instructions would generate a web page that could contain words, pictures, a product catalogue, and online booking system, and so on. The only limit was our imagination.
Now I found myself a wide-eyed adult having another profound moment. Here was a machine that I was using to make music, edit video and create graphics. Once again, I was only limited by my imagination, but this time I didn't have to write any instructions at all. Instead I was using other people's instructions. All I had to do was point, click and play the right thing at the right time. And if I got it wrong, I could hit "undo" and do it again.
I realised that computers had truly become the "creativity enhancers" that Douglas Englebart had predicted. I was using the computer like I would a musical instrument, a mixing desk, a camera or paintbrush. It was a tool through which I could express myself in ways that simply weren't practical or even possible 20 years earlier. Back then in my home recording studio, wondering what a cymbal crash sounded like backwards meant cutting out the tape and splicing it back in the other way round. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it back then just for the sake of exploration. But I much prefer being able to do it now with the click of a mouse knowing that I can always hit "undo" if it sounds awful.
So I was taking a welcome break from work for a while. I got to spend time looking after Luke and Ben, enjoying my family and various other recreational persuits. I also spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do in life.
I seriously considered moving into another area of computing, or into a different field altogether. I thought about bioinformatics where my Perl skills would be valuable and I would have a chance to learn about something entirely new. I also looked into sleep research, a subject that really intrigues me and coincidentally has a worldwide centre of excellence at the University of Surrey here in Guildford.
Both these options would mean a return to education and I quite fancied the thought of going back to full-time learning now that I was mature enough to fully appreciate it. I also thought about studying for a PhD in something computer-related, but decided that it probably wasn't worth it.
My experiences at CRE had led me to the conclusion that a PhD is little more than a piece of paper that says "you did this, well done". Not to knock anyone who has earned a PhD because I know how much hard work it entails. But in a subject like computing you don't need a lab full of expensive equipment, so there's nothing to stop you from doing the research anyway. You don't get the piece of paper at the end or the prestige of being able to call yourself "Doctor" but your contribution to the knowledge of humanity may be just as great.
Ultimately, it was that thought (and three hungry mouths to feed) that brought me back to what I do and do reasonably well. I figured that I had spent most of my life learning to make computers do my bidding and reckoned I still had some insights and experiences that were worth sharing. While I like to think I would have been able to make some small contribution to sleep research or genomics, I realised that I stood a better chance of making a contribution to the field of computing and web site construction in particular.
So I re-opened the Template Toolkit box and found out that my hard-working subconscious mind had already solved some of the gnarlier problems that I had been consciously avoiding. It may sound strange, but that really does seem to be how it works (in my head at least). I'll try and explain it as best I can.
First you must totally deconstruct a problem. Really get inside it and understand the issues at stake. That's actually the hard part that takes determination and dogged persistance. You also have to have an open mind that can take everything in without passing immediate judgement. You must listen to both sides of every argument if you want to be able to see the big picture (sorry to mix aural and visual metaphors there).
At this point you usually can't see the big picture because you're tangled up in all the detail. Or put simply, you can't see the wood for the trees. But as long as you have absorbed all the relevant information then you have enough to build a map of the forest.
Don't worry if the whole problem feels hopelessly messy at this point - that's a good sign. At this stage I find that just thinking about the problem can make me feel uncomfortable. It's like a sense of dread and foreboding about the futile task of trying to make sense of it all that lies ahead of me.
This is the time to do the last thing on your mind and forget all about it. Seriously, take a leap of faith and just stop thinking about the problem altogether. If you can't stop thinking about it then imagine you're locking the problem away in a box. Any time it drifts back into your mind when you don't want it there, just reinforce the act of putting it back in the mental box. It'll soon learn to stay there.
Now wait. How long depends on the particular problem and what else you've got on your mind at the time. It could be hours, days, weeks or months. Obviously you can't wait forever if you've got deadlines to meet, so you might have to open the box fairly regularly to check on progress and keep things moving along.
Sooner or later, and usually when you're least expecting it, the problem will drift back into your conscious mind. As you instinctively reach to put it back in its box you'll notice that just having it there in your head doesn't make you feel uncomfortable any more. It's a bit like meeting an old acquaintance that you never particuarly liked and finding yourself thinking that they're really quite nice and wondering why you ever disliked them.
And then as you're reflecting on the problem and catching up with what this old acquaintance has been up to since you last met, it suddenly hits you. Problem collapse! That ecstatic, "Eureka!" moment when you see the big picture in all its beautiful glory. The problem has somehow magicaly tranformed itself into a solution and with new found clarity, you can now see beauty in what was chaos and method in the madness.
|You need to take a few steps back if you want to see the big picture.|
One more thing: go to sleep. Sleep well at night and try to allow yourself time to wake up naturally and slowly. Those first few minutes of waking are when solved problems are often to be found running around. They haven't noticed that you're waking up yet and if you tread carefully into waking consciousness then you can often catch one before it runs back to its box.
So do pay serious attention to resting your mind. This is how the solutions to problems bubble to the surface. Don't be afraid to "microsleep" during the day. Even if you don't fully sleep, just getting comfortable, closing your eyes and quietening your thoughts down is enough to give your brain a welcome break for a few minutes. Remember that you must be prepared to take a few steps back in order to see the big picture.
Your subconscious mind is like a big bowl of thought soup. Unlike your conscious mind which is always thinking about something in particular at any one time, your subconscious mind doesn't have any sense of "here and now" or "this and that". Sure, it's made of lots of tasty ingredients and you could dip in and and pull out a carrot or piece of potato that's clearly one of the ingredients. But if you want to make a tasty soup then you must throw it all into the pot and let it bubble a while.
Hopefully you'll end up with something bigger and better than the sum of the parts. The entropy (disorder) of the system has somehow been magically reduced as if laughing in the face of the first law of thermodynamics.
Lisa, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamnics!
-- Homer Simpson
Wow, talk about mixed metaphors! Forests, big pictures, brain soup and thermodynamics! Hope you kept up with all of that. If not, take a nap and it'll make more sense.
As well as getting back into TT3 development, I also spent some time catching up on the latest technologies and trends in web development.
So I had fun playing around with these things, taking them apart to learn how they worked (or didn't in some cases). As usual this web site gave me a playground to mess around with
I started working again in the spring of 2005 doing various bits of freeland web development work. I had built up some contacts over the previous year and got a number of jobs lined up. I incorporated my own consultancy business, Contentity Ltd., in August 2005 and I've been busy ever since designing and building web sites, e-commerce solutions, content management systems, and so on.
Pretty much everything in life has been rosy for the last year or so. Watching Luke take his first steps with Ben there to help him. Getting the Deep Space finished and into production. Starting my own company, working on some interesting projects, being my own boss.
In the autumn of 2005 Chris married long-time partner Julia. Never ones to do thing in the orthodox manner, they had 2 kids first and got married afterwards. It was a fantastic wedding which brought our old circle of friends back together for a memorable weekend. I had the great pleasure and honour of being his "Speaker of Things" - the best man responsible for giving a speech that allowed me to share some of the more memorable moments of our many years of friendship.
SAM and his partner Dru have just become parents with the birth of their first baby, Edward Thomas Matthews. It's been over a month now and the little fella still doesn't have a web site up and running! It's great news all the same. I know they'll make fantastic parents.
|Click on the section titles or Open/Close links to show or hide the content in that section. Or use the "Open All" and "Close All" buttons to show or hide the content of all sections.|