The Miracle of Literacy

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

The image above is an excerpt from one of my earliest attempts at writing (and illustrating). It’s a page from a book called “Stories of Mr. Wolf” that I wrote at home, at the age of six. I still have the book, which I’ve recently scanned because the paper is gradually disintegrating. I can’t claim that those stories would win any literary prizes, nor even hold the interest of anyone else, but I had to start somewhere!

I was always eager to learn to read and write, and was quite happy to practice at home when I felt so inspired. Perhaps unlike many children, I didn’t have to wait for my schoolteachers to insist that I must do it.

The Magical Skill

I can just remember back to the days before I learned to read and write, and I recall my amazement at the adults around me who seemed able to do it with ease. My grandfather, who was retired and lived with my parents, took a daily newspaper and several magazines (including the Dalesman, which is still in print today).

As it appeared to me, he would open the newspaper or magazine, stare at it for a few minutes, then tell me that he had read it! He didn’t seem to need to sound out the words, or follow the text with his finger, and yet, at the end of the process, he had clearly absorbed and understood the printed words that he’d been staring at. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever learn to do that!

Four Generations of our Family

Four Generations of our Family

The photo above was taken when I was about 2 years old, and shows 4 generations of my mother’s family. The group on the right consists of me, my mother, her mother, and my grandmother’s mother. The man at lower left is my grandfather.

My drawing below is from another book that I wrote and illustrated in 1966, but this was one that we were required to write in class at school, and it features one of my earliest “self-portraits”. Unlike most of my other school work, this book has also survived.

Self-Portrait, 1966

Self-Portrait, 1966

Based on the remaining evidence, a notable difference between the books I wrote at home and those I wrote at school is that the subjects I wrote about at home were generally more imaginative and adventurous! It seems that, at school, our teachers must have restricted us to writing about very mundane topics (perhaps because we all had to write about the same things).

The Basis of Civilization

It seems to me that literacy is the one critical skill that allows human society to advance, and in fact is the sole reason why we’re not all still living in trees or caves.

Anthropologists tell us how other species rely more instinct than humans, so newborns of those species already have many critical survival skills. Humans, as they tell us, have to go through a very protracted growth process, and must be taught almost everything by their parents.

The specifically-human ability to read and write, however, allows individuals to record and transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and that ability has been critical to our progress as a species. If each generation of humans had to restart “from square one”, learning everything from scratch, we would never advance. Instead, each generation is able to learn from the one before, and “stand on the shoulders” of its ancestors to make further progress. Most of this knowledge transmission has always occurred, and still occurs, via reading and writing.

It’s true that recent technological developments have provided us with other mechanisms for recording and transmitting information (such as video). While such systems offer a much richer and perhaps more engaging experience, our basic writing systems still offer vastly greater efficiency for disseminating information than any other recording system. I came to a forceful realization of this when writing my first multimedia title, Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets (mentioned in this article on my professional blog). I was faced with the choice of delivering information via onscreen text, or via audio, or even via video. In very rough terms, audio playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of text display, and video playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of audio playback.

A New Literary Revolution

At the present time, another literary revolution is actually occurring. All genuinely creative writers and artists should be excited about this revolution, but I wonder how many actually realize what is happening!

The invention of printing allowed written information to be disseminated to mass audiences. Previously, all written works had had to be hand-copied, which was such a laborious process that only a few copies of each book were ever produced.

Nonetheless, printed books still had to be produced and distributed physically, and this led to a situation where publishers became the dominant “gatekeepers”, controlling what could actually reach the mass market.

The image below shows the title page of the oldest printed book in my possession, which obviously I acquired secondhand! The book was published by the University of Cambridge in 1828, and is a collection of the surviving works of the Greek playwright Æschylus.

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1830

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1828

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught myself some Ancient Greek while studying in Manchester, but my fluency never became sufficient to read Æschylus’ work in the original! Nonetheless, my efforts led me to the purchase of this and a few other works in Greek.

Books Without Paper

During the past few years, eBooks have started to become popular. Instead of being printed on paper, eBooks are distributed electronically and are read on digital devices. In fact, in many cases purchasers cannot print their eBooks on paper.

Although eBooks have several pros and cons relative to printed books, a remarkable situation has developed whereby major booksellers such as Amazon are actively encouraging authors to self-publish their own eBooks, instead of being forced to follow the traditional routes via established publishers.

In view of this development, I think we’re living at a very exciting time, when the potential for writers (and artists) is greater than it has ever been. There’s really now nothing to prevent those with real talent from being able to publish their works to the world.

And yes, just as with the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the 1980s, the democratization of book publishing will inevitably mean that vast amounts of dross will get published along with the masterpieces! Nonetheless, I think that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, and the world will soon see a whole new publishing landscape. For a skill that has been so critical to the development of our species, that has to be a good thing!

Delusions of Potential?

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

The photo above shows Wadham College, Oxford University, while I was staying there for an interview during 1980.

During the period 1977-81, I visited and was interviewed by quite a few universities in England, but Oxford has the unique distinction for me of being the only university that interviewed me without my having ever applied to them.

Deluding Myself?

At that period in my life, I was painfully aware that I could reasonably be accused of being a “habitual university interview attendee”. I realized that I was spending much of my free time traveling to and attending interviews at universities, with no assurance that any of that effort would lead to anything. Was I simply deluding myself, tricking myself into thinking that I had the potential to graduate from one of these institutions? Should I not instead be spending my time in looking for a better full-time job than the one I was trying to escape from?

I was nagged by doubts about what I was doing, and whether I was really just being a conceited fraud.

As I related in a previous post, having dropped out of the University of Warwick after one year, I was working full-time as an Accounts/Sales Clerk at Swifts of Scarborough. I applied for many jobs, and repeatedly received the same advice; to go back to university and obtain a degree.

By the Spring of 1980, I had essentially decided to pursue the university application route, despite knowing that, if I did so, there would be no chance of my starting a new degree course any earlier than the Autumn of 1981. That meant that I would not be able to graduate any earlier than 1984 or 1985, depending on the details of the course.

Taking a Leap of Faith

My decision seemed a particularly difficult one, because there was no guarantee that any university would consider the application of a student who’d already dropped out of another institution. Even if some university did offer me a place, how would I finance my studies? There was no guarantee that the North Yorkshire Education Authority would award me a grant (for the first year, at least), and my father had died in 1979, leaving my mother to support the household.

Having decided to study Electronic Engineering, I hoped that I might be able to obtain some kind of industrial sponsorship, whereby an employer would provide me with an apprenticeship and some kind of paid employment to complement my studies. The reality, however, was that such sponsorships were even harder to obtain than university places. In those pre-internet days, even finding sponsorships that might be available was a difficult task, requiring research at reference libraries.

I also looked at the possibility of obtaining some type of scholarship to help my finances, but that also seemed to be outside the realm of possibility. Such scholarships were intended for exceptional students who were applying from school, not for someone who had already had “one chance”.

Even if I was able to overcome those obstacles, there was still a significant risk. Unlike the case in some other countries, the award of an undergraduate university place in Britain is no guarantee that you’ll get a degree at the end of it all. What if, after all that, I went back to university but had to drop out again without a degree? What a disaster that would be, and what an immense waste of time.

The Oxford University Mystery

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The City of Oxford is, of course, now internationally famous because of the Inspector Morse mysteries, written by Colin Dexter (who died in 2017). In those days, Oxford was already famous for its renowned university, but Oxford was not one the universities to which I applied, so how did I come to be interviewed there?

After I dropped out from Warwick, word eventually got back to the Scarborough Sixth Form College, where I’d taken my university entrance exams, about what had happened to me. By that time, the Sixth Form College had a new headmaster, who seemed keen to try to rectify the problems left by his predecessor. The new headmaster was a graduate of Wadham College, so he set up an interview there for me, with the idea of encouraging my efforts to return to academia.

Unfortunately, though, at that time Oxford did not have a particularly good reputation in engineering, so, weighing up the pros and cons against other institutions, in the end Oxford simply didn’t make the list of universities to which I applied!

Potential or Politics?

On the whole, I found that universities responded to my application more positively than I’d anticipated.

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

The University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST) made me an offer quite quickly after interviewing me, as did a couple of other prestigious institutions. Oddly, Cambridge University initially seemed interested, but then declined. I’ve never understood that, because I sat both the Cambridge entrance exam, and the supposedly-tougher Imperial College Scholarship exam, and obtained one of the top prizes in the Imperial College exam!

Nonetheless, I came out of the process with several offers from prestigious institutions.

An Abundance of Rewards

As I mentioned above, given my concerns about how I would support myself financially during my years of study, I had pursued several possibilities to supplement my income. In the end, amazingly, all those efforts paid off!

  • I had struggled to obtain an industrial sponsorship, and succeeded in obtaining a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti plc, in Manchester. Ferranti would provide me with employment during the summer breaks, and also gave me a small annual bursary to help with my living costs.
  • I had sat several optional examinations in an attempt to win a scholarship, and I obtained a Royal Scholarship from Imperial College, London. The award was only for my first year there, but that was the year for which I’d been concerned about obtaining a grant.
  • In the end, the Local Education Authority was convinced of my bona fides, so they did award me a full grant for the term of my studies.

My Employer’s Misplaced Concerns

By May of 1981, everything seemed to have fallen into place. I had an apprenticeship set to start at Ferranti, and an undergraduate place at Imperial College waiting for me that October, so it was time for me to give notice to my employer, Swifts of Scarborough.

As we discussed the termination of my employment, Swifts’ Managing Director claimed to be quite concerned for my financial future. Had I considered, he asked me, that I’d be giving up a full-time income and would be forced to live on a student grant, and in London too!

Yes, of course I had considered that, I explained. I went on to explain to him that, with my full grant, my Ferranti bursary, and my Royal Scholarship, my “take home pay” would actually be higher than it had been working for him! That was the last I heard from him on the matter of my future…

You Have to Stay in it to Win it

The decision to commit to re-entering university was, at that time, the hardest and riskiest that I had had to make in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m really glad that I rejected the warnings of the naysayers and stuck to my own “gut instinct” that it was the right way to go.

There have been other occasions since then when I’ve had to make similar decisions, without any assurance that I’m going to be able to meet the challenge that I’m setting myself. As I see it, there is no choice but to accept the challenge and face the risks. After all, if you back down, you are absolutely guaranteeing that you will never succeed; you have to “stay in it to win it”.

Demise of the Typewriter

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

I produced the pencil drawing above in March 1977, while studying for my Advanced-Level Art qualification at Scarborough Sixth Form College. Back when I produced it, I could never have imagined that, some 40 years later, I’d be using exactly that image to illustrate an article about the demise of the typewriter!

As weekly homework, our teacher (Miss Mingay) required us to draw some object or scene in pencil, in a sketchbook. I considered the task very boring and tiresome at the time, but, fortunately, my mother hung on to the sketchbook, so some interesting drawings have survived (albeit now very smudged).

On that particular occasion, my chosen subject was a typewriter, which had originally been used mostly by my mother. (This was our second typewriter, and I think that it was an Olivetti). By that time, however, I was getting ready to use it myself, to type out the content of my A-level Art study in Architecture.

(The following year, Miss Mingay retired, and the onerous weekly homework requirement disappeared with her! That confirmed my suspicion that it was not a requirement of the A-level course.)

My Mother’s Career Plans

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my father was a teacher, but suffered his first stroke when I was about two years old. Given that he was the family’s sole breadwinner, my parents began to fear for their future financial security, and considered alternative plans for generating sufficient income.

One idea, which my father seemed to favor, was to buy a Guest House or Hotel, then generate income by letting out rooms. Given Scarborough’s status as a seaside resort, this was a reasonable idea, although the sheer number of such businesses in the town meant that it was highly competitive.

The other idea was for my mother to learn typing and shorthand, with a view to becoming a secretary. In those days, that was still one of the few career paths open to women without specialized qualifications.

My mother did start taking secretarial classes at Scarborough Technical College, and that was what initially prompted their purchase of a typewriter. She also decided that, to be effective in her new career, she would need to learn to drive, which she also achieved. My father’s concession on that count was that he sold his large Humber Super Snipe, and bought a smaller Austin 1100 (shown below, with me in the back seat), which my mother was more comfortable driving.

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

I was particularly excited about that car, because it was the first time that my father had bought a brand new car rather than a used model.

Change of Plan

Eventually, though, the Guest House plan won out, and we all moved to a suitable building on West Street in 1970. My mother seems to have abandoned her secretarial aspirations at that point, but she did continue her studies with some Open University courses, and the typewriter was useful for those.

From Typewriter to Computer

While an undergraduate student at Imperial College in the early 1980s, I decided to invest in an electric typewriter, since I was noticing that typewritten papers were better received by our tutors than handwritten ones.

That typewriter saw much use for a few years, but it was the last one that I ever bought. I brought it with me to California in 1987, but never used it again. Why bother, when a computer+printer was so much easier, more productive, and more powerful?

We Don’t Get Much Call for Those Now

I was by no means the only person who realized that the typewriter had been superseded by computer technology. In fact, should you wish to buy a typewriter now, you’ll have to find a used example, because the last new machines were manufactured in 2011, in India.

Just as digital camera technology swept away film cameras, so computers and printers have swept away typewriters. I sometimes find it sobering to reflect on how different the world is now from that of only 30-40 years ago.

The Inheritance of Dysfunctional Thinking

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

The photo above was probably taken some time in 1963. It shows (from left to right) my mother’s parents, my mother, my younger brother (in the pram) and me, all apparently out for a “bracing” walk on the sea cliffs. A book that I’ve recently been reading caused me to think about how I “inherited” unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting from my parents, without even realizing it.

Based on the background details, the location of the photo definitely isn’t Scarborough, and in fact I believe it’s the nearby town of Filey. Given that he doesn’t appear in the photo, I assume that my father was behind the camera.

At that age, I could never understand the attraction of these walks, in cold and windy weather. If you must go walking on a cold day, then why not at least choose a sheltered place in which to do it? Why walk along the top of a sea cliff? I went along only because I was given no choice in the matter. Now, of course, in retrospect, I see the exercise value, and understand the fact that my parents and grandparents appreciated the clean seaside air, which must have been such a contrast compared to that of the dirty industrial city in which they’d grown up.

As is probably the case for all families, the scene of calm in the photo above hides all manner of inter-personal tensions and frustrations, many of which were never even discussed, let alone resolved. It wasn’t until I myself became an adult that I began to realize that I had unconsciously inherited some of my parents’ dysfunctional ways of interacting with the world.

The Dysfunctional Parents of H G Wells

Wells Aspects Of A Life: Cover

I’ve just been reading the book H G Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, and biographical details in that book prompted me to compare the dysfunctionality in Wells’ family with that in my own.

West, who was Wells’ illegitimate son by author Rebecca West, goes into considerable detail concerning the lives of his father’s parents. Although I knew the broad outline of their history from other biographies, it is clear from the additional details in this book that both parents not only had serious personal shortcomings, but also that their marriage was a complete failure for most of its existence.

Wells himself found it necessary to defy his mother’s wishes, knowing that, whatever direction he took, she would be unhappy with him. His mother was quite determined that he was not to “rise above his station” in life, and tried to force him to become a draper’s apprentice. She did nothing to support his efforts to forge a career in teaching, and then in writing. She remained unreasonably critical of him, even after he rose to international fame.

Our Parents Made Us in Their Image

I’ve come to realize, over the course of my life, how we all inadvertently tend to inherit both successful and dysfunctional coping mechanisms from our parents. We all grow up assuming that the way that our parents behave is the way that all adults behave (because what other reference do we have?), so we tend to adopt their approaches to problems, without even being conscious of what we’re doing.

Nobody is perfect, of course, and that’s as true of ourselves as it is of our parents. The problem here is that, by unquestioningly inheriting our parents’ ways of dealing with the world, we may unnecessarily condemn ourselves to repeat their mistakes and frustrations.

I suspect that this inheritance creates many problems that are sometimes claimed to have a genetic basis, when in fact the children simply learn the flawed responses from their parents. For example, is a tendency towards optimism or pessimism, or to “addictive” behavior, really genetic, or is it just learned behavior, based on observations of our parents?

This Be the Verse

The British poet Philip Larkin, who spent much of his adult life in the Yorkshire city of Hull, described this phenomenon very succinctly in his well-known work This Be the Verse. For the most part, the parental curse is by no means deliberate; as Larkin says, “They may not mean to but they do”.

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

A Ray of Light

This may seem like rather a downbeat topic, suggesting that we’re all trapped by the shortcomings of our parents, but it really shouldn’t be seen that way. Surely, the key to breaking the chain of “inherited dysfunction” is first to realize that that’s what is happening.

Once you realize that you’re automatically copying your parents’ coping mechanisms, instead of considering whether there may be alternative approaches that would work better, you’ve taken the first step to escaping from this trap.

Planning Your Career: Aim Too High or Aim Too Low?

Sunset through Freezing Fog, Coventry, 1979

Sunset through Freezing Fog, Coventry, 1979

The photo above—which could be titled “In the Bleak Midwinter”—shows the sun setting through freezing fog in University Valley, Coventry, in January 1979. The location was approximately here, although it’s now unrecognizable.

At the time, I was feeling very bleak myself, because I really wasn’t sure why I’d embarked on an Engineering Science degree course at Warwick University, with a view to becoming, of all things, a Civil Engineer. As I’ve described in a previous post, that experience didn’t go well, but, in retrospect, it actually turned out to be for the best, since a short time later I moved to a more prestigious university and obtained a better degree, in a subject that was more appropriate for my skills and interests.

It’s interesting to examine the flawed thought process that led me to make that discouraging “false start” at Warwick, and whether it would even have been possible for me to have made career decisions more wisely in those days.

What to Do with Your Life

Years ago, I heard someone say something like this (in a PBS radio item, I think):

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I was going to do with my life. As I grew older, I came to realize that I should be worrying more about what life was going to do to me!

That may be all too true, but it does nothing to answer the question that occupies the time of many young people (including me, at that age), about what career to choose, and, in general, what path to take in life.

When I was growing up, it was by no means clear what career I should aim for. I seemed to have no access to knowledgeable advice, and the only thing that everyone seemed to be agreed on was that I should not follow in the footsteps of my father! (My father had become a teacher.)

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

What do You Want to be when You Grow Up? Are You Joking?

It has become a cliché that most children are asked at some point what they’d like to be “when they grow up”, and I was no exception. My earliest recollections of my ideas on that topic suggest that I wanted to be a train driver. However, my mother claimed that the answer I gave to that question was that I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, and be “retired”!

In retrospect, it is now obvious that, had I tried to answer that question seriously, and had I somehow been able to give an accurate answer, nobody would have believed me.

Suppose that, in 1977 when I had to make decisions about what to do after I left school, I had made the following statement about my future:

Well, I think I’ll aim to get a degree in Electronics from one of the world’s top universities, then that should enable me to get a job with the BBC, so I can become a video engineer. Once I’ve mastered that, I’ll move to California to work on advanced video system design. Maybe I should also invent a few new video systems and techniques, to earn me some patents in the USA and Japan.

I can just imagine the kind of response that I’d have received to such a statement! There would have been much rolling of eyes, shaking of heads, and almost certainly some laughter or derision. I’d have been accused of not treating the question seriously.

But the paragraph above describes exactly what I actually did do during the ensuing quarter-century!

To realize just how impossible those predictions would have seemed, bear in mind that, during my schooldays, I’d never used any kind of computer more complex than a digital calculator (as described in a previous post), and nobody in my family had any history of working in engineering or technology. (My father had owned an electrical installation business prior to World War II, but that was really the construction industry.)

In retrospect, it’s obvious that, although my career choice at that age was an important decision, it was really much less important than I was led to believe at the time.

It Seems Easy for Some

In contrast to my indecisiveness, my best friend at school never seemed to have any doubts about what path in life he wanted to follow. He had created his own marionette act while at primary school, which he performed around the Scarborough area, and, when we were at school together, he was always certain that his future lay in show business. I was envious of his clarity of purpose and determination to achieve it.

He went on to win ATV’s New Faces show, on national television, and dropped out of school to pursue his dream, eventually becoming one of Britain’s most successful theatrical agents and managers.

Build Your Own Dream

I had to learn the hard way just how true is the following statement.

If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.

As a young man, I would certainly have found the idea of “building my own dream” impossibly daunting, but nonetheless, time expended trying to define “my dream” would have been well-spent.

This kind of advice is sometimes taken to mean that you should start your own business, but that’s not necessarily the case. You may be able to work for someone else, and yet also gain skills that will lead you towards your dream role.

Too Narrow an Education

One major problem that negatively impacted my career decisions was the insistence on over-specialization, at too early an age, that was a feature of the British educational system. The requirement to concentrate on a limited range of subjects at school, from the age of 13, effectively closed off many careers to me.

I’ll have more to say about this problem in a future post, but I want to mention it here because it has probably had such a negative effect on the lives of many.

The Luxury of Options

I realize that people of my generation and younger can perhaps consider ourselves lucky that we even have the luxury of being able to choose our goals in life. For many people—perhaps the majority—throughout history, those options were simply not available, and their paths through life were largely restricted and predetermined at birth.

For my parents, and many of their generation, their attempts to plan their lives were repeatedly interrupted by major events beyond their control, such as two World Wars in my father’s case.

Even those who managed to avoid taking overt personal risks sometimes found themselves impacted by the misfortunes of others. My mother’s first husband died of tuberculosis (contracted in a Japanese POW camp), which then almost killed my mother (her life was saved only by the development of new “wonder drugs” at the end of the 1940s).

By comparison with my parents’ battles, my own worries and concerns have always seemed trivial, but nonetheless I did have to make important decisions about my future at a young age.

Summary: how to Choose a Career

The best advice I can give to anyone trying to make a career decision now is as follows. In offering these tips, I’m well aware that it’s much easier to give this type of advice than it is to follow it!

  • Don’t fret the details. Don’t waste time trying to predict or plan exactly what you will do. As I showed above, even if your predictions were to be 100% accurate, there’s a good chance that nobody, including you, will believe them! Some people try to plan in immense detail, and are then disappointed when things don’t work out exactly that way.
  • Build Your Own Dream, by aiming to do what you enjoy doing. I realize that this is common “pop psychology” advice. It sounds trite and is usually much easier said than done! However, it has a valid basis. One way or another, you will spend a significant portion of your life doing whatever you choose to do as a career. Choosing to do something you don’t like is therefore a terrible form of self-punishment. You only get one go at life, so you will never get back all that time that you spent being miserable.
  • Don’t worry too much about relative pay or current career prospects. These conditions tend to change with time, so the job situation when you actually enter a field is likely to have changed relative to when you made your career plans. Many jobs that existed when I was trying to make my career decisions simply no longer exist at all, and vice versa. There are also more subtle pressures. For example, I chose Electronic Engineering over Computer Science for my degree, partly because, at that time, I could obtain an apprenticeship in the former but not the latter. In retrospect, though, Computer Science would have been a better fit for my skills and interests.
  • Always aim “too high”; that is, aim for the highest level that you can achieve. For example, if you can get a Ph.D., and if it’s relevant to what you want to do, be sure to do so.
  • Don’t fear failure. Again, this is easier said than done! My parents seemed to have a fatalistic view that, if you tried something but failed at it, you were somehow marked for life as an “irrevocable failure”. In fact, many successful people have experienced some failures along the way, but still their achievements outweigh their failures. They don’t “write themselves off”, nor permanently wallow in self-pity, because of a failure.
  • Treat career advice with caution. I recall many instances when someone said to me, “If I were you, I’d…”, then proceeded to offer some well-meant advice. The problem, in all cases, was that the person offering the advice was not me, and typically had completely different skills, aptitudes and interests from me. For example, an art teacher was never going to advise me to become an engineer, and a science teacher was never going to advise me to become an artist, but what I now do involves both skillsets, so I was right to insist on developing both.
  • Reject advice from “No-Talent Naysayers”. Not all career advice is well-intentioned. Unfortunately, there are many in the world who have no particular talents, and who try to compensate for their own failings by belittling the abilities of others. Such people will invariably tell you that, whatever ambitions you have, you’re sure to fail. I grew up with the British class system, where the typical claim would be that, “People like us don’t achieve things like that”. The best response to such nonsense is not only to recognize it when you hear it, but also to feel sorry for the inadequacy of the person saying it.

Reinventing Myself: From Hardware to Software

 

OCVS Booth, Windows Solutions Conference 1993

OCVS Booth, Windows Solutions Conference 1993

The 1993 photo above shows me effectively embarking on a new career, and not quite sure what I’d started! I was at my business’s own booth, during the first trade show where I was promoting my own product.

Of course, I’d attended, and even worked at, many trade shows prior to that, but I’d always been there as a representative of someone else’s company or organization.

Short-Sighted Employers

The series of events that led to my first attempt to develop and sell my own software provided a thought-provoking lesson in the tragic short-sightedness of many employers and businesses. Until then, I had implicitly but naively assumed that, as technology changed, my employers would “keep their eyes on the ball” and change their products (and my role in the organization) accordingly.

Far from it, in reality! Most employers seemed to think of their employees as fitting into neat, predefined boxes, and their view was that the box (and the employee within it) should stay the same for ever more. Their attitude seemed to be that, if they had once hired an oil-lamp lighter, then that person should continue to light the oil lamps for ever more, even if oil lamps had in the meantime become obsolete!

As a result of my education and industry experience, I felt that I could discern something about the way computer technology would evolve in the future, and it seemed obvious that I should attempt to evolve in the same direction. Unfortunately, as explained below, not only were my attempts to redefine my role not supported by my employer, but they even actively resisted my attempts to change!

Going with the Flow (or Trying to)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my goal in obtaining an electronics degree had been to get a job working “in video”. I’d come to consider that as a desirable career as a result of one day’s teenage experience, when my friend Graham Roberts took me along with him to his shift as a Continuity Announcer for Yorkshire Television.

I really hadn’t considered electronics for any other reason. Unlike some other boys, I was not an electronics hobbyist, and I didn’t even have a “microcomputer” to tinker with.

When I started my video engineering career, the reality was that real-time digital video processing required special hardware. General-purpose computers simply weren’t even fast enough to stream video in real time, let alone modify the pixels.

However, as processing speeds increased, computers became able to handle digital video in real time. As a result, it became possible to write software to process video in ways that would previously have required specialized hardware.

I wanted to move over to some type of software development, but my employer at the time (Media Vision) seemed to be trying to restrict me to hardware development only. My manager apparently decided (without consulting me) that I should become an integrated circuit design engineer, and bought development equipment for me to do that!

Frustrated by their short-sightedness, I quit my job and started my own business, initially with the intention of producing video in some form.

(As things turned out, Media Vision collapsed quite spectacularly some time after I left, so my decision to quit seemed very smart in retrospect!)

No Video Available

Oddly enough, despite my prior programming experience, when I started my own business I did not set out to develop a software product! My initial project was to develop an instructional video, which would be distributed on standard VHS tapes.

I’d created a “treatment” for my video, but I did not myself possess video cameras and editing equipment. It seemed fortunate that a friend of mine had simultaneously started his own video editing business, so we agreed to co-operate on the production. Unfortunately, as the months went by, it seemed that he was never quite ready to begin shooting, and I reluctantly realized that I was going to have to find another way to deliver my product.

My job at Media Vision had had me designing PC hardware for the new “multimedia” technology (which basically involved adding audio and video capabilities to PCs). It struck me, therefore, that perhaps I could create some kind of “multimedia computer tutorial” as a substitute for the planned video.

I had learned to program while at college, and as I related in a previous post, even before that, I had undergone an aptitude test that indicated that I would make a good programmer. Nonetheless, the only complete programs I’d written at that point were small utilities for my own use, or that of my colleagues, when processing data as part of our hardware design jobs. I had also written “embedded” software for custom hardware, but I had never tried to create what is called a “shrink-wrap” software application. Shrink-wrap software is a standalone product that can be sold to consumers, who then install it on their own computers and expect it to run with little or no further involvement from me.

Creating a shrink-wrap software application seemed like a significant challenge, and I wasn’t sure that I could actually do it. Nonetheless, there seemed to be little alternative, so I sat down to learn a multimedia software creation tool called Asymetrix Toolbook.

My First App

The eventual result was “Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets”, which was a software application for Windows computers (what would now be called an “app”). The initial screen looked like this:

PC Secrets Software Title

PC Secrets Software Title

Unfortunately, sales of the product were not great, which led me to seek consulting work. Although I did accept a couple of hardware design consulting projects, it was obvious that much more work was available for software consultants.

Fortunately, I discovered that the fact that I’d just created my first software “app” qualified me for consideration as a Windows software consultant! That led to many years of work for me as a consulting software developer.

Do Anything You Want to Do, But Don’t Expect Our Support!

That was how I learned that I couldn’t rely on my employer to have my best interests at heart, nor even to be concerned about my career development. It had been clear to me that the future of video (for me, at least) lay in software, but my employer would not support my ambitions.

While I think that most self-help advice along the lines of “do what you want” is simply naïve, I did find that, in order to achieve my goals, I had to define those goals myself, then actually invest considerable time and effort of my own to achieve the results I desired.

Complexity from Simplicity

Commodore776M

Commodore 776M Calculator: Our Family’s First Computer!

This flashback is slightly unusual, in that, instead of discussing an old photograph, I’m thinking about something that, back in the 1970s, seemed to me to be a technological miracle. Learning how it worked, and how to design even more complex devices, provided a valuable lesson in how amazingly complex systems can be built from simple components. The image above is my drawing of the first “digital computer” that my family ever owned: a Commodore 776M calculator.

This article explains how, in the space of less than 10 years, I went from regarding computers as mysterious marvels, to learning not only how they work, but also how to design and build them. I even obtained patents for my own new digital circuitry inventions. I’ve tried to keep the technical discussion as basic as possible, while still trying to show how complex systems are built up from simple components.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was at school I studied Advanced-Level Math and Physics, but much of what we were taught, even in Physics, was very theoretical, and it wasn’t at all clear how the principles applied to real-world technology, or indeed how real devices worked. To learn how real systems worked, I often had to resort to teaching myself.

Computers as Black Boxes

The same was true for understanding how computers worked. I was very excited when I was told that, as part of the Physics syllabus, we were going to learn to understand computers, but I was quite disappointed by what we were actually taught.

The teacher explained to us that digital computers use binary arithmetic (the value of every digit can only be 0 or 1), and that computers are built from simple circuits such as so-called “AND” and “OR” gates. The binary 0 and 1 values are represented in the computer by “low” and “high” voltages respectively.

We were able to play around with pluggable electronic “black box” modules that implemented these functions, and we confirmed the results of combining them. We could use Boolean Logic to combine the outputs from these gates.

But I still thought, “How do you get from that to a digital calculator?”

The answer (as I was to learn later on) is by combining thousands or millions of those basic gates together to make devices of increasing complexity.

Even after a career of designing digital electronic systems and the software associated with them, I still find it really astonishing how extremely complex devices can be created from such simple basic blocks.

Building Everything from NAND Gates

There are three basic types of digital computer logic circuit or “gate”:

  1. NOT gate. The output level is the opposite of the single input level.
  2. OR gate. The output level is high if any of the input levels is high. A NOR gate is the same but with the output inverted (i.e., an OR gate plus a NOT gate).
  3. AND gate. The output level is high only if all the input levels are high. A NAND gate is the same but with the output inverted (i.e., an AND gate plus a NOT gate).

It turns out that all three basic types of digital computer circuit can be built by combining one basic type of circuit, the NAND Gate.

A Real NAND Gate

My Advanced-Level Physics studies did not include electronic circuit design, of course, so it would have been unreasonable to expect to be taught exactly how these gates were implemented. I learned the details later on while studying for my Electronics degree.

The actual circuit for a real NAND Gate, implemented as Transistor-Transistor Logic (TTL) is as shown below. This is the diagram for one quarter of the Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate (because the actual chip contained 4 such circuits).

Circuit Diagram of Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate

Circuit Diagram of Texas Instruments 7400 NAND Gate

At the time that I began designing hardware, during the 1980s, TTL logic such as this was still the standard way of implementing many designs. I used these gates myself for many designs, starting with my undergraduate final-year project at Imperial College.

To avoid all the circuit details, the entire NAND gate can be represented with a symbol, as below.

NANDGateSymbol

NAND Gate in Symbolic Form

The diagram below shows how the connections on the symbol correspond to those in the actual circuit.

7400TTLCircuit2

TI 7400 NAND Gate: Symbol & Circuit

Memory from NAND Gates

To create a useful computer, you need to be able to store numbers in some type of memory.

It turns out that, by combining together a few NAND gates, you can create a simple memory for one bit of information. The combination is called a bistable circuit (aka a flip-flop), because (while the power is on) it remains in one of two stable states until an input causes it to change state. This allows you to store the outputs from logic circuits. Each bistable circuit allows you to store 1 bit of binary data.

Here is a diagram of a bistable 1-bit memory circuit, constructed entirely from NAND gates.

DataFlipFlopNANDs1

Data Flip-Flop (1-bit Memory) built from NAND Gates

The “Clock” input in this circuit can be obtained from another simple circuit constructed from NAND gates; the astable circuit, whose output continually oscillates between low and high states.

By lining up 8 bistables in parallel, you can store one byte of data.

From Gates to Functions

Well, that seemed simple enough, but I still didn’t understand how to get from that to a digital calculator.

Building a set of flip-flops gives you a way to store a number, but how do you combine numbers together? After all, the device is called a “computer” so how does it actually “compute”?

Well it turns out that you can also construct arithmetic circuits from—you’ve guessed it!—NAND gates. For example, you can build an adding circuit (called a Full Adder) to add together two 1-bit numbers, as shown below.

1-Bit Full Adder Circuit built from NAND Gates

1-Bit Full Adder Circuit built from NAND Gates

The circuit adds two 1-bit numbers, A and B, and accepts a carry-in bit from another adder (Cin). It generates the sum of the bits and the Cin  at S, and also a carry-out at Cout. By arranging any number of these adding circuits in parallel, and connecting their Cin inputs and Cout outputs to each other, you can build an adding circuit for numbers of any size.

Displaying Numbers

When you’ve constructed all the circuitry to allow users to type in numbers and compute the results, you still need a way to display the result to the user, because your calculator will be fairly useless without that.

Those early calculators used “seven segment” displays, which are sets of light-emitting diodes arranged so that, by switching segments on and off, any digit between 0 and 9 can be displayed in a human-readable form.

SevenSegmentDisplay

Seven-Segment Digital Display

So, how do you make the segments light up to display a particular number? Well, as you may have guessed by now, the answer is another logic circuit, called a Seven-Segment Display Driver. Texas Instruments also produced an integrated circuit to provide this function; the 7447 IC.

Complexity in Biology

Learning how complex computers (such as the device on which you’re reading this article) can be built from large numbers of very simple components made it easier for me to understand how the same principle could apply in other fields.

For example, in biology, evolution has created incredibly complex organisms (such as humans) from huge numbers of very basic cellular components. It’s much easier to understand such processes when you know how other complex systems are created, even though the results remain astonishing in all cases.