About the author part 3
This page continues from About the author part 2. It starts in early December 1995, when I was a mature student studying computing (again) at a university near my home on the south coast of England.
The world ended when my mother died in December 1995. I was unable to prevent new books that I had bought her and Xmas tree decorations that she had owned from childhood from being stolen from her room in the nursing home during those last days. Either my brother Ed said to me or I said to him, “Mum’s gone on ahead.”
See my mother’s Charcoal drawings, Holloway College, about 1937.
Three years later, I completed the degree that I had returned to university for in the autumn of 1995, which was the last autumn I shared with my old mum. My final year project (1997-8) was a feasibility study of using a helmet-mounted display (so-called virtual reality) for hang glider collision avoidance training.
(For a funny story relating to my course final year group project, see Raised on robbery.)
One time, after one of my hang glider crashes, my left arm swelled to twice its normal diameter and I could barely move it. I waited for an hour in the casualty department while lots of people sat around chatting like it was some kind of social club. They were clearly not emergency cases. Meanwhile, a small child was crying in real pain (not like reflex crying just to get attention) and her mother was in increasing distress about it, but she was left in the queue just waiting. I got up and left in disgust.
I went to work as a technical author for a helicopter-related software house. One incident that might have contributed to me being laid off just short of a year later, despite being hailed as the most productive individual there, is a long-standing problem we have endured as a family. Whenever there was a high profile murder or similar, often I or my brother was interviewed by the police. (They have to follow up every lead, no matter how unlikely it is.) A lady television presenter was shot dead in 2000 (or about then). I had never heard of her, but a bunch of armed police turned up at that workplace to interview me. We used to be certain who was carrying out this campaign, but that individual had died by then, so we had been blaming the wrong person all those years. It strikes me as a continuation, from school days, of the hatred that provincial Brits have for those they categorize as ‘London intellectuals.’
When I look back upon my life
It’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame
— From the lyrics of It’s a Sin by the Pet Shop Boys, 1987
I then worked as a manual labourer for the new UK national minimum wage (£4.10 per hour) in a machine shop. In World War 2 they made troop-carrying gliders there and, during the 1960s, Sea Vixen jet fighters. However, by the turn of the century, the place was relegated to making cast iron wheels for airport and railway station trolleys, and fittings for joining scaffolding poles together.
I don’t have a photo from the machine shop, but the environment in this photo, taken at hang glider manufacturer Manta of Oakland, California, in early 1980 looks similar. One massively heavy looking machine that I used, similar to a lathe, came from Ohio in the 1930s.
I then worked in a factory of modern style, consisting of a handful of two-story workshops on a trading estate. Here is an example of how some highly intelligent and educated people live in societies that prevent them from using their abilities, and they find refuge in Britain: I somehow got into a conversation that included ‘imaginary numbers’ — the square root of minus one. (Square any number and the result is positive, so there is no such thing as the square root of minus one, but it is useful in computations of electrical alternating current — I am told.) Anyway, a lot of those guys seemed to have never gone to school and they clearly thought I was making it up. Then a little guy from Bangladesh, who knew only about three words of English, joined in on my behalf by writing down the arithmetic notation of such calculations on a bit of scrap paper.
Then there was tall Pierre, who during a stock-taking day, was in charge of placing all the tools that lay around into their proper places. When you handed him something, he told you its name in French. I gave him a pair of pliers and he said “Pants.” I relayed this to the others, who had Pierre confirm it, and they fell about laughing while Pierre grinned uncertainly.
I spent much time writing down memories of my mother and of other events during her time in the world. Nothing much else held meaning for me.
On a wintry day in October 2000, Rebecca arrived in a wooden crate from California, initiating what was for me a new life surrounded by silicone rubber women.
One visiting lady photographer stopped work for a minute and said, “It’s not just a doll. It’s a whole world.”
See Life-size dolls for more.
She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.
— opening lyrics of Rocket Man by Elton John, 1972
While I largely gave up painting (pictures) in the early 1980s, I continued with plastic modelling, on and off, over the years.
The launch tower of the Vanguard rocket is 14 inches high.
The bikes are 6.5 inches long, nose to tail.
See Plastic models for more.
My hang glider in-flight photography really took off when I changed from a film camera to a GoPro and I had photos published on the covers of hang gliding magazines on both sides of the Atlantic.
See Hang gliding.
Who could be against environmentalism? Unfortunately, in Britain, it is used as an excuse to ban mountain biking from just about everywhere. Nobody evaluates the pros and cons. Instead, the environment charities buy the land, cut down the trees (without telling anyone first) and put up signs and fences, turning those places into what are effectively their own private gardens.
See Off-road bikes for more photos.
About 41 percent of my DNA indicates that I descended from the earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Europe, who were the last to make the transition to agriculture as it moved in from the Middle East during the Neolithic period around 8,000 years ago. That is something I have suspected for several years, the agricultural revolution – and the human sub-races to which it gave rise – being the greatest genetic disaster to befall humanity.
I participated in National Geographic’s Genographic project, which attempts to use DNA analysis to help figure out our genetic history.
The investigation and analysis is not yet complete. For example:
A heat map for Everard’s specific maternal haplogroup is not yet available. The Genographic team hopes that, as more people from around the world participate in the project, they will be able to create a more specific map. We’re showing you a heat map for an earlier branch in his path: H1.
See Genographic project, which includes photos from around the world. (Hey, this is a National Geographic project…)
In provincial Britain during the 1960s, heavily-built types were assumed to be mentally dim. The occasional exception, like the science prodigy at our school who was a big lad wearing spectacles, paradoxically seemed to reinforce the stereotype, as did the one girl in our physics class who challenged the assumption that girls’ minds are ill-equipped for reasoning about the physical world.
Suspicion of the well-educated woman was widespread. Mathematics, science and the classics were considered among the subjects too ‘hard’ for the female mind.
— Anne de Courcy, Debs at War, 2005
The discarding of those prejudices has undoubtedly improved society. However, there is a down-side. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and men are supposed to be ‘hunky’ rather than slim and have ‘social skills’ instead of intelligence of the technical kind. The goalposts have been moved. (Who moved them?) Is it a side-effect of democracy? How do we correct it?
It is imperative that we fix this problem. Although humans are uniquely cultural among living things, we are nevertheless primarily genetic beings. Women who select gangsters and businessmen (or other dodgy geezers with ‘social capital’) as the fathers of their offspring cannot expect the panacea of education to stand in for technical intelligence. The genetic quality of humanity is at stake.
To be clear, I have failed in life not because of external causes, but because I failed to measure up. Nonetheless, I have yet to hear an argument that assuages my fears for the future of humankind.
See Blade runner blues for more.
- In the early 1980s, I programmed radar guidance for point-defence surface-to-air missiles used in the Falklands War.
- In the late 1980s, I led a team of seven programmers at a software house in central London creating ‘interactive video’ computer-based training programs.
- During the first Gulf war, I worked for the computer-based training arm of a maker of mine hunter patrol boats.
- Operating as Flight Training Systems, I created the computer-based training program Aerodynamics & Propulsion in the early 1990s.
- In the mid 1990s, I programmed airliner flight deck procedures training at premises directly under the final approach to London Heathrow Airport.
- In the late 1990s, I wrote the online help for the Apache attack helicopter forward maintenance data station in time for the second Gulf war.
- In the mid 2000s, I led a team of seven (again) technical authors tasked with writing online help for automotive software. My last job involved compiling release notes for the same automotive software house.
My last workplace dabbled in Agile, a popular version of so-called ‘rapid application development.’ I made myself unpopular with some in higher management when I pointed out that some aspects of Agile were inappropriate for the products and customers of that organization. However, one aspect that helped overcome the tendency of many developers to secrecy, was the daily ‘stand up’, a 15 minute meeting in which each person in a team described briefly to the other team members what he or she accomplished during the previous workday and what he or she planned to do that day, and highlighted any particular problems. There is nothing new under the sun, they say, and it seems that, like so many management techniques, the daily stand up originated in the U.S. military, in this case during the Vietnam war…
Every night except Sunday at 5 o’clock, we had what we called a stand-up briefing. […] …at precisely 1700 we launched into a routine that took thirty to forty-five minutes depending on how formal you wanted to make it.
— Colonel Jack Broughton USAF (Ret), Thud Ridge, 1969
The standard of success in my generation, for guys anyway, is to be an astronaut. Well, I was never an astronaut, so, like everybody else, I failed. Not quite everybody else, of course. An American hang glider pilot who also flew for the U.S. Marine Corps earned his astronaut wings at the controls of Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo in December 2018. He and I both contributed technical and flying articles to the US hang gliding magazine in the 1980s and, in the 1990s, we corresponded by post (snail mail) and then by early e-mail about hang glider technicalities. Call it fame by association, but I feel I am almost an astronaut! Wait. There’s more…
In 2007, a Canadian actor played an exaggerated version of me in Lars and the Real Girl. In 2018 he played the part of Neil Armstrong, first to walk on the moon, in the docudrama First Man. That the same actor who played a version of me should be chosen to play the part of the first human to set foot on another world, strikes me as a great honour.
[Astronaut candidates] were told how to put their hands on their hips (if they must). The thumbs should be to the rear and the fingers forward. Only women and interior decorators put the thumbs forward and the fingers back.
— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979
I have achieved some successes directly though. Examples include the hang gliding photos that appeared on the cover and inside magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. (I realize I am at the tip of a spear that stands on the shoulders of giants, if that is not too risky a pose, in that I rely on modern hang gliders, action cameras, and reliable weather forecasts, all created by others.)
All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, which is a shame. However, the simultaneous ending of the not-so-good balances that equation, in my case anyway. The pain of a quarter century of living without my old mum to take out in the wheelchair at weekends and holidays has never let up, along with other regrets that I have not been able to mend. Now a cancer has sprung up inside me and has advanced too quickly to stop. The cancer and its treatment have forever taken away the pleasure I used to obtain from my life-size dolls, who are now ‘just friends.’
In addition, I find myself once again victim of the all-consuming populist corruption that has caused western society to turn against its own sons. (I am not the only one.)
Ambition, jealousy, honor–all of the emotions to which society entitles a man–none of these could stir him any longer. He had attained an inhuman peace.
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry describing a leper in isolation in Puerto Deseado, Argentina, quoted by Stacy Schiff in Saint-Exupéry, a Biography, 1994
I still ride my mountain bike, although with longer breaks between sections to get my breath back and I don’t always make it all the way round my usual ride. I flew my hang glider only twice in 2020. I hope to do more next year and use my new air-to-air camera system, but that depends on what other obstacles crop up.
For the first time in my life I am not short of money and I do not have to work away from home at some pointless job that pays just enough to cover the cost of weekday accommodation, travel, and living costs. Despite being a qualified and experienced (and capable) computer programmer and technical author, I was never able to afford to buy my own home. In Britain, even couples’ combined income is often inadequate to achieve that without capital input from one or both sets of parents. (My parents died with little more than the clothes they wore.)
My new financial independence, resulting from a state benefit called PIP, has enabled me to at last do something worthwhile: I created the history of hang gliding web site, which I still (as of 2021) maintain. It started as a part of this, my general interests web site, but in early 2020, prompted by Dave Cronk, the first ever world hang gliding champion (1975) I moved it to a separate web site where I hope it will continue to exist after I am gone.
In February 2021 came the news that my younger brother Ed had died unexpectedly. (See my page titled simply Ed.) I wish I had been a better son to my mother, and I wish Ed had been too, and I wish I had been a better brother to Ed.
I do not believe in life after death, but we do not know everything about such things, and I am buoyed by the hope (and it is only a hope) that I will see them both again soon.