Back in the 1960s starting a computer wasn’t as simple as just turning it on. You couldn’t use the computer without it having some instructions loaded, but you couldn’t load instructions without having some instructions loaded. It was akin to “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, an apparently impossible task, abbreviated to “Bootstrapping” or “Re-bootstrapping” if you had to do it again. The image still survives in the term “reboot” or simply “boot”.

This is a photo of the first computer I ever programmed. Note the front panel switches which are used to load the first dozen or so instructions manually, one 12 digit binary number at a time. After a few months I knew the sequence off by heart. Those 12 instructions are enough for the computer to load a small program from paper tape … and then you’re away!


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It’s been a busy Winter, although the midwinter blues got me badly this year, so it’s all felt like wading through treacle, and the last thing I’ve wanted to do is sit in front of my computer screen and write blog posts.

Christmas passed uneventfully. The “other parents” dutifully dropped off the respective children at mid-afternoon on Christmas Day. Interestingly both my ex- and Chris’s ex- have independently decided that this is the one day of the year that they’re prepared to make the journey to our place. For all the other twice-weekly handovers we’re both expected to make the 50-mile round trips in opposite directions to them. I guess they’re pissed off because they both expressed (with idealistic enthusiasm) the expectation that ditching their partners (e.g. Me and Chris) in the shit would lead them to lives of unending delight, whereas they’ve both found nothing but misery while Chris and I have had 7 years of blissful happiness together, and look set for many more. So their mean-ness with the handovers simply has the effect of making me feel even more smug!

The Chartered Engineer application is gathering pace. My mentor has approved the written part of my application now that I’ve cut it down from 14 pages to 7. Even so he says it’s a bit longer than average, but then again I’m a bit longer in the tooth than the average ambitious young engineer.

I had to submit that by a mid-January deadline in order for my employer to agree to pay the fees. The next step is an interview together with a 30 minute presentation on “any aspect of my professional work”, though it should highlight my “exceptional achievements and potential for leadership” … not words I would ever have associated with the “day-job that I only do to pay the bills and enable me to do what I really love”!

A simplified data flow diagram taken from my draft CEng presentation. Many of the “rules” of painted images transfer to readable technical diagrams: compositional balance, leading the eye around the page, colours expressing meaning, etc. I guess there must be artists who exhibit “fake” technical diagrams, just as there are artists who produce “pretend” industrial building fixtures. Not something that’s ever turned me on though.

The design of the “versatile garden structure” is moving ahead too. I’ve settled on some dimensions, entirely dictated by pragmatic concerns. Planning law dictates that the structure must be 1 metre from the garden boundary, so that cuts the potential width from 6 metres to 5. The cross-beams must  be 2 metres high to allow headroom for people to walk in. The total height is limited to 3.5 metres, again for planning regulations, so the angle between the roof-beams and the horizontal needs to be about 30 degrees. The cross beams must be 2.4 metres long to create a regular octagon 5 metres across, and the roof beams must be 3.2 metres long to make a 30 degree angle and meet in the middle.

I’ve also settled on a material: For a structure in a beautiful garden, to celebrate the beauty and fragility of our natural environment, metal didn’t seem right, though it would undoubtedly have been the most enduring and possibly cheapest material. Any hardwood should last 20 years or more though. Chestnut is apparently unusually durable when sunk into the earth, and I will have to sink the uprights into the earth for stability. It turns out that coppiced chestnut poles are grown by smallholders across Surrey and are relatively cheap, so that is what I’ve gone for.

But how thick should the poles be? The uprights have to be thick enough to support the roof beams, and the cross beams need to be thick enough to withstand wind stress. But how thick to make the roof beams?

We will probably have grand-children within the next decade, and one thing that grand-children will almost certainly do is climb up things they’re not supposed to. Thus I want each roof-beam to be able to bear the weight of 3 children. More precisely, the deflection of the centre of a 3.2 metre beam should be no more than 4 inches when loaded with 15 stone.

There is an engineering formula for this, involving a quantity called “Young’s Modulus” after a gentleman called Mr. Young who took an interest in such things. I didn’t expect this, but I actually managed to find a value for the Young’s Modulus of coppiced chestnut poles, and plugging this into the requisite formula yields a sensible number: 3 inches diameter. From this, the uprights must be 4 inches diameter and the cross-beams 3.5 inches diameter.

I found a coppiced chestnut pole supplier who could provide me with 8 poles each of the necessary thickness and length at a reasonable price. Chris and I hired a van and drove down to Surrey in the snow to collect our poles. And here they are, sat in the garden waiting for me to mark out the octagonal base points on the ground.

I rather foolishly bought exactly the right number of poles for the proposed structure. I wish I’d bought some spares, because if I cut just one pole a few cms too short I’ll have to fork out to hire a van just to collect a single replacement. I will now be completely paranoid every time I cut a pole.


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Interrupts: The very first programmable computer, the ENIAC, could just run a single program with no user interaction. To cope with intervention by users with early devices such as punched card readers and paper tape readers, the “interrupt” was invented. This was a special code sent to the processor which meant “Stop whatever it is you’re doing, and attend to this other high priority thing for a bit”.

Life as an artist is full of interruptions: the making and displaying of art always seems to be the lowest priority in a long list of competing concerns. Once it was just the basic stuff of cooking, eating, phoning the landlord, shopping, etc.

As life has become more complicated with children, step-children, “other parents”, schools, universities, day jobs, etc. etc. the interruptions have become the norm, and the creative moments have become the interruptions.

30 years ago the succession of seasonal celebrations provided an endless excuse for ritual art-making and event organisation. 30 years on and the seasonal celebrations are now the rude and chaotic interruptions to an otherwise organised and regulated life.

I used to eschew the custom of sending Christmas cards. As a radical environmental activist the unrestrained consumerism and waste of natural resources offended my sensibilities.

However, last time I was creatively silent for a period of years – about 17 years ago – my audience began to forget me. When I’d meet someone on the street, instead of asking “Are you working on any exciting projects?” they’d ask “How’s the computer work going?”.

This time around I’m determined not to let my audience forget that, at the root of my life, is a creative process which is driven to engage with the wider world … and home-made Christmas cards are an excellent opportunity to provide an annual reminder to my old audience that I may have been silent for a while, but I’m not done-for yet!

Thus it was that I was stuck in the studio for the whole of last weekend with encaustic wax equipment, photoshop, my printer and a box of card blanks.

But what message to put on the cards? Personally I like to celebrate the winter solstice, but I’ve found that while Christians feel it is perfectly OK to send me “Happy Christmas” cards, they are deeply offended if I send them “Happy Solstice” cards. Years ago I did just that as a way of “getting people to challenge their preconceptions” and lost several friends, but now I’m basically marketing, so I need to pander to the customer’s sensibilities, at least a bit!

So I produce cards with a selection of messages, to suit the recipient: “Happy Christmas” for the Christians, “Happy Solstice” for the new-agers, “Happy Yuletide” for the pagans and “Happy Midwinter” for everyone else.

This year’s are still in the post, but here’s a selection from previous years:


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In my view, some form of engineering lies behind almost all works of art, even if it’s just the question of the best way to hang objects in a gallery.
One of my favourite books is “Engineers of the Imagination” by Welfare State International, a manual of “how to” for the ambitious maker. For example: “How to” build a flaming tower without it collapsing and spraying your audience with burning tar. Within that book I’ve found countless tips and tricks which have made events quicker to prepare and safer to execute. And my work with fire sculptures wouldn’t have been possible without the knowledge of materials and suppliers provided in those pages.
For my first Summer job while still at school I worked for 8 weeks as a draughtsman in a local engineering company. I had already been honing my drawing accuracy for my Biology ‘A’ level, for which detailed scale drawings from the microscope were required. Now I had to try and keep up with professionals 15 years my senior.
I did OK. I wasn’t as quick with the drawing, but my accuracy was good. My writing was rubbish, so I was constantly being brought up for illegible labelling. On the other hand, my triangle calculations were exceptional, and by the end of my 8 weeks stint the other draughtsmen were habitually asking me to double check any complex calculations they had to make – and I found a few mistakes.
It was incredibly satisfying at the end to see the “Quarry Conveyor Terminal Unit” that I had been designing all Summer produced, shipped and fitted. Rocks continuously tumbled over the end of my unit for years to come!
I’ve never seen myself as an engineer though. An artist with a day-job, and both art and day-job include aspects of engineering. But not “An Engineer”.
Until this week. My employer wants “Chartered Engineers” in his company. Apparently it’s good for marketing: “We’ve got [some number]  of Chartered Engineers leading our projects”. I’ve been asked if I would make an application as a Software Engineer.

I’ve been messing about with “caricatures”: carefully measured drawings from photos including subtle distortions. Here’s one of my boss, who has quite narrow eyes when smiling, with his eyes widened … kind of unsettling.

I’ve looked it up online. Opinion is sharply divided as to the value of the qualification. Roughly 50% consider it the “Gold Standard” of engineering competence and leadership, while the other 50% consider it the “Gold Standard” of an old fart. Being the latter, I should at least be in with a chance.
I’ve just had my initial coaching interview with the Institute of Engineering and Technology who would be sponsoring my application. My coach’s opinion is that I stand a good chance, so now I have to fill in the application forms and a detailed work history, ticking off each competence that I have to demonstrate as I go. Apparently I should include all voluntary, community and creative enterprises as well, as Chartered Engineers have to demonstrate some level of community involvement and ethical standards, as well as straightforward technical skill and experience.


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18 months ago we completed converting our double garage into a studio. I’ve never had a properly-equipped and stocked dedicated studio before … this is a real step up. Most of the time that went into the conversion was the simple process of earning the money and paying someone else to do the work.
Back in the early ’90s I had a friend who was good buddies with Dame Elizabeth Frink. When Frink died my friend went to her funeral and came back raving about Frink’s studio. I said rather wistfully “How great to be so successful as to be able to afford such a studio”. My friend laughed and replied “No Jon, Frink was successful because she could afford the studio when she started”.
Well, I’m in the peculiar position of having to work a day-job which earns a lot more money than I need to live on, so the excess can go into upgrading my creative life. Here’s a couple of pics:


However, I’m still missing somewhere to exhibit my work: I’ve never worked in the context of white-walled galleries, although I have had some exhibitions in that tradition, but my old ‘venue’ (the nature reserve) is no longer accessible.
I’m thinking of building something in our garden that can be versatile – exhibition space for paintings, performance space, jam-round-the-fire-with-mates space. I’ve sketched out what such a structure might look like, though I have no idea at this point how I would go about building it:


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Alas! After 20 years of living in “paradise” my landlady died and I had to move. The chocolate-box cottage backing onto a nature reserve gave me all I needed: studio, office, venue, group meeting areas, family accommodation, a spare room sublet to a friend, and neighbours we loved.


Very sad to leave one of the most beautiful places on the planet: views of woodland in one direction and the spires of Oxford in the other. It’s somebody else’s turn to enjoy it now.

The next step was hard: Oxford rents had gone through the roof, but house prices had become more affordable … but being self-employed meant a mortgage was impossible. Conveniently my little computer business that paid the bills suddenly collapsed so I got the first job I could find [as a software developer, which I swore in 1989 I’d never do again] and we could get a mortgage [which I also swore in 1989 I’d never do again].

Now I could move in with my new partner, but since she worked in Coventry it meant leaving Oxford entirely. There were further huge challenges: bringing together my kids – freshly traumatised from family breakup and leaving behind their beloved home – with my partner’s son – also traumatised for similar reasons – was hard. The new job plus commute added to the complications, while fixing the house absorbed the rest of our time.


The new place is not so beautiful but is far more practical, but most importantly (once we’ve paid off the mortgage in 16 years time) it’s ours!

But we’ve done it! 4 years later we have converted the garage to a studio and two of the kids have grown up and left home. Next task: build an exhibition space in the garden to show whatever I do next.


We had great fun with this mosaic in the fireplace. 250 person-hours and 40,000 tiles!


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