People Who Have Influenced My Life – Part 1

People Who Have Influenced My Life – Part 1

Certain people left an indelible mark on me as I was growing up. I’d just like to give them a little recognition. I’m not going to name them though: I don’t believe that would be right without their permission.

One who particularly stands out is my English teacher from when I was studying for GCSEs in English Literature and English Language. She was head of department as well as teaching 4X and then 5X, my forms over the two years in question. I found her to always be very supportive – quick to give praise when deserved and very patient.

I always looked forward to her lessons and got great enjoyment from the subject. It was her that first gave me my love of language for its own sake and kindled my special interest in words. I honed my writing style over those two years under her guidance and grew to gain a great deal of enjoyment from the writing process which I have carried through to this day.

So I would like to say thank you to my former English teacher. I don’t believe I would experience half the joy I get from language without your influence. You are an inspiration to me.

Pulling Pints

Pulling Pints

I’ve been working part-time as a barman in my local pub since early this year. This may seem a curious activity for somebody who’s not comfortable talking to strangers, but the reality is that the large majority of customers are regulars with whom I was already familiar.

It all started when I volunteered to help out because they were short-staffed. I’d helped out behind a bar before when I was at university so I had some idea what to expect. I did my first few hours in exchange for drinks and to my surprise I really enjoyed myself and did a good job. I helped out a couple more times and then decided to make it official: I joined the company on the understanding that my main software development job had priority and started working a couple of regular shifts over the weekend.

Things I enjoy about the job: it’s primarily manual work and about the only thinking required is adding up prices in my head (I don’t need to because the register handles all that but I want to because it saves time and I like doing it) and remembering the drinks in each order. This means I can largely “switch off” so I find the job mentally relaxing. It’s also good physical exercise – very handy when my main job involves sitting down most of the day – and I’m probably fitter now than I have been for some years. I enjoy the routine of the job – each particular shift has its own pattern with the same regulars mostly coming in at the same times. Beer, especially “real ale”, is a special interest of mine – I don’t drink much these days but I have long had an interest in brewing. I’ve visited several breweries over the years and remain fascinated by the subject.

I get a particular buzz from it when I’m busy – I get something similar when I’m in flow when programming. I get into a rhythm, the endorphins kick in and I’ve occasionally found myself just grinning like an idiot and getting strange looks.

I’m not saying that I enjoy everything about it. I dislike serving food – it breaks the flow – and after I’ve asked a customer if everything’s ok with their meal I get stuck for anything else to say and just wander off feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I don’t get many complaints but I find it stressful to handle them – it’s not that they get confrontational; rather that I’m just not comfortable in that situation.

Funnily enough I find that I can mostly handle the people side of the job. Because I’m there fulfilling a role it enables me to talk to customers within the context of serving them. There’s a routine to it: I greet them, ask for their order, pour their drinks and take the money. It generally keeps to the routine and I stay relaxed. I’ve even got to know people through the job. When I’m in front of the bar as a customer I won’t talk to people I don’t know – that’s just how I am and I’ve always been that way. I have trouble with small-talk and general conversation as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. However when I’m behind the bar people come up to me time after time as they order their drinks. They get used to me, I get used to them and as I get more familiar with them I feel less uncomfortable. And having two feet of solid wood between me and them is a great way to avoid having anybody intrude on my personal space – I feel uncomfortably crowded if anybody stands too close to me.

It’s the little things as well that I enjoy: I’m genuinely pleased whenever I get a tip because it makes me feel I did something well. I like that the manager always thanks me at the end of my shift (don’t tell him I’d happily do the job just to be appreciated – I’ve never been motivated by financial reward which is just as well given the pay scales for bar staff). I like it when my regular customers – yes, I do think of them as mine when I’m serving them – seem pleased to see me. And I like the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from doing something well.

Working with Aspergers on About.com Guide to Autism

Working with Aspergers on About.com Guide to Autism

Lisa Jo Rudy has kindly published a piece I wrote – about how Aspergers Syndrome has affected my working life – on her site, Autism at About.com. If you’ve not come across it before, this site has a stack of references to information about Autistic Spectrum Disorder and I think it presents a fairly balanced viewpoint. Mine is one of a series of posts written by people on the spectrum about their experiences.

Hurt Inside

Hurt Inside

How do you answer when somebody asks how you are?

Me, I just say “I’m grand” and leave it at that. It’s not that I never feel fine, but even when I’m feeling down I don’t like anybody to know it. I’ve always been a private person, keeping things to myself and it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime. Of course it’s become habit because I find it so difficult to talk about my feelings.

It would be nice occasionally to have somebody to listen to me while I struggle to describe how I’m feeling but I’ve found that two things get in the way. Firstly I have to trust the person completely before I’m able to open up at all. Secondly they have to have the patience to let me take my time explaining.

I’ve found it can be easier to just write things down: I started writing an occasional journal in my mid-teens but kept it private. I did find it a help to put down how I felt in writing because I didn’t get the mental block nearly as much as when I try to talk about it. I have a ritual that has evolved over the years: I write longhand in a particular notebook by candlelight. I have always found the act of writing about my feelings to be ultimately cathartic but it is emotionally tiring at the time. It is as if I have taken some of the pain out of myself and put it away in my notebook. It still exists but it’s outside me. As this might suggest, depression or hurt is my main trigger for writing. I hardly ever write when I’m up because there’s no need to.

I can’t always find the time to be alone and write about how I feel, and when that happens the hurt remains inside me. The danger is that I have no other release for it until I shut down or suffer a meltdown. I find a shutdown is exhausting, not to mention the disruptive effect it has on my day-to-day life and relationships. So I think perhaps I ought to try to find somebody to talk to instead. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If only it were that easy to form the kind of relationship where I can trust somebody to the necessary degree. Although I know plenty of people well enough to no longer feel uneasy in their company, I have never learned how to move the relationship to a closer level, so I never feel that I can impose on somebody by asking them to do something that personal for me.

So that’s why I expect I’ll just carry on saying “I’m fine” and keeping the hurt locked away inside until I find time to take it out and preserve it in my notebook like a pressed flower.

How I Got Into Programming

How I Got Into Programming

My dad got us our first computer when I was 11; it was a BBC Model B+128 with a 40/80 track switchable double-sided 5.25″ disk drive. And it came with a manual. Printed. On paper! Not just how to connect it up and switch it on but full details of all the OS commands and the built-in BBC BASIC programming language. So I started using it, learning to program in BASIC, slowly at first but with increasing speed and confidence. I subscribed to Acorn User magazine and slavishly typed in the program listings. I was hooked!

BBC BASIC was an great language in an great environment for learning to program. It introduced me to control structures: conditions and loops. It had named functions and procedures (rather than the usual GOSUB in most microcomputer BASICs). It had floating point as well as integers. It had strings and a set of built-in functions for manipulating them. It could access the machine’s memory directly. It even had a built-in assembler. It gave me such a feeling of control over the hardware that I felt I could do anything with it.

When the 32-bit ARM2 Acorn Archimedes was released in 1987 I got one (one of the first batch of A305 machines with Arthur 0.2 OS), later upgraded to 1 MB RAM and Arthur 1.2; then RISC OS 2.0. I thought it was a marvellous machine, so fast and capable. I later upgraded to an ARM3-based A540 with 8 MB RAM and two SCSI hard disks for a total of about 160 MB storage. Huge for its time, especially for a home computer. I continued programming in BBC BASIC (version V included with the “Arc”) which included additional control structures (WHILE…ENDWHILE, multi-line IF…THEN…ELSE…ENDIF, CASE…OF…WHEN…OTHERWISE…ENDCASE), RETURN parameters in procedures, libraries (via LIBRARY, INSTALL or OVERLAY) and had a built-in full-screen editor, the ARM BASIC Editor or ARMBE. I reckon I probably spent the majority of my time in front of the machine in that editor, developing programs.

A number of times I would spend upwards of 12 hours at a stretch at the keyboard and some of the programs ran into thousands of lines. I wrote interpreters for scripting languages, bitmapped font editors, a parser for chemical formulae, a graphical plot of magnetic fields in a plane intersected by wires carrying current, and many others. I even wrote a kind of hypertext application inspired by the depiction of the “Guide” in the TV adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

It was on this A540 that I first encountered C. I got a copy of Acorn C and a book to teach me the basics. Once I grasped the concept of main() being the entry point for the program I was well away. The nature of BBC BASIC meant I already understood structured programming: conditions, loops, functions, and was used to thinking in those terms. It wasn’t long before I got hold of a copy of Software Tools in Pascal and coded the programs presented therein in C. I wrote a utility to implement IO pipelines on top of RISC OS’s pipefs (OS-implemented named pipes) so I could reproduce unix-style filters without needing intermediate files. I got a copy of Expert C Programming: deep C secrets and found it very informative and practical: it taught me a lot and by this stage I was proficient enough to program C professionally. I got my first job programming C on 16-bit DOS and Windows 3.1 despite having limited experience of those platforms: I was given the job on the strength of my performance on a C programming test at the interview.

I had had some limited exposure to a fairly new language called C++ that introduced something called classes. I didn’t really get a lot of exposure to it until the mid-90’s and it took a little bit of perseverance to get used to object-orientation. There were no templates in those days, at least not in the version of Microsoft C++ used where I worked, and exceptions were avoided because of concerns about performance. I really got the hang of it after taking a course in OO design which gave me the mental toolkit for thinking about classes naturally. The language support from Microsoft’s compilers improved over time and it was really with the move to 32-bit Windows and new development for that platform that C++ became my new programming language of choice. I got copies of and read Effective C++ and Exceptional C++ to learn about best practices.

It’s now some 15 years down the line and I consider myself a skilled C++ developer. (More to the point, so does my employer.) Along the way I’ve had exposure to several other programming languages, some of which I use regularly such as Python, sh, javascript, perl and awk while others I’ve used as and when the job has demanded it such as Java, C#, SQL, Visual Basic and several application-specific embedded scripting languages. I’ve dabbled with other languages such as Haskell, Lisp, Ruby, Pascal, Fortran and even Cobol at times just out of interest but never becoming fluent enough to use them as a first choice day to day.

So what started out as “just” a hobby is still, over 25 years later, my main hobby. The only difference is that I get paid to do it. I still feel the same joy and excitement when I produce code that does something neat. I get exactly the same satisfaction from my latest code to, say, ingest video and audio from an XDCAM disk as I did from my first BASIC program that just printed “hello, world” to the screen. What will I be doing in 10 or 20 years’ time? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I’ll still be programming and loving it.

My Mother

My Mother

I want to write some words about my mother. This isn’t going to be easy for me but I want to try to give some impression of the one person through my life who was always there for me, who I knew I could always rely on for support and who I miss more than I can express. I’m practically in tears now as I’m writing this, which as anybody who knows me can tell you is not like me at all.

My mother, Maureen Forshaw, nee Lowe, was born on 22nd October 1940. Her mother was Elsie Lowe, nee Broxton. She died in Wigan Hospice in the early hours of 19th December 2009 having lapsed into a coma a couple of days earlier after a long battle with cancer. Her initial ovarian cancer was not spotted in routine scans due to lack of clarity in the X-ray images and spread to her brain before being diagnosed. Despite aggressive treatment through surgery, radio- and chemotherapy her condition deteriorated over time ultimately leaving her barely able even to lift a cup to her mouth. Throughout her illness my father took care of her full-time, having retired from work before she first became ill. I can only admire him for his dedication over this period of about 3 years without a break. But even more than that I admire the way my mother handled her illness, rarely showing the immense frustration she felt with her failing body and remaining cheerful throughout.

She was born and grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, one of four siblings. Her father was a coal miner, one of the major industries in the area at the time. Although as a working-class family they were not wealthy she had a happy childhood and always remained very close to her immediate relatives. She met my father, James Forshaw, at a dance as a teenager in the 1950’s and they started going out together. They got married in the early 60’s after courting for a few years. My mother had fertility problems and was unable to bear children so they elected to adopt. I was adopted at the age of about 2 weeks in 1973 and my brother in 1975. As children we were always aware of having been adopted and it never caused any problems: as far as we were concerned we had one mother and father and that was that.

She had worked in a dentists’ surgery before I was born and later for the Home Office (British government). Very little is known about this latter work because it is covered under the Official Secrets Act: I understand that it was a part-time clerical position but she obviously never divulged any details. She gave up work completely before I started school and devoted her time to bringing up my brother and me. I’ve talked about myself elsewhere so I will just say that she had tremendous patience to be as calm and supportive as she was with me.

I can’t emphasise too much just how much I relied on her while I was growing up. Maybe I was spoiled but I can’t remember anything ever being too much trouble for her as far as we were concerned. She taught me to read and even write (a little) by the age of 3. She never put me down; she let me know when I had done something wrong (just being called by my full name, Benjamin, was enough of a clue as to what was coming) without getting angry or belittling me, and more importantly she always explained what I had done wrong and why it was wrong. It was as if she instinctively knew how to deal with somebody who has an autistic spectrum disorder. Equally importantly she always let me know that she was proud of me when I had achieved something. When I was going through my bad time during my school years she tried her best to help me and get me to open up about what was causing the problem and it certainly wasn’t due to any lack of persistence or caring on her part that it took me years to even talk about that time. Likewise when I finally returned home feeling very down after dropping out of university she never showed much of her worry or disappointment: she just reassured me and helped me get back on track towards a job.

She suffered several losses in her life. Her mother-in-law died very shortly after I was adopted. She devoted a lot of time to looking after her father-in-law following this, having him up for dinner every night at first, later reducing to 3 times a week until he died. Her father died aged around 60 of psittacosis as a result of his mining occupation. I can remember going to visit him in Wigan Hospice shortly before he died. Her brother Alan died in his 50’s of cancer and I can remember how much it upset her. She was the main one out of her siblings to spend time looking after her mother as she aged: her mother died in her late 80’s. She also lost a number of close friends over the years.

I received a phone call from my father the morning that she died informing me. In some ways it was a relief that she was no longer suffering with her illness. I needed to be alone with my thoughts and despite the cold weather and inches of snow on the ground I went out for a walk through the local woods. The serenity of the surroundings and the clean crispness of the snow helped bring a degree of calm to my thoughts and I reflected on times spent with her through my life.

She was a very special person who made a positive impression on everybody she met. Since she died I cannot get used to knowing that she isn’t there to support me any more. She was the unassuming rock around which the family was built. I doubt that I ever let her know just how important she was to me and how much I owe her. I hope I have done her memory justice with these few words, although I know that there’s no way I can give more than a brief insight into her life.

Welcome

Welcome

Welcome to my little world.

Guess I’d better start with a bit about myself. I was born in Wythenshawe, Manchester in the early 70’s and adopted at the age of about 2 weeks. I was brought up in Billinge, near Wigan, where I lived until I moved away, first to university and then more permanently in the mid 90’s when I got a job at the other end of the country — down South — where I’ve been ever since. I’ve now spent about half my life living away from the North but still feel a strong attachment to it and my home county of Lancashire in particular. I found out just a few years ago that I have Aspergers Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which means in simple terms that my brain is wired a bit differently from the norm.

I’ve started this blog to put down in writing for the first time what impact Aspergers has had on my life. It has both positive and negative aspects, like pretty much everything in life. Perhaps reading about my experiences will help others understand the condition a little better, and even understand me a little better.

At the very least I hope I don’t bore you.

Ben.