I have lived many lives in 40 cities, towns and villages, across five countries.
I have known five friends with the same birthday as me. This may not appear much but it means I have have known approximately 5 x 365 ¼ friends well-enough to know their birthdays – the tip of the iceberg. My friends are scattered around the World and I rarely meet them. Thank heavens for the internet!
‘Born and bred’ in Huddersfield, England, I attended Longwood Infants (now an old folks home), Paddock Juniors headed by John Cowan (a modern-day saint) and, from age 11-16, Royds Hall – the same school as former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, though in his day it was a good grammar school and in mine a very rough comprehensive. When people ask me about my school days, I tell them that they lasted longer than the Second World War.
The escape from Royds Hall at age 16 transformed my life. Avoiding beating ceased to be a major occupation and doing well in exams was suddenly encouraged!
I took double maths and physics at A-level at Huddersfield New College. These subjects were chosen after careers advice to maximise my chances of getting into the British Airways pilot training college at Hamble. Sadly, the BA college closed just before I started my A-levels and there was no alternative without unaffordable fees.
Many things closed around that time. It was the start of the Thatcher era. Huddersfield’s textile and engineering industries were eliminated and the buildings that once housed them were razed to the ground, the rubble removed, and weeds allowed to grow in their place. The destruction and decimation all around was a subconscious metaphor for my dream of being an airline pilot ending. I was literally rudderless.
With A-level grades, AAB, far better than anyone – teachers, friends and family – had expected, I found myself going to the wrong university to study the wrong subject. I was disillusioned to be among far less-intelligent people than I had been accustomed to from sixth-form college and in the subject which I had not chosen or applied for but was under-subscribed and I was bribed, as a result of my grades, with BT sponsorship to take. Everyone I sought the advice of told me to take the sponsorship. I left at the end of the first year when my department would not allow me to change to computer science.
As part of a European exchange scheme, I learned Italian at CEP in Turin, full-time 9-5, Monday to Friday for the month of February 1987. In one month I was sufficiently fluent to get by without ever speaking English. Even my dreams were in Italian.
I moved to Milan to join a freelance stage technical team based at the Cooperativa per lo Spettacolo Culturale. I turned down a similar position at the World-famous La Scala opera house because I was warned that it would be too “mafioso”. Among our many assignments were Georgio Armani’s fashion shows in Milan. My pay only just paid the rent (the spare room in fashion-designer Paulo Besana’s apartment), so on my days off, I busked in the Milan Metro. My busking proceeds more than paid for my weakness for Barolo (‘The King of Wines’) and an extended trip through Yugoslavia to Greece.
For a period, I had a confusing collage of temporary jobs on land and at sea crewing yachts and part-time businesses involving security and surveillance. I also recorded live jazz bands and released several of my recordings commercially. On land, I studied for the RYA Yachtmaster Theory certificate. At sea, I gained experience towards my captain’s licence which I obtained in September 1989. My ‘skipper’s ticket’ still allows me to captain a sailing or motor vessel up to 25m (82 feet) anywhere in the World. These days it is handy for using the dinghies of all-inclusive hotels in overly bureaucratic countries:-)
In 1991, I made the heavy decision to return to full-time education to obtain a degree. I applied to Durham University to read Computer Science and was gratified to be given an unconditional offer without interview on the basis of my 7-year old A-level grades. I had already committed to an HNC in Software Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge for the preceding academic year to “prove that my brain still worked”.
Before I arrived at Cambridge, I had been going through my first fitness campaign. I stopped at the library each time on the way to the gym to study exercise physiology. I learned that top athletes do not have the bodies they have because of what they do but rather they do what they do because of the bodies they have. My studies revealed that my body was best suited to rowing – not something experienced at a rough comprehensive school.
I was looking for the rowing club desk at the freshers fair. Before I found it, they found me – from my 6’4″ height and lanky proportions. I was led to their desk and they insisted I signed up. They did not believe I had been looking for them. They put me in their first boat from day one practice even though I had never rowed before. “You’re a natural!” they assured me. My calculation had been correct. I loved rowing with CCATBC, then the Cambridge 9’s City club and the Durham University Elite Squad. These experiences were so different from being ‘the one no one wanted’ on their football or rugby teams in my desperate ‘Second World War’ school days.
Instead of the usually unpaid industrial placement for the second half of the HNC, I took the paid role of Network Manager at Livewire Communications in nearby Great Shelford. No two days were remotely the same and my time there is worthy of a book. This was a permanent position, and as it transpired, I was the only person there with any computer expertise in a company that made all its money from computers! They had been set up by a Canadian company years before and been maintained by an occasional, eccentric consultant called Rodney. I felt terribly guilty about leaving them to take up my student place at Durham. I offered to write the job ad, interview and train my replacement before I left – giving over twice as much notice as I had to.
When I gave my extended notice, Livewire doubled my salary overnight and offered to double it again if I stayed. This was more money than I have ever earned – or any job I have applied for since has offered. In the long years since, and of all the people I have told this story to, no one has yet thought that I did the right thing in refusing the huge salary in exchange for being a poor student! Still, even on the old salary, I had saved enough in six months to buy my first house – a village house in Torrox, Spain. For the next four years I would spend all my holidays there working on it – tiling, plumbing, wiring, repairing, decorating and supervising professionals to do the things I could not do as well myself.
So I became a mature student at University College, Durham reading computer science. The degree was split roughly one third each between maths, software engineering and artificial intelligence. I fell into good company and made life-long friends. There were many more outstanding moments there than there is space here to recount. Highlights were co-creating and being president of a ‘pretend-pretentious Oxbridge-style’ dining club, the Cardinal Club. We were so successful that genuinely pretentious people wanted to join. Also organising a trad jazz night in the undercroft of Durham Castle. Members of the Senior Common Room who attended said it was their best College entertainment ever.
My final year project At Durham demonstrated an evolutionary algorithm optimising a neural network to learn dialogue styles for Durham’s large-scale natural language processing system (LOLITA) in real-time, publishing the emerging results live to the web. This was the pinnacle of my developer experience to date. I was as proud as when the stage lighting back in Milan was ‘just perfect’.
After graduation, I moved to Oxford to study for a masters in computation – advanced computer science topics I had not covered as an undergraduate. I was not particularly impressed by Oxford – the computer science department seemed occupied by old hands still pedalling their own ideas that failed to make traction in the decades before.
The twelve months programme nevertheless was intensive and half of it was devoted to an individual research project. My dissertation was entitled ‘Intelligent Agents for the Web’ – software to predict a person’s likely interests based on their browsing history. It foresaw much of what was to come with the likes of Google and ‘recommender’ systems using my own mix of statistical and sub-symbolic AI techniques.
I also developed a new form of evolutionary algorithm. It was loose-coupled and arbitrarily distributed (it could run on any number of unreliable, disparate computing devices) but still with a tight feedback mechanism controlling its convergence towards a ‘good’ solution. In evolution, feedback is everything! Yet the ‘state of the art’ pretty much left it to chance or else hard-coded some crude formulas. They still do. In comparison, mine showed exponential performance gains over anything else out there at the time. Sneakily, I never published the detail of this work – and it remains secret:-)
In May 2000 after a period mixed between on the UK research circuit, living in Greece, renovating another house and captaining my own charter yacht (the ‘Maria Callas’), I was appointed first as Research Associate on Prof. Rachel Harrison’s project ‘Designing for Ease of Systems Change’, then as a tenured lecturer (‘professor’ in U.S. speak) in Computer Science at the University of Reading, England.
As a new academic at Reading, I successfully bid for the first ever UK public research funding in the field of autonomic computing – creating self-evolving software systems (‘ACCESS’). I led the project and supervised three PhD students in addition to my teaching and administration duties.
Teaching and admin alone took up more than my contracted hours yet I was only professionally judged upon my research. Research had to be done before work in the early mornings, after work in the evenings and at weekends. Sleep began to suffer. Life began to suffer. I offered to take a 50% pay cut in order to focus on research – the reason I had been hired in the first place. My offer went to the very top of the University and the response back down again to me, “No”. The fear was that if my position became ‘half’ they would never get the other half of this scarce tenured post back.
In October 2004, with the acquisition of some prime building land in Side, Turkey, I had the opportunity to start a full-time property business. I researched the ‘overseas home’ market in Spain, then a far more mature and thriving market and translated the ideas I picked up into a design bound by, and exploiting, the local Turkish planning rules. I designed and project-managed the construction of the iconic ‘Villa Cleopatra’ apartment complex in Side. I knew I was doing good work but what I was not prepared for was the volume of ‘professional property tourists’ – architects, fellow developers, civil engineers etc. who were just passing and noticed I was doing something wholly new and innovative.
I still visit Side, as a tourist (it is far easier to be a tourist!) and I now see many of my design elements incorporated into new building there. As a sad footnote, I was required to have a licensed architect and I gave her three iterations to come up with something at least as good as my design from my top-level requirements – hotel-style bedroom suites, maximal balconies, semi open-plan living-dining-kitchens, etc. I ended in her office, dictating the measurements of my design from my laptop to her as our software was incompatible. When it came to measurements of less than 1cm she told me the builders would not like that. She was right. However as I was on site for every first course of blocks, I could knock them exactly where I wanted them to the mm!
That meeting was the last time I saw her. I heard she went into a mental hospital for reasons I don’t know and was never able to perform her duties in respect of Villa Cleopatra. I hope that working with me was not the reason 🙂
I considered the commissions demanded by both the local and overseas estate agents unreasonable (at around 10-20%), so I formed my own ‘British style’ estate agency, Side Property Ltd., with an office in the heart of the resort, a website at sideproperty.com and with British and Turkish staff. I beat the established agents at their own game and soon the expertise I acquired creating, managing and promoting the website was sold as consultancy to other developers during the quieter winter months.
Side Property sold many ‘re-sale’ properties on behalf of their owners, frustrated that other agents were not interested in what they called “second-hand homes”. Without a healthy secondary market, the primary market ultimately fails. Side Property did great work in supporting the whole local property market giving confidence to buyers that they would be able to sell on.
I felt the financial crash of 2008 coming a year before. As credit became harder and/or more expensive to obtain, enquires and sales started to thin as the discretionary purchase of an overseas home became harder to justify. With outgoings on rent and wages a business can only survive so long without an income. I moved to cheaper premises and reduced my staff to one plus me. It was not enough. When finalising my affairs with my lawyer, he implored me to stick-out the property recession, “Turkey needs people like you”. Had I had bottomless pockets, I would have.
I returned to my home town of Huddersfield in October 2008 – the first time I had lived there since I left 23 years earlier. The move was complicated by having to put the two dogs who had acquired me though six month’s quarantine – Turkey is not a member of the Pet Passport scheme. I sent them ahead but was able to see them being loaded into the hold of the Thomas Cook aircraft at Antalya. I travelled back business class on British Airways because it was the cheapest way of bringing back my possessions. The first 64Kg hold baggage was free. I booked the maximum 10 ‘bags’, in effect a luggage allowance of 320Kg. I sold or gave-away the remainder. I have seen dramas when the British colonials suddenly have to abandon their overseas territory. It felt like that. More desperate towards the end.
From 2008 to 2011, I took a part-time job teaching live sound recording – one of my many hobbies – at Huddersfield University and carried out research on the ‘automated composition of pop music’. My contract ran out at the end of 2011 and the university-sponsored research with it. Such is academia. I thought of the tenured ‘for life’ position I gave up seven years before :-(.
From 2012, I have had mixed periods of private research, property renovation, bespoke travel arranging and travel. I have always been versatile!
Automated music composition remains an active interest and one of the reasons I am currently refreshing and updating my knowledge of machine learning (the online Stanford University course for which I have been given a grant for fees). Apple of late have made great strides in both exposing their neural network application interface (‘Core ML’) and in optimising hardware for neural nets with their ‘Neural Engine’ in their latest iPhones, clearly due to trickle down to iPads and perhaps Macs soon. Other hardware manufacturers are commercially bound to follow suit.
When I was first using neural nets 25 years ago, not even fellow computer scientists really understood what I was talking about. Now, with the latest hardware advances, my ‘secret’ optimisation strategies and 25 years of experience, I believe my time may have finally come!
Besides the Stanford machine learning ‘Nano Degree’ course, I am studying iOS development for the reasons given above, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) – useful for obtaining a work permit anywhere on the planet regardless of what my work actually is – and the Turkish language while I spend ten weeks in Turkey September-December 2017. I speak good ‘tourist Turkish’ but the deeper language has thus far eluded me.
I remain open to interesting possibilities, of any kind.
Tim Millea, 25th September, 2017.