ACCU2016: Talk on Software Architecture Design 7: Perceiving Organising Principles

Perceiving Organising Principles requires us to develop a living and mobile thinking perception.

Unfortunately, as programmers, we are at a disadvantage.

We work in a domain where a lot of our thinking needs to be fixed into a rule-based structure in order to imagine how a computer program will function. This can have unwanted side effects of making it difficult to think in a mobile, living way. Multi-threaded programming demands this mobile thinking and is why it is so difficult.

At a personal level if we want to develop this other way of seeing we need to engage in some activities that foster that mobile mode of cognition. Perceiving livingness, almost by definition, requires that we need to handle ambiguity. This is what is required when we are working in the ‘gap’, or whenever we are dealing with human situations.

Logical thinking can cope with known and static issues, but as programmers we need to be very aware of the boundaries of our knowledge, more so than the lay person due to the inherent fixity of the domain of computer programming.

Alexander Revisited
At this point it is useful to look at some of Christopher Alexander’s ideas about the perception of beauty and links to what I have been saying about the idea of Cognitive Feeling.

Alexander started with defining a Pattern Language to help foster good architectural design – what he called Living Structure. This metamorphosed into his masterwork, The Nature of Order where he tried to get a better understanding of why we find certain structures beautiful.

In the Nature of Order, Volume 1 Chapter 5, he identified the following 15 properties of Living Structure:

  • Levels Of Scale
  • Strong Centres
  • Boundaries
  • Alternating Repetitions
  • Positive Space
  • Good Shape
  • Local Symmetries
  • Deep Interlock And Ambiguity
  • Contrast
  • Gradients
  • Roughness
  • Echoes
  • The Void
  • Simplicity And Inner Calm
  • Not-Separateness

If you just look at this as a list of items, it can be difficult to understand how these may be useful in design, apart from as heuristic guidelines. Although useful, if we look at them in the light of the dynamic concept of the Organising Principle, they make a lot more sense.

A major point is Alexander’s use of the word: Living. As I point out, this implies ambiguity. Therefore these 15 Properties can be seen instead as Organising Principles and when we try and ‘bring them down’ into a more fixed understanding we will only be seeing one way of looking at each one.

Perceiving the Organising Principle as a Disciplined Artistic Process.
In order to develop a mobile dynamic cognition that can better perceive Organising Principles, my thesis is that we need to take up some artistic pursuit in a disciplined and self-aware way. Do whatever appeals to you. For me I find painting and dance work well.

Lets look at how the practice of these pursuits parallels software development, or indeed any technical effort.

The following image is a watercolour painting of my daughter.


Freehand painting based on photo of my daughter.

This was one of my first forays into the world of painting and like the good novice artist I was, I decided to draw the picture first, using a photograph as a reference.

It took me 3 hours!

The first effort took 2 hours. The next took 1 hour and the last two each took half an hour, with the final result intended as the basis for the final painting. Being the worried novice that I was I decided to perform a ‘colour check’ painting freehand before doing the final version. In the end this became the final painting I have included here as I found that when I tried to paint into the final drawing it did not have the same life as the freehand painting.

This is an example of the difference between the ‘master’ freehand approach as compared to the ‘journeyman’ drawn approach. Of course I do not consider myself to be a master painter, but this example illustrates the self-developmental dynamic inherent in the artistic process.

We can also see here the need to do the foundational, ‘analytic’ work, in this case the drawing; followed by the ‘gap’ of putting the drawing away and using the freehand skill to come up with the ‘solution idea’.

The following is a painting by Jim Spencer and is for me an example of how less is more and illustrates how such minimalism is an essential aspect of any mastery. In this case Jim began learning art just after the second world war. (Also see my post Minimalist Mastery)


The third example of and artistic pursuit is that of dance, in this case Argentine Tango. This particular dance is a form strongly founded on being far more conscious about what is a primary human activity: walking. (See my post on Dance as True Movement)

Here there is a need for structure, and a mobile process of interpretation and improvisation, both founded on a disciplined form of the dance. It can take years to learn how to ‘walk’ again but if followed in a disciplined manner can lead to sublime experiences of ‘Living Structure’ as the ‘team’ of two people dance from a common centre of balance.

In conclusion I hope you have been able to see the implicit link between Art and Technology and the value of balancing ourselves up as human beings.

Thank you for your attention.

In response to my statement about dancing John Lakos (author of Large Scale C++ Software Design) asked for some tango teaching at the end of the talk! The picture was taken by Mogens Hansen.


ACCU2016: Talk on Software Architecture Design 6: Organising Principles


My thoughts recently have turned to teaching beginners Argentine Tango at TLC in Southampton.

Afternoon Milonga

Afternoon Milonga by Pat Murray

In preparing for this I experienced an interesting case of synchronicity as I was reading a book by Massimo Scaligero called ‘The Secrets of Space and Time’. In this book Scaligero talks about ‘true’ movement, an idea that smacked me right in the forehead as I saw its relation to the essence of dance!

Most of the time we move normally without much thought. We think functionally: I want to pick this object up; I want to move my hand to here etc, and our bodies do this for us.

If you wish to truly understand just how much is automatic go and talk to someone with Parkinsons, a disease which afflicted by father. Even now I remember his tears as this once amazing dancer tried to will his body to do the simplest tasks.

During this unconscious movement our bodies move us. But there is a different form of movement where we can learn to be more conscious as WE move our bodies. The former is something we cannot take responsibility for, and cannot truly individually own. The latter is where we can truly express ourselves.

This second form of movement is not purely a physical phenomenon – it has its source in our thinking. True conscious movement is the physical expression of our Thinking – capital T.

Try the following exercise and you might just be able to experience how different this movement is from our normal unconscious mode:

1: Stand up in a space where you have room to stretch your arms straight above you without hitting any ceiling. Stand with you arms down your sides.

2: Raise your arms to the horizontal position as you would normally do – unconsciously, without giving it much thought. You might experience this as a pushing feeling. You should be able to feel that you do not own the movement, just its result.

3: Now return your hands to your sides and imagine that there are infinitely long threads (and I mean infinite!) extending straight out from the ends of your fingertips. Imagine that these threads are raising your hands as they pull outwards and upwards. With your thinking imagine how, as those strings traverse space, you are cutting the universe in half out from your centre to infinity. You may need to do this quite slowly and might experience it as more of a pulling feeling.

This takes conscious practice and requires a disciplined – yet relaxed – imagination. Properly done it will feel totally different to step 2. It will be as if your Thought is moving you, as if the body need do nothing but attend to the Thinking movement you are trying to realize.

This is the essence of the movement of a good dancer

They will be centred in themselves.
They will be poised in space.
They will seem to move with a graceful lack of effort.

They are doing nothing less than touching the infinite with their own Thinking movement as it expresses their individuality into their bodily movement.

They will be collapsing that infinitude to a singularity in their thought and thus, given the relationship between time and space, they can bring us to a timeless point of awareness. According to Scaligero this is the true awareness of space and time and it will take some practice.

Tango Sketch 2

Tango dancers sketch by Pat Murray

Bringing this back to dance, and Argentine Tango in particular where we learn to consciously walk with a partner, it is noticeable how difficult it is to re-learn something we normally unconsciously do. In this case something we learnt in our formative toddler years before our ‘I’ became present (usually around 3 years old).

If we can individually achieve this consciousness and attention it can be very enlightening and life enhancing.

If we can do this with our dance partner then it becomes a truly creative, artistic and sublime experience.

Happy dancing!

Minimalist Mastery


The Yacht Club

Once again I have succumbed to buying another watercolour (above) by Jim Spencer,
while my own painting efforts are still “in progress”.

I just can’t help it with this artist.

He is a master of minimal technique, producing paintings that grow on me over time.

Paintings I can breathe into.


Red Sky at Night

This mastery of minimalism to maximum effect is something close to my heart as you might know if you have read any of my thoughts about software development.
It is always something I aspire to, to the extent that I even use “Red Sky At Night”
in my talks to demonstrate the idea.

All I have to do now is get to that place with my painting!

Also for those who are still waiting for my ACCU talk transcripts.
I am still working on the next one.
Its amazing how long it takes to transcribe a 75 minute talk!

Phenomenal Software: The Internal Dimension: Part 2b: Patterns & Livingness

In this post I am going to review Alexander’s three aspects of patterns mentioned before, namely:

  • The Moral Component
  • Coherent Designs
  • Generative Process

I will show how they link to the following ideas:

  • Freedom
  • Cognitive Feeling
  • Livingness

The Moral Component & Freedom

20110916_1352_BuzzardThe moral aspect of patterns can be approached from any of a number of ‘paths up the mountain’. Certainly Alexander was concerned about whether buildings were ‘nurturing’ for us to live in, and so was thinking about more than utility. With computer systems and applications it is easier to think that this utilitarian aspect is all that exists. But there is an environmental part – an inner environment of thought, or ‘theory’ as Naur would say, whether we be users or developers.

If we think about how tools extend our own faculties, indeed our own being, the importance of the quality of this inner environment takes on a new meaning. The nature of the tool will affect how we form our ideas, which in turn will influence the form of our externally made world. Thus Alexander’s use of the word ‘nurturing’ and its applicability to software is not so out of place as it initially seems.

We can relate the ideas of utility, environment and hence morality by considering the concept of freedom – but defined in terms relevant to computer use. A computer system or application is a tool to get a particular task done. Good tools are ‘transparent’, meaning that you do not notice them when performing a particular task – they ‘disappear’ from your consciousness and leave you ‘free’ to focus upon the task in hand. It is in these terms that we can speak about freedom when using computers.

If you experience this ‘transparency’ when using a computer, I would consider that the software you are using contains this moral component that Alexander has defined. To paraphrase his words from the ‘Mirror of Self’ question:

“‘Moral’ Software gives you the freedom to develop a better picture of the whole of yourself, with all your hopes, fears, weaknesses, glory, absurdity, and which – as far as possible – includes everything that you could ever hope to be.”

What higher statement of purpose could we have for the programs we write? The current prevalent economic vision of the software industry pales into insignificance against such a statement.

We should not forget that this freedom to develop a ‘better picture of the whole of ourselves’ can be experienced by both users and developers. Indeed it is a central tenet of my whole ‘Phenomenal Software’ series that good software developers are implicitly on a path of self development, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Coherent Design & Cognitive Feeling

PetrelWingIn talking about coherent design we need to remember that Alexander is dealing with the external world of objects and a software designer/developer is dealing with non-physical artefacts – the building architect works in an external world, the software architect works in an internal world – though no less real in its effects.

If we consider programming as an ‘internal art’ we can see how it can be difficult to communicate effectively about the ideas that underpin our design and coding. Peter Naur wrote about the need to maintain a theory alive in the minds of the programmers if a system was to be properly extended or maintained. He also noted that the theoretical element could not be communicated accurately via written documentation or even the code itself – it needed human interaction with people holding the living theory of the software.

Reflecting on my own career I have come to realize that it is difficult to identify an abstract form of coherence or goodness for software separate from the context in which it is to be used. For instance some code that I had found to be elegant in the early days of computing, say using little memory and having few instructions, would not be a good solution to the same problem in a modern context. So here we can see the integration required between form and function; solution and problem context. They need to be in harmony: coherent form in design will have the moral component in its function and will mean that the theories and meaning formed by the developer or user will make sense and meet the ‘Mirror of the Self’ needs.

Most novices will work from a set of rules, one such example being to ‘Make it Work, Make it Right, Make it Fast’ in that order. This is a valid heuristic useful to stop programmers optimizing the code too early. However a rule-based approach has the danger of separating the stages into individual parts – which is not the best way to proceed in one’s thinking. This is the same tension as that between the TDD (Test Driven Development) folks and the design-up-front folks – a classic example of the need to work from an integrated view of the whole and the parts – i.e. respectively: making it right and making it work; design-driven and test-driven. In practice being done together.

So over my career I have developed a feeling for good design in the crucible of solving real-world problems. In actuality I cannot make it ‘Work’ until I have a sense of what is ‘Right’, even to a small degree. You can perhaps see that I have a personal preference towards the design view, though during my work I can easily fall into the trap of hitting the keyboard too early, something I have worked vigorously at controlling! As I gained experience I started to get this sense of the best way to structure the software, and in some cases – such as perhaps designing a media player – I might have a feeling for what is ‘Fast’ at an early stage, but this needs to be kept strongly in check against reality. Optimisation should be based upon measurement and human beings can be worse than random at predicting what needs optimising.

This sense for a good or coherent design is what I have called a ‘cognitive feeling’ in an earlier post, which is a very fine and delicate sensation indeed – it is not strong emotion. Over the years of my career I liken its development to the creation of a new sense organ, cognitive in its nature. It can be difficult to explain to less experienced practitioners due to the fact that the sense is likely to have been implicitly developed over the years. However it matches closely to the feelings that are evinced by Alexander’s ‘Mirror of the Self’ test so that frequently when talking to more experienced developers it will not be hard to get to a commonality in judgement.

This means that in order to create coherent designs we will need to develop this extra sense of a fine cognitive feeling. A quote from Alexander serves to give an idea of this feeling sense, and though dealing with external geometric entities, the same comments relate to software design when imagining how the structures will function:

“A pulsating, fluid, but nonetheless definite entity swims in your mind’s eye. It is a geometrical image, it is far more than the knowledge of the problem; it is the knowledge of the problem, coupled with the knowledge of the kinds of geometrics which will solve the problem, and coupled with the feeling which is created by that kind of geometry solving that problem.” A Timeless Way of Building, Chapter 9.

Generative Process & Living Structure

CloudTrailIn Alexander’s talk at the OOPSLA’96 conference in San Jose, he seemed somewhat bemused by the software domain’s use of patterns. On reading Alexander’s Nature of Order series we can perhaps see why. Some of the central ideas are those of ‘living structure’ and ‘structure preserving transformations’ which result in a ‘generative process’. How could these relate to software?

It is easier to understand the concept of structure preserving transformations when looking at how living things grow. As they grow and develop they need to continue living – we cannot just take them apart, do some modifications, and then re-assemble them! Every step of growth cannot disturb their livingness – thus EVERY change must preserve their living structure. The world of living things has no choice but to use a generative process if it is to stay alive.

At first glance this does not relate at all to the built world. When fixing my car in my younger days, there were times when bits of gearbox and engine were all over the floor! If the car had been a living being it would have been dead, but since it was not I of course was able to re-assemble it and make it work. Small software systems are similar. However, if you have ever worked on a sizable legacy system you will know that you need to spend a LOT of effort on NOT breaking the system. Any changes you make need to be closer to structure preserving, and any bad structures will need major surgery to improve. In reality you will not even try if it is not economically viable. Once you have bad structure, or use a ‘structure destroying transformation’ it is extremely difficult if not impossible to remedy:

“Good transformations do not cause any upheaval. So to get a good project, we merely have to make a sequence of structure-preserving transformations. When we do so, a good design evolves smoothly, almost automatically.
However, even a single bad transformation can upset the smooth unfolding. If we make one transformation which destroys structure, in the middle of a sequence of good ones, things become ugly very quickly;”
Nature of Order Book 2 p61. See also chapter 4.
I am not sure about the use of the word ‘merely’ in the above, since it understates the difficulty of identifying good transformations.

Also if we accept Naur’s Theory Building view and the idea of human mental schemas, this idea of a generative process makes more sense, since there is the living theory held by the programmers. If we then go further and connect to the phenomenological ideas of how we create meaning when we develop theories we can see that there is a justification for finding a livingness within the programming activity. Bortoft talks about the link between understanding and meaning which relates well to Naur’s ideas of theory building when understanding software. It also gives another dimension to the idea of livingness:

“understanding is the ‘concretion of meaning itself’, so that meaning comes into being in understanding.” Henri Bortoft in Taking Appearance Seriously p108

Just one final thought about the idea of livingness. Some might think that a running program would have a livingness, especially if it was a big system. I am not so sure and consider that it is WE who provide the livingness in the software domain. It is WE who create; experience design pain; judge. The computers are running a network of finalized thought constructs which is a different process to the thinking we do when defining those thought constructs. For me this perception of livingness in Alexander’s work and its relation to software is an ongoing work-in-progress.

I want to thank Jim Coplien for his help in pointing me at various ideas of Alexander that mesh with my work for this post.

In the next post I shall conclude this series of ‘Phenomenal Software’ by returning to the way philosophy has progressed forward from the Cartesian Subject/Object view. This will mean dealing with the thorny subject of subjectivity and of course you will have to decide if you can trust my judgements!

Thanks for reading.

Phenomenal Software: The Internal Dimension: Part 2a: Patterns & The Mirror of the Self.

When I started out programming the prevalent idea, which I shared at the time with many others, was that an artistic view was not going to be any part of the work. However, after a number of years in the business I began to come across moments of wonder when either I saw a great piece of coding or, very occasionally, managed to create something myself that hit the ‘sweet spot’. It was not until I happened upon Christopher Alexander’s work on patterns that I began to understand some of what was happening during these moments.

My introduction to the patterns movement occurred when reading the book Design Patterns written by the “Gang of Four”: Gamma, Helm, Johnson & Vlissides, this becoming a standard reference text. In trying to better understand the patterns vision I read some of Richard Gabriel who has some interesting ideas about the relationship between art and software. He has even come up with the idea of a Masters in Fine Arts in Software.

In Alexander’s earlier architectural patterns book he defines a library of external geometric entities to be used as design guidelines for buildings, for example: an alcove for chats that is separated off from a corridor. It is in his later masterwork: The Nature of Order that he describes his underlying ideas about ‘living structure’ and his thoughts about the perception of ‘goodness’ in design.

Alexander does not shy away from the moral dimension of his work. In a keynote speech he gave to the OOPSLA’96 conference in San Jose he stated that:

“One of the things we looked for was a profound impact on human life. We were able to judge patterns, and tried to judge them, according to the extent that when present in the environment we were confident that they really do make people more whole in themselves.” OOPSLA’96 keynote.

And later in the same talk:

“The pattern language that we began creating in the 1970s had other essential features. First, it has a moral component. Second, it has the aim of creating coherence, morphological coherence in the things which are made with it. And third, it is generative: it allows people to create coherence, morally sound objects, and encourages and enables this process because of its emphasis on the coherence of the created whole.” OOPSLA’96 keynote.

But how can we judge what is coherent? To understand Alexander’s approach we have to read the first book of ‘The Nature of Order’ series where he describes the ‘The Mirror of the Self’ test.

The Mirror of the Self

To develop this judgement of coherent living structure, Alexander identifies what he calls the ‘Mirror of the Self’ test. He highlights that there is a difference between what he calls ‘apparent liking’ and ‘true liking’. For example, when deciding which of two objects are liked the best, rather than accepting a quick ‘apparently liked’ judgement he asks for a ‘truly liked’ judgement:

“…which of the two objects seems like a better picture of all of you, the whole of you: a picture which shows you as you are, with all your hopes, fears, weaknesses, glory and absurdity, and which – as far as possible – includes everything that you could ever hope to be. In other words, which comes closer to being a true picture of you in all your weakness and humanity;…” Nature of Order: Book 1. p317.

Using this idea he has found that it is possible to have a high level of agreement (80-90%) between people when using their judgment to identify living structure for objects. So it seems that how we phrase the question is all important.

A Reappraisal of the Software Patterns Movement

So far the software patterns movement has tried to abstract out particular solution patterns to be used as guidelines when designing software structures. Despite the best intentions it has degenerated into being a set of document templates, rather than embodying the wider view of Alexander’s work. Once again we have become hooked on a results-oriented view of the world as if we can only feel comfortable with this approach in such a technical domain.

Erich Gamma, one of the co-authors of the Design Patterns book, said that referring to patterns is most useful when we already have a specific design ‘pain’ rather than trying to force patterns onto a particular project from the outset. This points to the fact that we cannot get away from being conscious of how we develop our judgement. How do we even identify that we have a design ’pain’ if not through discerning human judgement and a sense of rightness?

Along with other commentators like Jim Coplien, I consider that Alexander’s vision of patterns (the drive towards living structure and the big question of making human life more whole) has not been truly realized within the software discipline. We need to revisit the Alexandrian roots of the patterns movement and understand how these roots relate to software development.

In Alexander’s OOPSLA’96 talk he identified 3 key points in his vision for the patterns work: a moral component; coherent designs; generative process. Although there has been some discussion in the software community about Alexander’s later work, it is fair to say that it has been difficult to take these ideas further in the domain. However I have found that by connecting the ideas with those prompted by reading Bortoft and early Steiner we can get a bit more clarification which I will report on in my next post.

Thanks for reading so far and I wish you all the very best for 2014…

GLIDER CHRONICLES 2011 – October 15th : Last of the Autumn Soaring

Having checked the weather forecast the day before it was, as expected, a beautiful sunny morning, though as is the way of such things its beauty was not diminished by the expectation.

I cannot say that I sprang out of bed, I could describe it more poetically as an intentioned rising from my nocturnal abode. The truth is I look forward to a weekend lie-in so it does require some willpower to get going, but once rolling, the stone is happy to go flying.

Having had the “good for me” muesli breakfast I got everything ready, packed the car, and got going. The mist on the way to the gliding club was breathtakingly lovely and I forestalled my enthusiasm to get to the club long enough to stop and take at least one shot of its beauty.

Early morning mist on the way to Lasham.


Once at the club I saw an early arrival being towed off the runway as shown in the photo below. I was thankful that it had turned up then rather than interrupting flying by appearing in the middle of the day as has happened many times before.

Early jet arrival before the gliders were even on the runway.


The keen-ness factor must have been ramped way up since the launchpoint bus was already parked on the runway.

The loneliness of the long distance launchpoint bus driver.


I was surprised to find the club busier than expected, mainly due to the recent start of the university year resulting in the recruitment of a gaggle of new students from the various university gliding clubs. These are usually from Imperial College, Brunel University and Surrey University and always a welcome sight to balance the prevailing old and wrinkly demographic.

A further cause for surprise was the glider booking sheet. All “Baby” Grob 102 gliders were taken. Then John, a companion club member at a similar level to myself, came up to also look at the sheet. We took one look at the sheet, one look at each other and agreed to share one of the Discus gliders for the day. Having two of us would ease the rigging pain, though the Discus is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to rig.

So – decisions made – it was time for the most important part of the day. A good breakfast. Definitely not in the “good for you” category but this is one of my secret weapons – by having a hearty English breakfast I have enough energy to sustain me right through the day so I can take a midday flight while others retire to the clubhouse to have lunch. On one occasion the reduced lunchtime demand allowed me to continue thermalling over the launchpoint.

On this autumn day I had checked the sunrise(7:24) and sunset(18:08) times before leaving and therefore knew that peak sun would be at 12:36. So adding a bit of time to let the ground heat the air to generate thermals I knew that a good launch window would be around 1pm.

An all-action sight outside the main hangar as gliders are prepared for the day.


Breakfast finished – it was time to get out a parachute and get over to start rigging the Discus.

It was lovely – a sunny morning – a bunch of flying twits all together – and a hive of purposeful activity with loads of crazy repartee and banter.

I heard a marvelous conversation between a pessimistic Sean and his more optimistic Antipodean friend Nigel – Sean was not expecting good flying, let alone any decent soaring, but Nigel was undeterred mentioning he would rather presume a good soaring day and be wrong than be in a more negative “space”. I love the mix of the physical activity of rigging with such philosophical musings.


Early aerotow of SH7 off into the blue.

The morning rush-hour at Lasham. Students learning in the K13s.

It was then that John said he needed to go early in the afternoon and I offered that he go first. Truth to tell, with my guess that the day would not get going properly until lunchtime I was all too happy to let John start the flying. So John, if you are reading this – my apologies – I knew then that I would get the best of it but didn’t realise by how much!

Another reason for feeling happy to let John go first was that, as I have mentioned before, I like to take some time to get my head into the right place for the flying.

John ended up taking 3 winch launches and on the first two returning to earth in short order. It was not looking good. He was reporting the lift as being very sporadic and difficult to hold onto. On his third launch he did better and managed to find some lift to earn a very respectable 21 minute flight.

However he was reporting that the lift was topping out at around 1000ft which is rather low so I was not expecting too much, only hoping to maybe get a 30 minute flight. I was thinking I would try one winch launch and then take an aerotow but such a strategy is no guarantee of success.

John finding some lift...

...and landing SH3

So – It was about 12:30. John had just landed. And it was getting to my 1pm preferred launch time. But would I be able to find any lift?

I was sceptical to say the least and was definitely expecting to need a subsequent aerotow.

Tug pilot looking bored waiting for customers.

Winch queue showing the clouds in the background marking the developing lift - I hope.


By now with all the waiting I had got my head into the right “space” and had all my things : camera. water, map, ready for the cockpit. I collected John after he landed and we pushed it onto the back of the winch queue. I got settled in, adjusting everything as required and making sure the cockpit was set as required.

Just before 1 o’clock I was on the front of the queue and ready to go. Checks done – CBSIFTCB + E for Eventualities – then the request for the cable : “Cable on please – Blue link” – and now seeing the cable slack being pulled in prior to the “All out”. Cable tension taken – and we’re off!

The launch was a good one. I had put a fair amount of “right hand down” correction for the crosswind component plus I managed to get 1400ft! 200ft better than my previous best launches for the single seaters – so I was pleased. Having got the glider trimmed, undercarriage raised – I flew straight into some lift. Fantastic! Not much, just a gentle 2 knots up with Charles talking to himself and being careful NOT to lose the thermal.

I managed to take one picture after having gained some height which showed the conditions with a fairly strong inversion at about 2000ft with small undeveloped cumulus clouds just below it.

A good sense of the conditions for the day. Inversion at 2000ft trapping small cumulus.


The first half hour was spent just playing around to find the shape of the day’s conditions, and from then on I became more choosy. I scared myself slightly when I got too far south towards Alton and encountered sinking air, but whenever I turned for home I found the glider was well within its capabilities to get back with height to spare so I managed to calm down.

Just after one of these episodes my spirits lifted on seeing a family of buzzards. As I have said before, I find flying near such birds a sublime experience and this time was no exception with them infallibly marking the best lift. This improved my visualisation of the air currents immeasurably since although the area was busy with gliders there was no discernable pattern to the thermals.

Grob 102 in the distance in hazy conditions. You can see the streeting of the clouds from left to right.

Company arriving to try and pick up my thermal, but it was too weak to be useful at the lower height.

Seagulls waiting for a meal from the field being ploughed below. They are not to be trusted to indicate good air!

If flying with the buzzards was sublime, flying with seagulls was ridiculous! I had not given enough thought to the fact that they are scavengers of the first water. On finding a flock of them I immediately joined in but found that the air was sinking! When I looked down I could see what had got their attention. A farmer was ploughing a field and they were hanging around above waiting to pick up something to eat from the field. Lesson learnt – choose which feathered friends you can trust.

In the end I managed to stay flying for 1 hour 35 minutes, although not once getting above 2000ft, so another wonderful yet testing flight and in the middle of October too. To fly is a great pleasure, but to also get a chance to develop an artistry in divining the air currents to me makes these flights truly phenomenal experiences.

It is time to take stock of the lessons learnt so far in what are my early soaring flights:

  • When adjusting the glider position within a thermal only make small changes of direction and work very hard to make a 3D picture of the air.
  • Make planned changes to the circle you are flying, testing out in 4 directions from where your circle is at the moment. This is still a work-in-progress for me as I am still learning how to do it properly.
  • If thermalling with other gliders, or birds, watch to see if they are rising or sinking compared to your own flight path and adjust as required, but always stay safe.
  • Don’t automatically think that the other glider has found better air.
  • I end up talking to myself a lot. I guess hearing my thoughts expressed out loud allows me to double check my assumptions.
  • You can trust buzzards to find the rising air.
  • You cannot trust seagulls to do the same.


Discus SH3 back at the trailers and ready for de-rigging.


Having returned to earth and checked that no-one else wanted the glider I flew a quick hangar flight and took SH3 back to the trailer for de-rigging. Many thanks to Ed (he of aerobatic instructional tendencies) for helping out.


The launchpoint was kept manned right up until sunset so here are the last shots of the day…

K13 on finals to the hangar under the evening sun.

The end of another wonderful day with gliders returning to be packed in the hangar under a perfect sunset.

As the sun is now lower in our skies this is likely to be one of the last Glider Chronicles for 2011 although I shall fly whenever weather and money allows. I will continue with my People & Technology posts, plus I have thought up a little scientific project for the winter to aid visualising air currents. Watch this space.

Let me know if you have liked the Chronicles this year and say if there is any other information you would like to see in the format for next year and I shall do my best.

All the best and Safe Flying!

GLIDER CHRONICLES 2011 – September 16th : Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

There are some times when I wonder if I will ever feel “grown-up”. The flying on this Friday provoked such a reaction, for during the 92 minute flight I was to come close enough to a buzzard or two that it left me speechless – which I made up for with childish glee during the rest of the afternoon by telling every other club member I met about it!

Luckily I was able to get a few photos of our feathered friends.

The Decision
The background to the day was as follows: During the week there had been two great flying days which I could not attend due to work commitments, and I knew that the weekend weather was not looking good. I turned up on Thursday evening hoping to at least hangar fly one of the gliders, but alas, I was too late and they were too busy to fit me in. On returning home I reasoned that since I had finished some work on Thursday ready for the weekend, I could afford to take the Friday off for flying, although it was only expected to be a marginally good day. Well – it made sense to me. So I set the alarm for an early rise in order to be there for the ballot of the single seater gliders at 8am.

The morning arrived with the bleeping of the alarm. Is it just me or are early morning decision processes tricky? I thought that as you got older it should be easier to get up early! Outside it was overcast and I almost decided to give up flying and go to work anyway, thus saving my holiday for later in the year. However in the end I did go to Lasham, though I could not get myself up early enough for the 8am ballot. Lazy, lazy, lazy. I know. But as it turned out it was not to be a problem.

Early morning skies showing the extensive top cover.


So up and prepped; NOTAMs checked; weather checked; and it was off to the club. Only one other person was there to grab a single seater so my early morning “lazy” decision was vindicated. After a “proper” breakfast and the morning briefing it was out to the hangar.

Explanation: NOTAMs
A NOTAM is a “NOTice to AirMen” and is essential reading for any pilot planning a flight. It is administered by NATS and is part of their Aeronautical Information Service, or AIS.

As of today, 18-Sep-2011, the definition of a NOTAM on this site reads as follows:
“Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) cover short duration or temporary changes or short notice permanent changes. They contain information concerning the establishment, condition or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel concerned with flight operations.”

Don’t you just love those long sentences? But they are important long sentences and many a pilot has to get used to such language to get through the inevitable paperwork and exams related to flying.

The above items might, for instance, cover operations such as The Red Arrows, or any other flying display; Parachuting; Balloon flying; or even filming where the film crew don’t want little aircraft buzzing around ruining their period costume drama! It does happen.

Discus or Grob? And a Man with a Plan
When deciding which single seater to fly, I had made another “lazy” decision to take SH7, the baby Grob, since I knew it would be rigged. As it turned out it was buried at the back of the hangar so I decided to rig one of the “Modern Beauties“, Discus SH3 as I expected this would be less of a chore to get ready for flying. There were 6 other gliders in front of SH7 in the hangar and a definite dearth of helpers.

The conditions were not looking good as a lot of high cloud was present from the night before. It was going to be a case of waiting for it to disperse, which thankfully it duly began to do during the morning as you can see from the early photos.

The early reports from the initial K13 training flights were that no lift was around, so I decided to take an exploratory winch launch to see what the conditions were like. I expected this to be a short flight that would also get me “rolling” for the day. The plan was then to take an aerotow.

Ahh. Plans, plans, plans – they rarely survive contact with reality.

Getting SH3 rigged

View into SH3's trailer

SH3 rigged, cleaned and ready to go out to the launch point

Up and Away – but only just
By the time I had the Discus rigged, cleaned, over to the launch point, and sorted myself out – it was 12:15 and the conditions were just starting to get going. There was a medium strength southerly crosswind and we were launching on runway 09 towards the east.

I queued up, got strapped in and waited for a cable. The winch launch was unremarkable, though only a 1300ft launch height – I am still not getting good launch heights with the single seaters. However it was enough for some minutes of bimbling around and I decided to go upwind to the south of the airfield. This was to cause a few problems later but did result in finding some lift.

I flew around and did not manage to pick anything up until eventually I saw another glider coming in below me to join the circuit from the south-east and I decided to follow it in. I was pretty high as I began my circuit, and as part of the pre-landing checks put the undercarriage down.

All was going fine and I was expecting, as planned, to take an aerotow next. But then at around 700ft on the downwind leg I got the most amazing kick up the pants as I hit a 4up thermal. I am afraid I could not resist it since (a) I knew I had enough height and (b) knew there was no-one else in the circuit. After just one turn I knew I had a good one and put the undercarriage back in its box.

So all was going well and I climbed up to 1000ft but the next problem as alluded to earlier was that I was now drifting close to the launch area. I could also see that they were getting ready to launch a glider so I had to leave my beloved 4up thermal and go further south, upwind and away from the launch area. The waiting glider below was now being launched, but I had lost the “biggie” and was only getting weak 2up thermals, though enough to keep me at my height.

Thermalling on the south side of the airfield. The launch point is on the left hidden by the glider


At last another good thermal came along and I took it, beginning the inevitable drift back over the launch point as I circled. This time, however, I could see that they were not ready to launch so I called up and asked if I could overfly the launch point. Luckily this was allowed and I happily continued thermalling from the south of the airfield to the north without disturbing their operations, gradually climbing from 900ft up to 1500ft.

Being on the north of the airfield allowed me to check a bit of theory about thermal formation. I had heard that one should look for places where you would get differential heating. I reckoned I could see one where there was a wood on the south side of a brown stubble field. I was hoping that the air just on the north of the wood would be sheltered from the wind, allowing a big enough bubble of warm air to form which would later get detached due to the windy conditions.

Enlargement from previous photo of the view north. The red rectangle shows the wood and field described in the text where I found a thermal.


I was absolutely open-mouthed when I found this actually worked! It was not the best thermal of the day, but the theory did seem to work. Fantastic! With this thermal I managed to get to about 1800ft, at which height the lift seemed to “top out”. This was to be a consistent feature of the day’s lift.

It was shortly after this that I had my first encounter with a pair of buzzards.

Words fail to put over the feeling when encountering these wonderful fliers. I am not so deluded to think that I am anywhere near as good as they, nor can I claim a close kinship – the best I can say is that I felt linked to them in some small way. Yes – the word is “Participated”. I participated in their world and felt awe at the effortless connection they have with the aerial habitat. I also felt very lucky that I was able to fly with them for the small time I did.

Of course due to my higher speed, I could only fly around the outside of their circles, and as you would expect it was almost a guarantee that wherever they were – there was rising air. I was gratified to see that they were not at all bothered by my presence, being quite happy to pass within 50 metres of the glider, although I was careful to make sure I kept far enough away so that neither they nor myself would be disturbed.

By now I was back on the south side of the airfield where the air was moving in decidedly strange ways, definitely not in nice circular thermic bubbles. I decided to try and sort of “wind-surf” by flying to and fro rather than staying in circles. This seemed to work for a while but “needs more research”. It was at this time that I came upon another buzzard and managed to get some photos which I hope you agree are pretty amazing. Apologies for the angles since they were definitely “action” shots with one hand flying the aircraft and one hand on the camera.

Circling near a buzzard

Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery


The time was now around 2pm and I was getting quite tired as it was proving to be a tussle to stay airborne. I flew around to the west of the airfield as I could see ground movement of the launch point as the operation moved onto runway 23. This coincided with hitting some really strong sinking air going down at 600ft per minute just as I was on the downwind leg of the circuit. I almost thought I would have to turn in early and land crosswind but luckily came out of the sink and found some lift and carried on to return to a normal landing.

I opened the canopy and just stayed in the glider resting and contemplating my experience while I waited for the retrieve buggy. I had just completed a 92 minute flight, I believe one of the longest of the day, and had managed to fly with the birds. Definitely one of those “self-actualising” experiences as Maslow would say.

A day for the birds. Photo of a red kite taken later from the ground near the threshold of runway 23.

Bird of a different kind, but still beautiful.
SH3 waiting to be put back in the trailer.

Late afternoon sun.


And so it was time to go home and Reflect upon the day’s experiences. I hope you enjoyed my Rambling here and that I did not Rumble too much!

Until the next time…