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Some personal data about me

 
This page is here mainly because I was deeply involved in the creation of WWW together with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, as you can read in the CV.

 Me on desk with early browser
(Photo CERN)

You can find from here:

  • Some things about me (very informal) just below;

on request of journalists:

  • an extra page with photos;
  • a short CV.

 

Who, Where, Why…

I was born in Tongeren, Belgium (look for it South-West of the Dutch city of Maastricht or north-north-west from the Belgian city of Liège).

I was raised speaking one of the pronounced dialects of the Germanic-Latin interaction region that goes all the way from Oostende at the Belgian coast over Luxemburg down the Alsace through Switzerland into the Adriatic.  The official written language is Dutch (though some call it Flemish).

I know, my last name is French or certainly looks French, but my forefathers have lived in Flanders at least since 1602.  For me French was and still is a difficult language that I really learned only after coming to the Geneva area.  Because of my name and where I live, many people try to speak French to me when they first meet me.  This is very polite of them, of course, and I thank them for the effort.  It can be somewhat hilarious though, especially when they are native English or Dutch speakers and I try to point out that we would be more at ease conversing in English or Dutch but they ignore this and still persist to talk French to me…  I try to take this with humour, but sometimes I've lost my temper.  To those to whom I was perhaps a bit curt, my apologies!

So remember:  though I can speak French well, I'm not of French mother tongue.  (En wie het niet gelooft, probeer maar Nederlands aan de telefoon of in e-mail!)

I now live in France, but worked at CERN an international research laboratory which happens to have offices in Switzerland.  CERN also has offices in France.  This creates some interesting situations, but we are used to cross the EU—non-EU border several times a day.  To others it may seem complicated, but there are Europeans that are more advanced.  Imagine this:  in 1993 I went prospecting for good students in Finland.  I arrived at the airport where I wanted to buy Finnish marks.  Thus, I spoke English to the lady behind the counter, presented a credit card from a Swiss Bank, and showed her my Belgian passport which stated my address in France.  She did not wink an eye.  The Finns are used to it I suppose.

A strange thing…

Recently I discovered that I'm a synaesthetic.  Well, I've known it for a very long time, but I did not realise that there was a name for my condition.  I'm one of those people who combine two senses:  for me, letters have colours.  Apparently only about one in 25'000 have this condition;  it is perfectly harmless and actually sometimes useful.  Whenever I think of words, they have colour patterns.  For example, the word "CERN" is yellow, green, red and brown; what used to be my office telephone number "75005" is dark blue, black, white, white, black.  The effect sometimes works like a spelling checker.  I know I've got the right or the wrong number because the colour pattern is what I remember or not.  If you also happen to have this condition, I'd like to hear about you.  We could compare colours… Here is my alphabet.

And now wait for it:  you may have seen the early World-Wide Web logo of three superimposed "W"s.  Why are they green?  Because I see all "W"s as green…  It would look horrible to me if they were any other colour.  So the logo was green not because WWW is a "green" technology, although I also very much like that aspect.

(Reference: "The Sweet Smell of Purple", Alison Motluk, New Scientist, No. 1938, 13 August 1994)

School

I went to school in this little old town where I was born, until my parents moved to the busy port of Antwerp in '58 when I was eleven.  There I acquired a taste for the strange things that make life interesting.  But, because in those days Antwerp did not have a university, I had to move again and spent the time of the five-year Engineering curriculum at the University of Ghent in Flanders.

After graduating I worked at the Lab of Mechanical Engineering.  Here I learned to appreciate the art of fitting carefully designed and crafted pieces together into a smoothly working machine (and that is why I'm sometimes mad with computer software hackers).  I set out to improve the data-taking methods at the lab and hooked a lot of the equipment to digital instruments.

No, not to computers.  Computers took air-conditioned rooms the size of a dining area and had 64k (yes, k not M) of memory.  All made from little ferrite rings, the same material used for cores of high frequency transformers.  This word is still used in "core-dump" although I am prepared to bet that few Unix persons know the real origin of the word "core".

Sure, I programmed that 64k machine too, in… PL/I.

But I needed to learn more computing if I was to apply machines to do the number crunching of the flow analysis experiments we were doing.  So I spent nine months getting another MSc at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

After returning to Belgium, the military were after me (Cold War, remember?) and that resulted in a year's worth of life in the barracks.  Though I could not really complain:  the better part of it I spent writing (yes,) FORTRAN programs simulating troop movements.  I also learned Algol68 there, and have never forgotten the sense of reading poetry that that language inspired.  What an ugly duckling C is in comparison.

Some project at CERN needed expertise in hybrid computation (yes, I've done my bit of plugging cables into patch panels!  Great fun.), and after having visited the laboratory I decided it was where I wanted to work.

So, here I am.  thirty-two years of work at CERN:  control engineering, user-interfaces, text processing, administrative computing support, hypertexts and finally the Web. 

The Web took ten years of hard work, and that is described in How the Web was Born.

As my last job I was head of External Communications, part of the Directory Services Unit.  In 2003 I subscribed to an early retirement programme and I left the Organization in January 2007.  I'm still giving quite a number of web-related presentations around the world.


date of last modification:  2009-01-17

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