Monday, March 23, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day - Admirable Jane

For almost three months there has been a badge at the top corner of this Blog. It proclaims,

"I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same."

Ada Lovelace Day

The "Ada Lovelace Day" campaign pledge was the brainchild of social networking specialist Suw Charman-Anderson, whom I interviewed for the Just Plain Sense Podcast about six weeks ago.

Suw's target of 1,000 pledges was achieved within a week of the launch at the beginning of January. Since then the number has continued to grow and now stands at over 1,500.

The purpose of the campaign has been to help highlight the existence of women having successful careers in all forms of technology, and to laud the kind of work they do. By this means it is hoped that more women and girls will be inspired through the role models they see to aspire to being technologists too.

Two bites of the cherry

As I produce both a Podcast and a Blog I realised that I had two opportunities to get my teeth into this initiative.

Over on the Just Plain Sense Podcast you will be able to hear me interviewing a woman who, 30 years ago, made such a big impact in her field that the world would probably not have been the same today without her.

In the 1970's Lynn Conway created a methodology to unlock the potential of very large scale computer chip design and then taught a generation of electronics engineers how to do it. Those engineers then went off and created the kinds of small, light, inexpensive electronic gadgets that we take for granted today.

She literally changed the world – which certainly qualifies her for the label of a woman to admire. You can hear the two of us talking about that work here.

Few of us will be presented with the chance to change the world in such a profound way as Lynn. But you don't have to be a technological megastar to inspire. And that brings me to the subject of another friend.

Admirable Jane

Jane's job has decidedly unglamorous aspects, as you'll read in a moment. It's pretty specialist. There are few experts like her of either sex in the world. You might not even have thought about it as a technology in the same way as more obvious fields like electronics or pharmaceuticals, for instance. Her work involves being often the only woman in male environments. It's dirty at times. Even mildly dangerous.

Yet you can see from the way that Jane approaches her work – the discomforts she'll cheerily endure – that Jane loves her job. It's enthused her for over thirty years.

And, if most of us are born into this world to toil then wouldn't we all wish to be enthused in that way by what we do?

But let me explain...

The corrosion specialist

Jane Allen is a much sought-after expert in the science of things that corrode. Her business is rust. More to the point, her speciality is the way that metals rust in extreme environments, such as the hulls of merchant ships, or the airframes of jet planes. She knows about the ways that surface treatments such as painting or galvanising can impede corrosion, and the ways those forms of protection can be compromised over time.

Owners of merchant ships and airliners, plus the makers of marine and aviation paints, are equally interested in her ability to inspect and diagnose the condition of structures to see how well they are faring.

Getting down and dirty

Jane's tales of her work almost always seem to involve a phone call asking her to be somewhere else on the planet at a day's notice.

The most vulnerable parts of ocean going ships are the areas of the hull below the water line, both inside and out. Areas like the keel of a ship can only be inspected with instruments when the vessel is in dry dock. These occasions are generally brief and expensive for the owners. A chance may arise at short notice to get a ship into dry dock.

The fees for using the facility are very high, and the cost of having a large oil tanker or freighter out of service for a day more than necessary are astronomical. Owners don't want to wait a day more than necessary.

So Jane is used to throwing clothes into a bag, grabbing her passport and running for the airport to get to the place in the world where her skills are needed.

When she gets there, the working environment is not the most hospitable. She'll be crawling under the keel of a ship that weighs thousands of tons in dead weight. The surface will be covered with barnacles. Nearby, workers will be sandblasting the encrustation away. She needs to work quickly to inspect the unmodified surface to determine how well the paint has adhered, and how much metal has been corroded away.

No picnic inside

If the world underneath a large ship sounds pretty uninviting then the insides are pretty tough-sounding too.

The most vivid (and inspiring) of Jane's business travel tales concerned an occasion when she was commissioned to inspect the inside of a supertanker whilst it was crossing the Atlantic to collect its next load.

The holds of a supertanker obviously can't be inspected whilst there is oil in them. For this inspection the crew had done their best to rinse the hold with seawater. Nevertheless, when they opened an inspection hatch on deck for Jane to enter, the only way down was a single steel ladder, descending almost 200 feet from deck level to the inner hull.

Jane recounts that, in spite of the cleaning, the rungs of the ladder were still quite greasy. The massive hold was pitch dark. To enter she had to climb first over the metre-high lip of the hatch. The air was pungent. There was a risk of gas pockets. To add to the discomfort the tropical sun on the tanker's hull made it oppressively hot inside the hold for someone wearing the full hazardous environment outfit.

No Amazon

By now you're probably imagining Jane to be a tough, burly kind of woman, but you couldn't be farther from the truth.

She's about 5ft 2ins. She's very slim. Most of the time I've known her, since University days, she has sported gorgeous blond hair that falls straight almost to her waist.

When she is not crawling around hellish environments with a torch and her measuring instruments she's everything the stereotypes say a woman should be. She cooks impressively. She brings her engineering eye to dressmaking or running up curtains. She loves long hot baths with scented candles. Her taste in decoration has changed like it does for us all for the years, but it's always decidedly girly.

The point I'm labouring to make is that Jane has always inspired me by the way that she shows that a woman can have a job like this without sacrificing one iota of her natural femininity. And nobody thinks her anything less of a woman because of the things she does.

Working among men

Jane and I have also often talked about the way that her work dictates that she is almost always the only woman in an environment full of men.

To go back to the supertanker story, I was fascinated to know how she got on for several days being a woman on a ship full of the kind of men you'd expect on oil tankers.

The answer, short and simple, is that she handled it. The crew quickly got used to her being there. They knew she was there because she is very professional at what she does. And, since she didn't expect any special treatment or emphasise her sex whilst she was on board, it wasn't a problem.

A great role model

Personally I found these aspects of Jane's "get on and do it" approach, coupled with her passion for her subject, utterly inspiring.

As a role model, and totally unaware she was doing it, her matter of fact stories altered my own philosophy about what I could or could not do.

Just by living her life the way she does, Jane unwittingly became one of my most influential role models. She removed the barriers that social conditioning creates in us all until someone points the way.

Two admirable people, one lesson

Lynn and Jane are both women friends of mine with a great passion for their subjects. Some would measure them by their academic qualifications, their inventions, or the money they've made from their cleverness. Yet that would be to miss the point.

Knowing both women it's clear that a big part of the way they would define their happiness and fulfilment would be through the fun and inspiration they get out of their work.

Neither has ever set out to be successful; a star; or a role model. They're not trying to score any points for feminism. They've simply found their passion in life from the pleasure of working in the fields that they do.

And neither of them would have been able to taste the thrill in their work if they had paused for more than a second to consider whether their pursuits were proper or feasible things for a woman to do.

They're both women I admire. Superficially the admiration is for how good they are in their fields. Yet on a deeper level the admiration stems from the effects which their disregard for barriers has had for me personally.

My deep admiration comes from the fundamental effects which both women have had on my own concept of what is possible. And I hope that by doing my best to tell Lynn and Jane's stories this week, for Ada Lovelace Day, they may help inspire other women or girls to aspire to have fun with whatever area of technology catches your imagination.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Now in Video too!

First there was Just Plain Sense, the Podcast. Then there was this Blog of the same name...

And now, put your hands together please for Just Plain Sense the You Tube channel!

This isn't my first excursion into video. In 2004 I produced a detailed 20 minute DVD about the passage of the Gender Recognition Act and spent several months patiently duplicating a couple of hundred copies (one at a time) for anyone who emailed to request a copy.

Since that time I've not produced any more video. To be honest, I'm not yet sure how it will fit in with the Podcast and Blog.

Relatively speaking, audio Podcasts are far easier to produce than visually appealing videos – especially if you're working single handed, as I do.

Nevertheless, I'm always keen to innovate. For this project I've bought a tiny and exquisitely portable point and shoot camcorder called a Flip.

And, because point and shoot video isn't about complicated production values – fades, cut-aways, voiceover, L-shape edits and so forth – I figure that there could perhaps be a place for simple on-the-spot reportage.

So, we'll see...

For now, the Just Plain Sense video channel is really in test mode. And, because of that, I'm filming and uploading comedy poems of mine, rather than serious stuff, as I practice the steps involved in producing something half reasonable.

So please don't expect too much just yet. I'm experimenting.

But I do hope you enjoy the fun stuff.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Making of Just Plain Sense Podcasts

Some people have asked me for technical details of how the Just Plain Sense Podcasts are recorded, edited and made available, so I've decided to describe it here.

We'll look at each part of the production process in turn.


I have two different recording setups depending on the circumstances, so I'll describe each one separately.

Pocketrak 2G

For face to face interviews in the field I use a really tiny device called a "Pocketrak 2G" recorder, by Yamaha. The Pocketrak is pictured on the Just Plain Sense Podcast front page. It's about 4½ inches long by 1¼" wide and just half an inch thick – so it slips very comfortably into my handbag and can go anywhere.

Despite the tiny size, the recording quality is fantastic though. It has a tiltable stereo microphone setup on the top and records in a variety of formats. These days, after experimenting with different approaches, I record in uncompressed PCM stereo (CD quality). This means that the device can hold about two and a bit hours of recording on its' built in 2Gb Flash memory. If you record in 128Kbps MP3 then it can hold about 32 hours of material. The rechargeable battery will power the Pocketrak for about 4-5 hours and you recharge it by plugging into a USB port on a computer.

The USB feature is really neat, in fact. There's a slider on the back of the device. If you push it down then a USB connector emerges from the base and means you can plug the Pocketrak straight into a PC, where the recorded files can be accessed just like a normal pen drive.

Marantz PMD 670 plus mixer

My other recording option is for studio or events recording and features a Marantz PMD670 digital field recorder, which I usually now front-end with an Alesis six track analogue mixer and a set of professional vocal microphones. The mixer allows me to cover events with multiple sound sources, such as conferences or round table discussions. This is also what I use now for recording remote interviews with Skype.

The Marantz recorder does everything that the Pocketrak can do, but a lot more besides. For instance, it has a low and high pass filter. The filters allow me to cut out the background rumble from my household central heating. There are lots of option switches, neatly concealed under a screw plate (so they can't be accidentally altered).

My favourite feature is that the machine has a big obvious red record button, which just requires a finger-flick! A red LED indicator then confirms whether the machine is recording or paused, and levels can be set accurately on a backlit LCD display.

The Marantz records onto compact flash cards, so transferring recordings to the PC involves removing the card and slotting it into a USB Compact Flash card reader. As with the Pocketrak, I record in PCM stereo, so a 30 minute recording takes about 300Mb.

Editing and Mixing

Nowadays I produce shows with two separate software packages for editing and mixing.

Editing – Sony Sound Forge

The first stage of production is to edit the various recordings that are going to be combined into the show. Each show usually has an introduction by myself, the interview or feature piece and then an outro. Each of these is recorded on one or other of the setups described above and then I gather them all in a fresh folder on my laptop.

I like Sound Forge for editing because it has a simple no-fuss user interface. You can scale the waveform right down to individual samples to edit out 'pops' and you can change the saved file format any way you desire. For instance, I've sometimes wanted to insert 128Kb MP3 recordings into the underlying PCM master and Sound Forge allows you to do the necessary rescaling so everything fit together and sounds right.

When I first started Just Plain Sense I made the mistake of recording interviews in MP3. The problem with that approach is that the master starts out with limited quality because of the compression – and then gets worse as you inevitably save and reopen the file at each step. Nowadays I keep everything in PCM (WAV file format) until the very last step of production. That way there is no loss of quality through the process.

Mixing – Cubase AI4

The mixing stage is where the various recordings are combined with the signature tune and occasional sound effects or backgrounds to make the completed program.

Cubase wasn't a conscious choice for this. It came free with the Yamaha Pocketrak 2G and, since it does the job, I've not shopped around for anything else.

On screen, Cubase looks a little bit like Apple's Garage Band. You can set up as many tracks as you require. I normally have just one vocal track and one music track. You then just drag and drop the sound files where you want them to go. Fades are handled by dragging with the mouse to shape an automation line for each track's fader. Putting the components together like this and auditioning the fades is the fun bit of production in my view.

Once you are happy with the overall mix of the program, you drag an envelope round the whole sequence that you want to output and generate a new file. Again this is output as another WAV file in my case (because Cubase can't write MP3's itself).

Tagging and Upload

Having produced the final mix down of the programme, I pull it back into Sony Sound Forge once more just to add the IP3 tags for the MP3 file. E.g. The title of the episode, the names of the participants, a description and the copyright details. I then use Sound Forge to save the tagged file as a 128Kb MP3 file.

With the MP3 file produced, it only remains to upload the file to the Podcast Platform. I use but there are others. When a 30 minute programme is converted into 128Kb MP3 format it goes from being about 300Mb in size to just under 30Mb. Even so, the upload will generally take 12-15 minutes on a UK ADSL connection. I use that time to (a) listen to the completed episode end to end and (b) write the description that appears on the Podcast's web page.

I can't emphasise how valuable it is to listen to the whole recording in its final form before publishing. Although you'll probably be sick of hearing your production by the time you've been through the editing and mixing stages, it is always possible that you may have missed something. I once witnessed a radio programme going out with a string of expletives in the middle that an editor had missed!

How long does it all take?

The time for the whole production process depends on many factors, such as the number of pauses or verbal grunts the interviewee makes in the original recording. I like to present my interviewees in as good a light as possible, so it is not unknown for me to spend 1-2 hours carefully removing unwanted sections and matching the pace of the interviewee's speech so that (hopefully) you can't spot the joins).

However, don't forget that there is also time to be spent often in preparation before an interview too. Depending on the subject, I may spend an hour or two researching the interviewee and deciding what kind of questions to ask.

Mixing usually takes 20-30 minutes – depending on the number of sound elements and how the joins needs to be made. If one speech segment follows another, for instance, then I may decide to go and look for a short segment of music to bridge the join. On other occasions I've spent hours on the internet looking for a suitable sound effect to download for inclusion.

The tagging and uploading takes about fifteen minutes and the final publishing step (adding in the text that appears on the web page and the iTunes info box) adds another 10-15.

Overall, therefore, a typical 30 minute episode can require an hour or two in preparation and spend three hours in production.

Department of Health Revamps and Strengthens Equality and Human Rights Organisation

The following is quoted direct, word for word, from a release received today from the Department of Health's communications team

Championing equality and driving change across the NHS and Social Care

In a move to strengthen accountability and mainstream equality and human rights in the Department of Health, four directors-general are taking direct responsibility to drive these issues within the Department and across the NHS and Social Care. Their vision is to ensure that the equalities agenda is at the heart of everything the Department does, thus delivering on the NHS Constitution principle to provide "a comprehensive service, available to all". A two-year transformation programme has been set in train to ensure that the drive to reduce discrimination and inequality is embraced by the whole Department.

A new National Equality and Diversity Committee will be established to drive action across the NHS. Its purpose will be to improve the equality performance of the NHS, with regard to both patients and staff. It will champion and provide assurance for delivery of a health service where 'Everyone Matters'. David Behan, Director-General, Social Care, will have the same responsibility within Social Care.

The Department of Health's National Director for Equality and Human Rights Surinder Sharma will advise the Committee, as well as the Department's new Equality and Human Rights Assurance Group (chaired by DH Non-Executive Director Julie Baddeley). He will also engage with health and social care stakeholders. He will report to DH Chief Operating Officer Richard Douglas who has taken on responsibility for delivery across the Department on behalf of the DH Management Board.

From April 1st, the NHS Change Programmes team within the Department's Equality and Human Rights Group (EHRG) will transfer to the NHS Workforce Directorate, under the leadership of Director-General Clare Chapman. They will continue to have an important role in relation to both service issues and workforce matters. Staff currently working on policy and legislation within the EHRG will transfer to the Policy and Strategy Directorate as Director-General Una O'Brien takes on responsibility for embedding equality and human rights in the Department's policy and delivery strategies.

The teams in both Directorates will be continuing with their current work whilst consideration is given over the next few months as to how the knowledge and expertise built up within the EHRG can be best used to embed equality and human rights in all the work the Department undertakes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Out of Warranty

Although this is strictly a Blog about Equality and Diversity topics I am prepared to interpret that brief liberally and, from time to time, include items that are distinctly out of the ordinary. So why not a Science Fiction short story if it touches on issues of difference and alienation?

Jane felt it as she crossed the floor of her motel room. A grinding vibration in her knee joint; like metal against metal. She needed only five steps from the ensuite bathroom to the bed. Yet, within four, her left leg had seized entirely.

She fell heavily onto the bed, face down. As she struggled to turn and draw herself into a resting position, with her head on the pillow, the radio emitted a loud whine. The station's signal was completely drowned by the interference. Her interference.

Jane reached over and switched off the radio. In the silence she regarded the room and took stock of her situation.

For the last week she had been on the move, following a routine that she had followed fifty times before. Sloughing off one identity and preparing for another.

It was a routine that she found she needed to follow at least once every ten years. Sometimes sooner if people grew suspicious. And these days the intervals were getting shorter. Since the middle of the twentieth century it had become increasingly difficult to keep her difference concealed. Now it was becoming harder to run away and start again too.

Forever young

Reaching over to the bedside table Jane grasped a vanity mirror. Her intention was to examine her knee. But, for a moment, she paused to look at her face first.

Her face was undeniably pretty – elfin like. Just as it had always been. Nowadays her pale skin was framed by a short auburn bob. That was new. Changing her hairstyle was the quickest and easiest way of changing her appearance.

She smiled at how the process so reminded her of one of those Barbie Dolls. The only difference was that she didn't have a key to go in her back. Yet what woman wouldn't sometimes wish for Jane's very special capability to wind her hair out and back at will?

Yes, she could change her hair in a moment. Even change the colour. With practice she had learned that she could pull the same trick with the shape of her brows and the colour of her eyes.

Yet people notice when they've known you for a while and see that you haven't shown any signs of ageing. And that's when it became time to move on.

Harder to disappear

Jane could remember the times when moving on was so much easier than it was now. In the days when nobody travelled far you could just move a few miles and start again.

Oh yes, there were always questions and looks. People always notice a pretty young stranger. But she'd had plenty of practice at fitting in.

The first time it had been a problem was during the Second World War. People were much more suspicious of strangers. You needed an ID card.

She learned to adapt. She learned how to acquire the identity of dead women. Women her age and build. Women with no living relatives. And, ironically, she found that the need to carry an ID document was a blessing rather than a curse. She had balked at first before taking the dead land girl's purse from her still warm hand. Yet that was one of the easiest ID switches she'd ever had to do.

Fitting in

Jane had learned from early on that it was crucial to find ways of fitting in. To "pass" as just another face in whichever community she settled in next.

Fitting-in had been most problematic in the days when a lone woman really stood out. She made a speciality out of marrying men who were literally on their last legs. Easy with her perfect young figure and beguiling looks. Yet, far from benefitting when her husbands passed away, Jane had been through the times when a woman could not directly inherit her dead husband's estate. More often than not it was just another cue to move on.

More recently she taught History until the time came when you needed qualifications. That had been such a doddle. A subject she didn't really need to learn. Well, you don't when you've lived through it, do you? She just had to be careful not to correct the mistakes made by the historians – and to use that perfect memory of hers prudently.

But, since the war, it had been much harder to just walk into another teaching job. She had to work with whatever she had in the next identity she took over.

Prying eyes

Lots of things had become much harder in the last half century. Take medicine. Her biggest nightmare was medical examination.

Superficially, apart from the inability to show any visible signs of ageing, Jane's body looked perfectly normal – just as it had done before her encounter with the visitors almost 500 years ago.

Her flesh was warm to the touch. It stretched and changed colour with pressure and temperature changes just like normal. There were fine hairs on most of her body just as you'd expect, and coarser hairs beneath her armpits and around her genitals. They had even copied the birthmark on her left buttock.

Yet tear or burn the skin – as she had done in countless ways over the years – and the illusion of normality ended. Beneath her flesh, before it healed back without a scar, there lay a hard, smooth, dark reddy-brown surface, quite alien from what you would expect. The hard outer shell of whatever the visitors had given her in place of flesh and blood. This, and her inability to fake a heartbeat or blood pressure reading, meant she had to avoid modern day doctors at all costs.

Perhaps, back in the 16th Century, the visitors had not anticipated this being a problem?


Jane's thoughts were suddenly interrupted. In an instant the sky outside her motel room window appeared to go from light to dusk. She had blacked out again.

This wasn't the first time. Her first surprise blackout had been more than a year ago and lasted only a few moments. Lately it had been happening more frequently, and for longer.

She checked the alarm clock on the bedside table and estimated that she had been unconscious for three quarters of an hour.

These were all signs that something was desperately wrong. And the signs were accumulating. 500 years they told her. And 500 years was nearly up.


Faultless as her memory was, some parts of Jane's recollections of her genesis had evidently been edited away.

She could remember that once she had been a 25 year old woman of flesh and blood. Normal. Like everyone around her.

She had no memory of exactly when and how she had encountered the visitors. All they had left her with was an implanted knowledge of her transformation.

They wanted her human body. In return they provided a copy. Visually identical. Physically superior in some obvious ways. But totally artificial. And they implanted the knowledge that her artificial body would self-repair and have the power to sustain itself for 500 years. She knew too that her makers weren't planning to return on any kind of service mission.

Self knowledge

In retrospect Jane had come to realise that implanting the knowledge of her difference from others had been a deliberate necessity on the part of the visitors who had made off with her corporeal self.

That self knowledge had been an essential attribute for survival. She needed to know she was different, in order to know how to prevent others from discovering that fact.

As flesh and blood Jane had been a simple peasant. She had no education. Yet she had good reasoning abilities. And time. Lots of time.

Time meant she was able to learn the disciplines to begin to examine her position intellectually. This was how she evolved her coping strategies. This is how she obtained the skills to fit in wherever she went. She had had to manipulate others to accept her into their communities. She had even had to refine the skills to lead men to fall in love and marry her. It was all about learning and adapting to survive.

Self understanding

Some things she had come to understand through the accumulation of knowledge. In the last fifty years, in particular, advancement in technology meant she had a model for understanding and describing what she was. Physically she could understand her body as some kind of very sophisticated robot; a near perfect replica of a human body from the outside. Who knows what inside?

In the same way she could envisage that her mind was perhaps some kind of computer. A computer running a program that in some way emulated her waking thoughts.

But this was the sticking point. It seemed as though the mind that had once inhabited her flesh and blood body had been copied or transferred in some way into this one.

Transferred or copied though? The difference was significant.

Split personality?

This was the most chilling thought. If her mind had been copied into this vessel then that meant that perhaps the original had continued to think on independently in the flesh and blood brain.

Jane could have no way of knowing if she was a copy or the real thing. In her frame of reference she had simply continued an apparently unbroken train of thought, in just the same way as she had no sense of interruption in her blackouts.

Blackouts were only detectable because in that 'instant' the world outside would appear to change. If a computer was self aware then this must be what it would be like to be stopped and rebooted.

A computer owner could make a complete copy of the machine's memory between stopping and restarting. The self aware computer would never know.

In the same way, perhaps, from the moment of inception for this consciousness the thoughts of Jane#1 and Jane#2 would have diverged. What had become of her original self?

Alien concepts

The whole idea of worrying for her parallel self... the idea of worrying about that Jane's fear... of pain... of ultimate death... All those ideas lie outside the frame of reference for a being who is evolved to associate body and mind as singular and inseparable.

And if the intelligence that had her cleaved her mind and body was capable of making one copy, was it conceivable they could have made more? Could there be several versions of herself abroad on the earth? Would each have evolved by now into distinct people because of their different experiences?

Could they all claim to be Jane? Or were they (and herself) only explicable by reasoning that none of them was the real Jane?

Had she, through this rationale, found a theorem to disprove her own reality? Did that say that, although she thought and felt the way that she fancied her 'human' self had been, this was all just a distorted perception of the emulation taking place inside the alien box of tricks where those thoughts took place?


Jane's thoughts were interrupted again. The same way as before. This time the blackout was about 90 minutes. It was like trying to listen to an iPod with a dying battery. Maybe the source of her body's energy was dying, like a worn out battery. Maybe, like a battery, the charge was able to restore itself a little when her mind was temporarily offline. Maybe, indeed, this was her body's way of coping with an energy crisis – just like a human body cuts off the supply of warm blood to the extremities when cold.

The difference for a human body, of course ... she corrected herself ... The difference with a flesh and blood body was that the energy conservation process was designed to maintain consciousness and avoid brain death at all costs. Maybe the designers of her body had a different idea of priorities.

Human or Alien?

She thought about her Freudian slip. Or, rather, she tried not to think about it. All these years, whilst conscious of her concealed difference, Jane had striven to think of herself as still human.

Her mind had come from a human, "flesh and blood" body. Admittedly, her way of thinking might have been tweaked in some way when being copied. She would have no way of knowing that. Yet, as far as she could tell, she appeared to think and act as other human beings behaved. She fitted in without any sense of playing a part. She was never conscious of having to think about her reactions. She laughed at the same things others laughed about. She knew fear in common with those around her. Except... perhaps the fear of pain... or the fear of dying. Till now.

Yet the experiences she was now having were serving to remind her of her non-human qualities. And with that realisation came a wholly alien set of fears.

Do simulated souls go to heaven?

It seemed by now apparent that her body was failing fast. The blackouts were getting longer and more frequent. Her leg had seized. Unless she could get out of this motel room she faced certain discovery of her secret when management called for medical aid.

The prospect of discovery that she was not human, but mechanoid, filled her with terror. It must not be allowed to happen. She must find a way to get away.

Yet, even if she could get away, what fate lay beyond?

If her conscious sense of self was really no more than a clever simulation of a human mind and soul running in an alien computer... If she was artificial to the extent of being able to be stopped and started like one pauses a computer program... Did death have a different meaning? ...Or any meaning at all?

Could her soul be released from her body when it existed (as it appeared to do) in some kind of non volatile memory? If her conscious mind could be summoned back to resume by plugging in the alien equivalent of new batteries could it ever be said to have gone away?


Jane realised that there was no point in going over these questions again in her head. By her best estimation she had perhaps another hour before her mind would cut out again. And less than twelve hours before the motel staff would be expecting her to checkout. She must be out of the room and away before the housekeeping staff arrived. She needed an action plan... and some sort of goal.

Getting out should be easy enough, in spite of her seized knee joint. Fortunately the failure seemed to have locked her knee in a way that meant the leg was both straight and rigid. It would mean limping, but she was nevertheless mobile.

There was a risk, of course, that moving around would deplete her power faster than if she remained still. She had no way of knowing how the energy generation and distribution in her body worked.

She considered the evidence. Until today she had been very mobile... on the run in fact. Walking 30 miles the previous day hadn't drastically altered the rate at which her blackouts occurred. Perhaps that meant that her mind and mobility power sources were separate. Maybe it was only the power for her consciousness that was failing.

Nowhere to go

OK. So getting out should be simple enough. She could wait till after midnight and use the fire exit. She knew this chain of motels well enough to know that the fire doors weren't connected to any alarm system.

Behind the motel lay a ripening cornfield. She remembered that from when she arrived. It would probably be cold and wet getting across the field but that didn't matter. One advantage of her body's design was that she was untroubled by cold. She could literally turn it off.

What lay beyond the copse of trees she could see in the distance was a mystery. She would have to adapt the plan once she got there. That didn't matter though. The biggest priority was simply to get away at all costs.

Besides, Jane knew in the back of her mind that really there was ultimately nowhere to go. Her strategy was about finding a place where her body and mind could fail in safety. Far from any fear of detection. Away from the terror of being probed and dismantled by curious technologists. Men who would never be able to see her as anything other than a machine. A machine devoid of rights; without any presumption of dignity.


Jane resolved that she would spend the next few hours planning for what she knew to be her final journey.

Whatever you called it – death or system failure – the end was inevitable. More to the point she could make a fair guess at how it would play out. The interval between blackouts was slowly getting shorter. The length of each interruption to her consciousness was rapidly getting longer though. Before long the two would merge.

She estimated that she had another hour before the next blackout, and guessed that it was going to be two hours or more when it happened. That would take her up to almost midnight. She would spend the time before the next blackout getting ready.

Raising herself to a seated position on the bed, Jane tried her luck at standing.

Getting to her feet wasn't too difficult. Thinking about it she realised that her position was very little different to someone with a plaster cast on their leg. Sadly she couldn't see anything that she could press into service as a crutch. Her seized up leg appeared to have no difficulty bearing her weight though. She practiced moving around the room, using the dead leg as a pivot, rather than falling into the trap of dragging it behind. Soon she had the knack.

Next she needed to change. Her present attire – a sundress and sandals – had been fine for getting here. Now she needed something more rugged though. She antipated needing to get over (and probably go through or under) fences and hedges. She was travelling light; yet she never travelled without clothes suitable for roughing it. She quickly donned jeans, a T-shirt and jacket – only struggling when the time came to fasten her trainers. A leg that won't bend makes it difficult to reach your own feet.

She did not finish a moment too soon. Fortunately she was sitting back on the bed when the next blackout arrived, on cue just before 10pm.


The thing that most surprised Jane was that she was sitting in exactly the same position when consciousness returned. Flesh and blood people fall over when they lose consciousness. Geriatric Cyborgs just stop where they are.

But Jane's biggest shock was the time. Instead of Midnight it was now 1am. She had been unconscious for about three hours; twice as long as before. Maybe the exertion had affected things.

No time to reflect though. At this point in the summer it gets light shortly after 4am. There was very little time to get away without risk of someone spotting a woman limping across a cornfield.

She decided to take her belongings. The room was prepaid so nobody would think it out of the ordinary that the room was vacant in the morning. If she left anything there was the likelihood that people might think she had been abducted. They would search. And they would inevitably find her body.


Ten minutes later Jane balanced precariously on the edge of the cornfield behind the motel. Leaving via the fire escape door was easier than she could have hoped, as someone had left it propped open for the night. Getting down the spiral escape stair was hard without making a noise but nobody had been roused.

She hadn't bargained on the rusty barbed wire fence at the far end of the car park. Her jeans were torn, as was the flesh on her hands and thighs. Yet there was no blood. Just some scratches in the tough dark material from which her body shell was made.

She felt a sensation which you could call pain. This was a feeling designed to help avoid harming herself in normal circumstances. Yet she had also learned how to turn the sense off when it had served its purpose and became a distraction. She knew she was wounded. Nothing was served by a constant reminder.

But Jane did not linger. She made her way around the edge of the field, in the area which farmers cannot reach with machines to plant seeds. Going across the field would have left a track. There was less likelihood of that this way.

Journey's End

Progress was hard going with one rigid leg. Jane also needed to keep a careful eye on the time. After 45 minutes she had not only cleared the field but added further distance in the fallow field beyond. Judging she had little time before the next blackout she found a space beneath the hedge and did her best to conceal herself before then next inevitable blackout.

The next time Jane was conscious the sun was up. She calculated that her blackout this time had lasted 6 hours. It was doubling each time.

She lay for a moment savouring the beauty of the countryside in high summer, and reflected that soon – one way or another – she would be a part of it forever.

The next hour got her as far as the copse of trees that she had seen from the motel. Again she concealed herself. And again the period of blackout was double. 12 hours. Early evening again.

Travel in this way was clearly not going to get her very far. Soon she was likely to be down to an hour or less of progress every few days or weeks. Maybe it was time to stop trying to run.

In a corner of a field that is forever...

And so it was that Jane resolved to go no further. She discovered that the copse of trees had grown around a ditch at a low point in the terrain, where the water table was high enough to make the soil constantly soft and moist.

She cleared last autumn's fallen leaves from the ground at the lowest point and, oblivious to the shredding of the flesh on her hands, she used her time to excavate a shallow grave. Her final resting place.

It took several blackouts, and hence several days, to dig as far as she judged to be right. Even longer to settle into the hole and draw the earth carefully over her limbs and body. Reaching out, she repositioned the leaves so that, by the end of the week, she had covered everything but her face.

And there, two miles from the M40 Motorway, Jane waited calmly for the inevitable. And the unknown.

She was not uncomfortable. She need not feel the cold and was not aware of the damp creeping into the joints of her body to seize the mechanism in her other leg and then both arms.

The fresh crop of autumn leaves covered her face. But by then her sight had failed in any case. Without light and movement she was even less aware of the transitions from consciousness into blackout and back.

Her thoughts simply ran on as though interrupted, as her perfect memory enabled her to recall the extraordinary experience of a life that spanned 500 years.

Her body did not decay, nor rust. Yet gradually the roots of the trees that guarded her wove their way around her limbs and gently prised apart her joints.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

More Wine Prime Minister?

In Blogging terms this is a first for me. I've never composed a blog on the train from Manchester to London. I've also never been inside 10 Downing Street before either – so it's going to be a day of firsts.

Good form dictates that I should display a degree of detached cynicism about receiving an invitation to a drinks reception inside Number 10 with the Prime Minister.

I ought to be blogging about how it's an elitist activity that I'm only attending after a sophisticated political assessment of the pros and cons. I feel an expectation to be aloof.

But no, dammit, I'll confess: I'm actually quite excited in a good old fashioned, wide-eyed, thoroughly naïve sort of way.

Shopping List

As a lobbying activist there are certain things which I've found myself ticking off on life's shopping list over the years.

Merely visiting the Palace of Westminster was an excitement in the dim distant past.

Gradually I developed a familiarity with the place. I've sat in the galleries of both the House of Lords and House of Commons. I've attended the committee stages of a Parliamentary Bill. Learned about the nooks and crannies where you can catch famous name MPs for a few precious minutes of attention.

I even once managed to get lost – and marvelled at the way nobody challenged me blundering around so long as I had the right sort of pass prominently attached.

Later, as things progressed, I've drunk at the House of Commons bar; quaffed celebratory Champagne on the terrace; had afternoon tea in the Members' Tea Room and waved at familiar faces across the room.

Wider afield, I know my way around Portcullis House – the Spartan premises across the road, full of meeting rooms. Beyond that, there are the MP's overflow offices scattered around "Scotland Yard" – the former home of the Metropolitan Police.

Around the Westminster village I've also been to meetings inside many of the Ministries along Whitehall, up Victoria Street, or beyond:

Richmond House (home of the Department of Health); the Home Office; Education; Ministry of Justice; Department of Trade and Industry; Communities and Local Government.

Through more than a decade of meetings and events, I've noted how I've gone from initial excitement to simple familiarity with each new locale.

Yet there is something about the home of the Prime Minister in Downing Street which seems different.

I did get tantalisingly close once before. In 1997 I was allowed through the gates on Whitehall with a small party of associates to get as far as the doorstep and deliver a 10,000 signature petition to the doorman. Nowadays people just log in to a web site to petition, so perhaps I should count myself lucky.

Yet that opportunity to peek beyond the front door to what lay beyond seeded a need to know more.

Such is the fascination that I clearly remember my excitement one day in the Autumn of 2004 when an envelope arrived from Number 10. My heart leapt. Was this an invitation to drinkies, I wondered?

I opened the envelope eagerly; read the contents; and actually felt disappointed for a moment when it turned out to be the enquiry to check whether I would accept an MBE!

I figured out, of course, that the MBE would mean an opportunity to tick off another sightseeing experience – to enter parts of Buckingham Palace that you don't get to see on the tourist circuit. Yet, bizarrely, I was still just a little bit disappointed.

So today's invitation to a drinks reception to mark the end of another successful LGBT History Month is undeniably special for me. It allows me to collect another first hand experience.

The Prime Minister will be there, of course – just back from his visit to see Barack Obama and addressing both Houses of the US legislature. Maybe I'll get introduced. But (sorry Gordon) that's not the source of my skittish excitement.

No, it's simple. As I walk through the door I'll just be ticking off a long-outstanding ambition on my list. To have a peek inside one of the famous properties in the world.

There. I've confessed. I'm just a wide-eyed tourist on some levels!