International Women's Day

I'm going to interrupt the regularly scheduled (ish) programming in order to talk about something topical. If you're reading this on the day it's published, today is International Women's Day. In the grander scheme of things, we shouldn't really need to explicitly devote a day to recognising people who make up a little over half of the world's population. Regretfully it very much seems that we do, however. That being the case, I'd like to talk about three women who've had a huge influence on my life. Which is to say: people who've had as big an influence on my life as any other, and who also happen to be female.

Before I start though: I think a danger of having an explicit international women's day is the implication that every other day of the year is less devoted to women, and more devoted to men. This should not be the case. So come November 19th I'll be doing the exact same for International Men's Day[1].

One more note: not talking about my mother here seems like a huge omission, and it is. In fact it's simply too big a subject for me to even contemplate broaching in a single blog post. The same is true of my girlfriend, and my paternal grandmother.

Mrs Aldridge, My Pre-GCSE Geography Teacher

Geography was not my favourite subject. Not by a long shot. But Mrs. A. was probably my favourite teacher. Fierce and uncompromising, she always challenged us to look past the books and handouts we worked from and find the deeper truth. She knew the importance of studying for exams, but if she had to break the convenient lies and simplifications which made up the GCSE syllabus to help us understand something, she would.

She led and organised the school ski trip which introduced me to the sport which I very quickly learned to love and still do to this day. "There's no other feeling like skiing," she once told the class, "except perhaps riding a motorbike without a helmet. Which, obviously, I don't recommend."

She was also the one who, in the careers room, pointed to the University of Edinburgh prospectus and told me in no uncertain terms that I was a damn fool if I didn't even apply there. If I wanted to study Computer Science, and moreover Artificial Intelligence, this was the place to do it. Without her encouragement I probably wouldn't even have considered applying north of the border.

I'm very glad she was there to push me in all of the directions she did. Towards skiing; Towards Edinburgh; and most of all: towards thinking.

Prof. Barbara Webb, My Robotics Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor

Robotics was one of the main reasons I sought to study Artificial Intelligence at degree level. It wasn't until my third year that I could actually start taking robotics courses. That was 2003. As look would have it, it was also the year (then Doctor, now Professor) Barbara Webb took over teaching much of the course.

Dr Webb was a brilliant lecturer. More passionate about her subject than any other lecturer I had, and incredibly knowledgable. Like Mrs Aldridge, she was willing to leave the constraints of the course and challenge us to come up with our own ideas and opinions.

When the list of potential dissertation projects was released, the first thing I did was scan down the list looking for those which would be supervised by Dr Webb. I put them at the top of my list of choices. So did many others, but I managed to get one of them all the same.

It was she who gave me the flier for the PhD place at the Ocean Systems Laboratory, and suggested that it might be a good fit for me. I got into that PhD program thanks, at least in part, to having her name on my CV.

I saw her again more recently, at a conference in Tallinn. Still fierce. Still engaging. Still passionate about her subject. Still quite deadpan and sarcastic. To back those up, here's her inaugural lecture:

Emily Pilton, My Maternal Grandmother

This one is a little different. My grandmother had been a presence for my entire life, until very recently. Unlike with Mrs. Aldridge and Dr. Webb, I want to talk about a very specific and recent moment which has stuck with me. It's a little difficult to discuss, because it happened only a couple of days before she died. It's something I've wanted to write for a while, but haven't been ready to do so until now.

To be clear: I wish she was still with us. But I also know that's a selfish wish.

My grandmother had, it seems, been very ill and getting worse for quite some time. She'd wrapped herself in more and more layers of clothing in order to hide just how ill she was and how thin she'd become. Eventually it become unavoidable even for someone as determined and stubborn as Emily Pilton. I received the call during the day on a Thursday. My grandmother had cancer. It was advanced. Inoperable. Terminal. She had days left, weeks at the outside.

I held it together on the phone; On the train journey home; On seeing my parents and driving to the hospital. But I wasn't ready for walking onto the ward and seeing my grandmother. I could barely recognise her. She was thin; Practically a skeleton. Her skin hung off her. Her chest was bowed and her stomach distended. She seemed to have aged years or even decades since I'd last seen her. It was at this point that I could no longer hold it together.

A few minutes later I walked back onto the ward, my eyes still wet and red. My grandmother's eyes were sunken, but still bright and alive. She held my gaze and smiled. Her head was held high as she shook it.

"No," she said, "Don't be upset."

She had so much dignity then that I can barely even put it into words.

Emily Pilton survived both her husband and one of her three daughters. By all accounts she had a difficult and unhappy childhood. She lived through World War 2. Now she was confined to a bed, and being eaten alive by cancer. But she died at the age of 96, surrounded by three generations of her descendants, all of whom loved her dearly. She didn't resent her death. She had packed her bags, settled her affairs and was ready to go. But before she did she gave me such an example of dignity. One I can only hope I'll live up to a few times in my life.

  1. I glad I have some months to think about it. I find it a harder question to answer. One good reason to have an International Men's Day, I think, is to make us all stop and consider this. ↩︎