"... What Magnus represents is something the size of a quarter of a thumbnail. Perhaps." The excellent Barbara Myers and I were listening to Professor Igor Aleksander describing his Eureka! (R4) moment: the day when, driving through the Blackwall Tunnel, he realised that the way forward in the world of computers was to ensure that they learned to communicate. From this flash of inspiration, the Magnus computer was developed. It works by means of a neural net and can produce mental imagery: it can pick out the face of a football hooligan from the crowd on the terraces, and yet it can fit into the Professor's lap-top. And its reasoning power is the size of a quarter of a thumbnail.
You have to admire a man who can create such a thing and then explain it to us lesser mortals in terms of handkerchiefs and thumbnails, but even if we can get our own handerchiefs around the notion, much larger questions begin to loom. Magnus may be able to explore the virtual world in terms of cognitive thought, but it is not really a consciousness: in fact "artificial consciousness", said Professor Aleksander, may be the oxymoron of all time. What we mean by life is very different from simple consciouness.
I longed for Myers to go on, to enquire more closely what defines living it if is not consciousness, to move on to the matters of emotion, of identity, of individuality, of brain-death - even of soul. She did try. Professor Aleksander said that there used to be a theory that the heart was the seat of the emotions (and indeed that the liver was an earlier site). Now that we try to ignore the liver and we know that the heart is merely a pump, we can perhaps one day see the brain as simply a sophisticated computer - yet each of us has a separate existence beyond such physical definition.
But the bell rang and the lesson was over. And, frankly, it was a relief to fold the handkerchief away. I remember my daughter starting at her comprehensive and discovering that only the boys were invited to join the computer club; I remember that for centuries any form of mathematics was considered dangerous for the weak brain of girls. Something of that attitude lingers. However much Barbara Myers and I tried to understand the simple imagery the Professor had devised for us, we might simply be of the wrong sex ever fully to grasp it.
Of course this is ridiculous, and series such as Eureka! rightly ignore such historic hesitancy. But two other radio programmes this week considered more specifically what women can and cannot do. For Special Assignment: Women on Top? (R5), Nicola Carslaw investigated the progress women are making towards the top jobs. It was disappointing. Its conclusion was that, although women will, in five years' time, constitute the majority of the workforce, surprise, surprise, that figure will not be reflected in management.
And why? Because having babies prevents women from giving their work the priority it demands. Rosa Monckton, head of the British branch of Tiffany's, who had her children late, used pleasing domestic imagery: Tiffany's used to be her baby, she said; now she just wants to be its nanny.
The most "successful" women are either childless or had children early enough to be shot of them before starting the climb. And men as well as women are beginning to insist on a better balance between home and work. With all its talk of glass ceilings and quality time, there was nothing new in all this. Perhaps as an exercise in stating the obvious it had some value. Perhaps.
Much more illuminating was When Harry Meets Betty (R4). According to one unidentified Yorkshireman, Betty is "a genteel bowler, diminutive in stature", who "struggles a bit on a heavy green". This was very thinly disguised panic. Betty Charnock, like the chief executive of Laura Ashley, is a woman whose hour has come. She may be seventysomething and only four foot 11 in her bowling shoes but she is the first female Captain (and absolute boss) of the South Cliff Bowling Club, Filey Road, Scarborough.
Sarah Taylor produced this exquisite documentary with a loving attention to detail (just imagine what a mess The Lipman Test team would have made of it). She shadowed the club all through their 1996 season. She eavesdropped on the shocked comments of older members when a newcomer accepted a second raffle price; on the grumbles of an old man when his team-mates' skirts obscured his view of the woods (I don't think he meant the trees); on the Captain of the defeated all-male team from the California Club in Ipswich struggling, and failing, to get Betty's rank right.
To reach this eminence, Betty has progressed decorouisly through committees and AGMs. To maintain it, she has needed to be ruthless in her selection of the teams: "You can't just choose Bert or Mildred 'cos they haven't had a go for ages". A stately band, with portly, rubato old-time rhythms, accompanied these asides.
While deliciously funny, it carried quite a serious burden. What the South Cliff Club has done is to move gently and correctly towards a proper parity, with everyone doing what they're good at. The women still do the baking, thank goodness, but the men are happy to be waiters, and Betty calls for a vote of thanks for the gentlemen in the kitchen. For these people, handkerchiefs, tablecloths and thumb-nails are just what you'd take them for. By dint of dignified human evolution, Scarborough has achieved virtual harmony.Reuse content