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Archive for March 2009

Why would a young Doctor choose to specialise in Psychiatry? Why would he choose to work in a field that's frowned upon by many of his peers? To cap it all, why would he work in a clinic that had (in the past) acquired a very negative reputation among patients?

Dr Stuart Lorimer works at Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith, London. It's a busy place. In 2008, 771 people were referred there with various degrees of gender dysphoria. At any time the clinic is treating well over 1500 people. Some (not all) are seeking support for one of the biggest challenges anyone can undertake: successfully changing the way they live and present to accord with their internal sense of being a man or a woman.

In Britain as a whole, over 300 people apply for legal recognition of permanent gender changes each year. Many others, with less intense dysphoria, take cross-gender hormones or simply find that their feelings can be expressed within their existing gender role.

Helping people make informed decisions about the steps they take is a tough challenge, which is made no easier by having to help them cope with the enormous levels of discrimination which many of those patients will face on the way. The clinicians face challenges too -- not just from fellow Doctors who can't or won't understand, but from patients who arrive with negative expectations about the institution.

Stuart was at pains to stress that he cannot speak on behalf of the clinic he works in. This interview focusses upon him as one of a wholly new generation of specialists in the field, and his own thoughts about some of the controversial issues that have raged for years in this field. In sharing his own thoughts, however, he paints a picture of a team still struggling with an inherited reputation, constantly learning and evolving -- and wanting to do their best in difficult circumstances.

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March 24th 2009 is Ada Lovelace Day – an initiative which we talked about in a previous episode. At the time of writing around 1500 people have signed an online pledge to produce a Blog, Podcast, Video, etc... about a woman in technology whom they admire. This episode is about one such woman.

Much of the technology we take for granted today is only possible because of the ability to design and prototype computer chips quickly and cheaply. At the beginning of the 1970’s the process was far from easy. It took time; It was prone to errors; and custom chip design was not economical for many kinds of product.

Professor Lynn Conway’s best known contribution, 30 years ago, was to invent and successfully promote a radical new approach which made the chip design process straightforward and affordable. It is arguable that some of the best known businesses and many of the products we nowadays take for granted would not have been possible without Lynn’s historical contribution.

In this interview Lynn talks via a transatlantic Skype call about her vision and the things that thrill her about engineering. You can also read her VLSI Archive and about some of her other work and challenges here.

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About the next Episode

Today (17th March) I have completed production on the next Podcast (episode 57). However, this won't be released for a week because it is my contribution to the Ada Lovelace campaign (see the recent episode on this for details).

I'm very excited about the forthcoming episode as it features one of the true pioneers of the computer and technology revolution, Professor Lynn Conway. Lynn's most famous work, which came to fruition 30 years ago this autumn, created the basis for engineers to be able to design and prototype electronic chip designs fast enough and cheap enough to make the technology feasible for inclusion in practically every electronic device we use today.

I am going to sit on that exciting interview until the allotted day, March 24th, but in the meantime here is a short video about how remote interviews like Lynn Conway's are made. There are also some more details about the production process in general on the Just Plain Sense Blog.

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My Father, Leslie Burns, was born less than four years after the end of the First World War. It was a world where women could not vote, and which was about to be hit by a terrible economic depression. Later he served in the RAF during the second world war, lived through post war austerity, married, became my Father and was almost into middle age by the time of the Cuban Missile crisis and the massive social changes which followed in the 1960’s.

One of the traps of looking back on a past you’ve mostly only read about or seen on TV is to assume that everyone shares the same narrative as the historians – and so parts of this interview may come as a surprise. They certainly did for me.

And interviewing your own Father is like no other assignment I’ve ever attempted before. As I found, it’s far from easy to adopt the same approach as you would for a stranger.

All in all, it wasn’t quite the interview I expected – but perhaps there’s something for us all to learn from the unexpected.

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