Sunday, March 26, 2023

Charity Sunday: Celebrating Women’s History Month #CharitySunday #GirlsWhoCode #FemaleEngineers

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We still have a few days left in March, which happens to be Women's History Month.

Did you know that the first computer programmer was a woman? Lady Ada Lovelace is generally credited as the author of the first step by step algorithm for solving a problem with a general purpose calculation device, the Difference Engine designed by her friend and mentor Charles Babbage.

There are many other women who’ve made important contributions to computing and technology, but alas, we mostly hear about people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. That’s one reason why for this Charity Sunday, I am supporting Girls Who Code, an organization devoted to educating girls and young women in computer technology, encouraging them to pursue careers in tech, and changing public policy to make the computer industry more equitable and inclusive. 


Girls Who Code runs coding camps and clubs, with a special focus on minority and disadvantaged girls; develops and disseminates “code at home” projects to excite young women about computer programming; works with legislators to include computing in K-12 curricula; and sponsors research to document the gender gap in computing as well as to measure the impact of their programs.

I’m a software engineer myself. I know how challenging and satisfying it can be to use computers in order to solve real world problems. The rise of AI means that more than ever we need a balanced view of the benefits and risks of computing. Females tend to bring a more human-centered view to engineering. Personally, I feel that world would definitely benefit from less tech testosterone.

So - for every comment I receive on this post, I will donate two dollars to Girls Who Code.

Meanwhile, as usual on Charity Sunday, I have an excerpt for you. In fact quite a few of my characters are female engineers. Here’s a bit from The Journeyman’s Trial, the second book in my Toymakers Guild series. Gillian Smith, my heroine, is an engineering genius, but she has been exiled from Randerley Hall for a month because she and her lover Rafe acted irresponsibly and put the Guild at risk. At first she has a difficult time – but her work saves her.


During the first week and a half of her sentence, restless energy tormented her. She spent many hours walking by sea, despite the chill winds and frequent rain. Although she tried to appreciate the natural beauty of the wintery scene, she could not blot out the memory of Edward Thorne’s stern expression when he’d dismissed her. Anxious thoughts cycled relentlessly through her mind. What if he decided to expel her from the Guild after all? How could she convince him to let her remain?

In the few months since she’d arrived at Randerley, it had become her home. She’d become accustomed to having intelligent, creative and curious companions, not to mention being free to express her carnal desires. How awful to go back to the stupid, stifling, hypocritical society epitomised by her aunt and her repulsive son, superficially moral, secretly corrupt! She’d managed to adapt herself to that life before the Guild took her in, but now? Better to live like a hermit in some isolated hideaway, where she could be herself.

If she were readmitted to the Guild community, though, could she truly guarantee she wouldn’t commit another offence? Blinded by passion, she and Rafe had made their plans without stopping to weigh the larger consequences. Rafe held sway over her body and her heart; wouldn’t she always put him first?

But I did manage to refuse him, she thought, returning at dusk from one of her long hikes. She shucked off her sodden outerwear, peeled off her damp skirt and bodice, and stretched out on the rag rug wearing only her chemise and drawers to toast herself in front of the fire. I chose this penance, this sojourn alone, instead of running away with him.

Ah, but the cost was high! She missed him desperately. With all her walking, she never tired herself to the point that she didn’t ache for his touch. All she had to do was close her eyes and he was there, stroking her cheek, cradling her breasts, parting her legs to kneel between them and breathe her in. His distinctive scent teased her nostrils. His ragged hair tickled her inner thighs. She could almost feel his delicate tongue, dancing lightly across her taut clit and driving her to distraction.

She ran her palms over her breasts and down her flat belly. The thin muslin of her chemise transmitted both heat and pressure. Pleasure rippled through her, but solitary touches offered no real relief from her raging need. Though she doubted self-stimulation would be considered a violation of her promised celibacy, it hardly seemed worth the effort. She might make herself spend, but she knew the fleeting satisfaction would be a mere shadow of the bliss she enjoyed with Rafe. Their emotional connection amplified their physical compatibility, spiritual bonds manifesting as intense sensual delight.

She’d never experienced that sort of deep-seated satisfaction before, not even with Rawlings. That had been simple and uncomplicated. Her lust for the burly groundskeeper had stripped her bare. He had turned her into a rutting animal without scruples or shame. With Rafe, there were infinite depths and nuances, their coupling a meeting of minds and hearts as well as flesh.

Gillian glanced toward the rough table where she ate her meals and wrote in her journal. In the centre stood the little hourglass Rafe had fashioned for her. She kept it there to remind her of her beloved, and as a symbol of the patience she always seemed to be lacking.

Why should she settle for an ordinary climax at her own hands when she knew the astonishing power of their shared pleasure? The Master had separated her and Rafe for good reason, understanding how their love could overwhelm them. Her unrequited longing for her lover was part of her punishment. She was determined to bear it stoically, along with the other privations of her exile, until she returned to Randerley.

Unless Rafe has decided to leave the Guild forever. The thought was a chill fist clenched around her heart. She recalled him storming out of Amelia’s office, rebellious and angry. Gillian was certain her own future lay with the Master, if he was willing to accept her back into the fold, but what about Rafe? Would he choose unrestricted personal freedom over the responsibilities and the gifts of the Guild?

A sudden revelation stunned her. If he did reject the Guild, then he was not, after all, the soul mate he had seemed.

As fellow journeymen, their paths aligned. They shared a common set of goals and values, dedicating both their erotic creativity and their technical abilities to the Guild’s mission. Members of Randerley’s wanton and uninhibited community, they belonged to an elite group of natural libertines, a handful of brave souls committed to answering the call of desire.

An outsider would never understand the bonds that linked the Guild members to one another. And despite several years of experience at Randerley, if Rafe were to turn his back on the Master and his perverse flock, he would become an outsider.

Intense grief swept through her, as though she’d already lost him. At the same time, she felt a new clarity and strength of purpose. She knew her own mind and heart and had made her own choice. Over Rafe’s decisions, she had no power. Only when she’d completed her banishment would she know the outcome.

Meanwhile, she could make herself useful. In response to Amelia’s suggestion, Gillian had brought her experimental Analytical Engine with her to Cornwall. This interlude of isolation was an ideal opportunity for her to address the difficulties that had previously frustrated her, with no competing tasks and no sensual distractions.

Exhausted by emotion and her hours of walking, she fell asleep by the fire. The next morning, however, crisp sunlight woke her. After dressing and stirring the embers on the hearth into a blaze, she breakfasted on hot tea, brown bread and curd. Then she pulled the complex mechanism from her luggage and set it on the table near the hourglass.

She worked until well past noon, refreshing her memory regarding the modes of failure she’d observed during her last efforts with the device. When the usual boy from the village arrived to deliver provisions, she realised she was ravenous, but she didn’t want to take the time to cook lunch. She grabbed an apple, a hunk of cheese and more bread, and returned to her contemplation of the recalcitrant machine.

It appeared to be consuming the instructions encoded on the perforated paper strip. The problem seemed to lie in translating them into actions. She’d built a small, highly simplified model of the punishment rack to use for testing, really just a set of levers and gears intended to represent one percussive instrument like a paddle and one reciprocating item like a dildo. These components did in fact move in response to her programme, but in an uncoordinated, erratic manner.

Had she made mistakes in implementing the engine? She’d followed Lady Lovelace’s notes faithfully, with the exception of one or two improvements that had seemed obvious. Could her minor enhancements be responsible for the poor performance? Anything was possible. Indeed, Lady Ada’s design might contain flaws; Ada Lovelace had never actually built an instance of her celebrated engine, having been more interested in the theory and its mathematical underpinnings. Going back to the notes, Gillian reviewed them step by step, searching for any omissions or for ambiguities she might have misinterpreted.

Around two, Gillian put the work aside and went out walking. The skies had cleared since the previous day and the views from the headlands were glorious. Despite her frustration with her development efforts, she found her spirits rising. She still had more than two weeks. She’d solve the puzzle eventually and return to Randerley triumphant, with the solution in hand.

Stopping to catch her breath, she gazed out at the sea. It was unusually calm. Overhead, the lowering sun painted the streaked clouds in shades of pink and orange. She’d walked all the way to Porthcumo, almost five miles. To the south, she could just make out the rhythmic pulsing of Wolf Rock Lighthouse. The open vista and the distant horizon were a marked contrast to the rolling country around Randerley.

Gratitude swelled in her chest. Amelia had been generous in offering this simple, peaceful haven. Mrs. Featherstone, at least, seemed to want her to come back. Gillian was determined to earn her redemption in the Governing Director’s eyes.

By the time she’d returned to the cottage, it was pitch dark. Gillian made herself a simple supper, read for a while by the light of a candle, then lay down on the narrow iron-framed bed. All the doubts churning in her mind had subsided: her shame and regret at having endangered the Guild; her fear that they wouldn’t accept her back; the wistful longing for Rafe’s presence and the craving for his touch. She drifted into sleep, relaxed and at peace, and woke alert and energised. Today, perhaps, she’d unravel the riddle.

She did not in fact get the engine to function correctly that day, or the next. However, she forced herself to remain calm and focused. Persistence and discipline were the key to progress. She disassembled the engine, examined each of its many parts for imperfections, then put it back together, step by step. Each time she integrated a new component, she tested its function using sets of minimal instructions.

Her efforts did not lead to success, but they built her confidence in the physical construction of the engine. As far as she could tell, it had been implemented correctly. The crux of the issue must lie elsewhere.

As the days ticked by, she worked and waited for the moment when she could rejoin the fellowship of the Guild. The answer came to her on January 31st, which happened to be her twentieth birthday.

She’d expected to celebrate this milestone in the company of her fellow engineers at Randerley. Indeed, she’d imagined the Master might organize another erotically-charged gathering, sharing more of his magical winter wine. Still, she didn’t waste mental energy on what might have been.

She did allow herself a glass of Burgundy with her birthday supper of cold chicken and boiled potatoes. The single room where she’d spent nearly a month felt warm and cosy, lit by a merry fire and a pair of oil lanterns. She raised her glass – a simple tumbler, not a wine goblet – and smiled. Her voice was loud in her ears. “Happy Birthday, Gillian Smith! Here’s to another year of new adventures and new insights.”

Given her abstinence over the past weeks, the wine went straight to her head. Giggling, she refilled her tumbler. The Analytical Engine caught her eye, carefully put aside on the far corner of the table along with her tools and her notebook. “And here’s to you, you bloody stubborn machine,” she continued. “Sooner or later I’ll figure out how to make you obey me!”

Something shifted at the back of her mind, loosened perhaps by the alcohol. Maybe what she needed was commands. Her symbolic language for controlling the engine had specific representations for each possible instrument and each individual movement. Perhaps that was the wrong level of abstraction. If she could generalise the actions, that might permit smoother reactions...

She wasn’t about to try out her theory while she was tipsy. The next day, though, she began to sketch out a new grammar for her programmes. It took her until the third of February to create a paper-based sequence of instructions using her revised approach. Holding her breath, she watched the paper slide between the rollers that fed it to the engine. For a moment nothing happened. Then the miniature paddle began to swing, at a slow, even tempo, just as she’d intended.

By Boole and Babbage! That’s it!” Jumping to her feet, she danced a little jig around the table. “I’ve done it! The Master will be so pleased!”

* * *

You’ll find buy links for this volume and the Toymakers books on my website:

Meanwhile, I do hope you’ll leave me a comment. Every one might help open a young woman’s eyes to a rewarding and important career.


Tina Donahue said...

I've written two romances with female characters as coders. In the first romance, the coder was the lead character. In the second romance, the coder was the lead character's BFF. Both characters were inspired by Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). Those are the best books EVER. I admire the hell out of Lisbeth (she didn't take anyone's shit) and all women who can code and definitely stand up for themselves. Good for them! :)

Colleen C. said...

Happy Sunday!

Larry Archer said...

Another great charity and one that is near and dear to Foxy's heart as well as mine. Keep up the great work. Love you, F&L

Dee S Knight and Anne Krist said...

One of my favorite computer women is Commodore Grace Hopper. What a kick she was! Love your excerpt, as always.

H.B. said...

Sounds like a great cause. Thank you for the excerpt!

Lucy Felthouse said...

Brilliant cause, Lisabet - thank you and well done!

Debby said...

Excellent choice - thanks another great post.

Ella Braeme said...

We so need women to shape our digital world, too. Otherwise, it would be just another men's world.

Fiona McGier said...

I joke that I'm "tech-impaired," but really I'm just not interested in HOW things work. My husband has been a computer engineer for over 40 years. Our difficulties come when he tries to "teach" me something new. He pushes me away from the computer, sits down and his hands are a blur. Then he glares at me, "See? It's so easy!" Then when I try to do it, he says, "Click now." I ask him, "Right click or left click?" And he doesn't know until his hand is on the mouse again! I need written instructions to learn new things. I don't "fondle technology until it becomes a part of me." I read what I need to know to run it, and I'm done. But yes, we do need more females in the tech world. Ali Hazelwood writes romance involving contemporary female engineers, who must put up with misogyny while they're at work. While I'm amused by her books, I keep thinking, "Nah, not for me." Now her heroes? YUM! LOL.

Author H K Carlton said...

A fantastic way to celebrate Women's History Month! Let's Go Girls!

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