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In two places at once

The diary for this week is looking more chaotic than for many months. And In some respects, I only have to look at myself to find the reasons. The dedicated exercise period has been buffeted about by the increasing number of meetings of one sort or another that I have to be part of.

The last couple of weeks have seen a transfer of time from walking to taking exercise on the rowing machine. But even that has become difficult to schedule.

Today presents one of those periodic challenges to my schedule that have occurred before. My Rural and COVID-19 Committees are meeting simultaneously. The Parliament has a system whereby there is appointed for each party group in a Committee a substitute member who can attend in place of the regular member. And for the moment that has been modified to any member, not just the formal substitute, to attend instead. So far, so good.

In the past, I and others have sometimes temporarily left one meeting to attend an item on another Committee's agenda. That, of course, can involve dashing from one of Parliament's Committee rooms to another which might be four floors away.

The most common cause for me has been the need to attend the Public Petitions Committee when a matter of constituency interest has been on their agenda. Many members will have met this issue.

In the past, I had a major problem when I was appointed to a "Private Bill" Committee. The only time in the Parliamentary schedule that suited the other four members of the Committee clashed with the time of one of my other Committees. After a couple of months, I was able to persuade our whips, they organise Committee memberships, that my appointment was unsustainable.

For me, we are back in that tricky territory, but neither the reasons nor the solution is as clear cut. The new COVID-19 Committee of which I am a member has not yet found a home in the schedule. Today its meeting clashes with my Rural meeting.

Previously, Committee meetings schedules were constrained by the number of Committee Rooms in Parliament - six. Now the constraint is a bit more severe. It is the number of simultaneous meetings that our broadcasters can support. All Committee meetings are now "virtual". Members are no longer physically present but instead dial-in to video meetings.

For the Government party, the issue of Committee membership is more complex than for opposition parties. Each party has a number of Committee places to fill that relates to their number of members that have been elected to Parliament. But in the case of Government, the number available to take a Committee place is reduced as Ministers cannot so serve.

Government backbenchers, therefore, have to serve on nearly twice as many (actually 1.8x) Committees as opposition members. So that problem of clashing Committee meetings is particularly acute for someone like myself. At the beginning of last year, I was on four Committees; no one else in Parliament was. I got it down to the average Government backbenches figure of two. But with my appointment to the COVID-19 Committee, it is back up to three.

So why not play a sub to cover today's Committee clash? The difficulty is that it is not simply about a colleague sitting there to maintain the political balance in a Committee. Today we are, in both Committees, down in the hard grind of investigating aspects of the COVID crisis.

There isn't much contribution a sub can make without a disproportionately large amount of preparation for a single meeting. And any sub will already have a busy schedule related to their own Committees.

So I am back in the business of looking at whether I can dodge between meetings. But now it might just be easier. The use of virtual meetings conducted by online video presents a new option. I no longer need to physically move from one meeting to another. With two computers I can be simultaneously present at both.

That's today's plan. Abutting each other on the table, the left-hand machine will be logged in to the Rural Committee and the right-hand one to the COVID-19 meeting. The papers for each meeting will be similarly arranged left and right.

In my testing the workability of the setup, the main issue is my listening to both meetings at once.

I have been fortunate not to have had to join the occasional discussion my former professional colleagues have had about hearing aids during our recent online meetings. Incidentally the "zoom" service we use limits the free time when more than two attend to forty minutes. So we simply restart our meeting with a new chair when time runs out.

We all used to work for Bank of Scotland and still have ringing our ears our Chief Executive's regular encomium that we (the Bank) have "deep pockets but short arms". Said, of course, with a smile on his face. Saving money remains a deeply ingrained hobby for us all.

The deterioration of my hearing with age has been modest. When I used to fly, testing it was part of my annual medical. One could see my ability to hear higher frequencies diminish slowly over the years. Today the only practical issue I have is with the POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) where I hear the dialling tone in one ear about half a note lower than in the other. But that seems to have no practical effect in my day-to-day life.

So today, I shall sit before my two computers, attending my two meetings with the left ear listening to the Rural Committee and the right to my COVID-19 Committee.

The remaining challenge is merely to divide my mental capacities between the two.

I can already write with both hands. Better with one than the other. Indeed one of my party tricks for youngsters is to write simultaneously with both hands at the same time. And to be writing upside down so that the child sitting opposite can read what's being written.

It's not a trick which will distract them for hours. It is rather an otiose skill. But discussion of it can take one into some interesting territory.

The one thing I cannot do is to write different things with my two hands at the same time. It has to be the same words coming off each hand. Apparently, this is a test of whether communication between the two sides of the brain is working properly. If you can write different things, something's not working properly in the cerebral cavity.

So this particular inability on my part is something to be celebrated.

Today will involve time-sharing, not parallel processing. I will be dividing my time rather than doing two things at once.

But a bit of fun beckons.

All I now need to do as well is to get my personal diary back to a semblance of order, and my world will be a better place.

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