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When you learn something about history, and you are kind of young, you tend to assume that the facts you are learning are things that everyone always knew. It's sometimes startling to find out how recently that was untrue, even among the people who should know. The example that drove this home for me was a professor of computer science in graduate school telling me excitedly about how Alan Turing and the Colossus project helped stop Hitler by being both tremendously smart and tremendously hard working. When I looked a little nonplussed, he went on to explain that this knowledge about Bletchley Park and the heroic efforts of nerds in glasses behind closed doors was only released in the 1980's — the role, and even the existence, of these heroes of WWII was kept secret for decades. I had heard a lot about it, both from people telling the stories and from the book Cryptonomicon, so I had thought it was and had been well known, but I was wrong. This fact had decades of celebration backlog!

In order to reduce this syndrome, before I launch into Ada Lovelace Day, I'd like to relate a little history of computer science that I hope everybody knows.

Fact one: The very first programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace. Charles Babbage designed and spent the end of his life trying to build a mechanical computer called the "Difference Machine". He imagined all these awesome things that might be done with it. However, Ada Lovelace was the one who actually wrote down a program to actually accomplish some of these tasks. As a fun fact, the first program from the first programmer worked! Recently, Danny Hillis built a difference machine and ran Ada Lovelace's program and it executed both successfully and correctly. Excellent job Ms. Lovelace!

Fact two: the first programmers were women. Women had broken down some barriers and were finally managing to get PhDs in mathematics from high powered schools. But they weren't allowed to get high powered jobs in academia. They were smart enough to get a PhD from Harvard, incorrectly gendered to get a job deserving of their skills. So when designed the first computers were designed, and there was no stigma, male or female, attached to the job of programmer, the most qualified applicants were female PhDs in mathematics! So they got the job, and then got forgotten about for 40+ years. The one non-forgotten person was Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who invented the language COBOL and the first compiler(!), and so could not so easily be swept under the rug.

Fact three: The lack of women in CS is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the mid 1980's, there was about a 2:1 gender balance in CS. Not parity by any stretch, but not the 5:1 (or worse!) that we see today. Something went sour in CS culture or in the perception of CS in the surrounding world or both. There have been many books devoted to the subject, but this is not the place to figure out the reasons.

Now, let me talk about a woman in computing who I admire. I could embarrass people and talk about fellow graduate students in CS who are hard working and awesome, but I think instead I'll talk about Professor Sarah Douglas, who is at the University of Oregon where I will, Insha'Allah, defend my PhD soon. She helped found the field of Human Computer Interaction, in part with one of the first dissertations on the subject. She had to fight for it to be considered computer science, because it was, apparently, too "squishy" to be considered CS. Now SigCHI is one of the largest ACM groups! She has studied lots of things, almost all involving a mix of people and computer science, and is the person in my graduate career I most strongly associate with the science aspect of computer science. She actually measures the results of actual computers interacting with actual people — a revolutionary concept in its time! She cares a lot about CS and a lot about broadening participation in the field, and because she cares about CS being a science and because she's extremely insightful, we end up at the following compliment:

Her questions are terrifying. Seriously, pants-poopingly, mind-crunchingly, terrifying.

It's important to note that that's a big compliment. Her questions are terrifying because every question or criticism I have ever gotten from her on my work has been all of pithy, insightful, correct, and direct. I've also seen her dish it up live. Colloquium speakers didn't know they should be worried about the white haired smiling lady, and then they get hit with a question that cuts to a flaw at the very heart of what they are talking about. But I don't think she would be the person I name on Ada Lovelace Day if she also wasn't unfailingly kind to her students and helpful in her criticism.[1] And I've never seen her ask hard questions of people who she did not feel could handle it.[2]

Even more than that, and more personally, she has been unfailingly nice to me, and we have had multiple long conversations[3] over the years. It's really nice for an internationally respected professor who isn't in your area to take time and treat you as a colleague worthy of conversation and intellectual respect even when you are just a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student. That kindness is not forgotten, and I intend to emulate it over the course of my career.

So, thanks Prof. Douglas! I hope you are doing well.

1. Note for any students in her classes: Do not attempt to bullshit her. If you do, then two things will happen. First, you will be caught and piss her off. Second, she will set the bozo bit and you will be completely unable to get useful criticism from her. Her kindness and willingness to think really hard and insightfully about what you are saying is predicated on you not jerking her around at all. This means that students who try to bullshit right off the bat think she's a bitch. A perception with which I'm pretty sure she is okay.

2. I'm still a little worried about what she might ask at my defense, however.

3. And here's the weird thing that really made us bond, I think: She's a Navy brat, too! Not only that, but her father retired, after a long career, as a Captain in the Naval Civil Engineer Corps. It seems almost impossible that her father and my father or grandfather or uncle or cousin[4] never crossed paths.

4. All four of these people were also in the Navy and were CEC officers.

Date: 2009-03-25 05:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is great, Peter. Thank you.

Date: 2009-03-25 05:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hear, hear!

Can I also plug the Computer History Museum in Mountain View? The one that has a working replica of a Babbage difference engine and a Jacquard loom on display? That place is amazing!

Also, it's funny to think of "programming" as a tedious way of telling a machine how to produce a weave pattern using punched cards.

Date: 2009-03-25 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Grace Hopper and I are alumnae of the same prep school!

Hey Peter!

Date: 2009-03-26 02:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
So what was her dad's name?

Re: Hey Peter!

Date: 2009-03-26 06:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
As far as I know, his name was Capt. Douglas.

Re: Hey Peter!

Date: 2009-03-26 12:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
We discussed timing, and came to the conclusion that he was either retiring or just-retired right around the time you graduated college, so he was much more likely to have interacted with Grandpop or Uncle Al.

here via friendsfriends

Date: 2009-03-26 03:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is a great post, and Sarah Douglas sounds like an awesome person. So I apologize for reacting most strongly to the negative-ish part of your post. Specifically, fact three.

I didn't know that.

I shouldn't be surprised, but it's hitting me pretty hard anyway.

Thanks for this.


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