Ada Lovelace Day wrap 3: new discoveries, among other things

Lest you worry that I am counting my posts before they’re hatched, a final Ada Lovelace Day 2009 wrap-up post. As should be evident from the many posts I’ve made, I hugely enjoyed this initiative. I especially enjoyed stories of women who barely or never knew their inspiration nevertheless gaining a lot from just knowing that someone else was out there.

I originally intended this final Ada Lovelace Day wrap post to be about five new women I had discovered through browsing the blog entries. But eventually it became five posts that spoke to me most, from outside my usual Internet haunts. You get two new discoveries, one rediscovery, one blast from the past, and one crack in the techno-utopia.

Number one comes in under the I should have heard of her category: Roberta Williams, Sierra On-line co-founder, and the brains behind the King’s Quest games among others, including Phantasmagoria. All games I never got to play, because I spent the latter half of high school reading about computer games in year-old gamer magazines rather than playing them. (We had a 486 my parents bought in 1993, when it was already past its prime, so from 1995 to about 2000 I was distinctly un-game-enabled. This explains the weekend long binges of Diablo II in 2000 though.) Williams was profiled in many places, see Happy Ada Lovelace Day at The Chaliceblog and Women in Tech: R. Williams for two profiles.

Number two is Shirley Jackson, theoretical and materials physicist, advised during her undergraduate years that colored girls should learn a trade, now president of Rensselaer Institute of Technology after a career spanning MIT and Bell Labs among other places. As with Karen Spärck Jones, one of the best profiles is by someone who has interviewed her, see a lab of their own.

Jackson was understandably reluctant to dwell too much on the pain and injustices of the past in our interview, and I hated having to even ask such questions — basically amounting to, “So, um, what’s it like to be black, and a woman, at MIT in the 1960s?” (Answer: not a hell of a lot of fun!) In a fair and just world, this would simply not be relevant; but we do not live in a fair and just world. So I asked those questions — awkward, embarrassed, stymied by white liberal guilt, and resenting the questions on her behalf — and Jackson graciously answered, choosing her words carefully, gently setting the neophyte science writer straight on a few things about life as the ultimate “Other” in physics.

Honestly, I was impressed by her lack of bitterness. It had to have been lonely, not to mention discouraging. One of her professors actually advised her that “colored girls should learn a trade.” Jackson didn’t take that advice, but she did acquire some measure of perspective by volunteering (in her copious spare time — not!) at Boston City Hospital’s pediatrics unit, to better “understand what real trouble is.” And she kept at her studies, because “If I give up, what have I done but allow the other guy to win?”

There’s another profile at Ada Lovelace Day: Dr. Shirley Jackson.

Number three is a woman whose name I knew. My eleventh year high school mathematics classroom was about 75% girls, of about twenty of us perhaps in the 3 Unit class. (A twelfth year extension to that, 4 Unit, was offered to a subset of the class: six of us, four girls and two boys, which meant we took extra classes in the mornings as well as the 3 Unit classes. I was more than a full year too young for that class, but I was put in it partly just because I could and partly because my own year wasn’t going to have the numbers for me to take a 4 Unit offering.) My teacher was used to having majority girl classrooms at the high ability end of high school mathematics (he never did really understand why), and tried to encourage us by having a poster on the back wall of well-known female mathematicians (of whom I recall three: Hypatia of Alexandria, Sophie Germain and Emmy Noether).

I was making up for being the baby of the class and the top of it by also trying for the trifecta: also being the most obnoxious person in it. I was sadly unobnoxious, for a fifteen-year-old, but I claimed it was hardly inspiring to know that in all of mathematical history there had been six women mathematicians. But I survived and live to tell, or at least link to, the tale of Emmy Noether, by Laura: Of honorary men. I was struck by this post touching briefly on several interesting issues: Noether’s being proved to be important because famous men thought well of her, the emphasis on her ‘eccentricities’ which probably aren’t terribly striking when you evaluate her by mathematical social standards and not early twentieth century female ones, and Laura’s friend failing to understand that ‘practically a man’ is not a unmixed compliment.

For the fourth post, a woman I know of intimately, in fact, but she gets a mention here because I had come close to forgetting her. John Gunders wrote about Isaac Asimov’s fictional creation, Susan Calvin: Ada Lovelace Day: Susan Calvin. In my rather extensive but admittedly not completionist teenage survey of Asimov’s fiction I read a lot of the Susan Calvin/US Robotics stories. The authorial treatment of her gender is irritating even when it’s not as explicit as in the Liar! story Gunders talks about, irritating enough that I could have cogently critiqued it at fourteen. But in some ways, it was useful. It’s more than a little annoying that Calvin is not really particularly happy, and that the author treated this as the price of admission for her career, but nevertheless, the fact that given the (not entirely false, but artificially stark) choice, she had gone ahead and chosen her work every time, was educational.

The final post I wanted to highlight is not about an individual woman in technology at all, it’s about the use of technology by abusers. Ada Lovelace day – empower the women!:

In a recent survey of 479 [domestic violence] victims aged 15-74, 25% of those had their browser history monitored. 24% had been repeatedly threatened, insulted or harassed by email. 18% had their email monitored. Did you see those numbers? At least 1 in 4 victims had technology used against them as a tool to continue abusive patterns.

I asked around and searched around after this and indeed anecdotally domestic violence survivors I’m acquainted with have often had their technology use monitored and used against them (or been suspected/abused for wanting to use it at all). I am not surprised, as such, but it was something that I was privileged to have not regularly thought about. (My previous contact with it has mostly been around the issue of the strong norm of using one’s legal name when interacting with the Free Software community. The number of people — I think all of them are women — who have major hesitations about this norm due to wishing not to be traced by a former stalker or abuser, is around about ten, and of course that’s just people who have become comfortable enough to reveal this in forums I read.)

There are several guides around the web to using computing resources safely when wanting to discuss or planning to escape an abusive relationship: National Network to End Domestic Violence: Internet and Computer Safety [USA], Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Internet Safety [USA] and Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria: Tip Sheet: Technology Safety Planning [Australia].

Ada Lovelace Day wrap 2: Karen Spärck Jones elsewhere

Yes, this does mean that a third of these things is coming, but I wanted to point to some other profiles of Karen Spärck Jones, aside from my brief one. At least at the present time, she’s on the first page of most profiled Ada Lovelace Day subjects. I was really pleased to learn more about this inspiring scientist.

Martin Belam has a long profile quoting extensively from Spärck Jones’s interviews and speeches and focussing on both her own career progression: she worked with Margaret Masterman at the Cambridge Language Research Unit. “You have no conception of how narrow the career options were [for women],” is one of Belam’s quotes. Another one of her stories reminds me of more recent stories Pia Waugh has told me about the resistance of parents playing a role in girls not choosing computing careers (these days it’s apparently the perceived low earnings and limited career prospects of programmers from the point of view of ambitious parents, so at least something has changed):

We were trying to get at girls in schools [to take up computing] and we knew we had to get to the teachers first. We found that the spread of computing in the administrative and secretarial world has completely devalued it. When one of the teachers suggested to the parents of one girl that perhaps she should go into computing the parents said: ‘Oh we don’t want Samantha just to be a secretary’. That’s nothing to do with nerdiness, but the fact that it’s such a routine thing.

Bill Thompson was a student of Spärck Jones’s, and writes about her influence on him as a fellow philosopher turned computer scientist. He also wrote her obituary for The Times (and, in 2003, that of her husband, fellow computer scientist Roger Needham).

IT journalist Brian Runciman remembers Spärck Jones as the most interesting woman he’s ever interviewed in Computing’s too important to be left to men. (I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men. seems to be Spärck Jones’s best known quote.) In the interview with him, she talked about how her ideas permeate modern search engine implementations.

She scored smaller mentions from:

Ada Lovelace Day wrap: the usual suspects

I use the usual suspects here in the sense of folks in my feed reader. Over the next couple of days I am going to look around more of the posts and pick out a set of favourites, focusing on women I’ve never heard of. In the meantime, here’s the closer to home wrap.

I was profiled in a couple of places: by Jacinta Richardson in Ada Lovelace Day (with several others as described below), by Julie Gibson, the founder of Sydney LinuxChix, in Mary’s Random Curiosity and in one private post.

Here’s profiles pulled from my feeds, hopefully you find something and/or someone new.

Seen on Free Software planets (undoubtedly incomplete):

Ada Lovelace Day profile: Karen Spärck Jones

Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues… To take part All you need to do is… pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on Tuesday 24th March 2009. It doesn’t matter how new or old your blog is, what gender you are, what language you blog in, or what you normally blog about – everyone is invited.

This is a profile of a woman in technology for Ada Lovelace Day.

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Karen Spärck Jones by Markus Kuhn (modifications by Mary Gardiner) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.
Based on a work at

I first heard about Karen Spärck Jones, who was a senior scientist in my field of computational linguistics, in 2007 as part of my paying job, which is as the editorial assistant for Computational Linguistics. Just before she died, Spärck Jones wrote Computational Linguistics: What About the Linguistics? which we published posthumously as the Last Words column for Vol. 33, No. 3. (Spärck Jones was aware both that she was dying and that her column was going to appear under the heading ‘Last Words’.) I was never able to correspond with her directly: she died before we even had the camera ready copies done.

Spärck Jones’s academic career began in 1957, and was funded entirely by grant money until 1994: most academics will recognise this as a hard way, requiring researchers to fund their own positions with grant money awarded in cycles.

Spärck Jones was the originator of the Inverse Document Frequency measure in information retrieval (1972, A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval., Journal of Documentation, 28:11–21) which is nearly ubiquitously used as part of the measure of the importance of various words contained in documents when searching for information. (The word ‘the’, for example, is very unimportant, as it occurs in essentially all documents, thus having high document frequency and low inverse document frequency.) She had a long history in experimental investigations of human language (most computational linguists are now in this business). She was also at one time president of the Association for Computation Linguistics.

Awards Spärck Jones won in her lifetime include Fellowships of the American and European Artificial Intelligence societies, Fellowship of the British Academy, the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lovelace Medal of the British Computer Society.

Elsewhere: Spärck Jones’s obituary in Computational Linguistics and Wikipedia.

Ada Lovelace Day profile: Allison Randal

Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues… To take part All you need to do is… pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on Tuesday 24th March 2009. It doesn’t matter how new or old your blog is, what gender you are, what language you blog in, or what you normally blog about – everyone is invited.

This is a profile of a woman in technology for Ada Lovelace Day.

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Allison Randal (Three photos) by Miles Sabin, Piers Cawley, Paul Fenwick, Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.

Allison Randal is the chief architect of the Parrot virtual machine, which, I have just now discovered, had their 1.0.0 release a week ago today. I’ve known of Parrot for a long time, because of its posited relationship with the Python programming language (see the original April Fool’s joke), but I didn’t know much about the project beyond it being a VM until Randal’s 2008 talk (see slides, Ogg Theora video, Ogg Speex audio).

I am not a Perl programmer and Randal is mostly known within the Perl (and OSCON, see below) communities, but Randal’s talk at 2008 was the most memorable for me: she talked about bringing modern compilation ideas to the Free Software programming languages community, and then about the architecture of Parrot and the various intermediate languages it is possible to target.

The most striking thing about Randal’s work for me is that she combined high profile technical coding with deep community involvement (and technical writing). She is a past president and current board member of the Perl Foundation and chairs the talk selection for OSCON. In an ideal world I’d like to be able to straddle technical and technical community work in my own life, and Randal is one of the highest profile examples of this I know of.

Elsewhere: Randal’s homepage, Randal’s O’Reilly Radar blog, Randal’s use.perl blog and Wikipedia.