Ada Lovelace Day: from my subscriptions

Here’s a big assorted hunk of tasty soft-centered Ada Lovelace Day goodness, brought to you care of the ridiculously large list of weblogs I poll:

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Betty Allan

This is much more of a quick post than my post about Skud, but a call to highlight Australian women pioneers in science and technology reminded me of idly flicking through a CSIRO internal publication a year or two back and discovering Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan.

The CSIRO is Australia’s government research organisation. Allan was CSIRO’s first statistician. John Field has written a lot about her at CSIRO’s first statistician, Miss Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Allan:

… The first of these [early biometricians at CSIR, the first three of whom where women] was Frances Elizabeth Allan. On return from Rothamsted, she took up duty with CSIR on 29 September 1930, seventy-five years ago.

Over the next decade she championed and demonstrated the usefulness of biometrics – the application of statistics to biology, often now called biostatistics – throughout the organisation and beyond. Her work was highly valued; she devoted her energies to helping other researchers rather than establishing her own scientific reputation. She is remembered by those who knew her as kind-hearted, considerate and easy to work with.

Allan’s marriage and therefore, by law, her retirement, occurred at more or less the same time as the formal establishment of a Biometrics Section in CSIR, forerunner to the present-day CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences. Allan’s legacy is a CSIRO Division which employs scores of statisticians from Australia and overseas. These people are working on problems and conducting research with an impact that Betty Allan would certainly be proud of.

It’s already easy to forget that women were required to retire from many jobs upon marriage as a matter of law until well within many people’s living memory (mine, for a small number of women in Australia). It was still the case at the time of the publication of The Female Eunuch, and, in Australia, it was occasionally required until the passing of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Act in 1986.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Kirrily Robert

This is a profile of a woman in technology for Ada Lovelace Day, 24th March. Everyone is invited today to profile a woman in technology or science.

Skud (two photos)
Creative Commons License
Skud (Two photos) by Kirrily Robert, Erica Olsen, Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

I’ve run across Kirrily Robert in any number of capacities. Originally it was in 2001, presenting at about the work of her then employer, e-smith. She and I and several other people went to a LinuxChix BoF. We’ve only met one other time in person, I think, and she performed the essential service of introducing me to Ackland Street St Kilda and mentioning that there are very rummy rum balls to be had there. (Very large ones too, it turns out, about the size of a fist. Don’t buy two.)

I admire Skud for her generalist interests and her leadership. In a decade or so of following her blogs and occasionally contributing to her projects, there’s been Perl hacking, Perl community, fandom, social media, geek feminism, geek etiquette, Freebase…

One of Skud’s specialties is seizing expertise by the throat. She writes and talks about whatever is interesting her constantly, learning and teaching at the same time and thereby making herself central to the community around it. I also admire her embrace of generalisation: of focussing on breadth as well as depth.

It’s hard to write about generalists without making it sound like a second prize, so I want to address that specifically. Firstly, I don’t think depth versus breadth of interests is a zero sum game. Certainly there’s a trade-off at some point, but I think geek culture creates a quite artificial separation between the intense take-all intense interest and expertise and those other people in second place, with their shallow fiddling around. (I suspect geeks have inherited this from academia.) The people I know achieving the most at the moment are all in some way generalists and Skud is at the forefront. Skud is an uber-geek. There’s nothing she’s interested in that she’s not geeky about. If I ever want to unashamedly get my teeth into Perl, Freebase, knitting, Age of Sail fandom, or historical household arts, I know where to go.

I’ve obviously been closely involved in the Geek Feminism project, which is why I’m choosing to write about Skud this year. No other person in technology has influenced my life and time so much recently. Skud’s big success in founding this was that she took the intense reaction to her OSCON keynote and built upon it. Considering the amount of venom around both the general topic of feminism and specifically feminist claims that geekdom’s individualist utopia might still be systemically difficult for women, it’s really really hard not to throw a stone and then run and hide for a few years. And I’m really really pleased that someone didn’t, and I think this is typical of Skud: she creates, builds and unifies. Watch and learn!