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].