Ada Lovelace Day: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and all the Hidden Figures

A bit late with the posting, but it’s still Ada Lovelace Day on the East Coast of the US, so close enough.

(Classes kicking my butt!)

A few years ago I honored the Eniac “Computers” so this year it more than makes sense to honor the NASA “hidden computers”… the black women who’s computational efforts made much of US space travel possible.

The film is terrific. I mean, really really good. It was such a delight to watch (with plenty of bits to get outraged about and some standard historical movie cliches to be annoyed by). I have the book, Hidden Figures, queued up for my pleasure reading when classes are over and there’s a children’s book version coming out in Jan 2018 which I will be giving out like cake.

The attention to detail, the mathematical sophistication, teamwork, and the sheer problem solving creativity these woman showed in an incredibly hostile environment should be an inspiration to all programmers.


Ada Lovelace Day: Grace Hopper and Annika Parsia

While it still snuck up on me, this year’s Ada Lovelace Day reflection is easy: Grace Hopper. It was easy because I used her canonical bug report as an image in my Software Engineering Lecture on Testing:


An actual bug in your bug report! Awesome! For that alone, I’m inspired. Plus, it was such a useful image and thought to use because one of the things I’m trying to get across is the importance of systems thinking: Sometimes the bug is, in fact, a bug.

Hopper is one of the more well known women in computer science (there’s a couple of film clips, plus past Ada Lovelace Day posts, Google did a Doodle for her 107th birthday, she had a destroyer and a supercomputer named for her, etc.) and so perhaps a bit “easy” for a post. But hey! Part of the point is for me to learn and I did work her into my class last week!

In addition to (perhaps) coining the term “debugging”), she wrote the first compiler and championed high level languages (including the very important but hopefully near dead COBAL). It’s hard to overestimate the impact of these two contributions!

Grace Cooper is the past, the other inspiration for me is my niece, Annika Parsia. She recently did a video for her school on the importance of being an engineer:

The first I knew of her engineering ambitions was this video! I really want a world where she can have this interest and excitement and flourish for it. Ada Lovelace Day helps bring that world closer into being.

Ada Lovelace Day: The ENIAC “Computers” (i.e., Programmers) — Kathleen McNulty, Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Synder Holber, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum (and 80 more!)

Yay! Another Ada Lovelace day!

So, this year, I will have gotten my post up in time. I also need to make good on last year’s pledge to discuss Birte’s papers. So, first thing is first: Today’s post.

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania, circa 1946.

Ada Lovelace is commonly heralded as the first computer programmer so it makes a ton of sense (and I’m sure has been done to death) celebrate the first modern programmers: The ENIAC “Computers”.

There’s a great article about them on the WITI hall of fame. (I’m gonna lose a few days to that site!)

Note that the task was about a billion times harder than programming today:

They had none of the programming tools of today. Instead, the programmers had to physically program the ballistics program by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays to physically route the data and program pulses through the machine. Therefore, the description for the first programming job might have read: “Requires physical effort, mental creativity, innovative spirit, and a high degree of patience.”

So the article is about the first 6 (see the title) who went on to do more great things later. (Kathy Kleiman has been doing a ton of research and made a documentary I’m dying to see.) But I’m also interested in the next 80. From what I’ve read, the reason the Army recruited women was the dearth of men (a la Rosie the Riveter; indeed there seems to be an earlier documentary about them called Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII (can’t wait to see it!)).

So, the dawn of modern computing, and most of the programmers are women. What the hell happened!? Why are they even more celebrated (a la Turing! or even Rosie?).

There’s a very nice article by W. Barkley Fritz with some quotes from interviews of the original 6 and some later computers. This bit from Kay McNulty stood out for me:

The key to doing the job was a knowledge of numerical in- tegration, a topic outside the math curriculum at Chestnut Hill College. When we confessed we didn’t even know what the term meant, we were each given a copy of a very thick book by Scarborough [3] and told to read certain chapters. Reading the assigned material was not much help. It was not until we were given our own calculators and the huge sheets of paper and shown step by step how the integration was done that we began to realize what was expected of us. We then got to work.

“We then got to work.” Of course they did!

Let me add that I’m especially tickled that this is all happening in Philadelphia. How did I not know this before now?!?!

Thinking about what they did reminds me of the old cartoon about Ginger Rodgers:

Three people are looking at an advert for a Fred Astaire Film Festival and the woman says, 'Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rodgers did everything he did...backwards and in high heels.

They did everything we do today except with nothing but wires, switches, brains, and guts.

Ada Lovelace Day: Birte Glimm

Ada Lovelace day snuck up on me again this year. Last year, I missed it altogether (it really was crisesy with the courses and other things! really!) and it’s pretty late now. But I’m determined not to get one in. And this year at least my pick is easy because I’ve thought about it for a while: Birte Glimm.

Birte Glimm

Birte graduated from the University of Manchester in 2008 and was (jointly) awarded best School Thesis for her dissertation entitled: Querying Description Logic Knowledge BasesThis is one of those serious, scary, fairly hard (for me) complexity theoretic theses. If you just look at her DBLP page, you’ll see the breath and depth of her thinking, which perpetually humbles me. She handled the SPARQL working group with aplomb (not easy!) and got the whole Entailment Regime stuff to spec (which I certainly failed to do). Plus, she hacks reasoners like HermiT.

So, hard math, brilliant outreach, excellent programmer, and amazing person. I think it’s fair to say that she has gotten much more than her fair share of shit professionally and personally, and handled it with grace and determination while still doing absolutely stellar work. My only criticism is that she sometimes needs me to remind her to say “No” more often and value her own stuff over the wants of others. Fortunately, as she’s quick to demonstrate on some of my insaner requests, she can get back to “No” pretty quickly.

Since I have to catch up on my paper reading plans, I’ll try to blog some of her papers over the next week to make this all rather more technical. This is not only fun, but on my list since I need a bunch of her stuff for various research purposes.

Ada Lovelace Day: Chris Mulford

As I wrote last year, “A good way to end a blog drought is with a post for Ada Lovelace Day.”

Chris died last month. Chris was my mother-in-sin and then -in-law and before either, the mother of my high school crush then college relationship.

Chris in a mushroomy hat

Chris was an, RN, Lactation Consultant, and a breastfeeding advocate and activist. Back in the early 1990s, she raised my awareness of breastfeeding as a feminist and public health issue. I ended up reading quite a bit about it (starting with Gabrielle Palmer’s excellent “The Politics of Breastfeeding“). I ended up using this and similar reading in several of my bioethics classes in grad school.

Among so many things, I especially admire two aspects of her relationship with science. The first is science as a source of answers to deeply personal questions:

Over the next few weeks I spent lots of time reflecting on my life as a mammal. I figured if the other mammals knew how to take care of their babies without any lessons, then probably I could too, but I sure had lots of questions. Why did I get so thirsty when the baby nursed? (It was like a wind from the Sahara hitting my throat.) Why did the baby’s sucking make me sleepy? Why did my daughter smell so enticing? I had a degree from an Ivy League college, but no clue about what this small creature needed from me. I just had to go with the flow, and luckily—because mammals are designed for survival—things worked out OK.

Forty years later, I look back on thousands of hours spent sitting beside nursing mothers and babies in my career as a hospital nurse and board certified lactation consultant. The process of nurturing young mammals still enthralls me. Lactation science has answered my questions and many more that I never thought to ask, and to me it is still a marvel, the way a mother’s body, which surrounded her baby before birth, protects him afterwards…by providing warmth and touch and a soothing and soporific elixir that programs the baby’s immune system and feeds only friendly bacteria in his gut.

In response to this profound, personal experience, she changed her life and career, went back to school to be an RN, worked the night shift until she put together her own practice, and spent the rest of her life learning and sharing knowledge and love of breastfeeding. Her relationship with the science of lactation wasn’t cold, clinical, or distant, but excited, enthusiastic, and endlessly delightful. I love that.

The second was science as reality check:

During the years (most of my adult life!) that I’ve been involved in what I think of as “the Breastfeeding World,” I’ve been concerned about something I might call our “validity,” our truth. I feel as if we (at least in the USA) have been marginalised—or closeted—and our issue has been left out, overlooked, forgotten—for so long, and our struggle has been so hard, that we’re in danger of developing a skewed view of reality. You know that feeling of identity, instant understanding, acceptance that you experience when you find another lactation “nut”! “Oh, good, here’s somebody I don’t have to explain everything to—she (or sometimes it’s even a ‘he’) already understands about breastfeeding.” It feels so comfortable to be with other people who see things through the same “breastfeeding glasses” that we do.

And because of that feeling, I believe that we have to be extra careful, extra watchful, to be sure that there’s some objective corroboration for our perceptions. A peer review process is what I’m getting at, I think. We have to help each other identify deficiencies in our understanding, our presentation, or our goals and strategies. We need standards that define LCs—who we are, what we do. If we don’t do this for each other, surely our critics will, and they won’t be kind!

The rigor of the research process is one standard our profession can cherish. Another standard is a clear position on the ethics of breastfeeding supplies, equipment, infant feeding paraphernalia, and corporate sponsorship. Others might be cooperation among breastfeeding advocates of all kinds….Justice and fairness in dealing with our colleagues….A global rather than a local viewpoint….Accountability in clinical practice. And I’m sure there are others. ILCA drew up Standards of Practice about 5 years ago. That’s a start.

Her science advocacy involved a deft respect for the complex structure of diverse world views, without giving ground on rigor. I’m nowhere near as kind, yet clear, in my advocacy, though I strive for it.

Chris wrote:

If it comes down to a choice between having rights and having manners, I’ll go for rights…but I think we can aim for having both.

I’m not so good on manners, but part of my love, passion, and delight in learning, knowing, sharing, and championing is colored by her light.

Ada Lovelace Day: Kathryn Blackmond Laskey

A good way to end a blog drought is with a post for Ada Lovelace Day.

I was going to write about Daphne Koller (who is such an easy pick! the MacArthur fellowship alone…), but there was a post last year about her. Now, I’m not adverse to repeating, but breath is good!

There are, to my eye, comparatively a lot of women in probabilistic reasoning and machine learning (see a prior Lovelace day post (which strangely omits Lise Getoor, there’s a mailing list, a workshop series!, lots of great stuff, indeed, it seems to be a great model for how a subdiscipline can be supportive).

Someone I’ve been reading recently (as part of my research in probabilistic logic) in addition to Koller is Kathryn B. Laskey (see her DBLP page, her publication page, and her courses page).

She is a pioneer in Knowledge Base Model Construction (KBMC) formalisms and techniques for modeling probabilistic knowledge. KBMC languages typically are generalizations of Bayesian Networks (BNs) which attempt to reduce the complexity of specifying large BNs by, roughly, specifying how the larger BN is to be assembled out of a collection of templates or fragments. They are a way of lifting the highly propositional nature of BNs by identifying and abstracting out repeated substructure.

Now, I’m still learning this literature, so I’m not committing to this scholarly assessment yet, but I identify Mahoney’s and Laskey’s “Network Engineering for Complex Belief Networks” as coming quite early in the history of KBMCs. Indeed, Koller and Pfeffer cite it in their “Object-Oriented Bayesian Networks“:

Independently of our work, Laskey and Mahoney [Laskey and Mahoney, 1997] have developed a framework for representing probabilistic knowledge that shares some features with OOBNs. In their framework, based on network fragments, complex fragments are built out of simpler ones, in much the same way as complex OONFs are built out of simpler ones. Their framework currently supports the representation of certain features such as hypotheses that we are in the process of incorporating into OOBNs. However, their approach to building complex models is procedural in nature, whereas ours uses a declarative object-oriented representation language. As a result, our approach allows the organizational structure of a model, in particular the encapsulation of objects and the reuse of OONFs within a model, to be expressed explicitly and utilized by the inference algorithm.

Laskey’s more recent work on Multi-Entity Bayesian Networks (MBENs) certain more than addresses this “procedural” point, being based on an extension of First Order Logic (as the “template” language). Even more recently, she has a paper axiomitizing a theory of probability in first order logic in such a way that we end up with an interesting probabilisitic logic. (I confess to not having fully assimilated it yet, esp. as related to standard Halpren and Bacchus style first order probabilistic logics…but that’s part of the fun!)

Besides her research (which I’ve only briefly touched upon), Laskey also was co-chair of the W3C’s Uncertainty Reasoning for the Semantic Web Incubator Group (thus, engaged in significant outreach). I’m also finding her slides for her course “Computational Models for Probabilistic Reasoning” quite interesting and helpful (and dense!). Looking at her lecture on Knowledge Engineering makes me itchy about several of my lectures and is inspiring me to rework them.

In research, service, and teaching she seems to be a model and inspiring academic.

Ada Lovelace Day: Uli Sattler

First, I should qualify this with the following facts: Uli Sattler is my line manager, my colleague, and my friend. If she reads this she will, in point of fact, blush. But she is a “woman in technology” (a computer science professor, in the UK sense) and I do admire her!

Uli is probably best knowledge for her theoretical work on the decidability of, complexity of, and “practical algorithms” for the SH family of description logics (1999 was an important year). These logics underlie the W3C’s Web Ontology Language, OWL, which is currently undergoing revision to its second version.

It’s fun talking logic and complexity with Uli — she is well known for using her fingers to try to illustrate the construction of tree like models.

Of course, it’s fun talking most things with Uli. When she and I get really going, it’s like having more brain than I deserve in a uplifting, manic gestalt of ideas, arguments, error, corrections, proof fragments, side issues, and general intellectual breathless adventure.

Our poor graduate students have to shush us. They learn that quickly.

She also is a mad skier with a somewhat unhealthy (IMHO) attachment to her skis!

While in possession of a most admirable intellect and knowledge base, Uli is also an extremely welcoming thinker and person. The first time I went to the Description Logic Workshop (in 1995), I distinctly remember her encouraging me to join the steering committee. For Uli, unlike many, new blood, thoughts, people were to be welcomed and cherished and nurtured. She does not fear other people’s thoughts.

She turned to academia comparatively late in life after a career as a dress maker (which is so unbearably cool it’s hard to express how very cool it is). I look to many happy, productive years of collaboration.