Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Grace Hopper

Full Disclosure

New readers may want to know that this blog is on this list for posting photos of women holding geeky stickers. For what it's worth, this blog also features photos of men holding geeky stickers. Are any of them geeks? I have no idea: I didn't have time to find out. A geek is not defined by gender or looks; a geek is defined by characteristics such as:

  • Wondering, incredulously: "Did MIT really ditch Scheme in 6.001?"
  • Being able to answer "is 47 a prime number?" in a blink of an eye
  • Enjoying weird puzzles like "what does a nanosecond look like?"
Ada Lovelace Day

I think Ada Lovelace Day is a good idea. Ironically, despite being on a male privilege list, I (sadly) recognize many of the issues listed. Moreover, I have two young, wonderful cousins (girls), and I would like to help to ensure that computer science and mathematics is welcoming to them. If posts like this help the cause, then why not...

The Star

This post is about a wonderful pioneer of computer science. She was brilliant, witty, and an influence on me as a undergraduate student, via print and film.

She also happened to be a woman. Though Ada L Day is a motivating factor, I have long wanted to write an appreciation, because of her abilities, contributions, and style.

She is Grace Hopper, one of the first rock star programmers. I post this for a younger generation, lest we forget.

I've decided not to write a biography: peruse the achievements on Wikipedia. They are stunning. She easily had more on her resume by 1941 than your most of your CS profs, here in 2009. Suffice it to say that she would go on to work on the Harvard Mark I and the UNIVAC. She also helped design COBOL (laugh if you must, but see below).

When I think of her, I think of these influences:
  • She famously demanded to see a nanosecond: she would hand out wires that were the length traveled by light in 1 nanosecond. To this day, I try to use props whenever possible in discussions.
  • I once read the transcripts from a language symposium in the 1970s. Grace said something along these lines "... if you remember one thing from this, remember that COBOL was a temporary proposal. We did not intend for that version to be the final draft." This is fascinating but also a great presentation technique. Again to this day, I use that phrase for effect "if you remember just one thing....".
  • She didn't take any crap from anyone. See her interview with David Letterman below. Though it is dumbed-down for pop culture, notice her matter-of-fact style. There is no need to showboat for TV: these are the facts, and it is all perfectly logical. I love it.
Setting an Example

Grace Hopper was fantastic, plain and simple. To me, her example for my young cousins -- and everyone else -- is this: if you are a geek, be the best you can be. Embrace it, live it, love it. Be so good that you transcend labels, because no one can stop a geek who simply kicks ass.


Michael Easter said...

ps. For me, highlight segments in the YouTube video are 3:10 to 3:40 ("I didn't know: I was the first") and especially 4:28 to 5:40 (nanoseconds).

Michael Easter said...

As I have read other posts about Grace Hopper, I have to point out some other key facts.

First and foremost, she worked on the same team that found the moth in the relay on the Mark II. Wikipedia implies ambiguity if she coined the term "bug" but she may well have, or was on the same team of people who did. Yow. Just another bullet item that would trump anything on my resume.

Also, she often attributed with quiping the now-famous phrase: it is easier to beg forgiveness then ask for permission.