Wednesday Geek Woman: Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

This post was originally published at the Ada Initiative’s blog on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter
Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (known as Ada Lovelace) is probably a familiar figure to most of our readers. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. It was presented as “Notes” to a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerable more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include that Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc. Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death (and after they worked on the paper) has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style
Ada Lovelace in a modern portrait by Colin Adams

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music, which definitely wasn’t Babbage’s idea as he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says, “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.” On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Chatelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. (Substitute “computer programmer” for the last – people also argue that what Lovelace wrote wasn’t really a program, either.)

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[…] She is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer.” But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, we should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.

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Geek Feminist Sumana Harihareswara makes $10,000 donation matching challenge to the Ada Initiative

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

Sumana Harihareswara(Credit: Tobias Schumann CC BY-SA)
Sumana Harihareswara (Credit: Tobias Schumann CC BY-SA)
This post is by Valerie Aurora, writing in her capacity as Executive Director of the Ada Initiative.

Sumana Harihareswara is a geek feminist and an active member of the science fiction, GNOME, and Wikipedia communities, serving in a variety of roles. Lately she has taken a front and center position in the movement to make open technology and culture more diverse, with a keynote at the OSBridge conference about diversity in FLOSS, entitled “Be Bold: An Origin Story“, joining the Ada Initiative advisory board, and successfully advocating for a Friendly Space policy at at Wikimedia Foundation sponsored events. She also finds time to do standup comedy routines about geek culture.

Today, Sumana Harihareswara and her partner, Leonard Richardson, made a bold challenge to the open tech/culture community: They will match every donation to the Ada Initiative between now and October 31, 2012 up to $10,000. As Sumana puts it, “Leonard and I make our living through open source and we want to pay it forward.” Already, community members have donated $4,000 that will be matched by this generous offer; if all $10,000 is raised, that will make Sumana and Leonard the largest individual donors to the Ada Initiative. You can be part of this by donating now.

Sumana is a joyful, passionate member of the Wikimedia and open source software communities and a living example of the Ada Initiative’s vision: A world in which women are equal and welcome participants in open source software, open data, and open culture. I am personally humbled by Sumana’s dedication and personal contributions to this vision throughout her life.

A personal appeal for support from Valerie Aurora, executive director of the Ada Initiative

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

Valerie Aurora

I’m writing to ask you to donate to the Ada Initiative.

A year ago, a friend of mine was groped at an open source conference. Again. I’ve personally been groped twice at conferences myself.

But what shocked me most was the reaction to her blog post about it. Hundreds of people made comments like, “Women should expect to get groped at conferences,” and “It was her fault.” Many of these people were members of the open source community. Some were even prominent leaders – that I was forced to work with directly in my job as a Linux kernel developer! I realized I’d felt alienated, unwelcome, and unsafe as a woman in open source for many years. I was furious and determined to make a difference.

So I quit my job and co-founded the Ada Initiative with Mary Gardiner. We are the only non-profit dedicated solely to increasing the participation of women in open source, Wikipedia, fan culture, and other areas of open technology and culture. Currently, women make up only 2% of the open source community, and 9% of Wikipedia editors, down from 13% a year ago. We want to change these trends.

You can help by donating or by spreading the word about our donation drive now:

Donate now!

Help spread the word

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished already. Since our founding in early 2011, we helped over 30 conferences and organizations adopt an anti-harassment policy, organized the first AdaCamp unconference, provided free consulting on high-profile sexist incidents, wrote and taught two workshops on supporting women in open tech/culture, and ran two surveys, among other things.

We need your help to achieve our upcoming goals. The Ada Initiative is funded entirely by donations. Without your financial support, the Ada Initiative will have to shut down in early 2012.

Your donations will fund upcoming projects like: Ada’s Advice, a comprehensive guide to resources for helping women in open tech/culture, Ada’s Careers, a career development community, and First Patch Week, where we help women create and submit their first open source patch. You can learn more about how the Ada Initiative is organized and operated on our web site and blog.

Whether or not you can donate yourself, you can help us by spreading the word about our fundraising drive. Please tell your friends about our important work. Email, blog, add our donation button to your web site, and tweet. You don’t have to stand on the sidelines any longer. You can help women in open technology and culture, starting today.

Example conference anti-harassment policy turns one year old

November 29 was the one year anniversary of the publication of the example conference anti-harassment policy! One year later, over 30 conferences have adopted an anti-harassment policy of one kind or another.

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

This is a cross-post from the Ada Initiative’s blog. The Ada Initiative has put a lot of effort into helping conferences understand and adopt some form of anti-harassment policy. Your donations will help us continue to promote the policy and do similar work. Thanks!

November 29 was the one year anniversary of the publication of the example conference anti-harassment policy! Inspired by multiple reports of groping, sexual assault, and pornography at open tech/culture conferences, the Ada Initiative co-founders helped write and publish an example conference anti-harassment policy for modification and reuse by conference organizers. This example was the collaborative effort of many different conference organizers and community members, who all deserve thanks and credit.

One year later, over 30 conferences have adopted an anti-harassment policy of one kind or another. “More than 30” is a rough lower bound; several organizations have adopted a policy for all their events and run a dozen or more events per year. Some of the organizations that have announced that all their conferences will have a policy include Linux Foundation, ACM SIGPLAN, and O’Reilly (pledged). Here’s why some conferences have adopted a policy, in the organizers’ own words:

Tim O’Reilly: “[…] It’s become clear that this is a real, long-standing issue in the technical community. And we do know this: we don’t condone harassment or offensive behavior, at our conferences or anywhere. It’s counter to our company values. More importantly, it’s counter to our values as human beings.”

Jacob Kaplan-Moss, co-organizer of PyCon US, speaking for himself in this post: “A published code of conduct tells me that the conference staff cares about these issues, takes them seriously, and is waiting and willing to listen if an incident happens. It’s by no means a solution to the depressing homogeneity of technical communities, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

ACM SIGPLAN: “This policy has been in the works at the ACM SIGPLAN for several months; SPLASH 2011 is proud to be both the driver for that effort and the first ACM conference with such policy in place. This policy is not a symbolic gesture, delivered to satisfy a perceived need for political correctness, but instead goes to the core of both our personal beliefs and the beliefs of the community as a whole.”

Like any good open source project, the policy has been forked, adapted, and rewritten from scratch several times. Conference organizers looking to adopt a policy now can choose from several different policies. Many policies are linked to from this list of conferences with a policy; if you know a conference that is missing, please add it!

Some history

Why write an example anti-harassment policy? What we discovered after a little research (aided by the timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities) was the following:

  • Often, the person doing the groping, harassing, or showing of pornography honestly believed that their behavior was acceptable for the venue. Just as often, many other people went on record agreeing with them.
  • People who saw these incidents didn’t know how to respond to these incidents or weren’t sure who to report them to.
  • Conference organizers sometimes didn’t learn about an incident until long after it happened. When they did find out in time to take action, they often didn’t know how to respond to the incident.

We looked at these facts and figured it might help if conference organizers had an easy way to:

  • Educate attendees in advance that specific behaviors commonly believed to be okay (like groping, pornography in slides, etc.) are not acceptable at this conference.
  • Tell attendees how to report these behaviors if they see them, and assure them they will be treated respectfully if they do so.
  • Have established, documented procedures for how the conference staff will respond to these reports.

But we knew that conference organizers are very busy people, and very few of them had the time to write something like this. We figured that if we wrote an example policy that could be easily adapted to their needs, we could save them a lot of time and energy, and reduce harassment at conferences at the same time.

One year later, it looks like we had the right idea! Now it’s almost easier to attend a open tech/culture conference with a policy than one without. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, from attendees of all genders to speakers to organizers, and especially conference sponsors. Sponsors like any way to reduce the chance that their name will be associated with bad press.

You can help encourage adoption

Our goal is to make policies like this obsolete because everyone knows how to go to a conference without ruining it for the people around them. But we’re clearly not there yet, as this incident from October 2011 shows. One way you can help change the culture of open technology and culture is by encouraging the adoption of a similar policy by the conferences you attend.

Here are some of the common arguments against adopting a policy that addresses the three points we describe above.

This has/will never happen at my conference!

Congratulations! Some conferences are small enough or exclusive enough that it’s easy to end up with a group of people who all agree about appropriate conference behavior. Generally speaking though, as a conference gets larger or easier to attend, the mathematical probability of someone with significantly different ideas attending the conference increases until it is a near-certainty.

Next, if you believe there’s never been harassment at your conference, you might want to do a little asking around. If you don’t have a well-publicized method to contact the organizers about harassment at the conference, you’re unlikely to hear about it. When this policy was first posted, many organizers went back and asked attendees if they’d ever heard of harassment at previous conferences they had run and found the answer to be yes surprisingly often.

Finally, a great way to keep up a perfect record of no harassment is to adopt a policy that tells attendees you expect them not to harass each other.

Listing specific behaviors is unnecessary/insulting/ineffective/negative/etc.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming evidence from previous incidents shows that many of the people involved had absolutely no idea that what they were doing was unacceptable – and in fact were quite angry to discover that there were some unspoken rules that no one told them about. You may not enjoy telling people the rules specifically, but people hate breaking rules unknowingly even more.

To be blunt, a non-trivial percentage of speakers at open tech/culture conferences view pornography in their slides as simply good speaking technique. Telling them, e.g., to only include material suitable for a diverse audience won’t change their behavior because they believe everyone enjoys a little pornography in their technical talk. The only way they are going to stop including pornography in their slides is if you tell them not to, in so many words. Another non-trivial percentage believe it’s perfectly acceptable for a man to touch a woman on any part of her body without her consent if either the man or the woman is drinking alcohol. They believe this is appropriate behavior, so asking them to, e.g., “Be respectful of other people” is not specific enough to change their behavior.

This policy will hamper free speech and ruin my talk!

Conferences and their topics vary, but we have yet to attend a conference in open technology and culture in which a talk required the harassment of attendees in order to get information across. We’re not sure, but we suspect you can, e.g., teach people about file system semantics and keep the audience’s attention without employing sexist jokes. (I’ve done it more than once!)

Conferences in which talks about sexuality, racism, etc. are on-topic are encouraged to add exceptions for these talks and give guidelines on talking about the subject while respecting the attendees. We encourage them to send us their modifications so we can add them to the options in the example policy. Here is one example of the policy as applied to a talk about sexuality by Cindy Gallop at the Open Video Conference 2011.

In the end, you can always vote with your feet – you can preferentially attend, speak at, and help organize conferences with policies against harassment.

A note: We want to explicitly acknowledge the fact that harassment at conferences is not just a problem for women; in fact, we’ve heard many reports of men being the target of harassment, or being disgusted or creeped out by other attendees’ behavior. In this as in many cases, the changes that make open technology and culture more welcoming (and safer) for women are the same ones that make it more welcoming for everyone.

Finding a healthy work culture

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers.

When interviewing for a job (as the applicant), how do you select for a healthy culture? What unpleasant traits (e.g. narcissism, sexism) do you avoid, and how do you identify them?

We’ve all had terrible jobs and co-workers. Do you have any practical advice for avoiding the poisonous job (and poisonous co-workers) at the interview stage?

Let’s emphasize problems geek women are more likely to encounter: difficulty getting credit for your work, geek-unfriendly management culture, colliding with narcissists/psychopaths/”assholes”, glass ceiling for geeks, women, and/or geek women, sexism in general, etc. If you’re telling your story, don’t forget to include what you think the first warning sign was!

Conference speakers: Support anti-harassment policies in your speaker proposals

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

The 2012 proposal deadline is in a few hours, which gives you plenty of time to cut and paste the following into your speaker proposal:

I believe conferences should provide a safe, harassment-free environment for everyone. I ask $CONFERENCE to officially adopt and enforce a code of conduct or policy for attendee behavior that specifically forbids known problem behaviors such as pornography in public spaces, sexual harassment, and bullying.

If $CONFERENCE does not have a policy in place by the speaker notification deadline, I must regretfully decline any invitation to speak.

For more information, see:

Conferences value their speakers’ opinions greatly and listen when they speak. Donna Benjamin showed this when she organized a demonstration of support for a code of conduct at OSCON 2011; at least nine speakers in favor of the proposal edited their official OSCON speaker biographies to include a statement of support.

ICANN nominations open

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

ICANN nominations are open. The ICANN controls domain names, among other services that create a globally coordinated Internet. Maria Farrell, a member of the nominating committee points out:

So far, there are about 35 applications for 8 open positions. Half of them have applied to be Board Directors. None – not a single one – is from a woman.

The reason why I’m not applying:

I must say up front the positions are unpaid and take up more time than most people expect, much of it on anti-socially timed conference calls. But it can be rewarding in personal and professional terms to be involved in setting the policy for the Internet.

I’m already working on a project that will take all my work cycles.

Many women already work the second shift, so what I’d like to encourage our readers to do is (after getting over your impostor syndrome) talk to your manager about spending some of your work time on ICANN duties. Many employers would be excited to have an ICANN member on staff and it’s a great networking (ha) opportunity. Before you decide you aren’t qualified, go read the suggested qualifications. Sample:

NomCom seeks women and men who have demonstrated the maturity, experience, knowledge, and skills to handle the tasks and make the judgments involved in fulfilling these important leadership roles.

NomCom seeks persons of the highest integrity and capability with experience and talents for problem solving, policy development, and decision-making involving diverse perspectives regarding how best to accomplish the mission and responsibilities of ICANN. Those selected in the NomCom process will also be expected to place the public interest of the global Internet ahead of any particular interests.

In NomCom’s selections, such qualifications are more significant than is deep involvement in technical aspects of the Internet. The NomCom selectees are expected to be knowledgeable, or committed to becoming knowledgeable, about the environment in which ICANN operates and the technical functions for which it is responsible, but strong technical knowledge of the Internet is not the determining factor in the NomCom selections.

In other words, it’s okay if you don’t know the answers to the TCP/IP Drinking Game – no one else in ICANN does either!

Deadline for applications is April 4th, 2011. Go get ’em!