Friday, December 18, 2009

Nanoseconds can be important in the right game

You probably already know - or SHOULD know - that computing and the computer you so much take for granted today owe their existence, in large part, to women. Men helped, of course, here and there, but women provided much of the brainpower it took to come up with such a complex contraption.

The first computer programmer, by definition at least, is considered to be Ada Lovelace (1802-1852), the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. She encoded an algorithm (Al Gore rhythm?) in a form to be processed by a machine. She was inspired to do so by Charles Babbage's invention of what was then known as an "Analytical Engine". She also envisioned that someday computers could become much more than simply number crunchers. Even Babbage didn't dream of that.

Women have been a part of the development of the computer and of programming it down through the years ever since. My personal favorite is a lady named Grace Hopper (pictured at the top of this post.) Grace was a rather weirdly wonderful (somewhat eccentric, I mean) brainy lady who rose to the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and who had a profound influence on early computing. She used to hand out lengths of wire, somewhat short of 12 inches in length to U.S. Naval Academy cadets at Annapolis with an admonition to "remember your nanoseconds" (The wires being the length of space an electromagnetic wave travels in a billionth of a second.) The point was to remind her computer programming students not to waste nanoseconds. Occasionally she would bring in a 1000-foot roll of wire to show them what a microsecond looked like in those terms. Well, I guess you had to be there.

Grace is credited with inventing the early computer programming language COBOL and developed the first compiler. Words and phrases like "subroutines", "formula translation", "relative addressing", linking loader", "code optimization", and "symbolic manipulation", are still fundamental to digital computing and exist in large part because of Graces pioneering in the field. If you've ever had a "bug" in your program, you owe that word to Grace as well because ever since she removed an actual dead moth from her equipment, she referred to corrective programming as "debugging" work. She once claimed she forced computers to learn English because she was too lazy to learn theirs. Not true, of course - she understood their language perfectly well- but many programmers today are thankful they can type programs in (mostly) simple English.

Thank you, as usual, Wikipedia, for helping me fill in specifics.


Lidian said...

Many thanks to Grace and Ada!

Relax Max said...

@Lidian - Indeed. Without them, none of us would have never met, probably. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. :)

Stephanie B said...

Relax Max, I'm genuinely grateful. I didn't know about either of the ladies you describe and I should have.

Interestingly enough, I've never had any trouble with programming and making computers do things my way (or math or many of those other things "women don't do well") but I was not aware that women were so pivotal early. (Though I was familiar with Ada programming which is a very interesting language).

And I should have been.

Thanks to you, now I am. I am genuinely grateful.

Janet said...

i love the nanosecond story.

A. said...

Once upon a time, when I was a mere slip of a thing I learnt to write programs in Cobol. It was a minority pursuit in those days. One or two years later, maybe two, when one of my sons was studying computer science he phoned me to say he had to study "antique" programming languages, one of which was Cobol. I have never felt the same about it since.

Relax Max said...

@Stephanie B - Why, thank you. Behind every successful man there is a woman who knew about it already and just let him take the credit. :)

@Janet - Sometimes it takes a real-life object lesson to get the point across. I keep looking for those lessons as I look for things to "clarify" in my blogging. I seldom am successful. In radio school in the military, I was taught that electromagnetic waves travel at the speed of light (well, duh) but that connection never really happened in my brain. The connection of radio waves and light years, I mean. But somehow, knowing that the waves could travel from me to the moon faster than I could actually SAY the words, and that they would have to wait for me if I paused or coughed - well, THAT made them seem very fast to me. It takes (I am told) about 8 minutes for the Sun's light to reach the Earth. But then, 93 million miles is quite a piece down the road. Which brings up two more thoughts: one, the sun might have gone out 7 minutes ago and we just don't know it yet; and, two, there might JUST be some connection with global warming or global cooling to the SUN, by god, even more than man's auto emissions. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I personal believe there is solar connection to how warm or cold we are on Earth. But I don't want to start anything with my fanatical theories. :)

In high school it used to be the fashion to concoct intellectual "put downs" for other people who were smart enough to understand them (sometimes I could, mostly I couldn't). Here is one I remember: "Your intelligence is on the same order of magnitude as the distance between your gonads measured in light years."

And so it goes.

Relax Max said...

@A. - I respect your awesome programming ability almost as much as your IT logic in general, but I am not afraid of you. :)

You were never a slip. A wisp, maybe.

Shall I speak of will-o'-the-wisp? I think not. But if I did I could easily turn the conversation to methane and thence to global warming. But since you were not a will-o' and only a wisp, I will refrain.

Instead, let me take my Swamp Gas editorial space to tell you I am thankful you are safely home, escaped from those Mongol hoards. (Mongols are from Monaco, right?) How terrible for you to be forced to spend Christmas in the south of France (or, more precisely, sitting near the Bank at Monte Carlo on your balcony, staring benignly out over the Mediterranean, sipping something... ummm... something expensive, I'm sure.) I grieved for your sacrifice, tho' I know you were contemplating my essay on contentment at the time. I am further solaced by knowing the baby Jesus was ever in your thoughts as you sipped. And now you are back, safe and sound, in Merrie Olde Enlande, not far from the birthplace of Janet's Winnie-the-pooh (not to be confused with will-o'-the-wisp) having managed, I am assuming, to move a goodly portion of France's wine reserves through the tunnel behind you. Well, GOOD FOR YOU! We all welcome you home. :) :) :)

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