Software Engineering

This past week of February was National Engineers Week, and it’s always an excellent time to learn about different engineers today as well as those whose shoulders we stand on. I haven’t practiced engineering as a professional in over eight years, but I still work with engineers and structural engineering every day at Bentley Systems.

I wanted to post a bit on some of the history of software engineering and, in particular, just how much women have contributed and really created that discipline.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pictured with her table of algorithms created as an example code

Lovelace is widely recognized as having created the very first computer code language, when transcribing in her shorthand some mathematics to use on Charles Babbage’s difference engine. Stephen Wolfram did some research on Lovelace’s life and wrote a fascinating article on her life and work.


WWII Computers

Prior to the general adoption of digital computers, a “computer” was actually a human person who sat and did calculations all day. These were almost without exception women, many of whom had degrees in mathematics but were not able to continue on in the field due to their gender. During World War II, when the US Army was researching the first digital computer — the ENIAC, a group of these women who had been calculating munition trajectories were hired on to encode the same calculations into that computer. They wrote the computer code and the debugging for the first computer.

The excellent documentary “Top Secret Rosies1 contains many first-person interviews with these women and the men who fought in WWII, using their work everyday in the war.

Katherine Johnson

She was a computer when computers wore skirts.

And Katherine Johnson was just about the best. So good, in fact, that when digital computers were being used to calculate the mission trajectories for the first moon landing, John Glen insisted that they be checked by Johnson first2. has a wonderful set of video interviews about her career.

Last year, Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom —one of the two highest civilian honor this country bestows— in honor of her accomplishments as well as her being a role model for women and people of color.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was an early computer scientist who is probably best known for having discovered an actual bug (a moth) in a piece of computer equipment (a printer). However, it was her contribution of creating the first digital compiler for taking human-readable code and converting it to machine language that was truly a remarkable achievement.

As a I told my after school coding club kids last Fall, anytime you are debugging code so a computer can understand it, think about Admiral Hopper!

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to listings of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code (Courtesy Wikipedia)

While Katherine Johnson and others had calculated the trajectory for the Apollo mission, the spacecraft itself now had digital computers on board. Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer —a phrase coined by Anthony Oettinger and then put into wide use by Hamilton— for the Apollo craft’s operating system. Her foresight into operation priorities saved the day when a radar system malfunctioned but the guidance system architecture still landed the lunar module. She founded Hamilton Technologies in 1986.


I can’t help but wonder that men haven’t simply co-opted the role of software engineer from women once it became clear that software was a worthwhile endeavor. However, there are many great women engineers practicing today, in both software and other engineering disciplines. I have the privilege of working with many at Bentley Systems. However, we’ve done a great disservice to young women in creating a culture that fails to encourage women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. STEM programs go a long way to help right this, but I think we also need to recognize that women have managed to create much of the modern world we know today, particularly in the field of software. And this in spite of the uphill climb many of these women faced in just finding work at all!

So in honor of engineers week, let’s be sure to let young women know that not only is their a future in STEM for them, but there is also an amazing past to be proud of!

Coding is for girls” by Anne McGraw

Further Reading

  1. At the time of this writing, it was on DVD only and not especially easy to find. I was able to rent it from Netflix and it may be for sale on Amazon. I highly encourage anyone interested in tech, history, or warfare to watch it.
  2. Always check the computer kids! It’s only as good as the programmer.

Octavia Butler’s Oankali

Amy Deng’s Oankali for an art exercise “Imagining the Oankali.” A Google image search for Oankali and Ooloi does’t turn up much other than a lot of rough fan art, but I liked this drawing a lot; as much because of its analytical approach as the representation itself.

For the second year now, I’ve read an Octavia Butler novel during the month of February. February, being black history month, seemed like a good time to read her work and pay respect to one of the greatest science fiction authors. However, it’s also a bit ridiculous to only relegate her work to one month a year and I plan to finish the Xenogenesis trilogy (aka, Lilith’s Brood) this year. I especially love science fiction with truly “alien” creatures and Butler’s Oankali are unique in every aspect.

But if you’re not familiar with Octavia Butler and her work —and I wasn’t for most of my life— take some time to learn more about her. She was by all indications a genuinely wonderful person who proved having diverse points of view are important to science fiction or any genre. I particularly enjoyed reading this interview from In Motion Magazine, which was likely one of her last as well as watching this interview with Charlie Rose for PBS. Science fiction and fantasy genres have always had an issue with a lack of diversity and it is extraordinary what she accomplished for women and people of color.

This final quote from an interview she did in Locus Magazine in 2000 makes me especially sad that she abandoned her final parable novel:

Parable of the Trickster – if that’s what the next one ends up being called – will be the Seattle novel, because I have removed myself to a place that is different from where I’ve spent most of my life. I remember saying to Vonda McIntyre, ‘Part of this move is research,’ and it is – it’s just that Seattle is where I’ve wanted to move since I visited there the first time in 1976. I really like the city, but it is not yet home. As they tell writers to do, I’ll take any small example of something and build it into a larger example. I’ve moved to Seattle; my characters have moved to Alpha Centauri, or whatever. (That was not literal.) But they suffer and learn about the situation there a little bit because of what I learn about from my move to Seattle. Writers use everything. If it doesn’t kill you, you probably wind up using it in your writing.

So if you’re inspired to learn more about African-American contributions during Black History month, then by all means start with Octavia Butler. Just be sure to not leave her there but continue enjoying her amazing writing anytime.

The Real Glass Menagerie

Angela and I were able to go see a local production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” Saturday night. The cast and production were excellent and the audience, ourselves included, were moved by Laura’s panic attack as Jim arrives and with Tom’s final address of the audience.:

Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow.

Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes…

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

I had recalled from high school that this play was largely autobiographical, but reading more about Williams’ life makes that scene all the more heartbreaking. One of Williams’ two sisters, Rose, was Tennessee’s (real name: Thomas) closest friend when growing up was the basis for the character of Laura, or “Blue Roses” as she is nicknamed in the play. Rose Williams was given a lobotomy —one with some apparently very bad effect on her personality— after he left home to pursue his career in writing. He later would move her to a closer facility and, upon his death, leave much of his wealth to provide for her.

“The Glass Menagerie” was a ground-breaking play in how it dealt with personality disorders, inter-family dynamics, and the cost of leaving home for one’s own sake. It’s no wonder it still has so much power knowing what Williams went through for the source.

Schneider on the FBI Demand on Apple

When Bruce Schneier weighs in on the security implications of government actions, we should all pay attention:

We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

This is the person that coined the phrase “security theater” and he isn’t in the habit of making up unlikely stories to scare us. He is, however, very good at understanding real risks to security for people, businesses, and countries.

PAC Insanity

School boards and parent organizations should be really boring stuff, but it’s been pretty heated in Williamson County, TN in the past year. A local parent organization called Williamson Strong was fined $5,000 dollars recently when it was decided that they were operating as an unregistered Political Action Committee (PAC). They are appealing the decision and, in fact have a federal case against Tennessee’s PAC laws. The following is a from a Tennessean article on the lawsuit:

State law defines a “political campaign committee,” commonly known as a PAC, as “a combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political party governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure, but does not include a voter registration program.”

State law defines “expenditure” in pertinent part as a “purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit or gift of money or anything of value made for the purpose of influencing a measure or the nomination for election or election of any person to public office.”

In case the absurdity of how much that limits free speech that isn’t immediately ridiculous, let me ask this:

If my kid & I borrow some poster board and paint to make a sign to support our neighbor who wants to run for school board, should we first register as a PAC in Tennessee?

The Registry of Election Finance, who issued the fine, indicated that the amount of money spent wasn’t at issue. Basically, if any two people spend any amount of money, they could be fined thousands of dollars with no way to give their side of the issue? And school board member Susan Curlee1 has shown that she is nothing if not tenacious and vindictive, so who would risk that sort of thing? It absolutely is the sort of thing to put a hold on political free speech.

I cannot believe it, but I’m actually glad of the Citizens United case ruling and hope this Williamson Strong case is overturned and the law is found to be a violation of the First Amendment. I believe in campaign finance reform and limit the insane amounts of money spent on influencing elections, but that’s no where near the sort of thing we’re discussing here. Some e-mail lists and a website domain registration aren’t likely anyone’s definition of large campaign expenditures, even in a local school board race.

  1. But just to CMA, this site and its contents are completely paid for by myself and I’m not yet currently making any public recomendations for school board members.

On Marriage Equality

I haven’t written much on my blog in the past few years, let along anything about politics. But this has been some week, hasn’t it? Today’s US Supreme Court 5-4 ruling striking down anti-same-sex-marriage laws —such as those we have had! here in Tennessee— feels like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of change. That so many Americans are suddenly free to marry whom they choose is amazing and I felt moved enough to remark on it.

Rethinking My Youth, Part II

I wrote about marriage laws over ten years ago on this site. That was inspired by Virginia’s (where my wife and I lived at the time) state Supreme Court struck down an old law that forbid adults having sex outside of marriage. It was crazy that it was still on the books in 2005, but as I noted, Virginia also banned interracial marriage up until the landmark Loving vs. Virginia 48 years ago this month1. I concluded with the following paragraph:

This sounds like all the same rational for banning homosexual marriages: that because God obviously doesn’t want them, than neither should we. I’m not so sure that there’s a whole lot of evidence that suggests God doesn’t want two loving people to have a formal commitment. Further, I think that at some point in my lifetime, we’ll look back at today’s anti-gay-marriage laws and feel the same way about banning interracial marriage and unmarried sex: why did we ever have laws institutionalizing hate and criminalizing love?

Well, at that time I truly didn’t think it would happen so fast. And in the context of such a huge change in both public opinion and dumb, anti-gay laws, a decade seems fast. However, I am sure that a decade seemed far too long for those men and women in long-term relationships who were forbid from marrying the man or woman they loved. To them, it must have seemed like forever and the struggles they faced were tremendous.

Angela and I have been happily married now for over thirteen years. I love her more now than ever and it would be inconceivable that our marriage would have been considered anything less than something shouting for joy over, let alone likely illegal at one time in the state where we lived. Our marriage is as strong as we are able to make it. No one outside of us —not straight or gay— can change that. The only two people who could make our marriage mean less are ourselves. Today’s SCOTUS ruling doesn’t change that at all. It just gives many more Americans the chance to have that same opportunity and the legal benefits (of which there are many) that go along with it.

To My Fellow Christians…

To my fellow Christians —especially those of you who feel this ruling somehow hurts you— please emulate the compassion and love of Christ. He never once spoke on the subject of same-sex relationships or marriage. Those passages many of you so often feel the need to throw around from the bible? Consider the following perspective from a Presbyterian Church USA (my denomination) news article from March of this year, just after the PC(USA) allowed for same-sex marriages (emphasis mine):

“Some will say that we have turned our back on the ‘clear teaching of Scripture,’ ” says Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It appears that many Presbyterians now consider that this is not the case. We recognize that our cultural biases and prejudices were woven throughout the biblical witness. This recognition has helped lead the Presbyterian Church to change its traditional stance on a number of issues, including slavery, racial equality, and the right of women to be ordained into positions of church leadership. Many of us also recognize that the biblical passages that condemn same-gender sexual acts are not in reference to couples in a loving mutual relationship, but rather address relationships that are controlling, abusive, and exploitative.

Please read here and here for some detailed explanations on that final sentence. And even if you do choose to interpret those very same passages as condemning homosexuality in any form, what about all the other biblical laws that you (and I) break daily? The mixing of fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19), the eating of pork and shellfish (Leviticus 11), or even shaving our beards (Leviticus 19:27)? There are countless biblical laws that most of us Christians break on a daily basis without so much as a second thought2. I don’t say this to condemn you or myself. And even though I hope it’s obvious that those who so often claim we can’t just cherry-pick from the bible are likely doing just that themselves, that’s also not the point I want to stress. As a Christian, I want to focus on loving others rather than forbidding them from being who they feel they are and loving who they choose to love (likely because it just really makes you feel icky and you’d like to back that up with a bible verse or two). It’s beyond me how anyone would claim to be a Christian (or any moral or ethical person, regardless of faith or lack thereof) and think that’s OK.

Two People

None of this may convince you, of course. But be aware that there are many different interpretations of scripture and we, as a nation founded on religious liberties, simply cannot deny others basic rights such as the freedom to marry —and yes, Justice Scalia, it’s a right!— based on a narrow reading of scripture. That is what today’s ruling is about. Not a redefinition of marriage —as that was always so much messier than conservatives have led us to believe— but rather an acceptance that we each get to define our own marriages. The only requirement is two people willing to make that commitment to one another.

Lastly, to all the wonderful couples who go married today, in places like Nashville or Franklin, TN, I hope that ten years from now I can write another post. One that will look back and place the shear ridiculousness of how you were treated in the same frame as other laws governing who and how we could love one another.

For now, congratulations.

  1. This is a bit of a personal aside: Justice Clarence Thomas, likely to be the most conservative member of the current US Supreme Court, is African-American and is married to a caucasian woman (coincidentally, named Virginia). It took a US Supreme Court ruling to allow his marriage to be recognized in all states, including Virginia. So I cannot help but find it particularly egregious that he has some ridiculously narrow interpretation as to the meaning of “liberty” in the due process clause. He seems to limit to basically our ability to go about the country as we choose and no more. As such, he argues that petitioners were not deprived of their liberty, nor was there dignity diminished. Given that a law also had to be found unconstitutional for him to have the liberty to marry his wife, I can’t begin to see how he reconciles this. The petitioners have not “been left alone to order their lives as they see fit” as he states. They have been denied visitation, death benefits, sharing of health insurance, adoptive rights, and so much more.
  2. I can’t say what Mike Huckabee had for breakfast or what his nice suit is made of, but he clearly shaves his beard without much remorse.

10,000 EV Miles

I reached 10,000 miles on my Nissan LEAF this past Sunday evening. It’s probably a lot less than normal driving for about 22 months, but just goes to show that an ev is a perfect fit for me. I just don’t really drive that far.

10,000 EV Miles

Hit 10,000 miles in my LEAF while driving to pick up Chipotle, which was a highly likely circumstance knowing our family.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy passed away earlier today. If you asked many people, they might tell you that they hear Morgan Freeman’s voice in their head when they imagine the voice of God. To me, it will always be Leonard Nimoy. That placid, chain-smoking-induced growl that, in part, made Spock such a wonderful character of his fills me with awe.

Hipster Spock

As a child, in addition to Star Trek reruns (both the original series and the animated series), I grew up watching Nimoy host Nickelodean’s Standby: Lights, Camera, Action!. That show was a wonderful look at how movies are made. Nimoy was a wonderful host, engaging in demonstrations of special effects and occasional gags. His love of movies was evident. In a time before the internet, Wikipedia, and movie blogs, it was a source for me to learn about movies, actors, and directors. In fact, it was there that I first learned1 that the original Star Wars were the middle piece of a larger trilogy, and someday there would be prequels (before the word prequel existed, even, I think) and sequels2. I also learned about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and the Klingon language from the same show. Of course, that film was directed by Nimoy, who’s involvement in movies and television grew beyond acting.

It’s said to never meet your heroes, as they will only disappoint you. However, I do truly regret never having had to the chance to meet Leonard Nimoy in person. He truly seemed like a beautiful person in most every way and Gene Roddenberry once called him “the conscious of ‘Star Trek'”. A wonderful quote from Nimoy:

Whatever I have given, I have gained.

It’s very sad to have lost Nimoy but I’m so glad that he was able to continue to appear in popular television and films, even up until very recently. His character of Spock is a cornerstone of pop-culture and it’s due almost entirely to Nimoy’s acting. In a show that is remembered for some cheesy plots and hammy acting, as well as some rather uneven movies, Nimoy was a gem in Star Trek. Honestly, if you can watch the scene of Kirk and Spock in the radiation chamber at the end of Wrath of Kahn and not get choked up, you are possibly more Vulcan than human:

It’s hard to think of a better way to remember Nimoy that with a performance like that. Live long and prosper.

  1. Well, either there or my Mom, who perhaps also learned it on the same show!
  2. More recently, JJ Abrams &emdash;who cast Nimoy in his series Fringe as well as bring Nimoy back as Spock in the re-envisioned Star Trek films&emdash; has taken over those sequel films. In fact, in no small part does the willingness of Abrams to continue to use Nimoy as an actor gives me appreciate of Abrams’ taste and ability to pull off such a daunting role.