Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

This is my post for Ada Lovelace Day, to commemorate the woman who is known as the first computer programmer, although she was born and died long before computers were invented.

She began her life as the only legitimate child of Byron, the poet, but she didn't know him. Her parents parted when she was tiny and her father showed no interest in her. He died when she was eight. Her mother was a difficult person (you have to ask, did Byron drive women mad, or was he attracted to crazy women?) and Ada had a lot of childhood illness, but it was her mother who ensured that she had an education: one of her teachers was Mary Somerville, who has an Oxford college and a crater on the moon named after her. When Ada was 19, she married an aristocrat, William King-Noel, who subsequently became the Ist Earl Lovelace, so she became the Countess of Lovelace when she was about 24. The Earl was a scientist and member of the Royal Society, so it must have been an interesting household. She had three children, and died at the age of 36. I'm always fascinated by family resemblances and characteristics, so I'm pleased that her great-great-great niece is Dr Honora Smith, who has worked for IBM and is now a lecturer in mathematics.

I won't attempt to summarize her work with Charles Babbage because it has been done better here.

The purpose of today is to nominate a woman, or women, in technology whom I admire. My first impulse was to identify someone who works in a particularly masculine field, someone very hard-edged who had to fight lots of opposition to achieve her curent position - you get the picture. In the end though, I'm naming Jessica Marshall Forbes of Ravelry - in spite of all her achievements, I bet she still gets 'It's just a knitting site,' so I think she deserves extra kudos for that.

My last job before I had to give up work involved setting a up a large database and persuading the people who should have been interested in it to use it. It was, as they say, challenging, but also enormously stimulating, exciting and satisfying. There weren't many of us doing that sort of work in that field internationally and we all knew each other; I can remember going to a meeting with our whole database, then about 200,000 records, on a DAT tape and producing the tiny cassette from my handbag to show off. Everyone was madly impresssed. As well as organizing the structure of information on the database, I was endlessly interested in how people approached looking for it, and how it should be structured in order to make it easy to retrieve. I realize this doesn't make everyone's heart beat faster, but it did mine.

So after I had been sitting at home stewing for a few years, I wasn't actually happy to hear about Ravelry at first. In fact, I was quite jealous. Not to mention eaten up with envy and bitterness. I wouldn't look at it at first. And I wouldn't go on the waiting list. When I read about it on knit blogs, I blanked it. But eventually I got over myself and had a little peek. Then I added my name to the list; even checked at intervals to see how near I was. Then I got my invitation and went in and had a look around. And I was right to be eaten up by envy, because she had done a wonderful job. She had thought of everything.

You can approach your subject by what it is, or what it's made of, or who made it; you can post your own stuff or you can lurk; you can photograph every scrap of yarn that has passed through your hands or gaze at other people's stash; you can see how this shawl looks in that yarn and how this sweater looks on several different sizes of wearer. You can do all of this to the extent that you want, in minute detail or broad brush; there is no pressure. (If you knew how much of my life I have spent considering 'the optimum minimum record' ... )

And not only this, but you can talk about it to all sorts of people about knitting, or enter into furious arguments with them if that's what you like. You can make friends with people you already know virtually, or with ones who have knitted the same socks or ones who live in the same place or ones who have the same disease. Myself, I wouldn't have done that as I don't do social networks (yes, I'm on Facebook but not under my real name, for goodness' sake) but it's what makes Ravelry what it is.

And all of this is so flexible, and it's made to look really easy; no sign on the surface of the pedalling that must be taking place below the water line. It's still in beta and I think maybe it always willl be. Employers (and government) think you can set up a database and then leave it to run itself, but in practice they need attention. Information is organic and if it's left alone it tends to decay or take off in unexpected directions. Jessica's design is never rigid, and to the user it is easy, friendly and endlessly diverting.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Jessica.

You can follow more Ada Lovelace Day blog posts on the map here, and read them here.


Knitting Linguist said...

What an absolutely perfect nomination. And I completely agree with you that she probably gets That Look frequently, the one that dismisses all of this amazing work she's done because, well, after all, it's only knitting, right? Not having had to ever put anything even remotely like this together before, I don't think I'd quite appreciated the thinking that goes into planning and executing something of that complexity, so I really like hearing about it from someone who does.

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful and well-written post. Thanks so much.

Karen said...

Perfectly said.

redplaid said...

I couldn't agree more. ♥

Mary-Heather said...

Thank you so much for nominating Jess. She is a truly amazing person and works so hard every day to make Ravelry great. <3 I love your post!

JessicaMF said...

Thank you so much! So sweet of you to think of little old me. :)

Ravelry has been a labor of love- glad you got on board in the end!


benne said...

Very interesting post and Jess is a worthy woman to honor on Ada Lovelace Day.

Raveller said...

Well said!

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