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Kimberly Blessing

Want to become an expert? Study (web) history

5 min read

Lately I've been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the past.

I'm at the airport awaiting a flight that will take me to the Line-Mode Browser Hack Days at CERN. CERN, perhaps presently most famous for being the home of the Large Hadron Collider, is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web. More on that in a moment.

Screen shotMy first personal web site, circa 1997

Twenty years ago -- What the hell? Where did the time go? -- I started college. I arrived at Bryn Mawr College a French major, soon to switch to Romance Languages. My Italian professor assigned us reading on a Web page. I was one of the few people in my dorm to have a computer (and modem! and laser printer!). I had email before I got to college, on both AOL and Prodigy. Bryn Mawr had a gopher space, but no web site -- in fact, there were only about 500 web servers up and running at the end of 1993. And yet, that seemingly meaningless introduction changed my life. I took computer science classes. I changed my major to computer science. I started building web sites -- heck, I designed and built the first web page to be hosted at www.brynmawr.edu. For me, that was the start of it all.

And so here we are today. You, reading. Me awaiting my flight to Geneva. To CERN. Holy freaking crap! Understand that, for me, this is akin to visiting Mecca, except I am worshiping ideas, and code, and technology, and the propagation of all those things that has help fuel the evolution of our world into its presently hyper-connected state.

But I must admit that I was surprised, when telling some other web developers about my trip, that they didn't know about CERN's relevance to the web. The popular history of the Internet as an American creation dominates, and it has consumed the WWW creation story for some. So I educate and inform, to set things right, to help those whose careers are based on HTTP and HTML understand their domain's history.

Now, here's where I get preachy, because I run into scenarios like this -- where a web developer will make statements about web-related history that are completely wrong -- frequently. "Oh, IE doesn't support inline-block." Wrong, it has supported inline-block for a long time, but it couldn't just be assigned to any old element. (I've heard this one a lot lately -- perhaps because I'm interviewing and one of the coding problems I give can potentially be solved with inline-block.) "Old browsers don't support the HTML5 doctype," is another popular one. Misunderstanding the origin of CSS3 properties, incorrectly attributing computer accessibility to web accessibility, explaining IE compatibility mode based on one or two simple tests rather than reading the documentation -- even attesting to a lack of JSON support prior to 5 years ago (?!) -- are things I've encountered lately.

I admit that I am quite privileged to have, essentially, grown up with the web. I've been active with it, as a user and a developer, almost as long as it's been around. I do fondly remember using both Lynx and Mosaic to not just surf the web, but also test my own sites. I remember "playing around" with CSS to layer text, and trying to get it to work in both Netscape 4 and IE 3.

But I digress -- this isn't about me. This is about getting other web professionals to better understand our field. To be correct in what they say about the past, when trying to educate others. To not make false statements, based on lack of knowledge or direct experience, which lead to wrong assumptions and misinformed decisions about code and architectures.

I realize I sound like a crotchety old geek, complaining about the young whippersnappers who don't respect their elders. This isn't the case at all. I've had the pleasure of working with many younger people, or just less-experienced people, who have taken the time to learn about the web's history. (Admittedly, some of those people were required to, when they took my course on web app development.) And just knowing facts about history doesn't do much good, without analysis or thought of impact, for today or beyond.

Genuine curiosity and a desire to learn all that one can is ultimately what makes an expert. And, truth be told, any real "expert" will be the first to admit that they're hardly such -- they're still on the quest to become experts, themselves.

So, here I am, about to board my plane, hoping to enrich both my understanding of web history, and yours. Assuming I haven't entirely turned you off, I hope you'll follow my travels on Twitter.

Required Reading

Kimberly Blessing

Honoring Ada, Inspiring Women

5 min read

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and, essentially, the first computer programmer (in an age where mechanical calculating machines were still ideas drawn on paper). Born in 1815, she envisioned machines which could not only compute calculations, but also compose music.

When computer science students are learning the history of the subject (assuming they get any historical teachings at all -- our history is "taught" via small anecdotes as footnotes in textbooks), Ada Lovelace is sometimes the only women ever mentioned. However the history of the field is strewn with the impactful and inspiring stories of women: Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik and the other ENIAC programmers, Milly Koss (why doesn't she have a Wikipedia page?), Fran Allen, Anita Borg, Telle Whitney, Wendy Hall, Ellen Spertus -- and those are just the high-profile women whose names are likely to be recognized. There are so many other women out there who have done, are doing, and will do great things for computing, technology, and the world -- and today's blogging event will expose all of us to a few more.

Although I've found many female role models in computing and technology, none were as important to me as the women I was surrounded by in college, when I was pursuing computer science as a major. Bryn Mawr's computer science department didn't exist yet -- in fact, we had only one full-time CS professor back then! But there were plenty of women on campus interested in technology and they were my primary motivators and supporters in those days.

Amy (Biermann) Hughes, PhD graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1995 and received her PhD in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2002. She is currently a member of the technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I think I first met Amy when we were working together for Computing Services as student operators ("ops" for short) and she was an immediate inspiration. Amy seemed to know everything there was to know about networks, and she taught me a great deal. The fact that she'd decided to major in CS without there being an official major made the idea of me doing it seem feasible. Amy had done research as an undergrad -- another fact which amazed me -- in parallel computing! (That just flat out floored me.) On top of all of that, she loved Duran Duran. I'm not kidding when I say that there were times at which I'd say to myself, "Amy got through this somehow, I can too!" In fact, I'm still telling myself this, as every time I think about going back to school for my PhD, I wonder how I'll get over my fear of qualifying exams and I remember that Amy did it, so can I!

My compsci partner-in-crime from my own class was Sarah Hacker (yes, that's her real name). She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1997 and went on to do graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo. She currently works in health care information systems at the University of Iowa. Sarah and I were in many classes together before we ever struck up a conversation. I was intimidated by her natural programming abilities -- to me, it seemed that she could pick up any language syntax and any programming concept so easily! -- but I came to greatly appreciate and sometimes rely on them. We also worked for Computing Services and frequently worked the night shifts together, drinking soda, eating candy, and making bizarre photo montages (such as Sarah's brilliant Child of the Moon series). In fact, it was Sarah who first showed me how to create a web page, so I really owe her quite a bit! Sarah introduced me to Pulp (the band), reintroduced me to Real Genius, and taught me LISP for an AI assignment. We started the Computer Science Culture Series together and were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer for our robots, Jimmy and Timmy. Generally, she just kept me company and in good spirits, and I can only hope that I did the same for her.

Fortunately Amy and Sarah are still friends, so I continue to draw inspiration from their current lives and achievements as well. Of course, they weren't the only women who helped me make it through my undergraduate experience and early career -- Elysa Weiss, Helen Horton Peterson '79, and Jennifer Harper '96 (all Bryn Mawr Computing Services staff) were instrumental as well. And I have to give props to the men who were able to put up with supported a community of such strong women: Deepak Kumar, John King, Rodney Battle, and David Bertagni.

Those of us interested in computer science and technology are constantly looking forward, but today gives all of us a great opportunity to look back and highlight our common history and all of the people -- both men and women -- who've made today possible. Thank you, to all of them!

Kimberly Blessing

Meeting Bryn Mawr's President-Elect

2 min read

Due to my responsibilities on the Executive Board of the Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Association, I had the good fortune of being on campus on Friday, February 8, when the Board of Trustees appointed Jane Dammen McAuliffe as the President-Elect. Furthermore, the Executive Board had the pleasure of hosting Jane, and her husband, Dennis, for lunch on Saturday.

After a round of introductions and lunch, Jane gave us a brief bio, then spoke about her impressions of the College and what she anticipates focusing on after she arrives.

One of the first things she said, with a look that I'd describe as astonished admiration, was, "This is a place that takes the life of the mind seriously!" Of course, that brought a smile to every face in the room, as that's exactly how we know and why we love our College. In citing that Bryn Mawr is "educating the leadership of places all over the world," she was almost certainly referring to alumna Drew Gilpin Faust '68, who is now President of Harvard University, and recognizing our tradition of producing strong female leaders.

"J-Mac", as she's already being called by students, recognized Bryn Mawr's "extraordinary tradition of producing science graduates", as well as its production of non-science majors that are well-versed in the sciences. "Science literacy has become a sine qua non to be a good citizen", she emphasized, and nearly all of my fellow alumnae in the room nodded or voiced their agreement.

So, it appears that President-Elect McAuliffe came, saw, and conquered Bryn Mawr -- I, for one, look forward to her tenure.

Kimberly Blessing

I went to Bryn Mawr, if you know what I mean

1 min read

Delaware Senator Joe Biden was recently asked why he wears an American flag pin, by, as Biden put it, a “very attractive woman who looked like she just finished a sociology course at Bryn Mawr College, if you know what I mean.” According to the Washington Post, most of his audience clearly didn't know what he meant.

Even David Karen, chair of sociology at Bryn Mawr, doesn't know what he meant: “I don’t know what the senator means. But if Senator Biden is implying that sociology students at Bryn Mawr College are ‘very attractive’ and more liberal than he is, I wouldn’t spend any time trying to disabuse him of that notion.”

I'd guess that Biden was referencing the antiquated notion that Mawrters are so engrossed in their books and studies that they are unaware of what's going on in the rest of the world. But hey, at least he understands that attractive women attend Bryn Mawr, so that's progress, right?

Kimberly Blessing

Student Reaction to a Computer Science Course Using Robots

2 min read

Over at the Institute for Personal Robots in Education Blog Natasha Eilbert summarizes the feedback from the intro CS class taught with robots at Bryn Mawr and Georgia Tech:

The class consisted, in large part, of non-science students, many choosing to take the class incidentally. However, students felt that, through the course, they learned important, basic computer science concepts, such as breaking down a problem and planning out a solution. They got the impression that computer science involves logical thinking, problem-solving, and patience, and they left feeling that computer science was fun (how great!). Most students enjoyed using the interactive, hands-on Scribbler robots, and a number of them even became attached to the life-like creatures. The students did get frustrated with the robots at times, especially over the imprecision of the robots and over hardware issues that were out of the students’ control; at the same time, they learned that it is reasonable that, like humans, robots are not completely perfect. ... Happily, most of the students left the class with the feeling that computer programming was important and in some way relevant to their future life, whether in their field of study or in the every day world.

Awesome!

Kimberly Blessing

What time is it?

1 min read

I'm at Bryn Mawr today for a meetings, and while in one about engaging young alumnae I chatted with my old friend Carolyn Lloyd '99:

Carolyn
When are you going home?
Me
Umm...
Carolyn
Well when are you going wherever? What time zone are you going to?
Me
Well... I usually just operate on Eastern Standard Time...
Carolyn
I think you should have your own time zone. Kimmie Standard Time!

I was too tired to have a decent exchange with Carolyn, but the KST concept is pretty funny... though with all of the time zone changes I go through, maybe it ought to be called Kimmie Non-Standard Time?

Kimberly Blessing

Anniversaries

2 min read

I'm celebrating four anniversaries:

  1. Today was the fourth anniversary of Kevin and me getting married. We've had our ups and downs, but all in all, it was a pretty good idea. After all, it's nice being married to your best friend. (Thanks for putting up with me, mister.) Well, that's all changed!
  2. This month marks the tenth anniversary of my graduation from Bryn Mawr College and I get to celebrate next week by heading back to campus for Reunion. For two days I'll get to catch up with classmates that helped shape four very important years of my life -- somehow two days just doesn't seem like enough time, but at least we get to stay in Denbigh. (Thanks to all of my friends, but especially to Melissa, who befriended me early on and has been there for me ever since.)
  3. I bought tickets to see Duran Duran next month in NYC. The date is just a few days off from the twentieth anniversary of my first Duran show -- June 22, 1987, when they played the Philadelphia Spectrum on the Strange Behaviour tour. My mom went with me in '87 and she's going with me now. In fact, there were only a few shows we didn't attend together. (Thanks, Mom, for putting up with my obsession.)
  4. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary friendship with my pal, Alana. We only lived on the same street for about seven years, but no distance (in miles or time) has been able to separate us. Next to my mom, she's the person who knows me best and has made sure that I've always stayed true to myself. I hope I've been able to do the same for her. (Thanks, 'lana.)
    Me and Alana in 1978

Note: I listed these anniversaries in chronological order, but if I had to list them in order of significance, they'd be reversed. Really.

Kimberly Blessing

Anassa Kata, Drew!

1 min read

It's official! Earlier today, Drew Gilpin Faust (Bryn Mawr '68) was unanimously confirmed as President of Harvard!You probably need no reminder, if you've heard the news, but she is the first woman to hold this office (as well as "the best candidate", according to the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation). As Drew herself said, "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard."

CNN has the AP story, and the Harvard newspaper, The Crimson, live-blogged the announcement.

Also, don't miss Bryn Mawr's write-up and Drew's 2001 Commencement speech.