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Kimberly Blessing

Programming, Old-School Style

2 min read

I have a fascination with old computers. Growing up, I heard stories of archaic devices used by my grandfather and his colleagues to accomplish their math and engineering work. Then I went through a few machines myself: the stand-alone Pong console, various TRS-80s, an Atari 2600, multiple Commodore 64s and a 128, finally making it into the x86 line. When I got a new computer, the old one didn't become obsolete trash; it gained a sort of revered status. I'd leave it hooked up, always at the ready, and occasionally I'd take a trip down memory lane and load up some old programs, tinker with something new, or perhaps just bask in the glow of the TV screen/monochrome monitor. Yes, I'm a strange girl.

A DEC PDP-11 Ever since my first visit to the Computer History Museum, I've been fascinated by the DEC PDP-11. The PDP-11 was a series of 16-bit minicomputers which were programmed with toggles. Their design was strangely attractive. I saw plenty of PDP-11 parts for sale on eBay and wondered what it would take to build one. I figured there had to be an emulator out there, but I didn't take much time to look around.

Well, it turns out there is. And there are instructions! Inspired by DePauw University's (slightly cheesy, but fun) videos on programming the PDP-11, lab[oratory] is posting detailed instructions on using the SIMH simulator to program a simulated PDP-11! So join along in the play and experimentation, and program your very own PDP-11. It may not be as cool as handling those purple toggles, but it's still fun.

Kimberly Blessing

Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock

1 min read

I keep telling people that I'll play 'Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock' with them, but I get blank stares in return. How does everyone not know about this game? Learn more from the following video, and watch The Big Bang Theory!

Kimberly Blessing

I helped elect a female president!

2 min read

Yes, I wish I were talking about Hillary! But I'm not.

Instead I'm talking about the ACM elections, and the woman I'm referring to is Wendy Hall, CBE, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society, co-founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative, and (if you couldn't tell) one of my role models. So the votes have been counted and, come July 1, Wendy will also serve a two-year term as President of the ACM. Congratulations!

I should also mention that Wendy received the Anita Borg Award for Technical Leadership from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology at the 2006 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing, for which I was the webmaster -- an awesome volunteer opportunity which just happens to be available! If you've got skills in WordPress then please apply!

And speaking of GHC, I also need to mention that registration for the 2008 conference is now open! After so many years of attending, stalking Telle Whitney, and volunteering, this year I'm finally going to be speaking on a panel! (Go me!) So, don't miss this opportunity to interact with thousands of smart, successful, techie women -- including Fran Allen!

Gosh I love being a woman in computing.

Kimberly Blessing

Code Monkeys vs. Code Ninjas

3 min read

Software programmer Sara Chipps (yay! a woman!) has written an article titled Natural Programmers (Code Monkeys) vs. Career Programmers (Geeks in Suits). It's probably the best non-techie explanation of the behaviors, habits, and beliefs of the "natural programmer" that I've read -- and yes, I completely identified with much of what she wrote.

However, I have to take a step back and address an issue that I have with the two types of programmers she defines and the names she assigns to them.

First there's the "career programmer (geek in a suit)". These days I find that career programmers are not geeks, and they're definitely not in suits (always business casual!). I've found that they're in programming for the money; they learn enough to do their work -- perhaps well, maybe even to get to the point of being perceived as geeky. But I also find that these people lack a true passion for the craft of writing code. Sara suggests that the career programmer is more of a business person, concerned with cost effective solutions, but I'm not even sure that's true anymore. To me, this person's work is just a job, and if flipping burgers paid as much as programming, they might be doing that instead.

Like Sara, I fall into her other category of "natural programmer". But I am certainly not a code monkey -- I am a code ninja! (Actually, with a nickname like "Obi-Wan Kimberly", I'm probably a code jedi, but anyway...) I find the term "code monkey" to apply more to the previous category of programmer. Why? "Code monkey" implies that anyone can do what we do and that we work for bananas. "Code ninja", on the other hand, says that we're stealth and secretive, jumping out of the darkness when you least expect it. Our code takes you by surprise in its brilliance and our swiftness of execution is legendary. We could do no other job because we have trained for so long, perfecting our natural talent, and nothing else can satisfy our need for control over the systems we affect.

Sara closes her article with some OR logic about which type to hire, however I need to propose a more detailed and different solution. If you have only one programmer working for you, you probably don't want either of these types -- you need someone who really does fall into the gray area between the two extremes. (Yes, they are out there!) And if you have a team of programmers, you need a mix of these two types, and you need to put effort into getting them to communicate effectively with one another. Only then will you have both a killer team and killer code.

Kimberly Blessing

Cheap, programmable robot

1 min read

Via the Institute for Personal Robots in Education:

Scribbler Robot

We're pleased to let you know that the robot platform we developed for CS-1 instruction is now available for purchase.

The $149.95 platform includes a Parallax Scribbler robot, with an add on board developed at Georgia Tech. The complete diff-drive robot then includes: a color camera, bluetooth connectivity, a speaker, light sensors, and line sensors.

The robot can be controlled and programmed from a PC in Python using the Myro package developed at Bryn Mawr (included with the robot).

It is all part of our new curriculum for CS-1 centered on a robot context. The new textbook is also available online at our website.

Kimberly Blessing

Grace Hopper on Letterman

1 min read

This video was just too good to be left in my sidebar; the sheer fact that it exists mandated a full entry for it and its hilarity makes watching it a moral imperative.

Watch as a young(er) David Letterman is upstaged by Grace Hopper, not long after her retirement in 1986. My favorite part? Dave asks, "How did you know so much about computers then?" and Grace replies, "I didn't. It was the first one!"

Kimberly Blessing

The Return of Chris Knight

1 min read

OK, so it's not exactly the return of Chris Knight... but that was my first thought when I heard that Val Kilmer was going to make a guest appearance on the season premiere of Numb3rs next week.

Val Kilmer played Chris Knight in Real Genius, one of the best geek movies of all time. The movie takes place at a CalTech-like school, where Chris is a legendary math/science student and one of the top 10 minds in America (soon hoping to be two of them). Since Numb3rs also takes place at a CalTech-like school, I could've seen a story where Chris Knight visits and helps Charlie Eppes solve some big mathematical problem... but alas, that is not to be.

As it turns out, Kilmer will play Mason Lancer, the mastermind behind the events of last season that led to the discovery that Agent Colby Granger (Dylan Bruno) was a mole within the FBI. Now Granger has escaped from FBI custody, and it is up to Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow) and the rest of his team, including his mathematician brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz), to track him down and unravel the mystery.

Kimberly Blessing

Math without breaking a nail

2 min read

Wow, I'm impressed. Danica McKellar (from The Wonder Years) is all grown up (duh, we're the same age) and is a mathematician! And she's written a math book for middle-school-age girls.

My first thought was, how many parents will actually buy this for their daughters if they're already wrapped up in the "math is hard (if you're a girl)" culture? But then I remembered how many things (books, music, whatever) made it into my hands at that age... and I realized that there's a good chance many girls could end up finding this book. And given Danica's defense of looking at the big picture (talking about math and making cookies and fashion) there's a good chance that more of those girls could learn that loving math doesn't make you a freak or a geek or ugly... it's just part of who you are. (Maybe this book could teach those anti-math parents a thing or two.)

The page two questions are great -- and so are Danica's smart and snappy responses. Questions like "What's your favorite part of math to learn?" and "What helped you study in college?" aren't your everyday questions, but they're great ones for young adults to see adults answer in a serious manner.

The book, titled Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, is out now. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. I know a few girls for whom middle school isn't all that far away...

...oh, and my favorite topic in math was algebra. I love algebra.

Kimberly Blessing

Fran Allen to receive Turing Award

2 min read

Woo hoo! From the latest ACM Press Release (emphasis mine):

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, has named Frances E. Allen the recipient of the 2006 A.M. Turing Award for contributions that fundamentally improved the performance of computer programs in solving problems, and accelerated the use of high performance computing. This award marks the first time that a woman has received this honor. The Turing Award, first presented in 1966, and named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing, is widely considered the "Nobel Prize in Computing." It carries a $100,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation.

Congratulations, Fran! (See my pictures of Fran at GHC 2004.)

Over at USA Today, Kevin Maney has a great article on Fran. He tells her story and comments on the lack of women in technology fields at the same time.

Maney writes, "Allen, now retired from IBM Research, started in computing in 1957 — a time when tech companies, believe it or not, seemed like wide-open and exciting places for women to build careers." This echoes the sentiments expressed to me by Milly Koss last year, when she told me the story of how she was hired by Eckert-Mauchley just after getting engaged (typically a death knoll for a woman trying to start a career in the 50's).

I love how Maney confronts the hype around girls and women not being suited for math and science -- head on. "First of all, it's ridiculous to suggest that girls are less predisposed to math and science. Allen is not a freak of nature. Instead, something happened to the technology profession — and to public attitudes about it — to scare off girls." I couldn't agree more.

I remember first learning about Fran Allen, back when I was an undergrad. (Deepak encouraged us to learn about the history of computer science and, in particular, about the role of women in its history.) Ever since, she's been a role model to me, and I know she's been a role model and mentor to many other women as well. I'm so excited for her to receive this award, not only because it acknowledges her valuable contributions and dedication to the field, but also because it will make her story better known to scores of people (especially young women) considering a career in computing.

Kimberly Blessing

Cute as a

1 min read

Cute as a ButtonMy Valentine's day gift to you... a geeky tee that you can buy for yourself or your sweetheart!

Ah, the button element. Overlooked by some, but loved by those that know it and use it. With the power of button, you can make style great-looking form buttons in any browser. I was introducing someone to its awesomeness yesterday, when the idea for this tee came to me.

Get one now!