Monday, March 23, 2009

A family history of computing

Ed. note: This post is part of the Ada Lovelace Day blog posting event on March 24, 2009.

My mother's mother was not an ordinary girl of the 1930's. First off, she never should have lived. She was born extremely premature to an unwed mother in a time when premature babies didn't have any chance, and an unwed mother had no support. Of course, her mother gave her away for adoption. What else could she do? And so, when my childless great-grandfather and great-grandmother were walking through the orphanage looking for a baby boy to bring home, to raise up so that he could help on the farm and support them in their old age, my grandmother was a very unlikely candidate indeed.

But, the family legend goes, as they walked through the line of bassinets, my grandfather stood stock still at the foot of one bed. He was captivated by the tiny, wrinkled thing inside the bassinet. He had fallen in love.

"Oh, no," The nurse warned, "You mustn't. She won't... you know. She was born too soon. And you wanted a boy. We have a lovely baby boy just over here..."

But my great-grandfather would not be moved. He had found his child. He was going to bring this one home, and no other.

There were no incubators back then. My grandmother was kept in a boot-box under the wood stove in my great-grandparents' farm house in San Leandro, California. They had to buy a goat so that the baby could have goat's milk, since her stomach was too sensitive to handle cow's milk. And that wrinkled little preemie that shouldn't have lived thrived. And she was loved.

And she was spoiled.

She had violin lessons and ballet lessons. Her mother, a seamstress by trade from a long line of seamstresses, made her the most beautiful dresses, and taught her the secrets of a master seamstress. And she excelled at all of it. In fact, she would one day play violin for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and dance in the San Francisco Ballet. But that was not her real love, her true love.

It turns out, she had another talent. One far more unexpected of a little girl. She was a whiz with numbers. Perhaps it came from the fact that her father wanted a boy to play with and teach, and chose to give his treasured little girl all the same things he would have done for and with a boy. Perhaps it was just innate.

She did her Bachelors degree in Mathematics. Then she got married, had children, got divorced, and went back to graduate school. She moved herself and her children to Nevada, studied, and worked as a dealer in a Reno casino while raising her (then) three kids on her own. She got a Masters degree, but never got her PhD.

Again, family legend fills in the story here with unverifiable claims, this time of struggles instead of joy. It's said that she wrote a dissertation for her doctorate, but her male advisor took the work and published it as his own before she could turn it in for her degree. Perhaps it's exactly true. Perhaps there is more to the story. Who knows? But it certainly isn't unexceptional. There are many stories of women getting cheated out of the work that they did when a male in their workplace or school took credit for it.

My grandma returned to the San Francisco Bay Area with her children and her Masters degree and went to work at Laurence Livermore Laboratory. Even in the world of technology, she did a job that was considered women's work. She was one of the people who checked the math of the computers. You might call that a QA engineer today, only she wasn't checking on how well a GUI worked, she was checking to make sure that the fundamental math behind the program was designed correctly and that the answers coming out of the computer were the ones expected. She'd have to do the math by hand, with pencil and slide-rule, for a certain percentage of the responses, to make sure that all of the output was trustworthy.

My grandmother wasn't a terribly nice person, and she wasn't a very good mother, unfortunately. She didn't die happy or in the company of her children. She was, actually, pretty bitter and mean and even selfish. She left a legacy of mental health problems. Two of her three daughters committed suicide. Her son is an alcoholic. Her eldest child, who seems to have faired the best, and yet still has many problems of her own, is my mother.

My grandmother is a mystery to me. How could someone so brilliant be so unkind to her own children and sow so much discord in her own family? I don't know. But I do know that her grandchildren are all very bright, despite all of our own problems. One of her granddaughters grew up to be a lawyer. One grandson and one granddaughter grew up to be programmers. I lost touch with three of her grandsons years ago, but when they were kids they were all honors students, too. Perhaps one of them is a mathematician like her.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Why I love Homeschooling

This is re-posted from another journal of mine which is mostly friends-locked. I'm posting this here because this site gets a wider range of readers, and also because people outside my small circle of friends are more likely to feel comfortable commenting here, and I would, very much like to read your comments or blog posts on the subject of homeschooling.

I don't have an ax to grind against the concept of school in general. There are good ones and there are bad ones. There are good teachers and there are bad teachers. There are also schools and teachers that are good for some kids and not good for other kids. Education is not a one size fits all sort of thing. The thing that I do have an ax to grind against is the idea that all children need to be educated in one specific way. That idea is patently ludicrous and isn't even borne out in the world of public education within one given system, much less across the many different systems that exist on our planet today.

Some people think that you can't give your child as many opportunities to learn at home as you can in a school environment, and for some schools that may, in fact, be true. The vast majority of schools, however, suffer from the opposite problem. Each class has to teach to a specific level, not getting ahead of itself for the quick nor slowing down for the laggers. Most schools suffer from a lack of funds and resources, and so they have to do with whatever they have. In general, schools also suffer from time constraints that require subjects to be carved into specific time slots and attention blocks.

At home you are not constrained by the four walls of an institution nor by the scheduling issues of a corporate body. If you would like to study French by visiting a French speaking place on the off season, you can go right ahead and do that. If you would like to keep reading your book about Greek history past 10 o'clock at night, that's fine, too, as long as your own priorities for the next morning allow for a late wake up.

As a homeschooler, for each topic you study you can be an autodidact or you can seek out tutors from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes you will choose to take an organized class on a specific subject. Sometimes you will find an inspiring mentor to help guide you in a particular learning endeavor. Many times you will learn a single subject from a number of different people that you communicate with in different places and different contexts -- the librarian, a professional in the field, hobbyists on the 'Net, friends you meet at a supply store or event. Some of your teachers will be peers of your own age. Some of your peers in a topic you explore will be much older than you are, and will be learning as much from you as you do from them.

As a homeschooling parent I don't have to know everything that my children want to or need to learn. I never even took calculus, so how could I ever teach it? I can't. Instead, my kids can teach me, or we can learn together. I take immense pride in the fact that my eldest son taught me almost everything I know about marine biology and absolutely everything I know about cephalopods in particular.

Homeschooling builds a sort of tightly bonded family that is extremely rare today in the Western world. People notice the relationship that I have with my kids, and fellow homeschooling families say that they experience the same thing. One of the reasons that we are so close is that we talk to each other. A lot. About lots of different subjects. That builds familiarity, sure, but it also builds trust. How many teenage kids actually enjoy sitting and talking with their parents? For me, the teen years have proven to be the best so far precisely because of the great conversations, movies, books, and activities that we've been able to share.

Homeschooling also builds a kind of independence that is uncommon amongst regular-schooled kids. The homeschooled youth knows that he or she has power over their day, their life, and the things that they learn and do. They may be guided by adults, but they have a much stronger sense than most about the fact that they are ultimately in control. Whereas school children who study topics outside of the school curriculum or skip ahead in their textbooks are considered nerds and geeks, homschooled children who do the same are the norm. Whereas school children who decide to start their own business, write a novel, arrange an apprenticeship for themselves or volunteer independently at an organization they care about are considered remarkable, amongst homeschoolers any of those endeavors are just part of the package.

I love homeschooling because it is limitless, borderless, boundaryless, and immensely fulfilling.

When I was very young and impressionable, somewhere around the age of 6 or 7, my dad told me that school wasn't there to teach me all the subjects that I was supposedly learning. What it was really doing was teaching me how to learn. Learning, he said, is one of the most important things in life. You will need to do it all the time if you want to be able to compete in the job market, if you want to be able to keep up with changes in technology and science, and if you just want to be a better person. Reading and math are tools for learning. The scientific method is a tool for learning. The things you learn about social studies and literature are building blocks on which to build more learning.

The thing is, if that's true, then school may be the wrong tool for teaching what we most need. What percentage of 5 and 6 year olds start their school careers as curious and inquisitive little beings excited about the prospects of learning more, more, more? What percentage of people come out of school full of wonder and a desire to keep learning? I don't have exact numbers, but I'm sure that you know as well as I do that the majority of people finish up school feeling burnt out and not wanting to go back to that experience ever again. For many people, the idea of learning a brand new skill 5 or 10 years after they have gotten out of school is terrifying. This does not bode well.

There are a few things that I think that my parents did extremely well in my early life. One of them is that they helped me to separate between the concept of "school" and the concept of "education". When I was a kid the first was presented to me as a legal requirement, the second as a thing of great joy which, when you are lucky, you can glean from the first. Why hope for luck when you can squeeze education out of every moment in your day without school?

Monday, March 2, 2009

A new kind of Nigerian Scam?

If you are not familiar with the Nigerian Scam yet, you may live in an email-free bubble. This is one of the most popular ways to separate naive and overly trusting people from their money. I won't bore you with the details, you can click the link above and find out about it if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Today, I got an email that may well be the new Nigerian Scam for a world in economic recession. Looking for a job? Great! We can make you a manager. Work remotely. Get 2500 USD/month. Riiiiight.

Now, I'm not sure what's going on here, or how the scam works, but I am quite certain that it is a scam. The from address does not match the name in the from line which does not match the "signature" at the bottom of the email. The "ID" at the bottom of the mail is an interesting touch to try to make this look real, but it appears to be nothing more than a string of random numbers.

Have you seen this scam? Do you know the rest of the story?

Move on with your career: Manager (Remote, part-time vacancy; 2500 USD/month, No investment)
Marie Green Mon, Mar 2, 2009 at 11:19 AM
Dear Job Seeker,

Due to converge of our mutual interests within the boundaries of the employment process, we'd like to manifest provision of the newly opened entry, available for your immediate contemplation.

An expansion process, has inevitably triggered the underscored insurance company to form complementary positions within the market of operation.

We're providing a feasible opportunity to put your legal background to use in the insurance/accounting sphere. Undoubtedly, our ultimate aim is to bring the confort work environment, stimulating a reciprocal leap towards beneficial and justifying operating conditions.

Informational table is presented below, to briefly outline the opening.

* Benefits and privileges:

-Feasible career advancement opportunities.
-Extensive tutelage (probation period) for the first two months.
-Fixed payout, resulting in 2000 USD monthly.
-Outstanding reimbursement plan.

* Requirements:

- Accuracy and leadership in the assigned operations
- Interpersonal and communication skills.
- Swift decision-making.
- Honesty and law obedience.
- Proficient use of Microsoft Office.

* Primary responsibilities:

- Preparing invoices, compiling itemized charges and submitting bills concerning insurance reimbursement enquiries.
- Commencing insurance operations (reimbursement cases).
- Consolidating viable documentation, records and paperwork.
- This is not insurance sales position and you don't need to sell insurance, this is Money Manager vacancy.

If you want to apply please send all your questions and contact information ONLY to e-mail:
We're looking forward to our further communication.

Julie Mathews. HR department.
ID: 152032351851642108915