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DMS

Saturdays in Books

Reviews of speculative fiction, YA, middle grade, and graphic novels, along with stray thoughts, links, and pictures.

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The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent
Kathryn Morrow, James K. Morrow

Review: Pioneer Programmer

Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World - Jean Jennings Bartik

I came at this book by way of The Innovators, a book I've not read. My husband is reading it, and in part is continuing to be surprised by how much he doesn't know about the history of computers, especially with regard to the involvement of women. He knew about the Bletchley women, Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, the usual suspects. He knows that women were the original computers, but the details aren't something he's encountered before. We're out for drinks one night, and he starts telling me about the ENIAC's original programmers being women, and that one in particular sounded really cool - a woman who grew up in the midwest and got a math degree, who got a job offer to work in Philadelphia and hopped a train the next day, surprising everyone with her quick response. That woman, Betty Jean Jennings, applied for a position programming a new kind of machine and only got the job when the original applicant and first alternate both turned it down because of the location. I purchased her book right then and there. Obviously, using a computer.

 

When I think of the biography genre, I feel my eyes glazing and stiffle a yawn. I know that is entirely unfair of me. I blame a completely terrible series of history classes in high school, centered around memorizing dates tied loosely to "great man" stories that list accomplishments rather than describing people. But. But, when I think about biographies I've actually read, two subgenres stand out. Graphic novel biographies and assertive women's autobiographies. Pioneer programmer falls into the second category.

 

Bartik has some axes to grind and isn't subtle about it. I kind of love that. I've certainly worked with credit denying, revisionist historians. But we've all been there, right? We've all been pat of a team where the credit was unevenly distributed or granted to someone with only a tangential relationship to the work. For how many of us has that someone been von Neumann? That's part of the argument she's presenting, and it is fascinating to read. While this is autobiography, she uses the pages to also record the history of the early development of computers and a lot of the people involved.  She calls out errors in other people's historical accounts. She makes no pretense that she is unbiased, but that these are the facts as she recalls. With citations. It is glorious.

 

What I like even more is the honest recounting of the subtle and not subtle sexism she experienced throughout her career. And that she both states it's gotten better for working women while also acknowledging the amount of bullshit we still have to face. (I once had an older woman tell me how great it was that "feminism had happened" and that we were "all equal now" as part of criticizing me for, ahem, wearing pants. I shit you not. Her point was that I was allowed to wear a skirt and have long hair, and, therefore, I was doing woman wrong and disrespecting the victories of feminism by wearing pants. I see even worse versions of this shtick in political discourse, where older women tell younger women that since they (the older) fought to get to do and think X, they (the younger) are required to do and think X, and to do or think otherwise is a failure of respect. Don't do what men tell you, do what women tell you. Yeah, no. How's about I make my own decisions, thanks. Fortunately, that's not the tack Bartik takes.) Her later anecdotes include a man explaining that sure women programmed the ENIAC, but they didn't know what they were doing ('90's), and a boy saying she was getting too much credit for her work because she was just in the right place at the right time ('00's). That boy is now old enough to hold a college degree - I'm betting he's a real joy to work with. 

 

She was sharper in her 80's than I can ever hope to be. Her story follows fascinating people and technologies. And it's told in her own words here.

 

Why are you even reading my review when her book is out there right now? Is it because you want to recommend another autobiography to me? Is it scientist Margaret Hamilton's? Because that book doesn't exist. Yet. Oh, I do hope I'll get to read that book some day. Or engineer Carolyn Griner's? Go ahead, look each of them up on wikipedia. Don't you want to know all about them? Don't you want to hear what they have to say? I sure do.