Monday, June 23, 2014

A Sane Woman Dreams of Turing Machines

The title for this blog piece is a riff on Jana Levin's book title A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.  It's one of those titles that both delighted me when I first heard it and made me sick with jealousy wishing I could come up with something so wonderfully evocative.  I first heard her speak on the Speaking of Faith NPR show (which is now called On Being); you can listen here.

On this day 102 years ago, Alan Turing was born--it's one of those births that would change the world as we know it.  He's one of the men who did the work that led to our modern computers (originally called Turing machines).

Would someone else have done the work had he not done it?  Probably.  But he did it when he did it, and so much would be different if we had had to wait for others to make the some discoveries and connections.

I have an intuitive understanding of the computer that some of my older colleagues do not.  Part of that understanding is because I have used them more.  I've also dabbled a bit with programming, way back in the BASIC days.  I went to college with people who were fearless about taking apart their Commodore computers and soldering the motherboards into new configurations.  Many days I wish I had continued down those roads.

But there are many creative paths I didn't follow.  Sigh.

Today is also the anniversary of the day when Title IX was signed into law, another development that changed my life in ways I can barely articulate.  We tend to think of Title IX as being about sports, but it was about so much more.  It requires gender equity in education, which has had all sorts of impacts that we continue to see today.

We live in a time period where more women are going to college than men--or if we're not quite at that point, we will be soon.  Even though pay rates are not yet equal, if we look at raw demographics, in my circles, it's not uncommon for women to be making more than men to whom they are partnered.

Are we all OK with that?  I know partnerships that are existentially threatened, while I know of others where the men are cheerful and happy that the bills are being paid.

Title IX has yet to change our landscape completely:  note the lack of women in the fields of engineering and computing.  Yet that might be more about our school systems than about how we treat genders.  Alas, we don't have the pre-college school infrastructure in place to train lots and lots of engineers, scientists, and computer designers.

It's strange to me that I went to school in the 1970's and early 80's, not exactly a high water mark for public education--or at least, it didn't seem to me at the time.  Yet we had computers to program back when they weren't cheap.  We were encouraged to explore all sorts of areas:  home ec, shop, art, computers, sports.  We dissected actual animals in actual Biology labs and created all sort of potions in Chemistry lab.  We took field trips to see local universities doing productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen.

Ah, the joys of the days of no high stakes testing!

I was also very lucky to have my parents.  My dad encouraged my interest in computers and sci fi and helped me survive shop class, which I had to take, despite my lack of interest and terror of power tools which has never receded.  My mom was happy to let me cook and bought any ingredients I requested--except for saffron which was ungodly expensive.  They both encouraged my interests in running, nutrition, and vegetarian cooking.  For parents born in the late 1930's, they were surprisingly free of gender role expectations.

So today I will raise a glass to Richard Nixon, who managed to accomplish much towards making us a more open society, both because of and in spite of his paranoia and bitterness.  Today I will raise a glass to Alan Turing, another deeply tortured man who catapulted our culture to a completely different place.

Today I will raise a glass to my parents, and I'll continue to wish that all kids could have parents who support and love them in ways that nurture them fully as individuals.  I'll wish that support and love and nurturing for us all, no matter how old we are.

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