Writer/editor/programmer on Mac, JavaScript, CSS, & Web geekery. See dori.com, b
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When Women Stopped Coding

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Modern computer science is dominated by men. But it hasn't always been this way.

A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.

What happened?

We spent the past few weeks trying to answer this question, and there's no clear, single answer.

But here's a good starting place: The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.

These early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.

This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.

Movies like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds and War Games all came out in the '80s. And the plot summaries are almost interchangeable: awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.

Patricia Ordóñez didn't have a computer at home, but she was a math wiz in school.

"My teacher realized I was really good at solving problems, so she pulled me and this other boy out to do special math," she says. "We did math instead of recess!"

So when Ordóñez got to Johns Hopkins University in the '80s, she figured she would study computer science or electrical engineering. Then she took her first intro class — and found that most of her male classmates were way ahead of her because they'd grown up playing with computers.

"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "

In the '70s, that never would have happened: Professors in intro classes assumed their students came in with no experience. But by the '80s, that had changed.

Ordóñez got through the class but earned the first C of her life. She eventually dropped the program and majored in foreign languages.

More than a decade later, though, she returned to computers. She found a mentor, and eventually got a Ph.D. in computer science. Now she's an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Puerto Rico.


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dori
16 days ago
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I've read a lot of this type of article, and they all have one thing in common: they never include any women who entered tech in the time period the article covers. I'm not that hard to find, and it's not like I'm the last woman standing in my cohort. So why the complete lack of representation?
Healdsburg, CA
fxer
15 days ago
As someone mentioned in the HN comments I'm not sure the timeline of women retreating from CS and personal computers becoming common in homes matches up. I'd love to hear your story though
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The Day I Was Miss Kentucky

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I’ve never thought of myself as any great beauty. I can’t even go for the “ruggedly handsome” look. Yet there was a day in 1996 when the title of a beauty queen was kind of thrust upon me. It’s an odd story that involves the combination of my lifelong disability, my eternal willingness as a book author to hype my work, and some very nice folks that wanted me to help do some good in their community.

Let me set the medical stage. I was born with a congenital birth defect called spina bifida. Kids with spina bifida are born with something wrong at the lower end of their spinal cord. Sometimes the deformation is so mild that the patient has essentially normal function, and may never find out about their spina bifida until they get a x-ray later in life. In moderate cases, which is where I fall, there could be a bump under the skin at the bottom of the spinal cord. This bump is usually made up of fatty tissue, and often snags and holds the spinal cord in place (which is why it’s sometimes called tethered cord syndrome). The doctors knew I had spina bifida because of that bump right above my butt (surgically removed when I was 9 months old; before the advent of CT or MRI, so they were practically working blind), and I also had some ancillary problems, such as a club foot and some neurological defects. I had a bunch of corrective surgeries throughout childhood, and something medically awful happens to me around every ten years. It’s had nothing to do with my current cancer, though. Still, I was in relatively good shape, because kids with more severe spina bifida are born with their spinal cords hanging outside their body in a little sac. They are usually paralyzed from the waist down and therefore live out their (often considerably shortened) lives in wheelchairs. I was born in 1956, and very few people who were born with spina bifida in my age cohort are still alive. In contrast, my spina bifida was mostly under control in 1996; I was completely ambulatory (didn’t even use a cane) and people who met me generally had no idea I had a disability.

Enter Kentucky

So one fine day in 1996 I got a call out of the blue from a very nice gentleman who was working for the Spina Bifida Association of Kentucky. At the time, I had written a few books, and I was a Contributing Editor at Macworld magazine. I was certainly no celebrity, but I fit the criteria he was looking for, which was basically Spina Bifida Folks Who Have Made Good. He asked if I would be willing to come to Paducah, Kentucky to take part in a spina bifida awareness event they were having. They would pick up transportation and lodging, I could bring a case of books to sell at a get-together with other folks from the community, and a local computer store wanted me to give a talk about the Macintosh. It looked like a fine two-day trip. They was no pay, but I figured it would be fun just to do. Travel arrangements were made and I flew into Paducah on one of those little prop planes. My hosts met me, and then we were off to the B&B where they had secured a room for me to stay. As we were driving there, I chatted up my host and mentioned that there certainly seemed to be a lot of churches, given the town’s size. He told me that there were probably more churches in town than in any other in Kentucky, and depending on the church you belonged to, it would make a major difference in the prosperity of your business. I thought how different that was from Southern California, but held my tongue otherwise.

The next day was the event, and we started out at the computer store where I had a talk about Macintoshes ready to go, which I delivered to about 30 people. I noticed something a little odd; all of my hosts were unfailingly polite, but there was something a little off in the way they were treating me. I finally figured it out: because I had spina bifida, they had expected me to show up in a wheelchair. Well, I couldn’t be responsible for their expectations so we continued on to the event.

There I was sat down at a table where I had a chance to talk to several younger people with spina bifida, and we had some good talks about how it was possible to make your way in the world even though you had a disability. I think I was able to help them with my perspective as an adult, even though I wasn’t in a wheelchair.

My table mate was the lovely and talented Miss Kentucky, Veronica Marie Duke. It was kind of cool to see how she did autographs; she had a pad of photographs with her picture which she would sign, tear off the top sheet, and hand it to her adoring fan. The little girls, in particular, were knocked out by that crown. I chatted a little bit with her, but she was mostly strictly business.

The Sign

But here’s the thing that I liked the most about the whole trip: the sign on the front of the table we were sitting at. I have the original in a box somewhere, but I’ve mocked up this exact replica.

TOM NEGRINO

MISS KENTUCKY

Thanks to whoever was knocking out those signs for writing them that way.

And on the flight home, as the plane banked away from Paducah I realized something: I felt pretty.

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dori
69 days ago
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Healdsburg, CA
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Who will play Trump in Clinton's prep debates?

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The Clinton campaign is currently wrestling with how to prepare for the first debate with Trump coming up at the end of September. Part of that challenge is picking a proper sparring partner for the mock debates.

It's one of the most uncomfortable and important jobs in Democratic politics: trying to embarrass the woman who could be the next president.

The person picked to be Hillary Clinton's sparring partner in her upcoming debate prep sessions is expected to confront her about the death of Vincent Foster, label her a rapist's enabler, and invoke the personally painful memories of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.

I've been thinking about this since the Republican convention and there's an obvious choice here: Stephen Colbert. Clinton needs to prepare to deftly counter energetically delivered nonsense, personal insults, and things no politician would ever say. Does that sound like the host of a certain Comedy Central show? Colbert's smart, quick, knows the issues, and, with his talent, could tweak his Colbert Report persona toward the Trumpesque. He wouldn't have a problem tearing Clinton down in person; he did the same thing to George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. I bet he'd jump at the chance to do it too. Let's make this happen, America!

Tags: 2016 electionDonald TrumpHillary Clinton politicsStephen Colbert Stephen Colbertpolitics
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dori
110 days ago
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I've always thought that the obvious choice was Al Franken, personally.
Healdsburg, CA
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I’ve had a big secret. Now I’m sharing it.

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This post will upset many of you. I am sorry about that. I’ve been ill for quite some time, but I haven’t talked about it. Brace yourself for the really bad news.

I’ve got cancer. It’s bad, and I’m not going to survive it.

Back in late January 2014 I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastasized renal cell carcinoma. It’s a return of my 2010 kidney cancer (which we thought was cured), but spread, and it is inoperable and terminal. It’s now spread to many areas of my body. I’m all too familiar with this, because my father died from same kind of cancer in 2013. Soon, I will follow him. How soon? It’s hard to say. Back when I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that I was likely to still be here in two years, but perhaps not in three.

In general, I haven’t gone public with this, though I told family, some friends, and colleagues when I had a chance to sit down with them at Macworld Expo 2014. I’ve kept things mostly under wraps because I didn’t want to publicly become Cancer Guy, because I’ve seen that happen to other people I know. Cancer is something I have; it does not define who I am.

Over the past 28 months, we’ve tried a variety of treatments, including radiation therapy and two very different kinds of drugs. I was never under the belief that these treatments would save my life. I was bargaining that they would extend my survival, and overall, they did. But in May 2015, I had to stop the first drug because of a complication. I wasn’t able to restart that drug until September, and three days after that, I had an unexpected allergic reaction to it which gave me a stroke.

That took a few months of recovery, and in February 2016, I tried a brand-new drug that actually offered some hope for a possible cure. Two weeks later, we learned that instead of eating the cancer, the drug turned on me and made my body begin to eat itself. Not a recommended response, so that avenue was done.

At that point, my oncologist said “It’s time to start talking about hospice care.” We met with the hospice nurse in March, and we came to the conclusion that although I’m an appropriate candidate for hospice, I’m not yet ready for it. But it’s definitely in my future, and it will provide me with some good services towards the end of my life.

Let’s Talk About Talking About Cancer

It’s difficult to discover that someone you’ve know for a long time is going to die, and relatively soon. I’ve had a lot more time to think about it than you have, so here’s some ideas.

Things To Say To Me When You Find Out That I’m Dying

This is almost certainly not an exhaustive list, but it seems to be the useful things that I’ve learned people can say. The most common feelings most people have expressed to me is that they feel overwhelmed and helpless. That’s totally normal. If you’re the kind of person who likes to control things or make them happen, add on “frustration” to that list. After more than two years, here’s what I’ve learned are good things to say:

  • Express your sorrow and surprise that this is happening to me and Dori.
  • Express your empathy. The situation really sucks.
  • If you feel moved to, offer help. Most people say something like “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” You’re not obligated to say it. I won’t be offended if you don’t. But don’t be surprised if I accept your offer and ask you to do something. For example, a friend whom I know to be a brilliant social planner recently offered her beautiful home and planning services for a memorial celebration. I would have been a fool to say no, so I didn’t.
  • After I die, do anything you can to help Dori. She’s going to miss me a lot, and she’s going to need support.

Things Not to Say to Me When You Find out That I’m Dying

  • Please don’t ask me not to die. There really isn’t anything I can do about it. Believe me if there was, I would’ve been doing it for the past 28 months. In fact, I have been doing that for the past 28 months. I know that you don’t want me to die. I don’t want to die either. However asking me not to die is a frustrating request that I can’t fulfill, so it just makes us both sad.
  • Similarly, insisting that I can beat this cancer if I just have hope, or if I fight real hard is a crock of crap. I know you mean well, but this is really an expression of your own denial rather than a comment about me.
  • Since my diagnosis, I’ve been intermittently sending out an email newsletter. I’ve been publishing it approximately every three months, mainly so I didn’t have to make a zillion phone calls to family and close friends every time there was a medical development, and there have been a lot of them. If you are interested in reading these newsletters from the start, they are all available at this link on Dropbox. Feel free to subscribe if you’re interested in future details. If you have any problems using the links in the PDFs, let me know in the comments here and I’ll add a signup form to this blog.
  • If you suggest to me that everything will be better if I become a vegan/vegetarian/ignore Western medicine, or take some bullshit treatment that you read about on Facebook or the University of Google or Joe’s Magical Cancer Cure Site, Dori has volunteered to delete your comment with extreme prejudice and unfriend you for me on Facebook and/or Twitter. The same goes for other superstitions like astrology, homeopathy, drum circles, and rubbing blue mud in my navel. That’s because at this point my most precious commodity is time, and I simply don’t have the time to waste on stuff that isn’t proven to work. “Anecdotal evidence” is a term like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence.” I have already tried all of the things that have been proven to work. I won’t waste my time grasping at straws based on Internet anecdotes. I realize this is going to hurt some people’s feelings. So it goes.
  • Along the same lines, I appreciate that your cousin/great aunt/friend of a friend had an amazing experience with cancer after they did blah blah blah, but please keep those experiences to yourself. I do not want to read about other people’s cancer stories. I have all the cancer stories I need. I made my own.

I Think Religion Deserves Its Own Category

I am an atheist. I do not believe in a loving God. I was born with spina bifida, which has made my life difficult and painful in ways that, were I to describe them all to you, you might think that I was exaggerating for effect. Yet this is my real life, and I have lived with it for longer than I have known you. If I were to believe in God, I would tend to think of Him as a malign, sadistic thug, because my childhood was a terrible torment of multiple surgeries and social alienation. Approximately every 10 years since, just when I think that I have a handle on everything spina bifida has done to me, something new and awful happens. Dying of cancer has nothing to do with being born with spina bifida, as far as we know. But it does kind of put the cherry on top of the cupcake.

Back to religion. I don’t have it, but you may. I ask this in the strongest possible terms: do not urge me to get right with God before I die. No matter what, you will only succeed in pissing me off. On the other hand, if you tell me that I am in your prayers, I’m totally cool with that. I’m not a believer in the power of prayer to beseech a God that I don’t believe exists. But oddly, I feel fine and comforted with the idea that other people care about me and are hoping for the best. If that’s as formalized as a prayer, that’s fine with me. If it’s a fleeting thought that you hope I’m having a good day, that’s also okay. But no matter what, I’m not going to get religion at this late date. Don’t try to sneak it in on me that way.

My Current Status

Most days, I’m mentally alert, and despite the stroke, I talk just fine. The stroke did slow down my reading speed, which I find really annoying. Also because of the stroke, I can’t drive the Mercedes I bought right after my diagnosis, which is frustrating to no end. I’m tired a lot of the time, and for now, I use a walker to get around, though I’m about to start some physical therapy in the hopes of getting back on my feet. I’ve also become very familiar with different kinds of powerful pain medication (it’s less fun than it sounds). For now, I’m still having more good days than bad.

I’m going to continue to talk about my cancer. If I have a lot to say, I’ll do it here on the blog and in my email newsletter (described above). Briefer comments will end up on Twitter and/or Facebook. If you have questions about my medical status, feel free to ask, though I reserve the right not to answer.

So that’s the news I’ve been holding on to for more than two years. I’m still Tom; I haven’t become just Cancer Guy. But now you all know I’m a guy who is going to die of cancer, and though we hope it won’t happen this year, it very well might. Wish me (and Dori) well in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dori
216 days ago
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Healdsburg, CA
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It’s Our 16th Blogivarsary!

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Tom

Back in 1999, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Dori decidedly to create this newfangled thing called a “blog.” Frankly, I was skeptical.

“So you write stuff you want, on any subject at all, and random people come and read it?”

“Yeah, that’s the way it works,” she replied.

That didn’t sound quite right, but I decided “What the hell,” and joined Dori in building Backup Brain. I’m glad I did. Even now, in the age of social media that has taken the things I may have once written about in blog posts and distilled it into 140-character sound bites, I’m still happy to have a place where I can expound at length, especially for personal subjects.

Around the start of September, I had a series of seizures that left me with a stroke. You might not be able to tell by talking to me, but it’s impaired my reading and writing. I think this is the longest thing I’ve written since the stroke. It’s good to know I can still write; the thought that that ability could have been taken from me was terrifying. Because, if I am not a writer, then who am I? I’m happy to say I’m still here, 16 years and many setbacks later. Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed my stuff, and my love and gratitude to Dori for getting me into this.

Dori

The initial plan when I launched this blog was that it would primarily be for links, which I could then easily find and refer to later — hence its name.

Over time, the purpose and goals of blogging and blogs in general have evolved dramatically, and this one has not been immune to those changes. OTOH, that’s true of all teenagers, right?

But throughout all those changes, there’s been one — completely unexpected — result I truly appreciate, and that’s the people I’ve met as a result of blogging. I’m not going to call out names; there’s far too many, and I’m sure I’d forget several (if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them).

That community of fellow bloggers, and later, commenters, are what I cherish most about this blog. That includes those of you I’ve only met virtually; back in ’99, it was considered bizarre to have friends you’d never met in person, and now, it’s common. But electronic or face to face, I deeply appreciate the friendship you’ve all shared with us over the years.

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dori
397 days ago
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Healdsburg, CA
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★ De Facto Veto Power

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Thom Holwerda posted a link on OSNews to my comments about Apple effectively having veto power over new web technologies. He didn’t add much commentary, other than:

What could possibly go wrong.

I’ll save you a link hover — “wrong” links to Wikipedia’s entry on IE 6.

The comments on Holwerda’s piece are interesting, insofar as they convey the frustration of those who resent Apple’s position.

It has nagged me ever since the “Safari Is the New IE” debate erupted a few months ago that there’s a simple, succinct, counterargument. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Reading Holwerda’s post yesterday, it popped into my head. The difference is that IE 6, at its peak, wasn’t just so popular that it allowed Microsoft to unduly influence the direction of the web — IE 6 was so popular that it allowed Microsoft to define the web. It was as though IE 6 was the web. When banking sites required ActiveX plugins, they were making websites that only worked in Internet Explorer, only on Windows. In the eyes of many web developers and publishers, it was the one and only browser that mattered.

The web today is nothing like that. No single browser (or rendering engine) has an overwhelmingly dominant position. Four browsers/rendering engines share the world: Microsoft’s IE/Trident (and now the modernized Windows 10 browser, Edge), IE/Trident, Mozilla’s Gecko, Apple’s Safari/WebKit, and Google’s Chrome/Blink. In a world where one rendering engine does not rule the entire web, conflicts between the various popular engines are inevitable.

There are a lot of nerds — and I use that term affectionately, not pejoratively — for whom politics of any sort are just anathema. Government, office, standards body — any sort of politics. Politics are often illogical, and often unfair. Nerds like logic and fairness. Because of this willful political blindness, my main point regarding Apple’s veto power over web browser technologies is missed by some. It isn’t whether it is right or wrong, fair or unfair, that they have this power, or whether Apple’s strategy is the correct one. It’s simply to point out that they have this veto power. And so do Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla — Apple isn’t any more powerful than the others. (Except Mozilla, which I’d argue is the least powerful of the big four rendering engine makers — see below.) What makes Apple and Safari stand out isn’t that they have more influence. It’s that Apple’s interests have diverged from those of a certain segment of the web development community — the segment interested in making mobile web apps more like native apps.

WebKit’s contrary priorities are not the result of disinterest in the web; they are the result of differing interest in the web.

As for how Apple can simply do what it wants, consider the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia. They each have veto power over any resolution. Critics complain that this veto power is undemocratic. Of course it is! These are the countries that won World War II and are officially recognized as nuclear-weapon states. Democratically, it isn’t fair that each member gets veto power. But a nuclear weapon arsenal gives each country geopolitical influence that cannot be denied or ignored. Might makes right. Whether that is how it ought to be doesn’t matter. That’s how it is.

There is no official “Web Standards Security Council”, but web browsing market share creates a de facto one. Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or Mozilla) can’t single-handedly veto a new API from becoming an official W3C standard, but if any one of them decide not to implement it, it can’t be relied upon by web developers. The real web is not that which is defined by the W3C as a standard,1 but that which is implemented in a consistent manner across WebKit, Blink, Trident, and Gecko. The secret to the web’s wonderful success is that it’s a (nearly) universal meta-platform; that which is not implemented on a major platform, like, say, iOS, is by definition not universal.

The web community cannot compell any of these browser engine makers to implement a standard. Nothing the community does will make Apple, Microsoft, or Google act against their own self interests. Mozilla is a little different — they are of the web community. They control no popular device platform on which Mozilla is the factory-installed default browser. But in that same way, the other companies could not force Mozilla to accept the patent-encumbered H.264 standard for HTML 5 video. Mozilla stood its ground, on principle — effectively exercising its own de facto veto power. Years later they changed their mind in the face of overwhelming demand and the failure of WebM to catch on. (They should have seen supporting H.264 as inevitable as far back as 2010, but it was their prerogative to remain blinded by political high-mindedness in the name of “openness”.) The same will happen with any web technologies that Apple is slow to adopt. If such standards become popular in Chrome, IE, and Mozilla — popular in a way that it becomes obvious that iOS users are missing on something everyone else is enjoying — Apple will be forced to relent, because it will be obvious that it’s in their own self-interest to do so. And if these web technologies don’t catch on, and pressure from real-world widespread usage doesn’t weigh upon Apple, there’s nothing the web developer community can do about it.

I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It just is how it is.


  1. If that were the case, we’d all be generating XHTML 2.x markup, and HTML 5 — which is what we’re all actually generating — wouldn’t even exist. ↩︎

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dori
445 days ago
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My actual long-time opinion is that Apple is in the business of making and selling consumer hardware. That's not Google's business model, or at least not 99% of it.

In order to see Apple as being fundamentally anti-Google, you have to have a very skewed idea of one (or both) of the company's business goals. Or always immediately assume that Apple is morally suspect, which I've found to be the usual case.
Healdsburg, CA
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aaronwe
445 days ago
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"...the failure of WebM to catch on..."

Which had absolutely nothing to do with Apple's refusal to support WebM, of course.
Denver
wmorrell
445 days ago
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The point is, Gruber is explicitly not making any moral argument. He is only laying out the state of the world. When others try to turn that opinion of "veto" into a, "Apple has veto; veto is bad; therefore, Apple is bad," argument, the same argument applies to all major browsers.

As for all this harping on "attacking Google business model!" Even if that point is granted, so what? That is how business works. I could also say that Android was/is an attack on Apple's mobile business. Doesn't make Android inherently bad or good, it's just competition. Nobody has a right to a business model free of change. Google adapts, Apple adapts, the market adapts.
dori
445 days ago
But don't you know? If Apple does something, it is, by definition, morally bad. Likewise—as is the case here—if Apple doesn't do something, it is, by definition, morally bad. Google = "not evil"; therefore, "not Google" = evil.
jhamill
445 days ago
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The "it is, what it is" argument is my least favorite argument anyone can make.
California
donmcarthur
445 days ago
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Yes, let's hear it for standards non-compliance in support of Apple's business objectives, which basically involve an attack on Google's revenue model. AOL, the dream continues.
njr
445 days ago
Otherwise known as "competition".
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