More female programmers

I tried to post this comment to a public site, but failed repeatedly. The topic of the original post isn't relevant to my comment, which was in response to a comment that read, in its entirety:

Why would we would want more female programmers?

My answer:

The world needs more effectively mobilized brains. We can't afford to constrain ourselves on what size or shape or color the bodies are that house those brains. Also, diversity is good in itself: it improves flexible response, and it's silly to throw away a cheap source of diversity.

A major U.S. university with a strong CS program (I am contractually prevented from naming it) that had female CS undergraduate admissions in the single digits year after year was able to raise their admission to the same rate as other engineering programs by changing just one thing: they no longer gave people who already had programming experience preferential admission. There have been no changes in the overall performance of the student body in the years since.



This is to announce my edited version of H. Beam Piper's classic story of linguistic archaeology on Mars, "Omnilingual". Why edit a classic? Here's my Editor's Introduction:

H. Beam Piper's 1956 story "Omnilingual" is one of the few, and still one of the best, science fiction stories in which the science is linguistic archaeology. While the meat of the story holds up marvelously fifty years later, the particulars are firmly rooted in the 1950s. Everyone smokes like a chimney — on Mars! The women are called girls, and their gender is mentioned at every conceivable opportunity. All the work is still done with pencil and paper and sketching boards and looseleaf notebooks.

My edits, then, are intended to modernize the work, to help the 2009 reader not stumble over the details. Notebooks are computerized; sketchbooks have been replaced by tablets. Gender equality and the metric system are taken for granted. Smoking isn't even mentioned. I wedged in a mention of the Classic Maya decipherment of the 1980s (a counterexample to the story's thesis!), but let one of the characters dismiss it as irrelevant. I set the story, as Piper did, forty years in the future, but that is now 2049 rather than 1996. There are fewer This Is Science Fiction flags, so "Earth" instead of "Terra", "U.N." instead of "Federation Government".

Piper's Mars and his Martians are completely impossible based on what we know of Mars today. Rather than trying to change all that, which would have involved wholesale destruction and re-invention, I have changed the planet's name to Ares after the Greek rather than the Roman god of war. The intention is to suggest someplace analogous to Mars as we know it in 2009, but different in detail. The atmosphere on Ares is thin, but breathable with supplementary oxygen; the humidity, while low, supports plenty of life forms. As for the too-human Martians (or Areans), I have made them an offshoot of Homo sapiens whose presence on the fourth planet from the sun remains a mystery.

However, the characters, the plot, the underlying logic remain the same. Hopefully I haven't damaged the story too much in trying to adjust it to modern taste. Those who prefer the original form can easily find it at Project Gutenberg, who provided the public-domain base text from which this revision was made. They also have the original Frank Kelly Freas drawings, which I didn't feel right about using -- they were made in the 1950s, too, and no longer seemed to fit the revised text.

Read and enjoy!



David Moser's relentlessly self-referential story "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself" begins simply enough with the fairly ordinary sentence "This is the first sentence of this story."

But by the fourth paragraph, a harbinger of what is to come: "Introduces, in this paragraph, the device of sentence fragments. A sentence fragment. Another. Good device. Will be used more later."

True enough. "Incest. The unspeakable taboo. The universal prohibition. Incest. And notice the sentence fragments? Good literary device. Will be used more later."

A later passage from the same increasingly disconnected tale: "Bizarre. A sentence fragment. Another fragment. Twelve years old. This is a sentence that. Fragmented. And strangling his mother. Sorry, sorry. Bizarre. This. More fragments. This is it. Fragments. The title of this story, which. Blond. Sorry, sorry. Fragment after fragment. Harder. This is a sentence that. Fragments. Damn good device."

Still further down: "The purpose. Of this paragraph. Is to apologize. For its gratuitous use. Of. Sentence fragments. Sorry. "

And then: "Or this sentence fragment? Or three words? Two words? One?"

Getting near the end: "By the throat. Harder. Harder, harder."

Lastly: "This is."

Read. The whole thing. Worthwhile. NSFW, technically.


Why Are PHBs Stupid?

Mark Liberman on Language Log asks:
However we decide to define "manager", this group is certainly now the object of a complex of negative stereotypes. When and how did this start? I don't know, and I welcome suggestions. These attitudes may be connected to the antique European aristocratic disdain for those who are "in trade", and to the (I think related) modern intellectual disdain for the world of business. These attitudes seem to have been imported from the intelligentsia into industry through the medium of engineers and especially programmers, who (at least at lower levels) maintain a very different culture from the "suits" in finance, marketing, product planning, and so on.
I think Mark's right to speak of "engineers and especially programmers", and I think the key phrase is "maintain a very different culture". Historically, the boss that most people dealt with was the foreman, which the OED defines in the relevant sense as "the principal workman; specifically, one who has charge of a department of work." You began by doing the work, and if you got good at it, you ended up telling other people with less experience or less competence how to do it instead. This could go right up to the top: Thomas Edison began as an inventor, and wound up running a huge "invention factory", the first modern industrial research lab.

Two factors undermined this, though: the sense that promoting high-quality workmen instead of continuing to take advantage of their work made no sense, and the idea that management was or could be a profession abstracted from the particular work being managed. The first factor appeared particularly strongly in computer programming because of the huge disparity in productivity: the best programmers are literally two orders of magnitude more productive than the average. Losing a top steelworker to foremanship might cost the company the labor of 2-3 standard steelworkers, but losing the productivity of 100 merely competent programmers seemed insane. And of course geeks tend to like their jobs, and to be uninterested in (and incompetent at) people-managing. Companies had to deal with the widespread appearance of workers who did not want to be promoted, ever.

At the same time, the rise of the MBA spread the meme among the suits that managing people was a learned profession like law or medicine or engineering, where you primarily apply what you have learned from books, courses, etc. to the requirements of the job. Before that, management had always been seen as a job, like digging ditches or being President of the United States: you can prepare for it to some extent, but mostly you do a job by applying whatever you have to whatever you need to do.

Making management a profession was arguable; the associated notion that you could manage workers with no understanding of what they did was a disaster. Computer programmers were in the forefront of knowing what had happened: they quickly saw that their bosses had no idea of how the work was done, the necessary conditions for doing it, or the difference between what could be done, what could be done with extraordinary effort, and what could not be done at all. The boss had always been seen as a mean fellow (after all, he tells you what to do and can fire you), but now he also appeared clueless and even stupid, someone who could not be made to understand no matter what.
None of the early citations in the OED, nor the quotes that I find in LION, seem to reflect the modern Dilbertian managerial stereotype. That stereotype clearly predates Dilbert — but when did it arise? and where did it come from?

In this context, we have to return to Andrew's question: What is a manager, anyhow? By now, I suppose that the Dilbert empire employs a certain number of people, whom Scott Adams in some sense manages — does he thereby consider himself a "manager" in the relevant sense?
Scott Adams is not only a manager now, he has always been one by training: he was an economics major, not any kind of scientist or engineer, and he got an MBA before he worked with his first geek. He is extraordinarily observant (especially for an MBA, I add snarkily) and he actually does grasp how geeks think, but despite appearances he basically sees them from the outside. When I discovered this, the shock was so great that I started to see him as an outsider mocking my culture rather than an insider mocking its excesses (though to be sure Dilbert is harder on suits than on nerds), and I lost interest in the strip completely.

(Note: Even though Mark says he's been a manager since 1980, I think that industrial research and academia still basically run on the old model, and therefore their managers, including him, are mostly exempt from the trend I am reporting here.)