Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Who was Ada Lovelace and why should I care?

I was recently contacted on Facebook by a group asking me to participate in a worldwide event to celebrate the achievements of women in technology. It was hard to tell that much from the email, except that it was named after a female historical figure, Ada Lovelace. The group designated March 24 as Ada Lovelace day, and encouraged one and all to blog, tweet and generally spread the news about women in technology on that date.

I'd heard the name Ada Lovelace, though the only thing I could dredge up about her was a vague memory that the programming language Ada was named after her. As I discovered, her story was a tale of intrigue worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, someone did make a movie about her--or kind of: "Conceiving Ada," a sci fi thriller with a historical twist. But her real story has yet to be told on the silver screen.

Here's the synopsis, based on my online research. Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815, the only "legitimate" daughter of the famed poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbank. She never knew her father, who separated from her mother and who died when she was nine years old. Ada was often ill as a child.

Her mother, in an attempt to keep her safe from what she perceived could be inherited madness from her poet father, had her tutored in math. As it turned out, her talents in mathematics were immense. She eventually developed what is now considered the first algorithm, for Charles Babbage's analytical engine. There's even some speculation that she came up with the idea of using punch cards to program his machine. For that reason, she is credited with being the first computer programmer. According to the Wikipedia entry on her life: "She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities." She had a long and fruitful professional friendship with the mathemetician for the rest of her life.

Her social position meant that she had to make her way in English society. She was frequently seen at court as a young woman. It's amazing to imagine the young Ada spending her days poring over notebooks detailing Bernoulli sequences and sketches of the Babbage engine (which was never built in his lifetime). Then, somehow she tears herself away from these important musings in order to be stuffed into a massive hoop skirt, boned corset, and sheath by some maid or other, her hair primped, her face powdered in order to be "presented" at court and sized up by the eligible bachelors.

She married a man named Charles King, who later became the Earl of Lovelace. This earned her title of the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children. Meanwhile, she learned that her father's half-sister Augusta Leigh had also been his lover, and that her cousin Medora Leigh was the result of that union. Wikipedia says that she blamed Augusta, calling her "evil." From such a distance, how can we judge any of those involved? Still, one can only begin to guess at the heartbreak and family divisions that plagued those who were intertwined with Lord Byron. Ada died at 36 of uterine cancer, and, according to Wikipedia, the bloodletting she received from her physicians. She was buried next to the father she never knew.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Taste and Tweet

While much of the social media world was in Austin crowding in to hear Ev wax philosophic on Twitter last week, a handful of us headed up to the Napa Valley to enjoy sun, wine and general good times. The first annual, or "inaugural" Napa Valley Tweetup" was held this past weekend and included such tasty activities as an evening of heavy sipping at Robert Mondavi Winery and a panel on social media. Driven by Silicon Valley Tweetup founder Gabriel Carrejo of Excite Social Media, the event drew over 100 participants and raised thousands of dollars for charity.

This seems to be the moment for social media and wine. The Facebook fan page for the event continues to drive all kinds of posting. A week down the road, the Twitter hashtags #NapaValleyTweetup and #NVTweetup are going strong. For an analysis of the buzz that was created during the event itself, go to this post on The Cork Board. For a rundown on the whole event, Hello Vino has a lovely post.

I was part of a an intrepid group of die-hards who toured some of the Valley's hidden wineries on the second day of the event. Among our group were such social media-ites as Rich Reader, who had much to say, ask, photograph and video, and photographer Laura Iriarte, known as @lauralovesart on Twitter. Here's a picture I snapped of her before we took off. She and I both made the mistake of thinking that a dress and heels would be the right garb for the event, with no idea that we'd be hiking through muddy vineyards. But she seemed to take it all in stride.

Our tour guide Steven took us to three boutique wineries: Hall, Krupp, and Chappellet, where we guzzled chardonnays and merlots, sauvignon blancs and cabs, learning about harvesting, mulling, mixing, and cooperage. We were quizzed on the five varietals of Bordeaux and lectured on the finer points of soil mineralization. We found out about must and bladders, malolactic fermentation and the benefits of French oak. At Krupp Brothers, we were unloaded from the bus and packed into four-wheel drives so as to climb an impossibly steep, rutted dirt road. Then stood shivering the wind while sipping wine made from rare varietals.

There's a lot of talk about the wine business in general--and Napa Valley in particular--being in trouble. A recent study predicted that in the coming year, as many as ten wineries in the Napa Valley could be sold under distressed circumstances. Yet, this is also a time of immense promise. Many are realizing that the traditional barriers between wineries and end customers are crumbling. Blogs and forums, Facebook and Twitter, the fame of Gary Vaynerchuk, all are conspiring to change the face of this ancient, traditional industry forever.

A handful of folks are leading the charge into social media in Napa. Among the notables are Rick Bakas, social media director of St. Supery Winery (who was at SXSW during the tweetup) and Paul Mabray, cofounder of tweetup sponsor Vintank, a "digital think tank" for the wine industry. Paul was one of the panelists at the event, along with social media heavies Jennifer Leggio and Michael Brito. Coming from a wine ecommerce background, Paul's built an impressive company so far in Vintank. His clients Stag's Leap and Opus One, along with some wine technology plays like social media monitoring service Cruvee and ecommerce solution Vin 65. After the event I reached Paul by phone.

He explained that wine is very much a "long tail" business. It's hard to think of any other product in which there are over 750,000 different labels for customers to choose from (yes, you read that number right). Compare that with the number of wine reviews that come out each year, and you realize how hard it is to get noticed.  Even one blog post that reaches 10 people can serve as word of mouth, he said. In short, this is the place that wine and social media can be blended to create a full-bodied, toothsome creation with plenty of tones and structure.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Inspiring Teen Women to be Techy

This past Saturday, Foothill College hosted a crowd of 250 female middle- to high schoolers for a day of learning about everything from game programming to how to lead a tech startup. Dare2BDigital was designed to give young women in the 7-10th grades a chance to learn about exciting possibilities in computer science and engineering. This was the first year for the conference, which I hope will become annual event. This seems to be the moment for girls in tech. Similar conferences and events are popping up around the world. (There's even one in Israel, organized by two Israeli Google engineers--if you read Hebrew, check out this article.)

Looking around the room at the end of the day, I flashed on the final dinner scene near the end of every "Harry Potter" movie. There they all were at long tables, packed into the cafeteria. There was the same sense of inspiration and celebration; a feeling that we had all come through the experience and as a result, something inside us had changed.

Then it hit me--the difference was that I was standing in the middle of a room full of Hermiones. If you want a good sense of the day, check out the Twitter hashtag #Dare2BDigital. One of our two live bloggers, Vania of Vabulus Media has posted a good chunk of the tweets on her blog. Our other live blogger, Liz Burr (known as @calinative on Twitter) was on the spot with plenty of interesting observations. This was one of my favorites--tweeted directly from a workshop on web site programming:

Why this age group? Studies show that this is the age when most of us start thinking about what kind of career we'll pursue. At the same time, the computer industry is hamstrung by outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. Many young women are just like I was at that age--they're good at math and science, but they can't picture themselves locked in a basement somewhere, slamming Jolt colas and coding till their eyes go funny.

As conference leader Anne Hardy of SAP explained to me on my weekly women in tech podcast, TechnoGirlTalk, many young women want to do something that gives back to the world. They want to help animals, or the environment. They're also interested in work that involves being artistic and creative. What they might not know is that computer science offers all of this in spades. The workshops and speakers at this conference gave the girls plenty of food for thought. Morning keynote speaker Fei Fei Li, assistant professor at Stanford University Computer Science Department, told the girls that she had a number of challenges as an immigrant to the U.S. from China--but found a home and many worthwhile challenges in computer science. Afternoon keynoter Karen Gundy-Burlet, research scientist at NASA-Ames talked about how her testing and designs enable astronauts to function better on missions. One of her designs was even adapted on a Star Trek movie!

Why an all-female conference? Honestly, this wasn't something that was discussed very much during the event. Maybe because the answer seemed obvious--when girls get together without boys they're more likely to speak up, take risks, and generally take in more learning. But I think there might be another, more subtle reason. Watching the young women interact throughout the day, I couldn't help but notice how much they had to say about what they were learning. They weren't talking about makeup or boys (or if they were, I didn't hear that). They were talking about the Zynga game they'd created, or the fun they had simulating the course of a bit of information as it travels through the pipes of the Internet. In other words, the participants were directly experiencing what it is like to be in a career in computers.

When they looked around at one another they saw a whole lot of other female faces looking back. There's little danger women will entirely take over the computer industry (and this is obviously no one's goal), but there was a sense of creating a new digital culture. It will have many different skin tones, a diversity of skills, and a rich mixture of thoughts and ideas. If this was a peek into the future of high tech, I want to be there.

Photos: Martin Stein, conference co-founder. The remainder are at this link. Also please look out for a video created by the students in my workshop on tech reporting, which will be posted soon.