Honoree for 2010 Ada Lovelace day = Accessibility Advocate and Educator Wendy Chisholm

finding ada is a movement in the name of 19th century programming theorist Ada Lovelace to acclaim the accomplishments of women in computing. Wendy Chisholm is a computer scientists well recognized in her field of accessibility and web design. I’d like to use this post to not only express my appreciation for her work but also to call attention to the accessibility field as a worthy versatile career path.

Chisholm’s co-authored book Universal design for web applications blends technical experience from w3c standards, snippets of programming patterns, and a deep respect for human differences. This book explains the rationale for many standards recommendations such as (my favorites) structure and semantics in headings. The now established design process of progressive enhancement is explained with strong admonitions to separate content from presentation and how to do that systematically. Many tools and checklists enable quality control over both process and product. In other words, this book is parallel to software engineering texts teaching essential knowledge and skills for professional web designers, as well as those that produce technical writings and organizational profiles in web format.

Web Accessibility for Everyone Podcast provides a profound insight into why accessibility matters so much for addressing individual differences, some designated by society as disabilities. Indeed, Wendy take the issue to the level of world peace. An example is the difficulty, using a screen reader, of finding routes in a public transit time table, typical in PDF or web pages. Indeed, the whole area of reading visually represented data is helpfully addressed in the book and a motivator for Chisholm’s computing interests. Wow, this podcasts would be a great entry point for computer science students and professionals — play it at your next brown bag lunch or design meeting.

Personally, I learned much from the book to codify my study of accessibility, as both a screen reader user and a programmer myself. I cringed often at the awful web gimmicks I used, such as layout tables and, horrors, blink. Living through and using the first generations of HTML has instilled many bad habits and , sorry, blinded us to bad practices. but, now, there’s no excuse for not gradually removing these warts and thoughtlessness that perpetuate barriers in a world where daily life and employment depend on rapid, accurate, and complete access to information from web sites. I’ve ranted here in prior posts about the decade old and now harmful qualities of computing websites such as ACM, CRA, and many Cs departments. Recently http://women.acm.org was proudly announced with good content from Turing award winners and women’s contributions to computing. but one quick pass with my screen readers showed lack of real structure and proper use of semantics as well as an egregious absence of labeled form elements. A compliance analyzer, like a static checker, http://wave.webaim.org confirmed these and more errors. what’s missing here? Mainly an accessibility statement identifying practices from web standards and a regimen of testing like I did in seconds. Hello, ACM, buy yourself this book and work with staff to get yourself up to snuff.

so, thanks Wendy, for providing such great educational content in an inspiring social context that rules the daily life of vision Losers like me.


Sputnik boosted our lives!

What if theU.S. rather than Russia had launched the first earth satellite?

This post is not directly in the theme of adjusting to vision loss but rather memoir-ish in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the death of Walter Cronkite. I’ve always wondered how our lives would be different if, just what if, the U.S. had been first instead of Sputnik. I’ll tell my story.

Two burning questions: Why? and What if?

How did Russia come to be first to launch
Sputnik when the space powers were roughly equal?

My knowledge of history, even in my own lifetime, is rather weak, but here’s my take on what happened. See the references below.

1957 was a time of mutual fear between and against two nuclear superpowers. The artificial satellite catalyst was in the works as part of an International Geophysical Year program with a scientific theme. Neither U.S. or Russian government leaders were enthusiastic while war-bred technical tribes were chomping to launch. Mars-minded Von Braun even rolled out a satellite-mounted Redstone missile to the launch pad but got nixed in favor of a Navy Jupiter. Meantime, a Russian technical group managed to design an ultra-simple 180 lb. beeping ball to ride replace a nose cone on monster missiles under test.

News reports shocked first the scientists in the know then informed a confused U.S. public. It was hard to imagine the engineering or purpose of a beeping ball circling the earth, even passing over the U..S. twice without notice before news announcement. With missile fear came the question of whether the satellite could attack, as warned in civil defense pamphlets and school room desk ducking. Apparently, Russian had been working on really big missiles needed for large nuclear payloads that the U.S. had superior technology to miniaturize. Nevertheless, U..S. missile rocketry was faulty and embroiled in military turb battles.

President Eisenhower seemed not to recognize the political whammy of a satellite first launch but rather was more interested in high flying planes and future satellites with reconnaissance capabilities to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet military forces. With launch of bigger dog carrying Sputnik 2, the American public grew even more scared and impatient. A rushed effort with existing U.S. rocket power failed in public but eventually got up to speed in 1958. Then came the rivalry first man in space and wild-eyed thoughts of progressing rapidly from Earth to the Moon, with Russia setting the pace.

How would our lives be different if America, not Russia, had been first?

And here come the side-effects that changed our lives to this day.

Eisenhower started an Advanced Research Project Agency to execute both catch-up and public assurance projects. Now, remember that the U.S. capability was mostly in place but the Russians made the decision first, not from superiority but rather follow-through. Was the U.S. weakness in public will, leadership, technological prowess, project management, military strategy? Eisenhower had an enormous juggling challenge: secret or public, civilian or military, scientific dominant or engineering demonstrations, private industry or government executed, etc.? Currently, we see a National Science Foundation, NASA, ARPA, and vast military industrial complex created warily during the Sputnik-stimulated space race of the 1950s.

Waves of public education concerns generate institutional opportunities in the belief that the U.S. intellectual and technological weakness had lead to the first satellite defeat and possible future losses in space races. With a sense of investment inn public education infrastructure, U.S. science and technology leaped ahead.
Now, it’s sickening to experience the loss of investment sense in schools.

But look what the whole world got for very little — the Internet, as created and fostered by military and then educational institutions for more than two decades. Would the U.S. have developed the Internet without the Sputnik loss? Who knows, but on balance this seems to have been a great battle to loose at a time when a generally good economy and scary political system forces could let such a technology bloom.

References for History of Sputnik and the Eisenhower era

  1. NBC News reporter Jay Barbree 50 years of space reporting. Good account of Sputnik politics on through the moon and downward. Informative news-eye account of space successes and tragedies. Available on Bookshare.
  2. the Heavens and the Earth: A political History of the Space Age. Dry but very informative trace of politics, personalities, and technologies.
    Available on Bookshare.

  3. Fear of Sputnik: NPR interview with Jay Barbree
  4. Online News Hour: Sputnik revisited. Political historians analyze and recall 40 year anniversary of Sputnik.
  5. The Sputnik Shock effect on education. One academic’s account.
  6. Sputnik, the satellite that inspired generations
  7. sputnik, the satellite that started it all
  8. Happy birthday, sputnik. Thanks for the Internet. Credit to DARPA hence to Sputnik for Internet development.

Personal account: sputnik Launched My career

Sputnik in the sky of teenage minds

Lions roared across the stage under the traffic light in the center of town. Ferris wheels spun in front of apartment windows in the multi-use dwellings that lined Main Street. The country kids stayed in town after the day’s parade to spend their allowances on the rides, carnival games, food booths, and raffle tickets. It was the first weekend in October, 1957, and the annual Utica Homecoming was in full swing.

My friends Sam, Russ, and Marjorie and I were enjoying bashing in fenders on a donated wrecked car. One of us asked about the sputnik news and we all scanned the skies looking for a light that might be the beeping ball that President Ike and his press people were pooh-poohing. Little did we know what it meant to be teenagers at the beginning of the space age.

It’s hard to remember, but the physics and math teachers seemed to gain respect, even rock star status, after Sputnik. However, a nasty principal turned off the TV telecast of Alan Sheppard first manned sub-orbital trip in favor of some stupid test, dampening our connection with the outside world and major events. Well, maybe we did just want to exercise student privilege to barter our way out of one more test.

Early access to computers hooks one kid

I trace my career back to sputnik’s influence on the National science education programs that began to ensure a technologically advanced populace. I attended an NSF-sponsored summer pre-college session. There I met my first computer, an
IBM 650,
which about a dozen students programmed using cards. It was love at first punch for me, I just knew programming was the most delightful intellectual activity. At that time, I had no clue how careers worked, e.g. that there was an engineering field, or what mathematicians did, or how statistical applications were applied in finance or science. coming from that small Ohio town, I was only trying to figure out what was happening at any moment with my peers, books, and opportunities that seemed to propel me ahead.

One key idea rattled around in my head, starting at that very first summer in Carbondale, Illinois. we could write programs that summed a long series of n numbers, using n =100, or n =1000, or n =1000000 if we could actually type in a million numbers to add up. In one loop we could get a total and then print it out. But how could we know it was really the correct answer?

so, I started college with one leg up, whatever that saying means.
I was hooked on computing in 1961, in a way that eliminated alternative career paths in favor of one that would be driven by my inner love of programming. while this was a technical field, my expression of programming has remained as much artistic as utilitarian. This ambiguity has offered a theme for nearly 50 years, but at the cost of many ups and downs as I followed one career opportunity after another, sometimes falling into pits or walking off cliffs.

My college choice, Ohio Wesleyan University, was sparked by an alumnus, principal of the Utica High school, decided by a nice scholarship that supplemented my accountant father’s salary and brought me into contact with a range of east coast and Midwest bred students. I majored in math in those days before computer science or software engineering were named fields. Boy, did I get lucky finding my very own personal computer, an
IBM 1620
that this liberal arts college used for both administration and teaching science and math. It seemed “personal” because it was available to me for hours on end as I taught myself more programming techniques, culminating with a compiler as a senior project.

And the right brand of math made computing interesting

More odd chances for professional development spun off from the sputnik challenge as I tutored high school teachers in the summer as they learned the “new math” and a bit of computing. I loved giving a demo of the 1620, the size of a coffin with a nearby even larger card reader/punch. I showed them games, a few computations, and how to play songs on the line printer — like anchors, Away.

This branch of math, eventually known as discrete structures, was really what I had wanted to study not that dull calculus that dealt with change qualities I didn’t relate to their science underpinnings. Rather I spent hours working out the closed formulas in the appendix of Apostle calc text, like 1+2+…N=N*(N+1)/2, isn’t that cool? as I programmed, I always faced that “is this the correct answer?” dilemma. a course in philosophy of science gave me the inklings of a response, the principle of “induction” and the realization that science wasn’t just a blend of people and ideas I couldn’t fully appreciate, but indeed there were defined concepts like theories and reasoning.

Sometimes it takes decades to know what was important

Meantime, on the political scene, the sputnik shock morphed into Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. One very serious politically minded upper class student forced our dorm dinner table to listen to sobering words that trickled into our closed campus world from the news on TV and radio. Now, my current reading on the space race tells of roles of cameras launched in satellites or carried on dangerous U2 missions. I really appreciate that a forty-ish aged president and his aides had the energy, wisdom,patience, and world knowledge to bypass a crisis with Russia through Cuba. However, also developing during this time was the massive military-industrial-complex warned by the much older Eisenhower who had generated so many missile,, and defense programs during his term.

My clueless ness about the political forces of the world remained through my active career as I occasionally visited these defense companies and government agencies such as NSA, all seeking the holy grail of program correctness. My innocent love of programming and curiosity about the correctness conundrum were leading to regions of worry about international competition with U.S. and Japan, and backlash against the correctness mission that several times hurt my income while also opening new professional opportunities. I still wonder how much easier programming would be today if the Japanese Fifth Generation project hadn’t succumbed to its national economic failure.

Learning computing before official computer science

Graduate school seemed on my path, but how could I exit gracefully from mathematics?
University of Michigan had a strangely titled program in communication sciences, an eclectic combination of fields that later branched into artificial intelligence, psychology, hardware design, software engineering, and, strangest of all, speech synthesis. the latter field, concentrating on modeling of the human vocal track and units of speech, is actually the technology use most today in my assistive tools.

The programming class was a triumph for me as the major exercise was similar to my undergrad senior project, a translator. In those days, a major university computer ran batches of punched card programs with an ever increasing turn around time as the semester load increased. In this project, we had two tries to get our program to run, with 4 days wait. I checked, double checked, and checked again, hand simulating my code, and indeed got a successful run.

Where would I be without Sputnik?

Who knows, but I believe I was one of those youngsters who, exposed to computing in its purest form, at just the right age, got hooked for a lifetime. The circumstances were traceable to Sputnik after-effects. However, it was my personal curiosity about mathematical induction that took me away from a probably failure as a mathematician to a contributor of some important ideas in computer science. I greatly regret that this central concept got muddled in academic, even international secrecy, squabbles and was deemed too hard for ordinary programmers.

So, that’s one personal reflection on Sputnik as a life-changing event here on earth, leading to a moon I can still pick out in the night sky, but a movie of moon steps I can sometimes amplify by video but most firmly held in my memory and hearing.

Listen to
Audio version of this post and
Sputnik beeps

Do you remember Sputnik? Tell us about it.

Visit our other
blog collecting Sputnik experiences and opinions

Honoree for Ada Lovelace Day — Pat Price for AccessibleWorld.org

The Accessible World Community

Ada Lovelace Day resulted from a petition to recognize women’s role in technology. The woman I am recognizing was not strictly a technologist but rather a businesswoman in the insurance industry. I did not know her but have often used a web-based community she founded for learning about technology, sharing ideas and books, and fostering nonprofit as well as commercial projects through an outlet for recorded chat sessions and tutorials. The arena of service is the broad range of visually impaired people, multi-generational but especially supportive of older folks. She herself was mostly blind, with some periods of vision where technology could help, also dealing with deafness and crippling deterioration.

As my own vision was leading me to adopt more audio support, I repeatedly found myself wandering around Accessible World.org. My beloved Levelstar Icon Mobility Manager was discussed in tutorials and online user group sessions. A steady stream of low vision products and tutorials were referred to in mailing lists leading me to drop into the archives. Friends of Bookshare.org knit together veteran volunteers and book lovers into book groups I occasionally visited to complement my own local clubs. I was inspired to hear the pleasure of communicating impressions about plots and characters, knowing that these book lovers were reading from Braille and audio devices as fluently as from print.

The Visionary behind Accessible World

This lady, Pat Price, of Indianapolis Indiana died Feb. 1, 2009, with Memorial from Friends of Pat Price, conducted using the Accessible World and Talking Communities web communication. One memorable testimony described her as “outrageously productive”, not only at age 80 but throughout her life, quietly organizing people from disparate realms of life to address problems of the visually impaired.

Lessons for technologists from Accessible World

What can technologists learn about the roles of women? First is that technology really, really matters to disabled people, allowing us to roam the world in contact with others, often nearly housebound after active professional lives. Second, the web is so stupendously cost-effective that a few individuals as webmaster, tech support, event coordinator, and publishers can form a tight-knit community where newcomers can learn about both culture and opportunities. Third, a woman could lead this contribution without being a technologist herself but rather providing the vision, energy, spirit, wisdom, and patience to lead others with the necessary technical skills. For me, Accessible World was a wonderful source of insight into a cross-section of the blindness world as technology progressed within and around it.

Conversely, there’s a sense of admonition and embarrassment I feel as a technologist myself. since web sites mean so very much to the visually impaired, it is supremely callous and unprofessional of those web sites that fail us. Indeed, it is even up to the level of cruelty when considering the extra pain , yes, pain, imposed upon tired hands forced around a keyboard until finding the search box or heading outline that provides equal access to the page’s purpose. It is dispiriting to fail when a web service like Blog Talk Radio builds around an inaccessible chat client rather than one such as Talking Communities used by Accessible World. And then I lose respect for podcasters who choose services without regard to accessibility. In the ideal world, there would not be a separate Accessible world ignored by those technologists not yet disabled or accepting of their roles as care-givers or respective of social justice. Sadly, that ideal world is easily within reach if only we began to hold our own professional organizations to higher standards of universal design as a goal and minimal usability as requirements for all software, gadgets, and web sites.

More about Ada Lovelace

  1. Wikipedia on Ada Lovelace
  2. Ada Lovelace as a mathematician
    Ada Byronb Lovelace in garb of her time

  3. The first programmer, Ada Lovelace