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September 9 is Tester’s Day

Today is Tester’s Day. This unofficial holiday for technicians everywhere is not without controversy.

The Story

On September 9, 1945, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist at Harvard University, was running tests on the Mark II Calculator (designed by Howard Aiken) when she found a moth that had landed between two solenoid contacts, shorting out an electromechanical relay.

Hopper removed the squashed bug—no one knows if she dispatched it herself—and taped it to the project’s logbook with the notation: “First actual case of bug being found.” Hopper had carried out the first “debugging” and coined the term that would become synonymous with the identification and elimination of the frustrating glitches that cause computers to malfunction.

Tester's Day

Flies in the Ointment

This story doesn’t pass muster for a few reasons.

1. The Mark II came online in 1947, two years later. That’s easy enough to explain: looking at the photo of the logbook, anyone can see that the time and date are included, but not the year. Fix that and the story’s hunky dory, right? Not really.

2. Hopper’s own description indicates that she didn’t invent the usage of “bug.” “First actual case of bug” [emphasis ours] implies that the term was already in use in a figurative sense. Nitpicky? Perhaps. The usage can be traced back at least as far as 1878, when Thomas Edison used the word in a letter to Theodore Puskas, a fellow inventor.

“‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

The meaning was also included in Webster’s Second International Dictionary, published in 1934. Okay, maybe Hopper wasn’t the first person to call a glitch a “bug.” But didn’t she find that moth, whether it was in 1945 or 1947? Probably not.

3. In 2007, the Smithsonian Institution honored the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the bug. Curator Peggy Kidwell, who included the logbook page in the exhibit, noticed that the notation wasn’t made in Hopper’s handwriting.

Ingrid Newkirk, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), objected to the display, urging people not to use animals’ names as pejoratives, stating:

“We discourage people from saying things like ‘kill two birds with one stone.’ The manner in which we’ve been taught to think of animals is mostly negative. We need to be more respectful.”

PETA is concerned about the defamation of insects, an important part of our ecosystem. So Newkirk is essentially telling the Smithsonian, “You give bugs a bad name.” We imagine her leaving the museum to deliver a speech touting all the good things about, say, hookworms. They probably don’t get enough good press.

Amazing Grace

In our opinion, none of the nonsense above detracts from the accomplishments of Grace Hopper. In 1943, she left her job teaching mathematics at Vassar College to join the Navy. She was turned down but was admitted to the Naval Reserve after receiving special permission: She weighed 15 pounds less than the Navy’s 120-pound minimum.

After the war, she helped program the Mark I, predecessor to the Mark II of bug fame. She co-authored three papers about the computer, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, with designer Howard Aiken.

She later joined the group building the UNIVAC I. In 1952, she invented the first compiler, for use with the A-O computer language, but had difficulty convincing anyone it would work. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” she said later.”They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” Ultimately she prevailed and was given her own team, which produced programming languages MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC.

In 1959, Hopper served as a technical consultant to the committee that defined the new language COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). Her conviction that programs should be written in a language resembling English, rather than machine code, helped COBOL go on to be the most-used business language in history.

image of Grace Hopper

In 1967, she was named the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group, developing software and a compiler as part of the COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy.

She reached the rank of Rear Admiral in 1985. The following year, she was forced to retire after having remained on active duty many years beyond mandatory retirement age by special permission of Congress. At a ceremony held on the USS Constitution, Hopper received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat-related honor awarded by the Department of Defense.

She also wrote several programming books and lectured until her death on January 1, 1992, at the age of 85. She was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. The Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named for her, as is the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

She once said:

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”

Thank you, Grace. We don’t give a hoot whether you found that silly—sorry, PETA, we mean noble—bug or not!

Update

In 1933, Yale University named a residential college after John C. Calhoun, an 1804 graduate who was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery. In 2017, after years of pressure, protests and vandalism of artwork depicting slaves,  the university changed the name from Calhoun to Grace Hopper College. (She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale in 1934.) Although it has nothing to do with Tester’s Day, we mention it because it brings attention to Hopper’s accomplishments.

Happy Tester’s Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

 

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day

women's equality dayToday is Women’s Equality Day, created in 1972 to commemorate the date in 1920 whenafter decades of effort by activists across the country, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote.

Fifty years later, on August 26, 1970, feminist Betty Friedan led a nationwide protest called the Women’s Strike for Equality to demand the fair treatment of women in the workplace, in school and at home.

U.S. Representative Bella Abzug championed the establishment of a day to symbolize the rights that women (and men) had struggled to make a reality.

On August 26, 1972, the first Women’s Equality Day took place. The Joint Resolution of Congress reads:

Designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex; and
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26th of each year is designated as Women’s Equality Day, and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place.

In 1981, Congress enacted Public Law 97-28, designating the week beginning March 7, 1982, as Women’s History Week. President Ronald Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 4903 stating, in part:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RONALD REAGAN, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as Women’s History Week. Recognizing that the many contributions of American women have at times been overlooked in the annals of American history, I encourage all citizens to observe this important week by participating in appropriate ceremonies and activities planned by individuals, governmental agencies, and private institutions and associations throughout the country.

The practice continued until 1987 when, in response to petitioning by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Public Law 100-9 declaring March Women’s History Month. It passed a new resolution each year asking the president to authorize the observance. Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and *cough* Trump have issued annual proclamations renewing Women’s History Month.

The month was chosen because International Women’s Day falls on March 8th, despite the fact that the 1908 garment workers’ strike it was meant to memorialize didn’t happen on that date. The first known International Women’s Day gathering in the U.S. took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall on February 27, 1910.

In 2011, Representative Carolyn Maloney introduced a bill calling for the establishment of Susan B. Anthony Day honoring the birthday on February 15, 1820, of the abolitionist and suffragette. Thus far, it is observed in only five states. No national holiday honors any woman’s birthday.

Equal Pay

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. Its stated purpose: “to prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.”

In 1963, women made 59 cents on average for every dollar earned by men, based on Census figures of median wages of full-time, year-round workers.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, after pushing it through Congress to fulfill the plan Kennedy made before he was assassinated. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin or gender.

In April 1996, the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) originated National Equal Pay Day to promote public awareness of the gap between men’s and women’s wages. Each year, a date is chosen in April to illustrate how far into the new year women have to work to earn the same wages that men make in the previous year. In 2016, April 16 was chosen.

According to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, a woman earns 80 cents for every dollar a man is paid for the same job. This statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Black women make an average of 62 cents and Latinas earn 54 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. At this rate, the pay gap won’t close until 2059, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Happy Women’s Equality Day! Perhaps when we’re equal every day of the year we won’t need to create any more holidays to celebrate it.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

Test Tube Baby Day

test tube baby dayToday is Test Tube Baby Day. On July 25, 1978, in Oldham, England, Louise Joy Brown became the first person born after being conceived outside her mother’s body, in a revolutionary process now called in-vitro fertilization, or IVF.

In IVF, egg and sperm are placed together in a liquid with some smooth jazz and Bacardi 151; after the egg has been fertilized, it is transplanted into a woman’s uterus. (We’re kidding about some of that.)

The media’s description of Louise as a “test tube baby,” evocative of heretical work performed by mad scientists, was widely adopted but technically inaccurate. Her conception took place in a petri dish.

At the time, her parents knew the procedure was experimental but were unaware that it had never resulted in a baby. This called into question their ability to give informed consent and the ethics and motives of the doctors involved. Disciplinary action might have been taken had Louise not been born.

IVF has become an accepted treatment for infertility. By 2006, the World Health Organization reported that more than 1.5 million children had been conceived via the process. In 2010, Robert Edwards, one of its developers, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Happy birthday, Louise!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

July 24 is Amelia Earhart Day

Amelia Earhart Day

image – history.com

Today is Amelia Earhart Day, celebrating the aviation pioneer’s birth on July 24, 1897.  In 1932, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, for which she received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross. A member of the National Woman’s Party and an early proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, Earhart’s self-confidence and spirit of adventure made her an inspiration to young women.

Earhart vanished without a trace on July 2, 1937, during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Despite the likelihood that the plane was never found because it crashed into the Pacific Ocean and sank, theories about her disappearance persist to this day, running the gamut from midair abduction by aliens to a secret move to New Jersey to live under an assumed name.

One popular hypothesis claims the Japanese captured Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, torturing and executing them or holding them in secret for the rest of their lives. Some claim Earhart was a spy for the U.S. Others say she was one of many English-speaking women forced to make radio broadcasts as Tokyo Rose, although propagandists wishing to demoralize American servicemen surely would have seen the benefit in using her real name.

On July 9, 2017, the History Channel aired Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, featuring a photograph that showed two Caucasian people on a dock at Jaluit Atoll and a vessel carrying something that looked like plane wreckage in the background.

A military history blogger scouring archival images son found that the photo had been taken in 1935, two years before the crash. This revelation called into question the veracity of the entire documentary. The cable channel canceled reruns and deleted streaming video of its program pending an investigation. Unfortunately, it called into question the veracity of the entire documentary

No matter the truth of her death, we can all celebrate the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary woman.

Happy Amelia Earhart Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays