Historian and Website Developer

Check out the website I have developed for professional historian, Judith Nissen.

I have been very quiet on this blog over the last year. It may look like this duck is gliding quietly through life, but underneath it all I have been paddling furiously.

Over the last year I have been developing websites. This involves getting under the hood and doing some coding. You see, I am a hybrid creature. I am a writer, but I am also a bit of a geek. I learned programming at school and university while qualifying as an accountant. Early in my working life I scared the men in my audit team by suggesting we use a spreadsheet. This was an avant-garde suggestion in 1986 and one that they could not countenance. Over the years I found myself being the unofficial interface between the IT support team and the struggling users of technology in the various offices where I worked. I enjoy explaining technical concepts in everyday language, but I can also flip and communicate to IT developers so they get the information they need to hear. Continue reading

‘Thank you to my wife’ – unpaid work by women

1 man standing holding paper next to a woman typing

This photo from 1950 says it all. For much of the twentieth-century men wrote and dictated while women typed. Photo courtesy of the Museums Victoria. (Museums Victoria has an excellent open access policy and a large collection online – check it out)

Research and writing involves a lot of repetitive time-consuming tasks such as typing, editing, transcribing and formatting data. All the public hears about is the amazing discovery. The bulk of the work is essential but it can be rather monotonous and certainly not news-worthy.

Over the last few of days #ThanksForTyping has emerged on Twitter to recognise the wives of academics who did a huge amount of this unglamorous and unpaid but essential work for their husbands in the past.  Often the only public acknowledgement they received for this was a sentence noting the debt owed to ‘my wife’ in the acknowledgements of the book or thesis.

Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia started the hashtag and found some extraordinary examples:

That woman must have been a world champion in multi-tasking and juggling, but how much sleep did she get? She was a part-time lecturer in chemistry. Has she been properly recognised for her expertise in this field? Continue reading

Reflections on a Day at Digital Humanities Australasia 2016

A ship moored at a dock with warehouse and containers on the dock.

While we were ensconced in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies building, Australia’s icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, was being loaded next door.

The field of Digital Humanities has been a significant influence on the way I work. There are many debates about the nature of Digital Humanities is but very broadly it covers the work humanities researchers do when they study the use of digital technology in society, adopt research methods which draw heavily on digital technology and present their findings using digital technology.

I follow experts in digital humanities on Twitter and read their blog posts. Through this I have deepened my understanding in using technology to explore World War I diaries, mine Trove for information and convert old documents into machine-readable form. You can read more about the technical details of what I am doing on Stumbling Through the Futuremy Digital Humanities blog. What I do is relatively simple but I owe it all from listening to experts on the internet and at conferences.

I was planning on visiting Hobart sometime for research and to visit family, but that sometime was hastened when I found out that the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities were holding their annual conference in Hobart. The Association had secured some thought-provoking digital humanists for their keynote sessions and I wanted to be there. Yesterday I sat in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies on the waterfront engrossed in some fascinating sessions. Continue reading

A Digitisation Scandal That Isn’t

book lying on a box cut in half with a lamp and camera (and tripod) overlooking the book

The equipment that the State Library of New South Wales uses for their digitisation program is a lot more sophisticated than that used in my budget digitisation studio.

A few days ago I woke to some startling news, “NSW state library to turn $3bn collection over to private sector: In exchange for free digitisation” the headline from ITNews screamed. I started huffing with indignation about this scandal but I read the article which followed very carefully, then downloaded and read the tender documents as well as the Library’s most recent Annual Report. Often things are not what they seem.

And so it was with this article. The Library is not selling any of its collections or giving them away in exchange for digitisation. It turns out that the Library is merely offering private operators “access” to historical items so they can digitise the items then return the items promptly. The headline is clearly misleading. From what I can see, the article is about a fairly typical digitisation project that many of Australia’s cultural institutions have been undertaking for a number of years now.

There were problems in the article itself. The Library’s ‘Digital Excellence Program’is a major multi-million dollar digitisation program funded by the state government which commenced in July 2012. Thus the Library is not even half way through this program, yet the ITNews article claimed that the Library was near the end of this project with the implied criticism that the Library had failed to digitise many items during this project. The article linked to an ITNews article published earlier this year about the State Library’s program which said that the Library “nearing completion” of the first phase of this significant project. This has been an essential overhaul of the Library’s “infrastructure and systems”. That would seem to be a wise move. It makes sense to upgrade systems before a massive increase in data generated by digitisation.

Continue reading

Women were Among the World’s First Computer Programmers

The first published computer program was written by a woman. The programmers of the world’s earliest digital computers were women. The inventor of the significant technology behind the most widely used programming language in the twentieth century was a woman. The software which was responsible for the first landing of men on the moon was written by a programming team led by a woman.

Clearly women are capable of being excellent programmers, but in a classic example of our culture preventing natural abilities from shining, the information technology industry is dominated by men. Worse, girls in the West are still growing up in societies that expect them not to be as good at using information technology as boys, or interested in becoming information technology professionals.

A little bit of history demonstrates how wrong those attitudes are.

This week Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated around the world to recognise women’s achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It is named in honour of the women who is widely recognised as the world’s first programmer – Ada Lovelace.

Painting of Lovelace wearing a purple Victorian-era dress and Victorian-era fancy hairstyle.

Ada Lovelace is the stated author of what is now recognised as the world’s first published computer program in 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Her parents had separated when she was a baby and her mother ensured that she had a mathematical education to counter what her mother saw as the ‘madness’ of Byron’s poetical mind. She was mentored by another important nineteenth century female scientist, Mary Somerville. Through Somerville Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the forerunner to modern computers. Ada Lovelace claimed to write instructions for Babbage’s Analytical Engine even though the machine had not been built. She had to work off Babbage’s plans for this complex machine and discussions with him.

The instructions for the Analytical Engine that Lovelace claimed to write are now regarded as the first published computer program.

However, there is an ongoing debate about how much of this was her work and how much was that of Babbage himself. Clearly Babbage would have had to, at the very least, devise some simple instructions while creating this machine and to check his design. Hence I have observed that Lovelace was the stated author of the world’s first published program. (See Addendum at the end of this post for more discussion about this debate)

What was probably even more insightful about her work was her observation that the machine could be used to run many sorts of different programs. In Ada Lovelace’s ground breaking paper published in 1842, she observed:

The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, is not merely adapted for tabulating the results of one particular function and of no other, but for developing and tabulating any function whatever. In fact the engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity

Ada Lovelace also considered the question of artificial intelligence:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.

(Wow, I became so absorbed by Ada Lovelace’s work that I am reading some of her paper from 1842.)

Nearly one hundred years later, computing pioneer, Alan Turing picked up on Ada Lovelace’s arguments about artificial intelligence to develop his own thinking in this area. (Turing’s article from 1950 is another interesting one that has side-tracked me somewhat.)

Ada Lovelace was an important pioneer in information technology, but she was not the only one. Continue reading