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What’s On the Inside III: The Lady Wore Blue… Navy Blue (a post for a lady pirate, or admiral) December 10, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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[My apologies for the delayed posting. You can request an audio recording of Wednesday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)]

“I like to think of mathematicians as forming a nation of our own without distinctions of geographical origin, race, creed, sex, age or even time… all dedicated to the most beautiful of the arts and sciences.”

– Julia Hall Bowman Robinson, PhD (b. 12/08/1919)

Before I went to bed late Monday night (also known as early Tuesday morning to the rest of the people in my time zone), I read about Dr. Julia Hall Bowman Robinson for the first time. Even though she had to miss school at an early age (after contracting scarlet) and received a “below average” score on an IQ test, she started college at the age of 16 and then (despite having some interruptions in her schooling due to her father’s suicide) went on to receive her PhD in mathematics. Born on December 8, 1919, she was known for her work in computability theory and computational complexity, especially as it relates to decision problems. While researching game theory at the RAND Corporation in the late 1940’s, she coined the phrase “traveling salesman problem” and once attributed her success to stubbornness – a trait she said was common among mathematicians. For a half of a nanosecond I thought about changing my December 8th class plans so I could celebrate two extraordinary female mathematicians in a row. (An idea she might have preferred I not do.) The only problem was that, since I hadn’t known about Dr. Bowman Robinson before, I didn’t have the time to “translate” all the mathematics relevant to her into standard American English.

There may be a lot of things that stick out for you in the paragraph above. But let’s focus on the fact that there’s at least one more amazing female mathematician who celebrated a birthday this week and that because of that woman I (just barely) know a thing or two about nanoseconds and can explain the little bit I know in pretty basic English.

Born today in 1906, United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was known as “Amazing Grace,” “the Queen of Code,” “the Queen of Software,” and “Grandma COBOL;” all because of her work in mathematics and computer programming. As a child, she was so curious about how things worked that she started taking apart all the clocks in the house (until her mother stopped her). Her application to Vassar College was rejected when she was 16 years old, but she reapplied and was admitted at 17. She would complete her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics before heading to Yale University, where she earned her master’s and PhD, and then returning to Vassar as a professor.

“[Grace Hopper] 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.’”

– quoted from “Grace Hopper: The Admiral in Command of Knowledge” by Jan Adkins, published in  30 People Who Changed the World: Fascinating bite-sized essays from award winning writers – Intriguing People Through the Ages: From Imhotep to Malala Yousafzai (Got a Minute?), Edited by Jean Reynolds

Then World War II broke out and Grace Hopper wanted to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, United States Navy Admiral Alexander Wilson Russell, who had served during the Civil War. This was a dream she would not have been able to pursue were it not for the war; however, there was a problem – three problems, actually. According to the Navy, she was too old (34); her height-to-weight ratio was too low (by 15 lbs); and, additionally, she was told that her position as a mathematician and mathematics professor was already considered service. Not to be defeated, she took a leave of absence from Vassar; received an exemption for her low weight; and joined the United States Navy Reserves as a member of the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). She graduated at the top of her Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School training class and started working on the IBM’s Mark I computer programming staff at Harvard University, under the leadership of Howard Aiken (the conceptual designer of the Mark I).

Working on the Mark I was the first time Grace Hopper worked with (or on) computers. She was commanded to write the computer’s operating manual almost as soon as she walked in the door.

At the end of the war, she asked to be transferred to the regular Navy, but was again denied because of her age (38). Undaunted, the then Lieutenant Hopper stayed on at Harvard (as part of the Navy contract) despite being offered a full professorship at Vassar. In 1949, she started working at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she started promoting the idea of a computer programming language using English words. People gave her all kinds of reasons as to why her idea was bad, one being that “computers didn’t understand English;” another being that “anyone will be able to write programs!” Everyone’s “no” became a reason to persist. Her perseverance resulted in the development of Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), which is still used mainframe applications used by business, finance, and administrative systems for companies and governments.

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

– quoted from “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper” by Philip Schieber (published in The OCLC Newsletter, March/April 1987, No. 167)

Always a curious teacher, Grace Hopper spent her life figuring out how things worked; why they didn’t work; and how to explain multilayered mathematical and computer concepts to students, business people, and military personnel (often generals and admirals) without mathematical and computer knowledge. When she worked on the Mark I, she instructed the team to literally cut and paste (or “patch”) sections of tape containing code they had previously used to solve problems onto new programs. Once, when working on the Mark II, her team discovered that a moth stuck in the relay was preventing the computer from running. They taped the moth to their log book, which you can see at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Even though engineers had used the term “bug” for many years, it (and the term “debugging”) became mostly associated with computers and programming after the Mark II incident.

She emphasized the importance of having language to describe every aspect of a process – including the problem – and said, “We must state relationships, not procedures.” To explain why satellite communication took so long, Admiral Hopper used 11.8-inch (30-cm) pieces of wire to visually illustrate “the maximum distance electricity could travel in a billionth of a second” – in other words the distance light travels in a “nanosecond.” Then she would explain that that timing was the maximum speed in a vacuum, but that the telecommunication signals would travel slower in the actual wire. (Think about a Tesla moving from 0-60 on a short entrance ramp versus the amount of time it takes a Dodge Ram Truck, or a Model T Ford, to travel the same distance or reach the same speed.) She also used the wires to explain why smaller computers worked faster than big mainframes, and would contrast the “nanoseconds” with a 984-foot (300-meter) coil that symbolized a microsecond and small packet of black pepper in which the individual grains of pepper represented picoseconds.

“Manipulating symbols was fine for mathematicians but it was no good for data processors who were not symbol manipulators…. It’s much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols. So I decided data processors ought to be able to write their programs in English, and the computers would translate them into machine code.”

– Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

When practicing (and teaching) yoga, I am often faced with a similar language situation. How do we process and translate the sensation, which is information, being communicated by our mind-body? How do we gain conscious awareness of proprioception – how our mind finds our body in space so we can, for instance, move around without constantly bumping into stuff? Also, how do we correctly process interoception – internal sensation related to our nervous system – so we know, for instance, the difference between our mind’s perception of external danger, the threat of embarrassment, excited anticipation, and/or sexual attraction? How do we know when it is time to stop doing something? When do we know we need more? Learning to understand the way our mind-body communicates is like learning a second (or third) language and it requires practice; but, it also requires someone who can translate or, at the very least, put things into context. Grace Hopper spent her whole life, putting things into context.

“I handed my passport to the immigration officer, and he looked at it and looked at me and said, ‘What are you?’”

– Rear Admiral Grace Hopper on being the oldest active-duty officer in the U.S. military, in an interview on 60 Minutes

If I’m counting correctly, Admiral Grace Hopper retired three times – at the age of 60, then returning at 61; again around age 65, returning at 66; and, finally, at almost 80 years old. In fact, when she finally, finally retired at the age of 79 (plus 8 months, and five days) she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer – and her retirement ceremony was on board “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship (at the time, 188 years, nine months and 23 days). Even after she retired, she kept teaching, kept consulting, kept serving… and kept wearing her full dress uniform – even though it was against U. S. Department of Defense policy, because Admiral Grace Hopper was OG all the way! And she knew that what she said and how she said it was as important as how she looked saying it, and what she represented.

“Sometimes there are people who appear to be all ‘Navy’ but when you reach inside, you find a ‘Pirate’ dying to be released. One such person was Grace Hopper….

Meeting her was a very special treat for me: She was one of my heroes…. When I met her, she was at first very polite and nothing more. When I brought up the subject of software, she got this twinkle in her eye. I realized I was talking to a very bright and creative person….

It was a great reminder that in searching for talent, you mustn’t be put off by first impressions but must probe to find the real person, sometimes discovering a pirate where you least expected.”

– quoted from The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation by Jay Elliott, Former Senior Vice President of Apple, with William L. Simon

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify

“60 Minutes Rewind”

“There’s something you learn in your first boot-camp, or training camp: If they put you down somewhere with nothing to do, go to sleep — you don’t know when you’ll get any more.”

– Rear Admiral Grace Hopper on Late Night with David Letterman (1986)

### HELLO, WORLD! ###

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