What will ET look like when we meet him/her/it?

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7 years

Isaac approaching has brought up too many memories for a comfortable day at work.  I left early to write this post.

7 years ago today, I was backcountry.  My trail crew was just finishing up a 2 week trail rerouting project.  I was so excited about my upcoming Americorps position with the National Civilian Community Corps.  Life was epic. What would become one of the most pivotal events in my life was playing out on a horrible scale and I didn’t even know it.

A couple days later, my trail crew and I reached the town of Darby, Montana.  We saw the news.  Hurricane Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast and wreaked widespread devastation.  Levees breached, looting, hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, all this was plastered across the newspapers we hadn’t seen in weeks.  We were horrified and disbelieving.  Later the death toll was updated to more than 1500 dead and more than 200,000 left homeless.   7 days later, I left for Americorps.

I remember how spectacularly governmental and a few private institutions failed to serve the people of the Gulf Coast.  I had a particularly close look at FEMA, because my Americorps team, along with many others, was used by FEMA to fill out paperwork.  In some cases, the paperwork we were completing for FEMA trailer residents had been filled out several times previous.  People were angry.  I remember the vitriol when people spoke of State Farm and FEMA.  I remember how BAD I was at talking to FEMA trailer residents in a soothing manner.  I remember thinking how much happier I would have been if they had just given us something to DO.  I remember thinking how helpless, how useless I felt.

After a month of training for Americorps, we were latecomers to the disaster relief game.  I remember thinking how tired everyone looked.  I remember spray-painted X’s on houses.  I remember the smell.  I remember the debris.  I remember the places where the water had scoured the debris away.  I remember a broken plate.

The government is an inefficient machine.  It could not handle the scale of the disaster that overtook it.  The people that should have been leading the people of the Gulf Coast were ill-suited to do so in times of disaster.  I’ve spent several summers working for the government in various capacities.  Maybe it’s time I stopped.  Maybe it’s a good thing that the space travel mantle is now swirling around the shoulders of private companies.  Maybe the system is broken.

I also remember companies I have long despised, like Walmart, doing admirable things.  While the Walmart building in Waveland, Mississippi was out of commission, Walmart operated out of their parking lot in tents.

I remember hearing from my parents how people even in Idaho were donating supplies.  I remember volunteers by the thousands, entering the Gulf Coast like a second flood, more positive though much slower.  I remember how the American people donated supplies and money for the Gulf Coast.  Everything from bottled water to poptarts to diapers.  There were lots of M&M’s.  I know because I was there.

I remember how the American people forgot what divided them in the midst of this crisis.  I remember how supportive everyone back home was.  As you can imagine, Idaho is a very different place than Mississippi or Louisiana.

I hope humanity never loses the ability to set aside vast differences in order to help people in crisis.  I hope that if we ever meet another intelligent species, this is one area we have in common.

I remember you, Gulf Coast, and I’m thinking about you today.


Lynn, Ada, Grace and me

This isn’t strictly science related.  Bear with me.

My first college degree was in Outdoor Education, because I loved rock climbing.  I can’t think of a single classmate that didn’t climb, and it was a great community in which to begin my college career.  However, in my last semester, there was That Guy.  In one of my classes we were discussing rock climbing history and the rise of women in the sport.  Prior to that point I had met That Guy, but only vaguely disliked him.  That particular day, That Guy asked, “What do you attribute [the rise of women in rock climbing] to?  Is it just better shoes?”  Despite the rage filling my brain (I am female, just in case it wasn’t obvious), I did hear the (male) instructor’s response.  He told That Guy that Lynn Hill, a female rock climbing icon, was not only the first woman to climb the Nose (really hard, iconic climb in Yosemite) without using certain gear, she was the first PERSON- male, female or purple spotted alien- to do so.  Her many accomplishments happened in spite of the convention that “women are not good rock climbers”.  A Canadian gentleman I climbed with in Red Rocks a couple years ago called Lynn Hill the greatest climber in the world because she not only redefined the sport for women, she simply redefined rock climbing.

Recently, I read the Joe Peacock’s article on females at conventions and John Scalzi’s response.  There has historically been a gender gap in geekdom, similar to the rock climbing gender gap.  Generally, the role of female participation in geekdom and at sci-fi conventions is getting much more attention than I remember.  A lot of that attention is negative, such as what happened to Anita Sarkeesian, and some positive, such as the numerous blog posts by men supporting women in geekdom or the Readercon convention committee apology.  I’ve been going to conventions practically since I was born.  With all the attention in the blogosphere this discussion is getting, I have to wonder: While I’ve been away from Geekdom (getting a couple college degrees and rock climbing mostly), have geeks en masse turned into That Guy?  Did I just not notice That Geek before?

If you realize you’re That Geek and you would like to become less ignorant, first of all, congratulations, you’re way better than the average That Geek.  I have a couple Lynn Hills of the Geek World for you to research.

Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer.  Ever.  She wrote a computer program for the Babbage engine before the engine was actually built and she had this idea that computers could do more than just mathematics.  Grace Hopper created the first compiler, which proved Ada Lovelace’s idea correct.    For the non-geeks in the virtual room a compiler translates different types of computer code, different computer languages which allows humans to create computer programs.  For example, let’s say a computer runs off of a language called Swahili (not a real computer language!).  Essentially, Swahili tells which parts to move when.  The compiler translates the Swahili into Spanish (also not a real computer language!) so we can tell the computer to do stuff in Spanish which is a bit easier to grasp, being closer to our own language.  Grace Hopper’s work in computer languages led to COBOL (for the non-geeks, she changed computing languages into something workable) and later in life they called her Grandma COBOL.  She also popularized the terms “debugging” and “computer bug” after her associates found a moth interfering with the operation of one of the computers.

I love Geekdom.  I consider myself a gamer, a scientist (in training), a fan, a writer (well, a blogger anyway) and general, all around geek.  I love the idea of a culture based on the love of ideas, rather than the level of conformation to an ideal.  The fact that I am female should be irrelevant to my choice in hobbies.  This is especially true since women have been computer programmers since before the Babbage engine.  We’ve always been geeks.  Perhaps the fact that male geeks haven’t seen women in large numbers at conventions has less to do with the geekiness of women and more to do with social constraints on women.

At the end of the day, I don’t care about mainstream society’s demands upon me based on my gender.  I just want Geekdom to love me back.

Any comments about great female geeks appreciated. Now back to the science!