A book club for developers.
BookBytes is a fortnightly (or biweekly) book club for developers. Each episode the hosts discuss part of a book they've been reading. And they also chat with authors about their books. The books are about development, design, ethics, history, and soft skills. Sometimes there are tangents (also known as footnotes).
(Intro music: Electro swing)
Welcome to BookBytes, a book club podcast for developers. We’re reading “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy and today we’re talking about Part II which is titled: “Over All This Vast Expanse Of Waters Japan Was Supreme.” I’m Adam Garrett-Harris.
I’m Safia Abdalla.
I’m Jen Luker.
I’m Jason Staten.
And before we get started I forgot about this last time, Safia has a new job and I know it’s all over Twitter-
Especially by the time this episode comes out, but we usually talk about this at the beginning of the podcast when someone gets a new job. So, would you like to tell us where you’re working?
Yes, I do have a new job! I am working at Microsoft, that little company that nobody’s heard of. (laughs)
And what are you doing?
I’m working there as a software engineer on the Azure Notebooks team which is Microsoft’s Jupiter Notebooks offering.
Yeah, fun stuff.
That would explain all the stuff that you’re starring on GitHub recently.
(laughs) Are you-? I didn’t realize… Oh my goodness, that shows up on people’s feeds.
Ooh. I didn’t realize that.
Only if you’re watched. So… Be aware that, like, what you star is tracked, but…
Okay, I don’t star anything outrageous but it’s just one of those things I’m not used to realizing that there is a social aspect to GitHub.
Like the starring, and liking, and watching part. (laughs)
I think that’s why Microsoft bought them, right? ‘Cause they wanted that.
I guess so.
All right. So let’s get into the book. What did y’all think about this part? Part II.
I think we were talking about this before, it had a lot of things going on with a respect to, just like, the different aspects of the war that were covered. So, yeah. There were, like, quite a few quotations that I marked down as ones that were really interesting. It’s just when we look back at them from, like, a modern software engineering or tech industry perspective and then just, kind of, some of the anecdotes that were shared from each woman’s particular experiences that were, like, “Oh! I feel for you so much across these pages and these decades-
And these vast miles of land that separate us. Like, I know what that feeling is!” So yeah, there were quite a few somber moments for me.
Yeah, there were quite a few places where I compared it to modern-day software engineering...
… as well. You know, I wanted to ask, like, how much each of you know about World War II going into this book?
I took AP U.S. History in high school and I’ve watched a few movies and documentaries about, like, Alan Turing and, like, just, you know, a couple of movies and stuff; but I never, you know, really studied the battles and military strategies. Admittedly, like, the whole... after Pearl Harbor I wasn’t aware of all of the kind of military activity that was going on. So, that was new for me, too.
Like, I knew the Battle of Midway was a big deal because, well, we have an airport here in Chicago that’s called Midway Airport named after the battle. So I knew it was a big deal battle but I didn’t know why or what happened or what went down.
Yeah, that one sounded familiar to me as well but I didn’t know anything about it.
Yeah. So that was also another thing that was kind of interesting to keep track of is it wasn’t just a book about female code breakers in World War II, it was also just how fighting war was changing during that time period. There was this whole other aspect to it.
I also come from a history of only having… I mean, for me it was mostly in high school learning about it and for being very much consolidated it wasn’t like, a lengthy amount of time was spent on World War II, especially on the Pacific front, as well.
I feel like there is a lot of emphasis that’s placed on Pearl Harbor and then it seems like shortly after, like, the atomic bomb was dropped and then it was all over. But there was a ton of stuff that happened in between that time and I definitely feel like that’s something that’s called out within Part II. A lot of the efforts that were spent towards deciphering the messages that were sent there and how critical that really was to trying to keep that war as short as it could be.
Yeah, I definitely had no idea that there was a period of time where it looked like we were not going to win the war. Because, like, as the title of this part goes, Japan was… their Navy was really good.
Yeah, I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that history is written by the victors so in the process of teaching about World War II and talking about it people have just, kind of, glossed over the parts of it that were difficult, where it felt like the allies were going to lose, and just, kind of, you know, just focused on the victories over the losses and the failures. I wonder if that has anything to do with it, or if it’s just-
We’re generally… we’re software engineers and we’re not that knowledgeable of world history! (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah, I don’t know very much about history just from school, not very many movies at all other then… what was that Alan Turing movie called?
Oh, oh my goodness. You know, it was…
It was… not The Enigma, but… it has a weird name. Anyway, Jen, what’s your knowledge of history and World War II?
I’m a history nerd and my father-in-law was also a World War II specific nerd. So I watched lots, and lots, and lots of documentaries and had access to a great majority of nonfiction and fiction versions of World War II. So, specifically for World War II, on both sides of the front, I’m relatively knowledgeable regarding how the battles went, which ones there were, why they were kind of important to the war effort, itself; however, I’m a little bit rusty when it comes to recognizing machinery.
I’m curious to know, I might have asked this earlier, do any of you have family who fought in World War II? Or worked in the factories that were building military equipment or kind of were involved in the process in any way?
As far as I know none of my family served.
My grandpa did but it is something that he never really talked about. Like, he kept it pretty locked up and likewise it’s something that my grandma never spoke about. And I’m not quite sure why exactly that was, but it’s also just something that I never picked up on as a kid and so it’s kind of unfortunate. Like, it was mostly all about, like, life post-that era.
I have great grandparents that come from an Air Force family.
All right, so yeah. This part’s talking a lot about the Navy at the beginning, instead of the Army. And so I thought some of the contrasts between the Navy and the Army were interesting. So, for instance, in the Navy they actually let the women become military personnel and officers.
For a while, and then they stopped, and then they reinstated.
It’s like, there was a period between World War I and World War II where they’re like, “Ah, we don’t need women anymore.” So they stopped allowing women to be actual officers. And then they-
… restarted again, later.
But then if you got pregnant you were just kicked out.
Yeah, that was the one thing that I had read about is they had gone and established the WAVEs and the WACs, WAVEs being the Navy and the WACs being the Army, and particularly because they were part of the military within the WAVEs, hearing about their pregnancy discharge. And it talked about one woman in particular telling a commanding officer of hers and finding out that she had three days to get out of uniform in order to get an honorable discharge. Like, that’s just… it’s pretty awful that, like, that was the approach to it. It’s just like, “Well-”
It wasn’t a surprise though. I mean, if you look at history in general, even around that time, like, you couldn’t continue to be a schoolteacher after you’d gotten married or gotten pregnant, you know? You couldn’t continue to hold just about any job as soon as you became pregnant or got married. So, I mean, why should the Navy be any different?
And certainly they didn't have those policies in place when they started allowing women in. I mean, they were figuring out things even down to the uniform as it discusses and trying to figure out what was actually appropriate.
Yeah, I think one of the things that’s, sort of, for me it’s sort of an undercurrent throughout this book, is the disposability of women when it came to the war effort. Whether it was, you know, serving as code breakers or serving in different roles as officers within the Navy, there was this sense that they were only wanted because it was necessary to win the war and it was like they were treated as, sort of, like these, like, commodities.
I’m not having a very easy time phrasing this correctly because I recognize that, you know, this was a great point of change for many women because it exposed them to experiences that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to be exposed to.
And then there’s also this uncomfortable aspect of it for me where so much of it is around using women as utilities. There's, like, a few places in the book where it references, “Oh, women would be great codebreakers because they’re good at doing meticulous and boring work!” And there’s these, like, really reductive reasons for putting women in the positions that they were in.
And so it’s kind of this hard balance of, like, I don’t want to discount the fact that this war and the fact that women were able to participate in it was a breakthrough for feminism in a lot of ways, because it allowed women to enter spaces that they previously would not have access to, but I also can’t help having this uneasy feeling about the context in which they entered these spaces and how disposable they were whether it was, you know: they got pregnant and women who were mothers were just discarded in society at that time; or they were let go because they were not smart, or didn’t know know how to swim, or didn’t know how to do this, or didn’t know how to do that, and they didn’t fit this, like, perfect mold of a woman.
And also, like, the very brazen references in the book to women not being given opportunities because men didn’t think they were attractive enough. So yeah, this is just something I’m trying to, kind of, grapple with is that as I read the book, it's like, “Yes, these were, like, such amazing opportunities for all of these women, but it pains me that so much of it was so, like, constrained and existed within this, like, very patriarchal structure.
End Rant. (laughs)
That goes back to the example of Agnes Driscoll’s fall where she happened to get into a car accident and the intelligent person, Frank Raven, was… chose to make the nickname for her to be a witch, or, I don’t know if it said that there were documents related to that, or that it stated that, specifically, but the fact that someone who is so brilliant and influential, because she had an accident that happened to her, that because, like you said, she didn’t look as pretty as whatever standard they had set anymore, that changed people’s perspective on her. It’s definitely an unsettling feeling. Like, I know what you’re saying there, Safia.
Yeah. I’m glad you brought up that Agnes Driscoll story ‘cause I, that was one of the moments that was really somber for me while I was reading that book because I think there was, like, three words that stuck with me in that section and it was something to the effect of, like, “...the people treated her with deference, but also dismissal.”
And I just related so deeply to that, that you can both be a woman who’s very accomplished and successful and kind of be regarded, but at the same time there’s this, like, juxtaposition of also just, kind of, being ignored and discarded and not being brought into meetings and not given opportunities to do code breaking on missions that were important, and things like that. So that phrase, “ ...deference, but dismissal” really stuck with me.
Yeah, so it said that she had to, kind of, resort to methods to try to hold her position, right?
Yeah, that was also, kind of, interesting to observe because they, kind of, discussed how she kind of locked herself away so she would, like, keep certain messages that were transmitted and not necessarily share them with people, they’re mentioning how she, kind of, became very… what’s the word for it?
It said she became fearful that she wouldn’t be able to do things.
Yeah. It was just really hard to read her story of how this, like, one thing that was completely out of control, this accident, just completely derailed her career and the promise it had. It was just, ugh, it’s so upsetting.
Also, I know we’re not allowed to say bad words on this podcast, but a personal “screw you” to Frank Raven for just… just being a dastard. I know it’s like 70 years later, he’s probably long gone, but screw you for being a dastard and just, kind of, engaging in a lot of the, like, mockery and backstabbing and degradation that contributed to her isolation.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, like, saying she looks like a witch and then, like, that doesn’t affect how she can do her job. And, like, we’re past the point of having witch hunts, you know?
Just remember that Mccarthyism came after that, so apparently we weren’t.
Yeah, I was going to bring that up, that I think another challenge to reading this book is, like, you do kind of have to recognize the fact that this was 1940 and that a lot of the social, and social progress, and progress in terms of civil rights within the United States had not been initiated at all.
So, it’s like you have to, kind of, I don’t want to say “excuse people” for the things they say and the way they treated people, but there definitely is, as Jen mentioned, that historical context that sexism and racism were just very normalized in society. So maybe it was normal to, like, call the women you worked with that you didn’t think were attractive, which is, like... that very well might have been a thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, but it’s also hard to stomach when you’re-
Looking back at it in the year 2019.
I mean, you know, it’s one of those situations where you look back and you’re like, “Oh yeah, totally different time and different era, different, you know, different world.” And that was just shy of 80 years ago. There’s people that are alive right now that remember those times that I could go talk to, you know? And it wasn’t all that long ago. So much has happened and at the same time, so little has changed, even though so much has also changed.
But I remember a conversation with… oh, it was a woman, I think it was Jen Schiffer on Twitter who, essentially, explained that the women that stayed in the programming field were all, basically, the same. The same person.
The reason was because we were the only ones that could survive the environment and because of that, even the women in tech up, until this recent surge of new women that are staying in tech, you know, it’s even amongst the women, it’s been a very, kind of, monogamous-thought, sort of, environment just because we’re all basically the same. We’ve all done the same things, we’ve all experienced the same things, we all have very similar personality traits. And again, it’s disappointing that the reason for that is because no one else would survive.
And I kinda feel like it’s very similar with the women and the code breakers in the fact that the reason why they were able to do what it was they did was because they had that level of, “I’m going to do this in spite of the fact that society tells me I can’t or shouldn’t, or should have a different life.” And they just, they ended up being very, very passionate and, in many senses, very similar. I mean, yes, some came from more artistic backgrounds, some came from engineering backgrounds, some came from linguistics backgrounds, but all in all it seems like the personality traits were still very similar.
Your mention, Jen, of the kind of, like, the personalities of the women who survived in the tech industry and were the ones who kind of, stuck around as code breakers and officers in World War II remind me of a point that was made in the book about when, I don’t know if it was the WACs or the WAVEs or which group it was, but it was a group of female Navy officers who would, kind of routinely, march around New York City whenever the Mayor at the time was bringing in a dignitary or an ambassador.
And one of the statements that was really interesting that kind of struck me was some person had made the point that the women who were marching in front of these, like, dignitaries and out in New York City, they, like, explicitly called out that they were not blondes and that they were not tall and they were sort of these, like, representations of women that did not align with the representation of a woman that was consumed by society through media at the time. It wasn’t a tall, blonde, moviestar. They were just kind of regular women from all across the country who were marching.
And I thought it was interesting that, you know, they might have had, kind of, like, the same tenacity, the same intelligence, the same rigor. There was the sense that they just, kind of like, visually represented ideals of women that were-
...not the standard the society had at the time. They were not tall blondes, it was a very bold statement that was saying, “That is not what real women look like. We have all of these different shapes, and sizes, and heights, and hair colors, and looks that you can’t fit into this model that’s been produced on movie screens and TV.” So I thought that was, kind of, really cool.
The struggle that carries throughout the ages that I know, even still now, is the exclusion of pockets within the uniform that they opted for women in WAVEs, and I have seen that on countless occasions where women’s attire does not have a pocket, or a fake pocket, or it has a pocket that is ridiculously small.
And there’s actually a website somewhere, I need to go digging up for the URL of this thing, but they go and take the measurements of modern phones and attempt to put them in a woman’s pocket and, like, they model it out to see, like, this is (laughs) like, this is the Samsung Galaxy Note, or whatever and like-
Not even a chance. I mean, it fits like a quarter of it in. And I still think that it is one of those things where it’s like, the whole notion that women don’t need to be carrying things, or don’t want to carry things, in their pocket seems outright absurd. Like, we all have things to carry.
We have purses and, besides, it would ruin the lining of our hips and our curves. So, I mean, clearly we don’t want to put things in our pockets because then we’ll have a bulge in a weird place!
And that would just not be attractive.
Yeah, it said that in the book, right? It would ruin the lines of the uniform. Yeah, no one says that about a man’s uniform.
No, but I mean, even today they say that about women and women’s pants and women’s dressed. Women get super excited-
Over a dress that has pockets. We don’t give a flying rat’s patootie about our line, we want to be able to put stuff in our pockets. Like, it’s, like, it’s a touchy thing for me, okay? (laughs)
Yeah. If you care about that you can just not use the pocket. The pocket could still be there if you want to use it.
Not necessarily. The thing is though, is because of the amount of fabric that’s created, or required, in order to create a pocket that size for use, it ends up creating its own line. You end up, like, -
You end up with a pocket line which, again, is unattractive. So it changes how women have to wear clothes in order to accommodate a larger pocket. So, skinny jeans for instance, more and more of them are having decent pockets but the reason why is because they’re lower, lower on the leg. So otherwise you end up with a large amount of pocket fabric that pushes right through the lining of the skinny jeans, for instance. So, we have to wear clothes differently in order to accommodate larger pockets.
And I know one of the big fashion, I guess not fashion, reasons that a lot of women’s jeans don’t have back pockets, or have really small back pockets, is because that’s supposed to accentuate the curves of your backside. So it’s very explicitly a clothing design decision that was made because the intent was to, like, sexualize women’s bodies. I don’t know, it’s fair if you, like-
Want to buy a pair of jeans with no back pockets, or small back pockets, because you want to accentuate your backside. But then when it’s just the monolith of every jean that exists has no back pocket because somebody decided that, like, all women wanted to accentuate their backsides and that was the rule of the land is so frustrating. (laughs)
Like, give me options!
Sometimes I want a pretty booty! Other times I want, you know, to put something there, like a phone.
Yeah, and you have a point you brought, Jason, is so interesting because I remember I was at a conference, most of them were like 5 years ago and someone brought up that point to me that, you know, tech companies keep making phones larger and larger and I’d love to see how many women are in the hardware design meetings for all of these phones who are actually voicing concerns about the size of devices that won’t fit in certain pockets or bags.
Another point that was made: if you have slightly longer nails, which women tend to do sometimes as a personal style choice, it’s, like, harder to use touch screens and that’s a problem that nobody has solved. It’s also harder to use keyboards and probably nobody has thought of it in those design meetings.
So I was just having this conversation with somebody and it really struck me, not only because I hadn’t considered those myself, those questions, but just because I've, kind of, been observing how technology has changed over the past 6 years since I had that conversation to see if those design meetings had gotten any women who would inform them about the needs of women with longer nails or smaller pockets and all that. Anyway…
Yes, but even if you got women into those meetings you’d actually have to have someone willing to listen to them and that’s not always the case.
Oh, yes. (laughs) That’s true.
That’s like the direct line back to that meeting that’s discussed in “Technically Wrong”.
You’re going to have to remind me.
There was a meeting of, like, what should we make this product for? And they wanted to make a… what was it? Was it watch?
Oh, is this the watches?
Yeah, the watches, I think that’s-
And like, as long as it looks good and, like, does, like, these stereotypical things women want, great. Then we’re good.
Then ignoring a, you know, any evidence that was brought forward to them by the woman that was in the room. So, yeah, exactly what you were saying, Jen.
And on the note of watches, smart watches today, even, have that same problem where it’s often that women’s wrists are smaller but smart watches are not very accommodating to that, like they would swallow up the whole thing. And so-
Yes! Oh my goodness.
Such a problem.
I’ve been dealing with this problem so much!
Like, helps you shop?
It’s like, being my size, as I am, we’ll go with that, “my size as I am”, people don’t actually realize that I have very small wrists so I tend to have to buy size smalls. It also means that any shirts that I buy have, like, really baggy wrist sizes and stuff like that. So it’s definitely something that I can also relate to.
So, on another note, the stuff in here that reminded me of computer science, one of them is this course that the Navy recruits went through on cryptanalysis. It said, “It was a good course, and they had worked hard at mastering it, but the problems often didn’t dovetail with the actual work-
...they found themselves doing; lots of the tasks they were facing had not been covered.” And so I thought that reminded me of my computer science degree.
Yeah! (laughs) That’s uh, really funny to me. I think that might be just a fact of any course at this point is it’s probably not going to be super useful to your career, but maybe I shouldn’t generalize.
One of the comments that struck me that was kind of CS/Software development related was there was a quote that said the best way to get to a solution for a cipher was, like, to use an eraser. Basically the quote was trying to elude to the fact that if you wanted to get to the right answer to break a cipher you would have to be comfortable with erasing a lot of your work and starting over, or just like, deleting things that were wrong.
So I thought that was kind of an interesting idea relating to the fact that sometimes, you know, don’t be too attached to your code, be comfortable with deleting it. Similarly, don’t be too attached with the line of thinking you had for a solution to a cipher, be ready to erase it.
That reminds me of a couple different things. One of them is Brian Holt’s quote of, you know, “Write code to throw it away”?
And the other one being, you know: first make it work, then make it right, then make it fast.
The ability to not just evolve, but sometimes full-on scrap it and start over with new knowledge understanding what it is you know now.
Yeah. One of the things I like to do sometimes, it’s called a spike solution. So you just, maybe in a completely different directory or in a repo, maybe not even a repo, just go and get something kind of working, and then you’ll, like you said, Jen, using what you know now you can actually build something.
That definitely is applicable for the situation the code breakers had where the ciphers that they had to work against would wind up getting changed from underneath them so all of the work that they had put in, all of the sudden, becomes obsolete or no longer effective and they do have to scrap, not everything they’ve learned, but I mean, if they’ve reverse engineered a whole code book then they likely have to go back and redo that again; and sometimes even in modern day with when you write code your business requirements can often change (laughs) and you have to scrap a lot of your codebase and even if you retain, I guess, some of the knowledge, at least you learned from it, from spiking it out.
I’m curious to know now as we’re kind of relating all of these tidbits from the book to, like, modern software development and I’m thinking not just about code breakers in World War II but also some of the early female programmers in, like, the 50s and 60s, if there was any sort of, like, software process or engineering management type books that were written by these women or, like, workflows they had developed that we could, like, directly map to some of the things that we’re doing in software now.
I think that would kind of be cool to see if they had invented processes for managing “software projects” that are still in use today.
Yeah, that would be cool. I mean the bibliography for this book is huge so you could look through there.
Another thing that kind of reminded me of CS is a section in chapter 8 where in the Army at Arlington Hall they had a Coke machine and you had to put a coin in there to get a little bit of Coke. And I don’t know, it, like, it seemed like it spewed it out directly, like a fountain machine, I guess, and so they figured out-
How to rig it up where it could continuously spew free liquid and they did it by inserting the coin and then unplugging it from the wall. And-
Basically they just hacked it which is amazing.
‘Cause that’s what they reading with the codes, they’re hackers.
And they sent around an email- I mean, not an email, it would be an email today, they sent around a memo.