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 are reading “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy, and today we’re going over Part III which is titled “The Tide Turns.” I’m Adam Garrett-Harris.
I’m Jen Luker.
I’m Safia Abdalla.
All right, so I really liked this part. I think this was probably my favorite part of the whole book besides the introduction where they’re getting the secret letters, that was really cool, too. But… Like, some really cool stuff happened in this chapter where they actually start winning the war.
Yeah. One of the new things that I learned in this chapter that I didn't know before was that there was an American Version of the Bombe, which I didn’t know.
Yeah, how do you pronounce that? ‘Cause it’s like “bomb” with an “e” on the end.
I call bombe [pronounced b-oh-m], but I don’t know if that’s just a little bit too pretentious? (laughs)
No, I like it ‘cause I say “bomb” in my head but it sounds weird to say bomb because it’s not a bomb, it’s a computer.
Yeah. I feel like we should go to Google for the official downlow on this.
But yeah, that was one of the things I didn’t know, and I think I’m so used to hearing the storing of Turing and the Bombe that again, all of this stuff about the American side of the cryptographic effort is new to me.
Isn’t it fascinating how much of that story we get from the European side and not from the American side?
Yeah, it is quite a bit fascinating. I wonder why. I wonder if it just has to do with, kind of, American intelligence’s security culture and their own, like, OpSec around stuff? Or… I don’t know. I can’t speak to that.
Maybe it has something to do with the release of 007 and popularizing British spy campaigns.
Hmm. Yeah, so I’m just reading here in Wikipedia, finally looking this up right now, that it was designed in Poland. It started in Poland and it was the Bomba, which was Polish, so that’s probably where it gets its name.
So we should be calling it the bomba. (laughs)
Yeah. Or however you say that, I don’t know.
I thought it was fascinating, this set of women who were creating they electronics for it and they didn’t really know what they were making but if they paid attention there were like, 24 things on it. It was like this circular thing they were making with 24 things on it. Which is how many letters are in the alphabet.
And so it wasn’t hard to figure out that they were-
Making something to crack codes.
I thought that was kind of an interesting part of this, was the… like, separation of concerns between the people working on, I guess you could call it an assembly line, for the actual, like, bombe machines and then the people who were working on, like, the cryptographic and mathematical effort, and there were all of these, kind of, like, silos and there were only a few people who kind of had the big-picture understanding of what was going on. Kind of, to draw analogies between today, I do know of some, like, software teams that do function like that where they’re very siloed by, like, product offering or like what service they are responsible for and there's very few people who have an understanding of the, like, full scope of the work. So I thought that was, kind of, like, an interesting team/engineering setup.
Yeah. No, that’s reminds me of something I learned recently called Conway’s Law and it’s this idea that-
The way you write software is going to be based on how your organization is structured at your company.
And so if your company has these different departments then your software will be, or tend to, or should be organized based on how the company is split up.
Yeah, Conway’s Law is probably one of my favorite, like, I guess engineering or software philosophy-type things. I find it really interesting because it kind of underscores the relevance of the people and culture over the actual, like, lines of code.
Yeah. What else?
There are some interesting anecdotes about some of the kind of sexism that the women experienced just moving forward into the later years of the war. Like, one of the stories that was highlighted was a situation where basically there were women who were based in, like, a manufacturing/assembly facility in Dayton, Ohio and there was another group of women who were working in Washington, DC and there was a situation where they were transferred from Dayton to Washington to do some work and stuff there and as they were kind of, like, processing the transfer, the individuals, the men who were processing them, sort of automatically assumed that the women were there in DC from Dayton because they had, like, done something wrong or what was considered immoral at the time or unbecoming of a female officer.
And were, like... made them, like, literally wash windows when they were supposed to be, like, these mathematicians and code breakers; and it wasn’t until another officer saw them and pointed out the fact that they were, like, the ones doing the code breaking that that was like, brought to an end. So… yes. Kind of, you know, highlights one of the things that I think has been a consistent theme throughout this book and then is also, I think, something that is a reality that a lot of women experience even today is that, like, going to work is going into battle with allies and enemies. Like, within the same team or even the same company you might have individuals who, like, support you and sponsor you and behave like some of the more, like, supportive characters that we’ve read about in this book, none of whose names are coming to mind at the moment; but then you might also have within those same institutions people who were like, holding you back or, you know, still judgemental in that way.
So it’s like you never know which side of the coin the person you’re interacting with is going to land on. Is it going to be someone who kind of respects you and understands and appreciates your achievements and your position and all of the challenges you had to overcome to get there? Or is it somebody who’s going to like-
Want to knock you down a peg? So…
And not only that but it seemed that those same people would respond in different ways based on what was going on either with them or with the war efforts or whatever. So it seemed that even if you could peg someone as being one way that, you know, they were accepting of you, maybe in three weeks they wouldn’t be.
Yeah. It’s a… I don’t know what the word for it would be but it’s just, you’d kind of have to walk into a situation that you have no control over how you’ll be perceived.
Yeah. That story was, I can’t find it at the moment, but that story was crazy to me. I don’t… I don’t know how… they got put in a position where they were just washing windows when they should be doing real work. Like, who made that assumption? And… I mean it was great that someone finally came and said, “No, they’re really important, we need them to work on important stuff.” But if that person hadn’t come they could have just been stuck there.
Such is life. (laughs)
Ah, the joys of assumption. (laughs)
I can’t tell you how often I was seen as the secretary when people would walk in the door and my desk was one of the front ones.
Oh my gosh!
Yeah, that stuff’s really... that’s the stuff that gets you.
I’m trying to get a lot better about this. Like, for instance, I was... I ran into a couple recently and the woman was wearing a ReactRally t-shirt and so I asked if she was a developer instead of, like, I don’t know, this is a silly example.
Assuming it was her husband’s?
It was her husband’s, but-
Yeah! No, it’s a real thing!
I really thought she was the developer.
Yeah, and I think that’s, like, a good skill to practice is like, being proactive about not defaulting to the assumption that might not necessarily, like, be true all of the time.
I’m noticing, like, little things like this. Another example is I was talking to a pharmacist about my son’s doctor and she said, “Well yeah, just call him and let him know.” And it’s a female doctor.
And she just made the assumption that because it’s a doctor it’s a male. That one? That one’s really weird to me that that’s still an assumption we have.
That all doctors are dudes?
Well, it wasn’t until, what? The 1930s that women were allowed into certain medical fields?
Hmm, yeah. Yeah and it talks about at the end of this book after the war there was the GI Bill where they can use that to go to college but one of these women couldn’t get into the colleges they wanted to, to learn the things they wanted to.
They said, “Hey, we're holding those spots for soldiers!”
And they were like, “I was a soldier. I was in the WAVES.”
And they’re like, “Well, too bad.”
Yeah, and I think this is one of the things where it's like certain prejudices become, like, institutionalized because it, if there is one thing I know, especially from looking at it in the lens of like, black civil rights and the advancement of black people in America, there was nothing more significant to the development of the middle class and like economic prosperity in that era than the GI Bill and everything that it enabled people to do with a respect to getting, like, education and housing and all of that good stuff that people need. Then, you know, the fact that all of that wealth and resource was not accessible to this one group of people, it becomes generational, and it impacts, you know, women several decades later.
Onto cheerier topics, one of the things that kind of fascinated me, er, sorry! Not to just like, jump off this like, very serious topic that should be discussed, but one of the things that I thought was kind of interesting, also, was talking a little bit about the engineering effort involved in the building of the bombes because they were building many of them and I thought it was interesting that they had, you know, like standard parts that they would get from, like, you know, commercial providers, but then they also had custom made parts that needed to be made.
And I, you know, again it reminded me again of, like, modern software engineering where you have, like, standard packages or APIs that you interface with, you know, like, interfacing with, like, a file system that’s a standard API in many cases. Or like, interfacing through HTTP or REST, and then you’ve got, like, stuff that’s just, like, custom built for your use case. Like, they were talking about diodes that had to be custom made, certain kinds of vacuum tubes and how they had to integrate and assemble all of these parts, and the maintenance effort required to keep this, they almost seemed to describe it as, like, a very delicately put together system, like, running. And, like, there are engineering logs where, I think they called, like, the first prototypes Adam and Eve or something.
And another thing I noticed that was kind of interesting was that they had anthropomorphized the computers. So they would be, like, over there talking about Adam they would be like, “He had a bug today.-
“He was feeling a little cranky.” And the same goes for Eve, which is interesting because I also tend to anthropomorphize bugs or things I’m dealing with when I’m writing code.
So, yeah. It was kind of interesting to see, like, the engineering process involved in, like, physically assembling the hardware for the bombe.
Having dived into IOT a lot lately, I can also relate to that from an actual hardware perspective and not just the software side. Having to try to combine various parts and pieces and make them work and then kind of, you know, rig them with bubble gum and you know, duct tape to try to make them work anyway and not just, you know, talking about having to custom make the hardware itself but sometimes it’s random things like, I’ve got this water float switch that I’m using to fill up my fish tank when the water level drops too low, and I’ve had to, like, custom make essentially a one eared clip to go onto the edge of my fish tank because I couldn’t find one commercially.
So it kind of reminded me that 3D printing is very much the same way, it’s custom-making various pieces in order to make our things work together properly.
Yeah, and I didn’t totally understand what was going on but I think I remember some sort of job where you, like, put this wheel on and then you sit there on a stool and wait for it to, like, pop off and hit you and then you, like, get up and put it back on. And that was like, a job to sit there and constantly fix it. Do you all remember that?
I remember working in a button factory.
You worked in a button factory? Like-
“Hi, my name is Joe. I worked in a button factory. One day my boss came to me and said, ‘Joe, are you busy?’ I said, ‘No-”
“ ‘Push this button with your left hand.’”
I remember this.
Not from this book.
No, but yes. It was a thing back in the day.
Maybe Safia’s too young.
I think I might be.
So anyway! Joe continues and Boss keeps coming and you know, left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot, head, whatever other body parts you can figure out how to push a button with and you just keep pushing the button and it’s a physical like song that you do in front of an audience and it gets really hilarious and then eventually you say, “Yes! I’m busy, Boss!”
(laughs) I’ll have to look this up.
I”m trying to find a link for the show notes.
That’s going to be odd and awkward and we probably should just cut it all out. (laughs)
I’m still looking to see if I can find that part where you would sit there and…
Yeah, it’s like, the point is that, you know, if we’ve come up with songs like “I work in a button factory”, like, I don’t see is as a real far-fetched thing, that we probably came up with it because of something as similar as wait for the wheel to pop off and then put it back on.
Yep. Okay, so one of my favorite chapters is the one called “Teddy.”
“Chapter 14: Teedy”, not Teddy!
And it’s a story about Dot’s brother. So Teedy went and like, some of the worst battle that happened during the war, let’s see, what battle was that? During Normandy! He was,like, storming the beaches of Normandy.
What made that chapter your favorite?
So, he was in this unit that almost like, almost everyone died and they, he was reported missing in action and everyone just assumed he was dead, and then it turned out he had survived and he had this kind of crazy story about how he survived. The vehicle he was in just got blown by this rocket launcher and he was just, kind of, knocked out. Then he just kind of woke up and followed some dudes and then he, like, passed out again, and then he woke up in a hospital. It’s just crazy the… I guess because I really liked Dot as a person in this story. Like, she’s really the most consistent storyline throughout this entire book. To see her brother out there and she’s working to try to save him, there was really nothing she could do to save him, but through a lot of luck he actually does make it.
Not only does he make it but he kind of gets to skip one of the worst battles he was ever in!
So from the very beginning, you know, he kinda gets knocked out and then he wakes up long enough to walk a few miles and then he gets knocked out again and wakes up in a hospital, like, sucks that he got knocked out and he had injuries but, like, he got to skip it. Maybe he skipped some of the emotional damage.
Right! And then he gets to eat a nice meal in a Belgian restaurant.
Yeah, although I don’t think that discounts like, the gruesome aspects of having to face war at such a young age, even if it was like… brief I think just, like, the very act of being in that kind of conflict is traumatizing enough. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily like, the more war you see the worse off you are or if it’s just like, encounters with that kind of like-
Violence and terror have an impact on your psyche-
Regardless of how much.
And it’s also sad how young these men were, and how untrained they were, and then going into the worst battle of the war.
Yeah. ‘Cause I think I was going to add on, I was kind of getting into this notion about, like, the psychological trauma of war. You have psychological trauma that you experience in addition to, like, physical trauma like injury, death, when you’re in the battlefield; but I think there’s also, like, the aspects of the psychological trauma that were discussed when it came to, like, the, like, stress and mental wear of the people who were just, like, the women who were just, you know, stationed in the US and just responsible for deciphering codes and stuff like that. Like, it’s different ways that you are mentally harmed by war, weather you are directly in combat or just kind of having to process those aspects of war.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on it but I think there’s, like, an interesting thing there about the different ways it affects you depending on your engagement with, like, combat or just war stories, or all of that.
You know, there’s always going to be varying degrees across not just people but also an experience I think that from, again, my limited experience, I mean people can get PTSD from just being in a car crash, let alone having to deal with the day-to-day on and on of dealing with those horrors. And some of it becomes… you become desensitized to a sense and it just becomes one long experience with staccato's of horror that then define the experience for you. But no matter how you cut it, the emotional and mental and physical damage of it all definitely adds up.
Yeah. But yeah, so you feel like the kind of backstory for her brother added some, like, depth to the Dot character even though she’s like a real person who existed and is not just a character in some fictional book or something?
Yeah. And it’s not just that story. There’s a lot of different stories of code breakers whose husbands or brothers or fathers are out there fighting the war, and they actually, sometimes, help save them by cracking a message, and sometimes they don’t and just hear about their death.
So another thing I thought was really interesting is in the next chapter, chapter 15, talking about the surrender from the Japanese.
And it was talking about how Japanese translators were really rare in America at that time and so there were basically three types of translators that they had, and some were like, military people that they had sent to, like, learn Japanese in… I guess at, like, training places in California and Colorado, and then others were scholars, and some were missionaries who had actually lived in Japan. So that last two categories were really interesting because they learned the language because they loved the people, the culture, the place; and then here they are working to fight against the place that they love.
And this is where I get a bit angry about the fact that they couldn’t find Japanese translators, however they were perfectly fine with locking up Japanese-Americans in our own version of-
And that wasn’t just people that were born and raised in Japan and moved, it was people that were born and raised as Americans that just had Japanese heritage. Not that one of it makes it any better.
Right. Yeah. And, you know, those people, even if they had asked them to come help translate they probably would have been in the same boat of, like, they might have some, at least, you know? If that’s their ancestry they’re probably going to have some… I don’t even know how to word it.
It’s like, not even necessarily love as much as just the language comprehension.
What do you mean?
For those that actually traveled and studied in the country, yeah you’re going to have people that did so because of their appreciation of that culture; but the people that were already here, even if they were born as Americans, may or may not have already had the language comprehension skills based on whether their families continued speaking the language or not. However, I felt like they had this huge pool of people, maybe not huge, but they had this large pool of people that they wouldn’t even utilize or work with or talk to-
Or just let them live their lives?
(laughs) Right? Let them live in their own homes and experience life on their own! So they had to find other weird ways of getting Japanese translators besides our own-
So, I like this one sentence. I’m not even sure how to parse it, but they get the message, the surrender message, early because, like, the Japanese don’t have a direct way to communicate with the US so they’re going to go through Sweden. So send the message to Sweden and then have Sweden send it to the US and so we intercept that from Japan to Sweden and go ahead and translate the message. So the translator’s, you know, working on it, and everyone’s crowding around her and so this woman says she saw what was going on and she went over there and she was like,”I just put on my Colonel’s bars, or whatever you wear when you’re a Colonel, and told them to get the hell out of there and leave her alone.” And I was like-
That’s so awesome that she’s a Colonel. She’s like, and I’m sure this is just years later that she’s telling this story, but she’s like, “You know? Colonel’s bars, or whatever you put on…”
And also, this probably goes back to some of the stuff we were talking about before. It’s like, she probably had to put those on to get the respect to tell people to get out.
Speaking of respect, this is kind of jumping back a little bit.
Yeah, go for it!.
There was some stuff that happened in the beginning around the, like, illustrious Agnes Driscoll character that kind of confused me. So they were talking about, like, needing to push her out or, like, get rid of her in the context of the new bombe effort that was going on.
Yeah, so what was that about? ‘Cause I was having trouble kind of tying that with other parts of the plot with a respect to, like, Agnes Driscoll.
That was in Part II, right?
Yeah, there was like, this was, like, in the first chapter within Part III. There was, like, a brief bit which kind of surprised me. They were like, “Oh, we need to get rid of Agnes Driscoll.” But I don’t know if that was this same kind of scenario that happened in Part II, but just retold it in a different context or there was, like, another situation or she was pushed out.
I had trouble kind of parsing that part of the plot.
They were always pushing Agnes Driscoll out!
(laughs) I know!
I love the part, I think it’s in the last chapter where someone was walking past her and this woman walking past her was trained by someone Agnes Driscoll didn’t like, I don’t remember who.