Ada Lovelace Day: The technopagan who helped shape my life
March 24, 2009
Where do I start? I signed up to the Ada Lovelace Day pledge as I thought it would force me to put together a post on a woman who became a completely unexpected yet important inspiration in my life:
Alison Harlow died much too young at 69, but remains a lasting inspiration in the lives of those who knew her.
Alison was one of the first female computer consultants in Silicon Valley. She was also a witch, Faery Priestess and an influential figure in the neopagan movement.
According to Wired and Controversial, 'Alison discovered computers in the late 1950s, when she was starved for English-language books after eloping to Latin America with her professor from Bard College. She stumbled across that classic of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener's "The Human Use of Human Beings". She went on to receive a master's in mathematics from Columbia University, then launched her career with IBM (1962) as a programmer and systems analyst in Hawaii and California. Later in life she put her professional skills to good use in the health care area of computer programming.'
"She had a remarkable mind -- tremendous logical abilities and a phenomenal memory, a marvelous ability to collaborate, a joyous spirit, and a divine tolerance for differences," says my friend Charles Olson who started programming with her at Healthtrack in the early eighties and became a close friend.
I first met her while covering an international conference in Athens in 1995, back when I was 19-going-on-90. She must have been 61, yet so young at mind and in love with life. I was, and to some extent remain, very much a rationalist, but Alison challenged my preconceptions of so many things, spoke to the adventurer in me and tickled my curiosity so much I could never stop asking why and how.
And she would always answer truthfully, even such awkward questions as whether the open relationships in her life were really as wonderful they were made out to be (Didn't you ever feel insecure, slighted, jealous? Well, yes, actually... but....) That was one of the wonderful things about her: she always lived her beliefs and values, fought for the causes she believed in throughout life, but the idea of forcing her ideas and choices on others, or overselling them, could not have been more foreign to her - which is perhaps partly why she made such a huge impact on people.
She was intellectually curious, open-minded and honest in the way only a truly integrated person can be, and discarded what she saw as the false dichotomies between body and mind, theory and practice. Or as someone said so aptly during the memorial service held to celebrate her life on 16 July 2004, citing a demonstration she flew to DC to take part in despite illness:
"She talked the talk and walked the walk."
Okay, this was harder to write than I feared as it's often hard to sum up someone's influence in your life - especially someone so different from me whom I came to think so highly of. You have to bear with me a bit: there's so much to say so it will take a while to condense. In the meantime this post will be work in progess and as such I'll adding more when I can.
For the record, I'm neither a pagan nor very religious, but feel truly blessed for getting to know Alison and for the adventures we shared. As for Ada Lovelace Day, it is intriguing that all the posts I've read so far speak of women in tech who have had a very personal impact on the respective blogger's life...
Alison and me on one of our adventures, travelling along the Amalfi-coast.