Ada Lovelace Day: Emily Short

Ada Lovelace day is “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.” by blogging about a woman in technology.

Unfortunately, it’s also a day when I’m getting over a bad case of the ‘flu, and not really coherent enough to write well, and I was seriously considering not doing this at all – after all, earlier this year when my work were after nominations of names of computer scientists to name their meeting rooms after, I’d named Ada Lovelace there, so I could have done my bit. But I’ve decided to go ahead with a post about Emily Short.

(I feel quite embarrassed writing about her as she’s someone I don’t know – at all – but who blogs and whose blog I’ve commented on, and so she may well read this. I just wanted to write about a programmer who’s actually one of those responsible for something I actually use on a regular basis).

Short is the writer of a series of games, all of them ‘interactive fiction’ – the kind of thing that used to be called text adventure games. And while I don’t know as much about the genre as I should, I do know that her games are among the best I’ve played, and are regarded as such by the small community of people who are still interested in these things. Rather than be Zork-esque ‘GET LAMP, KILL TROLL’, her stuff is actual art, its sophistication limited more by the relatively crude tools at her disposal than by her imagination or writing ability – a classicist, she often uses figures from Greek and Roman history and myth (I’ll have to replay Damnatio Memoriae soon, as I’ve recently been rewatching I, Clavdivs), and manages to get quite an astonishing level of characterisation and interaction from her NPCs.

But more important than her games, as far as this goes, is her work on Inform 7, a programming language I’ve written a little about before ( here and here ).

The basic concept behind Inform 7 – and the bulk of its implementation – are the work of Graham Nelson, a mathematician. But Short is the co-maintainer of the project (and increasingly its public ‘face’) , and wrote many of the built-in ‘extensions’ (what most programmers would probably refer to as libraries) to the language – as well as providing more than thirty further extensions on the Inform Extensions Page. She also wrote the vast bulk of the 300+ example programs in the Inform documentation, and the regression test suite used on every release (and as someone whose day job involves, in large part, regression testing software, I can tell you what a tedious, thankless, but necessary job that is).

And on top of that, she’s put in this huge amount of work on a community software project (albeit one not yet fully under a Free license, though getting released that way piecemeal) not for any cash, and not even (as far as I can tell) for ‘real-life’ credit – according to Wikipedia, ‘Emily Short’ is a pseudonym.

No doubt there are better candidates for celebration on Ada Lovelace Day, but I’m assuming you all know about Grace Hopper and Rosalind Franklin, so someone doing good work in a tiny niche, but work I for one appreciate, deserves writing about as much as anyone else…

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