New Orleans Mensa

La Plume de NOM for March/April 2007

The Magazine of New Orleans Mensa Information and Entertainment


by Anne Osteen Stringer

This issue includes our treasurer’s report and as you inspect this report, you will note that printing and mailing La Plume is our biggest single expense. That’s true of all local Mensa groups. In order to save money, National Mensa is offering us the opportunity to upload our newsletter to their website. Those members who so choose would not receive a printed copy, but an email notifying him or her that the newsletter was available on the website. This would apply only to members who want to receive the electronic version and we would still print a paper edition for those who prefer it. Of course, our webmaster posts the newsletter on our website, but for privacy he deletes pictures, phone numbers, addresses, etc. Since the version on the National website would be password protected, that would not be necessary. This is still in the talking stages now, so this is just a preliminary notice to see if any of our members would prefer to receive La Plume in the electronic version. If so, drop me an email.

We have lots of activities this month and a story about a famous Mensan. The beautiful flowers on the cover are courtesy of H.


by Patti Armatis

Well, I’m doing it again this year–so y’all should drag out your old, unloved books for inclusion in this sale. Proceeds to NOM treasury. Unsold books donated to Salvation Army or Symphony Book Fair.

Book prices will be $.25 for paperbacks, $.50 for hardcovers or large softcovers. There may be other “special” items at higher prices.

Anyone wishing to bring books in advance of the event may call me to make arrangements.


by Machelle Lee

The Rebirth SIG met for the first time on February 8. The members present discussed our ideas for becoming involved in the ongoing effort to rebuild Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. The general consensus was that Mensans have much to offer as both creative thinkers and experts in various fields.

The Rebirth SIG is planning to hold another meeting in early to mid March, at which we will further discuss how to get involved. At the first meeting, we decided to produce a short statement for government and non profit agencies to let them know that Louisiana Mensans may be available to help with creative problem solving. We also discussed coming up with several current rebuilding problems that would be useful for policymakers that the Rebirth SIG could brainstorm and discuss at upcoming meetings. We also began compiling a list of target organizations to potentially learn from and work with. The Rebirth SIG also plans to organize several outings to attend public meetings and then meet afterward over coffee or drinks to share our ideas and views, with an eye toward effecting smart planning and positive changes.

Rebirth SIG is excited to find new ways for Mensans to get involved what may be the most important domestic crisis of our time. If you are interested in getting involved, please email Machelle Lee at RebirthSIG (at) gmail (dot) com and ask to be added to our email list. We will send out an email announcing our next meeting in the first week of March.

Mensa’s "Amazing Grace"

by Kathe Oliver

March is Women’s History Month. As a result, schools and bookstores will blossom with bulletin boards featuring famous women. What you may not know is that (at least) one of the women featured on many of the posters was a Mensan: Grace Murray Hopper.

Grace Murray HopperWhen Grace Murray was born in 1906, computers only appeared as “thinking machines” in science fiction. Female engineers and mathematicians were almost as rare. However, her family encouraged her dream of becoming an engineer, even when she dismantled seven of her family’s alarm clocks to try to understand how they worked. In 1934 she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale.

When the United States entered World War II Grace Murray Hopper attempted to join the Navy. The military was desperate for qualified researchers, but she was turned down because the Navy said that she was underweight and too old, as well as being female. By 1943 the Navy decided to overlook these disqualifiers, and Dr. Hopper became Lt. Hopper. She would remain in the Navy for most of the next 43 years.
Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University as a programmer for the Navy’s Mark I computer, the world's first large-scale automatically sequenced digital computer. This machine, 8 feet high, 2 feet deep, and 8 feet wide, was used to calculate aiming angles for Naval artillery. It had less computational power than a modern pocket calculator, but the machine’s possibilities fascinated Hopper, who later remembered the Mark I as “the prettiest gadget I ever saw”

Writing programs for the Mark I led to work developing the Mark II and Mark III. In 1946 the Navy decided that Hopper was too old to remain on active duty. She transferred to the Naval Reserve and accepted a position as a researcher at Harvard so that she could continue her work on new generations of computers. It was while working on the Mark II that Hopper first entered computer science legend.

One day the Mark II had a problem that didn’t come from software. The engineers opened the computer’s case and found a moth that had flown into the machine and been squashed by one of the computer’s relays. Engineers had spoken of finding bugs in electrical systems since the early days of telegraphy, but this was the first real bug in a system. It was removed with tweezers, “debugging” the computer. The moth was taped into the computer’s log, with the notation "First actual case of bug being found". This incident made Hopper famous, for stories credited her (inaccurately) as the person with the tweezers.

In 1949 Hopper left Harvard to work for Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation (later Sperry Rand, now Unisys), a computer start-up. She helped to design the first commercial electronic computer, the UNIVAC, which was 1000 times faster than the Mark I (although still slower and less powerful than a modern calculator). Her primary interest was in finding simpler ways to tell computers what to do. To do this, she created programs that could translate arithmetic expressions into instructions that a computer could understand. These programs were the ancestors of programming language compilers, the software that translates languages such as JAVA and BASIC into computer instructions.

Hopper thought that computer programming was unnecessarily complicated. In a 1983 interview she explained “...I felt that more people should be able to use the computer and that they should be able to talk to it in plain English. And that was the beginning of COBOL.” COBOL (COmmon-Business-Oriented-Language), originally released between 1959 and 1962, was the first language that allowed a program to be written in words and sentences, instead of being limited to arithmetic expressions. Hopper led its development, insisting that it be standardized so that it could be used on a variety of computers. As a result, it is the oldest computer language in commercial use today.

While working in industry, Hopper continued her naval career. In 1966 she turned 60, and was forced to retire from the Navy due to age. That retirement lasted for seven months. The Navy had made 823 unsuccessful attempts to computerize its payroll. Would “Amazing Grace” come back and teach the Navy’s computers how to talk to each other? She would, and Hopper became the first woman from the Naval Reserve to be recalled from retirement to active duty.

Her original appointment was for only six months, but the Navy soon realized that she was too valuable to be forced into retirement. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper remained on active duty until 1986, retiring at the age of eighty. At her retirement ceremony she was given the highest non-combat award given by the military, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. The Navy named both a computer center and a ship in her honor.

Hopper did not retire from computer science when she retired from the Navy. She became a consultant, and worked as a lecturer and visiting professor. She continued to achieve and to be recognized for her achievements, in 1991 becoming the first woman to win the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in engineering and technology.

Grace Murray Hopper died on January 1, 1992, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

(Adapted from “Mensa’s ‘Amazing Grace’”, published in IMprint, the Newsletter of Northern New Jersey Mensa, in March, 2005.)

Attention Northshore Mensans

by Henry Bertrand

I promised in my January memo that after Mardi Gras I’d arrange a coffeehouse meeting for Northshore Mensans and others who may wish to attend. From roster printouts I find that approximately two-thirds of members in St. Tammany live on the eastern side. Therefore, I’ve scheduled a meeting for Thursday, March 8th, 7 pm, at PJ’s Coffee Shop in Slidell. It is located at 154 E. Hall Ave. just behind the Walgreen’s Drugstore at Hwy. 11 and Gause Blvd. Our purposes are to get to meet each other and to brainstorm some ideas for activities on this side of the lake.

Unfortunately, many Mensans do not give email addresses or telephone numbers. So spread the word if you know any of the group. Drop me a quick call or email if you can attend (so I can estimate attendance). Hope to see you there.

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