[TUHS] Lorinda Cherry

George Michaelson ggm at algebras.org
Wed Feb 16 10:09:12 AEST 2022

I wrote a major part of the UQ phone directory in EQN, to post process
T/Roff output so the existing bromide-mechanical printing braces for
grouping common phoneline holders could be done in the new
phototypesetter. Eqn was the tool which got me out of a self-dug hole
over-promising delivery of "print-equivalent" outcome here.

I use BC as a daily driver like most people. I never quite got DC, and
wondered at the duality of them. Very interesting to have the
background explained.

The trigraph spelling checker sounds wonderful.

Thanks for posting this.


On Wed, Feb 16, 2022 at 8:35 AM Douglas McIlroy
<douglas.mcilroy at dartmouth.edu> wrote:
> Lorinda Cherry, a long-time member of the original Unix Lab
> died recently. Here is a slightly edited reminiscence that
> I sent to the president of the National Center for Women and
> Information Technology in 2018 when they honored her with
> their Pioneer in Tech award.
> As Lorinda Cherry's longtime colleague at Bell Labs, I was
> very pleased to hear she has been chosen for the NCWIT Pioneer
> Award. At the risk of telling you things you already know,
> I offer some remarks about her career. I will mainly speak of
> things I saw at first hand when our offices were two doors
> apart, from the early '70s through 1994, when Lorinda left
> Bell Labs in the AT&T/Lucent split. Most of the work I describe
> broke new ground in computing; "pioneer" is an apt term.
> Lorinda, like many women (including my own mother and my wife),
> had to fight the system to be allowed to study math and science
> in college. She was hired by Visual and Acoustics Research
> at Bell Labs as a TA--the typical fate of women graduates,
> while their male counterparts were hired as full members of
> technical staff. It would take another decade for that unequal
> treatment to be rectified. Even then, one year she received
> a statement of benefits that explained what her wife would
> receive upon her death. When Lorinda called HR to confirm that
> they meant spouse, they said no, and demanded that the notice
> be returned. (She declined.) It seemed that husbands would not
> get equal treatment until AT&T lost a current court case. The
> loss was a foregone conclusion; still AT&T preferred to pay
> lawyers rather than widowers, and fought it to the bitter end.
> Lorinda moved to my department in Computing Science when
> the Unix operating system was in its infancy. Initially she
> collaborated with Ken Knowlton on nascent graphics applications:
> Beflix, a system for producing artistically pixillated films,
> and an early program for rendering ball-and-stick molecular
> models.
> She then joined the (self-organized) Unix team, collaborating
> on several applications with Bob Morris.
> First came "dc", an unlimited-precision desk calculator,
> which is still a Unix staple 45 years on. Building on dc,
> she would later make "bc", which made unlimited precision
> available in familiar programming-language notation and became
> the interface of choice to dc.
> Then came "form" and "fed", nominally a form-letter generator
> and editor. In fact they were more of a personal memory
> bank, a step towards Vannevar Bush's famous Memex concept--an
> interesting try that didn't pay off at that scale. Memex had to
> sleep two more decades before mutating into the Worldwide Web.
> Lorinda had a hand in "typo", too, a Morris invention that
> found gross spelling mistakes by statistical analysis. Sorting
> the words of a document by the similarity of their trigrams
> to those in the rest of the document tended to bring typos to
> the front of the list. This worked remarkably well and gained
> popularity as a spell-checker until a much less interesting
> program backed by a big dictionary took over.
> Taken together, these initial forays foretold a productive
> computer science career centered around graphics, little
> languages, and text processing.
> By connecting a phototypesetter as an output device for Unix,
> Joe Ossanna initiated a revolution in document preparation. The
> new resource prompted a flurry of disparate looking documents
> until Mike Lesk brought order to the chaos by creating a macro
> package to produce a useful standard paper format.
> Taking over from Lesk, Lorinda observed the difficulty of
> typesetting the mathematics (which the printing industry counted
> as "penalty copy") that occurred in many research papers,
> and set out to simplify the task of rendering mathematical
> formulas, Brian Kernighan soon joined her effort. The result
> was "eqn", which built on the way people read formulas aloud
> to make a quite intuitive language for describing display
> formulas. Having pioneered a pattern that has been adopted
> throughout the industry, eqn is still in use forty years later.
> Lorinda also wrote an interpreter to render phototypesetter
> copy on a cathode-ray terminal. This allowed one to see
> typeset documents without the hassle of exposing and developing
> film. Though everyone has similar technology at their fingertips
> today, this was genuinely pioneering work at the time.
> You are certainly aware of Writers Workbench, which gained
> national publicity, including Lorinda's appearance on the Today
> Show. It all began as a one-woman skunk-works project. Noticing
> the very slow progress in natuaral-language processing, she
> identified a useful subtask that could be carved out of the
> larger problem: identifying parts of speech. Using a vocabulary
> of function words (articles, pronouns, prepositions and
> conjunctions) and rules of inflection, she was able to classify
> parts of speech in running text with impressive accuracy.
> When Rutgers professor William Vesterman proposed a
> style-assessing program, with measures such as the frequencies
> of adjectives, subordinate clauses, or compound sentences,
> Lorinda was able to harness her "parts" program to implement
> the idea in a couple of weeks. Subsequently Nina MacDonald,
> with Lorinda's support, incorporated it into a larger suite
> that checked and made suggestions about other stylistic issues
> such as cliches, malapropisms, and redundancy.
> Another aspect of text processing that Lorinda addressed was
> topic identification. Terms (often word pairs) that occur with
> abnormal frequency are likely to describe the topic at hand. She
> used this idea to construct first drafts of indexes. One
> in-house application was to the Unix manual, which up until
> that time had only a table of contents, but no index. This
> was a huge boon for a document so packed with detail.
> In her final years at Bell Labs, Lorinda teamed up with AT&T
> trouble-call centers to analyze the call transcripts that
> attendants recorded on the fly--very sketchy prose, replete
> with ad-hoc contractions and misspellings. The purpose was
> to identify systemic problems that would not be obvious from
> transcripts considered individually. When an unusual topic
> appeared at the same time in multiple transcripts, those
> transcripts were singled out for further study. The scheme
> worked and led to early detection of system anomalies. In one
> case, it led AT&T to suspend publication of a house organ that
> rubbed customers the wrong way.
> Lorinda was not cut from the same mold as most of her
> colleagues. First she was a woman, which meant she faced
> special obstacles. Then, while there were several pilots
> among us, there was only one shower of dogs and only one car
> racer--moreover one who became a regional exec of the Sports
> Car Club of America. For years she organized and officiated
> at races as well as participating.
> Lorinda was always determined, but never pushy. The
> determination shows in her success in text analysis, which
> involves much sheer grit--there are no theoretical shortcuts
> in this subject. She published little, but did a lot. I am
> glad to see her honored.
> Doug McIlroy

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