Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Birthday Wish

Alan Turing was born 100 years ago today, and here's my birthday wish for him: I wish he hadn't been hounded quite literally to death by small-minded idiots. If you know anything about Alan Turing, congratulations; you're not a complete fucking waste of protoplasm. If you worship Alan Turing...uhm, hi Sasha.

Turing was a brilliant scientist, a pioneer in computer science (those who are into such labels call him computer science's daddy) and information theory. He was a critical figure in British cryptanalysis during World War II. He was so fucking brilliant, so creative, and so important to the war effort that cracking the famous Enigma code used by the Germans may have been the least of his major accomplishments during the war.

Turing was responsible for two key (and related) concepts in information theory and computer science: the Turing Test and the Turing Machine. Oversimplified, the Turing Test is an experiment in which an interrogator attempts to determine, using natural written language only, whether he is conversing with a human or a machine. The classic definition of artificial intelligence refers to a machine that can fool the interrogator. Also oversimplified, a Turing Machine is a formal description of what we would think of as a simple computer, except it's gussied up with a whole lot of math and modeling that Alan Turing could master and command, in his head, while simultaneously making his grocery list, taking a dump, and deducing the location of the Bismarck at 7:52 AM British War Time on February 18, 1941 based on an abstract imaginary mathematical representation of Admiral Lutjens' hair color, three grains of sand on Brighton Beach, and the position of a randomly chosen link on his bicycle chain.

Turing killed himself in 1954, some time after being chemically castrated by the British judicial system following his conviction for homosexual acts. There have been some attempts at forensic revisionism, suggesting that his death by cyanide poisoning was the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong. The man was found dead of cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple in his hand. Grow up, revanchists.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the state's treatment of Turing; two years later, the British Minister for Justice declined to pardon Turing, contending that Turing was a big faggot who deserved what he got.

Turing is a fascinating figure, a man of incredible allure for information science junkies, engineers, and the formerly great writer Neal Stephenson, back before Neal was tragically lost to humanity while spelunking in his own ass for epistemological complexity. Turing was an instructional fable to Princess Nell in the still-amazing The Diamond Age, teaching Nell how to program computers by using an increasingly complex series of...yes, Turing Machines. Duh. Turing was also an active character in Stephenson's less ageworthy but still very fine Cryptonomicon, a colleague and mentor to one of the most central characters, Lawrence Waterhouse. For all I know Turing was also in The Baroque Cycle, to the extent that that pile of vocabulary drenched in Neal's ass was decipherable as literature--I honestly don't remember because I'm pretty sure I was either asleep or being tortured on a waterboard while I was reading it. I didn't read Anathem, because I heard he invented a language to write it, as if Klingon isn't good enough, and I decided I'd rather be rimmed by beavers than read that. I have heard that it's possible that his latest, whatever the fuck it's called, is something we might actually consider a book.

Wait, was I discussing something? Right, Alan Turing. Sorry, my bad. The point, of course, is that you should take a moment from whatever you're thinking about today, or tomorrow, or whenever you read this, to thank whatever you fucking consider holy that you got a chance to walk the same fucking planet as Alan Mathison Turing. Because, seriously? You're not fucking worthy.

I'd have missed Turing's birthday, if not for Slate, which clued me to this Vimeo gem by some Dutch guy calling himself Ecalpemos:

LEGO Turing Machine from ecalpemos on Vimeo.

4 comments:

Sasha said...

Hi Landru.

My life is a Turing test. And I'll be damned if I can find many humans.

Turing is one of the great tragedies of the last century. Thanks for remembering him.

PurpleState said...

Had a 10 hour flying day and a week at Mom's. Saw Anathem at the library. Perfect fit for the trip and the price.

At its best, it soars. At its worst, its the kind of Stephenson you hate.

He's raising funds for a swordfighting game now. Here's a quote for you, which I have paraphrased from a backers video, which you will now enjoy.

[NS] "Didn't you know? I sent you a memo."

[Money Guy] "I don't read your memos Neal. They are longer than your novels and make less sense."

Jim H. said...

I'm betting you're a machine. And we are your minions.

Muthu Pearl said...

100th birthday of Great Mathematician Alan Turing . Thanks for sharing this message with us.