Things I Didn't Know

As both a computer geek and a WWII buff, I of course know something of Alan Turing's incredible contributions to both.  I also knew he was gay, but didn't think much about it.  What I didn't know was how horribly he was abused by the British government, actions for which the government has now appologized:

In 1952, he was convicted of "Ëœgross indecency' -- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence -- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison -- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

A lot more at the link.  I am constantly amazed at how we tend to elevate the mediocre while treating the truly great so shabbily.

Postscript: The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books.  The story is good (not great, but good) but the writing is just fabulous.  Who else could entertain one for page after page on the physics of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal?


  1. anoNY:

    Everything I know, I learned from reading that book.

  2. Nate:

    Neal Stephenson is awesome. :)

  3. Mesa Econoguy:

    So when is Keynes’ family going to apologize to us for his gay pedophilia, AND economic retardation?

  4. Ken:

    I can still make myself laugh by remembering "Initiate nail removal immediately!"

  5. Evil Red Scandi:

    Coyote - I think just about all of us have already read that one :-)

    The business plan part was epic.

  6. Bob:

    I linked to Amazon and bought the Kindle version.

  7. Z. M. Davis:

    "The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is [...]"

    Greg Egan's "Oracle."

  8. Link:

    I didn't know from Alan Turing until I saw an early preview of the play Breaking The Code in London in 1985. The play was developed as star-driven vehicle for Sir Derek Jacobi, who I had previously seen in Hamlet. Most of us know Jacobi as Claudius in the BBC's "I Claudius". At the time, Jacobi was called the best Shakespearean actor of his generation. They later brought the play to Broadway.

    The play expressly mixed the metaphors of Turing cracking the German spy code while failing to crack the code of how to be queer within the ranks of the British establishment of the time.

    I'd add the irony that a genuine war hero like Turing was driven to suicide by the Brits because he liked man sausage, while the Brits covered up that a pack of Cambridge pansies gave away tons of secrets to the Soviets.

    Since I saw the play, I read a bit about Turing. Nothing from Einstein, but Turing was one of the great minds of the 20th Century. I'd include Von Neummann certainly. Any others?

    I like English people mostly, but hate the "British Empire." My parents were driven out of Ireland, which is why. Away from their home, the Brits have been just a milder version of the Nazis, with a better sense of humor. As they built Empire, hypocrisy abounded ... especially in their upper ranks.

    An "apology" to Turing now? What a joke. In the midst of war, he proved better than several divisions in the field. After the war, the Brits acted like Soviets.

    "Big governments" act this way. Be afraid.

  9. Ariel:

    Keynes was also a eugenicist, which I thought quite funny given his sexual proclivities. But I believe his preference was teenage boys, which makes him not a pedophile but at worst an ephebophile (mid to late adolescents)who preferred 16 at the youngest IIRC, and even John Derek bordered on that (each wife was sixteen at the first tryst IIRC). Keynes economics isn't standing the test of time (to rephrase Mesa Econoguy)either with a 49/51 ratio of economists believing that FDR's economic policies lengthened the Great Depression. Didn't Keynesian E. fail to predict stagflation?

    Jacobi was fantastic in "I, Claudius". Shame I missed him as a Shakespearean actor.

    Finally and OT, Turing was a magnificent intellect and it is about time the British government apologized, but of course it was also the nature of the times that Turing suffered.

  10. epobirs:

    I've never cared for apologies rendered by people who were not the culprits and often weren't even yet born when the offense took place. Such gestures are empty. Repudiate the policies that did harm but don't pretend your gesture has any value.

  11. Mesa Econoguy:

    Jacobi was better as Gracchus in Gladiator:

    I think he [Obamalini] knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death [or ‘healthcare reform’] - and they will love him for it.

  12. David Duff:

    I have a list, a very long list, of things for which Gordon Brown owes me, a British tax-payer, an apology. I will not bore you with the details, suffice to say that Alan Turing does not appear on it for the simple reason that Brown must have been about 10 years old when Turing killed himself.

    In this case, no one has any reason to apologise for anything. We, *today*, might not approve but at the time a middle-aged man having sex with a 'lad' (he was 19, not yet an adult in the eyes of the law then) was against the law of the land and justice took its course. If we are going to insist that prime ministers, and presidents, apologise for everything in history which 'bien pensants' now believe were errors they won't have any time to run our respective nations - oh! well, on second thoughts, perhaps that not such a bad idea!

    I will graciously forgive 'Link' his fey, 'Oirish' nonsense because I am aware that for reasons I have never fathomed they cling to their peculiar and mythical world view. "[T]he Brits have been just a milder version of the Nazis", "After the war, the Brits acted like Soviets"! Yes, yes, Paddy, have another Guiness and calm down.

  13. richard:

    Turing was famous for the so called 'Turing test'

    It's an interesting idea. Suppose you have a human in one room and a computer, programmed to the max, in another. You can ask all kinds of questions, but you can't take a look.

    The computer is said to have passed the turing test (i.e. is 'intelligent') if you can't tell who is who.

  14. Spartan79:

    As a SciFi collector, thought I'd pass along a heads up on Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. If you have a hardbound 1st ed., 1st printing, hang onto it. In great condition w/dust jacket the book can bring $100 or more; signed 1st/1st's can bring several hundred.

  15. Jeffrey Ellis:

    The Cryptonomicon is absolutely my favorite book of all time. If you haven't read it yet, you MUST. IMMEDIATELY. First chapter can be read here:

  16. David:

    The apology may be meaninless, but gay groups have been demanding it for decades. You don't apologize because you were personally responsible, or because you think the gub'ment actually believes it, you apologize because it stops the whining about a lack of apology.

    It's all symbolism.

  17. tehag:

    While the government did the deed, both stupid and vile, it 'twas psychology that supplied the theory--when will psychologists apologize for all the crazy theories (many of them still current) that have been enforced by the government?

    There's a reason why chemists and physicists don't ask for government powers to enforce their theories, and why psychologists do. It has something to do with accuracy and truth, I'm told, by people who explain the 'scientific method' to me.

  18. epobirs:

    An earlier Neal Stephenson novel, 'The Diamond Age' has section that don't name Turing but explain much of his work on computational theory.

  19. TDK:

    Whilst I'm inclined to agree that he shouldn't have been prosecuted I despise the modern desire to conspicuously apologise for things others have done. In this case we have the odious Brown being proud that he is sorry. Is that not an oxymoron.

  20. Linkl:

    A follow-up with libertarian themes:

    Apologizing is silly, especially as Turing is long dead. Turing isn't an ordinary case. He deserved the honors and benefits of a winner of the Victoria Cross. Put him on a stamp as a war hero, but don't apologize. Interest groups want apologies to flex their political muscle -- once they've proven they have it, the demands for special favors will be right behind.

    British police learned of Turing's gross indecency because Turing volunteered it in the course of reporting his being burgled. The first US Supreme Court case on sodomy (Bowers 1986) was a result of police breaking into the wrong house on a search warrant and needing an excuse to cover-up -- it could have been a libertarian lighting up a bong with weed grown in his basement. For me these were both cases of "State v Individual" and bad policing. It's a sad result, however, that the Supreme Court's overturning Bowers has opened the door to US gay's demanding special favors. Never give a sucker an even break.

    My point about the British Empire is that governments can act badly ... bigger governments seem to do it more ... and Empires abroad even more so. No people is immune from this phenomenon. The level of hypocrisy within a society also grows this way. The US is trending this way unfortunately even though we have good people mostly, a history of fair play, and a written constitution.

    Lastly, I see the last 1500 years of British history as a bunch of German tribes grabbing control and then lording it over the Celtic tribes who provide all the creativity and industry, as well as the infantry -- but I'm biased. Our American political tradition and libertarianism owe more to Scotland than anything out of London and environs.

  21. Dan:

    Just wanted to say that I went to the Library and grabbed Cryptonomicon last week and proceeded to devour it. It was wonderful. I have not read such a great book since Atlas Shrugged.

    I was even able to take away a nice bit that describes what I do for a living (slightly paraphrased from Randy Waterhouse):

    "I make my way in this world by knowing that two and two equals four and sticking to my guns in a way that may be kind of nerdy but hurts people's feelings sometimes. . . . people who put a higher priority on social graces than having statements in a conversation be true."

    Reminds me of you a bit as well come to think of it - or at least your writing. Thanks so very much for this great recommendation. If you ever wanted to post other recommended books, I would be a repeat customer.