Jun 23, 2012

Of Turing and Bigotry

Those of you who use the popular search engine, Google, might have noticed their latest doodle for the Turing machine last week. A tribute to Alan Turing widely acknowledged as the father of modern computing. Before there were Jobs (or jobs in a discipline known as computer science), and Gates (or gates in silicon), or any of the other household names like that Facebook guy, or even the misplaced ridicule of Al Gore as the putative inventor of the Internet, there was Turing.

2012 is being celebrated as "The Turing Year", marking the hundred year anniversary of his birth. Born to parents of meager means, he and his brother spent Harry Potteresque lives in foster homes. Only, there was no Hogwarts. His father worked for the Indian Civil Service, which was a low paying if prestigious government job in British India.
A brilliant mind even as he entered his teens, he was recommended for specialized education by his school headmaster who figured that a public education was wasted on someone so gifted in the sciences.

Oh, he was also a homosexual, a born one.

So yes, he was a homosexual, and his first crush was a young man by the name of Morcom, his teenage friend, one who died just as Turing was entering adulthood. Christopher Morcom's death devastated Turing, but also made him more resolute and driven in his scientific pursuits. "My most vivid recollections of Chris are almost entirely of the kind things he said to me sometimes," he'd recall later in his life. He, as many others who are shattered by a personal loss, struggled, trying to undo what life teaches us we cannot.

He wanted to place immaterial thoughts of the human mind in matter so that they could be immortalized. Thus was sown the seed of replicating the human mind in a machine, the foundation of the computer. Now, bear in mind that even early 20th century science fiction did not envision computers in any modern sense of the world, even if time machines are rather ubiquitous in that genre.

Coincidentally, as Turing was entering adulthood, a power was rising in Germany, Hitler. This is quite the coincidence because about a decade later, Turing would turn out to be responsible for fighting and eventually thwarting Hitler's Nazis.

It is hard to put a value of Turing's contributions, but in terms of human lives saved, the bombe was probably Turing's lasting legacy. By 1938, the German navy had created a hard-to-break cipher (The Enigma Cipher), against which the earlier deciphering devices pioneered by Polish scientists were proving increasingly ineffective. Turing's bombe code-named Ultra, overcame those limitations, and in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war." Not metaphorically, but literally, Turing saved millions of lives.

It was after WW II that Turing advanced the first principles of modern computing, and for what he is now famous for.

But hey, he was still a homosexual, and unfortunately for him, homosexuality was a crime in mid-century Britain, and when Turing professed his homosexuality, he was eventually charged and convicted of 'indecent behavior'. Cruel irony, when you consider that the charge stemmed was a result of a police investigation conducted during a break-in at Turing's residence!

So what did the great nation of Britain do for someone who indubitably saved millions of lives? Stripped him of his dignity, his secret clearance (because the Soviets were obviously gay magnets <-- sarcasm), and offered him a fair and just choice between prison and chemical castration. Yes, castration, the more severe form of praying away the gay.

Turing opted for the latter, but could not endure the effects on the estrogen treatments on his body and mind all that comfortably, and died of cyanide poisoning, likely a suicide. A half-eaten apple was found beside his bed, reminiscent of the wicked queen from Snow White immersing one in poison.

The apple was never tested for any poisons.

No, Steve Jobs denied using that motif in the logo for his company. In an interview in the late 1970s, when asked about a possible connection, he said "It isn't true, but God, we wish it were."  Once, just once, Jobs should not have backed off from taking undue credit. As an aside, I credit myself for doing my part. Having read this, every time you see the Apple logo, you'll be reminded of Turing.

The Brits finally got around to apologizing for their deeds (three years ago), but have not yet cleared Turing of his 'sin'. I suppose in a world when the Catholic Church rehabilitates Galileo for being right a few centuries later, does not apologize, and is still hailed as the moral beacon, this should come as no surprise.

Bigotry, especially that bred by ignorance, takes a long time to die, or even to kill, because ignorance is still useful for intelligent bigots to inculcate.

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