Monday, September 14, 2009

Alan Turing and the Macintosh

Recently, the British Government apologized for their abuse of Alan Turing, the visionary computer genius. As reported by The Guardian,
Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal apology .... on behalf of the government to Alan Turing, the second world war codebreaker who took his own life 55 years ago after being sentenced to chemical castration for being gay.

Describing Turing's treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair", Brown said the country owed the brilliant mathematician a huge debt. He was proud, he said, to offer an official apology. "We're sorry, you deserved so much better," Brown writes in a statement posted on the No 10 website.....

He was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment". His criminal record meant he was unable to continue his work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) because his security privileges were withdrawn. Two years later he killed himself, aged 41.
While Turing is now famous and recognized, an article in the Times pointed out,
That fame, however, is relatively recent. Turing never lived to appreciate it – at a time when other war heroes were enjoying a comfortable and glorious retirement, he chose to take a bite from an apple he had laced with cyanide. He died on June 7, 1954, ten years and one day after D-Day, which many military analysts believe would not have happened were it not for Turing’s work.

There are two main reasons that history passed him by. The first is that his code-breaking techniques were central to the new intelligence war with the Soviet Union and so the documents that would reveal his wartime record remained classified. The second was that Turing did not quite fit the mould of the regular hero. His homosexuality sat uncomfortably with the social atmosphere of the Fifties and his country did not want to acknowledge its debt to such a man. At the time of his suicide his security clearance had been revoked and he had been forced to submit to oestrogen injections, which caused him to grow breasts.
I saw a play about Turing a number of years ago, starring Derek Jacobi, which was very moving. But it's not as though I think of him very often. However, it turns out I am thinking of him every day without realizing it.

I am a devotée of the Macintosh computing platform. I've not used a PC aside from casual necessity since I wrote my doctoral thesis on a pre-Windows machine, and I've been through generations of Macs. (They are the favored platform for most biologists, as much of what we do is graphics-heavy, and at most meetings, Mac users are at least equal if not greater in numbers to PC users). I even have an Apple sticker on my car.

Little did I know that this company logo directly honors Turing:
Always a potent symbol, the apple speaks of Newton’s discovery as well as biblical knowledge, prohibition and punishment. But Apple had a more specific mythology in mind. The key is the missing bite, a tribute to the death of Alan Turing.
I always preferred the old rainbow Apple to the modern version, and when I was closeted, it was my hidden rainbow on my car. How ironic that it really was so much more directly related to a member of the "family" than I thought. We don't abuse GLBT people now the way we used to, but perhaps this is a reminder than any abuse of our brothers and sisters is too much. Even if the story may be apocryphal.

Hat Tip Lawdork.


klady said...

I heard a small part of the story on NPR the other day (just recall something about a criminal sentence and castration and an apology) but missed all the essentials. I had no idea it was Turing. I, too, saw Jacobi in Breaking the Code (saw it on Broadway) - an extraordinary performance. What a tragic story and how horrific that it happened no so very long ago.

Seems to me that the apology is woefully incomplete without a similar statement from the ABC on behalf of the Church of England and a further apology for the homophobic legacy it has left in many of the former British colonies around the world. Knowing that the Church has not only failed to issue such an apology but currently lobbies for de jure discrimination for the sake of its blackened "conscience" makes those of us affiliated with it weep in shame.

NancyP said...

I saw the BBC adaptation of the play, also starring Derek Jacobi.

Three years after Turing's death, Parliament approved a study on decriminalization of adult male consensual homosexual activity (and other matters pertaining to sex offender portion of the criminal code). It took 10 more years for the Wolfenden Report to result in actual repeal.

It seems doubtful that Turing would have benefited much from hanging on for a few more years, since his line of research and involvement in military cryptanalysis would make him unemployable as a mathematician in univ. - I would expect that the gov't would have pressured the univs. to blackball him, and Turing simply didn't belong to the social class necessary to be "forgiven" after a short period.

Turing happened to be unfortunate to be caught up in the transnational Communism scares of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The "Cambridge Five" group of operatives of the Foreign Office and/or SIS (precursor of the famous MI6, the British equivalent of CIA), including Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, and one other, came under suspicion in 1949, and disintegrated with the defections of two operatives. Burgess was apparently indiscreet and alcoholic in addition to being gay, and managed while in Washington DC to draw attention to himself and indirectly to Philby, also working at the embassy in DC. Philby had been very highly placed during WWII and after, with access to a wide range of military intelligence, and had the ability to gain and pass very significant information to the Soviets. When it became apparent that Philby had to be involved (he tipped off a suspect identified by the US and British as a mole, using the gay Burgess, kicked out of the US for various sexual and social indiscretions), the associates that had not defected came under suspicion as well.

This all came to a head in 1951. The next two to three years saw an intensification of the hunt for gays in government, in prominent positions involving international travel, and just ordinary citizens. In England, artists and performers were called in and grilled (Gielgud most famously) - possibly because the British intelligence and government had used performers such as Noel Coward during the war. In the USA, Sen. McCarthy and others made their careers on making wild claims about communism, and investigating "culture industry" artists and managers for "unAmerican" attendance at left wing lectures or use of pro-labor themes in movies, and investigating government workers of all levels for gay activity or association that would (likely) make them vulnerable to blackmail.

That's the historical setting to put Turing's persecution into context. There is also the question of whether the government feared that Turing could come up with more significant ideas on his own. I am not quite sure why it didn't occur to them to keep him employed and under very close supervision but without access to important classified information. At any rate, one never leaves the intelligence services if highly placed. Retirement merely means lack of duties - not lack of supervision.

Counterlight said...

I'm also a Mac fan (I use a lot of pictures in my line of work), and I'm gratified to learn of the tribute to Turing in the logo.

As the computer age marches on, I imagine Turing's posthumous fame will only grow as people come to realize the central role he played in creating it.

Paul M said...

Turing was immortalized in the computer science community by his concept of the Turing Machine, which was a fundamental concept in the early theory of computers. I was not aware of his involvement in cryptography. Thank you for posting this.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Apocryphal or not, this is beautiful!

David said...

And let us not forget the Turing Award:

"Given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery to 'an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community. The contributions should be of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field'. The Turing Award is recognized as the 'highest distinction in Computer Science' and the 'Nobel Prize of computing'."

PseudoPiskie said...

I too wish I could have the multicolored rather than the white Apple sticker for my car.