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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Turing

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good”*…




If one takes Donald Trump and his administration to embody modern conservatism, it is easy to see in their response to the coronavirus pandemic the right’s final divorce from science and expertise. There was the case of Rick Bright, the Health and Human Services scientist who claims that the Trump administration retaliated against him when he objected to the administration’s rapid push to distribute anti-malaria drugs that were largely untested for treating coronavirus patients. There are reports that the president for months ignored his own intelligence experts’ warnings that the virus threatened our shores. There was the ongoing drama over whether Trump would fire Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And there was the president’s daily passion play—the White House press briefings where he’d stand next to scientists who grimaced as he speculated that the death toll was exaggerated and that sunlight inside the body might kill the virus.

The White House’s sorry Covid-19 track record has sparked a chorus of dissent recently distilled by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who argues that the crisis displays conservatives’ long-standing “antipathy to science,” owing to “populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information that undermines biblical literalism and efforts by giant corporations to evade regulation.” But this narrative is too pat. While something is plainly amiss in the relationship of the Trumpian right to science, it is hardly as principled as the religious objections of, say, creationists opposing evolutionary theory. Neither is it straightforwardly hostile.

What’s more curious about the response by the president and his allies to the virus is rather their embrace of scientific expertise of a sort…

The story of the crisis is not quite that of scientists who knew the answers and one political party that just wouldn’t listen to them. Rather, it is a story of fracture—of conflict and confusion, of experts earning mistrust, of each side cultivating its own class of experts to own the other’s. It is also a perverse story of how a group of self-styled truth-telling outsiders turned science’s mythology against its institutions, warping it from a tool to fight the virus into a tool to attack the establishment.

How did we get here?…

Ari Schulman (@AriSchulman) explains how a new class of outsider experts is exploiting institutional failures and destabilizing knowledge: “The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution.”

TotH to Byrne Hobart, who notes (in his nifty newsletter, The Diff):

… this essay obviously takes a side, but it tries to be fair to the side it disagrees with. Which means there are two Straussian readings: maybe it’s an essay about how science is on one side in an American political context, and the other side only makes vague gestures towards empiricism. Alternatively, it could be an essay on how science never answers political questions, but politics corrupts science. (Why doesn’t science answer political questions? Because you can’t build a coalition out of stating the obvious, but you can build one from denying it—if your beliefs are crazy, you can spot members of the ingroup. So most scientific questions are irrelevant to politics, and when they’re relevant, politics wins by default in the short term, even if it loses long-term. To build a coherent and healthy ingroup, you need beliefs that are crazy but don’t lead to bad decisions.)

Pair with another of Hobart’s suggestions: “On Cultures That Build” (and the reasons why, the author argues. the U.S. is not one).

* Carl Sagan


As we commit to learning, we might note that today is the birthday of not one but two extraordinary mathematicians:  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646; variants on his date of birth are due to calendar changes), the German  philosopher, scientist, mathematician, diplomat, librarian, lawyer, co-inventor, with Newton, of The Calculus, and “hero” (well, one hero) of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy…  and  Alan Turing (1912), British mathematician, computer science pioneer (inventor of the Turing Machine, creator of “the Turing Test” and inspiration for “The Turing Prize”), and cryptographer (leading member of the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII).

Go figure…

Turing (source: Univ. of Birmingham)

Giambattista Vico was also born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).



Written by LW

June 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything”*…




Investing and deal-making occupy an outsized role in popular depictions of “business” like HBO’s Succession and Showtime’s Billions. They also occupy an outsized share of our elite: Over the last five years, the nation’s top business schools have sent nearly thirty percent of their graduating classes into finance.

But the buying and selling of companies, the mergers and divestments, the hedging and leveraging, are not themselves valuable activity. They invent, create, build, and provide nothing. Their claim to value is purely derivative—by improving the allocation of capital and configuration of assets, they are supposed to make everyone operating in the real economy more productive. The practitioners are rewarded richly for their effort.

Does this work, or are the efforts largely wasted? One might default to the assumption that an industry attracting so much talent and generating so much profit must be creating enormous value. But the elaborate financial engineering of the 2000s, which attempted an alchemy-like conversion of high-risk loans into rock-solid assets, and then placed highly leveraged bets against their performance, led to the collapse of some established Wall Street institutions, massive bailouts for others, and a global economic meltdown. Mergers and acquisitions, meanwhile, appear largely to be exercises in wheel-spinning: “M&A is a mug’s game,” explains Roger Martin in the Harvard Business Review, “in which typically 70%–90% of acquisitions are abysmal failures.”…

Hedge funds and venture capital funds appear to badly underperform simple public market indexes, while buyout funds have performed roughly at par over the past decade. Of course, some funds deliver outsized returns in a given timeframe; even a random distribution has a right tail. And there are managers whose strong and consistent track records suggest the creation of real value.

In other words, most fund managers are generating the results that one might expect from an elaborate game of chance—placing bets in the market with odds similar to a coin flip. With enough people playing, some will always find themselves on winning streaks and claim the Midas touch, at least until the coin’s next flip. Except under these rules of “heads I win, tails you lose,” they collect their fees regardless…

In the U.S., finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP– compared with only 10 percent in 1947.  The thorough and thoughtful analysis– and critique–  of the frothier components of that sector excerpted above is noteworthy, beyond its quality, for it’s origin; it is an early product of a new conservative think tank, American Compass.

Read it in full: “Coin-Flip Capitalism: A Primer.”

Pair with “What Kind of Country Do We Want?“, a resonant essay from the amazing Marilynne Robinson.

(image above: source)

* “Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything. There was unquestionably a power shift away from production to the world of finance… Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal.”  — David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism


As we look beyond price to value, we might recall that it was on this date in 1936 that Alan Turing submitted his paper, “On Computable Numbers” for publication; its full title was “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”  In answer to Hibert’s and Ackermann’s 1928 challenge, Turing demonstrated that some purely mathematical yes-no questions can never be answered by computation; more technically, that some decision problems are “undecidable” in the sense that there is no single algorithm that infallibly gives a correct “yes” or “no” answer to each instance of the problem.  In Turing’s own words: “…what I shall prove is quite different from the well-known results of Gödel … I shall now show that there is no general method which tells whether a given formula U is provable in K.”

Turing followed this proof with two others, both of which rely on the first. And all rely on his development of type-writer-like “computing machines” that obey a simple set of rules and his subsequent development of a “universal computing machine”– the “Turing Machine,” a key inspiration (to von Neumann and others) for the development of the digital computer.

220px-Alan_Turing_Aged_16 source


“Nothing happens until something moves”*…




What determines our fate? To the Stoic Greek philosophers, fate is the external product of divine will, ‘the thread of your destiny’. To transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, it is an inward matter of self-determination, of ‘what a man thinks of himself’. To modern cosmologists, fate is something else entirely: a sweeping, impersonal physical process that can be boiled down into a single, momentous number known as the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant can be defined simply as the rate at which the Universe is expanding, a measure of how quickly the space between galaxies is stretching apart. The slightest interpretation exposes a web of complexity encased within that seeming simplicity, however. Extrapolating the expansion process backward implies that all the galaxies we can observe originated together at some point in the past – emerging from a Big Bang – and that the Universe has a finite age. Extrapolating forward presents two starkly opposed futures, either an endless era of expansion and dissipation or an eventual turnabout that will wipe out the current order and begin the process anew.

That’s a lot of emotional and intellectual weight resting on one small number…

How scientists pinned a single number on all of existence: “Fate of the Universe.”

[Readers might remember that the Big Bang wasn’t always an accepted paradigm— and that on-going research continues to surface challenges.]

* Albert Einstein


As we center ourselves, we might spare a thought for Kurt Friedrich Gödel; he died on this date in 1978.  A  logician, mathematician, and philosopher, he is considered (along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski— whose birthday this also is– and Gottlob Frege) to be one of the most important logicians in history.  Gödel had an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems, which led to (among other important results) Alan Turing’s insights into computational theory.

Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.                  — John von Neumann

kurt_gödel source


“Encryption works”*…



A SIGSALY terminal in 1943


During World War II, a British-American team that included Claude Shannon and Alan Turing created the first digitally scrambled, wireless phone known as SIGSALY…

Declassified only in 1976, it was a joint effort of Bell Labs and Britain’s Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, north of London. It had a scientific pedigree rivaling that of the Manhattan Project, for the British-American team included not only Shannon but also Alan Turing. They were building a system known as SIGSALY. That was not an acronym, just a random string of letters to confuse the Germans, should they learn of it.

SIGSALY was the first digitally scrambled, wireless phone. Each SIGSALY terminal was a room-sized, 55-ton computer with an iso­lation booth for the user and an air-conditioning system to prevent its banks of vacuum tubes from melting down. It was a way for Al­lied leaders to talk openly, confident that the enemy could not eavesdrop. The Allies built one SIGSALY at the Pentagon for Roo­sevelt and another in the basement of Selfridges department store for Churchill. Others were established for Field Marshal Mont­gomery in North Africa and General MacArthur in Guam. SIGSALY used the only cryptographic system that is known to be uncrackable, the ‘onetime pad.’ In a onetime pad, the ‘key’ used for scrambling and decoding a message is random. Traditionally, this key consisted of a block of random letters or numbers on a pad of paper. The encoded message therefore is random and contains none of the telltale patterns by which cryptograms can be deciphered. The problem with the onetime pad is that the key must be delivered by courier to everyone using the system, a challenge in wartime.

SIGSALY encoded voice rather than a written message. Its key was a vinyl LP record of random ‘white noise.’ ‘Adding’ this noise to Roosevelt’s voice produced an indecipherable hiss. The only way to recover Roosevelt’s words was to ‘subtract’ the same key noise from an identical vinyl record. After pressing the exact number of key records needed, the master was destroyed and the LPs distrib­uted by trusted couriers to the SIGSALY terminals. It was vitally important that the SIGSALY phonographs play at precisely the same speed and in sync. Were one phonograph slightly off, the out­put was abruptly replaced by noise.

Alan Turing cracked the German ‘Enigma’ cipher, allowing the Allies to eavesdrop on the German command’s messages. The point of SIGSALY was to ensure that the Germans couldn’t do the same. Part of Shannon’s job was to prove that the system was indeed im­possible for anyone lacking a key to crack. Without that mathemat­ical assurance, the Allied commanders could not have spoken freely. SIGSALY put several other of Shannon’s ideas into practice for the first time, among them some relating to pulse code modulation. AT&T patented and commercialized many of Shannon’s ideas in the postwar years…

The first wireless “phone”: an excerpt from William Poundstone’s Fortune’s Formula, via Delancey Place.

* Edward Snowden


As we keep a secret, we might recall that it was on this date in 1909 that Thomas M. Flaherty filed for the first U.S. patent for a “Signal for Crossings”– a traffic signal.  His signal used a large horizontal arrow pivoted on a post, which turned to indicate the right of way direction, and was activated by an electric solenoid operated by a policeman beside the road.

Flaherty’s was the first U.S. application for a traffic signal design, later issued as No. 991,964 on May 9, 1911. But though it was filed first, it was not the first patent actually issued for a traffic signal: Ernest E. Sirrine filed a different design seven months after Flaherty; but his patent was issued earlier, and thus he held the first U.S. patent for a “Street Traffic System.”

 source (and larger version)


Written by LW

September 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

Coded references…

Readers will recall the role that Alan Turing and the team at Bletchley Park played in cracking the German Enigma code; some analysts and historians reckon that their work may have shortened World War Two by “not less than two years.”

That code was generated by– and thus cracking it turned on deconstructing and understanding– an Enigma Machine.


Understandably, there were few such machines ever built.  And equally understandable, those that survive are extremely expensive collectables.  But readers need fear not!  Now, thanks to our friends at Instructables, one can convert a “Kid’s Game to an Enigma Machine“:

Step-by-step instructions at Instructables.

Readers might also want to visit Cabinet Magazine‘s wonderful “How to Make Anything Signify Anything,” a profile of American code breaker (and code maker) William Friedman:

By the time he retired from the National Security Agency in 1955, Friedman had served for more than thirty years as his government’s chief cryptographer, and—as leader of the team that broke the Japanese PURPLE code in World War II, co-inventor of the US Army’s best cipher machine, author of the papers that gave the field its mathematical foundations, and coiner of the very term cryptanalysis—he had arguably become the most important code-breaker in modern history.

As we reach for our decoder rings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that the states of Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, with (at least) 50 tornadoes.  Known as “The Enigma Outbreak,” it did an estimated a total of $3–4 million in tornado damage (in 1884 dollars; plus an unknown amount of flood and other damage), destroying over 10,000 structures.

Photo: © D. Burgess / NOAA (source)



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