Turing 2016 tribute and the notorious SE chat ad saga

turing-statue.jpghi all this eponymously named blog was started a few months after Turing centennial birthday in 2012.[1][19] so far there hasnt been much writing on him here except for around 2014 when the Imitation Game movie came out.[23] finally time to fill that (unfillable) gap some. Turings birthday passed in june and was hoping to time this post with it (its been on my “to do” pile for months now).

Turing was an inspiration to me since a teenager, mainly through the writing of Hofstadter and his remarkable books, Godel Escher Bach and Metamagical Themas (these books are near-legendary for inspiring nearly an entire generation of computer scientists…). the deep mystery of Turing machines transfixed me, and later realized it was tied with emerging research into “complexity theory”. how could such a simple yet ingenious object capture such incredible complexity, almost subsume mathematics itself? it seems a question that is still being investigated and answered and maybe at the heart of continued advances.

even at young age it also seemed to me the concept of undecidability had some kind of unfinished or provisional aspect to it, that it wasnt the complete story somehow. apparently mathematicians attacked nearly undecidable problems all the time to come up with some kind of proofs anyway. isnt this some kind of deep paradox? over the years/ decades have delved into this deep mystery myself and added some degree of awareness/ insight, but in many ways feel its still mostly unresolved. as Nietzsche said, “when you stare deeply into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”

despite his extraodinary accomplishments and life trajectory, Turing was a mostly obscure character for many decades for various reasons. however hes much more recognizable now, probably esp since the 2014 movie. somewhat coincidentally he was inducted into the NSA/CSS hall of honor in the same year 2014.[18] it seems that maybe some people learned about him also from History channel documentaries and another recent british one.[13] his fame seems to have finally reached “critical mass” with the almost disney-like merchandising now seen eg the personalized cufflinks.[7]

what more can be said about Turing that hasnt already been said? will try to add just a few personal sides and stuff found on the web. it appears his family is thriving and continuing to keep his memory alive esp at Bletchley Park museum.[2][11][17] there was an entire “educational day” at Bletchley park supported by the family.[4][5][6] they gave personal povs/ recollections.[8][9] 

Turings story has become rather political with the recent mass shifts in social attitudes toward gay rights. a recent “Pardon” become a very high profile issue.[14]

yet there is still some obscurity. even a lot of computer scientists havent heard much about the Bletchley park museum and the extraordinary statue by Kettle.[15][16]

heres some more personal angle. it seems there is a minor-to-major schism in modern computer science with one school of thought emphasizing its theoretical aspects unpinned from applications, and others emphasizing the latter. did not know much about this until participating heavily on the internet in the last few years on SE forums where the theorists hold heavy sway/ influence in both the theory site and the main site, but have written about it numerous times here in the blog, and have now delved into rather deeply.

but Turing himself would seem to not have embodied this split at all. it seems nothing in his writing saw a large distinction between the theory and the application of CS. he was an its founder in many ways, but it would seem that some of his disciples want to miss/ downplay/ undervalue/ avoid some of Turings own essence wrt their own ideological slant and modern distinctions/ povs/ constructions that didnt exist in the past. in short/ aka in english vernacular, bordering on axe to grind… :/

(in the movie…) in his construction of the Bombe at bletchley park, he showed himself to be highly interested in the very applied, even hardware-level details of CS. but in his extraordinary 1936 paper, he introduced the concept of Turing machines and investigated them at length almost like a theoretical philosopher.

as a way to drive up some involvement in SE CS chat rooms & tie together/ bolster the community, finally decided to make an advertisement for the chat room as encouraged/ requested by mod Raphael. but also decided to try to touch on/ capture/ attempt to unify this split in the ad, which is at the top of this article. it was a small (social) experiment. would the theorists take the “bait”? how hard would it be to get a “mere” 6 votes? would people vote on their own or would it require lobbying?

did not really intend for it to be controversial, but it did turn out that way. we engaged in a lot of back-and-forth challenge in comments/ chat with me defending Turings applied side. quite surprisingly to me the theorists argued quite forcefully/ vehemently against the mere use of word “code” in the ad. to me it embodied the perfect ambiguity, flexibility, even theme of Turings grand own intellectual quests. in short, Turing himself was not so concerned with the distinction, and moved adroitly/ nimbly/ fluidly between the two worlds, maybe even delighted in crossing between them.  😎

“it did not go over well,” to employ an understatement. it took many weeks of encouraging, begging, lobbying, cajoling half-known and random chat user passerbys to vote for the ad and the mods and higher rep users on the site came out strongly against it, and yet the opposition comments seem at times quite surprising/ telling to me.[21] this all was quite dispiriting/ disappointing to me. the ad disappeared for some weeks as the “nays had it” and had to mount an admittedly sometimes near-desperate counteroffensive in the chat room(s). anyway it now stands at 14 upvotes -7 downvotes for a total of 7 upvotes, and theres a lot of dramatic fierce carnage in the comments. what an epic fight! (and what kind of grinch votes against Turing anyway?) 😮 😡

alas in only ~½ year the ad will again be deleted and it will require further effort to reinstate it for 2017. at the moment, am not looking forward to this and will likely decline to expend the sizeable effort again. an acceptable but much more bland effort by “eviljs” stands at 10 points already in less time. sigh  😦 😥

whats the outcome/ results/ verdict/ bottom line? the ad runs intermittently on the main page of the site. it gets a few hits a day and outperforms all the other ads and has about ~600 as of this writing (was aware of SE ad stats when starting, knew the effort/ return ratio would be high on starting). it seems the SE CS chat room has been more lively with many new faces, but also it seems that the engagement/ novelty/ involvement tends to wear off with a kind of half-life effect. its not easy to sustain online groups. if you ask me (and who is?), the mods do not seem very friendly/ welcoming on this site. not exactly knocking this though, after years of hard work and cleaning up messes, they surely have their reasons.

alas/ anyway the so-called “communities” on these sites seem to me sometimes like exaggerations of the word, ie elaborate cyber-illusions, with mostly atomized users. a bunch of users working on the same site is not necessarily/ automatically a “collaboration” or “community” esp when they work at cross-purposes (less blandly, aka “fight”).

another aspect of online communities and seen in eg wikipedia is that they seem to have distinct ages such as birth, youth, maturity, senior citizens, and sometime decay/ death. (yes there is a large graveyard of failed/ expired “communities” on the internet, eg aol/ friendster/ myspace/ open salon immediately come to mind, it would be cool if someone tried to track those eg wrote a book on that…)

two final notable tributes to Turing. a fun/ memorable 32v question on the theory site asking about his contributions with some of my answers making the cut.[20] its also interesting to search for Turing citations on the site. its currently a very impressive 1174 search results.[24]

so this blog was started over 3yr ago wondering if anyone would read/ respond to a blog dedicated to Turing and some of his ideas, whether anything could come of a small riding on his coattails, and what can come of online involvement in CS in various forms on other key sites such as stackexchange.

am happy to say the answer is mostly yes, and that all the huge effort over the years is mostly gratifying and worth it. thx for visiting & reading the blog. my own involvement has shifted/ evolved mostly away from answering questions on stackexchange after years of contributions, more to dabbling in the chat rooms (more on that later, and anyway am apparently not alone in those sentiments [26]).

PS “eviljs” has responded to the post & has some corrections. s/he pointed out that the intimate link portrayed between Turing and hardware design in the movie is quite questionable. have been questioned on this before eg in the chat ad comments! awhile back couldnt immediately find anything to back up my case. and agree it seems to be obscure, was surprised myself by it on seeing it in the movie. think the movie did take major liberties with history (see old blog on that, think it has link(s) on it).

but then just did a little googling. then finally found this quite amazing meticulously detailed historical analysis, didnt notice/ turn it up earlier.[25] on skimming it think the movie might even be understating his low-level hardware involvement to some degree. fascinating! hmmm, maybe this ought to be required reading for all CS grads. 💡 ⭐ 😀

By the end of 1945, thanks to wartime developments in digital electronics, groups in Britain and in the United States had embarked on creating a universal Turing machine in hardware. Turing headed a group situated at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, London. His technical report ‘Proposed Electronic Calculator’, dating from the end of 1945 and containing his design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), was the first relatively complete specification of an electronic stored-program digital computer.

a. turing

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