Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

22 JUNE, 2012

Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius

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On the man who was caught between the past and the future in clothes a size too small, and profoundly changed our lives anyway.

Little about your day so far, including reading this, would be the same were it not for logician, mathematician, avid reader, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912 — June 7, 1954). While he remains celebrated as instrumental in the invention of the computer, responsible for coining the very concepts of “computation” and “algorithm” in their present form, Turing — who has shaped nearly every facet of our modern lives — is also one of history’s most tragic figures. Beyond his intellectual prowess, another aspect of his character permeated his intellectual contribution and ultimately led to his untimely death, yet it remains at best a silent echo.

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide. In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:

In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think

His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.

Alan Turing

To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:

Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…

This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:

He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.

Leavitt laments:

The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.

If only he had been able to save himself.

The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?

But, for now, a much more upbeat way to celebrate Turing — a LEGO Turing Machine, recreating the famous 1936 Turing Machine, the first simulation of a computer algorithm, in everyone’s favorite brick toy:

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21 JUNE, 2012

Against Positive Thinking: Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

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Exploring the “negative path” to well-being.

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Besides, the book has a lovely animated trailer — always a win.

Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

The American edition (once again with an uglified, dumbed down, and contrived cover design) won’t be out until November, but you can snag a British edition here, or hunt it down at your favorite public library.

Thanks, Natascha

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21 JUNE, 2012

Sartre on Why “Being-in-the-World-Ness” is the Key to the Imagination

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On the figure-ground relationship between the real and the irreal.

Though French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre remains best-known for shaping much of 20th-century sociology, political ideology, and critical theory, some of his most interesting work deals with the imagination. In The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (public library), originally published in 1940, he examines the concepts of nothingness and freedom to argue that, contrary to popular conceptions of imagining as a kind of internal perception, the two stand in stark contrast — perception is incomplete (you only see one side of a chair, the rest obscured from that point of view) whereas the imaginary is complete (when you imagine a chair, it arrives whole, known from all directions). What enables the imagination is consciousness and the totality of our experience — everything we know, everything we’ve seen and heard and read, everything we’ve accumulated in the course of being fully awake to the world. The imagination, in other words, is a combinatorial phenomenon — something artists, designers, writers, and scientists understand.

This particular excerpt crystallizes this “being-in-the-world-ness” as the necessary condition for the imagination:

I will call the different immediate modes of apprehension of the real as a world ‘situations’. We can then say that the essential condition for a consciousness to imagine is that it be ‘situated in the world’ or more briefly that it ‘be-in-the-world’. It is the situation-in-the-world, grasped as a concrete and individual reality of consciousness, that is the motivation for the constitution of any irreal object whatever and the nature of that irreal object is circumscribed by this motivation. Thus the situation of consciousness must appear not as a pure and abstract condition of possibility for all of the imaginary, but as the concrete and precise motivation for the appearance of a certain particular imaginary.

From this point of view, we can finally grasp the connection of the irreal to the real. First of all, even if no image is produced at the moment, every apprehension of the real as a world tends of its own accord to end up with the production of irreal objects since it is always, in a sense, free nihilation of the world and this always from a particular point of view. So, if consciousness is free, the noematic correlate of its freedom should be the world that carries in itself its possibility of negation, at each moment and from each point of view, by means of an image, even while the image must as yet be constituted by a particular intention of consciousness. But, reciprocally, an image, being a negation of the world from a particular point of view, can appear only on the ground of the world and in connection with that ground. Of course, the appearance of the image requires that the particular perceptions be diluted in the syncretic wholeness world and that this whole withdraws. But it is precisely the withdrawal of the whole that constitutes it as ground, that ground on which the irreal form must stand out. So although, by means of the production of the irreal, consciousness can momentarily appear delivered from its ‘being-in-the-world’, on the contrary this ‘being-in-the-world’ is the necessary condition of imagination.

For a fine complement to , see this 1957 meditation on the role of intuition and the imagination in scientific discovery and creativity.

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