Sep 112009

Alan Turing was a computer scientist and a homosexual at the very dawn of electronic computing, and contributed enormously to the winning of World War II by being one of those behind the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park. When you consider his contributions to the war effort and his contributions to the new field of computer science, his sexual orientation was the least important part of him. Yet because of his sexuality, he was prosecuted, lost his security clearance (which was particularly devastating because of the lack of other places he could make his contributions), and harassed by the British security services.

Eventually he committed suicide; almost certainly because of his harassment by society that couldn’t see past his sexuality and see his vast contributions and potential.

There are those who say he shouldn’t be forgiven because he was a homosexual and that is forbidden by god. That position is contemptible and not worth commenting on.

There are those who say he shouldn’t be forgiven because he broke the law of the time. Well the law was immoral and wrong. In many ways we are obligated to break laws that are immoral.

There are those who say he shouldn’t be forgiven because there were many other men persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Perhaps 100,000 men, or even more (oddly enough homosexual women were not persecuted to quite the same extent (although I’d welcome pointers to prove me wrong … well sort of)). There is a point to that objection, but forgiving a particularly shining example of such harassment is the first step on the path of getting all those persecuted men pardoned.

And Alan Turing is a good start to that process because even those who do not like homosexuality can be brought around to believing that Alan at least deserves to be forgiven because of his immense contributions.

But most of all he should be pardoned because he didn’t really do anything wrong, and honoured because of his contributions.

Feb 282008

First of all, a little apology … I’m no expert Mathematician, was pretty dire at Physics, and I’m no great name in Computer Science. In fact the “physics” here could be any science that makes use of mathematics as a tool. Now for the really scary part … I’m going to be talking about equations.

At least some of the unpopularity of Physics has something to do with the equations that can be found in it. There is no getting around it, Physics and other sciences cannot be really called “science” without equations. But I do believe that physicists do make their equations a little too mysterious :-

e = m c ^ 2

(apologies for not using real symbols there)

Now that is one of the better known equations from physics, but were it one that was less well-known the general reaction would be “eh?”. Does the obscurity of the variables here help ?

When I was learning to write programs, I quickly came to the realisation that using descriptive variables was the start of writing understandable code and went some way to documenting what was going on. It is all very well writing a piece of code with less expressive variables but it makes understanding what you wrote some weeks (or months) ago much harder.

The use of obscure variables come from Maths where you start with equations like :-

x ^ 2 = 9

Now Maths (as I understand it) is basically a set of puzzles that have to be solved using the techniques of Maths; those techniques and the puzzles are divorced from any real problems. The use of deliberately inscrutable variables is by design.

Which way should sciences that use equations go ? The way that Maths goes with inscrutable variable names, or the way of software engineering with descriptive variables ? Historically sciences have gone down the route in common with Maths; understandably enough, but why not try descriptive names. Isn’t an equation like :-

Energy = Mass * Speed of Light ^ 2

… far more understandable, and possibly just a little bit less scary to those put off by equations ? If changing to descriptive variables brings a few more young people into the study of science, is that a good reason for using them. I think so.

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