Thursday, July 18, 2013


(MAN, would it kill this app to default my font to Arial?)

Yesterday, as promised, was interesting.  We did a day trip out to Bletchley Park, which was (shhh) where all the smart-asses were during WWII who ultimately broke Enigma (the Germans' kick-ass coding system).  I had two take-aways from Bletchley.  The first was that they didn't break Enigma in any awesome math geek code-breaky sense.  Instead they broke Enigma by building a machine (not a computer, our guides stressed) which would brute force the problem.  Mostly.  Enigma had too many possibilities to allow for actual brute-forcing a solution in time for it to be of any use.  But if the geeks could take a reasonable guess at what a string of letters could conceivably mean (which was apparently possible due to a combination of a flaw in Enigma in that it never coded a letter to itself and a reasonable knowledge of the types of messages the enemy sent at particular times), they could narrow down the options enough to something that the British machine (named Bombe) could brute force a solution to in a reasonable amount of time.  And once Bombe got it right, they'd have the Enigma settings for that day in that particular arena and could decode any message.  Then the whole thing would start all over again the next day -- with geekery and brute force working on the next set of messages.  The work at Bletchley is estimated to have shortened the war by about two years, which equates to a lot of lives.  So, y'know, yay.  

I hold the second take-away for a moment, to get down to the particulars of visiting Bletchley.

For my American friends who want to visit Bletchley:  they've got a two-for-one admission deal if you go out there via National Rail.  The problem is, you have to print out the damn voucher -- you can't just show your National Rail tickets or prove that you've signed up for the plan by showing an email on your phone.  (And signing up is itself fairly exciting, as you need to give it a home phone number, and it won't take an American number.  And if you give it a random string of digits of the right length, that won't work either.  Grrrr.)  Anyway, register (google for something like "fake London phone number") and print out your voucher before you go.  Also, if there are more than two of you, book your rail tickets online.  You get a discount on the third and fourth ticket, but you don't get that discount if you buy at the ticket machines at the station.  You're welcome.

They say you can spend a whole day at Bletchley Park, and this is true.  We didn't have a whole day.  We got there at about 12:03 -- missing the noon tour and, as it turned out, not being able to get tickets for the 12:30, either.  (Tickets are limited; first come, first served.)  We got tickets for the 1:00 tour -- and then waited in the cafe for said tour to depart.  The tour was supposed to be 45 minutes.  It actually ran an hour fifteen, and the guide stood around shooting the shit with my parents for another 15 minutes.  This was a problem.  It was 2:30 by the time we were done with him, and we had to leave by 3:30 to get our train back in time for dinner and theatre that night.   Another tip for Bletchley -- unless you have a ton of time, blow off the tour.  They tour only covers the outside areas -- you don't go into any buildings or see any exhibits.  The guided tour basically tells you everything you should go back and visit on your own -- but takes up way too much time telling you that.  Instead, get oriented with your (also free, also outside-areas-only) multi-media guide (not just audio!  It's on an ipod) and then go see what you want to see.

Since we had only an hour left, we split up -- my Dad wanted to see the architecture in the main house; my mom wanted to see Alan Turing's office; and I went right for the Enigma machines and the working Bombe replica.  (Eventually, both of my parents joined me at the replica.)  But there really is a ton to see, and I don't think we made the most efficient use of our 3 1/2 hours there.

OK, here's my second take-away from Bletchley.  You've heard of Turing, or at least his work.  You can walk around Bletchley and read, in addition to his fairly massive contributions to codebreaking (and, therefore, the Allies' victory in WWII), some of the many many things he added to the overall knowledge.  I mean, there are several places in Bletchley where there'll be an exhibit that talks about how Turing is the father of an entire field (artificial intelligence for one, obviously), and how much modern computing and computer science owe to the guy.  Smart, smart dude.  (I read the opening paragraph of one of his lectures -- being a math nerd, I could understand the words, but I had no damn idea what it was actually saying.)

What I didn't know, though, were the circumstances of his death.  (Someone asked our guide where he was buried.  Our guide (who was, as his running long should indicate, just crazy enthusiastic about Bletchley Park and Alan Turing) didn't know.  I expect I could google it (when I'm not paying by the MB), but the real point here is that he didn't know.  Apparently, he isn't buried in a place of honor someplace.)  Here is how Turing died:  After all of his service to science and Britain (and his award of an OBE), he was convicted of "gross indecency" (i.e., being homosexual), for which his punishment was chemical castration.  About two years after that, at age 41, he died of cyanide poisoning.  The coroner ruled it a suicide.

There is, at Bletchley Park, a rather eloquent apology from the British government -- recently obtained after a massive petition drive, spurred on by the LGBT community.

I was reminded of that holocaust memorial we saw in ... shit, I want to say Vienna, but a lot of that runs together in my memory just now.  Anyhow, it's the sculpture in the shape of a building of bookshelves, with all the books facing away from you, so you can't pull anything off the shelves.  It is supposed to symbolize all of the books that will never be written by the victims of the holocaust -- all of the literature (and other art, I imagine) of which society has been deprived because of the slaughter of all of those people.  It reminds the people of (yeah, I'm going to go with) Vienna that this loss isn't just personal to the families of the victims, but belongs to society, because we all miss out on what the victims could have, and would have, done.

And that's my second take-away from Bletchley Park.  You look at an actual genius like Alan Turing -- who was critical to the effort of breaking Enigma and ending the war two years earlier; who invented entire fields of study the rest of the world had yet to even conceive of -- and realize that his life was cut short for no reason other than persecution based on his sexual orientation.  Imagine where we'd be today, if we'd had another 30 years of his accomplishments. And it looks like the only things that are responsible for preventing every single one of us from reaping the benefits of another 30 years of Turing's genius are human stupidity, hatred, and intolerance.

Bletchley Park, our guide cheerfully told us, was a place where, for a very brief period in time, nobody paid any attention to who you were -- they gathered together the smartest people they could find.  National origin didn't matter; age didn't matter; class didn't matter; gender didn't matter; and orientation didn't matter.  All that mattered was what you could do.  And, in the absence of societally-imposed preconceived notions about limits of ability, the people gathered together at Bletchley Park accomplished truly amazing things.

It shouldn't be a fucking museum.  It should be a way of life.

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