Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Sane Woman Dreams of Turing Machines

The title for this blog piece is a riff on Jana Levin's book title A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.  It's one of those titles that both delighted me when I first heard it and made me sick with jealousy wishing I could come up with something so wonderfully evocative.  I first heard her speak on the Speaking of Faith NPR show (which is now called On Being); you can listen here.

On this day a hundred years ago, Alan Turing was born--it's one of those births that would change the world as we know it.  He's one of the men who did the work that led to our modern computers (originally called Turing machines).

Would someone else have done the work had he not done it?  Probably.  But he did it when he did it, and so much would be different if we had had to wait for others to make the some discoveries and connections.

I've written before about computers and how they've intersected with my history and the larger history of the world, so I won't rehash that.  But I thought of it again, when yesterday the tech guys showed up in our quiet office to replace the computers.

I have an intuitive understanding of the computer that my colleague, who is of an older generation, does not.  Part of that understanding is because I have used them more.  I've also dabbled a bit with programming, way back in the BASIC days.  I went to college with people who were fearless about taking apart their Commodore computers and soldering the motherboards into new configurations.  Many days I wish I had continued down those roads.

But there are many creative paths I didn't follow.  Sigh.

Today is also the anniversary of the day when Title IX was signed into law, another development that changed my life in ways I can barely articulate.  We tend to think of Title IX as being about sports, but it was about so much more.

We live in a time period where more women are going to college than men--or if we're not quite at that point, we will be soon.  Even though pay rates are not yet equal, if we look at raw demographics, in my circles, it's not uncommon for women to be making more than men to whom they are partnered.

Are we all OK with that?  I know partnerships that are existentially threatened, while I know of others where the men are cheerful and happy that the bills are being paid.

Title IX has yet to change our landscape completely:  note the lack of women in the fields of engineering and computing.  Yet that might be more about our school systems than about how we treat genders.  Alas, we don't have the pre-college school infrastructure in place to train lots and lots of engineers, scientists, and computer designers.

It's strange to me that I went to school in the 1970's and early 80's, not exactly a high water mark for public education--or at least, it didn't seem to me at the time.  Yet we had computers to program back when they weren't cheap.  We were encouraged to explore all sorts of areas:  home ec, shop, art, computers, sports.  We dissected actual animals in actual Biology labs and created all sort of potions in Chemistry lab.  We took field trips to see local universities doing productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen.

Ah, the joys of the days of no high stakes testing!

I was also very lucky to have my parents.  My dad encouraged my interest in computers and sci fi and helped me survive shop class, which I had to take, despite my lack of interest and terror of power tools which has never receded.  My mom was happy to let me cook and bought any ingredients I requested--except for saffron which was ungodly expensive.  They both encouraged my interests in running, nutrition, and vegetarian cooking.  For parents born in the late 1930's, they were surprisingly free of gender role expectations.

So today I will raise a glass to Richard Nixon, who managed to accomplish much towards making us a more open society, both because of and in spite of his paranoia and bitterness.  Today I will raise a glass to Alan Turing, another deeply tortured man who catapulted our culture to a completely different place.

Today I will raise a glass to my parents, and I'll continue to wish that all kids could have parents who support and love them in ways that nurture them fully as individuals.  In this day after various convictions in high-profile child sexual abuse cases (the Sandusky case, the monsignor in Philadelphia), I'll continue to yearn for a world where children do not suffer in this way or in any other way. 

Some quotes to inspire you, despite your strange summer weather (we're very rainy down here in South Florida, while the Pacific Northwest is cold, and the Atlantic coast has been oddly hot while the West is on fire):

Here's a quote from Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines:

"I am here in the middle of an unfinished story. I used to believe that one day I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and the restlessness would end. But that will never happen. Even now, I'm moving toward a train. My heart is thumping. My lungs are working. There is a man, a woman, a bench, the glasses, the smooth hair, an umbrella. We are all caught in the stream of a complicated legacy — a proof of the limits of human reason, a proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we were down here on this crowded, lonely planet, a declaration that we mattered, we living clumps of ash, that each of us was once somebody, that we strove for what we could never have, that we could admit as much. That was us — funny and lousy and great all at once."

Here's Levin talking about the fact that we are composed of earlier generations of stars:

"For instance, let's say somebody said that they had a belief system in which it was simply posited that carbon came out of, I don't know, a blue sky one day. That wouldn't make me feel any more meaning about who I was in the world. It feels much richer to me to imagine that a cold, empty cosmos collapses with stars, and stars burn and shine, and they make carbon in their cores and then they throw them out again. And that carbon collects and forms another planet and another star and then amino acids evolve and then human beings arise. I mean, that's, to me, a really beautiful narrative."

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be an astronomer.  Listening to Levin say the following made me wish I had followed that plan:

 "Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. You just go faster and faster and faster. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. And so it's not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. And so we're limited, also, by that.

That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. And that's how we evolve. That's how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, was to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics was totally intuitive. And it's not intuitive for anybody else, but we would think that things fluctuating in and out of existence or not being certain or whether they're particles or waves or — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory would seem absolutely natural.

And what would seem really bizarre is the kind of rigid, clear-cut world that we live in. So I guess my answer would be that our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. So we reflect the physical world that we evolved from. So I guess — I guess the bottom line is that our intuitions are good, our intuitions are good . . ."

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