Vol. 1 / No. 9 — Turing’s Test, “Dead and Buried,” and the “Evils” of Bitcoin


Passing the Turing Test

As well as asking, “What is the answer to this new form of the question,” one may ask, “Is this new question a worthy one to investigate?”

In 1952, Alan Turing, the brilliant cryptographer, was convicted of gross indecency and chemically castrated for having a relationship with another man. Two years before, in 1950, he had published the paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in the journal Mind, in which he devised the so-called Turing Test for artificial intelligence. But it was a different kind of test the British government passed this week when it issued a posthumous royal pardon, without requiring any evidence that Turing was innocent of the so-called crime. While this decision alone does not right the wrong of the tens of thousands convicted for adult, consentual relationships, it does make a profound public statement, and that should not be overlooked.

The decision comes on the eve of the release of new stills from the forthcoming film about Turing’s life and work, entitled “The Imitation Game,” which will star Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch as the mathematician and Enigma codebreaker.

A Christmas Story

If you’re Christian (and quite possibly even if you’re not) you’re probably familiar with the story of the three wise men following a bright star in the sky to find the baby Jesus (or Yeshua, if you want to be more accurate — ישוע) and give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This week io9 asked the perennial question “well, if it did happen, what might they have been following?” Candidates include Jupiter and Venus, Jupiter and Regulus, or an unnamed comet.

Meanwhile, Scientific American reports on the powers of prayer (even for atheists), and Suzanne Moore over at the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” column asks whether or not atheists could do with a little more ritual in their lives.

Me, I just want to know what was going on in the sky in 793, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles report that “terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.”

Well, yeah. And?

One “best of” list I missed on Wednesday, which is definitely worth checking out if you missed it, was Scientific American’s “13 Most Obvious Scientific Discoveries of 2013.” Included in the list of face-pamlingly obvious findings are the claims that fast food is bad for you, that getting more sleep is good for you, that execution by hanging is bad for your heart, and that driving while high is a bad idea.

I wonder if I can get some funding to prove that drunk people think they’re more attractive when they’re drunk? Oh wait: someone already did that. (And got an IgNobel prize for it!)

“Dead and Buried”

If you’d googled the phrase “dead and buried” this week, you’d have gotten a flood of results about Facebook. Daniel Miller, Professor of Material Culture at University College London declared in a blog post earlier this week that “what we’ve learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried,” and media outlets across the internet grabbed the quotable quote and ran with it. The conclusions of an EU-funded 8-country, 15-month ethnographic study of social media trends, were that Facebook was losing its position of dominance to Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

But don’t worry, Facebook investors: Wired isn’t worried. Facebook, if you remember, wasn’t really for teens in the first place. It was for college students to keep in touch with each other in the face of the explosion of physical social groups in an age of human dispersal.

TechCrunch isn’t concerned either. It’s more interested in all the things wrong with Snapchat (most specifically: it doesn’t seem to be taking its recent hacking troubles seriously, and it should).

Microsoft and Google

In a follow-up to my recent analysis of Microsoft’s advertising campaigns, a couple of interesting articles came out this week about the two software and search giants Microsoft and Google. Slate has a piece asking the question of whether or not Microsoft will pull the plug on it’s “inferior-but-totally-good-enough” search engine and what that would mean for Google and antitrust laws. Meanwhile TechCrunch has a piece on why Microsoft really should be worried about Google’s Chromebooks: the latest numbers suggest that they’re taking over not only consumer laptop sales but also business customers at a slightly alarming rate. I’m not sure I care, so long as I’m never subjected to another “scroogled” ad ever again.

Ship Shape and Bristol Fashion

After a series of spacewalks to install a new ammonia cooling pump, the International Space Station is back in shape. Thanks to built-in redundancies, the crew were never in any serious danger (coolant Loop A was malfunctioning, but Loop B was able to handle the whole load). The Kibo and Columbus labs, shut down during the situation, should therefore be back up and running. This marks the 176th spacewalk in support of station assembly and maintenance. (And we still haven’t had a situation like Gravity — and probably never will. Well, some of it.)

This is, of course, good news for Mark and Scott Kelly, who in 2015-6 will be conducting the first study on twins, when the 6-minutes-younger Scott will spend a year on the ISS while his “older” brother stays at home as a control.

Bitcoin is “Evil”

Finally, in what is sure to be a terribly embarrassing quotable in about ten years, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has declared Bitcoin “evil” — or at least his editors have. The name of the post is just that. Unfortunately he’s basing his opinions on the inflammatory musings of science-fiction author Charles “I Want Bitcoin To Die In A Fire” Stross, who in the post linked to by Krugman declares that Bitcoin is designed to be “untraceable,” that it’s “designed for tax evasion,” and that the fact that most bitcoins are in the hands of a few people (the “Gini coefficient”) “is ghastly… to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia.” Unfortunately for the folks who ran the Silk Road (and fortunately for society) Bitcoin is very traceable (it’s in public ledgers on the internet, and if you think you can keep something secret on the internet, well, I don’t know what to tell you), and it’s still so new that we can’t be sure whether the other two problems will go away entirely or get so bad it fails. On the surface, cash seems designed for tax evasion, but that doesn’t seem to have destroyed economics wholesale.

The biggest mistake people make in looking at Bitcoin is that they see it today in its infancy and make wild extrapolations without looking at the likely outcomes of the system it’s based on. I have a sinking suspicion that in a decade or two Krugman’s comments on Bitcoin will sound a little like his 1988 prediction that “by 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”


Have a great week.