Guests: John C. Dvorak, Patrick Beja, John Graham Cumming, David Pogue
Recorded: September 20, 2009
Published: September 21, 2009
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This is TWiT, this WEEK in TECH, episode 213 for September 21, 2009, The Dog In The Bookcase.
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This is TWiT, this WEEK in TECH, the show that covers all of your favorite technology topics, roughly in order but mostly not. Joining us today in studio, Mr. John C. Dvorak, the real Dvorak, and by the way, THErealDVORAK, not real Dvorak, THErealDVORAK on Twitter.
John C. Dvorak Right.
Leo Laporte David Pogue is going to join us at the end of the show, we’re going to –
John C. Dvorak And channeldvorak.
Leo Laporte And channeldvorak.com.
John C. Dvorak And also the real blog. I don’t do the channeldvorak or the real blog but they are approved.
Leo Laporte We, before the show began, recorded an interview with David Pogue, he wanted to respond to the criticisms that he got last week from the TWiT panel and even kind of the week before and he did so I thought well but he included you in the criticizers and it turns out, and I’ll make sure David learns this, that he was reading a spurious Dvorak tweet.
John C. Dvorak A fake.
Leo Laporte He was reading, well we won’t even give that out. I don’t want to give him any publicity, but somebody with a mere 200 followers. You have far more.
John C. Dvorak 60,000...
Leo Laporte Okay.
John C. Dvorak …although it could be millions now that I think about it.
Leo Laporte So anyway we’ll talk to David. He will get his chance to respond to what we talked about last week in terms of conflict of interest and the issues about how he talked to Steve Jobs and so forth.
Also joining us this week we have an international cast, I’m very thrilled about that, from France, Patrick Beja. He does a number of podcasts in France including one that I keep meaning to be on, the Phileas Club and never manage to get on. Patrick, what is the…?
Patrick Beja It would be great to have you on.
Leo Laporte I’d love to come on it. It’s frenchspin.com, is that the place people should go for your podcasts?
Patrick Beja Absolutely, frenchspin.com is the site and yeah you can find all of the different podcasts over there both in French and English.
Leo Laporte The Phileas Club is in English?
Patrick Beja Yes absolutely.
Leo Laporte And combines journalists from all over the world to talk about – it’s very much like an international TWiT.
Patrick Beja Yeah, well, it’s an international sort of general news TWiT, political and general topic. We try to get opinions from really different people, like we have a regular contributor from Saudi Arabia and we try to get people from the U.S., South America, etcetera, etcetera.
Leo Laporte Excellent. I look forward to it.
John C. Dvorak What’s the website?
Leo Laporte frenchspin.com.
Patrick Beja frenchspin.com.
Leo Laporte And I bet you they’d like you on that Phileas Club too, John.
John C. Dvorak I think it’s on at the wrong hour.
Leo Laporte It’s late night. Speaking of late at night, it’s almost midnight in the U.K. but that hasn’t stopped John Graham-Cumming from joining us. An old friend and a man I would like to honor on TWiT today. John, it’s good to talk to you.
John Graham-Cumming Well it’s very nice to be here, even if it is a little bit late. But I’m a programmer so this is actually normal working time, half past 11.
Leo Laporte It’s true, that’s right, that’s right, just imbibe more coffee. John is the…
John Graham-Cumming More coffee and then get up early, or get up late as possible.
Leo Laporte Right, sleep in. That’s the problem, that’s the hard one isn’t it because tomorrow’s Monday.
John Graham-Cumming That is the hard bit, yep.
Leo Laporte So John – I first met John I think during the Screensavers Days. He wrote a really good anti-spam, open-source anti-spam Bayesian filter called POPFile, which is on I think not just Windows but Mac and Linux too, yes?
John Graham-Cumming Yeah, it’s written in Pearl and it was done completely cross platform. I know it’s even been run on things like an Omega.
Leo Laporte Wow! John, you’d like that.
John Graham-Cumming Yeah. That wasn’t me.
John C. Dvorak You know, I still have one of the…
Leo Laporte He still has an Omega, yeah. So the reason I wanted John on – right, we’ve talked about John’s book by the way, The Geek Atlas which came out a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful, wonderful book, and it was kind of – it’s a series of articles about places that are famous in Geek history. Did you visit all of those places?
John Graham-Cumming A lot of them, not all of them.
Leo Laporte 128 of them fittingly.
John Graham-Cumming Yeah, 128 places. When I got the idea for the book, I actually just went on Amazon because I wanted to buy that book. I thought it must already exist, and then when I found out it didn’t, I wrote down a list of about 70 places where I’d already been and then I started researching the additional number to make it up to 128.
Leo Laporte Wow! That’s cool. And like any good open-search programmer you scratched your own itch, you wrote the book.
John Graham-Cumming Yes, basically, I was like, well somebody’s got to write it, so I guess I will.
Leo Laporte Among the places you visit, of course Bletchley Park.
John Graham-Cumming Yes, absolutely.
Leo Laporte This is where – this was the top secret installation that the British government set up to crack Enigma. I am sure it had other roles as well, that’s where Ultra was right?
John Graham-Cumming Well, I mean the thing about Bletchley Park is it was a location owned by the British Secret Service just before the Second World War, and it became the place that was used to break basically as many as possible of the Nazi German and Italian and Japanese codes during the Second World War.
Leo Laporte Going there, was that where you learned about Alan Turing?
John Graham-Cumming Actually, funnily enough I learnt about Alan Turing when I was very young. My parents sent me to a thing at Cambridge University when I was quite a young kid. It was for bright kids to go and have fun in the summer. And I went up to a man there who was probably a professor at Cambridge University and said, “So, how does a computer work?” So, this is – we are talking in the 70s. And this man said, “Well, there’s this thing called a Turing machine.” And he drew on a piece of paper a Turing machine and he just basically told me the fundamental underpinnings of computer science as a – I was a young kid, and I was fascinated by this idea of this tape that goes back and forth, if any ones read about Turing machines, it’s mechanical. So, I’d known about Turing forever, and then of course I studied computer science and I studied cryptography. So Alan Turing was a man who I’d known quite a lot about for a while.
Leo Laporte 1999, Time magazine named him one of the most important people of the 20th century because of his role in creating the modern computer, although he never was able to build one I don’t think.
John Graham-Cumming Well, actually after the Second World War, he worked at what is called the National Physical Laboratory in Britain on something called the ACE, which was a computer as we would now recognize it. Ironically, one of the problems was during the Second World War he had worked on some part of a thing called Colossus. He wasn’t the main person on it but he was well aware of Colossus and that was a valve-based, special-purpose computer, built at Bletchley Park.
Leo Laporte For our ignorant American audience, valves are vacuum tubes.
John Graham-Cumming Yeah, sorry, vacuum tubes for the American audience, and yes, funny you have to do the translation.
Leo Laporte A valve is a very different thing in America.
John C. Dvorak A valve is actually a valve.
John Graham-Cumming It’s actually a valve. Well it’s also actually a valve in the U.K. as well.
Leo Laporte Oh, so you have both, ok, all right.
John Graham-Cumming So, yeah, total confusion... But anyway Turing so then said well, we can actually make a computer using vacuum tube, valves, and designed it. And he was almost pooh-poohed because people said, no no, that’ll never work. But of course during the Second World War he had seen something related work but he couldn’t tell anybody because it was a big secret. So he was sort of stuck with this, “No no, I’m pretty sure it would work”, you know.
Leo Laporte Yeah, you should try it guys! It might work.
John C. Dvorak Try it out.
John Graham-Cumming So obviously other computers did get built using vacuum tubes and it did turn out that they work.
Leo Laporte Now the great tragedy, I mean Turing of course helped crack the Enigma code, he was a national hero really but the great tragedy, he was gay which was of course illegal and considered to be a mental illness in his lifetime.
John C. Dvorak Right, and we also know there are so few British gay men.
Leo Laporte It was so rare that the government went after him. In fact, this is really sad, they prosecuted him in 1952 and gave him a choice. What was that choice?
John Graham-Cumming Right, they gave him a choice. He could either go to prison which was the normal punishment for essentially being caught being gay and of course that’s what happened to Oscar Wilde. Under exactly the same law he got two years of hard labor. And Turing was given the choice of either that or he could try a sort of experimental cure thing for homosexuality which was to be injected with female hormones which would – the idea was it would kill his libido, which of course it did, and would sort of stop him being gay by curing him. Unfortunately, he did agree to it and then he grew breasts because of it and had a major effect on him mentally and physically.
Leo Laporte He killed himself just a couple of years later.
John Graham-Cumming Right and then two years later he killed himself by eating an apple that had been dipped in cyanide.
Leo Laporte So really kind of an unfortunate chapter in British history. But, John, I like it because you decided to something about it. Tell us that story.
John Graham-Cumming Well this is one of these stories that has always upset me because it’s like, basically if you look at the timing, Second World War ended in ‘45, seven years later Turing was arrested. And nine years after the end of the Second World War he was dead and then only 12 years after he was dead, what he had done was no longer illegal, i.e. being gay was no longer illegal in 1967. And so it’s just this awful thing, where you’ve got this man who’s an absolutely genius and then he basically, we essentially make him kill himself and it’s always annoyed me and then for some reason this year on Turing’s birthday which is June 23, I just got really, really mad about it and I put this blog post thing up on my blog and said – you know what? British Government ought to apologize to Alan Turing about this. Something ought to happen officially. And the next day after some comments came in, I thought you know – actually what I am gong to do is I am going to start a petition to the British Government.
It’s quite a long tradition in Britain of directly petitioning the Prime Minister. People go and gather all these signatures and they deposit this big pile of paper on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives. And there’s actually a web2.0 version of that which is e-petitions, run by the government.
And so that night on the 24th of June I then signed up for a petition to say we ought to apologize for this treatment of Alan Turing. And about a month later, a little bit over a month later, on August 4, that petition became public so people could sign it. And what happened over the next 37 days was, through my effort and through a lot of people tweeting and all sorts of other things happening, 31,000 people signed that petition. And Thursday night – on September 10 I got a call on my mobile phone from the Prime Minister.
Leo Laporte Wow! Gordon Brown called you? He just called you?
John Graham-Cumming Well he didn’t call me directly. What happened was I had the flu and I had been at home and I hadn’t been looking at my email. And I – on the Thursday night I thought, I’ve got to look at my email because of a work thing tomorrow, I had to tell someone to do something. So, I log into my email and there is this email that says please urgently call Number 10 Downing Street Re: Your Petition.
Leo Laporte Oh wow!
John Graham-Cumming So, I looked at the number and I called and I was put straight through to somebody in Number 10 Downing Street who said well, we are actually going to make this apology. It’s going to happen. We think it’s a great thing and in about an hour it’s going to made public and they read the apology to me to give me an idea of what they were going to say. And I was completely blown away because if you read the apology there’s no nuance to it at all, which of course is always a worry with anything that’s political.
And then this woman says to me, Gordon would like a word with you.
Leo Laporte Wow!
John Graham-Cumming So I was – at that point my heart started beating and about 10 minutes later my mobile phone rang and she says to me again, well I’ve Gordon for you and hands him the phone.
Leo Laporte What did he say?
John Graham-Cumming Well, he – the sort of things you might expect. He thanked me for bringing up this petition, making – getting so many people to sign it. He said he thought it was very public spirited of me to go off and do this. He talked for a while about how he hadn’t really realized the story of Alan Turing, you know, hadn’t really seen what happened at the end of his life. And he thought it was a wonderful opportunity to talk about that. And he also links with of course with all the other people who were prosecuted under these laws.
So if you look in the – in the apology he talks about – probably about a 100,000 other people who had been prosecuted over the years. So he just – just an amazing thing that he suddenly came out with this apology. I was in it for the long haul. I thought, I’ve got 31,000 – I was trying to get to the number one spot on the website because I was number five, fifth most popular petition.
So it all happened rather quickly. It was a rather amazing month actually because there was a lot of things going on behind the scenes to get that number up there.
Patrick Beja Johnny…..
Leo Laporte Go ahead.
Patrick Beja Did you start the petition with the hopes that it would actually get through or was that just something to do because you thought it was the right thing to do without any hopes that it would actually happen.
John Graham-Cumming I really hoped it would happen because I really thought it was just an awful story, and every time I think about Alan Turing I’d suddenly get angry about it again, and think this was terrible; it shouldn’t have happened. But if you read my blog I said quite clearly gosh I don’t think