Turing, Welchman and Bletchley Park

In the past year I read several books about the events that took place at  Bletchley Park during World War II. It all started when the movie “Imitation Game” came out and the biography of Alan Turing was republished. I had read Turing’s biography back in the 80s, but I was happy to read it again, especially since an electronic version was available. The book is  called “Alan Turing: The Enigma” and it  was written by a British mathematician Andrew Hodges.

Broadly, Alan Turing’s life can be divided into three phases: his life before the war, his work on the Enigma at Bletchley Park during the war, and his work on computers in the late 40s and 50s. His major achievement of the first part of his life was the 1936 publication of a paper titled: “On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The Entschedeidungsproblem.  The paper presented the idea of an abstract machine (now we call these Turing Machines) that could  mechanically  solve any problem for which an algorithm  could be devised. Essentially this paper invented and described in detail a programmable computer, as we know them today. The paper went further, also showing that there are some problems with are “not computable” – that is impossible to  solve with a programmed machine.

Alan Turing was on his way to an academic career when World War II broke out. He was recruited to help in breaking the German communication that has been encrypted with the Enigma machine. The center for all this work was Bletchley Park, and this is where Alan Turing spent his war years. The initial breakthrough of deciphering the Enigma was accomplished by Polish mathematicians before the war. Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptographers continued on this work, eventually creating an industrial size organization that would break the daily keys of large number of a German communication networks.  Turing in particular worked on breaking the Naval Enigma, including designing number of machines that were used to speed up the computations needed to find the daily keys.

In October of last year I got a chance to visit Bletchley Park, which is now a museum, and while browsing though the museum book store I found a book about Gordon Welchman. The book was “Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence“, by Joel Greenberg. Welchman was a contemporary of Turing, and he arrived at Bletchley around the same time as Turing and like Turing worked on breaking of the Enigma.

When he first arrived at Bletchley, Gordon Welchman pioneered the discipline of traffic analysis. That is learning as much as possible from the way messages were transmitted in various German networks, without actually decrypting the contents. One thing that made this possible was that each Enigma message had a header, transmitted in the clear, that contain destination and source addresses (these were of course coded indicators that changed everyday). Still surprising amount can be deduced from this information.

Welchman was also the one to organize how the intercepts were obtained and how they were handled once at Bletchley. In particular he set up and managed the work of Hut 6, which mostly dealt with analyzing and breaking the German Army and Air Force traffic.

Unlike Turing, after the war Welchman immigrated to the U.S. where he worked on development of computers and communications networks. He became a US citizen, obtained a security clearance and worked at MITRE on government projects.

Now, when World War II ended the British and the American governments decided to keep what was done at Bletchley secret. Only in the 1980s some of what went on at Bletchley has started to become public. Some of this material was in fact used by Turing’s biographer in his book.

Gordon Welchman was close to retirement by then, and seeing how Bletchley secrets were slowly being revealed he decided to write a book about his experiences. The book is call “The Hut Six Story” and it describes a lot of technical details of how Enigma traffic was broken.  Once Welchman announced his plans to publish “The Hut Six Story”, over 40 years after the war, both the British and American Secret services tried to stop it. Eventually the book was published in the early 90s, but as a result Gordon Welchman lost his security clearance and was no longer able to work in the Defense Industry.

The most interesting parts in “The Hut Six Story” are the description of some of the methods used to break the daily Enigma keys. Many of these methods depended on finding a “crib” – that is guessing correctly what a part of a message may be – and then testing different key settings to eliminate the ones that are not possible. The presence of cribs in the Enigma messages were mostly due to sloppiness of the German Enigma operators. For example, sending a daily message with same text (like: “nothing to report”).

These three books gave me a very in depth look at what happened at Bletchley Park in World War II, and I f you are interested in this topic consider reading them.




> Science Fiction Readings: Fall 2015

Here are two SF books I read since the summer.

  • Aurora (Kim Stanley Robison) – Long time ago, when I was just a teenager, I read a big fat book about a generational ship travelling through space. I do not remember the name or the author of the book, but do remember liking it. So when I asked some friends about generational ship stories, they recommended  Aurora.  The book tells a story of a generational ship that is near the end of its 120 year journey to a planet near a star that’s 8 light years from Earth. The author goes into some details of how such a ship could survive in the void of space. Everything needs to be recycled since proper balance of chemical elements in the biospheres is essential, as there is not place to replenish the supplies.  When the ship arrives at its destination, the selected planet turns out to be less than ideal, and after serious political upheaval the people of the ship split in two faction: one stays and one decides to go back to Earth. The story is told from the the point of view of Freya, the daughter of the ship’s chief engineer, who then becomes the leader of the people on the return trip.  I liked reading the book,  even the slow parts where the author spent time explaining various scientific details.
  • World of Ptavvs (Larry Niven)  – This is an odd little book, in which an alien, who crashed on Earth millenias ago and survived in a stasis field, is revived. He tries to gain mind control over all humans to turn them into slaves. The “muguffin” is mind amplifier that was left on Neptune, or was it Pluto. It was a quick read.

> Readings in History: 2015

I have been reading a lot history books lately. Here is a list of some of the books I read this year:

  • Practicing History: Selected Essays (by Barbara Tuchman)  – Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite historians to read. This book is a collection of essays, selected by the author, on many topics from how she goes about writing to examples of essays she wrote about Japan, the Middle East and the United States. I greatly enjoyed reading this book.
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War (1890 – 1914)  (by Barbara Tuchman)  – another gem by Barbara Tuchman.  In this book she describes the state of the world leading up to the First World War. It was time a great progressive change, yet full of unrest and tribulations. The book is divide into chapters that concentrate on one country or one significant event. For example,  a chapter covers how the Dreyfus Affair  divided the French and another how music in Germany pushed the European culture into the modern age.  At times it is amazing to see the similarities between that time and today.  For instance, the era had its share of “anarchists” who wanted to provoke the masses to rise against the bourgeoisie by blowing people up or assassinating political figures. The book is long, but fascinating.
  • The Wright Brothers (by David McCullough)  – this was new biography of the brothers, published this year.  I have read several other biographies of the Wright brothers, and this one filled in more details, especially about the early demonstration of the Wright Flyer in France and the USA. I never tire of reading about the invention of the airplane.
  • The Heart of Everything That Is (by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin) – this book tells the story of Sioux Chief Red Cloud and his war against the United States. Red Cloud has the distinction of being the only American Indian Chief that won a war agaisnt the US government.
  • The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War (by Adam Zamoyski) – I thought I had read all the books about the Polish pilots in WW II. Somehow I missed this one.  This book  covered some details of the after-the-war politics in the UK that I did not know before.

> Science Fiction Readings: Spring and Summer of 2015

I’ve read quite bit of science fiction this spring and summer, but i have not kept a careful record, so here are the highlights:

  • The Shockwave Rider (by John Brunner) – this is a classic from the beginning of the cyber-punk genre. It’s an early book where something like the internet plays a big role in the plot. The author predicts many things that are true today, for example at one point he describes the world wide network where “…confidential information had been rendered accessible to total strangers capable of adding two and two…”. The hero of this story reminded me a little of Edward Snowden, however in the book the act of publishing secrets results in great social change, not at all like what happened in the actual world.
  • Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (by Philip K. Dick) – I read this book in the past and this time I understood little better what went on. Still PKD’s books are quite a ride, because – as my daughter described it – the author pulls the rug from under the reader, then the floor, and then the ground.  The title of the book is taken from an beautiful  17th century song called “Flow My Tears“.
  • The Martian (by Andy Weir) – this is a story by a space geek about an astronaut who is left behind, when a NASA mission to Mars has to be aborted after landing. The book was great fun to read and now there is a movie!
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – Volume Two A (edited by Ben Bova) – this is a collection of longer pieces by various authors. Here are the names of the stories I read:
    • “Universe” (by Robert Heinlein)  – early generation ship story.
    • “The Marching Morons” (by C.M. Kornbluth) – person from the past turns to be much smarter than people who revived him. See the movie “Idiocracy“.
    • Vintage Season” (H. Kuttner and C.L. Moore) – time tourism.
    • The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (Cordwainer Smith) – mild class warfare.
    • Baby Is Three” (Theodore Sturgeon) – spooky story with some paranormal twists.
  • Quicksilver (by Neal Stephenson) – this was the second time I attempted to read this book. I think I got in little further, but just got bogged down. The main problem for me was that there were to many characters introduced, yet nothing much seemed to happen. So again I gave up. I’d rather read actual history.

>Science Fiction: “The Invincible”

“The Invincible” is one of the early novels by Stanislaw Lem. The first edition came out in 1964. Recently a new translation has been published as an e-book and that’s the version I have read (I have read other editions in the past, including the Polish edition).

The book is fascinating story of a spaceship, “The Invincible”, on a rescue mission to find a sister ship, “The Condor”, which disappeared on an uninhabited planet sometime before.  As the plot progresses we find that some kind of strange mechanical evolution took place on the planet in question, creating some incomprehensible “life” forms.

What I find amazing about Lem is his imagination to come up not just with plot ideas but also with the setting for his story. I often wish that I could see a movie or just photographs of the places he describes. One day, on a whim, I searched for images from “The Invincible” and discovered that such pictures actually exist.

Here is a whole gallery of paintings of scenes from “The Invincible”. Seeing these scenes from the book  made the reading of the book again a lot more more enjoyable.

“The Bully Pulpit” – Doris Kearns Goodwin

Recently I’ve become interested in the history of the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century because I’d like to understand better how progressive ideas overcame the power of monopolies and laissez-faire philosophy. In many ways those days are similar to present day, with increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, and the rising power of large corporations – or “trusts” as they were known back then.

In “The Bully Pulpit” Doris K. Goodwin tells part of this story through a biography of two champions of the progressive cause: Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft.

Teddy Roosevelt got into politics when he was in his twenties. As a young man he was elected to New York state assembly, then served as New York City police commissioner, and eventually was elected a governor of New York. Teddy was a fighter and he worked hard to weed out political corruption. He said about the political parties:

“Each party profited by the offices when in power,” Roosevelt explained, “and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what it itself had done and intended again to do.”

The result was that the Republican party nominated him to become the Vice Presidential for William McKinley in 1900, in order to prevent him from running for the second term as Governor of New York.  But six months into his second term McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt, unexpectedly,  became the President.

William Taft was a lawyer from Cincinnati. He was widely admired for being a nice, friendly and likable guy. His initial career was moving towards becoming a judge, but his wife encouraged his more political ambitions.  As a result William Taft served in Washington, DC in the Justice Department during the Harrison administration.  While there he met Theodore Roosevelt and the two men formed a friendship that lasted for the remainder of their lives (with some bumps along the way).

At the end of the 19th century a progressive sentiment has been rising in the country. As today there were attempts for disrupt the power of the two major parties. In 1890 the Farmer’s Alliance fielded radical candidates in midterm elections and  Mary Lease, a proponent of reforms, expressed the feeling of many citizens at the time:

“Wall Street owns the country,” she charged. “It is no longer a government of the people by the people for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.”

At the same time number of progressive magazines that pioneered investigative journalism came into being. Perhaps the most influential of these was McClure’s, which under direction of Sam McClure published works by it’s staff writers, including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker and William White. They wrote extended investigative pieces on railroad and oil trusts.  For example Ida Tarbell’s series on History of Standard Oil eventually led to forced brake up of Standard Oil.

The articles in these magazines moved public opinion to  support of progressive reforms. The popular backing allowed, then President, Theodore Roosevelt to push a number of important legislative reforms such as establishing a Bureau of Corporations, to regulate the behavior of trust. Similarly what we now know as the Food and Drug Administration was first established during Theodore Roosevelt’s term – largely in response to “The Jungle” – a novel, written by Upton Sinclair,  about the conditions in Chicago stockyards.

After Roosevelt served his two terms in office, he helped Taft to get elected to continue the progressive agenda. However, Taft’s disposition was that of a peace maker, not a fighter and Roosevelt along with progressives of the day became unhappy with Taft’s approach. This was despite the fact that Taft managed to get number of policies enacted, for example reforms of tariffs or his aggressive prosecution of monopolies. Still country’s dissatisfaction with Taft was expressed in the 1910 mid-term elections, when the Republican party suffered a humiliating loss.

“It was not only a landslide, ” he acknowledged, “but a tidal wave and holocaust all rolled into one general cataclysm.”

All this led Roosevelt to attempt a presidential run for a third term in 1912.  He attempted to secure the Republican nomination for President, but after  a nasty fight Taft still won the nomination.  In response Roosevelt decided to start a third party, the National Progressive Party, which nominated him as candidate for President.

In the 1912 election  Theodore Roosevelt received more votes that William Taft, but because he split the Republican vote the election was won by  Woodrow Wilson.

After the ill fated 1912 elections, Taft and Roosevelt became estranged and did not speak at all for several years. They did however reconciled, before Roosevelt’s death.

I greatly enjoyed reading “The Bully Pulpit”, and only that very end it occurred to me that the book could have been called “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.





> Science Fiction: “Fiasco” – Audio Book

Fiasco” was the last novel written by Stanislaw Lem. He wrote more before his passing, but no more novels. I have read “Fiasco” before, in Polish and in English, and this time I listened to the audio book version.  As I observed before, listening to a book exposes more details of the writing and and for this book it showcased the incredible imagination Lem possessed.

On the surface, “Fiasco” is a book about first contact between humans and another civilization – as you can imagine from the title, things do not turn out well. Under the surface the book is a platform for Lem’s philosophical musings on subjects of contact between civilizations, space travel and artificial intelligence.

The book also includes some fantastically imagined alien environments. In fact the chapter begins with an incident that takes place on Titan, a moon of Saturn. I found the detailed description of the landscape there breathtaking – how could Lem imagine such things?

Rather than delve too much into the plot (you can follow the link above to see a very good summary), I wanted to include a quote from the book which expresses Lem’s views on Artificial Intelligence, here presented as a historical description. Here is what he said:

   ” The first inventors of machines that augmented not the power of muscle but the power of thought fell victim to a delusion that attracted some and frightened others: that they were entering upon a path of such amplification of intelligence in nonliving automata that the automata would then become similar to man and then, still in a human way, surpass him. About a hundred and fifty years were needed for their successors to realize that the fathers of information science and cybernetics had been misled by anthropocentric fiction – because the human brain was the ghost in a machine that was no machine.

Creating an inseparable system with the body, the brain both served the body and was served by it. If, then, someone were to humanize an automaton to the degree that it would be in no way different, mentally, from a man, that accomplishment would – in its very perfection – turn out to be an absurdity. The successive prototypes, as the necessary alteration and improvements were made, would become more and more human, but at the same time would be of less and less use – compared with the gigabit-terabit computers of the higher generations.




As one of the historians of science observed, it would be like finally building, after colossal expenditures and theoretical work, a factory for making spinach or artichokes that were capable of photosynthesis – like any plant – and which in no way differed from real spinach and artichokes except that they were inedible.”


If the above passage intrigues you and you like a good science fiction story, by all means go ahead and read “Fiasco” – you will enjoy it.