Category Archives: Rant

Fear, Loathing, and Surprise at the Kentucky Derby

NBC coverage begins today at 2:30PM with the race slated for 6:57PM. Last year Medina Spirit made 1.86 million dollars for a two minute race, eclipsing what Stormy Daniels was paid for what was presumably a somewhat longer ride on Donald Trump.. The win was negated by the drug test Medina Spirit failed after the derby. Just as abruptly as the horse had reached the top of the sport, the feisty colt collapsed during a workout at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.

This type of Shakespearean drama is rare at the Derby. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, Hunter Thompson wrote in a June 1970 artcle. This year’s spectacle featured a limited number of $1000 mint juleps in a signature that sold out well before race time. To be drunk no doubt by women in $10,000 hats saying “if the peasants have no food let them eat cake.” I can’t match Hunter’s style so I’ll leave you to read his article.

The article is long but you have almost four and a half-hour to kill before the race. According to Wikipedia Hunter rose to prominence with the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, a book he wrote while spending a year riding with motorcycle gang. The article on the derby is next in the narrative followed by his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I read the book as an undergrad. Based on what occurred in the book I am surprised he made it to age 68. The book is a surreal descent into drug abuse. Read the book, don’t see the 1998 movie starring Johnny Depp. It is almost as dreadful as the made for TV trial co-starring Amber Heard, a film noir version of the old show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

* * * * *

Saturday night after watching most of the news on CBS I switched over to watch the running of the Derby. Running a horse in the Derby is the dream of everyone who races horses. I remember my dentist in Ithaca have a horse in the race one year. I fell 50 yards out of the gate, broke its leg, and had to euthanized.

The owners of Rich Strike had a much happier experience. The colt wasn’t even in the field until Friday, when he drew into the race after another horse was scratched. Wearing #21 it started in the 20th chute far away from the rail, he carried 80:1 odds but he came from behind to pull off one of the biggest shocks in Derby history.

A poetic writer in the New York Times seemed to follow Moses’ path through the Red Sea to a three-quarter length victory. In more prosaic terms his first step to victory was to get from the extreme edge to the middle of the pack. Then at about the ¾ mark in the race he moved through the pack to a commanding lead. However in the modern era I don’t need words you can see it for yourself

The horse moved so fast and was so agitated after the finish, trying to bite the horse of the rider who was trying to guide him to the winner’s area, I thought for a moment that this would be a situation where the horse got his speed from a syringe but there hasn’t been anything on the news so I assume that this time the horse passed his drug test.

The owner who bought the horse for $30,000 was charming in his excitement: “What planet is this?” Dawson said. “I feel like I have been propelled somewhere. I’m not sure. This is unbelievable. I asked my trainer up on the stage, I said, ‘Are you sure this is not a dream? Because it can’t be true.’ He assured me this is real. I said OK.”

So there can be feel good stories at the Derby and not only for the owners. Rich Strike paid $163.60 to win on a $2 bet. The 21-3 exacta paid $4101.20 on a $2 bet; the 21-3-10 Trifecta $14,870.70 on a $1 bet, and the Superfecta 21-3-10-13 $321,500.10 on a 1 bet so even  if you would have bet on all P(20,4) = 116,280 possibilities you would have won big.


A National Face Mask Law Could End the Pandemic

How do I know this? Because I read an article in the April 2020 issue of the Atlantic Monthly explained the “real reason to wear a mask.”

Medical workers use them and other PPE to avoid ingress, transmission of outside particle to the wearer. However, individuals should wear masks to prevent egress. A key transmission route of COVID-19 is via droplets that fly out of our mouths when we cough, sneeze or even just speak. The purpose of wearing a mask is to avoid you transmitting the virus to others around us.

To develop this article, the magazine assembled an interdisciplinary team of 19 experts and looked at a range of mathematical models and other research. They wrote a scientific paper that was published online

The conclusion was that if 80% of people wore masks that were 60% efficient (easily achievable with cloth masks) the basic reproduction number R0 for the epidemic would be < 1 and the epidemic would die out. A graphic shows that possible combinations of mask wearing percentages and mask efficiencies that would achieve this goal.

I admit that the time scale over which things will happen is somewhat of a guess. Not much reduction will be seen in the first week since many infected people have yet to show symptoms. As the graphic shows the reduction will depend on the percent of people complying with the order and the quality of face masks, which should be much better now than when the article was initially published. On the other hand large numbers of people congregating in bars without wearing face masks could negate the effort.

The effectiveness of masks in containing the virus is not just a theoretical result. There are a number of spectacular examples of success. In Hong Kong only four deaths due to COVID-19 have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic. Hong Kong health authorities credit their citizens’ near universal mask-wearing as a key factor. Similarly, Taiwan ramped up mask production early on and distributed masks to the population, mandating their use in public transit and recommending their use in public places, a suggestion that was been widely complied with. Their death toll has been 6, and the schools have been open since early February.

While other countries have been smart, the US has not. Thanks in no small part to Trump’s decision to not wear a mask and to have large rallies where very few people wore them, the issue has become politicized. Recently the governor of Georgia sued the mayor of Atlanta to stop her from imposing a mask order. Each weekend in Raleigh, hundreds of young people crowd into restaurants and bars on Glendale South and there is not a mask in sight, a situation that occurs in many parts of the country. This behavior occurs because of the perception that young people rarely get sick and if they do get infected the symptoms are mild. However, in recent weeks 1/3 of the new infected have been under the age of 30.

As Dr. Fauci has Said when Trump has allowed him to be on TV, large gatherings in which face masks are not worn can lead to transmission of the virus from one asymptomatic person to another. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this occurs, but contact tracing data from North Carolina shows that 50% of symptomatic cases are caused by contact with an asymptomatic individual. Another sign of the invisible epidemic is that the CDC estimates that there have been 10 times as many cases as those that have been verified by a COVID-19 test.

Trump has recently worn a mask, and at his corona virus briefing on Tuesday July 21, uttered the words that everyone should wear a mask when they are in a situation where social distancing is impossible. The history of pandemic in America shows that people will not voluntarily do the right thing. It must be mandatory. The president could dramatically improve his chances of being re-elected by signing an executive order to make mask mandatory.

I hate to point the president to a road to re-election, but I do not want to see 90,000 more people die. The IHME web site

projects 224,500 deaths by election day, while the CDC data shows that 140,000 have occurred as of July 21. To get re-elected, Trump must first admit stop lying about the pandemic. The US has 5% of the world’s population but the fraction of deaths that have occurred here is 140,000/617,000 = 22.7%, more than 4 times as many as a typical country. It does not have the lowest death rate in the world.

The US cannot reopen its economy or send students back to school five days a week with a pandemic raging in the streets. The crisis needs to be stopped now. It seems unlikely that sttes will go back into lockdown, so making masks mandatory is our only hope. If hospitalizations continue to spiral out of control (and they are NOT caused by our high level of testing) then the death toll could easily go higher than projected. In April when stay at home orders and other control measures were in place, the IHME projected death toll was roughly 70,000. This means that the premature re-opening of the economy has cost 150,000 lives. If we had followed the lead of Europe and dramatically reduce the number of cases before opening up the country things would be much better now but that opportunity is gone. We need to act now to prevent a complete disaster.


China is NOT to blame for the COVID-19 epidemic in the US

As President, Donald has told tens of thousands of lies. In many cases, he can hide behind the silence of his loyal supporters. However, when it comes to the coronavirus epidemic the details are on TV, in the press, and in publicly available databases for all the world to see.

One of his most egregious lies is that China is to blame for the epidemic. A May 20 story in USA today says “As the political rhetoric blaming China for the pandemic escalates, law enforcement officials and human rights advocates have seen an increasing number of hate crimes and incidents of harassment and discrimination against Asian Americans.” Trump has fanned these flames in his rallies, referring to the virus as the “Kung flu.”

One of the most incredible lies (i.e., too extraordinary and improbable to be believed) is that the corona virus was made in a laboratory in Wuhan. To protect this lie, the White House directed the National Institutes of Health to cancel funding for a project studying how coronaviruses spread from bats to people. The NIH typically only cancels active grant when there is scientific misconduct or improper financial behavior, neither of which it has occurred in this case. The PI on the grant, Dr. Peter Daszak, is President of EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based organization that conducts research and outreach programs on global health, conservation and international development. His research has been instrumental in identifying and predicting the origins and impact of emerging disease, which is very important for avoiding future pandemics..

Early Spread.  A special report published on July 5 in the New York Times gives new information about the early days of the epidemic. In mid-February the official case count was 15 but there is evidence of 2000 other infections. Given what we now know about the spread of the disease, it is natural to guess that many of these cases were asymptomatic. However, as explained in the paper cited in the next paragraph, part of the discrepancy was due to the fact that testing done before March 4, 2020 was only done for symptomatic patients who had recently traveled internationally.

This idea that the corona virus was widespread in the US in January 2020 was discussed in news stories about Alessandro Vepignani’s work. These appeared on the Northeastern web site in April, but the paper has only recently appeared on the medRxiv: Jessica T. Davis et al. Estimating the establishment of local transmission and the cryptic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Their conclusions are based on the use of a rather complicated individual-based, stochastic and spatial epidemic model called  GLEAM (GLobal Epidemic and Mobility Model) that divides the global population 3200 subpopulations. See PNAS 166 (2009), 21484-21489 and J. Computational Science 1 (2010), 132-145 for more details.

Origins of the virus in the US.  Recently two genetic sequencing studies published online in Science, have investigated the origins of the corona virus in US. A.S. Gonzalez-Reiche et al, published on May 29, 2020 studied Introductions and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the New York City area. Phylogenetic analysis of 84 distinct SARS-CoV-2 genomes from samples taken February 29 – March 18 provided evidence for multiple, independent introduction . Phylogenetic analysis of full length genome sequences suggested that the majority of the introductions came from Europe and other parts of the United States.

A medRxiv preprint by M.T. Maurano et al which reports on the analysis of 864 SARS-CoV-2 sequences, reached the same conclusion: comparisons to global viral sequences showed that early strains was most likely linked to cases from Europe

Deng et al, published on June 8, 2020 studied the introduction of Sars-CoV-2 into Northern California. They studied 36 patients spanning 9 counties and the Grand Princess cruise ship using a method they called MSSPE (Metagenomic Sequencing with Spiked Primer Enrichment) to assemble genomes directly from clinical samples. Phylogenetic analysis described in detail in the paper indicated that 14 were associated with the Washington State WA1 lineage, 10 associated with a Santa Clara outbreak cluster (SCC1), 3 from a Solano County cluster, 5 related to lineages circulating in Europe but only 4 related to lineages from Wuhan. This precision comes from the fact that as of March 20, 2020 when this work was done, there were 789 worldwide genomes in the GISAID database. This wealth of data is possible because coronaviruses are unsegmented single-stranded RNA viruses that are about 30 kilobases in length.

The results in the last three paragraphs demonstrate that most lineages came from Europe not China. In hindsight the fact that Europe is the primary source of coronavirus is the US. Travel from China was banned February 2, but travel from Europe was only ended on March 13.

I have concentrated on the science.  I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want the Senate to vote for Thom Tillis’ 18-point plan in May “to hold China accountable” for what he says is its role in the coronavirus pandemic.

A Tale of Two Colonoscopies

I’ve had two colonoscopies; one on January 11, 2007 and one on March 13, 2018. In the spirit of an English writing assignment, I will compare and contrast the two experiences. In addition I will offer some advice that I think will be useful for those who have yet to have had the experience. Since I am a math professor you should not view this as medical advice.

The main event “Cleaning the Area for Viewing” has not changed much. On Day -1, you only have clear fluids (see below for definition) . At 3:00 PM you take some DulcoLax (stool softener). At 5:00PM you begin to drink from a mixture of 64 oz of Gatorade and one 255gram bottle of Miralax. Eight ounces every 15 minutes until it is gone. In 2007, I was amused to see that the directions on the can said to “never under any circumstances take more than one capful.” In 2018, the laxative comes in a brightly colored plastic container, which brags that it contains 14 daily doses.

At about 6PM the party gets started, and regular trips to the bathroom continue until about midnight, when I was brave enough to try to go to sleep. In 2007 there was nothing new to do the next day, except to drink clear liquids stopping two hours before the procedure. In 2018, there is a 10 ounce bottle of Magnesium Citrate to be drunk four hours before the procedure. Fortunately, this corresponds to the standard dose and it gets its magic done in less than 2 hours.

What is a clear liquid? In 2007 the list included Coffee and Tea (no milk or cream). In 2018 these items were gone leaving water, soft drinks, Gatorade, fruit juices without pulp, chicken or beef broth, plain jello, popsicles (no sherbert or fruit bars). In short “any fruit you can see through and has no pulp” is acceptable as long as it is not RED or PURPLE for obvious reasons. A colonscopy is not a test on which you want to get a false positive!

Clear liquids are to keep you hydrated, but also to give you enough calories to get through the day.(See disclaimer above.) In this regard, popsicles and jello are worthless since they have 10-30 calories. Thinking it might be some sort of substitute for coffee in the morning, I tried some canned chicken broth warmed in the microwave. But after I had a few sips I noticed that the can said it had 30 calories per serving, 30 of which were from fat. The white grape juice at 150 calories for 8 ounces was sickeningly sweet, but a good source of calories, as was some 80 calorie lemonade (which had no pulp but taste like plastic) and to a lesser extent non-diet soda.

The biggest change in the prep routine came from the rules for a restricted diet on days -5 to -2. In 2007 the rule was just do not eat nuts, seeds, popcorn and corn. By 2018 this list has gotten huge. No non-tender meats, gristle, hot dogs, salami, cold cuts. No raw vegetables or salads, no artichokes, asparagus, broad beans, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, peas, sauerkraut, spinach, summer or winter squash, tomatoes, zucchini. No raw fruit (except for bananas), canned fruit, dried fruit, berries, melons, cranberry sauce, avocado, coconut. No bread with whole wheat, etc, etc

In short, you can eat tender cooked fish, poultry, and meat, served with green beans, cooked carrots, beets, apple sauce, ripe bananas, and cooked fruit (peaches, pears, apricots, and apples) if the skin has been removed. The exclusions listed above will test your culinary creativity. Only refined pasta is allowed but I interpreted this to mean that Stouffer’s Fettucini Alfredo was OK. While cauliflower was off the list I figured that it was OK to eat mashed cauliflower from the frozen foods aisle, which Oprah peddles as low calorie alternative to mashed potatoes. Rachel Ray’s recipe for cooked carrots are popular according to her internet site but went over like a Lead Zeppelin.

To try to end this rant on a happy note, let me talk about Day 0. As many veterans of the procedure will tell you, after going through the prep on Day -1, and now a low fiber diet on Days -5 to -2, the procedure is not bad at all. One of the reasons for this is that they give you something that makes you forget the whole thing.  I once made a joke at a conference in Canada that this amnesia makes the procedure more fun than a faculty meeting. After the talk, a faculty member from York came up and told me that in Canada they don’t give you that drug. Damn socialized medicine.

I think that the drug they give you now has changed. In 2008 it was something like Rohypnol (aka roofies, the date rape drug). My wife Susan took one of her friends, Toni, to get her colonoscopy. One of the first things Toni said after the procedure was that Susan should see the movie Awakenings. Then a few minutes later she said it again, and then again, and again. In 2007, this made me very anxious about the procedure. I was afraid that after it was over would I suddenly wax philosophical about a woman I had me that had a “balcony you could do Shakespeare from.”

In 2018 they gave me Fentanyl. Yes that is the opioid you have heard about the news that is more deadly than heroin, but the nurse was giving me the injection. Wikipedia says it “is an opioid that is used as a pain medication and together with other medications for anesthesia. It has a rapid onset and effects generally last less than an hour or two.” It had the desired effect during the procedure, but when I left the office I was clear headed enough to give Susan driving directions to get home from a very unfamiliar part of route 54, where curiously 234 and 249 are on the same side of the street.

Hopefully, reliving my experiences has been amusing and told novices more about what to expect. This time the post has a bit if a point or to be a precise a small question for doctors: “The addition of the four days of pre-prep undoubtedly makes diagnoses more accurate but does that justify the time spent on a very restrictive and unpleasant low-fiber diet?” Couldn’t we compromise on two days, if I promise that everyone in the country will follow the directions.

Jordan Ellenberg don’t know stat

A couple of nights ago I finished John Grishan’s the Rouge Lawyer so I started reading Jordan Ellenberg’s “How not to be wrong. The power of mathematical thinking.” The cover says “a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts math’s power in our hands.”

The book was only moderately annoying until I got to page 65. There he talks about statistics on brain cancer deaths per 100,000. The top states according to his data are South Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska, Delaware, and Maine. At the bottom are Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

He writes “Now that is strange. Why should South Dakota be brain cancer center and North Dakota nearly tumor free? Why would you be safe in Vermont but imperiled in Maine.”

“The answer: … The five states at the top have something in common, and the five states at the bottom do too. And it’s the same thing: hardly anyone lives there.” There follows a discussion of flipping coins and the fact that frequencies have more random variation when the sample size is small, but he never stops to see if this is enough to explain the observation.

My intuition told me it did not, so I went and got some brain cancer data.

In the next figure the x-axis is population size, plotted on a log scale to spread out the points and the y-axis is the five year average rate per year per 100,000 people. Yes there is less variability as you move to the right, and little Hawaii is way down there, but there are also some states toward the middle that are on the top edge. The next plots shows 99% confidence intervals versus state size. I used 99%  rather than 95% since there are 49 data points (nothing for Nevada for some reason).


In the next figure the horizontal line marks the average 6.6. The squares are upper end points of the confidence intervals. When they fall below the line, this suggests that the mean is significantly lower than the national average. From left to right: Hawaii, New Mexico, Louisiana and California. When the little diamond marking the lower end of the confidence interval is above the line, we suspect that the rate for that state is significantly higher than the mean. There are eight states in that category: New Hampshire, Iowa, Oregon, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Washington, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.


So yes there are 12 significant deviations from the mean (versus 5 we would get if all 49 states had mean 6.6)  but they are not the ones at the top or the bottom of the list, and the variability of the sample mean has nothing to do with the explanation. So Jordan, welcome to world of APPLIED math, where you have to look at data to test your theories. Don’t feel bad the folks in the old Chemistry building at Duke will tell you that I don’t know stat either.  For aa more professional look at the problem see

Teaching Statistics using Donald Trump.

Recently, in Pennsylvania Donald Trump said “The only way they can beat me in my opinion, and I mean this 100 percent, if in certain sections of the state they cheat.”  He never said how he determined that. If it is on the basis of the people he talked to as he campaigned, he had  a very biased sample.

At about the time of Trump’s remarks, there was a poll showing 50% voting for Clinton, 40.6% for Trump and others undecided or not stating an opinion. Let’s look at the poll result through the eyes of an elementary statistic class. We are not going to give a tutorial on that subject here, so if you haven’t had the class, you’ll have to look online or ask a friend.

Suppose we have 8.2 million marbles (representing the registered voters in PA) in a really big bowl. Think of one of those dumpsters they use to haul away construction waste. Suppose we reach in and pick out 900 marbles at random, which is the size of a typical Gallup poll. For each blue Hillary Clinton marble we add 1 to our total, for each red Donald Trump marble we subtract 1, and for each white undecided marble we add 0.

The outcomes of the 900 draws are independent. To simplify the arithmetic, we note that since our draws only take the values -1, 0, and 1 they have variance less than 1. Thus when add up the 900 results and divided by 900 the standard deviation of the average is (1/900)1/2 = 1/30. By the normal approximation (central limit theorem) about 95% of the time the result will be within 2/30 = 0.0666 of the true mean. In the poll results above the average is 0.5-0.406 = 0.094, so by Statistics 101 reasoning we are 95% confident that there are more blue marbles than red marbles in the “bowl.”

That analysis is over simplified in at least two ways. First of all, when you draw a marble out of the bowl you get to see what color is. If you ask a person who they are going to vote for then they may not tell you the truth. It is for this reason that use of exit polls have been discontinued. If you ask people how they voted when they leave the polling place, what you estimate is the fraction of blue voters among those willing to talk to you, not the faction of people who voted for blue. A second problem with our analysis is that people will change their opinions over time.

A much more sophistical analysis of polling data can be found at, specifically at There if you hover your mouse over on Pennsyllvania (today is August 16) you find that Hillary has an 89.3% chance of winning Pennsylania versus Donald Trump’s 10.7%, which is about the same as the predictions for the overall winner of the election.

The methodology used is described in detail at

In short they use a weighted average of the results of about 10 polls with weights based on how well the polls have done in the past. In addition they are conservative in the early going, since surprises can occur.

Nate Silver, the founder of, burst onto the scene in 2008 when correctly predicted the way 49 of 50 state voted in the 2008. In 2012, while CNN was noting Obama and Romney were tied at 47% of the popular vote, he correctly predicted that Obama receive more than 310 electoral votes, and easily win the election.

So Donald, based on the discussion above, I can confidently say that  no cheating is needed for you to lose Pennsylvania. Indeed, at this point in time, it would take a miracle for you to win it.

Two movies about Alan Turing

The Imitation Game (IG) is a great movie which has brought a lot of attention to Alan Turing but if you like it, you should also watch the 2013 film Codebreaker (CB), which can be streamed on Netflix. Remarkably these two films give almost disjoint accounts of his life. I guess at this point I should give a SPOILER ALERT that I am about to describe some pivotal events in his life, which are revealed in the movie. A couple of the revelations might spoil your enjoyment but you have been warned.

CB spends a fair amount of time on Turing’s work on computability. The movie even shows a copy of the 1928 article by David Hilbert’s paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem).” It goes into some detail describing what a Turing machine is. As many of you know, he proved that such a machine would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. The movie doesn’t go on to mention that Turing showed that the halting problem for Turing machines was undecidable, but that’s OK since Von Neumann acknowledged that the central concept of the modern computer was due to this paper. Not a bad result for an undergraduate at King’s College.

IG spends a lot of telling the story of Turing’s role in decrypting messages sent by the Enigma machine. At Bletchley Park, Turing built an electromechanical machine, the bombe, that could help break Enigma more effectively than the Polish bomba kryptologiczna, from which its name was derived.

The bombe searched for possible correct settings used for an Enigma message (i.e. rotor order, rotor settings and plugboard settings), using a suitable crib: a fragment of probable plaintext. For each possible setting of the rotors, which had of the order of 10 19 states, or 1022 for the four-rotor U-boat variant, the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electrically. It detected when a contradiction had occurred, and ruled out that setting, moving on to the next. A brute force search of such a large space was not practical. According to the movie, a breakthrough came when they realized that the Germans sent out a weather report each day at 6AM that ended with the phrase Heil Hitler.

Both movies mention the fact that in 1941, Turing proposed marriage to Hut 8 co-worker Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley in IG), a fellow mathematician and cryptanalyst, but their engagement was short-lived. After admitting his homosexuality to his fiancée, who was reportedly “unfazed” by the revelation, Turing decided that he could not go through with the marriage. (In real life Joan Clark was somewhat less attractive.)

Despite some scenes of Turing running long distances (in CB if I recall correctly) neither movie mentions that while working at Bletchley, Turing, who was a talented long-distance runner, occasionally ran the 40 miles to London when he was needed for high-level meetings. In addition, he was capable of world-class marathon standards. Turing tried out for the 1948 British Olympic team. His time for the marathon was only 11 minutes slower than British silver medalist Thomas Richards’ Olympic race time of 2 hours 35 minutes.

Going back in time, a third key event in Turing’s life occurred at Sherborne School, which Turing entered in 1926 at the age of 13. At Sherborne, Turing formed an important friendship with fellow pupil Christopher Morcom, which provided inspiration in Turing’s future endeavours. However, the friendship was cut short by Morcom’s death in February 1930 from complications of bovine tuberculosis contracted after drinking infected cow’s milk some years previously. This event shattered Turing’s religious faith and he became an atheist

Neither movie has anything to say about his ground breaking paper on The Chemical Basis of Morphogensis published in 1952, which put forth his ideas about pattern formation in development. However, both movies cover the fact that in January 1952, Turing, then 39, started a relationship with Arnold Murray, a 19-year old unemployed man. A burglary brought the police to his house, the police discovered their relationship, and the fact that a valuable watch was missing was forgotten.

Homosexual acts were criminal in the UK at that time.  Turing was convicted and given a choice between imprisonment and probation, which would be conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted the option of treatment via injections of stilboestrol, (CB shows you the bottle of tablets), a synthetic estrogen. The treatment rendered Turing impotent and caused gynaecomastia, growing female breasts.

On 8 June 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. He had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed.

CB spends more time on the impact of estrogen therapy than IG, which has one brief scene with Turing and Joan Clarke one year after his conviction, in which he shows tremors in his movements. CB makes the point that the hormones did more stop his sex drive they also affected his ability to think. This part of the story is told in IG through a conversation between Turing and policeman, which explains the title Imitation Game.  In “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Turing addressed the problem of artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment which became known as the Turing test, an attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent”. The idea was that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being.

The achievements listed above do not exhaust all the extraordinary things Turing did in his 41 years. IG portrays him as an overbearing individual who could not understand other people’s feelings. Today we would say he was on the autism spectrum. CB tells the story of a brilliant man who just happened to be gay. Independent of which of these (if either) is true, IG says in its closing moments that cracking the Enigma Code shortened the war by two years and SAVED 14 MILLION LIVES.

Given this and his impressive intellectual achievements, the decision to chemically castrate Turing, which caused his death was insane, as is the fact that it took until 2009 for the British Government to apologize. With an important decision on Gay Marriage looming in the Supreme Court, this is an important example to keep in mind.  When homophobes and bigots quote the Bible to justify that marriage is only allowed between one man and one woman, we should ask “What would Jesus do?”

For more on Turing you could buy the book Alan Turing: The Enigma written by Andrew Hodges and Douglas Hofstadter or visit, maintained by Hodges.

The Joys of Flying are Without Number

The title is stolen from a cartoon. The sentence continues with a colon and then the number 0. Friday January 9, 2015 I had an AMS council meeting in San Antonio. The meeting was 2:30-10PM so I decided to fly in that morning and then out the next morning. The Monday before my flight, Delta emailed me through Orbitz to say that I was rebooked on a 7:10AM flight, which then entailed getting up at 5AM to get to the airport on time.

I got to a coldy and rainy San Antonio without incident, and except for having to pay $20 for two enchiladas and a beer at an almost deserted river walk eatery, all was well until about 4PM when I was bored and checked my email.


Unfortunately, US Airways 1983 to Charlotte Douglas (CLT) has been canceled. Please contact Orbitz at 800-656-4546 to reschedule your flight. Provide your record locator: AP1101013JY4VWS6 when you call.

I snuck out of the meeting and called Orbitz and called them. Each of the calls ended badly. The first one said “you called the wrong number.” I got transferred to another number and disconnected. On a second try, after four minutes on hold, I got someone who told me “that’s not your record locator” and I got disconnected. After I retrieved the booking record locator, I tried a third time. The person said she couldn’t help me but would transfer my call, and I was once again disconnected.

Since the flight was on USAir I called them. A helpful woman told me that I had been rebooked on an American flight that left at 8:50AM went through Dallas and got to RDU at 2:30PM. I thanked her profusely, went backed to the meeting. We finished up business at 6:30 had a couple of glasses of wine and dinner then a final discussion 8-9.

Tired but happy I went back to my room and watched some golf. After a while I decided I should check on my flight. I logged on to American, navigated to my flight and there it was: they had replaced my return on Saturday January 10 by one on Sunday January 11. This was upsetting because I didn’t have a hotel reservation or a change of clothes for the extra day. After a couple of calls, first to American and then to USAir, I had a flight leaving at 12:45 Saturday and arriving back to RDU at 6:53.

Though it was now 10PM I went down to the bar for a couple of glasses of wine to soothe my jangled nerves. I ran into SAMSI director Richard Smith who told me that San Antonio was expecting freezing rain, which is why all the flights Saturday morning were cancelled.

Saturday morning I slept in until 6:30. I opened the curtains to see my magnificent view of the Denny’s across the street and the freeway in the background. Very light rain and 35 degrees. Oh well, at least I didn’t have to set my alarm early and rush to get to the airport. I did some work, and some time later sitting in the San Antonio airport, I wrote this.

I am happy to say that the rest of the trip went well and I got home about 7:45. When I got to Dallas an checked my email, I got a note from the ever helpful Orbitz saying that my flight from Charlotte to RDU was on time. Not sure why I should care since the flight from San Antonio to Charlotte was cancelled.