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Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt

Man Who Knew Too Much (edition 2006)

by David Leavitt

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4671522,172 (3.4)8
Title:Man Who Knew Too Much
Authors:David Leavitt
Info:WEIDENFELD & NICOLSO (2006), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:turing, computers, artificial intelligence, enigma machine, cryptography, mathematics

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The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt



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Leavitt being a novelist I expected this to be a novel, but it is a biography. Moreover, most attention goes to Turings mathematical work instead of his life. Unfortunately the author tries to link Turings homosexuality to this work which is almost always unpausible, if not ridiculous. He saves his best one for the last sentence though! Turing seems to have had a weird sense of humour that entirely escapes Leavitt. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
I got through almost all of the first chapter. I found the writing style very difficult to read. There are some concepts that are somewhat difficult being a book about a mathematician, but the story didn't seem to flow. The hardest part for me seemed to be a rather unusual combining of words that didn't come together for me to give an image of who was doing what or what was happening to whom. I did not finish the 4th section of the first chapter. I'll have to look for something else on Alan Turing. ( )
  ajlewis2 | Feb 24, 2016 |
This is a tough book for me to review, because at least 50% of it went in one ear and out the other. Don't get me wrong, it was interesting, it's just that I couldn't follow a lot of it.

Part of the problem was the diagrams. I'm pretty sure there were a lot of them, especially in the first half of the book, and the poor narrator had to read all of it out loud. I have a feeling that, even if I weren't a more visual learner, I still would have had trouble following the various long series of letters or numbers used to demonstrate Turing's ideas.

The other problem was that the first half of the book didn't seem to have a solid organizational structure. The author would discuss people or ideas that didn't seem to have much connection to Turing, then move onto another subject, and then another. It was interesting stuff, but I had trouble seeing how it all connected.

Thankfully, the latter half was much less confusing. I enjoyed the sections on Turing's cryptography work during World War II, and I loved the sections near the end on Turing's ideas about machine learning and artificial intelligence. While I didn't always agree with his theories about how a machine might best be taught, which were based on old-fashioned child rearing techniques (and which I recognize would not necessarily have been considered old-fashioned from his perspective), I found his way of thinking about machines to be fascinating.

He questioned the prevailing tendency to take human superiority for granted. Others repeatedly stated that machines could never be equal to or more superior than humans for various reasons: they would never enjoy the taste of strawberries and cream, never write a sonnet, never listen to a piece of music and feel moved, and never fall in love or cause someone else to fall in love with them. Turing refuted many of these statements and questioned the importance of others. For example, someone probably could create a machine that could enjoy the taste of strawberries and cream, but why would anyone want to do that? The bit about sonnets inspired one of my favorite quotes: “A sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by a machine.” To his mind, machines would have a way of viewing and appreciating the world that would likely be different from, rather than inferior to, the way humans would view and appreciate it.

He was also adamant that, when judging machines' intelligence and ability to think, they not be held to higher standards than humans. Humans require training and education before they can properly perform new tasks, and it's accepted that humans will occasionally make mistakes. Why shouldn't machines be given a similar amount of leeway?

I did think that Turing's “imitation game,” which has come to be called the Turing test, contradicted some of his other ideas, since it was based on a machine's ability to convince a human interrogator that it was human. Rather than accepting the idea that a machine's thought processes and ability to appreciate the world would probably be different from a human's, the Turing test brings us back to the idea of human superiority – a machine could only be said to “think” if it could imitate a human being enough to be mistaken for one.

I had thought this book would contain more biographical information than it did, but it was really more about Turing's ideas. The one aspect of Turing's personal life that the author did frequently write about was his homosexuality. The book briefly mentioned that he might not have been permitted to do cryptanalysis work at Bletchley Park if the government had known he was gay, and I was a little amazed that they didn't know, since he seemed to be fairly open about it. I have a feeling that the only reason he kept out of trouble for so long was because he was quiet, shy, and socially awkward. Although I knew from the start of the book that things wouldn't end well for Turing, the final section of the book, on his ill-fated relationship with Arnold Murray, his conviction for gross indecency, the estrogen injections that he was given to “cure” him of his homosexuality, and his eventual suicide (the author also briefly brings up the possibility that Turing was assassinated), was heartbreaking.

And here I thought this was going to be a short review. Anyway, the first half of this book was a mess and would probably have been better in paper or e-book form. The second half of the book was much better and made up for the first half somewhat. According to several reviews, Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma is overall a much better book, so I may see about reading it (or, more likely, listening to it) at some point in the future.

Additional Comments:

I enjoyed Paul Michael Garcia's narration, but the audio quality was very uneven, sometimes noticeably changing in the middle of a sentence.

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.) ( )
  Familiar_Diversions | Feb 6, 2016 |
Not at all sure why this was written. As the author acknowledges, he has used the books by Simon Singh (on code breaking) & the **much better** biography by Andrew Hodges as source material. Having read both of those I don't really see anything substantially new. There are a few bits that extend the analysis of Turing's homosexuality but not enough to warrant a new book. Even the trauma of his trial & "treatment" are dealt with in a few pages, & not developed into a polemic on gay rights. So there's no really strong axis to the book - code breaking, maths, life as a homosexual in mid 20thC England - are all present, just not strongly put, apart from making me want to go back to Singh & Hodges..
  AndrewCapey | Jul 17, 2014 |
I'm a huge fan of Alan Turing's. A FAN. And god, if he isn't completely tragic.

I liked this biography especially because the author sat down and worked out some of the math, and spent time explaining decoding. But really, the important part was that they didn't gloss over the fact that--shock--Turing was gay.

Even for someone that likes to read nonfiction anyway, I was REALLY into this book. Only reason it took so long to get to it was school (since I bought this in the summer).

Great biography. Really.

( )
  cendri | May 30, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393052362, Hardcover)

The story of the persecuted genius who helped create the modern computer.

To solve one of the great mathematical problems of his day, Alan Turing proposed an imaginary programmable calculating machine. But the idea of actually producing a "Turing machine" did not crystallize until he and his brilliant Bletchley Park colleagues built devices to crack the Nazis' Enigma code, thus ensuring the Allies' victory in World War II. In so doing, Turing became a champion of artificial intelligence, formulating the famous (and still unbeaten) Turing Test that challenges our ideas of human consciousness. But Turing's postwar computer-building was cut short when, as an openly gay man in a time when homosexuality was officially illegal in England, he was apprehended by the authorities and sentenced to a "treatment" that amounted to chemical castration, leading to his suicide.

With a novelist's sensitivity, David Leavitt portrays Turing in all his humanity—his eccentricities, his brilliance, his fatal candor—while elegantly explaining his work and its implications.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:03 -0400)

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"One of the most important openings in the path to the modern computer was made by the British mathematician Alan Turing - remarkably, while he was solving an entirely different problem. Shy and insecure about his middle-class origins, considered eccentric by those who did not know him well, Turing could show those close to him sly humor and bracing candor - even about his homosexuality. He also had one of the keenest minds of the twentieth century." "Turing's famous 1936 doctoral dissertation tackled one of the great mathematical challenges of the time, the "decidability problem, " by proposing and imaginary programmable calculating machine. The idea of actually producing such a "Turing machine" did not crystallize until Turing and his brilliant Bletchley Park colleagues built devices to crack the Nazis' Enigma code, thus ensuring the Allies' victory in World War II. Along the way, Turing crossed paths with some of the greatest minds of his time, including John von Neumann and Ludwig Wittgenstein." "After the war, Turing became a champion of artificial intelligence, formulating the famous Turing Test that challenges our ideas of human consciousness. But Turing's postwar computer-building was cut short when he was arrested for violating antihomosexuality laws and sentenced to a "treatment" that amounted to chemical castration." "As he explains Turing's work and its implications, David Leavitt never loses sight of Turing's humanity, using a novelist's sensitivity to enter Turing's world and tell his extraordinary story."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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