Thursday, May 21, 2009

London Calling

I'm going to the UK tomorrow!  I get to see my folks and have a week in London.  We're also doing a couple of day trips.  First, the incredibly geeky field trip to Bletchley Park, the estate where Britain basically dumped all its code-crackers and computer experts during WWII (back when the computer was more a concept than a household object, and building one involved knocking down walls in your giant estate to house its big sorry ass) so that they could crack the German code and win the war.  So kind of like software testing with the sense of perspective completely flipped--it actually was a matter of life and death, and winning was infinitely more important than any of them knew at the time.
The Germans were using a machine called the Enigma machine, which was basically the size of a really old portable typewriter and used three layers of code--you typed in your message, the machine encrypted it, and then the guy on the other end set his settings like yours and de-crypted it with an identical machine.  My understanding (pre-field-trip) is that these mathematicians at Bletchley Park essentially built an early computer to assist with the calculations needed to build their own decryption device.  (Oh, and by the way, one of the principle participants, Alan Turing, was gay, so after the war the British arrested him and treated him with estrogen until he killed himself.  I'm a serious Anglophile but that's not their finest hour.)
The other field trip is to Castle Howard, an enormous 18th-century residence that gained fleeting fame as the setting for screen adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.  It's seriously baroque and just one of those places that makes you feel like history is lying under every stone in England in a way that isn't really palpable here in the US.  The English love to drop sentences like, "the Howard family has lived here for 300 years" just to make you feel like you come from a young and impetuous nation of rowdy upstarts.
Wish me luck packing....

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