back to article Stephen Fry explains… Alan Turing's amazing computer

It's been almost two years* since Stephen Fry last put his foot in his mouth - but the boy has gone and done it again. The nation's most cherished TV advertisement voiceover artist is cherished here, too, at El Reg - for his technical wisdom. After his attempt to explain how the internet works (it needs atomic clocks), we hosted …

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Beep! -And your challenge is?

Well, he was never the best at Just A Minute.

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Coat

Re: Beep! -And your challenge is?

Deviation.

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Anonymous Coward

A little historical context

It's a very modern narrative that Turing was nobbled "coz he was gay". At the time everyone in the establishment, politicians, senior civil servants and military officers, etc had all been to boarding school. They knew all about "the unspeakable vice of the Greeks". It was something you were expected to grow out of, but Turing being gay was no weirder than if he'd insisted on wearing short trousers as a grown-up.

The real problem was a combination of two otherwise OK things: that Turing had a habit of bringing random people home, and that he had a habit of leaving classified documents lying around his house. He knew too much to be fired, and he couldn't be imprisoned or executed because we're the good guys. The chemical thing was the least-worst option.

Oh and there's a reason Dr Black is a famous "woman in computing" and not a famous *computer scientist*...

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Re: A little historical context

He couldn't be excecuted because he hadn't commited a capital offense. He might have been imprisoned if he'd carried out 'homosexual acts' in a public manner; I don't know if he ever did. The 'least-worst' option would have been to leave him alone and let him carry on with his work and his life. It seems that he did need serious 'words of advice' about classified documents, though he probably created classified documents just by doodling on a notepad at his kitchen table.

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Re: A little historical context

Not quite. Apparently nobody bothered about Turing's sexual orientation when he was at Bletchley Park and had access to very secret material. His notorious absent-mindedness would have been more of a threat.

In Manchester, where he is unlikely to have been working on classified material, nobody bothered until he reported one of the random people to the police for involvement in theft from his home.

There's also a strong body of opinion that Turing's death was an accident. He left no note, and people who knew him at Manchester reported that his mood was far from suicidal. One of them pointed out that he bought several new pairs of socks the day before (an observation that is probably less trivial when you consider the clothes rationing of the time).

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Happy

Re: A little historical context

If you realy want to know what happned at Bletchley Park, get hold of a copy of the excellent BBC radio comedy "Hut 33"!

"Yes hello Alan this is Ian Tretn ( IT ), it's not working? Have you tried turning it off and on again? OK, there you go!".

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Black Helicopters

"Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

Lucky me, I am not a tweeter; and neither am I in British or US academia. But who knows, maybe her "Dr." is self-inflicted?

What do you expect from a person who asconds to twitting, that the Broadway musical 'The Book of Mormon' "was honestly the best night out I ever had in my life, and Ive had some good nights out ;))"

Not that I saw it, though I am sure it could not possibly be my best night out.

And, please, leave Stephan Fry out of the picture. He's a nice chap, a good actor, and has never pretended to know what he is blurping about.

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Anonymous Coward

And he's not a bad writer

I've picked up half a dozen of his books in charity shops over the years and found them worth reading. "The ode less travelled" is excellent. (His books do have weird titles, though.)

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Re: And he's not a bad writer

I got one page into Moab Is My Washpot before having to put down the beautifully written but lengthy tome for fear that Fry's interminable prose and well practised yet over enunciated diction would forever infect and infest my previous ability to read a book without reading it with the voice of the writer usurping my natural if less eloquent internal diathesis.

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Re: And he's not a bad writer

Just read one book of his, it was a disgustingly complete rip-off of "The Count of Monte-Cristo" set in modern times and not even a tenth as good.

Black Adder, Jeeves etc are diamond, just stick to the acting, mate, OK?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

My partner has a PHd and I can assure you that this was self inflicted, over four long years. I would have thought that the vast majority of PHds are self inflicted, how else would you get one?

Answers on a postcard to Dr Gillian Mckieth, or to give her her full medical title: Gillian Mckieth.

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Happy

Re: And he's not a bad writer

Judging by your post, that may have been one page too late... (but possibly for a slightly different, yet related, reason)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: And he's not a bad writer

I got a few pages in to one of his, read his description of a boy's bum 'and the paradise within' and went 'nah'. Not for me.

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Coffee/keyboard

Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

"full medical title", love it! :-)

new coffee/keyboard

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Re: And he's not a bad writer

>Just read one book of his, it was a disgustingly complete rip-off of "The Count of Monte-Cristo" set in modern times and not even a tenth as good.

>Black Adder, Jeeves etc are diamond, just stick to the acting, mate, OK?

I didn't enjoy 'The Star's Tennis Balls' very much, though I have his other books. However, he was writing (and indeed very rich from writing another adaptation, of My Fair Lady) before he was in Black Adder or Jeeves and Wooster.

An interesting juxtaposition is between the semi-autobiographical The Liar, and his later autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, written a few years after his 1995 nervous breakdown... something happened to reduce his need for disguise. He's appeared much more comfortable in his own skin since then, too.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

A retired GP in our local calls his fellow drinkers with PhDs 'real doctors', because they have a doctorate and have carried out original research, which he, as a mere quack, hasn't.

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Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

Once I particularly enjoyed the hatchet-faced dwarf's explanation of how eating green plants is good because their cholorphyll oxygenates your blood.

I'm sure I could hear Herr Krebs cycling in his grave.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

I'm sure it's actually because it's the best way to get them to buy the rounds.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: And he's not a bad writer

"Just read one book of his, it was a disgustingly complete rip-off of "The Count of Monte-Cristo" set in modern times"

Um, it was SUPPOSED to be? Stephen Fry says as much in the afterword himself ....

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Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

"A retired GP in our local calls his fellow drinkers with PhDs 'real doctors', because they have a doctorate and have carried out original research, which he, as a mere quack, hasn't."

You might find he's being facetious...

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Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

I was sure to hit the ironical undertone since a self-inflicted injury is - you brought up the medical doctor! - one that does not involve anyone else. You inflict it yourself. You cut your finger. You cannot become a PhD on your own, but only in the passive:one is awarded a PhD.

In this sense I had asked if the good 'most influential tech-tweet' had eventually dished out that doctorate for herself, on her own account and awarded it herself.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

@Uwe Dippel - to the best of my knowledge Dr Black's doctorate is a real, earned one; not a made up or honorary one.

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Re: And he's not a bad writer

I am pleased to see that he did not infest and infect you with punctuation.

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Happy

Re: And he's not a bad writer

Ah, yes, but my point wasn't that it was a ripoff/tribute, but that it was crap.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't SUPPOSED to be crap :)

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Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

Actually AC (11:36), in November 2009 the Scottish board of Scottishness ruled that Gillian McKeith is not Scottish, so actually she should be known as ‘Gillian Keith’.

Six months later the EU office of the chief commissioner of the ‘fisheries, fishing & fish returning to the sea’ department met for a series of meetings and, well, long story short they determined that Gillian Keith doesn’t have gills, so should be simply called ‘Ian Keith’.

Now there have been a lot of rumours, but I think it's still accepted she's basically female, and since Ian Keith is clearly a male name I find it misleading, I propose we simply call her ' '.

Dr David

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Re: "Most influential tech-tweet of 2011" title on the tweeter's site

to the best of my knowledge Dr Black's doctorate is a real, earned one; not a made up or honorary one.

That may be true, but it doesn't save her from being irredeemably stupid.

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Anonymous Coward

Am I missing something?

What he seems to have said doesn't look particularly wrong to me. Turing had written Computable Numbers in 1938 but it was only after the war, at the NPL, that he focused on building the universal machine. Due to the lack of momentum at NPL he decided to go to Manchester where at least he would have access to a working computer. For a mathematician he was very hands on, and did lots of building of electronics. Finally, it is arguable that the Manchester device was the worlds first programmable digital logical computer, rather than a calculating machine which is what all previous devices were (and mostly analogue).

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Re: Am I missing something?

AC writes: "What he seems to have said doesn't look particularly wrong to me. Turing had written Computable Numbers in 1938..."

1936. See http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/Turing_Paper_1936.pdf

"... but it was only after the war, at the NPL, that he focused on building the universal machine. Due to the lack of momentum at NPL he decided to go to Manchester where at least he would have access to a working computer."

True. But part of the problem at NPL was too many people trying to "help" design it. Turing included.

"For a mathematician he was very hands on, and did lots of building of electronics."

Hmmm...

"Finally, it is arguable that the Manchester device was the worlds first programmable digital logical computer, rather than a calculating machine which is what all previous devices were (and mostly analogue)."

Argue away...

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Happy

Re: Am I missing something?

I also can't find much wrong in what Fry says in this instance - OK he's conflated two similar things:

The idea of a universal computing engine - the mathematical concept - which executes a defined algorithm on a (read/write) paper tape, with a few simple instructions including HALT. This is a "Turing Machine" and is enough to cast various mathematical problems in a concrete and untinkerable manner, for instance the successive approximation to a square root requires decisions and recursive calculation that cannot be easily presented as an equation. One of the great problems of the day was whether certain algorithms would complete, ever, or not - the halting problem.

The first computers were indeed hard-wired in their "instruction code", to perform key-searches for instance, they just replicated an enigma machine in its logic (using specialised "instructions" for instance to rotate the code wheel number 3) and accelerated the output. - a bit like microcode within today's CPU's.

The idea of a reprogrammable computer is really a return to the purity of the universal Turing machine, where arbitrary problems including the enigma replication can be performed, but with a less optimised and more general instruction set. That luxury could not be afforded at station X - they needed all the efficiency they could get.

It's kind of hard to get all that detail into the short conversational statement from Mr Fry - but his value is in introducing the interesting concepts, even being interested in the first place. I will applaud that.

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Go

Re: Am I missing something? - no sir, well said

And to be fair to Mr. Fry he is touching on a piece of computer science esoterica - I still have nightmares about ploughing through Minsky's "Computation: Finite & Infinite Machines" as an undergrad.

There does seem to be an unhealthy backlash against Turing's legacy because there is a dispute over the matter of his persecution by the British state. The fact is that he that he stands out as a very bright light in a pantheon not short on bright lights in the theory of computation. And if Stephen Fry slightly misunderstands the technicalia in aiding the well deserved recoginition of Turing we should not really care.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Am I missing something?

I think what you're missing is a terminological confusion. The Manchester device was the "Manchester Mark 1", but the expression "Universal Machine" usually refers to what is nowadays more commonly called a "Turing machine", which is, of course, a mathematical construct, not a real device. However, according to Wikipedia, a 1949 article describing the Manchester Mark 1 had the title "The University of Manchester Universal High-Speed Digital Computing Machine", so using the term "Universal Machine" to refer to the Manchester Mark 1 isn't entirely insane.

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Re: Am I missing something?

To me the Manchester mark 1 is undoubtedly the world's first modern digital computer, in that it is the first machine for which one can hold a meaningful and interesting programming competition: http://www.computer50.org/mark1/prog98/index.html

But then I am biased, because the programming competition was my idea (I suggested it to one of the rebuilders in March 1996).

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Re: Am I missing something?

"Finally, it is arguable that the Manchester device was the worlds first programmable digital logical computer, rather than a calculating machine which is what all previous devices were (and mostly analogue)."

I thought the Germans had a computer that was Turing-complete at the start of the war? It may not have been digital though, my recollection is hazy.

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Re: What has this got to do with a Supernova?

""Finally, it is arguable that the Manchester device was the worlds first programmable digital logical computer, rather than a calculating machine which is what all previous devices were (and mostly analogue)."

Argue away..."

Well, Colossus couldn't be reprogrammed without re-wiring it, so it wasn't a programmable digital logic computer", whereas the Manchester Mk1 (which STILL preceded the Americans) was.

That is not to say that Colossus wasn't an absolutely amazing achievement & Tommy Flowers' statue should be in Trafalgar Square.

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Re: What has this got to do with a Supernova?

The Mark I was actually the second of the Manchester machines. It is the SSEM or "Baby" which holds the honour of being the first stored program computer. It was only built as a test bed for Mark I development and quickly broken up but it was a distinct machine in its own right.

Turing never really had anything to do with either machine - he was more concerned with the NPL pilot ACE and actually spoke of the Baby/Mark I in highly disparaging terms. He considered the design wasteful of hardware - he argued against instruction decoding in favour of effectively embedding each and every control signal in the basic instruction format. Subsequent developments have essentially all followed the Mark I pattern as opposed to Turing's preference, but it seems there is such a cult of Turing admiration that details like that are often brushed aside.

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Re: What has this got to do with a Supernova?

Tommy Flowers -

A fucking national hero and that he's not recoginsed as such is a fucking national disgrace.

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Headmaster

Re: Am I missing something?

Actually, On Computable Numbers was written and published in 1935, often incorrectly stated as 1936 since the bound volume was 1935/36.

However, it's true that the first operating Turing-complete machine was in Manchester in 1948, but the machine Turing went to Manchester to work on was the second Manchester machine (confusingly called the Mk 1). If only he'd been able to get on with Maurice Wilkes, he could have prospered in Cambridge and probably survived to old age. Sad.

My chance to use the "pedantic" icon.

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Re: Am I missing something?

I thought the Germans had a computer that was Turing-complete at the start of the war? It may not have been digital though, my recollection is hazy.

If you're thinking of Konrad Zuse's machines: It was proven by Rojas in 1998 that the Z3 was indeed Turing-complete, but the proof involved some steps that were not part of normal operation, and there's no evidence Zuse ever contemplated anything like Turing-complete operation of it.

The difficulty lies in the lack of support for unrestricted looping and conditional jumps. The former is remedied by connecting the ends of the program tape so that the entire program becomes one big loop - in effect it ends with an unconditional branch back to the top. Eventual stopping is produced by causing what is in effect a machine check - it's been a long time since I read Rojas' piece on the subject, but maybe a divide-by-zero - which forces the machine to stop.

The problem of conditional jumps is handled by in effect encoding conditional operations as arithmetical ones. Of course that technique is part of a long line of approaches to coding formal operations, beginning with Herbert's program of formalizing mathematics, which got this whole "computer" business started in the first place.

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God I'm getting sick of Fry

I'm getting a bit sick of Fry and also that Cox guy that was in D:Ream, spouting gibberish over things they don't really know about just because they can put it into words the plebs (people who get angry over someone being voted out of a talent show, but admit they don't vote) can understand.

Fry is only revered due to QI and having a air of pomposity about him, which is why he always played characters in Blackadder that now just seem to be a natural extension of himself, making me wonder if he was actually acting.

In a survey 8% of people wanted Fry to be Chancellor and 3% wanted Cox, no idea why as neither have anything to do with economics.

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Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

Brian Cox is a lecturer in Astrophysics.

I can't stand the guy, but he does know what he's talking about when it comes to space and the universe. He explains things well for those who have not spent most of their adult life studying astrophysics (I'm told).

And Stephen Fry was Jeeves, who as we know, knew everything.

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Coat

Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

Well, things can only get better...

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FAIL

Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

Brian Cox may know about astrophysics, but what does he know about Biology??

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Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

Brian Cox actually has a proper Ph.D in particle physics, has a large number of peer reviewed papers to his name and spends a lot of time playing with data from the LHC. Frankly he is one of the most knowledgeable guys on TV, especially when it comes to talking about the universe and it's origins.

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Meh

Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

In a survey 8% of people wanted Fry to be Chancellor and 3% wanted Cox, no idea why as neither have anything to do with economics.

And Osbornes qualifications are ?

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Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

Stephen Fry, as much as you might hate him, was classically educated. As a state-school "star" (i.e. I didn't fail *everything* and came near the top of my year, which meant that when I went to uni I was shocked at how little I knew compared to everyone else), I am quite happy to concede to his level of knowledge on an awful lot of things. The off-the-cuff, unscripted remarks he makes on QI on a range of topics show that he is more knowledgeable about them than I. However, his expertise in computing is limited. That doesn't mean he's worse than the average guy-in-the-street (as someone who works in schools, I can attest to officially-produced posters from major manufacturers that refer to a computer base unit as a "hard drive" - including dodgy description of it containing the CPU! - and that's just the tip of the iceberg), but he's no geek-tech-expert.

Brian Cox? Like Brian May - yes, he of Queen fame - he may be a popular music artist, but he's also highly qualified in a specialist area of physics (strangely, also astrophysics), which gives him instant credence in that chosen subject. Sorry, but there it is. Once you get to that level, and realise the work involved to get the qualifications they have, you have to respect them in that area. Brian May used to get invited onto The Sky At Night, in the same way as Brian Cox now does. Does being in a band mean you can't be intellectual too? I'd hope that, actually, it shows that the music world isn't full of vacuous idiots who can't even hold a note. Chances are that both Cox and May would kick yours or my arse at a pub quiz, and wipe the floor with us when it comes to their knowledge of astrophysics. Hell, they wipe the floor with my brother, who was an astrophysicist that was offered a research job working in an observatory in Australia.

Just because someone is on TV or in a band does not mean they are not intellectual. Have you never seen the program where Jeremy Beadle wiped the floor with endless rounds of people in a general knowledge quiz? That man knew more than anybody who you'll find on Mastermind or Countdown.

That doesn't mean you have to like them - any of them - but you can't really criticise their general intelligence. Sure, we can poke fun at Fry because he doesn't get the computer thing quite as well as we do but - damn - we're on an IT website, so that's hardly surprising. I'm sure he pokes fun at us when we don't know our Latin or whatever he would consider his specialist subject. And I'm sure he could poke fun at us a lot more than we could poke fun at him. Hell, when Alan Davies tried to turn the tables in QI for a special Christmas episode, Fry showed a knowledge of obscure English football facts that I wouldn't be able to even approach.

There's also the issue that I have been heard to give some quite atrocious analogies and explanations about things to people because I just don't have the time to express what I *do* understand. I'll tell factual inaccuracies. But it's better than trying to explain why the NTP server failing affects domain logons to someone who doesn't even know what a server is. And the more off-the-cuff, casual, and unexpected the question, the less accurate my response would be.

I think Fry should limit what he says about computing in public, sure, but he "got" the licensing thing in his short video about open source, even if he didn't get it exactly 100% correct.

Know your limits, yes, but I'd rather have Fry spouting off about something that he hasn't quite grasped 100% than listen to some idiots discussing who slept with their cousin first and so must be the father of the child or whatever other tripe there is on TV when I switch it off.

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Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

>I'm getting a bit sick of Fry

The simple solution is for you to watch less television. Try reading.

>Fry is only revered due to QI and having a air of pomposity about him

Or for his writing, which made him a millionaire in early twenties. One national broadsheet columnist took a pop at him the other week- amusing, because Fry's columns are infinitely more perceptive, witty and self depreciating than that no-name hack's.

>In a survey 8% of people wanted Fry to be Chancellor and 3% wanted Cox, no idea why as neither have anything to do with economics.

Neither has past experience of the current chancellor of the exchequer, who studied History of Art and then a stint as a data entry clerk... I would imagine that Brian Cox has a better grasp of mathematics and computer modelling, which are might considered to be 'transferable skills'. Stephen Fry has spent time in prison for credit card fraud... whether this makes him more or less suitable for the role than Mr Osborne I'll leave to you to decide.

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JDX
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Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

I wonder if Feynman got this kind of stick too, for being able to articulate his thoughts and have hobbies outside science.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: God I'm getting sick of Fry

"Neither has past experience of the current chancellor of the exchequer, who studied History of Art and then a stint as a data entry clerk"

No he didn't. He studied Modern History (the period since the Middle Ages) at Oxford.

Arguably that has some relevance to politics.

But broadly speaking, yes, what the hell is he doing being Chancellor? Is there really no'one better experienced who could do it?

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