Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Imitation Game

I recently saw 'The Imitation Game', the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie about the role of Alan Turing in solving the Enigma Code in World War 2. Some thoughts thereon:

The movie managed to get a fairly even-handed description of a lot of the important parts of Turing's life and work. It managed to hit on artificial intelligence, computers, the general problems of encryption and information leakage, and the question of how much to act on information from the cables so as to not reveal that you've broken the code.

That may seem like an easy thing, but it's actually surprisingly hard. Compare it with, say, 'A Beautiful Mind', which covered the life of John Nash. That movie barely touched on what was Nash's singular contribution, the Nash Equilibrium, and when they did, they managed to completely screw it up. In the game of 'do we all compete for the hot girl at the bar and crowd each other out, or target the plain ones?', they depict the answer as 'everyone goes for the plain ones, thus we all get paired up'. That's not a damn Nash equilibrium! If everyone else is going for the plain ones, the dominant strategy is to go for the hot one. But apparently the concept of randomisation was a bridge too far. So by that dismal standard, The Imitation Game is practically a cryptography textbook.

The movie also made me think curious the question of who gets credit for big accomplishments like breaking the Enigma code. Doubt not that Turing was brilliant and a huge part of it. But did you know that a lot of the early work that made it possible was done by several Polish cryptographers before the war? I will go so far as to wager quite confidently that none of my readers has ever had cause to use the world word 'Poland' (or its derivations) and the word 'cryptography' (or its derivations) together in any sentence they have uttered or thought, ever. Even after the story gets popular, they are forgotten. And in terms of geniuses who will never, ever be remembered, the movie made me wonder about who designed the Enigma machine in the first place. Though it was eventually cracked, it is an outstanding piece of cryptography. You will never hear about the Germans responsible for its creation. Brilliant German scientists were only famous once they had been succesfully rehabilitated - Wernher von Braun was a genius when he was designing rockets for the Nazis, but it was only possible to acknowledge this brilliance in hindsight once he'd also used it to land Americans on the moon.

I was rather impressed with the quite sensitive way that they tackled Turing's homosexuality. They resist what I imagine would have been a tendency in a lot of treatments of the story: to make homosexuality the central part of his character, and his whole raison d'etre. Given the extent of Turing's intellectual achievements, such as basically founding computer science as a discipline, a movie that simply made him a gay activist or martyr would have deeply missed the point about his life. But this is exactly the kind of depressing mistake Hollywood tends to make. This is particularly so, given the tragic treatment he received at the hands of the authorities in in being convicted of indecency and chemically castrated, which probably contributed to his eventual suicide. Rather, they show quite sweetly the scenes of a lonely Turing at school developing a romantic friendship with another boy, but one that never has an actual physical aspect of sexuality in any form. This depiction actually meshed very well with the way Robert Graves describes such things in 'Goodbye to all that':
"G.H.Rendall, the then Headmaster at Charterhouse, is reported to have innocently said at a Headmasters' Conference: 'My boys are amorous, but seldom erotic.' ...
Yet I agree with Rendall's distinction between 'amorous' (by which he meant a sentimental falling in love with younger boys) and eroticism, or adolescent lust...

In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.
"The school consisted of about six hundred boys, whose chief interests were games [sports] and romantic friendships."
The extent to which they manage to capture this atmosphere, without simply transforming it into modern ideas of what being gay involves, was a pleasant surprise.

The other idea that I really enjoyed seeing depicted was the old sense of Britishness - restraint, propriety, a stiff upper lip to the point of being emotionally distant. You could see how the British were able to run a huge empire for so long, and win World War I. The most memorable scene in this regard was when Joan, the female cryptographer and one-time fiance (Keira Knightly) sees Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) after his conviction and chemical castration. Turing is close to a breakdown and starts crying. Joan gently encourages him to sit down, and rather than talk through his problems, suggests that they do a crossword puzzle. I found this scene oddly touching and heartbreaking. It is a hallmark of the lost Britain that you only see today in the elderly. As Theodore Dalrymple recounts:
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.
I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.
Do you, like me, feel a great sorrow when you think of what once was, and how far we have fallen?

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