Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Imitation Game

Breaking the Enigma Code

"Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

That line is spoken by two different characters in the movie The Imitation Game, describing the remarkable Alan Turing.

When Alan Turing arrived at Bletchley Park from Cambridge, no one expected much of him, especially the naval boss of the place. Except Turing himself. Self-admittedly one of the best mathematicians in the world, Turing was confident that he was the man to break the Enigma codes. And break it he did, with an incredibly clunky looking general purpose computer fast enough resolve the Germans' daily key. As typical with eccentric and brilliant people, Turing had difficulty in getting support and funding for his idea. Finally, he secured Churchill's support by writing to him directly.

Turing recruited his team through setting a challenge crossword puzzle. Joan Clark was the first finished, but only after Turing intervenes to even allow her to take the test. Women were as unwelcome as cocky eccentric males.

Turing broke the Enigma. He probably cut a couple of years off the length of the war. What followed was a great moral dilemma of how to use the information secured from Enigma. Unless the Allies could provide plausible explanations for how they got advance information about German plans, they could not use the information, or the Germans would twig that they had broken the code and immediately change codes. Turing developed a sophisticated calculation assessing probably lives saved, versus the risk of the Germans realized their code had been. The formula was used to judge whether to act on the information.

Turing was himself an enigma: a brilliant loner, he was homosexual and his social ineptness would undoubtedly earn him an Asperger label today. Astonishingly, homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. Charged with indecency in 1952 after the discovery of a homosexual relationship, Turing was put on probation and a forced regime of hormone treatments, and barred from any further intelligence work. Because of this conviction, because of the incredibly tight security around what happened at Bletchley, and because of a general level of suspicion against Cambridge dons after the the uncovering of Burgess and Maclean as spies, Turing didn't receive his full recognition before his early suicide at age 41.

Nevertheless, he is considered a father of computing, and the Turing Award is computing's equivalent of the Nobel.  He made the top 25 in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, and made Time's list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. The Turing test is still used today to assess true artificial intelligence: in a blind test can you accurately judge whether it's a person or a computer you're interacting with? If you can't make the distinction, the machine is exhibiting true artificial intelligence, or as Turing put it, the machine is thinking.

Appallingly, it was not until 2013 that the Queen posthumously granted Turing a pardon.

The Imitation Game: The Movie

This was a fabulous movie.  Absolutely fabulous. It's a great story. Even though we know the gist of it, the movie makes it exciting and engaging.

The acting was powerful, and Cumberbatch was amazing as Turing.
A few production details also stood out for me. The sense of period was strong. Many scenes were only side-lit, so that faces were half in shadow, adding to a sense of mystery. Somehow the tricks of photography made Cumberbatch appear much shorter than his natural 6'.

The Epilogue

After the movie, I fell into conversation with a lady in the washroom lineup. After exchanging our views on how good the movie was, she leaned in and quietly said "I worked there", and pointed proudly to the small Bletchley Park pin on her lapel. "But you're not old enough", I protested. She retorted "I'm 92!".

Our gregarious friend Gord called her over for a longer talk. Margarita (Madge) Trull knew Turing and worked on the duplicates of his original deciphering machines, known as bombes. You can see an interview on CPAC with this charming, vivacious woman telling the story of her war, what it was like at Bletchley, and the Canadian spitfire pilot who brought her to Canada. Madge was clearly quite chuffed by our interest and it didn't take any persuasion at all for her to pose for a photo outside the theatre. 92 indeed!

The Official Secrets Act forbade any discussion of the work at Bletchley for another 50 years, and Madge's mother went to her grave never knowing what her daughter had done in the war.

It was a complete treat to meet this very special woman.

The Postscript

There were two personal aspects to this film for me. Madge makes me think of my father; each vital in their 90s, mentally sharp, proud of their contributions to the war effort, and both participants in the Memory Project (Madge's here, and my father's here). Both were proud to speak to high school students on Remembrance Day. 
The other personal note was a tenuous connection with the actor Mark Strong. My daughter and I whirled around the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many years ago watching about 15 plays in 3 days. Being softhearted she felt it was a great injustice that Strong's university acting troupe had such a minuscule audience for a great performance.  So we attended the play a second time and she developed a slight crush on Strong. Naturally very shy, she screwed up the courage to ask for an autograph and gave it to me for 'safekeeping'. And I promptly lost it! I was as shy as she was, but duty drove me reluctantly up the back stairs to their dressing room to replace the autograph. Strong was surprised and absolutely delighted that a fan was keen enough to get a second autograph!

Friday, December 19, 2014

What's in a Word? Digitale Schleimspur

So many English technology words seep into other languages.  English should reverse the trend and adopt the German phrase 'digitale Schleimspur' - digital slime - to describe the insidious digital trail documenting our preferences, habits, and history as we traverse the Web. You know slime: that stuff you can't ever seem to get off your hands. Isn't that a better description than cookie trail?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Headline Says It All

A recent article in the Washington Post had the headline:

The less Americans know about Ukraine's location,
the more they want U.S. to intervene

Their data showed that only one in six Americans knew where the Ukraine was, and while many guesses were at least in the neighbourhood, many were laughably far away, as shown in their map.

Read the whole article in The Washington Post,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christensen on Data

Rotman's Martin Prosperity Institute's hosted a conference today on Knowledge Infrastructure. The conference featured many great speakers, including Clayton Christensen.

Christensen's big message was that we have to be careful about depending too much on data, particularly data collected by other people. Data does not represent a universal truth: somebody decides what data to collect and what not to collect. That choice in and of itself can influence or even obscure truth.

He strongly advised people go 'dumpster diving' for their own data, so that they choose the pertinent data that exactly pertains to the question they're trying to answer. "Using somebody else's data won't lead to the truth". He argued that everyone who does important things creates their own data.

Direct data is similar to direct observation.  In my experience, observations have the greatest power when you observe them first hand. Just as physics tells us that electrical signals and waves attenuate over distance, so the power of observations attenuate for each step away from the original observer. Christensen was arguing that this applies also to data; it loses its power for explanation unless it's a dataset you create yourself to answer the specific question you have in mind.

Christensen also described the stages involved in creating good theory as a summary of some things he was currently thinking about. Clearly not an off-the-shelf presentation, Christensen said it was the first time for this presentation and that his presentations were crummy the first four times! Not crummy, for sure, but lacking the luminous clarity and inevitability of logical flow of the previous presentations I've seen.

I was saddened to hear that Clay is currently undergoing chemotherapy. He's suffered so many medical issues - heart attack, cancer, stroke, diabetes - but his cancer had been in remission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life After Life

Imagine you're knitting a sweater. You start knitting the back and once you've got a couple of inches completed in Pattern A, you unravel most of what you've knit, and restart with Pattern B. After knitting a few inches in this new pattern, you put down the back and start knitting the left sleeve in Pattern A. Then you return to the back, unravel some of what you've knit and start knitting in Pattern C. Then pick up the right sleeve and start knitting in Pattern D. And so it goes, knitting, ravelling, changing patterns, skipping between different pieces.

That's what it feels like to read Life After Life. The story gets started, and just when it reaches a climax, it rolls back and restarts, reversing the significant event. The reader is introduced to several different alternative plot lines.

Usually an author tries to weave a story that suspends disbelief, leading the reader to believe this is truth, the only way the plot could have unfolded. Kate Atkinson takes a different approach and dazzles us with her depiction of several alternative realities. The story - oops stories - span the First and Second World War in England, and the description of the Blitz feels totally credible, and totally unnerving. The main character Ursula dies or doesn't; is raped or isn't; marries, or doesn't. Not only does her life unfold on several different planes, but her personality evolves differently based on these events.

This was a fascinating book. No wonder it won or was nominated for so many awards, and made the New York Times list of 10 Best Books of 2013.

Past Book Reviews
I've had some people ask about past book reviews, so I thought I'd start including a list of links to past book reviews every time I write a book review.

The two most viewed reviews:
   The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

Murder as a Fine Art
The Pope's Bookbinder
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
The Taliban Cricket Club
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Imposter Bride
A Possible Life
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
22 Britannia Road
Berlin Crossing
The Redeemer
The Rebreast
The Keeper of Lost Causes
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Before the Poison
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
Rules of Civility
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Bad Boy
The Finkler Question
Faithful Place
The Help
The Dark Room
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Makioka Sisters
Still Life
A Corpse in the Koryo
Bamboo and Blood 
Hidden Moon
The Man with the Baltic Stare
The Housekeeper and the Professor
Suite Francaise
The Man From Beijing
Involuntary Witness
The Janissary Tree
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
The Upside of Irrationality
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
The Invisible Bridge
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
A Question of Belief
The Ghost
This Body of Death
Global Warring
The Council of Dads
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Elements
The Checklist Manifesto
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone