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!

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