2014-12-31

 

Turing not Frankenstein

I finally saw the Imitation Game. As many already noted, it is full of historical inaccuracies. However, the worst of the movie is the Hollywood cliché of the crazy scientist. Turing was not autistic and people actually liked to be around him. Moreover, the narrative of the movie implies that Turing had an emotional attachment to the machine created to crack Enigma (called a Bombe in reality). In the movie he names the machine "Christopher", the name of a childhood friend whom he may have been infatuated with. At the end of the movie we learn that his greatest fear is that the authorities may "take Christopher away from him"; he also says "Christopher is getting more and more intelligent". The whole implication is that Turing built the machine, an artificial intelligence, as a substitute for Christopher---the "imitation game" of the title. Not only is this whole thing complete historical rubbish, it is a lame Frankenstein story. Again, Hollywood does not seem to be able to represent scientists as anything other than a Dr. Frankenstein.


It is also worth noting that the machine (Bombe) was first devised by Polish scientists (that is very well described in Singh's Code Book ). Turing improved upon it with Welchman (not ever shown in the movie), mostly by devising algorithms that could reduce the enormous search space of Enigma configurations. The biggest breakthrough was discovering regularities in the messages sent by Germans, which weakened the code. The movie does show that insight, but the regularities were more than "Heil Hitler" and used expertize in German (which Turing understood), German culture, and Psychology. Indeed, Bletchley's strength, more than the power of a "crazy genius" (the Dr. Frankensteins Hollywood loves) was interdisciplinary teams that included psychologists, linguists, engineers, physicists and mathematicians. Breaking Enigma was a team effort and not solely mathematical genius. Acknowledging this does not detract at all from Turing's formidable accomplishments, chief among them the idea of a Universal Turing machine that he published before the war. By the way, the Bombe/Christopher was not an instance of a general-purpose (Turing) machine as the film suggests. It was rather an analogue computer that replicated, and searched, the configurations of Enigma. Building general-purpose machines was later cracked by Von Neumann and his team, as well as by Turing himself in Manchester later on (see e.g. Dyson's Turing's Cathedral for a thorough historical record) .


Naturally a screenplay cannot be fully historically accurate. But in addition to the lame Frankenstein angle, many inaccuracies were very hard to bear. For instance, I had the great fortune of speaking with Peter Hilton a few times in real life. He very much introduced me to the Turing story and tragic death when I studied at SUNY Binghamton. In the movie, the screenwriters invented a brother for Hilton whom Turing lets die in a boat convoy under attack, in order not to reveal to Germany that the Enigma code had been cracked (as if such decisions were ever in Turing's power at Bletchley!). This decision turns Hilton sour against Turing at the end of the movie. That is all false, Peter Hilton did not have a brother killed in the war and was so very fond of Turing he often cried when speaking of what happened to him many years later.

Finally, as others have reported, the notion that Turing would hide knowledge of a soviet spy so that his homosexuality would not be revealed is not only ridiculous, but slanderous. First, Turing did not hide his sexuality, even, and up-front, to his fiancé. In fact, being open about it to police investigators was part of the problem in him being tried for homosexual activities later on. So, the implication that he would hide a spy is not only false but pushes the tired idea that homosexuals pose security risks. Also intertwined with this in the movie, is the ridiculous/slanderous idea that he would have revealed classified information (the whole Bletchley story) to a Police detective.

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2014-12-28

 

Say you're one of them

I have never loved a punch in the gut as much as this one. At once it brought me back to the delight and dread of my African childhood. Uwem Akpan gives a voice to African children struggling to hold on to their strong family bonds, which, unfortunately, are often not strong enough to sustain the external and internal forces that ravish the continent with confusion, disease and violence. Say you're one of them is a lesson every refugee child learns. Thank you to Emmanuel Udoh for pointing it to me.


Listen to Agbalagba by Angélique Kidjo, a song inspired by the book.

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