THE IMITATION GAME


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“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” The take-away line from The Imitation Game states the theme. The plot is the quest to build a computer that can decipher enemy communications and win a war.

As with Atlas Shrugged, there's a lot to criticize. Broadly, the film takes liberties with the historical timeline. The events of World War II did not play out as depicted. Turing did not actually build his Bombe in Bletchley Park. Joan Clarke and the Naval Enigma team had early successes; and convoys were rerouted, saving Britain from starvation. A group of cryptanalysts, including Turing, petitioned Churchill, and did so in late (not mid) 1941.

In the abstract, Turing's telling at Denniston, "You will never understand…" was an obligatory cliche, necessary for anyone in the audience who missed the first hour. That was probably the weakest moment in the film, but not the only trope. And more…

However, I decided in advance to view this as a drama out of place and time, rather than a documentary - which it never was intended to be. In that context, this is a drama about one man who did what everyone else thought was impossible.

And it is a tragedy in the classical mode because he is brought down by a flaw not of his own making, but revealed by his own choices.

The movie does get a lot of the story spot on. Turing loved to run. Although Commander Denniston built Bletchley Park in the early days 1937-1939, he was over his head running a facility of 10,000. He has been characterized as a man well-suited to running a small sweatshop. (B. Jack Copeland, Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age.) Joan Clarke was brilliant. She was not the only woman who was, but she did stand out. She was able to work directly with Turing in Hut 8.

Over all, the film was well worth the time invested to watch a genius prove to the world that he could do what they all regarded as impossible.

A full set of related links about Bletchley Park, Joan Clarke, and more are on my blog, here:

http://necessaryfacts.blogspot.com/2014/12/a-successful-imitation-of-alan-turing.html

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Yes, it is worth noting where the film departs from historical accuracy. Thank you. At the same time, drama and reportage are two different arts, and their aims are often at odds. For example, no one will ever know exactly what words were spoken by members of the top secret Ultra team to each other. If historical films consisted exclusively of dialogue that could be documented, they would be extremely short and dull.

The Imitation Game, then, is a work inspired by true events and which, while not strictly accurate in all its particulars, is faithful to the spirit of its subject. This sets it apart from another World War II movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was not in the least faithful to its real life counterpart. Rather than being obsessed with completing a railway bridge, the inspiration for Alec Guinness's character, Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, did not collaborate with the enemy and was concerned primarily with keeping his men alive.

However, what drives both movies and makes them classics worth repeated viewings is a central character with a single-minded pursuit of an objective. Readers of Ayn Rand's novels will easily recognize him.

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The story is deeper than the Enigma project. Flashbacks to Turing's boyhood illuminate his homosexuality. Perhaps deeper is a conversation with his close friend, Christopher (near as I can recall):

Christopher is reading a book about codes and ciphers.

Alan: Secret messages?

Christopher: Not secret. Anyone can read them, but no one knows the meaning.

Alan: How is that different from talking? People say things they don't mean all the time. And when they talk to each other, everyone seems to know what they are talking about, but I never do.

Later, being introduced to Bletchley Park, it comes out twice or thrice that Alan does not "get" jokes. Past the halfway point, Joan explains that he needs the cooperation of other people on the team he now heads in order to be successful at this project. He must get them to like him. He bridges the gulf with the team by giving them each an apple and then telling a well-worn joke. (Two men are in the woods and come upon a bear…. No, I only need to run faster than you.) He is smart enough and dispassionate enough to address his difficulties in socialization.

Unfortunately, when he is arrested for "gross indecency" (homosexuality), he does not attempt to deny it. In the biographies I read, he was frank with his interrogators, never seeming aware of the consequences of his confession. It apparently never sunk in that his behavior even should have been illegal. Now, we share his viewpoint; but he was not cognizant of his social context. In the movie, another team member (a Soviet agent, in fact, himself perhaps gay), warns him explicitly that his behavior is against the law and could cost him his place at Bletchley Park. The point to be underscored is that Turing needed to be told that.

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The story I've seen (David Leavitt's biography?) is that Turing had always been out. Everybody knew it, and nobody cared until the arrival of the medical/welfare state, which proceeded to make his sexuality a crime.

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Regrettably, persecution of gay men preceded the welfare state in Great Britain. The death penalty for homosexual acts goes all the way back to the time of Henry VIII. The Victorian Period ended capital punishment for such acts but increased the number of acts which could be prosecuted. "The Labouchere Amendment, section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, extended the laws regarding homosexuality to include any kind of sexual activity between males. Oscar Wilde was convicted under this law and sentenced to 2 years of penal labour."

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Yes, but they weren't enforced against Turing. Being on the books isn't the same as being actively enforced, particularly against people who are minding their own business and practicing their so-called vices in private. Wilde provoked his prosecution by (for unknown reasons) filing a libel action, and in any case his day was two or three generations before Turing's. To take this further we'd need hard numbers about arrests and convictions.

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One also could say that Turing "provoked his prosecution" by reporting a burglary to the police and then lying about his relationship with the suspect Arnold Murray. The key point here is that the "medical/welfare state" did not proceed "to make his sexuality a crime." The law against his actions had been on the books since the Victorian Age: “Gross indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.”

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Interesting movie, though as Francisco points out there's a lot of inaccuracies. As a movie it tells a good story and does portray Turing as a sort of Randian hero, misunderstood by those around him but determined to achieve his goals.

My favorite quote was "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"

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Let us get back to the movie now.

The portrayal of Turing in the movie was a remarkable dead center portrait of an Aspie (a person with Asperberg'er's Syndrom). That's me folks! I saw it immediately and clearly. In a way they picture was almost my biography my life up to my middle thirties. Two big differences however: I was never gay and I was never as smart as Turing. But Turing's maladroit way of relating socially to his work mates was very much like the way I was forty some odd years ago.

Enough about me! The movie attributed too many doings to Turing.

1. The rack of "bombe" electromechanical devices was NOT a general purpose computer. It was very specialized to eliminate false keys for the enigma machine. Turing never referred to the electromechanical device as "Christopher". It was called "bombe" because it resembled a cake or confection of that shape which was sold under the name "Bombe" The device was shaped somewhat like a football.

2. Turing did no originate the policy of hiding the role of his decoding system when his decrypts were used in operations. This policy was decided by Churchill; and the military intelligence department. That way, each successful use of Enigma decrypts had plausible deniability. The success was attributed to other actions, rather than to decoding enigma messages. That way the Germans remained convinced that their encrypting system could not be borken.

3. The first break in decoding Enigma encryptions did not come from Turing but from a group of Polish mathematicians who successful characterize the key system of Enigma. This was done a few months before Poland was invaded by the Nazis. In addition a traitor within the Nazi ranks provided a genuine three rotor enigma machine to the British and the French. Turing and some other mathematicians figured out how to simulate Enigma with an algorithm.

4. The people at Bletchley Park did come up with a general purpose electronic computer later in (in late 1944, I think) to decode a new German system called the Loretnz encoding scheme. The machine was designed by an engineering genius, Tommy Flowers. It could decrypt Lorentz encrypts faster than the Germans could.

5. it was hot Turing himself he figured out the the Germans were not using strict key management. There was a mention in the movie about some code operators using his girlfriend's name as a key. The Brits called such mismangemenent the Sillies after the girls (German) name cillli (short for cecillia) This insight into German key mismanagement was very important.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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My wife and I saw this yesterday and enjoyed it. The following are some deviations from history that I found and seem credible. I knew some of the story before seeing the movie. (There is a section of the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. devoted to it.) I feel inspired to read a book or two about it. The movie said near nothing about encryption and decryption methods, which wouldn't make good popular entertainment anyway.

Three Polish cryptologists decrypted German messages before 1938. From 1938 onwards, additional complexity was repeatedly added to the Enigma machines, making decryption more difficult and necessitating larger numbers of equipment and personnel—more than the Poles could readily produce (link).

There were over 200 Enigma networks in use at the height of the war, all with different settings. If you broke one, that was no help whatsoever with the others. Every day, at midnight, 200-plus new settings came into force. Turing specialised in the naval codes. Also, Enigma was constantly enhanced during the course of the war. Many different models existed, some specially designed for the task in hand. One of the models most difficult to break was the M4, for which Turing did succeed to crack the code.

The movie exaggerates Turing's insight about German messages ending with ‘Heil Hitler’. A lot of German operators did sign off with that, so that helped for some messages, but it wasn't uniform.

The film portrayed Turing deciding about whether or not to use the information in their first successful decryption. Turing did not have a say on how intelligence was used. Such decisions were made at the highest levels of government and military, often by people who knew little or nothing of its true source.

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Interesting movie, though as Francisco points out there's a lot of inaccuracies. As a movie it tells a good story and does portray Turing as a sort of Randian hero, misunderstood by those around him but determined to achieve his goals.

My favorite quote was "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"

A homosexual Randian hero? That is an interesting notion.

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Interesting movie, though as Francisco points out there's a lot of inaccuracies. As a movie it tells a good story and does portray Turing as a sort of Randian hero, misunderstood by those around him but determined to achieve his goals.

My favorite quote was "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"

  1. I opened the discussion with specific points. FF was vague.
  2. I also pointed to the review on my blog (here) which identifies some of the inaccuracies, but passes them off as unimportant to the artistic intent of the production. (I also provide some other links and references.)
  3. Your favorite quote was the intended take-away line, spoken three times by three characters: Christopher, Turing, and Joan Clarke.
  4. Like the scene where Turing shouts at Cmdr. Denniston: "You will never understand…." the message was delivered for audiences with an average IQ of 100.
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Let us get back to the movie now.

The portrayal of Turing in the movie was a remarkable dead center portrait of an Aspie (a person with Asperberg'er's Syndrom). That's me folks! … almost my biography my life ...

See above:

Alan: Secret messages?

Christopher: Not secret. Anyone can read them, but no one knows the meaning.

Alan: How is that different from talking? People say things they don't mean all the time. And when they talk to each other, everyone seems to know what they are talking about, but I never do.

I was waiting for you to chime in. I understand the portrayal of Turing as an aspie. Likely he was. I cried at the scene above. But that was the director's choice. I know of no biography that makes the claim. We have been around on this before: Hans Asperger was a Nazi who identified his "little professors" as abnormal, so he attempted to "socialize" them. Just as some atheists call themselves "brights" and just as Ayn Rand showed that selfish people are moral, so, too, do we need to get past the labeling of uncollectivized humans as suffering from a "syndrome" to be cured.

But, yes, that came out immediately in the film, both in his speech, his lack of humor, his insistence on literal meanings. (See my essay on The Big Bang Theory versus Modern Philosophy here.)

Sheldon is supposedly an object of our derisive humor when he insists on literal meanings of common phrases. “How have you been,”

"How have you been?" Penny asks. Sheldon replies: “Well, my existence is a continuum, so I’ve been what I am at each point in the implied time period.” For Pötzsch the obvious humor is that Sheldon Cooper misunderstands the common phrases of social engagement. In point of fact, the humor here is that “normal” people (personified by Penny) do not understand the ambiguities they parrot when they echo what they hear without analyzing the content. “The four corners of the Earth… sunrise, sunset …to catch a cold…to fall in love…” (War on terror… war on drugs… homeland security… Patriot Act… public education… majority rule… guaranteed health care… family values… common sense... the five senses...)

I agree with all of the inaccuracies you spotted. There they are. I could cite many more. This was not a documentary. It is the story of one person who saw a way to solve a problem that the best minds thought was impossible. We see not just the benchwork of connecting wires, but the psychology of the man. In scene after scene the aspects of his personality that combine are displayed.

Some critics who liked the movie did not like the shifting back and forth in time. But I found that to be echoic of the process of solving a puzzle. Even a simple jigsaw puzzle, we do not assemble from upper left to lower right in sequence. We pick up a piece, examine it, try it, put it back… So, too, are pieces of Turing's life given to us from which to make a complete picture.

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My wife and I saw this yesterday and enjoyed it.

Glad you liked it. How could you not? I am surprised that more Objectivists have not jumped on this, considering the fave raves given to 300 and The Incredibles.

Three Polish cryptologists decrypted German messages before 1938.

As I noted on my blog - Engima: How the German Machine Cipher was Broken, and How it was Read by the Allied in World War II by Wladyslaw Kozaczuk, edited and translated by Christopher Kasparek, University Publications of America, 1984 (Warsaw: Ksiazka I Wiedza, 1979). The Germans employed Poles to build the first Enigmas. They understood the nature and purpose of the device and memorized its components. Also, Polish mathematicians had begun a theoretical analysis as early as 1932. The Turing-Welchman Bombe was an extension of the Polish Bomba, and not Turing's universal machine. (This book appeared in 1979 and the author had a previous book on the same subject, again, in Polish, in 1969. Winterbotham's Top Secret Ultra appeared in 1979 - and says nothing about Bletchley Park or Alan Turing.

There were over 200 Enigma networks in use at the height of the war, all with different settings. If you broke one, that was no help whatsoever with the others. Every day, at midnight, 200-plus new settings came into force. Turing specialised in the naval codes.

Hut 3 worked on the three-rotor Naval enigma. Another group worked on passed-over messages, out of date from machines that had been broken. Every piece of information helps.

The movie exaggerates Turing's insight about German messages ending with ‘Heil Hitler’. A lot of German operators did sign off with that, so that helped for some messages, but it wasn't uniform.

Again, it was not a documentary. It was a known part of the cryptanalysis of military and diplomatic codes and ciphers that they began and ended with stock phrases. In fact, when we saw the movie here in Austin at an Alamo Drafthouse, the theater ran a military training film on the proper use of encryption. Never send the same message to two different recipients: change active to passive; rearrange adjectives and nouns; rearrange the order of sentences…

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Interesting movie, though as Francisco points out there's a lot of inaccuracies. As a movie it tells a good story and does portray Turing as a sort of Randian hero, misunderstood by those around him but determined to achieve his goals.

My favorite quote was "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"

A homosexual Randian hero? That is an interesting notion.

To my understanding Joan Blumenthal associated with a lot of homosexuals and homosexuals are overrepresented in Objectivism.

But the homosexuality wasn't central to the story of Turings triumph. The movie went into it in the storylines about Turing's childhood and after his triumph, but it was a minor point in the WWII story. I'm not sure how you'd reconcile his homosexuality with his relationship with Joan Clarke, perhaps it made him less sexist towards her.

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Interesting movie, though as Francisco points out there's a lot of inaccuracies. As a movie it tells a good story and does portray Turing as a sort of Randian hero, misunderstood by those around him but determined to achieve his goals.

My favorite quote was "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"

A homosexual Randian hero? That is an interesting notion.

To my understanding Joan Blumenthal associated with a lot of homosexuals and homosexuals are overrepresented in Objectivism.

As are Jews. I put it down as testament to the intelligent independence of both, as well as to the nature of Objectivism.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Much mythology enshrouds this history. I only leafed through Higgenbotham's book. It was the one that broke the story of Ultra and Enigma in the English-speaking world. As I noted, he never references Bletchley Park or Alan Turing. I am now reading Wladyslaw Kozaczuk's book. This story appeared in Polish first. They were closer to the actual events, beginning with the first replication of Enigma in early 1933.

Let us get back to the movie now.

1. The rack of "bombe" electromechanical devices was NOT a general purpose computer. It was very specialized to eliminate false keys for the enigma machine. Turing never referred to the electromechanical device as "Christopher". It was called "bombe" because it resembled a cake or confection of that shape which was sold under the name "Bombe" The device was shaped somewhat like a football.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Not true. It was called "Bomba" because that is what the principals were having for dessert when they needed to come up with a name for their project. The device was a reverse-engineering of Enigma. While not an exact replica, it duplicated the functionality and so looked like an electro-mechanical typewriter, of course, not a chocolate football.

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Does anyone here know if the spy story that comes up briefly in the movie is historically accurate? As the movie presents the incident it seems to conflate Bletchley Park with the Manhattan project.

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Does anyone here know if the spy story that comes up briefly in the movie is historically accurate? As the movie presents the incident it seems to conflate Bletchley Park with the Manhattan project.

There were several divergences from historical fact. I assume that was for dramatic reasons. For example, when the Hut 8 team finally broke through the Kriegesmarine Enigma code, it was not the code breakers (in particular Turing) who made the policy that the decrypts would not be used, unless there was a plausible cover story to explain the use. That way, it was hoped that the Germans would not catch on that Enigma had been compromised. That policy was originated in the operational intelligence section, a branch of the military. Another non-fact. In the movie the Soviet mole is portrayed as a member of Turning's teams. Not so. The Soviet mole worked in another Hut. The policy at GCHQ was to keep the workings the the various Huts insulated from each other so that security leaks could be prevented or limited. The Left hand did not know what the Right hand was doing.

Turing's machine, the Bombe was not a general purpose computer. It carried at a specialized function. Something closer to a real computer was developed by Tommy Flowers who built a programmable computer to break the German Lorentz code. It was quite successful.

I suggest you read Simon Singh "The Code Book". It gives are very good coverage of what was going on at GCHQ when it was headquartered at Bletchley.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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I suggest you read Simon Singh "The Code Book". It gives are very good coverage of what was going on at GCHQ when it was headquartered at Bletchley.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Thanks for the recommendation. I have David Kahn's classic here. I know Simon Singh to be a capable writer. I look forward to this.

BTW: Why do you always quote the entire piece to which you are replying, rather than the actual statement of interest, as I just did?

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I really liked it. I thought it was a well executed portrayal of a great man. It is a fiction movie based on a true story, so it doesn't have to be historically accurate. That is not the point. It is not a documentary.

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