Alan Turing: The Imitation Game

Of course, what makes Turing special to so many of us is not the detail of his life so much as the *meaning* that each of us as individuals draw out of who Turing was and what he left behind. And this explains why “The Imitation Game” grips and moves so many of us, with its emphasis on the inner mind and experience of the man. The current IMDb user rating is 8.4 out of 10:

compared with the 8.1 (for instance) of 4 Oscar winner “The King’s Speech”; or 7.9 for 3 Oscar winner “Avatar”. 8 Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” gets 8.0.

On Rotten Tomatoes “The Imitation Game” gets a creditable 90% critics rating; and 95% Audience Score (the audience score higher than for the three Academy ‘Best Pictures’ mentioned). See:

But here is Christian Caryl writing on “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” in the influential New York Review of Books:

Let’s take an overview of this carefully argued piece. The ‘traitor’ comments, also appearing in a Guardian item: (referring to Turing’s “cryptographic work at Bletchley Park from 1939-45”), show a misunderstanding both of movie and the historical and social context). We will be guided by the sort of computational broad sweep handed down to us by Alan Turing – just skip the next paragraph if you want.

The problems with a movie as complex and dependent on higher order impact and meaning as “TIG” is that the appreciation and evaluation of the movie is not algorithmic. The observer may doggedly limit attention to the detail (as one certainly would in evaluating a mathematical proof, but not if watching Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1), or perform a higher order computation with a quite different result to that of someone else (we don’t all like the same movies). Much deep information theory is based on quite basic intuitions – we observe that someone “could not see the wood for the trees”; or, converely, in the UK people say “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”. The emergence of Turing, person and work, certainly does depend on detail. The jury is still out on who is right about the balanceand dependencies between the levels of meaning. People we have high regard for will come to quite different conclusions. It was Alan helped us to understand the emergence of ‘incomputable’ higher order information, and what it means for human versus algorithmic thinking.

What about “the portrayal of Alan Turing in the movie” as “an arrogant and obnoxious dick” as one of my distinguished correspondents wrote? Or, conversely, those who described the movie as a piece of hagiography? Back in 2012 I wrote a piece for the Guardian Northerner on “Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks”:

and got a number of very moving letters of appreciation for bringing this sensitive issue into the open.

I wrote: “In 2002, an American study found that 94% of school students with Asperger’s syndrome faced torment from their peers and commented:

‘Some of their behaviors and characteristics that others see as ‘different’ make these children easy targets for frequent and severe bullying. Having Asperger’s Syndrome means these children are part of a vulnerable population and are easy targets.’ “

It’s conjectural, but probable (see the quote from Alan’s brother John in the Guardian piece), that Alan did fit with this, and was misinterpreted as ‘arrogant’ at times. He was by many accounts a lovely man with a great sense of humour – with children especially, and those like Robin Gandy that he was close to. But scriptwriter Graham Moore is the right person to get the balance right – there are some great interviews on the web, here
is one:

He describes how:

“I had been a lifelong Alan Turing obsessive. Among incredibly nerdy teenagers, without a lot of friends, Alan Turing was always this luminary figure we’d all look up to.”

Another on “Trial and Triumph” about the development of the script and the philosophy underlying the film:

Just recently, towards the end of November, I got a very moving message,
which for me brought out a key significance of the film and the special
understanding of all concerned with it:

“I followed your article in the guardian in 2012 from many previous articles about Alan Turing. He is quickly becoming a special interest , having known nothing about him a few days ago. I am inspired and in absolute awe of this man, someone who sees life differently. A possible member of team aspie too.
I thank you for your positive link to the aspergerians / aspies and how we should be seen as valuable to society, and thank you for recognising that so often we are not. As someone who was bullied relentlessly for being different , I am always grateful that someone has any positive light to
share on our experiences.
I am aspie, as is my daughter and son. I hope to share all the stories and information so Alan’s story will stay well known. Anyway, I have said what I wanted to, have a good weekend. Thank you.”

Apart from the science (a headline part of the Turing legacy for many of us) this is an issue reminds me why an Oscar for Alan does mean a lot. If “The Imitation Game” gets an Oscar, it will be seen by many as being for Alan Turing. Never before has there been a movie hero like him, not mad or disabled, but a man who did great things *because* of who he was – a hero for the information age. And – through Turing – we would have bullied thoughtful amazing kids coming out of schools all around the world … with Oscars! Oscars for being like Alan.

And “TIG” director is very much on-board with this aspect of his movie – Genevieve Hassan quoted him for the BBC under the heading “Alan Turing film celebrates ‘difference'”:

The LA Times has Morten Tyldum “on doing justice to Alan Turing”, talking about a number of issues, including the old chestnut about “TIG” not including enough gay sex:

It just so happens I was at a showing of the movie with a group including a clever mathematical teenager, and someone asked him if Alan Turing in the movie reminded him of anyone. The implication was accepted with a quiet smile communicated something very like pride …

Just this wekend WIRED magazine had this nice piece from author “Walter Isaacson on The Imitation Game and Making Alan Turing Famous”:
where we read:

“One of the reasons I wrote this book [The Innovators] is because I wanted to make people like Alan Turing famous,” Isaacson says in Episode 131 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And now I must admit that Benedict Cumberbatch, by playing him, has done that a thousand times better than I ever could have.”

What a nice man!

Apologies to for an untypical update. To be honest, I’m swamped with media items dealing with the movie, and thoughts arising from it. Those of us who started out 5 or 6 years ago, with even those professionally involved with computers and information not having even heard of Turing … it’s an amazing experience to have friends, relations, students who have suddenly ‘taken ownership’ of the Turing story via this movie.

Some are already going to Alan Turing biographies by Andrew Hodges, Jack Copeland, David Leavitt and others; visiting Bletchley Park, the Science Museum, the HNF museum in Paderborn, MOSI in Manchester, or the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California; or even braving Turing’s mathematics, computer science, philosophy and logic, and artificial intelligence via “Alan Turing His Work and Impact”, Charles Petzold’s “The Annotated Turing”, or various other excellent books – maybe a list is in order for a future update.

Anyway, it’s already approaching 4am. So just time before breakfast to dig out a few links to interesting “TIG” related links, and next time a return to shorter and more diverse Turing news.

The film made a great start at Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and here’s a typical review “Benedict Cumberbatch gives Oscar worthy performance” from The Independent:

The big event in the UK was the October 8 BFI premiere in London. Some of us northerners (well enabler Daniela and I) caught it in Manchester that night, a grand experience. And I managed a hasty Guardian Northerner blog “The Imitation Game: how Benedict Cumberbatch brought Turing to life” for the day before the premiere:

A further piece for “The Conversation”:
prompted Graham Moore to message us on Twitter “Thanks! I adored your
tremendous piece yesterday—Brilliant links between AT’s sexuality and his
imitation game.”
There was another in November on “Imitation Game will finally bring Alan
Turing the fame he so rightly deserves”:

About this time, everything went crazy, and did umpteen interviews – along with anyone else knew something about Turing and was willing to give their time, eg this on The Colin McEnroe Show for Connecticut Public Radio:

Also this weekend, Radio Times announced “Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Imitation Game is already a Hollywood award winner” – going on to explain “The Alan Turing biopic wins Best Picture at the Capri, Hollywood International Film Festival in Italy, the first of a busy awards season for the British film and its Sherlock star”:

Cumberbatch himself is getting huge amounts of praise – this from the Baltimore Magazine is typical “The Imitation Game Benedict Cumberbatch shines as the strange genius who broke the Nazi code”:

An important element of the Oscar campaign is the intervention of the Harvey Weinstein company earlier last year. These are fearsomely determined and able people, but with the sort of concern for the worthwhile that has guided them to a string of successes, including “The King’s Speech”. And an interesting piece from The Wrap suggests that they have realised that the strongest card in their hand is Alan Turing himself. It’s what drew so many creative people to the movie in the midst of the Turing centenary celebrations, including Black Bear Pictures founder Teddy Schwarzman when Warner dropped the movie in 2012. According to The Wrap “Weinstein Revs Up ‘Imitation Game’ Awards Campaign by Promoting Alan Turing, not Benedict Cumberbatch”: Of course, it’s the Turing-Cumberbatch package is a specially potent one.

A recent development has been the muttered suggestions of conspiracies and hatchet jobs in relation to such pieces as that of Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books. But despite the sharpness of tone, and timing to coincide with Oscar voting, hidden agendas and conspiracies are yet to be uncovered. The Independent treads carefully with “Oscars 2015: The Imitation Game and Selma criticised for being loose with facts as voting season begins”:
While Deadline is more colouful with “‘Tis the Season: ‘Foxcatcher’, ‘Big
Eyes’ Latest Oscar Contenders Under Attack”:
And Jen Yamato starting her article with:

“Oscar voting opened Monday, and like clockwork, the haters have come calling. As Deadline’s Pete Hammond wrote on Monday, ’tis the season for controversy over fact-based awards contenders.”

I hope we have given a reasonable idea of the state of things at the start of 2015. My Google alert is sending me literally dozens of Turing related items a day, many duplicating and cannibalising each other, and a full report would take a week or more. It’s now gone 6am, enough for us all.

There is still lots to tell concerning Turing developments not directly directly to “The Imitation Game”. Please send any items – not to do with the film – by next weekend.

All best



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