Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Imitation Game Versus American Sniper

We just saw The Imitation Game.   And I haven't seen American Sniper, so I'm taking a bit of a leap, but play along a bit. 

The Movie

The Imitation Game  is about a mathematical genius, Alan Turing, whose mind brilliantly unravels codes, but misses human non-verbal, even verbal, cues.  He's also sexually attracted to men.

The movie, while telling the story of the secret British team led by Turing that cracked the German Enigma machine, also shows us, in the background, bits of Turing's life.  Being bullied as a school kid, because of his differences from the other students, his total lack of empathy for the other decoders working with him during the war, and to how the British courts treated him (prison or take hormonal treatments to stop his homosexuality.)

Thought One:  Abstract Ideas vs. Concrete Action

The movie portrays Turing's superiors as constantly trying to shut down his program.  He had lots of qualities that made him  unpleasant to others.  Mostly a total lack of any empathy for other people - he didn't listen to them, he didn't hear them, he had no regard for their feelings.  My sense was he just was physiologically deaf to all that.

Was he just some crank who was spending lots of money and time on some impossible dream or was he a genius who had to be nurtured and tolerated for what he could do?  It's easy to see in hindsight, but I'm sure at the time it was not.

The point I'm coming to is this:  His weapon, if you will, to win the war, was an idea, a concept.  Something that could not be proven until it was completed, and even then it was difficult to explain, though eventually, the results - the ability to decode the German messages - would be very tangible.  But even then, the fact that they could decode the messages, had to be kept secret so the Germans wouldn't simply find a new way to encode their messages.

Turing's contribution, as depicted in the movie, was to end the war two years faster and to save million lives.  But he had an even more profound contribution to our lives:  the computer.

Jack Copeland, the author Turing:  Pioneer of the Information Age in a videotaped lecture  at Stanford , tells us:
In 1936, in his very early twenties, he completely unexpectedly invented the fundamental principle of the modern computer.  Turing was working on an abstract problem in the foundation of mathematics - the Hilbert decision problemNo one could have guessed   such abstruse arcane work could have led to anything of of any practical value whatsoever, let alone to a machine that would change all our lives, but it did.  [link added.]
Which leads to

Thought Two: The Importance and Productivity of Pure Science

We don't know how knowledge will accumulate and result in great contributions to human kind.  Politicians like to cite titles of obscure research projects funded by government money, to ridicule scientists and government spending.  Much research by scientists will not lead directly to world altering discoveries.  Yet the published articles of scientists are available to all, and we never really understand all the ways that one idea sets off another idea.  But I'm convinced that the many so called unproductive ideas are more than repaid for by the fewer highly productive ideas.  And many of the unproductive ideas actually close off dead ends so that the others need not wander down them.

Of course this film is also an example of how people work to fulfill their own internal inspiration.  No one could get an idea out of a person like Turing simply by paying him lots of money or threatening to punish.  Rather, you have to find the right people and just give them an environment where they can just do their thing.

Thought Three:  Our Cultural Divide Encapsulated In Two Films

I haven't seen American Sniper, but it's clear that it's about someone who shoots individual enemy targets.  Something really tangible and easy to understand.  We hear all this rhetoric about the sniper being a great hero.  (And my understanding is that the film does raise issues that make him a more complex human being.)

I think these two films represent much of the cultural conflict in the US today - the intellectual, possibly a peculiar and awkward person who works with ideas that have powerful effects versus the simplistic good guy/bad guy hero who uses violence to win.

Thought Four:  How Humans Attack Those Who Are Different

The film also raises the issue of how human groups treat people who are different, in odd ways, from others.  We tend not to be very accepting of them.   Turing was persecuted for his oddness as a kid by his peers, disliked and disdained as an employee by his colleagues and bosses, and persecuted agains, as a citizen, by his government.  I would add that it isn't a trait of all human beings, but enough to make it a serious human problem.

Thought Five:  Our Strange Combinations of Gifts And Gaps

Finally, it raises the issue, not unrelated to Thought Four above,  of how humans who have great gifts in one area may also be lacking in talents that average people have.  And how they get judged on what they don't have rather than on their amazing gift.


Of the eight academy award nominated films for best picture, TWO were about intellectual geniuses - people whose ideas are way beyond what most people are capable of.  The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.   A third nominated film - Selma - was about yet another genius whose power was built on an abstract idea - overcoming oppression through non-violence.

This illustrates, in my mind, progress of a sort.  Yet even the movies that focus on intellectual heroes use emotion and distort the facts to tell the story.  And this too may be an important lesson about how humans learn lessons through good stories.

Here's a  review of the movie   by a self-proclaimed Turing expert on what's accurate (not much apparently) and what's inaccurate in the movie. His conclusion is that while the facts might not be accurate, it is, nevertheless, a good movie.  And while many of the specific incidents in the movie may have been fabricated to make the film more dramatic, the lessons are no less valid. 

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