Monday, October 17, 2016

The Imitation Game (2014)

I remember watching Wheel of Fortune as a child.  For those that have never seen an episode, contestants are playing a version of hangman with prizes.  The winner of the game goes on to a bonus round where they have to select five consonants and one vowel.  Those are the only selections they can make.  If they’re lucky, a lot of blank spaces will be filled in, making it easy for them to win. I had noticed that people tended towards R, S, T, L and N for their consonants and usually picked E as their vowel.  I asked my mother why this was.  She told me that those are the most commonly sued letters in English.  If you have no idea which letters to pick, you pick those.  (This was before they started giving you those letters outright.  The ones you‘d pick now are C, D, M and A.)

This is important for cryptographers.  If you have an encrypted text of sufficient length, you can do a frequency analysis.  If it’s encrypted with a simple substitution cipher, you’ll get most of the letters right.  The Germans got around this by using the Enigma.  It had been around before the war, but proved useful to the German government because it moved the cipher every so often.  You might start moving one letter off, with A becoming B.  After each letter, the machine moves one additional letter so that A becomes C, then D, then E.  This makes frequency analysis useless.  The easiest way for Allied Forces to break the code was basically to steal a machine and the corresponding code book.

There had to be an easier way.  Poland had broken the Enigma, but this wasn’t the same machine.  Germany had made the military version better than the commercial version by adding two rotors.  Enter Alan Turing.  He believed that he could build a machine that could make a brute-force attack easier.  The machine would run through possible combinations until it found one.  If they could eliminate enough combinations, it would work.

He and several other people worked at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma.  Turing was not a social person.  He successfully made a power play at Bletchley Park, then fired two of his coworkers.  He did want to work with Joan Clarke at a time when women were usually relegated to the secretary pool.  He could rub people the wrong way, but he did get his machine to work.  He was able to decode Axis messages, thus shortening the war and saving millions of lives.

Being that this is based on history, those familiar with Turing’s life will probably know how the movie ends.  Those that don’t might want to stop reading, as I’m about to give away the ending.  During his time at Bletchley Park, Turing was suspected of being a spy.  He was cleared, but it turned out that he had another secret:  He was homosexual.  Given the option of prison or chemical castration, Turing chose castration.  He eventually committed suicide.

I asked in a previous review how historical figures might react to modern technology.  Consider that I’m writing this review on a device that is his legacy.  I do this knowing that other people will be using other similar devices.  I even get hits from IMDb’s mobile page.  How would Turing feel about a device that had more utility and computing power than he could imagine possible and could fit in your pocket?

I wonder what history would look like had he lived.  Modern computing owes its existence because of what he did.  You’re reading this on a computer because of him.  The fact that he was gay trumped this.  The title of the movie refers to what eventually became known as the Turing test, which is designed to test if you’re dealing with a person or not.  Imagine the further contributions he could have made.

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