Update 10 January

A fair bit to get through this time.  The puzzle is an Independent daily from 1997, and as I’ve got the 1997 file down from its eyrie, I’ll be looking through it for puzzles for the next few updates.  But after that something from this century…

Lots of odds and ends accumulated over the holiday period.  You’re even going to get a film review.

But first some memories of St Andrews.  Many moons ago they turned me down for a place on their University Challenge team, but I seem to have made it on to the programme after all, in the guise of a question in the Christmas 2014 edition. Immortality of a sort, I guess.  I’ve also been advised that the winner of my recent Listener puzzle was at the University’s Computer Science department while I was there.  I’ve dug out some pictures online, and my memory is stirred but I can’t be absolutely sure our paths ever crossed that much.

Anyway, the setter’s blog for the Listener puzzle is still there, of course.  I have the melancholy news to deliver that Radio NZ Concert have managed to employ an announcer who thinks the composer’s name is pronounced ‘hey-dun’.  Testament is still up there as well.  Thank you to one correspondent for comments – I’ll wait to see if any others come in before commenting further.

I haven’t updated the book reviews in the wake of the new edition of Don Manley’s Manual because at this stage it has soared beyond the reviewable and become a fixture.  I could grumble at the short-sightedness in the selection of setters for the concluding Crossword Romp (not a patch on an earlier edition…), but that would be about it.  I was also happy to note that Alan Connor’s book for the centenary (review here) has made it into paperback.  This may not be news to you but I have to stumble across these things in small bookshops in towns in the Wairarapa.

Now, to matters cinematic.  Answers to some initial questions you may have:

No, only just last week, New Year’s Day, in fact

Yes, daft, isn’t it? We don’t get the Hawking one till next February (and Cambodia had that in November)

Heavens, whyever would you think such delays would contribute to the incidence of film piracy?

Anyway, the film The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, deserves a mention here.  One should at least be glad that it’s been made.  It’s unthinkable that Hollywood might attempt anything about the curious parallels in Oppenheimer’s success and fall, certainly in the current political climate.  (Even Peter Sellars shied away from it when compiling the libretto for Doctor Atomic.)

Benedict Cumberbatch is very good, though I didn’t see the performance as Oscar-winning.  There’s a little too much “autistic savant as symbol” about it, with a decent side-dish of his being warmed towards humanity by the affection of a good woman.  It’s hard too to ignore Cumberbatch’s distinctive appearance to believe he is Turing (though do they ever try hard with the forelock…).  I always found it hard to accept Kenneth More as X rather than “Kenneth-More-playing-X”, but that was more vocal than visual.  It’s the same sort of obstacle, though.

The film clunks in a number of places.  The heart sinks when an early point of exposition is made by having a street-urchin flogging newspapers (still, at least it wasn’t a whirling rectangle coagulating into headlines).  Flashbacks are handled well, except that the one justifying the sporadic, even haphazard, use of Turing as a voiceover narrator occurs far too late.  And I’m no cryptographer but at an early point I found myself wondering: “Why don’t they do X?” only to find that this was the big “Aha!” moment an hour or so later.  Not entirely convinced there.  One antagonistic character quietly evanesces at the “Aha!” moment as well, as if they couldn’t quite work out what to do with him.

The science is mostly glossed over.  The combinatorial intricacy of Ultra is depicted visually, which is probably about the best you could expect.  There’s a fascinating glance at the statistical work entailed in ensuring the Germans never twigged the code had been broken – i.e. just how many of the revealed operations can be intercepted without the enemy getting suspicious and switching to another code.  It’s key to the impact of the code-breaking but it feels shoehorned in, as if someone had to fight for its presence.  The Turing Test is co-opted as a expositional device (indeed it’s the justification for the voiceover narration) and the sound of its failure is that of forty gallons of custard hitting concrete from a height of thirty metres.  I mean, really, guys?

But there are lots of crosswords.  This is the film to see if you want to hear “crossword-solver” uttered as an insult.  Turing was no great shakes at crosswords (see Alan Connor here) – indeed he clearly was effectively stationary – but the idea that crosswords could be used to recruit the sort of people needed was romantic and filmic and certainly visual.  Did you know, for instance, that Henry Moore was sketching crossword solvers in the Underground?  These days GCHQ recruit via fearsome – and thus rather dull – online tests, and do they get respect? Hmm?

Right at the end, Turing attempts a crossword – you see it upside-down twice.  It looks like a broadly standard cryptic grid, and is labelled “CROSSWORD No. 16”.  (Actually, it may be 91, with my memory only inverting part of the label.)  The year seems to be 1952, the place is certainly Manchester so I’m guessing this is an echt early Guardian puzzle. But wait – Guardian crossword No. 1 appeared on 5 January 1929, so to reach 16 (or even 91) by 1952 suggests an achingly slow publication rate.  Any explanations, anyone?



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