Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Codebreaker" and "Ivory Tower"

I've seen two good documentaries lately, Codebreaker and Ivory Tower. Neither gets a straight A from me, but they're both worth watching.

Codebreaker is the story of Alan Turing, the founding father and patron saint of computer science. Turing died of suicide at age 41 in 1954.

The documentary does a good job contextualizing Turing's achievements and impressing on the viewer his intellectual daring and the massive significance of his work, without getting bogged down in the whole history of mathematical logic (for a light version of which, see Logicomix). It also sets in Cold War context the brutal treatment the unworldly Turing received at the hands of the authorities once his homosexuality was discovered (he was chemically castrated). The filmmaker was able to interview some people who knew Turing -- that number is of course rapidly declining. It's very well done.

The problems with the film are almost inevitable, given that it's a documentary and therefore tries to stick to the truth! (Unlike The Imitation Game, the Hollywood version of Turing's life that is in theaters next week.) There is just not a lot of material to work with -- no films or audio recordings of Turing, few still images, and virtually all of Turing's friends dead now. So a lot of the story is told through Turing's conversations with his psychiatrist. Of course the dialog is reconstructed, but the reconstruction is grounded in solid source material, letters and so on. (The film's creator, Patrick Sammon, answered questions after the showing at Harvard last night. Sammon, I was interested to learn, is past President of the Log Cabin Republicans.) And of course the budget was limited, so there are no fancy animations, though there are quite a few clips of contemporary video to set the general themes in their historical setting.

Codebreaker is showing at Tufts tonight and is available through Netflix and iTunes. If the movie gets you interested, read Andrew Hodges's biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma. (Turing's life certainly provided material for plenty of good titles!)

Also I want to again plug Ivory Tower (see my earlier blog post), the documentary about student debt that portrays Harvard so positively. CNN will air Ivory Tower Thursday night at 9pm, so you can watch it from the comfort of home!


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  2. Did you like it because it portrays Harvard so positively :-)
    I rather doubt that.
    But more important- did it Portray Harvard correctly?
    Is the recent (how old is it?) policy of makign sure that people who get in can go working to (1) reduce Student Debt, and (2) diversify Haravard.
    My guess would be YES (in caps) and no (in small letters). Hope the caps don't put this in the spam falter.

    1. Yes, I liked Ivory Tower because it portrayed positively some things that really are good about Harvard: the diversification of the student body, the fact that financial aid is so generous that nobody need graduate with any debt, and nobody does graduate with any serious debt, and CS50, which really is a course with a lot of heart and a lot of staff support for students from varied backgrounds.

  3. Codebreaker pretty good. Have you read Robert Harris' Enigma, terrific novel on Turing and Bletchley. His Pompeii is also outstanding

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