I read: The Imitation Game


At the time of this writing I do not know how this comic book by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis relates to the film of the same title, and the same subject matter — a (somewhat fictionalized) biography of Alan Turing. The comic has a copyright date of 2016, which seems to preclude the possibility that latter adapts the former. I see that the words “comic” and “graphic” do not appear on the film’s Wikipedia page, and the book made no acknowledgment in the other direction. I avoid contaminating my thoughts about media I blog about here until the blogging’s done, so I’ll leave it as a curious coincidence for now.

I enjoyed this book! For some reason (perhaps based on what little I’ve heard about the movie) I expected something much less compelling than what I found. Specifically, I anticipated a story that would focus more on Turing’s personal life, building up to the circumstances of its premature ending, using his world-changing work only as backdrop. The book ends up paying far more attention to Turing the war-hero mathematician than Turing the tragedy, though, and I liked that. Granted, it does lay on the foreshadowing thick at its start — teenaged Turing seeing Snow White in the theater, presaging the inevitable final panels of the red apple by his bedside — but for the most part it keeps to its sources. It uses a frame that imagines interviews with the people who knew Turing best, mostly family and colleagues, their words based (from what I can gather) on the works listed in comic’s extensive bibliography.

This set of external lenses results in relatively little attention given to Turing’s loves or relationships, though still I learned enough to surprise me. Given the well-known circumstances of his death, I assumed heretofore he kept his homosexuality a shameful secret until its accidental public revelation after the war. The Turing of The Imitation Game, however, takes a stance that a modern person would call openly gay. The privations of World War II Britain, and Turing’s value as a national asset, seem to lead to tolerance for this: most of his colleagues at Bletchley treat his preference as a charming eccentricity, and at worst he receives a scolding from a particularly stuffy lab-mate for oversharing.

The only one of Turing’s lovers we “meet”, in the authors’ imagined interview-room, is the pretty but coarse low-life (or so he is here depicted) who leans on Turing’s post-war loneliness and naivety in a way that reveals their illegal relationship to the law, leading in turn to the final, sad chapter of Turing’s life. Other than him, a few implied boarding-school dalliances, and a brief and unsuccessful engagement with a female friend at Bletchley, this Turing seems to have little interest in romance or partnership. While he valued the companionship of many friends, those same friends paint a portrait of a man whose work and studies remained his true passions for this whole life, and I find myself respecting that man all the more for it.

On that topic, I found new appreciation for the difficulty, complexity, and cross-discipline teamwork involved in Turing’s famous feat of “cracking the Enigma code”. Another bit of received wisdom that this book massaged into a more realistic shape, for me: Turing did not create a single, elegant solution that neatly and permanently turned all intercepted German messages from gibberish to cleartext overnight. Rather, building on the work of those already hard at work at Bletchley when he arrived, he devised a machine — his “bombe” — that could, when used by cryptanalysts who still had to know what they were doing, brute-force through many possible decryptions at high speed. And more than once, the Germans would succeed in stifling the bombe’s efficacy by ratcheting up the Enigma’s own complexity, a situation solved in both cases by British sailors in the field risking everything to capture hardware and documentation from sinking submarines. While Turing’s invention absolutely played a critical role in this whole process, it certainly did not rest on his shoulders alone.

This is a good book. And now I will see what I think about the movie, perhaps.

Introducing TwitterSplit


I just published a new tool called TwitterSplit. Paste in an essay or another hunk of text too long for Twitter, hit the button, and receive back a tweetstorm ready for pasting into the client of your choice. You can optionally have “page numbers” appear at the front or back of every tweet, or stamp them all with a certain hashtag. The tweets’ length in any case will never exceed 140 characters each.

It is essentially a web-wrapper around a command-line program and Perl library I wrote last year. I didn’t have any particular reason to make those then, and I didn’t have any real justification for today’s work, either. I did it anyway! My next big personal actually-useful project is still some weeks away from beta, and I suppose wanted to feel good about shipping something small in the meantime.

I hope someone finds it somehow useful. (The obvious next steps would involve making a proper API out of it, or even having it connect to Twitter and post a threaded storm for you — but these feel like features on the other side of “I myself would use this, ever”.)

I read: two Warren Ellis novels


I enjoyed Warren Ellis’s Normal, read as a series of four two-dollar ebooks. Something like modern Lovecraft without the literal monsters: the protagonist and most of the other characters reside in a sanitarium for professional futurists who have contracted a condition known as “abyss gaze”, presented as an inevitable consequence of deeply understanding the fragility of human civilization.

Soon after the main character’s arrival at the facility, he stumbles into a locked-room mystery, and solving it accidentally falls to him. Not a long book, Normal follows the hero through a single lap of the hospital campus, meeting a variety of his fellow mind-broken futurists, before the plot proceeds directly to its conclusion. All the patients have convinced themselves the world is doomed, but each holds an extreme and mutually incompatible reason as to why. I found a kind of satisfyingly backhanded optimism there.

I learned about this book via an excerpt included within Ellis’s highly enjoyable email dispatches, which I have received every Sunday for some time. In fact, before I read this novel, my familiarity with Ellis was — I almost wrote “limited to” his Twitter presence, his blog, his newsletters, and his ambient music podcast. But that doesn’t sound very limited at all. I know that I have at least one friend who counts himself an Ellis fan based entirely on the authors’ copious oeuvre of free and self-published supplemental work, finding his longer-form prose ultimately disappointing.

The friend in question shared this opinion after I tweeted that I’d started Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein, his debut novel — and, again, a rather short one — from the previous decade. I’ve owned an unread printed copy of it for nearly that long, and found it closest to hand when Normal left me hungry for more.

I’d summarize it as The year is 2007, and Warren Ellis has been reading a lot of Boing Boing. I let myself take pleasure in reliving the angry-anxious late-Dubya-era online zeitgeist through the story’s color-smeared lens. If I found myself questioning the main character’s undeniable resemblance to Spider Jerusalem, or the unapologetic manic-pixiness of his dream-girl sidekick, the fact I’d already read a quarter of the novel by that point encouraged me to just motor through the rest. It didn’t change me much, but it did invite me to reflect on the recent past unexpectedly, and I liked it.

On “🔫” and the instability of recorded emoji


We learn that, in the next major release of its Mac and mobile operating systems, Apple will replace its depiction of Unicode character U+1F52B, the emoji officially labeled PISTOL, from a picture of a dangerous-looking black handgun to that of a green plastic water pistol.

Apple does not appear to have stated a reason for the change, but one can reasonably speculate. Despite its capitalist gigantism, Apple under Tim Cook has shown a proclivity to lean left on flashpoint social issues affecting America, from its open embrace of marriage equality to its unusual decision to not support Trump’s RNC. At risk of engaging in the kind of Cupertino kremlinology that I usually find uselessly dull, I can easily imagine Apple’s management deciding to quietly distance the company from America’s increasingly maladaptive gun culture by removing the ability to type a revolver-shaped glyph on its devices’ keyboards.

I do not find myself harboring strong feelings about Apple “taking my gun away”, in this instance; I don’t use that character all that often, and I don’t imagine that this pictographic nerfing will have any significant muzzling effect on any of my future written communication. I can picture other folks feeling a little more annoyed by it, certainly, and I also agree with the argument — older than this event — that two systems displaying the same emoji character in two very different ways can lead to miscommunication. We already have, for example, the confusing case of “😁”, which looks like an unambiguously happy grin in some OSes or websites, but more resembles a pained or forced rictus on Mac and iOS.

However, I have not yet seen anyone address how this change will rectroactively modify the meaning of many, perhaps most, of the already-recorded statements that make use of the “🔫” character. I suppose that one may feel an initial reaction of “who cares?” or even “well, good!”, given that the first uses one imagines include the ugliest tweets and Instagram comments, not just of little societal value but also entirely ephemeral. What could it possibly harm to quietly steal the bullet-chambers out of those messages? With a little extra effort, though, one can imagine more noble, clever, or even friendly statements using that character, which must (for the world is big, and its internet vast) already exist, published in one digital location or another, in large numbers. These too will — for many future digital readers — have a key glyph swapped out for one with a wholly different meaning, potentially changing the whole message’s meaning with it, their authors never the wiser.

Sometimes righteous messages work because they bear sharp teeth. Apple’s change, however well-intended, would catch them up and blunt them, too, as surely as it neuters the more vile utterances it aims to disarm. I don’t predict that this case in particular will cause much of an uproar — at most, it will cause a tiny amount of very subtle confusion. I do think that this event’s implications deserve more study, though. I cannot recall another case where an apparently small and politically progressive decision made by a single entity can, in the space of one moment, change the meaning of already-published writing on a large scale. I can certainly imagine future applications of the same action with far more visible and profound effects.