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The Turing Test

In an attempt to increase the intellectual heft of this blog, and un-mire it from the misery-bog of headaches and related grumpiness in which it has tended to reside over the past few weeks, I thought I would write an insightful piece about yesterday’s cultural adventure: a luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, which included a talk from Sir Dermot Turing about his famous uncle, Alan Turing (as featured on the latest £50 note, the subject of a popular feature film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and lauded for his work developing the first modern computers and for his contribution to the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the second world war – just in case you didn’t know.)

I will confess at this point that the adventure was less out of character than it may seem, due to the fact that the speaker is an old friend of mine (gawd – what a name-dropper!). Additionally, one of our closest mutual friends has RAC Club membership, and had invited us as guests to the event. We had joyfully and secretly plotted to plant difficult personal questions and possibly lob a few profiteroles should they be available on the day (they weren’t, which is probably for the best) at our friend.

Alan Turing was far less well-known outside of government and academic circles when we all (by all, I do not include Alan himself who died in 1954) met more than 40 years ago, although we did learn back then about the Turing Test: essentially a method of enquiry in artificial intelligence to determine whether or not a machine is capable of thinking like a human being, referred to by Alan Turing in 1950 as an ‘imitation game’ from which Mr Cummerbund’s 2014 movie took its name.

I deemed it important to purchase a new dress for the occasion, given that jeans and some other forms of casual wear are not permitted at the RAC Club and the only other suitable dress I own is about ten years old. To add to the supreme effort made on my part, the sleeves of this new dress (which is far from dressy, but is suitably ‘not jeans’) were too long and I spent a distracted hour on Saturday evening hemming them up (to very slightly, and hopefully unnoticeably, different shorter lengths) whilst Mr J supportively snored his way through Match of the Day.

On the day, I donned my dress, disguising the sleeves (just in case) by adding a timeless black jacket, and dug out a pair of under-used black boots to complete my outfit. It was nice to have something for which to make an effort.

In our typically independent fashion, Mr J and I travelled separately up to Pall Mall – him on his trusty ancient motorcycle and me on a probably slightly less ancient Southwestern train. I treated myself to an additional one-stop hop on the tube to Westminster to shorten the walk to the Club, in grudging acceptance that my gammy leg/hip/back should not be subjected to prolonged urban yomping just yet. Emerging from Westminster underground station, I successfully negotiated the placard-waving anti-government-lies protesters (surely a hopeless cause) and struck out purposefully, if a little carefully, towards St James’ Park under the watchful eye of a police helicopter buzzing gently in the grey sky.

Beyond the usual edgy hubbub of Parliament Square, there appeared to be no traffic at all – how lovely! Instead, there was a distant, but clearly audible above the chopper beats, more melodious beat of a military band. I found myself cheerfully marching in time, as my sensibly-heeled black boots came into their own. Not only was I on my way to a cultural event, but I was now an integral part of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Hopefully the helicopter’s occupants were focussed on the protesters in Whitehall and not filming the ridiculous strutting antics of middle-aged women for Twitter-sharing/shaming!

With only a small nagging thought that these closed roads might impede Mr J’s approach to Pall Mall, (haha – perhaps I would get there first!) I slowed to a less rhythmic saunter (ok, I’ll give him a chance) and then climbed the many steps at the Duke of York (not the Pizza Express one) monument with care, to avoid aggravating my stupid aches and pains. I also avoided accidentally presenting myself at the Reform Club, which I believe I may have done once on a previous visit as it is next door to the RAC Club and flies a flag outside in the same manner which to those of us less accustomed to hobnobbing may easily find confusing.

I reached my destination in perfect time and discovered my friends, and the triumphantly-first-to-arrive Mr J, already ensconced in one of the delightful Club sitting areas. Having successfully changed the guard en route, I now changed my demeanour to ‘polite society person’ – swapping my modern quilted coat for a demure expression (and a plastic numbered token) at the cloakroom, and settled in to enjoy this brief interlude in a different world.

There was a drinks reception, at which I eschewed the champagne and chose a refreshing elderflower fizz in my entirely characteristic bid to avoid falling over before the main proceedings. We then decided we should present ourselves to our old friend just to warn reassure him of our plans to throw food and ask awkward questions behave ourselves impeccably. Sadly, he had already spotted our names on the guest list and cleverly ensured that a) we were sitting at some distance from the rostrum and b) the MC was briefed not to take any questions from our table (which was somewhat unfortunate for the other six people seated with us I suppose).

The luncheon itself was delightful and we chatted in a civilised fashion amongst ourselves and with the others at our table, proving that we have not become completely uncivilised during the enforced unsociability of recent Corona times. In due course, it was time for the post-prandial address. Our ludicrous questions written on the small pieces of paper provided at the table remained precisely where we had left them – on the table – but we dutifully focussed our attention on the speaker. Having had my back to the lectern during lunch, I now turned my chair around and settled, legs crossed and half-finished wine glass in hand, to enjoy some intellectual stimulation.

I have read Dermot’s book Reflections of Alan Turing recently – a jolly good read, as it happens – and so was familiar with the themes of his talk which are covered in the book. This does not mean I was not paying attention, but … as Dermot discussed his famous uncle’s mathematical problem-solving skills, I was on a problem-solving mission of my own. I had suddenly become aware that I could not uncross my legs to alter my listening position. My legs appeared to be somehow fastened firmly to each other. This was an alarming development! It is one thing to challenge myself on an intellectual level, but when it comes to problems of a physical or dexterous nature, I am more challenged than most at the best of times. And this was not the best of times!

I had honestly only had the one – admittedly quite large – glass of red wine, and yet was bemused at my strange new impediment. Was I imagining it? In a bid to surprise my recalcitrant limbs into disentanglement, I tried once again to shift my position and re-cross them. Nope – still firmly joined together at the knee area.

I missed a whole slide’s worth of content as I wrestled with the problem both mentally and physically – including surreptitiously fondling my newly-linked anatomy whilst keeping my gaze fixed firmly on our speaker, until I discovered that the buckle on one of my stylish knee-high marching boots had hooked itself firmly into the 40 denier tights-leg (oh I so want to use the word pantyhose here, but I’m just not sure I can – it’s American, and just sounds too rude) of the opposing knee.

There followed protracted fumbling with the buckle and the tights, without dropping my gaze below lectern level. To no avail. Nothing was budging and I was increasingly concerned that applying too much force would result in a huge and unsightly hole in my tights-leg (pantyhose really would be better here, wouldn’t it?). What to do? We were still only 20 minutes into the scheduled hour of the talk.

Eventually, and after draining my wineglass, I gave up the fiddling and refocused (mostly) on the talk which was clearly being well-received in the room. I could reconcile myself to this same cross-legged position for the duration of the talk – although the circulation in my feet might ultimately be compromised, but I’m already struggling to walk so what’s one more injury going to matter – and I told myself that it would not be a problem if I either somehow hopped or shuffled to the Ladies Powder Room (or was that down in the basement hundreds of steps away?) at the end of the talk to untangle myself in private or instead summoned up all my tremendous lower body muscle and boldly ripped the two limbs apart in situ and styled out the resulting ragged mess.  

My mind continued to race until it could compute no more, thus giving new meaning to the Turing Test for me, and I was failing that test, incapable as I was at this juncture of thinking at all*.

The talk came to an end, the questions session followed, and I maintained my hopefully elegant rapt pose, leaning forward gently to emphasise my engagement with the material – whilst the material around my right knee remained gently but less elegantly wrapped around the buckle protruding from my boot-clad upper left calf.

Applause! Dermot was done, and people leapt up to purchase copies of his book. I glanced back at Mr J to my left. “I can’t move, my legs are tied together, you’re going to have to help me,” I whispered. A blank look, and then his first thought was that the friend who had been sitting to my right had somehow contrived to tie my bootlaces together during the course of the meal (a wheeze which sadly is not entirely without precedent, although I think in fact that was a different friend – and anyway these boots have buckles and zips but no laces) – and then, of course, he just laughed. And I laughed back (that’s the wine!), as we discussed which one of our party should crawl under the table and invisibly grapple with the offending attachment whilst I bid polite goodbyes to our newly-befriended table mates.

In the end, now that I was able to jiggle more freely, I succeeded in releasing myself and, remarkably, there was not even the smallest of holes in my pantyhose (there, I’ve done it). What a load of fuss about nothing!

I’m not sure that this particular cultural event has raised my intellectual game, but I have never been so careful not to cross my legs on the train home.

*In fairness to myself, and to correct the inaccuracy of my ridiculous analogy in this piece, my reaction to the unfortunate hook-up described is entirely human, and it is thus that we rise above the machines. Now, what’s the betting that the first machine to pass the Turing test convincingly will laugh at me? Continue reading The Turing Test

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