Travelling Salesman (2012)

travellingsalesman10“In 1956, renowned mathematician Kurt Gödel wrote a letter to John von Neumann postulating the existence of a single proof that could unlock the fundamental laws that bind our universe . . . Today it is considered the most important unsolved problem in computer science.  It is simply know as P vs NP.”

Well, it’s P = NP not P vs NP on the cover art, so maybe that’s the problem right there.

Four of the world’s greatest mathematicians are summoned to a tin shack.  Their research has produced the most dangerous weapon in history.  So they are meeting in a tin building with one glass wall.  While waiting for the team leader, the great minds get into a pedantic argument over whether all of the members had seen the addendum, as was the original agreement.

This is inter-cut with tape of a symposium introduction of the brilliant Dr. Timothy Horton, winner of the 2008 Fields Medal (also purveyor of a damn fine cup of coffee).


When Mr. Big (a Mitt Romney doppelganger) arrives, he gives each of the men paperwork to sign to receive their $10 million per year’s work.  This is in addition to their hefty annual stipends for food, lodging and presumably hookers.  This is also tied to a non-disclosure agreement which effectively renders their discoveries top secret.

He tells the men this that the new cold war has begun and it won’t be fought with nuclear weapons.  It will be “a penny here, a penny there, an unresponsive power grid, a subverted stock exchange  The cumulative effect spirals the world economy and when the dust settles, the world is divied up.”  This new algorithm is the key to penetrating any encryption, rendering it as useless as Hillary’s firewall system.

There are extended discussions of the morality of their work, how it can be used to invade the privacy of citizens.  Mr. Big makes the absurd claim that because the four math geeks had the restraint to not abuse this power, then the government will also have enough self-control to refrain from using this technology against private citizens.

travellingsalesman12The four are also concerned that they will be identified by their peers as the ones who unleashed this monster.  In one of the few missteps, they trot out the old trope that the Los Alamos scientists are seen as evil for creating the A-Bomb that saved thousands of lives in WWII.  How many people outside of MSNBC believe still that?

I did appreciate that, for the most part, the discussions were not loaded West Wing style straw man harangues against the evil Republicans.  The discussion was political, but not partisan.  All of the mathematicians understand that giving this kind of power to the government is crazy (OK, maybe it was a little partisan, but not overtly stated).  After Mr. Big gets serious with threats to their families, they all sign the papers.

We see that later, Horton gets a letter from the White House signed by Obama thanking him for his service.  Holding it up to the light, we can see it has an Illuminati watermark.  This was the other misstep as it takes the film into the conspiracy theory arena.  Up to that point, it all felt very real-world.

Horton, has his revenge though.  Like Stephen Falken or Alan Turing, he has left a backdoor open.  He takes it upon himself to shut down the planet’s electrical grids, stock markets, airports and apparently trains like Snake Plissken.  So maybe Mr. Big wasn’t the biggest dick at the table.

These is a LOT of talking as you can infer from the action shots above.  But it reminded me of Primer or Margin Call — no traditional action, but it kept me glued to the screen for the entire run-time, even if I didn’t understand a lot of it.  Good stuff.


  • Wow — what a cheap shot at Alan Turning!
  • The four greatest mathematicians in the country, and not an Asian or Indian among them?
  • Traveling has one L in US usage, but 2 L’s in other English speaking countries.
  • There could be no 2008 Fields Medal because it is awarded every four years, and 2008 was an off-year; even for the Winter Fields Medal.

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