The worship of the algorithm is hardly the only example of the theological reversal of the Enlightenment—for another sign, just look at the surfeit of nonfiction books promising insights into “The Science of…” anything, from laughter to marijuana. But algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.
In fact, our purported efforts to enlighten ourselves about algorithms’ role in our culture sometimes offer an unexpected view into our zealous devotion to them. The media scholar Lev Manovich had this to say about “The Algorithms of Our Lives”:
“Software has become a universal language, the interface to our imagination and the world. What electricity and the combustion engine were to the early 20th century, software is to the early 21st century. I think of it as a layer that permeates contemporary societies.”
This is a common account of algorithmic culture, that software is a fundamental, primary structure of contemporary society. And like any well-delivered sermon, it seems convincing at first. Until we think a little harder about the historical references Manovich invokes, such as electricity and the engine, and how selectively those specimens characterize a prior era. Yes, they were important, but is it fair to call them paramount and exceptional?
These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.
For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.
Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.
Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world.
3. Cyber City – The Military Training Ground For Cyberwar | Washington Post
I heard about this in a New Tech City podcast but the linked article is more descriptive.
Creating realistic virtual environments is extraordinarily challenging. In cyberspace, a global network of networks, more than 2 billion people interact with at least 12 billion computers and devices, including global positioning systems, mobile phones, satellites, data routers, ordinary desktop computers, and industrial control computers that run power plants, water systems and more.
In many cyber ranges, the simulated Web servers, routers, mobile phones and other network devices operate essentially as they do in the real world, but they have few if any physical components. The virtual devices simply exist as computer code.
Merit Network Inc., a nonprofit technology group in Michigan, just launched a cyber range at Eastern Michigan University that promises to conduct “live fire” exercises. The Defense Department runs the Information Assurance Range in Stafford County, Va. It gives cyber warriors a safe, closed environment to practice intrusions and security testing.
In Hampshire, England, and Millersville, Md., Northrop Grumman runs cyber ranges that allow corporate and government clients in the United Kingdom and the United States to create models of their own networks and employee activity. Northrop officials liken their systems to flight simulators.
Christopher Valentino, a research and development director in the cyberintelligence division of Northrop Grumman Information Systems, said one key to a successful range is closely approximating the way human psychology plays out on real networks.
“It’s very hard to find ‘normal,’ ” he said.
No matter how good voice-recognition software becomes, it will always be hostage to its sonic environment. Ask your digital assistant to dial a number in a quiet office and it might hear the right numbers. Try again near a busy road or at a noisy party and you will probably be disappointed. If only your phone could simply read your lips.
Ahmad Hassanat, an artificial-intelligence researcher at Mu’tah University, in Jordan, has been trying to teach a computer program to do just that. Previous attempts to get computers to lip-read have focused, understandably enough, on the shape and movement of the lips as they produce phonemes (individual sounds like “b”, “ng” or “th”). Such shapes-of-sounds are called visemes. The problem is that there are just a dozen visemes for the 40 to 50 phonemes in English; “pan” and “banned”, for example, look remarkably similar to a lip-reader. That makes it rather taxing to reconstruct words from visemes alone. Instead, Dr Hassanat has been trying for the past few years to detect the visual signature of entire words all at once, using the appearance of the tongue and teeth as well the lips.
Disclaimer: The selections I use to describe the links are snippets, often edited together to better describe the original piece, each of which is worth reading on it’s original site.
“It’s not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.” – Edwin Land