We Live In An Algorithmic World

By: Burk Pendergrass


Old timers like the Tennessee Mountain Man have a hard enough time dealing with all these new fangled gadgets and methods of research, advertising, shopping and communicating without the added insult of having to deal with the geek speak of the nerds. Take algorithm for instance. What is an algorithm, and why should anyone care?

Please allow the computer man to attempt to bring the algorithmic world in which we must live, worship, work, and play to a place where we old dogs can understand it.

Do you recall grade school? Our grade school is what is most often called middle school in the early 21st century. That is where much to our dismay, everything we had learned about adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying went up in smoke. Do you remember your introduction to mathematical skills beyond basic arithmetic? Were you frustrated with algebra, graphing, and calculus? Ever doubt that, Albert Einstein not withstanding, it was a real science?

Have you ever wished you had been more committed to the development of your mathematical skills? Ever wished you had paid more attention? Have you found the answer to every high school student's burning question, "What will I ever use this stuff for"?

In a generation where there are seemingly overwhelming problems grappling with counting by ten (10), we are now challenged to grasp a new math and count by bits and bytes or by multiples of eight (8), if you will. Forget those math tables you were forced to memorize in the second grade. With the possible exception of the multiples of eight (8) such rote memory is of little value now except to balance the checkbook. Those tables are of little use or importance in an algorithmic world where we have been forced to accept that not all things are of equal value.

Oh, an algorithm is, simply stated, a specific set of instructions for carrying out a procedure or solving a problem. It may be simplistic or unbelievably convoluted depending on the data to be analyzed, how it is to be processed, what weight or values are to be attributed or given to what information and or its' sources, whether free radicals are allowed and if so what and to what extent, and the desired outcome parameters.

An algorithm is in the final analysis just a way to get the job done, and to be fair most of us cannot articulate the protocol or reduce it to a specific applicable diagram. The Tennessee Mountain Man's father, who had only a sixth grade education, was one of those brilliant people who could apply advanced mathematical principles, but was at a loss to explain his reasoning or reduce it to paper.

The day you set down in your high school science lab and defined a protocol for the experiment you were about to conduct, you built a an algorithm in it's most simple form although we certainly did not understand it in those terms back in the day. When a math teacher said, 'your answer is correct, but show me how you got there', he was simply asking for the algorithm.

Now we begin to understand algorithms, that everything has its' own algorithm, that each of us deals with algorithms all day every day and that it is a term we should neither fear or be intimidated by.

Let us build a simple algorithm that actually happened to the computer man not long ago. On a service call the company van gave up the ghost. The transmission died a horrible death and the vehicle refused to move except in reverse. Now what to do? No time, money or need for PhD's and engineers. A little common sense would work.

The need: Rent A Van

The algorithm: 1. Get the cell phone, 2. Call Hertz, 3. Rent Van, 4. Proceed to next appointment.

Four simple algorithmic steps and problem is solved without think tanks, PhDs, engineers, committees, weeks of planning, etc, etc.

A similar algorithm or protocol, if you please, determines what operating system runs on your computer or lap top, how it processes data, how you see virtual or non existent documents on your monitor. What you see on your TV screen is real to the extent it lives somewhere, if only on film. What you produce with bits and bytes on your computer through predetermined algorithms is little more than a figment of your imagination unless and until it is produced in some tangible form such a print out or prototype. Why do you think it is called virtual as opposed to literal? Which is easier to rebuild, a virtual house design on your PC or a framed or sketched literal design?

It is an algorithmic world. It defines what you fix for and how you prepare dinner, and it determines where your website shows up in Yahoo's index and Google's Page Rank System. It is used by webmasters everyday to determine how often a page can be viewed. The answer may be always, hourly, once a day, or only once depending on the desire of the webmaster. A good example is when you install a new Microsoft operating system and on first run you are redirected to their "run once" page. Can you say, 'hello, algorithm'? It is fairly straight forward. You use it daily. Go forth and embrace it. Go forth an enjoy it.

So, the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous (AA) is the program algorithm. There. Who says, 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks'?

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Publication of Burk Pendergrass, J.D., a Cherokee Indian and Viet Nam Vet specializing in computerman website design and remote online computer repair

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