Algorithms and Blues

old school exams

Once upon a time inky fingered small boys and girls would gather in large unheated rooms and sit at uncomfortable wooden desks. The desks would be arranged in neat rows with military precision by stony faced teachers, not long out the army and with an almost uniform disdain for inky fingered children of any gender.

The desks were battle scarred with the carvings of countless generations, each with an dutifully filled inkwell and placed well out of reach of the next nearest desk and its fidgeting occupant. Not out of any regard for social distancing (something for the distant future) but to prevent the passing of notes, cheating and assorted tomfoolery.

For this was the annual ritual that marked the rite of passage allowing ones advancement up the educational ladder; The Exam.

Pens would be checked for leaks and filled if required, sheaves of paper would be handed out and one ominous leaflet would be placed ceremoniously face down at the top of the desk. With a last theatrical look at the large clock at the end of the hall the invigilator would announce that this could now be turned over.

After a few minutes to digest the horror of its contents the hours of wrist achingly fast, and in most cases virtually illegible scratching would commence. Brains emptied, some sooner than others, ink was spilled and bottoms went numb. The papers would be gathered up and the agonising wait for the results would begin.

The marking would be done by teachers, mostly humans, and would come back with comments marked in aggressive red pen strokes. These would point out mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation and facts. They would also serve as guide to the markers frustration, dedication and in rare cases inebriation. They could be witty, pithy, gently chiding or even downright facetious, depending on the temperament of the teacher.

They were a subjective assessment by one individual on the capabilities of a certain student at a given moment in time. Debate would rage in the days preceding the results. Was it better to be at the top of the pile of papers to be marked or the bottom? Who would do the marking? and was it too late to run away to sea.

Marking exams

For generations this system prevailed, from school and university to job applications, letter writing and the whole grown up world of form filling.

This has changed. We have PCs, mobile phones, the internet, word processors and keyboards. I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything in longhand and can’t easily read anything I wrote 40 years ago. I am the stabber of the backspace,  butcher of the cut and paste and wizard of the spell checker.

medieval scribe

The lack of any need to write flowing handwritten documents of any great length or in any great speed has certainly led to more concise and legible writing, but to a certain extent this is at the cost of style and personality. Journalists and writers still value a bit of the old waffle but for most of people writing anything longer than a shopping list is for books, and then subsequently to a film or TV series. Our use of language has changed and our handwriting has become more similar to type with a uniform style that is not the fingerprint of our personalities that it used to be.

Remember that poor old sod who had to mark a towering pile of exam papers? Or the manager who had to wade through hundreds of indecipherable, totally inappropriate and in some cases, written in crayon job applications only to realise that the job description itself was unintelligible?

Algorithms gonna getcha

This is now a thing of the past thanks to that scary new little invention; the Algorithm.

Well no, its not that scary. It isn’t very new, and it isn’t really an invention. Its not a formula or microchip or patentable bit of software. I was thinking probably Alan Turing?, Bill Gates? or Albert Einstein? No, it turns out to have been credited to, and named after, a 9th Century mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī .  No. I don’t quite get that either but apparently if you Latinize his nisba…

According to Wikipedia

Russian stamp commemorating father of the algorithm

It appears that algorithms are simply a set of rules to solve a problem, a method, recipe or a set of protocols – in fact everything you need for latinizing your nisba.

Computers thrive on them and they are the building blocks of computer software which is where the poor old teacher marking the exam paper comes in.

The SEO must go on…

If you can control the way information being given you is presented, and you have a list (or database) of likely responses, can add in a few unlikely ones and a list of wrong ones, you can essentially do away with the irksome human editing and selection process. Let a computer feed the whole lot through a virtual sausage machine of algorithms. The magic of this is the computer will keep a record of all the input information and its previous responses and will have an even bigger list to compare the next time round! Use the computer to phrase the questions and process the answers! Fire and forget!

And that’s why they call it the Blues

Search engine Blues

And now to the blues. The holy grail of having a website is getting that short blue link to your page as near as possible to the top of the search engine listings. The trick to this is search engine optimisation or SEO.

In the beginning this was the preserve of crafty, geeky people, who managed to stay only a few steps behind the search engines, guessing what they wanted to see and feeding it to their algorithms in dollops of meta tag goodness. These SEO gurus claimed to have the secret to how it all worked, seemed to be getting results and the idea slowly filtered its way through to the general populace. For years people had known how to get a favourable score from magazine surveys, could sneak through customs with all the right boxes ticked and blag their way through a job interview.

The difference now was that charm, a way with words and confidence only really works with people. You can assess people, manipulate people, smile at people, even draconian school teachers. None of these things work with algorithms.

There are now SEO programs bulging with algorithms that go through your webpage and tell you what you’ve done wrong! A virtual red pen marks every spelling mistake, grammatical trip and misplaced punctuation mark. It will tell you your sentences are too long, your words aren’t the right ones – why don’t you just write about something else? It will even give you a final score and a “could do better”. In short we are back to the handed back exam paper but without the imaginative human nuances and vitriol.

Serfs of the Internet

Meanwhile away from this this Game of Drones and the massed armies of rival algorithms battling it out for link placement, the commercial world has taken heed. Job vacancies are listed now online, have to be applied for online, filled (or at least shortlisted), or rejected online. Very few humans will ever even read your C.V. A handful of corporations deal with pretty much all of them and their algorithms are very, very good at turd polishing.

So, if you have a passion for stock replenishment, enjoy the challenge of a rewarding and fulfilling career as a senior stock replenishment operative, are a team player with good interpersonal communication skills and able to meet your line manager’s targets in a timely and responsible fashion this could be your dream career! Generous and competitive salary package to the right candidate. Option to work varied and flexible hours, and numerous staff benefits.

Read: Night shift shelf stacker required. minimum wage. may be required to do other duties and work extra shifts at short notice. Limited use of vending machine.

Metropolis

Success in applying for these jobs is simply a matter of regurgitating the “keywords” into the required “fields” and pressing submit. No waiting. by the time you have closed down your PC your application will already have splashed ashore and been mown down by the machine gun emplacements of the Algorithms. and that’s it – MIA – you will never know.

Are our sentences getting shorter? are we using fewer and shorter words and repetitive “Calls to Action”?

Clicking on the more successful search engine query links would suggest so. The content is spread thinner than the filling in a convenience store sandwich and as for the ads at the top, any relevance to the search query has been thrown out the window quicker than the bag of money was thrown in. Think of a word, any word, type it in and you can be sure any number of retailers will have the best price and selection ( and free delivery!). I have yet to find a legitimate word that fails!

If acknowledged great works of literature were fed into the SEO mincer I wonder what the results would be? Did Tolstoy use the key phrase “War and Peace” enough times? I suspect repetition of “the count” would get him into trouble. I have read some best selling authors who are a little too fond of cutting and pasting but if you’re churning out books the size of breeze blocks every year or so it is probably forgivable

Top Twits

Less forgivable are politicians. Appealing to the voters doesn’t mean talking to them as though they were too young to vote (or indeed tie their own shoelaces). I remember when interviewing young children about grown up topics made entertaining television:

Interviewer “So Johnny, do mummy and daddy ever worry about nuclear war?
Johnny (7) “Daddy says we have BETTER bombs than the BAD MEN, BIG BOMBS that go BANG. they are GREAT, TREMENDOUSLY GREAT BOMBS! and we can drop them from BIG submarines. we have the BEST BOMBS and the BAD MEN will all be DEAD”

Obviously we are a long way from creditable politicians talking like that, let alone posting it on the internet, but its only a matter of time….

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