Damn Algorithms


In this information age steeped in computers, the engine humming under the surface of this website and much of the technology we use is full of mathematics and computer science. That means it uses algorithms. I was reading a story about how Facebook again (probably constantly) tweaked its algorithms for what we see in our news feed. What is all this about and where did it come from?

Without getting too complicated, an algorithm is a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed. Algorithms can perform calculations, process data and automate reasoning.

The concept and origin of the word goes back centuries. The words 'algorithm' and 'algorism' come from the name al-Khwarizmi. Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-850) and from Algoritmi, the Latin form of his name. He was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and scholar. The importance of his contributions to mathematics can also be seen in the word "algebra" which is derived from al-jabr, one of the two operations he used to solve quadratic equations. His name is also the origin of the Spanish guarismo and of Portuguese algarismo, both meaning "digit."

So, why do I damn algorithms? Because they are used to control so much of what we do online. They are hiding behind all of this. You can't read a financial article without hearing about someone changing the algorithms in order to do flash trading or something devious on the stock market. They control the ads you see and what offers come to you and what Amazon recommends that you buy.

The audio below is about how Facebook's stock could benefit from a new Instagram algorithm. Facebook acquired Instagram, which is currently a hot social media property, and their intent is to increase ad revenue rather than increase your pleasure in using the networks.

Some people are very worried about artificial intelligence and robots taking over. The nasty little algorithms are already here.

*  If you want to know how to compute the RSA algorithm shown partially at the top of this post, including how to select values for d, e, n, p, q, and ? (phi), you can watch this video. It also will help insomniacs.


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