Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms (2015)

What do Donald Trump, Chicago Transit Authority and Buffalo Sabres all have in common?  They’re all at the top of the list on Google Trends right now.  I’ve always wondered if starting with popular search terms would improve my ranking on Google.  I came to realize that even if it did, the effect would be temporary, as interests change.  Hockey is seasonal.  Presidents have term limits.  In time, whatever the Chicago Transit Authority did to get in the news will be forgotten.  I’m not even sure these terms will be at the top when I actually post this review in the morning.

When I watched The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, any illusion of making keywords work was dispelled.  They go into how Google works early on and it has little to do with the search term, itself.  Instead, an algorithm looks at sites that link to a page and use their importance to determine how well a page ranks.  It’s probably more complicated that most people would understand.  (And I’m sure Google doesn’t want the BBC giving away all their secrets.)

Algorithms are much simpler than that.  An algorithm is simply a set of rules for accomplishing something.  Euclid devised one to find the largest square tile that you could fill an area without having to cut tiles.  (It does so by finding the largest common denominator.)  There are algorithms for sorting sets of data and for matching high-school graduates to colleges.

With computers, we can do more.  We can match people on dating sites.  We can even get movie recommendations from a computer if we’d simply rate enough movies.  Not all algorithms are meant to be perfect, though.  One is able to help Heathrow Airport send planes on their way.  It‘s not optimal, but it has help to save fuel costs.  Mathematicians are working on one to solve the traveling salesman problem, which could net someone a million dollars.

Not everyone is going to enjoy this documentary.  The mere mention of math can cause people to scream and/or run away.  This documentary does handle it in an entertaining and easily comprehensible manner.  If you’ve ever wondered how this sort of stuff works, this is a good place to start.  (I will say that math and science programs are a lot more enjoyable when you’re not forced to take notes.)

I don’t think I’d recommend buying this documentary unless you’re a teacher.  Replay value is going to be limited if you’re just a casual viewer.  I was able to find it streaming on Netflix.  I don’t know how easy it would be to find elsewhere.  (Although, I imagine Google’s algorithm would make it much easier.)

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