This Side Up

Algorithms have figured us out


The algorithms have taken over. I thought it innocent enough when, after ordering a shirt online, the company sent me ads for the latest and greatest shirts. And, naturally, it was a shirt with my neck size and sleeve length. That wasn’t all, either. It was the blue that I prefer.

Good thing, I thought, that I hadn’t Googled how to take out the tomato sauce stain on the last shirt otherwise it probably been stain resistant. And if “they” – the algorithms – had picked up on the tomato sauce then for sure I’d be getting ads from The Olive Garden.

Oh the consequences of browsing the Internet.

I guess the Russians know that I visited the websites of several state candidates although, I suspect, the candidates have no clue who was reading their latest press releases. Surely, the algorithms have me profiled after checking in to read what Ted Nesi has to say in his weekly report or checking the New York Times slant on the Kavanaugh hearings.

Those algorithms must be saying, “feed him news and he’ll bite.”

But I didn’t bite Sunday morning and I paid for it.

I was innocently seeking information on the Andrew Carnegie Hero Award for a story on Connor Devine, the young man who without concern for his own safety warded off Jacob Gallant as he repeatedly stabbed at Alyssa Garcia as she filled a cooler at Rite Aid, when the screen switched to what reported to be an Amazon survey. As an incentive, I was told if I elected to participate I would be entered into a raffle with the chance to win $1,000.

Yeah, really, what do they take me for?

Had they had my shirt size and offered me lasagna, well then I might have participated. I didn’t want to be troubled with a survey even if I could end up being a winner. That was a good thing because, as I now realize, the survey probably wasn’t legitimate and any information I’d shared would have gone into another algorithm designed to haunt my credit card and me.

I tried clicking out of the “Amazon” page and that’s when the internet bit back.

A red band crossed the screen informing me that a virus had been detected and that I should immediately call the 800 number listed. And just to ensure that I understood the urgency of the situation, a woman’s panicky voice told me not to delay. She kept repeating the message. This was dire.

I reached for the phone and then thought better.

Instead of dialing the 800 number and although it was 7:30 Sunday morning, I called our go-to IT guy Dave Faucher. He picked up on the second ring. “Yes, John,” he said dryly, as if waiting for my call.

I held the phone to the computer. Dave had never heard anything like it. Hearing that, I didn’t feel like a total idiot.

His advice, don’t call any numbers or respond. Turn off the computer.

That was a frightening thought as two days of work was on the machine waiting to be emailed to the Beacon. What would happen to that? Was that going to disappear somewhere in the cloud? Would it go puff?

Dave understood. Disappearing copy has happened and I’ve followed his directions to save stuff ever since.

Dave thought I might lose changes made in the last five minutes, but I should be good.

There was no alternative. I shut down the computer, waited a few seconds and clicked it back on. The panicked woman was no longer shouting. Icons appeared on the screen, as they should. This was good. I loaded Word and went to recent documents. There was the file; only it was last saved two days earlier.

I opened it. The copy I’d added was gone.

Dave remained calm. He directed me to the cloud icon that he said I’d find in the lower right end of the screen. There was no cloud. The long silence on the end of the line told me he was flummoxed.

Finally, he suggested I bring the computer into the office and he’d run some diagnostics and whatever other magic he does. But it looked like what I’d written was gone…somewhere in the cloud.

And then the thought occurred. If algorithms know what I want to buy and read, maybe then they’re capable – with a few hints – of writing this column. You’ll be the first to know if the viruses don’t get my computer.


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