The week of December 6, 2015

A festive winter hodgepodge

By Jesse Hicks

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” So goes the oft-invoked Walt Whitman line, one that’s always appealed to Americans in its embrace of grandiosity and its refusal of the stigma of hypocrisy. With it Whitman juts his jaw forward, plants himself with hands on hips and says, “I’ve got a lot going on here. What of it?”

That’s the spirit of this issue of the Kernel. Typically we try to lasso our stories into a broadly defined theme, one that gives the site itself a sense of coherence even as individual articles embark on their individual journeys on the winds of social media. This week, though, that illusory integrity goes out the window as we proudly offer a miscellany—a grab bag, a mishmash, a salmagundi, and a hodgepodge.

First, Cynthia McKelvey asks why, as a self-proclaimed geek and a professional science writer, she finds herself so deeply uninterested in space exploration. For her, space is just rocks and physics, an empty void containing no majesty and provoking no awe. Yet she should be enthralled by it; all of her science-fluent friends gush about the wonder of a Sagan-narrated cosmos rich with profundity, but it’s just not there for her. So she goes on a voyage of discovery, trying to understand the allure of space from those who love it most.

Back on Earth, I talk with Pedro Domingos, a computer scientist and author of The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World. He believes that machine learning—feeding massive amounts of data to computers and letting them develop their own rules for understanding it, the kind of processing that powers everything from Google image recognition to GPS routing to Netflix recommendations—may be on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s what he calls the master algorithm, and it will bring together competing ways of thinking about how we program computers to learn. Oh, and incidentally it will remake the world.

And finally, I remember Joe Engressia Jr., one of the earliest and most influential phone phreakers. Born blind, he learned to whistle the tones that gave him full control of AT&T’s sprawling telephone network. Via the telephone lines, he traveled the world for free, talking for hours with fellow phreaks from across the globe. Sure, it wasn’t exactly legal, but he did it all in the spirit of exploration. He even turned his telephone skills into a career. Truly a seminal figure in the history of phone phreaking, he’s also the subject of an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Rachael Morrison.

As always, enjoy the issue.

Photo via David Goehring/Flickr | Remix by Max Fleishman