Monday, July 03, 2006

Pattern Recognition

I was playing Minesweeper the other day because I was both bored and overstimulated. You see, sometimes, my giant, forest-slaying piles of unread books, my two computers with dozens of rich and layered and complex games, some of which I've never even played, and my PS2, offering simulations of any sport I'd personally care to simulate, just can't keep me happy, and not even actual masturbation will do the trick, and I need to play something simple like Minesweeper or Freecell to calm me down from the breathtaking technological marvel that is my cave. And to keep from doing anything productive.

Many of you probably know about Minesweeper. It's all about pattern recognition, learning the lessons offered by a pattern of symbols and applying them to solve a logic problem. The problem is that, if you don't solve the pattern, the game blows you up. One of the tricks is to make sure that you act on guesses as little as possible. Because guessing will, in fairly short order, get you blown up.

When I was a manager at a long-ago and faraway place I like to call the Death Star*, I used to try to use Minesweeper as a test of pattern recognition skills. I needed a lot of young persons (the job paid crap and was pretty much McDonalds for liberal arts graduates) and had to separate them out somehow. Pattern recognition was important to the job, in the sense that if one could recognize recurring patterns in the data we were analyzing and summarizing, one could do the job quickly, if not artfully.

I never could figure out a fair way to score Minesweeper performance as a skills test, though, and people got really nervous when I'd watch them over their shoulders as they played. So the testing program didn't work out. But the correlation remained, verified through observation of them what got hired: those that could play Minesweeper with any facility were pretty good at this job, and those who guessed a lot pretty much sucked at the job.

Pattern recognition is a key skill in life, and in intellect. They teach it on Sesame Street: "One of these things is not like the other." Doctors, lawyers, firemen, and cops, among many others, rely on pattern recognition as a stock in trade. Successful programmers are the great pattern recognizers of our business and technical culture; breaking down code into repeatable patterns is a key technological skill. It's even more basic than that, really; lions certainly rely on pattern recognition when they're scanning the savannah for, say, zebras--and let's not forget the gazelle, recognizing the pattern of a bit too much quiet--and we all recognize a potentially dangerous pattern in hearing footsteps behind us in the dark and quiet of the night.

Pattern recognition is so important to all cognition that we can quickly grow overreliant upon it. We think the car ahead of us will make the right turn, and we rear-end them. We think that sex is good, so we marry our partner. Uh, wait, that's only usually a mistake when I do it. Never mind on that one, eh? We think that the media tell us the truth, so we keep reading the Post and the Times and watching the nets.

Therein lies the rub for right-wingers. They are overconfident in their pattern recognition skills. And let's face it, they have good reason. They have consistently found and exploited reliable themes like cowardice, lust, greed, and made them stick through constant repetition in an easily digestible form, while turn rational attempts to refute these themes by shouting insults, lying at the top of their lungs, and maintaining a haughty pretense that, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, their number are as susceptible to those foibles (and more) as anyone.

It's been a successful, if dishonest strategy for a short-attention-span society. It doesn't rest on facts, which makes it easy. It's shallow, so even people with limited intelligence can manage it by loudly and stubbornly parroting talking points that they can't possibly understand. This is evident because, when people refute their talking points, they resort to sliming, name-calling, and nursery-rhyme-level taunting. It can be exploited ruthlessly by people of great intelligence--people who must know that they are lying, people who cannot possibly be unaware of the ramifications of their actions.

I was going to work a series of recent pattern recognition exploitations into this post, but that list has grown so huge that it merits its own post, which is forthcoming soonish.

*The Death Star is a major American corporation, one of the largest, in fact, and a big player in the government contracting bidness. I will not be libelling them by using their actual name, because they have more lawyers than I have molecules.


ilse said...

We think the car ahead of us will make the right turn, and we rear-end them.

Dood, I said I was sorry.

We think that sex is good, so we marry our partner.

Dood, I said I was sorry!

Dweeze said...

I think it probably goes without saying that I am a Mindsweeper God.