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MARTINO: Teaching Our Kids How to Build The Next Google

The computer science curriculum at CBSD is pretty solid. We teach kids Scratch, Java, computer programming, AP computer science, and data science. I was excited my kids were introduced to Minecraft in elementary school because with Redstone the kids are learning to code simply and intuitively. Like Steve Jobs said, “Everybody should learn to program a computer… because it teaches you how to think.”

I compared our curriculum to what I needed to know to build scalable systems like Google Web Search and Google Calendar. I have found a couple of gaps in our kids’ technical education. It is not just restricted to CBSD, by the way. I’ve noticed elite private schools like LaSalle have these gaps as well.

One of these gaps is understanding computation as a way of thinking about data, particularly concerning high-performance computing. To fill this gap, I designed my course called “Google Magic,” which I have been teaching in Winter Enrichment at Doyle since 2017.

Google Magic gives a high-level overview to 4th to 6th graders about how systems at Google work. I show the kids how Google Search actually operates. (Hint: it is the computer version of the index that any reference book already has.) We sit together and build a little “search engine” for Pokeman cards, where you can ask questions about the Pokemon, like color or HP, and instantly find the cards that match.

It never fails to delight me. I patiently walk the kids through some dry crawling and indexing algorithms, and their eyes glaze over. But once they see how it all works together to help them find their favorite Pokemon card, their eyes light up, and it is the most wonderful experience.

I love to teach the Diffie-Hellman key exchange. This is the basis for the cryptographic handshake you make with every website on the internet so no one can snoop on your browsing. The coolest way to describe it is. It is a way for you and me to have a public conversation in full view of everyone else, but in the end, you and I will share a secret that no one else can easily figure out.

I show the kids a simplified version of this algorithm using calculators to multiply and exponentiate the numbers. Once again, it is so delightful to see this in action. The amazement when the two actors end up with the same very large numbers on their calculators, but none of the audience can guess what it is. We repeat this algorithm several times because it really piques the kids’ interest. Math is so cool.

(This actually reminds me of when I saw Whitfield Diffie at the retirement party I organized for my Ph.D. advisor, John McCarthy. They were good friends, and John gave Whit lots of support and even a place to stay while he was working on his now-famous algorithm. Whit is really tall and a pretty snappy dresser for a mathematician. His wife was super nice, and I remember talking to her about their dogs, one of whom was sick.)

The highlight of the Google Magic course is the demonstration of MapReduce; maybe you know it as Hadoop. The name comes from two LISP operators, map and reduce. (LISP is the programming language invented by my Ph.D. advisor!) MapReduce is a framework we used at Google to quickly process information over thousands of computers.

Because kids learn best with tactile demonstrations, I show the kids how to use this framework to process three pounds of fruit runts, which is about 2500 pieces of colored candy. With a handful of kids and this algorithm, we cannot only sort by color but count all the candy in 10-15 minutes! No comment on how many pieces of candy are “lost” during computation, by the way.

Anyway, these are the ideas I would love to bring to the district regarding technology. Show kids how the hi-tech systems we build in Silicon Valley actually operate so they can build the next generation of them.

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SIMMONS: Tackling Fentanyl Crisis Starts With Giving Law Enforcement the Best Technology Available

n his State of the Union address, President Biden pledged to tackle one of the biggest problems facing Americans: the fentanyl crisis. With record-high drug overdose deaths, and kids under 14 dying at the highest rate among all age groups, it is clear that new approaches are required. Unfortunately, the administration is doubling down on outdated technology to solve a problem that we know requires intelligent, modern solutions to stay ahead of those who want to harm our communities.

If we are going to get serious about saving lives, we need an all-of-the-above approach that starts with providing our law enforcement officers with the cutting-edge capabilities at our disposal to detect and seize deadly drugs before they enter our communities.

The mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is to “Protect the American people, safeguard our borders, and enhance the nation’s economic prosperity.” As someone who proudly worked at this law enforcement agency for 25 years, I know that CBP officers around the country take their duty seriously. Yet, what we ask of CBP officers is, frankly, staggering.

With more than 11 million maritime containers arriving at our seaports annually, another 11 million arriving at land ports by truck, and 2.7 million by rail, these law enforcement officers face the herculean task of adequately identifying and stopping all illegal drugs and weapons during the security screening process. Unfortunately, CBP scans less than 10 percent of all cargo entering the United States, even though the mandate is 100 percent, as required by the 9/11 Commission report and subsequent federal legislation related to the scanning of maritime cargo.

To make matters worse, the scanning is done only with the limited capability X-ray machines. Over the last 50 years, CBP has used X-ray machines to search for drugs and other illicit materials at our ports and borders. Unfortunately, X-ray machines have limited penetration capabilities and cannot detect anomalies inside dense cargo. This well-known inadequacy — the inability to see through dense cargo — allows criminals to circumvent existing scanning systems by hiding fentanyl and other drugs within dense materials that X-ray cannot penetrate.

Much more must be done, and the best technology available must be used. For example, in 2019, CBP conducted a pilot program at the U.S.-Mexico border with a newly developed advanced muon tomography system, which can effectively detect anomalies within dense cargo. During the pilot program, this system was responsible for a significant drug seizure after the smuggling methodology used during the pilot easily defeated the on-site X-ray machines.

The need to deploy advanced scanning technology is so urgent that America’s busiest port, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, requested to Congress that a comprehensive approach be deployed there and integrated into CBP’s current suite of technology. Furthermore, several members of Congress, in both the House and Senate, have urged CBP to procure and deploy additional passive scanning technology. Notably, funding is already available through the Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Funding Bill, and CBP would need to redirect a small portion of those funds toward more comprehensive systems.

Illicit drugs are ravaging our cities and robbing too many Americans of their lives. President Biden is right to prioritize the battle against fentanyl, but let’s be clear: our ports of entry are our last line of defense before drugs enter our communities, and we must give our law enforcement officers the best technology available to spot and stop dangerous drugs. 

This should also be a priority for all lawmakers — regardless of party affiliation or home state. Until it is, we will continue to lose this critical fight — one that we desperately need to win for the future of our country.

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