Book Review: Algorithms to Live By

Though I have a degree in computer science, I now spend my days making technology concepts and projects accessible to those without that course of study. With that background in mind, I found Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths an enjoyable read and one I recommend strongly.

Why did I open it?

I confess, at first the title and the cover captured my attention. I am fascinated by both cognitive science and the way technology interacts with our lives… for better and worse. Algorithm has become a buzz word in recent times and I was curious how Christian and Griffiths would approach the topic. Would it be as dry as the course textbook for my Data Structures and Algorithms course all those years ago?

Why did I finish it?

It’s definitely not a dry read! Carefully curated and edited wit and interesting examples take many algorithms and apply them to the ultimate computer, a human. While some chapters held more interest to me than others, each is written in a way that doesn’t get bogged down with the implementation. Each is written in careful language that is both technical and approachable. I also found it a wonderful refresher of topics I’ve not thought much about in recent years (even if I apply them daily).

What was I most surprised to learn?

First I should state the following: I love extra-fine tipped pens, I am prone to over think problems, and struggle with perfectionism. In Chapter 7, Overfitting: When to think less, a valuable lesson is worded in a way I’d not thought of before and makes perfect sense: when brainstorming, simplify by stroke size. Use a bold marker during brainstorming and you are forced to convey the big picture. Fine and granular detail is possible with finer nibbed pens, but the bold line will limit how deep you can drill at the onset. I have pens I like for certain tasks and to my surprise have certain pens I pull out when I brainstorm, now I know why.

Am I implementing anything?

Yes, I now have a concrete reason why I’ve standardised on the system I’ve chosen based on searching and sorting (in Chapter 3). Though I’m a long-time fan of log books, I have struggled a bit with their internal organization. “Sorting something you will never search is a complete waste; searching something you never sorted is merely inefficient”. I’ve implemented several systems over the years and found I am happiest when I have one book-of-all-things. While I take copious notes, I rarely search through everything. A basic sort keyed to page numbers, dates, headings recorded on an index is enough for my retrieval needs. I have tried systems where I have different books for different requirements; a running daily log would be in one place, client meeting notes in another. It was overly complicated. Now I know why my simplified system works for me.

Most memorable quote:

Computer science shows the hazards of mess and the hazards of order are quantifiable and that their costs can be measured in the same currency: time. Leaving something unsorted might be thought of as an act of procrastination—passing the buck to one’s further self, who’ll have to pay off with interest what we chose not to pay up front. But the whole story is subtler than that. Sometimes mess is more than just the easy choice. It’s the optimal choice. p. 73, Chapter 3: Sorting.

Who should read it?

This title will be interesting to those who are interested in cognitive science, math, computer science, sports, and to how these disciplines interact and flourish outside the classroom. Will you actually use every algorithm contained within the 368 pages? No. I hope not! Will a basic understanding of topics such as the threshold rule or the Nash equilibrium assist you in decisions you face? Yes.

book cover: Algorithms to Live ByAlgorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Henry Holt and Company, 2016

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆


Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for a review. The FTC wants you to know.