Skip to main content

Bad Choices - Ali Almossawi ***

At the heart of this little book is a really good concept trying to get out - for me it's what you might call a successful failure. What it's trying to do is great, and being creative about doing so is also great - but creativity goes hand in hand with frequent failure, and I'm afraid there are just too many problems here for me to love this book the way I should.

Let's get the negatives out of the way so we can focus on what's good. It's a very short but expensive book - the 144 small pages have a lot of illustration that conveys very little information. What's left is a text that I comfortably read on an hour-long train ride, yet it's being sold at near £15. The illustrations are genuinely almost all doing nothing at all except adding padding. And though Ali Almossawi's writing style is friendly and laid back, it tends to the condescending. Worst of all, the book doesn't do what it says on the tin.

The subtitle is 'how algorithms can help you think smarter and live happier', implying that this book is going to show you how to make use of algorithms to improve your life. It won't. Almost all the examples it uses (in the form of little stories that try far too hard to be quirky) are totally useless in reality. About the only practically useful one is about sorting books on a shelf (though there is better guidance on that elsewhere - see below). And yet. There is something in this book.

What it really does, if you allow it, is to open up the secrets of what's going on inside a computer - specifically in some of the algorithms used to sort and search, to do lookups with hash tables, to have linked lists that enable you to add items to the middle of an ordered set with a minimum of effort and more. There is definitely a beauty, almost a poetry to this stuff, and Almossawi is usually very good at describing it.

So, it's really not going to do what the cover claims. It won't help you with practical, every day choices and problem solving. If you want a book on practical uses of algorithms in real life, look instead at Algorithms to Live By. And those stories, I'm afraid, for me mostly got in the way rather than made the material more approachable. (Almossawi imagines the reader, when asked 'What's a binary search?' thinking 'Ah, freedom, William Wallace, Eppy Toam*, shirts on a rack.' No, we really won't do that.) But for all that there's a lovely little book on a key aspect of how computers do their jobs lurking in here. I just wish there was more content, and it wasn't so obscured by fluff.

* Yes, his characters really do have names like this.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…