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

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…