Book Review: Algorithms to Live By

This post is a review of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (Amazon, Audible).

I love this book, but its title might be a slight exaggeration. I would have called it Some analogies of varying strength between computer science questions and life questions, with some special focus on optimal stopping, sorting, scheduling, and game theory. I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 

Anyway, I was worried before I started this book that the computer science in it would be too dumbed-down. It wasn’t. The book still has the best explanations of different sorting procedures that I’ve ever seen – explaining MergeSort with stacks of playing cards, and the similarity between MergeSort and an elimination tournament in sports.

I learned a lot from this book. For example: The University of Hawaii, which did not have the option of running physical cables between its different campuses, invented wireless networking, or at least packet-switching over radio waves, and exponential backoff that makes it possible for many packet-switching transmitters to share the same frequency.

There was also a bit of practical advice. The book discusses the explore/exploit tradeoff. In other words, “Should I go to a restaurant known to be good, or should I try a new restaurant, and risk being let down with the possible reward of discovering a new good restaurant?” The answer is, “It depends how much longer you plan to live in that town. If it’s your last night, go to a restaurant known to be good, because discovering a new restaurant has little utility. If you plan to live there ten more years, explore more often.” I like this advice, and I think it extends generally: when you’re young, try lots of stuff. Then when you’re older, you’ll know what works for you.

Also, here are some software engineering things that I am a little better at just because I read the book:

  1. Explaining different sorting algorithms
  2. Understanding TCP
  3. Understanding different problems with caching
  4. Understanding different problems with scheduling
  5. Finding prime numbers

And the list goes on. So here’s the TL;DR for this book: strongly recommended.

Till next time, happy learning!

-Will

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