Algorithms to Live By (Review)

Algorithms to Live By (Review)

h, yes, my misspent youth. There was some game on the Atari that my best friend and I used to play, a car driving game where you drove as fast as you could, avoiding all the slower traffic, the road obstacles, all that. And what made this “cool” (that is a very time-relevant statement, given the computer games of today) was that places between cities in the game looked different. And the interesting thing here – you tried to hit all the cities across the country in the shortest possible time. So my friend and I would play and play, trying to figure out what route (with their miles) was best.

Since he was in college at the time (I was already in the real world) I asked him to ask his professors the question – based on the miles between the cities, what was the best route?

Like, how hard could it be?

It turns out very hard. I was surprised to know that there wasn’t just a program you could crank this through or an algorithm you could rely on. Nobody had really “solved” it. We never did find out our shortest possible route. But Algorithms to Live By could have helped.

Supposedly the concept of this book was to take known tricks computers use (such as routing packets, fetching data and sorting said) and apply it to the real world. So on the first part, the book is very interesting – listing all the troubles scientists have faced as data moved faster and faster. There were a number of things I took for granted (just as I took for granted the problem of shortest route (the Traveling Salesman problem)). Some of the solutions were interesting, as well as the statistics behind them. But keep that in mind – this is a programming/science/statistics book – even with the authors making an effort to keep it light and entertaining, it’s still a slog to get through it.

The second point – the application to real life – this is where it gets a little dodgy. Sure, there are algorithms there that might help, for what are algorithms other than the ability to break down a problem into efficient chunks to solve. And yes, sometimes life can be like that, but sometimes it isn’t. Shortest route isn’t always best route. And some of the scenarios are a little strained. Most of the time, you will simply have to look at a situation, put into the mix all you know (or believe) and make your best guess. “Solving” a problem isn’t always an outcome – the best you can usually hope for is to survive the consequences of a wrong choice.

But it is a good book. I liked it for the same reason I enjoyed a Wired article I’d read about trans-oceanic cables – I learned so much about an field I knew nothing about. Self-help is all fine and good, but facts are what we make most of our decisions on, and this book provides plenty of those. It’s a good read, and I appreciate my friend sending it my way for my birthday.


p.s. Interesting thing – when I went to my site to get the address to link in my bookstore, the computer gave me an error – coudn’t find the address “this time”. I thought about what I’d read in this book and what that likley meant, that it tried and tried and for whatever reason, eventually gave up after the route it had chosen failed. of course, when I clicked again, either a new route had opened or the old route had resumed. But interesting….