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 Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…