Sunday, 2 April 2017

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

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