‘Bad Choices’: More Efficient Living Through Algorithms

Image: Viking

Have you ever wondered if there’s a faster, more efficient way to do… well… everything?

Even if we don’t realize it, we use a series of algorithms to make choices and decisions throughout our day. But we don’t always use the most efficient algorithms. Ali Almossawi, author of the fantastic An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, has a new book, out today, called Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier. In it, Ali tries to help us live more productive and efficient lives by suggesting ways of evaluating the ways we accomplish simple, everyday tasks, such as sorting socks, finding music to listen to, or creating a grocery list. He does this by teaching us about many different algorithms, all through relatable stories and attractive illustrations drawn by Ali’s collaborator, Alejandro Giraldo.

Ali Almossawi. Image used with permission.

Ali describes an algorithm as “a series of unambiguous steps that achieves some meaningful objective in finite time.” Bad Choices looks at 12 different settings, such as a department store or a post office, and examines several choices one would need to make in each location. Ali then discusses good and “bad” (read: slower) choices of how to handle these decisions using algorithms and computer science concepts. Each chapter has illustrations, graphs, plenty of text, and analyses of the concepts at hand. There are plenty of asides/footnotes which deepen the explanations. The book is also short—it’s under 200 pages—so it’s perfect for sharing with your kids, one chapter at a time. Ali’s amusing ways of telling stories will keep you and your kids entertained.

Ali focuses on comparative time taken to do certain tasks because this is often how we look at things. Which of these two processes will get the job done faster? He also focuses on our memory to be an assistant in our daily life, speeding up the algorithms as well.

Reading this book will teach you a more efficient way to sort socks. Image: Viking

From the first chapter, Ali encourages readers to use paper and pencil to work through the different choices presented in the book, making it easier to understand how one choice requires many fewer steps than the other in each scenario. I chose to do this in my head, but some may find it easier to work through the steps manually. My brain just sees almost everything in my life as a series of algorithms or graphs, so it was an easy adjustment.

This isn’t just a book of ways to improve your life. It gets into the hows and whys, and also ties it all to well-known computer science methodologies. But don’t let that scare you off. Ali’s explanations work just as well for those well-versed in those methodologies and those who always seem to do things the hard way when left to their own devices.

When you’re done reading this book, you’ll have a new set of tools that you can personalize to your own life and schedule. You’ll look at how you do things in a whole new way. You’ll be able to apply the lessons learned here to other, unrelated tasks. Once you know what makes a process faster or more efficient, you’ll notice those aspects in other everyday situations. But even if, like me, you already think in graphs and efficient algorithms, this book will still speak to you, as it did to me on a visceral level. There is always something new to learn.

Bad Choices comes out today, and is, along with Ali’s first book, The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, a must-have in terms of learning to think critically and carefully, which is ever more and more important in today’s world. It would be a wonderful gift for anyone who is still learning how to think (e.g., your kids) and those who have a hard time understanding how and why you think the way you do, if you already operate in algorithms. For a preview of some of the content, check out the Bad Choices website for a series of short pieces that Ali has shared.

If you’re interested in picking Ali Almossawi’s brain, he’s doing a Reddit AMA on April 7th from 9:30am-11:30am Eastern Time. Don’t miss it!

Note: I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Jenny Bristol is an Editor at GeekDad and a founding Director at GeekMom. She is a lifelong geek who spends her time learning, writing, homeschooling her two wickedly smart kids, losing herself in history, and mastering the art of traveling on a shoestring.