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How to use algorithms to solve everyday problems

Faster grocery trips. Better Facebook posts. Ali Almossawi on algorithmic thinking for daily life.

By Kara Baskin  |  May 8, 2017

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Taking a nod from computer science, a priority queue can be used to optimize a trip to the grocery store. Illustration by Alejandro Giraldo

How can I navigate the grocery store quickly? Why doesn’t anyone like my Facebook status? How can I alphabetize my bookshelves in a hurry? Apple data visualizer and MIT System Design and Management graduate Ali Almossawi solves these common dilemmas and more in his new book, “Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier,” a quirky, illustrated guide to algorithmic thinking. 

For the uninitiated: What is an algorithm? And how can algorithms help us to think smarter?

An algorithm is a process with unambiguous steps that has a beginning and an end, and does something useful.

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Algorithmic thinking is taking a step back and asking, “If it’s the case that algorithms are so useful in computing to achieve predictability, might they also be useful in everyday life, when it comes to, say, deciding between alternative ways of solving a problem or completing a task?” In all cases, we optimize for efficiency: We care about time or space.

Note the mention of “deciding between.” Computer scientists do that all the time, and I was convinced that the tools they use to evaluate competing algorithms would be of interest to a broad audience.

Why did you write this book, and who can benefit from it?

All the books I came across that tried to introduce computer science involved coding. My approach to making algorithms compelling was focusing on comparisons. I take algorithms and put them in a scene from everyday life, such as matching socks from a pile, putting books on a shelf, remembering things, driving from one point to another, or cutting an onion. These activities can be mapped to one or more fundamental algorithms, which form the basis for the field of computing and have far-reaching applications and uses.

I wrote the book with two audiences in mind. One, anyone, be it a learner or an educator, who is interested in computer science and wants an engaging and lighthearted, but not a dumbed-down, introduction to the field. Two, anyone who is already familiar with the field and wants to experience a way of explaining some of the fundamental concepts in computer science differently than how they’re taught.

I’m going to the grocery store and only have 15 minutes. What do I do?

Do you know what the grocery store looks like ahead of time? If you know what it looks like, it determines your list. How do you prioritize things on your list? Order the items in a way that allows you to avoid walking down the same aisles twice.

For me, the intriguing thing is that the grocery store is a scene from everyday life that I can use as a launch pad to talk about various related topics, like priority queues and graphs and hashing. For instance, what is the most efficient way for a machine to store a prioritized list, and what happens when the equivalent of you scratching an item from a list happens in the machine’s list? How is a store analogous to a graph (an abstraction in computer science and mathematics that defines how things are connected), and how is navigating the aisles in a store analogous to traversing a graph?

Nobody follows me on Instagram. How do I get more followers?

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The concept of links and networks, which I cover in Chapter 6, is relevant here. It’s much easier to get to people whom you might be interested in and who might be interested in you if you can start within the ball of links that connects those people, rather than starting at a random spot.

You mention Instagram: There, the hashtag is one way to enter that ball of links. Tag your photos, engage with users who tag their photos with the same hashtags, and you should be on your way to stardom.

What are the secret ingredients of a successful Facebook post?

I’ve posted things on social media that have died a sad death and then posted the same thing at a later date that somehow did great. Again, if we think of it in terms that are relevant to algorithms, we’d say that the challenge with making something go viral is really getting that first spark. And to get that first spark, a person who is connected to the largest number of people who are likely to engage with that post, needs to share it.

With [my first book], “Bad Arguments,” I spent a month pouring close to $5,000 into advertising for that project with moderate results. And then one science journalist with a large audience wrote about it, and the project took off and hasn’t stopped since.

What problems do you wish you could solve via algorithm but can’t?

When we care about efficiency, thinking in terms of algorithms is useful. There are cases when that’s not the quality we want to optimize for — for instance, learning or love. I walk for several miles every day, all throughout the city, as I find it relaxing. I’ve never asked myself, “What’s the most efficient way I can traverse the streets of San Francisco?” It’s not relevant to my objective.

Algorithms are a great way of thinking about efficiency, but the question has to be, “What approach can you optimize for that objective?” That’s what worries me about self-help: Books give you a silver bullet for doing everything “right” but leave out all the nuances that make us different. What works for you might not work for me.

Which companies use algorithms well?

When you read that the overwhelming majority of the shows that users of, say, Netflix, watch are due to Netflix’s recommendation engine, you know they’re doing something right.