Algorithms to Live By

This is a book that brings algorithms to everyday, real life practice. It explores how they can be applied to our normal problems. It started by stating that although we seem uncomfortable with applying algorithms to our life, we use them every day: following a recipe is an algorithm.

It was nice to go back to some maths in a book, and this was a fun one. It definitely made my love for rational mathematics and art clash. Algorithms for when to marry or how to organise your life definitely make me uncomfortable, but it is always interesting to peek into what the maths says.

I kept my note-taking very much in an Elizabeth-theme. The things I picked out were much more related to life, work, joy and had much less to do with the names of algorithms and scientific processes (which I’m guaranteed to forget anyways), so the book itself is much more science-heavy than my summary would suggest.

Book: Algorithms to live by, Brian Christian

Actionable takeaways

  1. If you want the best apartment, spend 37% of your time looking for apartments, then buy the absolute next one that passes your expectations (11 days in a month looking for them, putting deposit down in next) - it’s an algorithm.

  2. The secretary problem: if you want to hire a secretary, and you have to look at applicants, you can hire anyone you see. But if you don’t hire them on the spot, you can contact them again. When do you hire? The solution: You set a time to just browse, then you pick the next best one. 37% rule is the best time to leap and browse - it gives you a 37% chance of picking the best applicant.

  3. The hazards of mess and the hazards of order are quantifiable using time: sorting out your email inbox is a waste of your life (harsh)

  4. It is time saving to have a bunch of clothes near your bed - to have the vacuum cleaner behind the living room couches, keeping things geographically closer to where they are used makes life easier.

  5. Superfiling method for organisation: you keep all files in a box, and you always insert a new file on the left hand side. Even when you pull an older file out, you have to put it near the left. So the most used ones are always on the left and you have some idea about where things can be found based on how long ago you looked for them.

  6. The effort of retrieval is a testament to how much you already know - it’s harder to retrieve when you know more, so perhaps that can account for some issues with our memory as we age (or learn more).

  7. If something is flammable and can run - it is never blocking a fire exit. The issue is not to remove all small tasks from our life, it’s to recognise them for what they are (important and unimportant) and reorder them.

  8. Putting off a huge goal by doing random things (procrastination) is done to complete small tasks and to reduce the perceived workload in the mind - our brain is actually acting optimally

  9. With a power law, the longer you live, the longer you are likely to live. A 0 year old we should predict to live the average expectancy, the 6 year old we should predict to live longer because they didn’t die in childhood.

  10. When trying to remember everything occupies our full attention, we are thrashing. When we need more time to organise and priorities work, but don’t have time to do that because we have too much work to do, we’re thrashing. We need to stop at this point, and just do something, in any random order to reduce the workload.

Some quotes:

A man with one watch knows what time it is, a man with two never knows
The mistakes made by people say more about the intrinsic difficulties of the problem, than the fallibility of the human brain
Timely proposals are often accepted, tardy are rarely
The best minds of my generation are making people click on ads
Tossing things on the top of the pile is the most efficient thing you can do, shy of knowing the future
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives
When the future is foggy, it turns out you don’t need a calendar, just a to do list
The optimist thinks we are living in the best of all worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true