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Algorithml To Live By

Imagine you’re searching for an apartment in San
Francisoo—arguably the most harrowing American city in
which to do so. The booming tech sector and tight zoning
laws limiting new construction have conspired to make the
city just as expensive as New York, al1d by many accounts
more competitive. New listings go up and come down
within millutes, open houses are mobbed, and often the
keys end up in the hands of whoever can physically foist a
deposit check on the landlord ?rst.
Such a savage market leaves little room for the kind of
fact—finding and deliberation that is theoretically supposed


to characterize the doings of the rational consumer.
Unlike, say, a mall patron or an online shopper, who can
compare options before making a decision, the would-be
San Franciscan has to decide instantly either way: you can
take the apartment you are currently looking at, forsaking
all others, or you can walk away, never to return.
Let’s assume for a moment, for the sake of simplicity,
that _you care only about maximizing your chance of
getting the very best apartment available. Your goal is
reducing the twin, Scylla-and-Charybdis regrets of the
“one that got away” and the “stone left unturned” to the
absolute minimum. You run into a dilemma right off the
bat: How are you to know that an apartment is indeed the
best unless you have a baseline to judge it by? And how are
you to establish that baseline unless you look at (and lose)
a number of apartments? The more information you
gather, the better you’ll know the right opportunity when
you see it—but the more likely you are to have already
passed it by.
So what do you do? How do you make an informed
decision when the very act of informing it jeopardizes the
outcome? It’s a cruel situation, bordering on paradox.

like an odd juxtaposition. For many people, the word
“algorithm” evokes the arcane and inscrutable
machinations of big data, big government, and big
business: increasingly part of the infrastructure of the
modern world, but hardly a source of practical wisdom or
guidance for human affairs. But an algorithm is just a
finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem, and
algorithms are much broader—and older by far—than the
computer. Long before algorithms were ever used by
machines, they were used by people.
The word “algorithm” comes from the name of Persian
mathematician al-Khwarizmi, author of a ninth-century
book of techniques for doing mathematics by hand. [His
book was called al-Jnbr wa’l-Muq(ibz1la—and the “al-jabr”
of the title in turn provides the source of our word
“algebra.”) The earliest known mathematical algorithms,
however, predate even al-Khwarizmi’s work: a four-
thousand-year-old Sumerian clay tablet found near
Baghdad describes a scheme for long division.
But algorithms are not con?ned to mathematics alone.
V\7hen you cook bread from a recipe, you’re following an
algorithm. When you knit a sweater from a pattern, you’re

following an algorithm. When you put a sharp edge on a
piece of ?int by executing a precise sequence of strikes
with the end of an antler—a key step in making ?ne stone
tools—you’re following an algorithm. Algorithms have
been a part of human technology ever since the Stone Age.

In this book, we explore the idea of human algorithm
desig11—searching for better solutions to the challenges
people encounter every day. Applying the lens of computer
science to everyday life has consequences at many scales.
Most immediately, it offers us practical, concrete
suggestions for how to solve specific problems. Optimal
stopping tells us when to look and when to leap. The
explore/exploit tradeoff tells us how to ?nd the balance
between trying new things and enjoying our favorites.
Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our
of?ces. Caching theory tells us how to ?ll our closets.
Scheduling theory tells us how to ?ll our time.
At the next level, computer science gives us a vocabulary
for understanding the deeper principles at play in each of
these domains. As Carl Sagan put it, “Science is a way of









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About Unknown

ZAKARIA AL BAZZAR, 19 yo, university student. love everything about new tech, and I'm sharing it with you :)
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