HN Books @HNBooksMonth

The best books of Hacker News.

Hacker News Comments on
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths · 7 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions" by Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths.
View on Amazon [↗]
HN Books may receive an affiliate commission when you make purchases on sites after clicking through links on this page.
Amazon Summary
A fascinating exploration of how insights from computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives, helping to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind All our lives are constrained by limited space and time, limits that give rise to a particular set of problems. What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime? How much messiness should we accept? What balance of new activities and familiar favorites is the most fulfilling? These may seem like uniquely human quandaries, but they are not: computers, too, face the same constraints, so computer scientists have been grappling with their version of such issues for decades. And the solutions they've found have much to teach us. In a dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show how the algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. They explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal with overwhelming choices and how best to connect with others. From finding a spouse to finding a parking spot, from organizing one's inbox to understanding the workings of memory, Algorithms to Live By transforms the wisdom of computer science into strategies for human living.
HN Books Rankings

Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
Tons, the book "Algorithms to live by" go head first into this -

It can sound a bit simple at first, but the human - algo stories are terrific.

Are there examples that aren't that book (or derived from that book)?
As you get older, you should read fewer new books, and revisit the ones that have you the most joy. Vacation sounds like a great place for that!

Edit: why? Because you believe in the leverage algorithms can provide

There are probably a lot of single people here that would benefit from that book as well (the stopping problem)

We all "know" the algos. But reading/hearing how they can be applied and what effect they can have on your life can be enlightening.

> As you get older, you should read fewer new books,

What? Why? Who says?

I plan to read just as many if not more new books as I get older.

I do not understand your answer about "the leverage algorithms can provide".

I enjoy reading new fiction books. Why "should" I do it less as I get older? If I someday retire, I would plan to use some of my additional free time to read even more books.

Maybe it's just me, but I find marginal joy drops exponentially by repetition.
It has been about 15+ years since I had watched TOS star trek. I recently started watching them again. I recently went back and am watching 1 a week, same with Stargate. I find them very enjoyable again. Some books/movies/shows work better at a particular pace. I found that binge watching them makes them decidedly less enjoyable. Other shows are basically designed to be 10 hour movies. So those are OK to do that with (westworld being an example of that).

Sometimes it is worth taking a break and give it a decent amount of time. Then watch it again. I have a few dozen shows I know I liked when I was younger. I could even give you a 'outline' of one of the shows that I could make up. Yet for the life of me I could not tell you exactly what 1 episode was about without looking it up. I know I liked them. Yet I no longer really remember them. Those are ripe for revisiting. But sometimes it is best to leave them as 'fondly remembered' and my older sensibilities do not match what I had years ago.

But yeah watching the same thing every other day and you will grow bored with it.

I also recently went through the TOS. It really holds up. The best episodes are timeless. TOS has an energy and drama that I don’t see in any of the shows or movies that leach off of that world. I’m probably biased, as TOS is part of my childhood, but it’s the only one I like.
If one is reading to apply the acquired knowledge, the above is an excellent advice.

Also, do not underestimate the power of re-reading great books, new and deeper insights are attained during the second and third reads.

I don't know if you should but it's not a bad advice. I do that occasionally, re-read a book I read as a teenager or young adult and it is interesting how sometimes one can pick up different details or understand things differently.

why is that?

> should


I'm always surprised when people talk about rereading books. I get absolutely nothing out of books I've already read. Do you also rewatch TV series?
I also find re-reading books frequently have diminishing returns, but after some time, you and your world changes, which results in you having a different point of view when you re-read the book.

As you change, the meaning of the book to you changes as well, and gives you new perspectives along with new ideas. E.g. a specific villain or a side character in the book might not be attractive or simply confusing to you, but as you re-read the book, you realize that you get them and they now make perfect sense.

Books, TV series, movies, music...if I make some emotional connection while experiencing it, I'm likely to want to repeat that experience later.

When I buy a book (or in the olden days, a DVD/etc), I'm factoring rereadings into the value proposition. If I don't think I'm going to want to reread, I'll prefer to get it from the library.

So, most content in my personal library is there because I expect to experience it repeatedly. And I'll tell you, it can be fascinating to take some experience you treasured as as preteen, and then experience it anew from the perspective of a parent. It's pretty funny relating more to the dopey dad and less to the hero.

But not everything is about getting a different take on repeat experiences. Sometimes I just want another hit of whatever that piece of media made me feel.

I do both. And movies. If it’s not worth reading or watching a second or third time, it wasn’t worth it the first time. I read Hamlet every year or two. It gets me every time. I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon about five times, and it still amazes me with its perfection each time. I’ve seen the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty three times, and I fully intend to watch it three more times. Pure genius. Anything good has layers and details that usually can not be fully appreciated the first time through. Do you only listen to a song you like once?
"Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book."

--Vladimir Nabokov

It depends heavily on the genre, at least for me. So-called genre fiction--mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, that sort of thing--really doesn't hold up to rereading, since the whole draw is, by and large, the setting and the plot. I still remember the solution at the end of Murder on the Orient Express, and I still know how Liu Cixin's theory of galactic civilizations is going to play out in the Three Body Problem, so there's not really a draw to reread those books: the language is serviceable but not exciting (at least in the translated TBP), there's no real symbolism/inter-textuality to dig into on further readings, &c. However, I still find myself rereading favorites like Gravity's Rainbow and Moby Dick every few years: the jokes are still funny, the language is still beautiful, and it's still enjoyable to ponder the references and metaphors the authors are (possibly) building.

Your comparison to television is a pretty good one, honestly. I've never really rewatched an episode of a serial television series (other than trying to refresh my memory when picking up a new season), since there usually isn't any substance there beyond the plot and characters, but I'll happily rewatch movies if the directing, cinematography, and/or acting are compelling enough.

The complexity of A Song of Ice and Fire... You get a lot out of a second read-through. There the density of the plot development is so thick that you don't even know what you're supposed to focus on. Some things that are mentioned in the first few hundred pages can resonate much stronger after reading the last few hundred pages.

That's just one example. It obviously depends on the book. Getting "absolutely nothing" out of something seems more like a choice.

At different points in your life great stories can impact you in different ways. A simple example of one that could do this is The Road by Cormack McCarthy. I never had kids, but from what I've heard people who read it after becoming a parent are hit with far stronger emotions than those who don't have kids.
Actually, yes. I haven't done it with books, but there are a few shows I've rewatched. Usually it's something I enjoy having on in the background while I do other things, similar to having background music. It started as me just knowing I liked the show, and not needing to pay full attention to it to follow along. But I notice a lot of new things on subsequent viewing, and knowing the basic plot already I'm able to appreciate how the writers are setting things up, establishing the characters, etc. in ways that become very significant later. And the first-time through I just don't notice that kind of thing or appreciate it. It feels like getting more depth in the art of it rather than just experiencing more breadth from another artist.
> Do you also rewatch TV series

Good ones, with a lot of depth, absolutely.

I also look at paintings more than once in my life, consume my favorite meals more than once and so on. For those without a perfect memory, re-reading a good book can often teach us new things.

Rereading (or "reexperiencing") something can be very valuable. Since you already know where the destination is going to be, you get to focus your attention on more of the little details you might not have picked up on the first time through.

With that said, I only occasionally do it for books because of the time commitment. I have a large list of books I want to read, and only read about 25 books a year. So if I am going to reread something, it's usually for a specific reason or I am was in a specific mood.

When Vladimir Nabokov was teaching literature, he instructed the students to read each novel twice, to get over the plot suspense so they could concentrate on the details. When they appeared for the final examination, they encountered questions like, “Describe the wallpaper in the Karenins’ bedroom”.
While I understand the idea of rereading a few books here and there, it's pretentious assholery to imagine you shouldn't read new books because you're getting older. That's just an idiot who pretends to be the smartest guy in the room. There aren't too many types of people more pathetic than someone who never tries new entertainment. "I only like the old stuff". Because someone is only a good artist or writer after they've been dead for a century.
I think this really varies from person to person.

I re-read maybe 5% of books, and I tend to get a lot out of re-reading. Nassim Taleb said something like "if it's not worth re-reading, it was not worth reading in the first place".

My re-watch rate on movies and TV series is much higher, probably 85% of movies I will watch more than once. TV series, maybe 50%.

Some people just read or watch and never care to think much about it after. That's cool too; doesn't hurt me any.

The value of re-reading will be low if you’re reading high noise to signal books that could be compressed into a blog post (e.g. anything by Adam Grant).

If you read more dense books of philosophy, literature, or otherwise you’ll get a lot more value out of re-reading since you likely have missed things upon first read. Same thing with tv shows that contain a complicated plot vs. ones that are churned out for quick consumption.

I’m as surprised at your surprise! I’ve seen The Office in its entirety more than 10 times, my other favorite shows 3-5 times each, and most generally popular shows at least twice. Often when a new season arrives, I start again at season 1 if it’s been a while. Same goes for my favorite novels, of which there aren’t as many.

Perhaps it’s relevant that I have a terrible memory for plot.

I'm the same for fiction; I can't read a fiction book twice. My SO can re-read the same fiction over and over. I just don't get it. Now, there are some movies I can watch again. But only once or twice and then I'm done for a very long time.
Re-reading Pop-Psy and Airport literature is not the recommended reading. How about reading Hayek, Strauss for second time? How about reading man's search for meaning for the third time?

You re-read great works, not NYT best shiller! (sic).

Why would you re-read them when you could read something new? Do you find you're actually getting a significant amount of value or joy from it the second time around?

I ask because I think a good portion of the reason I enjoy software development is the absolute and total hatred I have for repetition in my life.

Well, to your first point, because I value depth over novelty. The second time should be better.

To your second point, to quote Prince, "There is joy in repetition".

More than 90% of things that are new to me disappoint me. I don’t know how to find new things, especially fiction, with the expectation that it will hold my interest. Whereas something new from my favorite author has much better odds, and rereading my favorite novel is a sure thing.
1. It’s totally easy to miss things when reading: certainly little delightful details, or even whole ideas or plot points.

2. It’s not like there are millions of great books out there. Some entertaining ones, some informative ones, a few that are both, and a very few life changers.

For some highly complex books, a reread is more like a re-analysis of the text based off of ones existing knowledge. There will be nuances and details that were missed the first go around, that is uncovered the second time around, making the understanding of the piece richer. It’s like mathematics- everything is built on fundamentals.

(Some people also derive comfort in familiar stories.)

Quite an assumption to make about those that don’t like to re-read books. I love reading, I’m very picky about the books I read, and yet I find I’m only re-reading a small handful of books, many years after I last read them.

What am I to read in the mean time?

I had to make some assumptions - given the OP said they did not see any value in re-reading. Not every thing is a candidate for re-read, for the fact of the matter 90% of airport literature is not worth single read let alone re-read.

Take any good from my post and leave the rest. I am not the most finesse commentator.. but at least I am not accusatory.

I always find something I missed the first time around. Or I feel differently about the story. There's always something different.
Rereading a book, one could pick up on things that were missed previously or that have been forgotten about. Also, one might be in a different life situation or mindset from one read to the next which could alter the perception or enjoyment of what's being read. Not to mention that some prose can be appreciated for its beauty.

TV shows, movies, and albums are often revisited by people who enjoy them. Even as I write this, I'm listening to an album right now that I've heard dozens of times before. I may not always be in the mood to listen to it, but my enjoyment of the music has not been eroded by how many times I've already heard it. Rather, being familiar with it, I appreciate both how it's composed, played, and the nuances that are now apparent to me that I certainly missed on my first listens.

One of my favorite books when I was younger was "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art" by Scott McCloud. It was visually appealing to me at the time, but after several readings, I started to really grasp its concepts as an educational art book.

> Also, one might be in a different life situation or mindset from one read to the next which could alter the perception or enjoyment of what's being read

Catcher in the Rye springs to mind. Interesting reading at different times.

One additional point is that when you know where the plot is going and things that are "unknown" at the time, one can appreciate some of the hints or world building even more. Like a detective novel or so, on re-read knowing the killer one can analyze everything and get a new experience from the same content.

I also re-read like people listen to music. I read Harry Potter 1-3 a few times waiting for book four, then 1-2-3-4, then next year 1-2-3-4-5 etc, and then each exam period at uni I would read it when relaxing. Like, just turn my brain off, I don't want new input, just replay something. So I've probably read the first 3-4 books 30+ times (I had a count up to 20 or so).

I can also recommend "Algorithms to Live By", by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths.

Super accessible.

I still think about this book every time I get on Zillow. Great chapter on buying a home.
Yeah, that was a really great book. Also has a well-produced narration available on Audible that I listened to. I recommend it.
I bumped into this accidentally having ever heard of it. It is one of those pleasures of browsing through a library. Lovely book, easy to understand with a broad range of topics and insights. Recommended!
Just started reading this thanks to your recommendation, it looks like a really entertaining book, thanks!

PS for others, it's on libgen...

Shh.. first rule of *
I love this book. Listened to it 4-5 times. Lots of really practical application
Such a good book. I learned so much about life from the multi-armed bandit problem.
Reading this at the moment! Fantastic book and easy to read
Yes! ATLB is fantastic!
I recommend that one to my students. I also recommend Brian's new book titled "The Alignment Problem" and it is cited in the book.
The Nash equilibrium for an unlimited vacation policy is no vacation for anyone.
This is an excellent read, even if you're familiar with most of the material.
Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading it
>So is there an ideally sized choice set when it comes to dating—one large enough to include variety and depth, yet small enough that you can fairly weigh each prospect’s potential without tripping your brain’s overload switch? [...] Fisher puts people somewhere in the middle of that range. “Once you’ve met nine people who are vaguely in the ballpark, choose one and get to know that person better. If nothing works in that nine, go for another nine,” she says.

The article talks about simultaneous choices (choice overload). A related concept is serial choices and the "when to stop looking for The One" dilemma. That's been modeled as The Secretary Problem[1] which calculates a 37% stopping point. It also has been discussed by several authors: [2] [3] [4] [5]






It's not the secretary problem, because in the secretary problem you cannot recall a dismissed candidate and you can only evaluate one candidate at a time.
Yes, I had already stated it was not The Secretary Problem. See that I used the phrase "a related concept ... serial ..."
It is worth noting that the 1/e secretary problem solution is optimal only if your goal is to maximize the probability of choosing the single best secretary.

If your goal is to do expectimax optimization, as decision theory would dictate, you should make a decision after reviewing sqrt(n) applicants. That's assuming a uniform distribution of utility among secretary choices. If the distribution is non-uniform, another heuristic might be better.

I assure you that in dating, utility is not even close to uniformly distributed over secretaries. It is almost the least uniform naturally-occurring distribution I can think of.
By the way, that article is an advertisement for "Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions" [1] in case you're triggered by native advertising. That out of the way ...

As the article states, caching is useful when you have memory stores with different access speeds. This is (frequently, in my experience, caveat caveat etc.) not the case in reality, where you only have the one storage area that has a fixed, fairly low access speed. People are mostly bottlenecked by scanning rate, so it'd make more sense to use an indexing mechanism. Maybe b-trees for closets? B-trees, perhaps, if you store things in boxes?


Most people have several stores for clothes (wardrobe/closet, wash basket, washing machine, in a basket waiting to make it back to the wardrobe etc) and depending how organised you are, the clothes you need could be in any of those on a given morning.

And in the wardrobe itself, I don't have enough separate shelves to be able to organise my clothes both by type and by purpose (so I've got sports socks, walking socks and work socks all in the same drawer for example). It can sometimes take several minutes to locate all of the clothes I actually want for a given day.

On days that I need to be out of the house particularly early, I will "cache" my next day's clothes by getting all of them ready the night before and putting them by the end of the bed, so that I've got instant access to them.

Similarly, I've got a cache of stuff that I need on a daily basis - keys, my wallet with some money and a single credit card in etc - on a shelf near the door, whereas the rest of my keys and the rest of my cards are grouped together somewhere else in the house.

I think it's this kind of stuff that the article is talking about.

I'm going to do the thing where I quote sentences from your comment and respond to them individually, which IMO is normally pretty aggressive -- just wanted to say I'm doing that for organization's sake, not for any other reason.

"Most people have several stores for clothes..." I'd argue that most of those are acting like FILO queues anyways, since you typically don't need random access to clothes in a washing machine/from the to-be-washed pile.

"On days that I need to be out of the house particularly early, I will "cache" my next day's clothes..." you're still spending the same time overall ((sum over all day's clothes(time(access clothes)) + time(get dressed)) to get your next day's clothes, so preloading them just reduces the time spent when in the mornings when deadlines are tight. That's a totally valid technique, but it isn't caching as described in the article, which is described as a technique for mitigating the cost of frequently accessing high latency resources, since you (probably) only infrequently access clothes to wear. In that case, the time spent overall is (probably) dominated by the lookup times for single articles of clothing, so excellent organization is (probably) the best way to cut down on overall time. You'd need to profile to determine whether it could be of use, though.

"I've got a cache of stuff that I need on a daily basis..." that's actually quite valid! I had mentioned b-trees ]1] jokingly, but they can be analogized to what you're describing (feel free to skip the next section if you're already familiar with them). Idea in a nutshell: since hard drives are slow and return data in blocks (you can think of it as retrieving shelves of data at a time instead of individual items), it makes sense to pack as much relevant information as possible (spatial locality) [2] into each block (which b-trees do by having a large branching factor and including data inside of nodes). The relationship to placing items in discrete groups around the house is quite similar: physically moving (following a pointer) is quite slow, so once you're somewhere (a block), you want everything of import to be nearby (high locality, no need to follow more pointers). This is _still_ not caching, since you weren't going to sit down and perform some access intensive operations on your wallet and keys in the morning, but it does have some distant relationship to a CS data structure :)

Or, at least, that's my take on it.

edit: I'd just like to mention that I don't follow any of that advice and just use a roughly sorted laundry bin to keep most of my clothes in a single place, if not in any particular order.



> I'd argue that most of those are acting like FILO queues anyways, since you typically don't need random access to clothes in a washing machine/from the to-be-washed pile.

Except in emergencies. But I regularly need stuff from the "hanging on the clothes drier"/"in the basket ready to come upstairs"/"in a big pile on the end of the bed ready to be put in the wardrobe" ones.

> but it isn't caching as described in the article,

It's still caching. It's just a prefetch cache - using quiet time to prefetch my clothes for when they are needed very quickly.

> so excellent organization is (probably) the best way to cut down on overall time.

I'm not sure it is. Excellent organisation has quite a write-time overhead. In most cases, the amount of effort to organise everything perfectly is going to outweigh the fractional time saving I'd get on most mornings.

And in this case I'm also not looking to optimise overall time. I'm specifically looking to optimise speed to access it in the morning.

>This is _still_ not caching, since you weren't going to sit down and perform some access intensive operations on your wallet and keys in the morning,

I would be. If I had to go and get my single credit card from the filing cabinet where I keep the rest of them, then go and get my work pass from a "work" pile, my keys from the key box, my coat from the closet, my shoes from the shoe cupboard, my bus pass from my transport drawer, my daughter's school bag from her school-related pile etc, etc.

The author makes it pretty clear that he's talking about caching in exactly this way

"Caching is such an obvious thing because we do it all the time. I mean, the amount of information I get . . . certain things I have to keep track of right now, a bunch of things I have on my desk, and then other things are filed away, and then eventually filed away into the university archives system where it takes a whole day to get stuff out of it if I wanted. But we use that technique all the time to try to organize our lives."

At the end of the day, it's never going to be a cache in the true computer sense of the work - there's not a separate copy being made (except in the case of my keys, where I've got exactly that, but that's more for failover than for caching) - but the idea of grouping things by speed of access in a given scenario rather than by category is analogous enough to caching to be worth discussing.

If you want to call it "locality of reference", that's fine (and the link even talks about caching as one form of it). But one critical factor of an analogy is that it's a reasonably well understood term, and I strongly suspect that a lot more people would understand cache than locality of reference.

Essentially, I agree with everything you said -- the core of my complaints about this book excerpt is that it seemed to confuse the areas of responsibility for caches (and their structures) and efficient storage data structures.

I do think that analogies should be less, for want of a better term, leaky than those presented in the article: if they hadn't dragged CS topics into the discussion, I would've upvoted a reasonable productivity article and left it at that.

I do have a chairdrobe for two use items like sweaters and pants.
It's an excerpt, weird to call that native advertising. Is all of Wired a native ad for the rest of Wired?
I guess, when it's an excerpt from a different source, I feel like it's advertising? Like, if Wired were a journal I were paying for, having excerpts makes sense -- the editors found some piece they thought would work well in that issue, so they purchased a license for it and ran with it. But Wired? Given how much they complain about adblockers, their revenue from advertisements can't be that large to begin with, let alone large enough to share. My reasoning, right or wrong, was that the excerpt was placed primarily to drive sales of the book (and perhaps to get some clicks in the process).

In sum, it felt like I was being advertised to in an native format, so I called it native advertising.

Or perhaps splay trees of boxes ..
By the way, that article is an advertisement...

Ironically, Wired wouldn't let me read it, because I've got an ad blocker turned on.

> Wired wouldn't let me read it, because I've got an ad blocker turned on.

Use uBlock Origin. It blocks the ads, and it blocks the adblock blockers.

I use it, and I read the article and didn't see any ads, or popups about how butthurt wired is that I'm using an adblocker.

Yeah, after a few seconds of consideration, I gave up on Wired, not my ad blocker.
On a whim I gave w3m (or w3m-el to be precise) a try on this page, and it worked - I found a new adblocker-blocker-blocker, and I'm quite happy I did got to read this gem of a summary at the end of the article:

>In short, the mathematics of self-organizing lists suggests >something radical: the big pile of papers on your desk, far >from being a guilt-inducing fester of chaos, is actually one >of the most well-designed and efficient structures >available. What might appear to others to be an unorganized >mess is, in fact, a self-organizing mess. Tossing things >back on the top of the pile is the very best you can do, shy >of knowing the future. You don’t need to organize that >unsorted pile of paper. > >You already have.

Thank you for the piece. Really good. I mean I give up on Wired, not on content.
If they ever make a sequel to the movie The Big Hit, The "AdBlocker-Blocker-Blocker" will have to be used instead of the "Trace Buster Buster":
HN Books is an independent project and is not operated by Y Combinator or
~ [email protected]
;laksdfhjdhksalkfj more things ~ Privacy Policy ~
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.