Review: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As we inevitably accelerate towards the technological Singularity (thank you, Vernor Vinge!), I see algorithms popping up more frequently not only in my work-life, but also in daily life. Or maybe I just think of daily life more in terms of explicit algorithms. Perhaps like George Costanza “My worlds are colliding!

We read this book for our Clinical Decision Support book club at work. Wow, you say, how Geek can you be? Yes, guilty as charged. However, I find that every chance I have to participate and prompt others to read outside of their usual sphere or their narrow focus at work, the more creative and thoughtful my colleagues are, and so am I (bonus!).

“Algorithms to Live By” is a collection of narratives about how these logical structures invade our daily lives. The some chapter titles are illuminating:

1. Optimal Stopping (when to stop looking), otherwise known as the “secretary problem”, or when to stop interviewing candidates because the likelihood of finding someone better is too low.

2. Scheduling (deciding what to work on). This was a helpful discussion about multi-tasking and the cognitive overhead of constantly having to re-orient yourself around a new problem to solve (that is, DON’T MULTI-TASK, it’s a MYTH). Also, how to decide which items to work on first (first in, first out? Shortest completion time? Longest completion time?

3. Caching (forget about it). How to decide what to forget, or evict or throw out, given space limitations? How to arrange your work, your files (your home?) so that frequently used items are easily found? I used this to explain why I leave my clothes laying around instead of hanging them up neatly. “I’m just caching for efficiency, honey. I’m going to need that again pretty soon!” See? Book club can be useful.

Lots of other fun topics in here. Lots of ways to take what is essentially a way of designing computer programs, and applying it explicitly to our own lives.

My family constantly makes fun of me for trying to optimize their lives (because, of course, MINE is already optimized). My daughter’s neologism on this is “Dad is always trying to optimize Humans. He is always trying to Hume-Optimize.” This has gradually devolved into shorthand: anytime I make a suggestion to improve the lives of my loved ones, the simple retort is “Don’t Hume-optimize me.”

CMIO’s take? As long as you recognize that “Hume-optimization” is a double-edged sword, you will be okay. Sometimes thinking about algorithms at work, or in cases where a friend or colleague is ACTUALLY asking for advice (listen carefully, if indeed this is the case), then, yes, go right ahead and make suggestions. On the other hand, in those FRAUGHT situations when the venting of a friend or colleague or family member is purely about venting, and not at all about problem-solving (be it oh-so-tempting), then beware: Hume-optimization is NOT WELCOME HERE. Voice of experience.

View all my reviews

Review: Columbus Day

Columbus Day
Columbus Day by Craig Alanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are days when a good shoot-em-up, escapist sci-fi exactly fits the bill. Alanson’s ‘Columbus Day’ is exactly that. There’s something to be said for the Wisdom of Crowds (by Surowiecki, look it up), as the recommendation engine tells me that I’d like this book if I liked ‘We Are Legion’ (see my recent review). Commuting to and from work, I find that a good fiction story takes me out of my work-day stresses and gives me a smile, and sometimes an out-loud guffaw. Fortunately my vocal shenanigans are unnoticed during my windows-up commute.

The narrator is just perfect for this story; I can’t imagine reading this book silently, now that I’ve been through the performance. The accents, the voices, seem impossible to be coming from one narrator. Of course, the star character, a millennia-old artificial intelligence with the petulance and temperament of a small child is pitch-perfect and the source of endless amusement.

The Expeditionary Force is Earth’s last hope, as two separate alien species land on earth in quick succession, and we end up sending our best soldiers out, piggy-back-ing on the star carriers of one of the species, and entering into a galactic conflict that is way beyond our experience and imagination. All we can do is hang on … until Skippy the Magnificent enters the picture.

Then, hang on to your hat. An enjoyable, rollercoaster ride. It’s always a good sign when I arrive at my destination and have to sit in the driveway to finish a scene or a chapter.

(UPDATE: the sequel: Expeditionary Force is out, and also an enjoyable listen. The ragtag crew and the always-potty-mouthed AI land on a planet and high adventure and further shenanigans ensue).

CMIO’s take? Life balance. Work hard at work (or don’t), but don’t bring it home. Sometimes a fun book with a potty-humored AI is just the ticket to get over yourself, clear your head and emotions, and walk in at home with a smile on your face.

View all my reviews

Review: The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life

The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life
The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beware! This pretends to be an eminently readable book about practicing music or sports WHEN ACTUALLY it is about mindfulness, Eastern religions, happiness and a guide to living your life fully. Wow.

The author reads his own book on and is quite relaxing to listen to. I was happily enjoying this book at the superficial level of learning how to be Present during practice to improve skills, and then began to realize the deeper levels of meaning. He draws a contrast between the young mind, being told to “practice for 30 minutes” and finding the tedium and the disappointment crushing, as one’s expectations of the skills one would LIKE to have being always out of reach. He compares this to an adult learner, who, with more life experience (we hope) is typically practicing music or sports more for enjoyment. In the second case, the thoughtful, present learner, can experience the actual practice as enjoyment: “I am always getting better, even this minute.”

A wonderful metaphor the author provides is that the sailor, who is always fixated on the horizon in the direction of travel of his sailing ship, finds that the horizon always recedes, and is constantly frustrated at his lack of visible progress. Instead, the sailor who looks at the waves constantly crashing against the bow, and the visible crests and troughs, the fish, the dolphins that constantly pass by, is not only aware of, and enjoying the present, but also the inevitable forward progress he is making. The second sailor is much more aware and satisfied in the moment.

The author speaks about the overlapping 4 S’s, as a way of thinking about being Present, with the concrete example of “cleaning out the garage: an overwhelming task that begs to be deferred”:
-Simple: break a big task down into bite-sized parts, think of only part of the garage
-Small: “I will only clean from the northwest corner, three lateral feet until the window.”
-Short: “I will only spend 45 minutes on this task and consider it done.”
-Slow: “I will be aware of every movement and action that I am taking.”

He notes that if we can pursue the 4 S’s in any task, large or small, we can find ourselves in what others later called “flow state” where time disappears, one is focused and can actually enjoy accomplishing tasks. And if done well, this actually takes no MORE time, and often takes less time, because we are less distracted and perform better and more accurately.

I have applied these principles myself to practicing the ukulele (itself the embodiment of simple and small), to rehearsing my kata for karate, to writing a blog, and, when set up properly, to answering my inevitable backlog of email. Mihaly Cziszemnihalyi’s Flow speaks to this, as does Daniel Pink’s Drive.

CMIO’s take: where can YOU apply the 4 S’s in your life? Life lessons appear in the most unexpected places. Here’s wishing you can apply a few principles of the Practicing Mind in your life.
View all my reviews

The CMIO role will evolve as health systems’ needs (HealthcareDIVE)


Image courtesy of HealthcareDIVE

Thanks to Meg Bryant from HealthcareDIVE for a nice article about the evolving role of the CMIO. My quote:

“If implementing an EHR was constructing the basement of the house, we now have demands on building the first, second and third floors,” he says. “How do we innovate to reduce costs, increase quality and reduce physician burnout all at the same time?”

Review: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lets be clear. I AM an EXCELLENT SHEEP, and saw myself critiqued in the pages of this insightful book.

My college-bound daughter discovered this book on the bookshelf of her college counselor, with whom she meets regularly in this, her junior year. I graduated, according to her, back in the paleolithic age, from a school in Tallahasse, Florida, that requires meters of excavation to uncover from the archeological record. Surely NOTHING I learned applies in this accelerated, Modern era.

[Actual quote from, at-the-time-7-year-old daughter: “That was back in the age of dinosaurs, when =I= wasn’t alive, but you were.”]

So, I dutifully picked up this book, as she found it too tiresome to have to explain to me what Modern high schoolers were facing, and how many misconceptions I had carried and how many opportunities I had missed during my own Jurassic years. She was certainly NOT going to replicate my folly.

OK, so I attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and Stanford University for medical school. We will just leave aside the snarky comments of “Ohhhh, you went to Haaahhhvahhd. I’m surprised you even talk to little people like us.” This lead to the decades-long behavior of being vague about my undergraduate career: “Oh, where did you go to school?” “Um, back East.” “Oh, where back East?” Um, Boston.” “Oh, Boston U?” “Um, no.” “So, where?” “Harvard.” “Ohhhh, Haaahvaahhhd! …”

But I digress. The Daughter has informed me that she will NOT be looking at Harvard, not interviewing, not planning on attending there. Instead, she’ll be seeking a college “experience” that is challenging, a smaller school with excellent teachers in smaller classes, a breadth of liberal arts subjects, as she is currently interested in EVERYTHING, good sports, great art, strong science, math, engineering, a place that will give her a chance to discover and grow, and not a treadmill rat race.

Compare that to my upbringing. I do recall the strong suggestion from my parents that “being a Doctor” seems like an excellent career choice to support a family and at least a few grandparents… Interestingly, my over-the-top uncle always insisted that the hard-working Chinese immigrant would “take over America” in several waves: First generation: study math and science, become Engineers! because poor language skills are not a handicap in this field. Second generation: continue math and science, but now, you have better language skills: become Doctors! Third generation: who cares about math and science, because with outstanding language skills: become Lawyers! Time to Take Over the government! So, 3 generations until the Immigrants run the place. Sure, I played my part.

Where was I? Oh yes, and that First Generation drive to excel pushed me into the biggest name University that my parents could think of: the big H. In the years since graduation, I must say that although quite a number of my classmates have gone on to do great things and look back with fondness on those years, a surprising number have mixed memories and some consider it a mistake: a roiling cauldron of 5000 high powered, driven students looking for a stepping-stone to a professional degree: MD, JD, MBA. And on the flip side, did Harvard open doors that were closed to grads from other schools? Perhaps a Stanford Med spot? Possibly, but not for certain. Would I have become a physician regardless? Almost certainly yes.

Big H was big. Economics 101 in Sanders Theater: 1000+ students in one class. Never met the professor. Psychology 101: more than 800 students. Inorganic Chemistry: 400 students, and I approached my first college exam, being ready to regurgitate, as my high school well taught me, the facts I had stuffed in my head. Instead I was faced with 5 impenetrable essay questions: “Let’s theorize a new universe where instead of the usual S and P electron orbitals, there are now 13 electrons in a shell. Hypothesize how molecules would form differently?” Just as I was flipping through the pages, realizing that I could answer NONE of the questions, one of the students in the front row (whom we later understood had taken too many NO DOZE the night before), began to have a seizure. He was carried out by paramedics. We looked at each other in a panic: apparently college exams KILL STUDENTS.

The pressures then were intense, and now that it is several times more difficult to navigate the waters to an admissions letter, I imagine the pressure is even greater. Reports of suicide and high rates of anxiety and depression seem to confirm these fears.

I think I was lucky in my ancient days: finding a small cadre of like-minded students, forming what we called the “Oligarchy” and causing all sorts of pseudo-governance shenanigans. For example, using my new Macintosh to print posters taking credit for social functions organized by others: “The OLIGARCHY welcomes you to tonights’ Dance.” “The OLIGARCHY invites you to come to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s latest masterpiece.” “The OLIGARCHY is sponsoring the French Accent Table tonight at dinner.”

You see, amongst the pompous French, Spanish, German language tables at dinner at Dunster House, we formed the “French Accent” table, sat one row over from the French table, and proceeded with our best, overly-loud Monty Python accents to overwhelm, dismay and ultimately dismantle and chase away the overly serious. Seriously, though, finding a group where you can belong, can make all the difference in a large University that is seemingly uncaring, and too large to look after all the students all the time.

Excellent Sheep describes the slow evolution of students being shaped by geologic forces into perfect specimens, designed specifically to assemble the perfect high school resume: over a dozen AP courses, straight A’s, months of SAT and ACT prep, a collection of club presidencies, a collection of varsity sports lettermen jackets, and oh, yes, don’t forget those few months spent with the Peace Corp.

Julie Lythcott Haimes, freshmen dean at Stanford, writes in “How to Raise an Adult” that every year the Stanford freshmen class is more impressive than the last. Have we not perfected the high school resume? Justin Hoffman’s The Graduate was a perfect specimen, only to realize he was disenfranchised and fossilized in the older generation’s expectations.

Malcolm Gladwell notes, in his book “David and Goliath” that students with comparable SAT scores who attend the best school they can get into and graduate in the middle of their class, do far worse in their subsequent career (sometimes even quitting their chosen field because of overwhelming competition) than students who go to a strong, smaller school, find a good mentor, a comfortable yet challenging culture in which to excel and graduate nearer the top of their class.

I think I’m taking all this time, reminiscing about my pleistocene years, to meander around to my point. I’m actually fine NOT having my daughter attend Harvard. There are thousands of excellent schools that do not cater to, and do not want Excellent Sheep. They intend to grow strong adults, with a sense of identity, of curiosity, of perspective. Did Harvard serve me well? Sure, and maybe I was lucky. Do I want to use my advantages and push her into a Legacy spot in the Harvard Admissions queue? Surprisingly, I think my answer has become “no.”

Ms. Lythcott-Haimes perhaps should have the last word. I (ineptly) paraphrase: “Our children are NOT hot-house orchids, requiring perfect care and feeding. They are instead wildflowers of an unknown genus and species.” And it is up to all of us to help them discover what they will become.

View all my reviews