Note to Self

6 Algorithms That Can Improve Your Life

May 24, 201620 min
There's been a lot of negative press lately about algorithms (Facebook, Snapchat, the prison system). But this week we're exploring ways that mathematical and scientific algorithms can actually help improve how we live. Brian Christian co-wrote the book "Algorithms to Live By" with his friend, Tom Griffiths, a psychology and cognitive science professor at UC Berkeley. Brian is all about the intersection of technology and humanity, and figuring out how to use data to help people optimize their lives. In their book, Brian and Tom offer really practical applications for scientific principles, which we'll get to in a minute. But first, here's the catch: There’s no formula for perfection. Even if you apply these algorithms to your life, things will go wrong. But by trying out these algorithms, you can statistically give it your best shot. In part one of this two-part series about practical applications for algorithms, Brian tells Manoush about six small changes anyone can try. 1. Temporal Locality This algorithm posits that the paper you're most likely to use next, is the last one you touched. So that pile of papers on your desk? You have a scientific reason to never organize them. The most relevant stuff will rise to the top. 2. The Search/Sort Trade-off If you tag and file your emails, you might be wasting your time. Weigh the amount of time you spend organizing against the amount of time it takes to use the good ol' search function. 3. Computational Kindness The next time you try to plan a meeting, skip the classic line, "I'm totally free." Brian calls this "Passing the computational buck." Instead, ask a binary question like "Are you free for dinner at 5 p.m. on Thursday?" It may go against the rules of etiquette, but setting a specific window for availability should be more efficient. 4. Cache Miss There's a fundamental trade-off between size and speed. The more we know — the more data we collect in our minds — the more likely we are to have a brain fart.  5. The Explore/Exploit Trade-off The more experiences you have, the less likely it is that something will blow your mind. That's why Manoush has such fond memories from a Squeeze concert she went to in ninth grade. It may not have actually been that incredible, but she had less to compare it to. 6. Radix Sort You might be compelled to sort your kid's Legos (or yours, this is a judgement-free zone) by color. But radix sort says efficiency trumps aesthetic. Try sorting by size instead. Click the "Listen" button above to hear Brian and Manoush talk all about how to use these algorithms to live a better life. And when you're done, check out part 2 of the series where Manoush tests some of them out. Subscribe to Note to Self on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, I Heart Radio, Pocket Casts or anywhere else using our RSS feed.

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