poems that solve puzzles [book review]

Upon request, I received this book from Oxford University Press for review. Poems that Solve Puzzles is a nice title and its cover is quite to my linking (for once!). The author is Chris Bleakley, Head of the School of Computer Science at UCD.

“This book is for people that know algorithms are important, but have no idea what they are.”

These is the first sentence of the book and hence I am clearly falling outside the intended audience. When I asked OUP for a review copy, I was more thinking in terms of Robert Sedgewick’s Algorithms, whose first edition still sits on my shelves and which I read from first to last page when it appeared [and was part of my wife’s booklist]. This was (and is) indeed a fantastic book to learn how to build and optimise algorithms and I gain a lot from it (despite remaining a poor programmer!).

Back to poems, this one reads much more like an history of computer science for newbies than a deep entry into the “science of algorithms”, with imho too little on the algorithms themselves and their connections with computer languages and too much emphasis on the pomp and circumstances of computer science (like so-and-so got the ACM A.M. Turing Award in 19… and  retired in 19…). Beside the antique algorithms for finding primes, approximating π, and computing the (fast) Fourier transform (incl. John Tukey), the story moves quickly to the difference engine of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then to Turing’s machine, and artificial intelligence with the first checkers codes, which already included some learning aspects. Some sections on the ENIAC, John von Neumann and Stan Ulam, with the invention of Monte Carlo methods (but no word on MCMC). A bit of complexity theory (P versus NP) and then Internet, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix… Finishing with neural networks (then and now), the unavoidable AlphaGo, and the incoming cryptocurrencies and quantum computers. All this makes for pleasant (if unsurprising) reading and could possibly captivate a young reader for whom computers are more than a gaming console or a more senior reader who so far stayed wary and away of computers. But I would have enjoyed much more a low-tech discussion on the construction, validation and optimisation of algorithms, namely a much soft(ware) version, as it would have made it much more distinct from the existing offer on the history of computer science.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version of it will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE.]

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