Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers

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Overview

Every day, we use our computers to perform remarkable feats. A simple web search picks out a handful of relevant needles from the world's biggest haystack: the billions of pages on the World Wide Web. Uploading a photo to Facebook transmits millions of pieces of information over numerous error-prone network links, yet somehow a perfect copy of the photo arrives intact. Without even knowing it, we use public-key cryptography to transmit secret information like credit card numbers; and we use digital signatures to verify the identity of the websites we visit. How do our computers perform these tasks with such ease?

This is the first book to answer that question in language anyone can understand, revealing the extraordinary ideas that power our PCs, laptops, and smartphones. Using vivid examples, John MacCormick explains the fundamental "tricks" behind nine types of computer algorithms, including artificial intelligence (where we learn about the "nearest neighbor trick" and "twenty questions trick"), Google's famous PageRank algorithm (which uses the "random surfer trick"), data compression, error correction, and much more.

These revolutionary algorithms have changed our world: this book unlocks their secrets, and lays bare the incredible ideas that our computers use every day.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes and Noble Review
In our increasingly digitally dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson 'the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers' should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen. . . . [Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future] does indeed go a long way toward satisfying that need. . . . MacCormick's two main techniques for conveying his insights are metaphor and a stepwise progression of complexity, moving from usefully oversimplified examples to the actual algorithmic realities. . . . A real sense of the steady progression of computer science arises.
— Paul Di Filippo
Science

Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future offers a great way to find out what computer science is really about. In this very readable book, MacCormick (a computer scientist at Dickinson College) shows how a collection of sets of intangible instructions invented since the 1940s has led to monumental changes in all our lives. . . . MacCormick provides a taste of why we computer scientists get so excited about algorithms--for their utility, of course, but also for their beauty and elegance.
— Paul Curzon
Choice

Algorithms are the controls that drive the engines of the Internet age. Here, MacCormick provides a popular account of several algorithms that affect people's everyday lives.
Times Higher Education

Excellent. . . . MacCormick clearly believes that to be a responsible driver of current technology, you need to understand what is going on at the fundamental level. In addition, he wants us to take delight in the elegance of the solutions that have been developed to address complex questions of the security, integrity and availability of data and digital services. . . . This is an unusually well-written text suitable for anyone with an interest in how today's information systems really work.
— John Gilbey
New Scientist

MacCormick leaves the reader with a sense of the engine that powers the networked world. And at its best, Nine Algorithms enables you to recognise the real world and begin to see those algorithms alive and kicking all around us.
— Kevin Slavin
Books & Culture

In Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future, John MacCormick illustrates the magical mix of tricks, genius, and raw number-crunching power that computers use to solve the everyday problems behind activities like web searches and secure online banking. This book stands out for presenting complicated algorithms in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of readers.
— Andrew M. C. Dawes
MAA Reviews

[MacCormick] masterfully uses everyday analogies in a way that gets to the heart of the ideas (he calls them tricks) that make the algorithms work. While this is essential for readers without mathematical background, the other lesson that jumps out is that this is a great way to introduce these algorithms to mathematics and computer science students who will go on to more in-depth treatments. . . . This excellent survey is an outstanding achievement and would make an excellent library acquisition.
— Art Gittleman
Barnes and Noble Review

In our increasingly digitally dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson 'the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers' should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen. . . . [Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future] does indeed go a long way toward satisfying that need. . . . MacCormick's two main techniques for conveying his insights are metaphor and a stepwise progression of complexity, moving from usefully oversimplified examples to the actual algorithmic realities. . . . A real sense of the steady progression of computer science arises.
— Paul Di Filippo
BBC Focus

Most people know little and care less about how, say, electronic payments are kept secure or how movies are crammed onto DVDs. But as MacCormick shows, they're the result of often stunning ingenuity and creativity. . . . For insights into the thinking that can turn gigabytes into gigabucks, start here.
— Robert Matthews
Financial World

Unusual and engaging. . . . A clear and simple explanation of what it is that makes everyday business and personal computing work. . . . MacCormick has a knack of explaining the smart tricks behind how search engines work and why Google is the best; the cryptography that makes online payments safe (with a brilliant paint-mixing analogy for public keys); error correction of noisy signals; pattern recognition from handwritten postcodes to people's faces (his specialism); data compression in 'zip' files; database structures and certified digital signatures. . . . I raced through it and eagerly want to know more.
— Diana Hunter
Nature Physics

MacCormick's book is an easy-to-read and enjoyable guide to some key algorithms. Above all, it conveys a sense of wonder--at the beautiful science, rather than the technical feats, that makes computers do their magic.
— Andreas Trabesinger
SIAM News

Despite the widespread popular interest in computers, there are very few good, popular introductions to the central ideas of computer science. Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future is certainly one of the best that I have seen. . . . An extraordinary achievement in the daunting task of presenting computer science for a popular audience.
— Ernest Davis
Math Less Traveled

Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is technically right on the money, but manages to explain things in ways that are both understandable and fun. . . . Each chapter starts out very simply, gradually building up more complex examples until you reach a full understanding of the algorithm being explained. . . . The writing is excellent: clear, precise, and fun. I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about the ingenious mathematical and algorithmic ideas underlying some of today's most ubiquitous technology.
— Brent Yorgey
EE Times

One of the best things about Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is that it is of interest to computer professionals and innocent bystanders (non-professionals) alike. The author doesn't attempt to 'baffle us with science' or blow us away with his mathematical prowess. Instead, he employs simple analogies that we can all understand. His use of mixing colored paints to explain the machinations of public key cryptography is, frankly, brilliant. . . . I highly recommend this book as a very enjoyable read that will be of interest to anyone who would like to understand more about the way in which the computer systems we use every day perform their magic.
— Clive Maxfield
Confessions of a Science Librarian

This is a valuable addition to the popular computing literature. I would definitely recommend it for any university computer science collection, both for computing students and for those that are just interested. Larger public library systems would probably also benefit, especially for branches located near high schools. As for high schools, this is definitely the kind of book that could make a huge difference in the life of a young man or woman who's wavering about a career in computing.
— John Dupuis
Popular (Computer) Science

[This is an] extraordinary achievement in the daunting task of presenting computer science for a popular audience.
— Ernest Davis
ZDNet
MacCormick writes in a very clear, simple style, leading the reader step by step through even the most complex explanations.
— Wendy M Grossman
COSMOS Magazine
For a reader unskilled with computers, there's likely no better account of the software that underpins everything from Amazon to Facebook.
— Brett Szmajda
Current Science
The book will certainly delight not only readers with little or no computer science background, but computer scientists as well.
— Y. Narahari
Science - Paul Curzon
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future offers a great way to find out what computer science is really about. In this very readable book, MacCormick (a computer scientist at Dickinson College) shows how a collection of sets of intangible instructions invented since the 1940s has led to monumental changes in all our lives. . . . MacCormick provides a taste of why we computer scientists get so excited about algorithms—for their utility, of course, but also for their beauty and elegance.
Nature Physics - Andreas Trabesinger
MacCormick's book is an easy-to-read and enjoyable guide to some key algorithms. Above all, it conveys a sense of wonder—at the beautiful science, rather than the technical feats, that makes computers do their magic.
Times Higher Education - John Gilbey
Excellent. . . . MacCormick clearly believes that to be a responsible driver of current technology, you need to understand what is going on at the fundamental level. In addition, he wants us to take delight in the elegance of the solutions that have been developed to address complex questions of the security, integrity and availability of data and digital services. . . . This is an unusually well-written text suitable for anyone with an interest in how today's information systems really work.
SIAM News - Ernest Davis
[This is an] extraordinary achievement in the daunting task of presenting computer science for a popular audience.
BBC Focus - Robert Matthews
Most people know little and care less about how, say, electronic payments are kept secure or how movies are crammed onto DVDs. But as MacCormick shows, they're the result of often stunning ingenuity and creativity. . . . For insights into the thinking that can turn gigabytes into gigabucks, start here.
MAA Reviews - Art Gittleman
[MacCormick] masterfully uses everyday analogies in a way that gets to the heart of the ideas (he calls them tricks) that make the algorithms work. While this is essential for readers without mathematical background, the other lesson that jumps out is that this is a great way to introduce these algorithms to mathematics and computer science students who will go on to more in-depth treatments. . . . This excellent survey is an outstanding achievement and would make an excellent library acquisition.
New Scientist - Kevin Slavin
MacCormick leaves the reader with a sense of the engine that powers the networked world. And at its best, Nine Algorithms enables you to recognise the real world and begin to see those algorithms alive and kicking all around us.
Math Less Traveled - Brent Yorgey
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is technically right on the money, but manages to explain things in ways that are both understandable and fun. . . . Each chapter starts out very simply, gradually building up more complex examples until you reach a full understanding of the algorithm being explained. . . . The writing is excellent: clear, precise, and fun. I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about the ingenious mathematical and algorithmic ideas underlying some of today's most ubiquitous technology.
EE Times - Clive Maxfield
One of the best things about Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is that it is of interest to computer professionals and innocent bystanders (non-professionals) alike. The author doesn't attempt to 'baffle us with science' or blow us away with his mathematical prowess. Instead, he employs simple analogies that we can all understand. His use of mixing colored paints to explain the machinations of public key cryptography is, frankly, brilliant. . . . I highly recommend this book as a very enjoyable read that will be of interest to anyone who would like to understand more about the way in which the computer systems we use every day perform their magic.
Barnes and Noble Review - Paul Di Filippo
In our increasingly digitally dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson 'the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers' should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen. . . . [Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future] does indeed go a long way toward satisfying that need. . . . MacCormick's two main techniques for conveying his insights are metaphor and a stepwise progression of complexity, moving from usefully oversimplified examples to the actual algorithmic realities. . . . A real sense of the steady progression of computer science arises.
Financial World - Diana Hunter
Unusual and engaging. . . . A clear and simple explanation of what it is that makes everyday business and personal computing work. . . . MacCormick has a knack of explaining the smart tricks behind how search engines work and why Google is the best; the cryptography that makes online payments safe (with a brilliant paint-mixing analogy for public keys); error correction of noisy signals; pattern recognition from handwritten postcodes to people's faces (his specialism); data compression in 'zip' files; database structures and certified digital signatures. . . . I raced through it and eagerly want to know more.
Books & Culture - Cary Gray
John MacCormick's Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future joins a small set of books that have tried to communicate the nature of the field for a general audience. MacCormick provides something like a quick package tour, with stops at a few highlights—the 'great algorithms' of the title. . . . MacCormick has provided a nice introductory tour, suitable for those who are willing to commit to only a brief visit. Perhaps the taste that he provides will inspire some of those tourists to a more extensive exploration.
Confessions of a Science Librarian - John Dupuis
This is a valuable addition to the popular computing literature. I would definitely recommend it for any university computer science collection, both for computing students and for those that are just interested. Larger public library systems would probably also benefit, especially for branches located near high schools. As for high schools, this is definitely the kind of book that could make a huge difference in the life of a young man or woman who's wavering about a career in computing.
Books & Culture - Andrew M.C. Dawes
In Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future, John MacCormick illustrates the magical mix of tricks, genius, and raw number-crunching power that computers use to solve the everyday problems behind activities like web searches and secure online banking. This book stands out for presenting complicated algorithms in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of readers.
ZDNet - Wendy M Grossman
MacCormick writes in a very clear, simple style, leading the reader step by step through even the most complex explanations.
COSMOS Magazine - Brett Szmajda
For a reader unskilled with computers, there's likely no better account of the software that underpins everything from Amazon to Facebook.
Current Science - Y. Narahari
The book will certainly delight not only readers with little or no computer science background, but computer scientists as well.
Books & Culture - Andrew M. C. Dawes
In Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future, John MacCormick illustrates the magical mix of tricks, genius, and raw number-crunching power that computers use to solve the everyday problems behind activities like web searches and secure online banking. This book stands out for presenting complicated algorithms in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of readers.
Mathematics Teacher - Anne Quinn
The author gives enough detailed mathematical information to interest students at all levels but also has an intriguing way of explaining things for mathematicians. . . . I highly recommend this book to anyone—students and teachers of mathematics as well as nonmathematicians who, whether they realize it or not, use the main ideas of computer science every day.
From the Publisher
"The author gives enough detailed mathematical information to interest students at all levels but also has an intriguing way of explaining things for mathematicians. . . . I highly recommend this book to anyone—students and teachers of mathematics as well as nonmathematicians who, whether they realize it or not, use the main ideas of computer science every day."—Anne Quinn, Mathematics Teacher

"[N]o mathematics, no Computer Science with capitals but easy reading for everyone from 9 till 99. If you are a computer scientist yourself, you might find ideas about how to explain things, or you might find this book an excellent idea to give as a present to grandma so that you don't have to explain yourself."—A. Bultheel, European Mathematical Society

"These revolutionary algorithms have changed our world: this book unlocks their secrets, and lays bare the incredible ideas that our computers use every day."—
Zentralblatt MATH

Science
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future offers a great way to find out what computer science is really about. In this very readable book, MacCormick (a computer scientist at Dickinson College) shows how a collection of sets of intangible instructions invented since the 1940s has led to monumental changes in all our lives. . . . MacCormick provides a taste of why we computer scientists get so excited about algorithms—for their utility, of course, but also for their beauty and elegance.
— Paul Curzon
BBC Focus
Most people know little and care less about how, say, electronic payments are kept secure or how movies are crammed onto DVDs. But as MacCormick shows, they're the result of often stunning ingenuity and creativity. . . . For insights into the thinking that can turn gigabytes into gigabucks, start here.
— Robert Matthews
MAA Reviews
[MacCormick] masterfully uses everyday analogies in a way that gets to the heart of the ideas (he calls them tricks) that make the algorithms work. While this is essential for readers without mathematical background, the other lesson that jumps out is that this is a great way to introduce these algorithms to mathematics and computer science students who will go on to more in-depth treatments. . . . This excellent survey is an outstanding achievement and would make an excellent library acquisition.
— Art Gittleman
New Scientist
MacCormick leaves the reader with a sense of the engine that powers the networked world. And at its best, Nine Algorithms enables you to recognise the real world and begin to see those algorithms alive and kicking all around us.
— Kevin Slavin
Times Higher Education
Excellent. . . . MacCormick clearly believes that to be a responsible driver of current technology, you need to understand what is going on at the fundamental level. In addition, he wants us to take delight in the elegance of the solutions that have been developed to address complex questions of the security, integrity and availability of data and digital services. . . . This is an unusually well-written text suitable for anyone with an interest in how today's information systems really work.
— John Gilbey
Math Less Traveled
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is technically right on the money, but manages to explain things in ways that are both understandable and fun. . . . Each chapter starts out very simply, gradually building up more complex examples until you reach a full understanding of the algorithm being explained. . . . The writing is excellent: clear, precise, and fun. I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about the ingenious mathematical and algorithmic ideas underlying some of today's most ubiquitous technology.
— Brent Yorgey
Nature Physics
MacCormick's book is an easy-to-read and enjoyable guide to some key algorithms. Above all, it conveys a sense of wonder—at the beautiful science, rather than the technical feats, that makes computers do their magic.
— Andreas Trabesinger
SIAM News
Despite the widespread popular interest in computers, there are very few good, popular introductions to the central ideas of computer science. Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future is certainly one of the best that I have seen. . . . An extraordinary achievement in the daunting task of presenting computer science for a popular audience.
— Ernest Davis
EE Times
One of the best things about Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future is that it is of interest to computer professionals and innocent bystanders (non-professionals) alike. The author doesn't attempt to 'baffle us with science' or blow us away with his mathematical prowess. Instead, he employs simple analogies that we can all understand. His use of mixing colored paints to explain the machinations of public key cryptography is, frankly, brilliant. . . . I highly recommend this book as a very enjoyable read that will be of interest to anyone who would like to understand more about the way in which the computer systems we use every day perform their magic.
— Clive Maxfield
Financial World
Unusual and engaging. . . . A clear and simple explanation of what it is that makes everyday business and personal computing work. . . . MacCormick has a knack of explaining the smart tricks behind how search engines work and why Google is the best; the cryptography that makes online payments safe (with a brilliant paint-mixing analogy for public keys); error correction of noisy signals; pattern recognition from handwritten postcodes to people's faces (his specialism); data compression in 'zip' files; database structures and certified digital signatures. . . . I raced through it and eagerly want to know more.
— Diana Hunter
Choice
Algorithms are the controls that drive the engines of the Internet age. Here, MacCormick provides a popular account of several algorithms that affect people's everyday lives.
Books & Culture
In Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future, John MacCormick illustrates the magical mix of tricks, genius, and raw number-crunching power that computers use to solve the everyday problems behind activities like web searches and secure online banking. This book stands out for presenting complicated algorithms in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of readers.
— Andrew M. C. Dawes
Confessions of a Science Librarian
This is a valuable addition to the popular computing literature. I would definitely recommend it for any university computer science collection, both for computing students and for those that are just interested. Larger public library systems would probably also benefit, especially for branches located near high schools. As for high schools, this is definitely the kind of book that could make a huge difference in the life of a young man or woman who's wavering about a career in computing.
— John Dupuis
Popular (Computer) Science
[This is an] extraordinary achievement in the daunting task of presenting computer science for a popular audience.
— Ernest Davis
The Barnes & Noble Review

In our increasingly digitally dominated world, any book that attempts to explain for the layperson "the ingenious ideas that drive today's computers" should find a ready audience and become required reading for the curious, enthusiastic, responsible and attentive netizen — a category more and more of us find ourselves in these days, willy- nilly.

John MacCormick's 9 Algorithms That Changed the Future — which bears as subtitle the quoted phrase above — does indeed go a long way toward satisfying that need, assuming the cooperation of a reader who possesses a modicum of patience, diligence and brain-teaser- friendly applied intelligence. And, amazingly, MacCormick does it all for this willing reader "without assuming [on the reader's part] any knowledge of computer science."

With the clear-eyed precision and logical rigor of the computer science professional that he is, MacCormick begins with a handy definition of an algorithm as a third component of computer architecture, neither software nor hardware, but rather an almost abstract entity: "a precise recipe that specifies the exact sequence of steps required to solve a problem." Having neatly and cleanly described his subject, he lays out his criteria for choosing contenders for the title of nine most consequential algorithms. The winners prove to be those processing tricks associated with 1) search indexing; 2) search result ranking; 3) encoding; 4) error correction; 5) pattern recognition; 6) data compression; 7) database structure and management; 8) authentication; and 9) the limits of the computable. Each algorithm — or cluster of allied recipes — gets a chapter of its own, with a concluding look at the future of such "aha" shortcut inventions.

MacCormick's two main techniques for conveying his insights are metaphor and a stepwise progression of complexity, moving from usefully oversimplified examples to the actual algorithmic realities.

In the metaphor department, MacCormick exhibits a real talent for picking understandable real-world analogues to his algorithms that do not betray the nature of the digital processes. For instance, in the chapter on public-key encryption, he hits upon an allegory involving mixing paints. Likewise, when discussing verification of digital "signatures," he uses the trope of padlocks and keys. These very tangible constructs allow the reader to intuitively comprehend the actualities of the computer code.

The author also exhibits an admirable ability to conjure up na?ve, distilled schematics of real problems. For instance, his little table of friendship relations among three imaginary people sets the stage brilliantly for describing how enormous databases like those in banking work.

MacCormick is no slouch when it comes to history and the human element either. He gives little snapshots of such computer luminaries as Alan Turing, Claude Shannon and Alonzo Church that illuminate the personal dimensions behind these geniuses. A real sense of the steady progression of computer science arises. Moreover, the reader will pick up an astonishing new set of handy buzzwords. You might like such mouthfuls as "stochastic gradient descent," but my personal favorite is "idempotent," which among computer professionals refers to any specified action which can be applied to the same data any number of times without producing false results.

MacCormick's concluding chapter speculates on the generation of future algorithms and the decay of present ones, while reaffirming his generous sense of wonder that such near-cosmic conceptualizations are within the scope of human intelligence at all.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691147147
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/16/2012
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 521,240
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 3.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John MacCormick is a leading researcher and teacher of computer science. He has a PhD in computer vision from the University of Oxford, has worked in the research labs of Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, and is currently a professor of computer science at Dickinson College.

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Table of Contents


Foreword ix
Chapter 1. Introduction: What Are the Extraordinary Ideas Computers Use Every Day? 1
Chapter 2. Search Engine Indexing: Finding Needles in the World's Biggest Haystack 10
Chapter 3. PageRank: The Technology That Launched Google 24
Chapter 4. Public Key Cryptography: Sending Secrets on a Postcard 38
Chapter 5. Error-Correcting Codes: Mistakes That Fix Themselves 60
Chapter 6. Pattern Recognition: Learning from Experience 80
Chapter 7. Data Compression: Something for Nothing 105
Chapter 8. Databases: The Quest for Consistency 122
Chapter 9. Digital Signatures: Who Really Wrote This Software? 149
Chapter 10. What Is Computable? 174
Chapter 11. Conclusion: More Genius at Your Fingertips? 199
Acknowledgments 205
Sources and Further Reading 207
Index 211
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2013

    I enjoyed this book

    This is a very interesting book, if you are inclined to want to know about hidden computer logic. If this is not high on your list, it might not be for you. Since I'm a "nerd" I found it peaked my curiosity about how things work. It is about reasoning imparted by programmers, not about any actual hardware.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2013

    Im the first to wright a review :)

    Very good book its not the best i ever read but this a good book and i recomend buying it!!!!!!!!!!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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