Hi Reddit, I'm Ali Almossawi, creator and maintainer of An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. I started it as a side project and had no expectations of how it would do. It's been visited by 2.5 million readers since then and translated into 12 languages by volunteers, and tremendous fun to work on.

My new book project, Bad Choices (https://bookofbadchoices.com), is an illustrated guide to algorithmic thinking. I started working on it back in January 2014, also as a side project, and it took until December 2015 for the book to take its final form.

I’d love to answer your questions about algorithms in everyday life, the challenges of teaching something like computer science to a broad audience, using illustrations to teach, or anything else you're interested in.

Proof: https://twitter.com/alialmossawi/status/850307956356726784

Edit: It's been a lot of fun, everyone. I'll have to start my day job now, as it's 9am Pacific :) I'll be back tonight when I'm off work to answer any remaining questions. Thank you all.

Edit 2: I think I've answered most of the remaining questions. Thanks again for the fascinating exchanges. I'll be back one last time later tonight or tomorrow morning to make sure I've not missed anything.

Comments: 377 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

honeyholeyum393 karma

Can you explain what algorithmic thinking is and how it can impact someones way of life? :)

almossawi384 karma

Hi :) There's the algorithms part, a familiar term that we hear a lot. Though if we were to define it for clarity, we'd say it's a process with unambiguous steps that has a beginning and end, and does something useful. Unambiguous is important since we need predictability in computing, not only in how an app or website functions but also in how it performs

And then there's the thinking part, which to me is taking a step back and saying, if it is the case that these algorithms are so useful in computing to achieve predictability, might they also be useful in everyday life, when it comes to say, deciding between alternative ways of solving a problem or completing a task.

And so to answer your second question, I think the value is in the fact that when we frame everyday decisions as algorithms, we can then use the tools available to computer scientists to evaluate algorithms (like thinking in terms of rates of growth for instance) and use them to evaluate our decisions. To borrow a term from Dan Dennett, we have new tool for thinking that's useful, generally.

That's how I came to the topic. Not by mapping everyday life decisions to algorithms and making any claim about it in that direction, but by taking the fundamental algorithms in computer science and considering how to make them more familiar.

TheLooongest75 karma

How much bad luck play a role in bad choices?

almossawi109 karma

With respect to the book, its title is slightly provocative (book titles often are) and so goodness and badness are meant to describe one quality in particular--efficiency. And there's a connect to computer science in the sense that in some of the literature, more efficient algorithms are referred to as good algorithms and less efficient ones are called bad ones.

As an aside, yes, I do think luck plays a role in life and in the choices we make. We seldom have all the information, so we make decisions based on how we think others, and by extension the world, will behave and react. Other times, one's circumstances and one's accidents of births are crosses that one has to bear, and that can lead to ill choices. I think never looking back and staying optimistic is the only way around that. That's certainly helped me.

Mantisbog64 karma

How can your book be used to:

  1. Combat ISIS.
  2. Avoid Polar Bear attacks?

almossawi67 karma

  1. On the battlefield or by contributing to the civilization they want to bring down. I'm doing the latter.

  2. Can't think of a funny answer. Sorry to have let you down. :/

fairlyodd37 karma

For others exploring a dual professional life, what would be your advice? Do you find that there's the same level of engagement and passion on both of your endeavors?

almossawi42 karma

It changes with time and circumstance no doubt. It can be extremely valuable in the sense that it gives you more than outlet to explore your interests, and so there's no time to be bitter or to think of the past or of disappointments. That, to me, is liberating, and gives me the peace of mind to keep moving forward and to not get stuck up too much on the quirks of life and of fellow humans.

I ought to mention that I had no plans of writing professionally in the summer of 2012 when I first started BAD ARGUMENTS. It was just another side project. But because it looked like a book, readers started reviewing it on Goodreads and I in turn became an "author". And then the project turned into a physical book a few months later.

NICESfyn18 karma

Hey man I really enjoyed your book, I remember you describing how one of your teachers describing a fallacy like pipes, it starts one way and goes another (like a joke). (Maybe I'm remembering wrongly).

What's your new book about? I don't quite understand the fancy term as I'm a very layperson.

Also is there a sample like the first few pages I can check out?

almossawi30 karma

Thanks. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

This one's about algorithms, and is meant for anyone who has heard the terms and wants to know why they ought to care about it. The book has 12 chapter-vignettes, and in each one a character tries to achieve some task in the most efficient way. By the end of the chapter, the character celebrates his or her success and the reader hopefully learns one or more new concepts.

In addition to showing why algorithms are important, the book also tries to show why thinking in terms of orders of magnitude and rates of growth is useful. Which is to say, why is it that when you see an illustration of a giraffe and dinosaur drawn to scale, you can immediately get a sense of how big the dinosaur is without having to read anything.

You can check out the first chapter here: https://github.com/almossawi/badchoices

turtlespace14 karma

I love Bad Arguments! My family likes arguing about everything so we'll often reference parts of your book. I'm still trying to get my dad to read it because he uses like every bad argument in the book pretty often.

How did writing Bad Arguments affect how you argue? Most people don't respond well to being told directly which bad argument they're using, so how do you go about utilizing the information in the book in your own arguments?

almossawi22 karma

Take a look at Rapoport's rules for criticizing: https://www.facebook.com/almossawi/photos/a.832795753427541.1073741827.700119726695145/1103605293013251/?type=3&theater

It's great advice for how best to communicate a disagreement.

Nacho_head14 karma

What motivated you to write this book? How do you balance writing with a job in the tech industry?

almossawi28 karma

It was a month after the first edition of BAD ARGUMENTS came out (around Jan 2014) and I found myself with newly-found confidence to try another book project that also tried to explain something technical in an accessible way.

The first two attempts at making algorithms familiar were only partially successful. The first was a novella a la The Phantom Tollbooth or Alice or Sophie's World where the lessons were hidden in the subtext. So for instance, two characters might be stuck on a pitcher plant and they would talk through the different ways they might come down from it.

The main problem with that approach, was that using subtext as the main vehicle for teaching, when your goal is the teaching and not the story, means that things become open to misinterpretation. And also, it all felt very passive.

So after that, I worked on trying to formalize a story space. A story was a set of scenes, and a scene was an image, an analogy and some prose. The idea being that one could then swap in and out various elements along some arc and end up with a unique story. And so the arc would be the only invariant, and everything else would be user-contributed.

Then after that I happened to have some free time and was on the road a lot, so I spent my days researching learning and how it works, and how children in a classroom became engaged, and how college students became engaged, and what makes some schools exceptional and others not.

And also how we all thought and reasoned about things, and about project-based learning and emergent themes and a whole lot of other ideas and concepts.

And that’s really how this book “Bad Choices” came about. It was the culmination of that period.

To answer your second question, I try to be disciplined with my time and I find that that's really useful in making one productive.

That reminds me of a passage in THE IDIOT where the prince conveys a similar message, but that's a depressing book, so let's leave it for now :)

NemesisFLX12 karma

Hi :) First of all i really like the idea of using algos for everyday life. I am a Computer Science Student and i need to know if the book is also interesting for me? I know that every new perspectiv is a new way to see the world, but i would say that algorithms are already really strong implemented in my thinking so would you recommend it for me too? Thanks in advance!

almossawi15 karma

Yes, absolutely. I have so much fun reading through books that teach computer science or programming to kids because, as you say, each of them reveals the author more than the subject. And I find that tremendously interesting.

Plus, you might get some of the jokes in the subtext that others won't :)

NemesisFLX4 karma

Yeah i love that too. The little games where you get to know the core of programming like that google thing with the jumping figure are really good too. I will make a remark to buy the book the next time i have the time to read it! Especially i never talked to an author before so it is a must buy :D Thanks Mate :)

almossawi4 karma

You're very welcome :)

Seag510 karma

Hey! Emotion is often cast as the opposition to reason and logic (or at least an invalid factor in logical decision making), as it leads us to make illogical decisions. Do you believe that emotion is a reasonable part of decision-making? In other words, can emotion be a legitimate weighted factor when evaluating potential outcomes in a logical manner?

almossawi7 karma

Hey! I can't see how it can be a legitimate factor. It would be like considering it a factor in a disinterested process like science. It's what I think, albeit others more qualified than me on the subject can chime in if they disagree.

szatanovsky8 karma

Do you even ship to Eastern Europe?

almossawi7 karma

I'll be adding to the list of international publishers on the website (near the bottom) so be sure to keep an eye on that: https://bookofbadchoices.com/

manamachine7 karma

What psychological/philosophical consideration went into the ideas in your book? Is there something in your background that makes you qualified to give advice?

I'm interested in the concept!

almossawi7 karma

I am not qualified to make any causal link between how we make decisions or how our brains work and how that maps to algorithms. There was a piece in the New York times on Tuesday that referenced authors that, I believe, were claiming that.

I do have enough experience, I'd like to think, with taking fundamental algorithms from computing and making them compelling to a broad audience by means of everyday situations, without oversimplifying the content as to make it vapid or talking down to the reader.

Hope that's helpful!

DrSloan6 karma

How is your book different than "Algorithms to Live By" by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths? I really enjoyed their book, so seeing yours got me interested.

almossawi9 karma

I came across that book just as I handed in my final manuscript in May of last year. There was a piece on it in Wired and a friend forwarded it to me. I intentionally didn't read it so as to not inadvertently plagiarize any part of it.

Now that BAD CHOICES is out, I'll of course be picking up a copy of it, as I feel there's a lot of overlap in the approach and overall goal--albeit, there is a funny fart joke in BAD CHOICES that I doubt is in the other book :/

wiggityspliggety6 karma

What books have most influenced the ideas and information you present in your own writing?

almossawi12 karma

I list them all in the references section of BAD CHOICES, which is annotated (and also includes a fart joke with reference to Thomas Cromwell, I'm ashamed to reveal)

For the framing of the book as vignettes and the metaphor of tools for thinking, Intuition Pumps by Dan Denett. For the insight that thinking in terms of orders of magnitude may be a primal feature, Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene. For the insight that comparisons is a good way of achieving insight, a book from the '80s called Comparisons published by The Diagram Group.

I use a lot of metaphors in BAD CHOICES, encouraged to a large extent by Darwin's use of them in On the Origin. Of the books on learning, How Learning Works by a group of CMU profs, Seymour Papert's work on children and computers, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire come to mind.

Influential autobiography-type books--Turin's Cathedral, The Strangest Man and the two Feynman books are my favorites. I also enjoy fiction, J. M. Coetzee being my favorite author.

Hellofellas1236 karma

After writing Book of Bad Arguments, did you ever contemplate that you were creating every-day fallacy men/women? (existentialcomics).

We used this book in a basic philosophy class a while ago, how do you feel about your side project becoming the basis of so much learning; with fallacies and applying it to actual philosophical teachings?

almossawi10 karma

It's a great feeling. It genuinely is. To have contributed to something that others find useful.

I've never said this publicly before, but I was actually going through a difficult time in my life when I wrote BAD ARGUMENTS. That was to a great extent the reason behind why I was so eager to make it work. And to have seen it succeed did wonders for me, on a personal level.

I'd also like to acknowledge all the volunteers who contributed edits and corrections to the book, especially in the months after it was first released: https://github.com/almossawi/badarguments/wiki/Contributors

kbishop426 karma

As a teacher, how can I use this book to help my students make better choices (avoid negative behaviors)?

almossawi5 karma

Goodness and badness in the title are in reference to efficiency (more and less efficient), so if you'd like your students to see how they cane make decisions that are more efficient, the approach in the book would be helpful.

Highball28146 karma

So, I used your book last summer as an introductory assignment for my high school CS students. I think one of the things missing at the secondary education level is critical/logical thinking.

Would you ever consider expanding BoBA to an illustrated logic text? I think that could be invaluable. You do a really great job of explaining.

almossawi3 karma

That's a great idea. I'd love to. I'll give it some thought. I'm glad to hear you found the book useful with your students.

Urethra_Franklin_425 karma

Will your book being of the interest to Computer Scientist, or just to laymans?

almossawi4 karma

There are jokes and references in the subtext, both in the prose and in the illustrations, that readers who know about the field will hopefully enjoy.

UnreachablePaul5 karma

Do you follow any religion?

almossawi6 karma

Since my early twenties, I chose not to identify with any race or religion or be part of any legacy, tradition or group, past or present. I want the entirety of my value and identity to be confined in the things I produce.

AuthorWho3 karma

Hey, I've got your Bad Arguments in Russian! :) I actually had five of them, due to taking part in crowdfunding for the Russian publication. So now a couple of my friends have your book too. I'd say it's an optimal present.

I see you've switched to the EKSMO publisher for the new book. Any particular reason behind it, or simply a matter of convenience?

almossawi3 karma

That's great to hear! It was such a nice experience, working with Shashi and her bookshop to get the book translated into Russian. It was the very first language BAD ARGUMENTS was translated into.

When I got the contract, I had no idea what I ought to look for or what questions to ask. So I gave it a few days, to make it seem like I was reading it over and knew what I was doing, then signed it and sent it back :)

I've no control over foreign rights with BAD CHOICES. There's an agency that handles them, so it seems like they went with the publisher they felt would be the best fit.

FlexNastyBIG3 karma

To what extent do the algorithms in the book draw upon (or overlap with) the field of economics?

almossawi2 karma

I have no idea, sorry. The algorithms in the book cover most of the fundamental algorithms in computing, so they're ones you'd be introduced to in a first-year undergraduate class.

Wertsir3 karma

Oh shit, I bought your first book, then gave it to my mother to help her understand how to formulate her arguments properly, it was fantastically illustrated and put together in a way that made it understandable to people who don't have a background in that kind of stuff. I will be keeping an eye out for your second book as well.

Question: what would your sales pitch be, if you had to describe why I should buy the new book in <30 words?

almossawi2 karma

Glad to hear it.

For requested sales pitch, refer to this reply :) https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/6407oc/im_the_creator_of_an_illustrated_book_of_bad/dfz8xxq/

UncertainAccountant2 karma

What's the biggest challenge in writing and publishing a book?

almossawi7 karma

All the moving parts. And all the initial convincing of others that it can actually work. These were the first 4,000 copies of BAD ARGUMENTS that I published when I couldn't get any publisher to agree to print it: http://imgur.com/a/7zIwS

And as someone who works in software, I couldn't wrap my head around so many of a something :)

karolgajda2 karma

Will you start a GoFund me to raise money to send a copy of An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments to all government officials? :)

almossawi2 karma

I have this link pinned in my browser, and am always amused by the number and frequency of people tweeting the book to government officials :) https://twitter.com/search?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&q=https%3A%2F%2Fbookofbadarguments.com

justmyselft0day2 karma

What are your thoughts on pineapple on pizza?

almossawi2 karma

Which comedian was it who recently had a routine about that? Whoever it was, he or she was very funny :)

nomochahere2 karma

What is the objective of the book? What will I get after reading it?

almossawi3 karma

In addition to learning about the fundamental algorithms in computer science, which is helpful given their ubiquity, I'll have hopefully made a case for why thinking in terms of orders of magnitude and rates of growth is a useful way of thinking, generally.

ivylgedropout2 karma

What logical fallacy makes you the most angry?

almossawi4 karma

Appeals to authority, for personal reasons. Any discussion more or less comes to a halt when one is told there's a line that one can't cross or an idea that one can't criticize.

darkquanta422 karma

Thanks for your book! I have it sitting on my desk every day, and it's a great conversation piece for people who stop by.

What is your goal when you draw an illustration for a concept in your books? I find the illustrations one of the reasons the facts are so memorable.

almossawi2 karma

Thank you!

The illustrations are indeed essential to the message, to the extent that when I hand a manuscript in, it contains sketches for all the illustrations that Alejandro then does in his unique style.

With all projects, even software ones, I consider what message I'm trying to convey, and then pick the tool that best allows me to convey that message. In the case of BAD ARGUMENTS and BAD CHOICES, it was a combination of prose and illustration, I felt.

There was little that was novel in Bad Choices modulo the format, since all the content was available in the references listed in the back. But it's because of that format that I feel it was able to reach a wide audience.


How can you identify patterns in day to day life?

almossawi2 karma

I claim in BAD CHOICES that algorithmic thinking is one way. If you chat with a mathematician, she might tell you that mathematical thinking is another. And similarly for other disciplines.

I find that fascinating. To ask someone for their description of the world and to hear that description from a particular vantage, using words and concepts most familiar to that person because of their experiences.

I think that diversity of thought can lead you to seeing the world in different ways, and therefore, in seeing patterns that others might miss.

makalo4101 karma

What is the process of writing/printing a book like? I've always been interested in writing and illustrating children's books, but I wouldn't even know where to start (which I know is a bit different, but still).

Also, what made you want to write this? Was there a specific moment where it crossed your mind, like an ah-ha! moment?

Congratulations though! What an amazing achievement. I'll have to find some time to read it!

almossawi2 karma

Do it :) Take it one step at a time and you'll find that it's perfectly doable. I hesitate to prescribe a process because there are so many different ways that one can get published.

I self-published the first book, printed it overseas and then went from bookshop to bookshop in the Bay Area trying to convince them to stock it on consignment. The associate at Book Passage initially shook her head, but then somehow flipped through it and agreed to take on two copies. I think we ended up selling close to 100 consignment copies before the 2nd edition came out and they switched over to a regular supplier.

With this second book, I stumbled across a fantastic literary agent, who then helped me refine the manuscript and then pitched it to publishers.

But certainly, the first step is to actually write something, print it out and touch it. That often is the thing that's hardest. Generally, not only with writing.

If you ever want advice about any particular step along the way, feel free to email me.

To your other question, I started a month after the first edition of BAD ARGUMENTS came out. That experience had given me the confidence to pursue writing a bit more, and so I felt compelled to think about how best to make another intriguing topic engaging for the widest audience.