# Wild About Math!Making Math fun and accessible

12Mar/120

## John MacCormick – Inspired by Math #5

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.

John MacCormick grew up in New Zealand and spent most of his time sailing, kayaking and windsurfing, although he confesses he never mastered kite boarding.

He initially studied law at the University of Auckland, but after his first term was awarded a scholarship to the University of Cambridge and decided to study mathematics. A friend's computer science project carried out at the University of Oxford inspired MacCormick to pursue a PhD in computer vision at Oxford.

MacCormick recalls writing his own sorting algorithm to print his Latin vocabulary in alphabetical order and, without realising it, stumbled on one of the fundamental ideas in the theory of algorithms - complexity - when the program started to take an inordinately long time to sort the words as they got longer. "Years later, I learned that the algorithm I used is never used in real applications - many well-known sorting algorithms could have dispatched my Latin vocab in a jiffy. If only I'd known about them then."

When he is not busy "wrangling two kids under two", MacCormick says, he enjoys almost any outdoor activity and playing board games. "I'm also a recent convert to some types of opera."