Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good reads from the New Yorker

A few months back CVF's board chairman, Prof. Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, sent me two articles from the New Yorker that I have been meaning to read and finally got around to finishing yesterday.

The first one, "Small Change" by Malcolm Gladwell, considers what effect, if any, Twitter and Facebook might have had during the civil rights struggle.  He describes the differences between hierarchical and network structures in social change, and how ultimately a hierarchical structure (such as the one Martin Luther King and his colleagues built) is more effective than a decentralized network structure.  Even more interestingly, Gladwell summarizes the essential difference between today's online social activism and that of the 1950's and 60's:
Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
The entire story is available from the New Yorker's web site (thanks, New Yorker!).

The second article is "Win or Lose", a book review by Anthony Gottlieb from last summer (like I said, I am behind on my reading), the book being "Numbers Rule:  The Vexing Mathematics of Democracy, from Plato to the Present" by George Szpiro, a journalist and mathematician.

Apparently mathematicians have been plotting the math behind voting systems for a long time, at least since Venetian elections dating back to 1268.  Gottlieb's story delves far into the mathematical differences between "winner take all" or (as they call it in Great Britain) "first-past-the-post" systems where the person with the most votes wins even if he or she fails to get a majority, proportional representation and instant run-off systems that are used in many places today and something entirely new to me called "range voting".  

Hearing about the benefits and drawbacks of different voting systems from the perspective of mathematicians gives the whole debate a different and fresh perspective.  Gottlieb's story is available online from the New Yorker's web site.

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