December 5, 2008
My friend Charles Seife is a connoisseur of counterintuitive numbers problems. He wrote an op-ed for yesterday’s New York Times about the recount in Minnesota, which seems like it ought to be a simple problem but isn’t:
Throw in the weirdo ballots with lizard people, stray marks and indecipherable dots, and the error rate grows even more. Throw in the missing ballots, and the situation is hopeless. In truth, the counting errors dwarf the tiny numerical difference in votes between the two candidates. If, at the end of the recount, Mr. Coleman or Mr. Franken is ahead by a few dozen or a few hundred votes, that would be because of errors rather than voter preference.
Distressing, isn’t it? But read to the end—Minnesota already has, counterintuitively, the perfect solution.
Charles went to observe the Minnesota recount because he’s working on a book about numbers and democracy. I hope it’ll be as much fun as his most recent book, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. It’s about the weird world of fusion research—the search for a way to replicate the energy of the Sun—and how fusion dreams make once-legitimate scientists insane, insane, INSANE. (Forgive the shameless praise for a friend—the book really is terrific. Funny and surprising in a sick sort of way.)
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