Friday, April 16, 2010

Book #4: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point is Malcolm Gladwell's first book and it's the least fulfilling of the four that he has written. I read Gladwell's books for the interesting statistics, quirks they offer, the interesting way in which he identifies and examines problems, as well as the fact that they tend to be sold for $10 or less in the major airports of East Asia. Others tend to read them, it seems, in hopes of offering insight into their business practices or whatever reasons compel people to turn to the self-help section of the bookstore. Many English books in Korea are either adaptations of popular movies or related to business or personal success.

The Tipping Point lacks the flash of Blink or Outliers. Instead, it's a surprisingly sober, methodical examination of the key factors that cause phenomena to become intensely popular. Whereas Blink or Outliers would be more entertaining, The Tipping Point was a slower read, more like an interesting sociology textbook than the captivating reads that Gladwell's later books turned out to be. Nevertheless, Gladwell explains the success or prevalence of syphilis, Paul Revere's famous warning that "the British are coming", crime and fashion trends.

What made The Tipping Point somewhat mediocre is that there was nothing terribly illuminating in it save the idea of treating all phenomena of this sort as viral epidemics. The three factors identified as causing a phenomenon to "tip" were almost tautological. A given virus (or message) will tip if there are special carriers who spread it far and wide, if the virus (or message) is sufficiently "sticky" to "infect" enough people, and if the background conditions are favourable for the spread of the epidemic in question.

There is nothing particularly shocking here, though more interesting is Gladwell's explanation of why we tend not to think of epidemics, both literal and figurative, as such. We tend to think of outcomes as directly proportionate to effort. A company that spends a lot of effort marketing will be more successful, we intuit, than an equal competitor that isn't. However, Gladwell argues that epidemics tend to be geometric in their progression, meaning that subtle variations will have huge impacts.

By way of explanation, consider this example from the book: if you could fold a piece of paper 50 times, it would be high enough to reach the sun, about 150 million kilometres away. However, most people would estimate the height of the paper to be as high as a phone book, or maybe a refrigerator. I agreed with the former. Small actions can, in the right circumstances, have disproportionately large impacts. A more important example is this: in neighbourhoods where 5 to 40 percent of adults are high-status professionals, the rates of teen pregnancy and high school dropouts are stable. A decrease from 5 to 3 percent, however, sees those rates double.

If you don't believe the example about the paper, as I didn't, let's work it out:

1) The height of folded paper will double with every fold. One fold will double the height (1^2), two folds will quadruple it (2^2) and three folds will octuple it (2^3).

2) Fifty folds will produce an increase of (2^50), which is an increase of 1.1 pentillion (1.1 * 10 ^ 15).

3) One pentillion is not the same as 150 million km because, well, paper is thin. A typical piece of paper is 0.1 mm thick.

4) We need 10 pieces of paper to have a stack 1 mm thick, 100 to have a stack 1 cm thick, 10,000 to have a stack a metre thick and 10 million to have a stack a kilometre thick.

5) So, dividing 1.1 pentillion by 10 million, or (1.1 * 10 ^ 15) / (10 ^ 7) gives is 1.1 * 10 ^ 8, or about 110 million km.

Thanks to Seadog for fixing the original error (I assumed 10 pages for 1 cm, but it's 100 pieces for 1 cm). You'd still need paper that's about 0.13 mm thick to get to the sun in 50 folds, but let's not quibble over that.


Seadog said...

"We need 10 pieces of paper to have a stack 1 cm thick"

No you don't. You need 10 pieces of paper to have a stack 1 mm thick.

Adeel said...

Thanks Mr. Editor!

Jennifer said...

The paper folding example was in the Globe and Mail "Collected Wisdom" column on Saturday (actually a follow-up from a question last week):

(go to the second half of the article)