ANOTHER LOOK AT "NUMB3RS," THE TV SHOW

     With the usual caveats and reservations about Hollywood [1], I was excited about this show [2]. I felt good about "October Skies" glorifying nerdy, geeky, science kids, but that was set in 1957. Here was a twenty–first century setting where a mathematician was going to add value in a popularly–perceived area of intellectual endeavor, solving crimes for the FBI.

     Alas, the show has descended into the usual Hollywood style of mixing social, technical, and intellectual issues into a rancid soup that gives people totally wrong–headed ideas, in this case about mathematicians.

     I guess now I know how psychiatrists and psychologists feel when some TV–phrenologist working for the FBI sees a scrap of toilet paper at the crime scene, predicts the perpetrator's age, race, and dress style, and then offers a complete mental diagnosis.

     Let me take a moment of my reader's time to explore what went wrong. (I'm preparing another page on the social engineering aspect of the 2005 April 29 episode which I found particularly annoying. This is the nice stuff.)

THE PILOT

     As I said earlier, the "NUMB3RS" pilot was a good–humored television show with some reasonable insights that featured mathematics solving crime in the person of a mathematics professor named Charlie. He comes in and adds considerable value from his insights by visualizing the problem in terms of abstraction not available to non–mathematically–trained FBI people.

     Along with its wit and character presentation, the pilot presents two mathematical notions. Not only are reasonably–correct mathematical concepts presented, they're actually explained reasonably well complete with flashing images that might help and scribbled equations that are useless distractions.

     When the crime scenes are evenly spread out over a large area, Charlie points out that distributions that look random are not necessarily random. He has people in the room deliberately space themselves "randomly" and shows them that, in fact, their almost–even spacing is quite structured. If I could find a place where home computer users could get a simple language like BASIC, then I might have added a scene where Charlie writes a nine–line computer program (which would be on the screen long enough for sufficiently–interested VCR and TiVo viewers to stop the action and to copy it) and shows how actual random distributions of random dots on the screen form clumps. The conclusion that this is one criminal makes sense as the sequence of locations is "pseudo–random" rather than truly random. Score one for Charlie.

     It is natural to try to extrapolate the sequence to figure out the next crime scene. Watching spray from an unseen sprinkler, Charlie realizes that the same time series can be run backward to figure out the source, where the criminal lives. While I would hope real FBI people would have figured that out without a prodigy–Ph.D. mathematician to tell them, I'll suspend my disbelief here and credit the show with presenting another reasonable mathematical notion. Score two for Charlie.

     In another early episode, Charlie analyzes disease vectors from an apparently–deliberate infection. He uses his mathematical insight to determine the source of the disease and to realize that there are two distinct spreads, one north and one south, from the same bus terminal. Here I'm having a harder time believing this calculation is beyond USAMRID or CDC analysts. This is a legitimate application of some serious mathematics, although the math itself is not presented to the TV viewer as it was in the pilot examples.

     These are legitimate mathematical concepts being presented to a non–technical television audience.

THE PROMISE

     So why was I enthused about the "NUMB3RS" show? And why am I so disappointed with it now?

     What I do is hard to explain and most people don't want to take time to appreciate it. As in those BASF commercials they used to show, applied mathematicians don't make things happen, they just make things happen better.

     There is an athletic intensity to what I do. Sometimes the result is a single performance such as high school math contests and quiz bowls. Other times the result is an answer to a staggeringly–hard problem. This intensity of effort has earned much for my employers and clients. The popular media ignore the vital role system–level engineering and decision support play in making our world run better (or slowing its decline). When they do show this kind of engineering, it is in some distant place or time. Finally, here is a television show with decision–support mathematics in our place in our time.

     Not only is the process of making scientific decisions glorified, the people who make them are being presented as heroes. Gosh, it's almost as exciting as the Space–Race days when I was a venerated high–school math whiz!

THE REALITY

     The geeky mathematician coming in ex machina and solving the crime where the experts failed grates on me more than a little bit. In the early episodes Charlie shows (alliteration) comfortingly cocky competent confidence when he says he knows where the criminal lives from the geographic pattern of crimes.

     In later episodes Charlie becomes (assonance) an offensively assertive ass when he tells a fugitive recovery expert where to look for a convict with an air of authority. In a similar situation, I might offer the mathematical solution as another input to the expert's thought process, but I'm not going to tell him how to do his job!

     The 2005 April 29 episode, "Sacrifice," annoyed me in so many ways that I'm writing a separate page to rant about it.

     In the 2005 May 6 episode, "Noisy Edge," lots of folks in Los Angeles see a glowing-white aircraft that doesn't appear on any of seven military or civilian radar tracking systems. Charlie analyzes the recorded radar returns with a "squish/squash" noise-reduction algorithm that not only tracks the aircraft their systems could not see but forms a photographic image of the aircraft clear enough [3] to identify who designed it. This is not some outside-the-box mathematical insight: These radar systems are designed by smart electrical engineers for the sole purpose of resolving locations of aircraft, with the best noise-reduction, image-resolving power their smartest engineers can muster. So any squishing and squashing that can see more airplanes would already be built into these sophisticated detection systems. Now if Charlie had found a way to combine all seven radar returns to find an airplane trajectory that no single system found, then I would have found that a plausible suspension of disbelief for a television show.

     The season finale on 2005 May 13, "Manhunt," has two convicts escaping from a bus in a deliberate accident. It doesn't take genius mathematics to tell if a highway accident is staged and the analysis behind it does not involve Markov chains or Bayesian equations. Both of these are legitimate mathematical concepts and I could envision television plots using them (not necessarily good plots), but this is sling-the-jargon Hollywood math. When Charlie claims to know where a convict is going more confidently than professionals who have chased conflicts for a living for years, I cringe at the impression viewers must be getting of me and my work.

     As the "NUMB3RS" season progressed, the show became less insightful, less interesting, and more of the pulp that so many television shows have become today. The producers and writers let me down; shame on them!

    

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NOTES

     1. This is the same tinsel-town Hollywood that gave us awful and unfaithful remakes of "The Absent–Minded Professor," "Assault on Precinct 13," "Batman," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Sgt. Bilko," "The Blob," "The Brady Bunch," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Daredevil," "Day of the Jackel," "Dudley Do-Right," "The Dukes of Hazard," "The Flintstones," "The Fugitive," "George of the Jungle," "Godzilla," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" "King Kong," "Lost in Space," "Mr. Magoo," "The Manchurian Candidate," "McHale's Navy," "Mission Impossible," "Mr. Bean" (bad remake of a bad TV show), "The Mummy," "My Favorite Martian," "The Partridge Family," "The Pink Panther," "Planet of the Apes," "Popeye," "Psycho," "Rocky and Bullwinkle," "The Saint," "The Shadow," "The Shop Around the Corner," "The Stepford Wives," "Star Trek" (first and third movies), "Starksy & Hutch," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "X-Men," "Wild Wild West," et cetera. We have seen how well Hollywood understands computers and their programmers in "Disclosure," "Hackers," "Jurassic Park," "The Matrix," and "The Net." (I'm going to spare the reader any attempt to list awful and unfaithful sequels or movies based on novels.) Hollywood's movie business got started, after all, because California didn't enforce Mr. Edison's patent rights as vigorously as New Jersey. It isn't a good omen, is it?

     2. In my original review of the show, I did not take the usual math-weenie posture that the math wasn't good enough and never would be. I feel I met the theme of the show more than halfway.

     3. This is one of my technology pet peeves on crime shows. Even my venerated "Law & Order" does this: Some tourist takes a blurry video or an automatic teller machine (ATM) takes a picture and the "image-enhancement" guys can blow up a tiny piece of the picture and sharpen it up to reveal license plates, taxi medallion numbers, or other details. Look, folks, a blurry picture is a blurry picture and no amount of enhancement is going to see detail that isn't there.