Saturday 30 May 2015

The Numbers behind Numb3rs

In the last year or so of her education, Dau.II spent much of her waking life sitting on the sofa facing the 24" screen absorbing information like it was going out of fashion.  In this sense, she was very like her father who is, even in his declining years, a Prince of Pub-Quiz.  The difference is that my folks paid a king's ransom for me to acquire a headful of triv, whereas Dau.II only cost money once when she downloaded so many GB that we had to pay punitive rates to our ISP for a month. She would watch boxed-sets if she could borrow them but failing that youtube was her lifeline. She was only a week behind Baltimore in watching the latest episode of Masterchef. We also went from Desperate Housewives to House to Scrubs in a sort of free-association word connexion. I say "we" because, although I didn't have the stamina to do a six-hour half-series binge, I was up for sitting down to watch a single episode [not Desperate Housewives, mind, I had to fling out of the room after 5 minutes of that].

47 50m3 57463 w3 4l50 3nc0un73r3d numb3r5 wh1ch w45 r1v3771n6 f0r 4 7u7hr33 3p150d35 bu7 7h3n 607 70 b3 4 l177l3 f0rmul41c.  7h3r3 15 4n fb1 br07h3r wh0 h45 4n 4b5urdly 3xc171n6 l1f3: 3v3ry w33k h3 15 45516n3d 70 4 dr4m471c c453: nucl34r b0mb5, 4554551n4710n5, 53r14l k1ll3r5, 1n73rn4710n4l 5h1pp1n6 5c4m5, dru6 b4r0n5, c3n7r4l 4m3r1c4n w4rl0rd5. h3 15 n3v3r 5h0wn f1ll1n6 0u7 h15 3xp3n53 cl41m5, cl34r1n6 h15 d35k up 0r f1l1n6 l457 w33k5 p4p3rw0rk.
You should be able to read that as we've met l33t before in intriguing road-signs, but it's not fair on you to read wodges of l33t-text when my Ukrainian followers are possibly struggling enough with my idiosyncratic English.

At some stage we also encountered Numb3rs which was rivetting for tuthree episodes but then got to be a little formulaic.  The show, which CBS ran through six TV series between 2005-2010, features an FBI brother who has an absurdly exciting life: every week he is assigned to a dramatic case: nuclear bombs, assassinations, serial killers, international shipping scams, drug barons, trafficked girls. He is never shown filling out his expense claims, clearing his desk-drawers or filing last week's paperwork.  He has a younger brother who, as a childhood math prodigy, left Princeton with a degree at about the same age that normal people are going there. At about minute 15 in every episode, the screen will fade to sepia and a swirl of Greek letters and math-symbols will blurf out to a voice-over of bamboozling science-speak. For light relief, the boys will visit their widowed father for beer and lasagna and Charlie the math-whizz has a mumbling and less symmetrical math-pal who serves as a foil to allow the math to be 'explained'. To leaven the male geeks there are a few attractive women, some of whom are math-anxious but some are clearly as familiar with Riemann zeta functions, Cantor's infinities and Gödel incompleteness as the boy genius. Oh, and there is the obligatory token black. All good fun and far richer than Desperate Suburbia. Rather like House [which was running at the same time over on Fox] really, with a different subset of sciency words: I guess if you watched both series long enough you'd dream of an episode where a topologist developed lupus or a number theorist had a brain tumor.

This post is not really about the TV series, it is about the book of the TV series but I see that Wolfram has also contributed to the math of the series.  I've read a few books about the science behind some other cultural series: the Science of Discworld, co-authored by Sir Pratchett; The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by John and Mary Gribben.  These are often a little wooden and consciously didactic: the kind of stuff that would have my home-educated daughters rolling their eyes at being taught something that they should know, rather than something that the author thinks is really neat.  The Numbers behind Numb3rs leans much more to the second option and although each chapter starts from a Numb3rs episode, the trigger is often left in the dust as the authors zoom off where their passions or obsessions take them. A bit like a good blog, really. Some of the themes:
  • A good explanation of Bayesian statistics (although not as good as Nate Silver's)in evaluating the likelihood that a particular black dude committed a crime, rather than just being the first black dude caught up by a razzia through the nearest ghetto. 
  • A critical investigation of the USA being in a 15 year lock-down trying to protect itself from terrists and how much that might cost and how cost-effective it might be.
  • An important if 100 years too late evaluation of the reliability of finger-prints as evidence.  Nobody seems to have tested the statement that "all fingerprints are unique" or more importantly that the way we code fingerprints give a unique signature for all 70 billion finger-prints that are attached to living people this weekend.
  • For where the paranoia of lock-down met sketchy probability and fingerprints, check out the infamous Brandon Mayfield case where the FBI sacrificed one of their [white] citizens to show that they were on the 2004 Madrid train-bombing case.  Possibly because he is white, Mr Mayfield's prosecution was quashed.
  • An investigation of the 1868 Howland will case, which hinged on two signatures on successive pages of a last-will-and-testament being suspiciously similar. A father and son team of mathematicians called Peirce gathered a few dozen authenticated signatures and analysed the lengths of the 30 down-strokes to determine their distribution. The two contested sigs were far more similar than any other pair of genuine signature . . . therefore one was a tracing of the other. 
I didn't anticipate how much I enjoyed the book; it was published in 2007 - how come nobody gave it to me for Christmas?
I'll mention one

No comments:

Post a Comment