Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Doing the Numb3rs

Due to popular demand, my view of the "Numb3rs" (pronounced "Numbthreers" since you ask) television show. Buoyed on by the enthusiasm of Suresh and Lance, I started watching Numb3rs, and ended up enjoying it sufficiently much that I watched pretty much all of the episodes. I have a fairly low standard for entertainment, it should be said.

Given low initial expectations, it was probably one of the better attempts to show mathematical topics within the context of popular entertainment. It's best not to get too hung up on all the details, and go along with it to some extent. Still, certain plot points did rankle when there seemed to be significant flaws: if I remember correctly, in one episode Charlie (the hero) determined that a suspect had been running a particular kind of pyramid scheme because hidden in his apartment was exactly $2^19 in US currency. The scheme was explained as follows: the criminal had broken into a bank's computers, and obtained access to a large number of records. He then proceeded to steal$1 from a single account. Then he stole $1 from two more accounts replaced the$1 in the first account, so it would not be noticed, and kept the other. Then he proceeded to continue in this doubling manner for twenty iterations. At this point, the effort became too much, and so he extracted his ill-gotten gains and fled.

The think that irks me about this plot is that it makes no sense whatsoever (as opposed to merely stretching credibility). The purpose of replacing some of the stolen funds is to mask the crime for a while. It's a bit like a Ponzi scheme, where initial investors are paid off with money from subsequent investors to make it appear that the investment is a success and drum up more investors by word of mouth. But there's no reason for this in this case. If he really did need the money so much, then why was it all there, hidden in his apartment? If the eventual goal was just to steal the half million and disappear, then why mess about with the doubling scheme to begin with? Why draw out the money exactly and convert it to dollars, and not keep any in his wallet or spend any? This really made no sense to me, no matter how I tried to suspend my disbelief.

The other feature of the programme that I found hard to believe was the relationships between the characters: the dynamic between Charlie and his physics prof buddy seemed like nothing I've ever seen in academia. It seemed that it was there mostly because it was necessary for expositional purposes and all of those "wait a minute! I've just had an idea" moments. Likewise, the working relationship between Charlie and his grad student / future enamorata never stuck me as genuine: she didn't have the mix of deference, fear and self-doubt that most grad students should have for their advisors [I speak from observation of others, of course, and not in reference to anyone you know]. Maybe she'll be more convincing next season as a postdoc.