Saturday, February 26, 2005

We Use Math Every Day

Years ago, when I first became interested in gambling that was more than picking winners at the races - which I was actually reasonably good at; why I quit is another story entirely - I started reading a lot of books about the subject. Percentages are a big thing in gambling. In simple terms you want to make bets that give the House the smallest advantage possible. Roulette, particularly with an American wheel (which has 38 numbers including 0 and 00 - the European wheel has 37 numbers) is not a good choice for the gambler. The House edge on an American rules table is 5.26% (on a European wheel it's 2.70%) which mean that if you were to place a bet on Black, or Even, which seem to be even money bets, you will actually win only 47.4 percent of the time. By comparison Craps has an House advantage of 1.41% on the Come Line and 1.364% on the Don't Come Line, and both percentages can be significantly reduced by laying or giving odds if the casino allows it. One of the books I read at the time was called The Eudaemonic Pie. It was the true story of a group of hippie types in the early 1970s who happened to be geniuses at physics. They wanted to set up a commune but to do that they needed money and they thought that the "easiest" way to get it was by gambling and roulette is the game that offers the largest pay outs. Betting a single number wins 36 times the original bet (that is 35-1 even thought he odds are 37-1 against - that's the advantage). Being physicists and mathematicians these guys felt that there had to be a way to use physics and mathematics to reduce the odds to a manageable level where you could place a chip on six numbers (for example) and know that the ball would land on one of those numbers. They didn't succeed but their failure had more to do with implementation rather than the actual areas of math and physics. In reading the book I learned a lot more about how something like this can be analyzed mathematically. I was also the first time that I had encountered the concept of Chaos Theory. The new TV series Numb3rs tries to convey some of the sort of wonder that mathematics provokes in some people.

The series focusses on Don and Charlie Eppes, played by Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz. Don is a senior agent in the Los Angeles office of the FBI, while his younger brother Charlie is a brilliant young professor of mathematics who occasionally consults with the FBI and other agencies. In his own world Charlie is a superstar, a concept which Don doesn't seem to fully grasp. In the pilot episode it was implied that Charlie's primarily participated in fraud and other types of cases involving money which on the face of it would seem to be the equivalent of asking Picasso to paint a mural for the baby's room. In the course of the pilot Charlie convinces Don that mathematical analysis can be used in cases that don't involve numbers in an obvious way. In essence he contends that it's possible to analyze information mathematically and from the known data deduce patterns that the criminals repeat. It's not unlike what the Eudaemons were trying to do with the Roulette wheel - given data about the rate at which the wheel spins and the speed of the orbit of the little white ball and its rate of decay and other data, it should be possible (using a computer) to determine which sector of the wheel (and therefore which numbers) the ball will end up in. As a concept for a television show it has the potential to go over a lot of peoples' heads, and I'm given to understand that the math has been "dumbed down" for the average viewer. On the other hand the public has embraced the idea of scientific investigations of crimes in a big way - witness the popularity of the CSI franchise, Crossing Jordan, and in Canada DaVinci's Inquest. The way the show is presented is both dramatic and quirky. That said, I sometimes find the writing to be a bit pedestrian, particularly when they're dealing with the personal aspects of the character relationships.

The show has a workmanlike cast. Rob Morrow is probably best known for playing Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, but here seems to be channelling his investigator from the movie Quiz Show. He's fine playing a man who knows his brother is brilliant but sometimes has trouble really understanding him. Judd Hirsch, who plays Don and Charlie's father, has wisely decided to make closer to John Lacey from his old series Dear John than Julius Levinson from Independence Day. Alan Eppes is a man who is immensely proud of both of his sons, although mostly he's worried that they aren't romantically involved. Of special note in the supporting cast are Sabrina Lloyd as Don's FBI partner, a role that is different from what we normally associate her with, and Peter McNichol, who plays Charlie's friend, coworker and sometimes advisor. McNichol's character, Larry, is a typical McNichol character, quirky and comedic but extremely able and likeable not unlike the character of Alan Burch that he played in Chicago Hope.

The most important piece of casting is David Krumholtz as Charlie. Although known for comedy (including Bernard the "Arch-Elf" in the Santa Clause movies) he's also played a variety of dramatic roles, and was the man who stabbed John Carter on ER. As Charlie, he brings a sense of nervous, almost maniacal energy to character, particularly when he's involved in a problem. Charlie owes a little to Russell Crowe's portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind in that Charlie occassionally can't fully cope with reality particularly when it affects his family. Charlie isn't socially inept but he does have a comfort zone that he retreats into. But it's the mathematics where his true passion is. In Friday's episode, Charlie gives an explanation of the everyday importance of mathematics to Sabrina Lloyd's character that is at once beautiful passionate, and almost romantic. In addition there's a chemistry between Krumholtz and Morrow that makes them believable as brothers even though the real difference in their ages is closer to 16 years rather than the five or six that the show implies (Charlie and Don graduated from high school on the same day).

CBS has been promoting Numb3rs on the name value of Tony and Ridley Scott, whose production company makes the show. My suspicion is that the Scott Brothers' involvement has been limited to bringing money and the prestige of their names to the project. I don't think that it's necessarily the right approach. It is vaguely ironic that the fate of Numb3rs will be decided by numbers - Nielsen Rating numbers. Although Numb3rs has been the top rated show in its time slot since the show debuted, the ratings have also declined since it moved to its regular Friday night timeslot. Worse, beginning on March 4, it will be up against the newest entry in the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Trial By Jury. I'd like to see Numb3rs renewed for next season, possibly on a new night if the opposition from L&O: Trial by Jury is too great, but a great deal depends on how much confidence the network has in the show. That's a lot of pressure.

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