Friday, April 25, 2008

Mathematics in Popular Culture

I have been thinking about this post for quite some time, and the impetus to do it right now is the season premiere of the Math/Crime drama ‘Numb3rs’. Also, I recently saw the Math/Gambling film 21, which somehow managed to bore me despite involving two of my favorite pursuits: mathematics and gambling.

‘Numb3rs’ is refreshing (despite the stupid title) because it is clear that they have mathematicians consulting for the show. Also, and more importantly, David Krumholz and Peter MacNicol do a great job portraying mathematicians as human beings. Far too often mathematicians are portrayed as freaks, or worse, as mentally unstable.

The list of films with this tendency is quite long: A Beautiful Mind is the most famous, but there is also Proof, Sneakers, and, bizarrely, Presumed Innocent. I’m forgetting some…

The Oscar-winning film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ is forgiven for participating in this trend, at least somewhat. It is, after all based on a true story. I am using the word ‘based’ fairly loosely – anybody who has read the biography that the film is based on knows that Nash’s schizophrenia manifested itself in a way entirely different than as was shown in the film. In the film, his insanity manifests itself primarily through vivid hallucinations. In real life, he simply became a self-centered, anti-social ass. The film was correct that he underwent electro-shock therapy. But the film overstated his ability to deal with his mental illness simply by concentrating a lot. If only mental illness were so simple!

I haven’t seen ‘Proof’. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow plays the daughter of Anthony Hopkins’ character, and both are brilliant mathematicians. Also, apparently she suffers from vivid hallucinations, too. (BTW, hallucinations are really a cheap cinematic trick- almost as loathsome as amnesia. But I digress.)

‘Sneakers’ is a fun film that deals with cryptography in a manner that, from the mathematician’s standpoint, is laughable. The film is about the pursuit of an algorithm that allegedly can ‘break all codes’, and it does so instantly. This notion is quite absurd.

To put it simply: it is quite conceivable that two different coding schemes would translate different messages into the same coded text. The idea that the coded text could be decoded without knowing the key, so to speak, is immediately seen to be impossible. Anyway, Ben Kingsley plays the maniac mathematician in this film, though, to be fair, Robert Redford is the good guy mathematician here.

‘Presumed Innocent’ is kind of funny in that Harrison Ford’s wife is the graduate student in math – a background character for most of the film. And then it turns out she killed off Great Scacchi out of insane jealousy.

Let’s see…checking IMDB.com
Ah, of course Good Will Hunting features a mathematician with serious psychological issues.
Little Man Tate – serious psychological issues, though not at the level of mania.

I’ll give credit to Michael Crichton – he has likable, sane mathematicians in both the Jurassic Park series and also Sphere. I’ll forgive him for a moment for being utterly insane when it comes to environmentalism.

Anyway, ‘Good Will Hunting’ is the one that was on the tip of my mind that I could not remember.

So, about ‘21’ – the film managed to get the “Monty Hall problem” correct. The “Monty Hall problem” is as follows: you are on “Let’s make a Deal!” and Monty offers you a choice of three doors. Two of the doors have goats, but one of the three has a new car! So you pick a door. The Monty opens one of the other two doors, which has a goat, and you are offered the chance to switch your pick. What should you do?

There are three choices: switch, stay, and it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty clear that ‘stay’ isn’t the correct answer, so it really comes down to the other two.

Superficially, it looks like you now have even odds of getting the car. Indeed, Marilyn vos Savant famously blundered her answer to this problem by insisting it didn’t matter if you changed or not: with two options, you have a 50-50 chance of getting the car.

But that’s not right. When you picked the door, you only had a 1/3 chance of getting the car. And nothing has changed to improve your initial odds. Regardless of whether you picked the car or not, Monty will be able to open a door showing a goat. So the odds that you picked the car are still 1/3. So…switch.

The film 21 babbles some mumbo-jumbo about changing the variables. But the real thing here is that Monty is not acting randomly. Indeed, if Monty were acting randomly, your odds would be 50-50 when the number of choices was reduced to two. Strange how the probability becomes a function of Monty’s thinking, eh?

Anyway, 21 got that right, but screwed up too many other things. In the middle of the film, they have a big to-do about cashing in chips after Lawrence Fishburne gets on their tail. At the end of the film, this difficulty in a similar situation is simply ignored. But most annoyingly, even more annoying than all the Hollywood twists, was the fact that, when the main guy was sitting on 19, and the dealer had 10, he was shouting “Monkey! Monkey!” In this context, a “Monkey” is a face card. Why would the player want the dealer to hit 20??? Pathetic.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Versus: worst sporting coverage ever

So I'm watching the Boston Marathon on the Versus network. And the race is getting exciting - the two women in the lead have turned the corner, and are on "the last 800 meters" to the finish line. A few minutes behind, the men's leader is on a record pace. (The women finish before the men because the race organizers have a staggered start.)

And just as the women hit a point 400 meters out, the clock hits 12:00 and Versus switches to an infomerical for a gold club. No apology, no warning, nothing.

I wonder why Versus paid for the rights to air the race, if they were going to cut off right at the finish?

Edit: the women finished 2 seconds apart, in the closest finish in race history. The guy who won didn't beat his own record, but it would have been nice to see these things myself.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008