Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Damned Lies About Statistics

I had to watch it when I saw the commercial. Some guys are watching Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers (well, last year, anyway) at bat. One says, “He’s gone 0 for his last 4 games. He’s due.” The other guy says, “There’s no such thing as due.” And then comes the home run.

Baseball has me thinking about statistics and numbers all the time. Well, baseball, and my job analyzing statistics and numbers at a record store. I’ve picked up quite a bit about the way numbers work, but one of these days, if I ever do anything, I’m going to take a class on this stuff, so I can understand regressive analysis and other fancy things like that.

Anyway, as you may have gathered by now, I like to watch crime dramas on TV. (I like to watch other things on TV, too, but crime dramas do seem to spark more essay ideas, at least lately. I mean, I’d love to tell you all about the delights of “Hope and Faith,” America’s most under-rated sitcom, but so far, there ain’t no organization to those thoughts.) So, there’s a new show in town, the ridiculously titled “Numb3rs,” which is kinda like a cross between “CSI” and “Good Will Hunting.”

Well, not really, but there are chalkboards and grad students, so there’s something akin to “Good Will Hunting” going on. The pilot episode, shown Sunday night on CBS, was more or less like “Silence of the Lambs” without any of the psychological tension. Here we go again with the serial criminals, this time a rapist who burns a brand onto his victims and has now escalated to murder because, well, murder is the ultimate possession.

Did you ever wonder how these top cops let serial criminals put up such big numbers before dramatically breaking through and catching them in a one hour episode of constant plot twists? I think this guy had put up 12 rapes before he killed number 13, and, despite enormous manpower and lots of pictures of victims on the walls of the FBI headquarters, no headway has been made in the case. The FBI, the same agency which employs Mulder and Scully and I forget who else, can’t discern any sort of a pattern to the actions of a guy who has committed 12 virtually identical crimes in a very short (albeit unspecified) period of time.

I’m not one of those guys who spends his life researching serial killers, but I seem to recall that, with a few very famous exceptions like John Wayne Gacy and the like, most of them go months between crimes, and that’s why it takes a long time for authorities to figure out that the same person is doing it. They also don’t tend to be as methodical and consistent as the ones on TV. But, we love to be afraid of masterminds, don’t we?

One kind of mastermind we’re always afraid of is the mathematician. Those who think numbers have anything to say to us are derided as nerds, as outcasts, as braniacs, as people unwilling to see the obvious. A simple thing like the statement that a batter is due to get a hit after going so many times without one is accepted without question, despite the fact that statistically, it’s as much a lie as anything you could ever pull out of your lips. Over time, batters will regress to the mean of their statistics, yes, but that doesn’t mean that any individual at-bat bears any relation to their other accomplishments. If you say he’s due to get a hit enough times, eventually he will get one, and you’ll feel vindicated, despite the fact that you have to completely ignore the number of times you said it and he made an out.

So, it’s interesting that the twist on “Numb3rs” is that a mathematician can solve crimes that regular police can’t handle. But, in practice, this guy isn’t all that different from our friend Alison Dubois over on “Medium.” As far as we and the FBI can tell, young Charlie Eppes (David Krumholz) is pulling answers out of thin air. That’s why they get so pissed at him when it turns out he wasn’t 100% correct the first time.

Oh, well, Charlie gets to do some serious cipherin’. You can tell it’s serious because he puts a squirreled-up expression on his face, and starts scrawling across the chalkboard faster than most of us can type. Computer generated formulas fly over the screen sometimes, just to add to the excitement. Here’s a fact. Working mathematics isn’t really all that visually cool, and the way they try to pump up the testosterone here just makes me cringe.

Further upping the nerd factor, they make sure to show Charlie as being absent-minded, and they have him and his mentor, the guy who used to be on “Ally McBeal,” talking about solving fancy shmancy theories together. Oh, and they give him a hot, sexy grad student he gets to use as an assistant, and she obviously likes him but he doesn’t notice.

Charlie’s brother, Don (Rob Morrow, who used to be on “Northern Exposure” but I didn’t even realize it was him until I asked my wife Cat halfway through the show whether he’d done anything else) is the FBI guy in charge of investigating this rapist. He leaves his map of the rape locations on the dining room table, and Charlie can’t resist trying to solve the problem. His number-oriented mind sees 13 dots on a map and knows there has to be a way of narrowing down the home base of the mastermind. My baseball numbers oriented mind knows that 13 is a small sample size. But, I don’t know how to make fancy equations like Charlie does, so maybe it’s enough to get us to where the story takes us.

Several false starts later, the brothers are tipped by their dad (Judd Hirsch) that maybe the bad guy’s home base is where he works, not where he lives, so Charlie re-does all his work and narrows things down to a couple of office buildings. Don runs a check on everybody who works there, and comes up with a convicted rapist who’s done his time, who, we realize, has to be the guy because, well, there’s only a few minutes left in the show. No possibility that it could be one of the thousands who work there without any prior convictions, and no recognition of the fact that this guy didn’t seem to have performed the same patterns when he was raping before.

I’m not even going to talk about the breathless rescue sequence as the FBI heroes get to the villain just before he kills again. Instead, I’ll say that “Numb3rs” bears watching, just to see where they go with the math angle. I’m an eternal optimist, and I see a slight chance that maybe, just maybe, this show could make a very slight dent in America’s fear of numbers. Or, maybe we’ll start a drinking game for every time Charlie says something along the lines of “Numbers are everything.” Either way, I think we’re due.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As we were watching this at the Vintage Vinyl Xmas party, I kept telling Cat that the premise of this show is Charlie reiterating over and over again to his cop pals something akin to the saying "Numbers don't lie". And his cop pals would be flabbergasted and doubt the validity of the numbers. By the end of the episode, once the crime was solved by the numbers, the cops would be like, "Oh yeah, numbers don't lie. This formula will repeat itself episode after episode until they finally cancel the show. I like to imagine the final show being one in which the numbers don't add up and Charlie will say, "Oh... I guess numbers do sometimes lie." By then I hope we will have taped enough episodes so that we can enjoy the drinking game.

7:36 AM  
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