Tag Archives: tv

Quomodocumque goes old-media

I’ll be on The Today Show on Thursday, August 15, at 10 am Eastern time (the “Kathie Lee and Hoda” part of the program.)  Danica McKellar will also be on — besides being an actor (“Winnie Cooper”) she has written a series of books aiming to get teenage girls excited about math.  I have her latest out from the library and it’s very rich in mathematical content!  I like the way she describes the triangle inequality, very poignantly, as representing the long edge of the triangle trying with all its might to get its too-short arms to touch each other…

I’m not sure exactly what’s going to take place!  Except that McKellar and I will get to tell millions of people that math is awesome, not boring.

Previously on the blog:  Sara Marcus interviews McKellar.  And on Terry’s blog, a nice explanation of McKellar’s work in statistical mechanics, along with the tidbit that McKellar was second from the top in Terry’s intro topology course in 1997.






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Angry Birds is less popular than television

Andrew Sullivan, via Hillel Fuld, reports:

Another mind boggling statistic about Angry Birds, and you should sit down for this one, is that there are 200 million minutes played a day on a global scale. As Peter [Verterbacka, Angry Birds creator] put it, that number compares favorably to anything, including prime time TV, which indicates that 2011 will be a big year in the shift of advertisers’ attention from TV to mobile.

Americans alone watch a mean of 5 hours of television per day.  Let’s say half of that is prime time.   300 million Americans times 150 minutes is 45 billion minutes a day, and we haven’t counted any TV usage anywhere else in the world.  The popularity of Angry Birds does not “compare favorably” to the popularity of TV.

Update:   On the other hand, it’s quite reasonable to suppose that there are lots of popular TV shows that occupy fewer global person-minutes than Angry Birds does.  So the claim that advertisers should be taking the idea of advertising on mobile games, just as they do on TV shows, sounds fair to me.

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She do the police in different voices

Whether Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse can be good surely depends, most of all, on whether Eliza Dushku is actor enough to convincingly portray a new character in the same body every week — or, if the arc of the show is as promised, each week a new character through which some slowly revealed constant character bleeds through, in the painful sense of the word “bleeds.”

After the first episode, I’m doubtful.  But then, the first episode — said to be a hurried compromise forced on Whedon by Fox, just as with Firefly — wasn’t very Whedonny at all.  Lots of chunky exposition, poorly delineated dramatis personae, quickly revealed and as quickly resolved “dark secrets.”  Very little snap, with the exception of a fine tough-cop men’s room scene that would win this year’s Best Men’s Room Scene Emmy if not for Madison rocker Shirley Manson’s star turn as a homicidal urinal — really! — on Sarah Connor Chronicles.

I can’t lie; I trust Joss.  I will watch.

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One cheer for Numb3rs

An anonymous commenter denounced me — in a very thoughtful and civil way! — for working on the CBS show Numb3rs:

The show gets it wrong. Worse than having an opportunity and not doing anything with it is having an opportunity and doing damage with it. Math problems are not solved in minutes! Certainly an hour of a guy doing scratch work wouldn’t make good TV, but the show could be true to the fact that mathematics takes hours/days/months without boring the viewer — but it doesn’t even try.

The accusation of unrealism is perfectly correct. On Numb3rs, Charlie solves math problems lickety-split; and if he makes a false step, it’s rectified well before we get down to the car-chase-and-shootout portion of the episode. In real life, math problems take a long time to solve. But you know what? In real life, serial killers take a long time to catch! And in real life, when the cops are in a gun battle with bad guys, the bad guys sometimes don’t miss! And in real life, when you spin your car out, sometimes you crash!

And so on, and so on. Numb3rs is a cop show. As such, it’s bound to very stringent genre conventions, and one of those conventions is speed. If you want to break those conventions and remain on TV, I think you need either a fanatically loyal fanbase, truly brilliant writers, or a home on a network unpopular enough that low ratings don’t matter so much — in fact, my only example of an action show that successfully “worked slow” is season 7 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which had all three.

I had always conjectured that the writers of Numb3rs just sprinkled the dialog with random permutations of words from math book indices.

Not so far off, except that Wikipedia is preferred. The people who write the show are professional TV writers, not mathematicians, so the math content in the draft scripts is often a bit “kinda sorta.” I was one of four or five math consultants to the show in season 2; our role was to tweak the “mathy” sections to bring them into line with the overall plot of the episode. But not to mess around with the plot, which comes first. One doesn’t sense that stories are generated by a writer musing, “Hey, we should build an episode around the cohomology of flag varieties; what crime would that solve?”

Poorly crafted analogies are everywhere, and results are always attributed to a mindblowing theory we’re told about but never see… I don’t learning anything about math or logic with numb3rs. Certainly the subject matter is a bit more dense, but it could be done. As examples, I could see an episode that fully taught an induction proof or presented the complete proof of the solvability of chess. That would have people talking at the water cooler the next day!

Yeah, it might sound something like: “Hey, I cleaned my whole basement last night in the hour of free time I used to spend watching Numb3rs!

Actually, I think both of my commenter’s suggestions, presented correctly, would indeed make excellent pegs for an episode of the show. The commenter is right that, at times, the show relies too much on big words and gee-whiz. But just as often it presents a real mathematical idea in a vivid way.

As in the premiere, when the cops stare baffled at the pushpin map of the serial killer’s killing spots. As far as they can see, it’s completely random; pushpins distributed evenly all over LA. The mathematician observes: randomly chosen locations don’t form a nice even-looking distribution. The absence of clumps suggests that the killer is intentionally choosing new victims far away from his previous ones. Is there a five-minute lecture on the topic? No; but a viewer should certainly come away having learned a non-obvious piece of mathematics.

But all this is, to me, beside the point. Numb3rs does offer us an opportunity, as my commenter says; but not the opportunity to teach mathematics to a mass audience, a task for which I think a cop show is spectacularly poorly suited. The opportunity presented is the chance to battle a popular story about mathematics — that it’s a chore, that it’s for nerds, that it’s never used in “the real world” — and thereby to bring new students into mathematics courses who otherwise might not have considered them. Nine out of ten may leave disappointed when they find out we don’t actually fight crime. But one out of ten will see what mathematics is really like and think it’s great, and they’ll stay. And we’ll have CBS to thank!

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Come and play, everything’s A-OK, although there are some liability issues we need to discuss

This morning CJ, Nana and I watched the first DVD of the Sesame Street: Old School box set my parents got us. The first episode is from 1969, well before I started watching, and it’s a bit startling to see the characters in their embryonic form — orange Oscar the Grouch, omnivorous Cookie Monster, Big Bird with a much smaller, pointier head. Also startling are the short films showing kids playing unsupervised in what appear to be abandoned construction sites — I think you wouldn’t see this on a contemporary educational program, right? There’s lots of authentically funny material here, much more so than on modern kid-TV. The vaudeville duo of Buddy and Jim trying to hang a picture is particularly great — why didn’t these guys become permanent characters? Highly recommended for anyone with a toddler in the house.

Also of note is the extra DVD footage in which an official of CTW explains the psychological principles behind the show, and in particular how the animated interludes mimic the method of TV commercials.

Oh, here’s Buddy and Jim hanging the picture. Thanks, YouTube!

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At least it’s not Royals-Reds

This year’s baseball postseason has to be counted as disastrous if you’re in the television industry. First of all, three of the four divisional series were finished in the minimum three games, with one going four. The NLCS went the minimum four games, and the Indians now lead the Red Sox 3 games to 1. That means that if Cleveland wins tomorrow, the total number of games in all six playoff series so far will be just 2 over the minimum.

But it gets worse: the team from the smaller TV market has won all five completed playoff series.  Using the 2004 table of top television markets here (scroll down) we have Cleveland (16) over New York (1), Boston (5) over Los Angeles (2), Phoenix (14) over Chicago (3), and Denver (18) over Philadelphia (4). Then the Rockies cruised by the Diamondbacks, and if the Indians can manage one more win from their two aces, we’ll see a World Series between the two smallest markets in the playoffs.

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