[28 September 2007]
I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
—E.M. Forster, “Two Cheers for Democracy” (1938)
NUMB3RS combines two of television’s most staply of staples—crime-fighting and family drama—with a scientific trend that has implications for all of us: the triumph of Moore’s Law over Mooer’s Law. In 1965, Intel cofounder Gordon L. Moore observed that over the previous 10 years computer processing power had been doubling roughly every two years, and predicted this phenomenon would continue “for at least 10 years.” Moore’s Law has held true now for more than 50 years and it’s not expected to fail for at least the next decade. By way of contrast, in 1959, computer scientist Calvin Mooers predicted that “an information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.” Mooers’ idea was that people would resist information systems to avoid having to analyse the data and come to terms with whatever truths it might conceal.
Such resistance has long since fallen by the wayside. As detailed by Ian Ayres in his 2007 book, Super Crunchers, faster processing and increased access to the internet have made it possible for data-based decision-making to replace expertise and intuition. So, banks no longer care about your local loan officer’s opinion of your credit-worthiness, and evidence-based medicine, which uses statistical models to guide both diagnoses and treatment, has changed how doctors and medical insurance companies do their work.
NUMB3RS takes an even-handed approach to this development, dividing its attentions between brothers whom embody intuition and a data-based approach, FBI Special Agent Don (Rob Morrow) and mathematical genius Charlie (David Krumholtz). It’s a formula that works surprisingly well and has delivered consistently entertaining drama over three full seasons, topping the Friday night ratings throughout. Focusing on the relations between the socially awkward Charlie and his by-no-means stupid elder brother—mediated in part by their father Alan (Judd Hirsch)—the show also provides meaty supporting roles for talented and generous actors Peter MacNicol and Kathy Najimy. It also offers easily digestible explanations (requiring no calculations at home) of the many different ways mathematics affects our daily lives.
At the end of the third season of NUMB3RS, one of Don’s crack FBI team was exposed, somewhat surprisingly, as a Chinese double-agent. Less surprisingly, the fourth season begins tonight with the 64,000 terrabyte question: was the wholesome and appealing Colby Granger (Dylan Bruno) really a cold-blooded traitor to his friends, the FBI, and his country? Or is his seeming treachery more complicated and layered?
While the cinematographers and FX-wizards attempt to ramp up the NUMB3RS cool quotient, the premiere explores the boundaries between science and emotion, and takes a long hard look at friendship and loyalty. A more hunky and sexually confident Charlie calculates complex trust metrics, worries about moral dilemmas, and cops a feel of girlfriend Amita (Navi Rawat) as often as possible. Don is torn between his instincts and his duty. Alan proves yet again that he has at least one platitude for every occasion. And a disturbingly gone-to-seed Val Kilmer lends NUMB3RS a touch of the classic Jack Bauer Torture Hour.
If you think the premise of NUMB3RS is fun but farfetched, you might want to think again. Shortly after 9/11, independent security expert Valdis Krebs recreated the structure and identities of the core Al Qaeda network using publicly available information accessed from the internet. He started with Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, both known to the CIA before 9/11. By scanning public sources for information linking these suspects to others, Krebs established that all 19 hijackers were within two email or telephone connections of al-Hazmi and Almihdhar, described their relationships to each other, and identified Mohammed Atta as their ringleader.
If Moore’s Law continues to hold true, and the CIA can resist the lethargy anticipated by Mooers, then it’s quite possible that in 10 years time, we’ll be able to use Charlie’s super-crunching network theory to prevent terrorist attacks rather than merely investigate them. Of course, we’ll still need a Don to take those targets down.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/numb3rs/