Saying goodbye to Numb3rs

For those of you who were very cool and watched Battlestar Gallatica, you probably never got into Numb3rs, CBS’s crime show about an FBI agent played by Rob Morrow and his math genius brother played by Norm Krumholz. I OTOH, saved up all my Battlestar watching until the series ended so that I didn’t have to wait a week between viewings; so I watched Numb3rs as it went along, with its various different characters and story arcs, and its various and sundry math miscellany. There were many things to love about the show, including its ambitious desire to get people interested in what are pretty abstruse math concepts like voronoi diagrams and graph theory. They even did trip assignment modeling on a few episodes. As it evolved, it felt a little like I had a group of friends on TV who, like me, are interested in math and computers and puzzles and spirituality and food.

This season’s finale felt an awful lot like a series finale, and perhaps it is time. Here’s my breakdown.

Things to love:

1. Charlie Eppes’s relationship with his academic mentor played by the darling Peter McNichol. Math-physics collaborations are very very cool. And when mentoring really works, it’s a really beautiful thing, a testimony to one person’s generosity and commitment to the future and to other people.

2. The way in which the Eppes family got to be Jewish on TV without becoming caricatures.

3. It was really nice to both Judd Hirsh and Rob Morrow on tv again. I loved Taxi and Northern Exposure.

4. The sensitive way the series explored just how much the Eppes family sacrificed–particularly how much the older brother sacrificed–so that the math prodigy could do what he wanted to do.

5. The treatment of professors on tv that didn’t involve them being closet pervs, egomaniacs, or pompous, no-brain windbags. Charlie, Amita, and Larry are all genuinely good people interested in ideas, teaching, friendship, family, and the life of the mind. Unlike the skank proffies on Law and Order who are always selling drugs or child porn, the profs on Numb3rs, particularly the guest sidekicks, captured the lovable geekiness I am surrounded by.

6. The fact that Alimi Ballard’s character, David Sinclair, was promoted not because of affirmative action or any of the other crap narratives about professional blacks on tv. David got promoted because he was, quite simply, better at his job than everybody else was.

7. The fact that the show illustrated how much we need our parents even as adults. Alan Eppes, Judd Hirsh’s character, doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s helpful to the younger people around him–just like the older professors are–in understanding what matters and what probably doesn’t. It’s not like your kids stop needing you as they get older, and it’s not like you stop needing teachers.

8. Mildred Finch, who should have been on the show more. Mildred Finch was played by actress Kathy Najimy, and she was, simply, great. Originally portrayed as a scold, she was brought in to be a chair. As the series moves on, Millie becomes a great role model for older women; she’s smart as a whip, beautiful, independent, and she has guts, protecting Charlie from a dictating donor and naming the tough terms on which her faculty will work with philanthropists. That’s *exactly* what a good chair or dean does. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of Millie in the later seasons, which is too bad.

9. The “Frenemy” episode where Charlie learns to like his grad-school nemesis. For those of us who are never the stars, who are never the Golden Children that our parents and teachers just slobber over constantly, it’s really hard to watch while somebody else gets the limelight all the time. But you got to suck it up because there isn’t anything else you can do about it.

Thing not to love:

1. Amita Ramanujan’s evolution. This was just screwed up from the beginning. Played by Navi Rawat, she’s a lovely young woman and the part could have been fantastic. But they went with the cliched creepy beginning for Amita with her being a grad student of Charlie’s, which put them on unequal footing from the beginning, and she never really recovered from that. They went to extraordinary lengths to try;she graduated with an offer from Harvard (those happen every day); she got tenure in 15 minutes; she got other things handed to her because, the audience is meant to be believe, she’s so darned brilliant in her own right. But then they had her doing things like arranging Charlie’s office for him and–gar. It was all rather unfortunate because her field, combinatorics, is a fascinating field and Amita really was quite a charming character. They just should have started her off better. It was cool that she shares a last name with reknowned Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Once they committed to having her be so young in the profession, it got hard: the life of assistant professors isn’t one of hanging around and having great conversations about applied math and crime-solving. It’s a lot of time at computers and in classes and going to meetings that I can guarantee nobody ever wants to sit through on tv.


Climate change losers as bad betters or dumb buyers?

A number of people have brought up Paul Krugman’s discussion last week about economic growth and climate change emissions: Growth and Greenhouse Gases – Paul Krugman Blog – NYTimes.com. His comments to me seem rather prosaic for somebody of his gifts, but maybe I am just not seeing the “wow” there.

However, I did see a “wow” discussion on climate change, carbon pricing, and social equity last week for the Keston center event I organized on pricing and social equity. Cap and trade with auctioned permits is essentially a pretty efficient carbon tax. UCLA’s Matt Kahn, always a treat, said something that got me thinking. He asked about whether those who are in carbon-intensive industries should be treated as bad betters or dumb buyers rather than victims of public policy, which strikes me as a very reasonable question at this point in the debate.

We’ve all heard the line that carbon regulation will cost job and create jobs, which has its distributive consequences, but Matt’s question is one I haven’t hear before: carbon-intensive industries as bad betting or dumb buying. Economists often argue that bad betters or dumb buyers shouldn’t be rewarded in markets, for good reasons: they either have bad information or they aren’t very smart about how they use information and they make bad market decisions. I have argued before that homeowners who have bought foolishly shouldn’t necessarily be saved from the consequences of those decisions. Is carbon intensity the same thing?

In general, those who are concerned about people who lose out from government regulation believe that these folks are victims; with sweeping new policies, programs and investments, the state can create windfalls on the one hand (the jobs and industries created) and wipeouts on the other (the industries and jobs lost). You can see how this is different from a bad better or in a market.

In our case, with climate regulations, which have been floating around for over 10 years, you have to ask: is a carbon loser at this stage–a decade into the debate–a victim or a bad better?