Thursday, October 29, 2009

I love "Community"

And it's not just because they think that Statistics professors are hot. Although that doesn't hurt. I mean, I knew it was true, it's just high time the rest of the world caught on.

For those who didn't see the Halloween episode, post credits finds Jeff ogling his stats prof while lecture is ending. She begins with "The Bernoulli distribution is the number of successes in a sequence of independent yes/no experiments."

Now anyone who has taken a probability course (and hopefully my students come next Wednesday's midterm) knows that is in fact the definition of a binomial distribution, not a Bernoulli. So as is my usual practice, I headed over to Wikipedia to make sure that no one had fooled with definition again.

To my delight, I found "...the binomial distribution is the discrete probability distribution of the number of successes in a sequence of n independent yes/no experiments". Now that is too close a wording to be an accident. The writers ripped a line right out of Wikipedia. Chutzpah of that level is to be admired, and that's reason enough for me to love the show.

But it goes further than that. If they lifted the line from Wikipedia, why the Bernoulli/binomial switch? Only after watching the show to the end did I realize that the character was going to exhibit a holier-than-thou attitude towards the students the whole way through, even going so far as to introduce herself later as "Michelle Slater, Ph.D.". Who does that?

So here's my theory: they intentionally had her make a mistake at the beginning to establish that while she thinks she's all that, in fact she's a bit of a dim bulb. Naturally I went trolling through the tape afterward to search for further errors.

And indeed, I was not disappointed! As my students should also know by this point of the semester, the square of the standard deviation is the variance. However, what was written across the top of the board was "Sqaire S.D. to get vairiance" Okay, so vairiance could just be another error, but "Sqaire". That had to be intentional. But there's more. On the board, a calculation appears that is equivalent to saying 2 + 3 + 3 = 12. You don't have to be Good Will Hunting to get that right.

The piece de resistance? The most well known theorem in probability, abbreviated CLT, is the Central Limit Theorem. What's written on the board? Central Limiting.

Here's hoping that these are intentional jokes, or some writers need to get their college tuition refunded, post haste.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Time travel is tricky.

The first time travel story that I remember seeing on television was "The City on the Edge of Forever" from the original Star Trek series. That story went with the "future is not written in stone and can be changed" paradigm. I have seen dozens if not hundreds of time travel stories since, and they have become a beloved staple of science fiction.

And yet despite all the history, all the different renditions, time travel remains incredibly difficult to do right. I would say the last season of Lost is a shining example of how to do it correctly. Questions of fate intermixed with how knowledge of the future plays out beautifully. But one of the reasons it worked so well was that the writers were clearly aware that you need to pick a philosophy of how time travel works and obey the logic that follows.

FlashForward, ABC's latest science fiction offering, is a mess that drops time travel to new lows. The premise is that for two minutes the entire population of the planet blacked out, and saw two minutes of the future six months from now. But the show's writers made a fateful decision: the flash forwards people saw depended on the blackout event happening. That is, this was a glimpse of the future that depended on the blackout event. In fact, the main character bases his entire investigation of the blackout on clues seen during his flash forward.

And immediately everything breaks down. If you knew, knew, that you would have a glimpse of the future at a certain time and date, would you go about business as usual that day? Would you spend those two minutes calling your credit card company? Would you go to bed early that night? Of course not!

Stockbrokers would have a summary of the economy's performance in front of them. Scientists would be looking at six months worth of the top breakthroughs. Someone whose husband died of cancer detected too late would be pouring over medical tests.

The problem is: everyone would know that they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to communicate with their past selves. They would not choose this unique event in human history to read the sports section while in the restroom. But the show expects us to believe that a field director of the FBI would do exactly that. And that another character would decide that these pivotal two minutes would be a good time to get drunk.

All this could have been fixed if the show designers had realized for one second that the flash forwards cannot depend on the blackout event. Then they could have realized their vision of flash forwards that represent random slices of the future. But knowing the time and date of the flash forward makes the entire concept of the show ridiculous from the get go.

In science fiction it is more important that basic logic and rules of storytelling be obeyed, not less. It really is that simple.

[Here's hoping they didn't screw up the remake of "V".]

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And they say bad news travels fast....

I received the following email today from Columbia:
Thank you for applying for the recently advertised position of Assistant Professor. The search for this position has been discontinued, without success in filling the position. We appreciate the time and effort you put into your application and we extend our best wishes on your job search.

Whew! The suspense on whether or not I got a position that would have started a month ago was killing me.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Toy Story double feature

This weekend I headed to the theater to catch out the latest retro 3D showing from Disney. In this case, a limited engagement of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, now newly remastered in 3D.

Not having small children, it has been many a year since I saw these two great films (they came out in 1995 and 1999), and they have held up beautifully. Partially this is because of the inspired choice of using toys: the naturally plastic look of computer animation is perfectly suited to capture a Green Army Man in action.

My greatest surprise, however, happened during the opening credits for Toy Story. To my amazement, the first writer listed for the screenplay was Joss Whedon. In 1995, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) was still two years away, and that was the first thing that put Whedon on the map of SF lovers everywhere.

Dollhouse (Whedon's latest) Season 2 premiered two weeks ago, and so far has been great. The Dollhouse concept has always been ripe for questions of what is meant by mind and free will, but now they've jumped into these questions with gusto. Juxtaposing the dolls angst against Buzz's realization that he's just a toy is interesting, to say the least.

Anyway, for Whedon and non-Whedon fans alike, I would recommend seeing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 again in theaters. They have a ten minute intermission between the movies, but I recommend hitting the restroom during the Toy Story credits. As the first Pixar full length movie, this was before they starting putting cute things in the credits, and the intermission is really a ten minute show with some fun tongue-in-cheek trivia and a few 30 second vignettes with the characters. They've also got a nice 50's drive-in style countdown clock during the intermission, so it is easy to see if you have time to leave.

Toy Story: 5 out of 5
Toy Story 2: 5 out of 5