Monthly Archives: April 2009

Lost in the Supermarket

Tuesday night, on the way home from a couple sets in San Francisco, I knew I was out of milk, so I stopped at the 24 hour Safeway near my home at around 1 in the morning.

As I was walking into the store, I decided I may as well do a full-fledged shopping trip.

Late night grocery store is kind of surreal. The staff, although skeleton, massively outnumbers the customers. It’s an opportune time to restock the shelves, so it looks like an industrial wasteland. Flattened empty boxes and heavy machinery are all over the place. A couple times I had to abandon my cart at the end of the aisle because the entryway was blocked by cardboard and forklifts. So I’d hike down on foot and carry my selections back to the cart. It sounds really inconvenient, but this clutter was more than compensated by the fact that there were almost no other shoppers anywhere. At least clutter can be pushed aside without regard for personal space and autonomy. And it doesn’t narcissistic, irritatingly wander back into your way.

My hunger and late-night induced laziness meant I bought a lot more prepared and frozen food than I might otherwise. But wow, the weak economy has really made bargains easy to find! Especially if you have a frequent shopper card.

By the time I got to the checkout, it was around 1:40 AM, and I was nearly drunk with over-tiredness. Just as I put the first item on the belt of the lone available checkout stand, a poor Apple Security guard, holding maybe two items, stepped behind me, his face falling at the sight of my forty or so items. I told him to go in front of me, and he was out of there in a minute. I Am A Good Person.

I suspect some of my shopping decisions were not ideal, but it was nice getting a mundane errand out of the way without dealing with other shoppers. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. While writing this, I realized I left approximately seven hectares of toilet paper in the bottom of the shopping cart. Oops.

The Sexification of Science on TV

TV continues to evolve. There’s been a trend lately in television to feature characters that not only know some rather complicated things, but also use critical thinking skills. Science sells. Now that’s intelligent design!

Take CSI. When I first saw CSI on TV, it was pretty unique. I remember being impressed with the computer graphic-based clips featuring extremely scientific recreations of crime details like blood splatter, or showing bullets tearing through human organs. It’s rather innovative how they teach people about forensic science by embedding it in a relevant plot line. Most crime dramas just tug on your emotions; if they make you think at all, they just make you think about people or society in a “aw, ain’t it too bad” kind of way. CSI makes you think about facts. The reasoning is part of the story. The value of critical thinking is shown, not told.

Then came NUMB3RS. In this show, a math genius helps his FBI brother solve crimes using advanced mathematics. Although the math is generally quite good, this is a bit of a stretch. Most of his work seems to involve statistics — as applied as applied math gets, and no snobby elite math genius would touch applied math with a ten unit-length pole. I’d love to see him try to apply some group theory, maybe to catch the Rubik’s cube murderer or something. Still, kudos to the message of the power of reason.

It’s not just dramas, either. The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom that attempts to humanize nerds. I haven’t seen this show except once on an airplane, and I suspect it would make me cringe more than laugh (“There but for the grace of God, go I.”). My understanding is that the main male characters are rather geeky physicists who somehow manage to have the amazing fortune of having beautiful women living across the hall. Fish out of water. Two worlds collide. Bla bla bla. The fact that this show was even considered by network TV goes to show how trendy science has become.

And just in the past month or two, I’ve been watching – and enjoying – Lie To Me, which features some kind of mix of psychology, sociology and anthropology. It’s an interesting show whose recurring characters are mostly focused on figuring out what emotions a possibly deceitful person is trying to conceal, and their methods seem to be based on actual research. I wonder how long they can continue to bring up original points about how to tell if someone’s lying. Maybe they should provide fellowships to further this research. Academics work a lot cheaper than writers (but probably proportionally slower too).

It’s a fresh bounty for scientific consultants. Anyone got a comedy about math in the works? Sign me up for creative consultant… ’cause I gots me some gut-busting theorems just itchin’ to be proven in the most hilarious of ways!! A laff riot! Hilarity, then QED!

Nader Vote = 1/2 Bush Vote

In the 2000 Election, which was primarily a duel between the two four-letter candidates Bush and Gore, the warning “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!” was often bounced around.

Of course, in one sense it’s kind of right. Nader tallied 97,421 votes in Florida. Most of these voters probably would have voted for Gore if they had known the actual outcome in advance, and our world would be quite different today. Of course, if they knew the actual outcome in advance, then it wouldn’t have been an actual outcome, but now I’m arguing myself down an infinite wormhole in space.

There are problems with this aphorism. The electoral college voting system, where “winner takes all” in a state meant that voting for Nader in a state that was statistically safe for Gore (or Bush!) was irrelevant to the outcome. In most states, you could send-your-message/throw-away-your-vote care-free. Not Florida, of course, but most states.

Most annoyingly, for me at least, is the numerical inaccuracy. A vote for Nader is not as destructive to Gore as a vote for Bush. It’s half as destructive.

Consider a simplified election with 15 voters: 9 left wing, who prefer Gore or Nader, and 6 right wing, who prefer Bush.

If all lefties vote Gore, he wins, 9-6.

If 4 of them to vote for Nader, Gore loses, 5-6 (and Nader gets 4).

If 2 of them vote for Nader, Gore wins 7-6 (and Nader gets 2).

If 2 of them vote for Bush, Gore loses 7-8.

So as you see, a vote for Nader is not the same as a vote for Bush. You need twice as many voters to switch to Nader for Bush to win, so it’s only half as damaging.

I guess “A vote for Nader is half a vote for Bush!” sounds a little weird. Nevertheless, it’s sad that once again, mathematically accurate details lose out to marketing poetry.

(Ah yes, a blog posting in 2009 about the election of 2000. Whattya think: Too soon?)