Numbers and Palindromes

Numbers and Palindromes. No, not numbers that are palindromes: Numbers and Palindromes, the television show and the movie.

I wrote about Numbers six months ago; at that point I had only seen three episodes, and it would have been premature to offer much of a review. Since yesterday’s episode combined some interesting math with a good show, and since I’ve now been watching it for most of a season, it’s time for me to be more forthcoming. I now can feel confident in what was only a tentative opinion six months ago:

Most important, from my POV as a math teacher, is their portrayal of real mathematics, at high-school and college level, as something with genuine applicability. This is a revolutionary step for a commercial television network; even on PBS there are almost no mathematical applications that go beyond middle-school math. Putting it in a context that reminds one of Law & Order is a sure way to grab viewers’ attention.

Yesterday’s episode was a fine example. Based on Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions — which I wrote about on October 2, and which was explicitly referred to in the episode — it took the mathematics of blackjack one step further by considering the algorithms and mechanisms behind how the cards are shuffled. Of course, in true Law & Order fashion, it augmented the so-called true story by wrapping it around a murder. Well worth seeing.

Palindromes is also worth seeing, but it’s definitely not for everyone. (Numbers probably is for everyone, despite the emphasis on mathematics. But why say “despite”? Math is for everyone too.) Anyway, although it’s something of a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes doesn’t in any way require the viewer to have seen the earlier film first. Director and screenwriter Todd Solondz is always challenging and provocative and never cheerful, so don’t watch either Welcome to the Dollhouse or Palindromes — and especially don’t watch Happiness — if you’re looking for a straightforward or upbeat movie. The protagonist, Aviva, is played by many different actors, young and old, black and white, and — according to both IMDb and Roger Ebert, though I don’t see it — female and male. We’re not supposed to judge people by appearances, so why should that bother us?

Categories: Math, Movies & (occasionally) TV