Get the Modeler... Before the Model Gets Us

Whenever I watch a TV show centered on data, numbers, or math, I can't help but to think of fellow members of the All Analytics community and wonder whether the storyline would seem plausible to you.

A quintessential example, as we've discussed here previously, is the season 2 Homeland episode in which terrorists murder the US vice president by hacking into his pacemaker and jolting him to death. I'd not been a regular Homeland watcher, but I recently managed to whip through the first two seasons on demand. I figured I might as well see what all the fuss was about and be prepared to watch week to week, starting with season 3. Since I just watched the pacemaker episode, killing-via-data was fresh on my mind this weekend when I caught the latest airing of yet another crime drama, Elementary, and its math-themed episode "Solve for X."

Elementary is a contemporary, New York-citified version of the BBC TV series Sherlock, itself a play on classic Sherlock Holmes stories. In "Solve for X," Sherlock and his sidekick Joan Watson are investigating the homicides of two mathematicians said to have been close to solving the trickiest of all tricky math problems, "P vs NP." In the process, they'd win a million bucks from a mathematics institute... not to mention the envy of math and computer science geeks the world over.

Not being in either of those disciplines myself, I didn't recognize P vs NP as a very real-life challenge. No doubt, however, many of you All Analytics readers will know how foolish that was. P vs NP is, in fact, "the most notorious problem in theoretical computer science" today, as I've since learned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The big question is whether P equals NP, and the Clay Mathematics Institute will indeed give anybody who can decisively answer that question $1 million for doing so.

As MIT explained, P vs NP is all about the time an algorithm takes to execute in direct proportion to the number of elements it's handling (the "N") and polynomials, which are mathematical expressions involving "Ns and N2s and Ns raised to other powers."

    Obviously, an algorithm whose execution time is proportional to N3 is slower than one whose execution time is proportional to N. But such differences dwindle to insignificance compared to another distinction, between polynomial expressions -- where N is the number being raised to a power -- and expressions where a number is raised to the Nth power, like, say, 2N.

    If an algorithm whose execution time is proportional to N takes a second to perform a computation involving 100 elements, an algorithm whose execution time is proportional to N3 takes almost three hours. But an algorithm whose execution time is proportional to 2N takes 300 quintillion years. And that discrepancy gets much, much worse the larger N grows.
I'm thinking the Elementary writers borrowed a page from MIT, as the plot twisted and turned and led us viewers to a discussion about P vs NP and what its solutions could mean in the hands of somebody who wanted to circumvent the data encryption schemes commonly in place today. The digital world, in essence, would be that person's playground, which the MIT explainer touched on briefly.

I won't explore any more of the thinking behind or explanation of P vs NP or reveal the who, the what, or the how of "Solve for X." But I will ask a question of my own: Could murder for math... or modeling... one day be the stuff of a real-life drama?

That might seem as far-fetched as the story told on Elementary the other night, but I couldn't help thinking that in some cases, the ability to analyze big datasets in real time will be worth millions. Might that serve as the motivation behind corporate raiding and other nefarious undertakings? Might we see people trying to "get to the modeler before the model gets done?" Might this, in fact, turn out to be one potential downside of perfecting a big-data analytics strategy?

Or has too much TV turned my brain to mush?

While you ponder that, I'll be checking to see whether I can catch any episodes of Numb3rs, another show recommended to me just the other day on our message boards for its use of math and data analytics in solving crime. And, shh!, don't tell me what happened on Homeland Sunday -- I haven't watched that episode yet.

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Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Elementary
  • 10/22/2013 9:08:11 AM

That's the beauty of DVR and on-demand viewing. How many of us actually watch shows as they air these days? Nothing more frustrating than having to sit through commercials!

  • 10/21/2013 11:27:40 PM

Now I am going to have to add Elementary to my long list of shows to watch—where do people find the time to watch so many shows? I am excited to see how much research they've done in creating a good story.

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/15/2013 5:17:09 AM

SaneIT, - as the saying's never that serious :-). Sometimes its just being cheeky for the fun of it.

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/14/2013 11:22:40 AM

Of course there would be a P vs NP episode on Numb3rs! One more reason for me to watch. ;-) As for your friends and their cryptic address, yikes, they will keep me away, that's for sure!

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/14/2013 8:02:54 AM

Well that's one way to keep your audience low and your diversity of readership narrow.  Other than a site were you just want to have a safe haven for your hobby I can't imagine being that hardcore about not wanting people on your site.  I'm sure there's a government watch list for that type of thing.

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/14/2013 5:11:59 AM

Beth, - Even in Numb3rs, season 1 or 2 there's an episode where the P vs NP problem features prominently. The main character who's a mathematician is sort of fanatical about everything math. So at one point he retreats into his own room to work out P vs NP at a time when he's really needed on something else.

His dad and FBI brother and Physicist friend all got a bit impatient with him and talked to him about it. He was stubborn at first but by the time it ends, he had resigned to the fact that there are many other things he could be useful at as a mathematician. And indeed easier ways of making a million dollars!

But to something else, i actually know 2 or 3 guys who have their address in cryptic on their websites. And say something like: "Apply a β-reduction to derive". Like if you can't decode i prolly do not wanna hear from you

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/10/2013 8:05:43 AM

@SethBreedlove... speaking of government incompetency!

This was a great idea, but boy you'd think they've have been really, really, REALLY careful that the problem was absolutely 100 percent before posting!

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/10/2013 7:22:56 AM

I guess it's hard to think rationally about how to kill someone since it's not really a rational act.  I can't say I saw the show but I guess if you want to make sure someone is dead shooting them would be one of the most effective ways to do it mathematically   I'm sure they could have devised a plot to sabotage their car or blow them up unibomber style but if you look at the effort that goes into it the shorter quicker way to get the job done probably involves a gun.

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/9/2013 10:26:31 PM

This reminds me of a job posting by the Australian Air Force.  In order to call the number to apply, a prospect had to solve a math problem.  Sadly, no one (outside of the Austrialian Air Force) has been able to solve it. 

  1. Job ad that challenged readers to solve a maths puzzle backfires ...
    Jun 27, 2013 - A Royal Australian Air Force job advert asked new recruits to find its phone ... It was a job advert designed to find the best mathematical minds in the ....your dinner with your dog: Chocolate can trigger heart problems and fruit  ...

Re: Like math on TV? Watch the Simpsons.
  • 10/9/2013 5:39:22 PM

Sorry to scare you! 

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