Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New new phone, old old problem

My new RAZR is having the same trouble holding a charge that the old one had. I can't possibly have gotten three bad batteries in a row! Or two bad phones in a row. But what else could it be?
  • My settings are fundamentally the same as Siobhan's identical phone, which is a year and a half old and still holds a charge at least a day, usually more.
  • I've tried several chargers. (Next experiment though is to use her charger.)
  • I barely use the phone. I haven't had a call or even a text message in days. Siobhan uses hers a few times a day on average.
  • Could it matter where I am, which cell towers I'm communicating with? Could my office somehow drain it more?
  • I have more pictures on mine than she has on hers, but we both have an MP3 ringtone.
  • Hers connects by Bluetooth to something for an hour and a half every day, but mine rarely connects to anything by Bluetooth, even though it's been bonded to more things in the past. But the extra things it's been bonded to don't even have Bluetooth turned on.
  • If all else fails maybe I'll try swapping batteries with her phone and see if the problem stays with the battery. I can't imagine it will since this is the third battery I've had.

Thank you, Irving!

For many years we've been customers of Gillespie Fuels for our propane. This year, however, their pre-buy price was higher than many competitors, and more importantly, our credit union set up a special deal with Irving Oil to get propane at a more reasonable price for members only. They kept the price low through a close partnership with the credit union, so they could draw directly from an account set up for this purpose there, keeping their costs down. It was a great price, so we decided to switch.

Propane dealers aren't allowed to fill each other's tanks, so Irving needed to make arrangements to switch our tanks. We asked Gillespie to stop filling our tank so we could run down the propane that was still in it, and when they finally picked up the tank, they could reimburse us for what was in it at that time, along with the credit we still have with them from last year's pre-buy. Irving said they'd put in a new tank on August 24th.

On July 24th, an Irving truck came and filled up our Gillespie tank and left us a bill, which would be automatically debited from our account. Whoops. Seems someone in customer service hadn't told someone who actually does the filling about the status of our account (not yet active for another month), and that person also didn't notice the big Gillespie logo on the tank. Big problem, because now there was no way to tell how much propane in that tank was Gillespie's.

We called. They were stumped for a bit but came up with a solution. When the guy came out to set up the new tank on August 24th, he'd transfer all the propane in it to the new tank. We'd already paid for it all, after all. Then Gillespie could pick up an empty tank and reimburse us for only the amount we'd overpaid last year. Okay, a bit of a hassle, but no problem.

I was home on August 24th so I could make sure this all got done right. The guy who put the tank in had never heard anything about this situation. He radioed back to base and then told me, sorry, they didn't tell me about this and I'm not scheduled for it, someone will have to come back next week to do the transfer. So we're delayed another week or so before we can get the money Gillespie owes us from last year, but we can live with that.

He suggested that this transfer would be scheduled for me, but we didn't trust it. Today, Siobhan called to try to get a firm idea of when it would happen. No one at Irving could answer, but they said they'd know by tomorrow.

Tonight we got home to find a $575 bill from Irving. Apparently, someone came out and filled the new tank. Now they're going to debit our account again. And we have one full and one almost-full tank in our backyard, with no way for them to transfer the propane because there's no room to transfer it into. Naturally, there's no one at Irving who can even speculate about what will happen next. We can call first thing in the morning and try to beat them to processing the bill.

They really need to figure out how to talk to one another.

Next step to the MGB

Cigna's response to the letter our doctor's office sent them was more positive than we expected, suggesting maybe there'll be fewer rounds in the fight than we thought. I've no doubt they're going to be more difficult than this eventually, but so far, we're off to a good start.

However, they will only approve this as an out-of-plan surgery, which means we're going to have to fork over $2500 per surgery out of pocket (on top of travel costs). That's not going to be easy, but the far bigger question is how we're going to float the total cost of the surgery, $17,000 each, while we wait to be reimbursed. High Point won't bill insurance; they require payment on the day of the surgery. Assuming we have written commitment to reimburse us from Cigna, we still have to cover the $34,000 plus travel costs ourselves for the weeks or months it takes to get reimbursement. I'm not yet sure how we're going to do that, but I know I'll find a way. It's just a question of how good or bad a way I end up with.

This also means I have to dig into doing their Getting Started packet, which includes, amongst other things, a ten-page essay on what the MGB is. Being on the MGB YahooGroup I can certainly see why they require this. It's mind-boggling how many people don't know anything about the surgery or its impacts on patients, even as they're nearing getting it. Even some people who've had it! And these are the best-informed group, too. It's even worse for other surgeons and groups. But for me it's a bit perfunctory. I could spill out ten pages worth of information about MGB with my eyes closed. I know more about it than my doctor. But I don't relish the time I'll have to spend writing a book report to prove it.

I've been so busy with so many projects lately, but at work and at home, that I've been for a few weeks in a "no new things" mode: no new projects, no new items on my to-do list if I can help it, just try to winnow things down. Hahahahahah. Now I have a whole new set of things to do! Time to take some more time off from work -- making my work to-do list get more cramped.

In other related news, my weight dropped below 450 for the first time. I've lost 37.4 pounds since this program started in May.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Testing the math solution

I couldn't post this as a comment in response to the comment posted on my previous post because of the very limited formatting allowed in comments. Frank posted in response that the expected value should be (1-X)/X, which provides some results we both agreed seemed counter-intuitive -- though in the way that these kinds of probability things often are. (In fact, this problem is kind of related to the birthday paradox, now that I think about it.) So I whipped up a little C program to test it by brute force.

Here's the program:
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <ctype.h>
#include <conio.h>
#include <time.h>

/* Macro to get a random integer within a specified range */
#define getrandom( min, max ) ((rand() % (int)(((max)+1) - (min))) + (min))

int main() {
int probability, count, result;
long total;

/* Seed the random number generator with current time. */
srand( (unsigned)time( NULL ) );

for (probability = 50; probability >= 1; probability--) {
total = 0L;
for (count = 1; count < 1000; count++) {
result = 0;
while (getrandom(1,100) > probability) result++;
total += result;
printf("%2d%% calculated=%6.2f simulated=%6.2f\n", probability, (100 - (float) probability) / (float) probability, (float) total / (float) count);
And here are the results:
50%  calculated=  1.00  simulated=  0.97
49% calculated= 1.04 simulated= 1.07
48% calculated= 1.08 simulated= 1.09
47% calculated= 1.13 simulated= 1.09
46% calculated= 1.17 simulated= 1.19
45% calculated= 1.22 simulated= 1.22
44% calculated= 1.27 simulated= 1.22
43% calculated= 1.33 simulated= 1.37
42% calculated= 1.38 simulated= 1.41
41% calculated= 1.44 simulated= 1.54
40% calculated= 1.50 simulated= 1.52
39% calculated= 1.56 simulated= 1.67
38% calculated= 1.63 simulated= 1.64
37% calculated= 1.70 simulated= 1.66
36% calculated= 1.78 simulated= 1.71
35% calculated= 1.86 simulated= 1.97
34% calculated= 1.94 simulated= 1.89
33% calculated= 2.03 simulated= 1.95
32% calculated= 2.13 simulated= 2.20
31% calculated= 2.23 simulated= 2.30
30% calculated= 2.33 simulated= 2.33
29% calculated= 2.45 simulated= 2.41
28% calculated= 2.57 simulated= 2.55
27% calculated= 2.70 simulated= 2.78
26% calculated= 2.85 simulated= 2.81
25% calculated= 3.00 simulated= 2.91
24% calculated= 3.17 simulated= 3.17
23% calculated= 3.35 simulated= 3.38
22% calculated= 3.55 simulated= 3.73
21% calculated= 3.76 simulated= 3.77
20% calculated= 4.00 simulated= 4.07
19% calculated= 4.26 simulated= 4.19
18% calculated= 4.56 simulated= 4.70
17% calculated= 4.88 simulated= 4.93
16% calculated= 5.25 simulated= 5.38
15% calculated= 5.67 simulated= 5.52
14% calculated= 6.14 simulated= 6.11
13% calculated= 6.69 simulated= 6.66
12% calculated= 7.33 simulated= 7.29
11% calculated= 8.09 simulated= 8.41
10% calculated= 9.00 simulated= 9.20
9% calculated= 10.11 simulated= 9.97
8% calculated= 11.50 simulated= 11.09
7% calculated= 13.29 simulated= 12.98
6% calculated= 15.67 simulated= 15.47
5% calculated= 19.00 simulated= 18.58
4% calculated= 24.00 simulated= 24.61
3% calculated= 32.33 simulated= 33.43
2% calculated= 49.00 simulated= 47.77
1% calculated= 99.00 simulated=101.59
Close enough that I'd say the difference is likely due to not doing enough trials (I did 1000 for each probability) and inaccuracies in the floating point math and random number generation I used.

A new new phone

After replacing the battery, and sending it in for five weeks of repair, failed to make my old Motorola RAZR able to hold a charge through the day, I finally got them to simply replace it. As an extra bonus, this time, they had the black RAZRs in stock, which not only looks slick and matches my clip, it's visually distinct from Siobhan's silver one.

I had the foresight this time to go through the menus and take notes on all my settings, so the new one is now loaded up with the same address book pictures, the same ringtones, the same wallpaper, the same configuration. Let's hope this one holds a charge!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Doing more reading

Life is full because there are so many enjoyable things to do, that every minute I can spare has a list of things I'd like to be doing during it. One of the things that tends to fall by the wayside when I'm really busy is reading. But one good thing about my current exercise program is that it lets me do more reading. Audiobooks, mostly, which I get from Audible and play on my Palm while I ride the recumbent stationary bike.

I recently finished reading Entanglement by Amir Aczel, a very thorough tour of quantum mechanics focusing on entanglement and its role in the history of quantum theory. I've read a lot of books about quantum mechanics and sometimes feel like I almost, but don't quite, understand it as I'm in the thick of one of these books, though by the end I feel it's slipped away again.

This book was perhaps the first time I understood, at least a little, Bell's theorem, or at least the alternative three-particle-entanglement version. Specifically, how it's possible to prove mathematically that there can't be a hidden-variables theory, something which had always puzzled me before. Of course, it's already feeling like it's melting away. But at least I can recall that I have known it, and been convinced, and could review it at any time, so I no longer just have to take it on faith that the proof is real.

As with most books about quantum mechanics, the author plays up how the book will talk about the fantastic possibilities for technological advances made possible by our advancing understanding of quantum mechanics, but in the end, he really doesn't talk about them. I want to know what quantum computing is, how it works, and what advantages it has, but all I get are news article blurbs that just say that there's a huge advance, but not what or why, let alone how it works. I want to know how "spooky action at a distance" could be used for superluminal communications, or more to the point, why it can't! I want to know why we couldn't have lasers and microwave ovens without quantum mechanics, and what else we can expect to get in the years to come.

Currently I'm reading Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke, read by the author. He does an amusing, and surprisingly good, impression of the voices and accents of the presidents and other public figures he's served under and with. His from-the-inside view of the history of modern terrorism has been shockingly enlightening, particular as I see the roots of our current situation with Al Qaeda in the events of the Cold War's end.

I always had a vague sense that there was the Cold War, then a decade or so of relative peace and safety, during which terrorism gradually became an issue, and eventually came to replace the Cold War in the role of making us all feel terrified and powerless, and giving Hollywood a source for villains. And I knew that some elements of terrorism had roots in the Middle East conflicts revolving around Israel, as well as the global oil trade. What I really never understood before this book was how the rise of terrorism, and particularly Al Qaeda and the Taliban, are not merely something that came after the Cold War, but were birthed in the same events that brought the Cold War to an end. Now I see that the events at the end of the Cold War are at least as responsible for the advent of modern terrorism as anything about Israel or oil, if not more so.

Probably the next book will be some bit of science fiction, maybe a collection of short stories. Then back to science.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mr. Mojo Risin'

Listening to some songs by The Doors this morning, it occurred to me that while their songs are firmly rooted in classic rock, there's some of the same quality of "texture", an ethereal, atmospheric effect, in their songs as in some trip-hop stuff, like Portishead. If Jim Morrison were alive today, I wonder if he'd be into trip-hop.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Memetics versus memecrobial infection

You can't understand what a meme is without understanding the principle of the selfish gene. We usually think of genetics as a function of organisms; that a species survives because its genetics work to make it able to survive. Dawkins turned this on its head. The genes are what are trying to survive and procreate, and the organisms are just complex, effective tools that the genes use for this purpose. Genes are what really matter, though. That's why, the minute your body can no longer procreate -- can no longer pass on genes -- it tends to fall apart. There's no longer an advantage to keeping it working after that point, because the survival of the organism is irrelevant, only the survival of the gene.

The idea of a meme was an outgrowth of this idea. Memes, as they were originally defined, were ideas that did the same thing that genes do. The canonical example of a meme is a religion, or an ideology. A meme is a long-lasting thing which struggles for survival against other memes, and the minds it will inhabit along the way are important only as a means to continue and spread the meme. That's why martyrdom works: the meme doesn't mind losing a host, as long as the process gets it into other hosts.

But these days if you say "meme" on the Internet odds are what people will think of is not a meme at all, but just a momentary fad. Nothing about the genetic model of the meme really applies to how these fads propogate or survive, nor is there really anything fundamentally different about how they spread today than how they used to spread 30 years ago -- it's mostly just faster, and can happen with less investment, but these are differences of quantity, not of kind.

What is mistakenly called a meme on the Internet today is more aptly compared to a microbial infection. It passes from person to person by contact, a person suffers it for a short while and then gets over it, and that's it. It survives by finding more hosts, but that's where the comparison to genetics ends, because it doesn't have any long-term survival. It doesn't have a consistent identity over time. It survives not through tenacity or ability but through sheer numbers.

It's always a pity when a really powerful, really meaningful word, which is the only way to express a unique, insightful concept, is devoured by the grinding engine of word-trivialization. Especially when it's co-opted to mean something we already had perfectly good words for. The language is lessened, and so is the scope of human thought. Having thought this through, I now regret my own contribution to the misuse and erosion of this sublime word.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A math problem

Consider this game. I've got a die with sides marked "win" and "lose", such that the probability of rolling "lose" is X. You roll the die; if you roll "lose", the game ends. If you roll "win", I give you a dollar and you roll again.

For example, if X is 0.15 (a 15% chance of rolling "lose"), the odds of you getting nothing is 15%. The odds of getting $1 is 85% * 15%. The odds of getting $2 is 85% * 85% * 15%.

Put generally, the probability of any result n is:

P(n) = x (1-x)^n

The question: How can I calculate the average expected payout for a given value of X? All I can figure out is it would be the sum of this infinite series:

Once upon a time I might have been able to figure out whether that converges on something I can express as a simpler formula, or at least calculate for a few selected values of X. But I don't even know where to start now.