Sunday, December 19, 2010

God's Wheel of Fortune

Here's a little thought experiment my brother John Mark and I used to discuss and debate at length on road trips, over our breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios, or on lazy afternoons at home when we should have been studying. (Having the endless hours to devote to this kind of thinking as children is something I still consider a distinct advantage of homeschooling.)

I'm sure all of my immediate family members were dragged in circles with this quandary at one time or another, and contributed their ideas, but I have to credit John Mark as the initial inventor. I recall trying to wrap my brain around this when I was about 6, so he was probably no more than 8 when he first posed this experiment.

It goes something like this:

You are given a wheel and a challenge. The wheel is just like the one from Wheel of Fortune, except it only has two segments, like a pie cut straight down the middle. It has a red half and a blue half. Also, this wheel belongs to God, so He can change it at whim. The challenge is simple: you must successfully spin the wheel and have it stop on the red segment, and you have an unlimited number of spins to get it right.

Here's the catch: every time you spin the wheel, God doubles the number of segments, and leaves only one red segment. So, after the first spin, the wheel is split in quarters, with three blue segmments and one red. After the second spin, the wheel is split into eighths (seven blue segments, one red). So forth and so on, ad infinitum. 

Obviously, your odds of successfully landing the red segment are cut in half with each additional spin, but given that you have the rest of eternity to sit there spinning, are you guaranteed to eventually hit the ever-diminishing red sliver? (In some variations of this experiment, we would suppose that your admission to Heaven would be contingent upon successfully landing the red. In hindsight, this seems like a pretty cruel conception of God for two children our age to have possessed.)

Argument in favor: Yes. You are desinted to eventually hit the red segment. It doesn't matter how bad the odds get, whether it's one in a million or one in a billion. Even though the odds are doubling against you, every spin brings you closer to that inevitable fate - you must hit the red segment someday in the course of eternity.

Argument against: No. There is no guarantee that you will ever hit the red segment. As the odds get worse and worse, your hope of ever hitting the segment disappears. Throughout eternity, you have nearly no chance of hitting the red segment unless you get it within the first few spins, while the odds are still decent. It's going to be a long eternity in the awful Wheel of Fortune purgatory.

I've argued both sides before and never felt completely satisifed with either answer. So, with some time to kill on the airplane yesterday (as we were traveling home to visit Ryan's family), I posed this question to Ryan, who is a Economics major and has math practically seeping out of his pores. I was surprised and a little disappointed that he managed to wrap this question up with a bow within about a half-hour of first hearing it.

Apparently, this question which has boggled me for most of my life was not actually a universe-shattering paradox. I just lacked the know-how to calculate the probability. Dang.

I feel bad sharing Ryan's solution so immediately and depriving any readers the opportunity to tease this out themselves. But, I guess I'm a living testament that you could spend 15 years with this in the back of your mind and never get any closer to a solution.

I'm also so excited to finally have the real, mathematically-proven answer to this question that I just have to share.  I encourage you to come up with your own hypothesis, fight about it with anyone who is willing to engage you, and then, come back if you really want to hear the answer, as math dictates it. For the answer, read on.

So, to John Mark and everyone else. The answer is: No. You are not guaranteed to hit the red segment.

Take us home, Ryan:

Assuming that spinning the wheel can be considered a completely randomized selection method, the odds of landing on the red segment on the first spin is one half. That's easy. The tricky part of all of this is figuring out what the odds are from the outset for landing a red on each successive spin. If we give it some thought, the odds of landing on the red on the second spin means that you did not land on the red on the first spin.  So taking another spin should be considered as having odds of its own. So the odds of landing on the red on a successive spin must be the odds of getting the red on that spin multiplied by the odds of spinning that spin.  So, for the second spin, the total odds of landing on the red segment are:

(1/2) +  (1/2)(1/4)
The odds of getting it on spin 1 PLUS The odds of not getting it on spin 1 TIMES The odds of getting it on spin 2

The odds of landing on the red segment for the third spin are:

(1/2)  +  (1/2)(1/4)  + ((1/2)(3/4)) (1/8) 
The odds of not getting it on spin 1 nor on spin 2 TIMES the odds of getting it on spin 3.

For those of you who have taken a bit of calculus and are curious, this is called an infinite Taylor series and it is recrusive.  This particular series approaches a finite sum (as you may have been able to tell, each additional spin adds a smaller and smaller increase to the total odds.) This will approach but never reach an asymptote of .70668 or 70.668%.

So, before your first spin, you have a 70.668% chance of ever landing the red segment.  But, if you don't get it on your first spin (when your odds are 50/50), you are suddenly reduced to a 20% chance of ever succeeding.

Phewsh! Glad we took care of that one. Everyone can get down of the edge of their seats, and get back to their regularly scheduledly lived. We've put this one in the books.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to not be a Sucker.

I should be studying for my final exam in T-minus three hours, but I just opened my browser to do some online reading for my class, and stumbled across this article on the Yahoo News homepage that made me think, "Wow. This world is full of suckers." :

Why You Should Cut Up Your Credit Cards

We're all suckers when it comes to money. Some people have uncontrollable, ever-amassing debt, and others think that just having a credit card is a sin worse than murder and we should all just live out of piggy banks.  But, whatever we try to do, we all fall victim to bad deals and crappy money decisions at some point.  I feel like a sucker when I pay $16 for airport food, or $200 for an extended warranty that I know I will never use. I facepalm at my own suckerdom when I get a fee for letting my balance drop below the minimum, just because I forgot to cash my paycheck. Doh!

It seems like everyone from Dave Ramsey to Glenn Beck to that pretty, young, ethnically-ambiguous girl on the Bank of America magazine ad has their own opinion on what I should be doing with my money (not to mention the many retailers and service providers who just want me to hand some of it over).

I don't claim to have the solution for everyone, but Ryan and I have found a few hacks that help us make the most of our money. These have all worked great for us and maybe one or two will work for you as well. Should I even be sharing my best secrets? Here goes:

11. Tracks all of your expenditures, budgets, savings in one place. Awesome.

10.  Redbox Codes

9.  Using a single no-annual-fee credit card for basically all of our purchases, and then-- this is key -- always paying off the entire balance before it's due. Simply put, we don't spend more than we earn. We've never paid a finance charge, and we have earned hundreds in rewards. (We use an credit card which allows us to collect our rewards in the form of amazon gift cards - which is perfect for us. It also gives us 1% cash back on every purchase.)

If you are getting deeper and deeper in debt, and are having trouble controlling your spending when you use a card, then by all means, please use a fool-proof method. No shame.

8. Interest-yielding savings or money market account

7.  UHF TV antenna + + netflex = all the TV we could possibly want, without paying for cable

6.  Using the public library instead of buying every book we want to read. As with credit cards, if you are timely and organized, you will never have to pay for the service and can reap the benefits. When I find a good book I want to own, I can always get it cheap on amazon or

6.1.  Refusing to purchase school books at the University Bookstore. We purchase all of our books online or through BYU's campus book exchange, and then resell them online, in the bookstore, or using the campus exchange. (We have actually turned a small net profit on buying and selling textbooks)

5.  allows us to get a few cents back on every dollar we spend on eBay. All you have to do is access eBay via the portal (we have it linked to our ebay favicon link, so every time we make a purchase through eBay ,our payments are tracked and we end up earning an extra few bucks here and there.) This probably isn't worth your time unless you make eBay purchases with some frequency.

4.  Using a continuous ink supply system instead of paying through the nose for ink cartridges. Just find the name and number of your cartridge type, eg: HP 60, Cannon 45 and type "CISS" followed by the cartridge type into google or eBay. A $30 system will keep you going FOR.EVER. When you eventually do have to get more ink, you can buy it by the bottle very inexpensively.

3. and local classifieds (in Utah we use as well). This seems obvious, but I can't not mention it because it has been so good to us. We've gotten everything from furniture, and electronics, to my gym membership on craigslist.

I purchased a 2.5 year "VIP" Gold's Gym membership off of some dude who stupidly committed to a 3 year contract and never ended up using it.  Other people's suckerdom = your profit. All told, I'm paying about $12 a month for a gym pass that would've cost me $39 a month if I bought it straight from the gym.

2 . NOT purchasing extended warranties from the store,  but getting it from a third party like I am a huge advocate of Squaretrade. They have been so good to me and their warranties are so much cheaper than retail. My current boss, who used to work at BestBuy told me how little markup  they actually make on electronics- all the profit comes from selling warranties.  If you get a Squatrade warranty, especially on a 30% off day (which happens about 3 times a month), you won't regret it. The one time I had to make a warranty claim, they simply refunded me the purchase price for my broken iPod and I was able to buy a new one. Squaretrade will even sell you a warranty for used electronics purchased on eBay. Amazing.)

ALSO, did you know that stores are required to give you at least 30 days to decide on purchasing a warranty?  If you find yourself at the cash register, being pressured into buying a $200 warranty and you can't make up your mind, JUST SAY NO. You can come back later and purchase the warranty from the store if you decide it's your best option (which it probably isn't).

And my personal favorite:

I've never shopped at, but this elephant makes me want to.

1. Grocery Price-Matching (Walmart, Target or other store with low-price guarantee)

Okay. I know this sounds like an embarrassing, annoying hassle. I know you don't want to be that person at the grocery store who wastes everyone's time trying to save 35 cents on toilet paper with a coupon that is "somewhere in my purse. Just hold on a sec." (Insert gun in mouth).

But, it doesn't have to be that way. For the longest time, I ignored all of that "savvy shopping" crap because it 1) wasn't worth my time and 2) would force me to be that lady.  But then I discovered a way to do it quickly and electronically. It suddenly became worth my time when I found a method that let me beat the system without constant maintenance and coupon-clipping.

You'll need:
- A stack of those local grocery store ads that would normally go directly from mailbox to trash can.
-Scissors (optional)
- A smartphone/iPod touch (optional, but oh-so useful)
- A Dropbox account
- Excel, or other spreadsheet program
- A local Walmart/Target or store that sells groceries and offers low price guarantee
- A binder/portfolio with 10 - 15 empty page protectors, (number each page front and back). I use a flexible vinyl binder so I can roll it up and put it in my purse.
- An hour to kill putting it all together. (I promise, it's not that bad. Ryan and I had fun doing this as an FHE activity. You only have to do this once.)

What to do:
1) Look through the ads and circle the prices that are better than what you're currently paying at your grocery store.  $0.25 a pound for bananas!  $.50 a pound for apples! You'll be surprised what's in there. Circle everything that seems like a good deal.

2) Cut/tear/fold up the pages with items you are interested in and put them in the binder. (You don't have to have every single item visible on every page; that's what the spreadsheet is for).

As you are putting the ads into the binder, enter items into your spreadsheet in this format:


3) Once everything is entered, sort by name or by category and save your .xls document in your Dropbox. (I actually made multiple tabs on my document, one sorted by name, one by page number, and one sorted by category).

4) Access the .xls  on your smartphone via Dropbox. Now you're ready to shop! (If you're not using a smartphone, just print our your excel spreadsheet and put it at the front of your binder)

At the store:  Bring along your binder. In my experience, the cashier is unlikely to force you to produce the actual ad, so I either leave it in the car, or stick it in my purse. The fact that you have a binder is enough to make them trust you.

5) When you're ready to check out, two simple tricks will make this experience painless. #1 Put all of your regular, non price-matched items on the conveyor belt first, followed by all of your price-matched items. This allows the process to go much more quickly and saves the cashier a headache.  #2 If  you have a large cart of items, be courteous and if someone gets in line behind you, let them know that you might take an extra minute or two. This gives them the chance to move to another line if they're in a hurry.

6) As the cashier is finishing scanning the regular items, let them know that you have a price-match for the rest of the items,  and with smartphone in hand, tell the cashier the price for each item one at a time. If they ask to see the ad, just pull out your binder and turn to the page. (I've only been asked to produce the ad once in my year of doing this).

7) Maintenance: As promised, your initial setup is the hardest part. Maintenance amounts to changing out pages when the ads expire or when you find an even better price. This can be done every week,  every other month, or every six months -- whatever you have the time and energy to do (though I've found it sort of addictive). Update your excel spreadsheet and save to Dropbox. Done.

Like I said, I've rarely had a cashier ask to see the ad, and have never been questioned as to the age of the ad. So, I put it upon myself to be as honest as possible. I'll always switch out the ad with something more current if I know the price is too much in my favor. ($.90 for a pound of strawberries in the middle of January? I'll be reasonable and switch it out for the current $2.49 ad).

Now, go forth and and shuffle off your mortal coil of suckerdom.

Okay, back to studying.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Saddam Hussein will make an excellent mommy to your suckling babe.

Is there anything we love more than talking and thinking about ourselves? Feeding, comforting, pampering, educating, entertaining, and understanding ourselves are also high on the list.

So, when online quizzes offer us an opportunity to spend ten minutes introspectively measuring ourselves, in addition to the promise of great insight as to exactly which Harry Potter character we would be, or which animal is our kindred spirit, we eat it up.

Now, I generally put about as much stock into personality tests as I would the paper place-mat in a Chinese restaurant that advises me to "marry a Monkey or a Rat late in life." But, I know they can be fun, and I guess some psychologists have actually spent their careers attempting to make accurate, and useful personality tests with the goal of helping us, I don't know, weed out bad employment applicants?

If you've ever heard of the Myers-Briggs personality test, then you know it's a thing. It's been around for a while and people who wear more expensive clothing than I say it's valid and important. I was made to take it as part of my 8th grade "Human Wellness" (read: sex ed) class, and I took it again recently for fun. Apparently I haven't changed in the past decade because I got the same result: ENF with a 50/50 smattering of P and J. (Learn what these results mean here.)

The reason I bring all this up is, of course, self-centered because I just have to brag that Ryan and I are apparently a match made in sociological heaven. According to, my ideal partner is an INTJ personality, which Ryan just happens to be.

Darn you, Science. How did you know?

So, my dear friends,  I am extremely curious to know what your Myers-Briggs type is and if married, whether you and your spouse were as destined for each other as Ryan and me. If you have nothing better to do, take the quiz here, determine your "ideal" partner type here (bottom of the page), and then share!  I will accordingly unfriend you if I feel your personality type does not mesh well with mine. (Kidding. Please. You're so sensitive. Stop crying.)

Here are a few quizzes I'm hoping somebody will invent soon so I can get that final dose of masturbatory narcissism I need to really reach the plain of self-comprehensive Nirvana: 

"Which type of farm-ville addict are you?"

"What song will you dance to at your 5th wedding?"

"How well would you have gotten along with Genghis Khan?"
"What does your favorite flavor of Starburst say about your soul-mate?"

"What would your Warrior Cat name be?"  (Lionpaw, Leopardspear, Dragontrail, Shadowclaw etc. Personally, I think mine's Firefox).

"Which of your irredeemable character flaws will ultimately ruin your chances of finding true happiness?"

"Which of Edward Cullen's sparkly nipples are you?" (I'm definitely a righty)

"How will you be discovered?!? (by homicide detectives)" (Prone, supine, in garbage bags, under a bridge, hanging in a tree, etc)

"Which notorious war criminal will bear your babies?"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thanksgiving. It happened. We ate food.

Since we've  been married, our Thanksgiving tradition has been to drive up to Idaho and spend the holiday with my brother John Mark, his wife Wendy, and their adorable Tiffany.

Thanksgiving 2009:

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009 with John Mark, Wendy (right) and their friends Devon and Maron (left)

Tiffany, almost two

But this year, with my brother in Baghdad, and Wendy and Tiffany in Maryland, we were left without our comfortable tradition. So, instead of foisting ourselves upon some kindly coworker or neighbor (who did graciously extend invitations), we opted to embrace the non-traditional and have a Indian Thanksgiving -just the two of us.

Lamb masala with plenty of cream.

Roasted, spiced chickpeas

Nannmmmm...mmm...they turned out perfect- it was a Thanksgiving miracle.

Dishes in this image are tastier than they appear.

Now, I've tried to make naan at least five times and never had great success. But this time, I chose a recipe solely based on the authentic look and accent of the Indian mama in this video and the results were phenomenal. The secret? Using a pizza stone to mimic the tandoori oven. Brilliant!

 The meal was delicious, and, no need to cry "Sacrilege!" because we did have a complete ol' fashioned Thanksigving dinner just days before, with Ryan's grandparents and extended family.

Although we love hanging out with the whole family, this chill Thanksgiving was a nice break from the typical hustle and bustle. And spending the day in our PJ's gave us plenty of time to reflect on the many blessings we've received this year.

Some objects of our gratitude that came up at dinner: 
- Technology with its many manifestations and uses
- Our good health (we had just one medical intervention between the two of us this year: a cavity filling for Ryan.) 
- Our jobs that keep us fully employed
- Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
- Our incredibly comfortable lifestyle
- Our wonderful friends and mentors whom we admire
- Naan
- Our loving family who always seems too far away

So, in the single phrase of Hindi I recall from my Historical Linguistics class: Shukriyah!

I loved Ryan's (lack of) expression in this shot.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Double Deuce!!

I don't think it's any secret that the outpouring of love and attention we receive on our birthday is one of humanity's biggest scams. For one day each year, everyone is obliged to compliment your hair, laugh at your jokes, and tell you you're cool, regardless of any accomplishment or (or lack thereof) you've managed in the past year.

But hey, I'm no birthday Scrooge. I love celebrating other people's birthdays, and my own too. I'm not saying I don't eagerly gobble up all the attention and cake, but I am sometimes painfully aware of how little I've done to deserve the kindness I receive on my birthday. "I managed to not die for 365 consecutive days. Somebody bake me a cake!"

So, this year for my 22nd birthday, I decided I would earn my celebration a little bit by putting on a dinner party and doing all of the cooking myself. (I'm lying - this was no act of self-flagellation, I was just excited to use the Cuisinart food processor that Ryan got me.) So I set to work.

Maple leaves on the invitations.

My plan to do everything by myself was foiled by my helpful husband and friends who, arriving on time and finding a lot left to be done, eagerly helped with last-minute preparations.

 We dined on roasted lamb, rotmos, creamed spinach, hot cider, smoked salmon on Irish soda bread, bacon-wrapped dates, cheese and fruit, chamomile iced tea, butternut squash soup, and probably a few other things I can't remember. It put me in a food coma.

Marble pound cake which went beautifully with pistachio ice cream.

A lemon/cardamom/saffron chiffon cake with not-too-sweet whipped cream icing, toasted pistachios and candied rose petals. It was the bomb.
Everything from my co-workers decorating my desk, to my boss interrupting his own vacation to give me a call and wish me a happy birthday, to the many gifts, notes and phone calls from friends and family made me especially, undeservedly happy.

So, I'd just like to give a big double deuce to the many wonderful people out there who are too kind to me and made my double deuce birthday one to remember: