Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Holiday Blues

November and December are my least favorite months of the year. And here I am right at the point where one ends and the other begins -- well at least it's half over.

I've never been fond of winter, and I believe that has to do with SAD. A girl needs some sunshine in her life. In Illinois, I forced myself to go outside during daylight hours every day -- otherwise I got too depressed. Tennessee seems to be sunnier than Illinois, so that doesn't seem to be as much of a problem for me as it was farther north.

Thanksgiving used to be my favorite day of the year. Now I dread it. Really, I wish there were a way to just skip from Wednesday to Friday, and dispense with Thanksgiving Day altogether.

This transformation in attitude occurred in 2002. That year, I had the worst holiday season ever. It was the year I wanted to kill myself at Thanksgiving, and the year I wanted to go on a homicidal rampage at Christmas.

But the holidays have other associations too. Holidays are family time, and it burns me up that I will NEVER be able to celebrate the holidays with my first family again. Thanks to the negligence and gross incompetence of a couple of cheese weasels who never learned to play fair with themselves or each other, I am made to suffer.

Ten months out of the year, I am okay with my parents' divorce. Hell, sometimes I even think it was a good idea! But it's times like this, times when you're supposed to be together with family, that make you want to shine up the hypothetical hunting rifle.

Because, goddammit, when your parents divorce, it hurts, and it hurts forever. It's something I'm never going to "get over." Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. And I've done that! But it doesn't make things hurt any less.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thankful to Be Alive

Nearly three years ago, on Wednesday, November 27, 2002, began the worst twenty-four hour period of my life. For nearly twenty-four hours, I was 99% convinced that I should end my own life. The trigger of this episode doesn't really matter; the cause of it was the disease of depression.

I don't think I've ever talked about anything so personal on this blog. The reason I'm talking about it now is that I think it's important to make people aware of this debilitating disease. It strikes people in all walks of life: young or old, male or female, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful. Even if someone appears to have it all together, sometimes beneath that veneer there is despair. Anyone looking at me might think that I had "no reason" to be depressed. But depression is not a reasonable disease.

I was at my father's house for Thanksgiving. My sisters were there too, but my husband was not. But there could have been a hundred people there; I felt so alone that it wouldn't have mattered. Thoughts of worthlessness were racing through my head, and I could hear a voice inside me taunting me with that worthlessness. Since I was so worthless and caused only pain to those around me, the nicest thing I could do for the world would be to eliminate myself.

I stayed up all night, haunted by these suicidal desires. There was only one rational bone left in my body. Thank goodness it was there! It was that bone that convinced me to read a book, to distract myself from those thoughts. It also convinced me to call 1-800-SUICIDE if I ever got beyond just thinking about suicide.

Eventually I got so exhausted that I did fall asleep for a few hours. When I woke up I didn't feel quite as bad, although I still felt profoundly sad. I ate the Thanksgiving meal and I took a nap at some point that day. But it was a terrible ordeal that I never want to repeat.

I don't think I'll ever repeat it. I'm in such a different place than I was then. I certainly have depressive tendencies even today, but I have learned a lot of new behavioral mechanisms to prevent myself from getting to that state.

If there's one thing I've learned from counseling, it's that anniversaries of traumatic events are traumatic, too. Maybe not as traumatic as the event itself, but it's still difficult. So Thanksgiving is very hard for me. I feel so sad for that lost woman three years ago, that woman who almost gave it all up. I'm just thankful to be alive.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Doctor in the House

On Monday, I went to the post office and checked our box. Among the myriad of bills was a note saying that I had an item that was too big to fit in the box, and I should retrieve it during normal postal business hours. So I went back to the post office yesterday and got the item.

It was my diploma! According to the fancy inscription, I was awarded the Ph.D. in Computer Science on October 15, 2005 by the Senate of the University of Illinois. (Suckers!)

Of course, you can get all kinds of diplomas for much less effort. I still get spam about obtaining my diploma from a "prestigious, non-accredited university." Diploma mills are rampant even outside of academics. My karate teacher in Illinois talked about how easy it was to become a certified eight-zillionth degree black belt. But his favorite was the diploma you could get that conferred "monk status" upon you. Who knew that you needed a piece of paper for that?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Adventures in Applied Math

I realized that the title of this blog is starting to become sort of misleading; there's a whole lot about adventures, and very little about math, applied or otherwise. I think that there must be someone who's reading this thing for the math and is getting awfully disappointed as I blather on about bathmats and dishes and my feelings. There was a little mathematical action going on with the whole mortgage thing, but even that was disappointingly general. So, in honor of that hypothetical mathematically-deprived person, I am going to talk about one of my current favorite applications of math: SUDOKU.

Never fear, math-phobes and mathematically disinclined! I will do my best to keep this entry accessible to those without extensive math training. And if you have any questions you are more than welcome to ask in the comments section, and I will do my best to answer.

For those of you not in the know, Sudoku is the latest puzzle craze. “Su Doku” is Japanese for “numbers singly.” In the canonical puzzle, there is a 9 x 9 grid, in which nine of each number 1-9 must be placed such that each row, column, and 3 x 3 subgrid contains each digit only once. The puzzle is given to you with some numbers already placed, to assure that the solution to the puzzle is unique. (Think about it: if it were an empty grid, there would be a whole lot of correct solutions. And by a whole lot, I mean 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960 [source: Wikipedia]. So you have to fill up at least a few squares in order to narrow it down.)

Before we get into this, let me say that this puzzle does not involve math in the traditional sense. That is, the digits 1-9 are simply placeholders, with no arithmetic value. You could just as easily use the letters A-I; the names of the planets in the solar system; Snow White, the prince, and the seven dwarves; or nine different colored crayons to represent the same thing. The reason numbers are used is because they’re a lot easier to write. (This square is Sneezy! No, wait, it’s Snow White! Damn! They both start with "SN"!)

The sort of math involved in the Sudoku puzzle is mathematical logic. You use logic to eliminate candidates for each square. For example, if there’s a five in square (1, 3), we know that there can’t be a five in any square (1, y) or (x, 3), or in any square (x, y) where both x = {2, 3} and y = {1, 2} (that’s the row constraint, column constraint, and subgrid constraint, respectively. The notation {a, b} means "a or b.").

According to Peter Lablans at www.multivaluelogic.com, the Sudoku puzzle is an example of a nine-way logic table. That is, instead of having binary, yes-no logic, we have nine choices (yes/no/maybe/almost always/usually/often/sometimes/rarely/when pigs fly?). I don’t know enough about multi-value logic to say much more than that, but if you’re interested, his site is very informative.

An interesting question to consider is how many squares do you have to pre-fill in order to assure a unique solution? Seventeen is the smallest number of pre-filled squares in a Sudoku puzzle with a unique solution found so far. But this does not mean that all puzzles with seventeen pre-filled squares possess a unique solution. For example, consider the puzzle in which all ones and all twos are pre-filled. (This puzzle has 18 pre-filled squares.) There are many valid solutions to that puzzle. The reason this puzzle does not have a single solution is that many of the pre-filled squares are redundant. For example, removing one of the twos, we lose no information, because we can deduce that that particular square must contain a two based on the location of the other eight twos.

Something else to ponder is how long it will take to solve a Sudoku puzzle. If there are n entries in the puzzle, we should be able to figure out how long it takes to solve the puzzle as a function of n. Meaning, if we are solving a bigger puzzle, such as a 16 by 16 Super Sudoku, or a 25 by 25 Mega Sudoku, there should be a formula into which we can plug our number of entries and come out with the expected time to solve the puzzle in some sort of arbitrary time units.

Sudoku puzzles are in a class of problems known as NP-complete. This means that solving a Sudoku puzzle of arbitrary size (probably) requires an algorithm that takes an amount of time proportional to n! or at best a constant raised to the power of n. This sounds like bad news, but it also means that if you can figure out a faster algorithm to solve the Sudoku problem, then you can apply the same algorithm to a long list of other problems, including the Traveling Salesman Problem (given an itinerary of n cities to visit, what is the fastest route?), the Graph Coloring Problem (given a set of vertices connected by edges, find the smallest number of colors required to color the vertices so that no adjacent vertices have the same color), and even Minesweeper and Tetris.

For small problems such as a 9 by 9 Sudoku puzzle, or a three-city trip, finding a solution in factorial or exponential time is okay, because the number we’re factorializing or raising to a power is relatively small. But for larger problems, beginning with even a dozen unknowns, the factorial or exponential time begins to take its toll.

Computer scientists don’t care about an iterant salesman, but they do care about your e-mail message getting from point A to point B and the connectivity of networks (graph coloring). They also care about making your messages safe, which is why they encrypt them in ways that make their decryption NP-complete (unless you have the right digital key). UPS and the postal service care a lot about how they should route their trucks and planes to minimize costs (traveling salesman). Computational scientists (such as myself) care a lot about how to evenly partition the workload of their computer program across a large set of processors (a variation of the subset sum problem, another NP-complete problem). So the stakes are much higher than one might think for a simple logic puzzle.

The way that these very important problems are solved in real life is with heuristics, or strategies. What we obtain are solutions that may or may not be optimal, but are "pretty good." For example, the only way to figure out the fastest itinerary for the traveling salesman is to look at every possible itinerary and pick the best one. If there are n cities, we’re talking on the order of n! different itineraries. Instead we use strategies like "visit cities that are close to each other before moving on," which make sense but are not guaranteed to give us the best solution. Instead they give us a pretty good solution for a fraction of the cost: more like n-squared time. So maybe the traveling salesman doesn’t go on the shortest possible trip, but at least this way he doesn’t have to wait hundreds of years for us to determine his itinerary!

Because I can’t write comfortably, I was delighted to discover a Sudoku widget for the Mac a couple of months ago. The widget spits out delightful Sudoku puzzles which I then dutifully solve. It has four settings for the puzzle difficulty: easy, moderate, hard, and diabolic. The widget that I use also has a timer on it. I’ve found that generally speaking, I can solve the easy puzzles in under ten minutes without having to make any notes. Sometimes, however, there are some supposedly easy puzzles that take me much longer.

I tried to figure out what the widget author’s definition of easy must be. I think it has to do with the number of pre-filled entries in the puzzle. So I did my own statistical analysis of the number of pre-filled entries in the puzzle, and here’s what I came up with: For easy puzzles, there are anywhere from 27-31 pre-filled, with an average of about 29. For medium puzzles, there were anywhere from 26-29 pre-filled, with an average of about 27. For hard puzzles, there were anywhere from 23-25 pre-filled, with an average of about 24. And for diabolic puzzles, there were anywhere from 21-24 pre-filled, with an average of about 23.

In my experiment, I observed that it took much longer to generate the diabolic puzzles than it took to generate the easy ones. Indeed, as the difficulty level rose, the time it took to generate the puzzle rose. I should have timed it to see if perhaps there was an exponential relationship, as the classification of this problem suggests. My theory is that the widget’s author starts with the lowest possible number of pre-filled squares (based on my experiments, it would be 27, 26, 23, and 21, for easy, medium, difficult, and diabolic, respectively), and checks that the solution is unique. If not, he fills another square and checks again.

Reading the Wikipedia article on Sudoku, I see that the number of pre-filled squares is not a good indicator of difficulty. Indeed, I could see how this would be true. If you pre-filled redundant squares (like my example of filling in all the ones and twos), no information would be gained. My guess is that this is what happens in those surprisingly difficult, allegedly easy puzzles.

There is so much more to talk about, but I think I will stop here for now. You could say that my explanation may not be optimal, but it is "pretty good." And it only took me n-squared time to write it! Ha ha ha, a little math humor there!


Monday, November 14, 2005

Adventures in Unpacking

We spent the weekend moving the last of our stuff from storage and our apartment to our new house, and unpacking in the house. We've been treasure-hunting as we unpack; for example, we had to find the plates before we could eat our dinner on Saturday night. (I found them: downstairs in the basement, instead of upstairs with all the other boxes labeled "kitchen.")

It has been kind of comical to unpack. For example, the movers very carefully wrapped and packed a used twisty-tie for us. To be honest, I'm not sure what I would have done if they had discarded my lucky twisty-tie, so I am glad to have found it. We've also rediscovered some stuff that we didn't exactly recall having, stuff that they packed up from our basement in Illinois. Like I have a set of Astérix dishes, which I remembered, but I didn't remember the (otherwise unrelated) flowery tea cups and saucers that were packed in the same box with the Astérix dishes.

On Saturday we also went bed shopping. We got rid of our old bed in Illinois, so we needed a new one. We found a nice (and expensive!) bedroom set at a furniture store in the Big City (a.k.a. Knoxville) and it will be delivered on Thursday. In the meantime we are sleeping on an air mattress. Also, we've only found one pillow so far. At first Jeff just let me use it, but then I decided we should try to share it, so we did that for a few hours before getting up.

On Sunday, we went shopping for some household items such as a new skillet (our old one got damaged while we were still in Illinois, and we had to throw it away), bath mats (a peachy-colored one for our master bathroom, and a tan one for the other upstairs bathroom), an inside shower curtain for the upstairs bathroom, and other miscellaneous items. We also went to Home Depot and got some supplies for installing more phone jacks. At first Jeff doubted my prowess in the wiring installation arena, but eventually I was able to convince him that I know how to wire things. He deemed the risk of me electrocuting myself negligible and decided not to call a professional to do the job.

Our washer and dryer are really high-tech, and I am impressed by them. The dryer can figure out when your clothes are dry enough, and it also protects your clothes from getting all wrinkled while they're waiting for you to get them out, by periodically turning them over a few times. The washer is a top-loader, so it's not as efficient as it might be, but it has many different settings and it seems like it can hold a bigger load than our old washer in Illinois, so I think it is more efficient than that washer as long as you always make full loads. We also got some of the detergent that doesn't need hot water, which will help in the energy efficiency department.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Adventures in Moving in

All our stuff apparently arrived on Wednesday morning at our new house. I can't be for sure, because we haven't unpacked it hardly at all. Boxes of our possessions stand in stacks in our basement room.

This new house is a lot like our old one, only 150% larger. From the front, it looks like a modest rectangular house, gray-blue with red shutters, with a carport on the right side. But it's a basement ranch, meaning that it appears to be one story from the front but two story from the back. We have a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a coat closet, a linen closet, and three bedrooms and two full baths on the first floor. The bedrooms aren't that big, but they are bigger than the bedrooms in our old house. The dining room is probably about the same size, but the kitchen is smaller and the living room is a lot bigger. Also, the closets in the bedrooms are a lot bigger than the closets in our old house.

You enter the house via the front door and arrive in the living room. It is currently empty, except for a few boxes, because we don't have any living room furniture yet. To your right is the coat closet. There is a large picture window at the front of the room. Doorways lead to the dining room, the kitchen, and the hallway. The dining room is in the left corner, and there's a large sliding glass door at the back of the house that leads to the deck. The deck is big and wraps around the side of the house, but it is currently a bit wobbly and needs to be reinforced. There's a door that's like a giant set of shutters that goes between the dining room and kitchen. I should also mention that the previous owners went for the "faux bistro" look, and painted fake bricks with plaster peeling off them on the walls of the dining room, and occasional exposed bricks in the living room too. We believe that this is hideous and effacing them from the walls may very well be our first project.

In the kitchen, the vinyl floor is brand new. It is also not white, one of our most basic requirements for a kitchen floor. In fact, it is a busy tiled design, of which I approve whole-heartedly, because it will never show dirt. The cabinets are all wood and I would say that they and the countertops are original. The range is electric and kind of bizarre: it's extra wide and in the center of the cooktop there is a griddle. Pancakes, anyone? It also has two ovens: one normal-sized oven, and a small oven on the left side. This is a clever development and even though the appliance seems kind of old, if it works, I think we will keep it. The sink has two bowls, and there's a nice view to the backyard and the deck; the fridge/freezer is a side-by-side model with an ice maker and water dispenser, neither of which are working at the moment. We're going to need to either fix it ourselves or just buy a new unit.

Coming out of the kitchen through the other door that leads to the living room, if we take a left we go down the hallway to the bedrooms. The first opening on the left is the stairs to the basement. There is a half door (open at the top) to those stairs. On the right is the first of three bedrooms. This bedroom has a lot of shelving in it so I think this is where we will put as many books as we can. To the left after the stairs is the bathroom door. This bathroom has a tub with a shower curtain, a toilet, and a sink. The floor is ceramic tile. All the bathrooms have fans in them, too. The next door on the right is the second bedroom, slightly larger than the other one. It has a ceiling fan and it's on the front right corner of the house. Straight ahead at the end of the hallway is a linen closet. The final door on the left is to the master bedroom. It's not any bigger than the other bedroom, but it has a private bathroom attached to it, behind the other bathroom, to the left when you enter the room. This bathroom has a tub with sliding doors, a toilet, and a sink. It is tiled but the floor is vinyl.

Downstairs the basement is completely finished. At the base of the steps to the left are the washer and dryer, shuttered so that you don't have to look at them. To the right is a large room with a door that goes out to the carport. If you enter that room and turn to the right, there's a small, windowless, carpeted room, the purpose of which we have yet to figure out. But there's a door on the other side of that room that goes to the third bathroom, which has a shower but not a tub, but counts as a full bath to me. There's another door that leads out of the bathroom, which puts you into a hallway to the left of the stairs, and right back near the washer and dryer again. You can keep going straight, however, and you get into what is going to be our rec room, painted "bordello red" (in the words of my better half), where we'll have our futon and TV, and our gaming table. We also plan to install a wet bar down there, although that is a project for a later credit card cycle. There's a door that leads out to the back yard under the deck.

In the back yard we have a flat area with grass, and then the yard slopes down. At night, we have a nice view of the city lights from the back. Where the yard begins to slope down it is wooded, and three stately white oaks from the wooded area shade the house at times. Because this is not Illinois, the neighborhood is not built on a grid and the front actually faces to the northeast and the back faces to the southwest.

I think we're going to like this house! I'll try to take some pictures to supplement my exposition.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Adventures in Closing

I am not fond of surprises, and especially not when I am feeling stressed. I doubt that anyone is particularly crazy about surprises under those circumstances. So I was very unhappy at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon.

That's when we closed on our new house. Before I get into the rant, we got the loan and we closed on the house, don't worry. I signed eighty zillion papers with the wrong hand, and it only took me an hour and a half.

I really hate last minute things, so I was already on edge about the loan. They figured out at 4:30 p.m. on Monday how much we needed to bring to the closing. It seemed like a lot, and it cleaned us out of all but $600 in that savings account. (Don't worry: we have more money at other banks, and I'm getting paid tomorrow.)

What I hadn't realized was that the interest rate for the loan was higher than I expected. On our preapproval letter, it said we were preapproved for a loan up to thus-and-such amount at a rate of x%, and that the preapproval was good for ninety days. It said the next step was to get a property description turned in to them, and to prove that we had assets totaling y dollars as we had claimed. Maybe this is a difference between states, but I clearly remember our preapproval letter in Illinois being very specific that the interest rate was subject to change until we locked it. This letter said nothing about interest rates changing. I figured it was a special credit union thing that we could have that rate for ninety days. And the loan officer may have said something about variable interest rates, but if he did, it went in one ear and out the other. At the end of the day, what I was left with was this preapproval letter that misleadingly implied that the interest rate was x%.

Of course I know that interest rates do fluctuate. I've gotten a mortgage before. I should have kept track of that and asked explicitly every step of the way what the rate was. I went and talked to the loan officer a half dozen times about one thing or another. On my last visit with him I even asked specifically for an escrow account. I am not stupid or inexperienced with this process. But he never brought it up and I never thought to bring it up, either.

Back to Tuesday at 4 p.m. I get the paperwork and discover that the interest rate is 0.75% more than I expected. That may not sound like much, but over the lifetime of the loan, this puts me out $20,000, and raises my monthly payments by more than $50.

I am furious. I call the mortgage loan officer and express my extreme displeasure. I tell him that the preapproval letter made no mention of rate changes, and even if he did tell me in person, it doesn't say anything on this letter about that. The letter is misleading and I feel like I have been baited and switched. And I am angry that I didn't find out about this until the closing, when I have no choice but to agree to the terms of the loan or lose my house. I certainly raised my voice, but I didn't scream at him, and I talked only about how I felt. I didn't call him any bad names, and, to his credit, he was very courteous to me and let me say my piece, only answering with "Yes, ma'am." After I got off the phone I was shaking and I wanted to cry. I had to calm down before I could begin signing the papers.

After the closing, we showed our realtor the preapproval letter and he said it was definitely misleading. He agreed to go with me to the credit union to see the loan officer in the morning. So on Wednesday morning he and I went to see the loan officer. The first thing I did was to apologize for yelling at him, and he told me no apology was necessary, because he felt really bad about the situation. So we wanted to see what we could do about this mess. I think what we're going to do is refinance the loan right away with a lower rate 5-year fixed ARM loan. They are going to waive some of the fees for that because of this misunderstanding.

I told him that he could tell me whatever he wanted when I was in there getting a preapproval, but at the end of the day when his words have gone in one ear and out the other, what I'm left with is this letter, and the letter says absolutely nothing about the interest rate, and gives you the impression that you're locked into that rate. I said all they needed was just a little asterisk next to the rate with a footnote indicating that the rate will vary until you lock it in, and then the letter would be fine.

He said we were not the first people who had been misled by their letter, and he said he was going to bring it up at the next staff meeting of the mortgage loan department, and get that letter changed. I told him that I'd be happy to help him in any way I could, if it would prevent the next poor sap from getting burned.

The loan officer brought this up himself, that we are their dream customers: reliable people with a steady income, and he felt terrible that we were unhappy. (Especially because we will probably buy two cars and another property within the next five years or so, with loans that we would want to obtain from the credit union!) I think that under the circumstances, we have reached an acceptable solution, so I will probably go to them again for my next loan. I'll just be a lot more cautious and question everything.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Adventures with Gundar

Gundar is our beloved 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo station wagon. I'm not quite sure what color he is: copper or gold, maybe? He has more than 270,000 miles on him, mostly from the previous owner. Gundar is the newest car we've ever owned.

But he is a teenager, and an impetuous one at that. Lately he's decided to rebel and spend all of our money. We still love him and we keep financing his habits. Why, just last month I bought him a new tail light and a new timing belt! Somehow that isn't enough for him, and recently he's gone on strike. He's decided that he won't start if he doesn't feel like it.

He's very wiley, though, and like all teenagers, he strives to prove his parents wrong at every available opportunity. Jeff took our naughty boy to the mechanic here in town, who gave Gundar a clean bill of health. He couldn't see that anything at all was wrong. Gundar started up just fine for him!

But over the weekend we went to Kroger, and when we got in Gundar to go home, he didn't want to start. Eventually, Jeff got him started, but it really spooked us. So next week, we're taking him to the dealer. They'll know how to handle him. They know what kind of discipline our rebellious teenager needs!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Which Action Hero Are You?

Here's how I fared:

You scored as Maximus. After his family was murdered by the evil emperor Commodus, the great Roman general Maximus went into hiding to avoid Commodus's assassins. He became a gladiator, hoping to dominate the colosseum in order to one day get the chance of killing Commodus. Maximus is valiant, courageous, and dedicated. He wants nothing more than the chance to avenge his family, but his temper often gets the better of him.



Neo, the "One"


Captain Jack Sparrow


William Wallace


James Bond, Agent 007


The Terminator


The Amazing Spider-Man


Batman, the Dark Knight


Indiana Jones


Lara Croft


El Zorro


Which Action Hero Would You Be? v. 2.0
created with QuizFarm.com

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Adventures in Housebuying

One week from today, Jeff and I will be homeowners... twice over! That's right, we'll be closing on our new house here in Tennessee. Our house in Illinois is still up for sale but not yet sold, so we will be the owners of two homes for a few months at least. Anybody interested in a "charming home in old town Urbana", Illinois? We got one that's waiting for a buyer like you!

But if it doesn't sell, I was thinking we could just keep it. We could say that the house in Illinois is our summer home, and the one in Tennessee is our winter home. It wouldn't be so bad. We could still rightfully use the Urbana Free Library (the best public library ever!), and I could even sign up for karate at the park district again. The only problem is that it's pretty far away. But that's nothing a good teleportation device couldn't fix!

It should sell, though. It may be the off-peak season for selling houses, but it's still a nice house in a price range that's affordable.