This is me, reintroduced to writing and guarding my winter meal with bared fangs.

This is not only a wolf, reintroduced to Yellowstone: this is me, reintroduced to writing and guarding my winter meal with bared fangs. Clearly that elk shouldn’t have made such a ridiculous claim about the cable bill.  Photo from

Wow, it’s time to reintroduce myself to writing.  By which I mean writing about whatever I want to write about.  The last 3 months have been incredibly full of math, speaking, writing on the board, writing lesson plans, emails, website updates for my classes, research and teaching statements, applications–all the standard stuff.  But I haven’t posted for quite a while.  I haven’t sent my energies this way.  However, something truly inspiring happened at my parents’ kitchen table in Laramie over Thanksgiving break, something that revitalized my blogging desire.

I saw a terrible cable commercial.

It claimed you could reduce your cable bill by 150% with their bundle.

I’m guessing that nobody wants to hear the bitter rant that emerged from my until then mild-mannered, turkey-stupored person.  It involved swear words and a lot of contempt.  Come on, you can’t reduce a cable bill by 150% unless the cable company is going to pay you to have cable!! 100% of your bill is your whole freaking bill.  150% of your bill is your whole bill and then half again!  Is this company going to send you a freaking check every month? Seriously!  Does no person in the entire advertising department understand percentages?  Does no person in the entire company understand percentages?  If they do, are they crazy, or do they think that there are actually 0 Americans who both understand percentages and haven’t learned to TIVO everything they could possibly want to watch on television?    Am I all alone in the whole world?!?!

But on the upside:

1) That terrible commercial got me writing about it, which is already fun.

2) In my agitated state I forgot every detail of what they were advertising, so when wanted to find it, I called my mother in Laramie to ask if she remembered.  My 11-year old niece Gabby answered the phone and we talked for a while about her hockey practice, and tennis practice, and when I was coming home for Christmas, and what I should be considering as a Christmas present for her and her brother Nick.  (She said “A science set.”  My heart leapt with joy.  Though she’s the kind of sweet kid that would say that just because she knew it would make my heart leap with joy.) I described the commercial to her and asked her if she’d seen it, and if so could she remember what company it advertised.  She hadn’t seen it but she did ask me all kinds of relevant questions, impressing me with her engagement and problem solving skills.  Then she handed the phone off to my mom, who remembered the rant but not the company.  But while we were chatting I got to hear Gabby in the background, explaining to Nick: “You can’t reduce somebody’s debt by 150% unless you’re going to pay them.  100% is the whole bill.  Nobody’s going to pay you to watch TV.”

3) I searched many variations on “save 150%” to see if I could find the commercial online. I didn’t, and I was reassured that this claim doesn’t seem to appear all over the internet for all kinds of products, as I had feared that it might.  I was getting paranoid about America’s math skills and advertising ethics.  This sold-out item is the only product I found which featured the exact “save 150%” claim.  So, at least on this count, the whole world has not fallen into darkness.

This is the kind of graph you'd better be able to show me if you want to make a claim like that.  What's that you say, cable company?  Nothing?  That's what I thought.  Image credit: Santhanam, et al. ©2012 American Physical Society

This is the kind of graph you’d better be able to show me if you want to make a claim like that. What’s that you say, cable company? Nothing? That’s what I thought. Image credit: Santhanam, et al. ©2012 American Physical Society

4) As usual, I found a lot of things I wasn’t seeking.  My searches brought me to something about “230% efficient light production,” which turned out to be an article about a (bad pun that you will get in a second) “extremely cool” recent feat of physics/engineering: an LED that emits more light energy than it takes in as electrical energy.  It apparently gets the rest of the energy by absorbing heat from its surroundings.  I love this in so many ways!  Claims with percentages that are justified? Yes!  Counterintuitive greater than 100% efficiency that actually makes sense?  Yes!  Energy efficient light production? Yes! It’s December in Colorado and the temperature has been over 60 degrees every day for two weeks.  That’s the forecast weather for the Joint Mathematics Meetings in SAN DIEGO!!  Colorado’s ski industry desperately needs these LEDs.  Though it looks like they currently can only produce very small quantities of light, and that it needs to be 135 degrees celsius for this efficiency to happen.  But still.

5) The cooling lights brought to mind laser cooling, a (note to self: don’t use the cool pun again here!!), a process which won the Nobel prize in Physics and has applications to creating Bose-Einstein condensates (macroscopic quantum phenomena).  I heard about laser cooling when I wrote about Dr. Jacob Roberts work for the school paper during graduate school.  Which leads (because scientists have used lasers to cool/slow particles down enough to trap them for use in quantum computers) to quantum computing.  Something I am especially stoked about because, if a quantum computer is ever built, the kind of cryptosystems that I studied at Microsoft Research will be really useful. In any case, this made me look up the really recent Nobel prize in Physics that was given Serge Haroche and David Wineland for their related contributions to quantum computing.  Which led me to a New York Times Opinion piece about quantum computing, and how great is it that the NYT has opinion pieces about quantum computing?  My search-walk then brought me to a fancy new press release from MIT about very recent advances in the mathematics of quantum computing.  Thanks, Peter Shor and company.  They have proven that the entanglement necessary for quantum computing on a practical scale can be produced in a much simpler situation that researchers feared.  This makes a practical quantum computer much more imaginable.  What if all online transactions were suddenly insecure?  This is what all my back to the land / money in a coffee can / stockpiling guns on their compound friends are worried about (these are three different sets friends, by the way).  EXPLOSIONS!  CRAZY STUFF!

7) Another recent advance which did not win a Nobel prize in Physics that but has applications in my life (this January in San Diego): how to build really tall sandcastles.

This is 10 feet high.  Could they do better after reading this new study?  Public domain photo from Guy King, via Wikipedia.

This is 10 feet high. Could they do better after reading this new study? Public domain photo from Guy King, via Wikipedia.


8) In the course of our discussions about this awful commercial, by non-math-loving but very sensible mom pointed out that the ridiculous claim of saving 150% on your cable bill could even make sense if they are considering your cable bundled with your internet.  Idea being that if you look at your current cable and internet bill, you could by bundling with their company get a combined cable and internet bill that is less than your current combined bill by 150% times your current cable bill.  This seems like a pretty weak premise for the claim, it does give the company some room to argue that they are not baldly lying.  So I can to get off my soap box now.  And grade some calculus exams.