Day 37: The Limits of Dentistry

I don’t much feel like writing at the moment, as I’ve just returned from the dentist, and had a new hole drilled into my upper jaw in preparation for getting an implant to replace a tooth. The numbing agents are wearing off, and my face is starting to throb.

I don’t keep records, but back in college I had several cavities, and being broke, went to the cheapest dentist I could find (cue the rant about American health insurance). Fast-forward to my 30s, and my new dentist told me that all of those fillings were failing, and some had new decay under them. They needed to be replaced, but one in particular would require removing so much material that a new filling wouldn’t be feasible; I would need to get a gold crown. They were really expensive, as insurance only pays a tiny fraction of what they cost (cue another rant). But, they said, gold crowns are permanent! So I got the crown.

Move on to my 50s. When reviewing my x-rays, the dentist said that there was new decay under the crown. “How was that possible?”, I asked, “I thought that crowns were permanent”. Turns out that “permanent” is a relative term, meaning “about 20 years”.

The decay had spread into the tooth’s roots, so I had to also get a root canal before they could replace the crown. Now that should be that!

Jump ahead to a couple of years ago, and my x-rays showed some smoky area in the jawbone where the tooth was located. An infection! Once again, my question was “How was this possible?”. Apparently the root canal didn’t get every single bit of bacteria, and they had now spread into the bone. The only way to treat it was to extract the tooth, surgically remove the infection, let the bone regrow, and then drill into it for the base of an implant to replace the extracted tooth.

So I started down that road. Each step requires months of healing in between. Finally I had the base inserted in my upper jaw for several months, and the x-rays showed it to be solid, so we proceeded with the next step: removing the inner threaded section that will hold the replacement tooth. This is pretty routine, but when the dentist began unscrewing it, I nearly jumped through the ceiling! Oh man, I hadn’t felt intense pain like that before!

Needless to say, that was not normal. It turns out that in a very small percentage of cases, the soft tissue grows faster than the bone, and infiltrates the implant base. This soft tissue is chock full of nerve endings, and when it got caught in the threads it hurt like hell! The only thing to do at that point is remove the entire implant material (after injecting me with lots of anaesthetic!), and start the whole process again.

So that’s where I am today: after several months of bone regeneration, they drilled into it and inserted a new implant base. Now I just need to wait several more months to see if this one is good.

Day 36: Is Plastic the New Oxygen?

Imagine that it was possible for you to observe the primordial Earth, a little over 2 billion years ago, when plant life first began to emerge. Up until then, all life depended on chemicals in the environment, such as hydrogen sulfide from volcanic vents, or simple hydrocarbons such as methane. Along comes this new form of life that can get its energy from the sun using photosynthesis. No longer tied to certain locations where they could find food, they could spread to any location that received sunlight, and populations of photosynthetic life forms explode.

This new life form came with a price, though: these creatures emitted a highly corrosive chemical as a waste product of photosynthesis: oxygen.

That’s right: before photosynthesis, there was little oxygen in the atmosphere. What little there was reacted with metals such iron, corroding it to oxides like rust.

By any definition of the word, plants were polluting the atmosphere. From that definition:

The presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects.

To early Earth, oxygen was a pollutant. In fact, geologists use the sudden increase of oxidized metals in the Earth’s crust to determine when the emergence of photosynthetic life occurred. But it was exactly this sort of “pollution” that enabled the rise of a different kind of life: animals that breathed oxygen to “burn” carbohydrates and fat for energy.

Fast-forward to the present day. Human life has left its mark on the planet, and have created two materials that will likely be part of the geologic record: concrete and plastic. Concrete is relatively inert, but plastic is made from hydrocarbons, and could be a source of energy. Amazingly, scientists have already found a bacterium that can digest plastic for energy. That’s pretty amazing, considering that plastic has only existed for a century or so, which is infinitesimal on an evolutionary timescale.

So if it were possible to be present when it was happening, who would have ever thought at that time that the emergence of highly-corrosive oxygen pollution in primordial times would ever be a good thing? Yet today we certainly feel that it was, as it enabled the rise of new life forms (such as us!).

So I have to wonder: is it possible that the emergence of plastic as a nearly ubiquitous presence in the environment might result in amazing new forms of life, as happened with the addition of oxygen to the environment? It seems just as far-fetched as considering the introduction of a corrosive element would be a positive change.

Of course, we’re talking millions and millions of years, but nature has done stranger things in that kind of time frame.Such evolution would require that humans would continue to crank out plastic and dump it into the ocean for millions of years, or life that depends on consuming plastics would quickly hit a dead end.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for plastic waste in the hope of some wonderful new life form. I feel very strongly that we should reduce out plastic usage, and recycle/reuse as much as possible. And we should be doing everything we can to limit the spread of waste plastic into the environment.

But it’s something to think about.

Day 19: Lotto Logic

There are many, many lotteries available for people to play. They’ve sometimes been called “a tax on people who are bad at math“. That’s amusing enough, but I also see them as a way for the state to prey on poor people by offering them false hope. Go to any corner store in a poor neighborhood, and right in that choice spot right next to the checkout register will be the lottery tickets.

Before lotteries were legal, the numbers game was a big thing. Same basic idea: bet a dollar for a chance to win a jackpot. In New York, the numbers was run by the Mafia, and running around the neighborhood collecting bets was a common first job for wannabe gangsters. The government rarely enforced the laws against gambling for these rackets, but soon figured out that instead of spending money to track down and bust these operations, they could just create a legal lottery and collect the house’s cut for themselves. Of course, they made it more palatable by saying that the money collected would be used for education. Turns out that they cut the budgets for education by the amount that the lotteries generated, so while the lottery money technically did go to education, it didn’t add to the funds for schools.

In recent years the trend has been away from state-run lotteries toward massive multi-state games, such as Mega Millions and Powerball. The reason for this is that the jackpots get absurdly big after only a few draws. It is not uncommon for the jackpots to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. When they get that high, people go crazy buying tickets.

The odds of selecting the right numbers for Mega Millions is 1 in 36,309,042,000. That’s one in 36 BILLION.

You may wonder what is the ideal strategy for playing these games. Many people would argue that the best strategy is not to play at all – and they have a good point. I think, though, that it depends.

If you don’t play, your chances of winning is zero. If you play the smallest amount, a single $2 game, your chance increases from zero to 1 in 36 billion. That’s significant, as it changes your possible result from definitely not winning to having an infinitesimal chance of winning.

So if you play more games per drawing, your chances increase, right. Well, in one sense they do, but in a more practical sense, they are still infinitesimal. But remember that the money you bet comes out of your disposable income. For most people, that much money is much more than one billionth! The lower your income, the more significant a chunk will be (likely) lost to the lottery.

Even if you don’t win, though, playing the lottery buys you something: the chance to dream of winning! From the moment you buy the ticket until you check your numbers, you are in that Schrödinger state of winning and not winning, and can fantasize about luxurious travel, or expensive cars, or whatever else you would do with that much money. That ability to dream is a benefit that many people overlook, but it’s the part that the people running the lottery count on to get you to buy those tickets.

The best strategy, then, is to buy a single ticket, unless that $2 would mean doing without basic necessities. By buying a single ticket you have some chance, albeit minuscule. Buying more than one doesn’t really increase your chances significantly, but takes a bigger and bigger bite out of your disposable income. So buy that one ticket, and dream away!

Writing Again

Today marks 2 months since I was laid off from my job at DataRobot. It was part of a 25% reduction that was made in anticipation of the business slump from the COVID-19 pandemic, and having just been there for 6 months, I was one of the ones let go.

I have spent the last two months like most of you largely confined to my home, with only an occasional trip to the grocery store. Since I was home with all this newfound free time on my hands, I decided to work on a lot of projects that I’ve had to put off. Now that those are largely complete, I need to find a new outlet to occupy my time. So today I’m going to start on a program of writing every day; you’re reading the first entry.

Not to brag, but I’ve always been pretty good writer. The biggest problem that I have is perfectionism: I want to edit/rewrite until it can’t be tweaked any more. As an example, I was stuck for 10 minutes just coming up with a title for this post! I mentioned this tendency in the very first post of this blog: I was about to travel to Australia, and wanted to have a way to record my impressions. I had hardly ever traveled outside the US, so this was a really big deal for me.

I kept it up for a short while, but soon fell back into my old ways: starting a post, and then abandoning it because it didn’t feel good enough. When I joined IBM in 2014 as an OpenStack developer, part of my role was to be outspoken, and writing blog posts was one way to do that. So for a while I was posting fairly regularly. This time, though, it was the blowback from those posts that caused me to lose interest in writing. You see, the OpenStack developer hierarchy is designed to discourage change and alternate approaches, both of which were the frequent topics of my posts. It discouraged me because I was publicly criticized by many of the “core” developers, who seemed to take my ideas as threats to the way they were doing things. It was even more discouraging that I received at least as much private thanks and praise from others, all of whom were not comfortable expressing support publicly, less they lose political capital with the core developers. I have a post I started and never finished on this toxic atmosphere; maybe one of these days I’ll finish it as part of this new effort.

So I’m now going to reiterate my initial pledge: I will limit myself to a one edit rule: after the post is written, I’ll go over it once for typos, etc., and then publish it. I’m also setting a minimum of 30 minutes per day to write, and to publish it no matter how good I feel it is. There will be no set topic; one day it may be my thoughts on photographic composition, the next may be a tirade about the latest Trump atrocity. But I do hope that what I write is as interesting for you to read as it is for me to go through the process of writing.