Next for math majors: utility bills

Hartford Courant

In case you missed it, the Poincare Conjecture may have been solved. (I’ll pause here so everyone can catch their breath.)

According to published reports, a Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman may have deciphered the Poincare Conjecture, which is one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics. Just what exactly the Poincare Conjecture is, we’ll get to in a bit -- sort of.

In any case, this news is cause for optimism:

If after more than a century of trying, someone has finally been able to solve the Poincare Conjecture, then there is a chance an equally difficult computation might also be within our grasp. I am referring, of course, to the Utility Bill Conundrum.


The Utility Bill Conundrum -- whether it be electricity, phone or cable -- has much in common with the Poincare Conjecture:

* It deals in a different dimension.

* It is abstract.

* And it has never been figured out.


Although legions of dedicated 1-800 next-available representatives have spent their professional lives trying to explain the Utility Bill Conundrum to customers, universal clarity has never been achieved.

In fact, in the millions of computations performed by 1-800 representatives in the last century, there has never been a case in which a customer was given the same answer to the same question by different representatives.

The mathematical probability of this occurring points out the challenge of the Utility Bill Conundrum.

Now, there are those who argue that the Poincare Conjecture is an infinitely more difficult problem to solve. Oh, really.

Let’s compare:

The Poincare Conjecture involves the geometrical properties of objects that do not change when the object is stretched, twisted or shrunk (think Peeps). It also has something to do with the three-dimensional sphere being the only bounded three-dimensional space with no holes.

I mean, pretty straightforward, right?

Now contrast that with such Utility Bill Conundrum concepts as regional roaming, the federal subscriber line levy, the CTA charge per kWh, and the rationale behind paying the cable bill a month in advance.


In the spirit of Perelman, I have spent countless hours pondering the arcane variables presented by the Utility Bill Conundrum.

And yet I have been no closer to understanding how one gets from Current Charges to Amount Due than when I first became a homeowner.

But now there is real hope.


Jim Shea is a columnist for the Courant, a Tribune company.