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Probability and the Evil Tweep of No Sleep

As I type this, the calm clicks of the keys are punctuated once a minute by a sound I can most accurately ascribe to an evil, mutant cricket. It is the smoke detector at the top of the stairs, warning me that its battery is low. It has, in fact, been warning me quite urgently and persistently since 3:22AM this morning. I do not believe the timing is random, and I suspect it is actually, motive unknown, part of a sinister plan to do me in.

Having invested our full share to inflate the housing bubble, our home meets all of the recent building codes pertaining to fire safety. This includes a full complement of hard-wired smoke detectors — one in each bedroom, at the top and bottom of any stair way and in locations within hallways whose precise specification eludes me. The net result of this is that we have no fewer than nine smoke detectors in the house. I discern at a minimum that the authors of the current building code possess significant stock holdings in smoke detector companies, even if they are not fully complicit in the threats against my life.

While superficially this surfeit of protection may seem well intended, I cannot explain the low battery warnings. These devices are wired into the wall current; could not someone have designed these things with rechargeable backup batteries? Our home is three years old now and the alkalines are all predictably failing. Of the four detectors who have so far called out for assistance, each has chosen the deep, dark of night to start their cry. And this is where the inescapable logic of probability gives credence to the plot against me.

With 24 hours in a day, the probability that any given smoke detector is going to reach its low battery state on a particular hour is 1/24 or roughly 0.042. We might optimistically assume my critical need for sleep occurs between 11:00PM and 5:00AM, a span of six hours. The probability of a smoke detector demanding its battery be replaced during my core sleep cycle is thus 6/24 or 0.25. A 25% chance here makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I assure you this cover of reasonableness masks something much darker.

If the probability that one smoke detector is going to wake me is 0.25, the odds that two consecutive detectors will both do so is 0.25 x 0.25 or 0.0625, or 1 in 16. That scenario is going to happen to a lot of people, maybe even you.

The odds that three detectors will wake me are 0.25 x 0.25 x 0.25 or 0.015625, or 1 in 64. That there is just bad luck. But four detectors, 0.25 x 0.25 x 0.25 x 0.25, is 0. 0.00390625 or 1 in 256. In other words, not impossible but somewhat improbable.

Even still, why do I perceive this as a threat upon my person? The clincher is that this fourth detector, the one that has so thoroughly robbed me of sleep and sanity, is located at the top of the stairway in such a position as to require an extension ladder and nerves of steel to reach. With the stairs involved, the elevation is well over 20 feet and is the highest part of the interior of the house. Any error on my part spells certain death on the unmerciful tile floor below, assuming I’m lucky enough to miss the railing. I cannot quantify this dimension of the problem, but my sleep deprived brain tells me a scenario that both demands and deprives a person of physical dexterity must be at least million-to-one odds. One in 256 odds I can stand, but the likelihood of the detector at this particular location starting its tirade at 3:22AM is simply too much to write off as chance.

I am prepared to say the smoke detectors are out to get me. I’m waiting for the caffeine to fully kick in, then I will do battle with ladder and nine-volt battery in hand. If these are my last words here, you will know who struck me down.


  1. Your story negates my previous belief that you are in tune with your culture. Do you not watch your 64″ 1080 HD TV? Perhaps you TIVO everything and skip through the commercials… Shame on you. If you spent less time obsessed with your computer, and more time staring at the TV, you would know that the building codes are written by stockholders of Duracell batteries. Every year when you spring forward for daylight savings time, you’re supposed to change every battery in every smoke detector in your house! If you do not, you can fully expect to be wakened by the home equivalent of a WWII bomb siren. Being a couch potato has its rewards! TV commercials are second only to sitcoms as the foundation of American culture. (If you do topple off the ladder, will it be on YouTube?? Just asking….)

    Comment by Old Mom — May 22, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  2. Back away from the ladder.

    Slingshot. D-cell battery. Dead aim. End of problem.

    Lower temperatures cause chemical reactions to happen at a slower rate, which may explain why my frigid ex-wife and I never had much chemistry…but it also answers your question as to why batteries die at the coldest point of the night. When weakened by age, then chilled, the battery cannot conduct enough current to do its job. Thus your batteries are more likely to resist function and lose touch with current events when they are at their coldest point of the day…which is night by most standards.

    3am?…Would that be somewhere around the middle of night, when the sun is on the other side of the planet?

    Don’t look down, unless you do fall. The for goodness sakes, enjoy the ride!

    Comment by Stanley — May 22, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  3. Unfortunately, being in Arizona we do not observe that strange Daylight Savings Time ritual, although I assure you I’ve set reminders in my calendar here to replace the batteries in the future well before their nocturnal call.

    Stan’s observations about the chemical nature of the battery makes sense. In fact, just as I was setting the ladder up the detector stopped tweeping at me. I had initially interpreted this as it fearing I was about to tear it mercilessly from the wall, but now (more reasonably) understand that it probably was just warming up. The world will doubtlessly seem more rational after a nap.

    Meanwhile, my success rules out any posthumous YouTube fame. Sadist junkies will have to get their day’s fix elsewhere, I’m afraid.

    Thanks for everyone’s advice and concern, both here and via email!

    Comment by Dad — May 22, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  4. Congratulations. You beat the devil back into the shadows, but still he lurks…he lurks. 😉

    We attained the unique pleasure of consecutive tweepings (two in one night,) but never simultaneous alarms.

    As an interesting corollary to your probability theory of tweep-disturbed sleep, is the automatic faucet fake-out. The batteries in the unit will die only after you soaped up in the bathroom with the “good” towels. I thought modern conveniences were supposed to be convenient. I may have been misinformed.

    Nap well.

    Comment by Carol — May 23, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  5. You are not alone in your theory that these batteries must expire at an unGodly hour, and deprive us of that oft missed full nights sleep. We, also having been in our home now for just a little over five years, have had to change each and every one of those little nine volt batteries from hell. And, like you, I have ask the rhetorical question: “why in the world do we even need a battery, when these things are hard wired?” And, also like you, it has always, and I mean, always been in the hours of 2:00AM – 3:00AM. Then it is game on: get out the ladder, 9 volt battery, waking Carol, as I can not climb a ladder, and then passing instructions up to a less than fully awake, or inspired significant other. For me, once I am awake, that’s it, I’m up. Sleep deprivation, again. It does make you think these things are pure evil, do to there uncanny ability to chirp at o-dark-thirty. With the first chirp, bringing you fully awake in an instant, because you know that is the smoke alarm!!!! Once you realize that there is no fire, you then cuss these little round radiated saucers from hell, and begin the process of fixing them, as you can not ignore them until morning. Nope, you have to fix them, and fix them now, Chirp…chirp…chirp… I am glad you survived the high wire act, changing that one, the one that was higher than any other one in your house. Hey, look at the bright side, you now qualify for the circus high wire act. Glad your safely back on the ground, and as always, I love your sense of humor.

    Comment by Mark — May 23, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

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