Friday, January 13, 2017

Solution to the Whiting kids Puzzle - 2017 Edition

It's almost time for mystery hunt! Which means that it is time to once again update people on what our children are currently like and how to best interact with them (for all the people who only see them once a year).

Jesse is now six years old and in kindergarten. He loves reading and is really interested in baseball and space. When he grows up, he wants to be a pitcher for the Red Sox, an engineer, and an astronaut. If you want to explain your research to somebody who will listen and ask questions (no promises that they will be relevant), Jesse will eagerly listen to anyone who will explain things to him. There is a possibility that Jesse could help solve some puzzles, and will certainly be interested in trying. He has also started playing board games (such as Dominion, Quantum, and Forbidden Desert) and would be happy to play games with anyone who is interested. He is old enough to speak for himself and tell you what he wants and likes, so that part is mostly easy now. Jesse sometimes flails his arms and legs around for no apparent reason (because he is six). If he hits you or your things, you should tell him to be more careful and let us know so that we can remind him that it is unacceptable behavior and help him calm down.

Jacob is now three and has started preschool. His speech is mostly easy to understand. The main source of confusion is that he sometimes has an almost silent "not" in statements such as "I do want that". He also tends to answer questions immediately and then think about what you actually asked and provide a more accurate second answer. He sometimes has a really good sense of humor, although lately most of his jokes have been about ceilings, what you can do with ceilings, and what you can do on ceilings. He likes to jump around like a kangaroo. If he is tired and he is told that he can't do or have something that he wants, he will cry loudly. If this happens, we will take care of it (possibly by taking him home, definitely by moving him away from other people). Jacob likes to ask questions and likes having people read to him. He is unlikely to be useful for puzzles. Jacob is currently learning lists (such as days of the week and months of the year) and would love to go over any lists you think he should know.

 Jesse and Jacob have no known allergies and we generally don't restrict what they eat at special events, so if you want to feed them you can - but don't feel obligated to, feeding them is our responsibility, not yours.

Ezra is four and a half months old. He can't talk, walk, or even sit up yet. He has started rolling, so he doesn't necessarily stay where he is put. He is generally pretty happy to be held by strangers. He smiles a lot. If he is crying, he probably wants to be fed. He cannot eat food yet and anything smaller than a ping-pong ball should be considered a choking hazard and kept away from him. Ezra likes to vocalize and really likes it when people vocalize back at him.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Solution to the Whiting kids puzzle, 2016 edition

I didn’t manage to write this up last year, but I realized that it is nice to have an annual snapshot of what the kids are like, so I am writing up the Whiting kid puzzle solution again this year.

We have two children. Jesse is 5 and can mostly manage to communicate everything important. Jacob is 2 and can be a bit more of a challenge to understand.

Major points, in rough order of importance:

Potty training - both children are potty trained to an age-appropriate degree. Jesse needs help finding the bathroom (and finding his way back - please do not lead him to a bathroom and then walk away while he is inside). Jacob needs a fair bit of help and probably should be sent to one of us if he needs to use the bathroom. Jesse will mostly tell someone if he needs to use the bathroom, but if he is dancing around like a five year old that needs to pee, it is probably worth asking him about it. Jacob needs to be asked from time to time, but we will make sure to do that.

Food - Both children are unpredictably picky eaters with no known allergies. We mostly don’t worry about what they eat. If you want to offer them food, you can. If you eat in front of them and don’t offer them some, they might cry/whine at you. If this will be a problem, please either eat somewhere else or ask us to distract/move them while you eat. Please try to not show them where the Mystery Hunt snacks are being stored, as they may stand there eating all the snacks or asking for them for the remainder of the weekend once they know where they are.

Talking - Jesse loves to ask people questions. If you would like to spend some time explaining your thesis, research, job, or anything else to him, he will listen (especially if it is related to space, trains, or engines). Jesse’s speech is pretty clear now and I can’t think of any major phonetic problems that he still has (he may still be missing l’s and r’s in some words). Jacob has a limited vocabulary and a large number of mispronunciations. One of his most common phonetic shifts is randomly swapping p’s, t’s, and k’s (for example, he pronounces blanket as blancake and water as walker or walk-o) - you can treat this as a puzzle. He often speaks very quickly, slurring his words together and dropping syllables. His most common phrases are: thank-you, oh, light on/light off, I do it, daddy/mama do it, aah (which means I want, for example “aah pasta” means he wants pasta), where’s __ (often daddy, Jesse, mama, cat, or podka), carry you, and sit on lap.

Things You should not do around our children - We are fairly laid-back parents. You do not need to restrict your vocabulary around our children. You should not do things that would be dangerous for them to do without clearly telling them that it is dangerous, because they might try to imitate you. If you laugh at something that one of them does, they are both likely to do it repeatedly until they are told to stop.

Discipline - If our children are causing a problem, we will take care of it as soon as we are aware of the situation. If you see them doing something they shouldn’t, feel free to tell them to stop, and please also let us know (we’ll be doing our best to pay attention, but can’t always have eyeballs on them at all times). Jesse will probably listen to you (Jacob may not understand what you want him to stop).

Playing - Both boys love to play with trains and rocket ships. Jesse also likes to draw rocket ships, constellations, and sometimes the solar system. As mentioned above, Jesse likes it when people are willing to explain things to him. We will bring some toys for them to play with. You can play with their toys, just make sure not to lose or break them. Also remember that they are possessive about their toys and may cry if you are playing with what they want to play with.

Reading - Both boys like to have people read books to them. Neither one is very picky about what these books are. I once read several pages of a calculus book to Jesse, just to see how long it would take him to get bored (he lasted longer than I wanted to read a math book out loud).

Puzzles - It is unlikely that either of our boys will be able to solve any of the puzzles faster than the grownups. If there is some puzzle that has clear instructions but is not interesting enough for anyone to want to work on it, Jesse might be willing to.

Friday, October 24, 2014


My best guess is that I have listened to Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D (and minor variations on it) at least 10,000 times, and possibly as many as 20,000 times. It is one of three bits of music that I associate strongly with a particular event in my life, and one of four that I associate strongly with a particular person. It is a piece of music that I associate with a time when my mind and life became less chaotic.

Apparently it is unusual for a cellist to like Pachelbel's Canon, because the cello part is rather repetitive. But I think that may actually be part of what first made me like it. I remember being in orchestra in 7th grade and hearing the violins playing it and thinking that it sounded nice, but I didn't know what they were playing. The first time that the entire class played it, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was playing real music. This probably would have come as less of a surprise if the cello part had not been fairly uninteresting.

It was several years later that I found out that it was a popular piece of music, and often played at weddings. It has always seemed like the perfect love song to me. The music itself is a love story. It starts off slowly and kind of awkwardly, and as you listen to it you're thinking "Is this ever going to go anywhere? Is this actually what I wanted?" Then it slowly starts to pick up and come together. The first lonely part calling out is joined by another. It starts to move a little bit faster and become more interesting, but then falls back to uncertainty again. It makes progress towards an interesting melody, but only in fits and starts. There are repeated attempts to develop the melody, but none of them are sustained for long. You start to get the feeling that maybe this isn't going to go anywhere.

And then, in a way that seems very sudden (and yet also seems like it took forever to reach), everything falls into place. It becomes perfect and exciting, almost overwhelming. And then the melody repeats and is doubled up to become stronger and better.

As the primary melody repeats a few times, it starts to seem a little repetitive. But each time is slightly different. And while the primary melody is what most people like most, it is the rest of the music that I like best. It repeats over and over again, with just a minor variation each time. It echoes and repeats, sounding like it is longing for what it used to be, while transforming into something that is even better.

This past Valentine's day, Mira went to the ER with what appeared to be meningitis. I left work early to pick her up at the doctor's office, drive her to the hospital, and watch our children. On the bus, there was a young couple that seemed to be unable to go more than 5 seconds without some kind of physical contact. As I sat on the bus, I was thinking about the difference between new love, where people want to be together because it is new and exciting and they don't know what will happen or even what they want to have happen, and old love, like how I wanted to be with Mira because she needed me and because I needed her, and because we do know what we want to have happen. Because our lives are so integrated that we are in some ways a part of each other.

And that is the music of Canon in D. It starts off slowly and uncertainly, with all the parts seeming to move about randomly, full of excitement but without any clear direction. Then it all comes together and becomes fully integrated into one beautiful part. And then it repeats in a way that is clearly following a pattern without being monotonous or boring. The same thing over and over again, but never actually the same. Echoes of the past tied together with visions of the future.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Soloution to the Jesse Puzzle, 2013 edition

Last year I wrote a solution solution to the Jesse puzzle. But it's now out of date, so here is an updated solution:

Hi, I'm Jesse. I'm now 26 months old and can talk and run. My parents are still Mira and James, and if you need help with this puzzle, you should still ask them.

I have only worn diapers at night since Christmas. This is still new and I am still getting used to it. If I say anything that sounds like "potty", you should get me to a toilet immediately. You probably have about 10 seconds. As long as my parents are being attentive, they will put me on my toilet every 30-60 minutes and it won't be a problem.

Sometimes people don't do everything I want them to. Sometimes this makes me angry. If it does, I will start screaming, kicking, hitting, and possibly biting. I will probably fall on the floor while doing all this. My parents will probably remove me from the room so that I stop bothering people while they calm me down. This will take them somewhere between 10 seconds and three hours, depending on some unknown and unobservable conditions (and how well rested I am).

Now that we are done with the unpleasant things, it's time for the fun parts. In the past year, my vocabulary has increased from about 20 words to several hundred. I will spend most of my time talking. When I meet someone, I like to tell them about the clothes they are wearing. I also like to inform them that they have two eyes. It is very important to me that I verify that everyone has two eyes, so I do it all the time. Some days I tell my mom that our cat Juniper has two eyes every 5-10 minutes, just in case she forgot or didn't notice.

People still have trouble understanding me sometimes. I don't use articles, conjunctions, pronouns or any other words I don't know, so most of my sentences are 2-4 words long and are just a list of nouns, possibly with a verb thrown in somewhere. For example I might say "daddy work" to tell someone that my dad is at work, or "mama blue shirt" to tell someone that my mom is wearing a blue shirt. I don't entirely understand how word order indicates the subject and object of a sentence, so I just assume that the subject and object are the way I want them to be (this applies to what I say and what I hear).

I sometimes repeat the last word or two of whatever anyone says. Apparently this means I am a parrot.

I still have trouble pronouncing m's and b's differently sometimes. I frequently call that yummy white drink that comes from cows "bok." I drop L's in lots of words and I drop other consonants (sometimes whole syllables) in long words.

People sometimes ask me questions. I know they are questions from the intonation. If I don't understand the question, I will generally answer yes (possibly "yep" or "ya"). A fun game to play is to ask me questions like "Are you a super hero?" or "Are you a Higgs-Boson particle?" and see if I claim that I am. I will also be happy to provide advice on how to solve puzzles, as long as that advice can come in the form of answering questions with a yes (or noticing that things have wheels).

I love wheels. I love anything with wheels. When I see a wheel, I want to tell everyone about it, in case they didn't see the wheel. I also like tracks. One time, my parents took me to a room full of dishwashers. It was awesome. Every dishwasher has tracks and wheels. That's why I like them.

I like trains. I like cars. I am pretty good at identifying types of cars, and will point out my friends' cars when I see them, even when they are the wrong color or somebody I don't know is in them.

I'm also good at identifying people. I learn people's names pretty quickly, though I have trouble pronouncing them. I like to talk about my friends. I also like to talk about "podka" (my grandparents).

I am good at identifying colors. I can sometimes identify letters. I can count to two. I can count using other numbers, but they come in a random order interspersed with a lot of 1's and 2's. My concept of numbers is actually one and many, so if I say there are two of something, it really just means there is more than one.

I love books. If you will read a book to me, I will be your friend forever. Please read books to me.

My parents will feed me. But if I see you eating, I might ask you to share your food with me. My parents would prefer if you check with me before feeding me anything, mostly so that they know how much I am eating of different kinds of food. I will say yes if you ask me if I want to eat something, but that is because I like saying yes. It might also mean that I want to eat it, but it might not. My parents would appreciate it if you do not offer me junk food.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adventures with astronomy

I recently finished reading "How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming", a book by Mike Brown about his work exploring the Kuiper belt and how it led to Pluto no longer being called a planet. I was surprised at how strongly I reacted to the book, but then I realized that this was the first time I had read a history book about events that were in some sense related to my life. Most of the science history books I've read were about things that happened before I was born or when I was too young to be involved in anything. But this one was about events that happened while I was at MIT.

The book starts in December of 1999. That is a month which I remember quite well. It is the month my first grandmother died. It is the month that Mars Polar Lander crashed into Mars. And for the last third of that month I have a detailed daily account of my activities from emails that I was sending. It goes through to the summer of 2005, when Mira and I had just gotten engaged and were moving into an apartment together.

There are three distinct times in my life that I almost became an astronomer. Each time, some sort of engineering intervened and I decided to be an engineer instead. The first time was at the beginning of 1986, when Halley's comet was making its way into the inner solar system. I had been hearing about the comet for a while (which for five year old me may have been just a week or two). But then the comet blew up the space shuttle. I remember seeing the news on television about the comet and the space shuttle, complete with diagrams showing something in some orbit (my memory isn't good enough to be sure what those diagrams actually were). I also remember being very upset that the space shuttle had been hit by a comet and deciding that I didn't want to see the comet any more, so I stayed inside while the comet was around and stopped looking at the stars.

Several years later in 1991, I was quite shocked when I was told that the shuttle had blown up in the Earth's atmosphere because of a failed O-ring, and that it had not been anywhere near any comets. I regretted passing up the opportunity to see a comet. This was the second time that I became interested in astronomy. At the time, we lived practically on the edge of the everglades, in a new part of Miami that had been part of the everglades just a few years earlier. The skies were fairly dark and I could see plenty. About a month later, they installed street lights on the street behind our house. One of them was in the middle of our yard. That substantially reduced the darkness and made the night sky much less interesting. At the same time, I discovered computer programming, which the street light did not interfere with. I have been programming in one way or another ever since. For the remainder of the 90's, I continued to have a mild interest in astronomy, but didn't really pursue it.

Then in the spring of 2001, I took the easier introductory planetary science class and the amateur astronomy class at MIT. I learned way more detail about all the parts of the solar system and got to use a telescope every week. I learned all the spring constellations that are visible in Cambridge (I can name as many stars as I can constellations). I had decided to take these classes because I was interested in working on interplanetary robotic missions, like Voyager and the various Mars missions, and decided that I should know something about the science as well as the engineering (I eventually got a minor in planetary science). But I found the astronomy class really exciting. I bought a small telescope and subscribed to an astronomy magazine. I learned where the planets were and started actually watching Venus and Jupiter move around night after night (the other planets mostly can't be seen from the Boston area).

In the fall of 2001, I took the real astronomy class and did a research project determining the orbit of Vesta (which is already well-known, but a reasonable undergrad project). I was also taking astrodynamics that fall, so the orbital calculations were easy for me to work out. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. We only went to the observatory twice. The first time was the first week of classes, when I had no idea what my project would be. We mostly just learned how to use the telescopes. I still remember going out there on what was supposed to be a cloudless night, looking up and being disappointed when I saw a line of clouds going all the way across the sky. It took me almost a minute to realize that I was looking at the milky way, not some clouds. I had spent too much time in cities to even recognize a truly clear night when I saw one. After that, every week when we were scheduled to do our observations, it was raining.

We finally got one clear night the last week we had a chance. Normally, the class observatory trips were roughly 6pm to midnight, but because most of us had no data at all, we weren't coming back until 6am. I set up my telescope, found Vesta, and started very carefully taking a few pictures every fifteen minutes all night long. Then I had some data. But unlike people who were doing spectroscopy and just needed a few good images, I needed images that were spread out over enough time to actually see the asteroid move. An orbit is completely determined by the position and velocity, but telescope observations don't include range, so I had only the direction to the asteroid over the course of about 8 hours. I wasn't sure that would be enough to accurately determine the orbit.

I had a large number of images. I had to go through each image and mark the location of Vesta and about three bright stars that were in the image to calibrate the location of the asteroid. Then I had to write a program which would compute the angle to the asteroid in every image and the exact time the image was taken. I then fed that data into another program, which attempted to calculate the orbit of the asteroid. I wrote in my report that it should be possible to automate the bright star detection, look for things that move, and determine the orbits of many asteroids almost automatically. This was around the same time that the astronomers in the book were actually doing that very thing out in California. I was considering working with telescopes to automatically scan for orbiting bodies just as Mike Brown's project was looking for someone to do just that.

At the same time, the Mars Gravity project had just started at MIT. We were going to build a satellite to put mice into space to study how they would respond to simulated Martian levels of gravity. This seemed more interesting than looking for asteroids (and I wasn't even considering Kuiper belt objects). So I stayed at MIT for grad school and went on to get a PhD in astrodynamics. I worked on the Mars Gravity project for about three years before I finally gave up because we had insufficient funding and too much turnover to make real progress. But by then, I had committed myself to studying astronautical engineering and didn't even consider going back to astronomy.

The last major astronomical event I paid attention to was the 2004 transit of Venus. I went to the roof of my undergrad dorm (I had only moved about two blocks away and it was the best spot in the area to view sunrise from) early in the morning with my telescope and camera. I went through three rolls of film taking pictures as the clouds slowly drifted past the sun. Most of the pictures didn't come out very well (mostly because I wasn't sure what exposure time I would need), but I have about a dozen pictures of a little dot moving past the sun, sometimes with clouds obscuring parts of the image. And now the transit of Venus will happen again tonight, this time just before sunset. The current weather forecast is 100% cloud cover, so I probably won't see it. But now I have a digital camera, so it will be easier to take pictures. And even if the weather doesn't cooperate, I will probably take some pictures of planets in the next few months.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Solution to the Jesse Puzzle

Hi! I'm Jesse. I'm 14 months old and still learning to talk and walk. My parents are Mira and James. If you need help with this puzzle, ask them. They have a lot of practice.

If I'm saying anything with a nasal consonant (M or N), it probably means I'm hungry. Or I'm saying no, which is mostly just a game I play (but I'm starting to mean that I am unhappy about something when I say no). "mi" is milk, "mo" and "mah" mean more (which means food), and "mamami" means mama milk (which means I want to nurse). Sometimes I repeat these words really rapidly and it is hard to tell which one I'm saying. It mostly doesn't matter, because if I'm hungry and get some kind of food it will make me happy.

What I don't eat: candy, cookies, or anything else a responsible parent would call a dessert. Just kidding, I love eating those, but my parents for some reason want me to eat healthy, nutritious food, and I generally don't eat enough of that to be allowed to eat anything else. They say something about wanting me to be healthy and growing. Also, I don't like my food to be sticky or gooey (at least not when I first get it - I like to make my food sticky and gooey by putting it in my mouth for a bit and then taking it back out).

What I do eat: This is the first bonus puzzle. I almost always like crackers, bread, peanut butter, and berries. I eat many other things, but I use a semi-random process to decide what I am willing to eat at any given time. If you offer me some food, I will probably eat it. But maybe not. If I don't want to eat something you are offering me, I will push it away and shake my head no. If you continue shoving it at me, I will start screaming and crying. Nobody wants me to do that, so please don't try to force me to eat things. You should also check with my parents and get a bib before feeding me.

If I give you a book and say anything resembling read (probably "reee", but sometimes "eed"), it means I want you to read the book to me. I might lose interest before you finish and take the book away from you. Don't take it personally, I'm only 14 months old. If you read the whole book and I say anything with a "G" in it (often "geh"), it means I want you to read it again.

If I am crying: This is the second bonus puzzle. About half the time, this means I am tired. About a third of the time, it means someone is doing something somewhat obvious that I don't want them to do (taking me away from my parents, eating food in front of me and not sharing it (that is so rude), playing with MY toys, etc). The rest of the time I have unlocked the super-secret special bonus puzzle. Do not attempt to solve this puzzle. You will fail. My parents have practiced a lot and can generally solve the super-secret special bonus puzzle eventually, but it takes them forever and ever (more than one minute sometimes).

I am still learning to walk. If I fall down and you act like I should cry about falling down, I will. If you calmly say something like "you should be more careful", I will probably just get up and continue whatever I was doing. Unless I'm tired, in which case I will cry anyway. If I start crying, you should look at that section of the solution.

I like to cruise, which means walking around while holding onto things with my hands. I will pull up on anything conveniently close to me when I want to stand up. My minimum standards for pulling up on something are that it be at least three inches tall and doesn't fall over faster than I can stand up. Pants and legs are fun to pull up on. So are chairs, whether people are sitting in them or not. I might decide to pull up on your chair just before you decide to move it to stand up. I like to silently sneak up on chairs while people are sitting in them, but I don't like it when they somehow don't notice that I am there.

My favorite game is peek-a-boo, particularly around corners. My parents make me fall down from laughing so much by suddenly appearing out of nowhere over and over again. It is the best game ever.

I love reading books. I also like carrying books. I like putting toys on my head. I like banging things together. I like knocking over towers of blocks. I'm starting to like stacking things and putting things in containers.

If you give me paper, I will play with it. I will eat it, I will crumple it, and I might even rip it. If you didn't want me to play with your papers, you shouldn't have left them on the floor near me. If you take them away from me and don't give me a different toy, I will probably cry.

I like to stick new toys in my mouth. Don't give me anything that you don't want me to stick in my mouth (such as your phone). Don't give me anything that my parents would not want me to stick in my mouth (particularly pens and pencils).

I like to babble. Often I while repeat a sound over and over again, just for fun. If you repeat it back to me, it will amuse me. Sometimes I tell stories. Sometimes I tell jokes. I like it when people have a conversation with me. I understand a lot of what people say to me, but they don't seem to understand what I say. This doesn't bother me most of the time.

Diapers:  This is the third bonus puzzle. I am a mostly potty-trained toddler that wears cloth diapers. I like to use the toilet when my diaper is changed. Most of my diapers have multiple pieces and are generally messy. My parents decided how many diapers to bring for me, and will run out if they are used too quickly. You really don't want to solve this puzzle. My parents are experts at it and will manage just fine. If you want to know more about cloth diapers, you can ask my parents. If you really want to change my diaper, talk to a psychologist my parents.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Naming of Jesse

Picking a name for a child is a difficult task. A person's name is frequently one of the first things that people learn when they meet someone new. It is difficult to change your name. And you have to pick the name before you know anything about your new child.

Mira and I have our own constraints on what names we want. Mira, who had her name mispronounced and misspelled throughout her entire life, wants names that are easy to spell and pronounce. I want names that sound nice (which seems to mean no hard stops, based on the names I like and don't like). We are also following Mira's family's tradition of naming in memory of dead relatives that were important to us (and by naming in memory of them, I mean the first letter has to be the same). Since we are raising our children as Jews, I want them to have Irish middle names in recognition of that part of their heritage (this somewhat conflicts with Mira's requirement that the names be easy to spell and pronounce). And Mira has a rule that we can't use names of any of our exes (which mostly just eliminates one of my favorite names, which is of course Irish, easy to spell, and easy to pronounce).

Operating under those constraints, we chose the name Jesse Liam for our son. Then we chose the Hebrew name Yaakov Lev. Jesse is a biblical name (the father of king David) which means gift. Liam is derived from Wilhelm and roughly means helmet. Yaakov, also a biblical name, has a complex meaning because of the story in which it appears. It means protection according to some sources and basically usurper according to others ("one who grasps"). Lev is the hebrew word for heart. So translating his name into concepts produces "gift of protection, helmet of the heart."

Jesse is for our maternal grandfathers, Jesse and John, Mira's great-uncle Jake, and Mira's great-great-aunt Jeannette. Liam is for my grandmother Love and my great-uncle Liam.