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Attn: Bureau of Weather Regulation

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to lodge a complaint against the current deliverables from your Seattle Metro Area regional department. My dissatisfaction extends back for most of the past six months, but what we have received lately has been especially undesirable.

As you are no doubt aware, normal November temperatures for our area are, on averge, a daytime high of 51 degrees (Fahrenheit) and a nighttime low of 41 degrees. Even on the colder nights, this is usually several degrees above the freezing point of 32 degrees. Fifty degrees might not be the sort of weather when one would walk around outside in shorts and a t-shirt, but it is generally warm enough that one would not need to bundle up in heavy winter coat, hat and scarf.

However, in the first three weeks of November this year (2011), we’ve had only a handful of days where the daytime temperature has exceeded 50 degrees. In addition, eleven of the 21 nights are on record as having lows of 35 or less. Please note that these temperatures are measured at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and documented on both The Weather Channel’s website and on Beautiful Seattle’s Seattle Climate Data site. The airport is closer to Puget Sound and therefore slightly more moderate than the inland foothills, where I live.

Precipitation this month has also been lower than normal. I understand that the Seattle region may be working hard to correct this, but trying to make it all up over the past couple days is not, in my opinion, the way to do it. My preference would be for a more gradual increase, with the understanding that while the month may conclude with a below-average rainfall, it would at least be within an acceptable tolerance.

As I mentioned earlier, this general underperformance has been noted for at least the past six months, possibly longer. April 2011 marked a new record low for the region, and even that was warmer than what we’ve seen recently. This past “summer” it took until early June to achieve a daytime high above 70 degrees; one particular day didn’t even make above 60. Only four days in July were 80 degrees or warmer. In comparison, please refer back to July 2009, when July temperatures were into the low 90s by mid-month, prompting a heat emergency and a run on air conditioners.

While August and September did yield pleasant summer weather, the late delivery tainted the reception. Had these days and nights been released even a month earlier, customer saisfaction would have been markedly higher.

I urge you to take the necessary steps to rectify this situation. It should not be necessary for me to be wearing both a sweatshirt and a fleece in my office at work. We should not be seeing dustings of snow on our back porch this early in the winter. As reparation, I ask that you not only adjust the November temperatures and precipitation more toward normal, but also compensate us next summer (May-August 2012) for the inadequate weather we had this past summer.

Sincerely, Jessica
o/b/o many other Seattle-area residents

P.S. I would write more but my fingers are too cold.


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Do I think we’re crazy? Possibly.

Parents are weird.

Parents do things that are illogical, nuts, and in direct opposition to their own self-interest. Anyone who didn’t know that someone was a parent would really be scratching their head over some of the things that the person does.

Parents short themselves on sleep to make sure their child is getting enough. Then they turn around and attempt to function normally on two hours sleep. It’s one thing when people stay up until the wee hours doing something to entertain themselves, like clubbing or playing video games. But to sacrifice sleep solely for the benefit of someone else? That’s a little weird.

Parent voluntarily deal with really, really gross things. When their child starts retching, parents stick out their hand underneath the child’s chin, and do so almost reflexively. Parents deal with blown-out diapers and then talk about the experience over breakfast. They post about someone else’s toilet habits all over the internet. That’s not just weird, that crosses the line into off-putting.

Parents sit back when their child gets frustrated with a toy, rather than reaching over to give them a hand, and then claim it’s because frustration can actually help teach that some things don’t work on the first try, or that it encourages creative problem solving. That doesn’t seem weird, that almost seems mean.

Parents pin down a scared child as the doctor washes out the gash on the child’s forehead. They don’t offer hugs and kisses, but rather, allow the torture and even actively participate. Sure, the parents may have a few tears in their eyes, but when the child starts wiggling, the parents wrap them even tighter. That’s weird and bordering on cruel.

Parents change sheets and do laundry at 2 a.m. after their child has had a bloody nose or upset stomach. And if there aren’t enough clean sheets, parents build a bed on the floor and sleep next to the sick child. Slavish devotion like that certainly raises a few eyebrows. That’s pretty weird.

Parents drive all over town to find that stuffed zebra or other can’t-live-without toy, and then smile through clenched teeth as their child tosses it aside for the box that it came in. Weird? Try co-dependant.

Parents tell their child not to retaliate when provoked physically or emotionally, even as the parent themself is ready to drive across town and make things even. They deny the child the satisfaction of getting revenge for whatever way in which they’ve been wronged, instead encouraging the child to Just Let It Go. It’s weird, and even a little hypocritical.

Parents bite their tongues when their child makes bad relationship choices, and instead welcome the undesirable significant other. When it falls apart, they outwardly offer consolation and comfort, while inwardly cheering. Not just weird, but also two-faced.

Some parents even give up their own successful careers when faced with an unexpected pregnancy. They walk away from salaries and promotions and spend the next several years wiping drool and runny noses. They know that being out of the work world means they’ll have to re-learn processes and technology when (if) they return to their career track. Anyone else who did this would be branded off their rocker, not just weird.

Why? The Hallmark answer is that parents do it out of love for their child, and yes, that’s part of it. But the practical, underlying answer is that someone’s got to do it. A baby can’t change its own diaper. Soiled sheets don’t wash themselves. Someone’s got to cook the dinner and clean up the messes. Children need to be taught how to interact with society.

We are weird. We are crazy. We are nonsensical. Because there are things must be done, and no one else to do them.

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And now, the other side of the wall

Last week I talked about some of the puzzle events I play in. I also help run them, which includes creating the puzzles. And boy oh boy, you can pick up some really strange skills and knowledge when writing puzzles.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had lots of exposure to some very commonly used ciphers: Morse code, Braille, semaphore, ASCII encodings,  binary representations of numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. These turn up frequently in puzzles, although these days there’s been a trend to at least disguise that it’s an encoding-based puzzle. But after a time, you get to recognizing at least some of the most common letters; perhaps even being able to read them off without needing to look them up on your pocket geek card.

I’ve also had cause to look up more obscure knowledge. Do you know which words in the English language don’t use any vowel other than Y? I did at one time (at least, all the ones in my electronic dictionary.) What do the number ranges in the Dewey Decimal cataloging system mean? I needed to know that too for a puzzle I was creating a couple of years ago. Convert numbers from base-3 to base-10 without using a calculator? Yeah, I’ve got that.

While I’ve never quite gotten the hang of anagramming words in my head or deciphering cryptic crossword clues, I have picked up the habit that many authors have of seeing something unusual and thinking, there’s a puzzle in there somewhere. My personal favorite that I created using environmental data is from couple of years ago. One night I noticed that every other pillar in one of the Microsoft garages had both a row/column designator, and an arrow pointing north. I turned that into a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure game with a secret message embedded in the only successful path.

Sometimes, what we authors think is elegance falls flat with the solvers. [Note: One near-universal technique in writing puzzles is indexing, where you’re given a phrase and a number, and you take the letter from the sentence that corresponds to the number.] One year I designed a puzzle with a set of clues and answers, where the first hidden message came from indexing by the length of the answer into the clue, and then a second message came from indexing by the length of the clue into the answer. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else… not so much. I still believe the design itself was elegant, and that the failure was just in my implementation. Well, we all have our little delusions.

It’s simultaneously much easier and much harder now that most solvers have smartphones – literally the entire internet in their pockets, as long as they stay within their carrier’s coverage area. It only takes a moment to look up the track listing for a collection of CDs, or the intersection of two particular interstate highways. I suspect that the greater availability of wireless connectivity is fostering an increase of puzzle styles that depend less on knowing (or hunting) trivia, and more on insight. To me, those are the ones that require more work to develop, but give the solver more satisfaction when they finish it.

As an author, you walk a narrow line in creating these puzzles. You want the insight to be just hidden enough so that the solvers feel smart in finding it, but not so obscure that they lose interest in looking for it. One philosophy I’ve heard is that there should be an inverse correlation between the amount of time needed to catch the insight and the amount of time required to do the rest of the puzzle. If it takes a long time to figure out what you need to do, then actually doing that work should go more quickly, and vice versa.

There are probably as many theories about how to create puzzles as there are puzzle authors. Everyone’s got a different feel for what’s “too hard” or “too easy,” and that line is also influenced by the size of the event you’re creating. For a weekend-long event, a 45-minute puzzle is considered quick. For a five-hour walking event, that same puzzle is one of the long ones. In the end, though, the best thing to hear from someone who’s solved your puzzle isn’t “That was easy!” or “Wow, that was really hard,” but rather, “That was fun.” It’s a battle of wits between author and solver; one that in the end, the author intends to lose.


Have your cake and let others eat too

I’m sitting here in front of the television, enjoying some fabulous citrus shortbread from cookcraftgrow. Earlier this evening my husband and I shared some homemade Twinkies, and accompanying my lunch today were delectable langues de chat (Cat’s Tongues) from Pâtissière in Progress. We’ve got even more treasures on the kitchen table waiting for their turn on our taste buds.

This bounty comes to us by way of Will Bake For Food, a food blogger bake sale that helps fight hunger in the Seattle area. In 2010 the event raised close to a thousand dollars and collected almost a ton of food for Northwest Harvest, a Seattle-area food bank. This year, more than $2500 and several barrels of food went to the Emergency Feeding Program of Seattle and King County.

Dozens of local food bloggers and bakers contributed hundreds of sweet treats. In exchange for donations of food and money, attendees received tickets that they could spend on cupcakes, cookies, breads, tarts, and even chorizo caramel confit! Last year we got there a little late and found many of the best selections already sold out. This past weekend we made sure to be there when the doors opened.

The event was born when Jenny Miller of Rainy Day Gal wanted to find a way to help those who struggle to feed their families (read more of the backstory here). She joined forces with Jenny Richards of Purple House Dirt to rally the troops many local bloggers and their followers, and gather donations. I’ve been fortunate to know Jenny M. for a few years now, and she’s a really amazing person. She’s funny, she’s inspired, she’s a talented chef, and the kind of wife and mother I aspire to be. And while so many of us read about the challenges faced by less fortunate families, Jenny and Jenny stepped up to do something tangible for them, and created an avenue for the rest of us to help too.

Will Bake For Food’s first year was a success. This second year, even more so. Enough to make it a tradition? Let’s hope so, for the sake of our sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) and more importantly, for the benefit of our community.

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During the work week, I do a pretty good job of keeping on top of my online social circles. Five minutes here, fifteen minutes while eating lunch, draft a blog post on my phone while watching my test automation run. Weekends, however, are a different story.

This past weekend, for example, we were in the U-District on Saturday morning for Will Bake for Food. We loaded up on sweets and treats, then headed over near Seattle Center for lunch, meeting up with my sister and her boyfriend while we were there. We returned to the Eastside briefly, just long enough to pack up a bag for Kiddo and drop him off with the friends who were babysitting him, and then we headed right back to Seattle for an evening fondue party. Sunday found us back at Kids Quest Children’s Museum for an hour or two, then at a nearby restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. Once home, naps all around. Not a whole lot of time in there for extended online interaction.

Not all of our weekends are quite that packed, but quite a few of them are. Between now and the end of the year, we’re got only one unscheduled weekend. So finding time for internetting is harder to do. Every year I expect this sort of thing from the summer months, but it surprised me a little bit to find our November and December just as packed and pre-planned as six months ago was.

Sunday nights are generally for getting caught up on TV that we missed during the week, and skimming my favorite sites to see what internet drama popped up while I was off in the real world.

Just kidding. I save that for my Monday mornings.


Childproofing? How about childcoaching.

The time has come, the parents said, to talk of many things:
Of dishwashers and tabletops,
Of tacks and apron strings,
And why the stove is don’t-touch hot,
And whether kids have wings!

When our boy was a blanket-wrapped bundle, childproofing was an issue that we’d think about later. Even as he started to get more mobile, we decided we’d just deal with the obvious stuff, like cupboard door latches and padding around the fireplace hearth, and then wait to see what mischief he was most interested in getting into. This, under the hood, was just another way of thinking about it later.

Later has arrived.

Kiddo’s gotten taller, or else his arms have gotten longer. He’s also gotten pretty clever. He’ll pick up on a trick after seeing it only once or twice. (This is why, in our house, we no longer pick up cereal bowls and drink the remaining milk. FYI.) He knows how to turn on the TV and the Xbox 360; he also knows that if he touches the TV we turn it off, and has occasionally used this trick to his advantage.

And now, he’s tall enough and knowledgeable enough to open the dishwasher, and to push the button that opens the microwave. This morning Kiddo had a head start of only seconds heading into the kitchen, and when I followed I found the dishwasher and lower cupboard doors wide open, as if it were a mini-reenactment of The Sixth Sense.

We’ve gotten past the point where childproofing would do any good. Oh, we could try, but wrapping the kitchen in bubble wrap isn’t practical. The oversize box of plastic wrap can’t live on the counter forever.

This child! He’s figured out that he can pull chairs out from the dining room table and climb up on them to get the papers on the dining room table. We’ve prevented him from taking the stepstool over to the counters, but only by not doing it ourselves. Every morning he runs around and turns on all the lightswitches upstairs, including the living room one where he has to crawl out on the slippery arm of the couch, and then he turns and jumps off it to the floor. We didn’t teach him any of that. He sees us doing normal activities that are safe for adults, and simply follows suit.

So now the time for childproofing is over. Now we are trying to teach him what’s allowed, rather than simply walling it off. The tricky part is going to be un-teaching some of those rules later on, when he’s old enough to help load the dishwasher and set the table. I’ve tried the “when you’re bigger” line a couple times, but that just leaves the door open for little Mister Rules Lawyer to come back a few months later and point out that he is indeed bigger than when I first set that restriction.

My current strategy is to get him to help out with the parts of the activites that are kid friendly, hoping to redirect him from the more hazardous parts. He wants to open and unload the dishwasher? Sure, how about taking these plastic plates and containers to the counter. That sort of thing. My friends have said two years old isn’t too young to help sort the laundry and pick up the basement. If we do this right, maybe we can sneakily teach him to love doing housework the same way we sneakily taught him to love eating his vegetables.

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I am a Puzzle Geek.

I do this thing, every couple months. Sometimes it’s for an entire weekend, sometimes just an afternoon. I might be in a conference room, or in a van, or sitting in front of a computer. I’ve never really come up with a good phrase to describe it, other than “competitive puzzle events,” but that doesn’t quite convey the craziness and fun and addictiveness it entails. Take one part The Amazing Race, one part Games Magazine, and one part Not Killing Your Teammates, and you’ll be pretty close.

Puzzlehunt seems to be the term Wikipedia has settled on, although that’s only one part of this… hobby, I guess. But it’s where I came in, so that where I’ll begin. A puzzlehunt is, in brief, a competition in which teams of solvers compete to solve puzzles. Think word puzzles more than jigsaw puzzles, but it’s not just a collection of crosswords. Each puzzle resolves to a single word or short phrase. So even if you’ve correctly filled in that crossword puzzle grid or sifted out all the terms in that word search, you probably aren’t finished. Keep going, as Game Control likes to say. Some examples of this type of puzzle are online at the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 14 site, or last January’s MIT Mystery Hunt. Not all puzzlehunt puzzles are reproducible on paper. Teams have had to run around the MIT campus in the snow, recover clues from the bottom of a swimming pool, and play Ultimate Frisbee at midnight in the rain.

That there is another term that should be defined: Game Control. They’re the people behind the event, the ones who create the puzzles and manage the logistics. Odds are they’ve spent the past year planning it if it’s a weekend-long event, or at least several months for a shorter one. That’s coming out of their personal time, for the most part. Only a handful of puzzlers actually get paid for their efforts. Why, then, would anyone do it? Simple: someone’s got to, otherwise there wouldn’t be any events to play in.

The phrase “Game Control” comes from the other side of this… addiction, for lack of a better term. While puzzlehunts usually give you a lot of puzzles while you stay in one place, Games (with a capital G) feed them to you one at a time, in far-flung locations. How far-flung depends on the scope of the event. On-foot events exist and the locations are, obviously, within walking distance of each other. But the canonical form of a Game has teams driving a couple hundred miles, over the course of two days, with no rest breaks. Sometimes the route comes close to full circle, sometimes less so — the 250-mile route for The Mooncurser’s Handbook took us from Bellingham to Tacoma, WA. Puzzles are called Clues, and often take advantage of their location, either by requiring you to collect data from your surroundings, or just being thematically connected to the site. The most recent examples include Ghost Patrol and the World Henchmen Organization.

Not every event spans a full weekend, though. There are afternoon-length walking events (SNAP, DASH and BANG to name a few), there are one-day driving events (Shinteki is the most frequent of these) and there are at-your-own-pace online puzzlehunts (Intercoastal Altercations and The Puzzle Boat are two, although perhaps not the best starting point for rookies). The walking events seem to be the best place for new solvers to jump in; often the puzzles in these events, especially DASH, are targeted toward less-experienced teams. Upcoming events are listed at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar website.

And what prize awaits the winners of the battles of the brains? Bragging rights. Sometimes a themed trophy for the top couple of teams. Often, just the glee of seeing your team’s name among the top teams on the leaderboard, if there’s a leaderboard at all. It’s the chance to pit yourself against your cohorts and see who’s got the sharpest mental chops–at least for this time around.

For me, it’s not just my own love of puzzles that pulls me into this… lifestyle, let’s call it. I first met my husband while we were both working on the Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day. A few years later, he proposed during the opening clue of No More Secrets. Our wedding reception included a mini puzzlehunt for our guests: four puzzles and a final metapuzzle with individual prizes for everyone. Our son’s due date coincided with Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day 2009 (fortunately, he showed up a couple of days early). For us, it’s not just a fun time. It’s family time.

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Bizarro Boy

We’ve got a new game Kiddo has been playing recently. For lack of a better name, we’ve been referring to it as the “How About” game. Rules are simple: parental unit says “How abouuuut _______?” and Kiddo responds with either an opposite or an associated word. For example, we’ll say “How about down?” and he’ll say “How about up?” Or, from last night: “How about rice?” and his response “How about beans?” If we happen to hit one of his preferred responses, he’ll either giggle or just say “YES!”

He’s got some cute ideas of how things pair up. Many of these are reversible.

(Us) How about… (Kiddo) How about…
Up Down
Inside Outside
The Outback (aka Dad’s car)      The Prius (aka Mom’s car)
Preschool Home
Mommy Daddy
Ernie Bert
Cookie Monster Elmo
Big Bird Elmo
[Any other Muppet] Elmo
Elmo YES!
Irwin Dawn
Kenny Dana
Red Orange
Green Orange
[Any other color] Orange
Orange YES! (or occasionally Red)
Grandma Grandpa
Uncle Nick Uncle Tim

…and many other pairs.

The puzzler in me is pretty sure there’s one in there somewhere just waiting to come out.


Kitchen Confidence

Here I am, a day behind again. No worries; I’ll catch up by tomorrow.

I’m no chef, but I think I’m a more accomplished cook than I was five years ago. I owe a lot of this to my husband, who has not only introduced me to new tastes, but also helped me gain the confidence to go off-book (cookbook, that is). Plus a tip of the hat the Alton Brown, of course.

In my earlier culinary days, following a recipe was no big deal. I could follow a recipe. But I had no idea what flavors would blend well, which ones I needed to perk up a chili, what I might do if there was something I wanted to eat but I didn’t have any instructions. The cookbook was The Word when it came to making meals and desserts. My ex-husband considered himself a pretty cook, and prior to that I’d only lived at home or in the dorms. I remember one time when my ex was out of town, and I grilled a steak all by myself. I was very proud of myself.

That system worked for me for many years. Every now and then I’d pull out a recipe book and step-by-step whip up something that usually turned out tasty. But that all changed when I moved out on my own. Now I had to do my own cooking, or else eat baked potatoes every night. I do really, really like baked potatoes, but that probably would have been too much.

So now I was the primary cook in my kitchen, and still looking up recipes online and following them faithfully every night. I started dating my not-yet-husband, and while we dined out quite a bit, there were nights when we made our own dinner too. I started to notice a few things. For example, most of the time he didn’t use a cookbook. I was so impressed.

It took a while for me to gain more confidence in the kitchen. I watched a lot of Good Eats. I still followed recipes, but I was getting a lot better about efficient prepping and cooking, and timing it so that all the meal components were ready at about the same time. I learned that letting the pan heat up before adding the oil and saute ingredients keeps them from sticking as much as they do if you put them in a cold pan. That some knives are great for slicing but not so much for chopping (after all, if they were all interchangeable, why would professional chefs have a whole sleeve of differently shaped knives) That fruits and most root vegetables are better stored at room temperature–yes, this includes tomatoes–while other vegetables need to be stored in the fridge. (Tip: look at how a grocery store displays them, and follow suit at home.)

My first big advance was the day I decided I wanted real taqueria-style tacos for dinner one night, the kind you might find at a taco truck, only without the food safety violations. I had no recipe at all, but I’d eaten enough of them that I knew what ought to go in them. On my way home I picked up some skirt steak, pico de gallo, and cilantro, and pulled something together with no guidance other than my taste buds. This time it was my husband’s turn to be impressed.

These days I still often turn to recipes, but I’m not afraid to modify them as I see fit. I took Real Simple’s recipe for Fiery “Fried” Chicken and turned it into a chicken and pasta dish. With only a little guidance from the Whole Foods fishmonger, I turned out some lemon pepper Tilapia filets the other night. This past weekend I rescued a curry the night after I’d accidentally spilled way too much cinnamon into it. I’m getting really good at knowing which sides will complement a main dish.

Of course, I still have my mishaps. I was making an apple pie yesterday in an attempt to use up the apples on the table that had started to get past their prime. I needed six cups of apples. I ended up with eight. Instead of using six of the eight cups for the pie and figuring out something for the remainder, I decided to split it into two batches of four cups each. I didn’t even think to supplement with the additional apples I’d bought for that very purpose. And what I ended up with was this:

Oh well. They can’t all be winners. I bet it’s still going to taste good, even if it does leave us wanting more.


No! Sleep! Till–oh heck, I don’t know when

This was supposed to be written yesterday, but I was exhausted. My husband is out of town for a couple of days, and I’m finding I need an awful lot of energy to keep up with the very active Toddler Force One.

It doesn’t help that we had three days this past workweek where we had to get up much earlier than usual. By Friday afternoon I was already in sleep debt. After I got Kiddo tucked in that night, I went straight to bed myself. Usually on weekends, my husband and I sleep in until Kiddo wakes up, and then alternate taking showers while the other plays with Kiddo. Yesterday, though, I didn’t get that shower until my sister came over that afternoon. Oh, and this morning? Forget that extra hour of sleep that usually comes with the switch back to Standard Time. Someone in this house didn’t get the memo.

We’ve had plenty of afternoons and evenings where Kiddo and I were on our own while my husband worked. And I often take care of Kiddo myself every weekday morning. I figured I had this weekend in the bag. Turns out, without the ability to get away for just five or ten minutes, it’s more of a challenge than I expected.

This morning when I woke up (or more accurately, was woken up) I thought, I don’t know how single parents do it. Do they have more strictly scheduled days? Are they better at squeezing in housework while their child entertains herself? I don’t think I could ever really know unless I had to live through that myself–something I hope never happens–and not just for a weekend, but day in and day out, managing child and household and job, very likely having to sacrifice personal time and interests to do it. I have new respect for anyone in that position.

Before my husband left, we made a picture calendar for the days he would be gone. It shows who’s home each day and what we’re doing that day, whether it’s school or a visit from Kiddo’s aunt, or watching football. The idea was that Kiddo could cross off each day and understand how long it would be until Dad comes home. Honestly though? I’m not quite sure which of us is counting the days more eagerly.