Saturday, August 30, 2014

Challenges in the Raising of Engineers

My morning, today, started in an unusual and rather unexpected way.  Slowly waking on a lazy Saturday morning, I could tell that Harriet was already up because she was banging on her door, trying to figure out the child-safe sleeve around the handle that we use to keep her in her room while she's still too young to be trusted around the stairs alone.  Little did I know that it could go the other way as well. When I arrived to open my two-year old daughters' door, I found it solidly locked against me, and Harriet giggling at my inability to open it.

Now this, of course, should not pose a problem at all.  Every standard internal door with the little push-button locks has a hole on the other side where you can push a pin or screwdriver in and pop them open.  It's not for safety or security after all, but just to keep people from walking in on you while you're sitting on the toilet or whatnot.  So I explained to Harriet that she'd locked the door, and asked her if she could turn the handle on the inside (more giggling), then said I was going to get a tool to open in.  Returning with a long thin screwdriver, I confidently inserted it into the thin hole... and hit wood. No hole to the other side of the door.  No way to pop the lock.

Before this morning, I didn't even realize that the old-school doorknobs on our upstairs bedroom even had the ability to be locked.  But honestly, the fact that Harriet has discovered it did not surprise me.  She's very good at noticing things that are unusual or out of place, and spends a lot of time trying to figure out and understand the way that things in her environment work.  In fact, just last night she delighted both my wife and myself with a new inquisitive question.  Her bedroom story the past few nights has been a documentary on the Soviet N1 Moon rocket, since rockets are a big thing for her right now, more exciting even than dinosaurs or airplanes.  
Harriet, playing "Rocket toddler" with my father.  First, you stand on your "launch pad" while the grown-up does a count down...
...then the grown-up yells "whoosh" and lifts you high in the air while you scream in delight.
As we finished the documentary last night, she popped out: "How'd they do that?" and we were hooked by her inquisitiveness---we're really suckers for questions from our daughter.  I said we'd look and see, and there on the "related videos" bar was an episode of a show called "How Hard Can It Be?" in which three engineers spent a couple of weeks trying to send a home-made rocket into space.  We watched it together, with commentary, and she was fascinated with every moment---unlike the moon rocket documentary, which made a good bedtime story because it interspersed occasional exciting blast-off shots with long boring periods of old Russian and American engineers telling their old engineering stories.  And so it's no surprise that Harriet found a way to lock her parents out of her room that they were not yet even aware about.  And yet there I was, still locked on the other side of her door.

Well then, I told my daughter that she's done a very good job locking me out of the room, keeping my voice light and playful even as I'm starting to worry in the back of my head.  Playful giggles and taunts from the other side.  But I now know that I'm working with a toddler time-bomb on the other side of the door: she's up because she's hungry and she wants out, and if she starts to get upset while I'm locked out of the room, then we could have a serious crisis on our hands.  So I start bringing more tools up, all the while keeping up a conversation with a toddler who's decided that all this is a lovely game.  The screws come out, and the handle won't come off.  The door is too well sealed for me to exploit my old breaking and entering skills from the days when I did urban spelunking (a story for another time) and slip a card around to pull the latch in directly.  All of which ended up meaning it was time for me to have another new experience.
"OK, Harriet, I need you to step back from the door."
"OK, Daddy."
"Are you standing away from the door, little one?"
"Away from a door."
I hope.  I hope she means it and isn't just repeating what I say right now.  I crunch my hip hard against the door, right by the knob to try to do it right and minimize the damage.  High pitched and excited laughter from inside the room.  I crunch a couple more times, pushing and pulling at the same time to keep the door from popping open fast, and the door jamb breaks and lets me in. The milk I've got with me, poured into her favorite cup in anticipation of this moment, goes straight into her hand, and I praise her and make light of things, and she stares at the fascinating new mess I've made.  

A few minutes later we're downstairs at breakfast, and I'm burning off adrenaline by making pancakes and teaching her the MIT Engineer's drinking song, doggereling as I go to try to avoid all of the drinking, sex, and cursing (which is rather difficult).  And when I tell her that after breakfast I'm going to try to fix her door, she asks me that wonderful question once again: "How'd they do that?" 

So after breakfast, we went back up to the door together. I explained how the lock worked to her fascinated eyes, and she oscillated back and forth between playing on her own and watching me take apart and repair the door (the jamb is... serviceable, and next time it will be possible to unlock the knob from the outside as it should be).  Harriet made drill sounds to help me out, and told me a story about a hungry lion to keep me company, and in the end all was right in the world again.

And so, in sum, the unexpected things that I have learned this morning:
  1. Harriet is now capable of rather sophisticated mechanical activities, and given her curiosity about what things do and how they work, it's only matter of time before she starts disassembling our appliances.
  2. It's actually much easier to break a door down than I had realized previously.
  3. The Engineers' drinking song really desperately needs a clean version that a kid can sing.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Football Team of Moose

The first stuffed animal that I ever received as a child was a moose, hand-made by my parents' friends Joe and Suzanne Stupak, who lived up in Maine and gave the moose in token of the Great State to the child of their friends in Massachusetts.  I was about six months old, and have no memory of receiving it, but I named him "Oom-pa-pa" and grew up with him thereafter.  One of my earliest memories is from being three or four years old, in bed and realizing that I didn't have my precious moose with me, and running (unsupervised) out into the back yard to find him where I had left him, lying out in the moonlight with his marble eye reflecting back whitely in the glow from the sky.

When I was in kindergarten, we moved to Maine, and moose began to grow in importance.  My first was joined by Big Moose (who was big enough for me to use as a pillow) and Jay Moose (who I hollowed out into a puppet when he began to lose his stuffing), Sister Moose and Mama Moose (whose antlers I cut off, because female moose don't have them), Bruce Moose and Spruce Moose and Eric Moose and more. Every Christmas, I got a moose, and every birthday, I got a moose.  For a while, these totem animals were all-important outlets for my less acceptable forms of behavior.  Moose were stupid and big and happy and uninhibited.  They were impervious to harm and absolutely impossible for any adult to ever control: they were elemental forces of human nature.  Moose could eat lots of beans and fart.  Moose were able to attack my little brother.  Moose would yell at the top of their lungs and knock things over and any other rude thing besides.  In my elementary school drawings, one finds moose flying planes covered in piles of crazy weapons, first blowing up Communists and later locked in their eternal war that developed with my Lego people.  Moose were the Id, just acting and destroying as they needed and desired, while the Legos were a creative force, building huge and complicated cities.  My parents managed this as best they could, balancing freedom for their child's imagination with attempts to eventually civilize the little beast.  Perhaps indicative: our old family rulebook includes an agreement that bans moose from the table, except during certain special occasions such as Christmas morning and birthdays.

As I grew up, though, the need for moose to be my outlet waned, of course.  I made more friends, discovered roleplaying games, and generally slowly shifted from the simple joys of early childhood to the more complicated forms of make-believe that made me happy in adolescence.  Of course the moose were kept around, and I still used big ones as pillows on my bed.  And still the tradition of gifts continued, my family still giving me the moose of tradition and custom, and various other relatives noticing "Jake's into moose" and giving me moose-themed things as well.  It's not a thing I ever objected to of course, even as I grew disenchanted and uninterested: these gifts still called back to times when moose still mattered more, and the sentiment and love they came in mattered even if the creatures didn't.  But they stopped getting names and the new ones no longer had a chance to start developing personalities of their own.  They just accumulated on my shelves, a pile of animals that would have been better gifts for younger me.  But give them up?  Of course not: even if I no longer played with them, the moose would always evoke those days I did, and the times of joy and wonder when it all was new.

By college, I'm not even sure if any moose came with me.  I think that probably yes one did, but wasn't one that was the most important and would have sat neglected on a shelf.  A few more came at holidays, but quietly and with mutual consent, the influx stopped and the moose stayed up in Maine, shifting eventually from my bedroom into storage space in one of my parents various stages of house renewal and renovation.  And there they sat.  For me, it was important that they still existed, but it wasn't important to actually see or interact with them.  My parents, though, would occasionally ask for me to take them off their hands.  And so, when the papers came down this summer, so too came two good-sized garbage bags full of moose, the result of twenty years of slow accumulation.

I sorted them, is what I did.  In one sealed plastic box went the moose that I had emotional attachment to, to go out West to Iowa and a new basement for them to season in, and see if ever there came a time for them to either go upstairs or go away.  The others, whose names I did not know, plus a couple of freaky or otherwise distasteful known offenders, went into a bag to await delivery to Goodwill.  It might have ended there, of course, but I was not in a hurry to get them there, and so they sat.  And Ananya, thinking of my words about wanting to share some things of mine with Harriet, brought her in one day while I was out, and let her pick a favorite from the bag.

Harriet has a very different relationship to stuffed toys than I did, so far.  I had very few when I was small, and so each toy became an alter ego, with a very strong and individual personality.  Harriet was inundated with stuffed toys as a tiny infant, as many different people each carefully and thoughtfully picked a meaningful gift that happened to be from the same general category of things.  As she's grown then, so far her animals tend to instead have more contextual personalities.  Seal is for sleeping, and Bagh and Khargosh are safety animals, the wonky musical Giraffe is for giggling with, and so on and so forth for various different ones.  Moose, her new one, is an adventure animal.  Moose wears bright red Indian dresses and dances, along with the boots that don't fit Harriet any more, and goes out on rides and plays in more exciting ways.

And then... I was packing, and thinking about that great big bag of moose that had not yet gone off to Goodwill.  Harriet was up there with us, playing with boxes and stickers, and I thought: why not see?  Let's see if any other moose were ones that she would like to keep.  I pulled the bag out and let her start to sort on through it.  And she pulled all of them out.  Well, of course she did.  And she's much more interested in the new, unloved ones than in the old and scruffy moose of back in my earliest days.  But this relationship is very different.  So far at least, for her the moose don't come as individuals but as a pack---Ananya likes to describe it as "the moose are a football team." And she plays with them in big piles, as you can see:
Harriet, in a great big basket of Moose
I carried her up and down the stairs, and pushed the basket at her request, so the moose-car and its driver could go vrooming all around the room.  It's not my way, but it's not my play, and in this unexpected passing of the generations, the moose have all won their reprieve from Goodwill (except the couple of creepy ones, who I denied appeal summarily to).

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Psalm 6.111

Following on my recent theme of things past and rediscovered, I wish to present to you, dear readers, a recently rediscovered poem.  To give some context: I wrote this in the fall of my sophomore year at MIT, in the midst of taking the digital electronics lab course, also known, in the MIT penchant for never using a name when a number will do, as 6.111, or sometimes more affectionately as "Digital Death Lab."  This was the time when many of us became quite intimately acquainted with the workings of a good oscilloscope, when one stayed up wiring breadboards by hand late into the night, comparing the neatness of ones wires with the friends who were doing the same.  This was the time when we learned that "digital" only really meant digital if you didn't drive too many circuits with your output, or mix high frequency signal lines, and if your power supply was clean, and a hundred other things that are the whole point of getting kids frustrated in a lab class: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."

At some stage of progressive insanity, the first line of this poem mutated into my head from its origin in Psalm 23, and it then became a thing that was absolutely necessary for me to write and distribute to others, and my friends and I did so anonymously.  They might have helped write and edit some too---at this remove I have no real recollection, except for remembering a feeling of inspiration, and then of company in its execution.  As for you, dear readers... well, I suspect that some of you will get it and some of you will find it only mystifying, and really that's OK with me.  And so, without further ado...
Psalm 6.111 
Some words of comfort for the days ahead: 
The FLIPFLOP is my Synchronizer, I shall not want.
He maketh me to pipeline my whole circuit,
He leads me to program more EPROMs,
He restores my sanity.
He guides me in paths of synchronicity for his clock's sake.
And lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of CMOS,
I will fear no intermediate voltages,
for He is gated, His one or His zero, they comfort me. 
You prepare a haven for me in the presence of metastability.
You anoint my design with blocks, my logic shall rationalize.
Surely good grades and sleep will follow me, all the days of this semester
and I'll not dwell in the room of the LAB forever.