This week we are cheering to Tracy Z. who slowly and consistently climbed toward 50 puzzle points, and honoring Tracy with an exclusive interview.

Congratulations, Tracy! As you were answering these questions, you were preparing to go camping on the Cape Cod. In this picture you sent you are also hiking with a baby in tow and what seems like a giant backpack. What an amazing energy!

This picture is of me and one of my kids on a trip that we take every winter.  We and friends hike into a very rustic cabin (no electricity, no plumbing) in VT for a long weekend, and carry all our gear in via backpacks and sleds.  We’ve been doing it since pre-kid days.  I spend a lot of time for work and at home in front of computers.  Many of my fondest memories though come from the times when I unplug the computer and get outside for a weekend, a week, or longer.  I love hiking, biking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Tracy, have you ever had a big or little life dilemma that you solved with math?
Little:  I’ve used math to estimate a number I can’t actually fully compute.  For example, in a contest to guess the number of peanuts in a very large bag, I came closer than anyone else and won the whole bag.  It was too much to eat.

Bigger:  At my house, we once wanted to estimate where a property line was located without having to hire a surveyor.  We wanted to know which trees were on our property and which were on an adjacent property.  We found survey markers for two corners (A & B) on one side of the property and used very long pieces of string and triangle geometry to estimate the border on an adjacent side of the property.  Here are the details: We took the straight line distance between A and B (let’s call the distance x) and assumed the adjacent border from corner A to the unknown point C would be a right angle to side AB (the assessors’ property maps suggested the angle was 90% or very close to it).   We created a string of length x and a second string of length (sqrt(2))*x.  We tied the x- length string at corner A, and tied the (sqrt(2))*x-length string at corner B.  At corners A and B, we then rotated the two strings until they intersected when each string was fully extended.  This intersection point was point C.  Once we knew C, we knew side AC was on the property border.  AC was long enough to go past the trees in question, but if it had not been, we could have run another longer string along AC as far as needed.

Have you ever did any miscalculation using logic and numbers in real life?
One type of miscalculation I make far too frequently is underestimating how long it will take me to get somewhere, such as for an appointment.  I think about what time the appointment starts, and then make the assumption that that time it will take me to get there will be the minimum time that such a trip would take under ideal conditions with no delays of any kind.  I allow for little margin of error and as a result I am often a wee bit late. Fortunately, I had just a few times where I have been very late.  Too bad personal teleportation is not yet an option.

Do or did you ever use math professionally?
I use math personally and professionally almost every day. I was a math major in college. In my professional life, I have had positions gathering and analyzing data regarding: the energy and cost savings of energy-efficient household appliances; the population, economic, and land use trends for regions and communities; and the contributing factors behind motor vehicle crashes and fatalities.  I currently work in a research laboratory that conducts studies of driver behavior (such as driver distraction) in driving simulators and on-road environments.  We collect a variety of data on our participants during their sessions, including their demographic and driving histories, and their eye movements, head movements, their travel speed, acceleration, and lane deviation while driving, and use this data to develop training programs to improve drivers’ skills.

Some people say that best ideas come to them in the shower, for some it is while they are asleep, for some - while they are jogging. For you, what conditions, mood or environment are the most optimal to tackle a hard puzzle?
I get many of my best ideas for how to proceed on a hard problem when I outside walking or biking.   I also get great ideas, especially for Math Mom puzzlers and other brain teasers, by talking them over with my spouse or kids.  They love math and logic puzzles as much as I do.

To whom or what you are attributing your interest in math – a teacher, parent, TV program?
There are two people to whom I attribute my interest in math and logic.  The first is John Powers, a wonderful teacher who mentored me in middle school. He encouraged me to create a book of logic puzzles and to develop a curriculum to teach logic skills to kindergarteners and first graders. The second is Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft, my high school physics teacher. He frequently had us put down our textbooks and engage in real-life exercises to better understand the concepts he was teaching us.  We’d have labs where we threw and hit baseballs (studying speed and distance); dropped objects out of 3-story windows (gravity), and honked car horns while driving at different speeds (Doppler effect). He made science and equations live.  Dr. Eisenkraft now runs a center at UMass-Boston that focuses on improving the teaching and learning of science and math for all students, from kindergarten through graduate school.

Thanks, Tracy!

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