Letters to my Berry #5

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Your biggest milestone in your fifth month is that you started to eat. Beyond the milk that Amma directly provided you, and the formula milk that we had started you on after the doctor’s advice, the fifth month was when we started giving you what I called as “real food”.

You started with this thing called “ragi cherry” which I personally didn’t like too much – it was made out of a flour made by mixing ragi and other cereals with some nuts, etc. We would make a porridge out of this with some sweet element, and the first time I ate it, I said it tasted like soapnut powder.

Initially you made a fuss eating the ragi cherry, but to my utmost happiness, you seem to be yet another banana lover. After only two or three times of my feeding you bananas, all I had to do was to take your silver bowl and spoon and make mashing noises – and you’d immediately start salivating.

This was also the month where you started implementing Amma’s old company’s slogan “moving forward”. Given the size of your head you had trouble holding it up, but you invented your own way of moving forward while still keeping your head to the ground. I tried without success to draw an animal analogy – sometimes it seemed like you were like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. Ranga said you were like an Aardvark, moving forward with your head on the ground.

One night I’d left you on the carpet with my house slippers at the other end of the carpet. I hadn’t been gone for a couple of minutes when I saw that you’d somehow traversed the length of the carpet and was about to eat my slippers! Yet another day, we had left you in your bouncer and gone somewhere, and you were trying to slide down. Amma stopped you, but the next time you attempted it, we let you slide. And we were amazed with the poise with which you got down to the carpet, never once worrying us that you would hurt yourself!

This was also the month when you attended your first wedding – your aunt Barbie’s. You were such a centre of attraction during some of the pre-wedding festivities that you were tired and slept through most of the wedding. Halfway through both the wedding ceremony and the reception, we sent you home so you didn’t tire further. So apart from the photos taken at the beginning of each session, you unfortunately don’t appear in any photos!

And of course, the biggest event in your fifth month was that you got named. While you had been named even before you were born, and your official name had been submitted to the municipality when you were a day old, we did a small naming ceremony for you. There, the family priest Nagabhushana Sharma made us give you several names.

So there was the maasa naama (month name) which the priest himself decided. You were “Shachi”. Then there was the nakshatra naama (star name), which we had to come up with on the spot with the given starting letter. The starting letter for you was “Go” and Amma quickly came up with “Goda”, which she later elongated to “Godavari”.

And there was the vyavahara naama (trade name) which was supposed to represent one of your ancestors. The day I first met Amma in 2009, she had told me that she wanted to name her daughter Rukmini, after her grandmother. So there was no doubt about this one.

And then there was the nija naama (real name), which of course had to be Abheri. I had to shout it loud three times, and I did that with my mouth close to your ear. Thankfully you didn’t get startled – suggesting you like your name, and you won’t hate us later in life for it!

This is a monthly series that ordinarily runs on my wife’s blog, but since I wrote it this time (for the first time), I’m putting it here. 

Earlier editions:

Letters to my Berry – Month#1

Letters to my Berry – Month#2

Letters to my Berry – Prelogue

Letters to my Berry#4

 

Scott Adams’s advice and career options

Some five years back, I took a piece of advice from Dilbert creator Scott Adams. A few years earlier, he had blogged that there are two ways in which one can be successful in a career –

 But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The post had made an immediate impression on me when I had read it back in 2007. And when I was planning to leave a full-time corporate career in 2011, it was Adams’ old advice that I turned to.

There were a number of things that I’d found myself to be good at (definitely top 25%) – mathematical modelling, data analysis, writing (based on this blog), economic reasoning, financial markets and maybe even programming (I’m a good coder but lousy software engineer). Combining these, I reasoned, I could do very well for myself.

And over the last five years I have done reasonably well for myself. I’ve built a fairly good freelance consulting practice which brings together my skills in mathematical modelling, data analysis and economic reasoning. The same skills, along with an interest in public policy, have led to me joining a think tank as a Resident Quant. Data analysis and writing together has got me a column in Mint. Yet another subset led me to become Adjunct Faculty at IIM Bangalore. And yet another led to my book, which is currently under publication.

However, now that I’ve decided I’ve achieved enough in my portfolio life, and am looking for a full time job (it was supposed to happen a while back I know, but I postponed it due to an impending location change – I’m moving to London in March), I’m not sure this strategy (of being reasonably good in multiple things rather than the best at one thing) is particularly optimal.

The problem is that the job market hasn’t evolved to sufficiently demand people who are good at several things (rather than at one thing). This is a consequence of not enough people following Adams’s second advice – they’ve chosen to strive to be the best at one thing instead.

And so, if you are like me, and consider yourself reasonably good at several things rather than the best at one thing, the job market doesn’t serve you well. Think of all the things you’re good at as dimensions, and your skillset being represented by a vector across all these dimensions. Traditional job markets tend to look at you from the point of view of one of these dimensions (the skill they’re hiring for). And so, rather than showing your potential employer your full magnitude, you end up only showing the projection of your vector along the dimension you’re optimising for.

And if you are good at several things, it means that the magnitude of the vector along any one skill is far smaller than the magnitude of your full vector. And the job market is likely to leave you frustrated!

 

In contract bridge, when you are dealt a hand that is equally strong in all suits, you bid to play a No Trump game. In this scenario, though, it seems like it’s impossible to effectively play No Trump.

The Ticket

In his usually excellent column for Mint on Sunday, Charles Assisi writes today about the time after he was told that his father was nearing death.

It is a brilliant essay, where he talks about the “ecosystem” that had developed in his house over the last 18 months when his father was bedridden, and how each part of this ecosystem reacted to this news of impending death.

The part that I could connect with, and which I want to focus on in this post, however, is about the friends and relatives who came visiting. Assisi writes:

Until out of no place a steady stream of visitors started pouring in. To put it bluntly, a farcical affair. All of them looked horribly solemn. I suspect mum may have called some friends and, unwittingly, they may have called everybody else.

This concept of visiting someone on their deathbed has come to be known in my family as “the ticket”. This follows a flippant comment my grandfather had made several decades ago, when he quipped after one such visit that he had “given his ticket” to the person on his deathbed and he (the person my grandfather visited) was now free to go!

And ever since, in my family whenever someone goes to visit someone seriously ill or old, the conversation alludes to whether the “ticket has been given”. And so “did you give the ticket?” or “I gave the ticket and came” have become standard phrases after such visits.

Of course, there are people who get offended by this seemingly flippant way of referring to the last visit to someone before their impending death. They think it is impolite and rude to talk about the ticket, as if it implies one person’s wish that another person were to die. But the ticket givers seldom make such wishes or judgment. Whether they’ve given the ticket is their assessment of whether the person on the deathbed will see them another time.

I also agree with Assisi that for the family of the dying, this constant stream of ticket givers can become an annoyance. The ticket givers think they’re doing a favour by visiting and possibly offering their solidarity. However, most people overestimate their own abilities in making other people feel better, and don’t realise that relatives of the dying are sometimes better given their space as they prepare for life without the soon-to-be-departed.

And so I remember when my mother was in the ICU (almost exactly seven years ago) when a bunch of relatives had come to the hospital, possibly to give her “the ticket”. And I’d gotten really pissed off because the hospital discouraged visitors to the ICU, and I’d to beg and plead with the nurses to allow these visitors to see my mother.

That day, I remember being rude to these relatives, and asking why they bothered coming. I also remember turning them away saying the ICU wasn’t taking any more visitors that day and they cannot see my mother (who had lost consciousness by then, so she would have no way to know these people had come). I’m sure they’d’ve gone back and reported that they’d done their bit to give my mother her ticket.

Not that she needed their send-off.

Distance between Indian fathers and kids

As a rule, Indian fathers are not terribly close to their kids (my father was a major exception to this rule), and I lay the blame on a “traditional practice” in Indian families.

This is the concept of “baaNantana” (don’t know words in other Indian languages) where the woman goes to her parents’ house for childbirth, and stays there till the child is a few months old, before returning to her own house. And this contributes to several reasons which contribute to distance between fathers and children.

For starters, the woman’s house and her parents’ house may not be in the same city or region, putting a physical distance between the father and the baby. Thus, for the first few months of the baby, there is little contact between them, and when the baby finally goes to live with its father, he is already a distant figure. And unless the father makes special efforts to bond with his child, this distance is only bound to grow.

Secondly, in India, childbirth and associated activities are generally seen as a primarily female pursuit. It is the mother’s parents (primarily mother’s mother) who accompany her to the hospital, and be there with her until childbirth. The father generally only makes a guest appearance where he appears, carries the baby for a bit, hands it back and disappears.

And then every subsequent activity of the mother is directed by her own female relatives, and the father has little to do in the process. Even if he is physically proximate to the baby (by virtue of living not too far from his in-laws), the “culture” of baby-related activities being female pursuits means that he is not a primary actor any more, and he generally prefers to hand over the baby to a “female elder” when it cries, rather than to learn to pacify it himself.

Given this background, I’m really impressed with the efforts of CloudNine, the hospital where my daughter was born, in involving the father in the delivery process and beyond. For starters, the hospital insists that the father be present at the time of delivery, and cut the baby’s cord. While this was always known, what I was pleasantly surprised was the process afterwards.

A couple of hours after my wife and daughter came to their room, a nurse materialised, offering to teach her how to breastfeed. I readied myself to be sent out for the process, but there was no such attempt. In fact, the nurse seemed encouraging of me watching on – the hospital has perhaps realised (maybe belatedly in the Indian context) that the wife’s boobs are unlikely to be a novelty to a man, and so there is absolutely no reason to send him out!

On the other hand, the joy in watching your child feed directly from your wife is totally unmitigated!

Then later in the evening on Thursday, another nurse materialised, to take my wife for bath. That time, both my motherinlaw and I were there in the room with her. The nurse presently put my motherinlaw in charge of looking after the baby, and asked me to accompany her to help give my wife a bath. When my motherinlaw gestured that she could help out with the bath, the nurse firmly said that she wants me to come.

Apart from the hospital’s efforts I’ve been doing my own efforts to make sure I bond with the baby. Rather than sending off my wife to her parents’ place for baaNantana, I’ve instead convinced them to come live with us for a month, to help us deal with the new baby. I’ve learnt to carry the baby in different ways and change diapers, and I’m trying to learn to calm the baby when she cries (lack of boobs is a big impediment in this process).

And I’ve found that the more involved I am with the baby, the more responsible I feel in taking care of her and looking after her. The more I’m sent to “do my thing” while others take care of the baby, the more I feel like handing her off to someone else when she cries, rather than pacifying her myself!

Thinking back, perhaps one reason my father was able to bond with me was that he lived fairly close to my maternal grandfather’s place when I was born, and even though my mother was away on “baaNantana”, he made sure to come see us for a few hours every day, and carry me. Hopefully I can propagate this process with my daughter!

Pregnancy, childbirth, correlation, causation and small samples

When you’re pregnant, or just given birth, people think it’s pertinent to give you unsolicited advice. Most of this advice is couches in the garb ob “traditional wisdom” and as you might expect, the older the advisor the higher the likelihood of them proffering such advice. 

The interesting thing about this advice is the use of fear. “If you don’t do this you’ll forever remain fat”, some will say. Others will forbid you from eating some thing else because it can “chill the body”. 

If you politely listen to such advice the advice will stop. But if you make a counter argument, these “elders” (for the lack of a better word) make what I call the long-term argument. “Now you might think this might all be fine, but don’t tell me I didn’t advice you when you get osteoporosis at the age of 50”, they say. 

While most of this advice is well intentioned, the problem with most such advice is that it’s based on evidence from fairly small samples, and are prone to the error of mistaking correlation for causation. 

 While it is true that it was fairly common to have dozens of children even two generations ago in india, the problem is that most of the advisors would have seen only a small number of babies based on which they form their theories – even with a dozen it’s not large enough to confirm the theory to any decent level of statistical significance. 

The other problem is that we haven’t had the culture of scientific temperament and reasoning for long enough in india for people to trust scientific methods and results – people a generation or two older are highly likely to dismiss results that don’t confirm their priors. 

And add to this confirmation bias – where cases of people violating “traditional wisdom” and then having some kind of problem are more likely to be noticed rather than those that had issues despite following “traditional wisdom” and you can imagine the level of non-science that can creep into so-called conventional wisdom. 
We’re at a hospital that explicitly tries to reverse these pre existing biases (I’m told that at a lactation class yesterday they firmly reinforced why traditional ways of holding babies while breastfeeding are incorrect) and that, in the face of “elders”‘ advice, can lead to potential conflict. 

On the one hand we have scientific evidence given by people who you aren’t likely to encounter too many more times in life. On the other you have unscientific “traditional” wisdom that comes with all kinds of logical inconsistencies given by people you encounter on a daily basis. 

Given this (im)balance, is there a surprise at all that scientific evidence gets abandoned in favour of adoption and propagation of all the logical inconsistencies? 

PS: recently I was cleaning out some old shelves and found a copy of this book called “science, non science and the paranormal”. The book belonged to my father, and it makes me realise now that he was a so-called “rationalist”. 

At every opportunity he would encourage me to question things, and not take them at face value. And ever so often he’d say “you are a science student. So how can you accept this without questioning”. This would annoy some of my other relatives to no end (since they would end up having to answer lots of questions by me) but this might also explain why I’m less trusting of “traditional wisdom” than others of my generation. 

Half life of pain

Last evening, the obstetrician came over to check on the wife, following the afternoon’s Caesarean section operation. Upon being asked how she was, the wife replied that she’s feeling good, except that she was still in a lot of pain. “In how many days can I expect this pain to subside?”, she asked.

The doctor replied that it was a really hard question to answer, since there was no definite time frame. “All I can tell you is that the pain will go down gradually, so it’s hard to say whether it lasts 5 days or 10 days. Think of this – if you hurt your foot and there’s a blood clot, isn’t the recovery gradual? It’s the same in this case”.

While she was saying this, I was reminded of exponential decay, and started wondering whether post-operative pain (irrespective of the kind of surgery) follows exponential decay, decreasing by a certain percentage each day; and when someone says pain “disappears” after a certain number of days, it means that pain goes below a particular  threshold in that time period – and this particular threshold can vary from person to person.

So in that sense, rather than simply telling my wife that the pain will “decrease gradually”, the obstetrician could have been more helpful by saying “the pain will decrease gradually, and will reduce to half in about N days”, and then based on the value of N, my wife could determine, based on her threshold, when her pain would “go”.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s logic (that pain never “disappears discretely”) had me impressed, and I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how I get really impressed with doctors who are logically aware.

Oh, and I must mention that the same obstetrician who operated on my wife yesterday impressed me with her logical reasoning a week ago. My then unborn daughter wasn’t moving too well that day, because of which we were in hospital. My wife was given steroidal injections, and the baby started moving an hour later.

So when we mentioned to the obstetrician that “after you gave the steroids the baby started moving”, she curtly replied “the baby moving has nothing to do with the steroidal injections. The baby moves because the baby moves. It is just a coincidence that it happened after I gave the steroids”.

Callousness of the callus

When my wife went to the University of Michigan as an exchange student, she embarked on a “social experiment” that I later termed “Lord of the ringless” (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here already  that she’s a big fan of social experiments).

The hypothesis, based on advice from a senior in her own college, was that a married exchange student was unlikely to win too many friends, and find too many people to hang out with. With a number of potentially interesting conversations and friendships at her “home school” IESE having ground to a halt the moment the counterparty noticed the ring on her finger, she decided to leave her ring behind at home when she travelled to Ann Arbor.

The social experiment worked, for a while at least. She managed to find herself a solid assignment group, and a bunch of friends to hang out with, before she got “outed“.

Back home in Bangalore last December, she wore back her ring, and promised she would never take it off again. Simultaneously, she made me promise that I would never take off my wedding ring, either. I accepted conditionally. “Most of the time I’ll wear the ring”, I said, “but I need to take it off when I’m deadlifting. Else it will give me calluses”.

“Oh, but I love picking your calluses! Don’t deny me that opportunity!”, she shot back.

I may not have mentioned on this blog that she’s always been a big fan of picking out scabs and calluses, right from the time she was a kid. For a long time, this was restricted to picking out her own, but then once she found me, she has ensured that no scab or callus of mine has gone unattended.

And so, thanks to this arrangement, I continue to wear my ring while lifting, and that gives a big callus at the base of my right ring finger. And my wife enjoys picking out these calluses, and now she has her own incentive to make sure I remain fit and go to the gym regularly!

Though I’m considering buying a pair of weightlifting gloves now!