Shopping for girls

Maybe this can be my “international women’s day” post.

We went shopping yesterday, after a very long time. We had to shop for all three of us (wife, daughter and I). And we went to a few large stores in Mantri Mall and ended up shopping in the men’s section, women’s section, girls’ section and boys’ section.

You read that right. We shopped in the boys’ section. And no, we didn’t buy anything for gifting. The reason we shopped in the boys’ section was to buy our daughter nice clothes.

Last week, union minister Smriti Irani made this statement somewhere:

The problem is that even if we as parents want to be progressive and want to bring up our daughter without creating gender biases, the world conspires to reinforce gender biases into her. We find that visiting relatives and friends gift her Barbie dolls. There is “pattern recognition” from things she sees around her (last year she shocked us by saying that it was OK for a boy to hit others but not for a girl). Boys her age are not beyond making sexist comments.

But the biggest reinforcer of childhood gender norms, we’ve seen, are clothes shops, and this is a thing we’ve seen both in the UK and in India.

For some reason, clothes manufacturers have collectively decided that the only thing little girls want to wear is bling – every shirt, and skirt, and pair of shorts, and shoes, inevitably have some frills or some bling attached to them. Beyond a point, as we are shopping, it becomes unbearable to even consider such clothes. And we naturally gravitate towards the boys’ section.

Where, for whatever reason, the selection is far more palatable. No-frill (pun intended) T-shirts and comfortable trousers are conspicuous by their abundance. The design on the printed T-shirts are far better (like last year we got her a T-shirt with the nine (clearly a pre-2005 design) planets on it, which she loves wearing). Shoes are comfortable and you can actually run in them.

At pretty much any given point of time in her entire lifetime, the daughter has owned at least half a dozen pieces of clothing that have been shopped from boys’ sections of clothes shops.

There are limitations, of course – that women’s shirts have buttons on the left means that it is easy to identify “cross-dressing” when it comes to polos and button-down shirts. A lot of boys’ clothes are franchise driven, and not the sort of franchises that my wife or I would endorse (there is an overabundance of Disney stuff, such as Marvel, and not enough heavy metal).

And we were worried that once the daughter learnt to read, she would herself start objecting to wearing clothes bought from boys’ section – thankfully, until now at least, that fear hasn’t borne out. She happily selected clothes from boys’ sections yesterday, and even bought a cute T-shirt that said “King of … “.

I really don’t know when children’s clothes designers and merchandisers realise that girls want nice clothes as well – and not just frills and bling. Until then, as long as the daughter approves that is, we’ll be shopping in the boys’ section.

Is handwriting hereditary?

I don’t know the answer to that question. However, I have a theory on how handwriting passes on down the generations.

So my daughter goes to a montessori. There they don’t teach them to read and write at a very early age (I could read by the time I was 2.5, but she learnt to read only recently, when she was nearing 4). And there is a structured process to recognising letters (or “sounds” as they call them) and to be able to draw them.

There are these sandpaper letters that the school has, and children are encouraged to “trace” them, using two fingers, so they know how the letters “flow”. And then this tracing helps first in identifying the sounds, and later writing them.

With school having been washed out pretty much all of this year, we have been starved of these resources. Instead, over a 2 hour Zoom call one Saturday in July, the teachers helped parents make “sound cards” by writing using a marker on handmade paper (another feature of Montessori is the introduction of cursive sounds at a young age. Children learn to write cursive before they learn to write print, if at all).

So when Berry has to learn how a particular sound is to be written, it is these cards that I have written that she has to turn to (she knows that different fonts exist in terms of reading, but that she should write in cursive when writing). She essentially traces the sounds that I have written with two fingers.

And then in the next step, I write the sounds on a slate (apparently it’s important to do this before graduating to pencil), and then she uses a different coloured chalk and traces over them. Once again she effectively traces my handwriting. Then earlier this week, during a “parent and child zoom class” organised by her school, she wanted to write a word and wasn’t able to write the full word in cursive and asked for my help. I held her hand and made her write it. My handwriting again!

Now that I realise why she seems to be getting influenced by my handwriting, I should maybe hand over full responsibility of teaching writing to the wife, whose handwriting is far superior to mine.

The trigger for this post was my opening of a notebook in which I had made notes during a meeting earlier this week (I usually use the notes app on the computer but had made an exception). Two things struck me before I started reading my notes – that my handwriting is similar to my father’s, and my handwriting is horrible (easily much worse than my father’s). And then I was reminded of earlier this week when I held my daughter’s hand and made her write.

This is how handwriting runs in the family.

Yet another initiation

I’m still reeling from the Merseyside derby. It had been a long time since a game of football so emotionally drained me. In fact, the last time I remember getting a fever (literally) while watching a game of football was in the exact same fixture in 2013, which had ended 3-3 thanks to a Daniel Sturridge equaliser towards the end.

In any case, my fever (which I’ve now recovered from) and emotional exhaustion is not the reason today’s match will be memorable. It also happens to be a sort of initiation of my daughter as a bonafide Liverpool fan.


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Initiating @abherikarthik to the Merseyside derby. #ynwa #lfc

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It’s been a sort of trend in recent times (at least since the lockdown) that Liverpool games have been scheduled for late evenings or late night India times.  That has meant that I haven’t been able to involve the daughter, who on most days goes to bed at seven, in the football.

She has seen me watch highlights of Liverpool games. She admires the “Liverpool. We are Champions” poster that I had ordered after last season’s Premier League victory, and have since stuck on the walls of our study. She knows I’ve been a fan of Liverpool for a long time now (it dates to more than eleven years before she was born).

However, till date, after she had truly started understand stuff (she is four now), we had never watched a game together. And so when it was announced that the Everton-Liverpool game would be held at 5pm IST, I decided it was time for initiation.

I had casually slipped it to her on Tuesday (or so) that “on Saturday, we will be watching football together. And we will have drinks and snacks along with it”. And then on Wednesday she asked me what day of the week it was. “So how many days to Saturday”, she asked. When I asked her what was special about the coming Saturday, she let out a happy scream saying “football party!!”. On the same day she had informed her mother that we both were “going to have a football party on Saturday”, and that her mother was not welcome.

She’s spent the last three days looking forward to today. At four o’clock today, as I was “busy” watching the IPL game, she expressed her disappointment that I had not yet started preparing for the party. I finally swung into action around 4:30 (though a shopping trip in the morning had taken care of most of the prep).

A popcorn packet was put into the microwave. The potato chips packet (from a local “Sai hot chips” store) was opened, and part of its contents poured into a bowl. I showed her the bottles of fresh fruit juice that I had got, that had been pushed to me by a promoter at the local Namdhari’s store. Initially opting for the orange juice, she later said she wanted the “berry smoothie”. I poured it into a small wine glass that she likes. A can of diet coke and some Haldiram salted peanuts for me, and we were set.

I was pleasantly surprised that she sat still on the couch with me pretty much for the length of the match (she’s generally the restless types, like me). She tied the Liverpool scarf around her in many different ways. She gorged on the snacks (popcorn, potato chips and pomegranate in the first half; nachos with ketchup in the second). She kept asking who is winning. She kept asking me “where Liverpool was from” after I told her that “Everton are from Liverpool”.

I explained to her the concept of football, and goals. Once in the second half she was curious to see Adrian in the Liverpool goal, and that she “hadn’t seen the Liverpool goal in a long time”. Presently, Dominic Calvert-Lewin equalised to make it 2-2, giving her the glimpse of the goal she had so desired.

At the end of the game, she couldn’t grasp the concept of a draw. “But who won?”, she kept asking. She didn’t grasp the concept of offside either, though it possibly didn’t help that Liverpool seemed to play a far deeper line today than they have this season.

I’m glad that she had such an interesting game to make her “football watching debut”. Not technically, of course, since I remember cradling her on my lap when Jose Mourinho parked two Manchester United buses at Anfield (she was a month old then), and that had been a dreadful game.

A friend told me that I should “let her make her own choices” and not foist my club affiliations on her. Let’s see where this goes.


Ending a 33-year-old wait

When I was in upper kindergarten (UKG) in 1987-88, my teacher Chandrika Aunty had shown me how to do thread painting. It was a fascinating exercise. Cover a thread in paint, and then let it lie in a random pattern inside a folded piece of paper, and then pull out the thread. It creates a beautiful and symmetrical (thanks to the folding) pattern in the paper.

To my dismay, Chandrika Aunty failed to repeat this exercise, instead spending time to teach us other kinds of painting such as dipping ladies fingers in paint (I’ve always loathed ladies finger as a vegetable, so you can imagine my not being enthused by using it as a block-print).

Somehow my mother (who was generally interested in painting) wasn’t interested in doing this either. So as much as I loved it, I never ended up doing thread painting again as a child.

All that changed a few days back. With the lockdown on, my daughter’s school has been sending her “assignments” to do at home. Now, I find most of these assignments rather stressful. Sometimes they make me wonder what’s the point of sending her to a Montessori at all, if they are giving here homework that I have to supervise (thankfully none of these need to necessarily need to be turned in. They’re more for keeping her occupied. But looking at them as “pending” on the Google Classroom irritates me).

However, there was one assignment that I was rather excited to see. Thread painting! We sat on it for a few days without doing (basically NED happened). However, it was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and when we sat down to make a card for her on Tuesday, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do thread painting.

And so we did, using a small string and water colour tablets (I was so excited by the idea of thread painting that I didn’t bother following the school’s instructions). Apply water to the colour tablet, put the thread on it (and use the brush to make sure the paint was coated on the thread). Then put it in a random pattern between the folded sheets. And then pull it out carefully (the last bit was done by the daughter with great interest).

This was the result:

I’m rather excited by this. For someone artistically challenged like me, this is a nice way to make nice-looking images.

I don’t intend to do a Chandrika Aunty. I plan to do thread painting on a regular basis with the daughter. It’s both fun to do and produces nice results, like what you see here.

The rest of her school assignments can remain undone. I don’t care.

Book Recommendations for Children

On Saturday, the daughter and I went book-shopping to Blossom, and came back with a bunch of books that the wife described as “mostly useless”. I put it down to my lack of judgment on what is a good children’s book.

That is a serious issue – how do you really know what is a good children’s book? And what is a book that is appropriate for the child’s age? I tried the usual things like googling for “best books for three year olds”, but the intersection of those lists and what was there at Blossom wasn’t great.

For starters – we’ve got the basics . Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo. Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. A bunch of brilliant books the wife picked up at a bookstore in Oxford which were recommended by a kindly lady she bumped into at the store who has kids older than ours.

However, in the interest of getting the daughter to handle books more (she can’t read yet, just about learning the letters (or “sounds” as she calls them) ), we want to get more books. And it was with this noble intention that we ended up at Blossom (which is where I go to for my physical books) on Saturday.

I tried a couple of heuristics. One was to buy more books from authors you have read and liked. Julia Donaldson, for example, is rather prolific, as is Eric Carle. One book by each was part of the “useless bunch” that we got on Saturday.

The other heuristic I followed was to seat the child on a chair, and then pick out books one by one from the shelf and see which one she got more interested in. And then ask her if she wanted the book, and let her decide what she wants (we ended up with more “useless books” this way).

For my own physical book shopping nowadays, I rely on Goodreads. I got this idea from Whaatra Woreshtmax, whom I’d accompanied to Bookworm (down the road from Blossom) a few months back. He walked around the store with his Goodreads app open, scanning the barcodes in the app and checking for ratings. Anything with an average rating over 4.15 went into his basket (he reads prolifically so he can be more liberal with his choices).

I don’t scan barcodes, and I check on Goodreads only if I have an initial sense of whether the book is going to be of my liking. And since I understand my preferences may not match “the crowd”‘s, I have a lower cutoff – incidentally set at 3.96 which happens to be the current average rating of my book on Goodreads.

Now I don’t know if people rate children’s books on Goodreads the same way as they do adults’, and if I should rely on them. The number of factors that affect whether a book is good or not for children is much longer (I think) than for adults’ books.

So what heuristics do you follow to buy books for your children? Let the children decide? Go for known authors? Goodreads? Anything else?

Children’s birthday parties and alcohol

A long time ago, well before I had even planned to have children, I had decided that children’s birthday parties were decidedly boring affairs, especially for adults. Activities are all kid-centric. Food is kid centric (not often that you get chocolate cake at children’s birthday parties). Adults (at least those without kids) won’t be able to relate to most of the songs. It’s especially hard if you as an adult is incapable of getting silly.

One of my friends had once told me that his trick to dealing with kids’ birthday parties (he has lots of kids himself) is to carry along a hip flask, and get buzzed to the appropriate amount (remember you primary task, especially if you have kids of your own, is to chaperone). Since then, I’ve come to believe that alcohol is the best way for an adult to deal with a children’s birthday party.

However, so far I haven’t come across too many children’s birthday parties (maybe not even one) where alcohol is served. In a lot of cases the reason is regulatory – people like to do their children’s birthday parties outside of home, in a sort of party venue. And onerous liquor regulations in Bangalore mean that it is next to impossible to serve liquor there (unless the venue already has a liquor license).

And I must sheepishly raise my hand as a guilty party here, but I’ve found that so far house parties celebrating children’s birthdays also don’t serve liquor. And thinking about it, one big reason comes to mind.

As mentioned earlier, the role of most adults at children’s birthday parties is chaperoning. Which means that they need to be in a state that they can effectively take care of kids. And so some hosts might (maybe legitimately) feel paternalistic about not letting these guest chaperones take full care of the true guests (the other kids at the party).

Added to that is that in Bangalore at least, a part of the job of chaperoning involves driving the child to the party and back, and there alcohol can be a really legitimate barrier. And so that further reduces the demand for alcohol at the party, perhaps below a point where the host feels compelled to serve it.

Finally, there is the sexist reason – at a party I had chaperoned the daughter to yesterday, I was the only dad (among the section of the crowd I knew, at least). All the other kids had been accompanied by their mothers. Maybe the fact that most adults at most children’s birthday parties are women makes the hosts go full on paternalist and refuse to serve liquor?

Coordinated and uncoordinated potlucks

Some potluck meals are coordinated. One or more coordinators assume leadership and instruct each attending member what precisely to bring. It’s somewhat like central planning in that sense – the coordinators make assumptions on what each person wants and how much they will eat and what goes well with what, and make plans accordingly.

Uncoordinated potlucks can be more interesting. Here, people don’t talk about what to bring, and simply bring what they think the group might be interested. This can result in widely varying outcomes – some great meals, occasionally a lot of wasted food, and some weird mixes of starters, main courses and desserts.

We had one such uncoordinated potluck at my daughter’s school picnic last week. All children were accompanied by their parents and were asked to bring “snacks”. Nothing was specified apart from the fact that we should bring it in steel containers, and that we should get homemade stuff.

Now, for a bit of background. For slightly older kids (my daughter doesn’t qualify yet) the school has a rotating roster for lunch, where each kid brings in lunch for the entire class on each day. So parents are used to sending lunch for all the children, and children are used to eating a variety of foods. A friend who sent his daughter to the same school tells me that it can become a bit too competitive sometimes, with families seeking to outdo one another with the fanciness of the foods they send.

In that sense, I guess the families of these older kids had some information on what normally came for lunch and what got eaten and so on – a piece of information we didn’t have. The big difference between this picnic potluck and school lunch (though I’m not sure if other parents knew of this distinction) was that this was “anonymous”.

All of us kept our steel boxes and vessels on a large table set up for the purpose, so when people served themselves there was little clue of which food had come from whose house. In that sense there was no point showing off (though we tried, taking hummus with carrot and cucumber sticks). And it resulted in what I thought was a fascinating set of food, though I guess some of it couldn’t really be classified as “snack”.

The fastest to disappear was a boxful of chitranna (lemon rice). I thought it went rather well with roasted and salted peanuts that someone else had bought. There were some takers for our hummus as well, though our cut apples didn’t “do that well”. I saw a boxful of un-taken idlis towards the end of the snack session. Someone had brought boiled sweet corn on the cob. And there were many varieties of cakes that families had (presumably baked and) brought.

What I found interesting was that despite their being zero coordination between the families, they had together served up what was a pretty fascinating snack, with lots of variety. “Starters”, “Mains”, “Desserts” and “Sides” were all well represented, even if the balance wasn’t precisely right.

The number of families involved here (upwards of 30) meant that perfect coordination would’ve been nigh impossible, and I’m not sure if a command-and-control style coordinated potluck would have worked in any case (that would have also run the risk of a family bunking the picnic last moment, and an important piece of the puzzle missing).

The uncoordinated potluck meant that there were no such imbalances, and families, left to themselves and without any feedback, had managed to serve themselves a pretty good “snack”!

More power to decentralised systems!

Gruffaloes and Finite Games

One story that my daughter knows well, rather too well, is the story of the Gruffalo. This is a story of a mouse told in two parts.

In the first part, the mouse fools a fox, an owl and a snake from eating him by convincing them that he’s having lunch, tea and dinner respectively with a supposedly imaginary creature named “Gruffalo”. And when they each ask him what the Gruffalo is like, he makes up stuff fantastically (terrible teeth in terrible jaws, turned out paws, etc.).

Except that midway through the story there is a kahaani mein twist, and the mouse actually encounters the gruffalo. In the second part of the story, the mouse tells the gruffalo that he is going to have lunch, tea and dinner with the fox, owl and snake, and prevents the gruffalo from eating him. And the mouse lives another day.

It is evidently a nice story, and the rhyme means that the daughter had mugged up the entire story enough when she was barely two years old that she could “read” it when shown the book (she can’t read a word yet). However, I don’t like it because I don’t like the plot.

One of the most influential books I’ve read is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. Finite Games are artificial games where we play to “win”. There is a defined finish, and there is a set of tasks that we need to achieve that constitutes “victory”. Most real-life games are on the other hand are “infinite games” where the objective is to simply ensure that the game simply goes on.

From the point of stories, the best stories are ones which represent finite games, where there is a clear objective, and the story ends in “victory” or “lack of victory” (in the case of a tragedy). The Good, The Bad and the Ugly has the finite aim of finding the treasure buried in the graveyard. Ganeshana Maduve has the finite aim of YG Rao marrying “Shruti”. Gangs of Wasseypur has the finite aim of the Khan family taking revenge on Ramadhir Singh. Odyssey has the finite aim of Odysseus returning home to Penelope. And so forth.

Putting it another way, finite games make for nice stories, since stories are themselves finite, with a beginning and an end. A story that represents an infinite game is necessarily left incomplete, and you don’t know what happens just outside the slice of action that the story covers. So infinite games, which is how life is lived, make for lousy stories.

And the gruffalo story is an infinite game, since the “game” that the mouse is playing in the story is survival – by definition an infinite game. There is no “victory” by being alive at the end of the day the story covers – like there is no she-mouse to marry, or a baby mouse to see for the first time, or a party to go to. It is just another day in the life of the mouse, and the events of the day are unlikely to be that much more spectacular than the days not covered by the story.

That is what makes the gruffalo story so unsatisfying. Yes, the mouse played off the fox, owl and snake against the gruffalo to ensure his survival, but what about the next day? Would he have to invent another creature to ensure his survival? Would the predators buy the same story another time?

I don’t know, and so the story rings hollow. But the rhyme is good, and so my daughter loves the story!

Correlation and causation

So I have this lecture on “smelling (statistical) bullshit” that I’ve delivered in several places, which I inevitably start with a lesson on how correlation doesn’t imply causation. I give a large number of examples of people mistaking correlation for causation, the class makes fun of everything that doesn’t apply to them, then everyone sees this wonderful XKCD cartoon and then we move on.

One of my favourite examples of correlation-causation (which I don’t normally include in my slides) has to do with religion. Praying before an exam in which one did well doesn’t necessarily imply that the prayer resulted in the good performance in the exam, I explain. So far, there has been no outward outrage at my lectures, but this does visibly make people uncomfortable.

Going off on a tangent, the time in life when I discovered to myself that I’m not religious was when I pondered over the correlation-causation issue some six or seven years back. Until then I’d had this irrational need to draw a relationship between seemingly unrelated things that had happened together once or twice, and that had given me a lot of mental stress. Looking at things from a correlation-causation perspective, however, helped clear up my mind on those things, and also made me believe that most religious activity is pointless. This was a time in life when I got immense mental peace.

Yet, for most of the world, it is not freedom from religion but religion itself that gives them mental peace. People do absurd activities only because they think these activities lead to other good things happening, thanks to a small number of occasions when these things have coincided, either in their own lives or in the lives of their ancestors or gurus.

In one of my lectures a few years back I had remarked that one reason why humans still mistake correlation for causation is religion – for if correlation did not imply causation then most of religious rituals would be rendered meaningless and that would render people’s lives meaningless. Based on what I observed today, however, I think I’ve got this causality wrong.

It’s not because of religion that people mistake correlation for causation. Instead, we’ve evolved to recognise patterns whenever we observe them, and a side effect of that is that we immediately assume causation whenever we see things happening together. Religion is just a special case of application of this correlation-causation second nature to things in real life.

So my daughter (who is two and a half) and I were standing in our balcony this evening, observing that it had rained heavily last night. Heavy rain reminded my daughter of this time when we had visited a particular aunt last week – she clearly remembered watching the heavy rain from this aunt’s window. Perhaps none of our other visits to this aunt’s house really registered in the daughter’s imagination (it’s barely two months since we returned to Bangalore, so admittedly there aren’t that many data points), so this aunt’s house is inextricably linked in her mind to rain.

And this evening because she wanted it to rain heavily again, the daughter suggested that we go visit this aunt once again. “We’ll go to Inna Ajji’s house and then it will start raining”, she kept saying. “Yes, it rained the last time it went there, but it was random. It wasn’t because we went there”, I kept saying. It wasn’t easy to explain it.

You know when you are about to have a kid you develop visions of how you’ll bring her up, and what you’ll teach her, and what she’ll say to “jack” the world. Back then I’d decided that I’d teach my yet-unborn daughter that “correlation does not imply causation” and she could use it use it against “elders” who were telling her absurd stuff.

I hadn’t imagined that mistaking correlation for causation is so fundamental to human nature that it would be a fairly difficult task to actually teach my daughter that correlation does not imply causation! Hopefully in the next one year I can convince her.

Showing off

So like good Indian parents we’ve started showing off the daughter in front of guests. And today she showed us that she’s equal to the task.

A couple of weeks back, after seeing the photo of a physicist friend’s son with the book Quantum Physics for babies, I decided to get a copy. Like with all new things the daughter gets, she “read” the book dutifully for the rest of the day it arrived. She learnt to recognised the balls in the book, but wasn’t patient enough for me to teach her about atoms.

The next day the book got put away into her shelf, never to appear again, until today that is. Some friends were visiting and we were all having lunch. As I was feeding the daughter she suddenly decided to run off towards her bookshelf, and with great difficulty pulled out a book – this one. As you might expect, our guests were mighty impressed.

Then they started looking at her bookshelf and were surprised to find a “children’s illustrated atlas” there. We told them that the daughter can identify countries as well. Soon enough, she had pulled out the atlas from the shelf (she calls it the “Australia book”) and started pointing out continents an d countries in that.

To me the high point was the fact that she was looking at the maps upside down (or northside-down – the book was on the table facing the guests), and still identified all the countries and continents she knows correctly. And once again, I must point out that she hadn’t seen the atlas for at least two or three weeks now.

Promise is showing, but we need to be careful and make sure we don’t turn her into a performing monkey.

PS: Those of you who follow me on Instagram can look at this video of Berry identifying countries.

PS2: Berry can identify continents on a world map, but got damn disoriented the other day when I was showing her a map that didn’t contain Antarctica.