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.

Shouting, Jumping and Peacock Feathers

The daughter has been ill for nearly the last two weeks, struck by one bacterium after one virus, with a short gap in between. Through her first illness (a stomach bug), she had remained cheerful and happy. And when I had taken her to hospital, she had responded by trying to climb up an abacus they had placed there in the children’s urgent care room.

So when the virus passed and she recovered, the transition was a rather smooth one. The day after she recovered I took her to the park where she jumped and ran around and rode the swing and the slide. Within a day or two after that she was eating normally, and we thought she had recovered.

Only for a bacterium to hit her and lay her low with a throat infection and fever. Perhaps being a stronger creature than the earlier virus, or maybe because it was the second illness in the space of a week, this one really laid her low. She quickly became weak, and rather than responding to “how are you?” with her usual cheerful “I’m good!!”, she started responding with a weak “I’m tired”. As the infection grew worse, she stopped eating, which made her weaker and her fever worse. Ultimately, a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics was necessary.

It was only yesterday that she started eating without a fuss (evidently, the antibiotic had started to do its work), and when she made a real fuss about eating her curd rice last night, I was deeply sceptical about how she would get on at her nursery today.

As it happened, she was completely fine, and had eaten all her meals at the nursery in full. And when I got her home in the evening, it seemed like she was fully alright.

She is normally a mildly naughty and loud kid, but today she seemed to make an extra effort in monkeying around. She discovered a new game of jumping off the edge of the sofa on to a pillow placed alongside – a sort of dangerous one that kept us on the edge of our seats. And periodically she would run around quickly and scream at the top of her voice.

To me, this was like a peacock’s feathers – by wasting her energy in unnecessary activities such as jumping and screaming, the daughter was (I think) trying to signal that she had completely recovered from her illness, and that she now had excess energy that she could expend in useless activities.

The upside of all this monkeying around was that soon after I had helped her get through 2-3 books post her dinner, she declared that it was “taachi (sleep) time”, and soon enough was fast asleep. This is significant in that the last few days when she spent all the time at home, her sleep schedule had gotten ruined.

Reading Boards

Today was a landmark day in the life of the daughter. She looked at a bus this evening, and without any prompting, started trying to read the number on it.

Most of today hadn’t been that great for her. She’s been battling a throat infection for a few days now, and has been largely unable to eat for the last couple of days because of which she had developed high fever today. As a result, we took her to hospital today, and it was on the way back from there that the landmark event happened.

Having got on to the bus at the starting point, we had the choice of seat, and obviously chose the best seat in the house – the seat right above the driver (I’m going to miss double decker buses when we move out of London). She was excited to be in a bus – every day on the way to her nursery, we pass by many buses, prompting her to exclaim “red bus!!” and expressing a desire to ride them. The nursery is five minutes walk away from home, so no such opportunity arises.

I must also mention that we live at a busy intersection, close to the Ealing Broadway “town centre”. From our living room window we can see lots of buses, and the numbers are easily recognisable (it helps that London buses have electronic number boards). And sometimes when Berry refuses to eat, her mother takes her to the window where they watch buses come and go, with one spoonful for each bus. Along the way, the wife reads out the bus numbers aloud to Berry. So far, though, Berry had never tried to read a bus number from our house window.

But sitting in a bus herself this evening, she “broke through”. Ahead of us was bus 427, which she read as “four seven”. I asked her what was in between 4 and 7, and she had no answer. Maybe she didn’t understand “between”.

A short distance later, there was bus 483 coming from the other side. She started with the 3 and then read the 8. And then the bus passed. And then there was bus E1 in front of us. Berry read it as “E”. I hadn’t known that she can recognise E. I know she knows all numbers, and A to D. So this was news to me. Getting her to read the number next to that was a challenge. 1 is a challenge for her since it looks like I. After much prompting, there was nothing, and I told her it was E1. Five minutes later, we encountered 427 again. This time she read in full, except that she called it “seven two four”.

I grew up at a time when our lives were much less documented. The only solid memory I have of my childhood is this photo album, most of whose photos were taken by an uncle who had a camera, and whose camera had this feature to imprint the date on the photos. So I have a very clear idea about what I looked like at different ages, and what I did when, but the rest of my growing up years were a little fuzzy.

There is the odd memory, though. My grandfather’s younger brother, who lived next door, had a car (a Fiat 1100). I loved going on rides with him in that, and I used to sit between him and my grandfather. I don’t remember too many specific trips, but I know that my grandfather would make me read signboards from shops, and I would read them letter by letter.

My grandfather’s younger brother passed away when I was two years and seven months old. So I know that by the time I was that age, I was able to read letters from signboards.

It is only natural for us to benchmark our children’s growth to that of other people we know – ourselves, if possible, and if not, some cousins or friends’ children. Thus far, I had lacked a marker to know of whether Berry had “beaten me to it” at various life events. I know she started walking quicker than me, because my first year birthday photos show me trying to stand on my won. I know she spoke later than me because multiple people have told me I would speak sentences at the time of our housewarming (when I was a year and half old).

Thanks to the memory of going on rides with my grandfather’s brother, and reading signboards, I know that I would read them before I was two years seven months old (or maybe earlier, since I’m guessing I did it multiple times in his car else no one would’ve told me about it).

And today, at two years and two months, the daughter started reading numbers on surrounding buses. She doesn’t know the full alphabet yet, but this is a strong start!

I’m proud of her!

Wheels of the bus went swimming one day

One story I like to tell is about how Mozart charged so much for setting Twinkle Twinkle to tune (if he did set it to tune, that is) that propagators of nursery rhymes decided to use the same tune for several other popular songs – most prominently for ABCDEFG and with a small variation for Ba Ba Black Sheep. It’s confusing, not just for kids but also for the parents. I’d written here a month or so back about how I would play tunes on the keyboard and Berry would try to guess the song and sing along. As someone who sets quizzes occasionally, the lack of “a unique answer” drives me nuts. And it possibly drives Berry nuts as well, since she changes from twinkle twinkle to ABCD within the course of one stanza. I wonder why this is the case. Using my one data point (Berry) kids can catch on to tunes pretty quickly (she was barely a year old when she started humming the tune of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. Now she knows the full lyrics). And having unique tunes for songs means that kids are able to make easy associations between music and words – always a desirable thing. And the lack of one-to-one correspondence doesn’t just run one way – sometimes there are multiple ways in which the same song can be sung. For some songs, such as Happy Birthday, this is due to copyright issues. I’m not sure why other songs are sung in different tunes. For example, there are two clearly different ways in which the third line of itsy-bitsy/incy-wincy (depending on which side of the pond you’re on) spider is sung, and it gets especially confusing when I’m playing on the keyboard, since I don’t know which version Berry is expecting ( we invariably sing/play the “other” way). The usage of voice controlled players has made things worse. In fact, the first time I appreciated Siri on my phone was when Berry was just born, and I needed both hands to hold her and put her to sleep, and then someone turn on a lullaby (“Hey Siri, play iron man by rockabye baby”). Now, the problem with voice-controlled playing is that when there are multiple versions of the same song you don’t know which one will get played. An extreme case is like earlier today we asked Alexa to use Amazon Unlimited (we have a 3-month free trial, possibly because of my Prime membership) to play “london bridge”. It belted out some dhinchak EDM song! Within the realms of nursery rhymes itself there are songs that are sung to completely new tunes (like I had never expected that there exists a version of Jack and Jill sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It is most annoying). It is extremely disorienting for me – and I guess it is for kids as well, for I’m told they like predictability. I don’t know what can be done to restore the sanity of one-song-one-tune.  Yes, I can record a set of songs in unique and popular tunes, but there is no guarantee that it will take off. And with the increase of voice controlled music playing, there is no guarantee that the “bad tunes” won’t get any air time. The title, for those that didn’t get it, is a portmanteau of two songs that share a name. I must mention I have no intention of popularising these two precise renditions of these songs – they were simply on top of the search engine results.
Mommy duck said quack quack quack, all day long! PS: There are differing versions in lyrics as well. One version says “all day long”; another says “all the way to town”. As Aditya Narayan sang in Rangeela Re 23 years ago, it’s complicated being a kid.