Category Archives: Parenting

When Your Child is as Big as You

My mom used to say that when your child is as big as you, you have to treat them with respect. What she actually said was that you had to address them using a respectful form of “you,” which doesn’t make any sense in English, but may work in Hindi or French. It worked poetically well in Malayalam. I was reminded of this maternal pearl of wisdom recently when I was watching a movie with my son.

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Why Have Kids?

At some point in their life, most parents of teenage children would have asked a question very similar to the one Cypher asked in Matrix, “Why, oh, why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Did I really have to have these kids? Don’t get me wrong, I have no particular beef with my children, they are both very nice kids. Besides, I am not at all a demanding parent, which makes everything work out quite nicely. But this general question still remains: Why do people feel the need to have children?

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Anti-Racism Video

I found this short video on Facebook.

Recently, I was confronted with islamophobia from unexpected quarters. The person expressing the anti-muslim sentiments expected me to share the same feelings. I did not, but I didn’t speak up mainly because I didn’t want to offend. I should not have, and I thought I would share the video with a wider audience in an attempt to make amends.

I was at the receiving end of a similar incident some twenty years ago in Marseille. I was walking to the ATM on Avenue de Mazargues one afternoon, when a little girl, probably about five or six years old, tugged on my sleeve and told me that she was lost and was looking for her “maman.” I could barely speak French at that time, certainly not in a manner a child could understand; “Parlez-vous anglais?” wasn’t going to cut it. I couldn’t just walk away from the lost child either.

So there I was, holding the child’s hand and desperately looking around for help, almost panicking, when her mom appeared out of nowhere, snatched her, gave me dirty look and walked away without a word to me, and I suspect scolding the little girl. I was more relieved than offended at that time. I guess even now, I cannot think of a better way out of that situation. Well, a “merci, monsieur” would have been nice, but who cares?

Photo by Tim Pierce cc

Autism and Genius

Most things in life are distributed normally, which means they all show a bell curve when quantified using a sensible measure. For instance, the marks scored by a large enough number of students has a normal distribution, with very few scoring close to zero or close to 100%, and most bunching around the class average. This distribution is the basis for letter grading. Of course, this assumes a sensible test — if the test is too easy (like a primary school test given to university students), everybody would score close to 100% and there would be no bell curve, nor any reasonable way of letter-grading the results.

If we could sensibly quantify traits like intelligence, insanity, autism, athleticism, musical aptitude etc, they should all form normal Gaussian distributions. Where you find yourself on the curve is a matter of luck. If you are lucky, you fall on the right side of the distribution close to the tail, and if you are unlucky, you would find yourself near the wrong end. But this statement is a bit too simplistic. Nothing in life is quite that straight-forward. The various distributions have strange correlations. Even in the absence of correlations, purely mathematical considerations will indicate that the likelihood of finding yourself in the right end of multiple desirable traits is slim. That is to say, if you are in the top 0.1% of your cohort academically, and in terms of your looks, and in athleticism, you are already one in a billion — which is why you don’t find many strikingly handsome theoretical physicists who are also ranked tennis players.

The recent world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is also a fashion model, which is news precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. By the way, I just figured out what that mysterious expression “exception that proves the rule” actually meant — something looks like an exception only because as a general rule, it doesn’t exist or happen, which proves that there is a rule.

Getting back to our theme, in addition to the minuscule probability for genius as prescribed by mathematics, we also find correlations between genius and behavioral pathologies like insanity and autism. A genius brain is probably wired differently. Anything different from the norm is also, well, abnormal. Behavior abnormal when judged against the society’s rules is the definition of insanity. So there is a only a fine line separating insanity from true genius, I believe. The personal lives of many geniuses point to this conclusion. Einstein had strange personal relationships, and a son who was clinically insane. Many geniuses actually ended up in the looney bin. And some afflicted with autism show astonishing gifts like photographic memory, mathematical prowess etc. Take for instance, the case of autistic savants. Or consider cases like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, who is only slightly better than (or different from) the Rain Man.

I believe the reason for the correlation is the fact that the same slight abnormalities in the brain can often manifest themselves as talents or genius on the positive side, or as questionable gifts on the negative side. I guess my message is that anybody away from the average in any distribution, be it brilliance or insanity, should take it with neither pride nor rancor. It is merely a statistical fluctuation. I know this post won’t ease the pain of those who are afflicted on the negative side, or eliminate the arrogance of the ones on the positive side. But here’s hoping that it will at least diminish the intensity of those feelings…
Photo by Arturo de Albornoz

How to Take Beautiful Pictures

I recently learned a technique in portrait photography from this artist friend of mine. He told me that one could use backlight to create beautiful portraits. I had always thought that backlight was a bad thing, which was something my dad taught me. I trusted him. After all, he used to take impressive portraits with his faithful Yashica Electro 35. Later on, after acquiring my first SLR, I spent a lot of time understanding the merits of TTL (Through-The-Lens) metering and fill-flash to counter the evils of backlight.

So when Stéphane told me that the best way to capture nice portraits is to have the sun behind my subject, I was shocked. But experience had taught me to always pay attention to Stéphane. He used to take better pictures with a drugstore paper camera than I could with my prized Nikon SLR. He was right, of course. With the sun behind them, your subject doesn’t have to squint and screw up their eyes against the light. They are less distracted and tend to smile more readily. And, most importantly, their backlit hair looks magical.

To do backlight portraits right, however, you have to be careful about a couple of things. First, make sure that you don’t have direct sunlight on your lens, which will create unseemly flares. I’m sure the next time I meet him, Stéphane will teach me how to use flares to my advantage. But for now, I would avoid direct light on the lens. Look for a spot in the shade. For instance, look for a tree casting a shadow. Don’t try to stand in the shadow, but try to get the shadow on your face, which is where the camera is likely to be. Get the tree in between you and the sun. How do you do it in practice? Just turn around and look at the shadow of your head; if it is hidden within another bigger shadow, you are safe. If not, move.

Stephane in CassisThe second thing to pay close attention to is the background. It cannot be too bright, or the average metering of your camera will underexpose your subject’s face. (Again, another dictum the creative photographer will probably scoff at). Look at the portrait of Stéphane himself, taken by me the day after I got the revelation about backlight. You can see my reflection on his glasses, trying to crouch low so as to get the dark hill in the frame rather than the bright beach sand. I think this is a nice photo, at least technically. Stéphane looked at it and complained that he looked like a James Bond villain!

Kavita in Carnoux
Here is a backlit portrait of my lovely wife. See how the framing includes the dark shrubbery in the background giving the nice contrast and brightness to the face. All right, I will admit it, the composition was probably a lucky accident. But still, I wouldn’t have attempted this snap unless I knew that backlight could be good. So be bold, experiment with backlight. I’m sure you will like the results.

Here are some dramatic backlight portraits by a gifted photographer.

Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Another Pen Story of Tough Love

Once a favorite uncle of mine gave me a pen. This uncle was a soldier in the Indian Army at that time. Soldiers used to come home for a couple of months every year or so, and give gifts to everybody in the extended family. There was a sense of entitlement about the whole thing, and it never occurred to the gift takers that they could perhaps give something back as well. During the past couple of decades, things changed. The gift takers would flock around the rich “Gulf Malayalees” (Keralite migrant workers in the Middle-East) thereby severely diminishing the social standing of the poor soldiers.

Anyway, this pen that I got from my uncle was a handsome matte-gold specimen of a brand called Crest, possibly smuggled over the Chinese border at the foothills of the Himalayas and procured by my uncle. I was pretty proud of this prized possession of mine, as I guess I have been of all my possessions in later years. But the pen didn’t last that long — it got stolen by an older boy with whom I had to share a desk during a test in the summer of 1977.

I was devastated by the loss. More than that, I was terrified of letting my mother know for I knew that she wasn’t going to take kindly to it. I guess I should have been more careful and kept the pen on my person at all times. Sure enough, my mom was livid with anger at the loss of this gift from her brother. A proponent of tough love, she told me to go find the pen, and not to return without it. Now, that was a dangerous move. What my mom didn’t appreciate was that I took most directives literally. I still do. It was already late in the evening when I set out on my hopeless errant, and it was unlikely that I would have returned at all since I wasn’t supposed to, not without the pen.

My dad got home a couple of hours later, and was shocked at the turn of events. He certainly didn’t believe in tough love, far from it. Or perhaps he had a sense of my literal disposition, having been a victim of it earlier. Anyway, he came looking for me and found me wandering aimlessly around my locked up school some ten kilometer from home.

Parenting is a balancing act. You have to exercise tough love, lest your child should not be prepared for the harsh world later on in life. You have to show love and affection as well so that your child may feel emotionally secure. You have to provide for your your child without being overindulgent, or you would end up spoiling them. You have to give them freedom and space to grow, but you shouldn’t become detached and uncaring. Tuning your behavior to the right pitch on so many dimensions is what makes parenting a difficult art to master. What makes it really scary is the fact that you get only one shot at it. If you get it wrong, the ripples of your errors may last a lot longer than you can imagine. Once when I got upset with him, my son (far wiser than his six years then) told me that I had to be careful, for he would be treating his children the way I treated him. But then, we already know this, don’t we?

My mother did prepare me for an unforgiving real world, and my father nurtured enough kindness in me. The combination is perhaps not too bad. But we all would like to do better than our parents. In my case, I use a simple trick to modulate my behavior to and treatment of my children. I try to picture myself at the receiving end of the said treatment. If I should feel uncared for or unfairly treated, the behavior needs fine-tuning.

This trick does not work all the time because it usually comes after the fact. We first act in response to a situation, before we have time to do a rational cost benefit analysis. There must be another way of doing it right. May be it is just a question of developing a lot of patience and kindness. You know, there are times when I wish I could ask my father.