Tag Archives: parenting

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Fields Medal – First Woman

Just read the news that Prof Maryam Mirzakhani won the prestigious Fields medal (the equivalent of Nobel prize in Mathematics). She is the first woman to ever win the prize. First of all, congratulations to her. Coming from an Iranian background, being a woman, I’m sure it must have been hard for her.

Women seem to have difficulties in quantitative fields — we see this everywhere. The general belief is that compared to men, women are more creative and intuitive, but less analytical. They take in the world as a whole. Theirs is a romantic understanding, concentrating on the immediate appearance and values of the objects around them. This mode of understanding is to be contrasted with the analytic, classical understanding of men, who seem to mentally divide things in smaller, manageable chunks and drill down to the underlying forms to come to grip with world around them. In giving this description, I’m trying to paraphrase what Richard Pirsig said in the opening chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The analytic mode of understanding lends itself better to quantitative fields like mathematics, and hence the paucity of brilliance among female mathematicians.

Stating the reason that way doesn’t really explain anything. We have to wonder where this gender difference comes from. Again, the common wisdom is that men and women are wired differently in their brains. Women are considered more right-brained and men, more left-brained. The right hemisphere of the brain is the origin of creative and intuitive thinking while the left side is supposed to handle linear, analytical (and boring) thinking. Here is a simple quiz that can determine whether you are right or left-brained. Hope you get the “right” answer. If the quiz says you are left-brained, you are likely to be in a mathematical field, like programming, finance, accounting, physics, engineering etc. And you are likely to be a man. If you are lucky enough to be right-brained, you are likely to be successful in a creative field. Do leave a note to say how it worked out for you. (In fact, I used the very same quiz to determine whether you believe in God!)

All the statements in the quiz above are meant to be true of a left-brained person. So if you get close to 100% in your score (or as the rate, if you didn’t actually finish the quiz), you are hopelessly left-brained, and probably in a technical field. If you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you are creative and intuitive, but a Fields medal is probably out of the question for you.

So, this is the nature part of the nature-nurture equation of our aptitude for mathematics. Of late, I feel that nurture has a lot more do with what we end up doing. Parents exert a scarily large influence on what their kids become and do with their lives. I’m speaking from personal experience. My daughter used to be of an arty-farty kind, spending all her time sketching, photographing and painting, with a career path pretty much set as a fashion designer like her mom. After my retirement last year, I started spending a lot of time with her, and something totally weird started happening. She topped her school in physics, and started seeing art as a chore rather than leisure. Her favorite subject has now become math. I really thought she was right-brained. Did she change into a left-brain being because of me? Is my left brain so strong that it can actually polarize the brains around me? God, I hope not!

Battles Too Small to Fight

A few years ago, I had significant income from online advertising because of my networked business model that worked extremely well at that time. At one point the ad serving company decided to cancel my account because some sites in my network violated their terms and conditions. They told me that they couldn’t pay me for the last two months because they had already refunded the money to the advertisers who were outraged at my T & C violations. Mind you, it was a small fortune. But a couple of months later, they decided to reinstate me. The first thing they did after reactivating my account was to pay me my outstanding balance — the money they had “refunded” to their disgruntled advertisers. I, of course, was quite gruntled about the outcome. But the joy didn’t last; they banned me again a month later.

Those who try to make bit of money online have known this for a while — big corporations with advertising or affiliate programs cancel accounts just before they have to issue the first check (crossing the usual threshold for payment of $100). How many smalltime bloggers can or will fight an MNC for $100? I was banned by an affiliate program for cookie-stuffing (an advanced technique some hackers apparently use) just as my account was due for payment. I asked them what the heck they were talking about because the only cookies I could ever stuff were Orange Milanos which went straight to my waist line, but that wouldn’t wash with the MNC involved.

About four months ago, my daughter took a part-time job with a famous ice cream chain. She worked for a couple of weeks and decided to call in sick one day because she wanted to sleep in — I suspect because of genetic factors, she is my daughter after all. She got sacked. The interesting thing is that she still hasn’t been paid. First they wanted her to come back on a specific day. Then they asked her to open an account with a specific bank. Then they wanted her to text the account details to the manager, who said he never got it. Now everything seems to be in order. I am waiting to see what the next imaginative hurdle is going to be.

I think we really need to fight these small battles. We give up too easily when the stakes are low because our time is worth more than the winnings. But then, there are crooks, both of the soulless corporate kind and the garden variety, often working hand-in-hand to reap the benefits of our indolence.

A couple of years ago, my daughter saw this online ad saying she could win an iPad if she clicked somewhere. Then she got a text message about something, which she didn’t understand. She tried once more. My telephone bill next month had six dollars charged for the two messages she received. No doubt the telephone company and the shady advertiser had all the fine prints about the charges, and the fact that it was only a lucky draw with a near-zero chance of winning. The charge was only six dollars, so I didn’t fight it. Even if I had, they (either the telephone company or the lucky-draw company) probably would have just refunded the money to get me to stop pestering them. That is not the point. There are thousands of others who wouldn’t even look at the bill to see the charges. There should be punishment for such small crimes that add up to huge loots for the crooks. May be I should give our lawyer Mike Matterson a call? I am beginning to understand the punitive-damages side of the American legal system.

If you have similar stories about small outrages that you let slide, I would love to hear of them. Do leave a comment below.

Uninsured by Default

Long time ago, I had a run-in with an insurance company. It was after my first trip back home from the US. During my four years in the sanitized and relatively virus-free conditions of upstate New York, my natural third-world immunity had deteriorated significantly, and I came back from India with a bad respiratory infection, which had stopped responding to the antibiotics my doctor uncle had prescribed me. So I went to the emergency room at the Tompkins County Hospital in Ithaca, where they determined that I had pneumonia. The medical bill came up to over $450, and had multiple parts to it, like the X-Ray, radiologist’s fees, physician’s fees, ER fee, pharmacy etc. For payment, I handed them my student insurance card and went home.

A couple of weeks later, the hospital called me to tell me that the insurance had refused to pay one out of the many bills and that I still owed them about $80. I found it weird and ask them to try again, and went back to my PhD and whatnot. Then the insurance company told me that they were refusing because the procedure was not “pre-approved.” Weirder — how could one part of the same ER visit have different reimbursement criteria? Anyway, I proceeded to ignore the bill, which soon got handed over to some collection agency who started making harassing calls to me.

The whole thing went on for a few months before I decided enough was enough. Luckily, my university had a free legal service. So I went and met Mike Matterson (or some such name) at the legal office. He listened to my plight sympathetically, and advised me that it was pointless fighting some small battles in which you would lose even if you won. But he called the insurance company and proceeded thus, “Hello, this is Mike Matterson, attorney at law, calling on behalf of Manoj Thulasidas. I would like to make a few enquiries.” True, he had to rehearse my name a few times, but he made the whole opening salvo sound impressive. At least, I was impressed with this courtroom drama unfolding before my very eyes. But nothing really happened and I went back to my Danby Road apartment determined to stretch the payment a few more weeks if possible.

But four days later, I get this letter from the insurance company stating that they had decided to pay the bill in full — pre-approved or not. I realized that a call from a lawyer meant something to the company. It meant trouble, and they didn’t want to fight a small battle either. I wondered if this was a standard practice on their part — refusing a legitimate reimbursement if the amount is too small for the policy holder to wage a legal war.

Another incident taught me that it might well be. A family friend of ours passed away a few years ago. His widow knew that he, being the prudent and caring soul he was, had some life insurance policies, but could not find the papers. So she called the two major insurance companies here and made inquiries using his national identification number. Both companies expressed their condolences to the widow, but regretted that the late husband had no policy with them. Never heard of him, in fact. A few days later, while going through his papers, she found the policies with the same two companies. She called again, and the reply was, “Oh yeah, of course. Sorry, it was an oversight.” If it was just one company, it might have been an oversight. Is it again part of the corporate policy to discourage policy payouts if at all possible? Uninsured until proven otherwise?

If you have had similar experiences with insurance companies, why not leave your story as a comment below?

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.

Home No More

I have been called a lot of unflattering things in my life. One of the earlier ones of that series was that I was hard-hearted, which I countered by pointing out that I was perhaps harder on myself than anybody else. Thankfully, my accuser concurred. One of the recent epithets in the same vein is that I’m cold and calculated, and I use my head to think rather than my heart;  I believe it is a fair assessment. Then again, using my head is the only way I know how to think (which, of course, is exactly the sort of cynical comments that earned me the said assessment.)

The first of the series came during my teenage years, when my mother accused of a lack of “sentiments,” and looking for literal meanings in what is said rather than the searching for the sentiments behind them. In other words, being too hung up on the syntax rather than the semantics. Again a fair assessment.

My mother passed away on the 4th of February 2013 after a long, drawn-out and poignantly unwinnable battle against Parkinson’s disease. Mindful of her assessment of my psyche, I have been searching for my sentiments, like any true introvert. But as usual, I was looking for them in my head, not in my heart, and found none there. Having been through the loss of one parent, and seen the predictable onslaught of the disease, I knew what to expect. I also knew that I had to anticipate a storm surge of unfathomable emotions. But none came. Perhaps I was a lot closer to my father than my mother, and for good reasons. Besides, the loss of the first parent is always much more of a shock.

The loss of the second parent, however, brings into focus other realities. Parents are more than important people in our lives. They are also our links to our extended families, and the placeholders for our context in the family tree and our sense of belonging in this world. When the first one falls, we lose and miss the person. When the second one falls, we also lose a part of ourselves, with the extended family ties losing their strength, and our context, significance and justification becoming a bit fuzzier.

Hopefully, by the time the second loss hits, we have all created enough anchor points in our lives to still feel rooted. But to those of us who have emigrated and lost a lot of the context in life, the loss of the second parent has one more rude surprise. It represents the end of the illusion of a lost home. In one of his essays, Albert Camus wrote that in a world divested of colors and illusions, man feels an alien. His exile is complete because he is deprived of the hopes for a promised land or the memories of a lost home. With both my parents now gone, I feel as though my lost home is home no more.

Physics vs. Finance

Despite the richness that mathematics imparts to life, it remains a hated and difficult subject to many. I feel that the difficulty stems from the early and often permanent disconnect between math and reality. It is hard to memorize that the reciprocals of bigger numbers are smaller, while it is fun to figure out that if you had more people sharing a pizza, you get a smaller slice. Figuring out is fun, memorizing — not so much. Mathematics, being a formal representation of the patterns in reality, doesn’t put too much emphasis on the figuring out part, and it is plain lost on many. To repeat that statement with mathematical precision — math is syntactically rich and rigorous, but semantically weak. Syntax can build on itself, and often shake off its semantic riders like an unruly horse. Worse, it can metamorphose into different semantic forms that look vastly different from one another. It takes a student a few years to notice that complex numbers, vector algebra, coordinate geometry, linear algebra and trigonometry are all essentially different syntactical descriptions of Euclidean geometry. Those who excel in mathematics are, I presume, the ones who have developed their own semantic perspectives to rein in the seemingly wild syntactical beast.

Physics also can provide beautiful semantic contexts to the empty formalisms of advanced mathematics. Look at Minkowski space and Riemannian geometry, for instance, and how Einstein turned them into descriptions of our perceived reality. In addition to providing semantics to mathematical formalism, science also promotes a worldview based on critical thinking and a ferociously scrupulous scientific integrity. It is an attitude of examining one’s conclusions, assumptions and hypotheses mercilessly to convince oneself that nothing has been overlooked. Nowhere is this nitpicking obsession more evident than in experimental physics. Physicists report their measurements with two sets of errors — a statistical error representing the fact that they have made only a finite number of observations, and a systematic error that is supposed to account for the inaccuracies in methodology, assumptions etc.

We may find it interesting to look at the counterpart of this scientific integrity in our neck of the woods — quantitative finance, which decorates the syntactical edifice of stochastic calculus with dollar-and-cents semantics, of a kind that ends up in annual reports and generates performance bonuses. One might even say that it has a profound impact on the global economy as a whole. Given this impact, how do we assign errors and confidence levels to our results? To illustrate it with an example, when a trading system reports the P/L of a trade as, say, seven million, is it $7,000,000 +/- $5,000,000 or is it $7,000, 000 +/- $5000? The latter, clearly, holds more value for the financial institution and should be rewarded more than the former. We are aware of it. We estimate the errors in terms of the volatility and sensitivities of the returns and apply P/L reserves. But how do we handle other systematic errors? How do we measure the impact of our assumptions on market liquidity, information symmetry etc., and assign dollar values to the resulting errors? If we had been scrupulous about error propagations of this, perhaps the financial crisis of 2008 would not have come about.

Although mathematicians are, in general, free of such critical self-doubts as physicists — precisely because of a total disconnect between their syntactical wizardry and its semantic contexts, in my opinion — there are some who take the validity of their assumptions almost too seriously. I remember this professor of mine who taught us mathematical induction. After proving some minor theorem using it on the blackboard (yes it was before the era of whiteboards), he asked us whether he had proved it. We said, sure, he had done it right front of us. He then said, “Ah, but you should ask yourselves if mathematical induction is right.” If I think of him as a great mathematician, it is perhaps only because of the common romantic fancy of ours that glorifies our past teachers. But I am fairly certain that the recognition of the possible fallacy in my glorification is a direct result of the seeds he planted with his statement.

My professor may have taken this self-doubt business too far; it is perhaps not healthy or practical to question the very backdrop of our rationality and logic. What is more important is to ensure the sanity of the results we arrive at, employing the formidable syntactical machinery at our disposal. The only way to maintain an attitude of healthy self-doubt and the consequent sanity checks is to jealously guard the connection between the patterns of reality and the formalisms in mathematics. And that, in my opinion, would be the right way to develop a love for math as well.

Math and Patterns

Most kids love patterns. Math is just patterns. So is life. Math, therefore, is merely a formal way of describing life, or at least the patterns we encounter in life. If the connection between life, patterns and math can be maintained, it follows that kids should love math. And love of math should generate an analytic ability (or what I would call a mathematical ability) to understand and do most things well. For instance, I wrote of a connection “between” three things a couple of sentences ago. I know that it has to be bad English because I see three vertices of a triangle and then one connection doesn’t make sense. A good writer would probably put it better instinctively. A mathematical writer like me would realize that the word “between” is good enough in this context — the subliminal jar on your sense of grammar that it creates can be compensated for or ignored in casual writing. I wouldn’t leave it standing in a book or a published column (except this one because I want to highlight it.)

My point is that it is my love for math that lets me do a large number of things fairly well. As a writer, for instance, I have done rather well. But I attribute my success to a certain mathematical ability rather than literary talent.  I would never start a book with something like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” As an opening sentence, by all the mathematical rules of writing I have formulated for myself, this one just doesn’t measure up. Yet we all know that Dickens’s opening, following no rules of mine, is perhaps the best in English literature. I will probably cook up something similar someday because I see how it summarizes the book, and highlights the disparity between the haves and the have-nots mirrored in the contrasting lead characters and so on. In other words, I see how it works and may assimilate it into my cookbook of rules (if I can ever figure out how), and the process of assimilation is mathematical in nature, especially when it is a conscious effort. Similar fuzzy rule-based approaches can help you be a reasonably clever artist, employee, manager or anything that you set your sights on, which is why I once bragged to my wife that I could learn Indian classical music despite the fact that I am practically tone-deaf.

So loving math is a probably a good thing, in spite of its apparent disadvantage vis-a-vis cheerleaders. But I am yet to address my central theme — how do we actively encourage and develop a love for math among the next generation? I am not talking about making people good at math; I’m not concerned with teaching techniques per se. I think Singapore already does a good job with that. But to get people to like math the same way they like, say, their music or cars or cigarettes or football takes a bit more imagination. I think we can accomplish it by keeping the underlying patterns on the foreground. So instead of telling my children that 1/4 is bigger than 1/6 because 4 is smaller than 6, I say to them, “You order one pizza for some kids. Do you think each will get more if we had four kids or six kids sharing it?”

From my earlier example on geographic distances and degrees, I fancy my daughter will one day figure out that each degree (or about 100km — corrected by 5% and 6%) means four minutes of jet lag. She might even wonder why 60 appears in degrees and minutes and seconds, and learn something about number system basis and so on. Mathematics really does lead to a richer perspective on life. All it takes on our part is perhaps only to share the pleasure of enjoying this richness. At least, that’s my hope.

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Love of Math

If you love math, you are a geek — with stock options in your future, but no cheerleaders. So getting a child to love mathematics is a questionable gift — are we really doing them a favor? Recently, a highly placed friend of mine asked me to look into it — not merely as getting a couple of kids interested in math, but as a general educational effort in the country. Once it becomes a general phenomenon, math whizkids might enjoy the same level of social acceptance and popularity as, say, athletes and rock stars. Wishful thinking? May be…

I was always among people who liked math. I remember my high school days where one of my friends would do the long multiplication and division during physics experiments, while I would team up with another friend to look up logarithms and try to beat the first dude, who almost always won. It didn’t really matter who won; the mere fact that we would device games like that as teenagers perhaps portended a cheerleader-less future. As it turned out, the long-multiplication guy grew up to be a highly placed banker in the Middle East, no doubt thanks to his talents not of the cheerleader-phobic, math-phelic kind.

When I moved to IIT, this mathematical geekiness reached a whole new level. Even among the general geekiness that permeated the IIT air, I remember a couple of guys who stood out. There was “Devious” who also had the dubious honor of introducing me to my virgin Kingfisher, and “Pain” would drawl a very pained “Obviously Yaar!” when we, the lesser geeks, failed to readily follow a his particular line of mathematical acrobatics.

All of us had a love for math. But, where did it come from? And how in the world would I make it a general educational tool? Imparting the love math to one kid is not too difficult; you just make it fun. The other day when I was driving around with my daughter, she described some shape (actually the bump on her grandmother’s forehead) as half-a-ball. I told her that it was actually a hemisphere. Then I highlighted to her that we were going to the southern hemisphere (New Zealand) for our vacation the next day, on the other side of the globe compared to Europe, which was why it was summer there. And finally, I told her Singapore was on the equator. My daughter likes to correct people, so she said, no, it wasn’t. I told her that we were about 0.8 degrees to the north of the equator (I hope I was right), and saw my opening. I asked her what the circumference of a circle was, and told her that the radius of the earth was about 6000km, and worked out that we were about 80km to the north of the equator, which was nothing compared to 36,000km great circle around the earth. Then we worked out that we made a 5% approximation on the value of pi, so the correct number was about 84km. I could have told her we made another 6% approximation on the radius, the number would be more like 90km. It was fun for her to work out these things. I fancy her love for math has been augmented a bit.

Photo by Dylan231

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How to be a Good Parent

Looking back at how I brought up my children (or, how I have been doing it, for they are still children), I have mixed feelings about how good I have been as a parent. Overall, I have been decent, slightly above average, I guess. But I have certainly formed strong opinions about what it means to be a good parent. I want to share my thoughts with my younger readers in the hope that they may find something useful in it.

In most things we do, there is a feedback, and we can use the feedback improve ourselves. For instance, if we do poorly at work, our bonuses and paychecks suffer, and we can, if we want to, work harder or smarter to remedy the situation. In our dealings with our children, the feedback is very subtle or even absent. We have to be very sensitive and observant to catch it. For instance, when my daughter was less than a year old, I noticed that she wouldn’t make eye contact when I came back late from work or when her mother came back from a business trip. To this day, I am not entirely sure that it was an expression of disapproval on her part, or fanciful imagination on mine.

Even when the children are old enough to articulate their thoughts, their feedback is often subtle to non-existent because the don’t know how to judge us, the parents. You see, they have no yardstick, no standards by which to assess our parenting qualities. We are the only parents they will ever have and, for all our follies, it is very hard for them to find any faults with us. So we have to measure up to a much higher standard — our own.

Coupled with this unvoiced feedback is the huge sense of injustice that our little unfairnesses can inflict on our children’s little hearts. As Dickens said in one of his books, small injustices loom large in the small world of a child. (I am sure he put it a lot better; I am paraphrasing.) We have to appreciate the need to be painstakingly and scrupulously fair with our children. I am not talking about being fair between children, but between us and a child. Don’t hold them to rules that you are not willing to live by. These rules can be small — like don’t watch TV while eating. If you like your TV with your dinner, don’t expect the kids to stick to the dining table. They do what we do, not always what we say.

In fact, imitating our habits and mannerisms is part of their charm for us. By nature and nurture, our kids mirror our looks and actions. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror and complain about it, we are often barking up the wrong tree. In order to improve the image, we have to improve ourselves. We have to live up to a high level of integrity and honesty. Nothing else works.

Another essential virtue for a parent is patience. In today’s busy world, with thousands of thoughts and cares and distractions all vying for our attention, it is always a tussle to be, for instance, a good blogger, a good corporate player, a good spouse and, at the same time, a good parent. One way out of this is to dedicate a certain amount of quality time for our parenting Karma. This may be the only practical advice in this post — so pay attention now. Set aside half an hour (or whatever time you can) every day for your little ones. During this time, focus your undivided attention your kids. No TV, no Internet, no phone calls — only you and your kids. If you can do it on a fairly regular basis, your kids will remember you for a long time after you are gone.

Our children are our legacy. They are what we leave behind. And they are, in many ways, our own reflections — our little addition, little pieces of colored glass in the dome of many-colored glass staining the white radiance of eternity. Let’s try to leave behind as perfect a reflection as we can.

Thinking again about all the sermonizing I did in this post, I find that it is not so specific to being a good parent. It is more about being a good person. I guess what they say (in the Zen way of looking at things) is true — how do you paint a perfect painting? Be perfect and then just paint. How to be a good parent? Be good, and then be a parent! Goodness happens in the stillness of perfection and peace where even “bad” things are good. This statement is perhaps mystical enough to wind up this post with.