Science, Fiction, Life

Month: September 2016

A Look at Candidate Honesty

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Setting aside actual policies for a moment, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the honesty of recent Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, as judged by the Pulitzer-winning nonpartisan site PolitiFact. Other similar graphics have been made before, during the primaries, but I wanted one looking just at major party nominees, and with the bars aligned to more dramatically show the difference between politicians who lie a lot, and those who don’t. I chose to align the bars so that anything below “mostly true” is considered negative, since to me “half true” isn’t much better than lying. [Edited to add: It’s worth pointing out that these results are probably slightly negatively biased, since Politifact can’t evaluate every statement a candidate makes. They are more likely to investigate statements that make people raise their eyebrows, and those statements are more likely to be cases where the candidate is being less honest.]

So, here’s the result. If you want to elect candidates who are honest with you, maybe this will help. Remember to register to vote!

My Naïve Parenting Philosophy

With a baby on the way, my “to-read” list now includes a bunch of books on parenting. Likewise, we are starting to get parenting advice from people, and I imagine that will only increase as D-day approaches. Before I end up adrift in a sea of advice, I thought it would be fun to try to sum up my parenting philosophy as it stands right now. If nothing else, I imagine this will be hilarious to read in a year or two once I have some actual experience under my belt.

1. Kids are people

You know when you are on a long flight and there is some kid screaming his head off and everyone around is getting upset too? Whenever I’m in this situation, I like to remind myself that the emotions that kid is feeling are probably also being shared by every single other person in the plane. Tired, hungry, cramped, uncomfortable, bored, etc. We’re all feeling the same things. I always imagine, deep down inside every adult, there is a similar screaming kid.  I believe that kid never really goes away, he just gets buried under layers and layers of cognitive development and learned behavior. Those layers muffle the raw emotion that we’re all feeling as we suffer through the flight. As adults we know that this won’t last forever, that we have to do this, that it’s not socially appropriate to scream and cry.

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My point is this: kids and even babies are not some alien species with unfathomable needs and desires and emotions. They’re just small people who are still figuring things out. And there’s a lot to figure out! Why do babies cry so much? Well, wouldn’t you be frustrated and overwhelmed and upset if you were literally experiencing every single thing around you for the first time, and could not express yourself verbally, and could barely even control your arms and legs, let alone take care of yourself?  Why do toddlers throw tantrums? Well, for one thing, because tantrums often result in getting what they want. But also because they are feeling some strong emotion and they don’t know how to cope with it.

As a parent, my role is to help the kid figure all of this stuff out. Until the kid can communicate, this will mostly involve paying attention and figuring out what it is that is making them upset and solving the problem. Once they can communicate, this means helping them to understand. In our household “Because mom/dad said so” is not good enough. If I can’t articulate why a rule exists, then it’s not a very good rule is it? Kids are people, and I plan to respect my kid enough to be willing to explain why some behavior is not appropriate rather than just telling him to cut it out. I want him to listen to what I say because it makes sense, not because I’m bigger than him.

Of course, this is all well and good, but what about when the kid is just flipping out for no good reason? We’ve all seen those funny lists of pictures of crying kids captioned with the ridiculous reason they’re crying. They’re hilarious, but it’s important to remember that to those kids, whatever is happening is a big enough deal to warrant crying. So yeah, I may laugh when my kid loses it because he isn’t allowed to play with dog poop or because he has to wear a life jacket or because he can’t get the last cheerio on his spoon, but I’ll also acknowledge that what he is feeling is real and help him try to deal with that. And, crucially, I’ll try to remain calm even (especially) when he is not.

2. Kids are always learning

Related to my controversial theory that kids are human beings, deserving of respect, who are just trying to figure things out, the second major part of my parenting philosophy is that kids are always learning. People talk about “teachable moments” but in reality, childhood is just one long teachable moment. Learning is what we evolved to do. Cheetahs are good at running, dolphins are good at swimming, and humans are good at learning.

This means that, whether I like it or not, my kid is going to be constantly looking to me as an example. That’s just as true when I’m teaching him how to throw a baseball as it is when I am upset with him because he threw that baseball through a window. It means that how I handle work-life balance and how chores are shared in our house and what shows and movies we watch and what books we read will all be influencing him in big and small ways.  On the one hand, this sucks, because it means that as a parent you have to be “always on” and trying to set a good example. But on the other hand, it means you get to teach kids all sorts of cool stuff. I am looking forward to the period when the kid just asks “why” about everything. Partially, because as a scientist I can continue answering “why” questions for a lot longer than some people. But more importantly because I don’t want to just explain why, I want to help guide him through figuring things out, and I want to show him that even grown-ups don’t always know all the answers. Sometimes you have to look something up. More excitingly, sometimes the question you just asked doesn’t have an answer yet!

3. A good person needs to learn empathy

My goal as a parent, other than the fundamental goal of raising a happy and healthy kid, is to raise a good person. That’s why the final part of my parenting philosophy is empathy. To me, empathy is the fundamental trait that leads to all other good traits. There’s a reason the “golden rule” shows up in pretty much every major religion in some form or another. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s position and try to understand that they are fundamentally the same as you, no matter their circumstances or outward appearance, makes it a lot harder to harbor negative feelings or to judge their behavior. As the saying goes, it is impossible to hate someone once you understand them. When you get right down to it, if more people in the world embraced empathy, the world would be a much better place.

Because of this, I will be approaching parenting itself with a sense of empathy for my child (see item 1), and I will do what I can to help him develop empathy as he grows up. I am under no illusions here: empathy is hard, even for adults.  Kids can be extremely self-centered. Teaching my child to be an empathetic person will be a lifelong effort (I’m still working on it myself), but I will do my best to teach by example (see item 2) and encourage him to think about how he would feel if he were in others’ places, especially when it is most difficult to think about. I look forward to teaching my kid tons of things, but I’ll consider myself to be successful if he learns empathy.


So, there you have it. Those are the fundamentals of my parenting philosophy, based on zero experience actually raising a kid of my own. I know that, to paraphrase Eisenhower and many others, “No parenting plan survives first contact with a screaming toddler”, but I think it will be interesting to see what parts of this philosophy I’ll be able to stick with and which parts will evolve as I start to read advice books, get advice from family and friends, and finally, come face to face with the day to day challenges of parenting.

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Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:

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Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!

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Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

What I’m Looking Forward To About Being a Dad

Last weekend I wrote a long post that ended up being mostly negative, so to balance that out I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to write about something more upbeat: all the things I’m looking forward to about parenting! So here’s an incomplete list, in no particular order:

Watching Him Learn

One of my favorite things about babies and young kids is that you can just see them absorbing information. They are learning something (often many things at once) all the time, and it’s a joy to be able to see that and to steer the direction of that learning. And that’s just my indirect experience through interacting with other people’s kids. I can only imagine it’s 1000 times better when it’s your own kid and you get to watch the progression over years.

Introducing Him to Great Stories

Fiction plays a big role in my life and even before we were expecting a baby, I was already thinking about when to introduce future offspring to the stories that were so formative to me, as well as those that I have only recently discovered but just can’t wait to share with a child. Things like Star Wars; Lord of the Rings; the Redwall books; Harry Potter; Roald Dahl; Disney movies like Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan; more recent movies like Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia. And on and on. Introducing a kid to these things is the closest thing you get to experiencing them for the first time again. There is a good chance that at some point I will put up a poll or something to get feedback on what age is appropriate to introduce some of the big ones, since I didn’t know much about things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings until middle/high school.

Reading

This is related to above, of course. We will read bedtime stories every night from the very beginning, but what I am really looking forward to is when he is old enough for us to read chapter books that can’t be finished in one sitting. Very hungry caterpillar is great, but I can’t wait to read longer books that I enjoy too. It’s going to be a sad day when my son finally decides he’s too old for story time at night, but you better believe I am going to make the most that window between “He can follow a novel that is read to him” and “He’s too old to have dad reading to him.”

Video Games

Games are another huge part of my life that I can’t wait to share with my son, and that’s not just because it will give me a valid excuse to play them! Games can be far more immersive than a novel simply because you’re participating in the action, so they can leave a huge impression. I still get warm fuzzy feelings when I think about playing games like Mario 64 or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Just thinking about them brings me back to Christmas break, sitting around in pajamas without a care in the world, eating chocolate orange from my Christmas stocking and being fully immersed in the world of the game.

Games are not just a solitary experience either. I have fond memories of playing NES games like the original Legend of Zelda and Mario 3, and early computer games like Return to Zork and Myst with my dad, and I’m looking forward to making similar memories with my son. Again, like reading, I know that at some point he won’t be interested in playing games with me anymore, but until that happens I’m looking forward to gaming with him. A lot of my socializing in middle and high school also revolved around games. Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Smash Brothers, etc. I know local co-op is less popular nowadays since all consoles are connected to the internet, but I will definitely be encouraging games that are meant to be played with friends, preferably in the same room.

Gaming is also a great gateway to learning other topics. For example,  my first experience with the concepts of computer programming came from playing around with the map editors in Age of Empires 2 and Starcraft: working out simple logical conditions to make things happen (“While 5 enemy units are standing here, continuously create lions over there and make them attack”). Age of Empires 1 and 2 also taught me a lot about world history.  Since school history classes were so focused on state and national history, these games were my first real exposure to basically the entire rest of history. Even more recently, playing games like Civilization V and Shogun 2: Total War have taught me interesting historical tidbits that I have then followed up by seeking more information online.

Video games have not been purely positive for me, of course. Because I enjoy them so much, I have struggled with video game addiction, especially as I get older and more responsibilities pile up on my plate. Video games also vary widely in quality and appropriateness of content these days. For these reasons, in addition to my own nostalgia, I want to be involved in gaming with my son to help him develop a healthy relationship with quality age-appropriate gaming content. Last year, Penny Arcade had a great post about how parent involvement can be really beneficial when it comes to gaming.

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Reminiscing About the Pre-Internet World

My generation has basically grown up alongside computers and the internet. I started off with Atari, had a NES during its heyday, and remember getting my mind blown by the Nintendo 64’s 3D graphics. On the computer side of things, I remember having to install and run games from the DOS prompt, and I am pretty sure my very first experience with the internet was using Alta Vista to look for hints on how to solve a puzzle in Kings Quest 7.

My son is going to start life in a world where the internet is everywhere. The concept of getting up at a certain time so that you can catch your favorite TV show on Saturday morning will be completely foreign. You just stream the show when you want to watch it. The idea of a video game system without the ability to render photo-realistic graphics will be ridiculous.

So, like a baby boomer forcing his kids to listen to vinyl records, I am eagerly looking forward to playing the role of the lame dad who regales his kids with stories of how hard we had it back in the day, and forcing them to try emulated versions of early Nintendo games. “When I was a kid, the graphics were so bad you could barely even tell what anything was, and we liked it!” “When I was a kid, there was no such thing as ‘saving’ your game. You just left the Nintendo on all night and came back to it the next day.” “Back in my day, you had to physically go to a store and purchase the game. The idea of downloading it from the internet didn’t even exist.” And so on. I look forward to the eye-rolls.

Nature

Lest you think that my child will spend all of his time staring at a screen, I also am looking forward to teaching him to enjoy the outdoors and to learn about nature. Growing up we had annual trips to a cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula for some quality time off the grid, running around in the woods, making bows and arrows, gigantic bonfires, roasting marshmallows, driving ATVs around, looking at cool bugs, watching for loons and beavers on the lake, etc. I hope to be able to take my boy to the family cabin in Michigan to do some of those same things, but of course it’s a lot harder to get there from Arizona than from Detroit.

Luckily, it’s not like we have to go back to Michigan to teach the kid about the outdoors. Northern Arizona is a great place to experience the outdoors, and there are tons of national parks not too far away, so I look forward to lots of adventures in the woods, hiking and camping. I’m actually looking forward to learning more about the local flora and fauna of Arizona along with my son. And of course, my son will learn the proper way to roast a marshmallow over a campfire.

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Cooking

I’m also looking forward to teaching him how to help out in the kitchen. Baking was always a fun activity to do with mom or grandma. I especially have strong memories of various overly-ambitious baking and candy-making projects with grandma Anderson, who did not believe in standardized measuring, leading to a wide variety of results. I didn’t really learn to cook until late college (coincidentally, around the time I started dating Erin…) but now cooking our own meals is a big part of our life and our son will learn to help out as soon as he is able. Realistically I know that we have lots of Kraft mac and cheese and frozen chicken nuggets in our future, but I hope we are able to continue to do some of our own cooking with our new “helper”. (As a bonus, once he’s old enough that also means he can help clean up after cooking!)

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Being Silly

At parties where there are kids and adults in attendance, I often find myself hanging out with the kids. No offense to my adult friends, but I find kids way easier to talk to. While the adults are making smalltalk about work and mortgage rates and politics, you can sit down with a kid and immediately be involved in an epic battle of good and evil, or fighting to recover stolen treasure from a dragon. Kids have no inhibitions and crazy imaginations, which in my book makes them a blast to be around. Even aside from actively playing made-up games, kids are just wonderful and hilarious little weirdos (Exhibit A), and I really look forward to having one of my own to hang out with.

Basically, Re-living Childhood

Have you noticed the common theme here yet? Most of this post boils down to: I am looking forward to having a kid because it means I get to re-live childhood things, but with the appreciation of an adult. I know some things will be less magical as an adult, but I am going to enjoy the heck out of as much of it as I can, while also, you know, trying to raise a happy, healthy, intelligent human child.

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