Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Memory of the Heroes of MH370

With the latest Inmarsat calculations, we finally have some closure to the location of MH370, and the MAS has declared that “we have to assume beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived”. The question that remains, though, is how the plane found its way to the Southern Indian Ocean. And we will probably not know for sure, unless we can find the black box before it stops pinging.

While my wife and others helped search for the plane in satellite photos, I preferred to focus my mind on what could have happened to the plane, based on all the available evidence (see image below). This is the theory I first posted on Quora two weeks ago, and since them some of my guesses have been confirmed by the latest satellite findings. So I've decided to share it further.
MH 370 was hijacked (possibly by at least one its pilots). This is strongly suggested by the change in course and the disabling of communications systems. It is also a fact there were Iranians on board with false passports, and merely Interpol's analysis that they were there by coincidence. And let's not forget the possibility of self-radicalised terrorists which are almost impossible to detect. Many others have also concluded hijack, so I won't waste time elaborating further. Let's go beyond that. 
The crew or passengers realised something was amiss and fought back, similar to United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. In this case however, once the struggle concluded, there was no one left on board who could fly the plane. During the struggle, the plane had shifted course due south, but its flight stabilised on autopilot. With no one to alter the course, it continued over the ocean (away from radars and cellphone reception) until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea. 
If the hijack was successful, the hijackers would have used it immediately for other ends (possibly a 9/11 scenario) while the world was still confused. The window of opportunity has passed now. But why no terrorist group has claimed responsibility, since it is still a partially successful hijack? Perhaps this was just one part of a larger plan, and rather than alerting the world to their identity, they are going to lay low until there is a chance to try again.
I didn't bother sharing this earlier because apart from being an intellectual puzzle, I didn't see how it could help in the search for the plane. But then I thought, perhaps it does serve a purpose. I do believe this is a plausible theory and until proven otherwise, I would like to think of the passengers of MH370 as heroes rather than victims. I'm sure their families would too.

The USS Somerset was named in honour of the heroes of United Flight 93 which crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania on 9/11. Much better heroes to name a ship after, than KRI Usman Harun. Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Dad Attitude

This essay first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Mother & Baby.

As the husband of a stay-at-home-mum, it is tempting to think that since she is 100% there for the kids, I should be 100% focused on putting food on the table. It is especially tempting because fathering is not something that comes naturally to me, unlike my wife whose lifelong ambition was to be a mother. But I am glad I did not succumb to that temptation, because my children need their father as well as their mother; and I might have missed out on some things I wouldn’t give up for the world now.

I’m told that girls will grow up looking for a man like their own father, for better or worse. I hope I have set the better example. I’m also told that if boys don’t get enough attention from their fathers, they are more likely to find affection in other men. But beyond theories about their long-term psychological well-being, I believe I have a part to play in providing them with a balanced childhood.

The role of a father and mother doesn’t have to fall into gender stereotypes. My wife and I are very different, and between us, we both try to provide a healthy range of experiences for our kids. For example, my wife hates heat, humidity and sweat. So it falls to me to introduce our children to the great outdoors. This could be as simple as bring them outside to the playground in the afternoon. Or to the botanical gardens to go cycling or walking.

One of the projects I am working on is to bring my son camping. The first day I bought the tent, I showed him how to assemble it. A couple weeks later, he was able to put all the tent poles together and thread them through the fabric, I only needed to help him erect the structure. That night, we slept together in the living room, and he was very excited to have Daddy as a tent mate. I was not so excited because he snores like thunder; the things we do as parents!

A few weeks later I asked him if he wanted to go camping again. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Daddy, the last time was not really camping. Outside the tent was the condo. For real camping the tent is on the grass. Then we bring in our pillows and blankies.” I guess he has formed a mostly accurate picture from whatever books or shows he has seen . I warned him that there would be mosquitos in the grass, to which he answered “we can close up the tent”. And when I told him it would be hot because there is no air con, he reassured me that it would be windy and when we got really tired we would sleep. I think he is ready for the real thing!

It’s also fun teaching them about insects. One afternoon they came home from my parents’ house proudly brandishing a plastic box containing a three-inch long grasshopper. We didn’t need their magnifying glass to examine all the parts of the giant anatomy, and at the end of the day we solemnly released it together. Another time, he got a caterpillar that came as a “free gift” with Mummy’s vegetables, just as I had many years before. And when a lizard found its way into one of their toy boxes, we caught it and had fun discussing the organs visible through its translucent skin.

I love rough-housing and tumbling with my kids. It always amuses our friends when my daughter comes up to me, stands with her head between her feet and says loudly “some-salt!” It is her invitation for me to tip her over in a somersault, but she hasn’t quite learned yet that it is better on a soft surface, and to make sure the coast is clear ahead. That is Daddy’s job.

Being a father is a lot more than doing my share of diaper duty. It includes the pain of disciplining, grabbing any opportunity to teach a valuable lesson on values, and lots of fun. And it’s all worthwhile when I get home from work and my daughter runs across the living room towards me, eyes bright, then stops midway and start twirling around in happiness until she loses her balance and topples over. My son … isn’t quite so expressive of his affections, but I know he loves me too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Psychology and Philosophy of Parenting - Book Review of All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

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Not Your Usual Parenting Book

I knew I had to read this book because the title is exactly how I describe parenting to my friends - my kids bring me a lot of happiness, but not a lot of fun. I don't say this out of resentment, just acceptance - fun to me is snowboarding or getting drunk with friends; I love playing with my kids but it's just not the same. And in five words, the title captures this very well.

And unlike other parenting books I've read, this one is not by a pediatrician, a pastor or a nanny. It doesn't tell you how to be a better parent. Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine. She is first a writer, and she writes well. The book is an expertly woven tapestry of snapshots into the family lives of her interviewees, cross-referenced with meticulous research from psychology, sociology and other related disciplines, put together in a very readable way.

She is also a parent, and her son is just slightly older than mine. This is a book on the effects of children on their parents. Depending on what stage you are at, it can tell you what to expect, or why you feel certain types of stress and how you can start to deal with them, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Who Should Read This?

Parents of all ages, because this book will give you greater insights into why you are struggling to adjust to parenting, and you will know you are not alone. You may even start to find some answers.

Expecting couples, because now that there is no turning back, at least you can start to be mentally prepared.

And of course, those in a relationship who want to convince their significant others never to have kids.


What's In It?

Although she sequences her book chronologically according to stages of family life — from autonomy to adolescence — there are three key themes that run through the whole book: three recent developments that have made modern parenting rather different from past experience.

The first is choice - the choice of when each child should come, and how large each family should be. In the past, having children was viewed as a family obligation or an economic necessity, but today the couples who choose to have children see them as a product of marriage, “approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies”. And on top of having choices, suddenly "we've been told it's our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them." Talk about pressure.

The second development is the increasing complications of work. Modern technology has allowed most people to be on call for work long after they reach home. There has also been a major trend toward working mothers. This means that at home in the evenings, both parents will be juggling their kids and their email.

But the biggest change is the "wholesale transformation of the child's role, both in the home and in society." Up till very recently (Senior sees WWII as the turning point), children had to work. School was a luxury for most. In the last few decades, "children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses." Or in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, the modern child is "economically worthless but emotionally priceless".

Every so often, conversations with other parents will turn to wondering how our grandparents could raise 5 to 9 kids, whereas we struggle with just 1 or 2. These three observations, which are developed in great detail, help explain why.

Some Thoughts

Although the book is written in the American context, it definitely rings a chord in Asia as well. In the latter parts of the book, there are discussions on overscheduled kids and Tiger moms, juggling extra curricular activies, extra classes and becoming extra artistic. On top of the traditional obsession with sports and the outdoors, the Americans now find themselves under pressure from Asian immigrants to level up on their academics as well.

And although this book is written by a woman, and definitely sympathises with women on an issue that could be quite divisive between the genders, I found that she also represented the fathers and the dilemmas they faced very fairly as well.

One thing I definitely enjoyed, nerd that I am, is the extensive research. 25% of the book is made up of the notes and index! And among some of the books cited most are some of my personal favourite psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Flow and Daniel Kahneman of Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is very interesting how she has interpreted their theories, and others, in the context of parenting.

One theme I would have been interested to have seen developed more was why people choose to have kids, at all. But that would probably have been an even bigger undertaking.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, especially to those three groups of people I listed above.


Quotable Quotes

The book is also filled with very clever phrases, some her own and some cited from others. Here are a few of my favourites:

“parents are no happier than non parents, and in certain cases considerably less happy”

"Children strain our everyday lives, in other words, but also deepen them."

"Many women can't tell whether they're supposed to be grateful for the help that they're getting or enraged by the help they're failing to receive"

"But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all."