Aug 30, 2010

Parents, you were right about what your baby or young child knows...

Here is a link to Alison Gopnick's website.

I love love love this woman's work. She has turned notions of what young children comprehend and how we learn to see the world, completely on their head.
One of the most interesting findings in 'The Philosophical Baby' to me is the study where really young babies look longer at objects performing feats outside the laws of physics, showing they are surprised.

We have always been told that young children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, and I had not questioned that until I had kids. The truth is more complex. Yes, sure, they can get confused. When my girls were in the first 6 months of being four they would still sometimes watch a cartoon they liked and ask me if we could "go there". Now they are closer to five, they know TV is not "real" but they will still sometimes ask about places they see on ads or movies (not cartoons anymore though).
On the other hand, even from a very young age (2, 3), they were well aware of what was funny in cartoons because it is not real, and what can and can't happen in real life. I was often surprised by how much little kids understand of what is going on around them.

Some observations I love to remember:

My cousin's little girl E, is one. At a recent family gathering, my sister was there with her baby. My sister set her baby down in a rocker in a corner and little E was fascinated. She toddled over to look at him at regular intervals. One time when she came over, unknown to her, someone else had picked up the baby and he wasn't in his rocker. Little E looked at the rocker, looked surprised, then immediately turned and reached a hand to my sister for a moment before walking off.  She had never met my sister before, but this one instant showed that she expected the baby to be in his rocker, and that she knew the baby was connected to my sister and my sister should know where he is.

My girls are getting a growing knowlege of cause and effect. Very often, to my astonishment, they get cause and effect right, even if I can't remember having told them about how something works. Sometimes they get it wrong of course. Recently one evening it was very windy and the girls were a little uneasy at bedtime hearing the howling outside the house. A hadn't eaten much dinner, and at bedtime she said to me "Mummy when that wind is blowing it makes my tummy so hungry!"
(Yeah the classic rookie mistake - causation vs correlation!)

M loves to classify things. When we started to put a more sensible bedtime routine in place this year (i.e., an actual bedtime routine), we went through a phase where I would sit by her bed and she would ask me the same questions every night, starting with the names of her cousins and aunts and uncles and who was married to whom, who was parent to whom, and who lived with whom. Her current questions go through the days of the week and what routine we follow on each particular day. Obviously these things comfort her, and are also a little bonding bedtime ritual for us, but she also takes a lot of pleasure in learning these things, then moving on to the next phase of questions once she has mastered them. (Though these days, AT LAST, we are able to kiss them good night and leave the room within a few minutes instead of the hour this took at the beginning).

Last weekend I spent some time with my girls at my mum's place babysitting my sister's baby. He is a beautiful laid-back boy, always very happy and very interested in everything around him. As he gazes at various objects you can almost see wheels turning in his head, a slight frown of concentration on his brow. When you hold him and talk to him he gazes right in your eyes and when you sing he errupts into smiles and gurgles. It is definitely a form of communication. M was fascinated with him and spent a lot of time talking and laughing with him, and as she moved around the room he watched her intently, interest and expectation all over his face.

It's a wonderful wonderful world...

Betting on the Federal Election Vs. Following the Opinion Polls

The Australian Federal election is still undecided with each party on 72 seats and 4 independents about to decide the "winner". (Poisoned chalice that it will be).
Interestingly throughout all this "uncertainty" the stock market hasn't skipped a beat. People are saying this is because there is no real uncertainty because the vote is between two parties with very similar policies (or similarly unknown policies); or each party offers some good and some bad for business so each is cancelling the other out. Or as more than one radio commentator has put it, it appears we don't need a government at all...

What's been interesting has been the rise of the "betting market". You can bet on anything in Australia, and for the last few weeks the betting in the election outcome has been tracked as keenly as the opinion polls. In fact more keenly, as there is a general belief that the betting market provides a more accurate predictor than the polls.
Why is this?
Today according to SportingBet the odds are $1.45 on the Coalition and $2.65 on Labor. The "market" is "pricing" the Coalition to win.

Why would betting odds be more accurate than opinion polls? The theories go:
  • bets are placed by insiders in the know
  • people lie in opinion polls but not with their betting money
  • predictive markets with two choices tend to mirror a "mean average" result which mirrors reality, where the beliefs of the participants are evenly spread out, and the participants are betting to win
The last theory, if true, would mean the current election situation - voting split just about down the middle, and lots of people betting - would certainly favour a predictive market. So perhaps the betting markets are especially accurate this time because of the nature of this particular election.

For more - and better informed - information on the nature and accuracy of predictive markets see Wikipedia at this link:

ADDENDUM, two weeks later: Labor finally won, and there has been less talk lately about the accuracy of the betting markets! This was a uniquely weird election though, so hard to say.

Aug 29, 2010

When science is diluted... or just wrong

If you live in Australia you will know that for the last 20 years it has been a crime or at least a horrific sin againt society, health and right thinking to be outdoors for any length of time without being covered head to foot in 30+ sunscreen and a hat - and that's just at nighttime!
We have been told to wear sunscreen every day regardless of sunshine or temperature, and to avoid being in the sun between 11 and 3. (That puts rather a dampener on most summertime activities.  On the other hand it's a good excuse to stay inside days over 35 degrees if you are heat intolerant like me).
Earnest advice from most quarters has been advising for so long that the sun is unhealthy and dangerous, that most of the extreme advice above has been accepted more or less without question.
But the truth is rarely at the extremes. (I had written "never" but that's an extreme...)

Now it turns out that Australia is experiencing an increase in cases of rickets, with a University of Melbourne study finding significant numbers of people in its study to be vitamin D deficient, and the Paediatric Surveillance Unit finding nearly 1300 Australian children under 15 develop rickets each year.
In a first world country, in the twenty-first century.
Because, it seems, people have taken to heart the very strong, long-standing, scary and persistent advice to stay out of the sun, to the point where they or their children are not getting enough vitamin D.

Yes we know that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and no one wants to go back to the days when I was a kid, when we would all get so sunburnt every summer it was a regular evening activity to peel each others' skin off our backs, and you'd graduate each summer with a few more freckles and a redder nose than last year. But why do we go from one extreme to the other?
Why does the general wisdom on what's healthy and what's not seem to do back-flips and see-saws between different positions, when logic would say that a middle ground must be best?

We know that scientific findings are always being challenged and extended, modified, or overturned, but in the areas of health and well-being the changes are dizzying. Usually the blame is laid with the media for watering down or sensationalising scientific findings, or science outfits after funding publicising their work prematurely or following a popular angle. These things are a factor. Is there something more?
For some reason we don't seem to be able to get a handle on the most basic aspects of what's good for us and how much of things we need (such as sunshine).

Weight and nutrition are other ones. How much meat should you eat? How much dairy? Should you eat dairy at all? I remember a comedian years ago saying "Here is a question you cannot answer. Milk: good or bad?" It was funny. It was true. Years later we still cannot answer it, officially. But unofficially, inside most people's heads, the answer is obvious: good, in moderation.

Here are some other bits of common wisdom, all derived from valid scientific studies, where some part of the finding has been stripped out and repeated for years until it has become something most of us accept as truth - until the next study, some time in the next 2-10 years, flips it on its head.

Drink at least two litres of water a day and more in summer.
Thirst often masquarades as hunger; if you think you feel hungry you may actually be thirsty.
Obesity leads to cancer, heart disease and diabetes and is a huge cost on the health system.
Raw food is better for you than cooked food [and yet humans have been cooking food for millenia].
Organic vegetables are better than intensively farmed vegetables [and you know what, they probably are. But seriously with 7 billion people, what are we going to do].
A glass of red wine a day promotes longevity.
Blueberries, broccoli and others are superfoods which contain antioxidants which cleanse the body and flush out toxins.
A Mars a day helps you work rest and play. Just kidding - that one did not come from a scientific study. But it was acceptable as an advertising jingle for a long time, hard as that is to believe now.

I have just realised everything I have listed here pertains to nutrition.
One of the key obsessions of our time, and one of the worst areas for yo-yoing advice in pop science.
Much of the stuff we read or are told is from preliminary or incomplete studies and confuses correlation with causation.
Here is a good example.
For some time now it has been said that being overweight hinders women from falling pregnant, and the reason was possibly something to do with the way fat cells interfered with hormones.
Then another study was done, and this time it seemed people spoke to the women or observed their behaviour. Turns out the reason for lower pregnancy rates is actually that overweight women are self-conscious about their bodies and have sex less often.
Like, DER.
How often do you read these "latest findings" and feel angry? How often do you feel cynicism, or fear, or depression or despair? Do you think "Not this old thing again" or "Wow, that doesn't sound right, but I guess those guys know...". Or do you think "Oh no! How will I fit this one in too?" or "Bloody hell, what are we meant to be doing this year then?" Or do you let it all pass over your head and just get on with your life? (Easier said than done).

As the classic - and perenially true - wisdom says: Moderation in all things.

Aug 11, 2010

Work projects done? Check. Shopping and cooking? Check. Time with family? Check. Nervous Breakdown? Check!

Okay, time to be honest.
I started this blog for a few reasons: to get back into practice at writing, give myself an outlet for ideas and creativity, psych myself up to become a "real" writer, and to put together some stuff to provide a viewpoint of a mother who also works full time. Everything in the culture at the moment seems to be about women working part-time or spending their children's preschool years at home. Both options are great, but the commentary and assumptions contained in most of the written stuff I see often don't fit my life. There is seemingly NOTHING about or by women working full time and how they parent and how they cope.
I know there are plenty of women doing this. They are all just too busy to write articles!
Logically knowing something and remaining positive about it are two different things.
It's all too easy to get a bit down and start believing you're in a tiny minority of women breadwinners and full-time working mothers.  I know, boo hoo! I'm not carting water home from a village well, right?
Still - it can get hard.
So I wanted to try and source, and write, some stuff about and for the full-time-working mother, to put a positive and helpful slant on a lifestyle that few portray positively. I do believe there are plenty of women out there living this life who are happy with it, achieving well and simply ignoring the rubbish we sometimes see in the paper and hear from well-meaning people about work, childhood, daycare and the like.
But it has taken me a long time to reconcile myself to how I'm living, and I have not got my own balance right.
I am currently on 10 days' sick leave from work, due to stress and exhaustion. I could use longer, but this time has calmed me and I have booked a 2 week family holiday in November which will tide me over to the end of the year.
After that - new year new job new life...

Aug 10, 2010


Hmm, what to do?
Having grown up attending local government schools and being big believers in public schools, we have already decided our kids will be attending some sort of local government school.
I also believe in the general idea of "good enough" and that local, close-to-home is the most important criterion for a primary school, so kids are close to friends, feel connected with their community, and are not sapped by commutes every day.
But what do you do when the local school gets "mixed reviews" to put it mildly?
How good does "good enough" have to be?
At what point does a better school outweigh the disadvantages of having to travel further and kids not having friends round the corner?

Our local school: pro's:
  • ten minutes' walk away
  • small, friendly
  • very diverse
  • nice colour uniforms which don't need ironing
  • has a new principal who is making changes and concentrating on data/internet, maths, and encouraging local kids to ride bikes to school
  • our neighbors' kids went there and they were happy with it (if not ecstatic)
  • NAPLAN results on MySchool website seem good (so what's the problem?)
  • before and after-school care the most convenient hours of the 3 schools we've seen (we will need this 2-3 days a week)
Our local school: con's:
  • I have heard from 3 sources now (including a teaching student who just did placement there) that it's not a very good school, grades are not good, teachers are not the best, etc.
  • when we visited today it looked fine except the teachers we saw and the kids we saw in a couple of the classes didn't seem as "engaged" as we saw in other schools (but other classes we saw looked fine)
  • does religious education; then again, no harm in kids having exposure to this as it's part of the culture etc - I can always undermine it from the sidelines the way our mum did for us! (thank you mum)
  • small grounds - but is this such a problem?
  • most of the teachers seem to have been there a long time
I really value the idea of a local school, and I like the fact it has a new principal who is making some changes. Do we take the gamble and go with this one?
Unfortunately we didn't get to speak to the principal; I will do some "research" (i.e., Google searches) and see what we come up with, and see if we can make an appointment to talk with him soon.
I am also comparing our local school to two other schools we have seen which seem FANTASTIC but are further away; one of them, though still in our suburb, is a good 15 min drive away against traffic.
And of course, six years of school is a long time - a lot can and does change within individual schools over the course of six years. Teachers and principals come and go, and the national "education revolution" is bringing changes that should improve all schools.

Sigh. I did not intend to make this a difficult decision. It was always going to be "the local school".
Ah well, we shall see.

Aug 9, 2010

Smug List / Crap List

This is an idea floated by Mia Freedman, author of the wonderful blog Mama Mia - LOVE her, this blog is like a magazine without the silly bits (horoscopes etc). Mia’s suggestion is for more mothers to share those two secret lists they hold in their hearts about how they raise their children: the Smug List (things they know they do well) and the Crap List (things they’re ashamed of or feel bad about). Naturally everyone’s Crap List is longer than their Smug List. The Crap List is the best because reading someone else’s makes you feel better about your own.

So in honour of all that, here are my own lists.


1. I ate very sensibly during pregnancy and only gained 14 kilos, even carrying twins (You see, I preferred to put on an extra 15 kilos AFTER the babies were born).

2. My girls were carried to term (2 weeks early for twins = to term), and were a good size and healthy. (Though I know this is actually called “luck”).
3. I have always prepared nutricious, balanced and varied meals for my children and model good eating by eating the same foods with them, being enthusiastic about the meals, and we all enjoy our vegies.
4. I play word games, sing, dance, do nursery rhymes and read and make up stories.
5. I always took my kids for walks from a young age even if it was cold, we just rugged up.

6. Our days follow routines that the girls know and like, and we don't try and cram in too much on weekends.
7. We are teaching the girls their "heritage" language in a relaxed and gradual way without putting pressure on them, and using fun things like songs to do it.
8. I think I strike a good balance between getting the girls to help with things like packing up and  just letting them play and have fun and not being too strict about it.
1. Other than walking or going to the park, I don't do physical stuff very much - very few outdoor games, football, etc
2. We've never taken them camping or to the snow
3. We have been a bit slack with swimming lessons; luckily, school starts next year with swimming lessons built in.
4. My kids tell me whenever they ask me to come to them or help them with something my response is always "Okay, in a minute..."  They also know and use the phrase "You're giving me a headache!"
5. We watch DVDs way more than we read books together.

6. Every Saturday morning I leave the girls with cartoons on TV while I read the paper and have a coffee.
7. I sometimes finish my kids' sentences for them - very bad, trying to stop
8. I have worked way too late on more than the odd occasion, and not been home early enough to enjoy my kids before bedtime.
9. When I am tired and over-worked I get mad too easily and I sometimes yell when I can't get the girls to do what I want. Taking steps to avoid this these days.
10. We have been hopeless at establishing good bedtimes - see post here on same. Hopefully getting better now.
11. I haven't completed any photo albums - not even the baby album.
12. I bought the Lady Gaga CD on a whim (without vetting it first) because my 4-year-old girls love her, then had to try and stop them singing "I want to ride on your disco stick..."

One could go on...

Some Beauty

A bit of beauty to get us through the day -
These were taken at Bright, in Victoria, in May during autumn.

Post Mortems

Here are some quotes that have appeared in the news media which may be familiar:

“Clearly, there should have been a red flag ...”

"This should never have happened."

"MI5 let terrorists slip through the net."

"There was a failure to connect the dots."

I've been thinking a lot about this as it is very much a feature of our times. It seems to be something most people accept is of limited use or even a waste of time, but which is somehow required until we come up with something better.
I am talking about the process that occurs after a disaster or near-disaster whereby a lot of criticism and analysis goes on, some blame is apportioned and lessons are supposedly learned for the future.
I am not talking about systemic problems where blame is warranted, such as cases of beaurocratic malaise, bad leadership, corporate wrong-doing or horrible incompetence.  I am talking about those disasters or events which everyone secretly suspects could not have been prevented but which in hindsight look like they could have been, and therefore everyone agrees to agree that they SHOULD have been prevented - ergo, the fact that they weren't means someone must be to blame.

We can all think of examples -
- the US media and politicians (especially the senate) castigating the CIA and FBI after any attempted terrorist attack, as if it should be possible to thwart every single one;
- some of the post-GFC analysis castigating the behaviour of investors or investment banks believing house prices/stock prices "would keep rising forever" (which by the way, no one believed. Everyone knew the reckoning was coming. But no one knew quite when...);
- to some extent, the analysis following the Victorian bushfires of Black Saturday, February 2009. A horrific event, and yes, there do appear to have been some leadership and process problems, but perhaps also a once-in-30-years full-scale disaster which no one could have managed effectively.

On a smaller scale, this happens in the corporate world too, driven I think by the growth of this process in the media. It's made everyone terrified of not being "proactive" or of being "complacent".
At my workplace after every loss or "near loss" (being the ones we quantify as such), we are required to produce a "post-mortem", a process about which I am ambivalent. I don't completely oppose them but think most of them are misguided, don't give any real benefit and give a false sense of security that we are bolstering ourselves against future errors. This is because, where day to day control management is very strong and effective (as ours is), the events that cause grief tend to be "out of the box" zingers or once-in-a-year process failures. You can't really "learn from" them, because (a) they are one-off events which could not be foreseen and won't likely recur, or (b) humans tend to act erratically under stress and while it's always possible to improve process and management style, you can't prevent mistakes.

However, it's hard to argue the "anti" case without sounding like a slacker or a whinger.  This is because there are always one or two points that come out of the post-mortem that seem reasonable and where it feels like a general lesson can be applied, even if you don't accept that the error could have been prevented.
The problem is, there is no possible way to actually prevent the kind of errors that occur. They are not systemic failures but moments where individuals or teams have "failed" to act a certain way in a time of extreme pressure or stress or where information was flying from ten different directions.
Sure it's always possible to point to a behavioural or procedural improvement - such as, "when something new is happening and the stakes are high, we should pull back for ten minutes and round-table with other teams to ensure everyone is operating under the right assumption/same strategy/etc". No one can disagree with that. Also no one can argue that we actually did this or that it would have been wrong to do it - so it seems like this is a lesson we should learn from and accept the validity of the post-mortem exercise.
But the difficulties in applying this in future to prevent any similar problems lie in (1) recognising the event in the moment it's happening [as next time won't look like this time] and (2) knowing when action now or pulling back is the more appropriate [as the answer won't be known until we get it wrong].
In the absence of systemic problems, there are three general problems with the "post mortem":
1 - No matter how tight a ship you run or how good your operations and controls, at some point someone will stuff up. Anlaysing who and how afterwards does not guarantee anything in future, because next time it will be something and someone else. "The human element" in other words; there will always be an element of error

2 - Hindsight is 20-20. Something happens. Something else happens. A lot of other things are happening at the same time around these two things. The two things are related - one leads to the other. Some of the other things appear to be related that are not, or create more noise at the time. Afterwards it may appear the development was "obvious", that there were "red flags" and a "failure to connect the dots" - but however obvious it looks afterwards, there are some events that just do not stand out at the time. Even the participants can forget this afterwards.

3 - Unexpected things can happen which were not possible to predict or guard against, such as an out-of-the-box system bug. As these events are "one-offs", the lessons you learn from them are not applicable to future events - other than as a general lesson to beware of one-off events. (And this is always in mind during a project anyway).

Some good comments on this same theme can be found by:

Aug 2, 2010

Work-Life Balance and Plasma TVs

Article in The Age online yesterday:

My reaction reading this article, as to most others on this theme, was "yeah that's me". Paradoxically when reading these articles (which I devour, though they offer no solutions!) is at once deflation that the "no work-life balance" lifestyle is still the norm, and comfort that I'm not the only one.  It can be hard at times to remember that you're not the only woman out there working full-time while every other mother is at home or working part-time.

(Yes, it's a "first-world problem", and not the worst thing in the first world by a long shot. But please a little slack - this is the blogosphere after all).

But what dismayed me when reading this article was all the comments afterwards. Like all comments after an opinion piece they were forthright, accusatory, bitter and rude. As always, the participants end up slanging off each other. As always, after a while someone comes in conciliatory or attempting a compromise which unleashes defensive replies or a new round of slanging off... So far so usual.  (Really you should just read the opinion pieces and not all the comments afterwards!) But what was dispiriting was the number of people who commented basically that people who work are greedy and selfish and want wealth at the expense of nurturing their families.
Are we really still in that place?

Okay - so in the extremely unlikely event that any of those people will read this comment, I will explain how this thing works, with working and childcare and cash.

Some people have to work because of circumstance, even if they have small children.
These people love and cherish their children and want the best for them.
Their children are as happy and as well-adjusted as other children.
Not everyone who is working and paying off a mortgage has bought a mini-mansion.
Not everyone who is working is high-flying their way through a top-tier career.
The people in top-tier careers are working those jobs because they are the jobs they know and are good at - just as we all do the best job we can get for the hours we need to work.
There is not a simple equation of giving up paid work meaning giving up luxuries or giving up a glamorous career. The couple who sacrifice one person's work, or someone's career, to provide a stay-at-home parent are very strapped for cash; they see the working parents going out for coffee or buying something expensive and they think "Well if they just gave up that, they wouldn't have to work."
It's not like that.
In the situation they are witnessing, the dynamic is actually this:
Both parents need to work to pay the mortgage and bills. Neither parent is earning enough to cover these expenses singly. But with the combined salary, after expenses and daycare there is a little discretionary cash available. This is one of the advantages of the arrangement - as every arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages.

Believe me, before returning to work after 8 months' maternity leave, I sat with notepads and calculators and spreadsheets and did every sum you can think of, taking into account bills if at home, bills if out of the house working, benefits, tax incentives, salary, daily expenses while working vs daily expenses while home, part-time work, full-time work, etc.
If I could have stayed at home longer, I would have.

There were also things I was not willing to sacrifice - not because I am selfish but because I trust the cost-benefit analysis in my head. We were not about to sell our house and rent, or try to live with one car. I know people do this, but it would not have been right for us; the stress or added logistical difficulties would not have outweighed the benefit (for us). Every family sacrifices some things and draws the line at those they don't believe are of benefit - every family.

Until recently I used to say "and we don't own a plasma TV thank you very much!" - but I can no longer say that, exactly (it's LCD not plasma). But give me a break, we go digital next year, and prices have dropped.

So please - everyone - a little understanding and respect for our fellow parents. Whether working full-time, part-time, or not at all, the good parents and good-enough parents are all the same: making choices, sacrificing some things and enjoying others, doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt, for the benefit of the children they love.
And don't most of us do a pretty good job?

Aug 1, 2010

Flu Vaccine update

There is "good" news on the issue of the safety of the seasonal flu vaccine for children under five - looks like it was a bad batch after all, and not a problem with flu vaccines overall.
This reported by The Age newspaper today -


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