Raising kids

It is better, according to a set of University of Pennsylvania researchers, to praise a kid for working hard than to praise him/her for being smart:


If you praise the kid for being smart, he/she will be more reluctant to undertake challenges; the kid is more likely to test limits if they are praised for their effort.  When I was in school, the kids who got good grades without much effort were admired; the ones who worked hard were put down as "slogs". Yet, in life, the successful people are those who can pick themselves up after a disaster and keep going.  Being risk-averse gets you nowhere.

Weather prediction by crowds

There's this new site called cumul.us (cool pun in the name) that aims to do for weather forecasting what the election futures markets are doing for political forecasting (they've typically done better than individual journalists or networks at predicting election results).

Since a lot of weather information is available freely (it's collected or produced by the US government), the concept is not that far fetched.  One of my friends does weather forecasting for energy trading and his constant refrain is that he doesn't have to be right -- he just needs to be better than the models.  So, the real question is whether a bunch of amateurs and weather enthusiasts can outperform the models when they (by necessity) will rely on them.  One thing that humans (especially crowds) are good at, and that computers are not, is at assessing the probability of different scenarios. 

Bottom line: I would expect the site to do somewhat worse than a typical weather forecaster on "normal" days and somewhat better than a typical weather forecaster on harder forecasts.  To the meteorologists: feel free to comment.

Rain and Taxis at Washington Dulles

Flew into Dulles airport today evening and found the line for taxis snaking all around the concourse and doubling back.

"Why is so crowded?," wondered the lady behind me in line.

"It's always like this when it rains in DC," I informed her with my best weary-traveler tone of voice.

"But why?," she persisted, "if it's not raining, how do all these people get home?"

That had me stumped. It's a good question. Why do the lines get atrocious whenever there is rain? To give you a perspective of the problem, the line's usually under a dozen on normal days. On a rainy day, it tops a couple hundred.  And yet, people who're going to take a taxi from the airport are going to take a taxi, right? It's not like they're going to walk out on the Leesburg turnpike and trudge home because it's a sunny day ...

Thinking more about this (I had over an hour to think about it) ... it's not the airport that's the problem. When it rains, folks in downtown DC who'd have normally walked or taken the metro probably decide to take taxis. And since taxis make more money on multiple short trips, that's where the taxi drivers go.  And so, there are fewer cabs to service the airport. That's my hypothesis anyway.

Boil them alive

Perhaps I am ignorant, but I had no idea that each silk thread involves the boiling alive of a silkworm cocoon, before the adult silkworm emerges.

Once the worms happily eat their way to 10,000 times their weight at hatching time, which only takes them about a month, they have enough energy to spin their cocoon ... Then the cocoons are steamed or heated to a higher temperature to kill the worms inside them ... great care is taken to ensure the worm does not hatch into a moth because then the long silk thread filament that the worm have made its cocoon out of will get broken.

A silk sari then involves the boiling alive of hundreds of thousands of worms. This is very ironic, because silk plays a part in many Hindu ceremonies. The best Indian silk is made in Varanasi and Kanchipuram, both cities with very active temple cultures.  Some Hindu temples forbid people from bringing in leather purses.  But none, as far as I know, forbids silk saris.

The next time I see a holier-than-thou vegetarian wearing a silk sari (or even a silk tie), I will have a nice factoid to mention.

Oklahoma immigration law: what's changed?

The big news in Oklahoma is a highly restrictive law (touted as the most restrictive law in the United States) that enforces checking of legal status in the United States before issuing a driver's license or renewing an expired license.

I'm not sure what has changed to warrant all the hoopla.  When I moved from Ohio in 1995, I went to get my Oklahoma license and was told that my Ohio license was not enough; they needed to see my passport and visa.  I had to go back home and dig them out.  That was not an isolated incident. Four years ago, when it came time to renew my license, I went to the tag agency to get it renewed. "Are you a U.S. citizen?," I was asked and when I said I wasn't, I was told that I could get my license renewed only at the DMV.  That time, I had to show my green card at the DMV.

One clue may be in this article that ran in a local paper, where someone is quoted as saying:

"I guess what bothers me is there was nothing out that warned a person about this. We thought the bill was all about immigration, we didn't think it applied to us."

"Didn't apply to us" indeed.  Perhaps what has changed is that the law used to be discriminatory -- if the person looks like a foreigner, ask for proof of legal status, but if they look like they belong, no problems.  And now, perhaps, the discretion (and the potential to do ethnical profiling) has been removed.  Just guessing, though.

If you know what exactly is new about this law, let me know. Because in my experience at least, you have always had to show proof of legal status before getting a driver's license.

Yipee doo!

My partner and I had the highest handicap in the bridge club yesterday, i.e. on the numbers, we were lousiest team playing. That part is not a surprise -- half the players in the club I play in are life masters and 5 of those playing yesterday are rated even higher than that.  Meanwhile, this close to the holidays, several of the weaker players didn't show up.

But (and the reason for this celebratory post!) ... we came in first even without the handicap. How great is that?

Another reason to plump for Obama

My cousin has mentioned that his son (a lawyer and former teacher in a NYC inner city school for AmeriCorps) works for the Chris Dodd campaign. But seeing Hari's name at the top of an attack memo is jolting just the same:
The lack of candor with which Senator Clinton answered many of the questions posed to her at the recent Democratic Presidential Candidates' Debate in Philadelphia has had a significant impact on public perceptions of her "honesty."
Senator Clinton is perceived to have least what they say they want most: honesty. As such, these findings pose a significant hurdle for Senator Clinton to overcome in a general election and are telling to the issue of "electability."
Kid's not getting a job in a Clinton administration, I'd say -- the lady has a reputation for bearing grudges. An Obama one, maybe ... So now, I have a personal reason to hope Obama beats Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire ...

Our Pontotoc Ridge Hike

On Saturday, we went to the Nature Conservancy-managed Pontotoc Ridge Preserve and had a blast of a time. The preserve is part of the cross timbers, a belt of ancient forests that cuts across the Southern Great Plains, and consists of untilled land. We've been members of the Nature Conservancy a few years now -- the pragmatism of the organization compared to the typical left-wing environmental groups -- really appeals to me. Thus, rather than push reluctant governments to classify land as parks, they buy land outright or pay for conservation easements. A good way to preserve nature in marginal areas ...

I also like the Nature Conservancy because they hire knowledgeable, friendly people who really love the land and love to show it off. Last year, we drove from Norman to the JT Nickel preserve, a 3-hour drive which turned out to be 4 hours and so we missed joining the tour group. "No problem, " said the young man when he came back from leading his tour, "I'll take you to see a nice waterfall on the property". And he led the way in his truck.

Saturday too was one of the Nature Conservancy hikes and this year too, we had knowledgeable, friendly guides. The manager of the preserve led the tour and was accompanied by another Nature Conservancy worker who'd done most of his work in South America. A botany professor from a local college happened to be part of the tour, and was able to point out most of the trees, plants and what was unique about them. For the first time, I actually know what I saw!

The green spiky fruit is a Bois d'Arc. We also saw poison ivy, fish-on-a-pole and a variety of oaks and elms. I'll spare you most of the pictures except those that, like this winged elm, are simply too gorgeous to pass up. Notice the "wings" on the sides of the bark (click on any of the pictures to see a larger version). Isn't that cool?

The kids had a blast. They collected all sorts of acorns, beans and enjoyed eating the wild persimmons. Some more pictures. Wildflowers:
Pussy toes:
Persimmon seeds (the 5-year old's holding them):
Wild persimmon fruit (it's quite tasty):
I forget what this is called:
Fungi:And the thing that made the 5-year old's day ... some coyote had eaten some persimmon ...
I had enough fun that I don't mind that I had to sell my football tickets to the game that day. Though that game would have been a lot of fun too ...

Pakistan, the view from 1946

Now that Pakistan is going through one of its periodic descents into chaos, it is sobering to go back and read what intelligent and impartial observers had to say about the concept of that country.  In 1946, the Atlantic Monthly noted that the motivation for the folks pulling for the new country was power rather than any religious difference and that they didn't seem to care about the human costs of what would eventually turn into a 11-15 million population transfer:

Jinnah insists on acceptance of the present boundaries of those provinces for the hypothetical state of Pakistan. Exchange of populations and frontier adjustments, he says, could follow. No one with the least knowledge of India could suppose that these provincial boundaries correspond to any national, ethnic, or linguistic delineation.  The Pathan of the North-West Frontier Province and the Bengali Moslem are both, according to Jinnah, potential members of Pakistan. What have they in common? They have the same religion, but racially they are totally different; they cannot understand each other's language; they dress differently, eat differently, and by reason of great differences in climate and geography are engaged in different occupations and forms of agriculture.  ... Jinnah, who is far from being confused in his thinking, knows all this. It is plain, therefore, that the Hindu-Moslem conflict should be seen, not as a religious one, but as a straightforward political and economic struggle for power, with the spoils of office as prizes.

As I noted earlier, some nations (the United States, India) were fortunate in their founders and in their founding principles.  Other nations, not much so -- to this second list, you can add Pakistan.  The avarice at the heart of the country's founding has never been weeded out of Pakistan's politics.

American and Indian politics can be corrupt and cynical but because of the strong founding myths, politicians keep getting tugged back to the center.  The current Bush administration may be wedded to water boarding, but you can be sure that future generations will look on this -- as they look on the internment of Japanese in World War II -- as a repugnant practice.  The chance of a full-fledged descent to torture is quite low.  Similarly, the founding principles of fairness at the heart of India's founding will keep tugging Indian politicians away from promoting unshackled growth -- polluted air and stagnant rural economies will get addressed even if urban and industrial money leads to submerging of those principles for a while.


The three-year old was going on and on yesterday about the cookies she'd gotten at her day care.

"It was orange and yellow and had small green things on it," she enthused.

"Did you get some for me?," I asked.

"No," she said sternly, "when Appa is two years old and I am thirty five, then you can get a cookie".

I went to the post office near my building last week. Because the post office is on campus, the worker (she looked like a temporary worker) was probably a college student. The mailing charge came out to $4.60.  I gave her $10.10.  "Umm ...," she said hesitantly, "I don't know how to do this." "You need to give me $5.50 back," I told her and  she was happy to oblige.  Shouldn't she have been able to do that?