Sunday, August 24, 2014

How to decode a 6 month old.

After a month of being the primary caregiver for our little daughter, I believe I have understood all there is to know about infants. So, here I proffer these words of wisdom to all who find themselves in a similar boat as I did a month ago.

Everything you have heard about babies providing hunger and sleepiness cues is bullshit. The single web post I read long ago about understanding a baby's cues for hunger (if she licks her lips, she's hungry) and sleepiness (if she rubs her eyes, she's sleepy) did not know what it was talking about. Babies function in a periodic routine - where everything is repeated every 3 hours during daylight hours. They sleep on the dot. They eat on the dot. They will not tolerate deviations from schedule. Babies lick their lips and rub their eyes all the time.

I tried following cues once. I tried making her sleep when she rubbed her eyes. She refused to sleep. She puked on me. I persisted trying to make her sleep. And after a lot of effort she slept. I looked at the clock. It was exactly 3 hours since she had last slept. Cleaning up the mess, I swore I would never try following cues again.  And for 29 days since then I have been a happy camper.Babies are creatures of schedule. Little else.

Babies will gravitate towards forbidden articles. Without exception. And they will eat the said article when you are not looking.

The daughter has gazilions of toys. Toys that are made specifically for infants. Toys that are meant for the infant to shove into her mouth and maul to infinite glory. Toys that are periodically washed and do not even have a single molecule known to man to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

And we also have television remote controls and a particularly disgusting slinky spring (which exists for some reason that I fail to recall) in the whereabouts of a play area.  Of course, the sanitized toys are abandoned in favor the the filthy options - and active intervention (often followed by shouts of disapproval) is necessary to right this wrong.

Babies are not creatures that respect boundaries either. We try to keep her on a blanket on the carpet in the living room. But she always moves towards the edge of said blanket, with one arm on the (forbidden) carpet all the time.

Diaper changes are planned by babies to occur at the most inconvenient of times. A lot has been written about the cognitive ability of infants at this age: that they do not comprehend the concept of object permanence; that they do not acknowledge themselves as an entity. However, they do possess some rudimentary intelligence - which is almost exclusively dedicated to finding the most inopportune time to require a diaper change.

Fast asleep at midnight after several awakenings to pretend to feed? Yes, I need a diaper change.
Finally starting to drink milk after 20 minutes of staunch refusal? Yes, I need a diaper change.
Installed in a baby high chair with all buckles painstakingly fastened and food heated up, ready to eat? Yes, I need a diaper change.
That awesome piece on science friday about neanderthals has just started? Yes, I need a diaper change. And I need it now.

Baby sleep is quantized. Babies are quantum creatures - not just because there's always uncertainty about what they will do next. But their sleep schedules are surprisingly quantized -- during the day, they sleep in periods which are integer multiples of 35 minutes.

Well, not exactly. The 35 minutes is more of a statistical mean -- there's a distribution around it (though, thankfully with a tight standard deviation). In other words, babies are more complex than quantum mechanics.

Babies don't like to be alone. Often, babies will ignore you when you are trying to play with them. But it is usually a bad idea to try to exploit this situation to pour yourself a (much needed) warm cup of coffee. Because, even though they are focusing intently on munching on that tag on the teddy bear, they are equally closely monitoring you. Once you step out of field of vision, they will invariably cry - and if you don't respond even for a minute, you will most certainly see a tear on their eye. No matter how discreet you are.

They will almost murder you with tears the first time you make them sleep. When you try to make a baby sleep for the first time, they will test you. They way I see it: babies have been conditioned by evolution to not warm up to any one off the street. They need to run a test to see if the person trying to make them sleep is worthy of the privilege. So one must persist making them sleep, inventing maneuvers to comfort them (using the amplitude and spectrogram of the crying sound as closed-loop feedback parameters). This ensures the development of a 'go-to-sleep' routine. Rewards (for developing said routine) can be reaped soon - my record for transforming her from an active state to a sound sleep state is 1 minute.

Grandparents are excepted from these rules.  My little stint with the daughter was bounded by two different (and incredibly capable) grandparents, who did not seem to be subject to the aforementioned constraints.  (you could argue that this proves that my rules are not repeatable - so the above points cannot be actual science, as they seem to fail when the scientific method is applied with care - but I'll ask you to with withhold judgement and take this on faith).

With these little tips, you shall definitely be able to take care of your six month old. Just remember humans are capable of incredible things like climbing  Everest, walking the Sahara barefoot, running marathons and operating windows 8. This should give you some confidence that you will probably be able to care for your little one.

STATUTORY WARNING **** if you were actually planning on taking this advice seriously, please get help. now.****

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A new business model for news?

To the individual who actually consumes the news, the internet is a blessing. It is possible to read news and opinion - immediately after publication -  from any source in the world, and comprehend the entire context of the happening by following a few hyperlinks. And all this is free. For now.

This level of immersion into current affairs (or even historical affairs for that matter)  is unprecedented in human history. To repeat a platitude, we are indeed in the golden age of information.

However, there is a catch. If you are getting something that you used to pay for, for free - then there are concerns about long term sustainability. How is the reporter going to feed his / her family if one portion of his / her revenue stream is dried up?

And sure enough, the contemporary newspaper business is in doldrums - and their way to cope with this issue is a paywall. If you want to read articles on the economist, you have to buy a subscription. The same with the new york times; the same with scientific american; the same with the wall street journal. 

But paywalls are a deeply problematic solution. Firstly, it becomes uneconomical to subscribe to all publications of interest (remember, one of the big plusses of the internet is to provide the ability to consume a variety of news sources). Secondly, the magic of internet lies in the ability to hyperlink from one story to another - and it would be undesirable, in my opinion to break that magic by paywalling.

So, in this context consider the following scenario.

People spend a lot of time consuming "news" through facebook (an a few lost souls do it through google plus). It's a fair bet to say that most internet users have a social media account of some sort. Currently news on social media is either sensationalized clickbait or in-depth (paywalled) analysis by repulable sources such as the economist and the new york times. And almost all non-paywalled news sites are difficult to consume due to a significant amount of real-estate being dedicated to irritating animated and noisy advertisements.

I believe there is an opportunity for these social media sites to offer a consolidated paywall for news, wherein avid news junkies (like yours truly) pay around $10-$30 a month for an all-you-can-eat buffet of articles from new scientist, scientific american, new york times, the economist, the BBC, times of India, the Hindu. (and so on). Since people know exactly where the clicks and "time-spent reading" are going, it would be a fairly trivial matter to divvy up the thus generated pot among the deserving news-sites.  This would be a spotify for the print media and would make the news media economically competitive again, while generating a robust revenue stream for the service providers (google, facebook and twitter being the current defaults), though this could easily happen through a third party app on either (or all) platforms.

Since we are considering an "all-you-can-eat" buffet of separate news sources aligned only by a sign-in to a third party, the hyperlink-to-paywall problem articulated earlier also has the potential to be solved: if you're signed through facebook (say), you are in the "secure area" inside the paywall - and hyperlinking should work like it did in the good old days (or at least that is the theory).

I could see this extrapolate to (or even include) news served up in video format - and something like this would be key in making finding information on the internet a less frustrating affair.