The uncanny valley of toddler food preferences

The uncanny valley hypothesis says that as a robot’s appearance becomes more and more humanlike, our affinity for it increases, but only up to a certain point. When a robot looks almost exactly like a human but not quite, our acceptance of it decreases dramatically and we experience revulsion.

mori_uncanny_valley_cmyk

While trying to get my toddler to accept new foods, I realized that there is an uncanny valley effect in toddler feeding: as a new food increases in resemblance to a food she already likes, her acceptance of it increases, up to a certain point. If a new food looks too similar to a food she likes, she reacts with revulsion.

For example, compare different forms of chicken to the toddler’s favorite food, chicken nuggets (breaded and processed, and preferably shaped like dinosaurs). The presence of ketchup exaggerates the uncanny valley, because being served with ketchup is an essential feature of chicken nuggets.

uncanny_valley_chkn

The uncanny valley can be counteracted by cutting the chicken into a different shape or size, or serving it with a different sauce. But beware alfredo sauce that bears an uncanny resemblance to ranch dressing.

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The New Year effect

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Making changes in your life because it’s January 1st seems arbitrary and forced, which may be why it usually doesn’t work. I don’t set goals or make decisions according to the calendar. But this month I’ve noticed a spillover effect from people who do, and I’ve realized that maybe the en masse resolution-making that happens in January is a good thing, because it can give a boost to the un-resolute.

I go through many periods of personal reflection when I make what you might call resolutions; they just never happen to be on January 1. My last such renaissance was in the fall, and I did some soul-searching and a little goal-setting. However, many of my goals did not have much success until this month, when being on the periphery of the resolution-making world has given them greater momentum.

Here are a few of my goals that have seen a resurgence thanks to the New Year effect:

  • In the fall I set out to make my Meetup group more active. I put more events on the calendar, found better meeting locations and tried to get more participation from members. It didn’t work. But now it’s January, when a lot of people join Meetup groups because they’ve resolved to become more socially active. So I’ve gotten several new members and increased interest in events this month.
  • I started doing yoga a few months ago. I really like it, but I wasn’t motivated to practice consistently. This month I’ve been doing yoga every day with Yoga Revolution, a 31-day program that only exists because it’s January and it’s the time of year when the most people start doing yoga. Somehow, having a current program to follow and knowing that a lot of other people are doing the same thing makes it easier to stick with every day.
  • In October I decided to get serious about making friends because since I moved to Arizona, I haven’t had anyone to talk to or spend time with besides my husband. I tried a few different things, but the problem is that Fall, the end of the calendar year, is the worst time to make new friends. Everyone is busy, many workplaces are heading into a busy season, and people are gearing up for the holidays and focusing on their own families. But come January, after the busyness has settled down and everyone has spent the holidays visiting relatives and old acquaintances they don’t actually like, a lot of people resolve to make new friends. I’ve met a lot of new potential friends recently.

I still think that New Year’s resolutions are dumb, but I’m glad that other people make them so I can benefit.

Ask for Dr. Nguyen

I’ve seen a lot of doctors in the past year, and I’ve noticed a pattern whenever I make an appointment at a new medical practice. If the practice has multiple doctors, they ask if I have a preference for who I want to see, and I usually say no preference and ask for the first available appointment. The first available appointment is always with the doctor who has the most difficult-to-pronounce name.

Among high-demand specialists, even within the same practice, there can be a huge difference in how long you have to wait to get an appointment as a new patient. I’ve called practices where the soonest available appointment with Dr. Richards is in a month and a half, while Dr. Nguyen is available next week.

It makes sense that when most patients call to make an appointment with a new doctor, they request one with a name they can pronounce, even if they know nothing about any of the doctors in the practice. If they were referred to a specific doctor, people are more likely to recommend a doctor whose name they can easily pronounce. There’s probably a positive feedback cycle that develops: if someone picks a name at random, they are more likely to choose one they can pronounce, and if they have a good experience with that doctor, they are more likely to write good Yelp reviews and recommend her to others. New patients who request an appointment with Dr. Jones may even think that the harder it is to get an appointment with him, the better he must be.

All this has been to my advantage. I don’t put much stock in Yelp reviews or patient recommendations when choosing a doctor, so I always find the soonest available one. And I’ve almost always had excellent experiences with them. In fact, my experiences with doctors with difficult-to-pronounce names have been a lot better than my experiences with doctors overall.

Maybe it’s because the doctors I’ve seen are more likely to be Asian women, who I usually feel more comfortable with– but not always. (I think name pronounceability is a better predictor of my experience with a doctor than race or gender.) Or maybe people with more interesting names have quirkier personalities that I have a better time communicating with. Or it might be that doctors with difficult-to-pronounce names are better because they’ve had to work harder to compensate for their name handicap. Or maybe I just like them because I also have a hard-to-pronounce last name.

What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

2016 was the worst year of my adult life. It started with moving to a new state while I was still recovering from the birth of my second child. Two days after we arrived in Arizona, my newborn baby got very sick and spent a week in the hospital. Then I suffered through several difficult illnesses of my own, the last of which included a two-month wait to have a tumor biopsied. The bad things kept coming and the year kept going.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is one of the things people say to try to make sense of hardship when they really don’t know how to respond. I’m not sure what it’s actually supposed to mean. Maybe it means that hard times make you realize that you’re stronger than you thought, or that after going through hard times, you develop the skills to survive more hard times in the future. Neither has been true for me.

I’ve gone through plenty of hard times throughout my life, and I feel that each difficult thing I go through makes me weaker, not stronger. It makes me realize that I am not as strong as I thought I was, and it makes me even less tolerant of going through more hard times in the future. 

Many people say they are actually glad to have experienced difficulties because it made them stronger. But that is usually only said in hindsight, after a trial is over and only if they’ve gained something more valuable than what they lost. They may have lost security but gained insight, lost health but gained love and support from others, or lost temporary happiness but gained new knowledge and skills. In my experience though, there may be things gained through suffering, but not nearly enough to make what was lost worth it.

I hoped that once I made it through this crappy year and some of the crappy things that happened, I would have gained some perspective or derived some meaning from it, but I don’t think there is any to be found. I’m sure it would be easier if I believed that everything happens for a reason, but I don’t, and I don’t believe that there is always something to be learned. Sometimes life just sucks.

I hate cooking

I mean, I really hate cooking. I hate everything involved with cooking, including thinking about what to make, grocery shopping, food prep, and the actual cooking itself. There’s a long list of things I would rather do than cook or prepare food, and it includes doing laundry, changing diapers, and getting a rabies vaccine.

What I hate most is the fact that the entire process of getting food ready to eat takes so much longer than it takes to eat it. And then you have to do it all again a few hours later. As an INTP I really don’t care about sensory things like how food tastes or how it looks, so I get no enjoyment out of this Sisyphean cycle. I try to do as little as possible, and let my husband or the slow cooker do as much as they are able. Even so, eating happens so often in our family of four that I pretty much have to constantly think about or work on getting food ready to eat.

These days, people are always trying to talk to me about cooking. “Do you like to cook?” is to moms and married women what “What kind of music do you listen to?” is to the high school and college set. And when I answer “no,” they look at me and laugh uncomfortably as if I’ve just said something shocking.

I used to enjoy cooking. When I was single, childless, and had tons of time to pursue all of my interests and then some, cooking was one of my hobbies. I made all of my meals from scratch using produce from a CSA, baked bread and made granola every week, experimented with recipes, and baked cakes to give away just for fun. With an enormous amount of free time and energy, I can enjoy just about anything.

Becoming a parent is a great magnifying glass to identify the things that actually are important to you and the things that aren’t. Now that my free time and energy levels are always in deficit, very few things make my priority list. In fact, I now actively hate a lot of things that I used to enjoy or care about. In addition to cooking, they also include shopping, making things by hand, occasionally going to parties, keeping up with politics, and recycling. (Okay, I don’t hate recycling, but I don’t have the energy to care about it anymore.) Taking care of young children is too exhausting and all-consuming to spend an extra minute doing anything that either doesn’t have to be done or doesn’t fill my tank. Or to spend an extra minute being apologetic about it.

When does the STEM gender gap really begin?

I recently read about a study showing that the STEM gender gap is perpetuated by teacher bias. Sixth graders were given a math test, which was scored by a group of teachers who didn’t know them. When the tests were anonymous, the girls performed better than the boys. But when the teachers knew the names of the students whose tests they scored, they scored the boys higher than the girls, suggesting that the teachers had subconscious prejudices that underestimated girls’ math abilities and overestimated boys’. When the same students reached middle and high school, the girls who had received lower scores from their teachers in sixth grade (but had actually outperformed the boys, objectively) had lower math performance than their male classmates, and were less likely to choose to take advanced science and math courses.

I happened to be at a playdate with my daughter when I read that article. (On the rare occasions that I go to neighborhood playdates with other stay-at-home moms anymore, I usually read science articles on my phone instead of trying to talk to them. It makes the time pass more tolerably.) Several moms in the playgroup are pregnant with their second or third child, so this time there was a lot of talk about baby names and the sexes of the babies. In the midst of this, I could not believe all the gender stereotypes I was hearing.

(AJ loves trains and has never even heard the word ‘princess’. Once at a playdate she found her friend’s toy trains and the boy’s mom said to me, “I didn’t put out the train set because I knew there weren’t going to be any boys here.”)

“It’s going to be so crazy having another boy. The two of them will be so active and boisterous all the time, I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. You’re so lucky that you’re having a girl so she’ll be calmer and quieter.”

“He’s always running around and banging his toy cars together. He’s such a boy.”

“I’m glad we’re having a boy this time, so my husband will have a little fishing buddy.”

“I’m so excited to have a little girl to shop for. I already started pinning hairbows for her.”

This blows my mind, but the sad fact is that almost every single conversation I hear among stay-at-home moms is full of similar stereotypes.

With as much talk about how different aspects of the school environment create a gender gap in STEM fields, I have to believe that the gender gap begins with parents. After all, we have much more influence over our kids than teachers do, and parental influence begins from birth. If a teacher’s subconscious gender bias can affect the academic performance and interests of students over the course of an academic year, parents who stereotype their kids from toddlerhood, infancy, and even before birth surely have a huge impact on what subjects their children will prefer in school, their academic performance, and their career choices later on.

If little girls aren’t encouraged to play with toy helicopters and robots and toolkits, how will they develop the desire to become pilots or engineers and the desire to learn about STEM? If parents dress their daughters in clothes that are meant to be pretty rather than functional, how will they be able to climb, dig, act like dinosaurs, or practice blasting off into outer space? (I cringe every time I see a toddler girl wearing shoes that don’t allow her to run safely; little boys are never physically restricted by their clothing.) And if the above are labeled as “boy” behaviors and interests from before age 2, is it any wonder that by the time they reach high school, girls have little interest and declining ability in math and science?

The thing is, I know most of these moms would call themselves feminists and say that they want their daughters to have all the same opportunities as their sons, and some may even wish for their daughters to go into STEM fields. But a few words of encouragement when a girl is already in school are not going to be enough to counteract years of subconscious messages from funneling her towards certain toys, books, and hobbies and away from others.

Of course, staying away from gender stereotypes has many other benefits for kids that have nothing to do with their interest in STEM. But I think it’s obvious that if you want boys and girls to have the same opportunities in STEM fields later in life, you have to give them the same opportunities from the very beginning of life.

Looking to the light

 

One morning I was putting AJ in her carseat when our 5-year-old neighbor came out of the house next door. She waved and asked where we were going, and I told her we were going to a friend’s house for a playdate. She replied, “Now? In the middle of the night?” “It’s not night,” I said, “it’s almost ten in the morning.” She said, “But it’s still dark outside. Whenever I wake up and it’s still dark, my mom always says ‘go back to sleep! It’s not morning yet!’”

Some Alaska moms can get their kids to sleep until noon in the winter using that trick. Unfortunately, my daughter has an impeccable internal clock that wakes her up hours before light breaks the horizon, and she’s progressively waking up earlier and earlier.

Thankfully, so is the sun. Though it still rises at about the same time AJ takes her first nap, the increasing light already makes a big difference. Everything looks better from this side of the solstice.

Winter in interior Alaska lasts for almost three-quarters of the year, and in December we only get a very few short hours of sunlight. It would all be completely unbearable if it weren’t for one thing: seasonal temperature lag, the delay in the Earth’s surface temperature response to solar insolation. The warmest time of the year occurs after the peak of maximum solar insolation (summer solstice), and the coldest time of the year occurs after the time of lowest solar insolation (winter solstice). Temperature can lag insolation by up to three months, caused by the high specific heat of water in the oceans and atmosphere, which absorb incoming heat from the sun and release it slowly.

If there were no seasonal temperature lag, winter would be evenly split between either side of the solstice, and the darkest month of the year would also be the coldest. Our first four months of winter would be an agonizingly slow march towards ever-decreasing temperatures and light. By mid-winter, we would all be in a black hole of depression with nothing to look forward to because the second half of winter would be just as long and terrible as the first.

Thanks to temperature lag, two-thirds of the winter is spent in progressively increasing light, and the second half of winter has longer days than the first half. By the time we reach the coldest days of the year, the days are already longer than they were at the beginning of winter. And even though snow continues to linger long after spring equinox, summer’s constant daylight inches closer and heralds the warmth. Thank goodness for the specific heat of water.