Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my 37th birthday. When I was younger, my birthday was always a HUGE deal to me, probably because my parents, and in particular my mom, have always made a big fuss over birthdays. As I get older, though, my birthday has receded in importance to me and I almost forgot it was coming: I didn't bother planning a party or even a small get-together with my friends this year. I think planning one over-the-top birthday gathering annually (R's) is enough for me!

I spent the early morning at the doctor's office on my follow-up appointment for my D&C. Boring, but ultimately good as everything has healed well and I am more or less fully recovered. After that I went to get my hair done, which was sorely needed as it's been ages since my last haircut or color. Then I took myself out to a sushi lunch and read my new book (a gift from my parents), Ancient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization. So far it is excellent. In the afternoon I picked R up from school and now she is busy making me a raspberry cake with B. A pretty perfect day so far!

B and I don't really give each other presents (if I want something, I just buy it for myself), but we do tend to celebrate events with experiences (especially trips). He has a conference coming up in Kyoto, so we are combining business with pleasure and celebrating my birthday with a 2.5 week trip to Japan. We leave early next week and will be gone until the second week in August.

Being the procrastinators/spontaneous travelers that we are, we haven't firmed up our travel plans yet, but I think they will include a week in Kyoto, with side trips to Nara and Koya-san, and visiting Hiroshima and Osaka. I also want to visit Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is in the southwest of Honshu. I am definitely looking forward to the trip!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Parenting Doesn't Make Much Difference (to Personality)

I was reading a post in which the author was talking about tending her dog, and came across this line.
"Every time someone compliments his calm, sweet temperament is a secret gold star stuck on my heart and I think to myself, If nothing else, you did that."
I have never solely raised a dog (since the only dogs I have owned were family dogs, for whom my parents were primarily responsible), so I can't really evaluate how much of a dog's temperament is due to its owners. The statement made me think, though, about children's temperaments and how much, if any, credit parents can take for their children's good behavior. And honestly I think the answer is, basically none.

The general consensus is that at least 50% of personality traits are due to genetic factors, and possibly much more. This includes things like how cooperative you are, how outgoing you are, how curious you are and how anxious you are: in other words, all the traits which make one human distinct from another. Parenting, in contrast, plays very little role. In fact, this commonly cited paper states, "The similarity we see in personality between biological relatives is almost entirely genetic in origin". In other words, you are only like your parents because of your genes, not because of how they raised you.

Even when parenting does seem to play a role, its effects seem to be limited to the negative side of the spectrum. This paper argues that parenting (in terms of adolescents' self reported relationship with their parents) does have an important effect on personality, but only in a negative sense. If children perceived that their parents liked them a lot (high Regard) and did not argue with them much (low Conflict), then influences on personality were mostly genetic. But if children perceived that their parents did not like them, or argued with them constantly, then personality was heavily shaped by that. In other words, while bad parenting can warp the personality, good parenting just allows the natural genetic tendency to express itself fully, but does not change that tendency at all.

I think it is interesting to conceive as good parenting as only a way to make people more like themselves. Good parenting, then, accepts the child just as she or he is, and works to turn whatever preexisting natural tendencies there are into more constructive channels, so an aggressive child can learn to channel that aggression into sports, or the business world, instead of beating people up on the street. But the aggressive child is always going to be aggressive, and will never be described as agreeable or easy-going.

Usually when people talk about "well behaved" kids, though, they don't mean this. Instead, there is an "ideal" child in mind, who is calm, sweet, obedient, tidy, and outgoing. If a child meets some or most of these characteristics, then they are described as "good" and their parents as "good parents", even though that outcome is really due largely to chance (or rather, genetics). This is one reason why compliments on parenting are generally so useless (and criticisms, for that matter).

I hope that I can accept R's personality fully, and work with her to make the best use of her gifts (and deficits, for that matter). Sometimes this is easy, like appreciating her cheerful, outgoing nature (for which she always gets lots of compliments); sometimes this is hard, like accepting her high energy level (as a lower energy level person myself I can find it exhausting) or her lack of interest in tidiness and organization (I used to organize my sister's room for fun as a child: I cannot imagine R ever doing this). But it is incredibly important.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Masak Masak at the National Museum

This past weekend we went to the National Museum of Singapore, where they are currently having "children's season": the exhibit Masak Masak, designed for children, celebrates the June school holidays.
We were greeted by a selection of bouncy playgrounds on the front lawn of the museum. R really enjoyed this exhibit and had a great time exploring the different sections. The only downside was that the playground was located directly in the sun, so that by the time we left (around 12:30), it had already been closed due to the heat. Even at 10 am, when we arrived, it was pretty sweaty. If you want to take advantage of the bouncy playground, arrive early!
After R got her fill of bouncing, we headed inside to be greeted by a cool paper rainbow hanging from the rotunda.
Most of the museum is currently closed for renovations: only the children-themed exhibits and one exhibit hall on Singapore's history are open.
On the first floor, they had an interactive flag exhibit and dancing solar flowers (all orchids, Singapore's national flower).
R had fun throwing hula hoops onto pillars in a sort of ring toss game.
We then headed up to the top floor, which housed the exhibit Luma-City. Model vehicles can be pushed around a floor, leaving glow trails behind themselves. It was a really cool concept, but unfortunately the fun of the exhibit was largely spoiled by the execution: kids were only allowed to very slowly push the vehicles around a too-small floor (with no barrier, so the vehicles kept falling off). No riding, no running, no bumping, no no no: the list of forbidden things was endless.
The theme of everything being forbidden continued in the National Museum's new gallery for children, Play@NMS. You are greeted by a whole slew of signs forbidding stuff, which despite the inviting-sounding names, does not entice you to either explore or create.
The actual gallery is theoretically full of things kids like: a play kitchen, puzzles, a movie tent showing short films...
but somehow was oddly barren and not especially appealing or well designed. Here's an example: though this space is aimed primarily at preschoolers, the toy kitchen was too tall for R (who is much bigger than the average Singaporean child of her age), putting everything at her eye level.
R playing with the magnet board, a cute idea asking kids to find the right ingredients for popular Singaporean dishes.
Puzzle tree
In addition to the Explore gallery, the Create gallery was supposed to offer a place for coloring (though paper was actually only dispensed in Explore, begrudgingly and limited to one piece per child, rendering Create rather a non-starter). There is also an outdoor space, but it was closed for unidentified reasons during our visit. R enjoyed exploring the space for maybe 20 minutes, rendering it a poor comparison to her toys at home or a mediocre play gym. It's a good idea but was overall a bit disappointing. At least admission is free.
After we finished with Play@NMS, we headed back downstairs to more children's exhibits. R had fun at the stamping center (linked with an exhibit of woodcuts, which I thought was creative), but the best exhibit was the cool interactive sculpture created out of plastic bags.
It was a bit like a maze, allowing kids to crawl under and over the sculpture. R really enjoyed it.

Once we exhausted the possibilities of the crawl space, we headed into the only traditional gallery currently open, which traces the history of Singapore from its beginnings under the Mahapajit empire through the post-independence period
I found the section on World War Two in Singapore to be the most compelling and interesting part of the exhibit. So did R: here she is checking out a replica of one of the textbooks used by Singaporean schoolchildren under the Japanese occupation. Free tours are available and judging by the one we saw in progress during our visit, seem to be high quality. I would have gone on it if not for R's presence!
After our visit, we were all hungry and headed out to eat at nearby Baja Fresh (yes, the same one all over California: it is always kind of nostalgic to go there). B had a pretty terrible burrito but my fajitas were good, and R got to eat churros for the first time, so we called it a win.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Temples of Bagan

The main item on my agenda during our trip to Burma last year was seeing the famous temples of Bagan. Bagan was once Burma's capital (from the 9th to the 13th Centuries), and during that time over 10,000 temples were built. Over 2200 still survive today, dotted all over the plain of Bagan, in various states of repair and restoration.
Bagan is not a UNESCO site, supposedly because of the government's ham-fisted renovation efforts, which have included building a 200 foot watchtower, a golf course and rebuilding damaged buildings using modern materials without being true to the original design. It really should be, though, because it is a spectacular place: the temples are amazing.
Statue of an ascetic monk, dressed in a longyi
Nats, pre-Buddhist deities still worshipped in Burma
Floor of a temple
Temple undergoing renovation
The temples are Buddhist, and Burma is a Buddhist country, so some of them are still active places of worship. Most, though, have been long abandoned and are now only visited by tourists, both Burmese and foreign.

Interior of a temple
Small temple with placard
Most of the temples are quite dark inside, which gives a haunting feeling
Mostly destroyed temple: they are in all states of repair and disrepair
Some of the temples are still decorated with murals from long ago

Several of the larger temples are climbable, providing beautiful views of the plain of Bagan.

The climb is really steep so be careful!
The variety of temples is a little overwhelming: there are just so many temples to see, far more than even I would have the stamina for.
 I loved the details on the temples, like these embedded tiles and naga heads.

Bagan is an unmissable site, and definitely one of the top places in the region to visit. In fact, of all the ancient sites I have visited in Southeast Asia, I would say it is in the top three (along with Angkor Wat and Prambanan/Borobudur). 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Getting Your Nails Done Is Wrong

One of my favorite indulgences has been to get pedicures. Since Singapore is so hot, I wear sandals every day and like having pretty toes to show off. Unfortunately, I recently read an expose series by the New York Times about the terrible state of the nail industry. After reading it, I've come to the conclusion that getting your nails done is exploitative and ultimately, wicked.

The first article in the series discusses how the immigrant and largely non-English-speaking workforce in New York is exploited by their employers, receiving far below minimum wage, having to work for free, and even paying fees for jobs. This is a very sad state of affairs, and definitely reflects badly not only on the employers but on the regulatory framework in New York. However, it is pretty locally specific to New York (where there is a glut of nail salons competing to offer pedicures and manicures at rock bottom prices).

What changed my mind about getting pedicures was this article. Apparently the chemicals used in nail polishes and other solvents are toxic. While using them occasionally at home doesn't pose any dangers, using them day after day poisons nail workers, causing respiratory and skin problems. There is also some evidence that the chemicals cause cancer and reproductive health issues, including miscarriages and abnormal fetal development. So basically by getting pedicures I am asking poorly paid and low status workers to risk their health (and possibly even lives) just so that I can have pretty nails.

When I realized how harmful pedicures could be to the workers who give them, I knew that I couldn't get them done anymore. I don't pretend to be an exemplar of righteous living, but in this case the issues seem pretty clear-cut (vanity and laziness versus people's lives). I was pretty disappointed to come to this conclusion, because I have really liked getting my nails done, and sort of wished that I had never read the article (since then I could continue exploiting people without feeling guilty: just kidding!). Guess I will need to brush up on my nail painting skills!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cloud Gate, Chicago

B and I visited Chicago without R back in Christmas 2013. It was a combination pleasure/work trip for B, so he had to work two days (out of four) that we were gone, leaving me to amuse myself while he was busy. This wasn't a bit hard as I enjoy traveling by myself, especially when a city has museums as fine as Chicago's.

Museums aside, one of my favorite things in Chicago was Cloud Gate (nicknamed the Bean) in Millennium Park. I had wanted to see it ever since That Wife visited when she lived in Chicago, and it didn't disappoint.

The sculpture is made of polished stainless steel, so it's highly reflective. I loved seeing the famous skyscrapers of Chicago in the mirrored surface.
 Cloud Gate is surprisingly large, big enough to walk through and under.The coolest thing about this is walking to the middle of the sculpture and looking up: the reflections are amazing!
The best thing about Cloud Gate, though, is seeing the reaction of people as they get close to it. I loved watching all the tourists interact with the sculpture, having fun taking their photos and goofing around with their reflections. I think the interactivity aspect of Cloud Gate is what makes it such a successful piece of public art.