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Programming My Child (bostonreview.net)
83 points by exolymph on Aug 29, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 48 comments

Something about this makes my skin crawl; conflating blossoming sentience with soulless machines. Children are banal and miraculous at the same time. The default human state was to create tiny humans without end until the advent of birth control 100(?) years ago. One thing that's remarkable to me was how divorced I came from children as an adult. I was 40 when we had our first and although I'd been around neices and nephews years earlier, I'd forgotten so much. After having a second, another remarkable thing is how different they are. The younger one does and says things the older one never would have.

Children aren't for everyone, and not everyone wants or can have them. But there is something distinctive they add to life.

> One thing that's remarkable to me was how divorced I came from children as an adult.

My wife and I are in our early 30's and we're struggling with the thought of children because of this - they're utterly alien to us. I feel on an intellectual level that I think I'd like to have children and like to be a father, but with the exception of one friend (who because they have kids we've largely lost contact with), we don't really have any peers that have children, so we don't ever interact with them, and it's all terribly abstract to us.

We have 3 kids and will probably have a go at a 4th next year sometime. Bringing new children into this world is probably the hardest thing you'll ever do. There's no way to be prepared. You just jump into the fire and wing it until you start figuring things out. And it's utterly exhausting for a couple of years. But I can tell you that being a parent is the most meaningful part of my life.

By a long shot.

So I would say this: if you want to live life on easy mode and enjoy all the little pleasures that modern life has to offer, then don't have kids. I say that without judgement; your life is yours to live as you see fit. But if you want meaning, if you want to struggle for something more important than yourself, and if you want to leave something enduring behind when you depart from this world, then have some kids.

> But if you want meaning, ..., then have some kids.

Or anything else that involves devoting time other beings: homeless feeding drives, mentoring disadvantaged people about programming, working in an elderly home, etc.

The feeling of being part of something broader doesn't only come from having children sorry.

Sure, you can find meaning in other things. But play the odds. Almost nobody finds much meaning in their jobs. There is meaning to be found in being a spouse, but being a parent often outlasts being a spouse. And almost every parent you speak to will tell you that their kids are the most important undertaking of their life.

Beautifully stated.

We've had 6 children. It's hectic, loud, chaotic, frenetic, and exhausting. But I'm having the time of my life and super happy to have such a wonderful cacophony trailing around all the time.

Children are special, but not for everyone.

It's amazing how much going to work feels like play time to me now that I've had children! You can generally take a break, go to the bathroom, etc whenever you feel like it, but depending on the age of the child(ren) at home, such activities often seem like luxuries to squeeze in whenever you finally have a moment to do so. I've generally felt like the most difficult challenges at work are easier than some of the problems when caring for kids, but the joys of children far outshine the best jobs I've ever had.

"I say that without judgement [...] But if you want meaning"

Pull the other one. The judgment is very obvious. Just go ahead and own your opinion. (For the record, I do plan to raise children.)

Seriously. No judgement. It's your life, so figure out how you want to live it and go wild.

I put things in stark terms, though, because I think children are, if we're being realistic, one of the only routes to a life with meaning available to the vast majority of people. Most people do not have fulfilling careers. Most marriages fall apart at some point. Children are forever, though.

And I think people need meaning in their lives. If you're a person who is deeply into some other calling and you think that can sustain you for your entire life, then go for it. I can think of many people in my life who could probably find a lot of meaning without children. But they're not the majority of the people I know. And yet the majority of the peers on my Facebook are not on track to ever have children.

> I think children are, if we're being realistic, one of the only routes to a life with meaning available to the vast majority of people.


FWIW, all you've put forward in this thread are ad hominen attacks. If you think most people's lives have a source of deep meaning that is not their children, then I'm all ears. But that's not at all what I see when I look out into the world.

It's not an ad hominem to say that you're failing to imagine how else someone could get meaning out of their life. I agree with you that lots of people find having children to be the most important, rewarding experience they have; it does not follow that childless people's lives are lacking in meaning. Parent-child relationships are not the only meaningful ones, for one thing. And then achievements or practices outside of p2p relationships can be tremendously satisfying — meditation, religious experience, mastery of a craft. These are just examples.

Until the paragraph you had just written, you hadn't put forward any argument addressing anything I had said. First you dismissed me as judgmental. Then you dismissed me as having a myopic view of the world. Those are ad hominem arguments.

Regarding what you just wrote, here's me acknowledging that there is meaning to be found outside of children (which, logically, implies that childless people can find meaning):

> I can think of many people in my life who could probably find a lot of meaning without children.

My argument is about playing the odds. Children are the most meaningful thing in most people's lives. Most people do not find many of the other things they spend time on meaningful (their career and, proxied through their spending, consumption of goods and services). As a result, I think it's a pretty good default strategy to have children. Which is why I promote that strategy whenever somebody is on the fence (OP sounded like they were on the fence, after all).

But if you've thought seriously about it and decide that there's something else you'd rather do with your life, then by all means, follow your heart.

I had my first (of two) kid when I was 35 and a couple things helped a lot:

- I was one of the older cousins on both sides of big families so I got to see a lot of little kids running around.

- I read this amazing post from Jeff Atwood: https://blog.codinghorror.com/on-parenthood/

- I watched this talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/rufus_griscom_alisa_volkman_let_s_...

- I read a good quote that went something like this: "I asked my dad if I was ready for kids and he said 'If you are worried having kids will mess up your life, then you're not ready because you are still thinking about yourself. If you are worried that you might mess up THEIR life, then you are probably ready because it means you are already thinking about them.' "

Children definitely change your life and are a lot of work. That being said, the first time they smile at you or call you "Dada" or "Mama" it feels like you won the emotional lottery. Then each milestone big or small just keeps adding to that feeling.

I was in similar boat. I was not really around kids most of my life and making the jump was pretty difficult including the enormous new responsibility.

read a number of books mostly full of things that are common sense just worded differently.

the two most helpful things in hindsight so far (only 11 months in :-)) were the following a book around sleep [0] which is fairly short but can be shortened to a single excel spread sheet (which my wife and I did). the books seemed useless until we met others who had major challenges getting their child to sleep through the night, either we were super lucky or this book was amazing. ask me in a year after our second and I'll let you know if it was luck or not.

and then being told that once the kid comes out thousands of years of evolution magically hit you in the back of the head. this surprisingly was completely true (although I still do not know how)

lastly, none of my friends that live close have kids yet and some relationships have gotten weaker while others stronger. I think some of my friends are keeping distance for 'reasons' which is frustrating because losing touch with a good friend was not an expected result after having a kid.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Hours-Sleep-Weeks-Step/dp/0525...

> being told that once the kid comes out thousands of years of evolution magically hit you in the back of the head

This is true, there are studies out there that have shown men go through physiological changes in the brain, similar to what happens to women, both during their partners pregnancy and after the child is born.


Any chance you can share that spreadsheet?

how can I contact you? (disclosure without reading the book it may not make immediate sense)

This seems like one of those things where no matter how prepared you think you are it'll be nothing like what you expect.

My experience has been 1) don't think about it too much beforehand and 2) if you have empathy to see situations from their perspective you'll be able to look up and learn what you need.

> conflating blossoming sentience with soulless machines

What is a soul?

That thing we possess that we can't explain but we all feel implicitly or explicitly which seems to give our existence meaning. That thing that, despite all your rationalizations, allows you to feel you are a distinct existence with an individuality that extends beyond thoughts, personality, and behavior.

Which can all be explained by the material that your brain is composed of. A soul is an outdated concept with religious significance and meaning. When we discover the mechanism behind consciousness, which is an inevitability, it will seem a lot less strange and alien, much like when Galileo peered through his telescope to see the stars and planets.

When we discovered galaxies — and to me, that seems like a thing we've always had — some scientists balked at it; for there to be another galaxy — multiple galaxies in the universe would imply sizes and scales that were absolutely ridiculous!

> Also used to back up his claims [that the idea of galaxies was wrong] was the observation of a nova in the Andromeda "nebula" that had briefly outshone the entire nebula, constituting a seemingly impossible output of energy were Andromeda in fact a separate galaxy.

But of course, the nova was real, the "seemingly impossible" energy output was also real. The Great Debate[1] happened, and eventually those unacceptably ridiculous distances became common knowledge.

The universe occasionally catches us off guard. I think most of us want to know why, if we're just, as you imply, a collection of chemical reactions, why are we "here", in the sense of having what we call a consciousness? It may very well be that there will come an explanation some day, rooted in quantum physics or some unnamed, yet-dreamed-up branch of science, but it hasn't yet, and that forthcoming explanation could very well discover that there is a fundamental difference between man and machine, just as it could very well discover there isn't. We won't know until someone does the work of coming up with testable hypotheses, and probably a better definition of "consciousness".

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Debate_(astronomy)

> yet-dreamed-up branch of science


Someone took Metaphysics 101. It turns out reconciling science and philosophy isn't so easy.


Probably not.

No. I've explained it the best way I can.

The property you're looking for is called robustness. An algorithm that works with predictable results from many initial starting conditions without failure modes is called robust.

Biological systems, unlike computers, are usually extremely robust. It is not just one feedback, it is a highly complex set of multidimensional interacting feedback loops all around. Randomness and chaos are also crucial in some of these systems. And most of them actually are coded and not trained - but coded to be robust and adaptive.

The whole staging of development is likely either a side effect of this property or an additional cause of it.

You cannot truly reset any nontrivial (Esp. Nonlinear) unknown system with feedback where you don't have the direct access to states. This has nothing to do with training and everything to do with control theoretic property of observability.

The property you want is beyond robust. You actually want the algorithm to constantly go beyond its comfortable prediction range and "fail" repeatedly. That's how you learn.

Indeed, not just not fragile, not just robust, but you might even say antifragile: gaining from disorder.

Sometimes, but that property is hard to actually ensure. (and partly why so many people break down too - their cognition is lacking in it)

Most of the bodily biological systems are not antifragile or are to a very small degree.

>As with children, we don’t debug these networks; we educate them

Mostly we aren't educating young children. Rather, they are the recipients of memes (e.g. words, waving). These are ways of behaving in context. The transmission is mostly unintentional and unavoidable.

It has been speculated that if we tried to educate children how to walk and how to talk then they wouldn't succeed at either! Yet they succeed and improve these skills indefinitely. By contrast, arithmetic is intentionally and exhaustively taught, yet most adults cannot perform it.

>But you cannot reset a human being.


Sure you can. See Tom Scott's face around 3:30. It's a slightly unpleasant facial sequence that I'd only ever witnessed in babies previously; a sort of soft reset.

Another form of reset is evident when addicts are administered with ibogaine.

> Mostly we aren't educating young children. Rather, they are the recipients of memes

Guided repetition is a common educational tool.

I guess you can call that a "meme" if you want, but that doesn't make it "not education".

> By contrast, arithmetic is intentionally and exhaustively taught, yet most adults cannot perform it.

In countries where arithmetic is taught, adults are certainly capable of performing basic arithmetic.

I have yet to meet a literate adult who couldn't compute some arbitrary sum or solve a multiplication problem. In fact, the only counter-examples I've discovered are that a lot of people have problems remembering order of operations. But that's more about language/notation than arithmetic -- if you put the parens in, they'll give you the correct answer.

> It has been speculated that if we tried to educate children how to walk and how to talk then they wouldn't succeed at either!

I was taught to talk. Some of the other children in my class were deaf, and even they eventually learned how to talk (albeit not as well as you or me). I assure you, they weren't "meme'ing". There was a lot of rather complex guiding that looks a lot like what I imagine you call "education".

>> But you cannot reset a human being.

> See Tom Scott's face around 3:30

That's... pretty weak evidence. And also a weird definition of "reset". Presumably, he still knows his name is Tom, his mother's phone number, and can write an essay or add numbers together...

>I guess you can call that a "meme" if you want, but that doesn't make it "not education".

The kind of memes I'm referring to transmit spontaneously, though no doubt intentional cultivation is beneficial in some cases. There's a technical term due to Daniel Dennett: synanthropic memes. These are extremely sticky behaviours/ideas that thrive autonomously in the presence of humans, just as some biological species do, e.g. pigeons, rats, barn swallows. Some are bad. For example, swearing, bullying and perhaps even certain motor tics are memetic and these are considered bad by many.

Our ideas about education are pretty messed up and thus we ultimately have some disturbing realities to face, quite apart from the mounting student debt :-/ Hopefully there will be a clearing up if and when we develop AGI and thus gain a better understanding of how the mind works.

When I turn my computer off and on again, I don't lose all my files.

> By contrast, arithmetic is intentionally and exhaustively taught, yet most adults cannot perform it.

The adults that can perform it practice it regularly. Would those same children that can talk continue to know how to do it if they were exposed to it briefly and then never given the opportunity to do it again? The social aspect of talking (understanding context, etc) requires a lot of practice, and regular exercising of it (just like arithmetic..)

We do teach children how to walk and talk. These disciplines are known as PT, OT and speech therapy.

Oh come on, a speech therapist isn't needed to get the vast majority of children talking. You know what they meant.

We still teach kids to talk... By talking at them all the time.

This includes mute and deaf people who will talk at kids using signs. These kids which are not mute or deaf will learn to speak much later since most others will still talk at them.

The hardwired part is the sign, grammar, logic and meaning. These essentially happen over development with no intervention. We do not teach kids logic - they already have it and we teach them formal reasoning and that was not invented but discovered.

What a weird way to run all the way with an ill-fitting analogy just because; Google.

If anything parenting is running DevOps with a stubborn dev-team.

I feel like this is hugely glamourising the rote business of extracting value from data.

I liked the story and did feel that it covered well the human aspect, but it was vastly more sympathetic towards our, uh, “digital children” than i think is really warranted.

The algorithms will do surprising things, partly because the world is surprising, but mostly as long as that is sufficiently valuable. Otherwise they’ll get replaced by the next person with a jupityr notebook who can optimise better for $objective_function. Or maybe they have enough political control to redefine the objective.

The outputs of these things are superficially mysterious but for all practical purposes are dictated by the values of the people who create them.

It’s not legal to lobotomise your child but that’s exactly what will happen to any “algorithm” which hurts the bottom line.

Are there any good books about ideas or a history regarding how societal values and technological tools of the parent generation has influenced their children?

How did the philosophical insights of e.g. Kant or Humboldt influence western consiousness, and how did that influence the growing up period of the generation that followed, and what were some reasonable consequential attitude updates when those children grew up into adults?

It'd be interesting to see if there are models or any reasonable patterns that can be seen in the adult world view -> child upbringing and subsequent next-iteration adult world view, and what that might say could happen (or might not happen, contrary to what we suspect will happen) about the current generation of gamified children growing up with trump in the background.

Keep in mind this is the same David Auerbach who passed along a bunch of intimate details of prominent feminists to Milo Yiannapoulous so he could smear them: https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/10/slates-david-...

> In the first months of her life, I kept a spreadsheet of my daughter’s milestones.

I’d love to see some spreadsheets to read other parents’ column headers beyond weight, height, head size.

It would be largely useless. Most children's development is extremely varied. Books like to use average values but they never talk about how wide the standard deviation. It's so wide that an average is actually a useless value. Each child is completely different, so knowing the milestones is basically useless.

My son was slow to smile, and very slow to walk. But he was evaluated with a 160 IQ at age 4. I have a friend who didn't talk until he was 5 years old. His parents were afraid he was developmentally delayed. In fact, he went to Berkeley for undergrad and Stanford for his PhD and you never would have guessed he didn't talk until he was 5.

So development speed is extremely wide standard deviation to the point where data from the first several years is fun if you want to brag but useless for the purpose of generating any useful data on whole, except for the severely delayed.

This is a slippery slope, most parents already do heavy comparisons with their child to others. When there are differences and the parent isn't educated on norms you introduce a lot of self doubt and anxiety.

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