Writers with blocks, beware of the creative bots

“Robots taking up our jobs!” “Can AI solve problems like us?” “Can AI make (real) elephants dance?”

Even before many of us could even work or interact with a robot, we are already asking ourselves these questions. As a techno-functional consultant, I have pondered over these questions and even offered my colleagues some simplistic solutions to keep our jobs. In a small TED talk like presentation which we used to organize at our workplace, I told my colleagues that consultants can survive only if we develop our creative intelligence and sustain our emotional intelligence (more like maintain our sanity and not get carried away in the throes of consulting!). However, there was this elephant in the room that I did not address then and even now am afraid to admit. There have been increasing reports of experiments conducted and hypotheses drawn about artificial intelligence becoming more creative. What!!? Can a robot actually be better at deciding which colour goes well in the slide background in a presentation? (My consulting colleagues, pardon me, for picking up the most creative input that we give 😊)

Coming back to the elephant in the room, and leaving aside consulting for a minute, what if robots could help us write better stories. As a occasional writer who very frequently suffers from writer’s block, it was an interesting scenario for me to ponder upon. For instance, I recently, came upon a report that IBM’s Watson helped two leading fashion designers with a plethora of data on designs that worked well across seasons and markets. This accelerated their creative process. If I were to think on similar lines to the process of writing a novel, what help would I need from Watson or from any AI? 

One challenge that I faced when I wrote my first (and only) novel was to remember the chronology of events that happened in my characters’ lives and maintain correct references during conversations. You might attribute this to bad retention but the truth is, it does become cumbersome, especially, during editing, if you realise that one of the characters, say Paula, really shouldn’t have had the accident that you wrote about. If I were to remove that particular incident then could AI tell me at which points in my story I should make changes, not just direct references? I might have another character, maybe Ryan, who suffered trauma because of Paula’s accident, changes will apply there too. Another area where AI could help is probably character development where it helps me to build this complex, multidimensional, real world character based on numerous character profiles collected from around the world. AI can also help in research, spell-check, editing etc., but we already have tools to do this. 

It will be interesting to break down the writing process of a writer and see where AI could take over, but then as any writer would tell you, every writer has a different style and a different creative process. 

How much of an individuality will a writer be willing to forsake while using AI? What will writers be then valued for? Or any creative artist for that matter? 

We have some very interesting times ahead, indeed!

Interesting Children’s Books: Let’s Go Time Travelling by Subhadra Sen Gupta

There are some books that fill you with regret for not having brought them into your life, earlier. This is one such book that I discovered while looking for children’s books on history. How I wished that I had read this as a child, history then wouldn’t have been such a boring academic subject for me. 

I found this book on Amazon and it has been a worthy find. My daughter liked this book so much that she carried it with her to Singapore when we shifted.

The recommended age for this book is 8 years and above. However, a parent can read it aloud to younger ones too.

The book is written like a time travel story, as the author creates visuals of a Harappan village following fictional characters from that time period, as they go about their day to day life. These narratives are then amply augmented with facts as in any history book.

This is what my daughter had to say about the book.

‘I loved the humour, the narration is funny. I liked the way a story is told and then the concept is explained. I loved the simple language.’

Sample this excerpt from the first chapter about the Harappan civilization- 

A Day in the Life of Urpi

Urpi and her older brother, Kira, accompanied their father to the market. There they laid out the earthen bowls and pans that he had made on his potter’s wheel. Nearby, a woman sat with a pile of fresh vegetables; the fisherman had laid out rows of fish that he had caught in the river that morning; and a farmer had parked his bullock  cart in a corner, piled high with baskets of grain.

The story continues till she leaves the market. The context and the incidents are then explained from a historical perspective, subsequently. The author has even included recipes of dishes cooked during those times. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? And why wouldn’t it. 

The author Subhadra Sen Gupta has a master’s degree in history and has written over 25 books for children. The book is the winner of the Comic Con Award 2012. Published by Puffin and illustrated by Tapan Guha, it has won awards for best illustration and best writer.

Rating: Five stars and more 😊

The easy reads for kids: magazines and comic books

The rain pours outside and while I envy the pile of books borrowed from the library by my kid and her father, I feel like going for the easy ride. I just do not want to tax my brain with complex scenarios, heavy diction or even trouble myself to laugh out old. I am looking for the light bubble burst inside my head when I read humour or the tiny sparks that light up my brain when I read about something that I don’t know about. What could I read? A magazine or a comic book would be just right for the occasion. 

I wouldn’t recommend magazines or comic books for a serious read. However, they are the best bet during vacations when you want to carry something light with you.  Also, even kids who hate books, mostly, do pick up comics. 

Children’s magazines are a plenty, though, I cannot vouch for their quality. As a child, I had plenty of options. Some of the magazines that I used to read include Gokulam, Chandamama, Champak, Junior Quest and later in my teens, Science Reporter.

Sadly, I do not see many of these around, today. There are the junior versions of the National Geographic but they are quite expensive. 

For my own child, I subscribed to the MagicPot and the Hindu’s Young World for about a year each, between the ages of 6 to 8. I stopped after that as she was more into books. In Singapore though, she has picked up few issues of the National Geographic which focuses on Medieval History, a topic of interest for her.

The good thing about magazines is that they offer a wide variety of things to do – a child can read, solve puzzles, learn, colour, draw, sometimes play games too. Come to think of it, it is perfect for the hurried, attention deficit generation of today. It will keep them busy.

Comic books spark a lot of debate, especially among serious readers. There are readers who consider them trash and there are hard-core fans as well. As a child, I was kept away from them as my parents thought reading comics could corrupt the learning of the language. The language used in comics are often not suitable for first time readers as they tend to take a lot of liberties with the usage of words as well as grammar. I believe so too and hence did not really encourage my kid to pick up comics, though she enjoys Tintin and I know Tintin fans retain lifelong fandom 😊

There is no harm in kids picking up comics as long as they are not the only books that they read. So if I were to compare it with school where you have academics, co-curriculars and extra-curriculars, comics and magazines are the co-curriculars, which may not be the most important aspect of school but cannot be ignored and sometimes provides the much needed motivation to go to school.

So do go ahead and buy a few magazines and comics for your kids after ensuring that they are suitable for your kids and let them enjoy their break!

With this post I come to the end of my series on helping kids to pick up reading. Reading as a hobby can be picked up at any time, but my posts were intended for parents who would like to try when the child reaches the reading age.

In the coming posts, I will review few books that I have found to be extremely interesting for kids.

Should children read non-fiction other than textbooks?

If making kids read fiction in this digital age is difficult, making them read non-fiction is a Herculean task. 

But why should they read non-fiction. To participate in quizzes and win prizes! Naah! I am joking. 

Reading fiction is very important to boost their creativity, expand imagination and most important of all to develop empathy towards fellow-beings (a trait that separates us humans from other creatures). Non-fiction, undoubtedly, helps them expand their knowledge. It also helps them develop their ability to reason. This is going to be a useful skill in the coming decades when they get bombarded with information of all kinds. A general awareness of the world around them is needed in order to develop a discerning mind. 

So what are these non-fiction books that I am referring to? Of course, not philosophy or management books unless you want your kids to run away from books forever.

Reference books, yes! But make sure they are colourful.

For beginners, small encyclopedias or picture books on animals, birds, earth, science, are a good start. In general, anything that teaches them about the world around them whether natural or man-made, help them discover truths about the natural world, amazing facts about animals, read about beautiful man-made structures and inventions. 

DK publishers are my favourites in this category however, they are better for the 7+ age group. Whichever publisher/age-group you buy, please make sure that they are colourful and filled with pictures and photographs.

Do not be overzealous

There is one trap that overzealous parents can fall into (I am one of them and I know several others). Often, parents get so carried away by the thought of leading their kids into the world of knowledge that they try to use the reference books as textbooks. Terrible mistake! I have known parents who make their child read one page of the encyclopedia everyday and even give them tests! Bad move!

I have to confess that I tried to do that and my child abandoned the book pretty soon. I am only thankful that she did not lock me up for being crazy. Again, in spite of all this or rather despite my crazy maneuvers, the reason that she picked up the book was television. This time it was a series called Wild Kratts. Its an animated show which talks about one animal in every episode. While she developed a curiosity towards the animal world, I supplemented it by slowly placing the encyclopedia in front of her. I had it ready with me, of course 😀 She realised soon that the book offered much more than the show. Every child is born curious. You only need to take a child to a zoo or a wildlife reserve to see that. A good way to kill their curiosity is to ignore their questions. Books like these offer a good fodder to satiate their curiosity and will be an able ally for you at home.

I, on the other hand, had got into the bad habit of googling for information whenever she came up with questions. Having such books handy, stopped me from doing it while encouraging her to refer books as needed. So you can also wean yourself away from google once in a while.

Do not overtake the school

Often, when kids read such books they can come across topics that are new. Do not try and introduce these topics by yourself, unless you are a trained teacher. Only try and supplement the knowlege that they have gained from school. A major problem with overtaking is that the children lose interest at school and in some cases, develop a mistrust towards their teachers. Very bad idea if you want your children to be happy at school.

An example: if the encyclopedia talks about vertebrates and invertebrates, while the school has just introduced your child to the animal kingdom, do not try to explain what vertebrates and invertebrates are. At best give examples and leave it that. If the child really wants to know further, then you have a genius at hand 😊

Refer not read.

Also, please do not make your child read dictionaries. It is a reference book, meant to be referred not read. Ask them questions that will make them refer to these books. Do not expect your child to read them and ask questions.

A picture Encyclopedia, a picture dictionary and a simplified colourful world atlas is enough get your child going in this big, wide world! 

Happy referencing! 😄

Getting your kids to read: what books to buy

In my previous post, I had spoken about how I found it easier to encourage my daughter to read books about her favourite TV characters. Once she picked up books, she latched onto the written word and hence, other books much faster. 

Often, I am asked if I could recommend some good authors for kids. Now there are authors who ‘also’ write for kids as well as authors who write ‘for’ kids. The difference being that the former are essentially writers who write for grownups but have tried their hand at writing for kids. Very few of such writers can connect with the young readers. And then there are writers who made it their life mission to write for kids. A good case in point – Enid Blyton. 

The market is just filled choc-a-bloc with children’s books and it is difficult to choose one for your kid. While it is always better to let your kid browse a good bookstore or libray and pick one that she likes, there are few things that you could keep in mind. After all you will have to lead them to the right aisle or shelf. Books are written for different kinds of readers and for different purposes. Some help the beginners to learn to read, while others are only there to entertain your child. You need to choose a good mix of both.

Learning to read and building vocabulary

For very young readers who are just learning to string their first words together, I would recommend the Peter and Jane series published by the British publishing company, Ladybird Books. The advantage with these books is that they take into account, a child’s natural ability to learn words and gradually build the vocabulary. This is aided through some interesting stories told through the characters, Peter and Jane. Mind you, these are excellent books to improve your child’s vocabulary but not necessarily to expand their imagination. The stories are predictable and might get boring.

Fire up your child’s imagination

Mythology, from whichever part of the world, irrespective of the culture you espouse, provides a treasure trove of stories for children. The beauty of such stories is that like wine, they mature with age. At every phase of your life, as your understanding evolves, you can draw different meanings from them. Popular books for the 4-5 year age group, include, Aesop’s, Panchatantra and the Jataka tales. Books based on these stories are available across bookstores and online stores. Pick one and see how your child responds, does he like the pictures? Is the font size large enough to read? If you were to read it aloud to your child, would you have to do a lot of explaining? Of course, you will have to read aloud initially. We do not want to leave the child alone in their imaginary world, at least, not yet. While you read out, help her connect ideas, concepts that she knows in the real world. This will help her know that even though they are stories, they still connect to her own little world with you and other family and friends.

Once they start reading on their own, look out for books by publishers like Scholastic or Usborne who publish age appropriate books in both fiction and non-fiction. Wait a minute… non-fiction? Do kids need to read non-fiction? More on that in my subsequent posts.

Happy reading!

On World Book Day, introduce your child to the written word, not books!

I am a mother to a voracious reader. She manages to drive all of us mad by being the most absent minded during the morning rush hour. The first thing she picks up after brushing her teeth (sometimes even before that!) is a book. Although, she appears to be a complete nut job when she is with her book, I am secretly quite pleased. It seems that as of now I have won the battle against digital screens. I am often asked by parents of young children, on how I managed to get her into the habit of reading and I usually give the easy answer – that both of us, the parents that is, are fond of books as well. But the truth is, it was not easy! 

It was a long drawn process for me but one that I was not ready to give up. I did introduce her to books at an early age, but I had already lost the first fight before I began. While I introduced her to flipbooks when she was about two, I made the mistake of opening up the digital world for her at the same time. She learnt her alphabet, first few nursery rhymes, Abba songs, and even Malayalam songs from my laptop. The digital screen, including the television, became her first window to the exciting world outside. Books, even with their bright pictures, can never compete with the screen. That is the plain simple truth. By the time she was six and ready to start reading on her own, she had lost interest. Every ‘read-by-yourself’ session would end up in tears for both of us. My child being sad that her mom is forcing upon her an activity that she does not like and her mom being equally sad, that her child was becoming a bibliophobe. My only straw of hope was the fact that she loved stories. So I would narrate or read out aloud, hoping that some day, she would say, ‘Amma, you leave it… I will read on my own.’ 

I do not remember the exact moment when things started changing but I remember the brainwave I had when I saw a picture book on Charlie and Lola. It was an animated tv show that she loved watching and the pictures in the book caught her attention. So, we took the first step, from animated visuals to still pictures. I started buying the book series whenever and wherever I could find them. She had started reading them, fortunately, some were based on the episodes that she liked. By the time I realized that not all books were available in India, she had moved on to her other favourite TV characters like Tinker Bell, Barbie and the likes. In a year’s time, and my inner fountain of joy bubbled over to see that she had picked up the Thea Stilton series. By then, she had ceased to care for the pictures in the book. For her eighth birthday, she got her set of Enid Blyton books which have no pictures in them and since then there has been no looking back. The written word had caught her imagination. 

What I had done, when I introduced her to digital media before the written word, was to suppress her ability to imagine on her own. The visuals were already there on the screen for her to see. Her brain did not need to associate a written word with a visual. Fortunately, I was able to bring her back to the written word, one step at a time, from moving visuals to still pictures to words.

So now, if someone asks me how to make children read – find your child’s favourite on-screen character and go find a book that has the pictures and words. Introduce them to the written word first and to books later!

Home is… where the heart sings… and the sparrows chirp…

The home as a concept evolved as humans changed from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturists. What probably used to be just a fire around which you see familiar faces became a set of four walls and a roof. Today, of course, we have shifted from building a home to possessing a house. All of us aspire to possess one that we can then gradually convert into our home. As such, our selfishness peeps through as always. In our bid to own a house, we give little thought to what we give in return. 

Yes, it is not enough to own, possess and mould our house in such a way that it then shapes itself into the contours that we draw for our home. For us to feel completely at home, we need to learn to give something back to it. 

My family stayed in a company provided housing for years together in the ‘Maximum City’, and the gifts that we received were a plenty. A safe and secure environment, fruits and vegetables from the backyard, shade from the lush, green trees and in general, relaxing and calm evenings to end a busy day in the city that never sleeps. That is a lot coming from a city that is otherwise dusty, polluted and filled to the brim with humanity. However, sometimes, we become so secure in our cozy little homes that we forget what we call our home is also a city, not restricted to the society gates that we shut behind us when we retire everyday. Mumbaikars are known for maintaining the smartest and cleanest homes in the smallest possible square feet area. Alas! The same did not extend to the home that is the city. We observe the aftermath of that every year during monsoon and it reached a climactic point in 2005, when the city witnessed the worst floods it had seen in decades. Environmentalists have been crying themselves hoarse, about the disappearance of the once ubiquitous sparrow, a bird that is so comfortable living with humans, that its disappearance could well mean the disappearance of the human race. 

For the last decade or so, I have been calling another city my home, a city which despite its lack of rains, strives to protect its green cover. Alas, again! As the city developed, the inhabitants failed to notice that there was something wrong with their beloved home. It had been drained of its natural wetlands, the only protection it had from repleting ground water levels and unprecedented flooding. Needless, to say, I haven’t spotted the sparrow at all in the decade that I lived there. Fortunately, the birds still arrive at the marshlands of Chennai and we do get to wake up to the sound of birds. Though, I am not sure for how long…

This year, I shifted to a country where people appear to be highly responsible when it comes to giving back to their home. I can wake up to the chirping of birds and to my pleasant surprise, the sparrows are a dime a dozen, here! That’s how it ought to be!

The birds of Singapore have made me feel completely at home, enough to make my heart burst into a song. They have also made me realize that no matter where we go, our home, where we feel happy and safe, can only thrive if we give back in kind. This home is not just our apartment or house or society or the city. This home is our planet earth, the only planet that we know of, where the sparrows chirp!