Spy’s Guidebook Reborn

When I was a kid of about 10, one of my favourite books was Usborne’s Spy’s Guidebook. (I also liked its sister the Detective’s Handbook, but the Spy’s Guidebook always seemed a smidge cooler to me).

Detective's Handbook andSpy's Guidebook on a child's bookshelf.
I imagine that a younger version of me would approve of our 7-year-old’s bookshelf, too.

So I was pleased when our eldest, now 7, took an interest in the book too. This morning, for example, she came to breakfast with an encrypted message for me (along with the relevant page in the book that contained the cipher I’d need to decode it).

Usborne Spy's Guidebook showing the "Pocket code card" page and a coded message
Decryption efforts were hampered by sender’s inability to get her letter “Z”s the right damn way around.

Later, as we used the experience to talk about some of the easier practical attacks against this simple substitution cipher (letter frequency analysis, and known-plaintext attacks… I haven’t gotten on to the issue of its miniscule keyspace yet!), she asked me to make a pocket version of the code card as described in the book.

Three printed pocket code cards
A three-bit key doesn’t make a simple substitution cipher significantly safer, but it does serve as a vehicle to teach elementary cryptanalysis!

While I was eating leftover curry for lunch with one hand and producing a nice printable, foldable pocket card for her (which you can download here if you like) with the other, I realised something. There are likely to be a lot more messages in my future that are protected by this substitution cipher, so I might as well preempt them by implementing a computerised encoder/decoder right away.

So naturally, I did. It’s at danq.dev/spy-pocket-code and all the source code is available to do with as you please.

Key 4-1 being used to decode the message: UOMF0 7PU9V MMFKG EH8GE 59MLL GFG00 8A90P 5EMFL
Uh-oh: my cover is blown!

If you’ve got kids of the right kind of age, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Spy’s Guidebook (and possibly the Detective’s Handbook). Either use it as a vehicle to talk about codes and maths, like I have… or let them believe it’s secure while you know you can break it, like we did with Enigma machines after WWII. Either way, they eventually learn a valuable lesson about cryptography.

Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta

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Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta title showing picture of two men and a woman hugging the outline of a baby

Sara’s back! You might remember a couple of years ago she’d shared with us a comic on her first year in a polyamory! We’re happy to have her back with a slice of life and a frank n’ real conversation about having kids in her Poly Triad relationship.

This sort of wholesome loving chat is just the thing we need for the start of 2021.

Start your year with a delightful comic about the author negotiating possible future children in a queer polyamorous triad, published via Oh Joy Sex Toy. Sara previously published a great polyamory-themed comic via OJST too, which is also worth a look.

Why children stay silent following sexual violence

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages we send to our children about their role, and ours as adults, in keeping them safe from people who might victimise them. As a society, our message has changed over the decades: others of my culture and generation will, like me, have seen the gradual evolution from “stranger danger” to “my body, my choice”. And it’s still evolving.

But as Kristin eloquently (and emotionally: I cried my eyes out!) explains, messages like these can subconsciously teach children that they alone are responsible for keeping themselves from harm. And so when some of them inevitably fail, the shame of their victimisation – often already taboo – can be magnified by the guilt of their inability to prevent it. And as anybody who’s been a parent or, indeed, a child knows that children aren’t inclined to talk about the things they feel guilty about.

And in the arms race of child exploitation, abusers will take advantage of that.

What I was hoping was to have a nice, concrete answer – or at least an opinion – to the question: how should we talk to children about their safety in a way that both tries to keep them safe but ensures that they understand that they’re not to blame if they are victimised? This video doesn’t provide anything like that. Possibly there aren’t easy answers. As humans, as parents, and as a society, we’re still learning.

Further watching, if you’ve the stomach for it: this Sexplanations episode with Dr. Lindsey Doe and Detective Katie Petersen.

I got married and had kids so you don’t have to

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I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the article that really makes it stand out.

Gratitude

In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:

  1. My partner, her husband, and I each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
  2. Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
  3. Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
  4. We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
  5. (Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
  6. We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
  7. We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
  8. Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc. (we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
  9. We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
  10. We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Bowl of ice, glasses of water, salt and sugar supplies.
Today’s homeschool science experiment was about what factors make ice melt faster. Because of course that’s the kind of thing I’d do with the kids when we’re stuck at home.

Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.

‘There’s zero evidence that it’s worse for children’

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“Even at a young age, I was able to grasp the concept that my mum and dad could love more than one person,” he says. “The only thing I’ve found challenging about having three adults in my family is getting away with things, because it means more people to check up on you, to make sure you did your chores. But I also have more people around to give me lifts here and there, to help with homework and to come to my lacrosse games. The saying ‘raised by a village’ definitely applies to me. I feel like a completely normal teenager, just with polyamorous parents.”

Yet another article providing evidence to support the fact that – except for the bigotry of other people – there are no downsides to being a child of polyamorous parents. Nicely-written; I’ve sent a copy of Alan for the Poly In The Media blog.

Parent-child play: It’s constant and exhausting, but is there a better way?

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It’s worth noting here that the idea that a parent should be a caretaker, educator, and entertainer rolled into one is not only historically, but also culturally specific. “There are lots of cultures where [parent-child play is] considered absolutely inappropriate—a parent would never get down on their knees and play with the children. Playing is something children do, not something adults do,” developmental psychologist Angeline Lillard said in an interview. “And that’s just fine. There’s no requirement for playing.”

Differences in practices around parent-child play exist within American subgroups, too. Sociologist Annette Lareau has observed a gap in beliefs about parent-child play between working-class/poor parents and middle-class parents in the United States. Working-class and poor parents in her study held a view that they were responsible for “supervision in custodial matters” (Did the child get to sleep on time? Does the child have sneakers that fit?) and “autonomy in leisure matters,” while the middle-class parents engaging in what Lareau termed “concerted cultivation” invested themselves heavily in children’s play. Ultimately, the poorer kids, Lareau found, “tended to show more creativity, spontaneity, enjoyment, and initiative in their leisure pastimes than we saw among middle-class children at play in organized activities.”

Interesting article (about 10 minutes reading), so long as you come at it from at least a little bit of an academic, anthropological perspective and so aren’t expecting to come out of it with concrete, actionable parenting advice!

Engaging in some kinds of play with your kids can be difficult. I’ve lost count of the hours spent in imaginative play with our 6-year-old, trying to follow-along with the complex narrative and characters she’s assembled and ad-lib along (and how many times she’s told me off for my character not making the choices she’d hoped they would, because she’s at least a little controlling over the stories she tells!). But I feel like it’s also a great way to engage with them, so it’s worth putting your devices out of sight, getting down on the carpet, and playing along… at least some of the time. The challenge is finding the balance between being their perpetual playmate and ensuring that they’re encouraged to “make their own fun”, which can be an important skill in being able to fight off boredom for the rest of their lives.

If I ever come up with a perfect formula, I’ll tell you; don’t hold your breath! In the meantime, reading this article might help reassure you that despite there almost-certainly not being a “right way”, there are plenty of “pretty good ways”, and the generally-good human values of authenticity and imagination and cooperation are great starting points for playing with your children, just like they are for so many other endeavours. Your kids are probably going to be okay.

Water Science

This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.

Annabel fetches water from the canal.
Our sampling point was by bridge 228 on the Oxford Canal: the first job was fetching water.

My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.

Annabel and John assess the colour of the canal water.
Some collaboration was undertaken to reach a consensus on the colour of the sample.

The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.

Chemistry experiments on the banks of the Oxford Canal.
Lots of nitrates, as indicated by the colour of the left tube. Very few phosphates, as indicated by the lack of colour in the right (although it’s still a minute and a half from completing its processing time at the point this photo was taken and would darken a tiny bit yet).

Plus, this expedition provided the opportunity to continue to foster the 5 year-old’s growing interest in science, which I’ve long tried to encourage (we launched bottle rockets the other month!).

Annabel compares her sample to the colour chart.
Which colour most-resembles the colour of our reagent?

Our results are now online, and we’re already looking forward to seeing the overall results pattern (as well as taking part in next year’s WaterBlitz!).

The 5 year-old and the 2 year-old are playing at running a veterinary surgery (the 5 year-old’s department) and animal shelter (the 2 year-old’s department).

Annabel and John playing vets

The 5 year-old’s filled me in on the tragic backstory of this particular establishment: she and the 2 year-old are twins but were orphaned soon after birth. They were adopted by different families but then those families all died, too, and because everybody else in the world already had children there was nobody to adopt them and so they had to look after themselves. 67 years of schooling later, at age 15 (maths might need some work…), the pair of them decided, at the end of secondary school, that their shared love of animals meant that they should open a vet/shelter, and so they did.

When they’re not busy fitting collars for unicorns or treating yet-another-outbreak of canine chickenpox, they’re often found patrolling the streets and shouting “does anybody have any sick or injured animals?”. Except during naptime. Their work has a naptime, of course. (I wish my work had a naptime.)

It’s a tough job. Sometimes animals need quarantining in the safe. Sometimes you’ve got to fit an elderly crocodile with false teeth. Sometimes you’ve got a hippo whose owner says that it thinks it’s a duck, but thanks to your years of training you’re able to diagnose as actually thinking it’s a goose. Sometimes it’s a swan that won’t stop vomiting, or a snail that lost it’s shell and now has diarrhoea. It’s hard work, but the twins find it rewarding.

Imaginative play rocks.

Danny Daycare

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“Have you had a good wee day out?”

This isn’t how I behave when I’m out cycling with one of our little ‘uns in tow. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I see a solid-looking jump… I wish it could be. Honestly: our eldest would be well up for this! (And would probably be quite disappointed to sit around until the end where they reveal that, obviously, they swapped the small child for a doll for many of the shots.)