Sunday, December 31, 2006

Out of the clay

[Movie Review] Flushed Away is the first Aardman creation without the claymation. So it was with some nervousness that we went to see it. I always had a theory that what made their other movies such as Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run so good was the fact that claymation was hard and so plot, characters and economy needed to be just right. It was the discipline that drove the quality. So when they went away from that what would happen?

Well, the result was a good one. The characters look like those in Wallace & Gromit and they talk like them too. The plot was simple. The scenes stealing. And the music interludes were a bunch of gems. I don't think it was as good as their previous ones but as an animated feature it put many others to shame.

The plot revolves around the traditional English one -- mouse from the upper-class gets literally flushed into the underworld only to meet real people, I mean, mice, and learn that it is perhaps better to have nice company than nice things. In so doing, he ironically needs to battle an enemy who has never learnt that lesson. All this with interesting characters and also with the same economy of other Aardman movies. The scenes are not too busy and so they are happy to focus on one or two characters at a time. Moreover, all musical accompaniment comes from a bunch of cute slugs who serenade that characters at appropriate intervals. I can highly recommend this one for children of all ages.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

21st Century Road Trip

This past week we have been driving up and down the South-East coast of Australia. Melbourne to Canberra to the Blue Mountains to Sydney and back to Melbourne. The trips have ranged from 2 to 11 hours.

When I was a child, these trips were miserable. I got car sick from reading and so there was nothing more to do than look out the window. The highlight of the trip was when my father -- for reasons inexplicable to my mother -- would always wait until the last minute to get petrol. So there was a good hour of tension in seeing whether we would make it to the next town. We did but usually at a slow pace to conserve fuel.

The trip is still long (too long to have enough nouns for I-spy) but thanks to in-car DVDs (that take care of the kids) and podcasts (that take care of adults) it is far easier on everyone. In terms of podcasts, we concentrated on This American Life which is a US public radio show out of Chicago that documents unusual things that have happened in American lives. My favourite of the trip was on fiascos. It documented various incidents where someone had grand ambitions and then it all fell flat. It was simply wonderful.

But a big thanks has to go out to the single best innovation for highway retailing since McDonald's put in clean toilets. Again, it is from McDonald's and it is the Australian invention of McCafe. Almost every McDonald's on the road had one -- an outlet inside McDonald's that was just like a Starbucks or Gloria Jeans. So there was no problem stocking up on caramel lattes. It made the trip a dream.

What we have been reading

We took a limited selection of books on holiday. I thought I'd briefly run through them.
  • The Flanimals series: by Ricky Gervais of The Office fame, these books describe hypothetical and interesting wildlife. The first, Flanimals, is descriptive running through each animal in turn while the second, More Flanimals, does the same but with more discussion of behaviour. Flanimals of the Deep as a vague storyline. (Click here for a video preview). Anyhow, the shocking thing is how much the children learn from these and get into it. It is extremely amusing for adults although reading the names out load can be a pain. I am sure we will be seeing Flying Flanimals and Prehistoric Flanimals in due course.
  • Wild Fibonacci: Nature's Secret Code Revealed by Joy Hulme is a good maths oriented picture book for children. It is all about the Fibonacci sequence -- that is, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on -- that is obtained by adding the last pair of numbers in the sequence. It has a geometrical spiral structure that is found in nature and the book focuses on that. At the very least you get to teach them a new party trick.
  • Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar by Mitsumasa Anno: this is also a maths related picture book, this time about factorials. It is beautifully illustrated and conceptually wonderful.
  • Uno's Garden by Graeme Base is the newest maths oriented book; this time about growth and decline and the power of compounding. It is great in terms of teaching squares. As usual with Base the illustrations are superb and like the Gervais books is all about hypothetical animals and their environmental threats. They are easier to pronounce and children with have fun searching for the Snortlepig which is there, dies out and then comes back in big numbers.
  • Elephant Elements by Francisco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais is a book I picked up because I thought it was by Ricky Gervais and it could have fooled me had I not looked it up. It is different and very quirky. It is a book of opposites based around elephants. There is the usual large and small, etc., but very quickly gets into things like 'corked/uncorked,' 'intelligent/stupid,' 'closed/open' and 'lucky/unlucky' -- this last one depicting one elephant with lots of peanuts and another one with just one. It ends on 'living/dead' which is somewhat morbid. Probably not for everyone but all three of my children love it.
Finally, my 8 year old daughter devours the Captain Underpants series. I wasn't sure what the fuss was about until I read the beginning of the 8th novel Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People. Here is an extract from Chapter 2, "Those Wacky Grown-Ups":
It's been said that adults spend the first two years of their children's lives trying to make them walk and talk ...

... and the next sixteen years trying to get them to sit down and shut up.

It's the same way with potty training: Most adults spend the first few years of a child's life cheerfully discussing pee and poopies, and how important it is to learn to put your pee-pee and poo-poo in the potty like big people do.

But once children have mastered the art of toilet training, they are immediately forbidden to ever talk about poop, pee, toilets, and other bathroom-related subjects again. Such things are suddenly considered rude and vulgar, and are no longer rewarded with praise and cookies and juice boxes.

One day you're a superstar because you pooped in the toilet like a big boy, and the next day you're sitting in the principal's office because you said the word "poopy" in American History class (which, if you ask me, is the perfect place to say that word).

You're probably wondering, "Why would adults do that? Why would they encourage something one day and discourage it the next?"

The only answer I can think of is that adults are totally bonkers and should probably be avoided at all times.
You know, it is hard to fault that advice.

If you want to know where to find any of the books mentioned in this post, just click here to go to their links on

A third ice movie of the year

[Movie Review] Happy Feet is the third ice movie I have see this year. The other two were March of the Penguins and Ice Age 2 (here is my review of those movies). Each of those movies had a strong environmental theme. March of the Penguins was against climate change while Ice Age 2 was for it. So I approached Happy Feet with some interest as controversy emerged about it preaching environmentalism to children.

It began with this discussion on CNN (source):

From the November 20 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck:

BECK: All right. The director of the film publicly has said that he changed the original screenplay to amplify the environmental themes and that, quote, "You can't tell a story about Antarctica and the penguins without giving that dimension."

Call me crazy, but, yes, you can. And if you're going to include those themes, the least you could do is tell me, a parent. Tell me about it first, OK, so I know I'm walking into propaganda.

But with Happy Feet, no, they just couldn't. They couldn't shoehorn that into the marketing. That'd be too tough. I wonder if it's because they knew that people, you know, wouldn't go see it or not as many. They may not pull in $42 million if people thought they'd be watching an animated version of An Inconvenient Truth.

Maybe I'm in the minority -- and I probably am -- but you know what? I'd like to teach my children how to think for themselves about the issues, including global warming and the environment, instead of having them indoctrinated by some Hollywood director.


THOMPSON: I don't have a problem with hunters, but I don't mind that Bambi decided to have a hunter shoot the mom. Of the 50,000 things affecting America's youth in negative ways today, I don't think the penguin movie is probably on that 50,000.

BECK: Bob, let me tell you --

THOMPSON: I don't think this story is going to get you a Peabody.

It continued on Fox News:

on the November 20 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto also referred to Happy Feet as an "animated Inconvenient Truth" and said that he "half-expected to see an animated version of Al Gore pop up."
So I expected a strong environmental theme and lots of controversial preaching.

Well, I don't think these guys watched the same movie I did. It was by far the least controversial environmental theme I have EVER seen in a movie -- kids or otherwise. To understand this, let me consider the environmental sub-plot: penguins are getting increasingly short of fish supplies. Hero character, Mumble, has a theory that aliens (i.e., humans) are actually responsible. He sets out and proves his theory (to himself) and is eventually thrown in a zoo for his troubles. While trying to communicate with the humans (speech doesn't work) he dances and this convinces human scientists that something is afoot. They send Mumble back to Antarctica (tagged) where upon Mumble convinces his 'tribe' to dance in a coordinated fashion in front of the human scientists. Those scientists take that footage back to the world, a debate ensues and they decide to protect Antarctica to preserve the penguins; now shown to be sentient. The penguins keep their fish and we all live happily ever after.

That was it. Nothing about the environment but about a contest over resources. But the ultimate reason the penguins are protected is because they are considered sentient not because they are some sort of endangered species. Let me tell you, if it is ever proven that an animal is sentient, it is extremely likely that our global community will get together and stop doing things that might wipe them out. More so, if they are harmless cute creatures. I believe that this is at the least controversial end of the environmental debate. It also is the least likely motivation for environmental policies today.

Al Gore was not going to pop out in this movie. Indeed, I have highlighted the environmental bits here. They were comparatively mild. The penguins may have been losing fish but didn't really seem to be starving or any more uncomfortable as usual. A good criticism of the movie is that it didn't make more of this to suitably motivate our hero.

But let's get on to that. The hero Mumble is different from other penguins; likely the cause of some irresponsible behaviour by his father when taking care of the egg (actually, a sad message for gender equality instead of the positive one penguins usually send on this front). As a result he can't sing the way other penguins do. (Singing is critical because that is the way we get lots of 70s and 80s classics into the movie to please parents and children alike). Instead, Mumble dances (which, you will recall, turns out to be better for inter-species communication than penguin singing). But he is also quite individualistic on other fronts.

He has an early childhood trauma when he is accosted by some birds one of whom has a tag and claims to have been abducted by aliens (which we know to be humans). As he gets older and the fish problem apparently grows, Mumble is singled out as a cause of the fish issue because of his radical dancing (a throw-back to the 50s evils of Rock N' Roll) and also Mumble's spanish accented small penguin friends (a throw-today to the apparent evils of immigration). Mumble objects and claims that it is not disapproval from the penguin god (the Might Quinn) but instead he thinks that it is the aliens who both (a) exist and (b) are taking the fish. Mumble then sets out on a quest to prove this or die trying. He and his merry foreigners scientifically gather evidence and discover the human fishing centre (which includes a Church and graveyard for good measure; initially looking like what Mumble was searching for).

But that isn't enough for Mumble. He wants the humans to stop fishing and so sets off over the ocean after them -- which is how he ends up in a zoo -- and you know the rest.

It is when the human scientists appear after Mumble at the tribe that their existence and, someone, Mumble's theory, is proven to the tribe including the dumbfounded elders who, up until their appearance, were denying the possibility of aliens as inconsistent with their belief in Quinn. But they convert as soon as they see the truth. Presumably, this new found cultural and religious change is only reinforced when the fishing stops and the fish return.

More importantly, the conversion occurs because a central premise -- that conformity is key to penguin survival -- is not actually challenged. It is just that you do not need to believe in a supernatural being to still conform and cooperate enough to survive (as evidenced by a coordinated dance routine done without practice or anything!).

So it is not environmentalism that is the big issue here but instead the role of science and religion which comes out on the side of science as strongly as anything Richard Dawkins has written. What is interesting is that the conservative pundits seem to have missed it; being distracted by the supposedly in your face environmental message (which was never there). The pundits did harp on a gay theme which if it was there you had to look hard.

By the way, the instructive thing is to find out what the kids actually got from the movie. I asked my 8 year old daughter (who is sensitive to environmental issues) what she thought the message of the movie was. She said:

People are different and you have to be yourself. You don't have to do what everyone else wants.
When it comes down to it, it was yet another kids movie with that message. I quizzed her on the environmental message but she didn't see that anything was there.

Otherwise, I must say that Happy Feet did not live up to its promise. The music was forced, the plot was pretty ridiculous, the penguins were less interesting than they could have been (the Madagascar penguins being the benchmark here), the scary scenes were gratuitous, the side-characters (including Australian elephant seals) were boring and the trailers were actually better and self-contained. It is not a must-see.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mess management

The war on mess has taken a distinct ideological turn. In this New York Times article, "Saying yes to mess," those who can't deal with the mess fight back and now suggest that mess is good [HT: Kookaburra].
An anti-anticlutter movement is afoot, one that says yes to mess and urges you to embrace your disorder. Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It’s a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.
Now I am happy to accept that there are lots of points of view but let's face it this is looking like extremist propaganda. It simply can't be true that a free for all on mess would be a good thing. However, it does help us focus on the question: what is the optimal amount of mess?

I am going to try and answer this question with particular references to households with children. This is not only because children have their own "values" on the subject but also because parents make considerable attempts to mould those values. Moreover, like many issues, it is the existence of children that forces many adults to consider their values on this subject closely and in some cases form a view on mess. Occasionally this comes from deciding to live with someone but it is children that can push the issue further. This is especially the case that some mess (say, small objects) can be potentially fatal to small children.

In terms of the optimal mess question, there are some households where the optimal amount of mess is zero. I have seen these houses. It appears that they are clutter-free all of the time. Their children are clutter-free too. They sit and read books and such. They look sterile and usually have expressions to match. It is quite a picture.

I'll call these folks 'up-wingers.' The reason is that they like to put everything away, up in closets and roofs but most significantly off the ground.

To be truthful, there is a part of me that looks at up-wing households and thinks, wouldn't that be nice. But then the most of me perks up and thinks, not if it took any effort. So I guess, for us, that isn't the practical optimum and I am happy to add to my unwillingness to expend effort getting there an ideological rationale of the restrictive weight placed on children in that clutter-free life.

So let's go to the other extreme as exemplified by this view:

Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.”

His favorite example? His 15-year-old daughter Talia’s bedroom, a picture of utter disorder — and individuality, he said.

“One day I’m standing in front of the door,” he said, “and it’s out of control and my wife, Dana, is freaking out, and suddenly I see in all the piles the dress she wore to her first dance and an earring she wore to her bat mitzvah. She’s so trusting her journal is wide open on the floor, and there are photo-booth pictures of her friends strewn everywhere. I said, ‘Omigod, her cup overflows!’ And we started to laugh.”

The room was an invitation, he said, to search for a deeper meaning under the scurf.

"Deeper meaning" my foot! It is only deeper because the floor has been raised by successive layers of mess. These are radical 'down-wingers.' Everything is down on the floor, on desks and on bench-tops.

We are not in this category. Indeed, I have a simple test as to whether your optimal amount of mess is less than this extreme. When you witnessed the events of 911, apart from everything else, did it ever occur to you "what a mess! How are they ever going to clean this up?" And I don't mean the problem of terrorism but literally the physical mess it created right there at Ground Zero. If you had that thought in the first day, you are not a mess extremist but a moderate; at least ideologically.

So where does our household lie? We have definite up-wing leanings but not in an extreme way. But we do have intra-household differences. My spouse is a short-term upist while I am more long-term.

It is all a question of variability. There is a fluctuating amount of mess in a household and the issue is what the periodicity of the mess is. My particular values on this are reflected in my office desk. That desk starts perfectly clutter-free and slowly accumulates paper until it reaches about half a metre. I then spend a day (every three months or so) excavating. Excavating is the right word as I uncover layers of work that was done or worse should have been done. The lower down, the farther into the past it was created. You could literally measure time the way geologists do.

This means that I am happy to tolerate a longer period of mess than my spouse. A week or so will be OK for me. For my spouse, she likes to close off mess for the day. That means a mess free house to wake up to in the morning.

But there is another difference between us. She prefers to deal with mess as a constant war, with constant effort and vigilance. Not me. I prefer to look for structural solutions. Can we spend some money on something that will alleviate a mess issue for good?

A good example of this is what happened to the "pile of death" in our household. The pile of death was created and maintained by my spouse. It is where all of the correspondence and paper we get and potentially have to deal with goes. Birthday invites, catalogues, some bills and lots of other stuff goes there. It accumulates as a single pile on a desk near out kitchen. It is known by all that if something gets put in the "pile of death" it is never seen again. Our children look at us putting an invitation into that pile and scream "nooo!, not there!" They know that it is doomed.

The problem with the pile of death is that it is unstable. So as it reaches its height, it eventually falls. We then realise that nothing in the resulting mess is useful any more and the entire pile is thrown out.

To eventually resolve this cycle, I invested in a set of small drawers (thank you, Howard's Storage World). These drawers would house three categories of the pile of death: (a) current action; (b) on hold; and (c) the rest. This would enable some sorting and also the hope of finding something we think might be there and relevant but looking draws (a) and (b). Gone was the mess and the clutter. And action was taken when a drawer filled. The kids have named these affectionately, the "drawers of death."

My point is that the investment allowed us to deal with the mess itself and minimise effort and fuss. This, to me, is the only way to deal with 'structural' as opposed to 'frictional' mess.

So there is a trade-off in mess management. Frictional solutions that involve day-to-day mess management and structural solutions that try to prolong mess periodicity. But how do you measure the degree of structural mess (as opposed to daily frictional mess)?

My metric is: time to clean up. How long would it take you do get the clutter away? In some situations, it is infinite. There is no way in your household to get all of the clutter away and out of sight. In other situations, you can do it, but this is no guarantee that it can be done usefully. So there is a sense in which the benchmark state of no mess has shades of variation too. But in some households, they can be clutter free in ten minutes.

It is to this standard that we try and hold our children. This means that (i) there are restrictions on the total quantum of permissible mess and (ii) that there are various means of dealing with putting stuff away. The latter comprises boxes and other solutions from Howard's Storage World and IKEA. Our son has embraced these. His was cupboards of toys in boxes; neatly sorted. He can clean is room in 10 minutes even if every single toy is out.

Our daughter despite solutions being offered cannot manage her mess this way. She has too much stuff. So she makes sure she keeps the quantum down.

But even this is not enough. Children accumulate mess potential at an arithmetic rate. This means that we have to do a yearly cull. Get rid of all the stuff they have grown out of, don't use or don't care about. For our son, he is quite cooperative and objectively handles this situation with a ranking of stuff to go. For my 8 year old daughter there is no such thing as stuff she doesn't potentially need and she has a case for each.

"What's this?"

"It is the lid from a Smiggle pen"

"Why do you need it?"

"In case I find the pen."

"Didn't we throw out the pen last year because it had no lid?"

"No, that was another pen. I can also use the lid as a small cup."
And it goes on, for item after item. Suffice it to say, this is why she always has potential mess that takes continual management.

Anyhow, as I write this, we are on holiday and mess management and the potential for loss takes this all to another level. On holiday, the issue is containment. You care less about mess from the mess point of view (it is not your house) but you have to worry about losing things. That means that strict rules need to be enforced. It is that constant stress that got me thinking about mess management issues in general.

My thoughts on this have become a little clearer as I write this post but are still somewhat cluttered. But there is a makings of a macro-mess framework here that can hopefully be developed further. Another time perhaps. Now, I need to clean up the room (again).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Restraining parents redux

Many months ago I wrote about Steve Levitt's research into the need for car safety seats for children. The evidence: there was little need. Now Emily Brazelon in Slate reports on a New Zealand study that shows that babies might actually stop breathing in car seats. While the Levitt study has been controversial, the New Zealand study is not. You would think that might cause us to wonder about these safety devices and their merits. But Brazelon is resolute: she will continue to use them but more anxiously. She also laments that anxiety is the last thing she needs.

In theory, at least, the problem that the New Zealand study identified wasn't an off-label use. The babies could have stopped breathing while on a drive (as opposed to the common practice of leaving your kid to sleep in his car seat because you need a convenient place to stash him). The researchers suggest "modifying car safety seats so that head flexion is unlikely." Maybe this is an easy engineering fix—and a potential boon to the company that develops a safer car seat. Until then, the researchers have another suggestion: "If possible, an adult should ride in the back seat next to your baby to watch him closely."

Ugh—a new opportunity for car seat one-upsmanship. Now responsible parenthood requires exile to the cramped, sticky, nausea-inducing back seat! This is when I long for the 1970s, when kids bounced around in the way backs of station wagons, footloose and seatbelt free. Except that kids died in car crashes in higher rates back then, too. On this front, at least, our safety-tip-saturated era holds out the promise of less risk. The problem is deciding when you've reached the point of diminishing returns, or absurdity, or whatever you want to call your own limit. It's safer to stay home, after all, than to drive with your kid, car seat or no car seat. But responsible parenthood can't mean acting on every piece of safety information—besides being impossible, that would make your kids crazy. So instead of moving to the back seat to watch over your sleeping baby, maybe try this: Look back at him, and if his head falls onto his chest, make sure he's OK. You get to sit in the front seat, and he gets to breathe.

And this after she freely admits to doing what all parents do, compromise.

If the drive is long enough, at some point you'll be faced with an unwelcome moment of truth: Are you the kind of mother who stops the car when your baby really protests, so you can give him a break in utter safety? Or do you climb into the back seat and grimly release him—to nurse, and oh please, to sleep—while your husband creeps along 10 miles below the speed limit? This is only the first in a series of unwelcome calculations that car seats necessitate: Do you lug yours along for every taxi ride? What about every flight? Can you swear that your child has been properly strapped and buckled in for every trip until he reached the American Academy of Pediatrics-recommended height of 57 inches and weight of 80 pounds?

It has to happen. In Australia, no one takes car seats on planes even though the little safety card in planes has one row with a child clearly sitting a car seat on them. Taxis are another problem. With planning, if you need to take one you can arrange for a car seat. But that planning is difficult to manage; especially when really travelling. And then what happens when you ship other people's kids around?

The moral of all this is that we need much more nuanced advice. At the moment, it is all black and white. Use a car seat or die. This is not actually the case and a more reasonable spectrum of risks needs to be presented. Parents are anxious enough to look at them carefully; let's give them the chance by providing information in what is hopefully a liability free manner.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Parenting Vision Statements

The hardest thing to do as a parent is to set goals. No, I don't mean goals for your children, I mean goals for you as parents. You need a goal in order evaluate whether you are doing well or doing badly relative to that goal. In business terms, the closest analogue is the 'vision statement.'

Vision statements can be useless or useful. Useless ones invariably are too broad ranging. They set goals such as we are going to be the "best." That is all very well but it does not tell you what you are not going to be -- that is something you need to know because you can't do everything. Useful vision statements place more emphasis on what you are not going to do. For instance, one of the world's most consistently profitable companies, Lincoln Electric, has a motto: "Once we're in, we never lose a sale except on delivery." This looks strange but it is useful. Lincoln emphasise quality but this means some compromise and what they compromise on is delivery times. And yes, sometimes they lose out to others on that.

The same applies to parenting. You can set a goal for your children to be the "best." But then you are setting yourselves and probably them (in your eyes) up for failure. The famous writer, Orson Scott Card recently pondered these issues. Have a read here on what he had to say and then I'll tell you what we did as a vision statement. Card's article is an excellent read for aspiring or first time parents. I basically agree with him that there is pretty much nothing you can do to 'improve' your child -- we tried with No.1 and gave up with the later kids but that is a story for another post.

Our vision statement was simple: when we looked back 30 or so years from now, we would consider our parenting job a failure if our children had not become independent adults. That was it. We have no definitions for success and a single criterion for failure. The moral philosophy behind it is also simple: we don't want our children to be a burden. That would be unfair on the world. (Now if for reasons for health problems that didn't occur that would be another matter, but we are talking about the normal course of events).

This vision statement isn't for everyone. Maybe it is not for anyone other than us. But it is incredibly useful. We come back to it all the time whenever we agonise over decisions and dilemmas. But having it and also with it defining a clear risk of failure, we have given ourselves both comfort and a challenge.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It is not what you pay for, it is when

A proud moment today; my 8 year old daughter worked out bundled servicing. She went with her mother who needed her eye glasses repaired. They repaired it and no payment was exchanged. My daughter asked why we didn't have to pay for that. The answer was that the glasses had been expensive and so they fix them for free if something goes wrong.

"Oh, so when you pay for the glasses you are not just buying the glasses but also the fixing," was my daughter's assessment.

Precisely! Now the question is: is that arrangement efficient? But that is a conversation for another time.

Birthday Party Ideas: Special Mention

Well, it seems that my 8 year old's Tupperware Birthday Party was novel enough to be awarded a Special Mention from Here is the link to that site.

The top award for November went to this party idea. It was Harry Potter themed and similarly epic in scale. Not the macrocreativity of our party but a ton of microcreativity.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Explaining obsolete technologies through song

We had an explosion of Karaoke on Singstar on the Playstation last weekend. Unfortunately for me, the kids became fixated on one song and sung it some three million times. It was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. This hit -- cira 1979 -- was about how video/television was pulling kids in those days away from the radio.

The irony of this was, for my kids, the technology that replaced radio was now a thing of the past. Thus, to understand the point of this song I had to explain two old generations of technology.

To see my problem, here are the lyrics (thank you

I heard you on the wireless back in Fifty Two
Lying awake intent at tuning in on you.
If I was young it didn't stop you coming through.

To kids today, "wireless" means Wifi and so the without wires thing was something they understood (probably better than we did that the time).

Oh-a oh

They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology,
and now I understand the problems you can see.

I am not sure I quite understood that one. Did that happen? Were they written by machines?

Oh-a oh

I met your children
Oh-a oh

What did you tell them?
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.

Which children was this again? Oh yes, me!

Pictures came and broke your heart.
Oh-a-a-a oh

Why would they do that, weren't pictures good. Actually, looking at this Buggles video, turned my stomach would be a better lyric here.

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go.

Oh-a oh

You were the first one.
Oh-a oh

You were the last one.

Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far
Oh-a-aho oh,
Oh-a-aho oh

Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.

We go on.

In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far.
Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VCR.

What is a VCR? That was hard to explain for children who had only really known DVDs and really don't have to rewind. 'Skip' now that they can deal with.

But, the basic tune was apparently enough. Three million more times, everybody!

You are a radio star.
You are a radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.

Video killed the radio star. (You are a radio star.)

Apparently that death was just as well, as well as the death of video as our generation knew it.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Edge of Incompetence

Last night, we had our 5 year old's "Dance Night." This is an annual event whereby the Preps and Grade Ones and their families are crammed into a large gymnasium and an event ensues. The event consists of an assortment of songs sung by children and dances danced by children all to the tune of whirring camcorders. The latter accompaniment comes from the families who jockey for position to zoom in on their moving child; trying to isolate them from the other hundred children doing the same thing. If I ever missed one of these events and had to watch it on video, the experience for me would be much the same. I don't think I have seen a child perform except through a camcorder screen! That is all I ever see.

Anyhow, the first dance is of course before the show as the experienced parents (those with older children) stake out the best locations. They then watch with amusement as the inexperienced ones flounder. This is particularly fun at our school as the best locations are not where you would think. Experienced parents head up high to the gallery whereby they can look down on the events and also pick off their child from above. They can then watch inexperienced ones as they jump for joy being able to find a front row on the gymnasium floor. Those parents then observe us up high and wonder what we are all doing there when we could get a seat so close to the action. Little do they know. A few smart ones work out the difference between us and them and switch (that is what we did our first time). But enough do not or even more amusingly, one parent argues for switching while the other doesn't in a wonderful hint of foreboding.

Then the fun really begins. When the children start performing, the parents in the front row realise they can't see their particular child. Dozens of others are in front. They then want to stand but of course cannot because there are parents behind them. A few more flee for the gallery but that it too full. They are then left with thoughts that they will have to plan better next year.

On to the actual show, I have come to a view that the standard upon which to judge childrens' concerts is how incompetent they are. However, this is not in the way you think. Incompetence is a good thing. Competence is bad. The reason is this. These shows will never have objectively good performances (you know, the kind that you would pay to see). There is always some hopeful music teacher conducting passionately in the front with a clear 'pain of hopefulness' expression that can never quite be relieved. Children just can't be -- as a group -- good enough for this.

Instead, the value for we as parents is to get amusement value from the whole event. I didn't quite realise this until the second time I attended. This is because the first was so darned amusing. In that event, my daughter -- the same age as my son this year -- could not help herself during the choir songs from moving her arms to the music and even a spot of air guitar. In a sea of children standing straight with arms by their sides, this was intensely amusing to me and made for one great video.

But it got better. When it came to dancing these skills were the skills of competence. Now you would think that by my metric this would have destroyed my enjoyment. No so. This is because this was the sort of dancing that involved another child. And this boy had the requisite characteristics for fun.

My daughter's dance 'partner' was, shall we say, uninterested. Unlike my daughter, the concept of moving was not really what he was in to. He wasn't against it, but effort clearly was not going to be expended. My daughter had clearly worked this out already from practices and so was ready. Basically, she handled him physically (she was quite a bit taller) and literally pushed or outright placed him where he had to be. If he had to kneel, he was pushed down. If he had to stand, his was pulled up. If he had to move around the circle, he was herded. If he had to spin around, he was swung. It was by far the funniest thing I have ever seen.

Which brings me back to my hypothesis on incompetence. The next year, it was round 2 for my daughter as she moved to Grade One. Imagine my thrill when I heard she would be partnered with the very same boy as last year. It was surely going to be a great ride.

But sadly no. Everyone had become much much better. The songs were sung without movement and the dances executed without drama. The boy had become interested enough not to require special attention. And all of the amusement value was gone. Another year of age had brought with it competence and removed all amusement.

So it was with great anticipation that we moved on to Child No.2 and back to potential incompetence. I was very optimistic for a great night last night.

But sadly no. Some school administrators had decided that the grueling one and a half hour without break performance was all too much. They had scaled it back to a light sixty minutes with lots of alternating breaks for individual classes. Moreover, the routines and songs were tame. It was all brought back to the child's level of competence and that is what we got. As a result, no fun was to be had.

To get an enjoyable performance from children needs two elements. First, we need an ambitious program. The children need to be set up to fail. Hard long dances. Plays with lots of hard words. No chance that anyone can hope to memorise them.

Second, we need this to be unmatched to the children's age. Lots of practice so that it looks like there was a serious attempt to do this right. But do not allow years of learning.

Add these two ingredients together and you get to the edge of competence. Only that will give you cherished video memories.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Eat your peas

The Wall Street Journal has offered tips for parents in getting children to eat their vegetables [see this link from Marginal Revolution]. Here is the list:

1. Try many times -- fifteen or more -- to get your kids to eat their vegetables. Most parents give up too soon.

2. Bribing, punishing, and celebrating when the kid eats the vegetables are all counterproductive.

3. "Use tasty toppings."

4. If the kid doesn't eat the vegetables, grab them from his plate and gobble them up yourself.

5. Eat your own vegetables in great quantity and with great delight.

For our own part, we have tried each of these -- whether the WSJ advocates them or not. And our conclusion: it all depends on the kid. Our 5 year old son, loves vegetables. He will eat them in enormous quantities. It just isn't a problem.

Our eldest daughter used to only respond to incentives: "eat your peas or there is no second course." Her issue is that she loves to eat and will continue eating forever. We have to limit her to three courses with the final course coming only if she has completely eaten the first two. So there are always vegetables there. In recent times, she has responded to 'health concerns' and so will eat vegetables on the argument that she needs to have a balanced diet. Ultimately, this is a good way to go but let's face it, not many kids are going to buy that one. After all, it is a tough sell to we adults!

For the two year old, she will go for the 'tasty toppings' route. Indeed, we could feed her cardboard so long as there was tomato sauce available. But mixing something good with something not so good seems to defeat the purpose. Instead, our sure fire way is to put vegetables on our own plate and not hers. Then the 'grass is greener' effect will take over and she will happily eat from our plates. This is some sort of variant of 4 or 5 above.

In the end, we do have a sure fire way of getting kids to eat anything: starvation. We discovered this when, during some busy days, we forgot to feed the kids a usual meal (like lunch). Boy, do they eat their dinner well! It turns out that hunger is a great motivator.

[Update: this interesting article in Slate suggests children will balance their diets all by themselves.]

Monday, November 20, 2006

The 4 Losses of Parenting

Shane Greenstein (a Professor at Northwestern University) has four young children and along with them has developed his list of the four losses of parenting. With his permission, I thought I would publish them here:

  1. With child number one, you lose your time.
  2. With child number two, you lose your money.
  3. With child number three, you lose your ideals.
  4. With child number four, you lose your home office.
For different people, these losses might manifest themselves with different children. For our part, we definitely lost our time with No.1 and lost money as our household income fell to accommodate No.2. For No.3, we lost rooms but also our ideals. TV watching, treats, time spent reading to our children, time spent reading about our children, time spent keeping an interest in what they were doing in school, time spent knowing where they were and what they were doing. All these were core values that have flown out the window as the number of children accumulated. We are all high and mighty until the costs rise and it turns out we could care less. The sad thing is the compromise occurred for far little than we ever expected at the outset.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

This was a movie?

For me The Red Balloon was one of my favourite books when I was 5 or 6. It took me ages to hunt it down for my children. It turns out that it was a movie and what is more that movie is on YouTube. Click here.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

A world first: A kids Tupperware Party

I am going to claim a world first for our family today: my daughter became the first 8 year old to host a Tupperware Party. Now, before you say "what the ..." I might have to provide some background.

Tupperware holds a place of high esteem in our family. My daughter's mother is an engineer. Now while that usually tends to drive her preferences against things that are, shall we say, 'housewifey,' Tupperware is the exception. She and a whole group of her women engineering friends have been obsessed with Tupperware from years. They held a very successful series of combined Babylon 5/Tupperware parties in the 90s and never looked back. And as we started to accumulate children, there was no force that could hold back Tupperware purchases now that they were actually likely to be of use. (This could all by plastics related given our other obsession of Lego; giving us a substantial collection of the two greatest retail plastics brands).

Near as I can tell, we have the entire Tupperware range. Our entire pantry has been Tupperwared and if you haven't seen such things, it is an amazing site. We have held a stream of Tupperware parties that, near as I can tell, have been extraordinarily successful. Moreover, we have routines dedicated to keeping the Tupperware itself in order. Sets together, lids in one place, other things in another. And I thought the Tupperware was to help us order other stuff. The folks at Tupperware need to develop a new meta-Tupperware range to help us keep the Tupperware in order. Our current use of non-Tupperware means is a travesty.

Now my daughter, whose preferences are not, shall we say 'girly,' has inherited her mother's love of Tupperware. She has stayed up late and participated in the parties. She has learnt the lore of Tupperware. I discovered today that she knows that vegetables can breathe and can tell you what setting to put broccoli on. This is all the more surprising given that she would never eat broccoli but is willing to tolerate it in the house as we clearly have a container for it!

So when we asked her this year what type of birthday party she wanted, it should have not come as a surprise when she said she wanted a Tupperware Party.

Now here is how I know this is a world first. I googled 'Tupperware' and variants of 'kids party' and found nothing. This is despite the wealth of other kids parties. Take a look at, for example. There are space parties, Dora the Explorer parties, Star Wars, you name it. One of the most amazing is this Wizard of Oz idea complete with yellow brick road through the house. But there are no Tupperware parties. So I am claiming this for us.

Unfortunately, our pioneering ways meant that we had to work out "what exactly is a Tupperware party for kids?" By the way, that very same question was asked by every single parent of the twelve children we invited. And, in the end, the answer was: a cooking party.

That idea came from our Tupperware dealer. I call her a dealer because she feeds the habit. It turns out our Tupperware dealer had thought about how to extend the franchise to a younger clientele. Like all dealers, you have to get them young. She had long desired to morph her business into one where she gave cooking classes for kids. And so we were the opportunity she was waiting for to try out her ideas.

Now, of course, my daughter wanted a real Tupperware party and so we had the display and the everyone sitting and looking very adult on chairs around the display. (By the way, half of them were boys and it is clear that, unlike our home where Tupperware is all inclusive, this was a new world for them; something they had for so long desired to see the inside of. They were not disappointed when the shroud of Tupperware was revealed). Then our dealer asked questions, what do you think you would use this for? What can you put in this square container? (I said, square fruit and, by the way, that turned out to be correct.) They played guessing games but sadly not the popular auction where Tupperware cult members bid for little bits and pieces of plastic.

Then we moved onto the games where the children had to sort the 13 shapes into the spherical Tupperware standard shape-sorter. (And when the audience was asked who had these when they were a child. We ALL put up our hands. Of course, my son pointed to his 2 year old sister and said "she is a child and she does have it now." Now you can't get that answer at other Tupperware parties).

It was then asked if anyone knew how "Tupperware" got its name. This drew blank looks. So I chimed in. My first attempt was that it was originally actually plastic clothing. And I demonstrated how a "Bake 2 Basics Sweet Keeper" could be used as a nice hat for Cup Day. This lead to a flurry of activity as the children tried on the Tupperware. Again something that doesn't happen at normal parties.

Apparently, I was wrong on that one. So I gave it another shot. I argued that when he was a child Mr Tupper lived in a time where the fridge was unordered. People used to just toss all of their fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese into the fridge. Then they would ask their children to find various things when they needed it. Mr Tupper's mother would should out "Tupper where's the beans?" or "Tupper where's the sirlion." So Mr Tupper had the idea that this would all be easier if he used plastic containers and based on his mother's catch-phrase decided to call it "Tupperware." This drew the response from my daughter "is that true?" Well, I guess not, but it turns out there was a Mr Tupper -- Earl Tupper. Who knew?

Then came the cooking which involved making melon traffic lights with a melon ball scooper (that they each got to take home as a momento) and then cutting pizza dough into mini-pizzas with another Tupperware device (and another momento). The winning team got some prize Tupperware key-rings (like the one above). The food was cooked, eaten and they were ready to go home.

Well, they may have been ready to go home but Round 2 in our dealer's -- now nakedly transparent plan -- kicked in. Various parents came by to pick the children up. Now you wouldn't think plastic would have a distinctive smell, but it does. The flocked to the display and half an hour later had in vast numbers dutifully placed their order. The order take was so large that my daughter earned about $100 in Tupperware 'gifts' as a reward. She didn't choose the broccoli thing but now has her very own collection. And as she pointed out "it has the distinctive feature of a life-time guarantee and I have a lot of life left." You didn't think of that did you, Tupperware people?

You might like to know about the cake and I am sure you would have expected it to have been cooked in the Tupperware way. Alas no. My daughter wanted a Battlestar Galactica ice cream cake and, by the Lords of Kobol, there is no way to do that with Tupperware -- they need to get a distinctive Galactica mould. So that was ordered but you will be pleased to know that it was dished out with the stock-standard Tupperware ice cream scooper. Let me tell you, it is one effective scooper.

In summary, I can highly recommend Tupperware parties for 8 year olds. For starters, they satisfy a deep need from children to do things that seem adult. But more critically, it is really cost effective. How many kids parties have you run that turn a profit?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Lego my dishwasher

It seems to me that we should have one of these; a lego branded dishwasher that washes toys. Full story at Gizmodo.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Educator quality and pay

This week saw two discussions of teacher aptitude and educational quality. The first began with a Slate article by Emily Brazelon on whether we need pre-school teachers with college degrees. The second was a new study by Andrew Leigh on whether raising pay will give you smarter teachers.

Let me begin with pre-school

So, do you need a degree to teach preschool? Study after study shows that 3- and 4-year-olds are better served by more-educated teachers in myriad ways. As you might expect, these teachers tend to offer superior curricula and formal teaching. But they’re also, on average, “more stimulating, warm, and supportive” and “provide more age-appropriate experiences.” That finding is from a 2004 overview of the relevant research by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and it represents the consensus view. The experts disagree over how much college coursework preschool teachers should have—a two-year associate degree vs. a four-year baccalaureate. The more vexing question is how to take what is now an underpaid, low-skilled workforce and magically restock it with college-educated professionals.

The problem, of course, is that the pay for pre-school teachers doesn’t quite encourage higher education. Of key issue is that pre-school teaching requires other qualities — patience and stamina — that are not for everyone. So in undertaking a college education path, you would really have to be committed to obtain the education required for pre-school. The obvious solution is to run things more like apprenticeships. Get the teachers in and then educate them later. The only issue is whether the budget will handle the extra pay from that. (Here is a nice write-up of the pre-school issue).

For the rest, Andrew Leigh discusses the pre-committed pay option: that is, how well would pay now and hope for supply later work? The answer is: well, OK.

A 1 percent rise in the salary of a starting teacher boosts the average aptitude of students entering teacher education courses by 0.6 percentile ranks, with the effect being strongest for those at the median.

That means that boosting pay will encourage University-goers to think more about a teaching path; particularly, if they got high test scores coming in.

This suggests to me that boosting pay and on-going education are likely to be complementary policies. Boost average pay by a bit to get smarter people going into teaching and then educate later on so those that cut it for other reasons reach their potential.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Child asleep in car

As I write this, my 2 year old is asleep in the car. I am in the car too. We are at a friends and she was supposed to have her nap there but alas, didn't make it. Faced with the difficult trade-off between waking her and going inside and getting that nap, we opted for the nap. However, this left one of us stuck in the car.

In the olden days (circa 1999), this would have meant at least an hour of bordom and resentment towards the parent having a merry time inside. If you had the foresight to have brought a book then things would be better. And let's face, GPRS service on a mobile isn't going to get you lots of happy time.

Today, I was fortunate. We were travelling. I had my laptop and the 3G card and thanks to us being in Canberra with a hulking big communications tower, I am on the net at broadband speeds. Now I see the reason to get broadband in the car. The other alternative is to kick in the video iPod and watch some TV.

Of course, give us a year and we will be out of this dilemma. But dare I say it, that technology, if only we remember to bring it, solves all ills.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The hard line on games

This post was provoked by an article in the New York Times that near as I can tell has no point (click here). It is about one parent's experience with Hungry Hungry Hippos for their 3 year old which, suffice it to say, did not go at all well. In my mind, he was lax on game play.

My attitude to playing games with children is simple: I play to win. Put simply, I see no need to coddle my children in game playing. If they want that they can go elsewhere; say, to their mother. Now I have posted before on how my children play games with eachother (click here). It is very personality driven. But how they play with me is another matter.

At the age of 3, children form the cognitive ability to play games. They understand the rules and seem to understand the difference between winning and losing. The first game off the rank for us was 'snap.' Nominally, a card game, you pick up cards and put them down until two match and then you compete by quickly saying snap and snapping your hand down to claim the lot. The game continues until one player holds all of the cards.

My daughter (you might remember her as Ms Strategic in chess) learnt this game from her mother. It was a rather relaxed affair. Then she turned her attention to me. I snapped the snappiest snap one could imagine. The game was over pretty quickly and she didn't get a look in. She, not surprisingly, claimed it was all unfair and she need her turn. I took a hard line. The snap playing ended for the day.

The next day, it might surprise you, she was back to try again. This time the result was the same but the back of my hand was sore. She had quickened up and while she didn't end up snapping the cards she was just shy and snapped my hand on those cards.

A little while later, we got to Round 3. She worked out that information was key. Ms Strategic then was born and she developed a new action. She would look at her own card first before putting it down. The result was that on half of the occasions a match might come by she knew it first. She would look at the card, then move her hand down to the pile. Turn it over and snap instantly.

This strategy had me beat; at least until I worked at the 'attell.' When she had a match her action would be much slower than otherwise and so I became a little quicker. But it wasn't enough. Ms Strategic had learned to cheat. She had changed the rules of the game to suit her competitive situation. I was very proud.

We put a clamp on that rule change after that but let me tell you we have games of snap far more interesting than other parents have to endure. Moreover, my daughter ruthlessly defeated all other children including older ones.

Now you might be reading this horrified that I have created a competitive monster. But let me tell you, when I hear other parents complain about how boring or frustrating it is to play games with their children; that is the alternative life. I would rather have the competition. More game playing occurs as a result.

Of course, when it comes to some games -- specifically, the junior variety such as Junior Monopoly -- the sheer random element combined with the length of time for a game makes me want to behave quite differently. However, that is a problem with junior games per se. More on that some other time.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cot breakouts

There comes a time for most parents when their child breaks out of their cot. For stories I have heard this usually involves the parent hearing a loud, deadening 'clunk' followed by crying. Then it is time to put the side of the cot down and work on other means of child containment.

For my first two children, no break-outs occurred. I am not sure why but they didn't make the attempt. For child no.3, there was been no individual break out but she has got out with conspirators.

First, the 7 year old, who has the strength of an ox, can actually lift her out. So we often find them downstairs of a weekend morning. But, this morning, the 7 year old was at a sleep over and the 5 year old, who has little strength, and our previously cot bound 2 year old, were downstairs.

So how did they do it? Well we have one of those cots where it requires someone to simultaneously press two buttons on either side of the cot and then using a finger or something, get the side of the cot down. A child doesn't have the wingspan to achieve this feat alone.

So what did he do? He explained to our two year old about pushing the little button on one side and whilst she did that, he pushed down the other and used his free hand to lower the side of the cot. They were free!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Jetstar Black Market

As I write this I am sitting on a Jetstar flight; the only airline to travel direct from our holiday destination to Melbourne. Suffice it to say, this is an incredibly awful flight. Even more so than the absolutely zero dollars in savings we got because we pretty much had no choice but to take it.

I'll start with the obvious, the lack of assigned seating. Now I can imagine a world in which no assigned seating might make sense. If there is a commuter flight with mostly lone travelers, they will get on the plane and sit in the nearest available seat. It probably means that you can load people on to a plane quicker.

But for a holiday destination with mostly families traveling, the whole thing is a disaster. There is no appreciable saving in time because the large chunks of families scramble to get seats close to their children. Now I had fantasised about not doing this, going to the back of the queue and being separated from our children for the whole flight; leaving them as some other sap's problem. Sadly, the issue is that in musical chairs I would likely end up sitting next to someone else's children and that was a lottery I was not willing to play.

Anyhow, we had a 'prized' orange pass which meant that we would be first to board -- being with kids got us that. It was clearly better than the blue pass or worse something called the silver pass (I do not know who you would have had to offend to get stuck with one of those). But, if you had noticed my earlier foreboding, the 'prized' orange pass was only prized in the sense that there were a couple of people with the other passes. Actually, from a scarcity (but no value) perspective, the other passes were rarer.

I was not really aware of this and we had positioned ourselves well to get on the flight at the top of the queue. Unfortunately, 15 minutes before boarding, due to one of our adult party being in the bathroom, I watched the 'tipping point' occur. It occurred to someone that they could just stand in line right then and they did. Within seconds, as if someone shouted 'fire' in a cinema (or shotgun in this case), there was a rush to the queues. I thought the worst would happen would be that we were at the back of the prized orange queue. In dismay I saw that the orange queue had half the fracking plane! Nonetheless, we stood in it.

15 minutes into standing in this queue, my 7 year old asked, "why are we just standing here?" I told her that it was because of the "tragedy of the queue." Everyone wanted to be in the front of the queue and so we all moved to get there. "But we aren't in the front of the queue?" she said, pointing out the obvious. Well we aren't quite at the back either, which we weren't. So we are standing here so we won't be at the back. "And what is the problem with being at the back?" Well, we won't get as much choice in seats and I argued that this was something we wanted.

[Now we had become savvy enough to realise one thing, there was another opportunity to jump the queue, as we walked across the tarmac to the plane. We weren't going to do this but we were going to maintain our relative position against the blue passers nipping at our heals and unencumbered by children. One got through but we broadly succeeded.]

On the plane, the true inefficiency of this emerged. People who boarded at the front were going back. People who boarded at the back were going forward. They collided. It was chaos. We staked out our row and wanted to maintain a spare seat. (There were 8 on the flight). Fortunately, the 2 year old put on a wonderful screaming performance and repelled all challengers.

Next came the food issue. I blogged on our experiences on the way here but that was on Qantas where we had stopped off in Brisbane. (So yes we had a choice which was to take some crazy stop-over route back to Melbourne. So there is only a Jetstar monopoly on direct flights.)

On Jetstar you buy food and that is what we intended to do. Big mistake. We were in the middle of the plane and by the time the food cart got to us, there was, no food. Certainly, no healthy food like sandwiches and meat pies. We got some potato chips. Now you might think it was some funny time flight that would have led to this situation. But no, it was the prime time 12 - 3pm run. Lunchtime. Hence, the high demand for food but that didn't explain the low supply. I secured chips and a lolly bag.

Then I had an idea. I would try and procure a sandwich from the row ahead. I said, "I'll give you $15 for your sandwich." The women I was negotiating with pondered this and then said "how about $30?" I said, "$20?" She said, "no deal." I said "Are you really going to eat a sandwich that is now worth $20 in cold hard cash?"

Actually, none of that happened but pondering the potential for a black market got me to open up my laptop and starting writing. I also wanted to remember to bring more contra onto the next Jetstar flight I had the misfortune to travel on. I think one could make a nice killing.

[Update: my sister-in-law adds her own miserable food experience to the plot. Click here.]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

If doctors wont do it ...

This week's Freakonomics column in the New York Times (click here) reports on the difficulties in getting doctors to wash their hands and not spread bacteria.

It may seem a mystery why doctors, of all people, practice poor hand hygiene. But as Bender huddled with the hospital’s leadership, they identified a number of reasons. For starters, doctors are very busy. And a sink isn’t always handy — often it is situated far out of a doctor’s work flow or is barricaded by equipment. Many hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai, had already introduced alcohol-based disinfectants like Purell as an alternative to regular hand-washing. But even with Purell dispensers mounted on a wall, the Cedars-Sinai doctors didn’t always use them.

There also seem to be psychological reasons for noncompliance. The first is what might be called a perception deficit. In one Australian medical study, doctors self-reported their hand-washing rate at 73 percent, whereas when these same doctors were observed, their actual rate was a paltry 9 percent. The second psychological reason, according to one Cedars-Sinai doctor, is arrogance. “The ego can kick in after you have been in practice a while,” explains Paul Silka, an emergency-department physician who is also the hospital’s chief of staff. “You say: ‘Hey, I couldn’t be carrying the bad bugs. It’s the other hospital personnel.”’ Furthermore, most of the doctors at Cedars-Sinai are free agents who work for themselves, not for the hospital, and many of them saw the looming Joint Commission review as a nuisance. Their incentives, in other words, were not quite aligned with the hospital’s.

Now, as a parent you might be thinking: if they can't get doctors to wash their hands, how on earth will we get our children to do so?

In our household, hand washing is an activity of high importance; certainly more so than before we had children. Basically, before and after any child has any meal (defined here as bit of food) hand washing occurs. The before is for the bacteria. The after is for the furniture.

Basically, our system involves extensive monitoring -- especially for the 5 year old. He has the most need for washing and the least inclination. So we have to engage in a comprehensive system of auditing, i.e., hand smelling. Fortunately, the 7 year old has adopted this as a habit and so is compliant. The 2 year old has adopted hand washing as a regular part of life; so much so that she often assists us as the enforcer. She often reminds her parents (mostly me); again exhibiting her future dictatorial tendencies.

As the NYT article explains, for the doctors monitoring didn't work, direct application as they arrived to work didn't work, motivational posters didn't work, and coffee vouchers didn't work. What finally worked was a scan of the offending hand and how much crap was on it. Data was the key.

It occurred to me that this type of scanning machine would work well in our household. Imagine having to put your hands on some device and then you get a hand rating. While the child may not understand the consequences, they could be taught to understand the rating. Keep doing this at an earlier age and they will become nicely obsessively compulsive about not doing anything without a 'green' (or whatever) rating and habits will be formed.

Now if the hospitals wanted to invest in inventing this scanner, I am sure that as it is refined, it will find a decent home and school market too.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Kids 'eat free' so others eat 'free of kids'

One of the attractions of where we are on holiday is that kids 'stay free and eat free.' Now, 'stay free' is really a slogan in name only. It means they won't charge you for kids so long as you stuff them into your room. Suffice it to say, there is a considerable reason to not doing that and hence, you end up paying for larger accomodations and non-free stays.

But 'eat free' is another matter. Now our kids eat, I mean really eat. We hear howls of complaint if there isn't a third course provided with most meals. So from my perspective, this surely was going to an advantage to us?

Well, not quite. For starters, one might have assumed that if you went to a restaurant and the kids ate free, the portions for them might be small. Not so, they are on the larger side of meals I have seen for kids and usually include dessert. But here is the thing. If I thought that we would be receiving a massive cross subsidy from the families with average eating kids, I was gravely mistaken. This is because those families happily order the maximum amount of food for their kids even if their kids do not eat it. Yes, there is a social loss from this, but there is no implicit subsidy coming our way either.

So who is paying for the kids' meals? You would like to think it was the parents. Again, not quite. The restaurant may jack up prices for parent meals or drinks or somehow it would be built into the resort charges. Sadly, however, that can't be the case. For as we ate our meal, I noticed plenty of tables free of kids. Those people were paying the same as us for the meal and, even if they were getting a discount on the resort charges, the meal itself was a worse deal for them.

Now you might ask: what are those people doing there? The locality here has other restaurants that are not part of the kids 'eat free' deal. All they have to do is avoid us and they will get a better option. The problem is this: those restaurants cannot be cheaper in terms of price at least. If they were, then saavy parents may decide that it is worth while paying for the kids especially if they were not like us and could get away with feeding the kids very little.

What this means is that to confine the families with kids to the kid-designated restaurants, the prices for the 'free of kids' restaurants actually have to be at least that price, if not more, just to make sure. So, who is really paying for the kids 'eat free' deal? The adults without kids who don't want them around. Our kids eat free so that they can eat free of kids and they pay for it. I know this because this evening, we will be going out free of kids and paying for it.

One final little puzzle. As I have noted earlier this week, airlines do not appear to think enough about mess when giving children meals on planes. The same is true of the kids 'eat free' restaurants here. We went to a nice Chinese place the other night and our 2 year old appeared to happily eat through her fried rice. "Wow, she is doing well. This place is great." Well, it was only after the meal when she was removed from her high chair that we saw how well she had done. There was a nice layer of rice over her, the chair and the floor. Let me be clear, this was a mess that the restaurant had to deal with.

But there is a clear alternative for them and I do not understand why they don't exercise it. The alternative is 'take out.' Being a Chinese restaurant I observed this happening throughout the meal. I wondered whether we could still get the kids 'eat free' deal if we did them same. But apparently not. Now you might think they are just trying to sell the adults more drink. But no. Indeed, the whole operation is so efficient that you can be out of there in 45 minutes (not conducive for leisurely consumption of high margin items).

You might think that a take out option would be subject to abuse (you know buying too many meals or something). Again, not necessarily. It is not hard to imagine a voucher system that could deal with that.

So I am left with the thought that they must require the kids to 'eat free' on site because that will demonstrate to those adults who mistakenly happen upon these places one night that they should never do that again and should pay for the 'free of kids' places. It is like the crammed seats in economy directed precisely at those who should be crammed. And by the way, I am pretty sure that is why there is no competiton from McDonalds apparently allowed here despite having a population more than enough to support it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Child's meals on planes

By far the main activity for children on planes is eating. All the other things one might try from Game Boys to books do not have the sure fire attention grabbing hits that eating does. But there is a problem here. Airlines do not know what the heck they are doing.

Let me explain. By far the seemingly most sensible option is to pre-order a child's meal for your child. Now, the rational person would think that, in so doing, the airline would carefully think about the needs of the child and the parent and structure an offering that, while certainly not lavish, covers all the bases and gets the job done.

Well, throw rationality out the window because here is what actually happens. Let's suppose that you actually end up getting a child's meal that you ordered -- and this is a big suppose because they might not come or worse, may come from one child but not the other. Then what do you get? Here is the offering on Qantas (morning flight from Melbourne to Brisbane):
  • One popper juice
  • One muffin
  • One roll-up
  • One corn flakes
  • One cup of milk
  • One fruit cup
  • Cutlery
  • One bowl
  • One paper napkin

Again, seems reasonable but that is 'ground level' thinking. Here is what happens to this meal at altitude: child tries to insert little straw into popper juice. If successful, child not understanding the subtlies of fluid dynamics, lightly squeezes box as they pick it up causing juice to, if you are lucky, squirt in their face and, if you not, squirt in over their heads into the row behind. It does so, quickly so that said child is without juice and remember this was the first thing they reached for.

They then ask for the roll-up for which you say, how about eating something healthier first. Why you say this at altitude is beyond me. But you do. Then child goes for the muffin. However, only 30 percent of muffin reaches their stomach. The rest forms a layer to crumbs over themselves and their seat.

Still hungry, they go for the corn flakes, and attempt to pull the lid off the milk cup with predictable consequences. Some milk ends up on the bowl. Other milk ends up again in the child's lap along with the muffin crumbs and corn flakes that flew all over the place as, in this case I tried to open that stupid little packet.

Ditto all this for the fruit cup but substitute pieces of fruit for corn flakes and juice for milk.

Finally, we get to the roll up which turns into a sticky treat which sticks to child's teeth and they complain. You then reach for the toothbrush you carry around for such emergencies ... ok you take you finger and attempt to scrape roll up off teeth but then get it all over your hands with little option but to turn into a five your old yourself and just wipe them on the seat.

Let us understand precisely what has happened here. There are no winners. The child has not got food. The parent has not been relieved of stress. And the airline, well they have a cleaning issue that will impact on turnaround time.

And all this could so easily have been avoided. First, you could be on an airline that does not provide meals. That forces you into your own solutions which would basically involve jelly babies (clean sugary fun). Second, you may not order the children's meal in which case an adult meal comes, they child refuses to eat. They are hungry (the same thing that occurs with the child's meal) but things are cleaner.

Finally, the airline may just give an ounce of thought and (a) use pop-up juice rather than popper; (b) provide a cookie that doesn't leave too many crumbs; and (c) provide some fresh fruit such as grapes. Then add a little toy like McDonalds has worked out and we are all happy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How a 4 year old plays the drum

[From Boing Boing] Here is a video of a 4 year old playing drums (click here). Not your average load noise.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Homework: It's the parents stupid

Before I had children of school age, I watched with interest the rising tide against homework. The idea was that children (especially those under 10) had too much homework at night. Well, the academic in me said "what rot? Work good." And I awaited when one of my own children would be assigned homework.

Well that happened when my eldest daughter was in Prep and it started with 'The Readers.' This was an endless parade of little books designed to encourage children to gain confidence in reading. Every night several of these would come home and every night we would struggle through them. And I would wonder: isn't this what they should be doing in school?

It took us two years and then we fought back. We simply said 'no.' If we are going to spend half an hour a night on educational activities, it is going to be on stuff I don't think she is getting at school and on stuff that she will do enthusiastically. So we switched to maths activity books with 'word problems.' This encouraged her to read and to solve problems; two hits for the price of one. And near as I could tell, she wasn't doing these types of things at school. That made our lives considerably easier.

A recent discussion by Emily Brazelon in Slate echoes similar feelings as she reviews the literature on homework.
When I shopped around the arguments against homework, I discovered that how you feel about it depends a lot on what you think kids will do if they don't have any. Eli's homework seems like an imposition when I measure it against running around the playground or playing card games or building with blocks or talking to his little brother.
Which was exactly our point in substituting reading for maths. And it turns out that homework has observable impacts on performance only when it is very targetted. That seems to be the logic behind the spelling homework we do every night. A list of eight words over the course of four days that we try to get learnt; usually successfully.

But even so I worry that the total volume of work time after school -- piano (15 minutes), spelling (10 minutes), project or maths (30 minutes) -- is still too much for a 7 year old. This especially given the case that they attend after-school care most days and on other days do piano or swimming. That leaves the weekend for any simple, do whatever you want, play time. Sure, that is what adults do all the time but that isn't much of an argument.

And so how did we get to this situation? Well, we do other activities because we choose to. And we could (superficially) blame the schools for the rest. But, actually, I suspect that we (or at least all other parents) are at fault. It is they that ask the teachers for more work and they who use homework to judge school performance. Not surprisingly, it is easy to send students home with more work just to shut them up.

For that reason, I am more inclined to ignore, at least, school directed homework and to choose our own time and activities. Hard to know how long we will be able to keep that up in today's competitive world.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

An Inscrutable Youth

FYI, I have posted a movie review of An Inconvenient Truth here. It tells of my experience bringing my 7 year old daughter to that movie: and yes, it was a good one.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Curious Kong

[Movie Review] We took the 2 year old to her first movie today, Curious George. Apart from having to play the usual game of seat movements so that children can see (click here for a description of this problem), all went well. Like our other two, she was genetically programmed to sit through a movie and eat popcorn without taking her eyes from the screen.

On the way to the movie, I tried to sell it to the older two. I claimed, without evidence, that George would grow very large and terrorise the city by climbing on buildings. I was told that that was King Kong and then was ignored for the rest of the way. Imagine my delight when half way through the movie, George grew to building size and terrorised the city; including going a top the Empire State Building. Yes, it was an illusion but the citizens of New York didn't know it. I felt vindicated. Hollywood is no more imaginative than I am.

That said, this movie was quite good. A good story, little bits for the parents (without trying in some formulaic way) and a great soundtrack. The basic story is that a museum gets in financial trouble and might be made into a more profitable parking lot (better land use in the city and all that). Dedicated employee with a strange (but explained) yellow fashion sense goes to Africa to save the museum with more interesting exhibits but comes back with a stow-away monkey instead. They eventually become friends and lots of "saving the day" ensues. There is even a bit of romance throughout.

While the moral of the story might seem to be that it is better to have museums than parking lots that isn't actually the case on closer examination. Instead, it was a story about knowing your customer and not expecting them to like something for its own sake but to be sold on its interest. It is a story of the wonders of good marketing and what it can do for not-for-profits. An unusual message to be sure but ultimately is what gave this movie some modern-day charm.

Sadly, the movie is almost out of the cinemas but here is a link to buy the DVD if you want or some of the original books. They have a good epic quality about them.