Friday, June 30, 2006

A Twist in the Hood

[Movie/DVD Review] It is yet to come to cinemas in Australia, but I picked up Hoodwinked at The preview attracted me: it was a new twist on Little Red Riding Hood as a crime scene investigation.

Now Little Red Riding Hood has evolved as a story from my day. Then 'Red' came to her Grandma's only to find a wolf in bed and Grandma in her tummy. Red is also eaten but a friendly woodsman cuts them both out before they are digested.

Today, it is a tad lighter. Grandma and Red end up tied up and thrown in a closest to be eaten later. The woodsman releases them and the fate of the wolf is left up to one's imagination.

Hoodwinked builds on the newer version but all is not as it seems. In the ensuing investigation, from Red's perspective, the traditional interpretation holds up but to a close observer there are wrinkles. Indeed, her perspective falls apart when other witnesses -- the wolf, Grandma and the woodsman -- are interrogated. A larger conspiracy is revealed involving an attempt to monopolise the 'goodies' market. You may recall that Little Red Riding Hood was delivering goodies to Grandma in the original tale; a colourful side-point there given considerable more weight in the movie.

This movie isn't the funniest although there are plenty of in-jokes for the adults. But it is about as clever a plotline as you are going to get in a kids animated feature these days and if you are looking for something to watch together as a family, it should rank high on your list.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Impossible Lego

I am a big fan of Lego and we are big consumers in our household. (Once you decide that you can enjoy children's toys the sky is the limit on expenditure!)

In my office, I have printouts of Lego sculptures of Escher prints. Their place on the web had been lost but they have reappeared. Click here to view them. You will see that it is all in the angle at which you are viewing.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Read for a cure

Like many households with school age kids, our family spent the month of May motivated to read greater and greater quantities of books under the guise of the MS Readathon. This is an annual fundraising exercise for research into MS. The idea is that your child finds sponsors for the reading they do; each of whom agrees to denote an amount for every book read. The assumption is that parents (also donating an amount per book) will monitor the reading and ensure it is all on the up and up. All in all, a win-win: children are encouraged to read and a good cause raises money. Our 7 year old and 5 year old managed 35 books between them; enough to qualify some prize.

The MS Readathon has been going on for at least 3 decades across many countries. A friend of mine in the US, now a successful lawyer, participated a quarter of a century ago but had very different motivations. All told, her reading shattered all records for quantity. She won some school prize and the adulation of all. But that isn't what motivated her.

The slogan for the MS Readathon was and still is "read for a cure." Well my friend took that literally. She surmised that sometime in the past someone had discovered the cure for MS. However, due to bureaucractic incompetence or fate or something, the precise book that contained the cure was lost. So the idea was to read as many books as possible in search for the cure!

Suffice it to say, she didn't find it but she was a greater contributor to the cause as a result. Who knows how she would have gone with 'shave for a cure'?

Too much reality?

A new addition to our household this weekend is Guitar Hero for Sony Playstation. This game follows in the line of interactive, musical games including Donkey Konga (with bongos), Singstar (with Singing) and various dance mat games. This one, as the title suggests, involves a guitar but the same basic idea: keep the beat and hit as many notes as you can.

The closest comparison in terms of activity for this game is air guitar. But it is there that Guitar Hero is a wake up call. The beauty of air guitar is that it is just that air. There is no accountability. With Guitar Hero you find out pretty quickly how good you may have been. And if you are like everyone who played this in our house this weekend, the answer is 'not very much or appaulingly bad.' Moreover, the game reinforces the point as the crowd starts booing and eventually boots you off the stage.

So if you have a budding guitar hero in your household and you want to stop that short, get this game. It is a wake up call to some sense of reality. Either that or you just stay a hero in your own mind.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Explaining economics to children

With all of this baby bonus stuff, I thought I would recount how all this looked to my 7 year old. Back in 2004 (when she was 5), I explained to her that the government was going to give us "$3000 for her baby sister." I remember that she was horrified. "I don't think we should give her away for that." I guess I needed to choose my words more carefully. I tried to explain that they were just giving us the money and we could keep the baby which is why they called it a 'baby bonus.'

She was definitely suspicious. Even children can understand that nothing comes for free. "Where did they get the money?" Well, you know where that one led; straight back to us. There was simply no way to explain the sense of us giving money to the government to have them give it straight back to us for a baby we were going to have anyway. If you can't fool a child ...

Fast forward 2 years later and we were watching the news when the baby bonus story came up. She was very interested in the idea that the 1st July, 2004, had the most births ever on a single day. I said that there were half as many births on the previous day but on that day parents would not have received $3000. Waiting one day to have a child would, however, mean they got the cash.

"How can you choose when to have a child?"

"Well, there are two ways they can come out [explicit reference; we are like that in our household] and an operation. If you have an operation you have some ability to choose the day. It doesn't just happen. So do you think it is worth waiting a little while to get $3000?"


Well, I guess that she understands marginal incentives pretty well too as did about 2000 parents at the time. The moral of this story: if you can't make economic policy make sense to a child, it likely doesn't make sense to adults but if a child can understand incentives, it likely means adults will.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

This is funny

For parents with children who can talk, this is hilarious (but bleeped explicit): go to the interview with Louis CK on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (just watch after the ad).

Movie seating games

We went to the movies this weekend: just the two eldest and I. A game ensued. As usual, we were one of the first in the cinema. We sat in our assigned seating with the youngest on a booster seat. It was quite comfortable and we could all see the screen.

Then a family arrived in front of us. Two parents and two children. The parents dutifully sat themselves down in front of my two children, obscuring their view. Of course, they could have done the opposite but chose not to.

So we shuffled, and took a seat outside our assigned seating and hoped for the best. Now you might be expecting that someone turned up next to us. But that wasn't the case.

Instead, five rows further down, two people -- a parent and child -- sat themselves down. I then observed a cascade -- or maybe an avalanche of seat moving -- as the folks in the row behind them -- six people -- shuffled around and that pushed the next row to re-optimise and so on. Until it all reached back to us, leaving us back in our original positions as the family of four sat how they should have done in the first place.

Now sitting there for 15 minutes watching all this unfold made me wonder whether we could do better in this day and age. Certainly, selling tickets near the front first would help but that would also be unfair.

What would be better would be for there to be some use of information technology with adult seating being recorded at time of purchase and some great algorithm working it all out. Perhaps that is too hard but I would be happy to commit to our specific seating if it would avoid all of this.

But the best thing that might happen is something that would be altruistic. When you get to the theatre, just look backwards and think for a second what harm you might cause others. I know there is no reason to care at any particular time but similarly you have no reason to stop talking, stop your children jumping around or turn off your mobile phone. We have norms on this sort of behaviour, why not on seating. Sounds preachy but the inefficiency and stress gets to me.

You are no doubt asking: did I look back? Yes, indeed, I did. Sadly, that only caused harm because when we were forced to move and then move back, chaos behind us was generated. I tried but this is one case where we need everyone to play ball.

Formula Dreamworks fails

Last week, I reviewed Cars and generally applauded the Pixar Formula. I was optimistic that Dreamworks -- the studio that brought us the Shrek movies and Madagascar might be also be on to some good formula. I hoped that Over the Hedge would live up to those standards and expose the formula for all to see. Alas, it was not to be.

Over the Hedge has some great voices for the characters, including William Shatner and Eugene Levy, but just does create any magic. There aren't even the 'in' jokes you would expect and the whole message is both unsubtle -- consumer society bad -- nor really convincing -- therefore, we should, umm, eat good organic food or something. Actually, there is no 'solution' and it is not clear there is a problem. So I can't imagine any child will leave the movie with the feeling that the pursuit of donuts is anything but noble and worthwhile. Not that they should have to but given that at some point that must have been the intention of the writers, this is particularly sad.

So I can offer no 'must see' draw for this one. It isn't even a must see DVD. Instead, stay tuned because the most interesting thing about my experience this day was the usual game going on regarding seating. (Here is the link to that diatribe)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Warning on Baby Bonus

For regular readers about to have a baby, you might like to read this post of mine today on my economics blog. The main message: expect disruptions around 1st July, 2006.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The amazing world of Starfall

[Website Review] The web is full of wonderful activities for children. My children have been well introduced to them; so much so that when asked one day what Spiderman did my daughter replied that "he made websites."

For parents, websites are more reliable than pre-loaded computer software. They are far less likely to crash and have other surprises. But it is the potential educational value that I have been most impressed by.

For our family, no website has proven more educational and fun than Starfall ( As usual, I found this be accident looking for a site that would help children learn to read. The site was started by those seemingly with a passion to use the net to good ends. Here is the blurb:

At age 9, young Stephen Schutz was still struggling to read. What came easily for some children required many more hours of Stephen's work, and he was consistently towards the bottom of his class in reading. Now with a PhD in physics and a successful publisher and artist, Dr. Schutz wanted to make sure that children in his situation today have a resource that can help them. He turned to the Internet and conceived a program that would be available on-line across the world for free to all children who are learning to read.

The Polis-Schutz family is dedicated to education. Stephen's wife, the renowned poet Susan Polis Schutz was a teacher in New Jersey and New York City in the 1960s. Their son Jared Schutz Polis currently serves on the Colorado State Board of Education. The Polis-Schutz family is pursuing their educational goals by proudly presenting as a free on-line service to help children learn to read.

Stephen Schutz and his wife Susan Polis Schutz founded Blue Mountain Arts publishing company in 1970, and with their son Jared Schutz Polis they created the popular electronic greeting card site in 1996. The Polis-Schutz family is passionate about making the world a better place, and is thrilled to have the opportunity to use the Internet to help children learn to read.

And it looks as though it worked out. The site progresses in four stages: (1) ABCs, (2) Learn to Read; (3) It's fun to read; and (4) I'm reading. All this will interest children from 1 to about 8. And the breadth of materials is impressive.

But the real draw is the superb usual of visual imagery to link letters, sounds and words in both verbal and written form. To get a flavour, start at the beginning, the letter 'A' in ABCs. It links A with its sound and then with its place in words.

Later exercises then allow children to have books read to them with syllables highlighted as we go along. Even later still, the idea is to read the book and then click on words you don't know. As we progress the reading material gets more informative and interesting. There are songs that would be the envy of Sesame Street of old and games as much fun as Blues Clues.

But what is best, is it is all free. You can contribute some money by buying some of the print books that relate to the web materials but, in my opinion, 'contribute' is the right word because you don't need that stuff to help your children learn to read. Learning to read without books, who would have thunk it?

As for results, it has had a steady impact on our children but with our 5 year old son, it was one of the biggest factors in making him an early reader. It taught him far better than we could have (even had we tried, which we didn't). This alone is a reason to let your children near the web.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Formula Pixar

[Cross posted at]

It only happens once a year or so, but this weekend saw the release of a new movie from Pixar, Cars. With high expectations we went along and those expectations were not disappointed. I left with the same feeling of money well spent as I had for all previous Pixar experiences in recent times including The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. I also knew that I would be spending more as our DVD collection expanded later this year.

Pixar movies are formulaic but not in the way that ‘formula’ gives movies a bad name. Pixar’s formula is ‘higher level’ but simple: “write a movie with a plot and characters for adults and then work out how to make it appealing to kids.” And there are two general plot themes: personal growth and societal revolution. Most Pixar movies have both but with an emphasis on one or the other depending on the movie.

Before going into this, it is worth remarking how most recent animated family features try to copy the Pixar success. After all, if you can make a movie that parents and children love to see, you will rake in the dollars. According to BoxOfficeMojo, Pixar movies occupy the 11, 26, 39, 46, 96 and 99th places on the worldwide all time box office hits. As there have been only 6 movies, that is a remarkable effort. But the copy-cats, take for example, Chicken Little, get it wrong. They have a plot for kids and then put in a few 'in' jokes and famous voices to appeal to parents. [This is not to say that other studios can't achieve something. Dreamworks has its own formula going as Wallace and Grommit, Madagascar and the Shrek movies attest; but their formula is different -- something I will comment on more after next week's viewing of Over the Hedge. Also, the first 10 minutes of Robots was superb even though the rest of the movie left alot to be desired].

That is not the Pixar way. Monsters Inc and A Bug’s Life were all about societal revolution. In the former, the basic idea was that current production methods could be changed for clear welfare gains (you know moving from a scare to a humour driven economy) and in the latter, a simple statement against grasshopper oppression. Each was about an individual questioning the basis of an economic system and eventually winning out through revolution. In contrast, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and, of course, Toy Story are all about personal growth of the main character. In each case, the main character is stuck in a view of their own place in the world and how they live their life and is challenged to do something differently. As I will get to in a second, Cars falls well into this latter class.

It is only in Toy Story 2 where the plot is more kids-centric: an evil doer does something evil and people are saved by friendship. Nonetheless, it worked anyway because the characters were so well-developed in the previous movie. Also, it did not suffer from the traditional Disney approach: get rid of a parent (usually be initial or prior death), fight evil and make sure the child leaves the movie clutching adoringly their parent’s hand.

On to Cars. This is not a movie that appeals to adults because of a few in jokes (they are there and they are great but it is secondary). The main things are the plot and the characters. The characters have the usual Pixar appeal (snapshots of people we know and others with mental challenges; although not quite up to the forgetful Dory in Nemo). The plot follows that of many sporting movies: main character has a chance at the big time if they can just beat the traditional champion and the more ruthless competitors. In other movies, those characters are one in the same, but in Cars they are distinctly split into two. The personal growth for the main character, a car named ‘Lightning McQueen,’ is to eventually face a choice between being ‘legendary’ and winning.

And that, of course, is its adult appeal as it is that choice which is not often presented in other movies. I am not sure whether my children understood it but I was happy to have them see it. Usually, winning and legendary are one in the same and there is no questioning of this. Last year, I forked out money for two movies with exactly the same plot: Racing Stripes and Herbie Rides Again. In each, the main character was an underdog who had to convinced others that they had the right stuff even thought they weren’t sterotypical winners (one was a zebra and the other the VW bug; each of which physically could never win). And, of course, they had the right stuff. In Cars, it is more complicated than that with a Shakespearean edge and sudden flash of insight. No one will claim it is subtle but it wasn’t till the last minute that I realised what the plot was all about.

There is also a bit of societal revolution in Cars. Our main character gets stuck in an off the main road town, Radiator Springs, and eventually works out that the world that is passing it by doesn’t realise what it is missing.

The rest of Cars is to make this story appealing to kids. Let’s face it, this is quite shameless. We all know that a world full of humanised cars is going to do the trick. You can see the toys and merchandising woven into the animation. Nonetheless, it is enough to give us an excuse to get the family out and see the movie.

Cars passes the key adult test: would I want to see this movie even if I didn’t have kids? Yes, it does and having kids only complements the experience. I do recommend, however, that you do not leave until the curtains close. The movie continues right up to the very end of the closing credits and you will be disappointed if you rush out too early.

They have this?

Sometimes an article can get you thinking. Today there is one in Slate on the merits of sending 6 year olds to 'overnight camp.' Overnight camp is summer camp but where the kids don't come back in the evening. We had this when I was a child and my memories are not fond ones. It appears that fondness in one's own childhood are the main drivers as to whether parents send their own kids to overnight camp.

But I had forgotten there was such a thing and now that the article is there it is strangely alluring. For my birthday this year, we had a night free of the kids. It took my partner three months of planning but through a combination of sleep-overs and a sister-in-law enduring a night without us, we achieved it. Unfortunately, my partner threw her back out before the day but much better to have a sore back when the kids were not around than when they are.

It was nice; for me, just getting up on a Sunday morning, having breakfast and reading the newspaper without obligation was a surprising highlight. When the kids came home and we were asked whether we had a good time, our eldest said "well of course they did, they had got rid of us." Obviously, they feel our love.

Actually, they had a ball and when I count up the damage the only loser was my sister-in-law. A tip of my hat to you!

Friday, June 9, 2006

Toilet Training and Incentives: Child No.2 (Part II)

In my last post on this subject, I ended on a cliff-hanger. Child No.2 had been toilet trained by brute force but ...
... we were not done yet: incentives came back inforce when we moved on to night training. A much longer story for another time.
That time has come.

Night training is a particularly difficult business. Your child has the day down but, at night, they might be asleep or too drowsy to 'know the signs.' That means a period of time where they wear nappies or 'pull ups' at night. For parents, success occurs when it is dry in the morning and you are done when you get a week plus of success.

In relation to Child No.1, our philosophy was: what doesn't go in, doesn't go out. Her bed time was 6:30 so for two hours prior to that she was pretty much off fluids. This wasn't a conscious plan and we fell upon it by accident. But it worked and we achieved official night training. [Actually, it turns out that we were just lucky. Whatever chemical processes that needed to work, worked and the routine of before and after bed seemed to stick.]

We were not so lucky with Child No.2. For starters, he got thirsty and it is not really advisable to deny him water. But also it didn't quite click. He didn't seem too bothered about it all and we noticed that he would get up dry, claim he didn't need to go to the toilet and then go in his nappies, and later, pull-ups. This smelled (literally) of the basis of an incentive problem: his interests were not aligned with ours.

Pull-ups help here. They have little pictures that disappear if 'accidents' occur. This gave us a visible and external monitoring device. It was viewable both to us and our son. So that is the first thing we would check in the morning and a celebration would ensue if the pictures were there.

Celebrations only get you so far. We then moved to more tangible rewards. He was old enough to understand a 'points system' that would lead to rewards. So a dry night would get a point and 7 points would get you a reward -- usually, a book or toy. This was sufficient motivation and he was focused: "make sure the pictures don't go out and you get a point."

Well we had good nights and intermittent accidents. But then we had a week of dry pull-ups. Much rejoicing ensued including a bonus; no more pull-ups. Sadly, the next night there was an accident. Now you might say, these things happen. But it turns out that the problem was that these things hadn't happened.

Our son had a small rubbish bin in his room. Upon inspection, we found 5 full pull-ups. It turned out that our son was getting up in the morning, noticing the pictures gone and getting himself a new pull-up! There was nothing malicious in this. He just understood the rule as: "produce a pull-up with pictures." And so he worked out how to do just that.

This is just a reflection of the old adage; "you get what you pay for." We paid for dry pull-ups and that is what we got.

Now the response to this was to impose a new requirement: you have to have the same pull-up on in the morning as was put there last night. Easy to monitor and we did.

So we got a couple of nights of successes and the one morning I went into his room and found his bed wet. His pull-ups were dry. I asked him about this and he said "it just happened."

"But, how? It should have wet your pull-ups."

"No it wouldn't. I didn't have them on. They were on the night stand."


It turned out that he had been removing his pull-ups so as to ensure they were dry in the morning! I guess that worked. And we didn't notice because the relevant part of his body was concealed under the covers.

When it comes down to it, giving children incentives is a little like programming a computer. Unless you get the instructions just right, problems can ensue. It is like that time in Star Trek when Geordi programmed the holodeck for a game "that could defeat Data" (the android) and ended up creating a sentient program that almost destroyed the Enterprise.

So it was here. We focused on the pictures on the pull-up and that is where our son put his considerable creative energy on. What we needed was a 'program' that gave exactly what we wanted: no accidents. That is what we turned to after that night. It took some months but eventually we were successful only to be disrupted again following an operation. Nonetheless, since that time, we have moved focus away from the pull-up (although getting rid of them became a common incentive as he grew older) and on to the activity we cared about.

So the moral of this story, just like our story with Child No.1, is incentives can work but sometimes they can work too well. So much care and management is required.

Child No.3 is still too young but in the near future we will start this all over again. I am sure there will be yet another set of stories to tell.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Hard choices

In our household, we rarely give our children hard choices. Instead, when we given them choices we weight things to make it easy. For example, "come to dinner and wash your hands or you will miss out entirely." A fairly stark choice. Sometimes the alternative option is simply "or else" and we leave the else open to interpretation.

That is taking it a little far. For some choices that are relatively unimportant to both us and the children we can give real choice. Choosing breakfast cereal is one of these; although it is a constrained one -- "choose amongst the cereals that do not constitute a special treat and do it quickly." For these choices, there are no grave consequences.

The other day I had the opportunity to give our children a real choice over something they care about. As a reward for many weeks of good behaviour (using a complex points system to be described at another time), our two eldest children were allowed a special lunch. (See my earlier post about carrots at McDonalds). Usually, this is McDonalds but our daughter had experienced KFC and now believed strongly in it.

At Victoria Gardens (a shopping mall in Melbourne), they have a food court with McDonalds and KFC side-by-side. This was an opportunity to present the choice starkly to my daughter, in particular, and see if her head would explode. The idea that she would have to choose to give up one or the other is something, I believe, would be unfathomable in her experience. It would be a hard choice.

Turned out I was wrong. She was a true believer in KFC and made the choice easily. The 11 secret herbs and spices were too much of a draw. So much for my fun! Our son, on the other hand, found himself in a dilemma. Go with KFC on his sister's recommendation or go to McDonalds where the Happy Meal had a 'Cars' toy rather than a dinosaur. He made his choice on the toy and went to McDonalds; saving me $1 by the way. Obviously, those licensing fees to Disney are worth every penny.

When it came down to it, it turned out that I faced the hardest choice. Get either McDonalds or KFC or stand in a third line. One chicken fillet burger and chips later I found that time was the decisive dimension for me.