Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Upside Down Show

[Television] Something for you parents with 4 - 8 year olds that I can recommend is The Upside Down Show (on Nick Jr on Foxtel, 6:30pm lots of nights). It is by the Umbilical Brothers and it is essentially their humour but at a more childish level (which isn't much of a stretch). It is very funny and your kids will love it too. (Here is a representative review). I believe it is available elsewhere in the world. I think this is the beginning of another Wiggles.

What the kids are in to these days

Click here to see what the kids are in to these days and what they really talk about on myspace. [Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the tip]

PS. If that takes your fancy, I believe there is an Australian (or Pacific Rim) Edition of this book.

Genius Spin

Terry Tao's recent award of the Fields Medal ('the Nobel of Mathematics') gave rise to many a newspaper article about his childhood achievements (click here for an example). For instance, he was teaching other children to count blocks at Age 2, had completed primary school maths by Age 5, high school by 8 and so on. Now as a discerning parent, I couldn't help but engage in the inappropriate and wholly unrealistic exercise of benchmarking my own kids on this. For instance, for Child No.1, she was doing the counting thing by age 2 but has seemed to drop off the pace since then.

This got me thinking, if my children actually end up achieving something, what childhood achievements am I going to have to feed the press. Here is a smattering of what I have thusfar:

Child No. 1 (currently 7): able to unscrew windows at age 1, counted at age 2 (as noted above), and enjoyed numbers so much that her favourite book was the phone book at age 4, and can dance appropriately to any genre of music from age 3.

Child No.2 (currently 5): was picking up books and flipping the pages at 8 months, engaged in proof by contradiction at age 4, and his favourite CD was of Beethoven symphonies at age 5.

Child No.3 (currently 2): told her father to "stop complaining" (yes, those exact words) in appropriate context at age 1; was able to order the older kids around at age 2 to wash their hands, brush their teeth and put on their shoes. [I assume this will be useful if she ever becomes a ruthless dictator and gets the trains running on time].

However, balanced against this would be the stuff that wouldn't make the press:

Child No.1: drew a little black moustache on her face in ink at age 2 (let me tell you that got alot of looks) and filled her pockets with 50 little animals from creche at age 3 that we didn't notice until the end of the day when she got undress for a bath.

Child No.2: was able to balance his entire meal (out of the bowl) on his head at age 1, got in a toy pram and knocked himself out at age 2 and when the blood was wiped off, got in the pram again, and covered all of the walls of his room with drawings one night when age 5.

Child No.3: hadn't learnt about gravity by age 2 (don't ask).

Now what are they holding back about Terry Tao?

[By the way, according to Slate, early clear speaking may not be the genius indicator it is supposed to be, especially if you want the youngins to learn other languages].

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

For the budding artist

For those who like the three dimensional Mr Potato Head, try the two dimensional Mr Picasso Head.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Seven Up, again

[Movie Review] As the opening credits of 49 Up rolled, it suddenly occurred to me that I have been coming to these documentaries for 21 years. 28 Up was the first one I saw in 'real time' having watched 7, 14 (or 7+7) and 21 Up on television before. Then dutifully, in seven year intervals I have come again and again. And through it all, my life has changed. I saw 28 Up with my parents, 35 Up with friends, 42 Up with my spouse and 49 Up with the mother of my children (the last two the same person, although in an Up way). I expect that I will see 56 Up with one or more of my children and then who knows after that.

So why do I (and millions of others) keeping coming back to see what happened to those 14 children every 7 years? Let's first dismiss the obvious: because something interesting has happened to these people. For at least the last two installments, nothing interesting has happened. Basically, in 49 Up, people get older, many have grandchildren now and a surprising number have holiday houses. But they are in the same job with or without much the same partners and haven't had any dramatic shifts in life fortunes. In 42 Up, it was much the same.

Previously, in 35 Up, the draw was to see whether the more dramatic changes between 21 and 28 had continued. 21 Up was foreboding for many but then major swings happened by 28. Suzy who was lost at 21 was back on track as married with children by 28. Nick, the son of a Yorkshire farmer, was getting his PhD in Oxford at 21 and then, by 28, had gone as far away from Yorkshire as could be imagined (to the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an assistant professor in electrical engineering). But it was Neil who was compelling. A happy child at 7, by 21 he has falling off the rails and in poverty. At 28, he was homeless. Whereas Nick had escaped class lines, Neil had fallen through them. For the rest of the 14 children, their lives changed, by English class lines gave them their life fortunes. By 49 Up, they are on the same track as we saw at 35. If looking for life changes, was the pull, it is no longer the case.

Perhaps what is most interesting is seeing how these folks deal with being in the public eye. These days they are noticeable in their resentment; particularly, of the documentary-maker, Michael Apted. However, one is left with the impression that they protest too much. It was hard to be convinced that reliving their lives every 7 years was really all that bad. But as John (whose quotes as a 7 year old were such a highlight) the whole exercise has more in common with reality television than a serious study. For that reason, two of the original 14 have dropped out. Most interestingly, Charles hasn't been on the program since 21 and he went on to become a BBC documentary film-maker!

In actuality, and I know this sounds like a cliche, but watching this again and again for essentially the same thing is about us rather than them. Every time we come back we are seven years older and have moved another stage. I look at them as how I am now and how I will be in a decade. The thoughts that go through your mind are focussed on yourself. And this gives us a discipline to spend a couple of hours every 7 years thinking about that.

Nonetheless, all this has inspired me to do a '7 Up' style interview with my children at the same ages. Now I just need to go find the seven year old and explain to her why she will have to put on a school uniform on a Sunday and tell me who she is going to marry.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Swimming lessons

If you ask me, I think swimming lessons for children under 4 are pretty much a waste of time and money. Put simply, unless you have your own pool, they just don't get it with a half hour each week. I think that swimming schools look at glee with parents who come with babies and toddlers for lessons: no pressure at all to get performance and lots of singing. An easy buck.

An article in Slate asks what the best way to teach children to swim is? It talks about literally throwing a child in the deep end and seeing what happens. There is a school of thought that believes this in Australia too. They got push back from the medical association because early swimming supposedly caused complacent parent supervision. Better to have them not be able to swim. To me, that sounds like putting the cart before the horse. Let's face it, having a child you can get themselves to the edge of the pool without an adult seems like a good thing. The message is that parents have to be careful. Full stop.

For us, the mother of my children is a great swimmer. She swims 3 times a week for about 400 km near as I can tell. She wants a child that will join her especially given that she has a husband with insufficient swimming skills even to aspire to be a beached whale. Child number 1 enjoyed the water and did nothing for 4 years of weekly lessons until they started rating her and that got her attention. Child number 2 looked very promising but then was afflicted with wineter ailments and ear plugs and at 5 has no real interest. Child number 3 actually looks promising but is stuffed because she is child number 3 and parents 1 and 2 are somewhat sick of swimming lessons: the commitment is off. But she will come back at age 4 and things will be different.

Suffice it to say, we have spent alot of time at the pool and have little to show for it. Child number 2 was going so slowly that the Swim School offered him an extra lesson for free each week until he passed to the next level. For free, that sounded good to me. So how many 'extra' lessons did it take until he was passed? One, yes one. He was passed on the next free lesson! Hmm.

In my opinion, here is the best strategy: wait until age 4 before you pay anyone anything. Then enrol in one of those intensive swimming programs -- everyday for a week or two. When we have done this, it has got results.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In my day: Cereal boxes

Cheerios is being sold in Australia. Each box comes with a free Roald Dahl book. What is more you can see which book is in the box so you don't double up.

In my day, we were content to read the back of a cereal box morning after morning and occasionally choke on a small toy. The back of today's boxes are decidedly boring full or nutritional information and hardly any interesting content.

What is more where there are toys in the box like a lightspoon or an X-ray pen, you don't get one in each box but in one in four. Good for teaching the kids about probability. Bad for working out shared property rights.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Promotional art

The picture to the left was by my daughter. It is not ordinary picture but in fact a poster promoting her forthcoming book "The Person and the Dragon." My scanner was too small so it cut off the top title "x's New Book." Also in the bottom right hand corner the words say "COMING SOON." You will also see a preview of the book's cover and one of the inside pictures. I have seen the book in production and the cover is the same and that image is on the inside. However, at current rates of writing, the coming may not be soon.

Now you might be wondering how she came to work on promotion for her book. I am wondering the same thing. It didn't come from any suggestion from her parents. You may find it hard to believe but "Wow, you are writing a book. Have you thought about your promotional strategy?" is not our usual reaction to these artistic endeavours. Instead, we discovered the promotion neatly adorning a wall and thought "wow, I didn't know you were even working on a new book." Typical, these days you only find out about your children's activities in the media.

I am not sure that this is a trend but similar incidentals have clouded other creative endeavours. For instance, last summer's attempt to make a blockbuster movie never really got past the interview with the 'Director' for the DVD Extras.

Of course, this all a bit more positive than what our son has taken to at the moment. He has started to make signs of rules around the house. Many of these are of the order of "don't touch this." He figures that if a sign is there is should be obeyed.

Some are a bit more annoying such as "don't use this door." He then gets upset when we do. I then explain, well it didn't say "please, don't use this door." This has resulted in more polite but still just as annoying signs.

It is hard for me to remember but these types of artistic endeavours seem a tad more instrusive then those we did in my day.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Their ignorance is bliss

On the way home from my Disney cruise with the family, Grandma unwisely packed a toy pistol (Pirates of the Caribbean model) in our 6-year old’s carry-on luggage. As you might imagine, this caused a delay. So even though the toy gun was shaped like a banana and yellow and clearly plastic, the security official explained why we couldn’t take it: “People can take these souvenir guns and modify them on the plane to shoot.”

Did I mention it was plastic? And yellow? And shaped like a banana? It shoots suction darts. ...

She gave us the option of checking the toy gun with the cargo luggage. Apparently she wasn’t worried that I would rig my electric shaver and tweezers together to form a drill then bore into the cargo hold to retrieve the lethal plastic gun. I guess they didn’t cover that in her training.

I take pride in finding opportunities in bad situations. And given the choice of losing the toy gun or being continuously shot in the head with plastic darts back home, I decided there “wasn’t time” to check another bag. My argument would have been stronger if the Disney travel package hadn’t gotten us to the airport 5 hours before our flight. I told our 6-year old that it only seemed like a long wait. And that’s why we have no intention of teaching him to tell time.

Now the security measures aside, it is this last bit that caught my interest. We have used similar strategies all of the time especially regarding toys that are "lost" or "broken" or "had too many batteries."

But sometimes all is not as it seems. My brother, who occasionally baby sat my children, had a clear preference to get them into bed as soon as possible so as to get in a good evening of TV watching. My daughter's bed time was 7:30 and she had been told that but being 3 or 4 at the time didn't really know what it meant. My brother also surmised that she couldn't tell the time and so at 7:00 announced that it was "bed time" thinking that would be that. My daughter apparently looked up at the clock and said, convincingly it turns out, "no it isn't 7:30 yet." My brother, suitably stunned, had to relent and, when we came home, exclaimed, "you didn't tell me that she could tell the time!"

For my own amusement I decided not to disabuse him of her time telling genius. In actual fact, she would have said that for any time and it was just that she happened to be correct that my brother, in this case, ignorant about her ignorance, believed her. So it is not enough that the children are ignorant, you have to know that they are ignorant and they have to know that you know that they are ignorant and so on. Apparently, the epistemological properties of knowledge are more ingrained than time telling.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Not far from the tree

Here is a link to a contest designed to create some toys that are a tad unsuitable. Here is the winner.
Finger Toy

When you look through the list, it is shocking how small a distance you need to move from real toys to get these.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Nothing but the truthiness

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has married into parenting. Here is an amusing post of how he dealt with escalating children demands.

I’m not experienced at parenting. Sometimes it shows. Recently I offered to buy a video game for my newly acquired 6-year old son. There was no particular reason for the gift except that I was going to Best Buy for something else and wanted to give him a reason to come along. At this point in my story, those of you who are experienced parents already know the mistake I made. The conversation took an ugly turn:

6-year old: Yay! A new video game!

Me: Put on your shoes and you can go pick it out with me.

6-year old: Can we buy TWO video games?

Me: No, just one.

6-year old: Why can’t we buy two? You’re rich.

Well, at this point, I’m totally screwed. I feel a responsibility to give good reasons for my decisions whenever possible. I refuse to use “because I said so” or “we can’t afford it” because he’d see through those in a heartbeat. And I couldn’t lecture to him about the benefits of moderation because at the time we were preparing for a cruise to the Caribbean. I had nothing.

Worse yet, if I agreed to buy him two video games just to make the problem go away, he’d ask for three. He’s smart that way. Then his sister would demand a pony in the name of fairness. Before long the whole thing would degenerate into tears, biting, and permanent emotional scars. And that’s just me.

My new mother-in-law advised me to tell the kids they have to earn everything. In theory, that will keep them from being spoiled. There’s merit to that approach, but I worry that they’ll start demanding a new toy ever time they eat a vegetable. “Earning” is way too vague.

Luckily, what I lack in parenting skills I make up for in weasel experience. My strategy – and it has been extremely successful so far – is to offer such boringly technical explanations that his 6-year old eyes glaze over and he wanders away. For example:

Me: Well, the reason you can have one but not two video games will require an explanation that spans the fields of economics and psychology. Pull up a chair and I’ll begin by discussing the future expected value of good character development versus the present incremental value of an extra video game. Would it help to review the concept of discounted cash flows?

6-year old: Never mind. I’ll ask Mom.

My method has the advantage that he understands I have a reason, and he’s reminded that I’m still smarter than he is. I plan to milk this approach until he starts reading my blog.

Suffice it to say I have employed the same strategy of truthiness to great effect. Adams has a background in economics and business so I can't rule out that it requires those skills. However, I can also recommend it for tricky discussions on sex, birthing, god and evolution.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Conflicting baby products?

Two posts side by side on Gizmodo today. One for a cot rocker:


Useful baby gadgets are pretty rare around these parts, but the Lullabub Cot Rocker is easily the best baby gadget on the market. This gadget consists of four modules that are placed underneath the legs of a cot or crib. It will then gently rock the crib automatically in a choice of four rhythms to help the baby go to sleep. It even includes a night light, automatic timer and a remote control.

And the other for these hands:

In zaky infant pillow


We're sure none of the offspring of our brilliant Gizmodo reading audience would be fooled by The Zaky, an ergonomic pillow that simulates the weight, touch and feel of the hands of a caring parent. But this is such a cute picture nonetheless, we couldn't resist showing it to you. Aww.

And so what would happen if you put the two together?

Actually, from my experience the cot rocker seems like a great idea.