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.