Monday, July 30, 2007

Give me Shrek

Moves to ban popular characters, such as Shrek, on junk food are misguided. They are, at best, a distraction from the real issues and, at worst, will actually make parents' lives harder in terms of getting their children to eat well.

First, it ignores the reality of what most parents try to do. Basically, we live in a meal to meal negotiation over the proportion of healthy and unhealthy food children eat. We use the prospect of a special treat to get children to more of the healthy stuff. However, to make that deal work in our favour, the more they like (or think they will like) the unhealthy stuff, the more vegetables we can get into them.

In that world, if advertising and promotional characters makes children think they will like the unhealthy stuff more, the greater is a parent's ability to get them to eat healthy stuff first. Give me pure puffy advertising and a Shrek label any day. If having a green character on a chocolate bar means that they will be as happy with a 30 gram treat than with a 60 gram one then so much the better. Shrek is my friend in my quest to market unhealthy goods to my children. Put simply, you want treats to have a good taste, good memory and yet not have much of it eaten. Banning this stuff will only make our job harder. [The same is true for toys in Happy Meals].

Second, Shrek doesn't come for free. Food makers have to pay for it. They expect greater sales but those sales are only valuable if they come at a reasonable price. What promotional characters and their expensive rights do is push up the costs to food makers. And what does that do, it pushes up prices. High price means fewer sales. Fewer sales means less junk food in children's mouths.

Ban this stuff and food makers have to compete on price. Prices plummet and sales go up. Straight into the mouths of babes. On this logic, the better place to look to ban cool characters is on the healthy foods just to keep them affordable for parents.

Put simply, Shrek isn't the problem but part of the solution. The problem is instead the lack of other stuff on food packaging; most notably, good nutritional information. We need a standard -- a single number -- that indicates how appropriate a food item is for children. Yes, it is imperfect, but it is the information parents need to ensure they feed their children the right stuff. Politicians concerned about childhood obesity need to empower parents rather than disarm food makers and advertisers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tough maths

A new study says that when it comes to daughters and their propensity for maths and science in later life, Dads are to blame. If Dads hold stereotypes, they hold their daughters back.

One a related note, I thought that it may be the 11th or 12th Grade before my daughter came home with a maths problem that stumped me. (The earlier that happened the better the reflect on our education system.) Usually, I look over her homework and try and work it out in my head. It never takes more than a minute and then I can at least check whether she gets it right or not. (By the way, we might talk about it, if she doesn't but I never give her the answer.) And some of those problems are tricky. Last term she had one where she had to take a clock face and draw two lines across it such that the numbers in each of the resulting three areas summed to the same number. Took her about 15 minutes and me about 2 (more than I wanted at the very least).

So this week's problem has me worried. Take the numbers 1 though 9 and keep them in that order. Then using any operator (+, -, x or /) and also parentheses make them into an expression that equals 100. Now I can see how to do that by trial and error but I can also see that is going to take sometime. My daughter is currently slogging through that. But I can't see how to do it simply. I ran out of my 5 minute limit so I thought I'd post it here for your amusement. Please feel free to leave, not the answer, but any short-cuts in the comments.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The 5th Harry Potter movie

There are two reactions to the newly released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. One set of people really enjoyed it. Another set think it lacked something. The difference between the two is whether they read the book in the past two years or not.

I fall into the latter book having re-read the last two books a couple of months ago in preparation for the final installment. The movie writers had a tough task. They decided to turn the longest book (800+ pages) into the shortest movie (just over 2 hours). Something had to go. What went were the characters. Only two characters get prime billing, Harry Potter and Delores Umbridge. Two other characters get a non-trivial, Luna and Sirius. But everyone else is pushed into the background. Hermione, Dumbledore, Cho, the Wesley twins, Ginny are there but not at the book's level. Sadly, Malfoy, Ron and Snape are pretty well left behind. This left a big hole; particularly, since it is Harry's relationship with Snape that was by far the most significant feature of the book.

The plot shortening took away the epic feel of previous movies. There was no sense of the school year and no build up. Dumbledore's Army was created but only named as it was disbanded. And the plot basics were twisted to make the story work. But it seemed to me that things went too quickly and the whole exercise seemed jumpy. Put simply, the movie seemed more filler than real development. The book made up for that with character development. This time around there was none to be seen.

That said, we go into these things with high expectations. It was very enjoyable and the incorporation of humour was very well done. It was also far less scary than previous movies; perhaps the least scary of the lot. There may have been a darker movie, but around the theatre there were fewer instances that sent childrens' popcorn flying. There was no time to build up a sense of foreboding.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Penguin's Life

Massively multi-player games are all the rage. There is Everquest and World of Warcraft if you want to wage war. There is Second Life if you want to wage life. And for the kids, there is the torridly two dimensional world of Club Penguin. These school holidays, it has totally absorbed our family.

So what happens in the club? Basically, for free, your kid gets a penguin and can earn coins by playing games. They can then use the coins to buy some things including stuff to do up their very own igloo. They can also buy pets called puffles and spend some time trying to keep them healthy and happy. Finally, they can waddle around the world and see who else is there.

This teaches them about life. My 6 year old son, played enough games to earn himself some loot and then spent it on ten puffles. He learnt the lesson of over-population quickly and found himself unable to care for them. By the day's end, they were all gone; passed on to another virtual place. From then on, he kept his puffle herd down.

For my kids, we told them not to talk to strangers. So their activities are divided between saying in response to someone asking them to be their friend, "No!" and looking for each other. So in one room someone shouts out, "where are you?" and there is the response "in the Outback." Suffice it to say the Outback is a much colder place than you would expect.

To earn coins, the kids played games. I asked whether they killed anyone and apparently that wasn't allowed. Now how, may I ask, is this going to prepare them for other virtual games?

Typically, I would come home to this conversation:

"How long have you been playing that thing?"

"About three hours."

"Don't you think you should stop?"


"What are you doing?"

"I am playing this ice block game. Three more rounds and I'll have enough coins do get another puffle."

"What about bath time?"

"What about it?"

"Well, the kids seem to be waiting to go to bed and they haven't eaten since lunch. Well, except for some virtual fish."

You see, Club Penguin -- like other games before it -- has taken in my kids' mother. She too is obsessed with getting further in it. The entire family is now on ice.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Behind Starfall

I have raved about Starfall before; the site that teaches kids to read. Here is a link to an interesting article about its founders.