Saturday, December 29, 2007

Navigating alternative realities

They say The Golden Compass is better movie viewing if you read the book by some other name. I didn't get a chance to find out when we saw that today but what I saw was not too bad and, I guess this is the acid test, will probably have myself and the 9 year old seeing the next one when it appears.

The movie is about an alternative reality where more efficient use of environmentally friendly technology has led to a cold Northern haven for polar bears who are sentient with their own monarchical, but warring, civilisation. I guess the main focus is not so much on that but on the humans who literally carry around their own demons with them for all to see and the difficulties that apparently creates for their own authoritarian regime to maintain order, etc. Suffice it to say their conspiracy of continuing evil is revealed in this movie with the main child heroine having enough trouble working out who her parents are and fulfilling some prophecy a la Harry Potter style. I guess this is where a reading of the book may have assisted in character and societal development.

Anyhow, there are worse things to do in 40 degree heat than see this one.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Enchanted Stuck in the Middle

We saw Enchanted yesterday (our only family Christmas Day tradition). This is the new movie from Disney that pokes fun at Disney. It starts out in a comically stereotypical Disney fairytale cartoon and then moves into the real world, New York city, where the characters remain in character but interact with other people. All this makes for some very funny scenes and one deep moment whereupon the lack of emotional range of cartoon characters are explored but beyond that is nothing special.

This movie is 'stuck in the middle' in that it tries to appeal to two audiences and falls short. For children, the irony is lost on them and the movie becomes boring. To placate them, Disney adds a gratuitous dragon at the end that is pretty much completely pointless. For adults, the irony is there but it is muted because the writers cannot steer too far away from kid friendly issues. And so while the girl ends up with a different guy, everyone still lives very happily ever after; in the barf worthy sense.

That said, you could do worse for a school holiday movie.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Conversation O' the Morning

Santa doesn't visit our house but that didn't stop the following conversation this morning ...

"Look at this website. It says Santa is currently over Niger."

"Dad, Santa isn't real."

"Yeah, he isn't real. It is just a man dressed up as Santa."

"What does he do?"

"Well, he goes around the world giving presents to Christian children."

"But he is not really Santa?"

"No, he is just dressed up as Santa. Get real Dad."

"Well, how does he get around?"

"By plane of course. In the books it is by slate but that is just made up, like Santa."

"So let me get this straight. Santa isn't real but every year some guy gets dressed up in a Santa suit and brings presents to Christian children using a plane. Where does the plane land?"

"At the airport silly and then Santa drives around to all the houses. What did you expect him to do, walk?"

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Yes Virginia, there is an incentive system

The biggest open question surrounding the economics of Christmas is this: is the creation of Santa Clause an effective incentive system?

So my understanding of the deal is this: if a child is good throughout the year, Santa Clause comes on Christmas Eve and leaves presents for them in the form of toys and candy. If not, Santa still visits and brings coal, sticks or clothes. To determine this, Santa keeps a list throughout the year to see who is 'watching out' or 'crying.'

If a child buys into this, this would seem to be a potentially powerful incentive system for keeping them well-behaved. What is more, it removes the critical 'subjective performance evaluation' issue from the hands of the parents to the hands of a Northern dwelling, large, usually jolly manager of elves dressed in warm red clothes. Unlike parents, Santa has an incentive to keep the system going whereas a parent's claim that some behaviour would ruin Christmas would not be nearly as credible (see Donald Cox's case study #3).

But what is the evidence that this works as an incentive system? For starters, children around the age of 8 discover the truth and so it must break down at that point even if they keep their parents wondering about what they really believe. But what about before then, does it work to keep children well-behaved?

Now an obvious path to compare this to would be to compare Santa cultures with Santa-free ones. But that is imperfect because they will substitute their own incentive systems into the mix. Although, when it comes down to it, the Jewish elevation of stature of Chanukah is surely a testament to the incentive power of Santa. Sadly, for Jews, the only holiday that occurred around December involved a minor miracle whereby an oil lamp a couple of thousand years ago lasted a little longer than expected. That said, by elevating the status of Chanukah one can safely say that the communication of its true meaning has only been enhanced beyond some ritual and rather unmiraculous candle burning.

What we really need is a random experiment? Some group of families needs to be assigned to miss out on Santa visiting and this has to be communicated at the beginning of the year. Then the behaviour of their children can be assessed and compared with those operating under the status quo.

My guess is that we may find out that the whole deal doesn't do much for incentives. For starters, you can just ask my children who are forced to stick with the true meaning of Chanukah and, if they are lucky, each get one little present each (worth less than $1) for the 8 nights. Total budget for us: $24 (not including the candles). They seem to do pretty well throughout the year. Then again, we are probably substituting other incentives into the mix.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Life's Big To Do List

No one really thinks it will last. But try telling that to two kids who have decided they will be spending their life together and the parents who also approve of the coupling. They are just too young and inexperienced to really have such high expectations. Maybe they should see whether the relationship survives some key events; for instance, birthdays.

Apparently, birthdays can make or break any relationship not anointed by destiny. And so it is with that in mind that my son and his fiance celebrated their 7th birthday this weekend. And I can happily say that their future plans appear to have survived that event without a hitch.

Now, I know what you are thinking, back up a minute, their 7th birthday? Yes, THEIR 7th birthday. Turns out that these two were both born on exactly the same day. How totally cool is that? What is more they both have a younger sister with exactly the same name (well, it sounds the same but turns out it is spelt differently). Then add to that they are in the same class, and so when, about a year ago, she suggested that they get married when they are older, my son decided that is a good criteria. After all, what other criteria would you use?

Not surprisingly, for this years' birthdays, the first of their long engagement, they decided to have a joint birthday party -- something that I am definitely in favour of. I also saw it as an opportunity to see how it would be to deal with the potential in-laws prior to the more stressful wedding arrangements.

For reasons that I can't quite understand, they decided on a bowling party. The reason I can't understand it is that they are both bad at it but for some reason decided it was a good compromise. When it comes down to it, however, bowling parties are themselves not on the low end of stress free kids parties. They are chaotic with the added element of children hurling lethal objects around. Indeed, we had our first blood injury (my future daughter in-law's brother) just five minutes into the party. That said, the kids had fun which is apparently all that counts.

Turns out also that dealing with the in-laws was very easy. The tasks were divided, got done and the finances split. I did have a conversation with them that perhaps we should not have the wedding in a bowling alley but that the price point was excellent. There were agreements all around.

You may ask: when is the wedding likely to take place? Here is where some conflict arises -- not between families but within my own. My view is that if these crazy kids still want to get married at age 16 then I will happily sign the release. My son's mother thinks otherwise and is of the view that while she has some legal say, he will never let go. This is a source of tension between us. She argues that 16 is still too young. I point out that usually those wanting to get married at that age are being impulsive but let's face it, 10 years of engagement is hardly that! I can see many more years of this argument.

My son is quite serious about all this. On a recent holiday, he spent considerable energy shopping for jewelry. I was worried about him spending too much money. Marriage I can deal with but wasting money on precious metals is another thing. Anyhow, he did eventually settle on a friendship bracelet, that I believe both of them have lost. But it is the thought that counts.

When I look back over this, I think I am happy about this for precisely the same reason as my son is. He views selecting a future partner as something he had to do and has now done; thereby crossing a potentially annoying task off his to do list.

I feel the same way. Getting this out of the way early avoids years of frustration and uncertainty. There is so much less to worry about if this works out. I am willing to buy into that. I can see the attraction of arranged marriages for parents. They cut through annoying details. It can work well for the children too. It did so for me, but that is a story for another day.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The right tax

In economics, taxing bad behaviour (so called sin taxes) can be set equal to the costs of that activity on others. The end result is sometimes the bad behaviour occurs, the price is paid but everyone is at least as well off as before.

In parenting that is rarely the logic of punishment. It is often set to deter the said activity. Here is a story of a situation where that didn't work out; although the child was stunningly economically rational.

Renny: Momma I haffa sit in time out.

DaMomma: Huh? Why, Love?

Renny: I ate a candle.

(DaMomma, looking over to table where a candle has distinctive mouse-like gnaw marks on it.)

DaMomma (sigh): Okay, time to sit in time out then.

Renny: (Shrugging, trotting over to kitchen Naughty Corner.) O’tay.

Later, while making brownies:

Renny: Momma, I take the butter to show Daddy.

DaMomma: Okay, but don’t take it out of the wrapper, okay? I mean it.

Renny: O’tay!


Renny: Momma … can Sissy sit in time out with me?

DaMomma: Baby, you already did your … why do you need a time out?

Renny: I opened da butter.

(There, on the living room floor, nowhere near Daddy, an opened, mushed stick o’butter.)

Renny (hopeful): Sissy do time out wid me? Momma? (Getting carried up the stairs to her room.) MOMMA NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! (Down on the bedroom floor, knowing the door is about to shut, hands on hips looking at Momma.) I. DON’T. LIKE YOU MOMMA.

DaMomma (Long, thoughtful pause. Then, leaning over) I LIKE YOUUUUUUU!!!!!


Renny: And den I opened da butter and she took me to mah room and made me cry!

Daddy: That IS sad, Renny.

DaMomma: Ren, are you sorry you ate the candle?

Renny (very serious blue eyes): Yes, Momma.

DaMomma: Are you ever going to do it again?

Renny: Oh, yes, Momma! And den I sit in time out!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bee Property Rights

Jerry Seinfeld's long awaited Bee Movie doesn't disappoint. It is a kids' movie so the true Seinfeld magic was never going to be repeated but it is written with the comedian's flair and is peppered with truly amusing lines and Seinfeldesque moments and observations. You know, "what's the deal with all this honey?" This is one movie you want to be taking the kids too rather than foisting the task off on other adults.

But what interested me was the subtle message underlying the whole movie. If we believed that Jerry Seinfeld was the sort of person capable of sending a message to the whole Hollywood system (much as we believed was the case with, say, Shrek or Ratatoullie) it was this: the whole obsession with intellectual property rights and their enforcement (rightful or not) has repercussions that can destroy the economic system and social fabric. Of course, we don't really believe Seinfeld is capable of that but that doesn't mean the message didn't get there anyway.

The main issue in the movie comes when our resident 'bucking the system' bee, Barry, finds that humans are enslaving bees, consuming honey and no value is going back to the bees. Barry takes it on himself to use the humanic legal system to enforce what he sees as bees legitimate property rights and secure the honey back for bees. He succeeds and with more honey than they will ever need, bees stop working, pollinating and so the whole environmental system breaks down.

Now the Coasian solution would have been to pay the bees to work but there doesn't see to have been a gain from trade; that is, they didn't seem to want to despite having done so for 27 million years. Indeed, rescue comes later in a wholly uneconomic way; but I won't give away that one.

The message for the kiddies is you might have property rights but that enforcing them may cause others harm, so think about that one. Now think about that people who might be downloading Bee Movie rather than dragging everyone to the cinema.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Physics for children

Stephen Hawking and his daughter have written a children's book: George's Secret Key to the Universe. Let's face it, there was no chance that my children would not be subjected to it. And of the past few weeks, subject them to it, I did.

It didn't disappoint. It purported to have the latest thinking on black holes. Hang on a second, didn't I already read that 20 or so years ago with Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Well, I am pleased to tell you that the latest thinking on black holes is new. For starters, apparently, theoretically you can survive an encounter with one -- so it turns out the Disney movie of 25 years ago was actually more accurate than Hawking's pop science book of a few years later. Of course, I won't be giving much away when I tell you that theory becomes practice here.

Anyhow on to the book -- which is fiction -- and despite having the latest thinking is not hard science fiction. Basically, it is set in the present day an involves a piece of technology, a laptop computer named Cosmos, who can open up portals to anywhere in the universe. This seemed a stretch on the credibility front but what can you do.

The book is about George who is a bright young kid with an interest in science and technology stuck in a family of Luddites/Hippies with practices that would have been extreme for that group in the 60s. One suspects young Stephen had some issues in college back then. There is no technology in George's house, no preservatives in his food (something my kids can identify with) and weekends spent going to environmental protest rallies.

George's only joy is his pet pig that doesn't get much of a role other than allowing George to encounter his next door neighbours, a polar opposite, academic, science family who spend their weekend traveling to comets and the like.

Anyhow this sets the stage for several adventures that allows us to cover the material of physics in a moderately interesting way -- apparently, it is not enough to just have the story, there are inserts, pop outs and pictures explaining the real science. We skipped those on the first read. But the subtext is some debate against Luddites and scientist that George eventually helps reconcile. The debate didn't seem particularly relevant in today's world but the idea of an intellectual debate underpinning a children's book was pretty interesting nonetheless.

This is no major work of literary magic but it has offsetting benefits that make it a great read for children 6 years and above.