Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Down Under

When I was growing up we didn't have Halloween. We knew it existed (it was integral to the plots of both ET and It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown). But it was seen as an American thing, which it was.

That seems to have changed but only partially. On October 31st, packs of children roam the neighbourhood in search of Halloween. This started a few years back. I remember that some children came to our house asking for treats. We searched around and found some chocolate and gave it to them. Child No.1, who was probably 3 at the time, watched this with great interest.

"Why did we give them our chocolate?"

"I think it is Halloween. If children dress up and ask for chocolate, we have to give it to them."

"I'm going to dress up. Then can I have some."

"No you have to go other peoples' houses."

"Can we go?"

"No, we don't celebrate Halloween."

This, of course, was not an entirely satisfying conversation for her and for what must have been a year she quizzed us about it all. When it came down to it, we had an excellent reason for not wanting to do Halloween. Given how few people knew about it, it seemed like we would go around the neighbourhood begging for food. That wasn't a good look. Halloween just didn't have the scale. So we resisted for years.

But the crowds of children have grown and somehow it doesn't seem quite as strange any more. We let Child No.1 wander around dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow today (with a friend) and she seemed to do quite well. The other kids were left to handle the distribution of our own treats.

What was interesting is that a market for information seemed to evolve amongst the packs of kids. Just as a pack had scored something from us, I could see them engage other packs in an exchange of information -- usually with pointing -- of which houses seemed to understand the deal and which did not. I had to instruct the kids to quickly distribute stuff and get back inside so that we didn't draw too much attention to ourselves. We were in danger of running out.

The other thing I did to ration supply was insist that the kids were actually dressed up. Some were just coming by with a bag and a smile. That didn't cut it. Others were in their school uniform. That definitely didn't cut it. So the loot was distributed according to not only whether someone was dressed up but also the quality of it all. And if they didn't want to hear a lecture on incentives, then they could go without as far as I was concerned. Let's face it, with only one kid -- albeit an entrepreneurial one -- in the field, we were running a household deficit on treats.

Halloween, as a real social event, requires pretty much close to 100 percent neighbourhood buy-in. I think we are running at about 30 percent at the moment and at the slow rate of growth our kids will be long gone before it becomes something serious.

[Update: Some economics Halloween links]

Monday, October 27, 2008

Children's book titles that are hard to publish

An example:

10. The Little Sissy Who Snitched

11. Some Kittens Can Fly

12. That's It, I'm Putting You Up For Adoption

13. Grandpa Gets a Casket

14. The Magic World Inside the Abandoned Refrigerator

For more, click here. [HT: Orson Scott Card]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Spore Report

The full computer game, Spore, was released back in September. But for various reasons, we have taken awhile to get to playing it. Well, when I say, we, I mean my 7 year old son. Back in June, I reported on how joyful he had found the Spore Creature Creator. He made more than 100 in all. Now, with the full game, he got a chance to try his creatures out.

I am not sure EA Games realised it when they developed this game but what they appear to have done is to delve into the mind of my son and designed a game uniquely defined to maximise his happiness. Indeed, it only lacks one thing -- it is shackled to a computer and therefore comes under the rubric of 'parental permission to play' required.

The game starts with you as a single celled life form. You need to eat enough to grow and you need to avoid predators. As you do this you get to evolve into more complex and larger lifeforms. Along the way, you get to choose how you evolve -- eating meat, devoting your body to attacking things (like claws) or defensive ones (like armour). It is those design stages that delighted my son who could employ his full creative talents as the game progressed.

At one of these stages you get to procreate with others of your species (that somehow appear despite the obvious fact that you designed the first one). Anyhow that is just as well because you need at least one of those, after that, to be around so you can procreate and evolve. This is dangerous and I would often hear, "oh dear that big fish ate my child." It is a harsh lesson in life.

Eventually, you evolve enough to make your way, with much fanfare, on to land. That is when things really take off. You initially have a nest. I would then hear, "where's my wife? I want to have children. Oh there she is. I'll call her." At that point, there is an exchange of love hearts and some happy dancing, after which, the 'wife' goes to the nest and lays an egg. This offers another opportunity for some evolutionary design changes. Watching this another adult remarked, "did he just call her to do what I think he did?" "Yep," I'd reply. "And you are fine with that?" "Sure." "Ookay," as they walked slowly away so as not to startle the crazy people. In my mind, it seemed to be a fairly sanitised educational experience.

The game continues on with less evolution and more technological change. Then you get to design temples, halls, houses and various kinds of military equipment. You need that so you can either impress or conquer other nations/species. My son did not spend his life in military pursuits and preferred doing dances to win others over. He is that kind of kid. But one time I saw that he was being attacked by a particularly aggressive tribe. I suggested as night was falling that he immediately fight back and wipe them off the face of the planet. He gathered his mob with flaming torches and went over to the other tribe's village. Weakened from their own unsuccessful attack on him, as his mob came over the hill, they literally fled it terror. This was one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a computer game. And we laughed and laughed as his mob burnt that village to the ground. Good times. Good times.

As of now he has a full fledged civilisation and engaged in a combination of religious subjugation and World War. I think if he gets through that he will take to space and move on to other worlds.

All in all, this game is a great combination of creativity, problem solving, social learning and comedic fun. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's all in their mind

A conversation with my 9 year old daughter:

(Me) "Oh no, there is a scratch on the car."

(C1) "It is just a little scratch. What is the big deal?"

(Me) "Well, scratches like that mean that when we come to sell the car it will be worth less."

(C1) "Why should it be worth less, it is just a little scratch?"

(Me) "True but people prefer cars that are scratch free so it can reduce value by more than you think."

(C1) "In that case, couldn't it be that no one actually cares about the scratch itself. They just think the next buyer will be."

(Me) "It is possible."

(C1) "And that means that they all decide the car is worth less even though no one really cares."

(Me) "I guess it is conceivable."

(C1) "People need to get a grip."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amazon: Pre-Order Parentonomics

I know that this is well ahead of time (it comes out in April, 2009), but I am happy to announce that Parentonomics with its new subtitle "An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting" is now available for pre-order from It is a hard cover version but this is also an opportunity to signal a desire to read it on Kindle and get things moving there.

You can also pre-order it from Amazon (UK) and direct from the publisher, MIT Press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Comic strip

I was just pointed to this relatively new comic strip called "Cul de Sac."

It is highly recommended. Here is a good example.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Incentives for letters

Last week, the magazines associated with two of the major Sunday papers published an extract from Parentonomics on toileting training. Just enough was published to provided an unbalanced view of my crazy economic ways.

This week that appears to have provoked 70 percent of the letters in the magazine responding to the article. Most were, not surprisingly, dead against using incentives for toilet training. One reader said that children are intrinsically motivated and "another step towards maturity -- celebrated by their loved ones -- is the greatest reward." Well, I for one am happy to celebrate steps towards maturity but sadly if that was their greatest reward then not many steps are actually taking place.

Another lamented reducing toilet-training to "a cold economic transaction" and missing out on the "opportunity to witness your child's ability to learn and evolve." Again, we tried to savour that opportunity but found that that ability was non-existent.

Then there was the reader who said that: "One would hope that Joshua Gans has the intelligence to realise that an ecalation from jelly beans to chocolate frogs at age two turns into a phone at age 10, a new car at 16 and a Ferrari at 21." Well I guess I didn't and I had better start saving for that Ferrari lest I have to change a 21 year old's nappies.

But the award for letter of the week had four children and employed "incentive contracts." He found, like we did, that incentives sometimes went array with older children (who received treats) trying to encourage the younger one to go whenever they wanted sugar and some reversion as their children drove a hard bargain when the rewards were scaled down.

Interestingly, that writer received -- and I am not making this up -- a touch-screen mobile phone (valued at $699) for his efforts as the best letter writer. Well done. I guess for everyone else writing their letter was its own reward so everyone went away happy.

The right video camera

It seems that the modern family commits much of its activities to video. Of course, the degree to which this occurs depends entirely on the camera. What we did first is research all of the options and then got convinced by the sales person that we needed one with features; you know, like making it an old-style grainy feel should the mood take us.

After a few years, we had a bunch of tapes (as they were called in those days) and had watched none of them. It was then that I embarked on a three month project of moving those tapes to DVD using the Mac's iMovie and iDVD which had just come out. This involved careful identification of scenes, dates and accompanying music as well as some artistic work on the DVD menu. This led to a bunch of DVDs covering most of the time period up until that point -- well, except for 3 months where I was too busy working on the DVDs to actually video the kids.

Now we do look back at the DVDs but doing that became a chore a couple of years ago. At the same time, Apple upgraded iMovie to a version that didn't work well with iDVD but did work well with a hard disk camera that we purchased. So we ended up importing lots of video to the computer, not editing them, not cataloging anything and not really watching anything. What was more, the whole exercise of having a video camera when you needed it was a big problem with bigger kids.

But at long last I think I have found the perfect compromise. It is the featureless Flip Video Camera. This is a little device that you can put in you pocket and literally whip out whenever you need it. It takes one hour of footage (which is more than enough) at a good (but not great) quality. You then plug it straight into the computer (with no additional cables!), it charges and you can download the footage straight to iPhoto or, if you want to edit or share, to anything else. The end result is that we are now actually using the camera and capturing those moments. To be sure, no one will be making a feature film on this but that is the lie of the video camera industry. You just want a memory and if it comes with automatic graininess in the future, so be it. Oh yeah, it is cheap (starting at US$150 on amazon).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


In Slate today, Emily Bazelon laments her childrens' tendency to lose everything. She thinks it is some failing of their moral fibre over respect for property. In the end, she ends up bailing out her children and replacing lost items. Then she resorts to heavy-handed intervention to try and get things on the right path.

I think that she doesn't quite have the problem sorted out. The goal is not to build a respect for property but to get good habits established. The problem is that, in a world where you constantly remind kids or inquire as to the location of items, you are not doing that. What the child needs to do is sort out how to achieve the goal -- not losing stuff -- on their own taking into account all of the machinations and distractions that might be part of that operation. You just can't know that.

To convince yourself, just watch a forgetful child in action. They start out with an object and have a mission to take it somewhere. All is fine for a few seconds and then something happens. You can observe distraction setting in, the object gets put down and the child moves on. That's it.

You need to have something to focus their attention so that they get past the distraction or if that isn't possible they work out that they have been distracted and get themselves back on the right path. The problem is that they have to work it out, you can't possibly plan out for all contingencies.

Regular readers will recall that our response to this situation with our son was to get seemingly cruel and unusual in threatened punishments. For his lost lunchbox, the threat to replace it with an 'easy to remember' Disney Princess one. It worked a charm despite a later appeal that it was unfair on his friends (who were tempted to tease him and would get in trouble for it). What is more, his lunchbox returns and it is no longer an issue. The point here is that you have to focus them on the goal and to have a plan by which they have to invest more in the activity of 'not losing things' than whatever else happens to be around.