Friday, May 22, 2009

Revolutionary parenting innovation: The outdoor computer game

OK here is what you need.
  1. An iPhone or 2
  2. Some children
  3. A park
  4. Good GPS and Network coverage
  5. Some apps
And it turns out that you have a unique outdoor activity involving a computer game, running around and educational value too boot. Never has a perfect compromise been reached on suitable parenting/video game activities.

How is all of this possible? There are two new applications at the iTunes App Store: The Hidden Park and Seek 'n Spell.

Let's start with Seek 'n Spell as it can be played at any largish park. It can be played with one iPhone but I can tell you that having more than one is much better. Now that might sound extravagant but uniqueness doesn't come for free.

You go to the park and launch the App. It asks you to gather up your players, it finds your location and then populates a map of the area with letters. You can see the results to the left. You then set the time and you run around gathering letters (as you reach one it gathers it up and prevents others from using it) and try to spell as many words as possible. The longer the word the better.

You can also see where your other competitors are -- a useful feature for parents watching out for children.

This game is just fantastic. You may have an advantage on the spelling but your kids are quicker in gathering up letters so there is real competition.

There is a ton of potential here. One thing I would like to see is the ability to scale the area in case you are in a smaller park. Try it there and you might to scramble on top of houses to get the letters you want. You can see we played it on a cricket oval and needed the entire area.

Expect to see maths and other versions too.

On to the Hidden Park. This one requires a specific park. So you can play it in New York, Boston, Toronto, Tokyo, London, Munich, Hong Kong, Sydney and fortunately for me, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.

This game is an adventure. What happens is this. You get to the park at a specific location (in our case, Gate D at the RBG). The phone then rings and it is some frantic park ranger (ours was Australian) who informs you that developers are threatening to destroy/develop (depending on your perspective) the park. However, if you can find evidence of magical creatures you can save the day. That might seem like a difficult task but as you move around the map, you solve puzzles and take pictures that reveal those creatures.

Then the goal is to snap some pictures and email them to the authorities. Those pictures are pretty exciting loooking as you can see.

The game itself takes about an hour. We traversed the entire park and thankfully ended at the Cafe! Now that is magical.

This is well worth the $5.99 for the activity and you only really need one iPhone to do it all with as you are merely racing against the evil developers. However, it probably is most exciting for children 5 to 9. When it comes down to it, the game isn't that challenging but it is an indication of things to come. So much more is possible.

We are moving to a new era in games. This type of thing could take off in a big way. Indeed, I can see a time where someone provides a platform and you can make your own games for a terrific kids party experience.

For now, I recommend these two very highly. And if you are thinking "what if I don't have an iPhone?" then just add that to the list to get one.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kindle Edition (Out now)

I know some of you have been looking out for Parentonomics on the Kindle. Today, it came up on Amazon's site. Of course, that also means you can read it on the iPhone with Amazon's Kindle iPhone app. Let's face it, it isn't a heavy book so a small screen isn't going to tax you much while waiting during this kid sports activities.

Also available, if you are really keen (more keen than I would be frankly) is a Kindle edition of this blog.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The perils of not logging out

One of which could be that your 3 year old child successfully bids for an earth-moving machine worth $20,000.
Three-year-old Pipi Quinlan bought a $NZ20,000 ($A15,600) Kobelco digger on auction website TradeMe, prompting immediate damage control by her mum when her purchase was revealed.

... The technically savvy kid had woken early and, with the rest of her family sound asleep, decided to play with the computer.

With a few clicks of the mouse she entered Internet Explorer and the Trade Me site her mother had already logged on to.

After a few more timely clicks, she had won the most recent auction listed on the site's homepage.

It was for a Kobelco digger, and she had it for $NZ20,000 - money she didn't have in her piggy bank.

Here is the whole story. I could so imagine this happening to us although it is usually the case that most web-sites that allow purchases do require some sort of confirmation. That said, this is one reason I haven't turned on the Amazon '1-Click' option.

It looks like it could have been worse had the child bought this or this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Informing economics through toileting

You know, the general characterisation of Parentonomics is how economics might inform parenting. Of course, for my day job, my concern is economics (so much so that I keep my blog posts separate -- the economics ones are here). So it was with some surprise that I read this column in the Financial Times by economist John Kay. It starts ...
The Australian economist, Joshua Gans, recently described a problem central to the current financial turmoil. How could he persuade his young son not to wet his pants?
Really? I had thought that it was central to our household hygiene and quite far removed from the global financial crisis. Kay makes a convincing case as to why, instead, what goes on in my household (yes, that is MINE not yours) really matters.

Kay recounts a version of the story but the facts are a little out (even if his point isn't). So let me quote instead from the book. Turns out you will find out all you need to know about the financial crisis from the chapter on Toileting. The salient bit was about night training our son which wasn't clicking for him.

He didn’t seem too bothered about it all and we noticed that he would get up dry, claim he didn’t need to go to the toilet and then go in his nappy, and later, pull-ups. This smelled (literally) of the basis of an incentive problem: once again, his interests were not aligned with ours.

Pull-ups help here. They have little pictures that disappear if ‘accidents’ occur. This gave us a visible and external monitoring device. It was viewable both to us and our son. So that is the first thing we would check in the morning and a celebration would ensue if the pictures were there.

As you can guess, celebrations only get you so far. So, as has been our pattern throughout all of this, we moved to more tangible rewards. He was old enough to understand a ‘points system’ that would lead to rewards. So a dry night would get a point and 7 points would get you a reward -- usually, a book or toy. This was sufficient motivation and he was focused: “make sure the pictures don’t go out and you get a point.”

Well we had good nights and intermittent accidents. But then we had a week of dry pull-ups. Much rejoicing ensued, including a bonus; no more pull-ups. Sadly, the next night there was an accident. Now you might say, these things happen. But it turns out that the problem was that these things hadn’t happened.

Our son had a small rubbish bin in his room. Upon inspection, we found 5 full pull-ups. It turned out that our son was getting up in the morning, noticing the pictures gone and getting himself a new pull-up! There was nothing malicious in this. He just understood the rule as: “produce a pull-up with pictures.” And so he worked out how to do just that.

Again the old adage of “you get what you pay for” was raising its ugly head. We paid for dry pull-ups and that is what we got.

Now the response to this was to impose a new requirement: you have to have the same pull-up on in the morning as was put there last night. Easy to monitor and we did.

So we got a couple of nights of successes and the one morning I went into his room and found his bed wet. His pull-ups were dry. I asked him about this and he said “it just happened.”

“But, how? It should have wet your pull-ups.”

“No it wouldn’t. I didn’t have them on. They were on the night stand.”


It turned out that he had been removing his pull-ups so as to ensure they were dry in the morning! I guess that worked. And we didn’t notice because the relevant part of his body was concealed under the covers.

When it comes down to it, giving children an incentive is a little like programming a computer. Unless you get the instructions just right, problems can ensue. There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Geordi programmed the holodeck for a game “that could defeat Data” (the android) and ended up creating a sentient program that almost destroyed the Enterprise. Programming our son posed the same challenges.

We focused on the pictures on the pull-up and that is where our son placed his considerable creative energy. What we needed was a ‘program’ that gave exactly what we wanted: no accidents. That is what we turned to after that night. It took some months but eventually we were successful only to be disrupted again following an operation. Nonetheless, since that time, we have moved focus away from the pull-up (although getting rid of them became a common incentive as he grew older) and on to the activity we cared about.
Kay's point is that getting incentives and rules right is hard because people work their way around them.
The Gans household elaborated the rules to close the loophole, only to discover that their child was able to construct yet more ingenious methods of circumvention. Britain’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the Basel Committee on banking supervision, have the same experience. The Gans problem solved itself eventually – the boy grew up. We are not usually so lucky. Revenue authorities have been in pursuit of tax avoidance ever since income tax was introduced. They have never quite caught up, and they never will.
Kay argues that simple rules -- in the case of finance, mandated disclosures -- work better than punishments and rewards. In our case, for toileting training, it just didn't happen until he was on board with the program.

With Child No.3, we have tired ourselves out. At 4, her Pull-Ups remain on and we are going to wait until she is ready to do something about it or she can just deal with that when she leaves home. That said, we have dropped the name brand and gone for the cheaper stuff. Why should we spend money making her comfortable?

Oh yes, in the meantime, any financial institution wanting to work out how to deal regulations, my son is available on a consultant basis (fee to be negotiated).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: for Kids?

We took our 10 year old daughter to see the new Star Trek movie. She has a high tolerance for violence and so we weren't too worry (after all she has been through all three Lord of the Rings movies to interesting effect and the other week we watch Jurassic Park -- her take: don't hire criminals or at least pay them better and everything will be fine). Anyhow, the movie is great and my initial thoughts are here.

But what was her reaction? Well, let me start that she has seen plenty of Star Trek just not much of the original series. A while ago, she became a tad Borg-obsessed and so we cycled through those episodes. But her knowledge of original series Star Trek lore was lacking. So we decided to sit down the other night and watch "Balance of Terror." Now, while I can't imagine this, but if you didn't automatically nod your head and see what I was going for I guess I might have to spell it out. That is the episode where we first encounter the Romulans (who are in the new movie) and find out that they look like Vulcans (cue dramatic music). That is also a great episode where Kirk and the Romulan commander engage in some very game theoretic strategising and so I knew it would appeal to that part of my daughter's mind.

Now the episode, I recalled, had some very poor special effects so we watched the remastered version which was better. That said, her reaction was that it was somewhat underdone on that front. But it was enough to get the basics including the idea that racism was alive and well in the future and that displaying it on duty was an issue (let alone being thrown off the ship which is what we would expect these days). (Someone had family in the Earth-Romulan war a century earlier and some deep seated issues came bubbling back). We also learned that racism can be solved when just one of the minority (in this case, a Vulcan) does something heroic and saves the life of a discriminator even if that minority saw that act as just making sure skilled personnel would still be around to work another day. Of course, let alone the fact that the same minority person saved the entire ship!

All this is a nice counter-point to what we find in the movie. This time it is Kirk with the deep seated issues about Romulans but he doesn't seem to let that get in the way of just being extra-knowledgable. So there is no moral undertone -- hit over the head or otherwise -- but for the idea that it is a good idea to make something of your life and not just be a loser. Now, let's face it, that is pretty much the only message I am ever hoping for when I take a kid to the movies. And this is what you get.

Other than that, you'll be interested in the scary and other bits but Geekdad does a better job outlining that than I ever will. Suffice it to say, we might go again and I think I'll take the 8 year old along this time around. Then we will move on to Wrath of Kahn.

[Update: I took the 8 year old. Despite usually being quite sensitive he had no problem even with big insects that are all mouth. As he commented, "it looks like one of my Spore creatures."

And one other thing: on Jurassic Park, my daughter now asks why they aren't doing that now?

"Doing what?"

"Making dinosaurs out of the blood in ancient insects. It seems doable and a good theme park."

"You aren't concerned about the dinosaurs chomping people."

"Look just make one of them and put it in a cage."

Ohh I can hear the animal rights people now. Kids today.]

The family calendar

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) thinks that, in the future, the calendar will become the most important part of family life.
On a typical night, for a typical family, there is much driving to and fro to deliver people and goods to where they need to be. Sometimes it is more complicated than a Fedex route. It would be nice if the family calendar helped us plan the shortest routes to accomplish all goals. The calendar just needs to know what I need and when, then plan which family member with a car is nearest.
My family is already there. Regular readers will recall that Google Calendar organises our lives (I can recommend it highly).
Many people have reacted in horror to this outcome that we use IT to communicate rather than some personal touch. Well, those people do not understand the magnitude of the logistical problem we face. More often than not they have a single person responsible for where the children are. We can't rely on that and so we track them on Google. If we could get some GPS locators on them and tie that back in we will be set. It might seem impersonal but there is nothing less personal than a lost child. Can you imagine the conversation with police?
"So can you tell us where you last saw your child?"

"Well, this morning but her mother apparently dropped her off at a party at 10."

"It is 2 now, who picked her up?"

"It was supposed to be me but it turned out that I was taking another child to Taekwando."

"So the mother stepped in ..."

"Well, she had to take the youngest to another party."

"Have you checked at the 10am party?"

"Well, the invitation went with the child and we have no record at the moment of whose party it was or where it was held."

"Have you thought of putting this on Google? It's free."
I mean, we all want to avoid that.
And, of course, in Parentonomics, there was this whole incident which needed sophisticated planning tools. Good news. We haven't lost anyone, yet.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Element

Ken Robinson is a fantastic speaker with some challenging ideas about education. His new book, The Element, captures that speaking style to give readers, I guess the best word for it is, inspiration. The idea of the book is that everyone has their element and that they need to find it and if you think it is too late, think again. The idea is an interesting one and a hopeful one and Robinson peppers his various elements to finding your element with stories of the famous or pretty famous and how they got to be that way and were very happy about it (including himself). To me, who, frankly, has pretty much found his element, the book was not too useful but it did get me thinking about how I might help my kids find theirs. The message being: don't throw roadblocks in their way.

The biggest roadblock appears to be our educational system -- namely, its pedagogy. All the focus on reading, testing and measurable academic achievement does not really add up to finding one's element especially, if, as is likely, it can not be found by such objective means. So as a parent you question why you think these things are important and down weight them. Not that I need any help in that mind you. Here in Victoria, my two eldest kids will soon by sitting for three days (!) of tests for Grades 3 and 5 respectively. These arose out of the demands of parents to know more about what is going on with their children's education but Robinson would see it as the problem rather than a road to the solution.

I want my kids to try hard for these exams. Why? Because they are there. We are going to get some sort of report and I prefer them to be on the high end tail than the low end. And if they get there I'll put the test aside and go on. Interestingly, I'll do exactly the same thing if they don't get there. I know more about my kids and their abilities than any test can give and I will assert that knowledge and ignore the rest. So, based on that line of thought, the test is useless to me and it is likely that the 'in school' lead up to it, not to mention the tests themselves, are costly. I should be outraged and do something about it. But on the long list of things I want to fight about the 'system' this is on the low end.

The Element is a quick read and, indeed, has more in common with Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (my review of that is here) in theme although it is, somewhat ironically, more journalistic than evidence-based. I'm not sure that everyone has an element and let alone will be able to find it. But as a goal for moving on with one's life, it is not a bad idea to think that they have and they will.