Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Leap day!

Today is February 29th. Given that it comes only once every four years, that would make it a rare birthday. But it is even rarer. As Andrew Leigh and I discovered in a paper just published in the Economic Record, the birthrate on this day is about 10% lower than if it was an ordinary Wednesday. Why? Parents like to move their children’s birthdays off days like this and on to something more regular. Of course, if today was a Friday they might get some resistance from their doctors who don’t want those births pushed on to the weekend. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Of Bat Mitzvah's and such

Last Friday, Child No.1 celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. Regular readers will know that we are not particularly religious and Child No.1 shares my views on these things. Nonetheless, she elected to do this and got a lot out of it. 

I have one piece of advice for Jewish parents out there: get your child some singing lessons. I have sat through a number of these and when it comes down to it someone was playing a very cruel joke on 13 year old boys (in particular) when they asked them to come of age by singing publicly at that age. For those of us in the audience, the joke is very much on us. Your default position should be to bring earplugs.

I don't mean to boast, actually, yes I do, but Child No.1 has had singing lessons and can really sing. Of course, I am biased but it was just wonderful to hear. I only wish we had been in Canada longer so I could have coaxed more parents to this thing so more could bathe in the beauty of it. I cringe at the thought of Child No.2 doing the same thing next year. He's had no singing lessons and I must admit I wonder if they could possibly do any good. We'll see.

Anyhow, Child No.1 also had to make a speech speaking to the portion of the Torah for that week. I'm going to reproduce her speech here because it was very much in her style of irreverence and I loved it. (It is slightly censored to leave out identifying names).
Thank you everyone for coming today. While I am sure you all delighted in my angelic voice, you can be forgiven for not knowing precisely what I was singing about. As this is a Friday night, what I had was a basic plea to treat children well and live a good life. Fair enough. Can do. But what I was asked to speak about tonight was not this but this week’s portion of the Torah.
 Now usually what this is is an important story where someone faced a grave choice, looked into their heart and did the right thing. Or perhaps it was a juicy bit where they didn’t look into their heart, did the wrong thing and were punished for eternity. Those stories make you think.
But not this week. No seerie. What have I got? What I’m supposed to speak to tonight is Moses ‘lo abiding in the field’ and then being ‘spake’ at by the Lord in what amounts to one big nag. And this isn’t the sort of nag that you might expect such as “can you get people off the whole golden calf thing.” Instead, it is a nag in the form of an instruction manual. A really detailed one. Let me give you an example: 
“As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and with a design of cherubim worked into them. The length of each cloth shall be twenty-eight cubits …” 
Blah. Blah. Blah. Seriously. Whole reams of the Torah, the holy book of the Jews, with an instruction manual more detailed that assembling bookshelves from Ikea. It goes on for like weeks. And somewhat ironically is all about building something to keep the instruction manual in. This is what I am speaking to. 
That said, it kind of resonated with me. What God is doing is being a classic micromanager. “Ten strips of cloth.” Why 10? “Nine is too few.” “Eleven is too much.” “Twelve is way off” Only 10. And you may think there is some symbol to this but no. It is just plain instructions without rationale. 
Personally, I’m used to this. I get instructions like this all the time. It has pretty much been my life up until today. You must read this passage. You must show your working even though you have the answer right. I mean right is right, right? 
My parents do it. My teachers do it. My computer constantly wants me to update software. There are people who enjoy being the micromanagers, and I’m willing to bet that god is just another one. Moses must have thought so. 
I have been told many times to speak about what I think being a Jewish adult means to me. However I personally don’t believe that the Jewish part of my life is going to change at all after today. It’s the same as when I woke up on the day I’ve been dreading my entire life; my thirteenth birthday, and thought to myself; ‘you know, this doesn’t feel much different to being twelve…’ and the only thing that changed was the fact that people said ‘happy birthday’ to me more than they did on any other day all year. Although if this is the end of my fun searching for the Afikomen each Peseach (and I always win!) I’m calling this event off right now. You can take away my youth but you can’t take my hidden matzot! 
But if you are going to do so perhaps, just maybe, you can lighten up on the whole micromanagement bit. I must admit this week’s parshah does not give me confidence. How old was Moses when he got the instruction manual? How old were the scribes who decided this had to be preserved for the ages? 
I know that being an adult and not being micromanaged actually requires me to do more. I’ll have to fill in the details myself. And my Bn’ai Mitzvah study really does help you appreciate the need for effort. However, would it really be the end of the world if we used something other than “twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns”? Maybe all one colour. Maybe a splash of green. Being a child has meant receiving directions without rationale. It annoys me and folks, it is time to put it to an end. I worked hard for today and that shows you something. 
In this crusade, I hope I can gather support from my many new friends I have made in Canada. You know what’s hard. Meeting people and getting along. God tells us to try and do that but doesn’t provide detailed instructions. I’ve learned that over the past few years. But I am thankful that here in Toronto I haven’t had to do it alone. I am grateful for the kindness of my classmates. I have honestly never made friends at a new school so quickly. That might give us all hope that free of micromanaging we can all get along. 
Before I leave, I would also like to thank some other people for attending this event, ...
Let me end this post by indulging you in the speech I made. As you can see I was very proud of 'B' for what she has achieved. I also started in a place designed fully to embarrass her.

About thirteen and a half years ago, Natalie and I were attending birthing classes where they showed us a video of a birth. The idea was to sanitise us to the whole endeavour. At the conclusion, they announced “and now Daddy can cut the chord.” And that was pretty much all he had to do with the matter. 
I thought of that moment today because, just like pregnancy and childbirth, for this event, I have to tell you that I had absolutely nothing to do with it. All of the PCN -- the planning, coordinating and nagging -- has been done by B’s mother. She deserves mine, B and all of our thanks for getting this together. Especially in the short time and in navigating a new country. Not only could none of it been done without her, indeed, apparently, none of it could be done with anyone else. But I know in the background that our neighbours who brought us to this place and all of the folks here made it all possible too. Thank you all. 
That’s enough of that. Let me get back to what I need to focus on exclusively today and that’s B. One problem with the whole “and Daddy can cut the chord” business in that birthing video was that Daddy thought that was lame. Having watched a video of a birth and seen what an obstetrician did, he realised that that didn’t seem hard. He came up with the idea that he could surely “catch.” Now let’s leave aside the awkward fact that, as his own parents were well aware, catching was not really part of his core competencies. His loving wife and future mother of his child saw through this. She believed that the medical system had her back. So she said, “that’s a great idea. IF the doctor agrees.” 
Well, I can tell you she almost had the baby then and there when the doctor actually agreed! And, so it came to be, that I was the first person in the world to hold B outside of the womb. It didn’t last too long, however. New borns are kind of slippery. You all know how B walks kind of funny ... well, umm, sorry about that. 
When it comes down to it, that is what this day is all about. Fumbling. No catching. For the most part, when you are growing up, parents may fumble but they are there to catch. When you hit your teenage years, they aren’t there as often any more. What’s more, it is pretty obvious to me that you don’t want them to be. That is why Judaism presents us with a formal acknowledgement, a license to step away and gives you the power to point to this as evidence of your right not to be caught. 
When it comes to B, boy, has she earned that right. Most kids have to bust their guts to get through preparation for one Bat Mitzvah. For B, today’s was her third one. Thanks to family circumstances, she studied for two previous portions. With today, she only has 49 more and she’ll have a complete set!  
One advantage B did have, however, was she was no stranger to dealing with large audiences. Indeed, today barely rates a mention in her life. She has performed in musicals -- as a future president no less -- and I have sat and watched her sing “Imagine” with other parents sitting next to me brought to tears. And about a year or so ago, B managed to be interviewed on radio in front of 13 million NPR listeners and talk about parents, pocket money and candy. Suffice it to say, public performances do not phase her. 
I could spend some time regaling you of B’s fine qualities. She rose to the challenge of a hearing impediment to become a beautiful singer. She rose to the challenge of a dearth of accessible information to become the world expert on the folks who cured us of ulcers. And she rose to the challenge of physical contact to become a black belt in Taekwondo.  
And then there is the really unusual stuff. Did you know that B once forced her brother to drink water to game a potty incentive system? Did you know that she can remember every meal she has ever had? Try her. She’s like Rain Man that way.  And did you know that she once grilled the Treasurer of Australia, at Age 8, on Australia’s climate change policy and in order to get out of that he picked a physical fight with her?  
So B has achievements but she also has values. She has a strong sense of equality. B believes that no one should get more than her. Well, I guess mathematically that’s inequality. But it is a strong value. 
I’ve also noticed changes in her behaviour over the years. For instance, when I used to ask her to do something, she’d say “what?” because of her hearing problems. Now when I ask her to do something she says “what?” [NOTE: it is all in how it is said.] So the problem has moved from her ears to her eyes that can do a considerable amount of rolling. Correspondingly, in the past, I would do this [hold out hands] to help her as she decided something. Now I spend alot more time doing this [bury face in hand]. 
Ultimately, I know B is capable of anything she puts her mind to. Her mother and I can no longer put her mind to it. We will always be there. We will always try to move your mind. But, for so much important stuff, your life is in your own hands. Just where it should be.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lost is an incentive problem

Back in 2010, we spent Thanksgiving with the family of good friends of ours. One of the things about that experience that appealed to our children, well to all children, was that their house was basically from a fairy tale. Here is what I wrote at the time:
... candy was freely available. It was everywhere. Lollipop displays, bowls of M&M's and some Swedish red fish that now rates in their eyes as one of the greatest culinary creations in human history. To wit, when a discussion turned to what people might have as a last meal my daughter resolutely stated her menu of "chocolate, Ben and Jerry's ice cream and those red fish." I could see my son looking around in wonder and then feeling the walls to see if they were made of gingerbread. 
Suffice it to say, for parents of the actual grandkids whose grandparents live there, this house represents an issue. Unfettered candy access has consequences that usually require restrictions. Lots of rules limiting the amount that can be consumed all the while it is paraded in front of them by a doting grandmother. Neither the children nor the grandmother much enjoy that regime.

That is all by way of preamble to the story for today that involves said family. As it turns out, in conjunction with Thanksgiving 2011, that family was to head off a couple of days later on an international trip. Their son had a passport that had expired and also, "had gone through the wash." So they had got him a new one just prior to Thanksgiving. 

Not surprisingly their son was quite enamoured of his new passport and wanted to take it to school. Of course, his mother, being a sane person, said, "absolutely not." Sadly, she did not go the extra step and make sure the passport was returned to a safe place. Suffice it to say, as you might expect given that I am writing this, the passport was missing on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, securing a replacement was not a trivial exercise right at that time. They had searched their house high and low. For hours. They had even dumpster dived through the garbage. But the passport was not to be found.

So she happened upon an idea; an idea that sits very well with this blog. There is an old piece of wisdom that goes something like this.
Nothing is ever lost. All you have to do is find the person who knows where it is and give them the right incentives to tell you.
This applies to keys, documents and pets. And it obviously would apply to a passport. So she offered her two children a deal: "if you find that passport in the next 10 minutes, you can have one day completely free of my restrictions at your grandmother's house." In other words, laissez faire, freedom, gluttony or whatever you want to call it.

The passport turned up in five minutes. As it turned out, the son had placed it in his "safe hiding place" because it was so important. Then he forgot about it -- lest, I guess, the bad guys were thinking of torturing it out of him (perhaps by sitting him in front of a bowl of candy and not letting him eat). 

The trip went on. The kids ate until they were sick. And their grandmother was happy. A strong welfare improvement.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Birth timing and Valentines Day

Andrew Gelman points me to this new paper that examines birth rates on Valentines Day and Halloween. Given the day, here is what happens on Valentines Day.

[Interesting date indicator in original.] From this it looks like people just plan to have their births on Valentines Day. Unlike other days where Andrew Leigh and I found birth timing effects (April 1 and Feb 29, for instance), it is harder to come up with a theory for this but I’m happy for people to try in the comments. That said, I can’t help but wonder if doctors were scheduling timing that day to make sure they weren’t interrupted in the evening or could take a quieter Feb 15. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Parenting with a gun

As regular readers know, I'm all about the incentives. And I'm also all about imaginative punishments. But the viral video (21 million hits at last count with ads activated too boot) of one father taking a gun to his teenage daughter's laptop really misses the mark. Usually, I relish these things as an opportunity for teaching stuff to kids but this one has the parent getting so much wrong it isn't funny.

That is what I told Caroline Howard today at Forbes. She writes about it in this post. The whole dispute was over this man's 15 year old writing a "letter to her parents" on Facebook basically complaining about her household chores and asking for payment. The letter itself is pretty mild stuff for a teenager. My children will regularly complain to us directly. But the thing here is that this one just complained to her friends on Facebook. She didn't show it to her parents or in public. Her father ended up finding it by trawling her computer. And that is when he let loose.

What he does, appealing to some previous Facebook issue, is destroy her laptop and then, posted the whole shebang on YouTube. Anybody can surely see that the last thing you should do to a laptop or thing is destroy it to show how valuable it is. Apparently this was with the intention of embarrassing her but I gotta say that I cannot imagine that amongst her peers she is getting anything other than sympathy. And the irony is, that given her destroyed laptop, she can't even see his whole rant.

This is not about household chores (find me a parent and child who has never had an issue over this) and it is not about unappreciative children. What this is about is communication. This father-daughter pair are telling us exactly how it shouldn't be done. And in this, you have to point your finger at the adult in this. Facebook is the means by which teenagers talk to each other. If they can't complain about their parents there, where are they supposed to do it? The fact that this was all apparently news to the father is a problem with their communication. In the Forbes piece, I wonder if the gun had anything to do with it. 

To be sure, there is a larger parental issue of how to instill values in your children. For us, we usually like some thoughtful discussion over an episode of Wife Swap. But here was one child putting down her perspective and then getting return fire. That isn't going to do the trick.

By the way, the ad showing on the YouTube video I saw was of teenagers sharing stuff with their mobile phones. Great placement Google Nexus!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cartoon Guide to Economics: Volume II, Macroeconomics

My 11 year old son has written a review. You can read it here. It didn't quite capture his reaction upon finishing it.

"How was it?"

"It was very interesting. But when are they going to do Volume 3."

"Volume 3? Why do you think there'll be another volume?"

"Well, this one was about all of the problems. Unemployment, high prices, poor countries. They can't just leave it like that! They now have to tell us how to solve them."

Sigh. I guess we all know that macroeconomics is where it ends and no cartoons are going to quite help. I had to break the truth to him. I guess it uncovers something quite deep about our profession. Microeconomics offers problems and, at least, convincing solutions. When we talk about macroeconomics, that isn't the message.

Monday, February 6, 2012

We are hiring: Environment artist wanted!

Once again, Frictional Games is hiring and this time we are looking for an environment artist. The employment will first only be a on project basis lasting about 6 - 8 months, but if all goes well it can go be turned into a proper employment.

You will be working for a small team with a big focus on finding new and innovating solutions. We want you who are not afraid to explore uncharted territory and constantly learn new things. Self-discipline and independence are also important traits as all work will be done from home.

First of all you should be able to do both nice texturing and modelling. If you have experience in building levels that is also a big plus. You should be living in Sweden or a time-zone nearby. If not living in Sweden you have to run a company and be able to invoice. You also need to have a fast and stable broadband connection.

If interested send CV and a link to portfolio to: jobs [at] frictionalgames [dot] com.

We are mainly interested in seeing artwork you have done, what projects you have been involved in and your role in them. Do not send any large files to this mail but link to the them instead.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rooster parenting?

Last year we had the Tiger mother and the Lemur father. For this year's instalment, we turn to France and an article published in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Why French parents are superior?" (clearly cashing on the similar title for Chinese parents last year). The difference is that this time the article is not written by a superior parent but by a sceptical, yet ultimately admiring one. 

So let's play the national characteristics translated into stereotyped parenting style game: what is it that French parents do? For starters, let's look at the results. 
Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids' spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.
Basically, French parents do not have to worry about their children's public behaviour. They play to themselves, don't interrupt adults talking and have learned to wait. Suffice it to say, you read this and you think: this is just great. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that is exactly what the parents in our household are trying to achieve.

But how do they do it? The word we would use here is "discipline" but according to the article the more appropriate French word is "education." When a French parent is saying "no" this is a route to educating the child as to what they should be doing and not an admonishment or punishment. There don't appear to be elaborate economic incentives -- carrots or sticks -- just a resolution that this is the way of the world and children should expect it. 

The article's author, American Pamela Druckerman, tries to find the dark side of all this but ultimately fails. She can only half heartedly attempt to do so by turning her nose up at the adults.
Rest assured, I certainly don't suffer from a pro-France bias. Au contraire, I'm not even sure that I like living here. I certainly don't want my kids growing up to become sniffy Parisians.
In reality, whether we ascribe it to French people or just a parenting style, the article does point to lessons: a large part about what we get in children's behaviour is about what we as parents expect. Want to have a more independent parenting style, then act like that is your right. Your children will get the picture and it is far from clear they will be worse to wear for it. Read the article. At least for a day, I suspect your children will get a little less attention.