Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is it a good idea to communicate with your child at camp?

[This post was originally published at on the 11th July 2012]
For the first time ever, all three of our children (13, 11 and 7 years) are away at Summer Camp. Fortunately, they are all at the same camp which saves us considerable bureaucracy and also provided some comfort that they might be there for each other.
Images from our first Summer Art Camp of the y...
Images from our first Summer Art Camp of the year, "Wild and Wacky Portraits" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of course, near as I can tell our children would prefer to have nothing with each other while at camp. To say that this experience is liberating for us, as parents, is an understatement. We seem to have been transported back to a calmer time and have constantly had to challenge our usual behaviours of intense planning and tight scheduling. Things are very, very relaxed.

Suffice it to say, this was enough to spur our kids to grudgingly make contact with us. The 7 year old was the most enthusiastic and seems to send a letter a day. Her first one said: “Dear Mum and Dad, I miss you very much so I want to stay 4 weeks.” She was signed up for just 2 weeks. While the logic of her argument was flawed, as it turned out our lives were very different without her, so we promptly agreed to the extension.I believe that the same sense of liberation is going on for our kids. We are fairly strict parents and certainly on one key dimension — food — very strict. Camp provides a menu that is supposedly healthy but, in fact, is much more kid-friendly than our children’s usual fare. For instance, they appear to have dessert; a concept our kids dream about. At camp they get it every day. The also have something called ‘tuck’ that allows them to get special treats twice a week. But ‘tuck’ comes with a condition — no letter home, no tuck.

Our eldest wrote a varying set of sentences that were not so much designed to convey information but to be written neatly and cover exactly two pages with neat handwriting. We learned from that letter that the tuck letter writing requirement was a two page letter precisely because she ended the second page mid-sentence and did not even bother to sign the letter. We will likely receive the rest as the two page requirement for another instalment.
Our 11 year old son was the only one to convey actual information including his slow evolution of thought about staying on for two more weeks. He has decided to do so.
Alas, the tuck incentive has led to an imperfect flow of information from our children to us. But, in many respects, that is what the Camp wants. Every detail can be seized upon by parents and it is a thankless task.
But what about the flow of information in the other direction. Our Camp uses a service called Bunk1. That service gives parents the opportunity to pay in order to write emails that are printed out and delivered to children. It isn’t cheap and it requires being at a computer to use (I guess you could do it on a phone but it is hard). According to this Time article about ‘kid sick’ parents, Bunk1 was founded by Ari Ackerman to provide a “one way window” into the Camp world. With these emails I guess we can throw things through that window.
What do you write to a child on camp? Our main news is all the wonderful things we, as parents, have been able to do while they were at camp. They might be interested but my guess is that they are not. But given how much we are paying I feel we need to fill in the lines. So, with my son, I decided to just make stuff up. Basically, he receives an email from me every couple of days with an ever-increasing sinister plot that is unravelling. It started with the disappearance of our pet hamster (she’s fine) and then led to the disappearance of all of the pets of children who had gone to camp around Northern Toronto. Some pets have shown up at kids camps but then there was the Higgs Boson and heatwave melded into the story. Frankly, I don’t know where this is all going and now I have to extend it out for another two weeks and then bring it all to some resolution. This is a dangerous game indeed. I think this evening the hamster will reappear at home but just a little different. And of course, given that this is a one way affair I have no idea how this is being consumed at the other end. A dangerous game indeed.
Anyhow, Bunk1 don’t just rest with emails. You can also send your kids puzzles (Sudoku etc) and then you can view pictures that the Camp posts on the Bunk1 site. There are hundreds of these and, basically, what you do as a parent is sift through them to see pictures of your own children. For the first day of pictures we found our youngest and she was never smiling. This was a bit of a worry. But later on she seemed happier. Of course, this may all just be camp censorship. Who knows?
The Time article suggests parents obsess over this. We aren’t quite doing that but because it is there we do look. What is true, however, is that Bunk1 has tapped into a missing market for parent camp communication. I’m not sure I’d want a cheaper option as that might only encourage more communication. What we have here is more than enough.

Should parents tax their children for eating too much candy?

[This post originally appeared at on 10th July 2012]
A couple of years ago, I sat down with Chana Joffe-Walt and my then-11-year-old daughter for a long interview with the NPR podcast, Planet Money. This week Planet Money replayed the podcast and I was able to reflect on how it all turned out.
Before I get to that, here is the podcast itself.
The toilet training story was, in fact, told in my very first blog post in 2003 and there was much more to it than could be conveyed in the interview.
Now, in the podcast, the health tax accrued no revenue because it completed curbed spending on candy. Of course, we are now two years down the track with a more independent child. The issue with independence is that allows for another thing that often accompanies attempts to collect a tax: under-reporting. It did not take us too long to discover that the allowance was being used to purchase candy and my daughter owed a ton of back taxes.What was more recent was the whole notion of using an allowance combined with taxes to nudge behavior. If you haven’t a chance to listen to the podcast the story was that, while we gave our kids an allowance, we didn’t want them spending it all on candy and so imposed a steep “health tax.” The health tax was not just arbitrary but meant to be a compensation for imputed additional costs we would have to pay if they ate too much candy. To be sure, there is no calculation to actually work out those costs but it did do one important thing: it sent a signal to our children that there were costs to these actions and not all of the costs fell on them.
But this highlighted how difficult the tension between giving a child an allowance to foster independence versus providing signals as to potential adverse consequences is. The household economy will operate like the real economy. Thus, we have had to take the health issue out of our tax system and rely on more conventional forms of parenting to foster good eating habits. It also highlights that what might work — or in this case, not work — for one child can actually work for others.
Our other children don’t have the same preferences for candy and so we get some good behaviour for free. The best one can say for things like a health tax is that they put an issue on the table. They might be able to nudge behavior in a good direction but they cannot be expected to make great leaps and bounds. This is the same tension that Bloomberg will face with the ‘Big Gulp’ regulation in New York. It will be good for nudges but those who want lots of soda will get lots of soda.
So can a parent be a good manager? Sure. But can good management create perfect parenting outcomes? No.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Horror Tip: Slender

Slender is a short horror game really similar to Hide. You walk (or run) around in a monotone environment looking for notes, while there is a scary monster hunting you. Like Hide it is interesting to see how a simple setup can create a really spooky experience. The graphics are nothing special, the music is simple moody droning and the sound effects are of no great quality. Still, taking all together and put in an interactive space, it gets a lot more immersion than what you would expect. I think this is a great testament to the power of interaction to create a strong sense of presence in way that is much harder to accomplish in any other media.

The game only lasts for few minutes, which is good because there is so little to do that any longer would most certainly break the spell. This makes me wonder what would have to be needed to make an experience like that last for one to two hours. Adding too much would likely decrease the sense of dread, so one would have to be careful in lengthening it. Hope someone attempts to do this.

Some other stuff worth noting:

- The game hides the mechanics that govern how the monster hunts you down and what makes you eventually get killed. I think this was a good move as you are free to make up for yourself what happened. (Bound to only work on the first play-through though, but that does not have to be a bad thing).

- A lot of the creepiness is induced through sensory deprivation. You mostly only see the same vague shapes over and over and it is not long until you start to imagine things.

- It is interesting how effective the tunnel vision created by the flashlight is. There is just something about having these large chunks of your vision pitch black that make you unnerved.

Recommend you all to give it a go!

Mac  (alternative)
(there is no official website as far as I am aware)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Now my 11 year old tries Stanford's Computer Science Course

This post was originally published at on 27th June 2012.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my 11 year old son’s experiences in taking Stanford’s online Game Theory course. It was a challenging course (at or above the level I teach my own MBAs) and while he fell just short of the
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01:  (L-R) Jason Tanz, New ...
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: (L-R) Jason Tanz, New York Editor, WIRED and Sebastian Thrun, Google, Stanford, Udacity attend Wired Business Conference in Partnership with MDC Partners at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 1, 2012 in New York City. (Image credit: WireImage for Wired via @daylife)
seventy percent pass grade, he learned a lot and was subsequently able to apply game theory in the field (supposedly for charitable purposes). In the end, his experience taught me quite a lot about how far online education has to go to be really significant.
First, one cannot simply take a standard University course and port it to the online format. This is what the Game Theory instructors experimented with to see how costly the transition might be. But the result was rather bland, highlighting the inadequacies of many University instructions — something that I’m sure the professors involved more than compensate for with lively classroom discussion in the corporeal version of their course.
Second, and related to this, the online format requires us to rethink the pace of lectures and also the rationale for assessment. Assessment deadlines can really help people keep up with continuous learning but if they are unforgiving, as they often are when assessment is also an incentive device for performance, then they can detract from opportunities to learn and master. The Khan Academy has famously moved towards mastery as the chief role of assessment and I think that this is something online courses should build themselves on.
The Stanford course was offered on a platform called CourseRA. But that wasn’t my son’s first preference for online learning. He wanted to do computer science. It wasn’t initially available but no sooner had he finished the exam for the Game Theory course that he immediately enrolled in Computer Science 101. Now this was an introductory computer science course and you wouldn’t think that, in this day and age, an 11 year old would need to learn about the basics of what goes on in computers and networks but that is to mistake the ability to use for the ability to understand. The basic technology behind what he thinks of as a computer is obscure and this course was all about lifting the lid on that box and looking at what goes on inside. Unlike Game Theory where it is obvious how it can enlighten, I can imagine Computer Science introductory courses that may be bland. This one was certainly not that and held is interest throughout its 4 or 5 weeks but it hasn’t yet led to him taking on more of our IT support roles at home.
Computer Science was designed more appropriately for the online space than the Game Theory course. The lecture videos were bite sized and interspersed with learning activities that themselves took advantage of the digital medium. There were some quizzes both most seemed to be well structured coding exercises. And, more significantly, the emphasis was on mastery rather than performance assessment.
In the end, he was able to complete the exercises on time and, in fact, quite easily. So now he has a Certificate of Accomplishment signed by the instructor, Nick Parlante. My only criticism is that perhaps it was too easy for him to do. He got most exercises right the first time (out of 100 possible attempts). That suggests to me that Parlante could make the course more challenging.
As to future adventures, my son did enrol in Udacity‘s “How to build a search engine” computer science course. This is something we were told would be more challenging and it employed an innovative way of presenting lectures (closer to the Khan Academy blackboard style) with interactive quizzes neatly built in. My son did comment that both of these courses have missed an opportunity to work on coding while the lecture videos were playing; a kind of continual worksheet.
Sadly, as of writing this post, I don’t know how Udacity’s course will go. Summer has intervened and my son’s attention has turned to hacking Minecraft rather than formal learning. He is then off the grid at Summer Camp. So it is on a pause for a while and, if it is still permitted, he may continue at Summer’s end. That said, computer science will have competition. Check out Udacity’s video explaining their Introduction to Statistics course. Apparently Lego trumps learning Python! Udacity are trying to get school students from all around the world enrolled in that one. We will likely have two from our household but if you know of a school that wants to enrol a team of students just click here for more information.

Nudging Workplaces to Allow People to 'Have it All'

This post was originally published at Forbes on 23rd June 2012.

Princeton Professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter has certainly brought to life an important discussion of the expectations of women regarding their life choices. In a beautifully constructed and compelling written essay in The Atlantic, she raises a number of issues but ultimately concludes that the promise that women can have both a high-powered career with a minimally acceptable level of family time is not easily attainable. In part, this is because some jobs will never permit a balance between work and life. But more importantly, it is because expectations in the workplace do not permit people to exercise trade-offs. “Having it all” translates into “All or Nothing”; a black and white choice rather than a carefully considered balance.
WASHINGTON - MAY 03:  Professor of politics an...
WASHINGTON - MAY 03: Professor of politics and international affairs Anne-Marie Slaughter testifies during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 3, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was to discuss the end-state in Afghanistan and how the death of Osama Bin Laden will affect the withdrawal of U.S. troops, transition strategy, and partnership in the region. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Now one of the issues with the essay, of course, is that Slaughter does appear to have had it all. She rose to the top of academia while maintaining a healthy family life. It is only when she went to Washington to work at the State Department that the family life suffered beyond what she wanted. One suspects, as Dan Drezner has argued, that those types of jobs really involve a all or nothing trade-off as part of their intrinsic nature. But aside from that Slaughter’s main argument resonates. Academia is, for the most part, well suited to work-life balance choices. (I, say, for the most part because science, maths and engineering appear to have deeper problems). That is, indeed, why I chose that path for myself. But, for the vast majority of other workplaces, there is way too little attention paid as to how to design jobs to allow people to achieve a balance. The evidence, neatly summarized by Slaughter, indicates that workplaces that are designed for employees to exercise more inside-outside work choices end up being more productive. So why is it that so many workplaces make this so hard?
It is instructive to look at academia, a place where choices are relatively easy, to understand the pressures. I know from my own experience that when your ‘boss’ (in my case a Dean) does not factor in family constraints, poor outcomes result. When my first child was due back in 1998, I anticipated that I wanted to be home the following semester at nights and not to be teaching. We had a part-time MBA program that was taught at night so I requested not to have that assignment for the semester after my daughter’s birth. Now the family leave policy for fathers at the University of Melbourne was to allow for two weeks off. But I did not even get that when I was called into a couple of days after her birth to the Dean’s office because they had decided to revoke my request and needed me to get my course syllabus and materials in right away. Near as I can tell this was all done because they could rather than do some more difficult re-scheduling. But for that time and the next semester, being away a few nights a week (and not to mention teaching with little sleep) tore me up. I vowed not to let it happen again and have since that time spent considerable energy in working out how to move my workload to activities other than teaching. Nothing in this was good for my workplace.
But even when I could exercise choice it was amazing how costly it could be. When we had our first child, we decided that this would be the best time for my wife to pursue an MBA as it would allow her not to have a visible CV gap. It was actually really hard to do that. What we wanted was a part-time program that allowed day-time classes but arbitrary University rules stood in the way. Once this was explained to us that she could not take a day-time class because those students were full-time and would have expectations on her to meet for study groups that, taking time to say, nurse a baby, would interfere with! MBA programs were really missing out on opportunities here.
Faced with that, she took classes at night. For the initial period, we had to interweave nights to accommodate my teaching. But MBA studies required study. Say whatever you want about their value, they require work. That meant that I took on the majority of the housework. That was fine and exhausting but it also allowed me to bond with my children in ways so many miss out on. And clearly, it got me thinking about parental issues which is why I can write here today.
But there was actually a cost and I only realized it many years later. For over two years, I could not travel. For academics, especially ones in Australia, travel is very important. It is how you maintain visibility and sell your work. Perhaps my best academic paper was written just before my second child was born. People constantly ask me why it is so poorly cited. The reason was that I only presented it twice. Academics pick up on the work of others through presentations much more than just picking up journals. Now, in this case, that career cost fell on me (although I should say that the benefits to family vastly outweighed that cost). But consider a world where this cost mostly falls on women academics and it becomes easier to understand why, in academia, with its better work-life balance, women are still so under-represented. I should say, however, that despite taking on the vast majority of household duties during my wife’s MBA time, I was fired from most of them as soon as that degree was done. My way of doing things was apparently less valuable than I had thought.
Moving beyond my experience, again from academia, I had a friend who had, at a very young age, risen to a Dean’s position. At the same time as the upper level University job she was made for and was perfect for came up, she was pregnant. I was thrilled as I saw this as an opportunity for someone to hold a top position and to enable the organization to fit around family balance. But that turned to dismay when she decided to withdraw her candidacy because of concern that she would not be able to strike the right balance. As I read Slaughter’s article, it occurred to me that I was being unfair in my judgment. It isn’t fair to expect someone, just because of her gender, to take a risk on her family especially for purposes of setting an example. The whole issue is that we expect women to behave in certain ways and it expect it to be as a role model is part of the problem. And it would have been a risk. It is easy to imagine that one can strike a balance in a higher powered job. It is more sensible to realize that might not be possible.
What this means is that we actually need broader changes rather than individual changes to improve the balance in most jobs. Slaughter talks about many of these but I thought here I would concentrate on what governments can do; in particular, parental leave policy. Everywhere except the US, governments have state mandated parental leave policies. Some of these give mothers (and in some cases fathers) rights to leave upon the birth of a child from six weeks to a year. Employers have to hold their jobs and not put them at a disadvantage upon re-entering the workforce. In some cases, the parental leave is paid through government subsidies or mandates on employers. But while commonplace, these policies concern me. Yes, they make taking parental leave easier but they do not take into account the root of the problem. Rightly or wrongly, many employers believe that having employees who sacrifice work for family life is costly to them. These policies actually increase those costs and may lead to employers opting to employee ‘lower risk’ people. And let’s face it, today as it has been before, that ‘lower risk’ is more likely to be a man than a woman.
We have to think outside of the box when it comes to parental leave. A few years ago when this issue was being debated in Australia, I argued that parental leave should come in the form of a tax credit paid to employers rather than a subsidy. To be sure, rights to parental leave should always be there but the question was: a right isn’t much value without an income but how do we pay for that? My tax credit plan worked as follows: if an employer successfully had an employee take parental leave and then return to the workforce, the employer would receive a tax credit on that employee’s income for the first year of return to work. My reasoning is that it was on return to work that the issues of work-life balance really came to the fore. But it was precisely then that the workplaces failed to allow a balance to be struck. That is where things would start to fall apart.
With a tax credit, a returning employee would suddenly be much cheaper for employers. That would give them an incentive to make the return to work, well, work. Moreover, employers would want to pay some of that benefit forward by introducing paid parental leave schemes. After all, if you didn’t tie the employee to come back to you, you would miss out on the tax credit. Done the right way, employers could see employees with family lives not as a risk but as an opportunity. Once a workplace gets over the hump of how to organize for families we might be on our way to a better outcome for women or anyone else desiring more flexible arrangements.
Tax rebates are one way governments might be able to break the cycle that leaves us with too many jobs having too poor design for work-life balance. Yes, there is much more to the issue than economics. But my hunch is that by getting the economic policy right we can nudge workplaces in the right direction.
For more on my parental leave idea you can watch this series of short videos or read about it, herehere or here.