Friday, August 31, 2012

Who can sit next to children on flights?

[This post originally appeared on on 14th August 2012].

It seems almost silly to ask the question: who can sit next to children on flights? Obviously, parents would be desirable but sometimes that can’t happen. It may be that a child or children are flying

Virgin Australia's Airbus A330-200 (R) taxis p...
Virgin Australia's Airbus A330-200 (R) taxis past a Virgin Blue Boeing 737-800 (R) after landing at Sydney International Airport on May 4, 2011. Domestic carrier Virgin Blue and its international offshoots, Pacific Blue and V Australia, will all be known as Virgin Australia, with negotiations underway to bring Polynesia Blue under the same umbrella. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)
unaccompanied or maybe, because of poor airline seating policies, they are apart from parents (Air Canada, I’m talking about you here). In those cases, they are going to end up seated next to an adult they don’t know.
Well, it turns out that some airlines actually have a policy on this. Specifically, it appears that if the adult stranger (to the children) is a women, that’s fine but for a man, that’s prohibited. Story No.1 comes from Virgin Australia. They apparently have this policy and unseated fire fighter, John McGirr, who had been seated next to two children. McGirr recounts the experience:
‘Sir we are going have to ask you to move’
‘Why’, I said.
‘Well, because you are male, you can’t be seated next to two unaccompanied minors’.
Shocked, I replied, ‘ Isn’t this sexist and discriminatory?’
She replied, ‘I am sorry, but that is our policy’.
Basically, he felt like a pedophile precisely because he was treated like one. The story created an uproar (although not everyone disagreed with Virgin’s policy). Virgin are now reviewing their approach.
Virgin are not alone. The week brought a similar incident on Qantas who claimed they were maximizing “the child’s safety and well-being.” Really Qantas? You seem to run out of pre-ordered children’s meals quite quickly if that is really what you are doing.
And here is Boris Johnson’s experience on British Airways. Yes, that is Boris Johnson who is now mayor of London.
There we were, waiting for take-off, and I had just been having a quick zizz. It was a long flight ahead, all the way to India, and I had two children on my left. Already they were toughing each other up and sticking their fingers up each other’s nose, and now — salvation!
Hovering above me was a silk-clad British Airways stewardess with an angelic smile, and she seemed to want me to move. “Please come with me, sir” said the oriental vision.
At once, I got her drift. She desired to upgrade me. In my mind’s eye, I saw the first-class cabin, the spiral staircase to the head massage, the Champagne, the hot towels. 
“You betcha!” I said, and began to unbuckle. At which point, the children set up a yammering. Oi, they said to me, where do you think you are going? I was explaining that the captain had probably spotted me come on board, don’t you know. Doubtless he had decided that it was outrageous for me to fly steerage, sound chap that he was. I’d make sure to come back now and then, hmmm? 
At which the stewardess gave a gentle cough. Actually, she said, she was proposing to move me to row 52, and that was because — she lowered her voice — “We have very strict rules”.
Eh? I said, by now baffled. “A man cannot sit with children,” she said; and then I finally twigged. “But he’s our FATHER”, chimed the children. “Oh,” said the stewardess, and then eyed me narrowly. “These are your children?” “Yes,” I said, a bit testily. “Very sorry,” she said, and wafted down the aisle — and in that single lunatic exchange you will see just about everything you need to know about our dementedly phobic and risk-averse society.
Johnson was saved public humiliation but say the injustice in the policy. Subsequently, British Airways was forced to change its policy following a law suit. They now try and sit children together. They apparently think, against all evidence, that an adult is more likely to be a sex offender than a child might be a bully.
Which brings me to my story. I wasn’t discriminated against but having been incensed by all this discussion and the fear of pedophiles, I took a different approach. The other day we boarded our long, 13 and a half hour flight from Sydney to LA. Our family had two seats at an end and then three of the four seats in the middle of our Qantas aircraft. Our plan had been to seat the two eldest children together and have the two adults with the youngest one. The youngest wasn’t too happy about this as she wanted to be next to her brother and sister. But then we got on the plane and sitting in the four seat was a man. That caused me to think about our youngest child’s plea. Why were we doing things that way? It could be we were trying to spare the stranger any discomfort from sitting next to a child. But it could also have been that we subtly held ‘stranger danger’ feelings ourselves? I couldn’t risk the latter so I let the children sit with each other while we parents slinked over to a separate area (in the same cabin but over the continuous mathematical line that would be perfect accompaniment). We would defiantly protest Qantas’ policy.
Now the news is, of course, that nothing bad happened. Well, to our children. To the man, I’m not so sure. It was a pretty smooth flight but you can’t get perfect behavior for 13 odd hours. But he didn’t call a waitress and claim that he should be moved according to Qantas policy so it couldn’t have been too bad. Perhaps he was pleased that some parents had confidently not considered him to be a sex offender.
But think of the alternative. Yes, Qantas might be discriminating against men by making them appear to be sex offenders but, when they get their seating policy right, a disproportionate number of women are finding themselves seated next to unaccompanied children on flights. Boris Johnson’s heart lept when he thought he might be moved from his own children as we know that adults, if given a choice, would rather be next to other adults. And there are many more women suffering from this than men likely being moved. Sounds like another consequence of discrimination to me.
When it comes down to it, like so many aspects of airline policy — consider how you are forced to turn off a Kindle on takeoff — the airlines have got their priorities wrong because they can’t get their statistics right. Consider the caption in this recent British Airways ad.
We test our cheese as meticulously as we test our engines.
If not for the accompanied small font explanation that might be taken in a bad light. We expect airlines to quantify risks well when it comes to safety but surely our confidence in them might be harmed a little when they can’t calculate risks in relation to other matters.
For unaccompanied children, I suspect the risk of any criminal behavior befalling them is might less than say, them being misplaced by an airline. On that score, this recent United Airlines experience may given parents far more cause for concern. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Self, Presence and Storytelling

At GDC last week I gave a talk called "The Self, Presence and StoryTelling". There will be a version of it up on the GDC Vault in 2 - 3 weeks I think and hopefully it will be free like last years' talk. Before that comes up I will put up a pdf version of the talk containing a bit more information (something I promised at the end of my talk). You can get hold of that here:

Download "The Self, Presence and Story-telling"

Get the mobi version here (thanks to Tomasz Rozanski for creating this).

The paper is basically a summary about a lot of the stuff that has been written on this blog. It is an attempt to define a new design approach that makes it easier to make games that can deal with a wider range of themes and let you play all the way through. I would be very interesting any feedback you got as I would like to keep the document updated and revised if there are any new insights or any info in it that is no longer true.

EDIT: Proof-read the paper a bit and made a little bit more readable.
EDIT2: Mobi version now available.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can economics help you find a spouse?

[This post was originally published at on 9th August 2012]
That is the question reported Jessica Irvine put to me a couple of weeks ago. It is the type of question that instills fear in an economist. Why? Because the truthful answer can cause trouble at home.
What is the truthful answer? Here is what economist and now Australian parliamentarian Andrew Leigh told Irvine:
‘‘Economically, the answer to this is easy,’’ says Andrew Leigh, a federal Labor MP awarded the Economic Society of Australia’s young economist of the year award last year. ‘‘You’re solving an ‘optimal stopping’ problem. You know you’ve found ‘the one’ when you determine that the expected quality of all future matches is lower than the value of your current partner.”
You see the problem. Economics tells you that you should eventually settle in your search for a spouse. But for the Economist saying it, doesn’t that imply that he settled as well?
Leigh realized his problem and so immediately went what we could term the ‘sap route.’
In my case, I knew I wanted to pop the question to Gweneth [Leigh’s wife] because she made my heart beat faster each time she entered the room.
At this Olympian time, I believe we can score this using a diving analogy. The whole exercise had a degree of difficulty but there was some splash associated with Leigh’s re-entry. Basically, his answer was completely unrelated to the conundrum. Leigh appears to say that he settled but knows why he settled. By referencing the heart he alludes to abandoning his economic mind but we can’t really be sure.
Now let’s turn to the attempt by Rory Robinson. He is an economist but in the private sector:
A similarly sweet, but matter-of-fact, assessment is offered by Rory Robertson, a leading financial markets economist, of his wife. ‘‘In the process of choosing, my assessment was that my wife had the highest weighted-average of all the things I felt were important: looks, ‘compatibility’, kindness, inherent optimism, competence, diligence, and general enthusiasm for a happy life and family.’’
When I ask if he considers it fortunate his wife also assessed him as having the highest weighted-average of her preferences, Robertson replies: ‘‘Something like that, I’d like to think!’’
Robinson offers a longer CV for his partner’s attributes but ultimately is hedging. Again a splash.
Now you might be interested in what a disaster looks like. If so, let’s watch Tim Harcourt, author of The Airport Economist:
‘The economics of love or marriage is like search theory in the labour market. You start out with preferences about what you may like in a partner, but over time you may, if searching unsuccessfully, drop your ‘‘reservation wage’’ – ie lower your standards – to settle on a job or love match. I have a lot of great, smart, good-looking female friends in Sydney who seemed to have had to reduce their reservation wage over time.”
Oh dear. While he gets points for accuracy, in terms of any ‘at home constraint’ I think this one belly flopped. To be sure, Harcourt may have been quoted out of context but you can see just how difficult this exercise is.
Of course, you are by now wondering how I did at this dive. I guess the fact that I am drawing your attention and my spouse’s attention to it gives the answer. While it wasn’t published my opening set-up was this.
… Dateonomics is about finding the right ‘other parent’ for your future children. Economics has a lot to say about that in much the same way it has a lot to say about finding the right employees for your business.
But you can now watch the actual dive:
Economist and author of ‘‘Parentonomics’’, Joshua Gans, says that in looking for that perfect parent for your unborn child, it doesn’t make sense to wait around for Mr or Ms Perfect.
‘‘In the search for the right [partner], economics tells us that you would almost always settle. You search and there are search costs. A rational person should have an optimal stopping rule and if that rule is to find the perfect match out of 7 billion living people, mathematics tells us you will never stop. Except, of course, in my case where settling turned out to be indistinguishable from optimising! For everyone else, they have settled and so if your spouse isn’t perfect you can at least take comfort in the fact that you saved the costs of shopping around.’’
That last bit was the ‘money quote’ for the article. But it was the middle where I took myself out from the entire population as an exception. My spouse didn’t buy any of it (she is too much of a rational engineer to believe in exceptions) but did offer up an “I love you too dear” for effort. I’ll take that as, “I made it!”
Irvine’s entire piece on Dateonomics will appeal to readers of this blog as will likely her new book, Zombies, Bananas and Why There are no Economists in Heaven. There are no economists in heaven? Makes sense. Most economists I know pretty much adhere to the thought experiments in John Lennon’s Imagine which pretty much rules heaven out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Camps, Sickness and Smell

[This post was originally published at on 22nd July 2012]
As regular readers are possibly aware, all three of our children (ages 13, 11 and 7) are away at Camp this month. We have been in irregular communication with them consisting of emails sent by us through
Contagion (film)
Contagion (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
the Bunk 1 service and intermittent letters sent by them through the ordinary post. In our case, we have recounted in detail all of the activities we have been able to undertake (mostly travel) because we aren’t with them. In their case, there is a recount of activities they have been involved in, a description of other kids they like or dislike and then complaints as to the things other children where allowed to bring that we prohibited based on our ‘letter of the law’ reading of camp rules.
This weekend, however, was Visitor’s Day where we can travel a few hours north to visit our children at camp. That was the plan. However, last week, we were informed that our youngest children had succumbed to what appears to have been a major outbreak of stomach flu. They recovered in time for Visitor’s Day but enough other children were still ill that the whole day changed. It was supposed to be a situation where we went to see the camp and what our kids had been up to. Instead, it turned into a highly structured set of manoeuvres whereby we could pick up our children to take them out for a few hours. We had to drive up to a location far from the camp. We could not leave our vehicle. Our children could then walk to the vehicle and get in but not before another dose of hand sanitizer.
As it turned out, our children were well acquainted with the ‘Plague protocols’ that turned out to be closely modelled on the movie Contagion. For a week they had been living in a strictly enforced totalitarian regime. No one could get food or touch anyone without permission. Whole cabins were quarantined. That may have sounded bad but, as it turned out, being sick had the silver lining of a break from camp activities and lounging around watching TV. All in all, this proved an education for the children in germ warfare. That said, it is unclear that it did much good. What it did do is keep the whole plague under wraps. When we took our children into town they were all blissfully unaware of the pox that had hit their area.
The sickness had another advantage. Normally, picking up kids from camp is an unpleasant activity. When we drove our eldest back from New Hampshire last year to Boston, we almost died of the smell. We were prepared for the worst this time around but it turned out that part of the protocols was rigidly enforced washing. That saved us much distress.
Our expectation had been that the kids would not want to see us. As it turned out, the tough week had softened them up and they were all happy to be free of austerity for a little while. While we didn’t get to see camp life we got to hear all about it. I suspect all three will be returning next year.
We were also softened up for all this. Thanks to Bunk1, whose incentives are to ensure that parents never forget their children are at camp so that they will write more emails, we had been peppered with Newsletters about things that can go wrong. Here is one. I enjoyed the tick advisory. That seemed to involved wrapping your children in clothes and giving them a level of organization unprecedented for anyone other than Mr Monk.
Of course, the Bunk1 theme has spread through the Internet. In particular, the nightly search through hundreds of photos for one with your own child. Here is a great video capturing the situation there.