The second best ‘ice’ movie this month

Movie Reviews (Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and March of the Penguins)

We saw Ice Age 2 yesterday and I have to say that it was the second best ice-themed movie I have seen this month (behind March of the Penguins). Let me substantiate this bold claim but first letting you know something about my criteria in seeing these G-rated movies: just because they were made for kids doesn’t mean they should only be for kids. If I have to go along, I am expecting to enjoy it too.

That means that I am looking for something a little more sophisticated in plot than ‘chicken sees sky falling and then war of the worlds ensues just as he was being doubted by society.’ Ice Age 2 was strongly anticipated on this front. Ice Age had produced a remarkably complex plot that exposed prejudice, revenge and forgiveness. Just to recap that movie involved the plot ‘sabre tooth tiger attacks humans as revenge for a prior attack, human mother saves baby by placing it in a boat [yes, it was derivative of Moses], baby picked up by mammoth whose family was also attacked by humans, who overcomes desire for revenge (thanks to a friendly sloth), converts another tiger away from group think and ends up fending off tigers to return child safely to humans, who show self-restraint in not killing the mammoth.’ Very similar to the Jungle Book but with a few extra dimensions of selflessness and alot more ice.

As the ice melted for Ice Age 2, so apparently did the need to get everyone’s motives down pat. The mammoth, Manny, is now concerned about being the last of his kind and is faced with a single potential mate, Ellie, who was raised by possums and thinks she is a possum. [Now there is some irony here as the mammoth is taken in by others just as the baby in the first Ice Age but is not smart enough to know what she is as opposed to the dinosaur in Dinosaur who knew he was not a lemur!]. Other than that it is not clear what the deal is with everyone else. The sloth, Sid, and their tiger friend try to overcome fears but the main enemies — some previously frozen reptile things — are somewhat one dimensional. They can’t even talk for goodness sake!

Actually, there is a secondary plot line — just as in Ice Age — with a little rodent, Scat, trying to get himself an acorn. He will do anything for it and in the process causes mayhem (but ultimate redemption) for others. His struggle (reminiscent of the penguins that I will get to in a second) is wonderful, painful but also inconsistent with the plot of the first movie where he was frozen for 20,000 years. Nonetheless, I was happy to seem him back, even if there was no attempt to explain that.

In the end, there is little below the surface in Ice Age 2. The good news is that it is easily watchable and there is no sense at all of ‘when will this be over’ making it above average for the genre. [No Vogon poetry-type torture here].

Contrast this with March of the Penguins, a documentary about emperor penguins in Antartica and what they have to do through. It is ‘set’ today but the same story could have taken place during the ice age, so I feel that the movies are ‘apples to apples’ comparable.

Now you definitely get the ‘when will this be over’ feeling watching the March. But it is not for yourself, but for the penguins. In a vast irony of evolution, penguins appear to have become perfectly adapted to their Antartic environment but in a way that leaves their quality of life below that of pond scum. I don’t want too give much away but you haven’t seen suffering until you have seen what the penguins do as part of their normal life. Yes, there was suffering in Schindler’s List and Meet the Parents but it was relatively short and hardly normal. The penguins do this year in, year out, generation in, generation out.

This movie is entertaining for the whole family but also gives you something in return: a new perspective on how hard life can be. Whenever things are getting you down, you will be able to think of the penguins and thank goodness you are not one of them.

In another irony, there is the subtext of global warming and what it might be doing to the penguins’ environment and way of life. When it comes down to it, it is difficult to walk away from that with environmental fervour. After this movie, the emperor penguins are not going to be the poster child for that cause.

Bent bananas

With the banana crop in Australia devastated, one would have thought that, while banana prices might rise somewhat, they would be available over the next year. Not so! There is a ban on imports of bananas, so they won’t be available for nine months. And why would the ban continue? Apparently, the risk of exotic pests.

The government’s reaction is that we can do without. Now, isn’t that interesting? Parents would know that we can constantly fed a line of the importance of bananas for childhood health and nutrition. They are ‘near critical brain food.’ The line is fed by Banana Growing Associations as well as governments around the country.

So what is it? Do we need to buy a banana a day for our children or not? If not, then I guess Federal Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, is right when he says that: “People will have to understand that their unsatisfied yearnings for bananas are infinitesimal …” But, if so, then a responsible government surely has to find a way to overcome the supply problem. Perhaps we need to stockpile dried fruit in the future.

This time I don’t think you can bend (!) the truth and have it both ways.

Busy tooth fairies

In the last couple of days, I have spent considerable energy thinking about the tooth fairy. It is our own fault really. On Thursday, our daughter lost her sixth tooth. On Friday morning, she woke up to tell us that the tooth fairy hadn’t come. And then trouble ensued.

My initial reaction to this sad news was to go up and check her ‘tooth box’ carrying money in my hand in a vain attempt to suggest that she had just missed it being bleary eyed in the morning. This plan was aborted when I opened the box to find, well, a tooth. Obviously, to take the tooth now would be a tad too obvious.

On to plan B; imaginative lying. We settled on, “obviously, lots of children must have lost teeth on Thursday and the tooth fairy is just one fairy and can do so much. She will be here tonight.” Our daughter bought that and, indeed, when discussing the incident with a friend, it turned out the same thing had happened to him once. (We must remember to thank the parents!)

A colleague of mine recounted to me his ‘imaginative lie’ when faced with a similar dilemma. He said to his daughter (and I am not making this up), “Oh, I came into your room last night and saw a bright thing buzzing around that looked like a firefly and so I swatted it.” It wasn’t clear that that was to death or just away but his daughter was suitably (and understandably) horrified.

In that light, our lie is much more tame. However, that didn’t stop another parent being horrified with me as I recounted the day’s incident: “how could you just lie to your children?” Ahem, it is the ‘tooth fairy’ we are talking about here! I think I have a pretty much free license on that one.

To continue the story, we almost forgot again on Friday night, but got this just in time. We have so many more teeth to come amongst our three children, this is bound to be an on-going issue.

This led me to think about the whole tooth fairy thing. From an efficiency standpoint, it would be much better if a child could present a tooth to us and receive cash on the spot. No running around at midnight searching for coins. It also saves on other inefficiencies. This time around our daughter ended up with New Zealand currency (I had just returned from there and it was lying about). If she asks about it I’ll embellish our original lie. “The Australia tooth fairy has been busy, as you know, and so probably asked the New Zealand one to come in and help out.” As you can see, globalisation works out for the general good again.

How did we end up in our current situation? According to Wikipedia, the tooth fairy has origins in the United States around 1900. But it really appears to have taken off in Western cultures post-WWII. Suggestions allude to the value of myth and how children like story telling as a rationale for the tooth fairy. But that doesn’t ring true.

When it comes down to it my daughter knows exactly where the money is coming from but is quite happy to ‘play the tooth fairy game’ if only for the benefit of her younger siblings. So there is no sense of wonderment there. Just the usual raw economic calculus.

My hypothesis is that the ‘tooth fairy deal’ persists because it is an excellent incentive device. When a child has a loose tooth, there is a possibility that it may not come up necessitating more drastic action. This might be a parental intervention (you know, the string and the door trick) or worse, an expensive trip to the dentist. What can stop this is if the child endures a little bit of pain and wiggles the loose tooth. To provide an incentive for this action, we offer some money for the tooth. Saving a $50 dentist bill for a dollar or two a pop seems like a good deal.

Indeed, we know of a child who was two days from going to the dentist who was offered (and it is not quite clear how this fits in with the tooth fairy lie) $20 if they could pop the tooth that day. Surprise, surprise that is just what happens. I pity those parents, however, on what will happen with the next tooth. The child will anticipate the dentist deal and wait until the last minute. Much better to hold the strict tooth fairy line.

This all leads me to think more about other economic issues associated with tooth fairies. What drives the price of a tooth? Does it drift with the rate of inflation or the cost of dentists? What about the mechanism for the exchange (tooth under pillow versus tooth in cup of water versus, our solution, tooth in special box)? All interesting questions that I’ll need to return to at some point.

Pass the grade

You Passed 8th Grade Math

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Tuning in doesn’t make you tune out

As a parent, access to television is seen as a privilege and not a right. We place a television alluringly in the family room and then place an invisible wall around it saying ‘Off Limits.’ If a request to watch television comes in from one or more household members it is carefully reviewed by committee including taking of submissions from all interested parties, examinations of the time of the day and the day of the week, and a rigorous account as to the applicants’ other merits (doing homework, asking nicely). Then a decision is based with reference to guidelines as well as precedent. Unfavourable decisions usually are accompanied by appeals and requirements for the committee to suggest alternative activities. Favourable ones are then referred to a lower level subcommittee to determine what will actually be watched on television.

In an earlier day, without DVDs or Tivo, that process would have been lengthy enough so that a new problem of ‘there is nothing interesting on TV’ would have come up and the TV may actually not get turned on. Today, we don’t have the luxury and so practices are then reviewed by a non-consultantive panel regarding whether too much TV is being watched overall. In the end, I think an average child in our household ends up watching 4-6 hours per week (yes, per week; about a seventh of the average in the population. For TV loving parents such as us, this is somewhat surprising).

Our review panel devours any studies that might enlighten on this issue. The sum total of those studies has been basically uninformative. Some claim TV is plain bad, others it depends on what you watch and others depend on who watches with you. The end result is too use common sense as these outcomes also apply to books and computers.

A new study has appeared by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro that will get our attention this evening. These economists at the University of Chicago have used the fact that television was introduced at different times in different cities of the US. They have then taken standardised tests conducted in the 1960s to examine the long-term effects of television watching. Theoretically, if television is bad, if you had been watching it for 12 years before taking the test as opposed to 4 years or not at all, it would show up in test performance. [See this article in Slate for a more comprehensive explanation.] Moreover, this is all done at a time prior to VCRs etc where there was little ability of parents to choose what their children might watch and there was certainly no regulation of advertising content.

And the results: there is certainly no negative effect from television watching. If anything the effect was positive and more so for children in non-English speaking households and where the mother had less than a high-school education.

Can we disband our review processes now and let the kids watch TV until they are sick of it? Then we would have more time to get back watching as much TV as we did when we were growing up.

The earlier the better

Professor Jim Heckman (University of Chicago and 2004 Nobel Prize winner) presented a very interesting lecture on education policy here at the University of Melbourne. The main insight from his work is how effective (and productive in a social rate of return sense) early childhood interventions are. These are not to improve IQ but to prove the ‘softer’ stuff that allows you to make use of your IQ (e.g., motivation, social awareness, etc). What you experience prior to age 6 (!) is apparently critical in this.

His papers are available on the web. But if I relate these findings to those in an earlier blog about IR reforms, I worry if the cost of those reforms is going to be much greater economically than anyone has appreciated to date. Coupled with the government’s lacklustre approach to childcare and we are working in the wrong direction on this one.

Restraining parents

Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame wrote an interesting paper recently that strongly suggested that car seats did not assist in preventing child fatalities in car crashes any more than seat belts. A link to his article and related findings is here.

Now when I proudly brought this excellent piece of econometric research home as evidence as to how we could free up space in the car, I was informed that our household behaviour would not be changing. Car seats all around until they are well beyond 6 years old. Well, we had the seats anyway (4 or 5 by last count between various cars and ages and a total expenditure of $1000).

I suspect that reaction will be similar. Give parents and option and suggest that it will have a marginal improvement in safety and they will demand it in droves. Get some government regulations and it is entrenched forever.

But one wonders how far this might go. Suppose I developed a cocoon type restraint whereby you took said children, put them in a coffin like structure with a little window to look out of and staked them neatly in the boot of the car or SUV. Now I am pretty sure I could get some engineer to demonstate their safety properties. Coupled with an alluring idea of having the kids out of sight while driving (whine free!) and I think this is a winning product.

Parental demand for safety (subject to wealth constraints) seems to me to be unlimited and as close to inelastic as we are ever going to find. Although against this is the fact that we are yet to see the ‘Safe and Silent Cocoon.’ Nonetheless, an issue of public policy makers interested in consumer protection is how to restrain parental purchases of unnecessary equipment. I for one could use some restraint.