Saturday, May 27, 2006

Strollers and obesity

I'm coming to the conclusion that a major cause of childhood obesity is the excellence of the modern stroller.

These days, the stroller/pram you buy when you first have a baby has enough features to last you to age four, if you wish. And if you don't wish, a new one isn't ridiculously expensive as a percentage of disposable income. And if you have another child, a tandem stroller, or a toddler seat is not that much more than a single stroller. None of that is bad, of course. And, for safety reasons, the stroller, of course, has a five point harness, which also enables you to strap most (not all) toddlers in for a while

But that's not how it has always been. Prams didn't used to convert easily to strollers - you had to prop a child up in an uncomfortable way, or buy another one. I very much doubt when I was little whether anyone could afford to buy a tandem stroller/pram when they had a second child - it would have been a much greater bite out of an income, and far less functional. And without harnesses, it would have been harder to keep a recalcitrant toddler in a pram who wanted to get out and run somewhere.

So mothers were once forced to teach their children to walk reasonable distances from a fairly early age. Their alternative was once to carry the toddler. But no longer. Wander anywhere where children might be out and about. Have a look at the age of the kids in the stroller. It's not uncommon to see four year olds. They might get out and walk for a while, but the stroller is there if they get tired.

Ever wonder why the toddler harness went out of fashion? I don't think it's got anything to do with our reluctance to treat a toddler like a dog on a leash. I think it's because a pram is a much easier way to restrain a toddler. And now that toddlers don't have to be taught painstakingly to walk sensible beside a parent at a reasonable pace, stopping at roads, they are much older before they walk as a way of getting somewhere. So when they're too old to be pushed anywhere, they are not in the habit of walking, and don't have the stamina to walk any great distance.

Of course everything above is a gross generalisation. But kids these days get less incidental exercise than their elders at a very early age, and the pram is just then later substituted by the car, when the distances get longer. Obesity is not just about unhealthy school lunches.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Yes, I've succumbed, I've got a Blackberry. I've read many articles about how terrible blackberries are, since they encourage you to be available at all times. Laura at 11D hates the idea, after her husband has been forced to get one.

But I think that just like many other things, the effect on your life depends on a combination of you, and your employer. For me, it improves my life because I can check my emails on the bus home. And when I'm at a corporate love-in (as I was on Wednesday) I can check my emails during the breaks, and I know that nothing major has happened back at the office.

But for me, my life is majorly improved by being able to do work at home, because the alternative is to do it at the office. If I can do work at home, I can come home, have dinner with the boys, and then do some more work after they've gone to bed. If I can't work at home, I still have to do the same amount of work, but I have to stay late, and miss a family dinner to do it.

But if a Blackberry means that you end up doing just as much work at the office, and then have to do more at nights and weekends as well, they're a dumb idea.

I know plenty of people who are addicted enough to work that they will do more work by being in contact all the time. And others, like Laura's husband who are pressured into doing more. But sometimes the doom and gloom stories miss that tools like Blackberries (and my remote access to my work's computer network) can actually improve work life balance as well.


Mind you, I probably should revisit this post in a month's time, before being too smug about my work life balance.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Childcare shortages

Interesting article in the SMH today about how the lack of childcare is stopping people from working.

A few interesting points; as suzoz pointed here a few days ago, family day care is not that popular, because increasingly the higher standards and professionalism of long day care (whether real or perceived) is more popular. So there isn't as much pent up demand for family day care as there used to be.

And the big pent-up demand is for after school care. Which also makes sense. That point at which your child goes to school is, for many mothers (and fathers, maybe) the point at which it seems sensible to think about working again. But after school care is the least susceptible of all forms of care to market forces. It makes sense to have it on school grounds, so there is always a natural monopoly at each school. And it's not that easy to find carers for the odd hours, so the big listed players can't make much money out of it.

So the coalition solution of leaving the market to provide is very unlikely to work without a bit of help.

As a believer in usefulness of the market for many issues, it annoys me intensely when it's treated as a god that will fix everything, even things that have clear issues that will never be fixed without intervention - natural monopolies, externalities, imperfect information... all things that stop "the market" working. But the coalition seems to want to assume them out of existence.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


This morning, I was in The Rocks, and a band was playing - a double bass, electric guitar, a saxophone, drums and a vocalist (at the muzak end of swing, but very listenable).

I was reminded of a magic evening a few years ago.

I was working in Wellington, NZ on a company acquisition. It happened to be an all female team at that stage of the deal - the client, and three consultants. After a long day, we went out for a quick bite to eat, and were strolling back to our hotel when we walked past the foyer of a theatre, which had a swing band in its lobby bar. It was three or four 20 something guys. I can't remember the instruments exactly, but they were young, enthusiastic, and fantastic. We sat at a table close-ish to the front, and drank it in. We stayed for ages, and chatted between sets about our lives, but during the sets, just enjoyed the music. There were a few people dancing, mostly with panache - a bit of jive, since this was before salsa got big.

Wellington then was only just getting a nightlife; these days Courteney Place is full of fabulous bars and restaurants. But then, part of the magic of the night was the fabulous serendipity. Expecting nothing, we ended up with the perfect evening.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


I've decided that I do need to get fit again. I had all these good intentions about getting into good habits when I started my new job in February; but then I got pneumonia, and my doctor gave me a stern lecture about not exercising until I was totally better. It's been nearly three months now, so I thought I could risk a run this morning (having tested myself by running all the way to the ferry two mornings ago). It probably would have been a new personal worst time if I'd timed myself, but I'm glad I did it.

Every time I go for a morning run, I remember why I like it. The harbour was as still as glass; the runners and walkers were polite and smiled at each other; and when I got back home I felt energised for the day.

In the past, when I've been working ridiculous hours away from home, I've always made a point of going for a run in the morning. It seems to energise me more than an extra half hour's sleep would. But I can never get into that habit at home. I can't think of anything that'll change that now, but I am going to try and go for a run at least one out of two mornings on the weekends again.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Starting young

I was doing a puzzle with D this evening (who is just 3). It was about a farm, and he asked me "where is the farmer?". I pointed out the woman who was putting hay in a wheelbarrow. He said "girls aren't farmers".

I'm amazed by this, as we have a series of books about "Mrs Boot the Farmer" (who appears to be a single parent of two children), as well as quite a few picture books with a mix of male and female farmers. We had a discussion about it, and he appeared dubiously convinced that both men and women are farmers. C tried to help me by saying from his older brother position of superiority that girls and boys aren't farmers, but I think that made D more determined to stick to his position.

I really thought that we were doing well in subverting the dominant gender stereotypes. Clearly more effort is needed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The US has released their stats on names for 2005. I found a link there via some blog or other, and went back to check on my name the year I was born (I wasn't born in the US, but I wasn't born in Australia, either). I reckon from my own personal experience, that Jennifer was the most popular name in Australia in 1967. In my residential college at university, 8% of the women were called Jennifer (or Jenny or Jen). But in the US, Jennifer was only the 10th most popular name in 1967. It only became number 1 in 1970, and then stayed there for another decade.

Freakonomics has a interesting section on baby names, where he reckons you can trace the class system in action by watching a baby name move from the upper classes down to the middle classes, and to the working classes, and then out of fashion.

I wonder whether the names Australians are likely to choose (of all classes) are ahead of the US? Or am I guilty of over-analysing my (admittedly sparse) data. Strangely enough, we never managed to export Kylie to anywhere else.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Australian Club

I was taken to lunch at the Australian Club today. It's quite a strange phenomenen. In a modern (well 60s) office building, the club has three or four floors decorated in late Victorian english style (to ape the London club it is trying to be). I was in the guests dining room, didn't make the inner sanctum. I enquired of my host how he became a member, and discovered to my amazement that it was a men-only club! I had no idea they still existed, and said so.

Apparently some of the men-only clubs around Sydney are debating whether they should let women in because their membership is declining, but this club is still going OK, even though the average age of members is mid-60s.

I'm not sure that letting women in would make that much difference; even my host said that clubs were really needed back in the days that there weren't many restaurants around town; these days, it's much easier to take someone out to a nice restaurant somewhere.

There are probably fewer people around these days who would be impressed with an invitation to an "exclusive" club - even letting aside the sexist aspect (which certainly didn't impress me once I realised). And if the average membership is in their mid-60s, the quality of the business contacts is probably not as good as it might once have been.

So hopefully these clubs will whither into a genteel decline, as they become irrelevent.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mothers' Day

I've always hated the idea of Mothers' Day. It has always seemed so commercialised and meaningless. The recognition aspect has completely fallen by the wayside, and now it's just about commercialism. Lately it seems to have got even more commercialised, so that it is now compulsory for all mothers to be taken out for a fabulous dinner (forget breakfast in bed).

I used to wonder whether I would miraculously convert to being in favour of mothers' day once I became a mother, and hence eligible for all the pampering. I haven't. Even when I was in hospital with a new baby on mothers' day, I found the whole thing faintly ridiculous.

The one aspect of it all that has slightly crept through my barriers is loving the handmade things my boys are bringing home from pre-school and school. It was wonderful to watch C's excitement as he told me not to look under his bed where he was hiding my present.

But I was soon brought down to earth as we were walking through our local shopping centre, with C (an early print addict) reading out all the mothers' day ads and telling me that I must buy a card and present for my mother. Brainwashing starts young these days.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Book Review: Neal Stephenson

This week's book review is a survey of Neal Stephenson's work. I've lately been on a kick of re-reading all our Neal Stephenson books, partly prompted by tigtog's rave review of SnowCrash. Tigtog's rave was mostly about one of the main characters, YT (a sexy intelligent kick-ass woman), a variant of whom appears surprisingly often (surprising for cyber-punk, which often only has women as sex interests for the male protagonists) in Stephenson's novels.

SnowCrash is Stephenson's most famous seriously sci-fi work, and probably one of only two that actually fits the cyberpunk description. It's a fun romp through a dysfunctional future as imagined in the late early 90s - its descriptions of virtual reality, and the internet (the metaverse) are pretty impressive for something written so long ago. As seems to happen with about half of Stephenson's books, his research is too obvious for me (he is obsessed with linguistics, and while it's interesting, it got a bit turgid after a while). But this book established Stephenson as a major cyberpunk author to rival William Gibson, although Gibson has stayed much closer to the genre since.

My favourite in the properly science fiction description, by a long way, is The Diamond Age. This is further into the future, and although full of technological imaginings, the most interesting thing about the book is Stephenson's imagining the way in which different societies might deliberately organise themselves - with the strongest part of this being his ode to Victorian English culture and why it makes sense. Although the ending is incredibly weak (it seems as if he just lost interest, and tied up the knots - probably was rich enough to avoid proper editing), 98% of the book is great and thought provoking.

Cyrptomnicom, to me, again shows signs of lack of editing. While Stephenson's writing is enjoyable, this book suffers with too much of the research being on the surface. My brother, who writes software for a living, loved this book. For me, who left serious mathematics behind about twenty years ago, the stuff about cryptoanalysis became a chore after a while.

But the best, by far, of Stephenson, is the Baroque Cycle trilogy. This is a tour de force of three volumes set in the late 17th and early 18th century, with Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and many other key scientists (Huygens, Franklin, Hookes, etc etc) as key, human characters. It is an incredibly human story with two main characters - Eliza and Jack - both from humble beginnings, who dance in and out of European scientific, economic and political history gaily and with penache.

Although, just as in all his other books, Stephenson has clearly done a mammoth amount of research, in this case, the research helps, rather than hinders the plot and character development. After reading these books, actual history of the period is disappointing - you've already read all the facts, and the story isn't written as well.

In my re-read, I've become a confirmed Stephenson junkie (I do have all his other books, but this review was already too long). His strengths - great characters, very funny dialogue, and interesting ideas; weaknesses - over use of research (sometimes) and very weak endings when he seems to get sick of the book. But the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and I've enjoyed the re-read.

Tangent: An interesting discussion on book snobbery on Larvatus Prodeo has Neal Stephenson talking about how literary authors don't take him seriously because he's made too much money.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Market forces and childcare

The AFR this morning had an interesting article about the budget plans to improve childcare.Apparently, the way in which this government will improve childcare is to "improve market intelligence".
"Family and Community Services Minister Mal Brough is adamant that leaving the
provision of childcare to the market will solve problems of undersupply, despite
the industry warning that market forces have failed so far....Mr Brough said
he was confident more family day-care providers would open when the government
was able to give them up-to-date information about levels of supply and demand."

This "solution" seems to suggest that family-day-care providers (who remember, are only allowed to care for a maximum of five children at a time, in their own house, and often that includes one or two of their own), are such accomplished business people that they will go to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, check out where there is a gap in the market, move house to that location, and then start up their new business.

Really? Could it be that the reason that there are few family day care providers in the areas that need them - areas which have a lot of two-income families - is because only two income families can afford to live there? And family day care does not provide a wonderful income, particularly if, as is often the case, two of the children are your own.

The government is pinning its hopes on new family day-care services opening
in areas of undersupply when rules preventing the duplication of care are

A separate article in the AFR today has the headline: "It's the same old message to mothers: stay at home". This article shows that, as usual, dual income families have received less from the budget than single income families with the same income. The AFR says that "Treasury analysis of how the family tax benefits and tax cuts will be distributed has confirmed working mothers are still better off staying home."

I think that's the real story.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Perception of risk

I've recently gone from being a PAYG taxpayer (pay tax quarterly, generally get an interest free loan from the tax office for six months for your tax, but in charge of making sure you pay the right amount of tax) to being a PAYE taxpayer (tax is deducted from my pay before I ever see it.

I've been very relieved to go in that direction.

Even though I have lost an interest free loan from the tax department, I have significantly gained in certainty about the amount I owe, and to me, that's worth more. I wouldn't have expected to feel this way when I first got the chance, five years ago, to go PAYG - the chance of an interest free loan is surely worth a lot? But to me, certainty is worth more.

I've always been a bit superior (only privately, of course), when I watch people investing in cash when they should be investing in a long term equity style investment. But watching myself behave fairly irrationally over my tax uncertainty has given me a whole new appreciation of perceptions of risk.

Monday, May 08, 2006

What makes a good playground?

I went to a fantastic playground on the weekend that I'd not been to before, which made me wonder - what do you need in an ideal playground? For me, you need:
  • a pretty big space for running around with a ball
  • either a fence, or a big area which you can easily see before you get to the nearest road or other hazard
  • interesting play equipment - things like a sandpit, a huge climbing frame, a game of snakes and ladders on the pavement, a big slide
  • Equipment for toddlers and bigger kids, preferably somewhat separated
  • The bigger kids equipment is too difficult for toddlers to play on (usually a climb to the first level does the trick)
  • A good regular supply of kids (not too many, or too obnoxious) so there is someone to play with
  • a nice spot for the adults to sit that you can see everything from
  • shade
  • picturesque location
  • takeaway coffee close by

In making this list, I realise that I'm incredibly lucky. Apart from the takeaway coffee criterion, I can think off hand of five or six playgrounds that fit most of this within a few kilometres of my place. I can even walk to one or two. Here's a couple of examples:


Berry Island

When I read Miriam Peskowitz's book The Truth about the Mommy Wars, one of the anecdotes that surprised me was her story of a group of parents in Atlanta pitching together and raising money so their local playground could become functional again. Here, our local council does it from the rates, most of the time. My local council is proud of its playgrounds (although it does tend to focus too much on the toddler end), but I've been to playgrounds in a few places in Sydney now, and they're generally pretty good. They're one of the small, unsung things that glue together a neighbourhood.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Older mothers

The world press has faithfully reported another milestone in older mothers - Britain's oldest mother at the age of 63. She's 7 months pregnant with a donor egg. The articles are all full of disapproval of how someone can become a mother at that age - a small section on the added complications of pregnancy, and a much larger section on how she will be too tired to play with her children properly, won't live long enough to care for them etc, etc.

In general, from my own experience (my grandfather was 54 when my uncle was born, and was starting to be too old to do the vigorous playing he had dreamed of doing with his son - according to my mother) I'm somewhat wary of parents being too old. It's an individual thing, and given that I was 34 and 36 when my two boys were born, I can't throw too many stones.

But I find it incredibly annoying that none of this is ever said when an older man becomes a father. A few examples:

Rupert Murdoch (aged 72 when his most recent child was born)
Neville Wran (couldn't find details, but was at least 50, I think quite a lot more when his two children with Jill Hickson were born)
Paul McCartney (aged 60 when his most recent child was born)

Or don't fathers really matter in a child's life?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Medical care

I'd really like to write a thoughtful post about healthcare. I'm too tired, tonight, though. So I'll just point you to a few US links.

Stayin' Alive has an excellent series on what health insurance is, and why it's a misnomer to call it insurance.
Half Changed World has a post on why she thinks the latest small reforms to health funding in Massachusetts won't work.
Annika is a child who so far has come through some terrible illnesses with health insurance, but her luck is starting to run out as the reinsurer of the fairly small health insurer who insurers her family starts to run out of patience.
And this story from Badger is the scariest of all.

I think I'm reading too many US blogs on this topic, because I'm starting to think that our healthcare system is pretty good.

But I don't our health funding system is sustainable long term - I read something this week talking about various ways in which it's falling apart, but I haven't been able to find it again. I'll bookmark this to write some more.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Lost potential

I was watching re-runs of The West Wing last night, and much of the plot revolved around Toby Ziegler, and the fact that he was born in 1954.

My uncle Richard was born in 1954. He was only half a generation older than me - my mother's much younger brother. He died in a car accident when he was a bit younger than I am now, and every now and again I am reminded of the loss of potential. If Richard was alive now, I imagine he would be very successful in whatever field he was in - perhaps not quite the White House Director of Communications, but that's hard to top from New Zealand. He topped New Zealand in his final year of school, and was just as successful at university.

I last saw him just as I was starting my career. Because we lived in different countries, I have quite distinct memories of conversations with him, very different to each other, as they were separated by 2 years each time, which for me particularly, meant big changes in how I was thinking, and what I was doing at the time.

Alone of anyone in my extended family (my brothers and cousin came later), he was in the corporate world, and successfully. I was just starting out, and I still remember him casually asking me questions about my job, and the company I worked for, and how my career path might move. That conversation opened my eyes to the much bigger picture of corporate life that existed outside the narrow confines of an actuarial department.

I imagine that if he was alive today we would have a lot to talk about, and I would have a huge amount to learn from him.

This post is about Richard at work; there was far more to him than that; but imagining him the same age as Toby Ziegler made me wonder, as I often do when I see someone successful that age, what Richard would have done had he lived.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Book Review - The Men who stare at Goats

This week's book review is The Men who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson. It's hard to tell what to think about this book. Ronson is a UK journalist (for the Guardian), who investigates the US military's dabblings in alternative culture and the paranormal over the years; or at least as much as he can find out.

Highlights include the story of a hippy who created the "First Earth Battalions" within the US military (an attempt to seriously win the hearts and minds of the enemy by understanding them which seems to have mostly gone by the wayside); the story of Abu Ghraib inmates being played "Barney the Dinosaur" music over and over as part of a carefully selected set of music designed to unsettle them, and many other cases of attempted psychological warfare by the US Army. The very unsettling part of all of this is that much of the psychological warfare seems complete lunacy, but it segues seamlessly into the hiring of prostitutes to torment religious moslems in various US detention camps (Guantanamo Bay being a prime example).

I read the book torn between complete disbelief that any of it could be true (the goats of the title were stared at by a number of different military types in the attempt to kill them by mindpower alone; one claimed success), and shock at some of the meaner aspects of psychological warfare that were actually attempted.

In an organisation as large as the US Army, you can almost understand that it's worth spending a small amount of money on psychic stuff; what, after all, if it was true? Then they would have a monopoly on it. But mostly what comes through to me is outrage that such fruitcakes can be anywhere near having a power of life and death over anyone on this planet.

Ronson's evidence is quite thin, and is mainly hearsay, but in allowing his interview subjects to speak for themselves, he has an effective style that is more powerful than if he added his own commentary.

It's a thin book, and a quick read, but entertaining and horrifying at the same time.