Saturday, 29 January 2011

Cheaper greener hydrogen car - I want one!

A British company just invented a way to make hydrogen based fuel for cars at a projected 19p/l. Existing cars wouldn't need to be modified in any way, and the fuel could be pumped into them in just the same way as petrol or diesel is now. Hydrogen, I'm told, can be made out of water, and when burned in the car's engine, it emits water vapour again. So as long as we find some (renewable) energy efficient way of splitting water into hydrogen, we can use this cycle as an endlessly renewable fuel-source for all our engines and other machines that currently burn oil.

I've just got a few questions. I don't much believe in human carbon emissions having an appreciable effect on worldwide climate, but if carbon is causing any greenhouse effect, won't clouds of water vapour be even worse? Water vapour is certainly preferable to smoke in busy traffic. But wouldn't it still turn into a big - admittedly clean but still dark and grey - cloud of fog over heavily populated areas? Would all that damp cause problems to the surrounding buildings and infrastructure? I'm thinking for example of conservation isssues in historic buildings made of easily eroding stones.

Other than those practical problems, I am very happy with this news. I've always felt the current 'solutions' to the problem of people burning fossil fuels to drive cars around are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Electrical cars are available, but impractical. They are small and can't drive long distances. So they're fairly useless for most real families. You can't use one to get two children and your luggage to the beach for a weekend break. Charging them up takes too much time as well. Not to mention that it simply shifts the fuel-consumption problem as you charge it with electricity made in primarily coal-fired plants.
A lot of the same problems occur with hybrid cars. There's not a single hybrid people carrier, and on a long haul, you'd need a lot of fuel anyway.

And there's another problem with trying to change the way people drive by changing the way their cars work. It's slow and has the most succes with the wrong people. Electrical and hybrid cars are incredibly expensive. Most families could not possibly afford to upgrade to one, especially not while the car they own right now is so incredibly expensive to run. Raising fuel prices through taxes only reinforces this cycle (it really isn't going to stop people using their cars, obviously!). As long as I'm driving my 'old' car, I spend so much money on it, I'll never save up enough for a new one. Only a few people can afford to buy electrical or hybrid cars, therefore it will remain a luxury article. It may well be that once you have such a car, it 'pays for itself' in saved fuel, but the majority can't afford the initial outlay.

Usually, going green means paying extra, and often it means sacrificing something (comfort, convenience...). That's why it's hard to really do it succesfully. I want to look after my planet, but I also have practical needs to use my car. To really make a change, you've got to produce something that people can switch to easily, and that can be mass-marketed and mass-distributed. If I can simply drive up to the pump in my old car and choose between Diesel at £1.50/l or Hydrogen at £0.19/l, I know what I'll pick!

This is an innovation that makes ecological, economical and social sense! I'm all for it.

I'll give the electric and hybrid cars a miss. I'm not forking out for a totally new type of car until I can have a flying one!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Allowing Encouraging kids to game

Following on from my previous post, I'd like to explain exactly why I don't let my children play videogames... I encourage it!

Most mums have the idea that playing video games is wrong, and a complete waste of time, and they will even lie to other mums about how much time they let their kids play them. Often, other mums will amiably admit (when prompted by me) that games aren't 'all bad' and that surely children need to have some down-time, and that yes, they might even learn something, for example fine motor skills and problem solving. And of course it is socially relevant as it gives them a shared experience to talk about with their peers. However, I can tell they're secretly disapproving and probably suspect that I'm merely rationalizing my lazy parenting.

Jane McGonigal's TED talk is just one of the many examples of real researchers who support that gaming is in fact a great activity for people to engage in. I have previously read in Grand Theft Childhood, how the idea that gaming promotes violence and anti-social behaviour, is based on bad science and biased research. In fact, the authors' preliminary findings show that gaming is an excellent way for (especially boys) to make friends. The violence does not desensitize children and they do not have trouble distinguishing it from real-life violence and harm. And they do learn perseverance and problem solving.

McGonigal takes works out a similar theme in the kind of detail that I really love. I'm going to paraphrase some of her talk, but please do watch the real thing too! She explains how gamers have four superpowers:
1. urgent optimism: they believe that they can do the tasks they are given, and that they can do them right now. In the game world, they are continually entrusted with tasks that are tailored to their 'level' and that are, invariably, achievable.
2. social fabric: in the gaming world, there are literally thousands of people around at any given time, who are happy to work together with you as a team to achieve the lofty goals you've been set.
3. blissful productivity: gamers don't sit around doing nothing. They are constantly running from quest to quest, gathering skill points and achievements.
4. epic meaning: the tasks gamers complete are epic. Generally, they are saving the world. It's very motivating!

If they spend 2 hours a day gaming, they will have clocked more than 10 000 hours of gameplay between the ages of 6 and 21. Once you've done 10 000 hours of anything, it makes you an expert, a virtuoso. Which means we have a whole generation of superhero gamers. Of course, they only have their superpowers in the virtual world, and that is a problem. The real world doesn't have the kind of reward structure and epic meaning... or does it?

Aside from McGonigal's own company Social Chocolate that launches games with the express purpose of solving the real world's problems, there are plenty of real-world examples of how gaming is a perfect way to view the world.
There's diets based on gaming (point scoring, competition, bragging rights...). In my own parenting experience, we have often used the reward structure inherent in gaming, as well as the epic dimensions to encourage the children to do well in the real world.

When Bambam started school, he struggled with learning to read. It seems like a daunting and insurmountable task and every single day, it seemed he was no closer to achieving the goal. In the real world, one might just give up. But if you view it like a game, it's very different! In World of Warcraft, you can acquire a skill, for example metalworking. When you first learn it, you can make a few simple objects. Each time you do it, you earn a skill point. When you've got enough skill points, you level up. It's a gradual process with a goal that is clearly achievable. We started approaching learning to read in this way. Rather than coming home every day not having learned to 'read', Bambam came home having earned 1 skill point by learning one new lettersound. He knew that once he had enough skill points, he would be able to level up from the pink sticker books to the red sticker books. He became blissfully productive, and optimistic about his ability to complete the epic task of learning to read.

This is just one example, but it convinces me that I'm doing the right thing by encouraging my children to game.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Video on

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Video on

If anyone has any doubt whether they should let their kids play videogames... Jane McGonigal makes the case that we should be making them play more games. Gaming gives gamers four superpowers: urgent optimism, social fabric, blissful productivity, and epic meaning. Exactly the skills we need to save the world. Really.

Star Trek First Look: Star Trek Mr. Potato Heads

Star Trek First Look: Star Trek Mr. Potato Heads
Must have for us trekkies with toddlers!

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

I think I need to start watching Madmen

Having recently watched the entire Firefly series and the film Serenity on DVD, I, like most of its fans felt sorely disappointed in its untimely demise. There was just so much more that could have been explored. We all wonder about Book's back story. Would any of the budding romances get anywhere? Who are those creepy blue-gloved couples. Please someone tell me there's some fan fiction out there I can read!

And I really resent how they killed half the cast in the film. Any hopes of perhaps the series returning to our screens after a decade's hiatus, like Red Dwarf, are dashed. Although, if we treat Serenity as non-canon, maybe it could still be pulled off. I'm sure the actors would love to return to it, based on their commentary on the DVD extra's.

For now, it seems there is one other option open to me though:

Friday, 21 January 2011

Star Wars violence okay for kids

I've been asked whether it's okay to let little kids watch movies such as Star Wars, because they're quite scary and violent.

Bambam played Lego Star Wars on the Xbox before we watched the Star Wars movies with him. We felt it would give him some more background to the levels he was playing. The good part about that is that he felt fairly 'empowered' watching the scary bits, because he had already 'done' those levels in the game. The violence also seems less when you associate it with cartoon Lego violence. We've done the same with Lego Harry Potter and are now watching the Harry Potter movies. They're quite scary too, actually!

He was surprisingly good at understanding the emotional journey of Anikin into Darth Vader. We, as parents, welcomed the depth of this development compared to kids' shows actually aimed at this age bracket where 'baddies' are just bad for no reason. At least Darth Vader/Anikin is a complex person. (As a movie critic, I'd describe all this differently, but I'm talking child-rearing here). I think it actually helps him deal with the real world, in which nobody thinks or believes that they are the 'baddy'. People do things for complex reasons, including bad things, and Star Wars helped make Bambam aware of that. He often tries to discover what might drive other children to do 'naughty' things, and has also become more critical of his own motives at times.

Watching Star Wars with children has a bunch of other advantages as well. There is a lot of merchandise you can buy which can help in getting kids interested in games or activities they might not otherwise do. For example: we have Star Wars Guess Who and Star Wars Battleships game. I'm pretty sure Bambam wouldn't touch such sedate strategy board games if they weren't so excitingly branded.

Star Wars also has some pretty strong female characters. Padme Amidala can fall a bit flat at times. They tried to write her as a strong independent woman, but she seems overly reliant on the men around her, both politically and emotionally. Now Leia, with her great blaster aim, her snappy comebacks at the amourous Han Solo and the threatening Darth Vader: that's a real strong woman. She's in charge! I've seen Pebbles' princess role play turn a lot more active and empowered since watching Star Wars. Instead of dressing up and waiting in the tower to be rescued, her 'princesses' now run around shooting blasters and ordering robots about. And then there's Ahsoka, who's a female Jedi/Padawan.

Another aspect of Star Wars that is fairly interesting from a parenting point of view are the robot characters. Kirk Jr may have inherited Asperger traits from Kirk, my hubby. He tends to identify with objects more than people. For example, watching Harry Potter, he imagined being the Golden Snitch and allowing Harry to catch him so Griffindor could win. By contrast, Bambam wished to be one of the Quidditch team members who carry a cudgel to hit the ball (and perhaps other players) with. In Star Wars, Kirk Jr identifies with R2D2, which still allows for quite broad imaginative play and interaction with other children. All of which is good.

So, yes, I think watching Star Wars, and playing Star Wars games is a good thing to do with kids. Like anything, you should do it with them and then, if there is any issue with scariness or anything else, you'll be there to spot it, guide and explain.