Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New french fries took ten years to develop...

You have got to love this story on The Daily Beast which describes how Burger King took a decade (a decade!) to develop new, healthier fries called "satisfries". Thicker, crinkle cut, they have 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories. Mr Gross goes on to wax lyrical about how Burger King has used "engineering to deliver the French fry experience without all the baggage" and ends "maybe America isn't out of ideas just yet". Wow, what an innovation! Thank you America!

The author, Daniel Gross, continues that "any new product introduction carries the threat of cannibilization". That  is quite interesting in the circumstances.... which are that the British have been eating this product for so long that you can buy them in the frozen food section and make them at home. (We call our french fries "chips"*, though.)

Read it and weep McCain.

* And what you call "chips" we call "crisps". 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

iPad apps for kids

A few people have asked me about the educational iPad apps I recommend for children. I've downloaded a lot of apps in my time, I'm on my second iPad-enabled child and I have also seen quite a few children play with these apps. I'm not an expert, though, so these are just some informal recommendations from one parent to another. I've tried to whittle down my list to the stand-out apps below.

I've found that as soon as you put any proper game onto the iPad (like Angry Birds), a child's interest in educational apps essentially evaporates. So my advice is that if you are going to treat the iPad as an educational tool and spend lots of money on these apps, that you don't add any arcade-style games at all, or videos or cartoons. Even if you have only one clip of Sesame Street on your phone, watching this a dozen times is likely going to be more attractive than figuring out how to count apples into a basket for a cartoon hippo.

There are some apps that try to balance educational content with gamification. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does. A toddler app added an arcade-style game to MoreTrucks and it is for this reason that I would not recommend it. But as children get older, the apps do tend to use gamification more and I think this is going to be natural if you expect a child to pick up an app on their own and play with it. What this also means is that if you want to really use the iPad as an educational tool with older children, then you may need to unwrap the content for them a bit and work with them on it, and reward them for completing it.  I'm thinking about Tiny fractions here as an example but there are others. Tiny fractions is a nicely-designed way of teaching a child about fractions but it is unlikely that my son would pick it up and tinker with it unless I'd worked through some of it first with him.

Over the past few years I have also noticed that the educational software available online has definitely improved and there is a lot of free content that we will probably explore such as the Khan Academy. Thus far I've concluded that iPad apps are a great way of supplementing learning in particular areas.

Toddlers/Pre-schoolers (up to roughly age 4)

Endless alphabet - I cannot praise this app enough. When Alexander was learning his letters we didn't have anything like this. None of the early learning apps did phonics, and the first phonics apps were really hard to use. This app encourages children to match letters in a word and as you drag the letter with your finger it wriggles around like an animal and makes its sound. Leo will happily sing along with the letters, and has picked up very quickly on the idea that letters have sounds. Great app.

Pre-school adventure - I've had pre-school adventure on devices for about six years, and it has added new features during this time. It started out as only four mini-games within an app, and was great as it was. You match parts of a body, hear animal sounds, play with shapes. They were all beautifully crafted and good to look at and play with. I'm not as fond of all the new additions, but the app is still fun and educational and popular with youngsters.

Pre-school lunchbox - This is so much silly learning fun. A monkey needs fruit in his lunchbox, you have to count it in, put together pieces of broken fruit, give him all the fruit of a particular colour. You are rewarded with a grin and a headflip and stickers. Irresistible.

Park math - This app comes from Duck Duck Moose which makes a number of very good little educational apps. I rate Park math very highly, a series of mini-games which can be set at various levels of difficulty that encourage counting and subtraction and sorting.

Shape builder - Although this app does not do very much, it does absolutely enough: encourages your child to match shapes to build an image. This is the sort of app that will immediately appeal to a child, is a learning experience and from experience will occupy children of a variety of ages for at least ten minutes. Great way of distracting hungry offspring if you are waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

Cute math - This app is ancient (it was one of the very first educational apps to appear), has heavily Asian accented English, but still somehow manages to appeal because of the cute animations. The counting penguins is particularly useful for learning 1-10, and the basket -filling minigame is good as well. If I had to choose between Park math and Cute math I'd definitely go for the former. But for a bit of variety this is fun.

First words - I get a bit confused over the different First words apps that are out there. When I first bought this there was only one app, then they added another with a set of different words, and another. Then they offered a combined app with all the first three apps. And now there seem to be more new apps. I would recommend you buy one of these apps as a way of encouraging your child to understand word spellings--you'll need to tinker with the settings to make sure that the app is working in an age-appropriate way. This app would useful be in addition to Endless alphabet because First words is more focused on the construction of the word. I would try not to get suckered into buying all their different app options.  Once your child has picked up the basics of reading they are not going to need to be learning each word individually.

Wheels on the Bus - Great. Duck Duck Moose. Now an i-classic. Make sure to try Record mode. Or listen in French or German. Brilliant.

Musical me - Lovely. 100% buy. Another winner from Duck Duck Moose.

Young App Honorable Mentions: Teachme toddler - Worth looking at as an all round app looking to test numbers, shapes, colours etc.;  DeepDeep Sea - ancient app, a bit odd and with heavily accented English. But just weird fun for advanced shape matching. Three and above. Needs a bit of parental guidance at first.

Learning to read

I've described learning to read apps in their own section because the age at which children start to learn to read really does vary from country to country, home to home and from child to child. Although there is no substitute to reading with your child, I would say that these apps were very helpful in encouraging early reading. Besides those below First Words was also useful as the settings can be changed to make it appropriately difficult.

Bobs Books - I didn't realise that these apps were based on American series of reading books when I first bought them. I found the apps beautifully designed and fun to play with, and my son seemed to enjoy them. It has been a while since I've played with them so I cannot recall much more than this. We bought two and they were used.

Lola's Alphabet Train - lot to like about this app. Designed to appeal to 3-7 year olds, and although my 6-year-old now does not use it any more, this will definitely appeal to the "starting to read" crowd--of whatever age. If your child is starting to read English as a second language this would be good too and it also offers foreign language options. I like it because it has a variety of little games you can play, and you collect coins which you can then spend in the game.

Montessori Crossword - again another lovely little app to encourage reading and spelling. Nice rewards for success. Beautiful to look at.

iWrite Words - This is moderately useful as a way of teaching children the shapes that make letters. The problem is that they cannot lean on the screen with their hand and write, so the letter and number work has to be done with a finger.

Older Children (up to 7ish)

Chicktionary - Sound effects start out funny but rapidly become irritating. The reason this app makes it onto my list is that my son likes it and it encourages him to build words. You get a collection of letters and must build as many words as you can. The way the app is designed encourages experimentation with letters, thus it gets a thumbs up from me.

Spell Tower - This can be quite hard and is not for children just starting to read. But the great thing about this app is that adults and children can play it together, particularly on an iPad. You get a tower of letters and the aim is to reduce the size of the tower as much as possible by spelling words. It is actually a lot cooler than it sounds. My oldest didn't really enjoy this until his reading skills had reached a certain level. I think I picked this app up free at Starbucks but I'd definitely pay money for this. I'll sometimes open it myself if I have a few minutes to kill on the train.

Sushi monster - There are things to like and dislike about this game. What I like about it is that my son was really keen to collect all the sushi monsters by working on his adding and subtraction. What I dislike about it was that as multiplication and division is learned a lot later your child will get stuck halfway through the game and not be able to finish it until they have moved quite a lot further into mathematics.

Stack the states - I bought stack the states for myself originally. When we arrived in the US I felt the need to know all my 50 states, the capitals, flags, and monuments. I thought this would be the ideal way to learn. But then my son became glued to it. Before I'd had the chance to get going he had collected all 50 states, could name and locate them all, and nibble an oatmeal bar into the shape of Wisconsin. We then bought him Stack the Countries and although this was a bit more challenging he now seems to know far more about world geography than I do. The premise of both games is simple: answer the questions, win a state or country, make a stack of countries or states to reach a finish line. Its actually quite addictive.

Maths Zombies - a bit game-like, but you have to solve the maths problems to kill the zombies so it has great boy appeal.

Move the Turtle - early introduction to programming. Definitely for a school-aged child, probably from about six or seven depending on child. Learn to write instructions to make a turtle move about on the screen. More fun than it sounds.

Honorable Mentions: Wings, this little maths app introduces children to different ways of looking at numbers, as does Zoom. Also Tiny fractions.


I really like Felt Board, although we do not use it that often. Its a great way of using the iPad to play with the children. Its a digital felt board, with lots of pre-cut shapes that can be coloured and sized. Its fun to create characters and tell stories about them. Another neat way of filling an odd ten minutes. If you want an proper game that can be played with two to four players I'd recommend Marble Mixer. Definitely a good way of having group games on the go.


Rosetta Stone has just launched Kids Lingo Letter Sounds, to practice early reading skills and speak Spanish. Free at the moment. Worth a look. Rosetta Stone has also started a new Kids Division, so I would imagine there will be more of this sort of thing on tablets from a trusted linguistic brand.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Economist explains itself...

I'm most frequently asked about The Economist: Why are your writers anonymous? Why does the Economist call itself a newspaper and not a magazine? Is the Economist right or left wing? As we are celebrating our 170th birthday, a number of our writers have decided to answer some of these questions in our popular explainer blog. Other explainers include: how do we decide what to cover? And: why do we choose unusual names for our columnists?

It may be that we have good reasons for calling ourselves a newspaper but almost always, when I ring up people for the first time, I will say I am from the Economist magazine. It makes no sense to announce yourself as writing for the 'Economist newspaper' and initiate a bizarre conversation along the lines of:

"Oh, I read the magazine but I didn't know there was a newspaper as well".

"Well actually it is the same publication but we call it a newspaper..."

"Oh, why is that....?"

Cue long explanation which generally I find makes me sound like a prig for pointing out to loyal readers that they have been assuming they've had a magazine subscription for the last 20 years. No thanks. So I'm probably breaching some internal protocol, except I know a former deputy editor who had exactly the same problem and had solved it the same way, but I always say I'm from the Economist magazine. Even though its a newspaper.

Great. Glad we've cleared that up then.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Tourist Union no 63

During my recent trip to Iowa it was my great pleasure to attend the Hobo Festival in Britt, Iowa, where I was able to meet some of the delightful and colourful characters that come every year to celebrate the hobo culture. I wrote about this in the Economist a few weeks ago, where I explain how I came to acquire my hobo name Mad Scrip.

Tourist Union no 63, the title of this post, was the name of the original hobo union. Great name. I think I need to get a t-shirt made or something.

Hobo culture

Riding the rails 

 A report from the National Hobo Convention 

Aug 17th 2013 | BRITT, IOWA |From the print edition

THEY found the Hardrock Kid under a tree in Ogden, Iowa back in 1977. He was on his way to the National Hobo Convention in Britt when he stopped for lunch and quietly passed away. In hobo vernacular: he caught the Westbound. His body is buried in the hobo cemetery in Britt; his humble possessions are displayed in its museum, which celebrates wanderers. On a glass shelf are toothpaste, a toothpick, some cutlery, a razor, a reel of cotton, a needle, cigarettes and a pair of pliers.

 Hobos have long been misunderstood. People call them bums, often prefaced with the word “lazy”. Yet life on the road is arduous. Hobos travel to find work for food and lodging, an old tradition. In the late 1800s, 63 of them started a union with a small subscription fee and a set of laws. These, among other things, told members not to abuse handouts, to respect nature, and wherever possible to find work and stay clean. Linda Hughes, who works at the National Hobo Museum in Britt, says that hobos were the first migrant workers and that they helped to build America.

 During the Depression there were probably hundreds of thousands of them, including many teenagers. Few were paid-up union members. But some of the better-known were poets, artists and dreamers. “Tramp art” has become collectable: hobos engraved cameos on nickels, made models with matchsticks and carved intricate designs on cigar boxes. 

Minnesota Jim, who attended the 113th convention this year, has a weather-beaten face like a map of the world. He says he rode the rails in the 1940s out of a sense of “curiosity and adventure” before settling down. He washed dishes, picked cotton and potatoes, and worked in a lumber mill.

 Another hobo, a young woman with blond dreadlocks and bare feet, says she is on her way to Oregon to work on the marijuana harvest. She says she loves small towns; she ran away from a pimp in St Louis, a city she describes as both “dangerous and boring”. In some ways, things are tougher on hobos these days, says Minnesota Jim. It used to be easy to hitch a lift (traffic was slower) or hop on a goods train. “We didn’t have any trouble with the police,” he sighs.  [More...]


OK, so this is news. Whole Foods moves into Chicago's Englewood. A big win for the Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, when he is under pressure from local journalist Fran Spielman for promising more than he has delivered.

Food stores

Whole hoods 

 Sep 4th 2013, 0:27 by N.L. | CHICAGO

CHICAGO's Englewood neigbourhood is perhaps best known for its poverty and violence. It has one of the highest murder rates in America, twice that of New York. In this part of town, 40% are unemployed, the average income is $11,993 (Chicago's is $27,149) and 30% do not even have a high school diploma. It is also overwhelmingly black.

One local says that it is easier to buy a gun or drugs here than food. Many shop at the bargain basement Save A Lot, a shop that prides itself on recipes that allow a family of four to be fed for under $5. But come 2016, residents will also be able to shop at a Whole Foods market, the company announced on September 4th. This is an up-market, posh, food retailer that sells a small box of crackers for $9 and which even the well-off describe as "whole paycheck" market. [More...]

Every goddamn day

My prolific colleague over at the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg, has a new blog "Every goddamn day". He has a pretty funny posting for his new Chinese readers here. He promises to ease the strain of life by posting something entertaining and meaningful every single day. A threat or a promise? You decide, read Neil here