Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Death of Live-Action Kids Shows

Our 3-year-old adores "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a PBS show that reinvents the world that Fred Rogers first created in the 1960s.

The new program revolves around Daniel Tiger, the son of Daniel Striped Tiger from the original "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." It also features other second-generation characters (Prince Wednesday is the son of King Friday; Katerina Kittycat is the daughter of Henrietta Pussycat; and O the Owl is the nephew of X the Owl). Even the theme song is a takeoff on the "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" tune.

But unlike "Mister Rogers," the show doesn't have puppets or live-action sequences. It's animated.

And in that respect, it symbolizes a dramatic transformation for PBS over the past 20 years. Almost every kids program currently broadcast by public-television affiliates is a cartoon. Compare that with 1993, when there were no animated shows airing regularly on PBS. Not one.

In the old days, children were content to see puppet-based programs ("Barney and Friends," "Lamb Chop's Play-Along") and live-action shows like "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

Here's an example of the kind of program that existed at the time: "Ghostwriter."

I pieced together the PBS kids lineups in 1993, 2003 and 2013, based on information from, Wikipedia and other sources. In some cases, programs had a mix of animation and live action, so I had to make some judgment calls. (I don't think "Reading Rainbow" qualifies as a cartoon, for instance.)

The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon (live action)
Bill Nye the Science Guy (live action)
Barney and Friends (live action)
The Big Comfy Couch (live action)
Ghostwriter (live action)
Lamb Chop's Play-Along (live action)
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (live action)
Reading Rainbow (live action)
Rosie and Jim (live action)
Sesame Street (live action)
Shining Time Station (live action)
Square One Television (live action)
Theodore Tugboat (live action)
Tots TV (live action)
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (live action)

Angelina Ballerina (animated)
Anne of Green Gables: The Animated Series (animated)
Arthur (animated)
Barney and Friends (live action)
The Berenstain Bears (animated)
Between the Lions (live action)
Caillou (animated)
Clifford's Puppy Days (animated)
Clifford the Big Red Dog (animated)
DragonflyTV (live action)
In the Mix (live action)
Jakers! The Adventures of Pigley Winks (animated)
Jay Jay the Jet Plane (animated)
Make Way for Noddy (animated)
Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse (animated)
George Shrinks (animated)
Reading Rainbow (live action)
Redwall (animated)
Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat (animated)
Sesame Street (live action)
Seven Little Monsters (animated)
Teletubbies (live action)
Timothy Goes to School (animated)
Zoom (live action)

Arthur (animated)
Bob the Builder (animated)
The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (animated)
Curious George (animated)
Cyberchase (animated)
Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (animated)
Dinosaur Train (animated)
Franny's Feet (animated)
Martha Speaks (animated)
Peg + Cat (animated)
Sesame Street (live action)
Sid the Science Kid (animated)
Super Why! (animated)
Thomas and Friends (animated)
Wild Kratts (animated)
WordGirl (animated)

By 2003, the landscape had already changed dramatically — with animated shows like "Arthur," "Caillou" and "Clifford's Puppy Days" becoming the new normal. But there was still an appetite for live-action programs. Look at the revival of "Zoom," a show that even in its modern incarnation had terrible production values.

Nowadays, the confluence of inexpensive flash-based animation (which often looks quite good) — combined in some cases with the use of off-shore animation houses — has made live-action shows a relic.

Of course, kids don't care about the economics of this shift. They would simply prefer to see a cartoon, which is limited only by the imagination of the writers, than an actual human standing in front of a cheesy-looking set.

The only live-action show still in the PBS lineup is "Sesame Street," and even it has increased its use of animated segments such as "Abby's Flying Fairy School."

What does this all mean? It's hard to say, but today's shows are polished in a way that goes beyond production values. They're more slick and packaged than the stuff I watched growing up ("Captain Kangaroo," "The Electric Company"). And maybe that means kids don't have to use their own imaginations as much.

Then again, it's hard to argue that any child should ever see this again.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Kid vs. Second Kid

Speaking of pacifiers, you may recall a report last year about moms who clean their babies' binkies by sucking on them. At the time, I was surprised to learn this was a thing.

But now it's so entrenched in popular culture there's a diaper commercial about it.

The ad is part of a series of Luvs commercials showing how parents' standards decline when they have their second child. Here's another good one...

I'm glad they don't show what happens with the third kid. That would get scary.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mustaches Are Stylish at Any Age (or Gender)

After complaining about people assuming my daughter is a boy, I'm not sure why I thought this pacifier was a good idea.

The "Mustachifier"

Lucy seems to pull it off, though.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Mac Turns 30

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
I consider myself an early adopter of the Macintosh, even though I didn't get one of the original 128Ks. My parents bought me a Mac 512E in 1986 (the E stood for "enhanced"), a couple years after the famous Super Bowl ad that ushered in the Macintosh era.

So after all this time, it's hard for me not to get nostalgic about the 30-year anniversary of the Mac.

I still remember the near-constant whir of the disk drive ejecting diskettes (it had no hard drive, so you had to insert and remove disks every couple minutes). And while the lack of a color screen was disappointing (even then), it was offset by the quality of the resolution. The Commodore Amiga couldn't compete in that department.

I remember the audiotape that came with the Mac. It explained how to use the computer and started off with an ultra-smarmy, " Macintosh." Even in the mid-1980s, we thought, "Wow, this tape is pretty cheesy."

I used the Mac for schoolwork, sure, but also for games of "Lode Runner," "Deja Vu" and, of course, "Dark Castle."

With "Dark Castle," a friend would work the mouse while I handled the keyboard. It was a pretty spectacular game, especially given the state of technology at the time.

When I was in eighth grade, the motherboard is my Mac overheated and smoke streamed out of the top of the computer. The incident became famous at school.

After that, friends grew fond of shutting me down by saying, "Nick, your computer's smoking." I had a pretty hard time offering a comeback to that.

It's sometimes tough being an early adopter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Exploring the Hudson River (in Miniature)

I rarely venture beyond a small swath of Manhattan that includes Roosevelt Island and about 10 blocks of the East Side. So I was excited to visit friends this week all the way over on the Upper West Side.

Fun fact: They have their own version of the East River over there. They call it the "Hudson."

The kids had a great time playing at Riverside Park, a sprawling waterfront area that stretches between 72nd and 158th streets (that's four miles). The Upper East Side has nothing on this, folks. The only downside is you have to look at New Jersey.

At the River Run Playground, there's a miniature version of the Hudson. I took a video of us racing up the river, all the way from the sea to the Adirondacks.

It's a fun way to feel like a giant.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ultrasound Baby Figurines: Why Not?

Back in 2010, I wrote about an artist who would make an oil painting of your fetus' ultrasound photo for a mere $85. Well, here's something that tops that: a custom figurine of your unborn baby, created with a 3D printer.

Photos courtesy of 3D Babies.

A company called 3D Babies will sell you this unforgettable memento for $200 to $600, depending on the desired size. (The most expensive version is life-sized. But remember that it's a fetus, so we're only talking about something 8 inches tall.)

You even select the skin-tone: light, medium or dark.

If only this had existed when my kids were in utero, I would have made my wife a charm bracelet with three terrifying shrunken babies. What a conversation starter!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

No Babies Were Harmed in the Making of This Film

It was so windy last weekend, I took an Instagram video of the stroller blowing away.

Kelly was grateful for the ending of the clip, which shows that our baby wasn't actually inside the carriage. (Anyone who has picked up Lucy knows that she is a pretty effective anchor.)

But the stroller-in-peril scene is a classic cinematic technique, featured in "Battleship Potemkin"...

..."The Untouchables"...

And of course, "Speed."

I like to think that if my baby were actually in danger, I would put down the camera.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Three Years Old and Rising

I've become a big fan of age 3. It marks an end to the terrible twos (the tantrums don't go away, but they do become slightly less irrational), potty training is nearly complete, and enunciation vastly improves (so you no longer have to pretend you understand what your kid is saying).

Anyway, our freshly minted 3-year-old is off to a great start.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pin the Tutu on the Ballerina

Back when were lived in Berkeley, Kelly created a fun variation on the classic Pin the Tail on the Donkey game: Pin the Rocket on the Planet. (At the time, I complained that a rocket probably couldn't land on a Jovian planet.)

For Alice's third birthday, Kelly tried to make something similar that would match our daughter's ballet-obsessed taste.

The result: Pin the Tutu on the Ballerina.

For the boys at the party, the tutus can also double as mustaches. Everyone wins.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Taste the Rainbow (Cake)

Our daughter isn't breaking a lot of new ground in the things-little-girls-like category. She's crazy about princesses, unicorns, ballerinas and rainbows.

For her birthday, she asked for a rainbow cake. And as usual, Kelly delivered.

She baked two marbled rainbow layers...

...then cut the layers into halves and separated them with strawberry jam...

...and used food coloring to painstakingly create a near-ROYGBIV pattern.

Amazing. To quote the hiker guy who saw the double rainbow, "WHOA...WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?"

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Devil Baby Terrorizes New Yorkers

You may not know this about me, but I love babies. So I could totally see myself walking up to an abandoned stroller to make sure the infant inside is okay.

Fortunately, I did not come across this particular stroller.

As part of a promotion for the movie "Devil Due," a marketing company created a terrifying animatronic baby that shrieked at passers-by — in addition to vomiting at them and even flipping the bird.

The best response is from a guy who shouts, "Why would they do this?"

Why, indeed.

The movie, incidentally, is about "a young married couple who discover the baby she's carrying is actually the spawn of Satan." Sounds like another famous movie set in New York. (I'm guessing Roman Polanski didn't create a viral video to promote that one.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'The Lovahs, the Dweamahs and Me...'

In honor of our middle-born turning 3 years old today, here she is singing her favorite song, "Rainbow Connection."

Happy birthday, Alice! You're already wise beyond your years.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Captain Hook: 1953 vs. 2014

Netflix recently added fresh episodes of "Jake and the Never Land Pirates" to its lineup, so the show has been playing in our home quite a lot lately.

A quick description of the program for those without young children: Jake and his friends are a good-natured crew of pirates who live in Never Land (the setting created by J.M. Barrie and later made globally famous by Walt Disney). The show appears to be an attempt by Disney to mimic "Dora the Explorer" while simultaneously capitalizing on the Peter Pan franchise.

Captain Hook is the antagonist, but he's cast in the mold of Swiper the Fox from "Dora," a hapless mischief-maker who would never actually harm anyone. That's quite a switch from his original Disney incarnation.

We think of Disney as being sanitized entertainment. But in the 1953 film, Captain Hook kills a man — in cold blood — within his first few minutes of screen time. One of his crew members is singing a song that's not to his liking, so Captain Hook shoots him to death. Think about that for a moment.

This is how Disney's story department viewed the character when creating the 1950s movie: "He is a fop...Yet very mean, to the point of being murderous. This combination of traits should cause plenty of amusement whenever he talks or acts."

Back then, a comic-relief character in a children's cartoon could murder people. It's amazing how far we've come.

I don't fault Disney's current staff for emasculating the Hook character, though the fact that pirates are no longer portrayed as bloodthirsty has to be good PR for Somali raiders.

The transformation of the Peter Pan character is no less dramatic. In the original versions of Barrie's stageplay, there was no Captain Hook — Peter Pan was the antagonist. (Barrie added Captain Hook later.) And even in the Disney film, Pan is mostly a menace.

Just look at the way he's drawn.

And yet, when Peter Pan makes (relatively rare) cameos on "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," he's depicted as a warm-hearted hero.

Interestingly, ABC's adult-oriented show "Once Upon a Time" portrays Peter Pan as a total monster.

So clearly people are willing to take risks with these characters — just not in front of children.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What Toddlers Look Like Trying to Breakdance

You may have heard, but we've had a run of bad weather lately. So we're trying desperately to stave off cabin fever.

Fortunately, after watching Kelly's video of the subway breakdancers, the kids were inspired to do their own performance.

They're maybe not quite ready for Herald Square, but they're getting there.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Meh...I've Seen Better in Queens

This may be the only example where something in Manhattan is less impressive than Queens.

There's a metallic globe on Columbus Circle (above) that is pretty cool.

...but nowhere near as cool as the Unisphere.

Nice try, Manhattan.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A Fascinating Look at Roosevelt Island in 1980

I came across this short documentary depicting life on Roosevelt Island some 34 years ago. The filmmaker, Richard Cortell, produced the film as a thesis project and it has a delightful early-1980s vibe (think of the flute music from "My Bodyguard").

As a nearly two-year resident of the island, I found it intriguing — in part because of the things that haven't changed.

The high-rises around the chapel on Main Street were already in place, giving the street its current canyon-like appearance. And there was even an ice-cream parlor in that vicinity, just like now. (The current shop only opened about a year ago, and I hadn't been aware that one existed before.)

In 1980, Roosevelt Island was seen as a family-friendly oasis, albeit a place with some of the general challenges of living in New York City. That's also just as true today.

A view from Roosevelt Island today.

It does seem like the handicapped community has decreased since then. And the arrival of the Riverwalk and Octagon apartments has made the island more upscale. (Our own building, Manhattan Park, opened in 1989.)

Manhattan Park, present day.

But Main Street seemed surprisingly bustling in 1980. The island's total population has grown considerably since then — even just in the past 10 years. So you wonder why it doesn't look more active now.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

It's Good to Be King

I didn't come from a very religious family, but we did always celebrate Epiphany with a king cake. It's hard not to love this tradition. It gives kids something to look forward to during the post-Christmas doldrums. It involves a game of chance. And hey, there's cake.

So this year I introduced my children to the idea.

For those who aren't familiar with king cakes, they have a tiny baby Jesus hidden somewhere inside them. Everyone takes a slice of cake, and then whoever finds the plastic Jesus in their piece gets to be king for the day.

When I was a kid, I seem to recall the baby Jesus getting swallowed by an overzealous child a few times. (You would think it would be sacrilegious to search for a plastic Savior inside a kid's stool, but I didn't invent this tradition.)

For my own family's inaugural Epiphany, we didn't have a Jesus, so we had to improvise.

Part of the fun is creating the king's crown. You make two of them because the king gets to select a queen (or vice versa, depending on whether a boy or girl gets the ordained slice).

Elliot was very interested in what kind of powers he would get if he became king. I told him that everyone in the family would have to do what he said — within reason. His eyes swirled with anticipation.

Fortunately for all of us, I ended up getting the baby Jesus in my piece. (I made Kelly my queen.) I'm pretty sure Elliot would have gone mad with power if he had become king. Still, it seemed a little too convenient that I set up this whole thing and then personally benefited from it. I felt like an African dictator.

I placated Elliot by making him a knight. Then I ordered my subjects to take a bath and go to bed.

They didn't listen to me, of course, but I'm happy to run a figurehead monarchy.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Nissan's Bizarre Version of San Francisco

It's common for Hollywood and Madison Avenue to take liberties with San Francisco geography, but this Nissan commercial for the 2014 Rogue breaks new ground.

A Potrero-ish view of the city from South San Francisco.

The ad revolves around a carpool of commuters — driving a Rogue, naturally — who are trying to get to work on time. It starts off with a scene of cable cars crossing an intersection, clearly establishing that the setting is San Francisco. And yet, what follows is a completely fantastical depiction of the city.

From Russian Hill (or is that Pacific Heights?), the commuters apparate to SoMa — near what looks like the Gap headquarters on Folsom.

There's an elevated Amtrak-style train running through town (or is this how Caltrain will connect to the Transbay Terminal?). After jumping onto the roof the train and doing some more maneuvering, the commuters wind up in what appears to be the Potrero, where they get an oddly edited view of the skyline. There's no Transamerica Pyramid, which I guess isn't surprising — it's a trademarked image, so ads generally avoid showing it.

In the final shot, the commuters magically appear in the parking lot of the Centennial Towers in South San Francisco, which would never have a view of the skyline.

In fairness, the ad does say, "Fantasy, do not attempt."

Coincidentally, the Nissan Rogue made news in San Francisco back in 2010, when a driver of the vehicle went on a rampage and mowed down several cyclists in Potrero Hill and the Mission.

Fortunately, no one was killed. But the incident made you wonder if Rogue wasn't an ideal choice for a name.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Another Benefit of Riding Transit: Subway Breakdancers

Kelly witnessed some pretty amazing breakdancing at the Herald Square station and captured it on her phone. (I uploaded it to YouTube.)

I don't think this is an uncommon occurrence in New York. But that says something about how special this city is. I've never seen this level of breakdance quality at a Muni or BART station.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Sledding Through a Construction Site

One of the best spots for sledding in Roosevelt Roosevelt Island (Southtown Hill) is now basically a construction site.

They're building a new tower for the island's Riverwalk complex.

I guess I could rail against the overdevelopment/gentrification of New York and how it's depriving us of good sledding. But I'm always in favor of building more housing (even if we probably won't be able to afford to live there).

Plus, there was still enough room to have fun — though Alice did end up barreling into a wooden fence and smacking her forehead.

Fortunately, there's nothing hot chocolate can't fix.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Cities Visited: 2013 Edition

Since 2006, I've compiled an annual list of all the cities I've visited in the past year. The rules require you to stay overnight in a city for it to count. (Fellow blogger Anh-Minh had the idea first and typically has a more impressive list.)

Back in my pre-baby days, I would have as many as 13 cities on my annual list. But these days, seven is a pretty good showing (it at least beats my record low of six from 2011).

My 2013 tally:
Marietta, Ga.
Newnan, Ga.
San Francisco
Scituate, Mass.
Northeast Harbor, Maine
Boxboro, Mass.

We also flew as a family of five for the first time in 2013, so I'd say that's a pretty big accomplishment. In 2014, we'll see if the kids can handle a cross-country flight.