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The Birthday Problem May 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, economy, society, sustainability.
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No, not the classic birthday problem in which counter-intuitively the chances that any two of 30 people share a birthday is 73%. I’m talking about the problem with actual birthdays—the presents! And more specifically the packaging of children’s toys!

First, a little context. Yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday. For those of you who haven’t had the experience, I should tell you that the best thing a man can have—other than a wife like Mrs. Bluejay of course, hi dear—is a five year old son. Young enough to still be sweet and innocent and to want you to hold him. Old enough to catch a mini-football, build LEGO®, and wipe his own ass. If I could stop time—without being frozen inanimate—I would do it right now. Bluejay Jr., you’re the orange of my eye. With a side order of curly fries.

Anyways, yesterday was the small “family” birthday. The larger, more chaotic “school” birthday is in two weeks. I don’t remember why we decided to have it this way. I plead temporary insanity. The small gathering limited the number of presents, but it still took a solid 30 minutes to unwrap, extract most of the toys from their packages, and install a set of batteries. Anyways, let me start—what? you thought I had already started? I had not—by poo-poo’ing the general concepts of birthday presents themselves. Who decided that everyone who knows you must give you a gift to reward you for having been born? Why do you deserve a reward for this? Was being born really so hard? If anything, on your birthday, you should be the one giving gifts to others, for providing you with the structural and social environment that allowed you to grow into the greedy little bastard you are now! I believe that in some societies, this is how birthdays are handled in fact. Although a quick Google search reveals nothing. I am not sure where the tradition of birthday gifts started, but I am sure it has similar origins to Christmas gifts, Valentines Day gifts, and gifts associated with other arbitrary celebrations, namely as a line item in some long forgotten economic stimulus bill. It’s a wonder that ARRA didn’t include several new Federal and personal holidays complete with gift requirements! I have always been embarrassed by birthday gifts. If you want to give me a gift, donate to a charity in my name. Buy a third-world family a goat! A touching, hand-written card is good too!

Back to the birthday instance at hand. Let me begin by saying—I am beginning right now, for the record—that most children’s toys are worth little. The best toys are LEGO®—by the way, we were at the zoo this past week and there was a life-sized polar bear made of LEGO®, as well as tamarins, a frog, a snake, turtles, and a few other things. They were made over five months by a professional LEGO® sculptor. I wonder what the going rate for one of those is and whether there is a computer program that can translate a photograph to LEGO® construction instructions. But I digress—jigsaw puzzles, books, and TransformersTM. If it doesn’t improve spatial pattern recognition or fine motor skills, or if it doesn’t expand the mind or engage the imagination—or if it doesn’t transform—I have little use for it. Jigsaw puzzles and LEGO® also have the benefits of coming in minimal packages, a cardboard box with a plastic bag or two inside, that are rectangular and easy to wrap! Doubly so for books! Bluejay Jr. got a jigsaw puzzle. And a book. And LEGO®. He also got a auto-transforming Optimus Prime, a Power Ranger with motorcycle, a large-sheet coloring book, a HotWheels car and trailer, and the world’s nuttiest remote control trick vehicle.

The Optimus Prime came in an oddly shaped box. Mostly rectangular but tapered at the top and with a strange un-necessary kick-out to one side at the bottom. The box itself was one piece of cardboard that was internally folded and taped like Origami. Honestly, who designs these things? It took me a good five minutes to undo the Origami and flatten the box so that I could then recycle it. Optimus was embedded in molded PET—thin and crinkly but still indestructible, just like recent drink bottles. And not only was he embedded in the PET, he was actually secured to it by ultra-strong twist-tie/electrical-wire. In five places. This I don’t understand. The PET is needed to prevent jostling during transport. But the PET was molded around Optimus. You had to almost peel it off. What additional security do the twist-ties—which are quite difficult to untwist—provide? Do they ensure that an adult is needed to extract the toy? Are they a theft deterrant? Are they political pork thrown the way of United Twist-Tie Workers of China? The mind boggles. The Power Ranger and world’s nuttiest remote control trickster were similarly attached, but at least they came in a rectangular, non-Origami boxes.

The HotWheels car/trailer/car combo came in a long rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box was a hard clear plastic case and a black plastic base—almost for museum or collector-type displays. Is that what these are for? Can they not be sold separately then for the benefit of people who want to display their HotWheels cars rather than play with them? Are they for protection during transport? HotWheels cars are cast metal! You can run one over and not damage it other than maybe slightly bending an axle! To make matters worse, the car and trailer were screwed to the plastic base using four of the smallest non-eyeglass Phillips-head screws the world had ever seen. And car number two was screwed to the trailer in similar fashion. Again, I ask you—for what? Theft deterrance? Child proofing? United Phillips Screw Workers of China Full Employment Act?

I know that WalMart is pressuring its suppliers to reduce packaging—say what you will for behemoths like WalMart, but it can be a significant market force when it wants to—so these gifts were obviously purchased elsewhere. Why are other retailers not demanding reduced packaging as well? And why are reductions in some aspects of packaging—thickness of cardboard and PET—offset by the addition of Origami, tape, screws, and twist-ties? Is there a natural law of conservation of packaging? Perhaps the whole tradition of birthday gifts is not the brainchild of toymakers, but rather of the cardboard, PET, battery, twist-tie, and tiny Phillips screw industries. I have read—and I believe this—that a sustainable future for the planet will require a somewhat reduced standard of material living for the currently developed world. But maybe we won’t have to give up so much material. Maybe most of what we have to give up is the packaging.

P.S. I saw a Bluejay on Friday. It was on a lawn to my right as I was stopped at a light. I took a bad picture of it with my iPhone. It was the first one I have seen in Philadelphia in about three years. Maybe global warming is a hoax after all!

P.P.S. Speaking of trick vehicles, if you haven’t seen Stanford’s autonomous car backspin into a parking spot, it’s worth a look. For my money, this video would have been more impressive if the orange cones would have been replaced with orange Porches, but that’s getting greedy. The interesting thing about this is that the onboard computer is only partially calculating the maneuver using physics simulations. It’s getting the other part from “past experience”, i.e., different steering/breaking combinations and the resultant spins. “Last time I was moving this way and steered that way, this was the spin and it looks like the kind of spin I need to do now, so …” I will not be programming my Prius to do this, but if you have a Prius I could try to program yours.

P.P.P.S. Death by pirhanas may be appropriate punishment here.

P.P.P.P.S. I feel like I need to say something about Elana Kagan, but I can’t figure out what. Stay tuned.

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