Interactive Displays at Disney World

As I noted in my notes from UbiComp 2009, I missed a few sessions during the last day of the conference so I could explore more of Disney World, taking advantage of my free birthday pass to look for examples of how interactive displays were used to enhance guest experiences at Epcot Center. It felt a bit odd to be spending [part of] my birthday alone at Disney World, but as I noted in my earlier post on pins, positivity and practices at Disney, I was sporting my "Happy Birthday!" button during part of the day, so although I was alone, I didn't feel [as] lonely.

I'd heard reports of an interactive game on big screens for those waiting in line for Soarin', so that's where I went first. The line was the perfect length when I arrived - I was able to walk right up to a point at which the first few of the five giant screens was visible, and the line had just started moving, so I was able to advance to the edge of that first screen before the line stopped.

Waitin' for Soarin' The five ambient / interactive displays in line at Soarin'

The displays appear to operate in two modes: ambient and interactive. In ambient mode, each display shows a different sequence of intriguing landscape sketches, accompanied by music that I might characterize as reflective and complex.

Ambient display for the people waiting in line at Soarin'

One of the interesting effects of this mode is that as the crowd enters this area, they shift from being rather boisterous and chatty into a somewhat more subdued state; the attention of many of the people in the queue seems to shift from their family and friends to the images and music. After about five minutes of ambient mode, the displays shift to interactive mode, wherein the people in line are explicitly invited to play a game, in this case, "Experience the Land".

Ready to Play? (in line @ Soarin') Experience the Land @ Soarin'

In each game, the projected images are influenced by the actions of the people in line. According to a report on Soarin' in AllEars, the interaction involves a combination of motion detection and heat sensing (another report alludes to infrared as the underlying technology). Silhouettes of [parts of] people in line are projected onto the screen, and as they move around and/or wave their arms, they affect the story unfolding on the screen.

In the first game, "Form the Land" (shown on the left below), people's movements help to "push up" regions of virtual landscape into virtual mountains; I kept using my hand in a pushing up motion, but seemed to reach plateaus in some of the formations. In the second game, "Grow the Seeds" (on the right), waving physical hands over virtual seeds helped sprout the seeds into virtual plants; I suspect that additional waving helps grow the plants, and I was biding my time between sprouting new plants - requiring jumping to get the ones high up (perhaps these are within standing reach of people in line that are farthest from the screen, and so I may have been hogging the ball, so to speak) - and tending to existing plants, but at one point I inadvertently hit the person next to me, so I curbed my enthusiasm a bit after that.

Form the Land @ Soarin' Grow the Seeds @ Soarin'

The entire two-game sequence lasted about 5 minutes - about the time it takes for the Soarin' ride itself - and then I was in line for another 5 minutes of ambient mode before reaching the final destination, so I suspect that the queue is designed to toggle between ambient and interactive modes every 5 minutes, and if you have to wait 10 minutes or more, you get to try the game at least once.

I have since read an Orlando Sentinel blog post - Soarin' queue games a hit - which references "a bird game" so I suspect that there are a set of different games that are - or have been - provided for those waiting in line for Soarin' (and a more recent report in the Orlando Sentinel - Wait may be more fun at Disney's Space Mountain - suggests that an "interactive queue" and "audio-visual upgrades" may be included in the rehabilitation of that ride).

Update, 2009-11-11, via BoingBoing: a new post on Disney Parks Blog about "Walt Disney World’s Classic Space Mountain Attraction to Reopen with a Few Surprises" includes some updates and photos, from which excerpts are included below.

Passengers will be able to immerse themselves in unique game play as they prepare for blast off, becoming part of the space station adventure. During a recent walkthrough, we deflected asteroids to keep runways clear as part of the story.

The interactive experiences are based on duties you’d find on board a long-traveling space craft, according to Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Show Designer Alex Wright. Each game lasts about 90 seconds with a 90-second interval and the games can accommodate 86 players at one time.


Had I known about the possibility of multiple games at the time of my visit, I would have looped back through, just to see whether I could try another game. The post describes some group dynamics - "many people were yelling, in unison, 'lean left!' and 'lean right!' while trying to lead the bird through the forest" - that I did not observe in the Experience the Land games, so if I were to go through the queue again, I would also explore more of the collective dimensions of play in this context. There is a debate in the comments on that post about whether the game ultimately makes the queue move slower - i.e., whether people are so absorbed in the game that they don't move forward as the line opens up. While I was there, the timing was such that movement seemed to take place only when the game was not in play; I'm not sure whether this was a game feature added after the initial roll-out or was part of the original design.

More coffee, content and community One of the most challenging dimensions of designing large display applications for public and semi-public places is achieving the contextually appropriate level of engagement. If the displays are too engaging, they virtually (or attentionally) take people out of the physical space, reducing "task performance" among the people in that space. If they are not sufficiently engaging, then it is not worth the time or money to deploy them. We encountered this Goldilocks dilemma - not too hot, not too cold - in the design of our CoCollage proactive display application, where our ambient visualization of photos and quotes uploaded by people in a cafe was designed to  promote awareness and conversations among those people while they were in line (and/or elsewhere in the cafe) without unduly interfering with the "task" of placing their orders when they got to the end of the line. In some cases we got it right, but in others - due to a complex combination of factors including place, placement and community in places - the display appeared to be either too engaging or not engaging enough [and before moving on, in this context, I can't help but mention that there is a 1939 Disney short film on Goldilocks and The Three Bears.]

After searching around for some other uses of displays, I decided to take a break from my field exploration in order to attend the closing keynote and post-conference UbiComp steering committee meeting back at the Disney Conference Center. Fortunately, this was within easy walking distance.

800px-Spaceship_earth When I resumed my journey at Epcot later that afternoon, the next stop was Spaceship Earth, where in this case I was more interested in the use of displays after the ride rather than before the ride. Shortly after embarking on the ride, the riders are invited to "Look up", whereupon a photo is taken of each rider in a two-person car. The ride then progresses through a series of animatronic exhibits highlighting the relentless march of technological progress. During the ride, and at the end - while the car is backed down into the catchment area - each rider is asked a series of questions; I'll include the questions below, with my responses highlighted in italic, and links to photos I snapped of the kiosk when the questions were shown:

I was then shown my freshly semi-customized video from the future, which given the constraints imposed by the questions and multiple-choice responses, represents an example of user-influenced content vs. user-generated content. A further constraint I encountered is that the Disney site does not permit embedding, so I downloaded the video, uploaded it to YouTube and embedded it below. I'll also include a transcript of the narration.

Interestingly, in this context, the video includes a number of displays, including a portable medical scanner, a portable smart health card reader / display (shown in the keyframe for the video below) and a wearable cast-mounted display for monitoring / expediting the healing of a broken arm mended by a microscopic (or perhaps nanoscopic) robotic team. 

Your Future: Portable Medical Scanner Your Future: Portable Health Card Reader / Display Your Future: Mending Monitor

I don't know how the video might have been affected had there been another real passenger in the car providing input to the questions above, but my assigned virtual co-star in the movie appears to bear the brunt of the health problems we encounter during the episode.

Welcome to the future ... or should I say _your_ future?

Here in your future, it'll be more fun than ever to enjoy nature in the great outdoors. But even in a perfect world, accidents do happen. [video shows skiers on an icepacked ledge that breaks up falling down a mountain]

Don't worry, with your take charge attitude, you are prepared. A portable medical scanner analyzes the situation. Fortunately, your entire history is with you at all times on a smart card.

Your first day might include nanotechnology, a microscopic robotic team that fixes the injury from the inside.

And while you relax at home with a cup of soup, technology speeds recovery time. In no time at all, you're back on your feet. Uh-oh [video shows another icepack breaking up under skis]. Fortunately, in the future, help is never far away.

The end ... or should I say the beginning ... of your future.

Recent riders - and their hometowns - on Spaceship Earth After disembarking from the ride, I entered an area dominated by a large spherical display of the earth, with photos of the people emerging from the ride momentarily superimposed on the display, after which the photos are whisked away to the points on the earth representing their hometowns. Surrounding the globe are a collection of large rectangular displays showing the keyframes for the semi-customized videos that had been produced by recent riders, and a set of kiosks at which riders can find their videos from the future and send them to themselves - and one other person - via email. I found myself wishing I could have simply swiped my magnetically-striped Disney card rather than having to manually enter my email address on the touch-screen (and waiting in line in order to even get to a free kiosk). I'll include a Flickr slideshow of the sequence of events - and displays - encountered at Spaceship Earth below.

One of the interactive games I heard about, but did not experience first-hand, was the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, in which players use their "super-secret Kimmunicators—interactive, handheld, cell-phone-like devices that help maneuver agents through their mission". This was a game that encompasses several screens - the screens on the hand-held devices, as well as larger screens at different pavilions around Epcot.

A "fiesta" margaritaOne reason I didn't try it is because I heard several reports about the game being boring (for adults) and crassly commercial - many of the adventures are designed to lure the agents into specific areas of the shopping areas of the various pavilions. The other reason was that, it being my birthday, I wanted to take some time off from my field study to simply enjoy other dimensions of the guest experience, such as the warm weather, a beautiful sunset - a more naturalistic, but less interactive, public display of sorts - and the tasty margaritas I discovered around the Mexican pavilion.

Update, 23 October 2009:

Wired's GadgetLab published a short article - and video - on Interactive Art Pushes Boundaries of Viewer, Artist, highlighting the work of Camille Utterback, which seems closely related to the Soarin' game:

Digital artist Camille Utterback makes installations that combine cameras, projectors and custom software to create interactive, playful paintings.

Stand in front of her work, and you’ll soon be waving your arms, walking around, spinning or hopping to figure out how your movements get translated into the abstract, colorful strokes on the screen.


Digital Cities 6

I finally got a chance to attend a workshop in the Digital Cities series last week at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009) at Penn State University. Digital Cities 6, organized by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano and Hiromitsu Hattori, focused on the theme of "Concepts, Methods and Systems of Urban Informatics". The participants and projects represented a broad range of ways that digital technology can enhance people, places, events and other things in cities. [I've posted some photos from the workshop on Flickr, with the "digitalcities6" tag.]

Martijn de Waal started things off with "The Urban ideals of Location Based Media", positing the question "What is a city?" and noting some of its dimensions:

  • a bunch of infrastructure
  • a cultural system
  • a community
  • a polity

Among the themes that resonated most strongly with me was his assertion that location based media is not [necessarily] "anywhere, anytime, anything" but here and now, his suggestion that we shift our attention from placelessness to situatedness, his invitation to reconsider the prioritization of efficiency over all else, and his distinction between casting people as citizens vs. consumers. Martijn has [also] posted a set of excellent notes from the workshop.

CO2nfessionCO2mittment-small Jonas Fritsch presented "Between Engagement and Information: Experimental Urban Media in the Climate Change Debate" [slides], which included a number of interesting projects designed to promote civic engagement (a recurring theme throughout the workshop and the conference). One project was CO2nfession / CO2mmitment (photo on right), in which citizens could enter a booth at a climate change event in Aarhus to videorecord both a confession of their sins of CO2 emissions and seek absolution through a commitment to reducing their future emissions. These CO2nfessions and CO2mmitments were then shown on displays at the event venue. Another project was Climate on the Wall, inspired by magnetic poetry (and perhaps Tetris), in which words and phrases associated with climate change were projected on the side of a building, and people could physically interact with those projected terms to form statements reflecting their views on climate change via their movement at or near the wall.

Jon Lukens was next up, talking about "Seeing the City through Machines: Non-anthropocentric Design and Youth Robotics", in which he described a workshop to get youth involved in the design of urban robots to encourage them to think critically about different (non-human) relations to the environment helps reveal new design considerations - seeing the city through new [robotic] eyes. The students were given the task of designing a robot to participate in an infrastructure scavenger hunt in an urban area. One group of students produced a video called "Curiosity Killed the Camera", but unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere. Interestingly, while encouraging students to think more critically about themselves and their bodies as they exist in space, one student asked "am I a robot?" I found myself thinking about Stelarc as representing a rather extreme position on the spectrum of reconsidering selves, bodies and spaces.

CreateClub-Jelly-PaneraBread-KansasCity-LauraForlano Laura Forlano shared some ideas about "Building the Open Source City: Changing Work Environments for Collaboration and Innovation" (many of which are described in greater detail in a great blog post about Work and the Open Source City). She motivated this theme, in part, via an experience at Panera Bread in Kansas City, where she stumbled upon some people working at a table with a sign saying "Create Club" and "Jelly" (see photo to the right), the latter of which has become a meme [tag] for casual coworking - people working on different things coming together to work in the company of others at homes or third places. Laura talked about NEWworkCITY, a slightly more formal comunity coworking space (reminding me of Office Nomads here in Seattle), noting that a natural tension arises in such such spaces “for like-minded people” between homogeneity and heterogeneity. She also presented Project BREAKOUT!, part of the Toward the Sentient City exhibition planned for September 2009, in which people will be invited to bring their work out of their offices and into public spaces around New York City (such as parks), in what sounded to me a bit like a flash work mob. She finished off with a brief description of UrbanOmnibus, a project of the Architectural League of New York that seeks engagement from a broad range of urban stakeholders in the design and redesign of urban spaces.

I presented "Ambient Informatics in Urban Cafés", an overview of CoCollage, our place-based social networking application that uses a large computer display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by patrons and staff in a café or other community-oriented place. Rather than writing more about it here, I'll simply embed the slides I used for the presentation from SlideShare ... and encourage any readers who were also at the workshop (or the conference) to post their slides, with the "cct2009" tag (I also used the "digitalcities6" tag for my workshop slides). [Further details can be found in our main conference paper, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software".]

Marcus Foth motivated his talk on "Urban Futures: A Performance-based Approach to Residential Design" by noting a frequent problem in the urban planning process (which UrbanOmnibus is presumably also trying to address): citizens share ideas with urban planners, but they never get any feedback, i.e., they rarely know whether any of their input has any impact on the planning. Marcus and his colleagues created some new ways to elicit ideas from prospective citizens (or denizens) of a future master-planned community about what their ideal house would look and feel like. In an open space, participants were invited to close their eyes, imagine and act out (perform) how they would enter their home, and then record their ideas using crayons and paper on the floor. The outcome is a set of personas representing the kinds of people who might like to live in the planned community. The approach strikes me as an interesting mashup between the TrueHome approach of walkthroughs and interviews to understand personalities in the process of designing a home (which I first read about in Sam Gosling's book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, and I think some of his other insights into possessions, perceptions projections and personalities would also be applicable), and the Focus Troupe approach of using drama and theatre to elicit ideas for new consumer products.

Ross Harley - who traveled all the way from the University of New South Wales, Australia, just to attend the one-day workshop (and not the rest of the conference) - presented "Contactless Contact: Reconceptualising Radio and Architecture in the Wireless City". Ross showed some videos visualizing traveling through airspace in and around airports developed as part of the Aviopolis project. He and his colleagues are now shifting from studying airports to studying air, applying what ethermapping and other methods from experimental geography to explore the politics and aesthetics of invisible radio frequency networks - and their "intersecting thresholds of intensities" (my favorite new term from the workshop) - in and around cities. He cited the Touch Project, which explores potential connections between RFID-enabled mobile phones and [other] physical things, and a paper by Jerry Kang on Pervasive Computing: Embedding the Public Sphere, as interesting related examples of this kind of work ... and I found myself thinking about one of my favorite [dystopian] videos depicting a scenario in which the [RF] airwaves might be mined and mapped in interesting ways: The Catalogue, by Chris Oakley:

SenseableCity-TheWorldInsideNewYork Clio Andris presented the keynote, "Urban Informatics in a Digital Revolution", a catalog of projects at the Senseable City Lab at MIT, on behalf of her advisor, Carlo Ratti, who was unable to attend. There were way too many projects presented in this whirlwind tour to describe them here - all can be found at the Senseable City Lab home page - so I'll just mention a few here. One was the New York Talk Exchange, which includes visualizations on varying scales of the different places to which people in New York make phone calls (proxies for the web of the connections and relationships of New Yorkers). The photo on the right is one such visualization, The World Inside New York, representing the connections made from different neighborhoods within New York to different countries around the world. Clio talked about an extension of this work that is / will be applying graph theory to mobile phone calls made around the city (though it may be a city in UK) as a way of approximating the demarcation of the city boundaries.

TrashTrack-StarbucksCup StarbucksCupsAtEtech2007 Another project, Trash | Track, allows users (citizens?) to attach an active RFID tracking device to an article of trash, and then be able to track where that trash goes. The first example is a Starbucks cup that has been tracked in Seattle. The project reminds me of an automated version of Where's George, where dollar bills are tracked via serial numbers manually entered into a web site. There is a blog associated with the project, and there is a set of photos on Flickr, but I haven't been able to find anywhere that people can track any items in real-time. The photo to the left is from one of the recent blog entries, which represents the trajectory of the aforementioned Starbucks cup (as of, approximately, 20 May 2009) ... and the photo to the right is one I took two years at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies conference (ETech 2007) ... and I'm thinking that ETech 2010 might be a promising venue for a demonstration of Trash | Track. Meanwhile, I'd love to find out how I can participate in Trash | Track locally.

The presentation concluded with some historical context:

  • The agricultural revolution allowed us to harvest food to achieve sustainability
  • The industrial revolution allowed us to harvest human innovation and capitol labor resources
  • The digital revolution is allowing us to harvest information about all agents in the built environment, seen and unseen

I'm not entirely comfortable with the framing of these developments in terms of harvesting - which could be cast as a form of corporatist exploitation and extraction that Doug Rushkoff talks about in his recent book, Life, Inc. - but the presentation achieved its goal of being relevant, stimulating and provocative.

Ubidisplays-toripolliisi_small Hannu Kukka presented "A Digital City Needs Open Pervasive Computing Infrastructure", providing an overview of the UrBan Interactions (UBI) program at the University of Oulu in Finland. The goal of the program is to impose a visible and lasting change on the Finnish society (as opposed, or perhaps in addition, to publishing papers about the work). The program is deploying a network of UBI displays - large interactive displays with cameras, NFC / RFID, Bluetooth, wireless LAN and touch-screen capabilities - throughout Oulu. Twelve displays will be deployed - 6 indoor and 6 outdoor (the outdoor display installations will have two screens facing opposite directions). The displays will include user-generated media as well as local information and advertising. They are developing and plan to release open source toolkits for mobile phones that will enable users to interact with the displays, and to develop their own applications for use on / with the displays. Among the recent publications from the project is "Leveraging social networking services to encourage interaction in public spaces" from the MUM 2008 conference ... which sounds very relevant to our current project as well as some earlier work on "The Context, Content & Community Collage: Sharing Personal Digital Media in the Physical Workplace", a paper presented at the CSCW 2008 conference (for which, of course, I posted the slides). It sounds like a very interesting and relevant project - far more ambitious than our C3 Collage project at Nokia - but unfortunately, I can't find any images or videos to include in these notes. [Update: Timo Ojala sent me some links to photos and a video; I've embedded one of the photos above, but the video is a 58MB FLV file that must be downloaded to be viewed.]

Songdo_First_World_Tower_001 Germaine Halegoua presented "The Export of Ubiquitous Place: Investigating South Korean U-cities", including some interviews she's conducted with some of the people involved in the U-City project in Seoul, South Korea (aka the Seoul Digital Media City or DMC) and the Songdo U-Life project outside of Seoul in the new Free Economic Zone (FEZ) created in Incheon. Germaine is interested in what she calls the "cultural geography of media" (another cool new term for me), investigating the places of production and places of consumption of online media. In the DMC, the effort is to integrate new media technology into an existing city (what she called "hybridity" or "coexisting combination"); in U-Life, the goal is to co-develop the technology infrastructure with other dimensions of the planning and architecture - what the developers call a "Synergy City" - and then to export the business model to other cities. A recent photo of the Sondo is included to the right; more photos and a video can be found on their master plan page. Germaine will be traveling to Korea soon, to see how these plans are developing first-hand.

Last, but not least, Andrew Wong presented "Mobile Interactions as Social Machine: Young Urban Poor at Play in Cities in Bangladesh", in which he described three genres of using mobile phones: entertainment, enlarging their social network and creative mobile use to save cost through code. Many of the practices of the young urban poor are quite interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by what he called "missed call signaling" - calling a number and hanging up, sometimes multiple times in succession, to save the cost of an answered mobile phone call. Andrew described the "regional" languages - or perhaps dialects - that have evolved over time (he used the term "hyper-localization of communication"), highlighting how shallow media can be imbued with rich meaning with the right confluence of economic, social and/or entertainment incentives. This nuanced use of signaling reminded me of what was (for me), the highlight of the last Communities and Technologies conference (C&T 2007): Judith Donath's keynote on "Standing on Boxes: Signaling Costs and Benefits in Online and Offline Social Network".

I'll post some notes from the main conference in the near future. For now, I'll end off by noting that one of the many interesting serendipitous discoveries I made in searching around for links relating to the workshop is, unfortunately, a missed opportunity: a relevant project being conducted at Penn State Public Broadcasting - The Geospatial Revolution ("The location of anything is becoming everything"). Unfortunately, I did not see any members from that team at the workshop, despite its being held at the PSU campus ... perhaps we'll see them at the next Digital Cities workshop at C&T 2011, in Queensland, Australia (being chaired by Marcus Foth, one of he organizers of the Digital Cities workshop this year).

Many thanks to the organizers - and other participants - for co-creating such an engaging event!

A short tour of small colleges in the Pacific Northwest

My wife, 17-year-old daughter and I toured four colleges in Oregon during her mid-winter break: Reed College, Lewis & Clark College, Linfield College and Willamette University. I wanted to record a few impressions of the different places while the experience is relatively fresh, and decided to post them here, in case they are of use to others ... or in case others might have relevant insights and experiences to share via comments.

In my recent post about positivity, praise, practice and perseverance, I wrote about some of my struggles with respect to projecting my self - and my past - onto my 13-year-old son - and his future. During our college tours, my wife and I - who first met while we were students at Ripon College, a small midwestern liberal arts college - both encountered variations on this struggle with respect to our daughter during our initial college tour with her. Although she has far greater motivation, discipline and achievements in her academic pursuits than either of us had at this age, we both have to remind ourselves - or, more commonly, each other - that we want our daughter to choose the school that she believes is best for her, not the one that we believe is best for her ... or, the one that we might like to believe we would have liked to attend ourselves.

Before sharing some observations about the colleges we visited, I want to provide a little more context. Our daughter is primarily interested in a small liberal arts college within reasonable driving distance - or a short flight - of our home in the Seattle area. As a junior in high school, she does not yet know which subject(s) she wants to major in yet, but is generally interested in Biology, Spanish, International Studies - or, at least, studying abroad - and Psychology. She wants a challenging and supportive learning environment in which she can explore these - and other - interests, and where she can interact with other students who are highly motivated and disciplined in their academic pursuits. Debbie Cossey, of Rainier College Counseling, has been very helpful in helping our daughter (and her parents) identify the most important criteria in her consideration of colleges, as well as proposing a specific list of colleges that best meet those criteria, including the four colleges on this tour.

Finally, I want to note that although we have some money set aside to support education, financial aid provided by institutions will be an important factor in our deliberations, especially given the high costs of many of the schools we're considering, and growing economic uncertainties. It is challenging to figure out how much financial aid would be available to any given student at any given institution; definite calculations of costs will have to wait until applications are made by prospective students, and admission decisions are made by the institutions. One institution on our list of candidates, Pacific Lutheran University - which we did not visit on this tour - doesn't even provide tuition information on it's web site, only noting that "On average, when scholarships, grants and other assistance are factored in, the average PLU student’s yearly total is closer to $11,000". I frankly don't know whether we'd be able to afford any of the colleges on this tour, but we thought it would be good to aim high, at least at the outset. There are several places that we're planning to visit in the future ... some of which are considerably less expensive than the ones we've started out with.

Inquire_within07 Our first stop was Reed College, in the southeast part of Portland, which has an enrollment of 1,464 students. Of the four schools, Reed appears to be the most selective and academically rigorous ... and the most expensive; it also had what I found to be the most inspiring motto: "Inquire within". Reed accepted 34% of applicants to the class of 2012; among those who entered the class of 2012, average high school GPA was 3.9, SAT scores for critical reading and mathematics among the middle 50% of incoming students ranged from 1290-1470 (or 1940-2210, with writing scores included) and 65% of students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. Students must complete a senior thesis in order to graduate, which I would expect is helpful preparing the large proportion of students - the third highest of any college in the U.S. - who continue on to graduate study. All of this comes at a price, of course: $39,120 in tuition and fees, $9,920 for room and board, for an annual estimated cost of $49,040.

What impressed me the most during our tour of Reed was the student:faculty relationships. The student:faculty ratio was relatively low (10:1) - as was the average class size (15) - and the quality of relationships seemed relatively high. During our visit to the library, we went to the room where all the senior theses are stored. I picked out a few random volumes, and was struck immediately by the Acknowledgments sections in each one, where people who I inferred were professors were being referenced by their first names. I asked our tour guide about this, and she confirmed that was very much the norm at Reed, and went on to say that professors typically invite their students to dinner each semester, and regularly meet with them for lunch or coffee. There was only one department at Ripon where we commonly addressed professors by their first names (Marty, Seth and Steve in Politics & Government), and I only saw the inside of two of my professors' houses during my four years there ... and never shared a meal or coffee with any of them. The relatively low power distance index may help explain why students seem to be highly empowered and relatively autonomous at Reed. As one example of this, they not only have theme dorms, but the themes are proposed and voted on by the students. The relatively wide variation in styles of dress may be another indicator of high autonomy and independence. I also noticed a surprisingly large number of cigarette smokers on campus.

We stayed overnight at Hotel Lucia in Portland, which has a great location (just south of the Pearl District), very comfortable beds (though they were only double beds), and an intriguing collection of photographs (by David Hume Kennerly), but a rather small bathroom (especially for use by three people). Our daughter was hosted for a dinner on campus by a Reed student, while Amy and I enjoyed a fabulous - and surprisingly inexpensive - dinner at The Farm Cafe. We strolled around the Pearl District for an hour or so, before turning in for the night.

Lclark-card5 The following morning, we visited Lewis & Clark College, in the southwest corner of Portland. Compared with Reed, Lewis & Clark has a larger undergraduate population (1,999), is less selective in its admissions (56% acceptance rate, with an average GPA of 3.69 and middle 50% SAT score ranging from 1200-1380), has a higher student:faculty ratio (13:1) and higher average class size (19), and is less expensive ($33,726 tuition and fees, plus $8,820 room and board, for an estimated annual cost of $42,546). One of the things we find especially appealing is that over 50% of students study abroad at some point in their college experience.

When we reached the campus, we were immediately struck by the grandeur and beauty of the Frank Manor House and its spectacular view out the back toward Mount Hood. Our tours at the other colleges were relatively small - one or two students and their parents, at most - whereas there was an extremely large tour group at Lewis & Clark. Even after breaking up into three subgroups, each with a separate tour guide, I'd estimate that each group had somewhere around ten students each. And I don't know if it was the size of the groups or the personality of the student body, but our group was "acknowledged" far more than anywhere else with a variety of greetings ranging from jeers of "Prospies!" (presumably short for "prospective students") to a student shouting "You should come here, you'll love it!" as he whizzed by on a bike. Other things that stood out for me, especially in comparison to Reed, include a stronger focus on fine arts - they have strong programs in Art, Music and Theater - an NCAA Division III sports program, graduate programs in Education and Counseling and Law, and a policy of not allowing freshman students to have cars (on campus) - the only school we visited that had such a restriction. Like Reed, Lewis & Clark offers theme housing. After the tour, the three subgroups reconvened in an auditorium, where the Associate Dean of Admissions was available to answer any and all questions.

Linfield-sweatshirt After a quick lunch, we headed southwest to visit Linfield College, in McMinnville. Linfield has 1,693 undergraduates, and compared with Lewis & Clark, is less selective in its admissions (80% acceptance rate, with an average GPA of 3.56 and middle 50% SAT scores ranging from 990-1220), has a similar faculty:student ratio (13:1) and average class size (18), and is less expensive ($27,414 in tuition and fees, $7,970 in room and board, for a total cost of $35,384). Although they have no graduate program, as with Lewis & Clark, there is a strong emphasis on study abroad, with nearly 60% of students spending some portion of their college career outside of the U.S. They actually require student majoring in a foreign language to spend a full year studying in a country in which that language is spoken (requirements for a minor include a semester in a foreign country).

Several things impressed us during our tour of the campus, which in many respects seemed like a midwestern campus plunked down in the Pacific Northwest. The mostly brick buildings and the grounds were very well kept, and had a very open, expansive feel to them. Everyone we encountered was extraordinarily friendly, with many students on campus making eye contact and smiling as we passed. We saw more school sweatshirts at Linfield than all the other campuses combined, suggesting a strong school spirit (and, perhaps, a stronger emphasis on sports, though Linfield, like Lewis & Clark is NCAA Division III). During our 1:1 meeting with the Admissions Counselor, we learned about an annual scholarship fair each February, in which prospective students are invited to visit campus to compete for departmental scholarships.

We had an early dinner at McMenamins Pub at Hotel Oregon, where we had great salads, but so-so entrees and average beer; next time we'll try the Golden Valley Brewery & Pub. We then drove down to Salem, where we stayed at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, which offered a more spacious double queen suite than we had the previous night. Everyone was tired, so we didn't take advantage of the hotel location to explore downtown Salem that night.

Startrees The next day, I left early for a business meeting in Corvallis while the women explored a bit of Salem on their walk over to the Willamette University campus. Willamette seems to represent a sort of middle ground among the institutions we visited, with 1,780 undergraduates, a median GPA of 3.74 among the entering class of 2012 (not sure what the mean is) and a median SAT score of 1850 (reading + mathematics + writing). The faculty:student ratio is 10:1, with an average class size of 14, and 57% of students earn credit for study abroad. The university includes graduate programs in Law, Business and Education. Some of the statistics Willamette provides are slightly different in nature than those provided by other institutions (e.g., medians vs. means), so direct comparisons are difficult.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned to Salem, the official tour was over, but I heard that the tour and tour guide were both great. Amy gave me a quick mini-tour, pointing out three highlights of the campus: the open areas within the Olin Science Center in the middle of classrooms, labs and faculty offices where students and faculty can hang out; the student-run on-campus coffeeshop, The Bistro, which seemed to have more energy and activity than coffeeshops we saw on other campuses; and the grove of five giant Sequoias - the "star trees" - in front of Waller Hall, the main administrative building. She also mentioned that there is an Amtrak train station - with service to Seattle - right across the street from the campus.

Seeing the campuses first-hand helped highlight some differences that we hope will ultimately help in selecting the best college, i.e., the institution that provides the best environment to both challenge and support our daughter in her academic pursuits and personal growth, balanced against the cost of attending the institution. The costs of attending the institutions we've visited thus far are pretty high, and we'll be visiting other candidates that are considerably less expensive. Quality:price ratios are much harder to calculate than student:faculty ratios, given the complex array of factors that influence both the benefits and costs of college for any given individual (and family). Our first round of campus visits was helpful in assessing some of the benefits, but ascertaining the actual costs may well have to wait until applications are sent, admission decisions are made, and financial aid packages are offered.

A recent New York Times article on "Colleges fretting over admissions" notes that colleges and universities are also facing challenges in their calculations - who to admit, how many to admit, how much aid to offer, how to increase the probability that admitted students will commit to attending - due to the growing economic uncertainties. These uncertainties may ultimately work in students' (and parents') favor:

For students, the uncertainty could be good news: Colleges will admit more students, offer more generous financial aid and, in some cases, send acceptance letters a few weeks earlier. Then again, it could prolong the agony: some institutions say they will rely more on their waiting lists.

But there is no question, admissions officers say, that this year is more of a students' market.

It's still early in the process for us - early applications aren't due until November, and regular applications aren't due until next February - but I think that visiting the campuses helped make the prospect of college more real for our prospective student. Amy and I were both significantly influenced by our visits to Ripon College (as prospective students), and our visits to these four helped us formulate some relative rankings, and to be better prepared for what to look for - online and offline - during our exploration of other candidate colleges in the future.

[Update, 2010-08-29]

Charley's comment prompts me to post a few notes about subsequent visits and other developments in our exploration of educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest (and California).

After our initial tour of the four colleges listed above, Meg visited the following other colleges and universities:

I only accompanied her on the visit to the University of Puget Sound, and my notes are rather sketchy from that trip. The thing that most stood out - for me - was the emphasis on writing at the school: this was mentioned by our tour guide as well as in other interactions with administrators during our visit. I have always believed that writing is one of the best ways to figure out what and how I really think about something (which is why I blog semi-regularly), and so I saw this as a positive feature. Meg is a very good writer, but I don't believe her enthusiasm for this channel of expression is quite as high as mine.

She eventually applied to and was offered admission to Lewis & Clark College, Willamette University, Linfield College, University of Puget Sound, Western Washington University, Chapman University and Santa Clara University (which she did not visit). Many of the offers included some level of scholarship. We visited Willamette and Linfield again this past February, during her mid-winter break: she stayed overnight at Willamette with a student host at the Kaneko dormitory, and attended two classes the next day; at Linfield, we met with a freshman woman (and her father) who had graduated from Meg's high school the preceding year, and was very positive about her experience at the college thus far.

Another resource that influenced our decision was some information I found (and wrote more extensively about on my Posterous milliblog) about Pacific Northwest College Professors of the Year awards. While I recognize that all awards or rating schemes have implicit and explicit biases, and would not recommend using such awards as the primary criteria for selecting a school, I do believe they represent a dimension worth considering, Among the schools we considered, here is the breakdown of professors who have won the U.S. Professor of the Year Award:

Awards Institution Department(s)
9 Willamette University Chemistry (2), Politics (2), Art History (1), Economics (1), History (1), Physics (1), Psychology (1)
5 University of Puget Sound History (2), Physics and Science, Technology & Society (1), Religion (1), Science & Values (1)
2 Lewis & Clark College French (1), History (1)
2 Reed College Biology (1), Classics & Humanities (1)
1 Linfield College German

Deciding among these schools was challenging, and I think the second trip to Willamette, in particular, was very helpful. Our daughter ultimately decided that Willamette offered the best overall fit for her goals with respect to educational quality, campus life and scholarship. I suspect distance from home was also a factor: far enough away that her parents won't be dropping in unexpectedly, but close enough that she can drive or take the train home for a long weekend if / when she is so inclined. And as might be inferred from my recent posts on a warm welcome at Willamette University Opening Days and the Willamette convocation keynote, Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, we are all confident that this was a good decision.

Hanging Loose in Maui: a Whale of a Family Vacation

Polo_beach_club We spent a relaxing mid-winter break in Hawaii last week, staying at the Polo Beach Club in (or near) Wailea on Maui, the same spot where Amy and I honeymooned nearly 20 years ago. This stay was a little different than the last time - I don't want to say the honeymoon is over, but we are no longer newlyweds (or not "just Mauied", in local tourist T-shirt jargon), and staying there with a 16 year old daughter and 12 year old son added an entirely new dimension to the experience.

The area is far more developed than the last time we visited, when it seemed like the Polo Beach Club was the only sign of human habitation in sight (the photo in the top right is from around that time period)... and in some dimensions, I suppose we are more developed - as individuals, as a couple and now a family. After walking, driving and kayaking around the area, I still think this is the best place to stay in Maui, if one wants to get "up close and personal" with the ocean ... and its inhabitants.

Humpback whale breaching off Papawai Point (cropped)Aside from familial changes, one of the key differences this time was seasonal changes, as we were visiting in February rather than August ... whale season (!). We saw hundreds of whales [and we really saw whales this time, unlike the last time I wrote about watching for whales, but [only] seeing what I wanted to see (rather than what really was - or, more specifically, was not - there) during our last family vacation, along the Oregon coast]. I snapped hundreds, but ultimately uploaded only a few dozen, of photos of the humpback whales we saw off Maui to my Flickr account. We saw them from our balcony, we saw them from the beach, we saw them from kayaks, we saw them from our car, we saw them from restaurants and shops ... we saw them nearly everywhere we went.

We could also hear the whales singing when we went snorkeling - sometimes rather loudly. Prompted by a comment by Dana on an earlier post on music and personality, I discovered a transcript from the log of the 5 year Voyage of the Odyssey entitled The Ocean's Elaborate Composers, which offered more information about the whale songs:

A song can be defined as one or more notes that are repeated in a pattern. Technically, the repeated sounds of birds, frogs and even crickets are songs. Yet, it is the song of the Humpback whale that is the most grand and complex in the animal kingdom.

As Roger Payne wrote in his book, Among Whales -

"They are divided into repeating phrases called themes. When the phrase is heard to change (usually after a few minutes), it heralds the start of a new theme. Songs contain from two to nine themes and are strung together without pauses so that a long singing session is an exuberant, uninterrupted river of sound that can flow on for twenty-four hours or longer".

Themes are sung in a deliberate order, with the entire song lasting anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. Humpbacks even employ rhymes in their songs; perhaps this helps them to remember them, a trick which is also used in human composition. Male humpbacks have been known to sing for hours, even days.

We made recordings of each vocalization throughout the afternoon. Each song lasted an average of seventeen to twenty minutes before the animal surfaced. The whale took only three breaths in quick succession before diving again.

Remarkably, all male humpback whales from the same population sing the same song, while the songs of each population are quite distinct from one another. This means that the structure and content of all of the songs we recorded today are the same, yet different from a whale that may also be singing today in his mating grounds in the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. As Roger Payne observed "Humpback whales change their songs continually so that after about five years they are singing an entirely new song and apparently do not ever return to the original".

Canonef75300mmiiiusmlens Dakotaeliteweatherproof10x42binocul I was delightfully obsessed with the whales during our stay ... but I'll move on to another obsession: photography. Shortly after starting our Oregon vacation, the scenery was so beautiful along the coast that I went out and bought a Canon EOS 40D / Digital Rebel XTi (my first digital SLR camera). Shortly after starting this vacation, and seeing all the whales, and feeling frustrated with not being able to get closer to them (photographically speaking), I went out and bought a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM Telephoto Zoom Lens - and a Dakota Elite Weatherproof 10x42 Binocular (to watch whales without photographing them) from Ritz Camera. While I was happy to be able to take many more closeup photos of the whales during my stay, upon closer inspection, few of the images were not blurred (one of the reasons I uploaded so few photos to my Flickr account), so I plan to return the lens for one of the Image Stabilization (IS) lenses (perhaps the ultracompact Diffractive Optics (DO) version).

More whale watching on the HinaWe did make attempts to get physically closer to the whales. We enjoyed a two-hour Hawaiian sailing canoe adventure on the Hina (which docks - or I should probably say "beaches" - at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel, next door to the Polo Beach Club), during which we learned about the local geography, history, ecology and culture, and saw sea turtles and numerous colorful fish while snorkeling. Unfortunately, although most of the times we saw the Hina from our condo, it was near whales (an example is shown in the photo to the right), we saw no whales from the Hina the day we went out, though we did hear them while we were snorkeling.

Whale watching via kayakSo, another day, we rented two-seater sea kayaks - also at the Fairmont Hotel beach - and set off on our own to get up close and personal with these magnificent mammals. We managed to approach within approximately 100 yards of a few whales - which is, as I understand it, the closest that any boat is supposed to get to a whale - but not nearly as close as some other kayaks seemed to get (an extreme example is shown on the left). However, we got close enough to enough whales that the kids decided that they didn't want to go out on a whale watching boat at the Pacific Whale Foundation. We read about a boat that had gone out two weeks before we arrived that had been the victim of a "whale mugging", where they were stranded in the water for over an hour while whales were swimming around the boat (boats aren't supposed to move when whales are within 100 yards). In retrospect, I think it would have been fun to go out on a whale watch boat the first day, if only to learn more about - and thus be able to better appreciate - the whales we saw (and heard) so much of.

We also went snorkeling in the Ahini-Kinau Preserve, down around the southern tip of the island - well some of us did (Amy, Meg and me ... Evan had a sore ankle that morning). We saw more sea turtles, tropical fish and coral ... and as the preserve volunteers warned us, discovered that "the rocks are alive" - I cut my thumb and finger, and got a sliver of some kind in another finger, while walking on my hands out beyond the shallow, rocky area on the shore. We rented snorkeling gear from Maui Dive Shop - $25/week for the "deluxe" package (which comes with better gear than the $15 "standard" package) - and I think it would have been worthwhile to inquire about and/or invest in gloves, as I saw many other snorkelers wearing. Also, even though we snorkeled in the morning (around 9:30 or 10:00), I got sunburned after only 45 minutes, so wearing sunblock and/or a tee shirt, even before "peak" sunlight hours, would also have been worthwhile ... an aspect for which I could have been better prepared if I'd read up on some snorkeling tips (update: expanded into The Ultimate Guide to Snorkling) before setting out. Fortunately, this happened on our last full day on the island, so it had minimal impact (there).

Family Photo OpBack on terra firma, another obsession I / we indulged during the vacation was gustatory exploration. Among our favorite restaurants from this visit are:

  • Spago (best combination of food, service, decor and view, most romantic ... and most expensive)
  • Sansei (tie for best food and service, with good decor but no view)
  • Mama's Fish House (very good food, service and view)
  • Tommy Bahama (very good food, service, decor and entertainment, but no view)
  • Seawatch (good food and service, very good decor, outstanding view, site of family photo op to the right)
  • Who Cut the Cheese (not a restaurant, per se, but a wine & cheese shop where we picked up an array of fine cheeses - including 5 year old Gouda and Roaring Forties - and a bottle of Hartford 2005 Russian River Zinfandel, which we enjoyed back at the condo)

Full reviews for all of these restaurants - with more details about which menu items and other specific aspects we liked (and didn't like), and several photos I took at each one (with my iPhone, not my Canon telephoto lens) - can be found on my Yelp profile page. I'll simply note that we tried - and enjoyed - Ahi rolls of some kind at nearly all of these establishments ... and include a few sample photos below.

Img_0186Img_0150 Img_0160

We ate a lot of fish while on Maui, and Evan was initially interested in indulging a related passion (that isn't quite an obsession ... for him ... yet) - catching fish. We'd gone fishing during earlier vacations to Cabo, Mexico (which was great), and Tampa, Florida (which was not so great), so we looked into possibilities on Maui. I found an excellent web site on Maui sport fishing, created and maintained - I might say "captained" - by Captain Mike Crawford. Captain Mike was very helpful - via telephone and email - in helping us explore the different options regarding harbors, fishing times, days and the age of my son (and my desire to be simply a "rider", as I'm not much of a fisherman). Unfortunately, I didn't contact Mike early enough to find a boat that would fit our schedule - and our desire for a relatively short trip - but maybe next time.

One dimension of potential obsession that we observed but in which we did not indulge was Mustang convertibles. I've never seen so many Mustang convertibles before. I can't remember what kind of car we rented in 1988, but the 1988 Ford Mustang was not a car that I found particularly appealing, and I doubt I would have been willing to pay an upgrade fee to drive one. In 2008, however, I would have gladly paid extra to drive one of the new 2008 Mustang convertibles ... but alas, with four people, and a full load of luggage, that would not have been practical (or even possible, without renting a second car). Instead, we got a free upgrade to a Cadillac, which was fine.

Speaking of car rentals, some of the lessons we learned about traveling to / from / within Maui include the following:

  • The Enterprise Rental Car facility near Kahalui Airport (OGG) closes at 9:00pm. I nearly always use Enterprise wherever I go (I've waxed poetic about my experience of great customer care at Enterprise - and United Airlines - in an earlier blog post), and had a reservation with Enterprise this trip, but when our flight out of Los Angeles was delayed, we were rescheduled to arrive around 10:00pm. Fortunately, although the Hertz counter at OGG [also] closes at 9:00pm, the off-site facility stays open until 11:00pm, so I was able to book a new reservation at Hertz - for a lower rate than I'd gotten many months ago when I originally booked the Enterprise reservation - while we were waiting at LAX.
  • The United Airlines ticket counter at OGG has a priority line for their Premier, 1K, First Class and Global Services members. However, the agents behind the counter did not accord any priority to people in this line (while we were in it). There were only two agents in front of the priority queue, and another five in front of the main queue; when one of the priority queue agents got sidetracked - for at least the half hour we were in line - helping one family, none of the other agents to the right appeared to notice or respond by signaling to people waiting in the priority queue ... and, unfortunately, none of the people ahead of us in the priority queue appeared to be sufficiently assertive to compensate for this lack of agent response (perhaps they were still on "island time") ... until I stepped forward to offer some gentle "prompting". This was all after having the unexpected extra measure of some kind of agriculturally-focused luggage pre-screening, and before the long security lines, which unlike SEA and LAX (and SFO and nearly every other U.S. airport I've been to), did not have a priority queue for frequent fliers with "status". I mention all this because we arrived at the airport with the recommended 90 minutes of lead time for our 10:00pm "red-eye" flight, which I expected was more than enough time, given the priority queues I'm used to elsewhere, and we barely made it through all the lines in time for our flight (which they had intended to have depart early). So, [frequent] flier beware!

Despite the sleep deprivation of the red-eye flight, compounded by a [scheduled] 2+ hour layover in San Francisco on the way back to Seattle, we would still choose this option again - though allotting 2 hours for navigating the queues at OGG - as it allowed us an extra day of sightseeing and whale watching (from shore), culminating with a delicious sunset meal at the beach (at Mama's), a fitting end to a Maui-velous vacation.

Seeing What I Want To See: Whale Watching ... and WMD

Watching for Whales

Near the start our recent family vacation along the Oregon coast, we walked up Cannon Beach into the downtown area. During our northerlywalk, we passed several groups of people on the beach who appeared to be deeply engrossed in something to the southwest. I have trained myself, over the years, to ignore spectacles, as to not add what may be undesired attention to a person or activity (e.g., when someone is being tended to by emergency medical responders) ... and to keep traffic flowing in the vicinity (this latter aspect was strongly reinforced during the time I lived in - and drove around - the Chicago area, suffering through numerous instances of "gaper's delay"). So, in this case, we proceeded a few hundred yards up the beach without looking back in the direction of the riveted gazes.

Finally, however, we passed someone with a telephoto lens, who was taking photos of object of their intereest. I stopped to ask, figuring this person could see better than most, and he pointed and said "there are whales out there".

Whales?! I love whales!

So, I stood there for the next 10 minutes or so, watching the whales, too. It looked like there were two whales, who were occasionally surfacing, then going back down (the story I made up about this was that they were fishing). On our way back down the beach, I kept watching the whales, shooting photographs with my N95, and cursing my lack of a camera with telephoto lens (you can hardly see the whales in the center of the photo above - though if you click through, you can view larger versions ... that also don't show the whales well). At one point, a mother and two daughters were standing just south of Haystack Rock, gazing out onto the water, and I pointed out the whales, and they became excited and started watching and taking photos as well.

Back at our hotel, I went out on the deck, to continue watching the whales. It occured to me that they were spending an unbelievably long time in one place (I figure it had been well over an hour at that point). Peering more closely, aided by a pair of binoculars, I started noticing that there were rocks lying just below the surf in a variety of places along the coast that, when certain wave patterns arose, sent water splashing in ways that looked remarkably like the splash patterns I'd observed with the "whales". Watching the "whales" themselves for a long while, I concluded that they were simply rocks.

My embarrassment was compounded by my having passed on the meme of whale watching to the unsuspecting family (of course, I, too, was the recipient of the meme, so I was simply a transmitter rather than the originator, but it was still embarrassing, nonetheless). I realized that I had been primed by reading some travel brochure that whales can occasionally be spotted along the coast, and that I really, really wanted to see a whale, so it's hardly surprising that, based on observing a few people and receiving a single suggestion, I did see a whale - in fact, two of them!

I share this story here and now for a few reasons. One is that my earlier post on don't take anything personally highlighted my ongoing struggle with projections of various kinds (my own, and the projections I perceive in [project onto?] others). I judge this "whale watching" episode to be a case of projecting what I wanted to see onto what I was actually seeing. I believe it's a bit different from - and perhaps a bit safer to write about than - earlier cases, as the object(s) of my projection were inanimate (despite my projection of animism). However, I do suspect that my love for and fascination with whales probably says something about me. I guess my point in revisiting this somewhat sensitive issue is that what I saw was very much influenced by who I am, what I love and what I want (reminding me of being reminded of - through a comment (which I enjoyed, BTW ... but upon which I will not comment further) on - an earlier and related post on data, feelings, judgments and wants).

The second reason I want to share this story is that it suggests to me that I am not so different, in some ways, from George W. Bush - a projection about which I feel even more embarrassment than my projection of whales. Although I like to think of myself as someone who sees the good in all people, and who believes that we are all kindred spirits at a deep level, there are people with whom I am reluctant to observe (or admit) similarities. As I wrote in an earlier post, One World: Disasters and Responses, inspired by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

I ask, "How can I BE the peace I want to see in the world, today?" Not, how can I CREATE the peace- but how can I BE it- because it becomes clearer and clearer to me that violence and war are not just "out there" but also inside me.

She goes on to suggest that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them". She [Oriah] gives examples about substituting "some of us" for "them" or "they" as we think about what others have done (and I would extend this to what others are going through). In her audiobook "Your Heart's Prayer", she further extends this from "some of us" to "sometimes I".

I find it very challenging to see and acknowledge similarities between me and our current president, who I judge to have done more harm - politically, environmentally, economically and socially - to the people and country he leads, and to humanity and the world at large, than any other president in our history. But, if I am willing to let go of that resistance, I see a number of similarities: valuing loyalty (in self and others), being outgoing and friendly, being strongly influenced by the opinions of close and trusted friends, and being willing to take on a role that may be beyond current skills and capabilities. There are a number of differences I see, as well, such as a concern for the environment and a commitment to openness, integrity, compassion and vulnerability. [Invoking Oriah's practice of inserting "sometimes I", I will note that sometimes I do not practice these diferentiating values consistently, and sometimes our president espouses, and occasionally acts upon, such values.]

Anyhow, the reason I wanted to delve into this topic today was that I read an article in Salon asserting that "Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction". In the article, Sidney Blumenthal writes:

On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail.

The article goes on to offer a number of disturbing details about how our administration analyzes and shares information. I am outraged by these actions, as I am by many of the administrations actions, or at least those that are revealed (I shudder to think what kinds of activities may be going on behind the scenes). This outrage is further stoked by the recent Special Comment by my hero, Keith Olberman, Bush and Iraq, invoking revelations about Bush in Robert Draper's book Dead Certain:

Now, I don't want to cast any projections onto Keith Olbermann (he is, after all, my hero), but I will recast my original projection - seeing what I want to see - onto George Bush ... which is reflected in the conclusion of the Salon article, in a quote from a former CIA officer:

"The fact is there was nothing there, no threat. But Bush wanted to hear what he wanted to hear."

The day after my "whale watching" episode, I passed the mother and two daughters to whom I'd pointed out the "whales" the previous day. I couldn't (or didn't) bring myself to stop them to share with them my new understanding of what we really saw out in the water. It was partly due to embarrassment, and partly due to not wanting to spoil their enjoyment of what they thought they saw (though they, too, may have come to the same realization as I did) - let them content themselves with the story I once believed ... which is a more enjoyable story to reflect upon (and share with others) - seeing whales rather than [just] rocks.

I don't know what Bush believed in 2002 about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and I don't know what he believes now about WMD - or, indeed, anything else. In spite of our similarities about seeing or hearing what we want to see or hear, I like to believe that my misconceptions, and the actions I take based on them, have not had nearly as devastating an impact as those of Bush. And I, at least, am willing to publicly admit my misconceptions ... if somewhat after the fact (and still too late to affect the mother and two daughters, I suppose). I don't judge that Bush reflects much about his beliefs and actions, and don't expect him to in the future, and so I am extremely grateful for public commentators like Keith Olbermann, Sidney Blumenthall and Robert Draper for their willingness to help the rest of us gain greater clarity ... just as on a smaller scale, but no less personally important way, I am grateful for the commenters on my blog to help me gain greater clarity.

Coasting in Oregon: Notes from a Family Vacation along the Oregon Coast

Oregon_washington_coast_map_detaile We spent the first week in August traveling down the Oregon coast, covering 1300 miles in 8 days, stopping in Cannon Beach, Florence and Gold Beach then dipping down into Crescent City, California, before heading inland to Crater Lake, with a stopover in Eugene on the way back home to Woodinville, Washington.

Canon_eos400d The scenery in Cannon Beach was so spectacular that I decided I had to go out and buy a new digital SLR camera (the 10.1 megapixel Canon EOS 400D / Digital Rebel XTi), as my Nokia N95 photos weren't doing full justice to the natural beauty there ... and I knew from a trip along the coast in 1986 (when I also bought some new camera equipment) that we were going to pass through lots of other beautiful places. As a side effect of this purchase, I was taking lots of photos, and the image files are large, so I've upgraded my Flickr account to "professional".  Another side effect is that taking lots of photos with the new camera aggravated my right elbow, for which I underwent a Plasma Rich Platelet treatment a month ago (about which I'll post a separate update on progress - or regress - in the near future).

TripAdvisorYelp_logo Before the trip, I'd made heavy use of TripAdvisor to investigate lodging options. During the trip, I tried to use Yelp to investigate dining and other activity options. TripAdvisor was very helpful; Yelp was [surprisingly] not very helpful (given how useful it's been for assessing options in the Seattle and Palo Alto areas). I decided to post a number of reviews of our lodging, dining and other experiences on both sites. I'm not sure if my reviews on TripAdvisor added much value to TripAdvisor, since my ratings were very closely aligned with the existing averages, and my reviews probably didn't add much new information. My reviews on Yelp may have been more helpful, as I was the first to review several restaurants and a bike shop ... though I suppose I'll leave it to others do decide how valuable those reviews really are are.

Since I've posted so many reviews elsewhere, I'll just briefly review our itinerary here, with 5-point ratings, brief comments and links to the full reviews (by me and others) on the other sites, in case our experience might be valuable to other families planning a similar vacation (the preponderance of favorable ratings is either the result of successful research or low standards ... I like to think it's more likely the former). I'll also include thumbnails and links to a few photos along the way. [A much more comprehensive guide to the Oregon coast can be found at 101 Mile by Mile.]

Notes from Florida: Reviews of Tampa Area Attractions, Detractions and Distractions

We went to Florida for a family vacation last week, visiting my mom and stepfather in Clearwater, and engaging in [more common] tourist and consumerist activities. Although I didn't take a vacation from email during the trip, I did take a full vacation from blogging (and I still feel backlogged in both dimensions ... not to mention the much longer-standing Flickr backlog).

We enjoyed seeing Mom and Fred --  even though each had colds of varying strength and duration -- and getting together with some of Fred's family (unfortunately, we did not get to see all of our friends and family in the area ... maybe next time). It was [also] nice to see where they spend about a third of their year (other thirds being spent in suburbs of Cleveland and Hartford ... intermingled with various travels to more distant locales).

Our first day there, we drove down the coast from Clearwater Beach to John's Pass. Our first stop was the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, where we saw a wide variety of captive and free birds (e.g., pelicans, herons, hawks, vultures, mockingbirds and even crows). The captive birds were either irreparably injured or indelibly "imprinted" -- we were told that often birds form their self-impressions within the first 24 hours of life, and if the first living being they encounter is a human, then they think they are human ... and are [thus] often unable to survive in the wild. The vast majority of injuries are manmade -- hooked, lined, sinkered, shot and/or poisoned (intentionally or unintentionally). Any birds that can be rehabilitated and released are kept in a separate area where they do not interact (or see) the visitors. The free birds tended to flock to the sanctuary due to its relative safety ... and, I suspect, free food [scraps].

The next stop was John's Pass, where Amy shopped for sandals at Natural Comfort Footwear -- which had the most extensive collection of Teva's and Naot's I've ever encountered -- while I took the kids out parasailing at Jack's Marina (where they offered to give them an 800-foot [length of rope] ride for the price of a 400-foot ride, for $55 vs. $75 ... and I suspect all such offerings are far more negotiable than I normally tend to expect).

We visited Busch Gardens the next day. We did not attend any shows, and only Meg tried the rides -- including Gwazi, Montu and SheiKra -- which I think she enjoyed more than the animals. Unfortunately, the posted wait estimates for rides were often not well synchronized with real wait times, and so we stopped trusting them. If we were to visit again, we would definitely take advantage of some of the up close tours, e.g., the Serengeti Safari, but we found out about them too late to sign up for any that day. The highlight, for me, was seeing the baby gorilla at Myombe Reserve ... the lowlight was seeing the lionness pace back and forth incessantly at the Edge of Africa (I suspect she would have preferred to be elsewhere).

The next day, Evan and I got up early to go "deep sea fishing" at Hubbard's Marina. In the five-hour half-day fising trip, we saw a few people of the 30+ people catch a few fish (I suspect the total catch was less than a dozen). It was a nice day for a boat ride, and it could have been far more crowded, but Evan was disappointed -- he only caught one tiny fish (that we had to throw back), a far cry from his fishing experience off Cabo, Mexico, two years ago. Perhaps the fishing is better at different times of the year, but we both agreed that this was the last time we'd try "deep sea" fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Although we had hoped to feast on our catch for lunch, the silver lining was that Fred took us out for what was the best restaurant meal of the trip, at Guppy's on the Beach (which is not on the beach) in Indian Rocks Beach, a few miles north.

Our next destination was Sea World in Orlando. The highlights there included the killer whale show, Believe (during which I became surprisingly, and [nearly] embarrassingly, emotionally choked up), the sea lion and otter improvisational comedy show, Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island (where the mime who "escorted" late arrivals before the show was just as funny, if not funnier, than the main act), and feeding fish to the seals, sea lions and seabirds at Pacific Point Preserve. Much to Meg's delight, Evan decided he liked roller coasters (again), and so she had a buddy with whom to enjoy Kraken ... several times. Among the things I would not do again is see Blue Horizons, a peformance that combined dolphins with birds and humans in a show that seemed too theatrical and not enough animal, and pay the extra $5 for the "preferred parking (which only saved us a few dozen steps).

Our last day there, Mom was feeling well enough to join us for an outing, and we headed up to Tarpon Springs, a largely Greek community that is / was based on sponge diving. On the way there, we stopped at Howard Park, which includes a small island at the end of a causeway with nice beaches and areas for fishing and/or windsurfing. After playing frisbee for a while, we headed into downtown Tarpon Springs and had lunch at Mykonos, purportedly among the best and most authentic Greek restaurants in town (it was OK, I guess, but I'm not really a fan of Greek food anyway). The downtown area was a bit too touristy for my / our tastes, and so we didn't stay long.

That evening, Amy and I went out to dinner at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (on the beach at Clearwater), enjoying the views of the sunset from a corner spot on the patio -- though not enjoying the smells of cigarette smoke wafting through the air from the nearby bar area (Florida seems to have a much higher proportion of smokers than other states, or at least left coast ones). The food and drinks were reasonably tasty (Amy especially liked the rich and creamy "She Crab Soup"), and very reasonably priced (given the location). Afterward, in a fitting close to the last evening of our trip, we strolled along the beach where, a little over 19 years ago, in another episode of being emotionally choked up, I proposed that Amy marry me ... and her acceptance then -- and now -- has been a source of great joy for me.

Great Customer Care from United Airlines and Enterprise Rent-A-Car

Yesterday morning, I was dismayed to hear the voicemail of the United Airlines' automated flight change notification service telling me my flight to San Francisco was cancelled. The message said I'd been rerouted, and would not arrive until much later in the day. I called United Reservations, but the human operator I finally got through to (with a strong Indian accent) was not helpful at all.

As a struggling entrepreneur, I had cut way back on air travel and lost my United Premier status this year, for the first time in about 8 years.  After my experience yesterday morning, I was starting to think that maybe this would be a good time to switch allegiance to another carrier. Then last night, I received a call from an extremely helpful agent, Karen Luna (from Chicago), who called my home number.  Karen helped me get on another flight, routing through LAX, that got me in to SFO shortly after I was originally scheduled to arrive.  With my new job, I expect to be traveling enough to qualify for premier airline status again over the next year, and thanks to Karen's timely and effective intervention, I'll be staying with United.

Upon arriving at SFO this morning, I had another pleasant surprise.  I had made my first reservation with Enterprise Rent-A-Car over the weekend (signing up for their Express Lane service), and was surprised that the check-in at the counter was so quick, and even more surprised when I approached the Enterprise section of the garage and Travis came out of the small office to shake my hand, warmly greet me, and introduce me to Michael, who then personally took me to my car, guided me through the checklist and cheerfully bade me farewell as I drove away.

This was in stark contrast to my recent -- and first -- experience with Dollar Rent A Car (also at SFO), where I also signed up for their Dollar Express service, but not until after I'd made an online reservation.  I contacted the Dollar customer service through email, and was assured that my reservation had been recategorized as a Dollar Express reservation.  Unfortunately, when I arrived at the counter at SFO, the agent told me there was no record of my reservation.  When I explained what had happened, she told me "you can't do that", and then proceeded to re-enter all the information I'd entered earlier on the Dollar web site.  For reasons I don't understand -- possibly having to do with the fact that a customer in Rockland, MA, has the same name and driver's license number (though different state ... which presumably is not a field in their database key) as I do -- she had to re-enter all of that information a second time.  I finally got my car, but the experience was totally different ... as is the probability that Dollar will be the first place I'll look in the future.

Upon reflection, I'm sad to admit that my experiences with the first United agent and the Dollar agent were rather in line with what I had expected ... after all, I don't have "status" on United, and Dollar is a budget rental car company.  My experiences with the second United agent, and all the Enterprise employees, help remind me that there are still people -- and organizations -- that really do care about their customers ... and that I often find what I expect to find.