Monday, January 07, 2013

To fear, or not to fear?

I like to consider myself to be a very reasonable person, who tends not to be too paranoid about things.  It’s no surprise then that when it comes to privacy concerns, I take a reasonable, yet lax approach to it. 

Every time a company harnesses some new technological means of gathering data or tracking their customers, the privacy advocates get up-in-arms about the potential “evil uses” of what is going on.  I’ve seen it countless times in the last few years, starting with something as seemingly innocuous as customer loyalty cards (ala the Safeway Club card) which you often must use if you want to get the discounts, but in return they can analysis your spending patterns and determine what type of customer you are and target offers specifically for you.  Though people then get concerned that they “don’t want the store to know that much about me”, when effectively what they are really saying is “this company is too accurate in their analysis of me, and I don’t like the fact that they’re right”.  The retail applications are nothing new though.  I’m sure Mr. Hooper down at the General Store decades earlier knew what every one of his customers routinely bought, and even occasionally suggested “Hi, Mrs. Jones!  I got this new type of carrots that I think you’d really enjoy, considering how many other organic vegetables you always buy.  They’re on sale this week just for you!” 

Target got too good at analyzing their customers, and people freaked out.  So they found ways to disguise what they knew, and people were happy again.  (YAY!)  We as consumers are fickle.  On one hand, we feel like we should know what people are doing with our personal information, or whatever information someone has gathered, gleaned, or analytically deduced about us.  But at the same time, we want deals and discounts that are actually useful.  When Amazon tells me that based on my past purchases I might like this, they’re often right.  We don’t really want to know that they know what we like, we just want the benefits of them knowing what we like. 

Technological advances have taken an even further step with the introduction of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) in common use everywhere.  Disney announced today that they are turning RFID into a standard way of life in its theme parks like Walt Disney World.  This New York Times article describes the new MyMagic+ system Disney is introducing, which includes the MagicBand, an RFID-enabled wristband that will eventually serve as your park tickets, resort room key, charge card, and FastPass line passes. 

The concept is great, but out come the privacy advocates concerned about what sinister things Disney is doing behind the scenes to track its customers who may not want to be tracked.  As I see it, it’s the same old story of technology making it more obvious that they’re doing what they’ve been doing all along.  Every retailer, Disney is no exception, wants to know their customers better so that they can tailor services specifically for them (and yes, without a doubt, make more money from them).  While some like myself can be thrilled at the convenience of it, and actually marvel at the thought that I can walk up to Mickey Mouse and he’ll know my name because his embedded RFID-scanner told him so, others find that an invasion of privacy and are terrified by it.  To each his own.  Disney will do the appropriate thing and allow its customers to opt-out of those services and technologies that bother them.  Though strictly speaking, I don’t believe Disney (or any other private company) is under any obligation to do so.  If I don’t like it, I have the choice to not go to Disney World.  Companies of course want my business, so the good ones will allow me to reduce the technology to satisfy my own comfort level. 

I’m fine with a respected company that I trust to gather data on me, and if they can use it internally to improve their services they provide to me, more power to them.  I work for a company that provides the software to help customers like these analyze their data and figure out exactly this kind of information about their customers, and know that with the vast majority of these customers, there’s nothing inherently evil in their intentions, other than the fact that they want your money, just like any other successful company would. 

Of course, I also respect those who are uncomfortable with the amount of data being collected and analyzed about them, as opposed to those like myself who are perfectly fine with it.  Interestingly enough, I find that even in my circles of friends, there isn’t a clear division between those groups.  The split isn’t down political ideologies, as I know both liberal and conservative friends who fall on either side of this issue.  It also doesn’t seem to be an educational divide, as most of my friends I would consider highly-educated compared to the general populous.  Instead, it seems to be a matter of personal comfort, defined by relative levels of cynicism and paranoia.  I am completely cynical, and believe that these companies know everything about me already, so if I can benefit from it, I’m at least getting something out of it.  Additionally I believe that for the most part, the data they’re collecting would have no use that could be detrimental to my personal life.  (Unless Disney publicizes the fact that I like Splash Mountain more than the Hall of Presidents, because that could seriously compromise any future political aspirations I may have.) 

So ultimately, I choose not to fear.  I’ll embrace the convenience and new services that these technologies can provide.  More importantly, I just won’t worry about it. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year!

A new year brings a new blog post.  I realize it's been about 6 months since my last post, so this will serve as both a 2012 year in review, my Christmas cards (which I haven't sent in like 4 years), and I guess a statement that I am still alive for those who may have their doubts.  This is also for my mom, who claims that I never tell her anything and she learns more about what's going on in my life from reading my blog.  I'm not so sure about that, but whatever. 

2012 was a good year.  Lots of changes and new things happening, the most exciting of which is probably that I'm getting married this year!  Linnet and I are engaged, and plan to get married this August.  We're still in the throngs of wedding planning, with not much to report yet, but it should be a lot of fun along the way.  

I also did quite a bit of travel over the past year.  Most recently, Linnet and I went with my sister and parents down to cheer on the Huskies in the Vegas Bowl.  Despite what one might think of Vegas being in the desert, that means it's dry, not necessarily warm.  The game was in the desert wind and high 40s temperature wise, which was decidedly cold.  This was actually our third adventure of the season to follow the UW Football team to away games.  We started the season off with a bunch of friends by heading down to New Orleans and Baton Rouge for the UW/LSU football game.  Had a good few days exploring New Orleans and painting the Big Easy more purple than it already was.  Then we took advantage of our newly re-minted Californian friends Kristen and Mark in the Bay Area for the UW/Cal football game at the beginning of November.  Another great time was had by all. 

Beyond that, several work trips kept me busy.  Three trips to Sweden and one to Boston gave me plenty of flight miles getting around to meetings and such.  Midway through the year this year I shifted over into a Project Manager role at work, which has been an exciting change of pace, with lots of new challenges to deal with.  (And yes, a healthy dose of cat-herding.)  But I'm still at the same company I started at after college, and will be celebrating/commiserating my 10th anniversary this May. 

In my spare time, I'm still busy curling twice a week, volunteering at the EMP and MOHAI museums, and making it downtown to see plenty of musicals.  Yes, by popular demand I will attempt to resurrect my musical review series of blog posts.  I've got quite a few good new shows coming up this season that should be worth reporting on.  And travels continue, with another trip to Orlando and Disney World on the horizon in February, as Linnet and I will be meeting up with our friends Kristen and Mark for a week of fun in the Florida sun. 

All that and more, coming up this year!  Until then, Happy New Year to everyone! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sacre Bleu! It’s the Sacre Coeur! - Day 3

On the third day, I walked.  A lot.  But first, the closer from Day 2.  No trip to Paris would be complete (I guess) with out a stop by the famous Moulin Rouge! 

Not quite as dramatic as in the movie.

Spectacular! Spectacular!  Or whatever.  I made the trip out as far as to take a picture of it, and then hopped the metro across the street back home.  Not exactly the most fantastic part of the city at night. 

Anyway, to day 3.  The day began with a climb up the tallest hill in Paris, Montmartre, to visit the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. 

Sacre Coeur

I ventured up the 300 steps to reach the top of the dome.  And let me tell you, those are a lot of steps.  I don’t know what my obsession with climbing to the top of monuments when I go on vacation is, but it seems to be quite the trend. 

Scenic skyline with Eiffel Tower

From the top you have more spectacular views of the city.  Have you ever noticed how all the buildings are practically the same height?  Maybe that’s what makes the city seem so strange to me. 

Following my adventures to Sacre Coeur and a walk through scenic Montmartre, I headed over to towards the south of the river, and stumbled onto another large domed structure, the Pantheon.  It’s almost reaching the point of “you’ve seen one dome, you’ve seen them all”, but this was particularly interesting, as its crypts house some famous folks the likes of Pierre and Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Louie Braille. 

Yes, that's written in Braille below

Yes, Braille’s crypt is the only one also written in Braille on the outside.  Imagine that!

But more fascinating to me was the center of the Pantheon, under the dome, which is where Leon Foucault first hung a pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.  This became known as the Foucault Pendulum, and while not the original, they have recreated his original experiment in the same location: 

The Original Foucault Pendulum (restored)

For a science geek like me, this alone was worth the price of admission.  While most people just wandered by and were like “huh?”. 

From the Pantheon, I made my way to an interesting little district in Paris called the Place des Vosges.  Characterized by narrow streets filled with shops and galleries, it was buzzing with people.  And after picking up a sandwich for lunch at a local Boulangerie, I passed by an Italian gelato shop, and determined that I had to stop.  My mom would have stopped, and then gawked at how expensive it was, and bought some anyway.  I had a delightful combination of chocolate and cherry gelato.  It was delicious. 

Gelato!

After all my miles of walking, my feet decided it was time to head back to the hotel and relax.  So I hopped the nearest Metro back home, but while in the subway station, heard some music coming from down one of the corridors.  Not to pass up an opportunity to find some music, I wandered down and found this group playing some pretty awesome music.  If there were such a thing as French Mariachi music, this would probably be it.  Three accordions!  How awesome is that?! 

Band in the subway.  They were good.

And finally, we wrap up with a few additional observations from Paris.  Paris is an interesting city.  The people seem to be both lazy and hurried if that makes any sense.  I want to be enamored by the city, but honestly I’m not.  It has the things in a great European city that I enjoy: historic old-European feel, efficient transportation.  But it also feels like too big for its own good.  I enjoy the artistic history of it, but I’ve had enough.  For now.  Maybe I’ll come back and give it another chance later. 

Tomorrow I’m off to take the Eurostar through the Chunnel and over to London for a couple of days of excitement in an English speaking country.  Time to find some of the pre-Olympics festivity and enjoy it. 

Bon nuit. 

You’ll Louvre the Museums in Paris! – Day 2

It’s another bright morning in Paris, and time to venture out on our way.  Unfortunately, it’s no longer sunny and warm, it’s cloudy and grey. But early on, it’s dry at least, so we’ll go with that. 

I make my way to the Louvre first thing, and good thing I did, because the lines were minimal.  Not so much about 3 hours later when I left and the lines were all the way across the giant plaza, probably at least an hour wait just to get in.  Not my style.  I don’t even wait that long for a ride at Disneyland.  Where’s my fastpass? 

REALLY long line to get in now.
The line later in the day… all the way down the plaza.

Anyway, everyone has said it, but it’s hard to believe it until you’re there.  The Louvre is GINORMOUS!  Like crazy.  I had to take a map of the place and draw a line on it with my route through, just so I wouldn’t get lost.  But of course, the place is also gorgeous.  I was probably more fascinated by the galleries and the architecture itself than most of the contents inside.  But what I found the best at the entire museum?  The people watching!  OMG, what a hilarious time watching all of the tourists clamoring over one thing after another.  I walked into the room containing the Mona Lisa, and was immediately compelled to take a picture.  Not of the painting, but of the rest of the people all taking pictures of it. 

Crazy people fawning over a little painting.

This was the highlight of my day.  I was trying to restrain my laughter.  C’mon people, yeah it’s the Mona Lisa… but you know what it looks like.  You can find countless pictures in books or online (the same could go for most everything in here, no doubt), so WHAT is your obsession?  Hilarious.  But that wasn’t the best people watching of the day.  That has to go to the younger-aged Asian woman who had the big camera, and entered this large room I was in, and immediately starts walking from painting to painting, snapping a picture, snapping one of the sign, and moving to the next one.  It was well-tuned and mechanical.  I don’t think she even looked at the paintings, she just pointed the camera and shot, waiting just long enough to snap the pic and move to the next one, elbowing her way through the crowds.  All I found myself hoping was that she has an old grandmother who has always wanted to go to the Louvre, and promised to take pictures of everything and bring them home so she could see them.  Sadly, I’m pretty sure she will take them home and never look at them again, and missed the fact that there were awesome paintings and stuff to look at.  C’est la vie.  I made my way past most of the paintings, and on to the Egyptian artifacts and Decorative Arts, which I personally find more appealing.  I enjoy stuff that is historic and 3D. :)

Hi

Then I stumbled onto this busted up statue people were all obsessing over again.  I don’t see the fascination, there were plenty of un-broken ones just behind me in the gallery.  But not wanting to feel left out, I took a picture with it anyway. 

Enough of that, next I made my way across the Seine and attempted to go over to the Musee d’Orsay.  I was mostly curious why they needed a museum devoted to Pig Latin, but the line was ridiculously long there too, and it had started to rain, so I moved on and hopped the Metro over to the Eiffel Tower. 

A much better shot of Moi

Yup, it’s still here.  On a background of white clouds under the rain.  Again, long lines and lack of desire to pay to go up and see stuff in the clouds that I already saw from the top of the Arc de Triomphe the day before in the sun, I took some pictures, and left.  Though I must admit, it is a pretty spectacular landmark up close. 

From there I took a cruise down the Seine River, and saw the city that way.  In the rain, but the boat was enclosed so I could see it from the inside.  Not bad, but I didn’t really feel like I saw more than I do walking around.  It just allowed me to say I’m on a Boat. 

Finally I ended up at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  I looked for the hunchback, but he must have been sleeping.  So instead I just looked around inside, and took some pictures outside.  Honestly, I’ve seen some pretty spectacular cathedrals in my travels, and this really wasn’t one of them.  Sure it’s historic, but I’m not one for seeing things solely because they’re famous.  I got nothing out of this.  But I waited in line in the rain to go in, because it was free.  I will wait in long lines when things are free.  I would not wait in a long line to pay $10 to climb to the top of the tower.  I’ll leave that for another trip. 

Notre Dame

And that brings us once again to everyone’s favorite part of the show where I comment on things I find amusing that don’t fit anywhere else. 

Observation #1:  The French language isn’t so bad
I was honestly terrified to travel to France for many years because of the stereotypes of the French people being very snooty if you don’t speak their language.  Honestly, I’ve probably heard more people speaking English on this trip than French, at least in the tourist parts.  There are people from all over the world, for many of whom neither English nor French are their primary language.  But if they don’t know these, they learn to speak English and that’s the common language of communication.  Sometimes not well, but enough to get the point across.  And I’ve yet to find a French person who didn’t know enough English to get by.  I can get by in stores with basic numbers from 1-10, bonjour, sil vous plait, and merci, without too much more needed.  Handing over Euros always earns a “merci!” without too much more to be said. 

Observation #2: The French must get really confused at dinner in the US
The hardest thing I had to figure out about meals around here is that entrée means starter or appetizer.  Of course, we Americans somehow got the idea back home that the entrée is the main course.  I have no idea how that got all mixed up over the years, but it must confuse the French at least as much as it confuses we Americans traveling to France. 

Observation #3: Things aren’t so expensive if you think about it
Blame the European financial crisis, if you will, but the US dollar is doing fantastic against both the Euro and the Pound these days.  About $1.25 USD = EUR, which I think is fantastic.  Though yes, things do seem to cost more, especially food, until I thought about it a bit more.  As an easy point of reference, a hamburger dinner here at a typical casual restaurant might be about 15 euros.  That seems like a lot, considering that same hamburger dinner would probably be $12 USD or so back home.  BUT, realize that the tax and tip are both included here.  Back home, I could expect to pay 10% tax and 15-20% tip on that $12 meal, putting it at somewhere around $15-16 USD after all is said and done. Still cheaper than Europe, but not as absurd overall.  Now, yes, their alcohol is insane compared to the US, but that’s another topic altogether. 

But I also was thinking how hard it must be for Europeans traveling to the US and the major differences in how we tip for service.  Most Europeans don’t have any idea what is an appropriate tip, though at this point they do seem to understand that it’s customary to do so.  They are aghast at the thought of paying 20% over the bill just for good service.  But they probably don’t realize that there’s a reason the bill is so relatively cheap in the US compared to Europe, and that the people working aren’t getting paid as much.  European servers come out like a bandit however, because most Americans can’t imagine not leaving a decent tip (even if less than they would back home), and I worry that in those major tourist areas the servers start expecting it.  I bet those servers wouldn’t be so happy if they had to rely on those tips as a major part of their income like US servers do.  Interesting observations.  But also I notice that servers here in Europe on the whole are less attentive and less interested than most US servers, probably for that same reason.  It’s one area that I think the US has the better standard for the customer. 

That’s enough observations for now.  Until Day 3’s adventures, coming up next! 

Bonjour! – Paris Day 1

So much to say about Paris.  And I’m too tired to say most of it.  But we’ll start anyway. 

I made my way from Sweden to Paris on a plane.  That flies in the air.  Varoom, woosh.  Anyway, once I arrived in Paris, I hopped the RER train down to the Gare du Nord and walked about 7 or 8 blocks to get to my hotel, dragging my stuff all the way there.  BUT, in a lovely beginning to my trip, on the train from the airport to the city, we stopped at one stop and a guy with an accordion walks on and starts playing.  Then of course walks through the train asking for money.  So this is the France I’ve heard of. 

First observation:  does this city not believe in escalators?  Even in the train station I was hauling my stuff up and down stairs.  Come to find out, it’s that way throughout the whole city.  OK, there are escalators occasionally, but for the most part it’s vastly a stair-based city.  Which is hard on the feet.  I digress. 

From my hotel, I ventured out into the city.  As I always like to do when I start my trips in a new place, I do an orientating wander.  Basically, I just start walking and see where it takes me – around my hotel, towards the typical touristy parts, just to see where it goes.  Next thing I found myself at the Louvre, about 2 miles later.  It was a wandering 2 hours, and it didn’t really feel like that much, but by the map it had to have been. 

The backside of the Louvre

I wasn’t planning to go to the Louvre until the next morning, so instead I walked straight across, through the center of the Louvre plaza, past the famous pyramid, through the Jardin des Tuileries where the locals were all out relaxing…

Carnivale?

… past the Place du Concorde…

Fountain in Place de la Concorde

… and on to the Champs Elysses.  These places look close to each other, because they are, but it still takes forever to walk through them.  I walked the most famous street in Paris from one end at the Louvre, all the way to the other end, at the Arc de Triomphe.  This became the first of the famous Paris landmarks I climbed to the top of.  But the views were spectacular. 

Moi with a blurry Eiffel Tower

Paris is huge.  Well, it looks huge anyway.  All of the buildings are the same height, and they all stretch for as far as the eye can see in every direction.  I remember the tip I got when traveling to New York for the first time… go to the top of the second most famous building, that way you can see the most famous in addition to everything else.  In that case, I went up to the top of the GE Building at Rockefeller Center, but this time it was the Arc de Triomphe.  Good choices both times. 

And now we come to the part of the show where we discuss some rants and raves of the city. 

RAVE: The Paris Metro
Back in the Metro
I am a connoisseur of awesome public transportation systems, and to this I give a tip of my hat to the Paris Metro.  This has to be the most efficient of all subway systems I’ve ever been to in the world.  Trains appear quickly, they load and unload without wasting time, and they get you where you need to go quickly.  It’s also a pay-to-get-in system, like New York or Chicago, where you pay to enter the Metro, and from there you can get anywhere you want to, transferring from line to line as necessary.  None of this pay-by-the-distance crap.  Approved.  Clean and efficient. 

AND, the most brilliant thing.  Every major station has a bunch of exits, usually sprawled across an entire city block.  This is no different than most cities’ subways.   But in Paris, the exits are all numbered, and there’s a map on the wall to point out which number exits where, so you don’t have to guess by street names to figure it out. Simply brilliant! 

I do have a couple of complaints… 1)  Enough stairs people!  Put some escalators in once in a while. My feet are killing me.  2)  As efficient as it is, London’s Oyster Card has every other system in the world beat for efficiency of payment.  At least Paris does have visitor passes, which allow unlimited transport within the city for a certain period of time, but this involves a paper ticket that goes through the turnstiles over and over.  Whereas the locals all have the Oyster-style touch cards that just tap at the gates.  C’mon, let the tourists have the same convenience.   But overall, definitely a fine transportation system. 

RANT: Panhandlers
Panhandlers, con artists, impoverished youth, call them what you will.  This is a common issue among every major tourist city I’ve been to, but the French ones are the most… unique.  Not like the streets of Seattle back home, where the panhandlers will just shake a paper cup at you asking for spare change then leave you alone, no, none of that.  Interestingly enough, they all start out “do you speak English?” obviously because the French-speaking locals are too smart to fall for their ploys.  Racket #1 was the middle-aged man in the tweed suit with the old “I’m a tourist from New York and someone picked my wallet, do you have a few bucks to help me out?”  First of all, if you lost your wallet, you’re gonna need more than a few bucks to solve your problems, and either way I’m not going to be able to help you.  That one might work with the Brits, but a fellow American isn’t gonna fall for that one.  Racket #2, the passive panhandling.  Usually some Muslim-looking young girls, in the typical garb, kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk with a paper cup sitting in front of them.  At least they’re passive enough, but I’m unimpressed.  But at least it’s not a straight con, and I appreciate that.  Racket #3 (and by far the most prevalent), the “sign the petition to help the deaf-mute people (and give a donation)” con.  This one’s hilarious, because if you think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever.  You have some kids who back home would look like professional petition signature gatherers, with what looks like a very poorly photocopied signature sheet with at the top that says something to the effect of “I’m deaf/mute, please help support me”.  The list followed with something on the order of 10-15 signatures (all of which looked similar, but may have been previous dupees), followed by the amount of their “donation”.  They shove it in your hands, and point at the headings at the top, and ask you to sign it.  Then they point out the donation part.  The one that was put in my hands, the entire column was filled with 20 Euro in the column.  I laughed.  I signed it anyway, and offered the girl 0.10 euro.  She didn’t take it and walked away. ha.  Failure #1:  If you’re pretending to be deaf/mute, don’t walk up to me and ask if I speak English.  Failure #2:  Do a little better at forging the paper before showing it to me.  Failure #3:  Don’t ask an American from the city, we’re used to it.  You want me to give you money, play some music.  I throw large bills at struggling musicians who are out on the streets playing for money—if they’re good.  And I have twice so far on this trip.  I’m a sucker for the accordian and trumpet duo.

More on Day 2, coming up next! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Back in the saddle again…

Well, it’s been quite a while since my last blog post, but as usual a trip has inspired me to start it up for another brief time.  This time it’s another trip to Sweden for a short week of work, but following that is a week of vacation with adventures in Paris and London, which should definitely be something to look forward to. 

Except the French… I’m terrified of the French.  I don’t speak a lick of French, beyond the pleasantries of the occasional bonjour, merci, and the always useful “je ne parle pas francais.”  But what’s the worst that could happen?  eh?  When I claim to be from Canada to avoid their dislike of Americans, I’ll just make sure to clarify that I’m from the west coast of Canada, where they don’t speak as much French. :)

This is now my 4th adventure to Sweden for work, and I’ve learned a few tricks to help get me through the massive time change.  First, stop trying to fight it – it only makes you frustrated and hating the world.  So I  determine that I’ll let the daylight guide me, and take a nap when I get tired, but try to keep myself up long enough today until I finally get to the hotel and at some point sleep forever.  As it is now, I’m trapped in Amsterdam on another painfully long layover of something like 7 hours.  I had originally thought about going into the city for the day since I was here so long, but when we arrived it was pouring down rain in buckets, and I decided to just relax around the airport. 

Watched a couple of good movies on the plane ride over.  Fortunately, they had several that I had meant to see but never got around to, so I watched the new Mission Impossible movie.  Actually not too bad of a movie I have to say.  Though it ended with a scene supposedly in Seattle, and I immediately was distracted by the fact that a)  it looked nothing like Seattle, well, maybe what people who don’t live in Seattle think Seattle looks like, but nothing like the Seattle that I call home.  And b) the scene was at night, and the brilliant filmmakers decided to emphasize that fact by having the sound of crickets chirping in the background.  Newsflash, we don’t have crickets in Seattle… the best sounds you’re gonna find at night might be somewhere between crashing waves on the waterfront, and the unmistakable sound of cars driving down the freeway.  Bah!  Ruined the whole movie for me. 

Did I mention I’ve been awake for… about 19 hours at this point?  I am not responsible for the rants which my fingers are compelled to type out here. 

Oh yeah, the other movie I watched was Hugo, which stole a ton of Oscars last year.  I now see why, because the movie is about movies.  As much as The Artist was a giant love-fest of the history of motion picture, so is Hugo, but with a different twist.  I liked the movie, don’t get me wrong… but there wasn’t anything that screamed Oscar there for me.

What else?  I’ve managed to find every quiet corner of this airport at this point.  Fortunately, there are lots of quiet corners.  I think next I will head up to the Airport Park --  the astroturf-laden area where they pump in the sounds of birds chirping, in order to make you feel like you’re outside in the park on a sunny day.  May be time to take a nap.  It’s only 3am Seattle time, but noon here.  Tick tock. 

So the flight was pretty uneventful.  Despite the 9 hours, I think I only got out of my seat once.  Sitting in front of me was this guy who looked like Anderson Cooper.  An older, fatter Anderson Cooper, but still.  The problem was that he was the type that slams his seat back cutting off any sense of personal space I had.  Then he kept getting up, and then sitting back down with a thud that slammed his seat back into me.  At least the flight went by quickly.  I may have taken a half hour nap at some point. 

OK, I’ll try to stay awake for another 6 or 7 hours.  More to come in the next few days. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

WDW Vacation Roundup – October 2011

I’ve been meaning to write my trip roundup for the last several months, but other things keep getting in the way (not the least of which was putting my house back together after arriving home from this trip to the aforementioned burglary).  But now that I can reminisce of the awesome trip, here we go: 

The trip began with an adventurous red-eye trip through Dallas to arrive in Orlando on Saturday morning.  Sure, it maximizes the vacation time, but it definitely makes for a challenging day of sleep-deprived travel.  But who cares?!  It’s vacation in The Most Magical Place on Earth™!  [note:  not to be confused with Disneyland, The Happiest Place on Earth™]  One of these years I will make it to the other Orlando-area theme parks, but that wasn’t this trip.  Disney makes it too easy to trap yourself in its own version of the magic with the free Disney’s Magical Express shuttle buses that take you straight from the airport to your WDW resort hotel, and then back again when your trip is over.  Who needs (or would want) to drive? 

This was my 5th trip to WDW, and my 4th trip staying at the Port Orleans Riverside resort.  Throughout my trips, I’ve visited many of the other WDW resorts, and still based on both the scenic views and the value for the money (one of the Moderate-level resorts), as well as its nearly central location to the entire WDW property, it’s a perpetual favorite home-base. 

Port Orleans is actually two related resorts, Riverside (the old antebellum South, plantation-style living), and French Quarter (a taste of Bourbon Street and old New Orleans).  An added bonus is the manmade Sassagoula River, which winds its way through the resorts and all the way down to the Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment area. 

Hard to beat the easy boat ride connecting the two.  But you didn’t start reading this to hear me go on about the resort now, did you?  After settling into the room, we headed over and hopped a bus to my favorite of the four WDW parks, Epcot! 

Greeted immediately at the entrance by the monumental Epcot landmark, Spaceship Earth, we made our way into exploring the park.  Lots of activity to be found at Epcot during the fall, as we were there during the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.  What might be compared to a more organized (and only slightly less commercialized) version of the Bite of Seattle, the Food and Wine Festival adds many extra food and cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs, as well as additional food “taste” kiosks at the various countries around World Showcase.  In fact they add extra countries that aren’t usually represented by the eleven permanent countries’ pavilions.  For those Food Network fans out there, you may recognize this famous chef especially from his show, Dinner: Impossible, Chef Robert Irvine was signing cookbooks and posing for pictures, with the line all the way around the pavilion.  I did not wait in line, but did snap a couple of grainy iPhone pics of random other people posing for pictures. 

After some adventures and fun in Epcot that day, we eventually made our way later in the evening to catch the Huskies playing Stanford on TV at the ESPN Club on The Boardwalk (an area a encompassing most of the upscale Epcot resorts, and just a short walk from the Epcot park).  If anyone doesn’t remember that debacle of a performance by the Dawgs, I won’t help you relive it.  Suffice it to say, we left at halftime and made our way back to the hotel to catch up on some much needed sleep. 

The second day happened to be my birthday, which I reluctantly acknowledged when we were checking in at the resort the day before, and was given a “It’s my Birthday!” button which I decided to wear ONLY on my birthday.  They actually have quite an array of buttons you can ask for, for whatever occasion you happen to be celebrating.  In addition to the “Happy Birthday” buttons we found “Happy Anniversary”, “Just Married”, “Just Engaged”, “Happily Ever After”, “Family Reunion”, “1st Visit”, or if you can’t manage to make any of those work for you, the generic “I’m Celebrating!” button.  I have to admit, wearing the Happy Birthday button throughout the parks, almost every single cast member said “Happy Birthday” to me, whether I was waiting in line, or just wandering through the park.  I can’t say I’d enjoy that on most days, but once in a while it’s kinda fun. 

The night of my birthday, we had dinner at the Rose and Crown, a restaurant in Epcot’s UK showcase right on the lagoon.  It was a later dinner, and timed so perfectly that while eating dinner it was time for Illuminations, the nighttime firework spectacular at Epcot.  Nothing like prime seating and not having to wade through crowds to see anything. 

Speaking of crowds, there’s definitely something to be said for NOT going in the summer.  Crowds were mercifully minimal throughout most of the week we were there, except for the Saturday we arrived which was slightly heavier than the rest.  Rarely did we have to wait too long for any attraction, except for the most ridiculously popular ones in the parks with fewer big attractions than others (cough, cough, I’m talking to you Toy Story Mania, cough cough). 

Monday included adventures at the Magic Kingdom.  Though that night we had reservations at the Crystal Palace, a restaurant right on Main Street U.S.A., which included my first ever experience of Character Dining.  Let me just tell you, if you have kids this is well worth the price of whatever it happens to be if you don’t have to wait in line to see their favorite characters.  This restaurant featured Winnie the Pooh and his friends, each of which makes his way around to your table to personally greet you throughout your meal.  I really didn’t expect this to be too exciting, especially for a couple of older young guys like ourselves, but we played along, and it actually was pretty fun.  I think the characters appreciated having some people other than kids that they could have fun taking pictures with.  When Pooh came by, he immediately motioned with me to coordinate a priceless picture:

Of course, not to be outdone, I had remembered Andrew mentioning to me that his coworkers often call him Eeyore at work, so it was only appropriate to stage a gloomy picture, that Eeyore was more than happy to oblige: 

Another first for me on this trip was attending one of WDW’s trademark after-hours parties at the Magic Kingdom.  During the fall, those consist of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, on selected nights throughout September and October.  The park closes to the day ticket holders around 7pm, and they flush all of them out of the park while those of us who bought the separate event tickets had our way around the park.  The party featured trick-or-treat stations set up at a half dozen various locations throughout the park, where they would fill your bag with handfuls of tasty morsels (though we’re pretty sure they save the good stuff for the little kids).

I was very impressed how well they deck the park out for the Halloween parties.  The park is vastly transformed into one giant haunted (but not-so-scary) place.  I’ve always been a fan of the HalloweenTime decorations at Disneyland, but these are far more comprehensive.  They have a special “HalloWishes” firework show, and it’s also one of the few times ever that you can find the Seven Dwarfs out posing for pictures: 

Of course, one of the best parts is that there are so many fewer people in the park, you can pretty much walk on to every ride you’d ever want to!  Not a bad deal, and a lot of special stuff you don’t see anywhere else. 

Wednesday we decided to go to the Animal Kingdom park, and caught a great time on the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, with plenty of animals out roaming and in great places for pictures. 

The nice thing about WDW is that you don’t have to spend all-day every-day in the theme parks riding rides.  It’s much more than that.  From enjoying fun and uniquely-themed restaurants, to the various shopping and nightlife areas, elaborate mini-golf courses, and just exploring the amazingly-themed resorts, all under the Florida sun, you never run out of things to do (well, you can do even more if you have an endless pocketbook, but that’s another issue). 

Yet another new experience was on Friday, when we went on one of the special guided behind-the-scenes tours  We got to the park at opening and attended the Epcot Future World UnDISCOVERed tour.  There were about a dozen people on the tour, and we given a more detailed history and background information on some of the attractions as well as taken backstage to some of the cast areas to see how Epcot operates and what all it takes to keep it functioning.  Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed in most of those areas, so I’ll leave it to your imagination.  But we visited the ginormous cast costuming department where everyone who works at Epcot goes to check-out their uniform while working in the parks.  We also made it back to the marinas behind the park, where the Epcot area boats are maintained, as well as the firework barges used in Illuminations. 

That night we made our way back over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios park. The park at night looks almost like it could be a city street in downtown Hollywood. 

But besides wanting to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror again, our goal was to see WDW’s version of Fantasmic!  Now, this is WDW’s second-incarnation of Disneyland’s original nighttime show on the Rivers of America.  I had warned Andrew that this was a lousy knockoff, though I constantly read and hear comments made by those Disney World obsessed folks that claim that it’s far better than Disneyland’s version.  Different?  Yes.  But better?  We think not.  Yes, it’s a bigger amphitheater, designed specifically for the WDW version of the show. 

But bigger isn’t necessary better.  They stretched the time to make the whole thing longer, but the problem is that the filler they used turned it into an often incoherent mix of random musical segments.  They Disneyland original has a clearly apparently plot that follows it throughout.  Whatever the issues, it’s enough to make me want to go back to California for the real deal. 

Fortunately the only rain or even remotely questionable weather we had to deal with was on the last day we were there.  The rest of the week was sun, warm, and no humidity, just the way I like it. 

Sadly the trip came to an end.  The only thing that makes the trip more fun is having more friends go along too.  Who knows when the next WDW adventure will be, but maybe there’ll be something new to celebrate?  Doesn’t that sound like fun?  I think so. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Welcome home! We hope you enjoyed our stay…

Normally this would be the obligatory blog post where I extol how awesome my vacation to Disney World was, and all of the awesome things we did, complete with pictures that you love to see.  But that post will have to come another day.  Instead I’ll recap what’s happened since I returned home.  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of coming back home from a fantastic vacation… especially when you come home to find that someone else wanted to enjoy your house while you were away. 

I arrived home on the Saturday night before Halloween.  After picking up my car from my parents’ house and driving home, I arrived in the driveway hoping to climb into my nice warm bed and get some sleep.  As I pulled up, I was somewhat surprised to find that the garage door wouldn’t open.  Odd, but plenty of reasonable explanations why that might have been the case.  So I parked my car on the street and made for the front door.  However, as I looked up from the street into the living room window, I noticed the lights were on.  Just very dim, but on no less.  And the blinds were open.  I was pretty certain neither of these were the case when I left, and at this point I think I subconsciously knew something was very wrong.  At this point, I didn’t even bother reaching for my house keys, but just went straight for the door handle, and found it decidedly unlocked.  As I went in and turned on the lights, my worst expectations were recognized as it was obvious someone else had been there. 

I walked into my office on the first floor, and couldn’t see the carpet because papers were scattered all about every corner of the room.  I cautiously made my way up to the main floor, to find things surprisingly relatively orderly, but also remarkably bare at places.  I honestly wouldn’t have noticed much wrong except that a couple of the kitchen cupboards were open, and a few things open elsewhere.  At this point in partial shock, I just grabbed my phone and called 911.  The dispatcher said she’d send a police officer over to take a report.  Much to my surprise, a Shoreline officer showed up in less than 5 minutes.  He looked around and surveyed the situation.  This was also the first I went up to my bedroom to see what had happened up there.  Again, besides a few drawers that I never use sitting opened, I wouldn’t have noticed much wrong. 

After a bit more investigation, we found the point of entry: the downstairs window.  The perps had used a screwdriver to pry the trim off around the window frame, then jam the screwdriver through to pop the latch on the window.  In hindsight, this is one form of entry that could have been thwarted by ye olde stick in the window.  However, my more cynical opinion is that had I made it harder to slide the window open they would have just broken the glass, which would have been a lot worse for me to have to deal with.

I’m not generally one to live in fear, but I have to admit, I didn’t really get much sleep that night.  I was lucky that I didn’t realize until morning that one of my spare house keys was missing as well.  I was able to secure the window with a stick that made me feel reasonably safe, but it took me several days until I got the locks changed and believed that things were really secure again.  In the meantime, I took the rather insane approach of barricading the front door with a bench before I went to bed, just in case someone wanted to come in the middle of the night.  I also for the first time locked my bedroom door, because well, if it helps you sleep better more power to you.  Smile  By the end of the week, my paranoia was gone, and I now feel like it’s back to my own safe and sound house.  All things considered, getting over it that quickly is probably better than most. 

Two weeks following the break-in, I’m still finding things missing.  There’s nothing quite like looking at an empty shelf and thinking “I know there was something there, but what exactly was it?”  The obvious stuff was gone:  several laptops, a bunch of collectible coins, pretty much anything shiny.  It took me a while to realize that some of the more important things were gone, such as my flute and piccolo.  On the whole, not too much that was irreplaceable was taken.  The exceptions were some random souvenirs I had gotten from trips over the years, like from the Vancouver Olympics, and unfortunately all of my pins I had bought or received on the various trips and bowl games over my years in band.  I’ve heard that most thieves make use of what they find for hauling the booty away, namely any sort of bags they find to load up.  I think the most noticeable was the fact that nearly every duffel bag or storage bag in my house was taken, presumably to load up the goods.  But on the more bizarre side, there was a noticeable amount of random food and such taken from the fridge.  Ice cream, cheese, salami, and even peanut butter.  I mean, honestly?  Who takes such things?! 

But without a doubt the strangest thing I never noticed happened the other night when I was going to wash a pan in the sink.  As I’m standing at the sink I immediately reach out for the dish soap, and it isn’t there.  Yes, that’s right, they stole a half empty bottle of Dawn.  I do not at all understand that one.  It makes next to no sense to me whatsoever. 

So I’ve been dealing with the insurance company, sending along lists of what was taken, and then replacing as much of it as I can.  Part of the reason it’s taken so long to get this posted is that I just got a new laptop on Friday.  While in some ways it’s fun shopping to replace all of the things that were taken, I really would much rather just have my stuff back. 

No word as to if they’ll ever catch the people who did it.  My flute was probably the most traceable thing that was taken, as I even had the serial number to track it with, but unless they take it to a pawn shop to try to get rid of it, it’s unlikely they’ll ever get caught.  Maybe someday they’ll get caught for some other crime and they’ll find some of my stuff, but I’m not counting on much.  As it goes, you just have to move on and pick up the pieces.  It’s only things, and things can be replaced. 

But I still want my stuff back…

Monday, October 03, 2011

Infomercial Theory

They say the golden rule for infomercials is:

1)  Convince the audience of a problem they never knew they had.
2)  Provide a solution to the problem that they never knew they had.
3)  Scare them into thinking the problem they never knew they had is worse than they ever thought it could be.
4)  Give them a one-of-a-kind too-good-to-be-true offer that they have to act on right away.
5)  Give them something extra to make the too-good-to-be-true offer EVEN MORE too-good-to-be-true.

I have to admit, I love watching infomercials.  I find them oddly captivating (and usually the acting is absolutely priceless... as in I don't think they paid anything for real actors).

Have you also noticed how there are "regulars" in the infomercial acting world?  I'm like "that's the same old lady who had fell in the tub and needed the suction cup handle to make her safer after washing her feet with these scrubber things that so you don't need to actually touch your own feet, yet also grows her tomatoes upside down, but talks to her grandkids while grandpa listens to the TV using the wireless headphones so as not to disturb her, all the while wearing her Snuggie so she can knit without her arms getting cold!"

But that's not why I write today... I write about the latest trend in the mainstream market that capitalizes on the problem I never knew I had.  The hands free soap pump for home use!

As the commercials point out, "who wants to touch a germy soap pump? EW!"  Now you too can keep your family safe and healthy from harmful germs with the hands free soap pump next to your sink!

Now, I don't doubt that there are germs on the soap pump (well, perhaps I do, but that's another issue)... but what do I do normally when I touch something nasty or germ-ridden?  Wash my hands!  But wait?  That's ALREADY what I'm doing!  What a deal!  So why should I care if the soap pump is germy?  I shouldn't!  That's the point!  It's the perfect problem you never knew you had, coupled with this country's obsession with cleanliness and scaring people into thinking that germs are out to get you!  "I don't want my kids touching that!  Ew!"

I guess there really IS a sucker born every minute...