Revisiting San Jose

When we first arrived on our new adventure, we went to San Jose to apply for our residency visa. On that trip, we really were not terribly impressed with San Jose. It was probably the location where we stayed, though the hotel was nice. Sometimes things need a second chance, just like people.

Over the last two weeks, I have spent several days in San Jose teaching at the Universidad and my opinion has changed a good deal.

Part of my new-found appreciation for San Jose may stem from teaching here. Universidad Veritas, as I’ve noted before, is a complete design university. I am teaching Information Visualization in the new Interaction Design program and so far it has been a wonderful experience.

The Interaction Design program is an evening program for professionals under the direction of Ana Domb. I have 15 very bright students who come from a range of backgrounds including computer science, design, architecture, marketing, and project management. My classes are Tue/Thu evening and Saturday morning. Since I live about 6 hours away by bus, I commute in on Thursday and leave Saturday afternoon so I can be there in person for two classes. On Tuesdays I am remote (as is the rest of the class).

It’s been a lot of work to design the class – Deb says she’s happy to “have me back.” I’ve been spending a lot of time the last several weeks creating content for the class. It is highly visual content in a fairly new space where there are many, sometimes conflicting, voices, so it has taken some work to gather and edit the content. The fun part has been really distilling the core elements of the topic so I can cover a broad range in a few short weeks.

I’ve added in some things that I hope will make the class fun, such as some “Hell’s Kitchen” type challenges. I can’t hope to pull off the Chef Gordon Ramsey persona of shouting f-bombs and calling people “donkey,” but I do take inspiration for what he does. He is a master at creating challenges that are just the right thing to help his aspiring chefs appreciate and master a particular skill. Last night was my first “experiment” with this and the students were very accommodating. For the challenge, I asked them to visualize the incredible range of ever-expanding data we face from kilobytes to gigabytes to yottabytes. I gave them 40 minutes for an incredibly difficult problem – perhaps even a bit of a Kobayashi Muru type challenge. They struggled, debated and seemed to have a good time. I gave a nice prize but didn’t have any clean-up work for the losers 🙂

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The Hell’s Kitchen Challenge; Sketching Data Sizes

The experience of doing the class has been well worth it. I always enjoy teaching. I feel like I’m giving back to the user experience discipline and I always feel like I get more than I give. Students have an unparalleled enthusiasm you rarely see in industry with folks more than a year or two out of school. They haven’t been told yet, like many in industry, all the reasons why you “can’t” do something. Everything is possible. I’ve always believed that. The best way to get me motivated is to tell me something can’t be done. So, it’s invigorating for me to return to a replenishing source of belief in the possible. It’s just what I need before returning to reality in November.

My experience teaching here has also given me a fresh view of San Jose. One reason is likely where I am staying. I am near the Universidad in Hotel Luz de Luna. It is on a wonderful street in a neighborhood restaurants, nightlife, and cafes. I’ve eaten some of the best food in Costa Rica here and the place really comes alive after 9.

There are odd discoveries here like the brazen rip-off of Cheesecake Factory (and the food looks about the same).

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The Cheesecake Factory Doppleganger

Then we have the Beer Factory. I and my class went here after our first class. Not only do they have many beers, they have a large selection of some great Costa Rican craft brews. I had a great rich brown ale there.

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The Beer Factory

We also have Sofia. It is an excellent Turkish restaurant next to my hotel. In the “small world” department, I also learned that the very friendly owner, Mamat, is the boyfriend of one of my students. They have a home-made tagliatelle with mushroom’s that is incredible. It’s by far the best thing I have had in Costa Rica.

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Sofia 

Ravi is a “gastro pub café” that is vegetarian and comes highly recommended by everyone. I tried the gnocchi and loved them.

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Ravi

There is also a very cool lounge/bar called Keidos where they have tapas. I had a rather large and delicious “tapa” of filet mignon that was ridiculously inexpensive.

Now, round that out with a theater and exhibition center, access to trains downtown (to the less interesting areas) and some nice shops and you can see why my opinion is changing. Mamat (Sofia) is working with the local government here to get better street lighting in the neighborhood, allow outside tables and even close down the very small main street to cars and allow only pedestrians. Keep this area in mind if you visit San Jose. You’ll be very pleased.

Finally, on this trip I have to say I have had the best, and most surprising, experience with a US government agency. It was at the US Embassy in San Jose. No, I didn’t get my passport stolen, thankfully. Deb just discovered that I don’t have enough pages left blank in my passport to go to Europe after Costa Rica. It turns out that getting pages added to your passport is one of the many services here that the consulate provides.

You start online and can request an appointment to get pages added as well as download the form (for this task and many others). The site said that they deliver the passport back to you in the same day. I got a 9am appointment and figured I’d be waiting there all day, so I got a good book. I didn’t need it.

I got to the Embassy (the Consulate part actually) about 8:40 and got in a fairly short line (8 people). It was a heavily sealed facility. Within two minutes, one of the consulate staff was out checking the folks in line. Even though my appointment was at 9, he put me in the line to go in.

About a minute later I was ushered in to the security area. I had to give them everything electronic, including computer, kindle and phone. I gave them my whole bag and they put it in a locked area and gave me the key. I went through a metal detector next. Time in so far – 5 minutes.

I went to a kiosk to select one of about 10 services and got a numbered ticket (like the DMV). I then went into a large area and several signs pointed US citizens to the front of the line so I bypassed about 40 people in chairs waiting. I then entered a small complex with service windows. That took about two minutes.

As I walked in, my number flashed and I went right to the window. The consulate agent took my form, passport, etc. and then asked me to go pay. The cashier was right next to that window and it was open and I paid. I then went back to the agent who had my passport, gave him my receipt and he said it would just be a bit and to wait; they would call me. This was about 8:50. I figured this was where the wait was going to begin.

I sat in an area of chairs and started chatting with two unlucky folks who had their passports stolen. They said they had been there about 20 minutes or so (inc. filling out forms). My name was called and I looked at my watch. It and been 12 minutes. I got my passport and was stunned. I had 48 new pages and it was all done. If you count the two minutes getting my bag and leaving, that was a total of 25 minutes start to finish. I left at 9:05 – 5 minutes after my supposed appointment. Amazing.

I have to say I was expecting to wait and would have been happy to wait, actually, to get more pages in my passport in just one day. This blew me away. It wasn’t just me. Everything was efficient. There were more folks from Costa Rica there getting visas, etc., than US citizens, but their lines were constantly moving also. The US agents were friendly and fast. I’d send a thank you letter to the government if I could just navigate their site and figure out where to send it!

Perhaps this was a fluke, but I don’t think so. It was great to see the whole process for something that was relatively stress-free (extra pages). If I ever did lose my passport, I can only hope the consulate where I am is as great as the one in Costa Rica. It would dramatically reduce the stress I imagine that we’d have.

Adding everything up, I do have a different view of San Jose. I’m sure it still has its downsides, but it was nice to see its benefits as well before leaving with an incomplete perspective. Second chances surprise you sometimes. Pura vida!

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.

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Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

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Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

More Updates

It’s been a little while since I posted some general updates about our life on our our new adventure. A lot has actually been going on despite the fact that we now don’t have jobs (mostly) and we live in a tropical paradise. We are definitely acclimating to tropical life, the slower pace, and pura vida. At the same time, we are who we are(!) and we are not sitting still much. We are finding lots of things to keep us busy.

I mentioned a few things in recent posts:  Deb finished working remotely for her job in Seattle at the beginning of February. She went back to Seattle to complete everything and brought us back more supplies. Around that that time she also took over a lot of the unschooling, giving me a little break.

Deb has added back more structure in Vie and Aidan’s unschooling and despite a little resistance, that seems to have helped a lot. She’s also brought in more structured/planned physical activity – “PE” if you will – so the young adults are getting out more and using technology less. We are also planning, with them, some excursions around Costa Rica now that the “high season” of tourists is winding down. One fun event we are working on this week is doing paintball. There is a course by Liberia airport and so we’ll all go out and try a “real-world” video game.

Another brilliant addition is structured time for “unstructured” discussion; i.e., just talking with Aidan and Vie. We have already had several great discussions including microeconomics, although that’s not how Deb introduced it. It was about simple basics like supply and demand, cost of items, etc. Then that led to microeconomics videos on Khan Academy, write up of understandings and questions, followed by more discussion. These are all things we experience daily and yet we rarely look at them as learning opportunities. So far, the young adults have been really engaged in these discussions.

Deb is also working on developing some possibilities for a business in real estate. She has always been interested and took a class while she was in Seattle. Her instincts are incredible and, not surprisingly, she has some creative and innovative ideas for rental properties here or in Seattle. Right now we are looking at interesting properties here as she finds them. We’re taking it slowly as she does her research. It’s one of several things we have going on here on the “side burner.” She loves the idea of having rental properties and I am fully on-board – at least as long as she deals with the people aspects, which she loves. I am happy being the “numbers” guy behind the scenes. Besides, wouldn’t you want to buy or rent from Deb? J

Aidan’s new activity is swim team. There is a local school here – Country Day – that allows non-students to participate in sports and other activities. They have a great pool and great coaches who are friends of ours from Spanish classes (everything here is really two degrees of separation from everything else). He is an awesome natural swimmer and has Deb’s talent. Now he’s starting to discover a bit of a competitive streak! Doesn’t he look like a young Michael Phelps?

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Aidan is also still cooking and loving it, of course. He started positing his recipes up on Food.com. He has his famous steak recipe I’ve mentioned before as well as a host of new ones. You can find them all under “enderSpartan828 the chef”). You have to read a few of his descriptions. He has a fun, and goofy, sense of humor. You’ll definitely get that as you read his recipes. Here’s his latest creation: KFC Copycat Chicken. I think it tastes far better and is far less greasy than KFC.

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As an aside and for those of you who did not instantly get Aidan’s alias, it is not, as you might think, tied to Ender’s Game or the Spartans from antiquity. It’s a combination of an “enderman” from Minecraft and the modern version of Spartans from the Halo video game franchise.

Vie has been doing some pretty incredible digital Anime artwork using a tablet. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now on these. They really feel like you are drawing on paper with all of the subtly of hand drawing, plus digital capabilities that make it richer in many ways. Vie is way better than me on the tablet. I wish I could show some examples, but, well, Vie has an artist’s temperament and isn’t satisfied with anything enough to share it. Yet. News flash: Vie just sent me this and said I could show it!

friends forever

Vie is now starting to take the digital art the next step and work on animation. Vie is going down that long path of learning Adobe Flash. The first few weeks will likely be frustrating but it’s a tool that can take you from animation through coding to video game development. I’m still working on getting Vie to do a video game with me J .

Both Aidan and Vie have really taken to DIY.org, one of many cool resources on the web we use in unschooling (see our Resources page for others). It combines gamification with topics from DNA to crafts to game development to coding and lets learners earn achievements for various accomplishments. I’ll be talking more about this later in an upcoming post on gamifying unschooling. And for grammar geeks, I did just use gerunds in a row.

Deb and I added additional Spanish learning through duolingo now, at the invitation of some good friends who will be coming to visit in May. It is also a “gamified” learning site. Look for us there as “delyca” and me as the very unoriginal “andycargile.” The young adults are also extending their Spanish through StudyStack, another great online resource.

I’ve had a few interesting activities myself. I just returned from a trip to San Jose to give a colloquium to the brand new interaction design program at University Veritas. The Directora of the program, Ana Domb Krauskopf, has put together a wonderful and new curriculum and assembled a very talented set of students. This is the inaugural year. From everything I’ve seen, this looks to be a world class program and an excellent place to recruit interaction designers in the future.

I have to thank Mariana Lopez, one of the instructors at the University, for this serendipitous opportunity. She recently graduated from CMU’s program and happened to spot me on LinkedIn “on a family adventure in Costa Rica”. She invited me to lunch and we chatted about interaction design. She connected me to Ana and then things progressed from there. It’s pretty amazing how things just come together sometimes.

I had barely put away my heavy tech gear (big monitor, keyboard, etc.) that I used to work on my colloquium deck when I got a ping from Mylene Yao, the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley who asked if I was interested in helping them with an Angel pitch deck. This turned into a really interesting and fast little creative project. Univfy is a remarkable startup that uses some hardcore predictive analytics to help women on their journey of in vitro fertilization make better decisions by giving them far more accurate assessments of their chances to conceive.

It was an interesting transition from my “normal” routine here to a fast-paced, focused project. It’s been awhile since I had the luxury of working on a creative project for 7-8 hours straight a day. I mean that in the best sense. Even before coming to Costa Rica, it was rare in my last few positions that I had even a few hours outside my days of mostly meetings to really focus on something creative. I either had to spread projects out over time or do them “after hours.”

This was refreshing. It was invigorating. It also made my brain hurt in a good way! Most importantly, this project went very smoothly even though I was completely remote. In fact, it was ahead of schedule. I’ve done a lot of decks like this working with execs and the remote nature didn’t create challenges at all. I firmly believe, contrary to conventional wisdom, that creative work, at least like this, can be done remotely without the work suffering. It’s happening more and more globally (see oDesk and Elance as growing examples). For me, it gives me the ability to balance everything better. I’m hoping more opportunities like this come up.

On the “home front”, we are still searching for a new place. Our current rental house isn’t terrible, but it’s a bit dark and the kitchen is small, especially when several of us are working on a project. We are also hoping that if we can find something closer to the beach that the young adults will be able to get to the beach more often on their own. Our search for a new place actually led us to a bit of an unlikely adventure.

Deb found an incredible place on the hill overlooking Playa Penca, a nearby beach. While we were willing to spend a bit more to get closer to the beach, this was out of our range. Deb, wanting to practice her negotiation skills offered a deal where we’d rent it for 8 months (through the low season) but for less than half the asking price. Surprisingly, they said yes! We went and looked at the place and fell in love. It was on 6 lots, had three large bedrooms and a lot more space. It had an outside palapa and a huge kitchen, along with a handyman who lived on site in a separate house. That’s when the adventure part kicked in.

The owner wanted us to pay for the whole rental up front, which was a lot of money, and sign a contract in 3 days. That wasn’t too odd for rentals here, but asking us to wire the money to London was. As Deb investigated this erratically-communicative owner, she learned that in fact this wasn’t the owner. The actual owner, who was quite nice, never got our emails; they were intercepted from the VRBO site. It seems someone hijacked his email and was looking to scam him, and us. Even follow up emails about this never made it to him. Sadly, he never got our proposal nor agreed to our negotiated price.

We had aspirations of tracking down the culprit, especially since we had his bank and routing information. I really wanted to set up a sting. Unfortunately, the owner didn’t seem to be terribly interested, so we dropped it, along with our hopes for renting that house.

Fortunately, we did not wire a lot of money to a scam artist.  Deb’s diligence and “spider sense”, along with good karma and pura vida, combined to keep us from that fate. We have one back-up plan but are still looking. We know something will come through. It always does when you least expect it. At least, it has consistently come through here for us.sche It might be a little metaphysical, but we really do think that if you contribute to the system of good karma it comes back at some point.  It probably sounds far more off the beaten path in Seattle than it does down here with all of the yoga, surfing and pura vida, but that’s okay. We are, after all, intentionally off path. Pura Vida.