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.

Addresses in Costa Rica

In our new adventure in Costa Rica, we’ve discovered several interesting things about Costa Rican culture. In some previous posts I wrote about some things that were better here in Costa Rica and also some things that were not as great. One big difference that I haven’t talked about yet is addresses. The way mailing addresses are handled here is unique – at least to me in all my worldwide travels. They make for some very interesting unintended consequences.

Here is our street address in Playa Potrero:

Del Bar La Perla
200 metros sur y 300 metros este
en la esquina de Avenida Cuatro y Calle Mango
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Here’s the translation for those of you who don’t speak Spanish:

From the bar La Perla
200 meters south and 300 meters east
at the corner of 4th Avenue and Mango Street
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

You can see a few key features right away. There is no house number. It uses a landmark for reference (the bar La Perla in this case). It provides distances from the landmark almost like a pirate map. And most subtly, it doesn’t fully differentiate the address from other addresses that might also fit the directional criteria. It does, however, seem to work here. Mail gets delivered. Mostly.

Before I get deeper into some interesting things about addresses here, you might think that these sorts of addresses are primarily in the outer or lower population areas. That’s not the case. This last week I gave a colloquium at the Interaction Design Department at University Veritas in San Jose. I stayed at a cute little pensione-style hotel called Casa Voltaire. Here is its address:

De la Casa Italia
50 al este y 75 al norte.
Calle sin salida. Avenida 8 y calle 31,
San José, Costa Rica.

Or:

From the Casa Italia
50 to the east and 75 to the north.
Dead-end street. 8th Avenue and 31st Street,
San José, Costa Rica.

This particular address was interesting in that it was indeed at the end of a dead-end street, along with 6-7 others, including one other pensione. Fortunately, there was a sign out front so you could differentiate it from the 6-7 other buildings with the same address.

I didn’t survey many addresses in San Jose, but the ones I did – my pensione, the Interaction Design School, the restaurant where I ate, the hotel where I caught my bus – all had addresses like this. According to locals, it works this way throughout San Jose and elsewhere in Costa Rica.

These addresses may seem a bit challenging as is. However, add to it the fact that at least in most of the small towns in the Guanacaste area where we live, there are no street signs. We have nothing around us that would tell you where Calle Mango or Avenida 8 are, except a GPS (which few locals have).

Imagine being a mailperson here. You’d have to have an incredible amount of knowledge of the town. You could probably double as a tour guide.

There are some fun, interesting, and possibly frustrating implications in an address system like this, not the least of which is that you learn quickly how long measurements in meters are (for our metrically-challenged American friends).

For example, most addresses seem to rely on a landmark. Well, what’s the landmark’s address then? Or, do they “daisy chain” landmark addresses? Is the La Perla bar a certain distance from, say, the Super Wendy grocery store? It turns out that in most of the cases I’ve seen the answer is “no.” La Perla’s address is:

Calle principal,
Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Basically, this tells you that La Perla is on the “main street” running through Playa Potrero. You’d have to know where on main street.

Another interesting thing we’ve seen is how people “augment” the system. Our Spanish teacher, Ivette, for example, brilliantly has people put her phone number at the bottom of her address. There are several houses that have the same address as hers. I can imagine folks adding “blue house” or other additions to their addresses. If we actually used ours for mail I would.

Consider what might be a very frustrating event if your local landmark changed its name or just went away. If La Perla changed their name, it would affect a large number of street addresses in Surfside. As in the U.S. these addresses are in all your legal documents as well as address books of friends, etc. If your address changes here, you need to get a new title for your car and that involves a lawyer. It’s very good incentive to keep the local landmark places thriving.

This system evidently grew out of the agrarian nature of Costa Rica and the fact that many cities are small. It is pure “Tico.” I think it says something incredibly powerful about small towns and tight-knit communities. Everyone seems to know everyone and people don’t tend to move around much. I’m sure if they did, the mailperson would be able to give them the history of their place.

Of course, there are downsides to living in a small town. Everyone does indeed seem to know your business. But then again, if you are a visitor in town trying to find a friend’s address, you may just find that people here can direct you. It’s a stark contrast for us compared to Seattle where few people seem to want to know their neighbors. It’s also a charming reminder of why people form communities in the first place. We are social creatures after all.

I understand that Costa Rica is now moving toward real street addresses. The two towns of Moravia and Coronado have evidently completed the transformation. San Jose is starting the process by getting street signs up. Can you imagine what it will be like to transform a city that large?

Playa Potrero will likely be far down the list and that’s okay with us. Addresses are just one of the odder endearing qualities of this place. I’m sure there are a few expats here who get frustrated with all of this. I think we are with the locals, though. It’s just one more aspect of “pura vida.” I know there are a lot of us who can use more of that. Pura Vida!