The Road Home and Stuff

I can’t believe the first stage of our new adventure is already coming to an end so soon. A short 10 months after we left Seattle for Costa Rica we will be leaving and on to our next, shorter, adventure. We are already actively planning and packing even while we continue our adventure here. The return trip is much easier in many respects, but harder in some.

I noted that it was only the end of stage 1. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to leave early since we are heading into (technically we are already in) low and rainy season. It’s low, but not rainy. Still, many places are starting to close and many friends are moving back to their home countries until November. So, we are switching operations to Europe. We are “trading” our last two months in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks in Spain, France and Italy.

In stage 2, I return to California and my parents’ house for a visit for two weeks while Deb stays in Costa Rica with the dogs. The dogs have to wait until Sept. 15th to travel due to the heat. Deb returns on the 17th and we head to Spain on the 21st, starting our final stage, stage 3.

Deb is hard at work developing a loose itinerary for us all. We know we land in Barcelona, Spain and leave from Florence, Italy. Everything else is pretty open. We know we want to hit a few small towns in France on the way to Italy. We plan to visit Cordoba in Spain for the castles and Orvieto in Italy for the incredible church there that hosts the works of Luca Signorelli (an incredibly talented Renaissance painter, like Michelangelo, but with a penchant for depicting the apocalypse and scenes from hell). The Catholic Church relegated him to this church on a large butte. We will also definitely visit Rome; Deb and I are going to Gladiator Camp. We did invite the young adults, but sadly, no takers there. Deb will certainly be “badass!”

As Deb does the planning, I’ve been doing the packing and finishing up my class(es). We have also both been studying and working towards our Advanced Diving Certification. Never a dull moment.

On the class front, I got asked to add another class on Prototyping to my schedule. It is a two day workshop over two weeks of elapsed time. It’s been a lot of fun to put together but it’s also been a ton of work in the middle of everything. Fortunately, it works with my current schedule in San Jose – I teach Information Visualization Thursday evening and Saturday morning and then Prototyping Friday evening. I and my class usually head out for food and drinks after one or both classes so it’s been a lot of fun.

Just to brag about my students a bit, they just turned in an assignment to create an information visualization on some aspect of the World Cup and I was blown away by the quality of the thinking and the execution. These folks all have day jobs, mostly in high-tech, and then they take night classes several days a week. In just about a week they created some visualizations that in many cases are on par with work I’ve seen on the NY Times.com site (they are well known for their excellence in information visualization). More importantly, they have focused on some really interesting stories and insights from the Cup, such as why Brazil lost so badly(!), why Costa Rica did so well despite the fact that their FIFA statistics are not stellar and how Costa Rica used passing as a super power. I’m super proud and excited to see what they’ve done so far. Here’s a quick example:

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Costa Rica’s Secret Combinations, Mauricio Varela

In between trips to San Jose, I have been starting to pack. Fortunately, and here I reveal my inner geek, I created a big spreadsheet when we first came down itemizing everything in our 6 carry-on bags and 6 stowed bags to facilitate staging and packing. That makes it very easy to do everything in reverse. Mostly.

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Re-Staging

In our two trips back, we returned here with some additional things. We added some “stuff” while we were here, most of which we won’t be bringing back, and of course some things didn’t last through our adventure. We mostly leave with the same number of bags and items. It’s interesting to see what made it and what didn’t.

First off, we have to account for additional things we brought back from the US. This includes paints, paintbrushes, and other material to paint Deb’s painting. I brought back additional technology, mostly for the young adults to make videos which they never did. Deb has all the material she got for her home made lip balms, deodorants, etc. – something she will continue to do when we return, so those all go back.

In the spirit of reducing “stuff”, we actually did not get much down here and what we did get will likely stay – being given away or sold. We will sell Fanta (our truck), our bikes, TV and a few other things. We will find good homes for the blender, crock pot, boogie board, hammock, yoga mats, printer, and sand-castle-making supplies. We used all of those things regularly but won’t need them or can’t get them home.

Very few things that we got here make the return cut list. Deb got a few hand-made bikinis. Those are coming back. They were also excellent purchases. I’ll leave them to your imagination. We’ll take our diving instruction materials back, along with Deb’s painting (which will likely be an adventure on its own). And of course, our newest family member “M and M”. That’s about it. It’s nice to maintain our low volume of stuff.

What is fascinating to me is what won’t make it back and what didn’t get used. We’ve been here almost a year and we really brought minimal supplies. Looking at where we are now, it is really clear to me what we truly need and what we don’t

The young adults have grown, especially Aidan. We are throwing away or giving away almost all of his clothes and shoes. The poor guy has no shoes that still fit – not that he needed them here! Likewise, Nev has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. They, along with all of us, are getting rid of a number of clothes that we have simply worn through wearing them so much over the course of the last year. These include most of our swim suits, flip flops and t-shirts.

Then there is the technology. It’s been a hard year on our tech. Fortunately, I made sure we had redundancy in key areas. We’ve gone through four computer mice(!), three headsets/headphones, two digital pens, one Bluetooth music player, one keyboard, one tablet and a large number of recharging cables. Deb’s Mac and my parts of my tablet are on their way out as well. Kudos to all the smart phones, (Nokia, Apple, Samsung), Kindles, Xbox, and the Dell laptop which, despite heavy use all are no worse for wear.

In terms of what didn’t get used, there are many things. It’s good food for thought for others doing this (and we now know several!). We brought too many clothes and shoes. I brought several nice clothes anticipating that I might have to return to do some consulting. That was fortunate because I use them when I teach class, but I still brought too many short sleeve collared shirts. I found that black Armani t-shirts are versatile and great for going out here. I’d say that I could have cut my clothing by 2/3 and not noticed. In fairness, though, some of these things we didn’t use in Costa Rica we will use in Europe.

We didn’t use our nice Sony camera as much as we should have; it was just too big to easily take everywhere despite the nice pictures it takes. We are getting a smaller one for Europe so we actually use it. Likewise, we just started using the GoPro for diving but before that had not used it much. We didn’t watch any of the movies I brought on DVD and didn’t play most of the Xbox games we brought. And sadly, I never got a chance to use my volleyball.

Up until when I was asked to do a class on prototyping I would have added all of the backup drives I brought to this list. I had brought them more for safety but had not used them until I needed some key material for the class and then they became invaluable.

Almost everything else was used and used frequently, particularly cooking items, the very few board games and the large monitor (which was truly indispensible for my classes).

Of course, we didn’t come here to get “stuff” to bring back. Rather, we came for experiences and adventure, and we certainly got a lot – almost everything we hoped for. We all (mostly) learned a new language. We learned yoga and surfing. I got to play soccer in another country. We learned to dive. We got to explore the rain forest, the volcanoes, the jungle, and the beaches. We got to see (and in some cases live with) wildlife that we had never seen before. We got to have sunrise meditations and sunset cruises. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to teach in an exciting new University program. Deb got a chance to give back and work for a kids’ organization and help organize a fundraiser. We got to appreciate another culture and make lots of new friends, some of whom have become as close as family. We got to help our young adults unschool and learned a lot about ourselves in that process. We got to spend lots of time together as a family. That’s the “stuff” life is made of.

And that’s just stage 1 of our adventure. Stay tuned for more. Pura Vida.

PS: At least one of us (Nev) got to really appreciate Seattle’s cold weather!

Kids coding in Costa Rica

We’ve mentioned Abriendo Mentes in a couple of previous posts. They are a local non-profit working here in Potrero. Their goal is to help enhance educational opportunities for the local children. The local public school available for children is only 3 hours per day. Abriendo Mentes provides additional programs such as art, team sports, English, and computer skills. Most of the children here do not have computers in their homes. Having computer skills and being able to speak English will open up many more income possibilities for these children when they reach working age. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to temporarily take on running the computer classroom/lab. Aidan is also helping me with the class and serving as my Minecraft expert.

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I was a little unsure what type of curriculum to provide. I’m used to being around children that have grown up with computers as part of everyday life. After getting a sense for what the previous person had set up, I spent the first few days watching and learning what the kids already seemed to know and enjoy. It was interesting to watch these children use the computer.

Here are a few observations:

  • I noticed that many of the sites they like to use for games are only available in English and so they miss a lot of the subtleties of the story etc.
  • I was surprised to see that because of their lack of experience, there are certain patterns of interactions that they just don’t understand. The “radio button” selection for example. It is an interaction convention that provides a list of options from which you can only select one. This part they understand. What they don’t understand is the “commit” or “submit” requirement after that selection.
  • Another one I noticed is the use of the same button for 2 purposes (a dual state button). You also see this every time you use a video player on YouTube where the play and pause button is the same button. There are a couple of places that they have encountered this and have trouble. The first is the video player example. The second in the coding tool where they need to “run” something and then need to “reset” it to start over.
  • They have recently been introduced to Minecraft. They play differently than the U.S. kids that I know. The most interesting differences are what they build and how they play in the world. They build replicas of their local physical environment – small houses (Costa Rican Casitas) with lots of horses, cows, dogs, and chickens. They run and play with their horses and put them in a corral at night. They put little signs in their small 2 room homes with their name or sometimes their name along with a friend’s name. The materials that they use are all very simple and the same as what they see in their environment e.g. stone and wood. When they do play together in the same world, they do not create/build together but will build complimentary structures – neighboring houses or a corral for the house that the other is building. This is almost exactly opposite of the way I’ve seen kids in the U.S. play. Those kids collaborate to create elaborate structures from their imaginations and search diligently to find and use a variety of resources/materials.
  • There is a large disparity in the games that the girls play and the boys play. Girls will choose to play fashion (clothes, hair, make-up) games or Disney princess games. The Boys will choose to play Minecraft, soccer, or driving games. This isn’t 100%. I’ve seen a couple of boys play videos of songs from the movie “Frozen” and I’ve seen a couple of the girls choose to play Minecraft together, but not regularly.

Based on some of these observations I decided to try a couple of things with the kids, with some mixed results.

With Minecraft I tried to introduce them to a couple of concepts – creating larger environments from the real world and creating things from their imagination. The first thing was to put a group of 4 students into a world together. I then tried to help them to visualize and build the Potrero town square. This is not very large. The town center is the soccer field. Around this are the community center (where they take English and art classes), a church, a market, and a few houses. This proved to be incredibly difficult for them and ultimately they lost interest because it was so challenging.

Next I had Aidan create one of his favorite things to build – an enormous and elaborate roller coaster as a demonstration of imagined things and explain how you make it. This didn’t inspire too much creativity or interest. Then Aidan created a large thing that used a lot of “red stone” which are really circuits. I thought that maybe the cause and effect would be interesting. Nope.

AidanComputerLab

Next I tried something that seems to be working. My own children have used code.org with success. I was concerned about trying this or Gamestar Mechanic because of the large amount of English required. Then I discovered a beta section on code.org that was visual programming for early readers. This meant that the tools were mostly using only arrows rather than written English to describe the actions. It worked very well and the kids enjoy it. Many of them seem to really seem get the underlying concepts and enjoy the thinking involved in moving the Angry Bird along to catch the bad pig without running into walls or blowing himself up. I see sparks of that joy of the success of making something happen with a sequence of things you put together on the computer. I’m hoping that this base understanding will help them move along without too much trouble to the coding that involves some English paired with the arrows.

I’m enjoying the opportunity to meet and interact with these kids. They are all bright and friendly and I get a little different view on Costa Rican life than just interacting with adults. They teach me some Spanish and laugh when I make conjugation mistakes. I think Aidan is enjoying the experience of working with me and being the “expert” in something. Without a doubt it will be something we remember about our Costa Rican adventure.

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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!

Of Dogs, Kids, and Things

It has been an incredibly busy 2 weeks here on our new adventure. It almost feels like a typical week in Seattle with work, kid activities, volunteer work, etc. Of course, a huge difference is the warm hot weather and the gorgeous views of the beach we have every day here.

Deb just finished a huge project with our friends Colleen and Kim – they pulled off a huge fundraiser, especially for this area. Deb mentioned it in Giving Back. The fundraiser benefited two great organizations here: Abriendo Mentes, an organization that helps school kids with after school activities such as learning English and working with computers, and Costa Rica Pet Care, an organization that helps spay and neuter street dogs here.

We held the event last night at El Oasis in Brasilito. Shelly, the manager graciously allowed us to use her restaurant on a Saturday night for the event. We had several awesome local bands playing, including Local Legends and Los Dos. There were about 150 people in attendance and we all had a rocking good time. With ticket sales, drinks, food, and raffle, it looks like we netted about $4200. It was an extremely successful event by all measures. It even did far better than several fundraisers I’ve seen in Seattle. I think one of the key reasons is that everyone here knows the two organizations and really appreciates their work. We had all of the food and drinks donated as well as the venue and the bands. That says a lot about the community we live in here. It was a ton of work, but really satisfying.

The fundraiser was just one of a few things going on. While Deb was working on the fundraiser a lot, I’ve been working on my class in Information Visualization at Universidad Veritas. Creating the course and material always takes a lot of time (Deb seems to think I get a bit obsessive!). When she and I taught at UW, we got to work together, but we were also working full time. Fortunately, this is my only “job” this time around. J

I’m averaging about 2.5 classes worth of content per week, so I should be ready in plenty of time for the start of class July 24 and still have time to put my conference talk together for the Interaction Design Summit here. I’ll have a few awesome friends in Seattle giving guest talks for parts of classes. Tableau Software has donated licenses for the whole class and we’ll also be using Microsoft’s new Power Map, so I hope the students have a blast.

There is also a small world event going in Brasil that has a big impact here. For our non-futbol friends, it’s called the World Cup. We’ve managed to carve out time to keep up with our 3 teams. The US is our first team, of course, and they have done well in game 1, but will have a lot of challenge with Portugal today. Brasil is always our favorite. We have so many wonderful ties to Brazil with friends and extended (au pair) families. This is a particularly exciting cup because it is in Brasil. We would have actually gone to Brasil if we hadn’t decided to live in Costa Rica for a year.

The most exciting news and fun so far though, is our Costa Rica team! Going into the Cup, they ended up in what everyone has called “el grupo del muerto” – the group of death. The group includes Costa Rica and 3 previous World Cup winners: Uruguay, Italy, and England. Costa Rica has pulled off two stunning upsets so far, first beating Uruguay and then beating Italy! I can’t tell you how incredible it is to be in a bar full of Ticos and gringos and watch Costa Rica win. Before the Cup, many of our Tico friends didn’t think Costa Rica had any chance. Now, they are all starting to believe. Watching this transition and the underdog story in Costa Rica is priceless. It’s will be one of our most memorable experiences here.

We have jerseys for our 3 teams. Hopefully, we won’t have to choose which to wear anytime soon since none of them will play each other – for a while at least. But hopefully it will happen. We’ll have a lot to root for.

Finally, Deb’s birthday was the 19th. We are having a little bonfire party for her tonight. Somehow I got it into my head two weeks ago that I wanted to paint a picture of her for her birthday. It’s been a loooooong two weeks. I hadn’t picked up a paint brush (for painting pictures) in almost 20 years, so I was a bit rusty. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I hid the painting in progress and all of my paints and brushes around the house so she couldn’t find them. I had to wait for her to go to bed to get everything out for the most part. It usually took me about 15 minutes to set up and another 15-20 minutes to tear down. Fortunately, as the fundraiser approached, she was out working on it for good chunks of time in the day and that helped. Aidan even helped by taking her to the beach one day.

As of the writing of this, she hasn’t seen it yet. I’ll surprise her soon. I hope she likes it. Here’s the initial drawing:

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And here’s the final painting (I need to take a picture outside with good light – I took this late at night with a flash):

While the last two weeks have been more of an exception to our time here, they feel oddly normal, possibly comfortable. Maybe I like having several things going on. More likely, I think I might unconsciously be preparing myself for the job hunt and return to Seattle ahead. It is coming much faster than we all think. Deb and I recently started pinging a few folks about possible opportunities and some things are starting pop up. Likely, we’ll have some big decisions ahead with work, staying at home, unschooling for the young adults, and maybe even where we live. For now, it’s nice to step back and just enjoy the time here while it lasts. We want to make every last minute count. Pura Vida!

The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

Here on our new adventure Deb and I are always looking for new ways to introduce learning and to make something more interesting to our young adults. While watching the movie Gravity the other night, I found an unexpected opportunity to try to get Aidan and Nev more interested in math and science.

For a bit of context, neither Aidan nor Nev like math very much. Aidan likes chemistry a bit but generally their view on science is “ho-hum.” Deb and I were planning to introduce a math and science project after the young adults’ current history and religion project. Aidan has had some great approaches to both at University Cooperative School but Nev has endured the more traditional approaches which I think can tend to kill interest pretty quickly. Like most kids, they don’t have a lot of good examples of needing math in their lives – or science for that matter.

Gravity, in case you have not heard of it, is an incredible movie about two astronauts caught in a disaster in space. The movie is very high on realism – including no sound in space, but I get ahead of myself. It is an exciting film to watch.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Gravity, you may want to avoid reading the rest of this until you do.

About 20 minutes or so into Gravity, Houston warns the astronauts that the satellite the Russians detonated earlier has caused a chain reaction and that there is a large amount of space debris hurling towards them. Nev asked, “What’s a chain reaction?” I got my first surprising opportunity for a “learning moment.”

I use the word “learning moment” here in the same way most people would use “teachable moment.” It generally refers to a moment when a particular topic, idea or skill becomes easy to learn, usually because the learner is particularly engaged. While accurate, I dislike “teachable” because it centers the focus on the “teacher”. This is really about the “learner” and their interest. A “teacher” may simply facilitate the learning but a teacher need not even be present for the opportunity to happen.

I paused the movie and explained that a “chain reaction” meant that every time pieces of the Russian satellite hit another satellite, they would create another explosion, sending even more debris into orbit and striking even more satellites. That progression is a chain reaction. And that’s when it started.

I had mentioned something about the pieces shooting around orbit like bullets and Nev and Aidan looked a little confused. It got clearer when I “reminded” them about space physics: there is no friction. When things start moving, they maintain their speed, unless disrupted, and nothing slows them down. When you add Earth’s gravity, those pieces get pulled into orbit around the Earth and will keep travelling around the Earth like a blanket of death for a long time. They were engaged – even after I said this was all just physics.

They asked some more questions and we talked about the fact that after such an event, we’d unlikely be able to have many functioning satellites for a long time (and what that would mean). We talked about how extraordinarily challenging cleaning something up like that would be. Aidan was a little worried that it might happen.

I unpaused the movie and we continued watching. They then saw all of the pieces come shooting by the astronauts in the first pass, destroying the shuttle, killing the crew, and wreaking havoc on other space vehicles. It was a real moment. They saw the “chain reaction” happening. I paused the movie again and reminded them that the debris would be back again…why? We had another good, short discussion.

As an aside, we don’t usually pause movies except to get snacks or to answer the rare question. I was surprised, happily, that they kept asking questions throughout the movie and didn’t mind the pauses.

We had another good physics discussion when George Clooney was towing Sandra Bullock. I paused the movie and asked them if they knew why when the line became taught it would jerk George Clooney. We talked about how there is momentum in space but no friction (again) and that means when Sandra gets moving she has counter force on George; i.e., an “equal and opposite reaction.” Space was becoming fun and more questions followed.

A math moment came when George Clooney said they should set their watches because the debris would be back in about 90 minutes. I paused the movie and said “do you know what he just did?” He did math in his head. I said that without a calculator, he had to estimate how fast the debris was moving, what its orbital path was, what the distance around the Earth was at their altitude, etc., and then figure out when they would have to watch out. He was the experienced guy but not the scientist. He still needed to be able to do that math.

We all play video games and tend to like to see ourselves leading groups, etc. I told them that people in real positions like this need to be able to do math. It might be “cool” to be the experienced space captain, but you can’t get there without math. Heads, surprisingly, nodded.

There were several other times we paused. Aidan asked why they were hitting the ship so fast after George got Sandra. I asked “well, how would they stop?” There are no “brakes.” George was out of propellant (which would not brake, really, just shoot them in the other direction counteracting their current speed). Then Aidan started getting even more engaged, peppering me with things like “so, if they kept going and hit the space capsule, they’d break something?” and “so, if they kept going they would just burn up in the atmosphere?”

“Yes, but why?” They’ve seen enough sci-fi and Cosmos to know about “burning up in the atmosphere” but had never tied it to the fact that there is no friction in space, but the atmosphere creates friction and moving very fast with friction creates heat. Ahhh. More head nods.

I think they were aware of these types of facts generally but had never processed the “why” – the mechanisms of physics. Physics, and to some degree, math, weren’t abstract anymore. They made connections about events in the movie now with how physics, as much as they knew, worked. And that made physics maybe just a little “cooler.”

Now I’m not fooling myself into thinking that we’ve just created two young adults who will now want to learn math and science eagerly. Not yet, at least J But, we did have a number of great conversations about math and science during an exciting movie and not only did they not mind, they enjoyed it. That’s the spark we always hope for. We can build from that.

Last night we somehow got on the subject of zombie apocalypse. I challenged, “You know, the zombie apocalypse is all about math.” Then I quickly explained epidemiologic math – the math behind infection rates – you know, if one person infects two others and they infect two others, etc. How would you know how fast it will hit if you don’t know math? So now, Aidan and Nev are moderately interested (read “moderate” here as a stunning success) in doing zombie apocalypse math. I think they are probably going to become wary now that we will connect many “cool” things with math and science. We won’t abuse it, but we will use it.

We are thinking of adding some more movies that can illustrate math and science concepts to their upcoming project. Apollo 13 is definitely on the list. Maybe we’ll find some horrible ones too and let the young adults critique the (poor) science. If you have any good suggestions, please send them!

It is so exciting to see their energy when they want to learn. I had expected to see it a lot more with unschooling, but they are pretty much teenagers and I am happy with what we find. As I mentioned before, they learn differently than me and they are motivated differently than me. I’m still getting used to that. While I am, I still treasure these kinds of moments, as I treasure my time with them on this adventure. 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.