Sunday, August 16, 2015

On Amusement Parks and the GP

Jaiman and I recently went on amazing road trip around the country, primarily visiting amusement parks to ride the best roller coasters the country has to offer.  The trip was inspired by the amazing deal I got on annual passes for Six Flags, which I happened to know were good at all the parks.  In fact, the deal that I got also included free parking at the other parks, which normally is not included.  Jaiman is the roller coaster enthusiast, and I enjoy a good ride, and I know he is thankful that I indulge his passion as much as I do.  I made sure to also build in some things for me on the trip, including four life list activities, a couple extravagant hotel rooms, visits with friends, amazing food and a visit to a favorite brewery.  By the end of the trip, we had visited five Six Flags parks, (two of which I had previously visited, Jaiman had previously visited one other one, and two were completely new for both of us), Hersheypark which was new for both of us and Busch Gardens which I had visited only when I was very young.  We bypassed Cedar Point, since we had done a thorough job of visiting the year prior, and Carowinds was a late possible addition that never made it into the final itinerary.  We also avoided going to Florida because we felt the number of parks there merits its own trip. 

On the GP

So we hit 7 amusement parks, and at pretty much every single one of them, we had to witness and endure the utter painfulness that is the general public.  GP, as we call them, are people who act up and throw fits or make a scene about things like rules that are clearly stated.  If you can't fit into the seat and be secured, you can't ride, things like that.  It got so bad, even early on, we would recognize when we were being held up by some idiot guest arguing with the ride operators about something, and we'd say things like, "Are we getting GP'd again?"  To be GP'd is to be severely delayed because somebody wants to take their phone on the ride with them, holding it in their hands, for example. 

We saw a group of what one might describe as gangstas give all their loose articles to one member of the group who put it in his bag.  These guys were already loud and obnoxious, so it was easy to judge them right off the bat.  I knew, because I had been stopped at the ride line entrance, that bags were not allowed, and that they had to be placed in a locker prior to getting in line or left with a non-rider.  My bag was in a locker.  I don't know how this guy got up to the front of the line with a bag; my only guess is that he said he wasn't going to ride, and so the attendant probably would have let him through.  So here he was, close to the front of the line, when an attendant pointed out that he could not ride with the bag and the bag could not be left on the dock.  He argued for a few moments, then seemed to understand that he wasn't going to get his way, and exited back through the line as if he was going to comply.  When his friends were boarding, they kept calling for him, "Ti-dooooo!"  So already, Jaiman and I know we're being GP'd because these guys are moving much slower than one should when boarding a roller coaster.  They're dragging their feet and taking their sweet time.  Out of nowhere, Tido appears from behind us, bag still in hand, jumps the restricted area gate and approaches the train.  The attendant stays calm, but firm, and shoves the restraining device closed on the seat that Tido was aiming to get into.  Now the scene really ensues, with him arguing and of course, because he's on the platform, they cannot proceed until he is gone.  A young lady next to me doesn't quite grasp the situation, but was trying to move this whole thing along, and offered to hold the bag for him.  The attendant points out that that young lady, who has also probably been waiting for over an hour, would then not be permitted to ride because the next train would be a different one.  So she backs down on her offer.  More arguing ensues and the attendant finally coaxed him off the platform.  Security is called and has a chat with him while the ride operations continue.  To my dismay, he was allowed to stay in the park.  This is despite the signage everywhere that clearly states line jumping alone is cause for dismal from the park with no refund, and of course, violating rules or disobeying ride operators is also in that category.  This guy broke the rules, jumped into an unrestricted area, argued with the ride operator, slowed operations down, delayed the ride of everyone waiting; any one of those offenses should be enough to eject him, but he was allowed to stay. 

We saw other similar incidents throughout the trip: people arguing about leaving a hat or a being allowed to ride with unsecured sunglasses on, carrying bags, etc.  My favorite was the guy who threw a fit because the ride operators wouldn't let him board with AN ICE CREAM CONE.  Are you kidding me?  One young girl tried to wear a Go Pro on a ride, which would be okay if she had gotten a pass to do so, but she did not, and so the operator had to coax her into taking it off before riding.  There are also parents putting their kids in boots to try to make them fit the height requirements, and then making a scene because their kids can't ride.  Then there were also the oversized people who didn't fit in the restraints and clearly were surprised by this fact.  At every ride entrance, there is a test seat.  If you have doubts about your large belly, your ba-donk-a-donk, or curvy chest, it is probably a good idea to check if the restraints can be locked before waiting in line for hours.  It is not the fault of the ride operators if you are too big to ride.  Having a large chest myself, I've learned that there is a technique to fitting into some restraints; I've been ejected from one ride but it was before I had perfected the technique, and I didn't want to make a scene at the time.  So I include myself in this category, if you are unsure, figure it out beforehand, not when the ride operators are loading a train and trying to get it moving. 
The irony of the test seats at the front of the line was that the only people we EVER saw using it were people that were skinny and average height.  Jaiman commented in aggravation, "This ride was designed for YOU!"  I had to laugh because I knew from human factors that he was probably right.  There are standard measurements used in ergonomics for average adult female and average adult male, and the roller coasters are probably designed around these averages with some flexibility either way to allow the most people on as possible without making the ride unsafe.  Just another brilliant GP move. 

Some rides required a two-step process for securing restraints, and the GP, without fail, would miss the first step on every train.  The ride operator would even announce things like, "Please listen carefully.  Before you pull down your lap bar, make sure you buckle your seat belt first.  If you pull down your lap bar first, then we have to unlock the entire train and re-check it just for you.  So buckle your seat belt first, then pull your lap bar down.  DO NOT PULL YOUR LAP BAR DOWN UNTIL YOUR SEAT BELT IS FASTENED."  And then GP would get in, pull the lap bar down, wait idly for someone to check her, and then be SHOCKED that she was supposed to put her seat belt on first.  Then they have to unlock the whole train, buckle her in, then re-check every single passenger.  Because of one GP. 

Based on the GP ridiculousness we saw, I've devised a set of guidelines that I wish the GP would adhere to.
Dear GP,

Welcome to the amusement park.  This park has a lot of fun attractions, including games, rides, shows and food.  I am sure you can find a way to have fun here.  However, this park is not built solely for your amusement at the expense of other guests.  Your $60 admission doesn't even come close to paying for the hourly wage of all the park operators, janitors, mechanics, food servers and other staff here to keep you safe while enjoying yourself.  Your $60 admission is even further from being able to cover the cost of building even one of these awesome roller coasters which you will undoubtedly want to ride.  Therefore, it is not a given right for you to ride those rides, and you are not entitled to do whatever you think you can.  You are not the engineer who designed these rides, and you probably don't know enough about the ride to make any scientific judgment about what is safe.  Luckily, the engineers and park staff have determined for you what parameters and activities are deemed safe.  They have codified these parameters into rules, which include signs saying where you should not enter, and signs about what is and is not allowed on rides.  You are on their property, and while they want you to have a good time, there is no reason you should ever disobey these rules.  These are not optional guidelines; if you disrespect a staff member, break any rules or argue with a staff member, expect to be thrown out immediately and arrested if necessary.  As demonstrated by recent news events, your life actually depends on you following these rules.  In addition to strictly adhering to the rules of the park, we would remind you of a few guidelines of common decency that will also allow you to have a stress-free enjoyable time.

  • Read the ride rules before entering the line.  This means if it says no bags, then leave your bags in a locker or with a non-rider.  Seriously. 
  • If you are larger than average on any dimension, try the test seat at the front of the line before entering the line. Make sure you can fit in the seat, that you know how to secure the restraints quickly and easily, and that the restraints are actually secured. 
    • If your child is too short to ride a ride, or you think he is almost tall enough, don't enter the line. 
  • If there is a bin or holding place for your things, make a plan for what you are going to do with your things as you get close to the entrance.  If the person holding the bag is going to run it to the other side of the platform, let him or her enter first.  Take off your unsecured glasses and hats, remove your wallets and cell phones, and put them in the bag or in the bin quickly before boarding.  Figure out what it is you're doing before its your turn to enter onto the platform. 
  • Pay attention to instructions the ride operators are giving prior to your turn to board.  Watch how the restraints operate to avoid making mistakes and causing delays. 
  • Get in your seat quickly and secure all restraints quickly, then put your hands up so that you can be checked quickly. 
  • Get out of your seat quickly when the ride is over, grab your things and exit the station quickly.  If you need to put your hat or fanny pack back on, wait until you have cleared the restricted platform to do so. 
  • Do not attempt to bring absurd things on roller coasters.  You may be able to get away with taking a selfie on a child's ride, but holding your phone in your hand on a real roller coaster is a bad idea.  Don't do it.  Also, don't bother trying to bring ice cream, food or drinks on coasters.  And if you have a Go-Pro you'd like to wear while riding, make sure its okay with the park first. 

Thank you and enjoy your day!

All Other Guests Who Can Read and Obey Rules

On Amusement Parks

Parks, I would say, also share some blame.  Not only did I see them be very lenient with belligerent guests, but their signs were not even 100% accurate.  For example, many rides said that no bags or loose articles were allowed on the ride or left at the station, and yet we'd get up there and there would be drink
holders for the souvenir bottles.  While I figured this out relatively quickly and appreciated that they were there, the uncertainty of entering a line with a souvenir cup that said no loose articles always had me slightly nervous.  It is good to be able to have the drinks in line, so we could stay hydrated while in line.  But, I would argue that if the sign says no loose articles can be left at the station, and then you allow bottles to be left at the station, you are being a hypocrite and allowing room for GP to interpret the signs with whatever works for them.  For example, I saw glasses tucked into the souvenir bottles in the holders - if you can leave a bottle, you can leave your glasses tucked into your bottle, right?  And why not add hats on top of the bottle, and small purses and cell phones wedged against the bottle?  All of a sudden, any and all loose articles are okay, despite what the sign says.  If the ride station has a bottle holder, state that on the sign.  No loose articles can be left at the station except for souvenir bottles.  Done.  That's all you have to do. 

It was also very annoying to have such inconsistency from park to park (even Six Flags to Six Flags) about bag policy.  Some parks had bins at every ride, some parks had bins at some rides but not others, and some parks had no bins and always required a locker.  I don't feel they do a good job of warning you, even if you go to their website to try to figure it out, about which parks have bins at the rides and which don't.  

While we didn't visit Cedar Point on this most recent trip, they are the worst when it comes to this inconsistency, in my opinion.  Some rides had bins and some didn't, and sometimes we weren't told until we were almost at the front of the line that the bag wasn't allowed.  Sometimes the rides would have bins that were plenty big but they only allowed sunglasses and hats, no bags.  Seriously?  Each locker also was very expensive, so it was a little ridiculous.  There was one ride we wanted to board, and no lockers anywhere because the water park was right by there and the lockers were 8 times as expensive there... so I guess they didn't want anyone using a convenient locker for $6 if they could charge them $35.  As a result, we were terribly inconvenienced, having to go all the way back to the other side of the park in order to put the stupid bag in a stupid locker and then go back to the ride.  My lesson was not to bring anything into the park, but that meant no phone, and no sunblock which is technically dangerous with my pale skin.  

I think there are things that people need to carry with them, and we want to enjoy the park without having to run back to the car every two hours to lather up the sunscreen again.  I think parks should just move to a policy of having bins at every ride.  They can still have lockers and the disclaimer that they are not responsible for things left on the platform.  Just do away with the no loose articles on the platform thing, and just allow it.  Get over it.  You may lose some locker income, but the customer satisfaction is probably worth it.  I literally refused to buy anything extra at Cedar Point, for example, because we had shelled out so much money on lockers.  It has been well over a year and you can tell I'm still a little bitter about it. 

For this reason and a few others, Six Flags Great America was by far the best park we've visited in the last several years (which pretty much covers every park I've ever been to).  It has some great rides, and amazing food, too.  It is also a very clean park, with efficient ride operations.  But part of that is the fact that they didn't have to argue with the GP because we/they were all allowed to leave loose articles / bags at the station in bins.  I think every park owner and operator should visit Great America as a guest, and then compare that to their own parks.  It is just a stellar, world-class park with no equal.  There are great rides at other parks, sure, but Great America has a full guest experience. 

A few other things I will direct at Six Flags as a whole - I heard only twice about something called a photo pass?  You apparently get unlimited digital copies of the ride pictures.  It was never clear to me if this was for just one park or for all parks.  We got a souvenir bottle that worked for free drinks at all parks, which was pretty sweet, not sure if you meant to do that or not.  But I would have definitely shelled out the money for digital copies of our ride photos at all the parks - if the pass covered all the parks.  So first of all, I'd say provide more messaging around this pass, it sounds like a pretty awesome thing and I saw no information about it.  We've had our photos taken 64 times on your rides this year, and only heard mention of this pass twice.  Second, make it good at all parks (even if there was a small premium) for the crazies like us that went to so many of your parks.  Third, not many people understand that the annual passes are good at other parks.  This may be a big missed opportunity in your advertising; if somebody knows they will be traveling to a different part of the country, they may be more likely to get the annual pass if they realized it would be good in that other part of the country.  Just saying. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Car of the Future

You probably don't know me well if you don't realize that I was one of the first to put money down on a car that didn't exist yet - the Chevy Volt - and have since trumpeted both the praise I have for the car, as well as some of the "opportunities" we'll call them.  It is a point of pride to me to be a part of pioneering EV technology; it was not an economical decision by any means, it was 100% the draw of a cool technology that could change the world.  I fell in love the minute I first saw the concept car, and even though the real thing would not be rolled out in my state until years later, I had to get one.    

I've received tons of compliments and questions about the car, especially in the first couple years; people in the cars next to me at a stop light would signal for me to roll down my window to interview me, and I'd get stopped in parking lots all the time.  I'll never forget one taxi driver who asked me, "Does it really get awesome mpg?  How can you trust the numbers the computer gives you?"  I took a peek at my dashboard and retorted, "Well, it's been over 1400 miles since I last filled my tank, and it only holds about 9 gallons.  You do the math."  The taxi driver was so delighted, he screamed gleefully, "That's my next car!" as the light turned green and we drove off.  Sometimes people complimented me on the styling of the car, not even recognizing that it was electric.  When I told them that, they were dumbfounded!  Most EVs at the time looked like dinky capsules with googly alien eyes for headlights.  

A lot of people didn't understand the difference between the Volt's hybrid technology, or range-extended EV technology as GM tried to sell it, and that of a common Prius.  The difference, I'd have to explain over and over again, is that you can hardly ever drive a Prius for any useful distance at any reasonable speed, without the gas engine kicking on.  With the Volt, I get through most weekdays without ever using gas; the gas is there only as a backup if I run out
of electricity, and for longer trips.  While many of my eco-friendly technophile friends were gunning for the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car with a lower price-point, I knew that wouldn't do it for me because my family lives a little over 100 miles away, and the charging station at the midpoint was not installed yet (although I knew it was coming... some day).  To me, the Leaf was a great commuter car, but could not suffice as the only car of a household.  I faced a lot of criticism from the EV-purests; GM was, after all, the company reputed for killing the EV1 in the 90's, so who's to say the Volt would ever even come to fruition?  Plus, the Volt didn't qualify yet for HOV lane access, a privilege granted to the Prius and two other inferior hybrids, and all electric vehicles.  My commute at the time didn't benefit from HOV lane access much, and I stood firm on patriotic and technologically sound principles that the Volt was the way to go.  I got the last laugh, of course, as Nissan Leafs failed to hold up in the scorching heat of Phoenix summers, and all my Leaf-fanatic friends lemon-lawed or ditched their cars at a huge loss very quickly, while I am still thrilled with the performance and battery life of my Volt.

I had done all the negotiations upfront through email with the dealer in California, and he even friended me on facebook.  It was nothing like a "normal" car buying experience.  I had customized what little options there were to choose from, and the Volt Advisor assigned to me provided updates on where it was in the process and shipping.  When I arrived at the dealership, I was greeted with familiarity and hugs, even though I had never met a soul there.  I signed all the paperwork to purchase the car, and hadn't even seen it (except in passing, it was being taken to fill up as we were pulling in, and I caught just a glimpse of it).  When I finally got in the car, before I could even drive it, someone on the lot offered me $60,000 for it, almost 150% of the price I just agreed to pay through financing.  Since then, the car has been great to me, albeit some hickups along the way, but overall I am still thrilled to own Volt #492.

All that being said, the passion for EVs has faded a bit; I think the world has come to accept them more (there are 3 Volts and 2 Teslas at my work, all of which plug in, and Arizona now allows Volts to get HOV lane access which is great because my new commute practically requires it), and I think they are definitely an embedded part of the inevitable future.  It's not that I don't love my EV as much, it's just that with lower resistance comes a reduced passion to fight the good fight for EVs.  I no longer get surprised looks in parking lots, or badgering questions, and people have even stopped sending me news clips of Volts catching on fire (all of which were terribly inaccurate).  I look now to the future, which I am even more anxious and excited about.  I think the next step is autonomous vehicles, and I don't think they can come soon enough. If EVs scared the general public, self-driving technology has the potential to drive people out of the country in sheer terror.  But at the same time, I reason that the most dangerous thing you can do any day of the week is get into a vehicle.  Whether you're driving or not, you have a higher potential of dying in a car wreck than any other activity most people encounter in a year, with obvious exceptions. 

I saw a lot of irony in the fear of EVs for two reasons.  One, every person who feared the technology also owned multiple devices that employed that exact technology.  In fact, if you read between the lines in the crazy blown-out-of-proportion articles, the only ways to make a Volt catch on fire, it seemed, was to either set the whole damn place on fire, and the car would eventually catch on too, or severely damage the battery multiple times, turn it on its side, let fluids leak out for weeks, and then it might ignite itself.  So, my conclusions were, if your garage is on fire, don't get into the Volt that's in the garage, and don't stay in a Volt for weeks on end after a severe collision.  Following these two rules would prevent any death "caused" by the oh-so-dangerous Volt.  Nevermind, that it exceeded the safety regulations, it was an EV and therefore its scary!  Give me a break!  Meanwhile, iPhone batteries were burning up and endangering hundreds of people at a time on airplanes, but nobody got up in arms about those.  You know why?  Because iPhones are familiar, and Volts are not.  Second, people were perfectly comfortable driving around "internal combustion engines" - it has the word combustion right in there!  Gas is flammable, did people forget that?  Cars catch on fire from time to time, and they are not EVs.  So even if EVs were as dangerous, the worst that could happen is status quo. 

Similarly, I hear fears that I find irrational when casually discussing the potential of autonomous vehicles.  The most predominantly irritating question to me is, "What happens if the car fails to respond appropriately?"  My response is usually, "What if you fail to respond appropriately?  Or what if the car behind you fails to respond appropriately?"  Every day people die because humans fail to respond appropriately, so this fear is irrational to me.  Then again, I've been programming macros for years, and have always faced fears that the macros are doing something they aren't supposed to do.  When dealing with my macros, I reassure people that it is programmed to take the same steps you would take, it just does it a lot faster.  My experience in programming gives me faith in the potential for autonomous vehicles, because of just that. An autonomous vehicle, programmed well, would react the same way I would or should react, but much faster, and without distraction.  Whereas I may miss something while looking in a mirror, the autonomous vehicles effectively has eyes in all directions, and the logic would kick in much faster than human reaction time even without distraction.  I just finished reading, "The Great Race" by Levi Tillemann, which was primarily about the history of the EV, with an Afterword focused on autonomous vehicles.  The book cites one NHTSA study that showed "human error caused or contributed to 99 percent of incidents," translating to "tens of thousands of lives a year in America" that could be saved with appropriate automation.  I think the fear of automation is more of a control issue - if you feel like you are in control, then you have a false sense of security.  Handing that control over to a computer, even if its a more capable driver than you are, is what leads to this fear.  As for me, as long as I trust the programming and sensors, I will have no problem relinquishing control, because I believe computers are more capable already, and will only get better with time.  Even if my car's computer fails, it is likely going to do a better job handling a given situation than I would, and that's less of a risk than the risk we take every day driving ourselves to and from work. 

Yet autonomous vehicles, for all the promises they carry, do have some legitimate safety concerns.  Cyberattacks, to me, seem to be the most threatening.  There will have to be significant momentum around autonomous vehicles before hackers will bother to attempt such hacks, but as long as the cars are somehow connected to the internet, there will probably be a way to hack into them.  This is the most troubling aspect to me; because it is terribly sexy to think of being dropped off at the front door, and letting my car park itself, or better yet, generate some income for me by enlisting itself on an Uber-like service for the day, then being recalled to my location with an app on
my SmartPhone.  But in order for it to be recalled back to us, and in order for it to play on car-sharing services, it has to be connected.  And that connection point is a threat.  No amount of cyber-security will ever assure me that a connected car cannot be hacked.  So, I try to play out the scenario of a completely self-sufficient autonomous car that is not actively connected to the Internet.  Maybe we plug it in at home for a limited amount of time to get the latest map and construction updates, but once unplugged, it operates in an airplane-mode-like status.  This still poses a small threat of downloading, but at least its not an "always on" connection.  I'd imagine there could be encrypted packages coming directly from whatever authority we trust, that we put on a flashdrive and install on the cars.  We can still get traffic and weather updates on our phones live during the drive, so if something severe did come up, we could still manually tell the cars how to respond without them being connected themselves.  But this means the cars will sit, like they do today, in the parking lot and we have to go out to it to tell it where to go next.  Maybe that's the sacrifice we'd make for assured or enhanced security.  I also imagine that cars could communicate among themselves with something less than full connectivity but more than sensors; maybe a hybrid technology lovechild between Bluetooth (localized) and EDI (standardized, plain-text) so that no viruses or hacking mechanisms could attach themselves. 

The biggest barrier, as far as I can see, for autonomous vehicles is not the technology, not the consumer demand and not the infrastructure.  To me, the biggest hindrance is going to be the laws and government policies which also currently seem to be rooted in fear.  Even liability will work itself out, I think, but if autonomous cars are not allowed to drive without an alert driver, then the technology is worse than pointless.  In fact, that makes it almost more dangerous: requiring an alert driver in an autonomous vehicle means a driver who is primarily not occupied with driving and yet vehicle manufacturers hold no liability because the driver is supposed to be alert.  If "The Great Race" teaches
us anything, its that government needs to promote new and socially beneficial technologies with supportive policies, incentives and grants.  Putting up roadblocks does not deter the cars from coming into being, and it does not protect the government from being liable.  Government roadblocks will cause the host country to fall behind the technology race, and leaves the government open to lawsuits and criticism, at best.  Imagine if Canada, Europe, China and Japan all had networks of primarily autonomous vehicles racing at high speeds with fewer accidents combined than that in the state of Illinois, and the US laws prevented the technology from growing and prospering in this country.  People would be dying, becoming paralyzed or seriously injured every day, for no other reason than because of those laws.  How long would it take for victims and their families to build a class action lawsuit to remove the barriers to autonomous vehicles?  When they win, which they would, then the US would have to play catch up in the technology, maybe paying royalties to Japan and elsewhere, while the rest of the world has already benefited from years of experience and advancements.  The technology seems to be pretty robust, and America has the opportunity right now to get ahead and stay ahead in this technology. 

My Dad commuted further than the average American for a good part of my early childhood, and regularly got speeding tickets.  He always dreamed of a way to get between Phoenix and Tucson, two hours away by today's speed limits, in which cars would hook into a chain and be stacked up inches away from the next car and fly at incredible speeds of over 100 mph to shorten this well-traveled and congested route.  While I never thought it would be practical to install such a chain, I do foresee a future in which cars could travel at otherwise dangerous speeds, but being autonomous and (at least slightly) connected, would not be dangerous.  This is possible with autonomous cars.
On a freeway with four or more lanes, one could be dedicated to autonomous cars, much like today's HOV lane.  The autonomous cars could have an increased speed limit, maybe 100 mph, and even draft off each other which increases fuel efficiency in addition to reducing time traveled.  The idea of an autonomous vehicle lane, to me, may even reduce the anxiety and fears of both government and the general public.  The laws could be altered to say that alert drivers are required to enter and exit the autonomous vehicle lane, but once in that lane, the car would be allowed to take over, and the driver is freed to read the news or check facebook.  This would mean that any accidents in that lane would not impact non-autonomous traffic, and could allow for a proving ground until acceptance has broadened.

Unfortunately, if EV fears is any indication, and I believe it is, I presume that fully autonomous vehicles will not be widely adopted for a long time.  I'd like to believe that they're just around the corner, but I just think there are too many hurdles, not in technology but in regulation and consumer trust.  Instead, I think we'll see autonomous features sneak their way into luxury cars, and then trickle down to their economy counterparts.  Lane keeping, park assist and automatic braking are evidence, as these features are already present in some cars.  I don't believe autonomous cars are science fiction, I think they are inevitable.  The questions will be, how long does it take to get there, and who will lead us into this inevitable future?

A close relative was walking down the street last Halloween, hand-in-hand with her husband.  They had just moved to their dream retirement house in Florida, and they walked every morning.  A presumed distracted driver veered to the side of the road, hit her and killed her almost instantly.  To me, whenever autonomous vehicles are rolled out on a mass scale, they will be too late.  But, better late than never.  

Let's get to work America, and make our roads safer for all the lives that can still be saved. 


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mid-Year Resolutions Reset

We're just past the halfway point through the year, and I believe that New Year's Resolutions aren't just for January 1 because it is never too late to make it a great year.  That being said, it has been a great year so far for me, even judging by the resolutions I set at the end of 2014:

  • Shoot to check off four Life List items - DONE!  In fact, I did them all on one sweeping, epic roadtrip!  I wouldn't mind knocking one more off, with wine festivals coming up in Arizona, I could crush grapes with my feet!  #Wino
  • Hike Seven Falls in Tucson - DONE!  It wasn't spectacular because the water wasn't flowing, but we did it.  Maybe worth doing again sometime when its not as scorching and has potential of water flow.  
  • Go on a date to one of the events at Desert Botanical Gardens - Not done yet, we missed the last few Music in the Garden events due to the roadtrip, but there's still time.  The upcoming schedule should be released soon.  Don't disappoint, DBG! 
  • Expand my vocabulary.  Learn new words and use them in my blog. - I'm on the fence about this one.  It was a great idea, and I've been receiving words-of-the-day from two apps, but I can't say new words have actually made their way into my vocabulary.  I am culpable of skipping them altogether at times.  There we go, culpable is a word I've never used before.  
  • Learn to cook a new dish - using a crock pot, oven or stove - I TRUMPED this one, creating my own awesome dish that requires an oven AND a stove - my amazing cilantro-lime quinoa stuffed bell peppers.  So what if nobody else likes them, I think they're awesome!  And they're so photogenic!  
  • Take a lesson in blues dancing - DONE!  I wouldn't mind more, but we did knock out one lesson and even danced on the floor socially a bit.  
  • Make a gingerbread house - Not quite the time of the year yet, so this is still to come.
  • Host a game night or dinner - We hosted a dinner party for Jaiman's birthday in January.  Despite the turkey frying taking longer than expected and then coming out extra crispy, I think it was a success.  I'm still up for hosting a game night before the year is out.  Who wants to come over?  

Since most of these resolutions have been completed at least satisfactorily, I'm feeling pretty good.  Still, I'm not ready to call it game over with 2015, not nearly.  A few things that have piqued my interest recently, so I'm going to amend my remaining resolutions with some new ones.  Here goes, resolutions for the rest of 2015:
  • Make a gingerbread house (from prior list)
  • Host a game night (repeat)
  • Expand my vocabulary (continuation)
  • Go on a date at DBG (from prior list)
  • Check out some travel agent webinars (new)
  • Research solar panels (new)
In addition, here are some things to look forward to for the rest of the year:
  • August: Perseids Meteor Shower (peaks August 12th)
  • September: Total Lunar Eclipse (Sept 28)
  • November: See The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 (Nov. 20, 2015)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

How to Plan and Survive an Epic Roadtrip

I feel overwhelmingly fortunate that I had the opportunity this summer to take a roadtrip around the country with my favorite travel partner, my boyfriend Jaiman.  Armed with my ambitious life list and inspired by Jaiman's love of roller coasters, we crafted a plan for an epic roadtrip that we will forever remember.  A planner by trade, I naturally handled much of the logistics to prepare for the trip, but worked with Jaiman to make sure it was both realistic for us, and hit the best of the best.  We had a few learnings, but for the most part, I would say it was a major success, largely in part due to the planning and preparation as described here.  So, if you aspire to craft your own epic roadtrip, here is how to succeed in planning and surviving such a trip.  

Dream big
With your key destinations in mind, review your life list (/bucket list), ask your friends or colleagues for ideas, use "10 best" lists online, and get all the ideas on paper. Our trip was focused on Six Flags parks, but I also wanted to knock off some life list things, and Jaiman wanted to add Busch Gardens into the mix.  Look for events in the target areas that are of interest.  Think about your interests and look for unique and special venues.  For example, beer enthusiasts should check out breweries of their favorite beers.  Car enthusiasts may find some fun car-related museums.  Don't just go for the cliche landmarks, make your trip personal.  

Map it out by day
I used Excel for this purpose, just because it gave me lots of columns to put in data about each day.  I didn't know what dates we would start and end when I started, so I had Day 1, Day 2, etc going down the sheet. Use Google Maps or Mapquest to determine drive time and distance from stop to stop. Be realistic about how much you can drive in one day. We had some long drives to get out of and back into the southwest; 16 hour driving days are not for everyone. Also, allow for time to fill up on gas, bathroom breaks and stopping for food.  If you're planning around a certain event, you'll want to note what date(s) that event are on, and then plan forwards and backwards from that.  I was primarily planning around Taste of Chicago which lasted 5 days, so I had some flexibility, as long as we were in Chicago for at least one of those days.  

Trim it down
Chances are, if you did a good job dreaming big, then your roadtrip plan is much longer than you can actually afford to take off. Maybe not, but you may still want to remove lower priority items anyways because busy roadtrips can be exhausting. Either way, look at what activities could be done in a half day when you allocated a full day, or where you can have an early start or late night to get you to the next destination a little sooner. Cut out activities you think are unnecessary now that you've planned everything. My first roadtrip plan spanned 3.5 weeks, and I was able to chop it down to 2.5 weeks without missing too much.

Note opening and closing times
Certain types of venues may have unusual operating hours, so if it's important to you to go to certain places, and you're limited on time yourself, it's good to know the hours of those places.  We nearly missed a stop I was looking forward to on an extraordinarily long leg, because we slept in a little and then I realized that Abita Brewery closed at 3 - we were targeted to get there at 2:55.  Yikes!  Luckily, they stayed open a little late, and we were able to make it there faster than expected.  We did miss the opportunity to take a tour, but since we've done so many brewery tours, I wasn't heart broken about that.  Still, it would have been good for us to have had the option by getting there by 2.  Another example, we were planning on going to the Arch the night we arrived in St. Louis, but decided that it would be cutting it close and we'd have to go get dinner afterwards, so we altered our plans to visit it in the morning, because Six Flags didn't open for another hour after anyways.  That way, we were able to eat dinner before checking into the hotel, and then we didn't have to go back out again that night.  

Establish sleeping arrangements early on
Once you have your plan, start looking at hotels, airbnb, and reach out to your friends and family in the areas to figure out where you will stay. The hotels in one of my destinations nearly sold out a full 6 months before my trip! I use Travelocity because there are a lot of hotels with free cancellation, in case plans change, and I can pay with PayPal credit for 0 interest for 6 months or pay at the hotel. About half way through our trip, we were getting a little burnt out, so we decided to move some things around, and I had just enough time to cancel one booking and book another, so the free cancellation is definitely nice, especially in the back end of the trip or when activities aren't as high a priority. 

Make a list, check it twice
Start a list of to do's and stuff to bring weeks before D-Day (Departure Day), preferably on your phone so it's with you wherever, so if you think of something while you're in the mall, you can add it immediately. Check the list with your travel companions. Review the list of your activities and make sure you have what you need for all of those. One thing I never think about (until this trip) is aloe vera - I bring sunscreen but inevitably get a little toasted anyways, and then I have to go buy aloe to treat it. So bring both! Think about appropriate footwear, technology needs, different weather conditions you need to prepare for, how you will entertain yourselves while not driving. Then, as you start to pack and knock off the to-do's, mark them as complete. Some things you won't be able to pack until you're actually ready to leave, so keep those open until actually in the car. The last thing you should do is go through the whole list (even completed items) to make sure something didn't get unpacked or forgotten.

Pack healthy snacks
The worst part of traveling for me can be the weight gain because I tend to let loose and try all the local cuisine. So to minimize this concern, I brought several healthier snacks such as Hummus Chips, Wheat Thins Popped Crackers, fruit snacks made with real fruit and lightly salted almonds. Sure, I still enjoyed fries and pizza and all the bad-for-you-but-so-good food at various destinations, but at least we were snacking healthy while trapped in the car for hours on end.

Decide how you will communicate
With our lives so publicized on social media, an epic roadtrip can flood your friends' facebook feeds. I debated putting a restraining order on our social media altogether, for the novelty of being disconnected for 2.5 weeks and so we can share our adventures all at once upon returning. But I've also found that friends can give you great tips if they see you're near their hometown or an area they're familiar with. Plus, I've been told (and assume it to be true) that people like to follow us on our adventures. So I settled on uploading pictures at key checkpoints, and a few other bonus things I'll talk about later. I wanted to make a video montage, which means I need to save some things for that, otherwise it would just be a re-hash of my previous postings. I also thought it would be fun to send postcards, because everyone likes getting real mail. But since most of the people receiving postcards would also be seeing my posts in close to realtime, my goal was to save funny anecdotes or jokes for the postcards and video montage only. This prevented the dreaded over-sharing on Facebook. I collected addresses before my trip, and included stamps, a clipboard and a pen on my packing list so I was ready to write and mail as soon as I got the postcards (and it wasn't my turn to drive).

Print select maps
Many of us are used to relying on our phones for directions, and so we can be caught off guard if the GPS isn't connecting or there other issues preventing us from using nav. So my advice is to review your plans and identify areas where you might need manual maps or directions, and print those out ahead of time. For example, part of our epic roadtrip took us from Chicago to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and then to the east coast. So crossing into Canada, we planned to set our phones to airplane mode to avoid international charges. Thus, I printed out maps to get around in Canada. Another example was my friend's house not pulling up on maps even at home, so I made sure to get directions before leaving so we wouldn't be scrambling.

Consider car maintenance
We were fortunate that we were taking a brand spanking new car, so this wasn't much of a concern for us, but typically you'd want to at least think about what maintenance you'd want to complete before or maybe even during the roadtrip. Think oil changes, tire rotations, filing tires with air.  We did add air to the tires while on the roadtrip, but didn't require anything major until back home.

Make it productive
I think vacations can be even more fulfilling with some select productivity activities. Rather than just planning on sleeping and listening to music the whole drive, consider an audio book everyone can enjoy (we brought Jurassic Park the audio book), or use Pimsleur to learn a new language (see if you can get them from your local library so you don't have to shell out the big bucks). I encouraged Jaiman to bring his ukelele to practice; he almost didn't because it needed to be restringed, but hey, he can restring it in the car too! I did a lot of writing (postcards and blogs). Imagine coming back from a roadtrip having learned a new language or an instrument! Now there's a story!

Vary your footwear
I didn't invent this tip, I read it somewhere a long while back, but it really helps. This is especially true if you will be wearing heels, but any time you plan on doing a lot of walking and standing (more then usual), it's a good idea to bring a change of shoes and swap then out regularly. Your feet will rub and wear in different places, so as not to aggravate one area over and over again. In addition, while closed-toed shoes may be more appropriate and provide arch and ankle support, putting on loose-fitting sandals will allow your feet to stretch.  I've found some pretty awesome sandals that wrap around your ankle, so they are secure enough to take on roller coasters, but are made of yoga mats - I highly recommend these for theme parks, especially if you plan to get on a water ride because they dry quickly and don't slip when wet.  Foot massages and elevation at the end of the day will also help you recover quickly so you can be back at it the following day.

Plan your souvenirs
There's a sort of frenzy I see in people visiting a new place. They've had such a great time, they want to cherish it, often by buying everything they see. "So-and-so would really like this, and let's get these for you-know-who."

I think it's helpful to preemptively plan what souvenirs are acceptable. I collect shot glasses from the places I go; they're small, relatively inexpensive, often available, and can be very creative collectibles. Jaiman's mom collects pins and pressed pennies, easy peazy for the same reasons. Jaiman collects lanyards. We also decided to buy shirts for ourselves at the various parks, so that we could wear the shirt of a previous park at the next one. This might sound like a lot, but when temptation strikes to buy, say, a pint glass with our favorite ride emblazoned on it, it's easy to pass, because we simply don't buy those.  (I do collect pint glasses from breweries, but only because shot glasses don't make sense.) Or when the chance comes up to play a carnival game in which the losers at least get capes, we can skip it because we don't do capes. "No capes!" Knowing ahead of time what's acceptable not only prevents your from spending excessive amounts of money (do you really need an entire dining set to commemorate your fun time at M&M World?), it also saves you from buyer's remorse when you get home: if you planned to buy it, then buying it was expected and not excessive.  Since I planned to send postcards throughout my trip, that was another easy / inexpensive way to get something for the kids.  So before your next big trip, consider setting rules around your souvenirs; your budget and sanity will thank you.  One last tip, I've found that in the amusement parks, different stores carry different merchandise, so much so that we've had to back track to find that one souvenir or that one shirt in the right size; my solution is to buy it if you think it's calling to you because you can usually return it same day at a different location. 

Download apps
There are lots of neat tools out there to help you on your journey, from gas price apps to check-in apps like Swarm. Here are some that I find incredibly useful in roadtrips and why:

TripIt - This app carries my master itinerary. I like for a couple big reasons: it automatically imports your emailed confirmations into your itinerary (you just forward your email confirmation to, and because it can be shared across users/phones. So when I make a change to the itinerary, it shows on the itineraries of everyone else who is on the trip.
Yelp and/or TripAdvisor - You might already use these just to look up places around town, but when traveling they become doubly useful because you don't know the area and don't want to go to a crappy place for dinner or miss out on something awesome. 

TVFoodMaps - My boyfriend and I are self-proclaimed foodies (had to resist the urge to type a hashtag in front of that word), so this app appeals to our need to eat the wildest, most unique or most famous food around. It's how we found Tony Luke's, famous for being the home of Philly Cheesesteaks, while traveling through Philly. The app basically just shows you what places have been on TV, and which shows. 

Waze - If you're meeting up with someone and timing is tight, you can use Waze to send them your real-time location and expected arrival time. You only have to send it once and keep the app open (this does drain batteries so make sure to keep it plugged in) and they can check your status or track it as they desire. This app can be used as nav in lieu of Maps, and also has user-generated info on travel times, police on the road, accidents and disabled vehicles, etc.

Twitter - Even if you don't use your Twitter account much normally, it's nice to have handy when traveling, because you can tweet problems, memories or questions to the companies you're interfacing with. It's also useful for searching certain topics like events or amusement park wait times. At festivals and various venues, you can win awards or get your pictures on the big screen, so tweeting is good times. We won a toothbrush and travel case for my tweet at Taste Of Chicago.

Relax, enjoy and make the best of it
I tend to have trouble relaxing, because I always think I forgot something or have anxiety that I booked something wrong. But, I have learned to trust in my lists, and if something is screwed up, there is pretty much always a solution, and sometimes those make for the best adventures and funniest stories, so when it comes time to hit the road, I have to just roll with whatever comes our way. Sometimes that means missing out on something I was looking forward to, but I frame it up as a learning experience for next time. Get on your way, and see what the world has to offer!