Wednesday, November 08, 2017

World tour: Spain

We started our time in Spain with a brief stop in Madrid followed by ten days in each of Toledo, Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona.  We spent about five weeks in Spain altogether, covering all of October.

The stop in Madrid was a logistical detail leftover from Ryanair canceling our flights to Spain.  Our real journey began in Toledo.  When we arrive in a new place, we usually try to walk from the train station to our house so that we can get a feel for the city.  That's not always possible, but it usually works well.  In Toledo, it was a great walk.  The route took us near a couple of ancient bridges into the city, past some great views of the Alcazar on the hill and through a canyon along the Tagus river:


One of our goals for living abroad is for our kids to learn how to navigate through places they're unfamiliar with.  We take turns having each kid lead us to our destination by following signs or maps.  Sometimes we get lost, sometimes we arrive unscathed and we almost always have fun.  Here's Gideon leading the way through Toledo's old city:


One challenge we've noticed with traveling and living abroad is that all seven of us are in tight quarters most of the time.  In Wyoming or Iceland, when you want some private time, you walk into the wilderness, sit on a rock and stare at the clouds.  Elbow room is easy to come by in those geographies.  In the Spanish cities where we traveled, personal space is harder to come by.  Our houses in both Toledo and Cordoba had courtyards where we could be outside while still being walled off from the hustle of the surrounding city.  We instituted a family rule that the courtyards were silent places.  If anyone wanted quiet, they could retire to the courtyard for a little peace.  It's not quite a rock in the prairie, but it got the job done.  In Toledo, Haven also found some peaceful spots along the Tagus:


In Cordoba, our house was a couple blocks away from the Mezquita-Catedral.  This building had been a mosque for almost 500 years during the time that Muslims controlled Spain.  After the Reconquista, it was converted into a Catholic church.  They basically just changed the sign on the door and converted the minaret into a bell tower.  Walking through the church, it looks just like a mosque but with Christian chapels around the outside wall.  It was fascinating.  Anyway, the Cathedral has a large irrigated courtyard planted with orange trees and date palms.  During a morning visit, a branch full of ripe dates fell from a palm tree, so we all ate dates in the shade of the Mezquita.  It's a beautiful place:

In Valencia, our house was near the beach and the city's main port.  We watched container ships come and go while playing in the sand:

Valencia also has a giant playground inspired by Gulliver's time with the Lilliputians.  A giant statue of Gulliver is tied to the ground so that children can climb and slide and jump all over him.  It's hard to communicate the scale of the playground, but here's a picture of all five children scattered along Gulliver's left leg:


The timing worked out great to travel through Spain during the Catalan referendum on independence.  We were in Toledo on the day of the vote and in Barcelona when the Catalan Parliament declared independence from Spain.  The politics had very little impact on people's daily lives.  We saw no protests and only talked to one person who mentioned the situation.  The most visible sign of the process was flags flying from apartment balconies.  In Cordoba, the apartments draped a Spanish flag over the balcony to signal support for Spanish unity.  In Valencia, about half the flags were Spanish and half were the Estelada, signaling support for Catalonian independence.  In Barcelona, we saw the Estelada almost exclusively.  It was joined by flags saying "Si" or "Hola Republica".

Next stop: Marseille, France.  We'll only be there for 10 days, so I might lump it in with a blog post about Italy next month.

This may not seem like much excitement for an entire month in a foreign country.  That's partly by design.  We want this year to be more like living abroad than an extended vacation.  Most days for us are just like most days for you: we exercise, go to work, buy groceries, cook dinner, help the kids with school work.  We explore the city a couple days each week and go to church on Sunday.

The surprises of travel spice things up a bit, but not as much as you might expect.  I broke one of my ribs in Boston, so exercise has been tricky.  We ate galleta Maria with hot chocolate for breakfast every morning since that's what the Spaniards do. While trying to catch a train from Barcelona to France, we discovered that we were departing on All Saints' Day and buses to the train station were canceled. We're always glad to find a pay toilet since we know it'll be clean and fully stocked.  Small surprises like this, against a backdrop of structure, make it fun and educational without being stressful.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

World tour: Iceland

After our last minute pivot to Boston, we left for our first destination abroad: Iceland.  When scheduling flights from the US to Europe, Icelandair had some of the least expensive flights.  They also let us stopover in Iceland for up to 7 days for the same cost as flying directly to Europe.  Since we wanted to see Iceland anyway, the stopover worked great.  They turned out to be a really comfortable airline too; more pleasant than others I've tried.

We rented a small house on the south coast near Strandarkirkja.  It's about an hour's drive south of Reykjavik (which we didn't visit).  We loved the rural feel in this area.  The closest town was about 15 minutes away.  There were only about 5-10 houses near us.  Everything else was open fields, lava rocks, ocean and the occasional rainbow:


During the five days we were here, the sun shined for about 12 hours total.  It rained the rest of the time.  I thought that was pretty good weather for autumn in the north Atlantic. The kids enjoyed walking along the rocky beach near the house on one sunny day.  The water was too cold for swimming, but they enjoyed throwing rocks and watching sea critters:


When we travel, we try to live like the locals and to avoid the most popular destinations for foreign visitors.  So instead of eating at restaurants, we buy groceries at a local store and cook our meals at home.  Instead of visiting Blue Lagoon, we went to a small community pool in Hverager├░i, etc.  A slow pace in small venues suits us well.  Anyway, as you can imagine, seven Americans wandering around a small town grocery store in Iceland draws plenty of attention.  Our meager attempts at Icelandic were laughable, but everyone we encountered spoke excellent English.  Iceland is roughly the same size and population as Wyoming and they speak their own language so very few goods are manufactured specifically for the Icelandic market. That meant that their grocery store is an amalgamation of items imported from UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark with labels in the same assortment of languages.  It was fun to decipher all the languages.  We ate horse sausage with dinner one night and had Icelandic lamb another night.  We also enjoyed the name of local milk brand:

Iceland is a remarkably beautiful place.  It reminds me a lot of Wyoming: open, windy, treeless expanses in a harsh climate.  The barren landscape that we saw may not be for everyone, but we really liked it.  Other areas, like Hverager├░i were gorgeous in a more traditional way:



Our only regret about Iceland is that the stopover prevented us from spending more time here.  We enjoyed the country so much that we think we'll stay in Iceland again on our way home in the spring.

After Iceland we had planned to stay in London for a few days before flying to Madrid.  However, three days before departing Iceland, Ryanair canceled our flight to Madrid so we had a quick, overnight turnaround in London instead (the only flight remaining).  We should be able to see London in the spring when we return to the UK.  We did enjoy seeing London at night as the plane landed:


Next stop: Spain

Thursday, September 21, 2017

World tour: Boston

First step in the world tour: pack our bags.  With the many planes, trains and buses we'll use over the next year, there's not much room for luggage.  Each person gets a carry-on and a laptop bag.  Brigham helped me load it all up:

And Gideon created a small token of our departure:


To kick things off, we had planned to surprise the kids with a trip to Orlando.  The ever thoughtful Hurricane Irma had her own surprise in mind: cancel our flights three days before departure.  Since we couldn't reach Orlando, we did a quick pivot to spend the week in Boston (from which our Europe flights departed anyway).  It all worked out surprisingly well.  We found a small house near Revere Beach.  Haven and Jericho insisted that the water was warm enough for swimming:


Wonderland station on the Blue Line was only a 20-minute walk from our house, so we used the T most days to travel into the city.  Our daily walks near the ocean to and from the subway became a pleasant feature of the trip.  On one walk, Brigham got bored and decided to use a small shell to collect sand from the beach and construct his own private sandbox in the shade of a gazebo.  As you can imagine, this was a very slow process:

In the city, we visited the New England Aquarium, some historic sites and Boston Common.  Walking through Boston Common one evening after dinner, we were 150 ft away from a shooting.  We heard the shots being fired and saw some of the participants dive to the ground.  The crowd scattered and we followed suit.  We joked later that we dodged a hurricane and bullets within a few days and that this trip was turning out to be more exciting than we'd expected.

We also toured Plimouth Plantation to learn about Pilgrims and contemporary natives.  The Plantation is probably the best living museum I've ever been to.  There's a lot to explore and the staff is all very knowledgeable and glad to answer questions.

On our last day in Boston, we tried to attend a local ward's Sunday meetings.  It turned out that they had stake conference that day so nobody was at the meetinghouse.  Two other groups of travelers showed up with the same plans.  After they all left, we stood outside the locked building in the shade and sang primary songs and had our own little Sunday school lesson as a family.  It was a pretty great way to spend a Sunday:

Next stop: Iceland

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Summer 2017 Road Trip

After Kinsey graduated from school in Johnson City, we spent the next couple months slowly making our way back to Wyoming.  We'd drive for 4-6 hours, stay for 7-10 days and repeat.  Except for a visit to Memphis (for Kinsey to take her TN licensing exam) and the ocean we had no planned itinerary.  We picked locations as we went.  We stayed in VRBO and Airbnb houses at most stops.  Our route ended up looking like this:



Our first stop was to spend some more time in Appalachia.  This was the view from our porch every morning:


Next to our house was a patch of wild blackberries.  The kids loved to pick and eat berries whenever they wanted a snack:

We all really enjoyed Appalachia.  There were lots of trails for hiking, beautiful scenery to explore and quiet places to enjoy.  Unlike the Rockies, the forests are dense and trails were typically a narrow path surrounded by thick foliage.  In this picture, there are three children ahead of Jericho and Brigham, but you can't see them for the trees:


Only about 70,000 people live in Johnson City, TN but that was a big city by our standards.  We'd had enough of the urban hustle by the time we left, so we spent our first month in small towns throughout the northern parts of Dixie.  In Middle Tennessee, we stayed on 50 acres near a small stream.  In the Arkansas Delta, we were in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields of cotton and rice.  The owner's 10 children lived nearby so our younger kids passed the time playing with them in irrigation ponds and climbing trees.  Kinsey and I ran the nearby farm roads each morning:

One of the kids' favorite stops was in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  We had a small house on the edge of a lake.  They spent every day jumping off the dock and getting sunburn.

While fighting with pool noodles near the water's edge, Kinsey knocked Jericho's glasses right off his face and fifteen feet into the lake (as best we could tell) so Jericho spent the next month squinting at all the scenery.  For our upcoming trip to Europe, we've packed a couple extra pair of glasses for each kid.

Hot Springs also had a small putt-putt golf course in town.  One rainy morning we decided to play nine holes and had the entire course to ourselves.  Brigham (3 years old) scored four holes-in-one on the course, three of them consecutively on a single hole. After the second hole-in-one, I bet the kids $10 that he wouldn't score another.  Nobody took the bet.

The rest of our trip had a more urban flavor.  The kids had never tried a performance Japanese restaurant, so we made an obligatory stop at Benihana:


Same story for the beach.  Padre Island was nice because we could park right on the sand.  The mornings were quiet with only a few people around.  We left the beach each day around 11 am to eat lunch, avoid the crowds and retire to the pool (which was less popular than the beach).

After Padre Island, most of our trip was devoted to visiting family.  On the way, we tried to visit the Riverwalk in Pueblo, CO and met with an unexpected and heavy rainstorm during the walk.  We took shelter under a bridge where Aravis and Brigham passed the time with a little dancing:

We had a lot of fun, made great memories and loved having months together as a family without distractions or external responsibilities.  The naps were nice too:

Of all the places we visited, Wyoming was our favorite.  On my first walk after being home, I was reminded how much I love it here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Parenting? Roll a Dice

The Problem

I have five children between the ages of 13 and 3.  Everywhere we go, there's a scarce resource that all the kids want.  Maybe it's an elevator button that everyone wants to push.  Maybe it's a favorite spot in the car where everyone wants to sit.  On the flip side, there are chores that nobody wants to do: take out the trash, load the dishwasher, etc.  I used to make assignments round-robin, trying to give each kid a turn at fun and chores.  I've tried other scheduling algorithms too, but I inevitably forget whose turn it is and then everyone tries to straighten me out: "But it was Gideon's turn last time. No, that was Haven not me. ..."

I've tried for years to convince them that these things don't matter and that life is not fair.  I'm apparently poor at communicating that message.  So I decided to take my own sermon to heart:

My Solution

If it really doesn't matter, why not pick kids at random?  I installed Random Name Picker on my phone.  I created a list named Children and added each child's name to that list.  In the list settings, I chose "With replacement" and set "# of names chosen" to 5.  When I click Choose, the app shuffles all the children into a random order.  Now that little Choose button resolves all trivial, family disputes.  We've been doing this for months and it works great.

Only space for one kid to help Dad at the store? Click Choose and the top name wins.  Choosing 2 ice cream flavors at the store? Click Choose and the top two names win.  On vacation? Click Choose in the morning and read everyone the full list to assign priority for pushing elevator buttons that day.  Assigning all children a random priority has proven especially helpful.  Each kid remembers their place in line.  No matter which subset of children happens to travel in the elevator at any given time, they instantly know whose turn it is to push the buttons.

One extra rule proved useful: Dad always clicks Choose.  Otherwise, things get meta really fast: "I get to click Choose to see who gets to click Choose to see who gets to pick the ice cream"

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Goodbye Duolingo

Today I'm giving up a 665 day streak in Duolingo.  I've removed the app from my phone.  Duolingo is still a helpful tool for many and they have potential to become great again.  Unfortunately, the trend in their recent changes has encouraged me to leave.  I'm mostly writing this to warn myself about practices that can drive customers away.

I didn't mind when Duolingo started showing ads.  I knew they had to do it eventually.  They even did a good job of showing ads in predictable locations and using ads of relatively high quality.  I anticipated a subscription model allowing me to pay $1 per month to remove the ads and expected no other functionality for my subscription.  Unfortunately, the subscription costs 10x more than I was willing to pay.  For reference, Duolingo charges $9 per month.  Netflix charges $7 per month and provides much greater value.

No big deal.  I'll skip the subscription and just look at the ad after each lesson.  I'm sure that 90% of users do the same thing.  Duolingo doesn't seem content with that, so they randomly move the location of the "close this ad" button on each page.  Sometimes it's in the top left corner.  Sometimes it's in the lower right corner.  This inconsistency is disrespectful.  It's playing games with my time in an apparent attempt to manipulate me into clicking their ads or subscription button.  If most users are going to skip the ads, the "close this ad" button should be predictable and convenient (on the bottom where a thumb can quickly reach it).

It was annoying, but I was willing to live with it.  Duolingo has to make money.  They're being a little pushy about it, but I can overlook that.  Then they changed the "strengthen my skills" button so that it only performs a timed practice.  I thought, "maybe they've seen that this produces better results, so I'll try it".  After using it for 2-3 weeks, I found myself skipping any question which took longer than 1-2 seconds to answer (listening comprehension, free text response).  The new rules of the game were encouraging me to learn a language less effectively.  For people whose focus is conversational speech, it might make sense to practice under time pressure.  My goal has always been reading comprehension.  In that context, time is not an issue.  I can spend as much time as I want on a German Wikipedia page and nobody will care.

Android has always been a second-class citizen for Duolingo.  Useful features come to iPhone first and often don't make it to Android for months or years.  It's no big deal since the core functionality is available on Android.  Duolingo makes it very clear that they're trying to hire an Android developer.  They've been trying for as long as I can remember.  A couple days ago, I installed an update to the Android app.  Even though I only use the app for 10 minutes each morning, it now consumes 9% of my battery each day.

In a market for user attention that's so competitive, you really have to play at the top of your game.  Anything pushy or disrespectful can have large costs.  Repeated minor issues like this can push a user away.  I hope I can remember that as I work on software.

Duolingo.  Thanks for 665 days of fun.  Sorry that things didn't work out between us.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Toggle syntax highlighting to catch bugs

I usually write code with syntax highlighting enabled.  While preparing my final commit message, I view the proposed diff in its own color scheme (red for removed lines, green for added lines, white for context lines).  Even though I've spent hours working on a patch, I often spot mistakes in my newly added lines as soon as the color scheme changes.  Apparently, psychologists already knew about this phenomenon: “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form.”  The article suggests other visual changes like using a different font or printing to paper.

I use two other, related hacks for helping myself find mistakes in my code:

  • go to sleep and review my code in the morning
  • watch a video, play a game, read a book, work on a completely unrelated problem to force my mind to lose as much of its mental model as possible then review my code again
In each case, the new perspective often reveals details that I overlooked before.