Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category.

Tailgating at the Opera

I grew up in Texas and I am not sure the concept of tailgating I was weaned on was flexible enough to encompass the opera.  But it's good to try new things.  Here are a couple of photos from my first trip to the Santa Fe Opera

IMG_0728s IMG_0729s

Didn't see any cornhole games though.

When Divine Omniscience is Not Enough


Local Celebrity

I just read about a project dedicated to local celebrities, people who are very famous in their own backyard but not known at all beyond a small region.

The one person in this category I could think of (beyond local TV and radio personalities) is Johnny Barnes in Bermuda.   I encountered him around the year 2000 when I went to Bermuda for a job interview -- I was running Internet companies at the time and a group in Bermuda had an idea to combine an Internet B2B model with offshore banking and tax havens.  Transfer pricing games seemed to be prominent in the model.

Anyway, there he was, at a busy traffic circle almost everyone on the island passed when going to work in the morning.  He just stood there saying hello and good morning to everyone.  I found out later he was a Bermuda icon -- if he missed a day the radio stations and government offices would be flooded with calls from people asking if he was OK.  Searching the Internet, I found that someone has made a film about him.


JetBlue is Awesome

If the DirecTV at every seat (no extra charge) and extra leg room (extra charge) were not enough, it turns out JetBlue has a great ticket change policy.

We had non-refundable tickets on JetBlue for today that we really wanted to move to an earlier time.  Normally, on about any airline, that would be at least a $100 per ticket fee plus the difference in fair.  The latter portion can be substantial, as the early rate we first received almost certainly is not available today.

But JetBlue has a special policy that on day of travel, you can change coach tickets for $50 each - that's it.  No matter what the fair difference is.  So I waited until 12:01 AM to call and change my flights.  Totally awesome.

A Great Day in Manhattan for $20

I had a great day on Friday in Manhattan for the price of a $20 subway pass.  I did a lot of wandering around and people-watching, but here are three great free activities:

1.  Central Park.  Probably the greatest urban park in the world.  It is gorgeous, and everyone overlooks it.  If you have never strolled the Ramble, you will not believe you are in the middle of Manhattan.

2.  Walk the high-line park.  Another fabulous piece of landscape architecture, an old elevated rail line running north from about 14th street (just a bit south of the Chelsea Market) along the West Side that has been turned into a park and an amazing escape.  You can stroll the waterfront and urban New York without encountering a single car.  It is also incredibly quiet.  And train-lovers will appreciate that the architects kept a lot of the complex track-work as part of the landscape, almost like industrial art.

3.  Walk the Brooklyn Bridge.   I don't know that there is any similar experience anywhere else.  Something New Yorkers and tourists have enjoyed for over a hundred years.

I couldn't stay until magic hour but the view was still tremendous.

In the evening, I did whip out the wallet again and took my daughter to Ellen's Stardust Diner, near 51st and Broadway.  Total tourist trap.  Terrible food.  But an absolute blast every time.  All the waiters are out-of-work Broadway singers and they take turns singing show tunes for the restaurant as they serve.  We have walked out smiling and feeling good every time we have gone.


Cute Animal Pictures

I am just about to enter my ninth year on this blog and I realize that I have not participated much in the primary purpose of the Internet -- posting cute animal pictures.  So here is some catch-up, via a recent trip to the San Diego zoo.


Agent of the State

Somehow the picture of my son posing with one of Joe Arpaio's new recruits got messed up in an earlier post.  I know you all were desperate to see it, so here is the repaired image.

Disney World's Best Attraction

I am currently sitting in Disney's best attraction, and it is almost empty: The lobby of the Grand Floridian Hotel, with their orchestra playing. Even if you don't stay here, find an excuse to stop here on the monorail one evening. great way to decompress from the running-with-the-bulls experience in the parks, and a better time machine than any of their rides.

Bring on the Financial Apocalypse, I Will Ride it Out Here

Often ranked among the best beaches of the world, this is the beach at the Mauna Kea Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.  I don't usually take summer vacations given the nature of my business, but we are celebrating my wife's 50th.   Yes, that is the view from my room, thanks to our awesome cousin who is a manager at the resort.

What Are You Doing After the Rapture? I'm Going to DisneyWorld

Apparently, certain religious prognosticators are forecasting sunny weather with a chance of rapture this Saturday.  I have decided to enjoy the beginning of the end with my daughter at DisneyWorld.  My hope is that once all the good Christians ascend in to Heaven, the lines will be a lot shorter for those of us left behind.  Besides, perhaps there will be a post-apocalyptic opportunity to play out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

For a variety of reasons related in part to my dad's company's sponsorship of certain things Disney, I have been to DisneyWorld a ridiculous number of times.  My Disney reviews are here.

Another Problem With TSA Body Scanners

I can't go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow -- there used to be a bagel store near my house whose work flow was so awful and inefficient it almost caused me physical pain just to be in the store.  In large part I owe my marriage to operations analysis, as I started going out with my wife when I was tutoring her on cycle times and other basic concepts.

So beyond the obvious privacy and invidual rights problems, TSA screening areas have always driven me nuts because they are so inefficient.  Yesterday I was putting on my shoes and belt after another run-in with the visible hand of the state, and it gave me time to watch the full body x-ray scanners for a while.  They had been bought in sufficient quantity to replace the metal detectors one for one, but there seemed to be a problem.

While people flowed through the metal detectors, at a rate of at least 15-20 per minute, the full body scanner seemed really slow.  In fact, I sat down and timed it for a while.  The scanner was working at a rate of 3 people per minute. This was with a queue at the front end so there was no waiting time for a new person to enter when the scanner was ready.  A couple of times it did 3.5 per minute, but never did it do 4 in a minute.    This seems like a real problem -- that capacity per lane has been reduced by a factor of 5 or so from the metal detectors.  Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that, because a parallel process of scanning the luggage in the x-ray machine has to complete simultaneously, and before the new scanners the x-ray was definitely the bottleneck.  But each time I went through this week my luggage sat complete on the x-ray machine before I finished being scanned, which suggests to me that the bottleneck has shifted, and we have spent a lot of money to slow down an already time consuming process.   That is why most airports have kept their metal detectors --they need them for overflow capacity.

Here is a second issue with the scanners -- they appear to take 3 times as much manpower.  The old metal detectors required one person.  The new machines appear to require 3 -- one person is at the machine, giving instructions; a second person watches you in a sort of holding area downstream of the machine as you wait for the scan results; and third person is somewhere out of site, on a radio, presumably looking at monitors and calling in results to the second person.  No wonder the TSA loves this technology - 3 times more staffing!

Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.

More Italy

After several more days and locations (Florence, Cinqueterre via Portovenere) I am left with one question:  Why is it that even supposedly elegant European hotels charging many hundreds of Euros a night for a room are oblivious to the quality of their beds?  I am getting tired of paying tons of cash for rooms with bed linens whose quality is measured in "grit" rather than "threadcount."  The beds are uncomfortable and the pillows are awful.   The blankets are sick polyester jokes that Motel 6 would be embarrassed to offer.  For the price of just one night's room rent I could go to IKEA and outfit the rooms better.  It's not like I am some spoiled princess-and-the-pea sleeper -- I stay in a lot of cheap hotels and I tent camp, for god sakes.  My camping equipment is more comfortable than these beds.  I routinely stay in $70 hotels in the US and never get beds or linens this bad.  Do they not care, or is this what Europeans all sleep on at home?

OK, rant over.  Florence was as great as it always is.  There is way too much stuff to do there ever to get bored, all within just a few minutes walking.   Unlike past visits, we entirely skipped the Uffizi and hit a lot of historic buildings we had missed before (e.g. Medici Palace).  I enjoyed it but if you are on your first visit, the Uffizi is a must.  Also saw a bit of above-average engineering, like this:

Seriously, I wonder if I could have -- without a)  any kind of materials strength data base; b) no structural steel or modern concrete; c) no CAD facility -- designed and built such a thing in the 1400s, even with the Pantheon as a go-by to copy.  Really remarkable.

In Florence, there is a famous bridge called the Ponte Vecchio which is actually covered in buildings:

You can't tell from this picture, but the bridge (open only to pedestrian traffic) is lined with at least 40 jewelry stores.  Seriously, each storefront has bout 6 feet of space, and every one had a window with zillions of gold trinkets.  It got me thinking about the paradox of choice.  It's not hard to buy into the economic theory that too much choice may inhibit purchase while walking along this bridge, though I am told most of these folks do very well (I have never bought into the paradox of choice as social theory -- the one that says people would be happier with fewer choices.  If this were true, we would all be emigrating to North Korea).

Speaking of pedestrian streets, one important takeaway from Italy has been that one should never assume a road is too narrow, even if it is no wider than your pantry door, for a vehicle to come racing through any second.  The other day I was in a really narrow alley I thought was foot-traffic-only when a bus(!) came screaming down the lane like a piston through a cylinder.  Only a well-located doorway got me out of the way, and even then the bus's mirror clipped my arm.

The last few days we have been staying at the port town of Portovenere on the Italian Riviera.

The town itself is attractive with a fair amount to explore for its size.  I experimented some with night photography from my room

I have some other exposures that I want to try with HDR software to try to bring out a bit more of the buildings.   The town was kind of fun on a Saturday night -- in addition to a couple of rowdy weddings, there were also a lot of BIG boats that came in for dinner in the evening.  Very nice (except for my bed).

Portovenere is a convenient gateway to the Cinqueterre, five absurdly picturesque downs laid down in about 1100 AD by Walt Disney to attract American tourists.  You may have not heard their names, but you have likely seen one or all of them the last time you were at an art fair in one of the photo exhibits -- here is one example (though they had the patience to wait for a time of day where the lighting was better, presumably in the early morning).

More than the towns, I enjoyed the walking trail in between, which is an attraction in and of itself.  It winds through wilderness and vineyards along the coast.  All through the vineyards I kept seeing what looked like a guide rail for some sort of gear-driven device.  The rail wound up and down the hills and through the vineyards.  I had assumed that it was some sort of irrigation system where the sprinkler moved along the rail (though I could not figure out how the water supply would work).  Then I found this absolutely awesome piece of steampunk-style tech:

It is hard to tell, but its a little one-person monorail that rides on the rail and pulls a couple of carts behind the "engine."  This is why I could not find any roads or really many trails in the vineyards -- they use these cool things to move about, do maintenance, and bring in the crop presumably.  And the rail does not run on the ground, but 4-5 feet in the air, so one can see over all the vines and brush.  Totally awesome.  And not a seatbelt to be found on it, which made me love it all the more.   I loved it so much, here is another shot head-on (sorry it is overexposed, I don't have the energy to edit it right now).

Thoughts on Milan

I don't promise posts every day or even any other day of the trip, but since I have a quiet moment, and my wife is writing in her diary, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

  • Milan is way underrated as a tourist spot, at least for a day or two.  It has the reputation of being a cold industrial town, and much of it may be that way, but the center of the city is quite nice to visit.  It was a legitimate rival to Florence and Venice in the Italian Renaissance.  Lots of good shopping, some good tourist sites, and the streets, particularly at night, are great to walk around.  The weather is wonderful, which helps.
  • Single impression I will hold from Milan:  Very attractive women dressed to the nines in chic outfits wearing 5-inch heels -- all while riding a bicycle.  They are all over the place.  And as for the overall rating for the lady-watching, I don't think any spot will surpass Buenos Aires in my book (with Beverly Hills probably as a #2) but Milan very much held its own in that department.
  • Stayed at the Park Hyatt on points (thank God because it is really expensive).  This is one great hotel, in a fabulous location with the best service I have ever received.
  • If you are coming to Milan, fly into Linate rather than Malpensa if you can -- the difference in time to the center of town is about an hour.
  • Milan is a great place to start your trip in norther Italy.  One can fly here from about any where in the world and they have fast, cheap trains that go everywhere in Italy.
  • Speaking of trains, don't ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  I bought one out of habit (the Swiss pass is awesome) and because last time I drove in Italy my car was hit 3 times in 1 week.  But train travel in Italy is so cheap that the pass is not worth it, and almost every good train requires a reservation (and reservation fee) which defeats the "just walk on the train" advantage of the pass.  Also, as an American, the Trenitalia web site is endlessly frustrating, and won't accept most American credit cards, so the only way you can reserve a train in advance (which you must do) is to trudge to a travel agency or train station in Italy.  You can do it from a few US web sites but they add on huge fees.
  • The Cathedral (Duomo) in Milan was right next to our hotel and is the 3rd or 4th largest in Europe.  I found it kind of unexceptional, except for its size (and perhaps the beautifully sculpted front doors).  The interior highlight is probably the large stained glass windows (OK and the body of the saint lying in a room whose design looks like it was pulled right out of the haunted mansion ride at Disneyworld was interesting too).  However, there is one other thing unique about the Duomo that was fun -- you can go up and walk on the roof.  Not just go up in a tower, but walk all over the roof and in between the flying buttresses.  Great view and enjoyable

  • The Sforza Castle, for all its history, is about the bleakest and most overtly military building I have ever seen produced by the Italian Renaissance.  But probably appropriate for their history, given that the Sforza's were top generals to the Milanese Dukes before they took over the succession, and Milan was really home for the Renaissance era defense industry.
  • The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele is is a great Victorian-style glassed arcade near the Duomo.  The structure is cool but unfortunately there is not really anything inside to do it justice.

  • Took a lot of 3-shot photo series with a bracketing of low to high exposures so I could play with some new High Dynamic Range imaging software. This kind of scene above, with lots of texture in the buildings that gets washed out by the sunlight from the glass dome, hopefully will work well.  I will report on results.
  • On to Florence today, where we have a beautiful deck overlooking the Arno and Ponte Veccio and views from the rooftop restaurant all around Florence.  At least if the goofball in the black shirt would stop jumping in front of the camera.

Back from the Big Floating Leisure Suit

I am back from the family reunion (my wife's family) which was held on a cruise last week.  The cruise was a really good venue for a family reunion -- small enough that you run into people, but large enough to escape them too.  Every night we had 4 large tables to ourselves in the restaurant.

The cruise itself was a little disappointing, but it was chosen more for being low cost and accesible to the entire group, so I can live with that.   There were way too many people in my space for my personal taste.  Someday I want to take a much smaller boat, maybe in the Greek Isles.

A couple of things amazed me.  One, the port of call in Mexico was really a dump.  And this is from someone who has spent time in Mexico, good places and bad, and has some fondness for the country.  I figured out the reason when I was laying on the deck and saw the Panamanian flag flying form the back of the boat.  By US law, for a non-US flagged ship to leave and return to a port (in this case Long Beach), it must stop in between in another country.  I am sure the cruise line would love to run four day cruises say between San Diego and Santa Barbara or San Francisco, but that would be illegal unless they took on the prohibitive cost of operating a US-flagged ship.  So we stopped in a little industrial town just over the border to make it all legal.

The other thing that amazed me was the decor of the ship.  I would have bet money that the ship was designed in the 1970's.  Our room, which had a balcony, was nice, but the common areas were right out of bad 1970's casino ambiance.  Amazingly, though, the nameplate said it was built in 1998.  Not sure what these guys were thinking.  I called it the great floating leisure suit.

Internet service was $24 per hour, so I did not do any blogging, but the good news is I got a ton of writing done on my new novel.

Cool Places I Didn't Know Existed

Via Scouting NY, restored 19th century domed West Baden Springs Hotel.  In southern Indiana.  I am amazed I never heard of it, because I used to run campgrounds almost next door to it.

Great Moments in Government Process Innovation

I have noticed recently that the TSA has created split lines at many airport security screening posts - one for experienced travelers and one for "casual" travelers - i.e. noobs.

I have no problem with the basic idea.  Long ago I began advocating special lines for public electronic devices (airport boarding pass machines, supermarket self-checkout, ATM's) for people with IQ's over 90 because I always seemed to get behind the person who had never even seen a keyboard in their life.

But the actual execution of this concept in airports is laughable.  In the last 4 airports I have been in, the split between passengers who know what they are doing and those who don't is only through the screener who checks ID.  Even the lamest travel noobs are generally able to cough up an ID and boarding pass without too much trouble (though I will say I always seem to get behind the guy traveling on some bizarre 1930's-era League of Nations passport that seems to take forever to process).  However, after this ID screening the two lines come back together and everyone is mixed again.  Just in time to hit the x-ray screening station, where inexperienced travelers can hold up the line for hours.

Like Some Weird Cargo-Cult Temple

Passed this the other day in Guntersville, Alabama.  Where vending machines go to die.



I wish I could have shot it from the air.  None of the ground pictures really do the monument justice.

Greetings From London

Despite the fact that there is plenty to blog about right now (I think I have 551 unread articles in my feed reader) I will have to ignore much of it as I spend this week in London.  My son is going to summer school at Cambridge and he and I are spending this week together in London.


As is typical of flights to London, we arrived at about 8AM.  I tried to share with my son the virtues of my long experience travelling (telling him to gut it out and not sleep on arrival day) but you know how teenagers are about listening to parental wisdom.  So while he napped, I wandered around some areas of Westminster I had never seen before, including Westminster Cathedral:


I found this to be an odd church.  Byzantine on the outside, the inside is much more reflective of its Victorian heritage, with monolithic brick vaults.  It could have been quite beautiful inside, but the upper reaches of the church, including its domes, are entirely unfinished brick - not even a plaster coating.  The sign said that it was left unfinished for future generations to add murals, but given that about 5 generations have passed since its construction, it is probably time for a bit of decoration.  Right now the ceiling looks like the interior of a coke oven.  I did, however, walk into a mass in progress (which is why I have no interior pictures) and the organ and choir were magnificent.

Notes from Touring Washington, DC

We just finished up 4-1/2 days in Washington, DC, and I wanted to share some thoughts of various attractions.  Unlike with Disney World, I am not a Washington expert, so others are welcome to comment with their thoughts.

Hotels: Right now, hotels are offering screaming deals.  I have become a Hotwire aficionado, in large part because I discovered this site which helps one break the secrecy at Hotwire and figure out in advance, with a fair bit of certainty, exactly what hotel for which one is signing up.  As a result, I got a $165 rate at the Willard, right next to the White House, which was less than my sister paid for a Residence Inn out at Dupont Circle.  And unlike many hotels who sometimes put Hotwire customers in the worst rooms, we got a huge room, really a suite.  And there is no better location for being a tourist in Washington than the Willard.

Restaurants: We had really bad luck with restaurants for dinner.  There are plenty of chains for predictable meals, but we tried several local favorites and were disappointed each time, even after checking them out at TripAdvisor (another favorite site of mine).  I don't know if this was bad luck or a statement on Washington dining.  We did have a good meal in Georgetown, where there are lots of choices.  It looked like there were some nice places with cafe-style outdoor dining on Wisconsin Ave near the center of Georgetown, but I can't remember any of their names.  We had ice cream in Georgetown at Thomas Sweets, a family favorite we knew because it is an institution at Princeton.

Lunches, on the other hand, were a pleasant surprise.  Both the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum had very nice cafes with lots of dining choices, good salad bars, etc.  We liked these better than the all-McDonald's fair at the Air and Space Museum.

Never, ever eat breakfast in a fancy hotel, unless you are very wealthy.  We tried the outdoor cafe one day at the Willard and ended up with the classic 5-star 4 croissant $100 breakfast.  We quickly found a bakery a block away by the Filene's Basement that was just fine for breakfast.

Transport: At the Willard, we were walking distance from nearly everything we wanted.  The Washington subway system is very good and cheap, and we used it several times (after all, my tax money pays for it so I might as well).  Cabs seem cheap but beware -- they add $1.50 for each extra person beyond one and some amount for each bag in the trunk.  We took the cab to National Airport when we got pinched for time (the subway goes right there) and found that we had an $11 charge before the wheels even started to roll.  Fortunately, National was so close the final bill was less than $25.  Cabs are therefore better for long trips than short ones.

Memorials: We walked around the Washington monument but did not go up  (we were way too late in the day to get tickets).  For various reasons related to the elevation and the buildings on the mall, the area at the base of the monument is windy as heck, even if the rest of DC is calm, so it is a nice place to relax with a good view on a hot day.  The Lincoln Memorial is far better seen at night than during the day.  The memorial is powerful, but the view from it at night is awesome.

The Vietnam War Memorial is simply awesome.  I have never yet found a war memorial that is more moving.  Unlike many memorials, it is truly dedicated to the individuals who fought and died.  In contrast, the WWII memorial is, to my mind, a complete loss as a memorial.  While dramatic architecturally and in a great location, it produces zero emotion.  It has monuments to states and places, not people.

Air and Space Museum: Always a winner.  I have never met a person who didn't enjoy it.  But expect crowds to be high -- this is by far the most popular spot on the mall.   The IMAX shows get most of the attention but I found the planetarium shows to actually be more interesting (though visually less stunning).

National Gallery: I struggle with large art galleries.  My favorites are places like the Frick in New York, which are easily digestible.  I floundered in the Louvre -- there is just too much.  I found the National Gallery to be a nice size -- large enough to have some great pieces, but small enough that one can get through several different eras in a single visit.  My wife likes the French impressionists, while I like the earlier Dutch, and there was good stuff for both of us to see.  I thought the modern art collection in the annex was pretty mediocre.  There is a fabulous huge Calder in the atrium, however, that is worth a quick peak inside.

Natural History Museum: This one is tough.  Either you have to see it for 5 minutes or 5 hours.  One can jam through and see the Hope diamond and the squid and a few other attractions, or one can really take time to learn from the exhibits, in which case one needs to be prepared to stay quite a while.  To the latter goal, I prefer the new reorganization of the Natural History museum in New York -- I think it is more logical and really helps one understand the evolution and relationship of species better.

Museum of American History: This museum has changed several times, looking to find its niche.  I think it used to be more of a technology museum.  I actually loved the old museum, full of old steam engines and machinery, but I think my kids liked the new version better, which is aimed more at being a history museum (there is still a technology portion, with some good machinery, cars, and trains, but it is smaller).  The military history section is good, and fills a niche that really hasn't existed before in this country, though it falls far short of, say, the Imperial War Museum in London.  My wife always likes to check out the first lady gowns.

International Spy Museum: I was kind of skeptical of this, thinking it might be like a Madame Tussuad's or some-such.  But this museum was fabulous.  It had great exhibits, and was very well organized.  Had the single best combination of any museum we went to of cool exhibits combined with teaching.  The kids loved it too, as there were some good kids activities and lots of interactive things.  In addition to the museum, we also did an interactive experience with a group of 12 folks for about an hour.  This was a simulated spy mission, complete with eavesdropping, breaking in and searching an office, interrogation, etc.  Maybe a bit campy for adults, it is very well done and the kids loved it.  Like Disney but much more interactive.  Note that both the museum and the experience require advanced reservations.

White House: Probably my biggest disappointment of the week.  Note that currently, the only way you can get a tour is through your Congressman -- you have to contact his or her office and get them to schedule you a time, and you have to submit some personal information in advance for security checks.  Having gone through this, I thought we might actually get, you know, a tour.  But instead all we got was the right to join an endless, really slow-moving line that allowed us to see about three rooms with no tour guide or interpretation.  Kids like being able to say they had been there, but that was about the only value.

Capitol: One can sign up for a public tour, in which case you will, from my observation, stand in some huge lines.  If you want to bypass this, and you are talking to your Congressperson already for the White House tour, see if you can get a staff-led private tour.  One of John Shadegg's aids showed about eight of us through the capital and into the House gallery.  She did a very good job (thanks Congressman Shadegg!) and we skipped most of the lines.  By the way, I did indeed see our new billion dollar visitor center.  It was enormously disappointing.  The public spaces were huge, but mostly filled with queues (apparently most of the space was appropriated by Congress for their own use as offices and meeting rooms).  We saw a film in a nice theater, but the propaganda meter was turned up pretty high  (They kept calling the capitol the "temple of liberty."  Really?  Someone must have forgotten to tell Congress).

Archives: You gotta go see the big documents.  The Bill of Rights, a copy of Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence are all there (though the Declaration has really faded).  If we have a "temple of liberty" in Washington, this is more rightly it.  Or maybe it is more rightly called the reliquary of liberty.  There can be a line, but this changes a lot through the day.  If it looks like a long wait, come back in a few hours and the line may be gone.  Also, they have opened up new galleries that are usually totally uncrowded with a lot of other cool documents.  I could have spent all day here but my family dragged me out.

Botanical Gardens: The surprise of the trip.  We tripped over this place by accident, as it seems to have few visitors.  I never even knew it existed, which is odd as it is cleverly hidden right on the mall next to the capitol.  The big glass conservatory has 8 or 9 zones with different plants from desert to tropical.  This is an outstanding place to decompress, and surprisingly my kids even liked it.  If you go, don't forget to go up the stairs to the catwalk in the jungle canopy, which includes a pretty unique view of the capitol building.

Places we missed but wanted to go:  Jefferson Memorial, Hershorn Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Air and Space Museum Annex (near Dulles).

Many people seem to like the FBI tour, but I just couldn't stand the thought.

Updated Disney World Reviews

I have updated my post on Disney World reviews and advice based on my October trip with my daughter.  Below is a picture from the trip.  I am the one in orange.