ESRI User Conference 2015

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to goto the ESRI User Conference in San Diego. It was quite an impressive conference with approximately 15,000 people in attendance. 

This is the second time that I have been able to goto San Diego, before was when my wife had a conference of her own there. I won't get into all the geeky details of the ESRI conference, but I think there are two things that were cool from the conference that the general public can enjoy. Most of ESRI's tools are geared towards enterprise solutions so they are paid accounts, but there are a couple of free things out there for people to try. 

ArcGIS Online.

The first one is ArcGIS online. This is basically an online mapping interface for people to create maps. Most of us are experienced with using Google Maps, perhaps even some of us out there have done some line or polygon drawing in Google. Over the past couple of years I think Google has basically ruined their mapping interface and while it is still good for routing, creating custom maps is a nightmare. 

ESRI thankfully has a pretty easy and robust solution. Over at you can setup a free account that gives you 2GB of storage space to upload files, data, images or whatever for map creation. They have really done a nice job and their embed and creation tools are really robust. Plus they have a fantastic community of "base maps" from, the USGS, etc. that people can use. It really blows Google Maps out of the water so if you do any sort of tracking with GPS for hiking, biking or whatever, I would highly recommend people check it out. 

Story Maps

The second tool thatI saw was Story Maps. This is essentially an interface for loading your maps and photos into a cool interactive web program. Have you seen those cook New York Times or National Geographic articles that use mapping and images? This does that. You'll need an account, which I noted above, but from there they have templates you can use for telling a story. Simply upload your geotagged photos from your phone, or if you have a map already made use that. There are some wonderful examples on their website in their featured content section. Here is a great example they created:


Finally we did have a bit of fun while in San Diego. The food there is always wonderful and we had an opportunity to visit the zoo one day. 

Mexico - Day 5 and flying home

So day five was just our flight home from Mexico. Overall I have to say I was really impressed and had a great time there. The people and the food were fantastic. The country was fun. I would go back in a heartbeat. 

I did however catch the infamous stomach bug so I was knocked off my feet bad with a fever for a couple of days. I ended up having to go to the doctor, but in the end I chalk it all up to part of the experience. 

Mexico - Day 4

So day four was our most touristy day of the trip. We spent the day at a place called Xcaret, which I guess I would describe as a sort of amusement park. It is built around an underground river that connects to the ocean. Basically a natural lazy river and you spend a good hour or so floating down this river to the main section of the park. 

The river was pretty cool, but they funnel everyone who enters the park to this location first so it is extremely crowded during the morning. We actually went back and tried one of the other routes on the river (there are a total of three) around 2:00 pm that afternoon and we were basically the only ones on the river at that point. 

Lunch turned out to be pretty good. It was a one of three buffets in the park and we elected to goto the Mexican one. It was huge and the food was very high quality. The horchata also really hit the spot in the afternoon heat. 

The rest of the park I would consider to be "so-so". Many of the attractions required additional expense, so we sort of meandered around there aquarium and their Mayan village section for a few hours. There was a nice botanical type garden and a pretty good butterfly house. 

Those turned out to be pretty neat, but the highlights of the day really turned out to be the shows we stumbled across. 

First was some aerial dancers who did a sun ceremony on top of a pole. You can see the photos below. 

The next performance we came across was some sort of Mayan ritual dance. Again, a great performance. 

The highlight though was the grande finale at the end of the evening, which was a two hour show starting at 7:00 pm. If you don't go to this thing I wouldn't consider the park worth it. The show was basically a highlight of Mexico's entire history and heritage and it would be the opening ceremony to the Olympics of Mexico got them. The first hour focused on the Mayan history and the arrival of the spaniards to Mexico. The second half then focused on the traditional folk music and dance from different areas of the country. 

It was incredible and I was taken aback by how much pride was displayed from the audience. Mexicans who were there at the show were singing to many of the songs and they really got into the show. It really was quite impressive. 

Mexico - Day 3

Day three in Mexico was gorgeous. The weather was amazing and not too hot. That day was our day to go scuba diving. So we did a demo of scuba diving two days earlier in the hotel pool to get an idea if either of us would "freak out" while under water. We both handled it well so we decided to sign up for the excursion.

That morning we met back at the pool and the dive instructors ran us through about two hours worth of training. We got the basics down. We then chilled at the pool for a couple of hours and then later that afternoon came back for our dive. 

Now our dive group was small, only three people but there was another group that was diving with us. I have to say that I enjoyed the dive, but I didn't quite fall in love with it as I thought I would. I had some problems equalizing the pressure in my right ear so there was quite a bit of discomfort and both Megan and I had some ear issues when we were done diving. The water was also a bit murky due to the storms that had rolled through the area a few days earlier. 

Now when they said they were going to take us diving, they really did take us diving. We dove to ten meters, which is right around thirty feet. I could see how people could possibly freakout down at this level and you do get a bit of reverse vertigo when you look up to the surface and cannot see the top of the water. 

I would highly recommend the experience though for anyone who is wishing to try it out. It was well worth it. 

After diving we then went out and had some afternoon tea on the balcony of the hotel and then went to the spa for a massage. The evening ended with some pasta at the hotel's Italian restaurant. 

Mexico - Day 2

Day two of Mexico was our big day visiting Mayan ruins. We visited the ruins of Tulum, which was costal city and the ruins of Coba, which was located about 45 km inland from the coast. 

Tulum was extremely pretty. It was a good sized city with a large wall around it located right on the cliffs of the coast. The site was completely packed with people though and it was extremely hot. Iguanas were everywhere and Megan really felt the need to try and capture them as much as she could. 

After spending a couple of hours at Tulum we then made our way over to Coba, first stopping for lunch at a local restaurant in the town. The food was just 'OK', but it was a very pleasant restaurant and we sat on an open air balcony on the second level .

Next stop was the city of Coba, just up the road. Coba was very different than Tulum. Most notably was that it was extremely spread out over a large area. So much so that it is recommended that you rent a bicycle to get around the ruins. Coba definitely had more of the pyramids that one might expect from a Mayan city. We visited three in total, plus two ball courts that were used for sport. Our guide, Paco, told us a story how one of the courts was essentially built upon a sports center that a wealthy and powerful woman from the time built for her son, who was apparently a good athlete. 

Once at Coba, we had the opportunity to do what we really came there for and that was to climb the 136 steps to the top of one of the pyramids. It was, hot but a lot of fun and the view was great. Getting back down though was a bit hair raising. 

Finally we ended our tour that day by visiting a Cenote, which is sinkhole in limestone filled with rain water. It was refreshing since the heat that day was so hot. The water was extremely cold and there were fish in there. Megan seemed to have a better time swimming in it than I did as I seemed to sink almost immediately. 

We ended our day back at the hotel at the restaurant Ventanas, which was the fanciest restaurant there. It was a gastropub so all of the food was top notch. we were exhausted though and I was literally having trouble trying to stay awake at the dinner table.

Mexico - The Flight and Day 1

A little over a week ago Megan and I went on vacation to Mexico. We wanted to use our passports this year for vacation and we also did not have much time this past spring to really plan out a trip, so an all-inclusive resort seemed like the perfect sort of trip. 

We booked our travel arrangements through Costco Travel and I have to say that I was super impressed. The itinerary that Costco provided was very thorough and they were even quick to assist me with a passport issue a couple days before. If you happen to have a Costco membership I would highly recommend you take a look at the travel options. 

Let me start of this series of blog posts by stating that I had an absolutely wonderful time in Mexico. The people were absolutely wonderful there and it really was an incredibly charming country. I wouldn't hesitate at all in recommending someone go there for a vacation and I would absolutely go back. We were impressed at how friendly not only the employees in the tourist areas were, but how friendly and genuine all of the Mexicans who were also vacationing were. We met a wonderful man named Luis who was vacationing from Mexico City and he just sort of summed up the who feeling we got about Mexico. More about him later though. 

Our flight leaving Chicago from O'Hare was of course delayed. Megan and I were stuck sitting in the airplane at the gate for about forty five minutes while another passenger had to deal with a passport issue. I guess they didn't have Costco Travel. Once we left Chicago our landing was also delayed in Cancun by about another hour due to a major storm in the area. Finally though we were able to land and get into Cancun where we hopped on a shuttle at took an hour ride south to Playa Del Carmin where our hotel was the Royal Hideaway Playacara.

We arrived at our hotel close to 5:30 that evening and it was a long day. I have to say though that the hotel was incredibly impressive, as were most of the hotels we saw. All of the hotels had these incredible, open courtyards. When we checked in we were seated at a desk and met one on one with the staff to get our keys while they gave us lemon towels for hour hands, champagne and chocolate. The concierge then made a reservation for us at the hotel's restaurant while we had our luggage brought to our villa. 

Now the hotel was gorgeous. All of the guest rooms were set in several villas that housed about twelve rooms apiece around the property. The villas had open courtyards in the center of each and they each villa had its own concierge who would help setup dinner reservations, etc. 

Our dinner that evening was at one of the four restaurants at the hotel and it was called Azia. As you can expect it featured Asian inspired cuisine. We order sushi and sake, had a few cocktails and then Megan ordered a Salmon dish and I had roasted duck in a curry sauce. 

Our first full day at the hotel was us just basically hanging out at the beach. The large storm from the day before made for some good waves and we had fun just swimming in the ocean, which was quite a bit warmer than the pool. Breakfast each morning was always fantastic. It was a large buffet with all sorts of Mexican food, a huge assortment of fruits (Chinese pomegranate anyone?) as well as fresh smoothies, omelets, etc. Fresh orange juice was also always served. 

We then grabbed a few drinks at the local bar in the evening and that night was dinner and a show at the hotel where they had some performers do some traditional music and dance. The food that evening was also a buffet, with a wide range of mexican and mayan inspired food. It was quite good. 

New Orleans

This past week I had an opportunity to goto New Orleans. Megan was having her annual art educator's conference there and I tagged along like I usually do. I never really had a desire to go to New Orleans before. I always sort of imagined it as a  sort of drunken college town (and it is that)  but I was pleasantly surprised after my weekend there. I was able to genuinely find some great music, great food and some great history. 

Day 1 - Thursday

We flew in to the city Thursday afternoon. We checked into our hotel which was located in the rehabilitated Warehouse district and then went out and got our bearings of the city. Our hotel was the Renaissance Arts Hotel which Megan thought was cool because it had a Chihuly sculpture in the lobby. Food was foremost on our minds though and we got some fantastic Happy Hour drinks and food at the Swizzle Stick Bar and had some gumbo and turtle soup. We then made our way to the downtown area and had some beignets a Cafe du Monde and checked out our first glimpse at the French Quarter. 

The night wrapped up with us taking a stroll through Bourbon Street late that night to see what it was. It was pretty much exactly what I thought it was. Expensive bars with crappy cover bands. We saw strip clubs and twenty or so drunken people standing in the street laughing at people who walked through horse manure. We decided pretty quickly that we had our fill. 

Day 2 - Friday

Day 2 had me heading out to a bayou kayaking tour. It is amazing how much of the area around New Orleans is really just swamp and bayou. There are almost no suburbs in the way that we think of them and everything is basically just under water. The kayak tour was a lot of fun. 

I was able to get some good tips for checking out some places in the area from our guides. I ended up going to Mother's Restaurant for lunch and had a huge po' boy sandwich and mustard greens. I had a chance to head back down to the square to to get some photos and found a bunch of street performers out and about.  I then attempted to see some of the old cemeteries, but the main one in the city just outside of the French Quarter unfortunately required you to go with a tour and it closed at 3:00 PM, so I was out of luck on that. Megan and I met back up and we had dinner at a place called Cochon. It was good, but honestly it reminded me a lot of a Chicago restaurant like Carriage House or something. 

We then decided to spend an hour over at the Harrah's casino which seemed to dominate the downtown area. I put in $2 in the slot machine and ended up with $8, which Megan then quickly made disappear. 

Day 3 - Saturday

Saturday was a really fun day. I started out at the World War II Museum, which was quite impressive. If anyone has a chance to go see it do so. There is a really great interactive movie there that features Tom Hanks that is very immersive. The museum is really well made and features a really heartbreaking but also partially romantic look back at the war. I thought they did a particularly good job at covering the Pacific front of the war which all too often seems to be overlooked. 

I then left the museum and headed out on the trolly to finally get to see the cemeteries. This time I went to the Greenwood Cemetery to the north. It was an interesting place and it was neat to see the gravestones dating back to the 1800's. From there I met back up with Megan and we grabbed a bite to eat and killed some time in the afternoon before making our way over to Frenchman's street for the evening. Now if you want to see some local music that isn't cover bands it seems that Frenchman's Street is the place to be. We got luck and found a seat at the bar of a place called 3 Muses. They had an amazing jazz ensemble with a clarinetist, accordion player, guitarist and upright bass player. We spent our evening there and had a wonderful time. It really was the perfect way to close out New Orleans. 

Warframe - I can't stop playing this game

I have had a small obsession recently with a game called Warfare on the Xbox. It is a free to play PC/Xbox/PS4 game that came out about six months ago. I picked it up initially and played it for a few weeks and then put it down. It came out on the consoles right around the same time as Destiny and it a lot of ways it is the same sort of game as Destiny, except that it is third person to Destiny's first person. It is a loot based, quasi-MMO. You play as a Tenno, a being of some sort that can inhabit bodies call war frames. The story is pretty thin, but the gameplay is quite fun and I honestly think it does right what Destiny was trying to do.

It is a loot grind, which means you will be playing the same missions over and over, but it does succeed in providing you all those juicy item drops that and loot based game does. Recent updates have made the game much more playable on the consoles with a controller and I have found it is one of the few games on the new Xbox that consistently has people chatting in it. 

There is something done right about this nice, mindless online component to Warfare. It is almost all cooperative so if you are the type of person who doesn't enjoy or isn't good at online competitive play, then you can still get into the community here and enjoy your time online. The pacing is just right with the loot you get where you can still keep progressing forward and building more gear for your Tenno. 

What surprised me the mot though is how well the developer has done the FTP aspect. You can earn almost everything in the game without paying a single dollar. The purchase platinum in the game basically gives you really cool cosmetic upgrades and also allows you access to what they call "Prime" versions of war frames and gear. So, I'll admit that I gave the developer $20 and picked out some Platinum to get some cool additional gear. 

2015 Auto-Show

Megan and I had a great time heading to the Chicago Auto-Show yesterday. It has been several years since we last attended and it is always a fun thing to go see. The show is always huge and the crowds are always insane. We were exhausted by the end of the day, but it was ultimately fun to see some of the cars on the show floor. 

I have always enjoyed looking at the concept cars that these companies put out. I was surprised that there didn't appear to really be than many concept vehicles. Overall though there are some nice cars and it puts some things into perspective for a future car purchase that may be coming down the pipeline in the next 12-16 months.