The Geek Squad hits Seattle

Thurs-Monday, August 16-20, 2007
Seattle, Washington

As a new hire (fresh out of college) with IBM in Boca Raton, Florida back in 1983, me and a couple of other young programmers were given the unlikely task of coordinating software development activities for the new IBM Personal Computer. Working with a small software company located in the Seattle suburbs, for the next 2 ½ years, I shuttled back and forth between Boca and Seattle. I had an apartment in each location, and would typically stay about 2 weeks in each place before commuting in the other direction.

It was a dream assignment for someone just out of school – one week I’m working on my tan on the Florida beach, the next I’m night skiing in the Cascades – and I’m piling up the frequent flyer points. I fit right in with the boots and ski parka culture of the little software company - much more comfortably than the formal suit and tie dress expected of us IBMers. After awhile, figuring ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ I would dress to blend in, keeping a suit handy in my Seattle office to don quickly when warned that some IBM management was expected to be on site that day ;-)

The small software company in question was Microsoft, and yes, I knew Bill Gates long before he was rich. In a stunning case of being just a little too naïve (or stupid) for my own good, I had a semi-standing offer to go to work for Microsoft, which would have made me something like employee number 60 or so. But proud of my IBM job, and also being from an IBM family (my dad and both of my uncles worked for IBM) I never gave the Microsoft offer any serious consideration. Maybe if that little decision had gone differently, I’d own my own baseball team or something today ;-)

(BTW, I'm not in this picture - it's just an early one of Bill G and Paul Allen...)

But I can’t complain as things have turned out just fine in the long run. This week I am looking forward to showing Vance around the town that next to San Francisco is probably my favorite. I fell in love with Seattle during my time here – the evergreen trees, the brooding rainy skyline for months on end, the water and the rawness – there was and remains a pioneer edge to Seattle that not even modern day skyscrapers and expressways can erase.

Of course, Seattle is first and foremost a technology town. Denise decides to take a break from the geeky stuff I’ve got planned, so it’s just me and Vance for a day or two. Denise is anxious to catch a glimpse of Mt Rainier, which I’ve assured her many times looms above the city. However, the weather, in typical Seattle fashion, never really clears up our entire time here, so she’ll have to settle for seeing it up close.

While the downtown skyline in Seattle isn’t one of my favorites, the city itself is located in an area of stunning scenic beauty. Seattle is ringed by mountains that are snow capped for most of the year. Combined with Puget Sound to the west, and Lakes Union and Washington to the north and east respectively, the views can be expansive and breathtaking. Much like San Francisco, Seattle is built on top of a series of high hills (in fact, in an earthmoving project second only to the building of the Panama Canal, Seattle leveled 68 blocks of downtown hills, with the dirt used as fill for what today is the waterfront). Despite the hills, Seattle (also like San Fran) is a great walking town, with historic shops and markets seemingly everywhere.

To describe the beauties of this region, will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task to the pen of a skillful panegyrist. The serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages, and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined
George Vancouver (1792)

Space Needle

I don’t remember exactly what got Vance interested in the Seattle Space Needle, but for the past several weeks he’s been looking forward to visiting it. Built in under a year for the 1962 World’s Fair, the iconic structure for years has provided a focal point to the Seattle skyline. I visited it once during my Seattle stays, and enjoyed the view, although the structure itself was a bit rundown.

Not today. Newly refurbished, the Space Needle is at the center of the ‘City Center’ district, surrounded by several museums and an amusement park. There is apparently a move underway to remove the carnival rides and open up the space for more greenspace. In any case, it’s a vibrant area, and it was hopping the night Vance and I showed up. The energy in the Space Needle viewing area reminded me of the Empire State Building. The views are great, and the tourists are flocking in. Quite a few younger couples are dressed to the nines – it is date night it appears, and the viewing level is a popular spot, as well as the restaurant suspended below. Both Vance and I enjoyed the views, and it was a great chance for me to catch up on familiar landmarks and point them out. We particularly enjoyed watching a sizable regatta underway on Puget Sound, with a multitude of sailboats weaving their way around buoys and a number of large freighter ships anchored in the Sound.

Right next to the Space Needle was a fantastically shaped building, looking like an exaggerated version of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain. Covered in a wild series of metalic colors, upon closer inspection, this building turned out to house the Science Fiction Museum and the Experience Music Project. We’ll return to visit both of these museums in several days.

Boeing Plant Tour

I had two big regrets from my time living in Seattle – the first was failing to visit nearby Victoria, BC, and the second was not taking a tour of the Boeing Plant. Plants, I should say, because you can’t turn around in Seattle without bumping into an airport with a Boeing factory next to it. Boeing and Microsoft are the two largest employers in the Seattle area, and the Boeing factory in Everett, just north of Seattle, is touted as one of the largest buildings by volume in the world. So large, in fact, that when the building first opened, they had issues with clouds forming and raining inside!

The next morning, we were literally headed out the door when a quick check of the weather called for a change in plans. It looked like a nice day outside, and the rest of the week called for rain. Figuring we could do factory tours and museums on rainy days, Denise declared this was the day to go to Mt. Rainer. Despite some initial grumbling from us guys, this clearly made sense. So instead of driving north thru town, we headed south toward the huge mountain, which we still couldn't see, and wouldn’t until well on it’s flanks (which we’ll describe in another post).

The coming of the weekend found Vance and I driving north to Everett. I was a little worried about traffic on I-5 going thru Seattle. Due to seismic reinforcement of a bridge (beefing up critical freeway infrastructure is a big deal on the west coast), I-5 was shutting down several lanes during the day. Newspaper accounts had made the expected traffic jam seem like the coming end of the world. However, used to nightmare rush hours in Atlanta, it just didn’t seem that bad, fortunately. We made it to the Boeing factory without incident (other than the constant rumbling of Vance’s stomach, a usual occurrence!)

The Future of Flight Museum and Boeing Plant Tour is about what you expect – first we viewed a movie discussing the history of Boeing planes (as well as other companies they have bought over the years). After this we were loaded up in a bus for a brief trip across the runways to the factory. There we overlooked the area where 747s, 767s and the new 787 Dreamliners are being constructed.

Although a short visit, it was a fascinating look into the mechanics of building such large planes. Wings, portions of the fuselage, and the tails are all assembled separately, then joined together as the planes move down the assembly line. The new line being created for the next generation Dreamliners will be much more automated than the 747 and 767 assembly areas. Boeing also constructed 4 modified freighter jets to bring in completed assemblies from all around the world for the Dreamliner. One of these, the ‘Dreamlifter’, was sitting out in front of the building, looking for all the world like an oversized flying guppy!

I think Vance got a good feel for how modern day assemblies occur, with emphasis on the individual parts being manufactured elsewhere. Boeing’s main task here is the design of the planes, and bolting together all the parts. The mammoth scale of the factory, in which even the giant 747’s were dwarfed, was quite a sight.

Afterwards we visited the ‘Future of Flight Museum', which was mostly about old and new Boeing jets. Vance greatly enjoyed a kiosk setup that allowed you to ‘design your own plane’. In a piece of marketing genius, we could pick up a printed copy of our design in the gift shop. There was even an option to have it printed on a T-shirt. I was all ready to spring for the T-Shirt when we found out the system was broken, and printouts weren’t available. Boeing promised to mail a copy when they got the printer back online, hopefully it will be waiting for us when we get back home. Vance had a nice design ;-)

Sci Fi Museum

Back at the Space Needle, the two of us visited the Science Fiction Museum, located in the strange looking building I discussed above. The museum could have been really hokey, but it was well done. Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t allow cameras, so I don’t have any pictures. This is a shame, because there is quite a bit of memorabilia – for example, items from the Star Trek TV and movie sets.

I liked how the museum was organized – largely by cultural areas of interest. For example, while there was the obvious display on ‘alien invasions’, and how this was represented in pop culture (from ‘War of the Worlds’ to ‘Mars Attacks!), other sections were studies of weightier subjects. Science Fiction is often used as an analogy to modern cultural issues, and the museum did a great job of pointing these out. Various cultural issues – racism, gender roles, overbearing governments, etc…..the museum was full of examples of novels and movies covering these issues.

Of course, there were the old favorites – Vance was particularly fascinated by videos from shows and movies from my childhood – the Jetsons and Lost in Space, in particular. My favorite was the original manuscript from the Baroque Cycle novels, written by Neil Stephenson. These novels, which Stephenson wrote using quill pins, cover the dawning of the scientific age and the modern finance system. As Denise can attest, I love these novels, having read all three multiple times.

Expecting the museum to be full of sloppily dressed geeks, I was surprised at the numbers of families, and even more, at the number of young girls in there. It did not fit my stereotype of Sci Fi fans at all. The museum was a lot of fun, Vance got introduced to a whole genre of fiction outside of Star Wars, and I got to take a trip down memory lane, including a list of sci fi novels to check out. A well spent couple of hours.

Experience Music Project

Right next door is the Experience Music Project. Founded by Microsoft's Paul Allen, the museum is devoted to documenting the history of the Seattle music scene, as well as in depth archives of general music history. I could have easily spent all day in here listening to the fascinating series of recorded interviews with musicians that the museum has. For example, I enjoyed listening to a Pat Metheny interview discussing the pros and cons of touring, and to another musician who had played with Jelly Roll Morton.

Upstairs, the museum had a section devoted to teaching you how to play various instruments – drums, keyboards, using guitar effect pedals, etc….This area was very well done, using multimedia to walk you through the basics of the instrument. I very much enjoyed the ‘effects’ walkthrough, gaining a basic knowledge of their use, something that has perplexed me for years. In addition, there were multiple ‘studios’ available (voice, keyboard, drums), where for 10 mins you could go in and create your masterpiece. For a few dollars you could record your efforts and burn them to a CD. Vance came into the keyboard studio with me, and as I used to play keyboards in a series of bands, we were able to make some decent sounding noise for the next 10 mins. We both got a big kick out of this.

I could have easily spent a lot more time in the museum – we pretty well just blew thru the Seattle music history section, including a lot of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. However, Vance was complaining about a headache, so we cut our visit here short. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to go back someday.

Pacific Science Museum

Denise joined us the following day for a visit to the Pacific Science Center. Vance typically loves these museums, and invariably I’ll see an exhibit that relates to something we’ve been studying or he’s shown interest in. In this case it was a tic-tac-toe playing robot, a large industrial robot adapted to the task. Using the robot's discrete, repeatable steps for an example, I sat down with Vance and gave him a brief introduction about how such a thing would be programmed.

For example, the robot would always return to the same spot before and after moving a piece. The motion to pick up and place a piece was always the same. By getting Vance to notice and describe the individual steps, I then told him how you would write a short program for each little step. Hook them all together, and you have a tic-tac-toe playing robot. This is considerably simplified, of course, but it’s an example of how I try to teach Vance, particularly on subjects (like programming) that I’m reasonably familiar with. I don't really expect him to remember, but next time he hears something similar, it will have a better chance of sticking.

The museum had a section on dinosaurs, which Vance always enjoys. Outside there was a series of water jets that you could shoot to spin a variety of objects, which was a big hit with all the kids. We also took in a couple of IMAX movies – one on Mt. St. Helens, and another on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Both were relevant, as we would be visiting St. Helens on our next stop, and would be covering much the same ground as the Corps of Discovery for the next month or so as we started our way back east.

Prior to dinner we walked around some – I had spotted a new downtown park from the Space Needle that Denise was interested in seeing. She had read an magazine article about ‘Olympic Sculpture Park’, which is an interesting design of slanting green spaces and walks, constructed on bridges over several roads. It was a neat park, affording great views of the city, waterfront, and artwork. A wedding was taking place while we were there, which was in sharp contrast to what we stumbled on next – the ‘Seattle HempFest’! Apparently a concert had just let out near the waterfront, and quite the crowd of mostly young (and rather stoned) hemp lovers were walking back our way. For the most part, the crowd was well behaved, and the local police seemed to take things in stride. After working our way through the crowd, we stopped for dinner at a lavishly decorated Spaghetti Factory near the waterfront.

Our final day in the Seattle area was spent exploring areas north of town – I had wanted to visit the town of Bellingham, up near the Canadian border. Denise and I had visited the area briefly several years ago on a business trip, and we enjoyed driving around the area. To cap our trip off, we drove down Whidbey Island, first crossing Deception Pass, finally taking a short ferry ride back to the mainland. I had always enjoyed riding the ferries to the islands when I lived here, so this was a great way to end our stay in the Emerald City.

Vance: The Seattle area has lots of surprises. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, I’ve always wanted to see it. I guess I’ll start off with the Seattle Space Needle. Built for the ’62 World's Fair, it stands at 605 feet tall. Mom wasn’t really interested in seeing it, so the geek squad (me and Dad) decided to pay a visit. The enormous structure offered wide views, free view telescopes and a video screen talking about interesting spots around the city.

Right next to the needle was a pretty funky building. Later we found out it was the museum of Science Fiction and Experience Music Project. We will return in a few days to this. If you’re into Star Wars, I recommend you pay a visit if you go to Seattle.

We had a single clear day on our entire stay. Mom declared we go see Mt. Rainer, a nearby volcano. We men grumbled a little and decided to go to the mountain. The next day we toured the Boeing Plane Factory without her. After about forty minutes down I-5 we arrived at the entrance area. Dad purchased a gallery and factory tour ticket pack for us. The tour had a beginning video. After ten minutes the bus was waiting to take us on to the factory. After entering the upper deck, we watched the employees work on a 747 and a 767 liner. It takes such a long process to make the liners I’m not sure I can write it all down. The building is so large at first it began to form clouds and rain inside!

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