Thursday, January 30, 2020

Inside or Outside of the Disney World Bubble

We just returned from a fifth family trip to Disney World. Three of those trips were spent at Disney World Resort value hotels and two were off property. Often times people will refer to staying on property as being in the "Disney World Bubble," especially if you are flying in and not renting a car.

If you are wondering which you should choose, there are pros and cons to each.

In the Bubble Pros:
No one does real world escapism better than Disney and the best way to forget that the rest of the world exists is to stay onsite. You get benefits like transportation from the airport to your resort. Your MagicBand is your room key. You can self check in, usually. There are transportation options to get to any park you want, though most value resorts are limited to bus service. This is the best way to live and breathe Disney while forgetting that anything else exists. I mean, your bus will pass a gas station and a large under construction McDonalds, but you land at your destination park ready to be immersed into the experience right away.

In the Bubble Cons:
If you want better transportation options, like boats, monorail, Skyliner gondolas, etc., you will pay a premium. That is also the case for lodging which is within walking distance of a park. For example, during a slower part of the year, Value resorts can be around $100/night and Deluxe resorts can be as cheap as about $350/night or even less, or around $700/night for the most expensive properties.

If you don't pony up for a nicer place, you will be waiting for a bus, which should be running pretty frequently, at least every 20 minutes or so, but may be running late, will usually be crowded, and you may be standing on the way. At the parks on the way back, you may be waiting in a very long line to take a bus back to your Value property, since they have a ton of rooms and are very popular. You may be waiting a while for multiple buses to take you back.

So, if you are in the Bubble, you do lose some freedom to go where you want to go when you want to go, which also means that when you need to eat you are paying Disney to survive. Even Value properties have a pretty good selection now of grocery items, think large bottles of soda, large bags of chips, cookies, bananas, milk, bread, peanut butter, things you have have in your room without too much trouble to make snacks, and the prices are only about double what you would pay at a gas station.

Out of the Bubble Pros:

Freedom to go where you want when you want is the biggest pro, outside of cost savings. On the trips where I had a car and we were not staying on property, I could visit the Character Warehouses in Orlando outlet malls to get discounted Walt Disney World merch. Is it as cheap as, NO!, but you do get it right away, get the pleasure of standing in a long line just like in Disney World, and there are things you can't get online as well. Waffle House was another big pro to staying offsite. Also, Target for in room groceries meant we could get our familiar favorites.

Now, you can always take an Uber/Lyft to where ever you want as well, but that can be pricey since things in Orlando, while not super far apart, adds up. For example, a Lyft from an All-Stars Value resort to Hollywood Studios was $11 before tip, and that's just within Disney World. There is also nothing that says you can't rent a car and stay on property, but you will pay $15/night for parking at a Value resort.

It is less expensive and there are a lot of options. Disney World has a lot of options, from camping to motel style rooms to animal resort experiences to getting as fancy as you'd like, but if your budget doesn't support even $100/night, or you are booking last minute and there just isn't availability or prices are insane, like $1,700/night for Art of Animation, which is a Value resort, you will need to look at the many options just outside of Disney World. With certain partner hotels, you can even get benefits, like the ability to book FastPass+ selections up to 60 days in advance. That same week Art of Animation was $1,700/night, I was able to book a stay at a property which is a timeshare property and did that once before as well.

Timeshare properties usually have a lot of available rooms, since they may not have sold all of the contracts available, people stay at other properties within the network or just don't vacation and instead pay annual dues and waste their investment. What this means, is that a property management company has a lot of costs covered to maintain the property, including a lot of staff and a lot of empty rooms. Our stay was $55/night, and a $20/night resort fee, but since it was a timeshare owner type property, things like housekeeping was only done on request, but we did have a large one bedroom condo with pull out bed in the living room as well as a full kitchen and in room laundry. There can be timeshare sales pitches at check in, but you can just say, "no thanks."

Out of the Bubble Cons:

Parking can suck. Currently it is $25/day, but if you park hop, you only pay that once, even if you switch parks. Parking can suck if you want to do some after park hours resort hopping, as things like the monorail don't run after an hour after park close. If your car as at the Ticket and Transportation Center, but you wanted to go to Trader Sam's, but changed your mind and the monorail stopped, you may be shuffling all the way from the Polynesian across one of the largest parking lots in the world, since the helpful trams will also have stopped. If you were onsite, you may still have trouble getting between resorts late in the evening too, but you would know you need to take an Uber/Lyft.

It is decidedly less magical. I mean, the food scene is getting a lot better around Orlando, but much of it is still chains. Many chain restaurants started in Florida and you will see them everywhere, as well as bad places catering to broke tourists. Say what you want about how expensive Disney food is, but it is often creative and of good quality. Epcot festivals are a way to get unique smaller dishes for $5-$8 and sometimes that can be enough for a meal.

That doesn't even touch doing something like using a dining plan, which would be its own magic. If you have paid for your tickets, your dining plan and resort deposit in advance, there is magic in not having financial transactions for food as you wander around parks and resorts. each time you open your wallet to pay for something, a little magic flies away.

You also miss out on Disney theming at a resort if you stay off property. To save money, or sanity, people will often have resort only days, where they don't visit a park at all. This can be used to go swimming at the pool or just relax your tired feet or get away from the crowds that drive you up a wall. You can even pony up for character dining at a resort on property instead of visiting a park, so you still get photos you may want, but you'll never get that off property.


Should you stay on property or off? I think it can depend on the type of vacation you are looking for, how much freedom do you want to have with travel, if you want to do things like visit Cocoa Beach or Kennedy Space Center on your trip, or, gasp, that OTHER park, you can usually do more for less money out of the bubble.

Our last trip was 11 days and it only made sense to have a trip that long by staying off property, even if there weren't crazy rates at Disney World properties. Staying offsite means we can stay longer, which was more important than the magic feeling of being in the bubble. I'd say if you want a short trip, like 3 or 4 days, a Disney resort can be a good option for concentrated dopamine hits of happy magic juice, or heck, stay longer if you have the money, but if you have a limited budget and you want to spend a less hectic time at parks, because you will be back to each a couple of times, it may make a lot of sense to pay to rent a car on top of the offsite hotel. I mean, off site hotels often do have shuttles, but usually only have one pick up time in the morning and will have limited return trips in the afternoon and evening, so be aware of that if that is your plan.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Walt Disney World 101 Quick Tips

Here are my Quick Tips for Walt Disney World:


What Disney Wants You To Do:
Keeping in mind what Disney as a company wants guests to do can help to understand why things are the way they are.

Disney wants you to go to Walt Disney World and have an amazing experience and make memories that last a lifetime. To accomplish this, they have extraordinary options which are designed to ensure Disney shapes your experience and no one else. Disney wants you to spend a long time at Disney World and only Disney World while you visit. You can buy tickets which will be valid for up to 10 days and the longer you stay, the less expensive each day is. The longer you stay at one of their resorts, the less expensive each day is. They do not want you to have a car on site. If you keep some of these things in mind, you will understand why it may be frustrating if you plan a shorter trip, for example, or if you don't intend to spend all of your time in the Disney Bubble.

The sweet spot for booking flights at the cheapest price is six weeks from departure if flying in the US. I use to review flights and narrow down dates. Flying in the middle of the week will usually be less expensive than the ends. Make sure to account for carry on luggage when searching, since Spirit and Frontier will usually be less expensive, but not necessarily when you add up bag fees. If you stay at a Disney resort and you check a bag, depending on your airline, you may be able to use the bag delivery service, which whisks your bags right from the airport to your resort so you can get to the parks as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that it may take 8 hours for your luggage to arrive in your room if you do this, since your bags don't go on the same bus as you do, but is picked up on a truck and delivered in groups. If your bags are needed, Luggage Services may have them waiting near the main entrance to your resort.

You can use Hotwire to book a Disney World Resort at a Hot Rate, if available. The trick is to filter your search. Narrow the location to just Bay Lake and choose Airport Transportation as an amenity.

A quick note about Disney Resorts: They are all amazing properties with all amazing staff. There are three main categories of resorts, value, moderate and deluxe. There are also deluxe villas which are mainly Disney Vacation Club resorts, available as a timeshare option. I have only stayed at the value resorts, which has been amazing, but the more expensive resorts will be less crowded, maintenance items, like worn paint and carpet are replaced faster and usually the on site restaurants and bars have fancier food.

Disney will usually offer hotel discounts on their site as well, usually about 10 to 20 percent off or offer things like free meals. Slower times of the year when this happens are at the end of the summer and into September, the first half of December, January and February until Spring Break happens and the end of May.

There are a ton of offsite hotel and resort options in the Orlando area. Some offer transportation to Disney World and some do not, so check if it is important to you. By staying onsite and using Disney Transportation, you can usually nap in the afternoon and go back to a park for the evening. That becomes more challenging if you stay offsite.

The cheapest options for Disney tickets limit you to only visit one park per day. For example, as of December 2019, a single day one park ticket is as cheap as $109, but if you want to visit more than one park, add $60 for a single day ticket. For a 10 day ticket, it can be as cheap as $47 per day and you can add park hopper for $80. Basically, it is very inexpensive to add additional days if you are staying longer than 4 days. Pricing is variable as well, based on date. Your 10 day ticket may be $470 or $690, depending on the time of year. You also don't have to visit on consecutive days. Disney knows how intense visiting parks is. It is a sensory overload. Resorts are much quieter and relaxing, so they know people should take breaks by having resort days.

Annual passes are also an option if you may plan multiple visits in a year, say two or more four day visits. I have liked this option, because I like shorter trips. I only visited once before without my parents, and it was stressful trying to cram in four parks in two days, but did so to try to get the most out of the expensive tickets I had bought. I have visited 22 days in the last year and there is still plenty I haven't done yet, so you may not experience everything you'd like to either.

MyDisneyExperience and MagicBands
If you stay at a Disney Resort, one of the benefits you get are MagicBands. These will serve as park tickets, your room key and, with a PIN, allow you to purchase things in the parks. You can even upgrade to a fancier design ahead of time. MyDisneyExperience is the website and app you will use to book your dining reservations and FassPass+ selections. Dining can be booked up to 180 days in advance if you stay at a resort and FastPass+ selections can be made up to 60 days in advance.

If all of that planning is stressing you out, then don't worry about it. FastPass+ isn't required, but you may be waiting an hour or two to ride one ride, so keep that in mind. Once you have MyDisneyExperience on your phone, you can also see wait times for rides before you go. While it will be different when you visit, you can get a sense of how busy your planned rides are.

FastPass+ selections do change all the time, since people modify at will, so always keep an eye, even the day of, on a ride you want, since you may luck out and get a FastPass+.

Dining reservations can be similar. Like rides, there are very popular restaurants. Usually the most popular options are for character experiences, but the food options are all great at Disney World.

What to Wear
Florida has a lot of rain, like all the time. It is mostly warm, but some times of the year is pretty cold in the morning and roasting in the afternoon, then cold again. You may need to dress in layers, plan a few outfits for different parts of the day and have a raincoat or poncho handy. Rains are super quick most of the time, like minutes long and other times, huge downpours, but Disney is not in control of the weather. Also, wear sunscreen.

One thing I didn't realize before this year, is how coordinated families get with shirts. Disney even sells custom family shirts for your trip. You'll see lots of custom shirts with funny sayings and you may feel left out, so plan ahead to coordinate or show off your own favorite characters.

At the Parks
Getting into the parks is pretty quick. All have security with metal detectors and bag checks. Turnstiles are all fast, since you just need your MagicBand and fingerprint.

You may be overwhelmed when entering a park, since there are so many people, especially at Magic Kingdom. There are areas off to the side with benches and quiet corners if you need a moment.

Water is available everywhere. Every quick service restaurant will give you a cup of ice water on request. Keep hydrated.

Take breaks when you need to. If you are traveling with a family, take your time if you need to. Often times, people get stressed because their kid is tired, but they have a FastPass+ selection which is expiring soon and their kid just wants to sleep for a bit. Disney is extraordinarily accommodating and if you go later, it usually isn't a problem. Since so many people visit Disney World, they have seen everything and want you to be happy.

Don't be afraid to change your plans. Maybe you need to cancel a dining reservation because someone isn't feeling well. Please speak to a Guest Relations person and they will take care of you rather than forcing someone into a plan you may have made months ago.

You can't and won't see everything. There are special shows which only happen during certain times. There are characters which only appear during certain times and in certain places. You can plan some of this, but it is fun to randomly run into Snow White. There is also so much to see which have nothing to do with rides. If you have a really young child, there are characters to meet all over, ducks walking around which aren't even named Donald, quiet corners can be found around to relax, get splashed with water if needed or just sit and color.

You can bring food and drinks to the parks, even small coolers. There are dining plans available, but keep in mind you may be better off if you don't eat three times a day while you are at Disney World. You will probably be pumped with adrenaline, which may impact your appetite. Expect to pay about 70 percent more for your meals than you would at home, so not quiet double, but close. The food I've had has all been very good and have had no complaints.

Buying Stuff
There are huge stores in Disney World and the selection of merchandise is constantly changing a overwhelming. Ship it home if you want to load up, or plan ahead to have space in luggage. You can even use the MyDisneyExperience app to locate merchandise you may see someone wearing. Disney even has two Character Warehouse stores in Orlando at outlet malls if you are looking for a deal.

There are some really cool things you can only get at the Disney Parks, think exclusive designs from luxury brands. If you may be tempted by such things, budget with that in mind.

Be open to changing plans
You don't need to buy everything
Take breaks as you need
Stay hydrated
Set your expectations
Have fun

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Nintendo Switch and the State of Video Game Journalism


The Nintendo Switch is released in a few days. Review embargo for the Switch hardware has passed, so outlets have been busy publishing. Reviews are pretty similar across the board. The device looks very nice. It feels very sturdy, except for the flimsy kick stand in the back. If you hold a Joy Con, one of the included controllers, behind your back, it will loose signal with the console. Online functionality is not available yet, so cannot review that. And Zelda is a great game, but there are no other great games coming out until Mario around the holidays, so you'd be safe waiting.

I am pretty passionate about gaming and own all of the consoles. I grew up with NES and even bought Ultra Pong at a neighbor's garage sale. There are few systems I haven't owned or at least played once. I'm also smack dab in my mid thirties. Thinking about my experience and perspective, and those of the reviewers, I wondered what people who were not like me thought of the Switch and I couldn't find many reviews from outside of my narrow perspective.

Granted, I am not a professional game critic. I do not have to play games quickly in order to write reviews. I don't have to take notes while gaming, or record YouTube videos. I also don't get review copies of games and have to buy anything I am interested in playing, so there are several differences between myself and those in video game journalism. However, I am familiar with the ways journalists critique games and I do get the sense that a reviewer is speaking directly to my demographic. Things like resolution, frame rate, field of view, draw distance, all of these things can make me more or less excited for playing a game, but ultimately, don't have as much impact on how much I enjoy playing a game.

When I grew up, as many kids did, we didn't get every new game that came out, and there are way more game releases now than when it was just the NES. Maybe I'd get one or two new games a year. Something people may not remember, is that Super Mario Bros. 3 was $60, just like today. I read Nintendo Power and Game Pro. I also had a subscription to Game Informer due to my membership at Funcoland. I read each magazine cover to cover, but spent far less time reading about the new releases simply because I knew they weren't options for me. I'd take the newspaper price list from Funcoland home every month and underline the games I wanted, far more than I could ever get, but I still remember looking through old issues of Game Pro for games which had dropped in price that I could now pick up and have fun with.

Back then, at least with my rose tinted glasses of the future, reviewing a game was much more about how the game played, what was in it, what was it about and if it was fun. Not that games today aren't reviewed in a similar way, but as technology has advanced, there are more and more ways to criticize an experience. When it was NES, story wasn't a big element, or graphics, or audio. Sure, Game Pro did break each of these sections out eventually, in an effort to distinguish one game from another to tell you which one was, "best," but looking back on those games, the differences really weren't that striking.

Lamarr Wilson, a YouTuber known for unboxing everything from amiibo to Oreo's, but generally not providing reviews, posted a video a few days ago asking, "What makes something the best?" Because he opens a lot of gadgets, toys, electronics, etc., people want him to tell them what phone to buy, which is odd for him. His response has been, buy the phone that's right for you. If you have a bunch of money to spend, you can go out and buy the top of the line phone which fits your needs, but there are plenty of people who don't have the money to make that an option, so their choices are limited. Some people, he noted, would even get mad at someone for not buying the best phone. I think this same kind of consumer elitism can bleed over into video games and helps make the community stay small and isolated.

Being an avid video game enthusiast is expensive. First, because PC gaming is far superior, and you have to buy the latest video card each year in order to play the latest games at Ultra quality settings, in 4K and running at 60 frames per second, someone can easily spend $500+ annually just in hardware to have the best experience. However, that's not all. Due to console exclusive titles, you need to purchase the latest console from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. All video game manufactures have begun to cut their hardware life cycles in half, from about 8 years, to more like 3 or 4, by selling hardware with advanced performance. So, to play the best games at the best quality, you have to upgrade to an Xbox One S, PS4 Pro, or New 3DS XL, or pay the penalty of inadequacy.

From my perspective, the hardware advances over the last few generations have done little to make a game more compelling, the stories stronger, or the game play anymore fun. However, I can appreciate the jaw dropping experience of pausing a game like Witcher 3 in 4K and seeing detail from a very far away town and marveling in the technology which allowed this experience to happen. But, I can also flip on Super Mario Bros. 3 and have a great time with that game too.

I don't mean to say that reviews from people who are passionate about games aren't valuable, but I feel like there is a temptation for reviewers to speak too broadly and to answer that question, "Is this the best?" Too often "The best," is out of reach for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, cost only being one of them. It would be like an audiophile encouraging everyone to buy $10,000 speakers without qualifying who they may be good for.

So, when I take my limited experience and my reflections back when I was younger, I wonder who is out there writing game reviews for younger gamers? I would imagine the market is bigger for people who don't spend $500+ in computer hardware annually than who do. Or, who is writing reviews for all of the people who owned the Wii? That console sold 100 million copies. That kind of number would be huge today, however, so many of those people who played the Wii are considered by gamers as filthy casual gamers, not real serious gamers.

This kind of elitism, which I don't think is intentionally exclusionary, does impact games and development. Games are expensive to make and expensive to promote. If you don't make a game which appeals to game journalists, it can be difficult to get pre orders and early sales to justify your existence. But, game journalists aren't typical consumers. There are few people out there who devote the time needed to play games, the money needed to buy hardware necessary to play games, and I don't think journalists take that into perspective enough. The internet has made that worse, since reviewers can get immediate feedback, maybe from people who are also like themselves, that it creates a sort of bubble.

Let me know if you are not a dude in their thirties, who doesn't own every console, but who is interested in games, what reviewers do you like?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Gene Roddenberry Humanist

On an unseasonably warm September evening in a basement auditorium at the University of Minnesota, Scott Lohman, president of the Humanists of Minnesota spoke before a diverse audience of people invited by Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists on Star Trek, science fiction and how the genre can provide a platform for a Humanist message.

Mr. Lohman began his presentation with a story about how he started to think as a Humanist.  It began as a child watching Star Trek and he refers to himself as a “Gene Roddenberry Humanist.”  Next, he included what every Humanist must include in a presentation, a slide called, “What is Humanism?”  He cited the following, which is from Humanist Manifesto III:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  • Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

Next, Mr. Lohman explored science fiction as a genre and why it can be useful for exploring big ideas, complex concepts and attitude changing situations.  He stated that science fiction is a literature of ideas which dares to ask, “What if?”  In Star Trek, for example, writers found out how to talk about complex controversial social issues, simply by placing characters in a different planet and painting their faces blue.  As a genre, science fiction is known for taking ideas and running with them.  Through this exploration, writers have the freedom to get an audience to think of big things, such as, “What makes us human?”, “What gives life meaning?” and “Does it pay to be ethical?”

Star Trek started in 1966 and was unique on television for a number of reasons.  First, in science fiction, it had been common to change the cast of characters in each episode, such as in the Twilight Zone.  This would allow writers to convince the audience to identify with characters and that clearly worked.  After 78 episodes aired, Star Trek continues on through syndication, even today.

Mr. Lohman then walked the audience through the history of Star Trek by providing examples of episodes which feature Humanist themes.  In the first season of the Original Series Star Trek explored what makes us human in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” and should we live in a controlled or open society in, “The Return of the Archons.” The writers explored the concept of computer generated war in, “A Taste of Armageddon,” including this quote from Captain Kirk, “All right. It's instinctive. The instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we are not going to kill today. That's all it takes - knowing that we won't kill today.”

Mr. Lohman continued the exploration of Star Trek and its bold themes featured through its history, from the Original Series in the 60’s to the Animated Series, the Next Generation, Deep Sapce 9, Voyager and Enterprise.  A complete episode guide for Humanists will be provided at the end of this article.

Star Trek and Humanism should serve as an inspiration for budding authors out there and even activists who want to bring a Humanist message to a larger audience.  Science Fiction, as a literary genre, can be cleverly subversive and disruptive to common conceptions.  Mr. Lohman provided an entertaining, through message.  The leadership of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists organized a successful event.  I know I heard Activities Director, Jeff Mondloch, greeting people before the meeting, even straining to remember names, which was great! (A tip to organizers, name tags can be dorky, but help new people become familiar.)

Humanist Episode Guide (Courtesy of Scott Lohman)

The Original Series

Season 1
What Are Little Girls Made Of?” - What makes us human?
The Return of the Archons” - Should we live in a controlled or open society?
A Taste of Armageddon” - What if we had computer generated war with real causalities?

Season 2
Who Mourns for Adonais?” - What if an alien thought he was the Greek god Apollo?
The Apple” - What if you lived your life with no responsibilities?
A Private Little War” - Is it moral to interfere with other cultures’ wars, as we did in Vietnam?
A Piece of the Action” - What if a culture had been contaminated by a book about gangsters in Chicago?

Season 3
Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” - What if two races hated each other because one had a half white, half black face and the other had a half black, half white face?

The Animated Series

Season 2
How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” - What if an alien visited ancient Earth to become known as a Mayan god?
Bem” - What if an individual creature could split itself into multiple entities?

The Next Generation

Season 1
Encounter at Farpoint” - What if an omnipotent being accused humanity of barbarism?
11001001” - What if a society became too dependent on technology and only understood the world in binary?

Season 2
Measure of a Man” - What makes us human?

Season 3
The High Ground” - Is it interference to assist the wounded in a conflict?
Who Watches the Watchers?” - What if a primitive culture was being monitored by an advanced culture and became exposed to advanced technology?

Season 4
Devil’s Due” - What if an advanced species terrorized another species, posing as a god?  Is advanced technology indistinguishable from magic?

Season 6
The Chase” - What if an advanced humanoid species populated planets all around the galaxy?

Deep Space 9

Season 1
Duet” - Can an individual make a difference in a war?
In the Hands of the Prophets” - How should religion and politics interact?

Season 3
Past Tense” - What if San Francisco segregated the poor into compounds to prevent social upheaval?

Season 4
Rejoined” - Do we love a person’s personality or their body?

Season 5
Trials and Tribble-ations” - What if a television show wanted to pay homage to its history by bringing back themes from a previous episode?


Season 2
Death Wish” - How long is forever? What if a being who couldn’t die wanted to?

Season 3
Distant Origin” - What if dinosaurs left Earth and evolved in another part of the galaxy?

Season 4
Mortal Coil” - What if someone could die and be recreated?  How would that person match their experience with what they have been told of the afterlife?

Season 5
Equinox” - Does it pay to be moral?

Season 7
Workforce” - What if the crew were brainwashed to believe they work in a factory instead of on a ship?


Season 2
Congenator” - What if a species had three genders?

Season 3
Similitude” - What makes us unique?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Grassroots Anything - Lessons learned from running an atheist organization

I was president of Minnesota Atheists for only a few months. Since then, I have been happily observing other freethought groups and listening to presentations on how to make a group more effective, including developing campaigns, communication and diversity. I thought it would be helpful to detail where I fell short with Minnesota Atheists on these fronts and also what appeared to work (though the evidence is mostly subjective, since we weren't great at paying attention to metrics).


Desiree Schell, Maria Walters, Trevor Zimmerman and K.O. Myers created a Campaign Manual for Grassroots Skeptical Activism, though the lessons learned in this manual are useful for any grassroots activity, even at a small scale. The framework can be modified, depending on what you are planning on doing, for example, any activity should have stated goals, a primary and secondary objective, tactics and a post activity evaluation.

When I was running Minnesota Atheists, the main goal I had was to double dues-paying membership in a year. Looking back on that, that was really a primary objective. A goal should be something large, for example, making it more socially acceptable to identify as "atheist" in Minnesota. That is, after all, one of the mission statements of Minnesota Atheists and a campaign could be built around that, including a full scale campaign with tactics as varied as contacting media and politicians, targeting sympathetic organizations in outreach and writing letters to politicians. One way to measure the success of this campaign would be an increase in membership.


Like any organization today, a diverse range of communication is used to inform members of what is going on. When I was with Minnesota Atheists, I advocated for expanding our communication to members through Facebook and using our email list to send out newsletters. The benefit of using these sources, is the ability to assess effectiveness. When I redesigned the website of Minnesota Atheists, I wanted to be able to analyze as many metrics as possible. I wanted to know where our visitors were coming from, what they were looking at, how long were they spending on our site and how many unique visitors we received. I also wanted to be able to compare this data moth over month, or year over year. By using more online resources, we were able to see if our outreach was expanding or shrinking. By using an email marketing service, we were also able to determine, with some accuracy, if our newsletter was actually being opened. Sure, you may be sending an email out to 1,500 people, but if only 20 open it, you may need to spend some time to determine why that is.

While metrics gathered from electronic media are helpful, another piece of communication, getting feedback from members, former members, and just interested parties, was important. Since I had only been involved with the organization for a couple of years, I wanted to really reach out to as many people as possible, to find out what they thought, so I emailed out a survey. One limitation of a survey, especially with a group like Minnesota Atheists, with a diverse range of membership, including some people who do not use email, or use it very little, is that you may not hear their feedback. Looking back, I think it would have been helpful to gather these responses by calling members. Through the survey, I was able to gather some information from some people, only about 120 responses in 1,500 requests, but these responses from people have been echoed by others in the freethought community, including the charge that Minnesota Atheists is too liberal-leaning of an organization, doesn't have enough family friendly events and doesn't meet at times or places which are convenient to me. These responses helped push the expansion of Meetup events even further than we had ever before. One other interesting response from the survey, is that many people joined Minnesota Atheists because they want to meet a community of like-minded people. Many people were becoming first-time members simply because the group exists, is easy to find online and easy to join. It wasn't really because of anything specific we had done, or were currently doing. It was as simple as being there.


At Minnesota Atheists, there has always been a push to have half men and half women on the board. While this increased diversity on the board, it also felt forced, for example, only women candidates would be sought after if a woman left the board. More women have become involved with Minnesota Atheists, even though the board make up is much different now, with mostly men, which may mean that the make up of the board doesn't impact attendance at events nearly as much as the events themselves.

When I first joined Minnesota Atheists, I felt really out of place because of my age. Most people meeting at a library on a Sunday afternoon had gray hair and were men. Though I haven't been to a Minnesota Atheists event in a while, before I left, there were younger people becoming involved as well as more women. This was more due to our social events than anything else, I think. We expanded to include book clubs, pub nights, small group discussions, family events and even a debate class. It took getting women and younger people to run small activities during a month to get people like them to be more active. This diversity was organic and didn't involve a pink-themed newsletter to attract women. What I found challenging, was in making people feel comfortable running their own event. When I approached people to run a book club, if they were interested, or some other event, some people felt afraid to do so because they feared the board. Some people felt like every event must be scrutinized and vetted by the board in order to happen and felt pressure to conform to some unwritten standard which all activities should meet. Once people got over that fear, things went a lot better. Since we charged people for membership, many people who are involved with the organization are not necessarily members, which also became a challenge in finding people to run events. When I was with the board, we were never really able to settle the argument surrounding volunteers working off their membership by running events, if they wanted to. I think this would have been helpful in finding more parents of young children to get involved in running family-friendly events.

With Minnesota Atheists, I felt like we were completely neutral toward women and people of different cultural, religious and racial backgrounds, but we were not. It's a problem I think a lot of groups have, where they pretend like race and cultural identification don't matter, so activities like a presentation of privilege never come up. That is one thing I regret not working on, is in having a more diverse selection of speakers on different topics, including people from different cultural and/or racial backgrounds. While our monthly meetings were considered public outreach events, we rarely had non-atheists attend, so it wasn't really an outreach tool to non-atheists. Realizing this, would allow us to discuss more challenging issues, which may or may not have anything specifically to do with atheism, but would be more rewarding to the people participating and allow the group to welcome more people who may be atheist, but who may not identify as atheist first.


Organizing atheists is just as challenging as organizing any other group of people. People are challenging. The feedback you will get will often be from a minority of really passionate people in your group and sometimes just the loudest complainers. Most feedback about how well or poor you are doing as an organization, you will NEVER hear and much of what you decide to do will be based on either your vision for the organization or instinct, but the more information can be measured, the more feedback can be gathered, the more successful your group will be in reaching its goals. You do have goals for your group, right?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How JREF Can Become More Diverse

At The Amazing Meeting 9, a panel focused on diversity was moderated by Desiree Schell and included panelists blogger Greta Christina, Executive Director of the James Randi Educational Foundation D. J. Grothe, activist Debbie Goddard, comedian and journalist Jamila Bey and blogger Hemant Mehta. During the panel, the suggestion was raised on how to increase diversity at TAM through having a diversity of topics open for discussion, including diving into the “soft sciences” and discussing issues such as the drug war, poverty, the right for homosexuals to marry, etc. D. J. Grothe spoke with a word of caution against doing such a thing, for a number of reasons. Since I think that spreading critical thinking to the public at large is important, I thought I would present some options for JREF.

First, I will be focusing on JREF solely. In my opinion, local organizations are able to judge what to do, but JREF can be a great motivator for the direction local groups may go. Second, I have not been a member of JREF for even a year. I don’t have an understanding of the history of the organization, so my assumptions may not be correct. Third, when I speak of diversity, I will use the same categories included in the panel, which are a diversity of sex, sexual orientation, race, income, age and ideas. Lastly, with regard to opinions panelists gave at TAM, I am going on memory and notes I wrote. I will also be referring to comments made by people on Twitter, which shouldn’t be taken as representative of any particular group, but are what I gathered as feedback.

Whenever someone suggests an organization should or should not do something, I like to examine the mission statement of the organization. A mission statement is part of the organization’s legal documentation and not just some tag line. Every action that an organization takes should further the mission in some way. If an organization engages in actions which are not in line with the mission, donors could sue the organization to have funds returned. The mission statement of the James Randi Educational Foundation is:
“Our mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.”
Based on this mission, it appears that having a presentation on the drug war and/or other social issues would be outside of the scope of the JREF, since the focus is only on “paranormal and supernatural ideas.”

I think it would also be important to examine if the JREF has had topics on issues which may be outside of its mission, as defined. What this may mean, is that the mission statement may need to be changed and/or an event like TAM is considered to be different than an action specifically created by JREF, which would allow for more flexibility in topics. During TAM 9, most presentations can be directly tied to the mission of JREF. There are a few exceptions, however, such as Lawrence Krauss’ presentation on Richard Feynmann and Sean Faircloth’s presentation on Theocrats.

These two presentations and the theme of TAM 9 show where there is room to do what the diversity advocates on the panel are hungering to do. The concern raised, is that by limiting the focus of JREF to just the paranormal and supernatural, you are excluding others from participating. The scientific method and critical thinking are important pieces used to analyze claims regarding the supernatural and paranormal. People who value this method to prevent harm caused by people making false claims will usually have an appreciation for science and discovery in general and would trust analysis of other topics using the scientific method and critical thinking. For example, analyzing the claims made by proponents of drug control policy in the United States to evaluate whether that policy was effective in meeting its goals or not.

Here is where some concern was raised by D. J. Grothe in the discussion. D. J. argued that he goal is to make TAM welcoming to everyone, including having a diversity of beliefs represented. The challenge to that, is that you must increase the diversity of topics discussed at TAM in order to attract a diverse audience. Otherwise you will attract a group of people who are interested in Bigfoot, UFO’s, science and philosophy. D. J.’s partial challenge to that, is that the topics at TAM haven’t changed greatly. The focus is still on skepticism, debunking the paranormal and supernatural claims, yet this year saw growing diversity in attendance, with 40 percent of attendees identifying as women. It will be important to determine why that diversity is increasing and if the selection of topics has much to do with why people are choosing to come to TAM or if there are other reasons why someone is choosing to attend.

While listening to the panel, a few themes from commenters were noted. One comment raised by PZ Myers, is that D. J. Grothe is attempting to play the role as gatekeeper for allowed skeptical discussion. I would say that is a fair claim and is likely one of D. J.’s responsibilities as executive director of JREF. If D. J. allowed for a presentation on the drug war and the presentation was overly political, JREF may be blamed for it and may also be accused of promoting a political position. However, we can see that Sean Faircloth’s presentation, while not advocating for, or against any political candidate, could be seen as being overly political by some who may not view the separation of church and state as important as others do in the skeptical community.

Another commenter mentioned the concern that JREF, by focusing on social issues, could easily become a defender of the Democratic Party. I think the commenter raised this question, since, while someone can evaluate the testable claims made by legislators who created the laws which form drug control policy, it becomes easy to write the next half of the presentation, for example, Congressman Smith, while promoting legislation X, advocated that it would do Y. Since it did not do Y, legislation X is a failure, so I propose legislation Z.

Will increasing the diversity of topics at TAM increase attendance? Maybe. It would take surveys to determine why people are attending in the first place. Can JREF increase the diversity of topics at TAM without appearing to become too political? I think they can, but it is a careful process. Is it important to advocate for skepticism and critical thinking in a more broad sense than what JREF may focus on and reach out to all people. Yes. This is why I think that outreach at the local level by independent groups may lead to greater diversity at TAM.

While there were many presentations at TAM regarding the paranormal and supernatural, many were also focused on diverse topics, such as organizing, being an effective communicator, space exploration, how are minds work, including how we can be fooled and how to deal with mental illness. I see these type of events useful for inspiring an application of critical thinking across a broad range of topics since they are designed, in some way, to make you a better skeptic and a better promoter of skepticism. In this way, you become an advocate for critical thinking in other organizations you may be involved with, whether that is at work, your school, a local skeptics organization or an organization which advocates for social change. Skeptics can be seen as soldiers fighting a battle against woo using the tools of critical thinking, effective, audience specific communication and the scientific method.

Because JREF is silent on issues like the drug war, rights for homosexuals and poverty it is easy to claim that JREF is acting cowardly by avoiding these issues, or even worse, being complicit in discrimination by not acting. Though, the same criticism could be held of other organizations which don’t view themselves as advocates for broad social change. Should JREF become a leading organization, inspiring local organizations to use skepticism to tackle difficult social issues we all deal with, in an effort to increase the diversity D. J. Grothe wishes to obtain? Would or should JREF’s mission change to accommodate this change? Are there members of JREF who would rather not have presentations on “soft science” social issues and appreciate the effort to maintain political neutrality? Are there also members who will feel ignored if his or her issue isn’t discussed? These are tough questions which need answers. The leadership and membership of JREF should address them through considerate research and analysis. The diversity panel is a good start, but it is obvious that JREF will need to determine how to meet the goal of increasing diversity.

In my opinion, which should be taken with a large grain of salt, since I have not been active in the skeptic community for long, is that local groups will be the largest sources of outreach and can affect the diversity shown at JREF. Similar to the papers presentations given on the last day of TAM, a handful of local organizations can give presentations on outreach efforts they have conducted and/or be given an opportunity to give a presentation which is important to their members. If local organizations increase diversity and those local members become active with JREF, the leadership of JREF may have an incentive to expand its mission beyond its more narrow focus to include issues of importance to a wider audience.

I look forward to more discussion on this issue. I don't envy D. J.'s job of steering the focus of JREF to maintain the balance of allowing for thoughtful discussion on complex social issues with less clear methods for testing claims and avoiding criticism for being a left leaning organization without consideration for "other points of view," but I feel diversity won't increase if we don't take the time to determine how to get more people involved. It may be a complex task, but we're clever people, right? We can do this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Campus Group Doing the Small Things Well

My first "atheist" activity was a debate which was co-sponsored by Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists, now Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists at the University of Minnesota. Since then, I have tried to go to events when they are interesting and financially supported the group on occasion, because CASH has some great resources available to them that other local atheist groups do not. For example, predictable meeting spaces, easy access to market ideas, a large population of people who may be primed to find an identity and/or make the world a better place, volunteers who can meet more frequently and opportunities for funding and grants which don't exist for non-student groups.

While CASH has tons of benefits available to them, the leadership has gotten off track at times. It can be easy to take all of these benefits for granted, especially getting funding from student service fees which eclipse funding other atheist student groups receive around the country. It can also be easy to fall into the temptation to "phone it in" despite working hard to organize a few larger events during the year, weekly events can be daunting and it is easy to throw another game night or pizza party, week after week, simply because of apathy. Some people are great at being accountable and others need more motivation. This should be a lesson to other student groups: non-students are watching!

Student group leadership changes each year, which I think is a great thing, even though you can be throwing the dice and having to live with whoever was convinced to devote a ton of time to the cause for the next semester or year. Since I've been following CASH, I have seen some great leaders graduate and move on, some not so great leaders thankfully moving on to things they are better suited for. Over this last year, I have seen a better focus on making CASH a great organization, rather than just a group of friends who like to hang out and use student service fees to buy pizza.

Here are the things CASH has done well over the last year:
1. Had regular communication. When CASH wasn't as great, one sign was a lack of communication. Their website or Facebook pages were rarely updated and when they were, it was often the day of the event, or the day before. For someone who isn't on campus, or for people who like to go to interesting events, it's really important to know these things ahead of time. It also shows you care about the events you're planning.
2. Had a variety of events. While I hate on things like South Park night, or game night and prefer discussion and speakers, if you only have one type of event, you'll alienate people who like the other events.
3. Supported the diversity of opinion among atheists. Atheists aren't some unified front with total agreement on every issue, particularly about what role should atheists have in making the world a better place and how to accomplish those goals. If we can't even speak with each other about things we don't agree on, how are we ever to convince non-atheists to support causes we value?
4. Learning lessons at conferences. The Secular Student Alliance holds a number of leadership conferences each year. While some students can use this as an excuse to goof off and skip speakers, CASH's leadership, at least some, got a lot of value from the speakers and talking with other student leaders.
5. Bridging the summer gap. I received an email from Jeff Mondloch at the end of June. That has never, ever happened before and was great to see. In the newsletter, he let people who live in town, or take classes over the summer, that CASH is already planning for next year (awesome) and put out a notice about am interesting non-CASH, but atheist-related event people might like to keep them interested.

From a non-student, but avid supporter of a student group, I'd like to let volunteers of student groups know that communication matters, reaching out to the local, non-campus atheist community can be a great way to get funding, if you need it, meet interesting people with different experiences. Also, know that what you do matters. If you're heart isn't in it, or your priorities are different, work as hard as you are able to, even though you may not be getting paid, because what you do matters. If you can't find that good balance, work hard at grooming someone who can help you or replace what you are doing. If you dread going to another meeting to plan the next event and you try hard to come up with excuses, think about passing the torch. Also, don't be afraid to ask community leaders for help. While non-students can be busy, they may be motivated to support your cause and ease some of your burden.

I know I usually write about things as a rant, but I'm happy to report that CASH is doing well and I look forward to the next year.