Saturday, July 27, 2013

When Algebra Was Fun

I have heard the claim that most mathematicians either liked algebra or liked geometry in their early training. Part of my personal mathematical mythology is that I didn't much care for mathematics until I got to geometry.  (Partly, or perhaps largely, because of a really awesome geometry teacher.)  To this day, I have to admit that I mostly find (high school) algebra somewhat tedious, although obviously useful and necessary.  (What is sometimes called abstract algebra, starting with groups, rings, and fields, is obviously a totally different creature.)  I can appreciate some of the patterns and such in high school algebra, although of course at this point finding this type of algebra interesting is a little like finding the alphabet interesting: I'm much more interested in using it as a tool to do other things with.  But when I look back on my algebra classes in junior high and high school, I found those classes sort of boring, although not as bad as the arithmetic classes which preceded them.  I guess I just didn't find algebra that interesting.

Or did I?

I was recently talking about an "enrichment" program I participated in for one year in fifth grade, in which a small group of students from across the school district were gathered and bussed off to a special class one day a week.  On program days, we got to do all kinds of great things, like reading and discussing cool books, engaging in research projects, doing experiments, and working on a computer. It was actually pretty awesome. There were two real problems with the program, 'though.  The biggest problem was that the fantastic educational opportunities we got in this alternative class were really what everybody probably should have been doing all the time, instead of a special one-day-a-week pull-out activity for whosoever was judged to be the "best and brightest."  The second problem was that the program was a set of additional pull-out activities, because the students in the program had to make up all the work we missed in our regular classes.  (This, by the way, is why I only participated in fifth grade: I didn't do so well with keeping up with the other stuff, which was frankly mind-numbingly boring.)  So in the enrichment program, we'd research and report on ancient Egyptian burial practices, then come back and have to read a passage out of the social studies text book to fill in the blanks on a mimeographed worksheet.  Or we'd collect cell samples from our mouths and examine them under microscopes to learn about cells, and then come back to have to copy a diagram of the human nervous system out of the textbook.  (Interestingly enough, I remember that picture because I remember coming to the conclusion that we must be less sensitive in our forearms than our upper arms, because the diagram clearly showed more nerves in the upper arms.  This was not a misconception that I ever got to discuss in class.)  Or we'd go learn how to solve problems using algebra, only to come back to "Do the following 25 fraction addition problems."

Wait, what was the last one?  I'd forgotten about that! We actually learned some algebra in the program.  I don't remember all the details, but I think we had a worksheet, and I remember the idea of introducing a variable for an unknown quantity, setting up an equation to represent a problem, and how you could go about finding out what the x (or whatever) represented.  The problems were puzzles, and they were wonderful.  Some were quite difficult; I'm not sure we solved all of the problems.  I remember being fascinated by the very idea of working in some sense "backwards" to figure out an unknown quantity.  It was an exciting adventure for us to figure out, a marvelous mystery.  We were figuring stuff out, guided (loosely) by the teacher, who introduced just enough hints for us to make it through each new challenge. Each new idea and discovery was shared and traded with great relish.

I remember wanting to learn more about algebra and thinking it was wonderful.  Until of course I had some problems with finishing up the necessary arithmetic by hand, which led to various adults tut-tutting to me about how I obviously should have been doing more arithmetic drills. That was pretty much the end of my interest in algebra  since it was clear to me that expressing interest in algebra would lead to being punished with more arithmetic drills first.  So instead of picking up some of the arithmetic incidentally as I studied more interesting stuff, I just ground my way through the required math classes as best I could, hoping they would be over with soon, and forgot about algebra.

I finally took a regular algebra class in the eighth grade, but I'm not quite sure if I remembered how much I had liked it once.  But my eighth grade algebra class was a bit of a nightmare, taught by a man who was best known for yelling at the students and picking his nose.  (I suspect the latter would have been more tolerated and ignored were it not for the former.)  It was definitely not an adventure, and the problems were definitely not puzzles.  There were just a bunch of rules, and an algorithm of some sort for solving every sort of problem.  Every day was a new type of problem, and mostly an expectation to memorize an algorithm for solving it.  There was no "figuring" anything out, and the techniques were no longer mysteries to be discovered, but miseries to be endured.  Hell, I barely passed that class.

But as I think back on it, I realize that my interest was not completely crushed, even if I didn't realize it at the time.  I remember at one point during a summer vacation suddenly thinking about graphs, and wondering what feature in an equation made a graph "straight" versus "wavy."  I actually developed a hypothesis (by experimenting) that equations in x and y which didn't have any powers except for "1" were the only straight lines, and other powers gave bent curves.  (I have no idea whether I had already been told this before or not, but if so it hadn't stuck until I noticed it myself.)  And it's also clear that I must have had some interest left in math, because seriously, what high school student spends part of his summer vacation plotting multiple graphs by hand to test out a hypothesis about which graphs will be shaped which way?

So my personal mythology is wrong.  I did once love algebra  almost if not as much as I later loved geometry.  And I wonder:  What if my early interest in algebra had been allowed and encouraged, even if I was yet unsteady at arithmetic?  What if my first formal algebra teacher had been the same teacher who later taught my geometry class in high school, who encouraged my exploration and experimentation?  In retrospect, what I relished so much about the geometry class was that the problems were once again puzzles: No algorithms, no sequence of steps to memorize, just a statement starting "Prove that...," and it was up to us to figure out some way of getting from Point A to Point B.

In fact this spirit of investigation, of figuring things out, is at the heart of my favorite movement in mathematics education, known as Inquiry Based Learning, or IBL.  In IBL, students are set problems of some sort to solve, something to figure out.  The steps are small enough for the students to figure out on their own, and they are led along a path of discovery.  That's what happened back in the fifth-grade enrichment program:  We were introduced to the idea of using a variable, or of "doing the same thing to both sides of an equation", and asked to figure out how to solve the next problem using what we knew.  We figured the stuff out "on our own" (in actuality with plenty of guidance), and we were excited to be doing it.  When I got to the eighth grade class, what I got instead was "Day 23: How to Solve a Digit Problem.  Step 1: Let t be the tens digit in the unknown number...."

Now I have a bit of a dilemma:  I now remember what joy in algebra felt like, but can I bring that to my students?  In particular, I've recently been teaching a remedial algebra class.  It's required for many students who have poor math placement scores on entering the university, and it covers a great deal of material in fairly short order to make sure the students have all the needed algebraic skills for their next mathematics class.  Because of this, it is very algorithmic, using a very step-by-step, one-topic-at-a-time approach--the very approach I was bored to tears with. Can I bring any of the joy of algebra to my students?  I can imagine running an algebra class in the spirit of that first encounter I had, following an IBL approach, but I also think it would require more time than the one semester I would generally have.  (Now in high school, algebra is usually spread over two years, which I think would be ample time for a careful, and ultimately quite rigorous and thorough IBL algebra course.)

I'm sure that if our remedial students had a more inquiry oriented algebra class, they would be more likely to find some enjoyment in the mathematics (as I once did), and they would probably grasp some of the basics more fully.  I wonder what the longer term effects of such a remedial program would be.  Would the students with a stronger basic foundation in algebra and an interest in the material do fine in a later class without learning all the needed techniques, more or less filling-in material as they went?  Or would they end up struggling and failing to keep up because they did not know the assumed prerequisite?  Maybe I need to think about this question.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What's new?

On this Disney Trip, I've done quite a bit which was new (to me), some of it because it's also new to the parks.  I had a mission of sorts to try to see some new things, in addition to hitting my old favorites.  What did I try new?
  • I've already written about Radiator Springs Racers, Luigi's Flying tires, the Ariel dark ride, Carthay Circle Restaurant and the World of Color show, which were all part of the California Adventure redo, and so these were all new to me.  All were magnificent.
  • I've also already talked about Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, which was a revamp from my last visit, and it was also pretty awesome.  Space Mountain wasn't technically a first, but a first in a very long time for me.
  • I decided to try the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in DCA.  I'd always been a little interested, because it's themed to the Twilight Zone (including an introduction by Rod Serling), and has a backstory about a hotel where five guests in an elevator vanished when the tower was struck by lightning.  But beyond all the theming and cool effects, the core ride mechanism is an "elevator" which raises and drops you repeatedly.  (In fact, I understand that Disney has made sure that the elevator drops faster than it would by gravity alone, because just falling a few stories repeatedly apparently isn't thrilling enough.)  That's a little wilder than I'm usually up for. But this trip, I had finally worked up the courage to conquer Space Mountain, and found that it wasn't as bad as it seemed, so I figured I'd try the Tower of Terror.
    It turned out that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was as bad as it seemed.  I don't think I'll be trying that one again.  (This also put an end to any thoughts of trying California Screaming, the only serious roller coaster at the Disneyland resort.)  On the plus side, I did survive the drop from the tower, and you do get a great view of the parks at the top of the elevator.
    My biggest surprise in the "Hollywood Hotel" was discovering how small the hotel "lobby" in the queue actually was, having seen some pictures and video.  (Of course, some of the pictures I saw could have been from the Florida attraction, which could be larger.)
  • The Golden Zephyr is too much excitement for TMWA.  I'll stick to tame rides, like Space Mountain.
    The view from the platform is nice, 'though.
  • Golden Zephyr and Astro Orbiters are both spin-around type flying rides which don't move so fast, and probably appeal primarily to kids.  Nonetheless, both were a little intense for me at points.  Maybe I don't deal so well with spinning.  On the other hand, going on the Astro Orbiter does raise you high enough to see the top of the (now abandoned) PeopleMover track, which was pretty cool to me.  (I miss the PeopleMover.)
  • I took a ride up Main Street in a horse-drawn streetcar.  Not a major experience, but it was something I'd never done, and it was interesting.  Similarly, I stopped in on the Main Street Cinema, which shows several old black and white silent Disney cartoons along with Steamboat Willie (the first synchronized sound cartoon).  The theater was interesting, but much smaller than I'd imagined.  (I guess a lot of things at Disneyland have to be kind of "pocket-sized" due to land constraints.)
  • Goofy's Sky School is a re-theming of another wild-mouse style roller coaster at DCA which used to be called Mullholland Madness, in reference to Mullholland Drive in California.  This coaster had a single-rider line, but I only went once.  The height off the ground and sharp turns were a little off-putting to wimpy old me.
  • Below decks on the Columbia
  • I rode the sailing ship Columbia around the Rivers of America at Disneyland, and toured below the decks.  Normally the Mark Twain steamboat is operating, but on one day the Columbia was running.  The Columbia is a replica of a real ship called the Columbia, which is the first US ship to circumnavigate the globe.  I've been on this once, actually, but I didn't realize at that time that there is a museum of sorts below deck, where you can see displays about what ship life was like on board a real ship like the Columbia.
  • The sailing ship Columbia, seen from Tom Sawyer's Island
  • I also crossed the rivers via raft to Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island.  Now I'm not technically sure if I've been to Tom Sawyer's Island before or not.  At some point when I was a kid, we went either to this one or to the similar one in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, and I have no idea which.  But I've never been back since I was an adult, and it's also been given a new pirate theme (to go with Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, of course) since then.  It's pretty much just some trails, with caves, treehouses, and forts for kids to run around and play on.  (This is another one where I think a 40-ish single man gets funny looks.  Next time I'll have to pay some kids to go with me.  Wait, that might sound wrong, too....)  They have also added some pirate props, like treasure chests and talking skeletons locked away in cells in the caves.  It is kind of cool, and I'm glad I saw it, but it's also surprisingly small.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Flying Tires or Saucers

From 1961 to 1966, Tomorrowland in Disneyland was home to the Flying Saucers.  Each guest climbed on board a saucer (which was really a hovercraft), and for a few minutes, you were buoyed aloft on a cushion of air from below.  The craft could (more or less) be steered by leaning.  The ride was futuristic, but slow to load and unload, and prone to breakdowns.  The tendency to break down contributed to the short life of the attraction.  Given that it was only around for five years, you have to be at least a bit of a Disneyphile to know about the flying saucers.  But now you only have to visit Disney California Adventure to experience them (more or less).

Behold "Luigi's Flying Tires", in the Car's Land expansion at DCA, where the ride has been reborn:
I'm not sure if the breakdown issues have been resolved with new technology or not.  The first time I visited (on my first morning in DCA), the attraction had just shut down.  But when I went back on my third night, it was operating, and I got in line before dinner.  These are a bit bigger than the original Flying Saucers; they seat about 2-3 per "tire".  (By the way, what looks like a large rubber tire from a distance appears on closer inspection to be cloth.  It's essentially the skirt of the hovercraft.  There are numerous instructions and warning to step over the tire to get in and out, supposedly for your safety, but I suspect the "tires" could be damaged if you stepped on them.)

I've recently been perusing the fascinating book Roller Coasters, Flumes, and Flying Saucers, about Arrow Development, the company which built (among other things) the original Flying Saucers for Disney. It notes that the idea of having each vehicle individually powered by its own motor (as a traditional hovercraft would) was abandoned for a very good reason:   With so many gasoline engines operating all day long, you would risk a leak and a spark starting a fire, and the high velocity air would have created the same effect as a blowtorch, roasting everyone on the ride.  I suppose these days electric engines might be possible, but the new system seems to still provide air from below.  In the Flying Saucers, generating airflow from below raised a tricky problem, 'though, since it would have required far too much pressure to blow air up out of the entire platform at once.  Arrow solved the original problem with a clever set of mechanical valves which remained closed unless they were pressurized from above, i.e., if one of the hovercraft were sitting on top of the valve, and the craft underside was currently pressurized.  That way, only the valves beneath a vehicle were releasing air, continuing to keep it aloft. However, this still required starting the vehicles hovering.  The solution was to pull all the vehicles into one small loading section, and lift the vehicles in just that section on an air cushion.  Then the remaining valves could be started throughout the rest of the platform, and the vehicles could start.  As a result of this complicated procedure, all the vehicles had to be corralled into the starting section (which was done via a mechanical arm), and if something went wrong, the system took a while to restart.

Now some things have changed.  The air holes in the concrete don't appear to have the same clever mechanical valves, although those could just hidden below the grates you can see.  I do know from my visit that the new vehicles start and stop from anywhere, which does speed up the loading; there is no special starting area.  I'm actually wondering if the problem was solved with some sort of electronic system.  I'd probably try some sort of proximity sensor which opens up the airflow whenever a vehicle is with x feet of a given valve.  But that's guessing; I have no idea how the new system works.

The line was slow-moving.  The problem of how to load and unload efficiently remains, even without having to move the vehicles into a special area.  (I did see cast members help a guest with a disability board, and this did involve the cast members moving a vehicle over to a special loading ramp.  It looked to me as if they were able to start up just one vehicle and move it over to the ramp, which would argue for my idea of an electronic system, but I could have been mistaken.)

I'm not sure if there is a good way to speed up loading and unloading, although the new multi-guest cars probably help cut down wait times a little.  I was actually running pretty close to my dinner reservation time, but I did get to make it on the attraction.  And the ride is fun!  I'm not sure what it is, but floating around on a hovercraft is actually pretty cool. I had an OK time with steering, too:  I picked up some good speed (and a nice spin, which I was working on) without too much trouble.  I suspect that in some ways I have an easier time steering since there's only one of me to coordinate leaning in one direction or another.  But I think it's probably more fun with someone else anyway.

I have to admit that I thought hovercraft were pretty cool ever since I was little.  I remember seeing plans in the back of Boy's Life for a hovercraft that you could supposedly build from a vacuum cleaner engine, and I thought that was awesome.  (There were also of course ads for x-ray specs, Charles Atlas' seven day exercise plan, 8' weather balloons, and magnets that were supposed to lift 250 pounds.)  I thought the idea of floating around, hovering, on a cushion of air was amazing.  So I guess in a way, riding the Flying Sau—oops! I mean Tires, Flying Tires, was sort of fulfillment of a childhood dream.  And isn't that pretty much what a trip to Disneyland is all about?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Jedi Training

Monday was my last full day at Disneyland, and I wandered around a bit looking for a good option for lunch.  Over at Tomorrowland Terrace, I found a salad with grilled chicken on the menu, and figured that would be fine.  When I got to the front of the line, my order somehow morphed into a bacon barbecue burger with a side of fries.  (Oh well: It was vacation.  I actually didn't finish the bun, but I did scarf down all the fries, which seemed unusually wonderful at the time.)

Although the outdoor dining area was pretty full, I did manage a seat, and I had a good view when the entertainment started up.  The Jedi Training Academy was running.
Jedi in training
Two Jedi masters appeared on stage and started recruiting children for light saber training.  (Boy, those Jedi must have had a long trip from that far away galaxy.  And I complained about the trip from Pennsylvania.)  The kids are given plastic light sabers and trained in a series of moves:  strike to the left arm, strike to the right arm, etc.  The lead Jedi asks: "Do you know what happens when you cut off your opponent's arms?  You disarm him!"  (Pause)  (Jedi wave) "You will all find my jokes funny..."

After a while of practicing this light saber kata, there is a disturbance in the force.  Suddenly, Darth Vader rises up from the stage, accompanied by storm troopers, shortly to be joined by Darth Maul.
Oh no—Vader!
Vader is there to lure the new Jedi to the Dark Side.  Not to worry, 'though; the Jedi assure the kids that if they remember their training, they can defeat Lord Vader.  So the kids line up and take turns either attacking Vader or Maul, running through the routine, with the encouragement of their Jedi teachers.  Left!  Right!  Duck!  (The "duck" was particularly fun, since the kids usually forgot that was part of the routine.  The bad guy swipes at the younglings at this point, and the adults all notice that the Sith Lord's light saber is passing over the head of the adult standing next to them, but I'm sure many of the kids think they have just barely evaded the strike.)  At one point, the storm troopers rush forward, and the student is told to use a "force push", which miraculously sends the troopers flying backwards.  (I just know the kid is still wondering how she did that....)  

At the end, we hear a word from Yoda (voice-over only), Vader and Maul are sent away defeated, and the galaxy is safe once again.  The whole thing is surprisingly entertaining to watch, even if you're neither a kid nor a parent of one.  And of course plastic light sabers are available in the gift shop.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Big Thunder Rolls to a Stop, and the Legend of the Last FastPass

"Hang onto your hats and glasses, folks, cause this here's the wildest ride in the wilderness!"  And with that announcement, your little mining train glides around a bend into a cavern, swerving past the glowing eyes of bats, rattling up a lift hill past stunning scenes of stalactites and iridescent pools, then diving under a glowing, flickering waterfall to begin a wild race around the tracks of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland.  Set in a landscape reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, Big Thunder replaced the more sedate Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland in 1979.  It's supposedly tame as roller coaster's go, but it kept me on the edge of my seat as a boy, and it took a while to warm up to it as an adult.  But on my last trip, back in 2010, I found myself really loving it.  Once I got used to the motion (and decided it really wasn't just a trick to lure me into a false sense of security and then kill me), I found myself really digging the ride, the excitement, and the scenery. I was coming back to Big Thunder again and again, checking out the differences in riding in the daytime and at night.  (Supposedly, in addition to the difference in the view, the trains move faster as the rails warm up through use during the day.  I'm not sure how true this is, but you could certainly believe that the trains move faster at night.)
"This here's the wildest ride in the wilderness..."
There could have been good arguments for making the Disneyland trip after visiting the Joint Meetings this year instead of before.  In particular, the parks would have been less crowded.  (Things were still pretty heavy on 1/3–1/8 while I was there.)  But I also would have missed out on some things:  Park hours would be reduced, and Christmas decorations would be coming down, including the Haunted Mansion closing to remove the holiday overlay.  And perhaps worst of all, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was scheduled to shut down for a roughly ten-month refurbishment on January 6.

I am actually absurdly pleased to
possess this object.
Big Thunder was my first stop on this visit, and while it couldn't be my last, it would be the last thing I'd get on the night of January 6, when it was going down.  This was where I headed after finishing up my dinner and World of Color at California Adventure: to say farewells and ride a few last times on Big Thunder.

I got to visit a few times that evening.  As I stood in line amongst the narrow rockwork canyons, I felt the rocks and posts, drinking it in, and willing myself to be a part of this in the same way it was a part of me.  I also grabbed a last FastPass valid after 10:30.  (The park was closing at 11.) I figured it would be packed with people like me, wanting to get in a last ride at the end of the night before it went down, but surprisingly when I went back, there weren't many people in line.  No one actually bothered with the FastPass line much, and no one actually collected my ticket.  So as a result, I have a cool souvenir: One of the last FastPasses for Big Thunder before it shut down until the end of October.

The next day, not only was the mine train itself down, but the sidewalk past it (which wraps around into the back of Fantasyland) was also closed off.  (This made navigating the park just a bit harder, especially since they do seem to like to have shows in front of the Castle, which partially blocks off a second route from Fantasyland to Frontierland.)
Farewell Big Thunder.  Until you open again.
I'll look forward to seeing the new and improved Big Thunder the next time I manage to make it out to California.  Until then, my first loved coaster lives in me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Carthay Circle Restaurant and World of Color

On my third night, I had reservations for dinner at the Carthay Circle restaurant in California Adventure.  This new upscale restaurant is actually in the theme park, housed in replica of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, the site of the December 21, 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. (I neglected to get a good exterior shot of the building, but there is a lovely one at the link above.) The restaurant appears at the end of Buena Vista Street, and caps off the themed entryway.  I figured I'd better go check it out, while it's still a serious restaurant and before Disney decides to convert it to a Princess dining opportunity, where you can meet characters and eat hot dogs with french fries.  (When California Adventure first opened, there was a lovely restaurant run by Wolfgang Puck.  It's now a chance for kids to eat with Ariel the mermaid instead. Also, one of my favorite restaurants in EPCOT, the Akershus in Norway, converted to princess dining a number of years ago.  As you can tell, this doesn't bother me a bit.)

Just behind my table:  There is a mural commemorating the movie
Snow White in the central cap on the second floor.
I headed in at six, waited a bit in a beautifully finished lounge, then was brought upstairs to my table. I got started in earnest, with a Hemingway Daiquiri and firecracker duck wings.  (The duck wings were really magnificent: hot, dark, sticky, and wonderful.  The chef had chosen to highlight various California ethnic influences, and these were inspired by Chinese cuisine, featuring soy and sriracha sauce.)  Then lamb for the main dish with a glass of wine (selected with the waiter's help), and of course dessert, which ended up being another wonderful chocolate and peanut butter creation.  (I do have a tendency here...)
Waiting for World of Color to begin from a prime viewing location.  Although Paradise Pier has never
been a favorite part of the park for me for rides, I do love the lights and colors at night.
Dinner at Carthay Circle also includes reserved prime viewing for the nightly World of Color light and water show at California Adventure (if you order at least two courses), so I headed down to the lagoon to watch the show after dinner.  It's a pretty cool show (I'd seen video online before, but it's pretty impressive in person).  It features a mixture of timed lights, music, fountains, fire, and animated scenes projected in high quality on huge water screens.  Very impressive. This show also added some holiday elements to the regular show, including an initial appearance of the Prep and Landing elves.  It made a beautiful end to the evening.  (Or at least it would have, if I didn't have plans to head across to Disneyland and see a few more things before I turned in for the night.)

As I headed out in the crowds, I looked out over the lagoon towards Paradise Pier on the right, Pacific Wharf on the left segueing into Cars Land (beautifully lit up at night), and thought that DCA really does finally feel like a full theme park now, a worthy mate to the park it sits next to.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Space Mountain

Should I try it or not?

Back when I was about 10 or so, I went to Disneyland with my parents.  I have a lot of good memories from my Disney trips from those days, but the roller-coasters were kind of scary for me.  I do remember riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (a runaway mine train style ride) a few times, and being torn about whether to repeat the experience at any given time.  It was kind of fun, but also kind of scary.  (Yes, I've already copped to being a wimp.)  I think I went on the Matterhorn as well, although I more clearly remember being on a knock-off of sorts called the Alpine Sleigh Ride at Astroworld in Houston.  But Space Mountain was the "big" coaster for Disneyland: An indoor roller-coaster in the dark, with stars and asteroids projected to create an outer-space theme.  It was also one of the most popular rides.

Should I go?

When I was on that trip at a young age, I did try Space Mountain.  I can't remember much of the ride, but I can remember clinging for dear life to the lap bar and any part of the car I could get my hands on, being whipped around, certain I was going to be flung to my doom at any moment.  I was crouched in the seat so that mostly what I saw wasn't stars or asteroids, but my own shoe.  (It was an interesting shoe.)  After riding once, I knew that was a ride (unlike Big Thunder) on which I was sure I did not want to ride again.  And I avoided it ever since.

Should I get on it anyway?

Up into my adult life, I've mostly steered away from anything that would count as a "thrill" ride.  And Disney parks do have lots of stuff to do for those of us who are what is technically known as "ultra-wimpy," although they have been steering towards having more thrills over the years.  I remember going with my partner on a driving simulator called Test Track at EPCOT (which was the precursor to the Radiator Springs Racers I talked about previously).  While not up to par with a roller-coaster of any sort, it did feature some high speeds and simulating "skidding" which kind of panicked me.  My partner has a picture of me in the car; I think you can tell that I have a death grip on the bar in front of me.  The only thing I could think on seeing the picture was "How can he be calm enough to take a picture?!?"

It is just right over there.  It would be over pretty quickly, too.

But over the years, I seem to have mellowed.  I did manage to ride a few thrill rides, and about three years ago, I finally found myself absolutely loving Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, although it took some time to get used to, and the Matterhorn.  Plus the already mentioned racers in Cars Land, and the Indiana Jones adventure, in which you careen at high speeds on a jeep through the ruins of a temple.  But three years ago, even 'though I was enjoying all of these things, I didn't manage to work up the nerve to try Space Mountain again.  I knew that one was worse.
Spoiler Alert:  The fact that I was able to take this picture means that I was in line.
But here I am again, and I've been thinking about it again.  Should I try it?  It's the end of my second night, and I've seen the fireworks and had my cookie and hot chocolate, and I keep going back to these exhilarating high speed rides that I never thought I'd like, as if I'm psyching myself up for the big one.  I circle back a few times to Space Mountain.  There it is.  Should I do it?  I obviously don't have to do this, but I think maybe I should.  The wait time says 45 minutes, and the park closes in 30, which means it would be the last ride of the night.  No chance to go back through "It's a Small World" a few times to calm my nerves.

What the heck, I'm going in.

I'm wending my way through the line, a little worried.  There's a lengthy exterior line, which finally leads to an entrance to the main building.  I overhear two young men behind me:
First:  "It's pretty long on the inside, too, if I remember."
Second:  "That's what she said."
I about fall over, and make a mental note that the gentleman has just made the all-time best unprepared use of that line.
Almost time.
Finally, I'm in the loading area, then boarding a rocket and sliding down the lap bar.  (Is there still time to go crazy like Marge Simpson on a plane, and start jumping up and down yelling "Let me out! Let me out!  Let me out!"?)  And here we go, turning a corner amidst flashing lights, climbing a lift hill, then into a star field in the darkness, a soundtrack welling up around me.  I'm tensed at this point for the sudden acceleration, but we turn around and start another lift, hearing a countdown from ten begin.  Finally: "...3...2...1!" And we're off!  I'm tensed, but after a few moments, I start to relax.  This is not too bad; I feel the acceleration as we round turns, climb, and dive.  I hear a driving soundtrack swelling up from the speakers behind my back in time to the motion, and I feel the rush of wind through my hair as I seemingly rush through an inky blackness studded with projected stars.  I can sort of tell that there are tracks and girders around by the way the "stars" show up, but I can't reliably even make out the people in front of me.  I feel myself grooving with the motion, and finally (before long), we whip around another corner into blinding strobes, and lights which give me the strangely disorienting feel that I'm suddenly moving backward... and the rockets glide back into the launch bay, ready to unload us and pick up the next round of passengers.

That wasn't bad.  That was fun! And kind of exhilarating. And oddly, it bothered me a lot less than a lot of rides that I think are actually a lot milder.  (At some point later, it occurred to me that I would have been a lot more terrified if I could have seen what was going on.  As it was, it was just rushing wind, a feeling of acceleration, a soundtrack, and mostly darkness.)

And since Disney does like to take pictures to try to sell (remember the sudden flashing strobes at the end?), I have some evidence that I survived my first flight, and that I seem to have enjoyed it:
I'm in the back.  It's a picture of a picture, so
the quality is a little lacking.
I went back, too.  (A total of ten times in this trip in fact.)  All the pictures of me look about the same: slightly awestruck, but happy.