Crossing a couple more places off the bucket list…

In just a few days, I’ll be setting off on one of my biggest, most expensive, most adventurous bucket list trips yet. It is a trip that has been over a year in the planning. In the course of it, I will visit 5 different countries (7 if you count airports, 8 if you add the US) and two different continents (again, 3 if you add the US). My main destinations are ones where the locals can kill me. I’m referring to the mosquitos, in case that wasn’t clear.  

This trip actually knocks two things off my bucket list – seeing mountain gorillas and a safari to see African wildlife somewhere other than a zoo.

I have been fascinated by the mountain gorillas since seeing Gorillas in the Mist when I was in high school. I read books about Dian Fossey and the amazing animals she gave her life for. Like Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau and others, she inspired my commitment to threatened and endangered species. (Admittedly, I haven’t always been as good about that as I should be.) I never really thought seeing gorillas would be something I could do and I am really excited to follow in the footsteps of someone like Fossey —some of the gorillas on the Uganda side, where I am going, are related to the family she studied.   

Below is the general itinerary for my trip, which is through Photography By Leighton

Day 1 (Feb 8) – Kigali, Rwanda

I arrive a day before most of the group (at 1am in the morning, after nearly 24 hours of travel). I have arranged a private day tour of the city and will now be joined by the one other group member who is arriving early. I learned that a friend of a friend will be in Kigali at the same time as me, so we might try to have dinner. The rest of the group arrives that night.

Days 2-4 (Feb 9-11) — Mt. Mgahinga National Park, Uganda

The trip begins in earnest the next morning when we set off for 3 days and 2 nights in Uganda.

We leave Kigali early to head to Mt. Mgahinga National Park where we will go in search of the Golden Monkey, an endangered species of monkey.

The next day, part of the group (which I am joining) will go on a gorilla trek to see the mountain gorillas, a subspecies of eastern gorillas, which are listed as critically endangered. We have a 1-hour trekking permit that day which means we will have one hour to spend with the gorillas (if and when we find them).

And the following day we all go gorilla trekking and 4 of us will have a chance to participate in a gorilla “habituation” experience. According to our itinerary:

The exercise involves visiting a selected family of wild gorillas every day until it gets used to these researchers. With time, all gorilla individuals are identified in terms of their sex, age and later given names. You will visit a Gorilla Family and spend an entire day with them…

That evening, we drive back to Kigali for the night.

Day 5 (Feb 12) — On to Tanzania…

The next morning, we catch a flight from Kigali to Kilimanjaro. This appears to be a down day as those who went gorilla trekking and those who didn’t meet in Arusha. It appears to just be a travel and rest day, which will probably be needed at that point.

Days 6-7 (Feb 13-14) —Tarangire National Park

The next morning, we head to Tarangire National Park for two nights. Tarangire is the 6th-largest park in Tanzania and less well-known than Serengeti. It is best known for its large elephant population. The African elephant is considered a vulnerable species, but one whose numbers are increasing. Other animals include wildebeest, eland, gazelle, impala, zebras, kudu, rhino, hartebeest buffalo and more.

Days 8-9 (Feb 15-16) — Ngorongoro Conservation Area

After two days of game drives in Tarangire National Park, we head to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which includes the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest unflooded and unbroken caldera. According to the Conservation Authority’s website:

The area [measuring 8,300 square kilometers] contains over 25,000 large animals including 26 black rhinoceros. There are 7,000 wildebeests, 4,000 zebras, 3,000 eland and 3,000 Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles. The crater also has the densest known population of lions, numbering 62. Higher up, in the rainforests of the crater rim, are leopards, about 30 large elephants, mountain reedbuck and more than 4,000 buffalos, spotted hyenas, jackals, rare wild dogs, cheetahs, and other felines.

The annual wildebeest and zebra migration also passes through the area.

We spend two days/nights in the Ngorongoro area, seeing both the highlands and the crater, before heading to the Serengeti. [As an aside, as a World of Warcraft player (on hiatus) it always makes me think of the Un’Goro Crater, which I am guessing was inspired by it.]

Days 10-13 (Feb 17-20)— Serengeti National Park

Our last stop is Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has the largest concentration of large mammals on the planet, including 2,500 lions, a vulnerable species whose numbers are —decreasing.

We are spending 4 nights at the Kati Kati Tented Camp – a camp with 10 safari tents with flushing toilets and bucket showers. According to reviews, you can’t leave the tent alone at night because the animals,  including buffalo and hyenas, prowl the camp. Did I mention I have a single room, meaning I will be all alone listening to the crying of hyenas and possibly roaring of lions off in the distance?  

We have 3 full days of game drives, including a chance to witness the wildebeest migration.

Day 14 (Feb 21) — Tour ends; on to the next part of my adventure

We catch a flight leaving from an airstrip near our camp back to Kilimanjaro. From there, I have a short flight back to Kigali, a 4+ hour layover, and then a red eye flight to Dubai.

Day 15-17 (Feb 22-24) – Dubai

I arrive in Dubai at 9am and will be there until the evening of February 24. I still don’t have specific plans for that time but I will likely do a day tour to Abu Dhabi on my second day.

I did not originally plan to go to Dubai. When I was booking my flights, my friend who organized the trip mentioned his flight left Kilimanjaro late in the evening and went through Dubai. As one of the latest flights in the day, it made sense to take the same flight out of Africa, giving me a chance to extend my trip by a couple days and see some of the UAE (which I likely would not otherwise visit). Unfortunately, the flight we had all booked from Kilimanjaro to Dubai got canceled (no reason given, but the airline appears to have discontinued that route — maybe the Boeing 737 Max issue?). So I had to find another route.

Day 17-18 (Feb 24-25) – On to Helsinki and home

This is where the already crazy itinerary gets crazier. I booked my flights on miles – United and its partners on the way to Rwanda, American and its partners (FinnAir, specifically) from Dubai to the US. My flight from Dubai went via Helsinki with a long layover —it was scheduled to arrive around 10:30 pm with an overnight layover and a flight to LAX at 4:40 pm the next day. Cool – a chance to do a quick stop in Helsinki, maybe see a museum or such. Well, that flight also got changed. My direct flight to Helsinki (with business class seating) became a flight via  Hurghada, Egypt (the business class seating is basically economy class with the middle seat left unfilled), a 45 minute layover before continuing on to Helsinki. My flight now arrives at around 3:30 am. I tried to change it, but the only other options were flights via London which would have meant over $500 in taxes on my “free” ticket.

The flight home is still at 4:40 pm, arriving the same day at around 8pm local time (and, yes, it has lie-flat business class on that flight)

In total, I have 19 days of travel, including flights. It’s going to be an adventure…

And, don’t tell them, but I’m gonna miss my demon kitties. Shhh…

Dissertation disappointment…

I received my dissertation grade and my final overall grade, including my graduation decision last week. I can’t say I achieved my goal – I missed the grade I needed on my dissertation to graduate with first class honours, and with an A average something I never accomplished as a full-time student, by just a few points. I will graduate with upper-second class honours (a 2:1 as they call it), with “merit” – an accomplishment in its own right, but not the one I hoped for.

You can click here if you want to jump down to the link for my dissertation, which I had to keep under wraps until the grades were final.

Ultimately, it isn’t the final ranking that bothers me – it was coming so close and just missing. If you share my guilty pleasure of watching American Ninja Warrior, it is like those competitors who get the tips of their fingers on the top of the warped wall but can’t quite get enough grip to pull themselves up. Or the ones who see the clock tick down just before they can hit the buzzer. It’s the coming close but not quite being able to finish strongly that frustrates me.

Looking at grade conversion tables, I arguably have something between a 3.5 or 3.7 GPA by US standards — basically a B+ or A- average. And that is certainly higher than I have ever had as a student. I was always one of those kids who could pull Bs with little effort, so that’s what I did. Even college and law school were low B/B- averages despite spending more time doing things other than studying. I also realized, and a doctor confirmed, that ADHD likely played a huge role in that. (The doctor I met with was surprised that I made it through law school and have had a successful career as a lawyer.).

My dissertation topic was a tough one – deepfakes and the threats they pose to individuals, to society, and to democracy itself. I spent a few months in the weeds of this topic and why the law currently is not adequate to address it nor will the law alone be able to address it.

My dissertation is linked below, for those who want to read it. The paper is based on UK law but a lot of the underlying research draws upon US resources. And, I should note – I still haven’t edited or updated the paper so it does have some typos and mistakes typical of student papers.

While I am disappointed in the ultimate outcome, I can’t deny that there already have been a number of significant positive applications of and outcomes from my research. A couple months ago, I was able to put my newly gained knowledge to use in a meeting with legislators. I recently spoke on a panel about deepfakes here in LA and will be traveling to New York to speak on another panel that includes some deepfake related content. Earlier this month, I spoke on a panel at SAG-AFTRA’s biennial convention about a few topics, including an update on deepfakes. And last week, I did a 2-hour MCLE presentation based on my dissertation that I will probably present to other audiences in the future. I am told that there were as many as 100 people attending by webinar, in addition to the folks who attended in person.

And speaking of that MCLE presentation, I am proud of the internal MCLE program that I helped to develop and run as part of our broader internal education program. We have put on at least 7 programs in slightly over a year, each providing anywhere from 1 to 2 hours of credit to attorneys on our staff and providing generally useful education to attorneys and non-attorneys alike.

So there’s that…

Dissertation: Deepfakes As an Emerging Threat to Freedom and Democracy

School is done. So what’s next?

On Monday morning, at 4:30 am, I submitted my nearly 10,000-word dissertation — the culmination of three years of part-time post-grad study (that sometimes felt like an eternity). Somehow I managed through, despite working full-time and teaching over two of the three summers. During that time, distractions were plentiful – on the positive, I worked in plenty of travel (including to visit advisors at the school twice); on the negative, I battled an illness (in my third year no less) and saw several friends and colleagues pass away during those years. I got burned out at times and inspired at others. For three years, I powered through.

But the weight isn’t off my shoulders yet. Now, stress gives way to anxiety as I wait for the grade on this last component. I’m less than 1 point away from graduating with “a Distinction,” which is basically the top level of honors. So I need at least a 72 on my dissertation to hit that average. For the yanks, in the UK grading scheme, a 70 is the lowest A. That took some getting used to. I am currently well within “Merit” range (basically, a lower level of honors with a B-average) and, unless I really tanked my dissertation (I don’t think I did), I should safely get that. But, I’ll be honest, I’ll be devastated if I don’t get that Distinction at this point. I can still fall within the discretionary level if I get a 70 on the dissertation, but… Ugh.

I feel like I may be in that range, but it’s hard to tell, really. Whenever I have felt I should get a grade like that, it ends up being lower. I reread my paper and I think the writing is good enough (I’ll probably clean it up and try to get it published once the grades come in). I think the weakness comes in two places – having a topic that really warranted more than 10,000 words to discuss and lots of footnote fails (forgotten footnotes here, citing the wrong source there, etc). So I guess it all depends how much weight they put on that.

But I digress…

Now that I’m done with school, I’m not sure what to do with the time I’m getting back. I have a ton of photos to edit from my last couple trips, so there’s that. And I have an educational comic I want to work on. (Which reminds me, I need to touch base with my potential artist collaborator.) I also will need to revisit my paper at some point to edit it for potential publication (and I do want to write a shorter article related to one subsection of it). And I just signed myself up to do an educational presentation on it at work (I head up our MCLE program, so I can do that 😆).

But I also did enjoy studying. Maybe another degree program will manifest on the horizon at some point (an MBA? PhD?), but not in the short term. For now, the next educational endeavor will be studying for the CIPP/US privacy certification (and maybe the EU one thereafter?). Studying for a standardized test (which I have always been good at taking) should be a breeze after my degree program. And I’ll be teaching next summer – so that always involves some studying.

And, I’ll be honest, I haven’t done a great job of keeping my apartment clean and orderly these last 3 years (especially this year) since so much of my free time was spent studying. I have to do that, too. For now, tho, I bought my first new video game since I started school. It has been far too long since I have been able to just sit and enjoy playing a video game.

The beginning of the end…

No, I am not referring to Avengers: Endgame, although I did get my opening night ticket already. I am referring to my LLM program. I had my first meeting with my dissertation supervisor yesterday, and so begins the final leg of this journey.

As I’ve posted about previously, the last several months have posed challenges, particularly on the health front. Things seem to be settling down in that area, although there remains uncertainty with some of the health issues. Despite that, my grade last semester was consistent with prior semesters and the health issues ultimately were not a factor in my final grade. My GPA currently sits just 1 point below the level that would meet my goal of graduating with (the equivalent of) honors – something I was never able to achieve in the past (a recent ADHD diagnosis helped give me better understanding of my past under-achievement, which really may have been over-achievement, all things considered). I’m within the discretionary window, I believe, but I want to earn that distinction on my own merit.

My dissertation is worth 1/3 of my total credit units, so it will ultimately determine whether I am able to achieve my stated goal. That is a lot of pressure to have hanging over me these next few months. It also comes at a time when I am trying not to succumb to burn-out. After nearly 3 years of dealing with a full-time job plus school part time, and teaching a law school class during the summer when I wasn’t in school, I’m a bit drained. The illness – and particularly the various frustrations ancillary to it (I haven’t been able to play hockey for over 6 months now and I spent months dealing with the red tape to begin really treating the underlying issue) – had also taken a toll. Add to that the recent launch of my side business (more on that in a future post) and it’s a wonder I’m coherent.

The positive (but also a negative) is that I’m writing on a topic that is cutting edge, that is timely (as I have formulated it), and that hasn’t been covered much in legal scholarship yet. That does have a drawback in that it will be harder to find resources I’ll need to do my research. But it also means that it has the potential to attract attention and maybe play a role in future policy debates (particularly if I can get it published somewhere). My dissertation supervisor expressed that he is intrigued by and excited about the topic, which made me feel better about it. And, unlike my general coursework and the last paper I will have to write for this semester’s course, I do feel some excitement about the opportunity to write on something that personally interests me and that actually relates back to my “day job.”

And as school winds down, I can start shifting more of my focus toward my side business, which is a creative an endeavor and therefore a nice change from the law. I also have two trips on the horizon – a conference in Edinburgh (which will also allow me to do some on-campus research and meet my dissertation supervisor in person) and a 16ish day trip over the summer that will include 4 to 6 (5 – 7 if you count an airport layover) different European countries and at least 2 places on my long travel bucket list (Dubrovnik, Croatia aka Kings Landing and Bled, Slovenia). And, since I’m not playing hockey on the weekends, I’m trying to get out a little more and be more social, to meet new people (as well as reconnect with existing friends).

So, while I’m burned out, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a couple of rest stops along the way if I can just keep moving forward…

Random musings on traveling in Japan…

I’m on the shinkansen (bullet train) to my next destination (photographing snow monkeys, apparently in the rain) and figured it’s as good a time as any for a blog post. It was either that or study and there is just enough movement that I feel studying might give me a touch of motion sickness, so…

Those who really know me know that Japan is like a second home to me after I lived here as a college student studying abroad. It’s already clear that this trip isn’t long enough, tho it may be a couple years before I have a chance to return (I’m still determined to try to go to the 2020 Olympics and my old home stay family offered to help buy tickets so, perhaps…) I have several friends who are either planning trips here soon or hoping to come in the near future, so I’ll use this post for some random observations and tips…

If you are bringing a laptop and it has a 3-prong grounded plug, bring an adaptor. Yes, I forgot one. Well, I forgot that my current laptop even has a grounded plug until the day I left. I still haven’t had a chance to go find one. Otherwise, outlets here are basically the same 2-prong outlets we have and power is 100 volts, so most US stuff will work here (especially modern chargers and laptop cords that have built in converters.

Yukatas are folded left over right. The other way is how the deceased is dressed for a funeral, so you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a walking corpse. (Do Japanese zombies wear yukatas or kimono? Hmm…) Women tie them at the waist, men at the hips. As an aside, they don’t fit as well if you are busty (or if you have a big gut, I’d imagine)…

Japanese robo-toilets, as I like to call them, are pretty awesome. (So much so that my mom bought one after her first trip here.) I have always loved the heated seats, but never really understood the attraction of the bidet function until taking this trip in the midst of a Crohn’s flare up. (As an aside, I had quite the experience trying to explain Crohn’s disease and an ovarian cyst in Japanese to my old home stay family.) But the toilet paper at my eco-friendly ryokan is like sandpaper, so the less I use, the better…

Speaking of robots, the Robot Restaurant (which isn’t really much of a restaurant) in Shinjuku is something not to miss no matter how short your visit here. I don’t know how to describe it, really, but I was talking to some first time travelers about it and said I imagine it’s similar to dropping LSD. If you do a little advanced research, you can often find discounts, like at this site. The neighborhood it’s located in, Kabukicho, is historically a red light district, which is apparent as you wander the area. Still, it’s worth the visit. After all, where else can you see Godzilla roaring and breathing smoke every hour on the hour?

Schlepping luggage on rush hour trains isa miserable experience. Well, rush hour trains are a miserable experience. If you are going to be on the rail lines during busy times, don’t expect much sense of personal space – it doesn’t exist. I literally had a guy leaning against me because he was was too busy texting to hold on to a handrail or hand strap. The same is true in the stations – people are rushing here and there, often without regard for other people, so don’t be surprised if you get jostled, cut off, or crowded. As polite as the culture is here, that kind of goes out the window during rush hour and in big train stations, generally. (Think, LA rush hour drivers, but on foot.)

Shopping and dining in train stations is a good thing. Some of my favorite restaurants are in the underground shopping centers attached to train stations.

The JR East shinkansen have free WiFi. They also usually have food and drink carts that come by, but I haven’t seen one yet (and I didn’t have time to get a snack before I left).

Just like driving is on the opposite side of the road from the US, the same is true of walking. People generally tend to walk on the left side of the sidewalk. On escalators, stand to the left, walk on the right.

Japanese ofuro/bath tubs are heavenly. They are deep enough that you soak submerged up to your shoulders – the ones at my ryokan (which proudly states it is LGBT+ friendly, incidentally) are filled to the top and the water literally spills out as you submerge yourself. The water is so hot that you really only want to soak for a short time. A little bit about bathing etiquette – you wash before you bathe because the bath water generally is not replaced for each person. My ryokan actually has a sign posted explaining this. There are usually handheld showerheads and small wash bowls, as well as soap and possibly shampoo. Basically, use these to thoroughly wash yourself off (I prefer the showerhead to the bowl, but the latter is more traditional) before getting in the tub. The same is true at onsen (which you use fully nude -no swimsuits or towels – even if other people are there). I’m determined that I will have a Japanese-style bathroom built if I ever own a house…

My train is nearing my destination, so I’ll wrap this post for now. I may keep updating it or I may do a second post.

Any questions or suggestions on things I should add? Hit me up in the comments…

The adventure begins… with chaos

Hopefully the start of my trip does not set the tone for the rest or it’s going to be a crazy, chaotic adventure.

The chaos began at LAX. Despite oversleeping, I got to LAX with sufficient time (thanks to short lines at security and having CLEAR – I haven’t seen LAX that uncrowded in a while. The forecasted rain didn’t hit until I was safely inside the auditory, which was a plus. But that’s where the adventure started. When the rain hit, it hit hard and was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Our flight was delayed – the crew announced that when there is lightning, the ground crew had to take cover for safety, so they couldn’t load baggage. Plus, a plane that took off right around our scheduled departuretime was struck by lightning on takeoff and had to return.

The flight was relatively uneventful, despite some turbulence. But then…

Our already-delayed flight was supposed to land at Narita airport but a plane skidded off the runway earlier in the day. Narita only has two runways, so the closure of one created chaos. As we were approaching Tokyo, the flight crew announced that there was an incident and we were going to divert to Haneda due to the long line of planes waiting to land. The lady sitting next to me, and many others on the flight, had connecting flights at Narita – I’m glad I didn’t have that added chaos!

Once we landed, the co-pilot aligned that the captain made the decision to divert because we would have been in the air another hour and we didn’t have sufficient fuel. So we sat on the plane for close to another hour as we awaited further instructions. They were apparently debating whether to reposition the plane back to Narita or let us off at Haneda. The decision was eventually made to deplane at Haneda, so they brought out air stairs and sent shuttles our way. On the positive, immigration and customs had one of the shortest lines I have ever seen at an international airport. I expected huge lines due to all the diverted flights.

While Haneda is normally consider more convenient than Narita, that isn’t necessarily the case when you are traveling at rush hour. There is a convenient express train that goes from Narita to Tokyo station. I planned to take a taxi from there to my ryokan (a Japanese inn). Instead, I took the monorail, which was crowded with rush hour passengers (but, fortunately, had luggage racks) and had to transfer to the crowded Yamanote line (a popular commuter route).

But I made it. And I went to sleep early. Now to meet my old home stay families for lunch…