Magnolia Conference 2009 Report

This is a lightly tweaked version of the report I submitted to the University after returning from Magnolia’s first-ever conference, in Basel, Switzerland. I realize I need to write up a more general-interest trip report, but have been dreadfully short on time since our return. I have, however, recounted our adventures often enough now that it should be a straightforward bit of writing; I’ll do it soon!

In September, my friend and coworker Jeff Snider and I attended the 1st conference for the Magnolia CMS, on which our Gato system is based, in Basel, Switzerland.

We presented two talks at the conference: Case Study: Magnolia at Texas State University (mostly Jeff’s work) and Surfacing External Data through Magnolia (mostly my work). Our talks were well received; people seemed to particularly enjoy the window into our implementation experiences.

Other presentations covered various open-source Magnolia modules that may be of use to us, Apache Sling (which looks like a great foundation for building web-service-based content applications), some basic details on clustered instances that will serve as a good starting pointing for setting up a clustered editing environment, and the new UI and architecture for the upcoming Magnolia 5. (We were unable to attend the last, since it was opposite our own, but the slides cover the information fairly well.)

The most valuable thing for us, however, was to get to meet the Magnolia staff and community. We were able to put faces to many of the names that pass across the user support list, and to discuss lots of aspects of Magnolia with the folks who are directly responsible for implementing it. (And one of them saved Sean during his presentation when he made a mistake in my data entry — thanks, Philipp!)

While the conference itself was not without the occasional hiccup — to be expected, given that this was the first time it had been held — the chance to build relationships within the community, learn from the other presentations, and to present Texas State’s experiences made the trip a worthwhile one.

Honor Roll

Kathy and I are just back from a 10 day trip to Switzerland which was alternately the most amazing and the most harrowing experience of our recent lives. I’ll write more on the trip itself later, but wanted to post immediately about the extraordinary kindness and care we were shown by a variety of people over the course of this trip and to publicly thank the folks involved:

  • Thank you to my brother Chris, who stayed with our kiddos for the first half of the week, and to his wife Becky for being willing to share him!
  • Thank you to my mother Diane, who took several days off from her pediatric private practice to care for our kids the remainder of the time we would be gone. When we missed our flight out of Switzerland, she  stayed another night to make sure the young people got off to school OK the next morning.
  • Thank you to Karl, the proprietor of Transcom Accommodation, who came in after hours to check us into our rental apartment and was extraordinarily friendly, patient and helpful when the B&B where we were supposed to be staying lost our reservation. Thanks also to Eva, his neighbor, who invited us into her kitchen while she called around and found Karl after hours.
  • Thank you to Boris, the CTO of Magnolia, and his family. Not only did they make us feel very welcome in Basel and give us some great ideas for things to see and do, but they also had us over for dinner and treated us to a delightful evening of excellent food and conversation. It was one of the high points of our time away.
  • Thank you to Daniel and again to my brother Chris, who surreptitiously did an entire garden installation in our backyard while we were gone. We were astounded to find two large raised beds and an irrigation system (complete with a new water supply line) installed, with Bok Choy, lettuce, and Swiss Chard (appropriate!) already sprouting, where the remnants of our pool had been when we left. Amazing!
  • Thank you to Mike McGinnis for picking us up from the airport when we came in a day later than anticipated and bringing us home.
  • Thank you to all the friends who offered thoughts, prayers, and words of reassurance while we were on the road. They meant more than you can imagine!
  • Thank you to Leslie for staying with the kids after school on the day we were returning and greeting us with a big hug and a bigger Mexican food meal — just the thing to make us feel well and truly back home. (Thanks also to Charles & Lydia, Faith, my Dad, and the other folks who offered to help out that afternoon!)

We are amazingly humbled and grateful to have friends who are far better than what we deserve. Thank you all for your love and your very concrete support.

High Ed Web 2008 Talk (or “A Cure for Insomnia”)

Last October, a couple of my coworkers and I presented at [High Ed Web 2008]. The conference organizers have, at long last, posted the transcript and audio recording of our session. The quality of the transcript is fairly rough, and they didn’t include the visual aids (which, by the way, I put a good deal of time into converting to a format they’d asked for), but the audio quality is good. If you have an interest in our experiences with content management systems at Texas State University, give it a listen!

Mistletoe Furlough Redux

We’ve made it home safely from our grand Christmas roadtrip, and are enjoying the comfort of sleeping in our own beds once more. I don’t have the time or skill to do the trip justice, but here are a few of the highlights that stick out in my memory:

  • A wonderful extended time of visiting with the Adams family. Though we unfortunately never were able to visit them in Uganda while they were doing teaching and mission work there, having a full week with them was a good bit of make-up. It was terrific to get to enjoy long talks, trips to the park, ice cream, Carcassonne games, etc. without the time pressure that often characterizes our visits with family and friends.
  • Visiting the Frontier Culture Museum. This historical park recreates farms from the homelands of the various people groups that settled in the area by transporting buildings piece-by-piece from their land of origin and training guides to explain life at that time in character. It’s a fascinating place with  sound educational value.
  • A mini college reunion. My old college friends Jonathan and Nadja were kind enough to put us up for two nights in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To my surprise, they also coordinated with Steve and Debbie and Bob and Sonia to bring together a wonderful dinner of old college chums. It had been a decade since I’d seen most of these folks, and I was struck with how much I still enjoy their company and the richness of their friendship.
  • Laughing about the “5 kid tour”. Three of the families we visited with over the course of our trip had 5 children in their family. For the first time ever, I felt like a bit of a procreative underachiever!
  • Going snow tubing at Ski Roundtop. We had hoped to do a day of snowboarding at some point on the trip, but weather and schedules conspired to make that an impossibility. Two hours sliding down a snow-packed hill on tubes was a decent substitute, good enough that Liam declared it his favorite part of the trip.
  • Visiting the museums and zoo in Washington DC. I was particularly thrilled to see Spaceship One, as well as a giant piece by Andy Goldsworthy at the National Gallery. (If you haven’t seen Rivers and Tides, the documentary on Andy’s work, it’s well worth renting.) We also got to see the Giant Pandas at the zoo feeding and quite enjoyed the bird displays.
  • Staying with Rob and Kim and Glenn and Michelle in Nashville. Glenn and Rob were among my closest college friends, and it was an absolute pleasure to get to catch up with each of them and their families. I only wish we had been able to linger — the visits both seemed far too brief!

To my surprise, the kids did really well with the long car rides, which topped out at about 14 hours in a single day. They were, however, pretty gleeful to see the end of their time trapped in the back of the vehicle, rolling around on the ground and squealing with glee when we returned home at last.

Thanks to all who contributed to the success of the trip. We enjoyed it a great deal, and are very glad to be home safely!

High Ed Web 2008

I’m currently at the High Ed Web 2008 conference in Springfield, MO. The conference is geared to web professionals in Higher Education, and is an interesting combination of marketers, technical folk, and the occasional vendor. There’s lots of good information to be had (as well as an immense amount of equally good food — who suspected that “travel is broadening” should be taken literally?), and all of us who are attending are getting a lot out of it.

Yesterday afternoon, James, Jeff and I did our planned presentation: University-Wide CMS Implementation: Failure, then Success. We had a lot of fun with it, taking a pretty irreverent approach to the history of our CMS project, and using some cool 3D timeline software to present our information in an interesting way.

Conference attendees have been using Twitter to communicate about the conference pretty extensively, so I told people at the start of our presentation that I wanted them to help me make all the people in other sessions feel as bad as possible for missing ours. Toward that end, I encouraged them to post the most outrageous lies about our presentation they could think of. Here’s the Twitter chatter that was posted during our presentation:

  • jesseclark: I have recieved more temp tattos in the past two days than the last 10 years! #heweb08
  • tonydunn: #heweb08 live mexican wrestling in SAC4 session! AWESOME!!
  • stomer: Admiring the wrestling masks at SAC4 #heweb08
  • carlenek: #heweb08 SAC4, CMS Failure then success. They just gave each of us $5!!
  • stomer: In unison “politics” #heweb08
  • stomer: “Uploading images has more steps than AA” #heweb08
  • tonydunn: #heweb08 massive EPIC FAIL… what a story! if you ain’t in SAC4 ur missing it
  • tonydunn: @pberry blackops meetings… sounds like us 🙂 #heweb08
  • stomer: Another plug for adding content best practices along with CMS training #heweb08
  • tonydunn: ‘brand the service, not the product’ – excellent advice! #heweb08

I’m having a great time getting to enjoy some of my work friends in a more social setting than usual, as well as meeting people from other Universities and Colleges around the country, getting to see Springfield, and taking photos with team members in luchador masks in front of local landmarks. We have another day and a half of conference to go, after which I’m looking forward to the chance to meet up with my Uncle Rick and some old friends who also live in the area.

Sidenote: before leaving for the trip, I told the kids that I was going to Springfield for a conference. “Cool!” said Liam. “You’ll get to meet the Simpsons!” I launched into an explanation of the fact that one of the running gags on the show is that they don’t ever let on where Springfield actually is, and how in the movie Ned Flanders points to the four adjacent states, Ohio, Nevada, Maine and Kentucky, which are of couse widely spread. Thus I wouldn’t actually get to meet the Simpsons, because the Springfield they live in is a fictional construct, not the one in Missouri.

Ten minutes later it occurred to me that I would also not get to meet them because they’re cartoons.

Yep, I’m a dork.

Robocars!

I’ve been intrigued by Personal Rapid Transit since 2002. I’ve gone so far as to do some software modeling and simulation of a PRT system for San Marcos (with a station right by my house, natch), and those of you unfortunate enough to live near me have probably been regaled by my excited blathering on the subject from time to time. (“Good goshamighty, why won’t he be quiet? Shut up! SHUT UP! He won’t stop. Ok, I’m going to my happy place now. Thinking about unicorns and cheesecake. Mmmmmm…cheesecake.”)

But as of today, I’m no longer a fan.

The reason? Not any particular deficiency on PRT’s part. It’s still quicker, more efficient, and generally much more desirable than private cars or other public transit options.

But today, I discovered Robocars.

What are Robocars? Cars that can drive themselves. DARPA’s Grand Challenge in 2004 and 2005 showed that autonomous vehicles were a technological possibility. The 2007 Urban Challenge demonstrated that they could function on normal roadways, dealing with traffic laws, other vehicles, and pedestrians along the way.

Once you have vehicles that can drive themselves, a fleet of them (run by, say, a taxi company) offers nearly all of PRT’s advantages without its drawbacks. Consider these improvements on the PRT concept:

  • Robocars operate on existing roadways. There’s no need for a dedicated infrastructure like PRT’s.
  • If a Robocar breaks down, it can easily be moved out of the way like a car. It wouldn’t block an entire monorail line like a failed PRT tram would.
  • Implementation of Robocars would not need a huge initial investment from a central government, but can be introduced one at a time, just like automobiles. It can therefore happen as gradually or rapidly as the market dictates.
  • By communicating with traffic lights and ensuring optimum travel speeds, Robocars could be nearly as efficient as a PRT system.
  • One can have personal ownership of a Robocar if one wishes.
  • Robocars remain useful as you move out of urban areas.

Robocars, like PRT, offer even more advantages over traditional cars and transit systems: fuel efficiency, convenience, safety, flexibility, and the ability to both enjoy a private space and to do other things while in transit.

See Brad Templeton’s Introduction to the idea for an overview of what it’s all about, or for a glimpse into the possibilities, read his fictional account of what a week with Robocars might look like.

A Grand Day Out With Liam

Yesterday was the second of the days this summer I took off to spend with one of our kids. Liam and I, after some deliberation, decided on a visit to San Antonio. (The other contender was to take Amtrak up to Austin and spend the day visiting Barton Springs, Peter Pan Mini Golf, and an Alamo Drafthouse theater, all of which are within walking distance of the station.) We started off at the Witte Museum, a fantastic, hands-on, kid-friendly place to which Liam has been keen to make a return visit. It featured an exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci with functioning models of many of his mechanical innovations which were great fun to pump, crank, and climb on. Those that particularly caught my eye were a bridge that could be assembled without any nails or other fasteners, an elaborate wood cutting apparatus, and an early military tank. We also bumped into and had a nice chat with Becky, my brother’s delightful bride, who has been volunteering there at the museum for a couple of months and enjoying it a great deal. The Science Treehouse portion of the museum is also a great favorite, as there are lots of cool things to fool with there, several of which, like the pneumatic rockets and air cannon, mirrored some of the things Jason Young and I have built together.

After a lunch at IHOP, we buzzed back up the highway a bit to Splashtown, a San Antonio water park that has been around since I was young. We flitted from one thing to another, enjoying the short lines brought on by a combination of an overcast, threatening sky and the fact that it was the middle of the week. Since nearly all the rides require you to climb to the tops of towers to launch yourself headlong down the chutes, I ended up climbing the equivalent of a 35 story building over the course of the day, and Liam did around 60. Unsurprisingly, I was terrifically sore the next day. (And the next. And the one after that.) Though he never worked up to the biggest slide at the park, an orange monstrosity we used to call “The Wedgie”, Liam grew increasingly bold over the course of the afternoon, finally settling in to some fairly significant tube chutes with lots of twists and turns (that dumped him out of his tube as often as not) as his favorite thing of the afternoon.

It was a fine day out and, as always, I was glad to seize some extra time with one of the kiddos.

Stupid Guy Trip VI

I’m just back from the sixth Stupid Guy Trip, an annualish gathering of my brother, me, and a few of our oldest and dearest. This year Chris McMains, Daniel Priest, Mike Brack, Ben Mengden, Ross Richie, Jason Young, and Jonathan Hunter made up the roster. More than ever this year, it was an experience I can’t really do justice to in a weblog post. A few of the highlights, however, were these:

  • A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Great collection housed in amazing architecture. Most notable was the giant, bird-wing shaped sunscreen that opened and closed over the solarium several times a day, but the rest of the space was fantastic as well.
  • Nearly getting into a fight with some people vying for a parking space near the mob scene that was RiverSplash. They noticed the license plates on the rental car, and shouted repeatedly at us “Go back to Idaho, you potato-*****,” which was a wholly novel epithet for us.
  • Touring the Lakefront Brewery. Our guide was funny and personable, the beer was good, and the company excellent.
  • The Safe House, a spy-themed bar. To gain entry, one has to know the password or perform an embarrassing act in front of the video cameras that pipe your image into the bar ahead of you. Once cleared, a bookcase swings aside and admits you to the establishment proper, which features all sorts of cold war/James Bond/spy memorabilia, as well as a “secret passage” that locks behind you as you go through it. (I ended up having to exit the bar altogether and lobby the doorkeeper for re-admittance.)
  • Seeing a Brewers game. Miller Park is beautifully constructed, and we had a great view of the ball field from our relatively-cheap seats. It was especially enjoyable to see how seriously fans there take their tailgating; we could see the smoke rising from all the grills from half a mile away, and actually getting in required dodging a number of thrown beanbags from an inexplicably popular game that was played throughout the parking lot. Plus, it’s the only ball park I’ve been to with a slide, though it was sadly not open to the public.
  • Trocadero, a European-style cafe where we enjoyed a fantastic brunch twice. The service was great and the food amazing. (I got to try ratatouille: yum!)
  • Playing full-contact whiffle ball in a park near Jonathan’s apartment. We attracted a fair number of spectators, a couple of injuries, and innumerable grass stains.
  • The biggest highlight for me, however, is always the company and conversations. I count many of these friendships in decades now, have been through a ton with these guys, and am very grateful indeed to be able to carve time out of our lives to nurture those relationships. (Though from the outside, it may be hard to distinguish “nurturing relationships” from “insulting each other’s mothers”.)

A special thanks to Jonathan for hosting our octet of malodorous males in his efficiency apartment.

Sandfest 2008

This year we decided to do Sandfest properly. I went prowling for places to stay a couple months ago, and somehow managed to secure a wonderful house right on the beach, an easy stroll from Sandfest itself. The big, open house with lots of places to sleep worked out great for our mob, which numbered as many as 18 at times (not including the dogs). We had a magnificent time playing in the water, building castles, eating too much, playing cards, fishing, and generally enjoying time with family.

A few of the highlights for me:

  • Saw what I’m pretty sure was a Rutan VariEze or Beechcraft Starship fly over.
  • Spent hours in the water, splashing around with kids, body-surfing, doing wave flips, and generally having a great time.
  • Saw an enormous number of brilliantly done sand sculptures.
  • Got together with Greg Pierce, his wife Katie, and their awesome boys.
  • Played music into the night with friends.
  • Got to visit with various bits of the extended family that we don’t get to visit with as much as we’d like, including Betty, my sister-in-law’s mum who was over from England.
  • Flew my birthday kite.
  • Having our stealth Chihuahua kicked out of the restaurant where we ate lunch on Sunday.

It was a wonderful trip; several people suggested that we make an annual thing of renting that place for Sandfest so that we can all enjoy it together again.

You can see some of our photos here on Facebook.

Bo Jon’s Surf & Gifts: Beware

Sunday, April 20, 2008

This past weekend, the family was down in Port Aransas for Sandfest. As we were leaving town, we decided to stop by Bo Jon’s Surf & Gifts, a big gift shop near one of the central intersections with an entrance made up to look like a shark’s mouth, about 2:00pm. While we were there, Kathy decided to visit the restroom. As she was coming out of the restroom, a large stepladder which had been left propped against the wall fell over and struck Kathy on the head.

I saw the ladder falling, but wasn’t close enough to catch it before it hit her. Kathy immediately sat down on the floor, stunned and hurt. I put the ladder back upright, making sure it was propped far enough from the wall that it wouldn’t fall again. I told the workers at the front desk that the ladder had fallen and struck my wife, and asked for ice. They poured some ice from a drink into a ziploc bag and gave it to us, and Kathy applied it to her head.

One of the counter workers, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, then called the owner. She then came back over to where Kathy was still sitting on the floor with her head in her hands and, instead of asking after Kathy’s welfare or offering to help, asked us to start filling out an incident report. I grew angry at her, at which point she offered to put the owner (who later identified herself as Christie Maxwell) on the phone. Once on the phone, Ms. Maxwell was immediately hostile, and told me that I was out of line to want to speak with her about the situation. She told me that they always kept the ladder there, and that they had never had an accident before. She eventually agreed to give me the name of the person who handled their insurance, and I told her I would complete the incident report, which I then did.

Kathy was finally feeling well enough to stand up, so we took her out to the car and headed for a medical center that our friend Will had gotten directions to from the store staff. Unfortunately, the directions turned out to be unfollowable, so we ended up asking at convenience stores until we finally found out where the nearest hospital was — about 30 miles from the gift store. We made it there and checked Kathy, who was still in pain, disoriented, and nauseated, in to the Emergency Room.

With the kids all stationed out in the waiting room with our friends Will and April, we ended up staying there for about three hours. The doctor was concerned because of the nausea, and ordered a CAT scan for Kathy. Fortunately, the physical examination and the CAT scans all eventually came back OK, and the doctor discharged us with instructions not to leave Kathy alone for the next 24-48 hours and to wake her periodically during the night to be sure she was still lucid. We lit off for home, finally arriving back in San Marcos around 10:00pm.

Monday, April 21, 2008

8:30am: Called the subrogation department of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas, our health insurance company. They were attentive, polite and helpful, and opened a file on the incident.

8:45am: Called Kathy Estep, the individual who the owner had said was handling their insurance. She was initially cordial, asking after Kathy’s welfare and telling me that she had the form and was filing it with their insurance company. I asked the name of the insurance company, figuring that, like with a car accident, exchanging insurance information was a reasonable thing to do. She said that their procedure was to let the insurance company contact me. I asked again, and she rebuffed me again. “So, to be clear, you’re refusing to give me the name of your insurance company?” I asked. “I’m not refusing anything,” she said, launched into a long verbal tirade during which she wouldn’t allow me to speak and concluded by hanging up on me.

8:53am: Called the City of Port Aransas Building Inspection Department to let them know what had happened and ask if they would mind dropping by and making sure the ladder had been moved someplace safer. The secretary seemed nonplused, but offered to take my number and to call back if she had any further questions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Our Kathy is nearly back to normal, though she’s still having some headaches, which the Emergency Room doctor told her to expect for a few days.

In spite of Kathy Estep’s assurances, we have heard nothing from the shop’s insurance company. I’ve also heard nothing back from the city’s building inspector.

UPDATE: Monday, April 28, 2008

We still haven’t heard anything from Bo Jon’s insurance company. I called Blue Cross this morning to see if they had, but only ended up mired in their voice mail system. I also sent an email to Joe Lamb, the building inspector in Port Aransas, to ask if his department had an opportunity to check on the safety of the gift shop yet. Waiting on responses from all quarters.

UPDATE: August 2008

Blue Cross eventually must have reached them, because we got a letter from Columbia Insurance Group — the mystery insurance company revealed! — saying that they had been trying to contact us, but had been unsuccessful. (Presumably their efforts were carrier-pigeon based, as we never received any phone messages.) I sent them an email asking what information they needed. Rather than answering that question, they asked for a phone number where we could be reached. I sent them one, then sent them a follow-up email a week later when I heard nothing, then another follow up another week later.

UPDATE: September 5, 2008

I finally got a call from the Insurance company two weeks after sending them my number. Unfortunately, I missed it, and they only left a voice mail with their phone number (which, of course, I already had). I called them back again and got voice mail on their end. Sigh.

UPDATE: December 8, 2008

We’ve been in touch with the insurance company several times, given statements, provided documentation of the hospital visit, and finally got an offer to cover the hospital costs plus a small pain and suffering allowance. (We hadn’t asked for the latter, but it was nice of them to offer it.) We accepted the offer, and have been waiting for several weeks now. We still haven’t received the reimbursement check, but it seems that we’re finally getting close to the end of this.

Interestingly, some friends of the shop’s owner have apparently found this page. We have received several profane comments containing assertions that we never went to the hospital, ad hominem attacks against Kathy and me, and other unpleasantness. (I’ve not posted them, for obvious reasons.)

UPDATE: March 2009

We finally received our settlement check, and were able to reimburse our own insurance company for their costs. (They definitely benefited from the settlement more than we did!) I’m very glad to finally have this done, even though it took nearly a year to sort through it.

Conclusion

I have been deeply disappointed by the response of the shop’s employees, owners, and insurance representative. Their concern at every turn has seemed to be more with protecting themselves than with making their shop safe or helping people hurt because they failed to do so. I understand for the first time in my life the temptation to hire a slimy personal injury lawyer and to try to get something out of a miserable situation like this. (We haven’t succumbed, however.)

Will and April were a tremendous help during this time. Thanks a bunch, you guys.

I will keep updating this post as events warrant. In the meantime, I recommend steering well clear of Bo Jon’s whenever you’re in Port Aransas. We will certainly be doing so from now on.