Digressions & Diatribes

by Kort E Patterson, Editor

2010 Austin AGA Report

Another AGA has come and gone. We had some disconcerting moments during the planning stages when communications with Chairman Jimmy Fahrenholtz were interrupted for various reasons. Once again, Lou*Lou (Lou Keay) pitched in to help fill the gaps, and it all came off pretty well.

As I write this I haven't yet fully recovered from the trip, but with deadlines looming there's no time to wait for optimum conditions. Hopefully this account will be reasonably coherent.

Austin is a fair distance from Beaverton, and my journey started at 3 AM. I got to the airport after a short cab ride followed by an hour long ride on a mostly empty light-rail train. I'd carefully arrived the recommended two hours early to allow time for unexpected delays getting through security. Early morning security was largely empty, and I passed through with little delay or commotion. This left plenty of time for important activities like thumb twiddling and idly wandering around the airport. So much better than foolishly wasting those hours home asleep in bed.

I napped during my flights in both directions, but nothing untoward appeared to have occurred during the time I'd allowed my attention to lapse. The wings were still attached and the plane was still flying the next time I checked. I boarded in one city and disembarked in either a different city or a very good facsimile. (The illusion was entirely convincing until the topic of conversation turned to metaphysics and holographic projections of intangible dimensions... and then the doubts started...) So, barring a highly unlikely conspiracy theory, my flights were probably as uneventful as they appeared, and the Austin I enjoyed was most likely the real one in Texas.

John Hermmann, former resident and unabashed Austin booster, certainly seemed to think we were holding the AGA in the right place. I had a great time, but then the same has been true of previous AGAs in other cities. It was without a doubt the best time I've ever had in Austin, but then it was also the first time I'd been there. I certainly enjoyed the Austin AGA. I'll have to leave it up to the reader to decide whether this was because of or in spite of the location.

I thought it was a tad warm in Austin, while others thought it was quite comfortable. To be fair, these others also tended to think the air conditioning was too cold when I though it was just about right. My favored thermal range did appear to be a distinct minority, and so my observations in this area are probably of limited value to the majority of Ilians.

The "fiscally restrained" (cheap) part of me is pleased to report that even though the Austin AGA was one of the least expensive I've attended, the hotel was quite nice and appeared to be in a reasonably good neighborhood, transportation was easily available, and the catered banquet was on the better side of a typical formal dinner. There were adequate supplies of food and drink in the hospitality suite to sustain life and a pleasant level of conviviality. The meeting rooms were comfortable and more than ample for our needs. We (nondestructively) adapted the hospitality suite furniture to provide additional playing surfaces.

Every AGA seems to have a crisis, and this year's was the discovery that the hotel wasn't handicapped accessible - it had been "grandfathered". Work-arounds were arranged to accommodate our only attendee in a wheelchair, although the upstairs meeting rooms required an inelegant solution. One way or another the obstacles were overcome. We'll have to be more careful about checking for ADA exemptions in future AGA sites.

All in all the infrastructure needs of the AGA seemed to have been pretty well met. The only other necessity for a good time was to assemble enough Ilians to provide an interesting mix of characters and perspectives. I'm inclined to think we had a good mix of regulars, first timers, and occasion attendees, but a dozen more would have been even better.

It doesn't seem that long ago that computers were a rarity at an AGA, and network connections were at best a dial-up modem at per minute rates that would put a phone-sex operation to shame. At the Austin AGA it was taken for granted that a small lightweight laptop could maintain a wireless broadband connection to the distant website that was providing the source of amusement displayed on its screen, even while it was being passed (carefully) around the room so that everyone could see.

The hotel provided free Internet, including a cyber cafe in the lobby composed of a couple of Win-XP workstations and a laser printer. Our schedule went through several revisions during the AGA, and the hotel's cyber cafe made it possible to repeatedly print revised schedules. Several Regional Directors finished their annual reports at the last minute using the hotel's computers.

The laptops brought by attendees provided portable display screens for cartoons and fact-checking reference libraries in the hospitality suite. Far from distracting attention and fragmenting the group dynamic with video games and mindless eye candy, the always close at hand computers were consigned to such supporting roles as settling arguments over factual minutia, or providing pictures that enhanced the current topic of discussion.

The significance of this latter contribution shouldn't be underestimated. If a picture is worth a thousands words, that's a thousand words that don't need to be said - and every word that doesn't need to be said leaves space for other words. I don't think there was ever a shortage of other attendees eager to make good use of as many thousands of additional words that computer supplied pictures could "save"! There were far more things that could have been said than time during the AGA to have said them.

Computers also expanded our ability to distribute information from the AGA. Several attendees continued their usual participation on Top1 while they were in Austin, providing near real-time updates for those who were unable to attend. Distant Ilians were able to view a video of the great fruitcake smack-down only a few minutes after the actual event! Talk about hot off the presses late breaking news!

It's perhaps a bit of ironic that I tend to have little involvement with computers during AGAs. (This is not the same as talking about computers with fellow Ilians.) I don't bring a laptop, or seek out targets of opportunity to satisfy a constant craving for a computer fix. There are usually more than enough other attendees with laptops to accomplish whatever needs to be done (even if they're often running that other operating system...). Besides, this way I get to watch real users use their computers. The things users do and the reasons they do them have long been a source of great wonderment and consternation among programmers and sys admins.

On the other hand, all of the games I saw played used tangible cards and/or boards, and involved multiple players that all had to be physically present in the same room. I'm not much of a game player, but I do kibitz on occasion. At the end of the AGA even I got drawn into a card game involving the chronology of historical events. It's easy to place an event between two others that are several thousand years apart. It's a lot harder to get the order right when two events occurred in consecutive years. Unfortunately, my fellow players where insufficiently intimidated by my imperial presence to realize that the president is supposed to win. I came in a strong third out of the three of us playing...(insert suitable excuses and disclaimers here)

The real gamers appeared to like one of the new ones tested at Mind-games because I spotted several of the new initiates playing the game again later. Then again, they might have been playing it just because it happened to be already set up on the table... I should probably refrain from further pontificating where my only knowledge is unreliable second hand observations. The one thing I confidently state is that the different combinations of players appeared to be having a good time regardless of the game they happened to be playing at the time.

There were a couple challenging puzzles available, but they never made it out of their boxes.

The keynote speech after our banquet was provided by Jimmy Fahrenholtz who spoke on his experiences in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster. His observations were in turn interesting, amusing, and more than a little disturbing. He also gave an informative presentation Saturday on end of life decisions (don't trust the courts to do what is right or reasonable).

We were also entertained and amused on Saturday by Asa, an enthusiastically friendly deaf pit bull. Asa brought along her human companion to give a presentation on the life and techniques of an animal control officer. With our attention suitably distracted by the presentation, Asa made repeated circuits of the room with the overt intention of extracting the maximum amount of petting from the audience. Along the way we learned that Asa had had substantial behavior problems when first rescued from a shelter, but with training that took her needs and drives into consideration, had been transformed into a happy well behaved pet.

I was surprised to discover after the fact that I'd missed nearly all of the expeditions to see local attractions. This wasn't intentional. I went eagerly anticipating the opportunity to enjoy new experiences and sample new (to me) perspectives in the company of fellow Ilians. I can't remember the last time I was motivated to go to an art museum or historical site by myself, but I have many fond memories of visiting such places in the company of fellow Ilians during past AGAs. (Those who do regularly visit art museums and/or historical sites should substitute their own "outside of my normal interests" alternative subject matter/locations.) It's long been one of my favorite parts of an AGA.

It did rain heavily on Thursday, the traditional day for expeditions, but that didn't preclude visiting the many indoor local attractions. Having checked the weather forecast before leaving Oregon, I'd even brought an umbrella. We had the benefit of a locally knowledgeable tour guide, and Austin doesn't lack for interesting and/or amusing things to see and do.

I know some Ilians did manage to take in various local attractions. A spirited search for the best BBQ was undertaken with much after-action discussion of the relative merits of different establishments. Some also managed to take in a baseball game, visit a winery, tour a cave, view the nightly aerobatics of a bat colony, listen to some live music, swim in spring-fed waters, and visit various museums. And these were just the things I heard about.

I did enjoy a couple of relatively short duration expeditions to sample the local BBQ and Mexican food, but now that I'm back home trying to write a report on the AGA, there seems to be a severe lack of tales to tell about the unexpected places I went. I do have vague memories of having to reluctantly decline several interesting invitations. So you'll just have to be satisfied with my second hand observations that all but one such expedition reported having a good time, and all known intrepid adventurers appeared to have made it back to base camp more or less intact. (For the compulsively curious: the contents of an expected art museum were reportedly disappointing...)

The fact that I only realized I'd missed out on a highly enjoyable part of an AGA after it was over provides a telling indication as to how it occurred. There was just too much to do, too many interesting conversations in the hospitality suite, too many AGA events, to spare the time for the many attractions offered outside of the hotel. The AGA was just too short to fit it all in. I had the same problem at my first AGA in Denver. I've certainly suffered worst traumas!

My flight home didn't take off until 7:00 PM, leaving me with at least four hours to kill after check-out before even starting for the airport. I was intending to look into something to do during those long empty hours, but never got around to it during the AGA. I was just going to hang around with the other stragglers for a few minutes after the AGA when suddenly all the hours I'd been expecting to have to fill had slipped by, and it was time to start my journey home. If only time during the AGA passed as slowly as the hours spent in airports waiting for flights.

Our Executive Board meeting managed to slog through the necessary business functions pretty much on schedule. As usual we didn't receive enough proxies to provide the quorum needed to formally conduct business during the member meeting. However, there was a lively discussion, with the attendees making a number of good points and interesting suggestions.

The most pressing issue we considered was the dues increase suggested by our treasurer. I can report with confidence that dues will remain the same. However, our treasurer is not given to unfounded claims or outrageous demands, so it's a fair assumption that she has a valid point. If we don't raise dues we will need to increase our revenues some other way - such as by increasing our membership.

The need to attract new members - especially from the younger generations - was a recurrent topic of conversation during the AGA. A number of interesting suggestions were made and motions passed in this area. Hopefully we will see some positive results in the not too distant future.

It would probably be prudent to wait until my brain is back working properly and I've had a chance to review my notes before saying much more about what might have transpired. The rest of the news will have to wait until my next column - if someone else doesn't write or post about them before then. (The contrived air of mystery might even trick a few more members into actually paying attention next time...)

In summary, I had a great time in Austin, and look forward to the 2011 AGA in Akron OH. Quite an agreeable bottom line in my book.

Each one reach one!

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