Digressions & Diatribes

by Kort E Patterson, Editor

2012 Grants Pass AGA Report

First let me say that our Grants Pass AGA was a success, and I had a great time. Will Oberdick as AGA chairman along with Irene Zajac as the sole member of the AGA committee did a great job setting up a great event. However, the byline for this AGA could well have been much ado about nothing. Uncertainty and rumors of impending crises stalked the AGA from long before it actually started. A seemingly endless series of unexpected complications kept threatening to derail our AGA. But stalwart Ilians soldiered on and the illusions of crisis largely dissipated into non-issues.

One example would be our problems with elevators.

Our AGA was held in a complex of buildings. Member rooms were split between two hotels (the Lodge and the Inn) while our events occurred in two separate buildings. We would be using a large room on the second floor of the Oak building for our hospitality suite, presentations, and member meeting, but it wouldn't be available until Thursday. The plan was to use a large room on the second floor of the Lodge for Wednesday evening hospitality. One of the first to arrive at the AGA was a member in a wheelchair. It was only then that it was discovered that all of the multistory buildings in the complex had elevators except the Lodge.

The early arrivals naturally gravitated to the Lodge patio to discuss the issue, encouraged by the evening wine and cheese reception provided by the hotel. The weather was balmy and there were plenty of tables and chairs available. Will dragged down two large ice chests full of food and drink and the Lodge patio became our de facto hospitality suite for Wednesday evening. I recall at some point later in the evening also getting involved for an extended period in interesting conversations with a small group of Ilians in the parking lot. It was the usual syndrome in action - you meet someone in passing and only intend a brief greeting that turns into a conversation. Before long other Ilians notice and come over to join the conversation. Before you know it hours have slipped by...

Thursday we moved to the Oak building only to discover that its elevator wasn't working. The hotel technician did as much as he was legally allowed to do, but the elevator refused to budge. It would be necessary to call in a proper elevator repair service. Visions of lengthy delays and complications darkened the mood for a brief time but our concerns were quickly resolved. The elevator tech appeared promptly and had the elevator working in a few minutes - and it continued to work for the rest of the AGA.

The AGA schedule was another area of continued uncertainty. It seems the schedule started to change as soon as it was written down. Attendees were provided with two nicely printed schedules - one an exceptionally nice job by Irene in color with a spiral binding. The two printed schedules didn't agree but that didn't matter because the actual schedule turned out to be different than either of them. In the end the order of the presentations got repeatedly shuffled, but that was just a technicality since the standard practice is to enjoy all of the presentations available at an AGA regardless of when they happen to be offered.

In retrospect, the AGA actually ran quite smoothly with little disruption for the attendees. Much ado about things that turned out to be nothing. Nearly all of the credit for finessing the potential problems and ensuring that our AGA went smoothly goes to Will Oberdick. There were periods when I started to be concerned whether he'd be able to take the time to enjoy the AGA himself. Things settled down as the AGA progressed and Will did appear to be having a good time.

The one major disappointment I have to report is that we were defeated by an insanely difficult jigsaw puzzle in spite of the heroic efforts of a wide variety of people over the course of the AGA. I'm not a "puzzler" by nature but even I managed to contribute a couple of pieces during idle moments. Alas, I'd estimate the puzzle was only around three quarters complete before it had to be packed up Sunday. It's unusual for a puzzle to defeat the collective efforts of the AGA attendees.

One aspect that made this AGA special for me was that it was the last AGA of my final term as president. Each meeting was the last one I would chair as president. Each event was another check mark on my list of lasts. I received lots of "attaboys" and thank-yous for serving as president over the course of the AGA. After the banquet LOU*LOU presented me with a card from a long list of members that included a $345 gift card to Fry's Electronics!

It is nice to be appreciated.

I was a bit apprehensive about doing something at the last minute to screw up a relatively respectable term in office. I did briefly consider dismissing the Xboard, declaring martial law, and appointing myself imperial president for life. But here again uncertainty crept in causing me to doubt whether the traditional tactics of despotic rulers would be as effective within the admittedly somewhat different environment of Intertel as they'd been in feudal Europe. In the end simply handing over the "gavel of ultimate power" to our next president turned out to be a lot easier than trying to subvert the proper order of the universe. While it hasn't been all fun and games, on balance I've enjoyed serving as president. But I'm not unhappy that term limits oblige me to turn over the office to our next president.

Note that there aren't any term limits for the editors of regional newsletters, so I'm not expecting to retire from all of my Intertel positions...

We were treated to an exceptional number of exceptional presentations this year. We had five presentations spread over three days! Two of our presenters each gave two separate presentations, but each presentation was sufficiently different that it could stand on its own.

I first met Peter Block when he arrived two hours early Thursday morning to make sure he had plenty of time to prepare for his presentation. I've observed previously that problems tend to expand to fill all available time, and this was no exception. Glare from the windows was washing out the screen the way the hotel staff had set up the room. A search of the building failed to find any means of covering the windows, and a couple of attempts at minor adjustments proved insufficient. By then an assertively helpful guy from the hotel appeared who immediately launched into rearranging the room. Peter got his equipment reconnected in its new location just as the time he'd alloted for setting up was running out. I have to wonder what kinds of additional problems would have cropped up if Peter had arrived even earlier...

The official topic of Peter's first presentation was the disaster suffered by British Intelligence infiltrating agents into occupied Holland during WWII. To vastly simplify the background facts, the Germans captured the first British agent dropped into Holland then used him to trick the British into sending more agents each of which was immediately captured. The Germans forced the captured agents to send coded messages deceiving the British into thinking they had an active network of agents when in reality all of their agents were in German hands. The British ignored all of the established security checks that should have told them their agents had been captured, and continued to send agents to their certain capture and eventual deaths for long after they should have realized it had all gone wrong.

I'd heard about the disaster previously, and had seen it addressed multiple times from different perspectives in documentaries. However, I'm pleased to report that I learned new things, and was provided with unexpected perspectives by Peter's presentation.

Peter started out with brief biographies of the main characters on both sides of the drama and how they became involved in spy-craft in general and encryption methods in particular. This was followed by an introduction to the concepts of encryption and how it has been employed. The real meat of Peter's presentation was an exploration of the institutional cultures of the particular agencies involved on each side. It turns out the key to understanding how the seemingly unlikely disaster unfolded is in understanding each agency's internal dynamics and interactions with competing agencies within their own governments. The core cause of the failure wasn't in Holland - it was in London.

An altogether fascinating presentation by an engaging and entertaining presenter.

Peter's second talk was about "Oners: Extended Movie Shots". These are long single take sequences without a cut. Oners are of particular interest to film buffs in that they are often more expressions of the director's ego than artistic necessity. Some of the examples Peter shared with us were certainly impressive in the number of things happening in seamless coordination - any one of which could have spoiled the shot.

"Oners" ventured into a somewhat arcane area of film study that is outside of my usual interests. I probably won't go out of my way to further investigate the subject, but I did find Peter's presentation interesting and engaging. It was well worth attending even for someone with only a superficial interest in film lore. This is another example of being introduced to surprisingly interesting topics that are outside of my usual range of interests - an aspect of AGAs I've come to particularly value and enjoy.

On Friday Jessica Vineyard gave two presentations. The first addressed among other things how the evolution of matter from hydrogen to the heavier elements has been a function of the lives and deaths of stars. She also addressed how the size of a star determines how far up the periodic table it can "burn" matter. Large stars can fuse elements up to iron, but creating iron marks the end of the star's lifetime. Creating iron consumes more energy than it produces, and the star starts to collapse. The bigger the star the larger the resulting explosion. Creating elements heavier than iron requires the immense violence of a super nova explosion. All of the component atoms that make up life on earth that are heavier than hydrogen were formed in a star. We are composed of star-stuff.

While Jessica mentioned Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams briefly in her first presentation, they were the primary focus of her second presentation. A Hertzsprung-Russell diagram is a scatter graph of stars with four scales showing the correlations between absolute magnitude and luminosity as the vertical scales, and spectral types and effective temperatures as the horizontal scales. These correlations allow astronomers to deduce an impressive amount of information about the nature, size, and composition of a star just from its brightness and color.

Astronomy falls within my usual range of interests, and so I was predisposed to find Jessica's presentations interesting. It didn't hurt that the presenter was an attractive woman in a low cut blouse and high heels. I found Jessica's presentations entertaining and educational. The rest of the audience seemed to share my interest and amusement.

Our last presentation was actually an audience participation workshop - "Finding Your Natural Voice" - by Linda Brice. To over-simplify, the workshop was about the need for proper breathing and enunciation. Think of the need for an opera singer to fill an auditorium hour after hour without taxing her voice. Linda's enthusiasm for her topic was infectious, and she soon had the audience literally on the floor participating in the vocal exercises.

Our keynote speech was provided by Antti Ylikoski, a PhD candidate in the School of Science in the Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland. The focus of Antti's speech was his work in attempting to use artificial intelligence to solve the P/NP problem. He estimates that his work may contribute to solving the problem in around 200 years - or the problem might prove unsolvable - so he wasn't able to give us an advance sneak peek at the solution at that moment. The question and answer period that followed was even more intellectually stimulating than his initial presentation.

Alas, Sunday came all too quickly and it was time to say goodbyes and head home to write this review. From what I've heard we made very good impressions on the staff at the various hotels and local establishments we visited. Our AGA was even the subject of a half-page article in the Grants Pass Daily Courier - complete with color pictures! We've been invited to hold future AGAs in Grants Pass, which is certainly preferable to being chased out of town by a mob of peasants brandishing torches and pitchforks.

Next year will be our second AGA-At-Sea. We will nominally be repeating our very successful 2008 AGA in that we will be sailing on the same cruise line to the same ports of call. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that the same factors that made the 2008 cruise the best fit for our requirements and preferences also make the same itinerary the best fit for 2013. However, having learned from our first time at sea, our next cruise will be even better. In 2013 we'll be on a much newer and larger ship, and will have our own separate hospitality area. Fares will be even lower than in 2008 - especially for ocean view and balcony cabins.

I'm already looking forward to next year's AGA. Hope to see you there!

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