I write today safely back in the Midwest after spending about 5 days in Anaheim, California (for which see my previous post). My purpose in California was the annual Sungard Summit, a very large gathering of customers of Sungard Higher Education, mostly Banner users. It’s a markedly different kind of conference than the ones I’ve historically been to, which consisted mostly of people trying to get a particular product to work. Most of the schools at Sungard already have the product working, and so it really was a sort of brain trust, and interesting in a lot of ways.
A (possibly boring) section about institutional technology
As an application developer, I’m generally interested in building frontends to things; by contrast, a lot of sessions at Summit consisted of processes and user-focused talks. I stayed mostly inside the “Technical” track, which did include some cool things. Bridgewater College had done some alterations to make secondary PINs (used for student self-registration) transparent to students; faculty could turn such self-registration on or off with a single click in a web panel. Also, the presenter had an absolutely wonderful Boston accent, pronouncing “vanilla” as “vaniller,” which thrilled me to no end1.
As an institution that has built a lot of custom web applications outside the purview of Banner’s web engine (Self Service / WebTailor), we’re always looking for good ideas from other institutions that have done the same. Unfortunately, those institutions are few and far between. I did go to one session about forecasting class demand in which the school had built a reporting system in PHP, and they used jQuery. I’m always surprised there’s so little custom application writing; it’s not as though using the WebTailor piece to make Self Serve screens is particular nice or elegant. I find it much easier, once you have a simple data access framework, to do it yourself. That’s why my university’s been able to get so many reports, services, and other screens into our portal.
Peripheral anecdotes not having to do with technology per se
But the conference only lasted from 8-5 every day, leaving the surplus time free to cavort with my colleagues around Anaheim. I say “cavort,” but what I really mean it “walk slowly, and stop often for cocktails.” I’ve said before that the immediate surrounding area was almost nothing but hotels and Disneyland, meaning that just about everything in Anaheim, including restaurants, was out of our range. There were a few restaurants in the vicinity, however. On Saturday, we ate at the Overland Stage, a somewhat pretentious place whose subtitle included “BBQ Company.” Our waitress was hesitant to bring us additional chips and salsa when asked, claiming that it would ruin our dinner; as it happens, she forgot to put my order in anyway, which was probably for the best, since when it finally did come, it had as much flavor as chewing on a sock.
On Sunday, we ate at the Cheesecake Factory (our attempt to dine somewhere local was aborted when it was discovered that the real distance was much farther than the map indicated), which was a veritable comedy of errors. When our promised patio table, at “15 to 30 minutes” took about 45, apparently because they forgot about us, we should have known it was a harbinger of things to come. To date, we don’t really know what caused it all, but our drinks took about 30 minutes, apparently because they were made and set off to the side and promptly ignored (they were eventually comped). Our food came in fits and starts, with a turkey club sandwich never coming at all. Our waitress, who, it must said, was very nice, kept apologizing and saying that this sort of thing never happened at the Cheesecake Factory, though it’s been my experience that any location besides the rather ugly one in downtown Chicago tends to be subpar.
On Monday, the company hosting the conference sponsored a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, which interests me about as much as colorectal surgery; I gave my ticket to someone from my group who didn’t have one, and stayed in my hotel room, savoring a bit of isolation and the chance to do some work on my laptop and read my book. I’m told I missed a good time, but mostly people just looked exhausted and sore the next day from the g-force and copious amounts of beer. I have no regrets.
Tuesday night, a subset of my group walked the half-mile or so to Buca de Beppo’s, one of a chain of family-style Italian restaurants, and stuffed ourselves to the gills with pasta, waddling back to the hotel surprisingly early. We stopped at the lobby bar of the Sheraton and had cocktails—I thoroughly enjoyed my Manhattan—while everyone sank into the lounge chairs and imagined, wearily, that they could magically be home again, or at least in bed. Personally, I was doing OK, having relaxed considerably more the previous night, but the bourbon and cream sherry accelerated me to sleep.
Summits always have at least two big speakers bookending the conference. This year, the opening address was given by Erik Weihenmayer, a blind man who has achieved the summit of the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Yes, that’s as delightfully absurd as it sounds. I’m also happy to report that he was actually a very good speaker as well, with a dry, self-deprecating kind of wit. The man’s very presence is humbling, since he more or less automatically puts all of your achievements to shame.
The second speaker, more lightly attended since it was 8:00am on the last day of the conference, was Carl Hammerschlag. I was less impressed with him, since, although he made very valid points, tended dangerously close to hokey in his “Mind Body Spirit” mantra, which he tries to validate immediately by telling the story of an Indian medicine man he once treated. Sorry, but I just don’t feel all warm and fuzzy at such Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of pabulum.
But that is neither here nor there.
Melancholy fills my head with short stories. On a plane, deep in my own thoughts, I watch the clouds grow a deep red below, and finally thin out to reveal the expansive grid of Chicago lit beneath us, a bustling Lite Brite, pulsing with late traffic. To me, there’s nothing quite like staring out the window of a plane at the land below; nothing so utterly ravishes one’s sense of proportion as realizing one green speck is a baseballs stadium; a hairsbreadth of grey is some major highway crossing the California desert; that the endless expanse of Pacific blue is some small fraction of a whole2. At 31’000 feet, there’s a persistent grey strip, seemingly thin as a pencil, that separates the sky’s blue from the seedy grey-white of the clouds below.
I watched an invisible sun slowly cede, blurring the boundaries of the horizon, as I thought about my travels; my desire for home, for sleep, for better coffee. Eventually all the distinctions I draw, however carefully, are smeared and vanished in low light. In the seemingly interminable distance between genesis and exodus, radix and terminus, participant and celebrant, attendee and refugee, I belong to neither part of either world, carrying my own time and space with me. These things ask such capacity of me, an accidental tourist, that I groan to accommodate, and yet the transition happens unbidden, somehow, quietly in a wedge of rarefied time like alarm clocks and takeoffs and the enormous, strange silence of a dark hotel room; in a pocket of space at an equally interminable distance between my hands and my heart.
- Later, at a presentation/sales pitch about digital signatures, I heard an attendee from Scotland, though I’m disappointed to report that he did not have a particular thick brogue, or he suppressed it.[↩]
- When I saw the gestalt of thousand of tiny waves, I began to wonder about the amount of water in terms I could understand—in the Pacific’s case, it’s 187’189’915’062’000’000’000 gallon jugs’ worth[↩]