July 09, 2007

Out of Africa

Yesterday was the longest day ever. We left Johannesburg just after midnight, spent 10 hours flying over Africa the long way, got off in Amsterdam and ran around the Damrak and the tulip market for a few hours, got on the plane again for 7 hours, landed in Boston and drove up to New Hampshire. All in a single day.

That capped a wonderful, intense 8 days in South Africa wrapped around the SchoolNet SA conference in Bloemfontein. Before the conference we were royally hosted by Gerald Roos in his Capetown home. This photo taken by Alex shows the view of Table Mountain from our bedroom window.

More details and photos to follow. For now, we're jetlaggy and getting ready for a keynote in Vermont. Such a vacation!

June 28, 2007

Five Days in Atlanta

Atlanta Protest MarchWe're packing things up now after five days in Atlanta to attend NECC. The conference was good. I got to meet some new people at the WebQuest Birds of a Feather gathering, and got some nice feedback from my session Can Technology Make Us Wise?

While I was tied up at sessions, June and Alex went to the Martin Luther King Center and the Jimmy Carter Library.

Yesterday I heard chants and racket through the hotel window and looked down to see a pretty long protest parade. It was sparked by the closing of Grady, a hospital that serves the poor, but the parade included all kinds of causes. Pictures can be found here.


June 22, 2007

WebQuest Sites Rebooted

For the last four days, I've been spending all my creative time on updating the WebQuest web site. I've wanted to do that for years and thought that redoing it as a Drupal site would be the way to go. That, of course, laid a whole extra layer of necessary learning and tweaking and the thought of all that work just kept it from rising to the top of the to-do list.

Then I got a note from a colleague whose opinion I value. She very politely pointed out how dated the sites were getting and how it gave the impression that WebQuests were soooooo 20th century. That was enough to push me into action.

Instead of Drupalizing the whole site, I hunted around for some opensource templates I could adapt, which led me to Andreas Viklund's site.

Four days later, I've arrived at this. I'm pretty pleased!


June 21, 2007

Mystery Object in the Sky

For the third night in a row, we all went out in the back yard to watch the International Space Station go over. Last night it was there trailing Atlantis by a constellation's worth of distance. Tonight, the shuttle is in a different orbit and not visible here at all.

As predicted by Heavens Above, the ISS appeared above the northern horizon right on schedule at 9:44. We all (the three of us and two friends staying over) ooohed and ahhhed appropriately as it rose up almost directly overhead getting brighter all the time. Before it faded into the earth's shadow at the end of three minutes, someone noticed a second light in the sky. There it was, following the ISS in pretty much the same path about two minutes behind with a magnitude around 1.0, We thought it was going a little slower than the ISS, so I guessed that it must be in a slightly higher orbit and predicted that it would go into shadow at a higher point in the sky than the ISS did. We weren't carefully measuring anything, but I think my prediction held true.

So... back to Heavens Above to see what it was. Nothing was supposed to be passing over that way tonight. I poked around to the various web sites for people who watch satellites like HobbySpace and the Visual Satellite Observer's Home Page and found lots of dead links and stale information. No news on the NASA News page, either, of anything big that was jettisoned either from the ISS or Atlantis.

So what was it? In hopes of attracting someone who might know, let me finish this paragraph with a load of tasty, Googleable phrases: UFO, mysterious object, mystery object, mystery satellite, secret satellite, alien abduction and Paris Hilton. There. That should bring me some hits.

June 19, 2007

Watch the Skies!

Just saw something impressive: the International Space Station and Shuttle Atlantis passed over San Diego. They were separated by maybe just the width of the moon. I've seen a zillion satellites but never two close together like these. The whole thing lasted 50 seconds. As I write this, 15 minutes later, they're already off the coast of Ecuador.

By consulting the Heavens Above site, I was able to head out to the backyard exactly in time. Tomorrow they'll pass over again for a brighter and longer view. I'll be watching.

Remembrance of Things Pasta

There are three kinds of people in the world: phone people, email people, and village people who live simple lives in the Third World without ever having heard a ringtone. Me, I'm an email guy. I'm in constant touch with lots of people by mail and mostly use the phone to say no to political push-poll takers.

So last night we went to dinner at a friend's house. All communication about the meal was done by mail. Here's the condensed version that took place over a 24 hour period:

Him: Interested in coming over around 6 PM tomorrow for dinner?
Me: Love to. What can we bring?
Him: Excellent. How about a dessert?
Can you and June both do a pasta dish that contains olives, sun-dried
tomatoes, and artichokes?
Me: We can indeed. See you then!

Now, like most human communications, there might be some ambiguity here.

Look over the transcript and tell me what you would have done in my place:

A) Brought a dessert and assumed that the pasta part was left over from an earlier draft of the note
B) Brought a dessert and a pasta dish while puzzling over how specific the requested ingredients were and enjoying our friend's apparent vision of June and I laboring together over its creation.
C) Picked up the phone and asked for clarity just to make sure.

Choose your answer and then read the first comment to see what happened.

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June 16, 2007

Getting Paid by the Word

Three years ago as I was drifting off to sleep, I came up with the perfect new name for a long term project of mine, PLANalyst, which I wrote in HyperCard in the early 90s. For some time I've been wanting to revive it as an online application and hosting site for user-contributed lesson plans. Someone else had since trademarked PLANalyst for another product, so a new name was needed. My new name was perfect and the next morning I registered the .com, .net, .org domains, and then kept renewing them while waiting for the time to put the site together.

But then, last week, an email came out of the blue from a startup company that wanted to buy the domains. They said it was exactly the right word for their forthcoming super secret product. I refused at first, since the domain name was also perfect for my updated PLANalyst site, but everyone has their price. We went back and forth a bit and settled on $5500. The check arrived today.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of writing short stories for science fiction magazines. They paid 5 to 10 cents a word in those days, so a story might end up netting a few hundred. Big bucks to a downtown poor kid. And today, I've gotten paid much more handsomely for just one word. Nice work if you can get it. Time to think up a few new words.


June 13, 2007

Britain's Got Talent

I'm not proud to admit that I watched America's Got Talent the other night. It made me wish for the black and white days of the Ted Mack Amateur Hour where the audience and judges weren't so cruel. Why watch? I guess we all hope for a moment of transcendent surprise and joy. Didn't happen.

But such moments have happened at least once in the original Brit version. Watch this and warm up your heart:


June 04, 2007

I'm STILL the World's Most Eminent Bermuda Triangle Expert

Sheesh! What's with today's seventh graders? They manage to find this obscure page from 1996 and yet manage to miss this one which explains my actual relationship with the Devil's Triangle. This note arrived today:
Dear Mr. Dodge,

Hi! I'm a middle school student doing a documentary film for a school project on the Bermuda Triangle, and I need to interview an expert. I was wondering if I could have an 'email interview' with you. This is part of the project, and I would really appreciate it if you would answer a few questions about the Bermuda Triangle, and your opinion on some theories. It is with great difficulty that I have finally found an expert, someone who is really experienced on this topic. So, if you can reply back to this email with your answer, it would really mean a lot to me. And if you could reply quickly, before Wednesday or Thursday, (June 5 or 6), because there is a deadline.

Thank you,
M*** A***, 7th Grader
A much more articulate letter than I usually get on this topic (which happens once a month or so).

I'll try to let the kid down gently. But for all the rest of you seventh graders out there... don't write me, please. And you seventh grade teachers: can't you find a way to make interesting writing assignments without stooping to pseudoscience?

April 27, 2007

You Can't Get to Providence from Here

I've been in transit for two full days, getting nowhere. It all started out so well, but went downhill fast.

San Diego: 9:00 am PT - I'm at the College of Education Honors and Awards Event. It's always a pleasant time, watching this year's outstanding graduates get recognized and shmoozing with colleagues from other departments. I got to stand up there with Karl Richter, our department's honoree.

San Diego: 10:15 am PT - A surprise for our Dean, who is retiring after 7 good years at the helm. Each department is putting on a light-hearted tribute, each more hilarious than the one before. Counseling and School Psychology acted out Kubler-Ross's 6 stages of grieving. Policy Studies did a version of Deal or No Deal. Then came EDTEC's turn.

Space: 10:31 am PT - At this exact moment, Mars transited Uranus on the cusp of Scorpio, thus pissing Uranus off. Nothing good could happen after this.

San Diego: 10:32 am PT - The EDTEC faculty delivered its tribute to the dean in the form of a Powerpoint presentation showing the imaginary new Education building we'll be naming after him, all mocked up in Sketchup on Google Earth as one would expect from the likes of us. No one, unfortunately, had checked out the projector ahead of time, and we stood there flailing around for 8 long minutes in front of the entire College faculty before anything appeared on the screen. The College's embrace of technology has been set back by ten years at least.

San Diego: 10:45 am PT - Escaping any association with our performance, I dashed out the door and headed for the airport. I'm off to do an opening keynote and two workshops for the Rhode Island Educational Media conference, a group of school library/media specialists.

San Diego: 11:45 am PT - After orbiting the airport parking lot for 20 minutes I realize that there are exactly zero open spaces and I zoom away to the off-airport garage. My flight is at 12:54 and I'm beginning to sweat.

San Diego: 12:45 pm PT - I'm the last person to enter the plane. Whew. I nap and polish my presentation over the next four hours.

Washington: 8:48 pm ET - Arrival at Dulles. I go to the screens to see where my Providence flight is and see that it's cancelled. Now what?

Washington: 8:50 pm ET - I join the long line at the United Customer "Service" center. There are two people being served while about 20 line up behind them. This is a significant percentage of the population of Rhode Island.

Washington: 9:05 pm ET - The same two guys are still being "served". I phone June and tell her what's going on and she starts hitting the web. There's no other flight out from Dulles tonight she says, but there's a train that leaves at 10pm that would get into Providence at 7am. My keynote is at 8am. I ponder this while the 20 Rhode Islanders begin to get restless.

Washington: 9:15 pm ET - One of the two "service" representatives comes out to the crowd and points out the banks of customer "service" phones on both sides of the line. They'll "help" you exactly the same way we can up here, she said. You can hold each other's place in line, she added helpfully. "Who's going to do that if we're all over there on the phones?" I asked. Half of us dashed to the phones while the other half held their spots.

Washington: 9:20 pm ET - The carefully cheerful outsourced voice from Bangalore told me exactly what June said, except that she didn't know anything about trains. I step back to my held spot in the line and pondered.... if I leave the line, am I out of the system entirely? Will they not help me find a hotel? Will they dock me some of my frequent flyer miles for insubordination?

Washington: 9:21 pm ET - I dash for the main terminal, grab a cab, and head for Union Station. A $60 ride.

Washington: 10:05 pm ET - The train left five minutes ago, they told me. At least something in DC is being run well.

Washington: 10:10 pm ET -Sitting in Union Station I call United's Bangalore people again and get booked to Providence in the morning by way of La Guardia, arriving at 11am, two hours after my keynote. I fire up the Mac and get a suite near Dulles on Hotwire. I call the conference organizer. She's going to try to swap the luncheon speaker with me, assuming that I can do my thing at noon and the workshop I was slated to give at 2.

Washington 12:05 am ET - After another $60 cab ride, I settle alone into my two bedroom, two bathroom, three TV suite, all for $78 and continue to tweak my presentation.

Washington 1:30 am ET - I go to sleep, knowing that tomorrow will be a better day.

Washington 5:00 am ET - I get up, pack, call a cab and head back to Dullles for my 7am flight. By the time I get to the gate, the departure time has been moved to 7:35. I go online and see that La Guardia, my first stop, is under FAA flow control orde due to weather. They're only letting 35 planes per hour land.

Washington 7:50 am ET - I board the plane, knowing that there is ample time to make the connection even with this delayed start. The plane taxis out onto the runway. And then stops.

Washington 8:00 am ET - The captain says we're under an FAA ground stop order. No one's going anywhere. Even though the doors are closed, it's OK to use cell phones and laptops. I email the conference person the news.

Rhode Island: 8:00 am ET - Meanwhile at the RIEMA conference, the luncheon speaker is mesmerizing the audience with what was meant to be his luncheon talk. One school librarian nudges another and says, "I didn't think Bernie Dodge was supposed to be this cute."

Washington: 8:45 am ET - They allow us to take off. We're airborne for a 38 minute flight.

Rhode Island: 9:00 am ET - In the room where I was supposed to present "An Introduction to Teaching the WebQuest Way", the conference organizers have quickly rounded up some workers from the hotel kitchen to put on a session on decorative fruit cutting.

New York: 9:50 am ET - I reach the sidewalk at La Guardia and look for the interterminal bus to take me to US Airways for the 10am connecting flight. No bus in sight. Someone directs me Terminal B, and they direct me back out onto the sidewalk to look for the bus. No use. Too late to make the connection.

New York: 10:10 am ET - Back at the United Customer "Service" desk, an actuallly helpful agent named P. Mallatt told me that the next flight would get me into Providence at 2pm, arriving halfway through my final presenation of the day. I think about it for a few seconds and just say no. Get me back to San Diego.

P. Mallatt works his magic. He even walks over to the American gates to try to make something work. He proposes that I taxi over to JFK and get a non-stop on American. Or go to Newark or... and finally found a way home through Chicago. He even got me into the Economy Plus seats, too, where the middle seat is kept empty and there's as much leg room as all seats used to have.

Rhode Island: 12:00 pm ET - The morning keynote speaker gives the same talk as he did at 8am. Since he's barely heard over the clinking silverware and plates, nobody notices.

New York: 12:05 pm ET - I board the plan for O'Hare.

Rhode Island: 1:00 pm ET - In the room where I was scheduled to discuss "Blogs and Wikis as WebQuest Tasks", a quickly assembled team of school librarians is performing a selection of songs from Moulin Rouge a capella, even though everybody knows librarians can't sing worth a damn.

Chicago: 1:30 pm CT to 8:00 pm CT - I wander through O'Hare looking for adventure or at least a power outlet. Find one and send mail. After awhile, I realize that I'm running on 3 hour sleep and close my eyes. I doze, and keep waking myself up as my head drops past a certain angle. Repeatedly. Like one of those birds you put in front of a glass of water. Sometimes when I wake up, people are staring at me with mouths slightly open. This continues for six hours.

Rhode Island: 5:00 pm ET - The conference ends. The conference organizers head for the hotel bar and order boilermakers. They loudly vow never to book a speaker from west of Hartford again.

Rhode Island: 5:10 pm ET - Three hundred school librarians pull into their driveways. (It's a very small state) and head for the medicine cabinet, their ears still ringing with the words to "Spectacular Spectacular".

Chicago: 8:15 pm CT - I board the plane for San Diego.

Space: 10:30 pm MT - Neptune slips into Scorpio, deftly blocking the sour influence of Uranus.

Over Colorado: 10:32 pm MT - After not watching The Pursuit of Happyness since I've seen it
three times already, I look up at the monitor and see the start of an episode of The Office I hadn't seen before. Then 30 Rock. Life is good.

San Diego: 10:15 pm PT - I arrive in San Diego after spending 30 of the last 36 hours in cars, planes and airports and accomplishing nothing. It's good to be home.