Arisia post-mortem, with pictures!

With special thanks to Lisa for the loan of her Sony Cybershot, I have some pictures from running registration at Arisia.

We learned a lot this weekend. It was the first time we deployed the CONGO Kiosk terminals for at-con registration of attendees. We needed to make some functional changes in the code at the event, but for the most part, it worked pretty well. The Kiosks allowed people who were not pre-registered to enter in their contact / regsitration information themselves, and get a printed receipt. This meant the operators didn’t need to re-key all the data into CONGO, and slow down processing. For a first time out, I’m really pleased with the results. There were no disasterous failures (in fact, I can’t think of a failure beyond ‘we’re out of paper’), and folks seemed to like the kiosks, modulo the normal kvetching that’s pretty much unavoidable.

Gateway Operator terminals
This was also the first time we used the Gateway terminals for cashier / operator use. This was a HUGE win for the operators, as the terminals are MUCH faster than the iOpeners for general data access and work. Not to mention the fact that when things slowed down, the operators could play games on them 🙂

We ran all badges ‘on the fly’, meaning that even pre-registered attendees had their badges printed as they showed up. This allowed us to make minor changes to information before we wasted a badge (such as a spelling of a badgename, etc).
We had no delays and no problems with the printers. One other thing we did was used blank white badge stock, so we were printing the -entire- badge image on the fly. It was a black ‘stippled’ image (not grey scale, but ‘screened’ to look like it was grey), using an image from our artist guest of honor. They came out great! We had to hand-punch the stock before running it through the printer to get the slots on them, but with a pair of new slot punches, that was really no big problem.

All in all, a very successful event, despite the snowstorm. All the work that went into CONGO in the last 2 months since our previous large event was well worth it, and made the product even better.

Credit where Credit is due
I would like to thank all the folks that made this possible. Without this team of folks volunteering many many many hours of work to the process, we never would have had such a smooth running registration:

Sarah Twichell – Killer answerer-of-email and registrar-on-the-ball. Sarah answered registration requests and paypal registrations within minutes of receiving them. The database was always up to date whenever I needed to find someone.

Lisa Wilson – Database geek extraordinaire. Lisa kept the database sane and was also on the front lines of requests and registrations. We had tons of comp lists, updates, and changes going on, and Lisa helped plow through them all, even though she was 2000 miles away in Colorado!

Jonah Safar – Jonah was one of the people who first took a gamble on CONGO with an event he was helping run. Since then he’s been there when I need him for coding, hacks, and general help.

Yonah Schmeidler – Yonah showed up to help with Arisia last year and ended up staying til 4am helping with some database and postscript issues. This year again he helped all through Thursday doing database updates and maintenance just for the heck of it. He also plays a mean FreeCIV 🙂

Katy (Pancua) – Katy was the badge goddess all through the mayhem on Friday, and helped out all weekend with things that Just Needed To Be Done. She brought a lot of energy to the whole situation, something we all need after spending days in a coat room 🙂

Ben Cordes – Ben is sort of the unofficial roadie for Stonekeep Consulting. He’s worked with me at a ton of events, and not only knows the systems and the processes well, he also knows my quirky management style. Even in spite of that, he keeps coming back for more. This weekend Ben was a great help with setup and maintenance of all the system components, not to mention being a great crowd wrangler.

Catya – I can’t leave Cat out of this thanks. She puts up with an awful lot to let me do these events – and I love her dearly for it. Thanks!

A milestone of sorts.

Just on a lark, I decided to figure out how ‘big’ CONGO had actually gotten. Looking at all the java code, the PHP code, and some HTML (not much, everything is in PHP), my total is just over 20,000 lines of code. This makes this application by far the largest I have ever written (Keystone is about 12,000 lines).
By the way, I’m prepping a set of screenshots of Coconut (the web client for CONGO), as well as a glance at the new template interface that lets folks generate their own registration pages.
Feel free to take a look at the screenshots. There’s no commentary at the moment, but it’s nice to actually be able to show a bit of what the system is about.

When Applications Go Right

There are times when it’s cool being a developer. Both Lisa and Sarah are being my sort of beta testers for CONGO, my conference management software. We’re using it to manage registration for Arisia. So far things have been pretty smooth, with only one serious “It keeps crashing!” situation.
Since I’m the sole developer of the system, I rarely get to enjoy hearing about other people using and testing the app, so sometimes it gets lonely doing all this cool development without a lot of feedback (the program is not in wide release yet).
A week or two ago I finished adding a “Template” function into CONGO. This lets you set up text templates for things like web forms and email notifications. If anyone has gotten email confirmation from Arisia pre-registration, that was all generated from my templates within CONGO, automatically.
I haven’t really told folks much about the templating engine inside CONGO, since I did all the setup for the mail notifications, and just told Sarah and Lisa how to get CONGO to automatically send mail when registering. This afternoon, Lisa sent mail to the registration alias saying she had built a new template, to be used to notify folks asking for babysitting at the event how to arrange it.
This is EXACTLY why I wrote the template editor, documented it the way I did, and put it online, so the registration operators can configure it without having to recode, recompile, or even edit the app. It’s all done through the web interface. Lisa did this with no coaching or even a nudge from me. She saw the value of the templates, how to use them, and implemented it without my involvement at all.
This so rocks my world. It not only means it was a useful feature, but it also tells me I did it in a way that someone could use it with minimal documentation, -and- could see its use without being prompted for it. WOW!
There’s a slight caveat here. The templates used in CONGO are very similar to how Movable Type, our blogging software, works. But still! Way cool!

Off to Ubercon!

I’m off to Ubercon in New Jersey. This is a great gaming convention that I’ve been working with for the last few years. LAN gaming, tabletop fun, and a great vendor area. If you’re in the area, cmon by!


Ah be here! Arrived on Monday, and have been pretty busy since, so just wanted to drop a few lines to let folks know I’m still kicking about. Having all sorts of network technology problems though. Many of my preparations for road travel didn’t pan out, while others did.
My Kyocera 7135 cell is not doing what it’s supposed to. I think a call to Verizon is in order, but I can’t dial up at -all- with it. So I can’t run my ssh client or my web browser on it. Text messages seem to work, but no data services. The 1X light is on, so it’s -supposed- to work.
I still can’t get my dialup via that phone to work either, but I haven’t been trying too hard. Just no time. Maybe out in Reno at Gnomedex i’ll have a high enough geek quotient to handle it.
I’m gonna go flop into bed – we need to have reg open by 9am tomorrow, which means I need to be moving equipment by 7:45 or so. Whee.

Hittin da road.

In the next 1/2 hour or so I’m hitting the road on a 2 week business trip that’ll take me to Florida, then to Nevada, then back here to boston. This is the busiest time I’ve had for work on Stonekeep stuff, and while I’m excited and pleased that things are busy, I realize it’s going to be an intense trip. Really busy, aggressive, exciting times mixed with times of boredom. Sort of sounds like military service, eh? 🙂
I’m going to dig around for a Blog client for my Palm phone so maybe I can make blog entries from the road, but otherwise ya’ll may have to wait until I get back in service range.
I will, btw, have message capability on the phone, drop me some mail for the address, and I can chitchat while hanging out in the airports.
Tally ho!

Bouncing off the bottom.

Boy, that’s how I feel. I think that business stuff hit bottom about a month ago, when I wasn’t sure if I could continue with things, or how we’d move ahead. Then a some good things started happening, and some of the stuff that has been annoying me and really making it hard to be positive began to change.
It sounds like a little thing, but aquiring new batteries for my laptop was a huge win. My laptop batteries were totally shot, holding onto charge for only about 20 minutes. Considering it takes 7-10 minutes from power on to get to a workable desktop, that doesnt’ leave much room for dillydallying.
My business partner found a set of batteries from one of his old laptops, and sent them up, and Lo! I now have 4 1/2 hours of battery time. Yippee! No more -requiring- a power supply to do anything. This, combined with setting up my wireless modem on my Kyocera, should make me Mighty Mobile Power Geek!
Course, last night, I did find out that my laptop ‘low power’ notification settings were out of wonk, as, in mid-type, the laptop just up and powered itself off, blinking the orange “LOW BATTERY!” light at me accusingly. “Nitwit, didn’t you SEE me blinking?”
Anyway, all is well, recharged, and ready to go.
Ain’t technology grand?
[Edit: 1:17pm – changed a few words to actually make sense. Sheesh 🙂 ]

Fright shipping company?

I need to ship a bunch of equipment all over the country in the next 6 months, going to a couple different places. I need a pointer to a shipping company that’s dependable and has good rates (or experiences from folks who have done this).
Total weight is around 300lbs, probably in 5-6 shipping cases. I need transit time to Florida and New Mexico on the order of a couple days (like, a week would be great).
I have almost no experience with freight shippers. Can they drop stuff right off at hotels?

The saga of the laptop

Folks know that I’ve been doing much of my development work on an IBM Thinkpad T23 for quite a while. It’s an older machine, (manufactured 3/01), but in many ways I’m quite attached to it.
Yesterday at Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, I was looking forward to a few hours of focused work time.
The laptop wouldn’t boot. Just locked up on the BIOS screen. My main work machine had died during a particularly wretched emotional and financial time for me. I was betrayed.
[this story has a happy ending, read on for details]

Continue reading “The saga of the laptop”

“Wow, nice screensaver.”

The most common comment people make while registering at the event. (behind the reg counters is the server stack that runs the app and the database. On top is a rackmount LCD screen that is running… The Matrix screensaver).

Mid-Convention, thoughts.

I’m halfway through working AnimeBoston, and here’s a few interesting observations.
1) Every hotel I’ve been to that hosts a convetnion can’t handle a large scale registration burst. There’s always screamingly long lines, and a lot of annoyed attendees. Hotel, when you book a convention on a weekend, there’s going to be a HUGE burst of activity friday afternoon / evening. Prepare for it. Also. Do NOT overbook the hotel. Really.
2) CUPS is a fantastic printing system. When you have mission-critical badge printers in a printer class, pooled, and one of the badge printers shuts down, CUPS simply shunts the load to the second printer until the first one comes online again. Booyah.
3) Sleep is good.
4) 3500 attendees in the Boston Park Plaza is a helluva lot of people.
5) Some cons get things right. These guys have order forms for the staff den. For people who work 12 hour shifts on station, they can fill out a ‘dining delivery form’ which is basically an order to Staff Den, which a runner picks up, fulfills, and returns to the worker. The form shows everything the staff den has available. You just check off what you want. Neat.
6) FRS radios do NOT work. Go decent GMRS, or go commercial.
7) Using the Stanbro room for line wrangling for Reg is a good idea. Even better is not needing it, and simply moving stanchions to make more room for gaming.
8) It’s very good to hear people say “Thi s is running SO much better than last year!” (when they were not running my system)