Towards Web Components for Runestone

One of the nice things about being in Malta for the spring is that I've been able to step back and think about Runestone Interactive and some of the ways it can be improved and moved forward. One of the things that I think holds the overall goals of the project back somewhat is the initial choice of restructuredText as the main authoring language. It was a good technical choice, but it is not nearly as popular as some other alternatives.

Recent developments in the world of web development have lead me to believe that a new approach would make a lot of sense.

So I’ve been messing around with this new idea

The idea is to create a standard intermediate html format that sits between the restructuredText of Sphinx and what gets rendered in the browser. All of the hard work is done by javascript that takes the html and turns it into one of the Runestone components.

Why do this you may ask?

  • Well, for one reason, the code for the directives is getting increasingly unwieldy and very difficult to maintain. Too many cooks, too little standardization. Some of it is a real mess. My javascript skills are much better than when I wrote the first implementation of activecode.
  • But more importantly this has the benefit of making runestone available to virtually anyone you would not need to write in RST at all, you could write in plain html if you wanted to. Or any other markup language that let you insert html. Or if you were a clever hacker you could write your own macros for whatever system you use that generates the html.
  • Finally I think this is a move in the direction that the web is headed over the next few years which is custom tags. Imagine if we could just have an <activecode> tag?

So, rather than learning restructuredText and installing Sphinx you could include a few javascript files in your page and then write html that looked like this:

<body>
<pre data-component="activecode" data-lang="python" id="test1">
def foo():
    print 'hello world'

foo()
</pre>

<pre data-component="activecode" data-lang="python" id="test2" data-include="test1 test2">
def main():
    print 'goodbye girl'

main()
====
print "This is hidden suffix code you don't see it in the editor"
</pre>

</body>

and get a page that looked like this:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/fqvakeftnfa75gp/Screenshot%202015-03-23%2018.45.58.png?raw=1

Anyway, I am looking at this as an excuse to learn about Polymer, AngularJS and Polyfills and web components in general. The repo I linked to above has got activecode working very nicely, and I like this implementation. It is Much cleaner. There is no reliance on creating special xxx_code, xxx_edit, xxx_output id values for different div elements, no need to mix and match a bunch of template code in the directive implementation. Take a look and let me know what you think.

I would be especially happy to have you look at the code on github and send me any comments about the current implementation, or pointers on how to convert that into a web component. Someday there will be an <activecode> tag.

We're driving in our Car

One thing we never thought we would do in Malta was drive a car. From the way our neighbors fly down the road, to the fact that nobody uses turn signals (actually that is the same practice as back home) to the fact that it appears to be impossible to find a parking spot in our neighborhood it just didn't seem worth the trouble. We can walk to almost everything we need, and with some patience take the bus almost anywhere else. However, when one of our students sprained her ankle and we discovered just how long it was going to take her to bus to school, we decided to give driving a shot. It was especially easy when we found out we could rent one for about $5.00 a day!

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Our Chevy Spark. Not as big as a Volt. (or a Vespa)

It is an experiment that has been modestly successful, but one that we'll be glad to see the back side of in a week. Yes, it is nerve wracking, yes, parking is a pain, and yes, people just honk their horns for no good reason.

Really dude behind me? Don't you think I would get out of your way if I could? But there are 20 cars stopped in front of me and nobody is going anywhere so just calm the heck down.

On the positive side the car has allowed us to enjoy the island in ways that would have required hours of painful bus riding, and that is what I would really like to highlight in this post.

Dingli Cliffs

Our first outing in the car was to the Dingli Cliffs. As spectacular as they are from the shore, we can't wait for warmer weather so that we can experience the cliffs from the water side. You just don't get the scale from pictures but these cliffs are 250 meters. Straight down.

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The Dingli Cliffs. Yes, thats me.

We arrived in the morning, just after the rain had stopped. So although we knew we were in the right place we were well ahead of the rest of the tourists and hikers for the day. After a couple of long dead ends that led to some nice scenery, we hit the jackpot and were rewarded with some spectacular views.

After hiking the cliffs, we continued south to check out the Blue Grotto. Again, a bit of hiking away from the normal tourist crowd left us alone with plenty of time to just take in the sites. We had yet to actually find the Blue Grotto, but after we returned to the car, we were informed by the local captain that he was the parking lot guard for the day. He said this as he extended his hand with palm up, ready to accept a euro coin from us. We were not sure exactly what his duties were, but he told us where we should go to get a good view.

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The Blue Grotto with the small island of Filfla in the background.

The little island in the picture is called Filfla and it looks like an aircraft carrier. So it was used for target practice by the British air force during world war II.

Golden Bay

Another weekend, and another short car trip. Remember that Malta is only 122 Square Miles. So we never have that far to drive. This time toward the Northwest side of the island where there are a series of bays, the most famous of which is called Golden Bay.

This bay actually called Ghajn Tuffieha, was the site of the incident with the sprained ankle. All I can say is that after seeing the place in person, I'm glad they called the ambulance. I can't imagine trying to carry a person with a sprained ankle across the rocks, then the beach, then up all of those stairs!

The weather was great and the scenery was spectacular. We just walked slowly and took in all of the great sights. In the distance we could see the sheer cliffs of the southwest side of Gozo. The water is so unbelievably clear that you can see the bottom of this bay from the top of the cliffs. Its not terribly deep but at least 12 meters we are told. Now that is some visibility. It definitely motivates us to want to dust off our SCUBA diving skills again before we leave the island.

Marsaxlokk

This last Sunday we took a morning drive to Marsaxlokk (pron. Marsa-Schlock). This is a smallish fishing town at the very south of the island. On Sunday mornings they have a great farmers market with fresh produce and tons of fresh seafood. We ended up at a stall where the lady was nice enough to educate us a bit about finding fresh fish. I was pretty sure she was being truthful with us as there was a chef from a restaurant also at the table getting fish for his restaurant. Clear eyes, red gills. The clear eyes thing is a bit subjective, but the Sea Bass we bought was Amazing. After a couple of youtube videos on how to fillet the thing (thankfully our fishmonger gutted it for us) we had some nice fillets for Sunday lunch.

There is a nice looking fish market on the way home from the university that I will not hesitate to try in the near future. I think some nice King Prawns and risotto is on the way to our table soon.

Where we go from here with respect to the car is an unknown. It goes back next Monday, and I think Jane and I will both breathe a sigh of relief. Although once we get back from spring break we will not have too many weekends left on the island, I think we may take advantage of a one or two day rental to continue to get out of Sliema and enjoy the open spaces of Malta.

Go Go Gozo

The first thing you notice when you get to the Cirkewwa ferry terminal is how close you are to Comino and Gozo. All this talk of using EU funds to build a bride, doesn't seem that far fetched. One hop to Comino, another to Gozo. Nevertheless the short ferry ride gives you time to anticipate the day ahead. After weeks of cool and rain we had a fantastic weather day to visit the island.

I was trying out the GeoTag Photos app for the trip, that would use the gps in my iPhone to track our movement around the island. Later you upload the gps data and sync it with your photos. Since my camera doesn't have a built in GPS, this works well for adding location data to your photos. It worked great, and you can even use the data you capture to build a map of your day.

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We hired a van and a guide for this day because we wanted to cover a lot of ground. You can get everywhere on public buses but you end up spending half your day waiting around bus stops. It is also a law on Malta that at many of the outdoor attractions groups of 10 or more must be accompanied by a licensed guide. So, our guide, Joseph, met us at the ferry terminal on Gozo and we were off on our whirlwind tour. Now you may think that this was quite a marathon day but you have to know that Gozo is only 8.7 miles long and 4.5 miles wide.

Our first stop was Ramla bay, a red-sand beach and lots of green space. Yes, glorious, fabulous, wide open space free from limestone buildings and paved roads. Over the course of the day it became very clear to me that this is exactly what I have been missing, and I'm really coming to understand that although there are things I like about the city I am really a small town guy at heart.

After some time of watching the students cavorting on the beach we moved on to Calypso cave, where we had a great view of the underwater sea wall built by the Knights of St. John as part of the islands protection against the Turks. You can see the wall, closer to shore than you might think pretty clearly in the picture.

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A great day out of the city! Enjoying the green and some nice weather.

From the bay we headed to the Megalithic temples at Ġgantija that date to Neolithic times. We had heard a lot about these temples in our History lecture and so it was great to visit and see these massive structures first hand. They truly are massive. There are some hints about how the giant slabs were moved around, in that they have hundreds of stone balls that have been discovered. The theory is that the balls were used like bearings and the slabs were rolled on top of the balls. Pretty clever for 5000BC if you ask me.

From the temples we made short stop at the salt flats in Marsalforn. It was only a five minute stop but is definitely on the list to return to. I managed to purchase a bag of sea salt from the guy who owns the salt flats, and so I should be set with some great salt for cooking the rest of our time here in Malta.

Next was a stop in Victoria for a quick slice of pizza as we walked to the Citadel. Today was really about great outdoor scenery, but I include one shot of the citadel. Bonus points to anyone who can spot the problem in this photo.

The highlight of the day was the Azure Window. This is nearly iconic place for Malta, and it certainly lives up to all expectations. What I wasn't expecting was the awesome little boat ride from the inland sea to the Azure Window. You start out in this little bit of inland water, and the boat takes you through a tunnel out into the mediterranean sea, into a few caves and finally under the big arch that forms the window. It was so beautiful and I can't wait to get back to Gozo again to visit this place. You could easily spend half a day hiking around and on top of the arch.

Our final stop, and another highlight is the town of Xlendi (pronounced shlendee). The first thing I said to our guide was that I felt like I had just driven into Cinque Terre, and he agreed. This is a beautiful blue bay, with lots of space for hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

Although there were a lot of places that needed more time, the trip was a real success in that we got a great taste of all the places we want to revisit.

I Want to be an Archeologist

I think I might want to be an archeologist when I grow up. In the last week we've had four lectures involving geology, geography, and archeology here in Malta. All of them have been fascinating along multiple dimensions. It has been such a positive part of our Malta experience that I wanted to write my thoughts down right away. To give you a clue where this ultimately rather long post is going let me tell you what I find so interesting up front.

  1. Observing some really good professors do their thing.
  2. Getting to be a student again.
  3. Learning how other fields do problem solving as good as CS.
  4. Understanding what the phrase "learning in place" is all about.

First, its been really fun for me as a professor to observe other professors doing their thing. I know that we are really privileged to be getting some of the best in their field to speak to us. But they are all really passionate about their topics and it is amazing to me how that passion comes through. I honestly walked out of today's lecture with Professor Vella and said to Jane: "I want to be an archeologist when I grow up." She may or may not have said that "I would never grow up," so there was nothing to worry about. Then one of the students mentioned something about archeologists living in tents for long periods of time and that further tempered my enthusiasm.

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Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni (Malta), the sanctuary chamber Holy of Holies Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni (Malta) built 6,000 years ago. Image CC-by-SA

Second, its really nice to attend class as a student. I'm sitting in on our History course called "Malta and the Maltese -- A Historical and Cultural Review," and of course I'm attending our Paideia II course on "Ethics and Current issues in Malta." I have to evaluate the student for this one. Most of the content of the courses I'm attending, I know absolutely nothing about. But I can't even tell you the number of times during our lectures that I've had that little tingle of excitement at the base of my neck. I feel like the poster child for "lifelong learning."

Third, in my own myopic way, I assumed that computer science, and some of the other sciences had a monopoly on problem solving. It turns out that archeologists solve some pretty interesting problems too. And they use some of the same techniques as the computer scientists. Or maybe its the other way around. To be fair the closest I've come to an archeology class is Indiana Jones.

Of course problem solving starts with a problem or a question, such as: How do we know that the so called megalithic temples were really temples? Why is metal better than stone? What can we learn from contents of the cargo hold of the Ulu Burun? As our lecturer said, I have a colleague who knows everything there is to know about this pot, its chemical composition, every marking and scratch. Meh. Who used this pot? What did they use it for? Who did they use it with? These are the important questions. Now the chemical composition may be important in helping us answer those questions. But we cannot stop with that. In fact it was chemical analysis that showed that of the four sites where obsidian could have come to Malta only two of the sites matched the chemical fingerprints of the obsidian on Malta. Which tells us more about who the people were that were coming to the island at that time.

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The Tarxien Temples are examples of Megalithic structures which are among the oldest in the world.

In our history class we have heard much about the importance of Malta through the ages because of its location on the routes into and out of the Mediterranean. For the most part people have assumed that ancient sailors tacked their way through the Straight of Malta against the prevailing winds. It turns out that would not work well at all. In fact ancient square rigged sailboats could not even tack that way! So sailors probably made for Sicily, then south and around the island of Malta and maybe even further south around Lampadusa and then worked their way west. But you have to know a bit about sailing and ancient boat design in order to figure this out. I love how this incorporates techniques from lots of different branches of the academy.

Finally, The faculty of Luther College received an email from our assistant dean, Jeff Wilkerson, the other day inviting us to a discussion about "learning in-place." I will have to respectfully decline, but I think that is exactly what we are doing here in Malta! There is something really compelling about our lectures when everything we are talking about is within about an hours drive on public transportation. We can learn some theory about the Megalithic Temples, and now I'm much more interested in taking the time to actually go see them. It feels like the entire island is our classroom.

Everyday on the news we hear about the migrant crisis in Malta and Italy. People from Syria and Somalia are fleeing their countries in fear of their lives. They are coming by the hundreds of thousands and overloading the ability of the Italian and Maltese governments to handle them. We have seen why this cannot be an easy decision for them, as many of the people who flee across the mediterranean in these boats die in the process. Three evenings a week, our students come face to face with people who have made this journey and survived. Most are the same age as our students. Only the young and strong can survive the journey.

Just think about that. How many of our Luther Students have truly had to risk their lives. How many of us in the Luther community even understand what it means to live under the threat of death? This is one part of living abroad that makes me very grateful for the security, relative safety, and freedom we have in our country.

Our students travel to the Hal Far detention center to work with the residents who want to learn english or to improve their english skills, so that they can leave the Hal Far center, find a job, and ultimately apply for citizenship somewhere in the EU.

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A personal pet peeve of mine.

Here is one more example, that I find particularly interesting because it gets at one of my pet peeves about where we live in Malta. In a lecture on sustainability we were told that because of their colonial past the primary moral frame of reference for the Maltese is the family not the community. This is interesting, especially for those of us who think that community is a nearly sacred word on the Luther campus. But what does it mean to have a moral frame of reference centered around family? Do we see evidence that it is true? We are told that because the moral frame of reference is the family and not the community there is not a highly developed sense of citizenship or emphasis on "the greater good" here in Malta. We see this in the streets every day in the form of litter, and even worse dog poo casually left on the sidewalk by all sorts of people. People take very good care of their homes on the inside, but the public areas of the city are not treated with respect. One has to get used to looking up and down as you walk on the narrow sidewalks here. Down for the aforementioned reason, and up, because in many places there are drain pipes from overhanging decks that drain the water onto your head! We see further evidence of this idea as we hear about the myriad of government programs that are started, but never fully supported by the people, and therefore abandoned. On the flip side of this, the Maltese people are justifiably very proud of their country and its amazing history. We've been told more than once that most Maltese think their country is the best thing ever.

Of course, I'm still a newcomer here, and I'm not a social scientist, so I may be interpreting things all wrong. If I am, then I would be happy to have further conversation to understand better. For example, some of the issues in Sliema may simply be due to the large number of international people who are living here either on holiday, or as long term residents. I also know that I am generalizing, which is always dangerous. Just like any place I know there are Maltese who do not litter and care deeply for the environment, and work tirelessly to improve the island. I'm sure there are people who pick up after their dogs. Although I'm less sure about the latter than the former. There are lots of people who volunteer their time through NGOs. I'm sure it takes years to leave the laissez-faire attitude in the past. After all, Malta only gained independence in 1964, and statehood in 1974. After thousands of years of being conquered by almost everyone else, 50 years of self rule is hardly any time at all. I can imagine that after an entire history of being ruled by others, it would be easy to let external things slide and to focus inward.

I wish I could travel forward in time a thousand years to see what the archeologists of 4015 have to say about Malta in 2015. In the meantime, I know that I will enjoy the next three months and all that I will learn in that time.

Adventures of an Expat Cord Cutter

Even thought I'm living abroad and traveling for an extended period there are a few entertaining parts of my life I'm not willing to leave behind. Watching Arsenal, keeping up with The Big Bang Theory, The Blacklist, Food Network, and a few others. How you do this is well covered territory. You can probably figure it out with several google searches, but it seems worth it to collect my own efforts into one cohesive post. Here are the problems to solve:

  1. How to stream TV shows that have geographic restrictions. Lots of content is available only inside the borders of the USA.
  2. How to get the content off of your small screen and onto a larger screen if you are lucky enough to have one.
  3. How to optimize your WiFi and streaming throughput in the midst of an urban WiFi jungle.

Warning. This is a geeky technical post. You can quit here and I won't feel bad.

Streaming

There are lots of options for streaming from places like Hulu, Netflix, and even the big four major networks all have apps now that let you stream more or less of their content. When we left home, I had NBCSportsLive Extra, Netflix, HBO Go, DirectTV all installed on my iPad. I also have iTunes, and had downloaded a few movies that I had on my list to watch. In the United States this would be fine, but all of these apps (except iTunes) have geographic restrictions on them. So I also had to subscribe to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service and configure that on my iPad.

VPN

If you are not familiar with a VPN you can think of it as a bit of software that messes around with your network configuration to make the rest of your computer and the rest of the world think that you are a part of some other network. This is often used in large organizations where you have content that you restrict to your own institutional network. Luther does this with some resources, like our network drives. Other services, such as O'Reilly's Safari, may check to make sure that you are coming from a particular network before you are granted access to their own content because of a corporate licensing agreement. If you have a VPN connection back to your institutional network then it is just like you are in the office and not at home or halfway around the world.

Now the reason this is important for my entertainment is that there are many VPN services that exist partly for the purpose of making it look like you are connected to a network in the United States somewhere rather than a network in Vietnam or Malta. I signed up with Private Internet Access These services also have the side effect that your content is encrypted from the time it leaves your computer until it leaves the VPN provider, which many people look at as a significant privacy benefit. Using a VPN to trick NBC into thinking that I am in the united states might be considered a moral gray area, but I'm still paying my DirecTV, and Mediacom bill every month back home every month so I don't have any problem going to sleep.

The VPN solution works pretty well, except for some content providers have figured out how to identify these VPN servers, and have made moves to block the connections from known VPN providers. I'm looking at you ABC.

This content blocking thing is interesting, especially from companies like ABC that force you to watch commercials as part of their streamed offering. Why wouldn't they want more eyeballs on their commercials?

To the Big Screen

Once we got settled in our flat in Malta, I decided I wanted to upgrade the streaming experience by adding an AppleTV to the TV in our flat. With this setup, I can use Airplay to send the content from my iPad to the larger screen we had set up in our living area. Except that it doesn't work. The AppleTV has no provision for joining a VPN. There are some ugly hacks that involve jailbreaking your AppleTV but I didn't want to go there. I'd rather install more iPad apps for streaming FoodTV, Fox Sports, and several others that I've added to the list since we arrived.

Here is our Entertainment center in our flat in Sliema.

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DNS

The Domain Name Service is at the heart of the Internet. If you haven't been subjected to my days of DNS in Networking class, you can think of it like a phone book for the entire world. Of course its way more fun and complicated than that.

So what does DNS have to do with this particular problem? Well, when you want to contact a website or stream some video, you need to look up the address of the server that authenticates you, and checks to see that that address is in the right country. You find the address by contacting your friendly local DNS server. You normally don't have to worry about this because your home router takes care of it. But, it is an easy thing to customize. It turns out that these video streaming services use one server for authentication, and a different server for video streaming.

With me so far? Now there are companies that provide DNS services to replace the DNS provided by your friendly neighborhood Internet Service Provider. For example Google runs DNS servers that you can use. They are really reliable, and of course keep track of all the addresses you look up to better inform their search algorithms I suppose. However, if google wasn't trustworthy, you could ask them for the address of company X, and they could lie to you so you connected to company Y.

In order to avoid a full VPN, and to make it easier for helping iPads, iPhones, and AppleTVs get around the geographical restrictions there are some companies that are running their own DNS servers that will in fact lie to you about the server you connect to for the authentication part of setting up a video stream. This little setup is actually called a proxy. So when you ask for the address of the ABC authentication server you don't connect to ABC you connect to one of the servers run by UnoTelly. UnoTelly sits between you and the authentication server and passes on your information. But since the UnoTelly server is in the United State, ABC thinks you are in the United States too. With the authentication taken care of UnoTelly gets out of the way and allows your AppleTV to connect directly to the streaming server. So far the UnoTelly servers remain blissfully below the radar of content providers everywhere. Yay technology. Also, DNS is very easy to customize even on your AppleTV.

This is a silly arms race between the VPN Providers, the DNS providers, and the content providers. Hopefully this will sort itself out in a saner fashion sometime soon. In the meantime its likely that every time the content providers find one way to block some clever software engineer will figure out a way around the block. It reminds of of disk copy protection software in my younger days. No matter what scheme a software company came up with to block copying, someone would figure out a way around it.

Optimizing your Streaming

Which brings us to our final problem. How to optimize your streaming in the WiFi jungle. The flat we live in is in a very densely populated area. My WiFi Scanner program shows between 15 and 20 different access points depending on the time of day and day of the week. With this many access points there is a lot of interference because everyone is trying to use a rather narrow band of the radio spectrum at the same time. Although WiFi is divided up into 11 different channels, there are really only 3 of the channels that don't overlap and interfere with nearby channels.

So the best solution is actually to use wired internet if you can. luckily my AppleTV and my Router sit right next to each other, so its easy to plug in. Even when I am using Airplay from my iPad to send something to the AppleTV the stream ends up coming directly through the wire rather than over WiFi.

If you can't plug in, then you might think that the thing to do is to choose a channel that isn't being used by one of your neighbors. It turns out that most routers use channel 1 or 6 or 11 by default. So your first thought might be to use 2 or 5. But that will actually make the problem worse, because 1 and 2 will be unaware of each other and just make interference. The counter intuitive solution is to pick the same channel as your neighbor with the strongest signal. This way the normal Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA) algorithm can actually do its work. Yep, CSMA/CA is another day of networking class, but now you can throw that around like your an expert the next time someone brings up WiFi.

So with all of this, we have a pretty good setup. I can catch up on shows on all of the major networks, I can stream English Premier League Football, and FA cup, and Champions league. I can watch FoodTV, and of course we can watch anything that is on the AppleTV. Just last night we finally got around to watching the Theory of Everything. Of course some times are better than others, and some providers are better than others. AppleTV is top notch all the time. I always get a good stream on anything I watch on any of the apps on the AppleTV. Sadly its the sports streaming FoxGo, and NBCSports Live Extra, that seem to fall down. I don't know if they are not built out enough to handle the worldwide demand, or what the deal is. But there is a lot of season left, so I hope they keep on improving.

When I get back home I probably will not remain a cord cutter. Too much content still relies on me having my DirecTV password to show that I am paying for it. To often, I have to play technical support person in the middle of a show to restart the stream. But it does make me wonder about our lake house. Do we really need two DirecTV subscriptions, especially for the amount of time we spend watching TV there, and with our Fiber Optic connection just around the corner, the bandwidth we'll have for streaming in the middle of Wisconsin lake country will be quite amazing.

Butchers, Bakers, and Sandwiches

After a cold morning of touring the colliseum and other ancient roman ruins, we had the chance to meet the Maltese ambassador to Rome, Vanessa Frazier. She happens to be a Luther alum, and was extremely gracious in receiving us and telling us some great stories. I think it is always really valuable for Luther students to hear the pathways that alumni take after leaving Decorah.

Here is the group, pictured with our guide Nino. We all loved him and will always remember the phrase "Nino is here" as it sounded inside our earbuds that constantly linked us to Nino. Yes, Nino really does have his own website called Nino Knows.

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One interesting story from the ambassador involved teaching a certain beloved Luther professor how to say "good morning" in Maltese. The prof cheerfully greeted her the rest of her days at Luther with that little bit of Malta. Only she didn't really teach him to say good morning. The next time you see Uwe you'll have to ask him what she really taught him to say! I can't wait to see hime when I get back to hear his side of the story.

When we asked her what an ambassador does on an average day she told us the following story, which I love, because it gets to the heart of what everyone needs to do to be successful in their career. She said that on her first day in the foreign service an older, wiser colleague told her that on the first day she needed to go into the streets and find a butcher, and talk to the butcher about meat. On the second day she needed to go into the streets and find a baker and talk about bread. On the third day she needed to go into the streets and talk to the people about sandwiches.

In the end its about networking and making connections. This is what everyone needs to do to be successful. Make connections with people, learn how you can help them, and how they can help you. You will get much farther if you have a network that can collectively solve problems together.

Ostia Antica

Ostia is about a half hour train ride away from the center of Rome, back in the direction of the airport and the coast. In fact Ostia was the port for Rome in ancient times, until it fell out of favor. Slowly the city became covered with silt from the river until it was buried and forgotten. The layers of silt have preserved the city very much like the ash from the volcano preserved Pompeii. We had no formal guide this day, but it was still fun, to just walk and imagine yourself in that place in ancient times.

Here I am serving wine to the ladies at an ancient bar.

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And here are some scenes from above. I love the trees. They remind me of giant bonsai because they all appear to be so well groomed.

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Vatican Day

Hiding behind the ancient dirty exteriors of the buildings of the old city of Rome are beautiful palaces, with works of art as beautiful as those in the Vatican Museum. We Romans know how to live! So says Nino, our guide for our day at the Vatican. He is right too, when you walk around at night, and look into the windows of some of the places you see, you will notice that although the exteriors look pretty shabby, the interiors are very beautiful.

Having a guide is really the only way to go when visiting the vatican, otherwise you just wander around aimlessly looking at stuff without knowing the story behind all of the amazing things you see.

I've always been drawn to this photo on the ceiling of the first of the Raphael rooms, wondering what it was all about. The title really tells you all you need to know. The Triumph of Christianity. The fresco was commissioned by Pope Gregory XII in 1582.

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Although it was a bit cloudy it was a nice and the clouds made an excellent backdrop to the statues in St. Peter's Square.

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After the Vatican we turned the students loose for some time on their own. Jane and I went out in search of a restaurant. We, of course, had a couple in mind that Jane had researched prior to the trip. However that all went out the window when we were standing outside a pub only to see Özil score a goal for Arsenal against Tottenham. Now we were sucked in. Reviews aside, we were right across from the Vatican at what would surely be expensive, but there was football to watch. So into the Ris Cafe we went. Since many patrons were there getting lunch before the Italy Ireland Rugby match there were no tables available, so we agreed that as long as we could see the game sitting at the bar was fine. Soon a table opened up. But it had a horrible view of the game. So the manager asked the couple sitting at a different table to move to our table so we could have a better view. It was, but only marginally. We had just sat down and started to look at the menus when he came back and announced he had a better table for us in the other room. So we moved again. This time we had a great view of the game at a really nice table. Perfect. We were settled in and enjoying a pint of beer and the game. Ten minutes later the manager appeared again with a grin, and said "now you have to go back to the bar!" He started laughing, and we knew he was just having some fun with us. Sadly, the evil Tottenham Hotspurs outscored the Arsenal in the second half. Even more sadly, was that with four minutes left in the game, they changed the channel! The Ireland versus Italy rugby match was starting, and I believe we were the only people in the bar who cared one bit about Arsenal at that point!

Rome Arrival

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We began our outing to Rome with a walkabout starting at our hotel. The hotel, Smeraldo, was very conveniently located just two blocks from Piazza Fiori, and from there a quick walk to Piazza Navona and then the Pantheon. The group shot above was taken in front of the Pantheon. We continued our walk past the under construction Trevi fountain, and the Spanish steps where we enjoyed a night view of the newly refurbished fountain.

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After a nice walk we had a group meal at Hosteria Romana, where we (Katie) left our mark. I hope that in future years other Luther groups will return to this restaurant, and that the logo will still be there. If you do visit make sure you check in the back room and let me know.

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The Gang's all here

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All of our students arrived safely by 11:00 last night. We got them up early this morning for a bit of sightseeing and wandering around Valletta. We all did The Malta Experience, which gave us an amazing overview of the history of this island dating back to 4000 BC. It is really incredible, Malta has been ruled by: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Swabian, Aragonese, The Knights of St. John, French, and British! I'm sure I left out a few! A lot of it has to do with the fact that Malta is right on the trade route from the eastern to the western Mediterranean and beyond. I am really looking forward to our history class which starts this week.

In the meantime, we are enjoying the sunshine, and the Amazing views that are everywhere!

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