Software Livre!

by Jon maddog Hall

"Software Livre! Software Livre! Software Livre!"...the words got louder and louder like a chant. No, not like a chant, it was a chant--and I was leading it! Hundreds of people were in the Forum Internacional for Software Livre held May 2-4, 2002, chanting "Software Livre" (free as in freedom). While this was only a small fraction of the 2,900 people who attended, it was late at night, after the event closed, and they were still talking to each other, still enthusiastic.

Held in the port city of Porto Alegre, in the southernmost state of Brazil, it was a different culture than the other six times that I had been to Brazil. What Porto Alegre lacked in the physical beauty of Rio de Janeiro or the beaches of Recife, it made up with the intensity of the conference and the warmth of the people.

Several things made this conference stand out from some of the others I have attended.

First of all, this conference was sponsored by the government of Rio Grande do Sul (RS), as well as private industry and the Linux community. RS (as it is always abbreviated) has been using Software Livre for several years as a method of meeting their needs for production software in various areas. By using Software Livre, RS has been able to cut software costs. The money that they do spend on software stays in the hands of Brazilian programmers, who buy Brazilian food, live in Brazilian houses and pay Brazilian taxes. None of the last three points was lost on the political leaders of RS, and several of the leaders showed up at the opening of the conference to speak and lend their support.

Held at a university (rather than a conference center or large hotel like a lot of other conferences), the costs were kept to a minimum, and all of the necessary items that a conference needs (audio-visual, security, networking, etc) were available. In addition, because Brazil speaks Portuguese and a large number of attendees came from outside of Brazil, simultaneous translation into English and Spanish from Portuguese (and vice-versa) was offered in the main hall, where one of the conference tracks was held. For this was an international conference, drawing people like Robert Chassell of the FSF, Tim Ney of the Gnome Foundation, Peter Salus (author of A Quarter Century of Unix and a lot of other books), Mario Saito of Cyclades, David Sugar of the Open Source Telecom Corporation and other foreign speakers.

We also had a strong contingent from Uruguay, who not only presented several times, but reinforced for me the art of chimarrao, which is drinking a strong "tea" made of the leaves of erva-mate. A very social type of event, the tea is made in a hollowed out gourd called a cuia and sipped through a straw called a bomba. People pass it around from person to person, each taking a few sips from the cuia. High in caffeine, it is a somewhat bitter drink, but pleasant nonetheless. Even their LUG's penguin used chimarraro. An acquired taste, it is a lot like another communal event I used to practice back in college.

Other strong contingents were found in the Debian group and in the people from Conectiva. My friend Rik Van Riel, a kernel developer employed by Conectiva, and his lovely wife, Fabiana, spent some time with me also.

Three conference tracks and two tutorial tracks were offered on each of the three days of the conference, in addition to some workshops. Through an agreement with the university, some of the computer labs were used for the workshops. This cut down on equipment costs, and again showed the government of RS, the educational sector (this was a private university), the private sector and the Software Livre community all working together--very refreshing.

I mentioned that the conference was kept inexpensive. Through some generous donations by Hewlett Packard, PROCERGS and some other companies, the attendance fees for both the conference and the tutorials were kept within the reach of most people, including students. Yet the niceties were there too, like having shuttle service provided by PROCERGS to take the speakers back and forth from our hotel when needed.

There was also a show floor, but the low-cost of the venue and the generous sponsorship of the main sponsors also allowed this to be kept small and homey rather than being a huge show floor.

Finally, they had an on-line chatroom, where people could chat with the speakers about different topics. Therefore, even people who could not attend the conference could participate, if they wished.

We also had a lot of press people attend the conference, most of whom were quite familiar with Software Livre and what it meant to their country. Cyclades did, however, set up a dinner meeting for me with some press and analysts regarding Linux and the telecom industry. One of the press people had what Cyclades called a "challenging" attitude in his question asking, and he found out that I could be "challenging" right back. Polite but "challenging", I had an answer for all of his questions and some of the questions he did not even think to ask.

My job was to give the Footnote, the last speech. It is a little like a keynote in the fact that it should be "visionary" and "forward thinking", yet also reflect things that happened during the conference. One of the things that I have been pressing recently is that all of the people in the Free Software movement are important. Sure, there are people who are "known", like Richard Stallman or Eric Raymond, but when people come up to me and say they are "just" a documentation person or "just" a user, I have to tell them they are also important to the movement. So in this footnote I made two main points. I made everyone in the room promise to bring two friends who did not currently use Linux to next year's show, and I asked every programmer, documentation person, user and supporter of Software Livre to please stand and give each other a "thank you". The cheering of "Software Livre" almost deafened me, and it was one of the few times in my life I received a standing ovation.

All Work and No Play

Before the conference, Marcos Mazoni, the CEO of PROCERGS and who everyone called Mazoni, took a couple of us out on his sailboat on the large river that flows beside Porto Alegre. I have seen the Mississippi and other large rivers, but this was immense. I learned that a lot of other people argue about whether this is actually a river, a lake or some other type of water body, but most people seemed content to say it was a river. This was a nice day to recover from the long flight on the airplane and from the press conference the day before. It also allowed me to meet more of the students who were helping out with the event and who I would come to think of as friends in the days to come: Luciano "Lucifer" Lopes, Gustavo "Kov" Silva and Andre Franciosi, among others.

Another nice time happened a few days later, when Andre Franciosi took me to the central market and helped me pick out my own chimarrao set. This consisted of the aforementioned cuia and bomba, but it also included a hot water bottle, a container to hold the erva-mate and a hand-tooled leather case with a long strap to contain all the ingredients. This chimarrao set became my constant companion for the rest of the trip. I took pride in making my first chimarrao from it and offering it to my friends from both Porto Alegra and Uruguay.

After the conference, PROCERGS arranged a daytrip to the wine country for some of the speakers. This part of RS was settled by Germans and Italians in the first part of the last century, and there is a distinct Alpine look-and-feel to the country. We danced at their May Day celebrations, ate their breads and cheeses and, of course, drank their wine.

But there is no real rest for the wicked, and the next two days found me speaking at two universities in the region.

At the second university, that of my friend Cesar Brode, I got to see SAGU first hand. SAGU was the brain-child of Cesar and his small but efficient staff of people, and they are justifiably proud of it. I should also mention that sagu is a popular dessert in Brazil, made up of small red berries, a little like cranberries, but much sweeter.

While talking to the faculty of Cesar's university, I proposed that students use Software Livre to learn not only computer science subjects but also non-computer courses, such as biology, chemistry and math. Many programs exist in the Software Livre space for these courses. A lot run on Linux or *BSD, and some run on Windows but are Software Livre themselves. I suggested that the students be assigned to write programs that would help demonstrate issues in their curriculum. I argued that when a student understands enough about a topic to create a program that can illustrate the concept to someone else, then they really understand it. When one of the professors asked me if this meant that their biology students would have to learn computer programming too, I suggested a liaison between the two departments. I argued that "even biology students" should have a feeling for what computers could do for them and should be able to communicate their needs to a computer science student. Likewise, a computer science student who cannot listen to the needs of a user and create code useful to them is a questionable hire out in the field. Therefore, programs (both at undergraduate and graduate levels) that bring the multidisciplined aspects of the university together seem to be a good path. And Software Livre would leverage the most of that partnership.

Besides talking to the university staff and students, I was lucky enough to talk to a group of technical high-school students who were currently using Windows 98 and considering the use of Linux. After my talk, I was told by a student that I had convinced him and that he was going to switch to Linux. This was obviously my hardest, and therefore most successful, convert.

I stayed at Cesar's home that night and met his lovely wife and three daughters. The next day we went to the church close to Cesar's home, and Cesar treated me to hearing a harmonium played in a large open environment, like it was meant to be played. For those of you who do not know me, I collect automated musical instruments, and harmoniums are part of that collection. Harmonimums are as close to heaven as I will get until I can afford to place a small pipe organ in my house.

By then, my trip was mostly over. I went back to my hotel and tried to pack all of the things inside my suitcase that I could, which left only a leather chimarrao set and my laptop to be carried on the plane. I waited for one of my new friends to have breakfast with me, but he never showed up. Instead, Tim Ney and I made a mad dash down to the central market, so I could guide him through the purchase of his own chimarrao set. While there I picked up a few more chimarraro things (including a little backpack for it) to round out my collection. Mmm...erva-mate and penguin mints--be still, my heart!

Traveling to the airport, I was just about to get on the plane when two people from Varig airlines (the national carrier of Brazil) told me there was an important message on the other side of security, and that I needed to see this person. It turned out to be Loimar Vianna and Kov, who had come to the airport to see me off. So I bid a hurried good-bye and wished them "Software Livre".

Jon maddog Hall is president and executive director of Linux International.

email: maddog@li.org

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