When you travel a lot, once in a while it just seems that you are on "The Trip from Hades", and you wonder why you travel as much as you do.
That is the way my most recent trip to a conference called "WALC2007", held in Coro, Venezuela seemed to start. First of all, the conference invitation came late, and I was already engaged to go to another conference. However, that conference could not confirm that they could pay my travel expenses (my only request), and I eventually opted to go to Venezuela, which I had first visited in 1994, and again a few years later. I wanted to see how they were doing with their movement towards "Software Libre!"
/* START OF BAD NEWS
My flight started bad, with me getting only two hours of sleep the night before, and continued to get worse when I landed in Caracas, Venezuela and my luggage was still back in Miami, Florida. Apparently the charger for my PDA looked too much like a bomb. Fortunately in my backpack and my other lanes to come in and other speakers to arrive....and those speakers had lost their luggage also, and had to spend time giving their information to the luggage agents. Exhausted, I sat in the bus for two more hours until we started toward the hotel, which was about an hour's drive from the airport. We arrived at the hotel about midnight, after dropping off several other groups of speakers at their other hotels. Then I found out that we were expected to leave for the conference at 0800 hours the next morning, so this left me about six hours of sleep. I was a bit grumpy the next day.
END OF BAD NEWS */
From that point on the conference was great. Centered on networking, this was the tenth year of the conference, which is held different places around South America each year and is given by speakers and instructors from all over the world, but mostly from Spanish speaking countries. I think I was their only non-Spanish speaking lecturer, and as such they took good care of me, assigning me an English speaking "angel". The over-all coordinator of this year's event was Edmundo Vitale.
The conference was broken into two main parts, the "congress" that was free and open to everyone, and "training sessions" that were paid, but which had "scholarships" for full-time teachers and students. Many of the training sessions had hands-on computer time, with the computers being supplied by the facility that housed the conference. The conference was held in a facility normally used for computer training named "FundaTEC" so the facilities were all set for the use of terminal rooms, blackboards, whiteboards, Internet, etc. Carlos Garcia, the President of FundaTEC, was a gracious host.
The conference had also engaged a professional logistics company to handle travel of the speakers, food for the event, staff for logistics, etc. which cut down on the strain on the organizers.
Things had changed a bit since the first conference I had attended in Caracas in 1994. At that conference I was told in no uncertain terms that I should dress in a suit coat and tie, and that all of the attendees were going to be in suit coat and tie. Since this event was a DECUS (the old "Digital Equipment Corporation User's Society), I was used to attending them in shorts and T-shirts in the United States, but I did go out and buy a suit and tie for that conference. When I got to the event, the attendees were indeed in suits and ties, so it was appropriate for me to wear one.
For this conference I brought four dress shirts, some ties and some nice sweaters with "Linux International" on them to wear as well as several pairs of dress pants. Of course all of these were in my still-missing luggage, and all I had to wear was a rather messy Linux T-shirt and soiled shorts. When I got to the conference there was not a tie to be seen, and most people dressed in very casual clothes and some in more "native" dress of loose-weave cottons. I think the next time I will inquire of the organizers what the "dress code" will be instead of trying to guess.
My luggage was still missing, and the number that American Airlines in Caracas had given me did not work. One of the organizers called a friend of his, and magically my luggage was located and we were promised it would be at the airport later that night.
The opening of the conference, which was attended by the governor of the state and other dignitaries, included a "cultural event" of children dancing local dances. This is typical of some South American countries where they start with a very formal opening and "cultural event". As I sat there and saw two very young children dancing a traditional dance, and I thought to myself that the young boy might or might not like the dance that he was doing, but when he was 16 or 17 he would probably be glad that he had learned.....
Then we had a group of very young boys dressed as burros to the "burro dance" to great acclaim.
After the opening I went back to the hotel for a few hours sleep, then we went back to the airport I had arrived at (an hours drive each way) to get my luggage, which was indeed there. We made the first part of that trip during daylight, and I got to see the famous sand dunes and cactus gardens of the peninsula, and take pictures of the sun setting over the ocean. Life began to look a lot less bleak, and after dinner at a very nice outdoor restaurant I even felt like smiling.
At the event I saw several things I really liked. The government had a tractor-trailer truck outfitted with desktop systems, a whiteboard, air-conditioner and desks to be able to give computer training at remote villages. I was pleased to see that the operating system they were using was Linux, and not a proprietary system.
I also received two books on setting up wireless networking (available at http://wndw.net) and tuning your network for better throughput (http://bwmo.net) and both are covered by Creative Commons licenses with paper copies ordered through lulu.com
These books were truly collaborative efforts created by people of different nationalities from different cultures, and are in the process of being translated into different languages. Both are in their first edition, and while there are some spots where I might want to see more clarification and more depth, they are fantastic "first efforts", and will be very useful to any group trying to set up wireless networks and tune their systems. And while they are focused on free software, they do cover some techniques using proprietary systems also. I recommend both of them.
More and more I find that people in emerging economies are discovering the real value of free software, that you can "stand on the shoulders of others", and that they can contribute just as much as any other economy can....sometimes more, since they are more sensitive to doing more with less cash investment. The wireless networking book, for instance, shows how to make "Cantennas". Unlike the traditional "Pringle Can" antenna, it shows how to pick various size cans for best transmission, taking this type of antenna to new heights. Other types of home-made antennas are also described.
Yet these countries are not doing just "Cantennas", their universities are designing circuits to remotely monitor server farms and "Telecenters in a box" software to make it easier for people to set up Telecenters/Internet Cafes throughout emerging technologies that would also be useful in schools and Internet cafes world-wide. I always tell people that while there were obviously Beowulf clusters in NASA and other US-based labs, the first one I ever saw was at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil.
By now I had started to make as a friend a gentleman (and I stress the term gentleman) named Ermanno Pietrosemoli, a retired electrical engineer who studied at Stanford University, worked all over the world, and is now President of the Fundación Escuela Latinoamericana de Redes (EsLaRed), a group that is developing wireless networking techniques in Merida, Venezuela. It was this group that had started the WALC conferences. His good humor and patience with the Gringo that could not speak Spanish was great, and we swapped stories of foreign lands that we had visited.
Mr. Pietrosemoli also helped translate during several TV taping sessions held at the conference for a national technical TV show. The show taped quite a bit of the conference, including a segment of "show and tell" where I showed them several upcoming devices that stressed thin client techniques and the use of the Internet:
o a Classmate PC (given to me by Intel/Canonical, and running Ubuntu)
o a Koolu thin client (www.koolu.com)
o a Nokia webpad (unfortunately just the older Nokia 770)
o a Openmoko phone (www.openmoko.org)
I wanted to stress to the people of Venezuela that now was the time to start moving the Internet out to the communities, since these products would be dropping significantly in price over the next few years, bringing them into the price range of many in South America, and many more people if managed through a "Digital Inclusion" program. But access to the Internet is the key, as computers by themselves are not as useful.
I was not able to stay for the entire conference, but after my talk on Wednesday night, where I stressed how to make money with Free Software, I was able to attend another cultural event in the heart of colonial Coro. Another outdoor event, with men and women in colonial period costume, doing traditional dances, more children dancing and a whole orchestra. By this time in the conference I had a sub-staff of "angels" assigned to me to take care of me, and I was kept well fed and watered during the event.
An early night, since I was leaving early in the morning.
/* Hades begins to show its ugly head again
I have made it a habit to always try and know ahead of time exactly where I am supposed to go and what I am supposed to do. Therefore before I left from the event I asked the organizers which airport I was supposed to be flying from, the one that I arrived at (one hour by car away) or the city airport directly across the street from the hotel. Much confusion ensued, with no one really sure which airport I was supposed to use, and (of course) by that time all the airline offices had closed. One of the organizers, however, volunteered to get up early and go to the airport across the street and determine if that was indeed my (and one other instructor's) airport.
At 0700 the organizer appeared at my hotel door and informed me that I was to use the airport across the street. So I had breakfast, and even though my plane was not until 0920 hours, I decided to go early and check in, just to be sure.
Of course there was no one at the airline desk that could speak English, but through using my laptop and making gestures I indicated that I was supposed to be on the 0920 flight. But by making gestures and shaking his head "no", he indicated that I was not welcome on that flight....and I could not understand why. So I went back to the hotel to enlist "translator aide", and arriving back at the hotel with another new friend, Pablo Osuna, a native of Spain who was now living in Argentina,
we found out that my ticket was really a round-trip of which I had not used the first half, and therefore the airline had canceled the reservation. Lots of anguish later the agent put me on the "wait list" for a plane that was allegedly full. I only had to wait an hour to find out that the plane (which held 19 passengers) only had 15 people show up. So I exited Coro on time and flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In San Juan I cleared customs and immigration without a hitch, re-checked my luggage and went to the gate to wait the two hours for my plane. Four hours later I (and all of the other passengers) were waiting for the plane which was having mechanical troubles. I have been sitting here writing this while waiting. Hopefully I will be home by around two or three o'clock tomorrow morning. Hopefully my luggage will be with me.
Hopefully I will be able to fly to my next conference in three days.
End of hope? */