Only Visiting NOLA

Today, I’m in New Orleans for the NOLA Hackathon for MediaWiki. As I walked through Lafayette Square where the Blues and BBQ festival was setting up. I thought, wistfully for a bit, about how much I love New Orleans and how much I miss leaving here.

Scandals, page 1

That lasted until I sat down in PJsand looked at the front page. The top three headlines each reminded me of the corruption and cronyism that Louisiana and New Orleans are known for: Public defenders are ambulance chasing, an audit of a 13 year old construction project reveals invoice padding, and a local businessman pleads guilty to bribing the sheriff.

So, I’ll visit, I’ll enjoy hacking MediaWiki with my friends, staying with my sponsors (who live next door to my old home here), enjoy the food, and then, when it is all over, I’ll enjoy returning home to the quiet Lancaster County, PA.

I love graphs … and it rained

So, this morning I was going to my Thursday morning “Early Risers” study group hosted by my (Orthodox) church with my neighbor, a Mennonite peace activist (see $10.40 for Peace for his most recent effort) and it was raining.

Since I don’t follow news, except the big stories that hit the Interwebs, I didn’t realize that we were getting the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. But we were.

So, at 6:15am as we passed through a low point, we saw a trailer park near a creek flooded, its residents standing at the roadside watching the water threaten their homes.

We got to the study group at 6:30AM along with a few others but my priest, who usually leads the group, wasn’t able to make it because of flooding on the road. So those of us who got there continued in his absence.

On the way back home at 7:45 the highway (US 222) was closed, so we took the slow road (PA 272).

Along the way, we passed the trailer park again. This time the flood waters had clearly reached some of the homes and were just about a foot from the road. But we slugged on and soon we were safely home.

Shortly after dvfmama left for work in Lancaster, but she soon returned. All the roads out of town (we live on a hill) were closed. Evidently, our children’s school got the same message: school was canceled due to the flooding.

(Here come the graphs!) My neighbor gave me links to some charts of the flooding. And it is pretty striking. The amount of rain in the past few days has caused local rivers to rise significantly, and meant that they’re carrying a lot more water. In some sense, because I live on a hill outside of a flood zone, this was a nice reminder of New Orleans, but still, it is good too keep in mind that others suffered.

Good friends, Hurricanes and school

I have let a few things build up that I want to write about (and I’m trying to make sure the bugosphere doesn’t overwhelm me entirely), so here is a potpourri of what is going on.

Good Friends

This past weekend, someone from New Orleans that I’ve been working with for the past eight or nine years was in New York City and said he wanted to get together. It provided a nice excuse to go up to NYC. We had a great dinner and had fun catching up. Even though I’m not a businessman, I have a few friends like this one who own and run their own business and I love their perspective.

While I was in NYC, I made good on a threat I’ve made before to this open source power couple that I know, Leonard and Sumana. I met Leonard seven years ago when we were both working on the Clark campaign. I didn’t realize then how truly bright he was, but if you google “Leonard Richardson”, you’ll see that he has written quite a bit. And he maintains a fairly humble attitude and has a wonderful sense of humor. You can see this in his O’Reilly Bio: Leonard Richardson has been programming since he was eight. Recently the quality of his code has improved somewhat.

When I said I wanted to meet him, he asked what I wanted to do. I suggested Museum of the Moving Image since it was near where he lived and, as it happens, was hosting the traveling Jim Henson exhibit. I vividly remembered Leonard playing the Manamana video for his fellow Clark staffers, so I thought this might be right up his alley. I was right.

I didn’t know Sumana before the WMF but she was brought on as our Volunteer Development Coordinator this year (in the TL;DR group, which I am a part of and I can only find a brief mention of in this “Platform Engineering” blog post) and, lo, open source runs in small circles. Sumana and Leonard are married!


Of course, Hurricane Irene was on our minds. As someone who has lived through several hurricane seasons in New Orleans (but not, I admit, Hurricane Katrina), I was a little more amused than I should have been that NYC was evacuating parts of the city because of predicted 50 knot winds (though, I admit that I thought shutting down the subway was a good move — I will condescend at least that much).

Even if the storm that hit NYC didn’t meet my stringent standards for impending doom, it was still good to hear that Sumana and Leonard survived.


Oh, and as if that isn’t enough trauma in my life: tomorrow is the first day of school for my children. Given that and dvfmama’s work outside the house, it’ll be my first day for quite some time by myself.

I don’t know if I can handle the solitude.

Opportunity Costs

[photocommons file=”Altaner.jpg” width=”300″] The nolug mailing list has been taken over by the perpetual whine again: “New Orleans Sucks.” Even though I still love the city and sometimes dream of living there again, when it comes to crime or politics there are many ways that it does, indeed, suck. But the thing that got me to move away — before Katrina came and made the problems worse — was opportunity. I had to post my experience with New Orleans and opportunity.

TL;DR: Even freetards need people skills.

I am telling you why I love and miss New Orleans. It has nothing to do with tech or politics. I don’t live in NOLA because of opportunity, remember?

I should clarify. I did post about politics. And even while living there, I was bothered by politics. But politics didn’t make me move.

Even rampant crime — my wife and I were robbed at gunpoint once — didn’t make us move.

It was opportunity. At the time, I was working as the “anti-spam” guy for McDermott. When they replaced my Solaris MTA with a Barracuda appliance and terminated the contract, I really wanted to continue working as a fairly-well-paid person working with Unix.

Most of the readily available jobs that met my criteria in NOLA at that time required an Oracle certification. I did think about getting one — the cost-benefit ratio for an Oracle Certification is pretty good and demand was there — but I am too much of what Fake Steve Jobs calls a “freetard” to get one. The GPL really does mean something to me.

We sold our house in Carrolton, and, for a few weeks, I worked as a Perl subcontractor for a guy in San Francisco on a mod_perl project he had.

After that, I went to work on a presidential campaign in Little Rock.

Even though the campaign was a flop and the pay was abysmal, it was one of the best decisions of my career: I made a number of friends from around the country and worked closely with them over the course of a few months. Those relationships led to more opportunties than I would otherwise have, living here in rural Pennsylvania.

So, yes, NOLA sucks as far as opportunities. Any place outside of a major metropolitan area like New York or San Francisco probably sucks a similar amount, at least for Tech jobs.

Which brings me to my point: It isn’t WHERE you are or even WHAT you know so much as WHO you know and HOW connected you are. You can have great tech skills and still be stuck with a job in a New York City bodega if you don’t know how to leverage them.

Yes, a person in the right place with the right set of technical skills can do amazing things. But if he doesn’t have any way to build and maintain some relationships that will help him when his current situation is finished, he’ll be stuck.

Falls and Head Injuries.

Twenty days ago, on the 7th, I headed out on that clear, beautiful day, on my road bike for a trip on my usual 24 mile trip around the country side.

From what I’ve been told of the events I cannot recall and from the route I usually take, I made a turn onto a narrow, one lane bridge.  I must have not seen the oncoming traffic, or thought I could easily go on the right side of it.

But the result was not incident-free.  A wreck resulted.  I ended in the middle of the road with my head cracked open.  Thankfully, the on-coming driver did not run over me.  At least I haven’t found any tire marks on my body.

My body went into a coma and they trucked me to the ER.  Shortly after, a police officer showed up on my doorstep and gave my wife news no spouse wants to hear.  She rushed to the Reading Hospital.  When she found me, she saw my body, with a few scratches on my face.  Other than the breathing tubes coming out of my mouth, I looked like I was asleep.

She walked up to me and said “Hi, Hex, I’m here.”  My priest, Father Gousettis, was with Alexis and he prayed over me.

Day 2:  Alexis had the neighbors help with the kids while she went to the hospital to figure out what is going on with me.  My parents were on their way to meet us in Pennsylvania from their home in Arkansas.  They arrived late in the evening.  A friend who is a hospice doctor came to visit and read to me.  He also provided invaluable medical insight and guidance to Alexis.

For the first three days after my accident, the doctors watched over my body under controlled sedation.  On the third day, they took me off sedation to watch my breathing as I fought the ET (Endotracheal) tube.

Alexis stayed with me again that night to watch over me an pray for me as I fought with the tube.  At 9:30 on the fourth morning, on doctor’s orders, the respiratory therapist removed the breathing tube.  With bated breath, everyone watched to see if I would be able to breathe on my own.  I breathed, and everyone, including my wife, let out sigh of relief.  The concern was that my bruised brain stem (which controls vital involuntary functions like breathing, heart beats, etc.) would impede my breathing.

The second hurdle had been cleared.  Now, they waited for me to wake up and talk.  Three hours after the tube came out, I opened my eyes and my wife leaned over and asked me to say her name.

“Alexis”, came my whisper and, as if exhausted, I fell back asleep.

An hour later, I woke up again and whispered to Alexis.  She waved to Maria, a nurse, to come and listen.  I whispered again.
“I am thirsty.  I want water.”

Maria asked, “Mark, who is this person next to you?”  I replied, “My wife.”

“What’s her name”

“Alexis,” I replied.

“Mark, what year is this?”

“2006” I replied.

“Mark, who is the president?”

“Obama” I replied.

Alexis tells me that after the ET tube was removed, my improvements increased exponentially. On the 11th day, I was transferred to rehab.

A whole body scan was done and that was when the pulmonary embolisms and en-flamed right lung  were discovered.  By midnight I was in desperate need of morphine.

Now I am back at the Reading Hospital Post Acute Rehabilitation.  I am under constant supervision which bugs me… and makes me want to scream “I am an AMERICAN!” sometimes.

But I’m focused on the goal: returning home and resuming full time work.  Hopefully I can reach it rapidly.

Rwanda culture shock

You know what? I like the way Rwandans do bureaucracy — completely open to the world. We walked right into the Ministry of Health and found the person we needed to see. No bothersome identification checks. No screening. Just plain trust. Contrast this with our visit to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda. A squat building built to be impervious to almost any attack. Two ID checks. Two metal scanners. No laptops. Bah! Well, some journalism interns from Canada are in Rwanda and, when one decided he needed a contact at the Ministry of Infrastructure, he was a little surprised:

Jean Pierre, our program assistant here in Rwanda, suggested we just go to the Ministry offices and ask around. I was skeptical; surely security wouldn’t even let us through the door without a contact or an appointment. But much to my surprise we walked right in the front door and after asking around I found a man who has worked in road safety for over a decade: the perfect expert.

Day 6, Embassy

Hot Tip: Don’t wear steel toed boots to the Embassy.  You’re gonna have to take them off to go through the metal detectors.  Yes, there are more than one.  And don’t take your laptop or your camera.  Both will be confiscated.

At the U.S. Embassy, we met up with representatives of USAID and gave a report of what we’re doing in Rwanda.  They seemed really excited about at least three things:

  1. iHRIS actually being put into the Ministry of Health and used.  We are actually implementing these tools and putting them into people’s hands.  They’ll have a place to collect information and analyze it.
  2. The Data-Based Decision-Making workshop IntraHealth is hosting. It is one thing to give people tools.  But if they’ve never used that sort of tool, they won’t understand the benefit it provides.  Unless someone shows them.  So IntraHealth is holding in-country workshops with the people at the Ministry and in the field who will be using the tools.
  3. Our focus on open source.  After a few encounters with software consultancies and vendors who provide solutions without source and require payment to foreign entities for ongoing support.

It is great when officials and administrators start talking to us about the benefits of open source.  They’ll mention another program that is government-funded and talk about how frustrating it is to have a system that they have to use being incomprehensible and expensive — because  that is just the way proprietary systems work. I hope that supporting native workers by bootstrapping their in-country IT (Information Technology) force with Open Source will undermine efforts like those described in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.  The faster that Rwanda becomes self-sufficient, the less dependent they will be on foreign aid. And the desire for self-sufficiency is beginning to bloom.  While there is still a lot of dependency, people who make decisions and help provide direction are beginning to see that dependency on outside software firms is not the way to economic health.  As Rwanda focuses on IT (and the country is focusing on the industry as an area of growth), Open Source will provide the four freedoms of Free Software.  The government of any country (but especially developing countries) should be especially interested in the redistributive and communal benefits of Free Software and we are beginning to see it here.  When Rwanda has its own RMS, I’ll know we have succeeded. (NB: The mini-rms in me asks you to read “Free Software” where ever you see “Open Source” on my weblog. I am a Freetard, after all.  Unfortunately, the term “Open Source” is more widely understood.)

Day 5

Oh no! I’ve been here too long, I don’t have anything to write about! I think this is mostly because I spent yesterday at the hotel doing the sorts of things I normally do: development, sys admin, etc.  I didn’t get a chance to actually start customizing the system like I originally intended.  Instead, I realized I needed to set up monitoring and interim backups for the server I set up at the Ministry of Health.  From the looks of things I might not get to started on the customizations for a couple of days.  Ugh… dcm, however, actually left Kigali and went out to a health center in a village. I was hoping to join him, but there wasn’t enough room. Well, I’m off to the U.S. Embassy.  More when I return.

Padding that CV

In many ways, this trip feels like a big CV padder — you know, finding the most impressive way of describing something possible.  When all you did was help desk support, you throw around words like “training” and “communication” as if that makes picking up the phone and walking someone through a few steps it takes to make a headline bold more important. International Travel, working with the Head of IT for a countries Department of Health… It all feels pretty surreal to me.  The surrealism is accentuated by the way I’ve thought about the world as a big globe floating in space, and my self a minute little speck on one side of it.  Well, the speck has moved! Today I actually start customizing iHRIS Manage for the ministry. Hopefully it is as straight-forward as I think it is going to be.