Day 4, Rwandan Food

Banana BeerBecause Banana Beer is the Lutefisk of Rwanda, Vanessa insisted that dcm and I try some.  So last night’s dinner was actually somewhat Rwandan, as compared with the other food we’ve been eating. (Photo by dcm.) The restaurant (La Republica) had a great view of the night time city.  The menu was a bit sparse, but did include goat dishes.  And Banana Beer. dcm took a couple of sips of the muddy stuff and, after declaring it “tastes like mead”, he refused to touch any more.  That left Vanessa and I, operating under the twin principles of “Waste not, Want not” and “Eat what is put in front of you” respectively, to finish it off. LunchI ended up swigging the last of it down and regretted having any before I was finished.  The syrupy stuff didn’t make me retch, but the way it sat on my stomach was unpleasant, to say the least. The other food, (goat soup and plantain) was really good, and considering the buffet of native-ish food we visited for lunch, I’d give the countries fare a B overall so far.  Not too outstanding but, with the right seasoning, quite edible. Just don’t give me any more banana beer.

Rwanda, Day 4 AM

Head of IT and meThis morning, I finished up the installation of the HRIS server for the Ministry of Health.  Now I have remote access to the box and will begin setting up monitoring on it so that we can better maintain the system.  Afterwards, I had fun showing the head of IT around the command line a little using PUTTY. I’m in the process of uploading some of the photo’s I’ve taken.  Uploads take forever.

Rwanda, Day 3

I was thoroughly exhausted this morning and slept 2 hours past the time I was supposed to meet the others for breakfast.  Ouch! I finished setting up the developer laptop and used bzr to download the source code for iHRIS Manage to the laptop.  I’ll customize the software for the Ministry of Health using the laptop and then, if we’re able to hire a Rwandan to do in-country development, they’ll have everything ready to go with php-mode set up in emacs and (of course) a link to my PPA so they can get updates easily.  Up till now, I’ve been pretty scared of the customizations they needed since I have to finish them up in the next few days. Once Vanessa started sending them to me, I was really relieved.  Most of it does look pretty simple.  “Add a field here, change a label there.” Speaking of in-country developers, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that dcm and Vanessa were able to find someone with LAMP experience.  One can always hope. In the afternoon I met with the head of IT at the Ministry of Health and installed Ubuntu on the server for them.  He doesn’t know much about Linux but seemed willing to learn.  I’d like to have someone here that I can talk to if we have problems, so I’ve been trying to at least get him or one of his underlings comfortable with Linux. We walked back up the hill to the hotel and dcm soon crashed.  I guess it was his turn to be worn out Overall, I’m really pleased with the way things are turning out.  I came into this really scared, but I’m getting more confidence by the day. One thing I would like to see is more support for Rwanda in Linux and especially Ubuntu.  When I’m setting up Ubuntu, “Rwanda” is not a choice for either the French or English language.  And, despite lots of work being done on Linux translations to Kinyarwanda, where “Ubuntu” is actually a word native to the Language, I can’t choose that language as the default in the installer.  This affects other areas of the installer, too.  When it comes time to pick a timezone, I can’t.  I have to tell the installer I’m in South Africa, which means that za.archive.ubuntu.com is picked for the Ubuntu mirror — a far better choice for the network connections I’ve used is still one of the U.S.-based mirrors.  (I’m not the only one to think Linux distributions should be more aware of Rwanda, either.) Finally, it would be great if RwandaTel or some other organization took an interest in promoting Linux in Rwanda.  They could set up a kernel.org mirror so that I could get my Linux fix faster!

Page load time still matters

In response to my complaint about Zimbra’s slow web interface, Nathan said I should use Amazon’s EC2.  The problem is that even if I use EC2, the server is in a single place … and I can’t choose that place.  And Zimbra is still a very heavy web application. And, worse, Amazon (unlike Google and Yahoo!) is not obsessed with page-load times.  When I cleared my cache and pointed YSlow at Amazon’s front page, it took over 40 seconds to load!  And a good 10 of those seconds showed nothing but an empty page.  Twitter (front page load time, 15+ seconds) uses Amazon’s S3 for image hosting and if you go to someone’s page on Twitter (say, USofA, 75+ seconds!), you can watch each of the images for the people he is following load slowly, one after another, as they fill in on the page.  People are using S3 for a content distribution network, but that isn’t what S3 is.  I expect EC2 to fair worse than S3. By contrast Google took under 5 seconds and Yahoo! (a lot more images) took  about 10 seconds.  (Nathan’s page to just over 12 seconds.  My own page took over 20 seconds and didn’t display anything for a while, something I need to work on.) This is where I’d like Zimbra to focus.  So that even those of us who only have one server hosted in California (or on EC2 somewhere) can get to our email quickly. But I can’t just sit on my butt about speed.  Actually coming to Rwanda helps me understand that page load times matter — a lot.  We don’t know what sort of connection people will have to any applications we build.  For Ajax apps, Google Reader gives a good idea of how to build a useful, responsive application even when you don’t have a 1MBit connection.

AJAX on small servers

(Oops! I slept in! Curse these blackout curtains!) I have Zimbra installed on my mail server.  I liked its web interface well enough… until I got to Rwanda! Now, part of the problem is that this is my own server.  I don’t own several different globally dispersed operations facilities like Google does.  So I have a lot of latency between Rwanda and California, where the server is. But over these connections, Zimbra seems to take forever to load up.  Since I’m used to using OfflineIMAP and Gnus normally this isn’t too big a problem. Still, it makes me that much more aware of how much each  HTTP request costs.

Rwanda Day 2 continued

I stayed at the Capacity offices as long as I could.  I could feel the fatigue hitting me pretty hard, but after lunch (including some kind of purplish yam and a good dose of caffeine) I managed to get the System 76 Laptop in some kind of working order. I should give props here to dcm who suggested that I “download the internet” and take it with me to Rwanda.  I managed to get around 175GB of the Ubuntu repository mirrored onto a disk.  This proved invaluable when I was installing the system and applying updates.  For a little while I switched to the usual web-based mirror and was told it would take a couple of hours to download everything I needed (for perspective, at home, the download times take no more than five or ten minutes).  Having the disk handy meant I could install packages directly.  The mirror isn’t complete, so some things did have to be downloaded, but the majority of stuff was right there. One bug I ran into showed up after I did an “aptitude dist-upgrade” after doing a clean install.  All of the sudden I couldn’t log in via GDM.  (The last time I had problems with a gutsy upgrade, it was using XFS so probably not something that was a core concern.) Weary from lack of sleep and not really in the mood for too much trouble-shooting, I ended up purging “ubuntu-desktop” (and its dependent packages) and then reinstalling it.  Strangely enough, that did the trick (for the most part). After that, I told Vanessa I was ready to give in to sleep.  We walked back to the hotel with me snapping pictures like a madman on the way back.  I saw some armed police standing outside and asked if I could photograph them.  “It is not allowed.”  Fine, no close ups for you! Once back I crashed in the hotel.  The turndown service woke me up twice.  First when they came in un-announced — or maybe I didn’t hear them knock and only woke up when they opened the door — and the second time when they called me (two times in a row).  I was so confused I thought they were asking for someone named “Tom”.  I was pretty annoyed, but it didn’t keep me from falling back to sleep quickly. Finally dcm woke me up so we could go have dinner at the Mille Colline.  Curried Veg, yum!

Rwanda First impressions

Since I know more than one person is interested in this and I don’t want to write a different email to everyone, I’ll try to keep a running dialog of impressions going here.  Expect mostly stream of consciousness.  I’ll attempt to refrain from too much self-editing. Friday morning started out with three or four inches of snow and, in addition to last minute scrambling to get ready to go, I had to shovel the walk and driveway.  The kids helped, but it still had to be done. The storm that brought the snow also meant that the flights my traveling companions and I were to take into New York City’s JFK airport were canceled.  I was already on the train to Philadelphia when I found out.  They were routed to a different flight from Chicago.  I hate doing new things by myself (taking a seven-hour flight across the Atlantic counts as a “new thing” for me) but I survived.  Sleep came sporadically, but on the second leg of the trip from Brussels to Kigali, Rwanda, I threw my coat over my head, blocked out all the light and slept most of the way over the Sahara (but was awake long enough to get some bad pictures of snow covered mountains and the Mediterranean and a bit of the desert. .  It was enough sleep that I feel pretty rested this morning. We arrived in Rwanda at night, so I couldn’t see much on the ride from the airport to the hotel, but overall it felt a lot like Haïti when I was there 21 years ago.  Hills, lots of low-slung buildings, lots of people, and obvious poverty.  Still, there is a lot of new economic development.  Bush opened a new U.S. Embassy here last week and that building is not the only new one built up.  That, and compared with what I remember of Haïti, there is a lot more electricity and, with it, lit-up billboards. After dinner, I watched a few Bollywood music videos (gotta love a country that, with just a few television channels, manages to show Bollywood videos) and crashed. Today, we walked around a bit and ended up at the Mille Collines, (from Hotel Rwanda fame) and had a Coke. The weather here is awesome, a dramatic change from the snow I left in Pennsylvania.

Scary Smart

For many Americans, intelligence is an enigma.

We assume it is a prerequisite for success, or, worse, that success and intelligence are intertwined – you can’t have one without the other. “If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich?” is the common refrain.

If I had any such illusions, they were destroyed in college.

Many of my classmates were recipients of the Taylor Scholarship for National Merit Scholars. National Merit Scholars are very smart. They are selected because they’ve managed to score in the top for their state on the PSAT.

So Patrick Taylor, a wealthy oilman from New Orleans, decided to try and attract these bright kids to his area. He arranged with the University of New Orleans to provide a stipend and full scholarship to any National Merit Scholar who chose to come to New Orleans for college.

Certainly they attracted smart students. But they also attracted an amazing number of unmotivated underachievers. If you are good at taking tests, but haven’t bothered to study in high school, you probably don’t have a high GPA. When it comes time to go to college, and you’ve done well on the SAT, your choices are limited.

Even though you are a National Merit Scholar, many scholarships want some sort of minimum GPA or class standing. The Taylor Scholarship made no such requirements. They didn’t even ask for an essay.

“Check here if you want a full ride scholarship to New Orleans.” So easy. But the experiment failed.

My freshman year at UNO was the last year Patrick Taylor decided to offer the scholarship. He had evidently become frustrated with the type of students his experiement attracted. Instead of smart students who worked hard to succeed in school, many of the students were apathetic. One semester, a friend and one of the Taylor Scholars, heartbroken over a relationship, spent every night in my room playing Street Fighter II against my roommate all night long. He failed out that semester. My roommate, another scholarship recipient, managed to finish up that year.

I’m sure that Mr. Taylor hoped to breed a new generation of professionals in New Orleans. New Orleans certainly needed an infusion like that to succeed. The city had been in an economic tailspin since the bust of the oil industry in the 80s. Had the program produced engineers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists who wanted to stay in New Orleans, things might be a little different for New Orleans now.

Many of those students did become professionals — but they didn’t stay in New Orleans. They were lured away by cities with more potential for growth, places with more opportunities.

And then there were the students who didn’t pursue a career after college. Some of those very smart students — students who had the ability and education to succeed — had no motivation to do anything more than work as a barrista in a coffee shop.

Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with working in a coffee shop, but this is not what the rich, old oilman had in mind when he handed out money so students could come to New Orleans and study.

So I learned that intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean success. At least, not the kind of success most people dream about. It takes a good deal of motivation to succeed. Motivation that must be backed up by hard work.

Now in Pennsylvania

Since the Clark for President campaign disbanded, I’ve been looking in various places for the type of work that I would enjoy. I think I’ve found it in Pennsylvania.

While Lancaster County, PA is a long ways, both culturally and geographically, from New Orleans, we’ve already found a house (which we’ll be moving into this Friday, if all goes well) and begun to acquaint ourselves with the area.

My determination to find work that involves Perl by watching the Perl Jobs mailing list paid off huge dividends. I’ll be able to program in Perl and continue to do some interesting Linux System Administration work. Additionally, since the company is small, I’ll be the primary (only, for now) technical person, so I’ll be able to have the influence on decision-making that I wanted in my previous position, but lacked because the company was phasing out their UNIX-based operations.