Friday, May 28, 2010

Chau to Latin America

On May 9th evening, Charles told us that he would be leaving early morning next day, and that Quiliro would come and pick us up to go to the Catholic University. I found out that we were going to the IT Department of the University and was wondering what I should speak and how I should start. I thought that I could start by asking them how much money they paid to the copyright holders for teaching about Turing machine. But at the University, we came to know that students and teachers from a school in the name of a freedom fighter of Ecuador had come to listen to our talk. And in the hall, I found that the people from the school far out numbered others. So I had to change my strategy. So I started by asking them whether they had studied Newton's laws and who the laws belonged to. Or who the theory of relativity belonged to. The students said that it belonged to Einstein, probably not grasping the meaning of my question. Then I asked them how they could learn or teach these theories without paying the authors. The students immediately said that they were free, and that they belonged to everyone. In that case, I asked, how come people were allowed to own some pieces of knowledge and not allow others to use the knowledge without payment. My job was done, and, I think, the children got the message loud and clear. It only remained for me to point out that software is like knowledge ant that, like knowledge, software also should be free (as in freedom). I told them that Free Software is like free knowledge and got them to agree that they will at least try Free Software. With that, I gave the stage to Juan and Rafael. Both of them talked for quite some time, and I thought that is better because they can directly speak in Spanish (rather than translate when I speak).

I met a small child there wearing a T shirt that said GNU/Linux. He became friendly to me and we sat on the floor of the dias talking for some time - he in Spanish and I in Malayalam, just as i used to do with the third child of Charles. But this time Quiliro was there to do a bit of interpretation for me. I met the family as I came out of the building and they had taken a few photographs with me carrying the child. I did request them to send me the photos, but I have not yet received them. I shall put them up here as soon as I get them.

From the University, all of us went to the airport. Rafael, his brother-in-law, Quiliro and others were there to see us off, and we soon left Ecuador on a TACA flight. The airport had free wifi access and Juan and I made use of the opportunity to check our mails. I just sent a mail to Lucho saying that we were leaving. Since the flight was in the evening, and it became dark soon, there was nothing interesting to see and the wait at Lima also was normal. We reached Asuncion early in the morning and Lucho and his girl friend were there waiting for us at 3 in the morning. We went straight to his house and soon were asleep. Before I went to sleep, I just sent a mail to my brother-in-law in Dubai, Ajith Kumar, saying that I was back in Asuncion and would try to get the flight from Dubai postponed by a few days.

The next morning, we went to the travel agency that, as Juan found out, had booked my tickets and got the flight from Dubai to Delhi postponed by a few days. It cost me US $ 150, which, I thought, was a bit high. Later, it turned out that I could buy a new ticket from Dubai to Kerala for a similar amount. That would have saved me the fare from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. Anyway, the money was spent and there was nothing I could do about it. From the travel agency, we had to go quickly back to Lucho's home because he was called to sort out some problem in some system that he was looking after. So he left us home and quickly went out. And I started wondering how I would go to the airport. Juan told me that Nicolas (Pereira) would come to drop me to the airport.

My flight was supposed to be at 6 pm and I should be at the airport by 3 pm. The drive to the airport was supposed to be about 30-40 minutes. So I was expecting Nicolas to reach by about 2:15 pm. When there was no sign of Nicolas, Juan called him. Nicolas said that he was in a meeting and would reach in ten minutes. He also said that he knows someone in the airlines, so there will not be any problem. Finally, both Nicolases came and we all went to the airport. On the way, Nicolas Caballero said that there were two pieces of good news. One was that the electricity company had offered US $ 100,000 every year to conduct a Free Software conference. That was good news indeed! I asked him how much that would be, in real terms, in Paraguay. Nicolas said that the Free Software Asuncion conference for which I had originally gone there, had cost only about US$ 55,000. Then I asked him whether they could keep apart some money for starting an institute for Free Software. Nicolas responded by saying that that was the second good news. The same company had offered a million US dollars to start such a Centre! That was absolutely great!

We must have reached the airport around 4:30 pm and I had no problem in checking in. They allowed my small suitcase and my laptop bag to be taken in the cabin so that I wouldn't have to wait for the baggage in Dubai. The only problem was that I had to cart it around in Sao Paulo. I did not have to pay airport taxes because that was included in the ticket. So we finally said good bye and Nicolas said that we should meet again. I suggested that he organise a Free Software conference in Canada (where he was moving to in a couple of months). They had to go in a hurry because they had a meeting at 5 pm, and I walked in. I had about an hour to wait before the flight took off, which I spent mostly reading Freakonomics. Soon we were ushered into a Boeing 747 which took off as scheduled. And that was chau to Asuncion and Latin America.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Quito, Ecuador

Nothing much happened on 2nd, 3rd and 4th. We did go to a place where Lucho's friends were doing a podcast called Mango Podcast. There was a discussion about Free Software involving a few of Lucho's friends, Juan and me. One of them apparently thought that I was being misled by Lucho about the state of their country. But he did not raise the issue. He appeared only around the time we were closing the programme and asked me whether all companies are bad and why a company that was started with good intentions could not continue to be good. I told him that I have not seen companies making a lot of money without being unethical and that as the companies become big, they become powerful and corrupt. He said he was hoping that I was wrong and that a company could make money without being unethical. I told him that I too hoped that he is right, but that he will probably realise that his desire could not be true as he grew up. I said so because he looked very young. I learnt only later that he was 33! Of course, Juan was more direct and told him that 80% of what he said was crap and the remaining 20% he didn't hear :-) There was also a question about making money from Free Software and we (Juan and I) explained the model of providing service as a business. Juan told them that he was living from Free Software and also about how there are so many ways in which Free Software could help a person to live. As suggested by Charles Escobar, we went to a travel agency and booked our tickets to Quito.

We were taken to the airport by Lucho and Claudia (Lucho's wife) and seen off at 5:30 in the morning because the flight was at 7 pm. The flight was via Lima, Peru, where we had about an hour to spend. We arrived in Quito in the early afternoon and Charles was waiting for us. We were taken to his house (he drives a Lada car, the first one I have seen) where I slept for some time after food. We then went straight to Charles' place of work, the Israel University. From there, Juan and I were taken to the office of the National Union of School teachers, where they asked about the Kerala experience in using Free Software in education. They said that IT was not part of the education system and that the government was not giving much priority to education. They also said that they had had a detailed discussion about constructivism in education and decided that Vygotsky's system was better (they said "Levgotsky" but I guess they must have meant Vygotsky). They were interested to know how the system was implemented in Kerala and I told them that it may be possible to arrange for a discussion. I met Tatyana here, who translated my words into Spanish and what the others said in Spanish to me in English. And she did a very good job. One of the teachers there did video interviews with me and Juan for their website.

Quiliro Ordóñez from Ecuador had written to me and Juan asking about when we can meet, and we met him in the evening on our way back from the University. We had some food from a restaurant where I ate something that was like idli but slightly sweet and steamed or baked in a banana leaf. Another thing was wrapped in corn leaf (again steamed or baked) that came with a kind of chutney containing onion and chillies. This was the first time I was eating something spicy after coming to Latin America and it felt nice. But as a result we reached home very late and I was too tired to even try to log into the Internet.

Charles said that we had to leave early morning the next day (May 6th) because vehicles with registration numbers ending with a particular digit are banned on every day and this day he could not take his car into the city after 7 am. So we had to leave at about 6 pm. We went straight to Charles' office and from there we went with one of his students, Danillo Rojas, to a radio station for a discussion on Free Software. The radio station is run by a Socialist member of the National Assembly. His name is Paco Velasco and he is a supporter of Free Software. He himself anchored the show and he turned out to be a very bubbly character in the show (or, as Juan said, a very "electric" character). He was supported by another person who, I think, was the regular anchor for the programme. The show went on for one hour and four or five people called in, all of them supporting Free Software. Later, the Free Software activists here and Juan got several mails from people who had listened to the radio programme. It was a good success in that sense.

From the radio station we went to the Israel University where we had a short break with coffee and some snacks. And what was there in the plate of snacks? Surprise! Banana chips with onions and tomato! A very pleasant surprise indeed! We then went to an auditorium in the building where I gave a brief talk on Free Software for scientific data analysis and visualisation. It had to be very brief because we had to quickly go to the Army Polytechnic. This was a really interesting experience. Col. Sanchez, who was in charge of the Department of Electronics and Communication, invited us to give a seminar on the use of Free Software. Tatyana was with us and we learned that she worked in the institute. She was the person who took us around and organised the seminar. The hall was full and there were students standing. I again started with a Kathakali video and pictures of different parts of Kerala. Then I went on to explain how Kerala had migrated to Free Software and why only Free Software should be used in education and in the government. I said that Juan will explain the reason and what happened in Venezuela. Tatyana did a very good job of translating my speech once again. By the time Juan finished his speech, the conference had already been going on for about two hours and people were still standing. At one point of time, I had to mention about how the media is now very alert about the use of non-free software and how on a couple of occasions it made a noise when there were attempts to use non-free software. I was surprised by the big applause that followed.

Then they had a short coffee break and reassembled for the talk by Rafael. I thought most of the people would leave, but most of the audience was still there when Rafael started! This extent of interest apparently surprised even the faculty and authorities of the polytechnic because apparently no one used to sit for more than half an hour! Rafael spoke about the Elastix distribution for which he is working and explained how one can make a living out of working for Free Software. We were free for what remained of the day. Mario Albuja, who was there, invited us (Juan, Tatyana and me) to dinner and we went up the hill to a place that gave us a good view of the city. It was beautiful with all the lights. I talked about doing some studies about the schools, like the one I proposed in Paraguay, and they said that we can do. I hope it really happens.

On May 7th, we again went to the radio station, but I was there only for less than half an hour. I had to then go to a school where Quiliro had arranged a talk with a few teachers and students. I started with an introduction to Kerala and went on to speak about why Free Software should be used in schools. I started by asking what they would do if they got a packet of sweets. They said they would share it with everyone, and then I went on to the question about software. It turned out that neither the teachers nor the students used legal versions of Windows, and hence they were largely unaware of the legal issues related to copying proprietary software. Teachers were asking about Kerala, and how the state is different from the rest of India. A teacher asked me about what kind of software is used for teaching. I showed them things like Kalzium, Stellarium and Gcompris, and I think the students and the teachers were really excited. But Rafael Bonifaz was there soon telling me that we needed to go to some other place. I had to leave the place with the teachers and students apparently wanting to know more. I hope the local community would keep in touch with them.

The place we went to was the office of the Telecommunications Minister, Jaime Guerrero. He looked like a traditional Britisher, with a very impressive bearing. It was Juan who spoke most of the time. But the minister seemed to be impressed and we got to take a photograph with him. I did not understand what the Minister of Telecommunication had to do with Free Software, especially because we were talking mostly about education. I was told later that it was this ministry that supplied computers to the schools. I hope the minister was convinced about the need to give computers with Free Software to the schools, but I am not sure whether someone is going to give training in using the computers.

The next stop was at the office of the National Electoral Council. The head of the council (Director?) was present and there also I spoke about the importance of using Free Software especially for critical applications in the government. Juan spoke about the experience of Venezuela. The Director asked whether there were applications for specialised purposes like GIS and I explained about GRASS. But I did mention that there could be some specific areas where Free Software is not yet available. There were questions about Kerala and how the state had decided to migrate to Free Software. The impression we got when we left was that the doubts they had about using Free Software was largely removed.

Next we went to the Ministry of Education, where we met a small team who apparently are in charge of education. They consisted of teachers and technologists. We spoke about why Free Software is important for education and how Kerala migrated to Free Software. The interest in Free Software seemed to be low. They were saying that the country does not even have computers in all schools and that the major problem they were facing was in creating content. I said that I did not think textual and picture content in digital format was not the most important thing, and that the full potential of the digital technology could be exploited only with applications that allowed children to explore specific subjects or topics. One teacher asked what was the advantage of using Free Software other than the cost. I explained how we had localised GNU/Linux and how Windows was still not giving a desktop with Malayalam. But, apparently, they were not very much enthused. As we moved out of the hall where the meeting was conducted, a TV crew was waiting for an interview. They asked a few questions to me and a few to Juan. I don't remember exactly what they asked.

We then rushed to the Secretariat for Informatics which is headed by Mario. They had apparently been waiting for some time and they had food ready for us. They did a presentation about what they are doing to introduce Free Software in the government. They said that most of the servers were running Free Software, including some of the critical applications. Mario seemed to be taking pains to show us that they were really promoting Free Software in the government. But, apparently, many desktops were still running Windows. Since the discussion was mostly in English, I did not need an interpreter. Where needed, Juan did the job.

Our next stop was at the organisation in charge of "intellectual property" laws. The person in charge (Director?) explained that their stand was that IP laws were needed, and they had a positive role to play, but the legal system often distorted the laws to the advantage of companies and the disadvantage of the public. He said that they were working to make the IP laws more friendly to the consumers. Juan told him that IP laws should vanish, but the Director said that he believes that IP laws do help creators, and that it would be wonderful if people published their creative works under Free licences, but those who did not want to do so should have the freedom to do as they wished. I asked him about patents and the patenting of traditional knowledge. He said that other countries are taking traditional knowledge from here and the country was trying to get paid for it. And I replied that, as far as I was concerned, anyone was free to take the knowledge and use it but they cannot try to control the knowledge through patents or other such things. Juan and the Director agreed to disagree, but my stand was somewhere in the middle, though I never said so. I didn't need an interpreter here because the Director spoke good English.

We then went to Charles' institute, from where all of us (Charles, Juan, Quiliro and I) went to CIEEPI, which is an association of electrical and electronic engineers of Pichincha. Esteban also joined us at the University. The institute had arranged some food for us, which consisted of a salad. But I was not in a mood to eat cold food, and I did not eat. The discussions were mostly in Spanish with Juan speaking from our side. It appeared that they were interested in some kind of tie up with SPACE, but it was not clear to me what they were looking for. After the meeting, Charles, Juan, Esteban, Quiliro and I left for home. But then Quiliro suggested that we go to an old part of the city. We went to the top of a small peak Panecilo where there is a monument with a huge statue of Virgin Mary with wings looking at the city below. It was apparently built in Europe and transported here in pieces. The construction is said to have taken one hundred years, though it was installed only in the late 1990s. The place had several small shops selling curios, all of them run by natives. Some of the things were very intersting, but I didn't have any money to buy anything. Charles bought a keyring for me, which has a small leather thing attached to it. We also ate something that consisted of a cooked ear of corn with cheese. We also had a traditional drink which was available in two forms, with and without alcohol. I had the one without alcohol and it was sweet and nice. The television was showing a programme, interestingly, about India.

From there we went to an old part of the city with narrow streets and finally to a square with the President's palace on one side, an ancient cathedral on the second, a very old building that now houses the Majestic Hotel on the third and a new building housing the Municipal office on the fourth side. In the centre was a monument to the memory of the people who were killed during the war of independence with the Spanish. Apparently, half the population was killed by the Spanish and the leaders imprisoned. The local Spanish leaders needed permission from the Spanish government to kill the leaders. So the leaders were kept in prison for a year and then killed. The old buildings were really majestic, including the cathedral, and a sharp contrast to the monotonous modern buildings we see everywhere else. It was a real experience to be at a historic site where the first declaration of independence was signed in the Americas. Ecuador is, therefore, known as the Light of America for this reason. It was a fine end to a rather busy day and, as we returned, my mind was full of the sacrifice of thousands of people for the freedom of their countrymen and the cruelty that imperialist regimes meted out to them, including what the British did in India.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

OLPC, School for the Disabled and Interviews

The last two days we have been relatively free, though we were not idle. Yesterday, we went to a local organisation that was promoting OLPC in Paraguay. Their office was located in a rather posh house in an expensive locality. We met some young guys there who spoke good English and were apparently trained in Boston. One of them told us that he had been on IRC with Sayamindu Dasgupta just before we reached and apparently Sayamindu told him that I was in the country. Sayamindu was to join the group in Boston soon.

They talked about promoting OLPC here and evolving methods of using the machine to teach. They were also talking about Free hardware. As the discussions dragged on, it was getting to be time for lunch and all of us went to a restaurant. But we were supposed to go for a meeting on MMSL (the organisation that conducted the conference) at 2 pm and we quickly left, with the OLPC guys still enjoying their food. On the way, Juan and Lucho expressed their displeasure with the group because they appeared to be first world guys approaching the problem with a typical first world approach. Juan thought they were kind of undesirable and Lucho seemed to agree. Juan said that if this was how OLPC was being promoted here, we needed to push for another computer taking its place.

At the venue of the MMSL meeting, we found Nicolas (Cabellero and Pereira) and a new person who was to be the Director of Free Software for the Ministry of Education, Oswaldo Daniel Cruz Ramirez. Later, Gladys Canese, the President of MMSL, joined us. Nicolas Caballero introduced us to Oswaldo, who would be one of the people who would be coming to Kerala. He outlined the ideas the Ministry is pursuing and left us to discuss things with Oswaldo. Before a serious discussion could happen, Nicolas left us because he had some important and urgent work to finish. While we were discussing Oswaldo coming to Kerala and how he can prepare himself for the visit, Nicolas came again to introduce a journalist who had come to interview me.

The journalist, who turned out to be from Uruguay (Juan's country) was fluent with only Spanish and Juan had to interpret. There is nothing much to write about the interview because he asked only the usual questions and we all thought that he did a poor interview. After he left, I sat with Oswaldo and talked a few things about what he can read to prepare himself for coming to Kerala. I gave him my card and told him to send me a mail so that I could send him some links that would be useful. Nicolas and others were going to the Congress to present a proposal for digital television that can also help in education, and invited us to join. I declined though Juan was inclined to go, and we all came back home.

At home, I lay down and fell asleep. I was woken up by noises and was told that there were a couple of journalists to interview me for an online newspaper. The guy could speak good English, so it was much easier. He asked me a couple of good questions apart from the routine ones. He asked me whether I though that Free Software would become popular when there were so many proprietary software companies opposing it. I said that I was sure that it was only a question of time before Free Software becomes ubiquitous and he asked me how long I expected that to take. I said, I think, that I could not be sure but it may take maybe two years, maybe five. It was a short interview and he said that it would be published in about two or three days. I felt nervous after the interview because I had been asleep and was afraid that I might have said something that I should not have. But Juan said that I handled it well, and that the man was from a far right newspaper. In such interviews, I am always afraid that they may distort what I say and highlight something that was totally unintended. Hope that doesn't happen.

Today (May 1) we were mostly lazing around but for a visit to a school that teaches children with disabilities along with normal children. We were received by an elderly lady who was, as she said, working with a government school. She decided to start such a school after she retired. She said that she started with children with Down's syndrome but now had no such children in the school. They apparently had children with Dyslexia, Autism and physical handicaps. She said that she had got training for handling such children and she was the first to introduce inclusive education. All over the country, children with such challenges were taught separately. She showed some photographs of children apparently celebrating, but I couldn't see any physically disabled child in them. We couldn't see any special gadgets (wheel chairs, etc) for children with disabilities either. We also met her son and another young person who said they were involved in training and development in Mechatronics. Though I thought that the lady was doing very good work, later we had doubts whether they were really speaking the truth. I suggested that Lucho go there on a working day, if possible, and find out whether there really were physically or mentally challenged children there. I had talked to her about the school in Kolkata where such children were taught along with others, the only such school in India and she wanted to get in touch with them. I promised to send them the contact details. Later, Juan said that they were also apparently looking for money. That made me wonder what their intentions were. But Juan said that we will try to do something for them. I left it at that, hoping that Lucho will go there one day and see what exactly is happening.

The rest of the day was mostly idling and I slept a lot.