Thursday, July 17, 2008

Linux nerdery in the Caucasus

Once again, pictures attached. Reading on Facebook? Click Through. The captions are bound to look odd without the attached photos there.

It's been a while since I've had a substantive post, and for once I've got a good reason: I've been pretty busy. It's been really nice to be out of school for a good month now—given me time to work on other things on my own time.

First-ever Ninotsminda Region Linux Workshop
I've had a few secondary projects never really take off, and I'll be the first to admit that winter made me a barnacle out here (you've got no idea what getting sick every three weeks and not feeling your hands indoors will do to your work ethic – my only real secondary project became “mope in my room and listen to Ira Glass podcasts under a sleeping bag”). But in June one project finally took off and it was a surprising hit, for both me and the participants.

A little background: in the past year or so, the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science initiated a great program known as “Deer Leap,” with the goal of 'computerizing' Georgia's schools, from capital to village. I stole its objectives from a related website (second or third link on Google):

Deer Leap Project objectives:
  • to help local governments in developing IT infrastructure of schools, including support for establishment of Internet connections in schools;
  • to provide Georgian teachers with elementary computer skills, and guide them to use the opportunities provided by modern information technologies in teaching their subjects;
  • to support curriculum development with the assistance of an interactive learning environment promoting learning skills;
  • to encourage the creation of original software on Georgian language, culture, history, and nature in accordance with the National Curriculum;
  • to support schools in establishment of Internet connections.
In short, they're basically wiring the entire country, top to bottom, with new computers and internet to bring the schools into the twenty-first century. My school has yet to be wired to the net (they say this year, but the internet issue has been something of a վաղը, վաղը (mañana, mañana). Still, the computers are there and are waiting to be really best utilized. Understandably, this is one area where serving in Georgia as a teacher is an incredibly exciting time to be doing so.

I always joke that my story of the “old days” to my grandkids, as I sit in a rocking chair and whittle on a piece of wood while tounging my poorly-adhering dentures, will be “kids, let me tell you about the time they wired my middle school to the internet – these men came in with their fancy Apple computers and their network cable – no none of that fancy fiber optic hologram stuff you kids are all talking about, and what have you – we had Netscape Navigator, webcrawler, geocities and the likes that you saw on your trip to the museum – and if you wanted to download a dancing monkey “please wait” mouse pointer, you had to wait two hours – AND YOU LIKED IT!. Not as cool as the war stories and “uphill barefoot in snow both ways meet Susie at the malt shop before the sock hop” stories our grandparents tell, but I'm clinging to it. Now I get to relive this little moment in another country's educational history, and it's pretty cool. I get to even play a small part.

The one hitch in this otherwise simple tale of boring computer stuff is that the ministry (understandably) didn't want to fork over the additional $ million or so it would take to buy XP licenses for all these new rigs. They went another route: Ubuntu Linux. For those of you not familiar, Linux is a free operating system based on open source: the recipe for the entire thing is completely and freely available. What this means in the shortest explanation possible is that it is free to use and free to adapt. I'm a personal huge fan of this approach, but it's even better for developing countries, as money otherwise spent on the licenses can go to something else also important for the schools' improvements (we lack books, for example).

Even more importantly, a major project with Ubuntu is localization: the open-ness of the code makes translating the entire interface into the most rarely-used of languages basically just a question of finding people who speak the language and know how to code – no reverse engineering needed or breaking patents. It's all there. There's currently a team in Tbilisi translating the whole OS into Georgian, something you'll never see from Microsoft. While the Georgian isn't 100% done yet, virtually every app, large to small, is already available in Russian at least, so this works great in no-English environments.

Finally, viruses (trojans, better put) run amok here on people's pendrives (everyone's got one, they're almost jewlery around people's necks) and anti virus apps are rare to be found on people's computers, let alone virtually non-existent internet to update the AV databases. So it's usually a complete mess on any computer, which understandably hinders productivity. Linux OSs benefit from a rarity of viruses written to attack them, and a system much more resistant to them, out of the box. My laptop is running Ubuntu and I don't even have an AV installed, this after having to reformat at least three times due to some awful trojan that got past my AV on Windows before I just said “F it, I'll be running Lin for the next two years”. Actually, I'm enjoying the switch.

The only problem with this is that NOBODY here knows how to run these computers running Ubuntu, and they unfortunately come with a much steeper learning curve than Windows. This became painfully clear when my host mother, the regional director of the Educational Resource Center, requested some invoices from the regional schools, simple excel spreadsheets – and we received back piles of headaches: empty floppies and CD-Rs; the template returned as sent, no information saved to it; in one case we got a .jpg file back, a screenshot of the filled in spreadsheet, as the computer operator couldn't figure out how to “save as” or how to print. In one school in a nearby village, their Deer Leap computers collected dust in the box, because the operator couldn't figure out how to log in.

Ryder doin' his thing.
Please note the bags under his eyes :)
So, training was needed. Enter the geek.

I never really actively used Linux until I came here, but I did waste lots of time in college and high school screwing around on it. That seeming waste of time then paid off here marvelously. When I got to Georgia and heard about all this crazy open source software stuff, I decided to get myself up to speed, as eventually I could do something with this in my site. It all culminated last month, with a weekend training workshop, the first of several we'll do, to get the schools ready to use these computers in the classroom and the admin office for the upcoming school year. The goal this first time around was the administrative side and basic operation.

My host father, in addition to being a dentist, runs his own NGO, in Russian “Здравое Общество Джавахети”, unfortunately officially translated to English as “The Sane Population of Javakheti” (really should have been 'sound'... he went to register it a frustrating month before I arrived and could have proofread the translation. Oh well). The org is focused in public health and education, a pretty broad sector nicely tied up with the slogan, “Soundness of the body is found through health; soundness of the mind – through knowledge.” So, he financed the trainings through the NGO as an official Sane Population project to improve the outcomes of the ministry providing these school computers, as well as serving as my language wingman (though I taught it in Russian and was confident in my ability to basically pull it off, there were inevitably going to be those times when I'd end up saying “to log in to the washing machine, just enter your tomato on the password crate” -- so he was there for polyglot damage control.

Computer operators hard at work

We invited in from the village schools each of the computer “operators” -- we'd probably just call them “the computer guys” to this first training. Interestingly, out here, since 90% of the staff of any Georgian school is female, the vast majority of our “computer guys” were actually, indeed, “computer ladies.” So for me, this hit me that these trainings will be also providing vital real job skills for young women in the regions, killing two of my birds here with one stone.

I will say right now it was an enormously stressful 5 day period, prepping and actually running this workshop, as without fast internet, you're always going to come across that one missing driver file or program the computers will need, or the Russian menus aren't on this one, or this one won't burn CDs - I was up at the Resource Center until sunup 2 days getting everything set up, and of course I still ran into a few embarrassing bugs or general showstopping problems, broadcast right on the projector screen for all to see.

One of the frustrating moments:
Ryder wigs out and types in Georgian GOD

An interesting upshot of being up that late under exceedingly annoying circumstances with my host dad, is that it was yet another bonding moment for us. He saw how much of myself I was putting into making this work well, and I think he really appreciated the effort. We shared a few slightly off our rocker laughs, like the morning at 6 am, just driving back home to get a few hours of sleep, we had been out of cigarettes for a good 6 hours and slowly stalked the streets in his '80's Lada looking for a smoker with a pack to bum off of “... nope, he quit in '95... nope not a smoker... nope... wait, what, Ryder jan, that's a babushka...”

But was it a success? Absolutely. Fifteen operators arrived on the first day airing their complaints over this “unusable” operating system, complaining that the “government didn't bother to buy anything of quality” and left realizing that though it's a little tricky, it is capable of doing EVERYTHING they need to do in an office and school environment, and can do it without violating copyright laws, and without contracting viruses, and can now confident in their knowing how to take care of business on these machines. This was a classic Peace Corps project – used minimal resources, utilized assets already found in the community, and was really just about knowledge transfer.

The next step, I hope, is getting in the teachers – a training of trainers kind of thing, focused on not how to use Linux, but how to teach it in the classroom; how to transfer what knowledge local students have of Windows over to Linux.

After that, I'd like to open them up to the general public, and really focus on providing basic office computing skills to locals, especially young women, perhaps mimicing this great organization I'm familiar with back home that teaches such skills (typing, resume writing, etc) to single mothers trying to (re-)enter the workforce after missing out on the “computer revolution.”

In the short run, though, I dare say we just created 15 new computer geeks out in the Caucasus. They were so happy and thankful, Aghas and I received several invitations to go with them to the Black Sea in a group on vacation. Kind of a strange offer, but, hey I'm proud of myself.

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