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Today is Ada Lovelace Day (www.findingada.com), which marks the contributions of women in technology. I was one of the thousands of bloggers worldwide to pledge to write something about women in tech, and I figured the best way to do this was to combine my interest in IT with my translation activities.

The following text is just lovely. It comes from a Czech website called Zkus IT [Try IT], and it is a profile of a truly remarkable woman, Zdena Rábová, who was one of the key figures in the development of the Czech IT sector overall. The text was written by Prof. Ing. Jan M. Honzík, CSc., and the translation is mine.

Zdena RabovaDoc. Ing. Zdena Rábová, CSc. is among the unequalled personalities not only at the Faculty of Information Technology, where she worked, but in technical university education overall. She took part in the creation and development of an independent computer sector in the Czech Republic as well as in the creation of all study plans and programs in the software sector. She was the founder of the Brno School of Simulation and was among the leading experts in this area in the entire country.

Doc. Zdena Rábová was born on 17 December 1936 12. to a family that included the successful and forward-thinking pharmacist and businessman PhMr. Merlíček and his wife, a music teacher with the maiden name of Šašková, who came from Velké Meziříčí and came from a family owning a well-known printing house, whose report card forms decorate quite a few family archives.

She spent most of her childhood and youth with her three siblings, older brother Janek and younger Mika and in the enlightened environment of Ivančice. While the Communist totalitarian regime imprisoned her father, Zdena’s evident talent overcame various obstacles. In 1955 she graduated from the Jan Blahoslav secondary school and managed to begin university studies at the building faculty at the Technical University of Brno [VUT in the Czech abbreviation], even though it was not her intended field of study.

She finished the Technical University in Brno in 1960, and in 1963 started to become interested in a new field – programming numeric computers. She began her expert career in computers under the leadership of Prof. Drahoňovský at the building faculty, where she attended programming courses on the LGP 30 computer at the Computer Equipment Laboratory at VUT Brno.

On 2 February 1965, she was accepted at the computer institute of the Electrotechnical Faculty at VUT Brno. After building the laboratory with an MSP-2A computer, I was one of four young graduates who became her students. We made up her “study group,” and under her leadership we gained the first teaching, publication and scientific research experience. She made an indelible impression on the development of our human and expert profiles, and in neverending discussions and disputes many new conceptual ideas were born, especially in the areas of programming, programming languages and simulations.

The founder of the Brno School of Simulation
The workshop which bore the seal of her leadership was also the birthplace of the first Eastern European language translator, Algol 60, as well as the first texts on the Pascal language, and a number of original tools, projects and publications. She was the founder of the Brno School of Simulation and was among the leading experts in this area in the entire country. She led the Programming and Simulation Group for 20 years. She focused her scientific and expert work on areas of simulation languages and their translators.

She successfully defended her candidate dissertation work, “Simulation of Discrete Systems,” in 1975. She presented her inaugural dissertation, “Abstract and Simulation Models of Dynamic Systems,” in 1978, and was named and established as a docent [senior lecturer] in 1980. She was the author and co-author of 18 papers, and dozens of doctoral graduates, docents, three professors and one priest with scientific honors emerged under her scientific leadership. Under her “raising,” two professors achieved the position of dean.
Her deep expert knowledge, connected with an unerring intuition, deeply influenced the workplace from which the Faculty of Information Technology was created, especially in the personnel and structural development. She held the lion’s share of the leadership of the new Institute of Intelligent Systems.

The MSP-2A computerThe MSP-2A computer (Photo by Hana Mahlerová, VÚMS)

For more than three decades she was involved in organizing contests of students’ creative activities which due to her maintained their continuity – and were some of the few to do so – even in the ferment of the early 1990s.

Doc. Rábová was an exemplary engineer who, through her humility, systematic approach, self-criticism as well as her refined abilities in written expression, helped the scientific and educational careers of many young engineers. Her sensitive human approach greatly cultivated the majority of her male counterparts.
She had all the attributes of a professor, but never made an effort to attain that title. No office I know has had or has such magic as the unique information center that was Zdena’s office. No one was left waiting at her door, and her quasi-parallel method of “serving” colleagues who happened to be sitting with her in meetings or on visits, as well as students who had just knocked on her door, was truly above standard and unorthodox.

Zdena’s human dimension has taken on nearly a cult dimension. She is a symbol of hard work, honor, humility and at the same time taking care of the success or problems of others. Zdena was always willing to do work for others or to correct their shoddy goods. Her conversations never had the word “I” in them connected with her personally, her interests or needs, and she said “thank you” to those who themselves should have thanked her.

I admired her natural womanly ability and intuition to find solutions where the rest of us would not have looked. Her sense of humor, modest behavior and unsentimentality were proverbial. These expressions came out especially boldly in the period after the start of her serious illness. She never complained, and her first wish was to get back to work, to her office, to her table. When it was really bad, here was how she answered the question of how she was doing: “It’s awful, but they’re giving me something so that I can come into work.”
She died at age 69, in the middle of all her work, on 18 May 2006 in Brno. It wasn’t just her beloved family, her husband and important mathematician Miloš Ráb (†2007), her daughter Milena and grandchildren Verunka and Miloš who lost a great figure in Docent Rábová – it was her institute, her faculty, the school and the Czech academic community.

Prof. Ing. Jan M. Honzík, CSc.

About a month ago I got an email from a friend who said something to the essence of ‘I have no idea what the music you’re playing sounds like, but judging from the names it sounds pretty exotic.’ So following the lead of folks like Matt Welch, who’s been doing some wonderful video blogging for quite some time, here are a few videos from songs that have been rocking my world – and my Radio 1 playlists – recently.

Here’s Bebel Gilberto’s new single, “Momento”:

And here’s Cibelle’s “Esplendor:”

Here’s a fan video combining Caetano Veloso’s craaaazy cover version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” with footage of the Gloved One hisself:

I couldn’t find a video Luis Bonfa performing “Seringueira,” which I played this week, but here’s a video of Luis Bonfa doing “Sambolero” and “Tenderly,” both of which show what an amazing guitarist he was:

Here’s Koop’s “I See A Different You”:

Because my show is on early on Saturday mornings, there isn’t so much of the stuff that is of the butt-shaking, booty-thumping variety. Hopefully I’ll get to some of those in future posts.

Over the weekend I got an email from my friend and colleague Sahr Gborie in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I’m taking the liberty of reprinting it here, as I think it’s a particularly strong idea, one that could potentially save lives. Here’s what Sahr wrote:

We all carry our mobile phones with hundreds of names/ numbers stored in its memory or SIM cards but yet nobody, other than ourselves, knows which of these numbers belong to our near and dear ones?

ICE: In Case of Emergency

In case we are involved in an accident or had a heart attack and the people attending us get hold of our mobile phone but don’t know which number to call to inform our family members. Yes, there are many numbers stored but which one is the contact person in case of an emergency?

For this reason, we must have one or more telephone numbers stored under the name ICE (In case of Emergency) in our mobile phones.

Recently, the concept of “ICE” is catching up quickly. It is simple, an important method of contact during emergency situations.

As cell phones are carried by majority of the population, just store the number of a contact person or person who should be contacted at during emergency as ICE” (meaning In Case of Emergency).

The idea was thought up by Sierra eRiders staff traveling up county who found that when they went to the scenes of accidents along the road, there were always mobile phones with patients, but people in the scenes didn’t know which number to call.

In an emergency situation, Emergency Service personnel and hospital staff would then be able to quickly contact your next of kin, by simply dialing the number stored as “ICE”.

We therefore thought that it would be a good idea if all staff members in your organization are sensitize that will later share the ideas with their families, then the entire country will aware of the ICE concepts.

It really could save your life, mine and others, or put a loved one’s mind at
rest.

For more than one contact name lets staff members simply enter ICE1, ICE2 and
ICE3 etc.

This is a great idea that will make a difference!

Yours faithfully,

…………………
Sahr F. Gborie
Project Coordinator

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with Valleywag, the supposedly-successful Jason Calacanis, founder of Weblogs, Inc., made one of his typically smartass remarks about a good friend of mine, Henry Copeland of blogads:

Q. So, poor Henry Copeland [of Blogads]. You’re finally coming after him.

A. That’s like Michael Jordan going after a 12-year old in a game of 1-on-1.

Even if Henry wasn’t a good a good friend of mine, that remark still would have come across as snide and stupid.

Now, finally, Henry finally calls Calacanis out:

Now Jason has departed AOL and is entrepreneur in residence at Sequoia Capital. Should I be wary of Jason? Absolutely. He’s had five years to study our business and has a excellent track record of “borrowing” good ideas/people, whether from Gawker or Digg. He’s sitting in the offices of a VC who backed Yahoo, Apple and Youtube. Even a midget can jam the ball if he has a ten-foot ladder. So I won’t make predictions about the future.

But let’s talk about the key performance metric. Does Jason want to put his big money where his bigger mouth is? I’ll wager $10,000 that in 2006 Blogads earned more for bloggers than did WIN. After all, blogger earnings is the true measure of a blog business, right?

What kind of odds would Michael Jordan give a twelve-year-old in a game of 1-on-1? A million to 1? Maybe 10,000 to 1… with the MJ blindfolded and his shoes tied together?

Well, this twelve-year-old would be happy with 10 to 1 odds, Jason’s $100K to my $10K. If those odds make Jason queazy, I’d be happy to discuss something gentler.

I think somebody’s bubble just got popped.

In case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to these past few weeks, I’ve been busy talking to the media about our Campcaster software and the various implementation projects we’re using it on.

I’ve been interviewed about Campcaster for a few different media outlets in the past couple of weeks, and figured I’d provide links to the articles here:

Now the task is a lot harder, but also a lot of fun: getting radio stations in the developed world interested in using and extending Campcaster, and getting other open source developers interested in extending it.

The new ‘Radio Package’ release with combined Campcaster/Campsite interoperability should be ready in a few days. I’ll let you know when it’s out of the oven.

I’ve just finished an interview with Gareth Mitchell of the BBC World Service program “Digital Planet” about Campcaster and its deployment in Sierra Leone. The interview also featured my friend and colleague in Freetown, Sahr Gborie, of the Sierra e-Riders.
The interview will air in Prague on Tuesday, 9 January, on the BBC World Service at 17:30 CET and 20:30 CET, and Wednesday, 10 January at 1:30 CET. You can also download the podcast at the Digital Planet web page.

Gareth Mitchell, by the way, is a really nice guy. I’m a fan of his program, and I only wish we had more time to chat.

The days in Freetown were hectic, filled with lots of work combined with lots of waiting in traffic to get from one side of town to the other. Traffic was pretty bad, with a strangely functional form of chaos governing things. In the traffic, people selling random stuff – tube socks, flashlights, bathroom fixtures, and the ubiquitous mobile phone top-up cards for the 5 mobile operators in Freetown – kept walking by in a never-ending procession.
Campcaster has its first confirmed installation, at Radio Mount Aureol, a college radio station run by Fourah Bay College on a high hill overlooking the city. With myself and Campcaster developer Ferenc Gerlits watching, the Sierra e-Riders successfully set up the PC and installed Campcaster with no complications.

Because training was an important part of this visit, we were careful to make sure we weren’t just doing all the work, so the e-Riders “drove the mouse” on the vast majority of things.

Together we installed and set up the Campcaster network hub – which lets radio stations exchange program content – at the offices of the Cornet radio network. The stations are set to be linked via wi-fi in the next few days and weeks, and then Cornet will be truly on the air.

We’ve spent a lot of time testing and trying out various scenarios, but there are always things that you can’t anticipate. For us, one of the big ones was that the PC we were going to install to was full to the last gig with sound files, so we spent half a day on a trip to get a new one to add on. With the hard disk in place the install of Ubuntu and Campcaster went smooth as silk.

This was my second trip to Freetown in three months, so many things were familiar this time – the warmth, wit and resourcefulness of the people especially come to mind. My hosts and partners in Freetown – the Sierra e-Riders and the Cornet radio network – really impressed me with their persistence and ability to Get Things Done.

The grinding poverty is everywhere, and it informs almost all aspects of everyday life. With no electricity, generators are the only source of electrical power, but only for those who can afford both the generator and the gas to run one. The water only runs sporadically, so most people keep buckets next to their sinks to use as a backup.

They’re big problems, and I got no indication that they were going to be solved any time soon. But what continues to impress me is how adaptable Freetonians are to changing circumstances, and how they manage to keep things going.

Before we knew it, our time in Freetown was up, and it was time to board the helicopter that carries passengers over the large bay to the airport on the other side. The helicopter ride is a unique experience – a Soviet era Mi-8 that’s been put into use ferrying passengers instead of soldiers – and its pilots are from somewhere in the former Soviet Union (Russia? Ukraine?).

I uploaded video of the flight to YouTube, but for some reason my WordPress doesn’t like the embedded video thingy. Here’s the link.

You may have wondered what I’ve been up to lately and why, even for this blog, there has been such a prolonged radio silence.

In fact, the cause of so much ‘dead air’ has been the work necessary to complete our latest software release, Campcaster 1.1 “Freetown.” We released “Freetown” this week, after a painstaking round of bug catching, optimizations and bug fixing.
Today (Saturday) I’m headed back to Freetown, Sierra Leone via Dakar, Senegal.

Now that the software is finished, we get to the fun and difficult part – getting the software to community radio stations throughout Sierra Leone. The actual installation will be handled by my colleagues, the Sierra e-Riders, so our contribution will be to train the trainers.

Believe me, anticipating problems with the software, the hardware, and the users before they happen is _really_ hard.
Over at her blog, Janet Haven says we’ll kick her in the shins for saying that developing software is the easy part. She says,

“The harder part of software for the non-profit sector is deployment within the civil society organizations that needs it, and making sure that staff members have appropriate hardware, training, connectivity, electricity, ongoing support, and access to upgrades and bugfixes.”

She’s right. My only quibble is that what we’re doing isn’t just making any old basic software. We’re unique in that we create tools, and those tools are by and for the sector we work in. When a tool doesn’t exist, and we see a need – an itch that can be scratched, to use the old Free Software term – we create the tool to address the need.

Because of that specialization, what we do is a little different from deploying general tools like OpenOffice or Firefox.

But I get the point: You could have great software, but it means nothing without the ‘infrastructure’ necessary to run it, maintain the computers it runs on, have connectivity and electricity, etc.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited and honored to be working with some of the people who are doing a lot of that hard work – the e-riders – who really Get Things Done.

Expect more posts from me in the next few days from West Africa.

I’m headed to Brussels tomorrow to take part in the Euro Foo Camp event, which should be a blast. It’s my first time at such an event, so I really don’t know what to expect, but am ready for almost anything. I understand that at one of these Foo Camp events in California they took apart a Toyota Prius just to see how it worked. That’s pretty cool stuff.

After Foo Camp, I’ll be attending and presenting at O’Reilly’s European Open Source Conference (Euro OSCON). My talk is titled “The Campware Initiative: Free Software for Free Media in Developing Countries.” I get to talk about all the interesting work my team has been doing in not only promoting existing open source software all over the globe, but in creating applications and communities where none existed before

Plus I get to demo LiveSupport 1.1 “Freetown,” which should be at least interesting because my old and increasingly cranky VAIO notebook is giving me fits these days.

Many thanks to Jeffrey McManus for putting me in touch with the O’Reilly folks. And speaking of Jeffrey, you should definitely go and check out the work he’s been doing with Approver.com, his new startup. Approver is a web service that takes care of something that gives most organizations and workgroups fits, namely that they have a hard time keeping track of who’s approved which version of a document. Approver is easy-to-use, well-thought-out, and quite powerful. I’m telling all my friends and colleagues about it. (Disclosure: Jeff’s a good friend from Back in the Day and I’ve been helping him beta test Approver, as well as giving him suggestions on how to improve various aspects of it.)

Aside from EuroOSCON and Foo Camp, Campware is definitely raising its profile these days. My colleague and Campware’s leader, Sava Tatić, was interviewed on this week’s LUGRadio show, which was very cool indeed. Download the show now.

Partially it’s the nature of geeks to want to keep a low profile until one comes up with something really, really good. And it’s partially for this reason that Campware has had a relatively low profile among the Free Software community. (It’s also partially because for some of the projects we work on, keeping a low profile is sometimes better due to political considerations). But we think we’ve got some pretty good stuff these days, and we definitely need to work on our outreach to the free/libre/open source community.

I’ll be in Brussels all next week, which will mean no Radio 1 show next Saturday 😦 But I am working on a new mix, and will drop that on an unsuspecting world when the time is right.

I got back into Dakar late last night, safe and sound, after waiting around the airport in Freetown because my plane was delayed for nearly 7 hours. I thought I would miss my connecting flight in Banjul, Gambia, but as it turns out, happily, there was an error in the computer system, and my flight happened to be scheduled for the evening anyway.

There was a delay because of severe thunderstorms (and when you talk severe thunderstorms, you should check out the severe thunderstorms West Africa gets in the rainy season), so that just meant I had a little more time to knock back a couple of local “JacBrew” beers at the airport bar.

I’m safe and sound in Dakar, and after getting back from the airport and having a shower, I went to a wonderful outdoor restaurant/music club, where I had some nice shrimp curry washed down with the local Flag” beer and caught a gig by the internationally-known Senegalese musician Cheikh Lo.

Dakar kicks ass. It’s beautiful, cosmopolitan, safe, there’s an infrastructure, and the people are super-friendly. I’m really going to enjoy this leg of the trip, which lasts for four more days.

I had a couple of long delays, so while waiting in Freetown and Banjul for my connecting flights, I managed to write out these blog posts on paper (man, imagine that!):

Cell phones in Freetown

One of the most surprising things to me about Freetown was the ubiquity of mobile phones. They’re everywhere! One estimate I heard was that half of Freetown – something like 600 thousand people – has one. As in other places, Freetown has its ‘mobile girls,’ young women who, thanks to mobiles, are always on the go, planning parties or the night’s events.

Many people have multiple phones – one each for the top three operators – and use phones imported from Europe that are then unblocked if they’re tied to a single European operator. The street finds its own use for things, William Gibson says.

The presence of cheap telephony here, as elsewhere, meant a huge increase in convenience. Before, to make an international call, people used to have to travel downtown to the central telephone office, waking up early to get a good spot in the line to make a call.

There are 5 mobile operators in Freetown. One is South African-owned, two or three are Lebanese-owned (two are even run by competing brothers), and one is Sierra Leonian-owned, but backed by Chinese investors. There’s even a new service selling ringtones. One provider, Comium, offers free ringtones as a unique selling point of their service.

Mobiles are now thoroughly a part of life in Freetown. My taxi driver, an old gruff man proud of his sixty years, had three stowed in various pockets around the car.

The tot-tot

Another thing that caught my eye traveling around Freetown were the vans that serve as semi-public transport, called ‘tot-tots’. Every tot-tot is painted with slogans, some advertising their Christian or Muslim faith, with slogans like “Allah is One” or “The Lord is Almighty.” One even had “Nasrallah” written on his. Go figure.

But before you go getting the wrong impression, relations between religions are for the most part harmonious, thanks in part to a history of religious tolerance that has more or less held up till now.

The tot-tots are run by sole proprietors, but they have ambitious names, such as when an operator uses his last name, followed by “Tours.” So you have “Smith Tours” and so on. The tot-tots are always full and are slower than regular taxis because everyone has to get off at different locations.

Taxis are done a bit differently here too. The taxi driver will usually stop to pick you up, but will also pick up additional fares as well, so that unless you pay the driver extra – like many foreigners, or was that just me? – expect to be smashed in, 5 to a small Nissan Sunny.

Sssss!

West Africans use “sssss!” to get your attention. I found this out while waiting for the helicopter after arriving. When I tried to take a picture of the Soviet Mi-8 military helicopters used by Paramount Airlines to ferry passengers between the airport and downtown, an old woman made the “sssss!” sound and told me “no pictures!” Eager not to break any cultural taboos, I was careful for the rest of the trip to always ask before taking pictures of anything.

You can hail a cab with “sssss!” You can call a waitress with “ssssss!” I didn’t, though, because for one thing, coming from me I’d probably mess it up, and it also seemed kind of heavy-handed for a foreigner to be doing it.

Poverty and power

Yes, of course, Freetown is poor. Astoundingly poor. And there are amputee beggars that congregate around the places people frequent, especially people with money. But far more hopeful to me was to see how many micro-businesses there are. Streets are packed with stalls offering anything and everything: mobile phone top-up cards, shoes, cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, you name it.

People hustle to get by. Everybody works hard, and one of the striking things was, in the face of such conditions, how clean everyone’s clothes were. (This of course is being said by someone who looked rumpled and sweaty even getting on the plane in Prague). To quote Stevie Wonder in “Living for the City,” his shirts are old, but never are they dirty.

One thing others have pointed out about living in poor areas – even in the U.S. – is that it’s ironically much more expensive to live there. Take generators in Freetown as an example. Because there’s no electricity grid, everyone who uses a generator has to buy gas or diesel for it, which costs around $5 per gallon. Our generator used about 2 gallons a day, so for electricity alone on working days, the e-riders have to pay around $200 per month. I can’t recall exactly what my last electricity bill was, but I’d venture to say it was around $50.

The phenomena of mobiles, lack of electricity and hustle have combined in the so-called “telecenter” in Freetown. These are usually shacks that sell both top-up cards and mobile phone charging. So even if you don’t have a generator, you can still keep your mobile phone working.

The lack of electricity also lends itself to frustration about the political situation. I heard from a couple of different people that Freetown would have electricity from the grid if it weren’t being diverted instead to power the mineral extraction equipment elsewhere. Can I vouch for that? Of course not.

There’s a big hydroelectric plant that’s supposed to come online in 2007, but many are skeptical as to whether it’ll be finished on time (it’s been under construction, on and off, since the 1970s).

What gives me hope?

The simple fact that despite all the obstacles, people somehow manage to get on with the details of their lives, and that for me is probably the thing that leaves me feeling most hopeful after being here. People in Freetown are very good at coping, and I got the distinct impression that they’re going to muddle through, just as anybody would.

Could they use some help? Absolutely. But there’s a difference between giving a hand and giving a handout. I asked once about the growing presence of the Chinese here, and the answer I got was: The Chinese are here to do business with us, and that’s good. We don’t need more charity aid. We need a stronger economy.

I’m hopeful when I see people like the e-Riders, guys who otherwise would be working for a multinational or for a government ministry, but who are instead putting their ICT skills to use to help other organizations. They’re sharp and committed, and know what’s up. Case in point: When I started to give my spiel about Ubuntu and the Ubuntu philosophy, they interrupted me with: “Yeah, we got to meet Mark Shuttleworth at the Africa Source conference in Uganda earlier this year.”

I expected to come to Freetown to give an introduction to Ubuntu, the open-source approach and all that, but they were really looking for a refresher course. So of course that helped us get to speed.

The first Software Freedom Day in Sierra Leone, as organized by the Sierra e-Riders and other organizations, is scheduled for September 16, 2006.