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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.

Over at the Free Software and Open Source for Africa website, they’ve put up the opening remarks by Ghanaian Communications Minister Mike Ocquaye kicking off last week’s MediaFOSS event. The speech had me cheering, and it’s comments like this that give me great hope for the future of Free Software in Africa:

“The seeds of freedom must be nurtured. Ghana has a pivotal role in FOSS, in the use of ICT for the development of a true and sustainable Information Society in Africa. We will champion excellence. We will champion, freedom, we will champion Free Software and Open Source Solutions.”

Coming from a cabinet-level official, this is great news indeed.

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.

Wooooooo!

The BBC News website has an article drawing on the Digital Planet interview I did last week. You can get it here.

I’m so stoked that I’m even prepared to forgive ’em the misspelling of my name… 😉

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.

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 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.

There’s a massive downpour going on outside my hotel room right now. In the US, this would merit wall-to-wall coverage from StormCenter Action 6 or whatever, but in Freetown, it’s simply taken as a part of the rainy season.

To give an idea of how hard it’s coming down: the satellite reception is stalling because there are too many raindrops in the way between the dish and the satellite.

Today, while driving up to Citizen FM, I found out that the hill they’re situated on is called “Thunder Hill” because of the massive thunderstorms that happen in October.

Citizen FM was inspiring to visit. It’s a community radio station in one of the poorest parts of Freetown, a district called Kissy, in the east of the city, where more than 700,000 live in what is essentially a shanty district. Citizen FM is very popular here – on the drive in, every stall had their radios tuned there – and they make it a point of being by and for the community.

I got to visit with David Tam-Baryoh, the station’s director, who explained that their studios are equipped only with things they’ve bought themselves – there must have been 8 old cassette players around.

But that didn’t stop the set of DJ Nice, a regular winner of the station’s weekly best-DJ competitions, who was playing a buttery set of West African hip-hop.

Citizen FM's DJ Nice

It rained all day today, just as yesterday. But it’s a hot rain, and what’s worse is when it stops, because it leaves you drenched in sweat. My hands stuck to the keyboard, for example.

When the rain stops, though, the mosquitoes come in. I’m still paranoid about them, and worried about malaria. So tonight I pulled out my mosquito repellent and offered some to my colleagues. They all laughed and said: “That won’t work on us. We’re African.”

I was really relieved and happy tonight to get the LiveSupport installations completed today. It really wasn’t a sure thing, given the number of potential complications that could have come up – gas in the generator being one of them – but it turned out fine.

It was really cool watching my colleagues’ excitement as they started to make their practice broadcasts – we’re only broadcasting in a radius of maybe 50 meters at best – but it’s becoming real to all of us that this LiveSupport project, which began three years ago, is about to bring about a major shift for community radio, starting here.

After disembarking at Freetown’s airport, one of the first questions you’re asked is ‘Are you traveling by helicopter?’ And, if you’re like most foreign visitors, the answer is probably ‘yes.’


There’s a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter that ferries passengers between the airport, which is situated on the other side of a wide river bay, and Freetown’s downtown. The helicopter is even piloted by Russians. And as if that wasn’t cool enough, they left most of the porthole windows open to keep cool in the hot, sticky heat.

Today I’m in the offices of the Sierra e-Riders in Freetown, Sierra Leone, practicing installations of Ubuntu Linux and helping them to get ready to install it in other places, to troubleshoot potential problems, and to lay the groundwork to install our LiveSupport software in community radio stations around the country.

It’s important to get an idea of the amount of complications such a task can face in a place like Freetown. Doing anything becomes pretty complicated. For one thing, there’s no electricity grid to speak of, so everything that needs electric power needs its own generator. I found this out because in the middle of partitioning disks, our generator ran out of gas. We were out of commission until a neighborhood boy, Salia, maybe 10 years old, could run to the local petrol station with a full 5-gallon can. He returned, the generator started, and luckily the disks weren’t wrecked in the process.


There is a cacophony outside the office’s window: The drone of the generator, the screams of an angry woman, a crying baby, a hundred discussions in the neighboring tin sheds, and floating above it all, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque.

We’re in the rainy season now, and the downpours are strong. When they happen, the red dirt road in front of the e-Riders’ office turns to mud, and it would get tracked into the office if another neighborhood boy wasn’t hired to periodically sweep and mop the floor.

It’s the next morning and it’s raining again. The generator isn’t running, and the UPS unit is beeping insistently like an EKG. We’re going to continue our work with Linux installs today, getting more familiar with the terminal environment and working our way up to a LiveSupport installation. The boy with the diesel canister just came in, so I guess that means we’ll be starting up again.

I’m about to head to the airport, where I’ll fly to Dakar via Paris tonight and then tomorrow to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

I’m heading to Freetown to lead a training with local community radio representatives and their support team on the new version of our free and open source software for managing radio broadcasts, LiveSupport 1.1 “Freetown” (hence the name).

I’m bringing lots of free copies of Ubuntu Linux, and more cables than a roadie for Boston. And batteries. Lots of batteries.
Things are looking good, and connectivity willing, I’ll be able to continue posting from there.