Thoughts from the last few weeks

I’ve had a lot of time to think, and wanted to put down some of the stuff I came up with in the last few weeks. Here’s a rather disorganized ramble of stuff.

Guatemaltan Engineering

Guatemalan engineering is remarkably similar to Senegalese engineering. I think this stems from a basic prinicple at work in poor places, which is do it just well enough to get the job done, and cheaply as the job will tolerate. This is a common reaction sharp humans have all over the world, but in less developed economies, the handicraft of the clever engineers is somehow more on display.

When I say “engineers” here, I mean, “the people that make a place work”. They don’t need formal training, just the gut instinct for building new things and fixing old ones. In both Senegal and Guatemala, I have seen things that were clearly carefully designed by a highly trained professional. But much more often what you see is a small repetoir of repeated techniques using common materials.

For instance, Guatemalan electrical wiring is not exactly up to code. But it works reliably. Usually, the insulated wires are all exposed and you can see how it works. Connections are twisted and taped. There’s a small selection of wall-mountable switches, plugs, and light sockets at the ferreteria. (No, you don’t get ferrets there. It’s a hardware store.) They put them together into simple circuits that get the job done. An entire marketplace of stalls popped up on the beach for Semana Santa overnight. Several had music playing and cold beers. Turns out someone had run a line 200 meters or so down the hill from the nearest house and hacked together a little power network down there for the weekend. The next day, another place popped up further down the beach playing music. It had tapped into the same line running down the hill. They probably did it live, for all I know. The simplest thing that works, which in this case was an ad-hoc power distribution system for the weekend.

I suppose they have fires from time to time from this less than perfect electrical engineering. But their houses are made of concrete, and there are constantly little fires by the side of the road to burn trash and leaves, so a little fire from the ad-hoc beach power network probably wouldn’t be a big problem. Again, it’s the simplest thing that works: it works for them to have a small risk of fire, because it lets them use cheap parts and unskilled labor.

What interests me here is the union of economics and engineering. Rural Guatemalans (and the Senegalese, and probably every other poor group of people in the world) have a keen sense of what works well enough and what’s worth paying for to make it work well enough. This is a sense I’m going to need to develop as I work more in poorer regions.

One place I saw a union of traditional (north american) heavy industry and local engineering was in the sawmill where mi padre works. He showed me the saw, the planer, the kiln, and the furnace for the kiln. It all looked just like the equipment I remember seeing in Roseburg area mills while growing up. Unfortunately, it was dark when I was there, so I couldn’t examine it closely enough to confirm my suspicions that it was imported from decomissioned mills in the US. It was really fun talking with Audali in Spanish about the mill, since I have some knowldge of the lumber industry in Oregon.

As a parting note, today I took a shower under a just-in-time water heater showerhead. It was interesting wondering when the typically installed Guatemalan wires leading to the showerhead would end up in the stream of lukewarm water, thereby electrocuting me to death!

Water Distribution in San Andrés

My Spanish lessons included several different types of teaching, but my favorite (though at times the most trying) was simply talking in Spanish with my teacher. At the beginning, the teacher prompted it from time to time by asking carefully crafter questions he knew the answer to and knew I had enough words to answer. Very clever, as it increased my confidence and comfort with the language. This was the benefit of starting with a teacher with 10 years of experience, I bet! Later, the conversations were more free ranging, and I could drive them towards things I wanted to learn about.

One day I decided to learn how the water and the economics of water worked in San Andrés worked. I had learned from Eric Brewer that poor people typically pay much more for comodities than rich people do. I wanted to gather data on that phenonomen in San Andrés for Eric, and for my own curiosity.

As I mentioned before, there are two water systems in San Andrés: the tap water and the bottled water that the water man delivers. The tap water is untreated lake water. It is pumped from an inlet a bit to the west of the town into a tank at the top of the hill, and the system is gravity fed from there. It costs Q20 (USD $2.60) a month, and it is unmetered. It is provided by the city government (which may or may not be different from the county government… I forgot to ask). The tap water always appears clean, i.e. it never has any sediment or bad smells. I don’t know what it tastes like, because do one in the family drinks it. My teacher says that it is usually pretty safe to drink, especially by people accostomed to the local bacteria. The lake is quite big, and the wind tends to mix it around a bit. The amount of people living around it is very small by American standards of population density, so the amount of contamination is pretty low. Even though people aren’t supposed to, they wash clothes and bodies in the lake sometimes, which contaminates the lake. The biggest problem is after a rainstorm, when trash and animal waste from the streets washes into the lake. Then the tap water is a bit more peligroso.

The good news about contamination is that I never saw anywhere where there was untreated sewage flowing into the lake. In Senegal, there was a creek flowing into the bay where we anchored the boat which was black and smelled like it was untreated sewage. We didn’t swim off the back of the boat like we did in the Canaries sometimes! In San Andrés, they seem to use septic tanks to handle sewage. I spared my teacher the trauma of getting into the waste system during our lessons!

The people of San Jose next door used to get their water from a well, but it started smelling bad recently. Now they get their water from the lake too. However, their intake is much closer to the swimming area that would be allowed in the US. It has fencing, but no signs explining why people need to stay away. During the Semana Santa weekend, there were so many people at the beach that they overflowed into the fenced area, and were swimming all around the water intake. It would be interesting to ask the doctor in San Jose about the increase in sickness last week.

The bottled water man comes from Santa Elena (15 km away) every day with his truck of full of water in 6 gallon bottles with black and yellow seals on the lids. Each one costs about Q6 (USD $0.80). Lubia bought about 6 bottles a week for her family of 10 or so. So you can see that drinking water is a huge expense compared to tap water!

Where’s Jeff Going?

After three weeks in San Andrés, I have decided to move on. A different crowd has moved into the city (I’m one of the old hands now!) and though some things are better, it feels like the right time to move on.

The new crowd is a 40 person group from They have had a 2 month adventure in Belize, and are now here for 4 weeks learning Spanish. There are four of them staying with my family, so it is easy to slack off and speak English instead of Spanish. In fact, it is required right now, because they don’t speak a word. Some are learning faster than others, but as 18 year old British youth, they don’t have very broad horizons and are taking a while to catch on to Spanish.

So, off I go. I plan to head south for a weekend-long vacation and reward for myself at Finca Ixobel (pronounce the x as an sh, like the Mayans do… there you go!). It is a gringo-land where you can hang out all weekend and not hear a lick of Spanish other than ¡mas cervecas, por favor!. I’m looking forward to taking a horse ride and busting a move on the dance floor. Or maybe just chilling out in a hammock.

Next I’ll go to Livingston, which is where the black slave descendants who speak Spanish live. Strange little place you can only get to with a boat. Then on to Puerto Barrio where I hope to visit an MSF clinic. I have not been able to get in touch with anyone there, so I plan to just show up and hope for the best. I’ll catch a bus to Guatemala City from there and head on to Antigua as soon as possible, possibly without even staying a night in Guatemala City. There’s nothing to see there other than an MSF clinic, but it is likely in a very dodgy part of town so I’ll only try to find it if the Peurto Barrio thing falls through, or if they tell me I should drop by the Guatemala City one.

In Antigua, I’ll climb an active volcano (assuming it is not too active) then head north to Xela. Xela is the Mayan name for Quetzaltenango, which everyone uses because it is easier to say and spell. I plan to study for two or three weeks there. I’m also planning on checking out a program there called Seeds of Hope. I might consider traveling back to Guatemala after this trip for an extended stay there to immerse myself more in Spanish. It all depends on how I like the highlands, and how that program could use my help.

So, that’s the plan. We’ll see how it actually turns out!

Where’s Jeff Now?

I have been off the radar for a while. The reason why is that the Internet is a 30 minute boat ride away, or a 1 hour bus ride. So I don’t get over here to Flores to send out updates very often. When I do, the unreliable power system has been foiling me. Last time I was in Flores, I hardly had enough time with power on to get critical stuff like bills taken care of. Then the power inside the Internet cafe failed, partially. During this week’s visit, we have already had two city-wide power outages, so I am going to be saving this early and often!

I have been in San Andrés for three weeks studying Spanish, as planned. I’ve really enjoyed San Andrés and have learned a huge amount of Spanish. I’ve finished up my classes here and will be moving on. More about that later, if the power doesn’t go out.

Last weekend I visited Flores for the Semana Santa (Saint’s Week, leading up to Easter) procession on Friday evening, and then visited Tikal on Saturday. The procession was interesting. They carried huge float-like things through the street. In the front was Jesus, lying in a casket thing. He was carried by the men of the church. There were at least 8 men down each side of it, and from the look of them, they could have used a few more. The next float back was the Vigrin Mary, which was carried by the women of the church. Then there were a couple more who I didn’t recognize carried by the young women of the church, and the boys. Along the procession route, which passed the 12 (I think?) stations of the cross (in front of people’s houses), people made designs in the street. They mostly used sawdust dyed different colors, but they also used things you might see in a table centerpiece for Thanksgiving, and chalk, and leaves from the forest. The leaves were especially fragrant after everyone walked on them. I got a few pictures of the designs they made. Most were very Catholic, and included the name of the sub-group of the church that made them. Like the Womens’s Group of the Church of So and So. Or the youth group, etc. One was quite different, and I found out from someone next to it that it was a Mayan god. Cool! Even infidels are invited to processionals here in Guatemala!

The “proper” way for a backpacker to go to Tikal is to head up and spend the night, then bribe the guards to get in before sunrise and have some kind of mystical experience on top of the ruins at sunrise. This is no doubt fueled by the massive quantites of cheap pot they smoked the night before, probably with the same guards. Being older and lazier, and not really of a mystical bent, I just did the vanilla one day trip on a bus to see Tikal. I suppose I really should have partaken of the pot and whatnot, because to me, Tikal was just a bunch of very hot rocks in a very hot forest. I’m not the kind of person who goes crazy over rocks from old civilizations, but I suspect if I’d arranged to be there at a less hot time, I might have enjoyed it more. I’m really glad I went, but I’m even happier I’m not there right now, and won’t be ever again.

How hot was it, you ask? Funny thing… I made the observation to my Spanish teacher this week that in places where is is very hot, you don’t see thermometers. I think it would just be too depressing. It is really difficult to judge the temperature anyway, because the humidity changes a lot from day to day, and that makes all the different to us vapor-cooled mammals. The best measurement of how hot it was in Tikal is that I drank over 3 liters of water that day and still got noticibly dehydrated. It took two days or so after I got back to get my intake and outflow of water to match up into the stable pattern I try to maintain while traveling. (Sorry to lapse into a discussion, however delicately put, about the color of my pee. It’s one of those things you just kind of have to learn to keep track of when you are on the road. As you all are virtually on the road with me, you get to find out all about it!)

I did see a monkey with a baby on its back though. And some birds. But as I was there in the heat of the day, the wildlife viewing was less than average.

One final note in my defense… it so happened that the best time for me to see Tikal was the weekend of Semana Santa, which made it impossible to get a hotel room. Again, if I was the intrepid backpacker type, that wouldn’t have stopped me. (One guy told me you just drink with the guards and when they pass out drunk, you sleep in their hammocks. Clever guy, but not my style.) Being older and more boring, I opted for the one day trip.

I spent my third week in San Andrés learning more Spanish. I’ve had several real world conversations with locals which were not limited to the normal stuff (where from, where to, what time, etc). I met one guy who is a mechanic, and somehow the conversation turned to San Francisco and movies and how ther are always great car chases in them, and the guy blurted out, after thinking for a bit, “Steve MacQueen!”. Much laughter ensued.

I’m going to finish up and post this now, in hopes I can beat the next power outage, which as I type is probably on its way. Stay tuned for more about my plans for the next week.

No Commenting?

Some people have asked why I do not allow comments on my blog. The answer is that this is my space, and I want total control of what’s here. Fighting comment spam is a losing proposition, and I don’t want to be involved in it.

I have trackbacks turned on, so if you are using a blogging system that supports them, anything you say on your blog that links to my blog will be crosslinked between the two blogs (and i will see it, just as if you posted a comment to my blog). If you don’t have a blog and feel like you are muzzled by my decision to not have comments, I have a simple solution for you: get a blog, and post to it. (If you don’t know how to get your own blog, ask me and I’ll help you.)


Some answers to questions I have gotten…

Yes, mom, I am drinking plenty of water. The water system in San Andrés apparently used to be unreliable, but seems to work fine now. However, it is untreated water, and used for everything but drinking. Drinking water is delivered by the aqua pura man every morning (unless mi madre yells manaña out the door to him). I have no idea how much it costs, or when he gets paid. I suppose it is weekly or something. Drinking water is readily available at the school and at home, and I drink about a liter and a half every day, including several glases at dinner. Sometimes mi madre serves heavily diluted pineapple juice instead of the fruit punch they call fresca. It tastes great!

The exact program I am enrolled in is this one: Eco-Escuela de Español. If you are planning on contacting the Eco-Escuela, do not be fooled by the EcoMaya website. It seems to be some kind of regional, government supported tourism office which simply funnels people to Eco-Escuela, and might even take a cut for doing so. I was unable to get them to answer my e-mails after I declined to deposit 6 weeks of tuition into their account via wire transfer from the US (before I had even seen the place). Make sure to contact Eco-Escuela directly!

When will I be home? My plane flight leaves, somewhat arbitarily, exactly 8 weeks after I arrived, May 13. It leaves from Mexico City and drops me back into San Francisco. I don’t have a clue what I’ll be doing when I get back to California. There’s also a remote chance I’ll change my plane trip to return much later from someplace else and continue to travel, or work someplace in Central America for a few months. Thanks to the short stint of work for Tellme I did in Virginia in February, I can afford to stay here for a very long time, if I want to. It is a bit difficult to stiffle my giggles when I hear post-college age kids here making decisions based on amounts less than 1 US dollar. My budget is just so, so different than theirs. There are some really nice things about getting older.

No one’s asked me this yet, but that last sentence reminds me of something else: it turns out, somehow during the last ten years or so, I got OLD. How did that happen? All the kids here are so, so, I dunno… young. The trendy thing to do is to finish high school or college and then travel. Which means that gringos I see here are mostly younger than me. But the funny thing is that it takes a while of talking to me before enough details emerge (own a house, worked 10 years then decided to change jobs, etc) that it dawns on them that I’m older than the 24 or 26 they take me for. Playing that trick on the little kiddies never, ever gets old!

I’ve also met people of all other ages, too, though. Today I met a guy who is traveling because the bar he tended at for 10 years got bought and the new management didn’t keep him on. He looks about my age. I also met a couple of 40-50 year old travel enthusiasts who simply want to speak Spanish for their next vacation. And I met one 40-something divorcee who left a high stress job in the Canadian government to take a year off and enjoy life. She knew herself well enough to know that she’d need to ease into enjoyiong life, so she took, and I’m not making this up, a 6 month contract position as a telephone operator in Bosnia between her “real” job and this trip to Central America to “destress”. This is clearly a woman who knows stress.

Talking to fellow travelers is infintely interesting. Assuming you can sit upwind that is, as is seems about 100% of travelers below the age of 25 smoke. (The remaining 100% drink to excess, but let’s just stop with the stereotypes before we get any more carried away, shall we?)

A weekend trip

Last weekend I took a trip with some other gringos from San Andrés. We rented a minibus for the weekend and drove south to Semuc Champey. It is an area with lots of limestone and lots of water. Predictably, there are caves there, and other interesting things to see.

We caught the bus at 5 AM from the shack with no walls that serves as the bus station in San Andrés. We drove south for a couple of hours over fair roads, then headed up into the mountains. The driver knew a “short cut” that would make the trip take less… something. We weren’t clear what, but he seemed to know where he was going. 6 hours later, after 70 kilometers of dirt road, we got there. It turned out that the short cut was meant to save diesel, and as we had neogotiated a fixed price for the trip out and back, it was to his advantage to try to save gas. I’m personally highly skeptical that a mountain road traveled at less than 20 km per hour saved any diesel over the slightly longer trip over pavement, but who am I to argue with a Guatemalan bus driver?

Though we were wiped out after the long trip there, everyone agreed that the chance to see backcountry scenery and Guatemalan mountain life was well worth the trip. We also agreed that we’d rather stage a riot where we overturned the bus and lit it on fire then return by any road other than the paved one. We bought the bus driver a tank full of gas to end his protests to the contrary.

Speaking of burning vehicles, it turns out that last week there were some protests (or, as they call them here, manifestacións) around Guatemala. The people think that the government is going to screw them over by signing a free trade agreement with the USA. They noticed that Mexican farmers lost their farms and had to move to the cities to work in factories after NAFTA was signed. Those same workers are now losing their factory jobs, as those factories move to China in search of ever cheaper labor. The Guatemalans suspect the same thing is about to happen to them here. There was a protest in Santa Elena, nearby, but it was mostly peaceful. In little San Andrés the pigs seemed to be blocking my way to school one day, but it turned out there was just some corn spilled in the street. The protests in Guatemala City resulted in several deaths, which the government has promised to fully investigate. My teacher rolled his eyes when he translated that for me out of the newspaper.

Anyway…. at Semuc Champey, we saw a place where an entire river flowed into a hole in the ground, and then emerged later. Really impressive. It looked a little like Oregon’s rushing rapids, except that the rock was limestone instead of basalt, and the river was under the rock instead of on top of it. We swam in pools nearby (away from the tunnel of death-by-drowning, that is).

That night, I slept in a hammock outdoors. It was a good thing the hammock was under cover, because a huge storm with lightening and everything came through that night. It was cool to sleep out in it, but I was a bit cold, as I was only in shorts and a shirt.

The next day, we took a cave tour. It was pretty extreme, by American commercial cave tourism standards. We were each given candles, then the guide led us into the cave. After only 10 meters or so, we had to start swimming! We held the candles up and swum with the remaining three appendages. It was pretty dificult and a bit tiring. But each swim, with the exception of the final one, was less than 10 meters. Between swims, we walked in the cave and sometimes crawled over rocks. The final swim was really long, and it tired me out enough I dowsed my candle and did the backstroke instead. Swimming on my back watching the cave go by above me, illuminated by my companion’s candlelight, was really cool. We had to climb up and down several waterfalls inside the cave, and there was one place where you could jump from about 5 meters into a pool. I decided against that, but I did pass through an optional underwater tube, which was really, really creepy. At the end of the tour, we went through a tiny passage with water flowing through it too. It was really crazy!

At Semuc Champey, I met a really cool family (a mom, a dad, and a kid named Max). The mom is an epidemiologist for the American CDC working in a field station in Antigua. The dad does computer work. Right now he is telecommuting to do programming jobs for his wife’s colleages from her last job – in Tanzania. So he’s telecommuting from “home” in Guatemala to “work” in Tanzania. Top that, Silicon Valley types! She told me that she had heard that MSF might be getting ready to pull out of Guatemala. They had to do this after several aid workers were killed in Afganistan, but in Guatemala, it’s a happier situation. She and I guessed that they probably have seen the local government make enough progress that they are willing to leave the operation of the clinics to the locals.

This is an important part of why I like MSF: they understand the importance of closing as well as promptly opening programs. Having a track record of closing successful programs when the locals are able to take over shows other governments who they are dealing with that there’s an alternative to putting up with meddling foreigners: provide quality service on your own. It is, alas, human nature to resent the meddling of outsiders. Fine. So MSF seems to use it as an incentive to help people make good decisions on their own! (This is just my observation, not based on anything I have read about MSF.)

I’ve written to MSF asking if it will be possible to visit a clinic when I am in Guatemala City. We’ll see if anything turns up.

Life in San Andrés

I have more time to write today, so here is a better description of my new life for the next few weeks.

First, a look at how my day goes. At 5 am or so, the roosters start making noise, which in turn wakes up the pigs who make snuffling noises in the street. In some parts of town, diesel powered corn grinders start up to grind the corn for the morning torillas. One gringa friend of mine here has one next door, and cheerfully uses it as an alarm clock. There are happily none near me, so I can sleep in. (I think my mama gets her tortillas from a tortilleria down the road.)

At 6 am, my alarm goes off. I get up, get dressed (t-shirt, shorts, Chacos) and wash my face. I have a private bedroom which is big enough, but probably a bit smaller than the one I lived in growing up. My window looks east, so I see the sunrise over the forest beyond the lake each morning. I’m not making this up. When I saw it the first morning I suspected I as just still dreaming. The bathroom is across the hall, and is quite a bit nicer than the one at Laye’s sister’s house in Senegal: the electrical doesn’t shock me, the toilet flushes without the use of a bucket, and the shower has a curtain.

(All that, and it’s still nicer than Karl’s bathroom. When are you going to finish stripping that paint, Karl?)

I head into the living room, and Lubia, mi madre is making pancakes. She gave me three the first day, but I couldn’t finish them, so now she gives me two, which is just fine. I’m a little worried she’s going to fatten me up; she’s probably thinking the same thing. Sometimes I run into Herman, mi padre, unless he’s already gone to work at the lumber mill. I study a bit after breakfast then start off down the hill to school.

San Andrés is built on a hill overlooking the lake. That means virtually all of the houses have an amazing view, but walking around town is tough. Perhaps that’s why Lubia gives me so much food. The walk to school is uno kilometre, mas o minus. The vertical elevation change has got to be at least 300 feet, maybe more. Mom and Nan, your knees would never be able to handle it. But maybe you could request a family on the same street at the school; the administration is very flexible.

I get to school in time for my 7 am lesson. My teacher is Esdras, who is also an administrator at the school. He is a very experienced teacher. I suspect maybe they put him with me because I was so clueless coming in to the program, and because I’ve announced my intention to study for many weeks and a goal of getting proficient in Spanish. I think maybe they are trying to give me a leg up so that a week or so from now I’ll get another teacher who can take me to the next stage. The first three lessons have been the normal getting-up-to-speed stuff. Lots and lots of irregular, but common verbs. Dates, numbers, months. Bits of grammar, mostly when I doggedly ask why a los instead of a las, etc. My homework consists of memorizing irregular verbs. I did great the first day and not so great the second day. I’m going to a fiesta again tonight, so I guess I won’t do quite so well tomorrow either. Perhaps I’ll surprise Esdras and have all the verbs memorized on Monday!

We get a 30 minute break at 10 or so, and I head across the street to see my nueva amiga, Rachel. She’s hanging out in San Andrés for a few weeks running the library in the morning for kids who go to school in the afternoon. They come in and play games, watch videos (when Rachel can sweet-talk an extension cord out of the policia next door), or have her read them books in Spanish. I speak English to Rachel to give my mind a rest, and to give her a break from los niños. Sometimes we play a game with the kids, sometimes just chat.

School gets out at noon, and I make the hike back to my family’s house. Lubia has lunch ready, which is about the same kind of food and size as dinner. It’s usually stewed meat (super tender!), rice with carrots in it (¡bonita!), and vegetables like salad or cucumbers. All the men of the family (the father, son, son in law, and grandson) drop in and out of the house during lunch. The women (daughter, daughter in law, grandchild) are around too (I don’t know if they have jobs, I haven’t figured that out yet). I eat with whoever is there when Lubia calls me to the table. They do not seem to make any attempt to have lunch as one big family.

After lunch I laze around a bit, then do whatever is on the todo list for the afternoon. Sometimes the school puts on events, sometimes it’s chores like going into Flores for banking and Internet, sometimes it’s swimming in the lake, and increasingly the todo list includes a siesta, if I have time! I tend to shower in the afternoon, because the shower is cold water only, and by the afternoon a cold shower is exactly what you want. Of course, I’m supposed to be memorizing verbs in there somewhere too.

Dinner is around 6 or 7, and is like lunch. Different parts of the family are around at different times for dinner. The family hangs around the house in the evening. I do too, unless the gringos in town have invited me out for something, like the fiesta in the next town over.

There are no classes on the weekend. This weekend I’m going on a trip to the southwest with a group of gringos in town that have rented a van and driver and needed more people. It sounds like it is going to be a blast, with a gringo-friendly hostel, water pools and a cave tour by candle light. I’ll tell you all more about it next week. The next weekend is Easter weekend, which is a very big deal here. I haven’t figured out what to do for that. Perhaps Rachel will have a good idea, and I can tag along with her. She’s heading south about then, so perhaps we’ll head south together then I’ll return to San Andrés while she continues on toward El Salvador.

There’s a thousand other things I wanted to write about, but it is time to head home. I’ll keep a list of stuff to write about over the next few days and send out another big update next week. Have a good weekend, everyone! I will!

I made it!

Those of you who have been wondering, I made it to little San Andrés, Guatemala and am settled in with my family. I do not have time for a full update today, but I am doing fine and am really happy with my choice of programs. Already I have had 5 hours of instruction and have homework, and got to visit an animal rehabilitation clinic.

More in a few days when I get back to Flores. San Andres does not have Internet (but does have electricity, gas, and cold running water).

Where’s Jeff Been?

I’ve been having some more sedate adventures during the last couple months, so I’ve been remiss in telling y’all what I’ve been up to. Well, now I’m about to start some new stuff, I figured I better flush out the queue!

My last update was from New Years. I spent January in Arnold. I occupied myself there by working on DTN2, the reference implementation of the emerging Disruption Tolerant Networking protocols. This work will be useful both for the Interplanetary Internet, and also for getting information to parts of the world where networks don’t reach reliably, like developing regions. For more information about how this (and other technology) can improve people’s lives in emerging regions, see the TIER website at Berkeley.

I attended a workshop Berkeley put on and got to meet other people working on this stuff. Also, I got to go skiing for the first time ever at Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley. It was a really great day of skiing.

Another way I spent my time in the Gold Country was by taking classes from the Red Cross. When I am back to living in one place long enough, I will join a Disaster Action Team, which is the front-line unit in the “army” of the Red Cross. A DAT does day to day interventions, like showing up with blankets, money for hotels and teddy bears after a single family house fire. People from a city’s DAT are also usually first on the scene to open a shelter in case of a bigger disaster. So far I’ve had about 6 classes, and am well trained and ready to work. I just need to stay in one place long enough to join a DAT team. Perhaps that will happen this summer, we’ll see.

Over a month ago, I set off on a road trip to Texas. Texas? Sure! Why not? It’s not like I have to be at work on Monday…

The trip started with me swinging through the Bay Area. I played in the Iron Puzzler with Team Snout. I then stayed with Acorn for a week. My rent was to get his MIG welder up and running, by running around the city getting gas and parts to hook up the gas tank. Then I built a welding table for us to practice what Acorn and I were reading in the book we bought. I saved half the welding for Acorn so he could practice too. The table turned out great!

Next came Curtis’ bachelor party. Much fun was had by all, but we are sworn to secrecy. Sorry, it’s a guy thing. (But Curtis promised to not let matrimonial bliss throw a wet blanket on his enthusiasm for LAN parties!)

I headed east, aiming for San Antonio. I went by way of Pasadena and had an informational interview with the nice people at Project Concern International. Didn’t quite find the right person, but it was interesting to see the inside of another relief agency and compare it to MSF.

I got to San Antonio and met up with my mom, stepfather, and stepbrothers. We went to my cousin’s wedding and got a chance to explore San Antonio. What a neat downtown! The riverwalk is an amazing thing, especially because so much of it was built by the WPA during the depression. The Alamo was also interesting, though I left the place with ambivalence about a military commander so eager to sacrifice himself and his troops. Yes, “remember the Alamo” has a profound effect on Texas’s ability to raise troops and win its independence from Mexico. But it’s unclear to me that at the time Tyler chose to stand instead of retreat, he could predict the military significance of his sacrifice.

From San Antonio I went north to Dallas to see Cliff and his band Escher’s Elevator play their first gig. It was fun to be “with the band”, though it was pretty hard work being Cliff’s roadie! Cliff’s improvisational electronic music was really neat. You can hear it for yourself on his website.

Next Cliff and I headed south and I introduced him to Amy Lin, a friend I met in the Bay Area. After recently getting divorced, she’s now back in Houston working for NASA again. It’s a great change for her, because she had trouble finding a job that was a good fit. Now that she’s working on the human spaceflight program again, she’s really happy. A happy Amy makes for a happy Jeff!

I next got a call from Cary at Tellme who wanted my help doing manual labor assembly work in Tellme’s new datacenter. I left my car/home in Houston and flew to Virginia where I worked for three weeks. It was pretty boring work, but the pay was good; good enough to pay for a trip to Guatemala!

I returned to the Bay Area for final errands and to attend Curtis and DeeAnn’s wedding. Now, I’m postponing packing. I leave in a few hours for Guatemala, so you’ll hear from me from there next!

Small world!

A coworker of mine from when I was at Tellme has started a new blog to show and tell what he’s learning and thinking about network configuration management. In his most recent posting it turns out he’s found a paper written by a friend of mine from college! What a small world!

This problem is an important one. Automated system administration is a well accepted concept at this point. You simply cannot run 10,000 node clusters without extensive automation, and there are a lot of clusters that size these days (not to mention service providers who use over 10,000 computers to implement their service). Networks were growing in absolute size due to the pervasive nature of the computers they connect now. But as if that wasn’t enough to demand automation, network admins are adding a myriad of devices on top of (and embedded within) their networks, all of which have configurations that depend on the overall configuration. Over and over again, we see in outages in production networks precipitated by seemingly unrelated changes in far-off parts of the network. Assuming you can predict the dependencies and write some software to address them, automated network configuration management should be able to nip some of these outages in the bud.

Unfortunately, that “assuming” is a big one. There’s a chance that smart people will go work hard on this and come back saying, “by the time we limited the problem enough so that it was solveable, the solution wasn’t saleable”. I don’t have a gut feeling how this will turn out. It’s going to take people going and doing it to see. It seems Brent, who left Tellme in January, is getting ready to relaunch his consulting practice, focusing on automated network administration.

Cool! Good luck, Brent!