Mandalay Me Down To Sleep

Forgive me Facebook for I have sinned, it has been over a year since my last blog post. I may have blog faded, although dither does 5 posts constitute a blog. I have no idea what dither means but I am going to leave it in the last sentence because it sounds fun.

The meat (or tofu if you prefer) of the story about to be laid out before your very eyes is that I am back in Mandalay, Myanmar. For those of us that went to public school in the United States, Myanmar is a country of about 54 million people. It is located in southeast Asia and borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Myanmar is one of the most impoverished countries in the world and most of its labour force is involved in agriculture. It also has some stunning scenery and may have the largest number of pagodas in the world as well. Check out Bagan for some incredible sights and history.

Even though I am not here for sightseeing, everywhere I go feels like sightseeing. Whether visiting the largest book in the world in Mandalay or driving the rural dirt roads of the countryside, there are sites to see. Some of those sights are just how impoverished the people here can be. After leaving, it is easy to forget  the types of living arrangements people have. It can literally be living in a home consisting of a worn tarp over a rope with your children. Despite these situtations people are in general happy and in mostly good spirits. I cannot understand the language but I have tried to interpret body language and tone. Seeing all this again has been a great reminder that material things can not only burden us but also create anxiety, helplessness and dependency. This trip (3 days in country so far) I have been focusing on the positive energy to make myself a better person. It is easy to ignore or shame those less “fortunate” than ourselves living in developed countries, however they are the ones that can teach us the most. This is probably true about he less fortunate in our own communities as well. Instead of raising our noses at people in need perhaps it is time to offer assistance or at least some empathy. Stop and smell the unwashed.

As I don’t plan out what I write, that was an unexpected paragraph. For the rest of this post I will try to maintain a sense of light heartiness and levity. The purpose of my 4 week stay in Myanmar is to hopefully aid in the education of the youth through the installation of two more computer labs. The computer lab previously built (see former posts) is apparently doing well. Not only are the children learning, the adults in the community are getting an opportunity to learn as well. They have been holding classes at night and on the weekends for the adults. The plan is to visit Daw Hut Taw to meet with the teachers and get a better report on how things are going. I look forward to seeing them again and discovering how they are using the lab and what software has been the most utilized. It is very hard to get this data from the other side of this big balloon we call home. After that we will travel to the next two villages and start anew.

My plan is to document this trip with a high degree of accuracy and use the information and pictures taken to put together some type of proposal for fund-raising. When these labs are completed that will make only 3 labs in the nearly 60 schools built. There are several contributors to these two new labs including UR Building Knowledge. Without URBK I wouldn’t be here. I have also recently joined another charity called Innovative Communities. Hopefully soon we will be able to accept donations through the website linked. The two major hurdles with this project are procuring localized content and  funding. If anyone is interested in donating please let me know. I will also post to when donations will be accepted on the Innovative Communities website.

Alas, not everything in life requires financial output. My requests to end this post require no money and very little time. Firstly, any feedback would be very much appreciated. I am interested in any questions or comments anyone may have. My other request is that everyone slow down during the day and reevaluate your surroundings. Just take in everything around you and try to see it with a fresh perspective. It is very easy to get stale in life, bringing old habits, biases and prejudice with you during your day. Take a minute to forget what you have “learned” and try to see things afresh.

new-nylon-rooftop-pano

Panoramic view from the roof of my hotel in Madalay.

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Rose Bowl Bound

Monday I am flying from Vancouver to Los Angeles, the city of angels, so they say. LA is just the landing point for a trip to Pasadena. Pasadena is hosting SCaLE 15X, which is a Linux Expo. It is also where Internet-in-a-Box (IIAB) will have a booth. Two of my friends and contributors to the project will also be giving a talk on Sunday. Check out the SCaLE website if interested in attending.

Pasadena will be an excellent chance for individuals working on IIAB to get together and have face to face meetings. There are lots of Skype meetings currently, but it is just not the same. IIAB Release 6.2 will officially be released in the near future. It is very exciting and we could use more people getting involved to really move the project along. If anyone is interested in participating in any fashion me know. I do mean anything.

Now a bit about IIAB. It stemmed from the idea of One Laptop Per Child and started as XSCE School Server. Currently it is still under the title of XSCE, however that name will soon change to Internet-in-a-Box. That is essentially what it is: the internet in a box. IIAB combines many open-source educational programs into one operating system with a simple user interface. It also has useful components such as Moodle, RACHEL and WordPress. Right now IIAB is supported in varying degrees on several platforms: Debian, Fedora, CentoOS, Ubuntu Server and Raspbian for Raspberry Pi 2/3. The beauty of IIAB is that it doesn’t need an internet connection to function. The goal of IIAB is to get information and learning tools to areas of the world that probably wouldn’t have access to this type of knowledge otherwise.

Edwin Hodge and I are just about finished with our proposal to CIDA for building more Raspberry Pi labs in Myanmar. The server driving content in these labs will be IIAB running on a Raspberry Pi 3. Currently there are only a few developers working on IIAB infrastructure, so again if anyone is interested let me know. I am planning to set up a RPi 3 in my house with outside access if anyone wants to check it out in real-time.

If any of this interests you please check out these reference websites:

http://xsce.org
http://schoolserver.org
https://github.com/XSCE/xsce/wiki

One Month Out

It has been one month to the day since I have arrived home. The trip in general was a success. My travel companion, Ed, was even located after 36 hours of stress and frustration in Beijing. That is a story for another time and place. If anyone cares to grab a coffee some time it is a pretty interesting tale.

The computer lab in Daw Hut Taw ended up being 6 client computers and one content server, all using Raspberry Pi 3’s. The children, and adults, were all ecstatic to have the new room full of intriguing equipment. Every day during the setup children would crowd around the door and window trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. It was very humbling and gratifying to see such excitement while knowing that these children may have opportunities that very few in their village have had before.

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Anticipation is mounting.

There were many lessons learned during this pilot lab and many great experience shared. The people of the village were tremendous and as gracious as anyone I have ever met. It brings a smile to my face when I think back upon them. As of yet I have had no update on how the computers are operating and being utilised. However, today I found out that Mandalay Technical University has been sending out two teachers to educate the students. It is amazing that this is occurring and now I am now trying to get in contact with the teachers for feedback and suggestions. Having an open dialog with people using the lab is the only way we will be able to constantly improve going forward.

There are many people who helped on this project. Without whom there is no way it could have been completed…or perhaps started. A special thanks to Kyawt Kyawt and Hlyan Nay Win. They are both fantastic young adults and hopefully will be available to aid us in the future. Here are some websites of terrific people and organizations:

100schools.org
urbuildingknowledge.com xsce.org
unleashkids.org
www.kidsoncomputers.org
racheloffline.org
ubuntu-mm.net

If you look closely you may be able to find video evidence of the young villagers at the 50th school opening celebration trying to dance me to death.

The experience I had during this trip was immeasurable. It never would have happened without the support of many people including my wonderful partner-in-crime Sandra. I am one lucky dude for sure. A big thank you to her father Ed as well…after we reconnected in Beijing that is.

Since this project was so successful the next step is to find a way to continue deploying labs. Per the name 100 Schools Project there will be 99 more schools needing computers. As of right now there are just over 50 schools built and waiting. Like many things in life the only thing holding us back is money. Once we find funding more computer labs follow. Since my arrival home I have been contemplating starting an organisation for this project. I would very much appreciate any help on a name for such an endeavour. A little help from all the creative people I know would be terrific. Also if any of the 3 people who read this know of a way to acquire funds for projects like this I would be most interested in hearing about those as well.

As always I am most interested in feedback of any kind. Questions or suggestions about what to write next are certainly appreciated.

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So much excitement!

Don’t Touch the Trim!

If anyone gets the title reference I will both be very impressed and they will be awarded 10 bonus points.

Today was the second full day working at the school on the computer lab. The other full day was two days ago and I am hoping to be finished after 1 or 2 more days. That does not include the training of teachers, however. The first day the  village electrician came in and wired up electrical boxes which were purchased in Mandalay. The desks, which turned out to be one long table, had been built the previous day by the village carpenter. After the electrical was run it was time to set up some computers.

Before leaving Mandalay we stopped in to KMD to pick up the monitors, keyboards, mice, UPS and 3G USB router. The setting up of the hardware was very straight forward and the gentlemen from the village who are always around jumped in to help. It is great to have help, but sometimes a hands off approach is also necessary. More on that later. It is a straightforward assembly of the monitors and Raspberry Pi’s into their cases. Plug the keyboard and mouse into Pi and voila a complete computer setup. Since the Pi’s have no on/off switch there is one on the outlets that were installed. This way after the computer is properly shut down via the desktop the switch can be turned off. Now when the switch is flipped back on the Pi will boot right up. I put emphasis on properly shut down. While the electrician was running his wires I posted up in an adjacent classroom. As it was Saturday there were no students and it made for a reasonable workspace. I was working on getting the 3g router to play nicely with the Pi so that there would be internet access if needed. Then all the sudden *poof* no power. The electrician killed the power and that was the end of that operating system. Not a proper shutdown at all. Most of the time you can get away with a hard shutdown of a computer, but sometimes, sometimes you’re the bug. Luckily it is very easy to reformat the microSD card which the Pi uses for a hard drive. However, when I am not here this could lead to a problem.

More about the hands off approach. The men who are around are influential men in the village and really want to contribute. They tend to ape my actions and this leads to problems also. For instance I may flip one switch along the wall, there are 6 total, and they jump into action flipping all the other switches no matter what is connected or what the consequences are. I am certainly going to have to make signs which say don’t flip the switch. Don’t t

Back to the 3G USB router. If you want to use one with a Raspberry Pi, I can’t recommend it. At least not a Prolink. I spent many hours that day and night trying to make it work, but to no success. There are many things a Pi is good at but USB routers are not one of them. Certain printers are not one of them either. The villagers asked me if I wanted to donate a printer to the lab as well the other day. We discussed it and I agreed to set one up for them. I had an extra Pi and the bits needed to set up another workstation so I decided to set one up for the teachers. This one would be connected to the printer and everyone is happy. The only affordable printer at KMD was a Fuji Xerox laser printer. I figured I would be in for a long day trying to get it to play nicely with the Pi. For the first time in my life I was right. For future reference use an HP printer with a Raspberry Pi. Unfortunately they didn’t have any, but in the future that will be the route I will go.

The printer took up a good portion of today. The rest was spent fine tuning the operating system for the teacher computer. All of the computers, save the content server, will be running Raspbian Pixel. Raspbian is a distribution based on Debian that has been optimized fo the Raspberry Pi. It is very polished and should work excellently fo this purpose.

Well this is now nearly 750 words of rubbish so I will cut the cord. Oh yeah, before that I also went to a village where they are mining petrified wood and making necklaces from it. If anyone is interested in that let me know. Or if there is any feedback about anything I would love to hear it. Please remember that people may be working to “Don’t touch the trim!”

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Pretty sure this is the first time this gentleman has ever used a computer. Minecraft for you my friend!

Yangon with the Wind

I have made it to Mandalay. It took about 15 hours of travelling in a small Ford Ranger. Roughly, and I do mean roughly, the first 5 hours were spent riding in the bed of the pickup truck with 7 others. One was Maung Maung Gyi while the other 6 were construction workers for 100 Schools. It was good fun with them, if a bit uncomfortable. Most of the time I did not understand anything being spoken, but MMG would help me out with the important jokes that were being made. The last 10 hours were spent in the cab of the truck, 1/2 riding shotgun and 1/2 driving. Driving in the dark on Myanmar highways is a very interesting proposition. Add to that lack of sleep and it is an outright adventure. We did make it in one piece at about 1:00 a.m.

Let’s backtrack a bit now. A few days ago, down in the delta, was the opening of the 50th school. It was a festive event that the entire village came to. There were also some very individuals including an actor and a renowned painter and tapestry maker named Sein Myint. Actually tonight I have been invited to accompany Sein Myint for supper and as he is a great person it should be very pleasurable. One thing that most fo the people have in common in this country is friendliness and a willingness to smile. Back to hte school opening, I was wearing a traditional Burmese dress shirt with a longyi and Mr. John was kind enough to lend me a local jacket too. It was good because it was only about 30*C on the day of the event. Upon arrival we were greeted by people with much love and appreciation. That quickly escalated into being “forced” to dance a traditional dance. Unfortunately it had been a long time since I had danced that particular dance and needed to try to follow along with the child of about 14 who was in front of me. Unfortunately, again, he was about 14 and had the energy of an adolescent. I am pretty sure it was the longest song ever written and by the end I was about to pass out. Fortunately it did draw to a conclusion and I was able to slink away before the next song started. Teh villagers did seem to enjoy the show, however and there may be some incriminating video showing up at some point. After that it was speeches by government officials, locals and Mr. John. After that was a meal of lovely, if not indeterminate, food and off onto the next phase.

The day after the opening we headed down from our hotel in Wakema to Pathein. Here we took a trip to determine the viability of building a school in another village. After driving through part of the village it was determined that a small bridge crossing a river would not allow our vehicles access. From here it was a short ride on the back of the motorbikes of some generous local gentlemen. The village has a fairly new elementary and high school buildings but the middle school is a wreck. There are 299 students from 9 villages that attend classes there and not enough toilets/outhouses either. This is all too common within Myanmar and also why we do what we do. After viewing the schools it was time to sit down and enjoy tea and a snack. everywhere we go tea/coffee and snacks are offered. The hospitality is amazing. Most of the time it is accompanied by individuals waving fans for cooling and fly control also. Teh next day we  left Pathein and headed to where we are now, Mandalay.

Today Maung Maung Gyi drove me out to the school where the computer lab is going. It was about a 30 minute drive out side of Mandalay. Tomorrow I will have a driver and translator to escort me on this trip. There wasn’t much to do in the way of construction the lab today. It was important to check the electrical situation and get together with the carpenter who is building the table for the computers. That will be finished tomorrow evening and Friday the lab work will begin in earnest. Of course we did sit with the heads of the village for tea and snacks. It is intriguing to taste the different foods from the many areas visited. No two regions seem to be the same. Variety is the spice of life. And now I must get ready to go for supper for soon I will be leaving…Yangon with the Wind.

Beep-Beep-Honk-Honk

Ah the sounds of the city. I have been in Yangon for 2 days now and finding it a pretty interesting place. It is similar to other large cities in the fact that it is busy and very congested. Crossing the street is a lot like being the frog in the old Atari game Frogger. There are multiple ways to become injured. It is also a bit exhilarating too. Avoid certain death by running, darting, jumping and twisting. It is a dance with death I suppose. Well that is a bit over dramatic, but hey that’s what I do.

Yesterday was my first day here and it was spent meeting up with John and Maung Maung Gyi from 100 Schools. We walked around and had lunch with some other donors from Singapore. We tried to go to a craft market which was closed due to a National holiday. Later we went to happy hour for a couple of beers and in bed by 9:00. It was  a much needed slumber indeed. The entire day was a blur…not just after happy hour.

Today was an early rise and down to breakfast in the hotel I am staying, the New Aye Yar. Breakfast comes in the price of the room and is actually quite nice. It is not your usual continental breakfast. The buffet style setup has several options including curries, noodle soup, a type of rice pudding and a young man making omelets. The coffee is also how I like it, very dark and sludgy.

After breakfast it was off to the market that was closed yesterday. The Scott Market is a tourist based market that is pretty expansive. I was there looking for more handy crafts to take back to sell to raise money for building schools. There are hundreds of stalls selling a vast array of items. Things from silk scarves and bolts of cloth to jade bracelets and wooden elephants. I would like to purchase many of these wares, however I have no idea how to tell a real gemstone or even if an amber necklace is real. Are those real pearls or diamonds? Yes they tell me. Hmmm, still not convinced. When I go back to purchase items it will most likely be items made of jade and tiger’s eye. Pretty sure I can tell those….

After the market it was time to source out the rest of the gear I needed for the computer lab. This I did at a shop called KMD. I am waiting for a quote by email to determine if it is going to work out. They have a store in Mandalay also which will work out perfectly as I won’t have to transport anything on the 8-9 hour trip up.

tomorrow I will be heading down the the delta south of Yangon to attend the opening of the 50th school and enjoy the festivities that come along with it. This evening, however, visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda is on the docket. This is the most important pagoda in the country and is apparently an amazing place to visit. I’m in.

It is now time to head back out into the hustle and bustle of Southeast Asian city life. Beep-Beep-Honk-Honk!

And so it begins…or continues.

Tired, very tired. This blog is going to have its beginnings on the lower lever, more accurately the sub-level of the Beijing airport. Waiting in terminal E57 waiting for flight CA905 to Yangon. It will be my first trip to Yangon and the second time in Myanmar. The flight from Vancouver was roughly 11 hours and trip on the ferry nearly two hours before that. It was a dark and stormy morning…maybe I should have led with that opening. All of this is irrelevant, however.

The main objective of this trip is to set up a computer lab in the village of Daw Hut Taw outside of Mandalay. This is the pilot project to what will hopefully expand to deploying labs in all of the schools which have been built by the 100 Schools Project. One goal in Yangon is to source out some components for the computer lab. These are a UPS, monitors, keyboards, mice and probably a 3g router. There will be no internet at the school and I am hoping that a 3g router on the wireless network will open up communication channels moving forward. I will also be in attendance for the opening of the 50th school built by 100 Schools. These schools have been build with financial aid from UR Building Knowledge along with several other generous groups. I would recommend checking out the websites for more information.

There is no need to source out computers for this first lab because they flew with me in my carry on bag. No this is not the carry-on type that you may see when someone is trying to stuff all their luggage into the overhead compartment. This bag is a single backpack used for day hiking. Stored within my Kelty Redwing 3100 (thanks Mom and Dad) are 8 computers with cases and power supplies for each. All in original packaging and boxes. How is this possible you may ask? Or even if you don’t I will tell you. The computer lab will consist exclusively of Raspberry Pi 3’s.

A Raspberry Pi 3 is a single board computer with the form factor of a credit card. Aboard this computer is a quad-core 1.2 GHz ARM processor, 1 GB Ram, wifi, bluetooth, 4 x USB 2.0 ports and a 10/100 ethernet connection. It is powered by a 5.2V 2.4A micro-usb power supply (think Android phone charger) and has HDMI out.

That may be a bit too far into the weeds, but the point is that it is an affordable way to create a viable learning experience. I have been working with some of the individuals behind XSCE/Internet-in-a-Box to develop a content server to make information available offline. The server I brought, made from a Raspberry Pi contains about 60 GB of data which is accessed via the web browser from other Raspberry Pi’s used as clients.

Okay, my eyeballs are about to start bleeding as exhaustion and a month straight of screen time working on getting this project up and running are starting to set in. As this is my first blog I am not sure how long or interesting it is supposed to be. I have a feeling it is too long in length and too short in interesting.

Please leave a comment with feedback if you are interested in more information or another post in the future. And now onto the next leg of the journey.