May 23, 2006

Mexican Bribes

Category: Debian,Tech,Travel — Biella @ 11:12 am

Another Debconf has come and passed. This was my 3rd conference and surely to be one of the more memorable, partly because I showed up for the whole time (and am now traveling with 4 other DD’s in Mexico) and partly because of a few problems that plagued my visit. There is no doubt that I had a wonderful time but some of my attention was drawn away from enjoyment toward crisis management. For the first few days, it was due to computer problems (now sort of fixed) and then the last few days I had “Biella Hardware” problems in the form of one of the worst combo sore throats/ body aches that I have had in recent memory (now sort of fixed but not entirely).

Now that I am in Oxaca, I hope to spend a little time blogging about this year’s Debconf but before I wanted to pass along what I think has been one of the more amusing experiences thus far in Mexico. So yesterday a group of us (Jeroeun, Martin K, Micah, Vagrant) rented a car to head off to the Southern city of Oxaca. I have actually never rented a car in a foreign country, and I was a little concerned about everything from price to roads to cops. Amid my nervousness, the employee at Thrify was sort of reassuing and quite nice but he gave us some unfortunate news: he warned us that as we reached this one particular circular intersection in Mexico City we would be stopped by a cop (because we are tourists) and basically bribed. This was not surprising news to be but I was surprised at how upset this made me. (maybe because I have never had such an experience and thought I would mangle it when the time came to pass off the money or offset the bribe or whatever). Anyway, after we packed 5 bodies and copious luggage into our compact Nissan, we headed off somewhat prepared to face off the cop and decided it was best I drive as I was the Spanish speaker. We made our way through the congested streets and headed toward the intersection and as we got closer, I thought to myself “how are they going to spot us within all this traffic?” But you see, the thing about this intersection is as soon as you make the turn left, you hit a light and need to stop for a long time. And you see, this gives the cop ample time to switch on the “tourist radar” and spot the noticeable white bodies. Sure enough, within 30 seconds of stopping at the intersection, a Mexican cop walks over and there is where the fun began.

So he basically told me that I did not use my signal lights for turning when I made a left and that this infraction would cost me US $120. At this point I started to get a little freaked (I already dropped too much money on a rental car) but I remained calm and told him basically in Spanish “With all respect, officer, I think I used my light because I am in a foreign country and am very aware that I must follow all traffic rules.” After a little back and forth, I moved on to the “bribe stage.” While we were told that 100 pesos (10 US) was the typical bribe, we, being cheapskates, just offered 5 US. And then, magically, at that point, the officer said, “ok just go ahead and be careful not to repeat the offense next time.” I was shocked. I mean there was some money being offered right there and I was sure he was going to ask for a little more. But he backed off. Why?

I think it was a combination of factors. Ok so perhaps he was surprised that I knew what was going on. Perhaps he was uncomfortable that I knew Spanish. But I think he the tipping point was due to cultural factors. I think he found it odd that there was this little woman driving a car with 4 grown and pretty large men. Given the gender dynamics in the country, this was just beyond his cultural comfort zone and he realized that I was badassss, and he just backed off. Ok, so I don’t really know if that is what happened but I like the explanation and am glad I got off the hook :-)

On Planet Debian

Category: Debian,Tech — Biella @ 6:34 am

For many years a number of Debian Developers have suggested that I include my blog on Planet Debian. Over the last few years, a combination of inertia and resistance kept me away, but I think after my 3rd Debconf, my 2nd talk at Debconf, and writings on Debian, I decided it would be a nice idea. For those readers of Interprete, there will still be enteries there that won’t appear on Debian Planet as the only categories that are slated to appear are the posts related to Debian, technology and the anthropology of technology.

May 16, 2006

Down my system goes at Debconf

Category: Debian,Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 6:37 am

After a year of missing a Debconf, I have made it to Debconf 6 where I had planned to give my talk on hacker codes of value on Monday and then basically chill out against and depsite the the hot and spicy Mexican environment. Not a bad plan and not one too hard to keep unless your file system turns to mush, and worse it happened before I really completed the prep for the talk. Ai Bendito, Caramba, Conchale, Mama Mia… That sucked.

There are worse places where this sort of fiasco could have happen like during the luddite society annual conference or something. I mean geeks during Debconf are having fun but they are also spending a lot of time doing what they do best: hacking! So as soon as grub reported an error, there were a pack of geeks, drunk on and with and for technology (and as the day wore on drunk on tequila too) who took the challenge (as they so love to do and as I will talk about during my talk) to fix the problem.

Now my slides are recovered, my system is back (without the rest of my files but I have backups for most of them) and now it is back to the grind so I can finish my talk. This time, I will make sure to make backups every 5 minutes or so.
Hay Benditio!

May 12, 2006

Jersey Vintage Computer Fair

Category: Travel — Biella @ 5:57 am

If I were not going on Saturday to hang out with geeks in Latin America, I would instead go to “the shore” to check out this vintage computer fair. If you are in the area, it is worth a trip both for the computers and for the shore.

May 10, 2006

The proliferation of place

Category: Travel — Biella @ 4:12 am

SO it looks like I know where I will be next year, the Great North, the land of the Polar Beaver, National Health Care and hockey, as I have accepted a two year Killiam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Alberta in their Program of Science, Technology, and Society.

By most any standard, the terms of the postdoc are pretty sweet. Not only do I get 2 years with no teaching or administrative obligations, they have added an additional year of teaching, and even better there are a great number of folks there who also on the types of projects (both the hacker and pyschiatry ones) I am engaged in.

I have to admit though, once I located Edmonton on the
map, my eyes almost fell out of my sockets. As most may easily infer from my reaction, Edmonton IS far, by most any standard of the word. Ok, it is not as if I am going to Easter Island or Alaska, or some tiny town with one street, but it is not like one of those Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver that closely hug the American border. It is north of the northwestern city of Calgary. So even though I have had a secret desire to relocate to Canada and pledge my allegiance to the Red Maple Leaf ever since I first visited in 1997 (and found out that they *really* do lead a more sane life than we do here), this seemed a little too cold and north for my tropical comfort zone.

Knowing that I may have reservations about a University and city I knew very little about, the folks at University of Alberta were nice enough to get me out there to visit, which did ease most of my concerns and fears. Edmonton is a mid-sized city with a million people. And though it has all the recognizable markers of a big city (a glittering downtown skyline, bustling commercial mixed with residential centers, many opportunities for karaoke) it has some nice “nature” touches to it and in this regard, reminds me of Chicago a little for it also hosts a beautiful river that separates the city into a North and South Side. Instead of allowing massive development along the river, most of it (all of it) is protected as a park with ample trails, ripe and ready for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Apparently it also holds the distinction of being the sunniest city in Canada and is also 3 hours from the Canadian Rockies (Bannf and Jasper) though it is also one of the coldest cities too.

Of course, Edmonton represents the proliferation of place in my life, which while I enjoy, is not always easy to juggle, practically or emotionally. With each new place are a group of people who will now be part of a bulging package of folks that I rarely see, unless they are academics, and we go to the same conferences, or they hang out on IRC with me (and then I do see them everyday). But as my mother’s illness requires me to go home to Puerto Rico up and above any other place (unless it has to do with work), I am slowly losing ground and touch with many of my relationships. I have not been back to San Francisco since I left nearly 3 years ago, which is hard to believe, I miss most of my friends weddings, and always am reluctant to just go somewhere, because I usually choose to go to Puerto Rico instead.

But in the end, this situation of constant moving may not at some level be ideal, it is by no means tragic. I am lucky that I can visit my mother, that I do see friends when I travel going to great conferences and do keep in touch with friend in other ways, and I knew very well going into academia, that we are like the birds, a migratory flock, especially as junior scholars.

Now, my mom is incredibly excited about this gig at the U of A. After I explained to her the process by which one tries to get a job in the academy (ie. competing with 100-300 people for one spot), she fully comprehended and registered the difficulty of it all with a whopping “Conchale, eso es impossible” (Damn it, that sounds impossible), and then shuffled her diminutive self away shaking her head in a bob of worry, convinced more than ever that my fate as an academic was doomed. This was my first year on the job market and it is as tough and wild (though fun) as I was told.

Right around the time I told my mom about my departure to Canada, my mom also happened to listen to some radio program on the news about Canadian beef and now she thinks that Canada is Land-Of-Beef. And the funny thing is that Alberta is Beef Country.. So what she imagines, is in fact where I am going. Now if my mom was able to see on a map how far I will be (and I won’t really try to drive this point home with her), I think her excitement-barometer may drop a few notches. And that is of course my biggest reservation. To get home is costly and long, requiring a flight either from Edmonton to Chicago to San Juan; Edmonton to Calgary to Houston to San Juan; Edmonton to Toronto to NYC to San Juan. But then again, it is not that bad (especially now that I have a half decent computer with a decent battery life). One can leave within a day and get there that same day if need be.

So afte a summer of travel and writing, off I go in September, and if you ever need a place to stay in Edmonton, by all means, mi casa fria, es tu casa fria.