Archive for December, 2008

2 days, too little…

December 30th, 2008

It hurts to receive criticism, however it hurts more to be criticised for doing something well intentioned.  I’ve received a fair bit of criticism for travelling to India.  ‘Neocolonialism’ was used to describe my 8 day trip.  What could ‘I’ possibly offer than they couldn’t do themselves.  “Sounds like a case of an overinflated ego, and harking back to the days of Empire.”

Ouch.


Luckily, I’m not one for letting comments like that get me down, and at a certain level I empathise with them.  However,  it’s not just for the benefit of the people in India that I went, it was for my own benefit.  I don’t want to pretend it wasn’t.  Coming back, I do feel like a changed man.

The reason I went out there was not clear cut.  I’ve wanted to travel, but never got round to it before University, and started straight into a job once I’d finished.  My father had called me up in November asking if I’d accompany my Sister over to India.  She’d just dropped out of University, and needed something to help ‘realign her perspective on life.’  She had a couple of job applications in at this point, so Dad delayed booking the flights until we knew she’d be able to get time off.  Unfortunately that meant by the time the flights were booked, there were no economy flights left.  We traveled out business class.

I’ve not traveled business class before.  Whenever I’ve flown with family, we’ve always taken economy.. but most of our holidays have been camping to mainland Europe.. France in particular.  For those critics that would point to this expense as being better spent ‘on the ground, for the charity’ – I can quite understand… but in a way arriving in such comfort brought home the reality of the situation once we arrived.

The first thing that I’ve got to pass comment on is that my experience of India can be described as high contrast.  I stopped at a fairly nice 4 star hotel (there’s one for the naysayers to exploit) – as it was not acceptable for me, an unmarried man, to stay in the same house as the two female doctors that i was over to see.  At a cost of £12 a night, it wasn’t what you’d call an ‘outrageous expense’ (whereas the business class flight probably was).

After arriving at the house, Lorna and I were fairly tired, so had a nap on the first day.  It was about 32*C – humid.  The others went out to visit ‘The Land’ – the potential new site of a Clinic, Dormitories, Play Area, Visitors home, and gardens – all planned for completion within the next 12 months.

The next day, Lorna (my sister) and I, Brian and Paula (UK visitors from Nottingham), Elizabeth and Sue (Visitors from Nottingham), Carlo and Sue (Visitors from Nottingham),  & Mary and Cat (The two Doctors in India) traveled 45 minutes to a campsite, to decorate a set up the venue for a party for 170 children.  These children were from about 14 Mercy Homes.  The setup of a Mercy Home, is that a Pastor and his Wife can accept up to 10 children to live with them; either orphans or from poor backgrounds.  The outcome is that the children get to be brought up in a ‘familial environment’, rather than the cold and stigmatized environment of an orphanage.

The preparations for the party involved decorating two rooms; the main hall and the dining hall.  We erected a Christmas Tree, Crib – streamers and starts.  In India, there are hoops embedded into the ceiling where bulbs are hung from for lighting.  Fans are also hung from them.  The room height was approximately 15 Feet, with the only aid to reach the roof being a 12 foot steel straight ladder..  I got Brian and Carlo to hold the ladder as I climbed up it – however, once i reached the top it moved aplenty on the tiled floor, so I wasn’t able to attach the streamer.  Instead, I descended, got a big piece of blu-tack.. put it on a stick with string attached to it.. and poked it through the hole.  It took a while, but we got the job done..

The first day of the party i was up at 6am, and picked up from the hotel @ 7.  Brian was staying in the hotel with me, and as we waited in the hotel car park we admired the local scene.  Drivers in their auto-rickshaws were driving around like moths to a flame, with buses rocketing around corners, slowing down – but not stopping – to allow passengers to alight and board.  Motorbikes flew past, carrying anything from 1 to 5 people with about 1 in 20 of them wearing helmets.  Feral dogs moved in packs on the far side of the road, scavenging for food from the piles of rubbish blown to the empty field from the sides of the road.  It was a different world.

We got on the bus and headed to the campsite.  We were greeted with the news that at 8am, all homes had arrived and were accounted for.  Shazeeta Thompson (daughter of Pastor Hank Thompson from RTW Ministries) jumped out of the bus in here clown outfit, and headed to the throng with balloons and a pump, immediately impressing by making a sausage dog and passing it to an eagerly awaiting child.  I headed to the main hall with the rest of the group.  I’d be playing the keyboards for some singing to kick off the event and for introductions.

Once we’d got all the children into the hall, we were asked by our hosts, Lily and Pastor Daniel – to do an icebreaker.  Though I’d planned it for later in the day, Dr Mary suggested that I do ‘Simon Says’ with all 170 kids.  I was hoping to translate the phrase ‘Simon says’ into Malayalam, as a token gesture.  However, I was assured that the children would prefer to impress me with their English.  170/1 .. was fair odds to sticking to what they wanted to do.

I’d thoroughly recommend playing “Simon Says” with 170 children + a translator.  It was a great kick.  The kids got it after a couple of examples, and I have a fantastic photo of where one of the Pastor’s wives is doing different to everyone else.  It really got the kids moving and chatting- something that they don’t normally get the chance to do.  The applause that they gave each other was staggering.  I hadn’t heard such an intense applause before.  It was superb.

The next part of the day involved singing.  I got on the keyboards, with Dr. Mary and Carol leading the way on two acoustic guitars.  We taught the children a few English hymns, which they sang with aplenty – and then moved over to let Juno lead the way with some songs in Malayalam.  I’ve got to admit – my favorite song of the day was a Malayalam one.  It was about two trains, the Jesus train and the Satan train.. and which one should you choose… the actions were great too!

We took a break, and despite having a kitchen team made up of local Indians – the UK team served out the chai and coffee.  It was the only way we’d get one to one contact with all the kids, and over the whole two days – became a pretty moving time.  The children were awesome.  They’d come up and either impress us with their English, or we’d break the ice with a little Malayalam.  It was a reciprocal exchange of pidgin-language – but a fun one, and that pretty much shaped the whole event.

After the chai, we had the games session.  I’d volunteered to be the organiser for the elder boys group (we’d split the children into 4 groups.. girls and boys – then subdivided into two age groups).  That was fun.  I decided to hark back to my days as a boy scout for inspiration, and in our 60 minutes of play time managed to get through 4 games.  The first was ‘carry the water’ where a bucket full of water was placed at one end of a line of people, and an empty bucket at the other end.  The aim was to pass the water from one end of the line to the other, just using your hands.. had the lines been ten people long, I think we’d have got some water in the buckets.. it was fun to watch everyone get wet.  I inverted the buckets half way through, so everyone got a bit wet, and despite the resounding failure the boys enjoyed it.

The next game I played was ‘hot rice’ – which I organized with the help of a translat
or.  The aim of the game is for a group of people to run from one side of a room to the other, whilst two people in the middle of the room (at the sides) trow two balls across the line of runners.  If a runner is hit between the knee and the ankle, then they are ‘out.’  The translator understood, but wanted to keep it as a team game.. so we kept the boys in the two lines, ready to run.  Unfortunately the translator hadn’t accurately explained that when I shouted ‘go’,  only one team should run.  Luckily there were not injuries – but two lines of boys running at each other at pace wasn’t really part of the game.  We got the game restarted – with one line running at a time.. and once again the boys seemed to enjoy it.. as did I.

After games the boys went in for tea, but not before watching the pastors play a rather unethical game of musical chairs.  Their mischievousness was particularly amusing – especially the one Pastor who decided to run a lot slower than the others…

After tea we had a competition in the main hall.  The kids had to mime out bible stories and were judged on their performance by a panel of judges, and whether or not the other children could guess the story.  I felt quite pained that I did not guess half of them, but the kids knew them.. need to read a bit more I think!  The funniest one was from one of the boys’ Mercy Homes.  6 lads got up on the stage carrying a cardboard coffin.  They weren’t particularly old, probably about 6-8.  They walked round in a circle for about 10 revolutions, then turned to face the audience.. whereupon a younger lad sat up in the cardboard box.  It was the story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.  You wouldn’t have though the kids would have managed to carry the guy, so the shock factor made it hilarious.

After tea we all sat down in a big circle in the main hall, in family groups, and Sue led the prayers.  It’s a long time since I was last involved in group prayer, but with the candles going (each family’s Pastor and Wife came up to light their candle off Sue, then went to light their children’s candles) it was a magic moment.  It really meant a lot to some of these people, and some children and pastors event came forward to be prayed for.  In my Catholic upbringing, if I’d have prayed for anyone it would have been with my eyes closed, hands together in private.  However, for the Church over in India, they prayed with a laying of hands.  It was a bit of a culture shock to begin with, but something that I became comfortable with pretty fast.

The prayers ended, and it came time for videos.  I put on a Malayalam film first, about two kids leaving their parents to goto Mumbai.  I won’t paraphrase the story, but was fairly entertaining to watch, done using normal film nad 3D animations.  Once that had finished we watched some Mr Bean.  The first episode we watched was fine, however, when ‘Mr Bean goes to the swimming pool’ reached it’s climatic stages – I had to jump up to turn it off, as Mr Bean loses his shorts, and nudity of any form is frowned upon in India (especially when shown to children aged 6-18).  Sorry Mr Atkinson!  They loved it though.

I was amazed at the obedience of the children too.  Despite having to end the film prematurely, the children understood – and when I announced it was time for bed, they all got up and left.  Not one complained – though a couple did come to me to say goodnight and thank you.  If I could only teach my little brothers to act the same!

The next day began pretty much the same as the first, with an hours singing.  By this time I’d managed to learn the actions and words to one of the Malayalam songs.  I was invited up on stage to do the actions with Juno, and managed to coerce the front-line of kids to come up with me too.  It was great fun.  Unfortunately, as my conga-line left the stage doing the ‘train actions’ to the words “boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom hey andy*” the song ended.  Which was a shame, as I was hoping to get more children involved.  Maybe next time!

After chai and coffee – we held a talent competition.. X factor style.  The kids loved it.  Some of them danced – most sang.  However, the best group were a sextuplet of girls from “Sisters of Mercy”.  With bells on their ankles, they sang and danced a traditional Malayalam story.  It got a rousing applause from the audience; I was thoroughly impressed.

We then came to the prize-giving, and present giving. When I was at school, we did something called the shoebox appeal.  I’d collected a few toys, put them in a shoebox and wrapped them up for kids in Romania.  I’ve got Miss Ford to thank for bringing that to school.  I remember looking at the pile in the school reception, and failing to picture their final destination.  I was fortunate enough to be listed as one of the volunteers to give out the presents.  As each home came up, the Pastor and his Wife were given a present each, then each of the children were presented with their own presents.  Smiles all round, as the sparkly packages were delivered to welcome hands.  Each home was also given a couple of communal presents – a traditional game for the girls’ homes, and a cricket bat, 2 balls and a football for the boys.  The most moving thing though – after all the presents were given out – the children were there, and not a single present had yet been unwrapped.  Showing respect for those who’d yet to receive what was potentially the same present as those who’d received them first – everyone had waited until the presents had been allocated. We’ve got much to learn from this in the UK.

We then took the kids through to a newly decorated dining hall – we had crackers, streamers, and tablecloths.. and the childrens’ favourite – Chicken Beryani.  Smiles abouding, joyful singing, the soung of laughter and the smell of Chicken Beryani filled the air.  Not what you’d call a traditional English Christmas Lunch – but a superb atmosphere.   Shortly after the children departed.. a few Pastors came up to shake my hand, others came up and gave me a hug.  I couldn’t speak much Malayalam before I went out there, and now I can only muster a few words.

I really enjoyed my experience looking after these children, and the mutual learning experience.   I’ve not yet written about the other 6 days of my trip.  They were probably the most ‘real’ – in that we went out to visit peoples’ homes and situations.  I’m not sure whether I will write about them yet.  I plan on going back to India, to further the work on a number of projects out there.  There’s the lnmf (http://www.lnmf.info) project which I’ve only raised funds for, but that i’d like to visit.  Another friend of mine is planning on going to Northern India for part of his Masters in sustainable building design, and there’s the clinic that Compassion Care are hoping to build.

It’s a bit different from Computer Programming… but it’s still Ubuntu… humanity to others.

Nelson Mandela:

A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?


Archbishop Desmod Tutu:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.


Ubuntu to you too..


*they were not the words, but sounded phonetically accurate.. Malayalam has 58 letters in the alphabet, of a different script to what the English us
e.. so I can’t yet write up or pronounce what we actually sang.

Philanthropy versus Neocolonialism (unfinished post)

December 26th, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write up a piece on my 8 days efforts in India, but have put it off due to not knowing what to write.  Each day I was out there, I scribbled down on a pad a few hilights of the day, so that I’d be able to go into them in greater detail when I had a computer infront of me.  However, now that I’m back in the UK.. writing daily updates belatedly seems fundamentally wrong.. and looking back I don’t think I can do the emotional side of things justice; nor reflect accurately the change in myself over those 8 days.  The man sitting here writing the blog now, is an altered man to that which may have written the post those two weeks previous.



I’ll try and go back and see where my mind was at before heading out to India.  I was expecting a dry and arid landscape, with relatively few people and lacking the hustle and bustle of a UK town.  What I got was entirely different.  As the plane came to land, Lorna (my sister) pointed out plumes of smoke rising from the palm-tree forest beneath us.  I was pretty keen to decry her claims and put the plumes down to some ‘geyser-ish’ geology.  Looking back, it was me who was the idiot.



The landing itself was fairly different from our landing in Dubai, seven hours previous.  The runway was pretty bumpy on landing, and the modest terminal was an apt allusion to the chasm between Dubai and Cochin.  Upon entering the terminal we were greeted with the warmness of a dead penguin – questioned as to why we did not know the full address and telephone numbers of who we would be staying with.  After a brief exchange, and my insistance that we were getting picked up at the airport, and taken to wherever by a friend, we were let through to the baggage reclamation area.



Walking out of the airport was another new experience.  There was a sea of brown faces, waiting in anticipation for their relative or friend to emerge from the airport terminal. Due to security restrictions, no one was allowed in the airport unless travelling, which accentuated the numbers waiting in the crowd.  Not knowing who was waiting for us, we walking out the airport briskly, hoping that my Red Newquay Sweatshirt and the Guitar on my back would act as some kind of clue as to our identity.



After about five minutes of waiting, we were greeted by a lady who introduced herself as Lily, asking if we were Andy and Lorna.. relieved that she’d got the right people – Lily told us to wait where we were until the others came out, and then we’d get the Taxi to our place.

Back from India

December 25th, 2008

I got back from India, after a 20 hour journey, at 1850 Christmas Eve. Right away I got home, changed into Western Clothes, and headed out to the town centre to meet some friends for a meal. It’s a good friend’s birthday, and the practice of heading out each Christmas Eve is now well ingrained. I’d have written this post last night, but having got back from the meal at 2230 local time (0300 body-clock time) I went right to bed.

One of the things that has really hit me about my recent trip has been the amount of negative feedback that I’ve had because of it. It began on this blog, and practically every aspect of my trip has been slighted. It hit me pretty hard before I went out there, but I chose to ignore it.. but after coming back, knowing the conditions and what I was able to do out there, it cuts close to the bone.

I’ve kept a fairly detailed record of what I did in India, scribbled using pencil and notepad provided by the hotel. I’m not sure how I want to release the ‘diary’ when I’ve finished it. My intial and only thought was to release it as a blog – but it’d be far too long. I’ve thought about a serialized blog – but I don’t want to spam the planet. I think I’ll end up with close to 50,000 words if I write it up properly, there’s just so much for me to say.

One thing that I can attest to though, is that there’s no way any western person can possibly empathize with the situation in India without seeing it first hand. What we read in the press, and on the news, and in ‘The Economist’ about India being a new major economic power may be true – but it’s still a developing country. The water comes out of the tap with a brown tint – there’s no weekly refuse collection, refuse is burned at street corners – and people piss and poo at the edge of the street. It’s not that they have a choice, it’s the current level of development.

I really want to go back to India soon. I want to go back long-term. I don’t count myself as some kind of Saviour of the people – but in comparison to sitting at a keyboard all day, the work I’ve done over there is far more rewarding. The people are the friendliest bunch I’ve had the pleasure to know – and the kids that I helped to look after are so grateful. It was great to help them, and to gain their friendship.

Virgin Killer – Scorpions

December 8th, 2008

Wow.  The internet has been buzzing today regarding the IWFs request that all major ISPs in the UK block the Virgin Killer page on wikipedia.   I did consider not writing about the topic, as in doing so I’m bringing more attention to the aforementioned album cover, but then again I’d like my views to be read.

I hadn’t heard of the scorpions, or Virgin Killer, until this morning when I real Rory Cellan-Jones article on the BBC Website informing me that an organisation called the IWF had asked a number of UK ISPs to act responsible and block a wikipedia page containing ‘potentially illegal material.’  This in itself is worring enough.. it wasn’t so long that we were complaining about Yahoo! and Google doing deals with the “Great Firewall of China” – then we go and set up our own “Firewall of Freedom.”

Misunderstanding

Sarah Robertson, spokesperson of the IWF was asked why the whole page was blocked, and not just the image.  “Illegal sites often hide images in pages,” said Sarah Robertson, director of communications for the IWF.

Method – Blocking for a 404 Error.

This is I think the most damaging thing of the whole saga.  Why do the IWF not have a holding page that specifically states why the page is blocked.  That way it’s clear to journalists/media that the page is blocked, so that it can be actively reported upon – it’s clear to people in the UK why their site has been blocked – and the publicity that this holding page could generate would help just as much as the publicity gained from today’s news – without the side-affect of discrediting teh IWFs ability to hold a p*** up in a brewery.

Singing the same song

Whilst I completely agree with the issues that the IWF deal with, I believe their methods for dealing with the issue are fundamentally flawed.  We need to have an organisation that are both accountable for their actions, and voted for by the public of the UK.  There is a line to be drawn between what is acceptable and what isn’t – and the only way that the line may be drawn accurately is by the people of the UK.  When the album was initially released – it should have been decisions made then, by both the record label and the Music Classification Body of the time, which sets the level of censorship.  If, as time passes, this needs reviewing.. then there should be written policies and accountability for the decision.

If there was an equivalent body which took ‘Mein Kampf’ off the shelves of British Libraries, there would be a general public outcry.


The government need to address this issue.  If they intend on allowing privately owned companies to decide which information we, the British Public, are allowed to access – then we, the British Public, should be given the chance to decide on a) if it is done, and b) how it is done.

Is it now illegal to circumvent the restrictions placed upon that wikipedia page in order to see what all the fuss is about? Probably not, but you wouldn’t want to try it would you? – ‘Just in case’ it’s illegal.  This is a bad precedent to set, one that upsets me greatly, and makes me wonder.

Pinax

December 4th, 2008

Thanks to listening to the #ubuntu-uk PodCast - I came across this little gem.

Pinax Project

It’s a collection of reusable django apps – all designed to be reusable – together.

What this means?

This project needed a critical mass to get it off the ground.  Basically the way things are referenced across all the apps need to be the same.  There’s no point having two reusable apps.. if they both require different ways of interfacing with the same object.  They break if one has ‘name’ as being fullname, and ther other requires name to have two separate name fields (for firstname and lastname).  You’ve then got to write a way of getting around this problem, which just increases as more features were added.

Well, the neat guys over @ pinax have started up a project on creating re-usalble apps that sing of the same hymnsheet – and they look awesome.  Having watched a presentation on youtube, the following phrase (quoted) stood out for me:

“If you want a man to build a boat, do not send him out for wood and nails, but teach him to yearn for the wide and endless sea.” -Antoine St Exupery


It’s really accurate for these kind of projects – writing reusable apps off some other guys prescribed instructions doesn’t fill the heart with glee – but seeing what can be achieved by doing this makes you want to contribute.

So Cloud27 was born – it’s a social network, but made up of the componenets developed on pinax – meaning you get to play with what you’re about to download an integrate into your own project.

It looks really good, and there’s a project I’ve been meaning to do which has been yearning out for a kickstart – I think this may have just done it!

Server Monitoring.

December 2nd, 2008

For these past few weeks I feel like I’ve spent most of my time working on a PCI DSS audit.  It’s the audit which checks whether you’ve made the standards required by the card processing companies – and gives you the ability to store card numbers.  It’s an interesting scheme – with many people having mixed views on it’s suitaility/workability.  I enjoy working to the tough specification, and adding extra bits of security all over.

There’s only so many ways in which you can secure a server.  Most PCI setups involved using multiple boxes (they have to) – and there’s lots of security between the boxes to enhance the security further.  However, the PCI audit doesn’t just check your procedures and systems to avoid the initial penetration – it also looks to migate the affects should some fortunately soul manage to get in.

Due to my background not being in Computing – there are a few areas that I feel I’m weak on.  However, once I can take a look at the problem, it’s normally just a case of logic, that ‘supa-doopa’ programming.  In fact, once I’d started programming late in 2008, I realised that the programming was just a tiny part of the process of a programmer – most of the time it was making sure that what was about to be programmed wouldn’t create erroneous results.

One program which I’ve had a love2hate relationship with, that I’ve now really warmed to, is Samhain.  From la-samhna solutions.  It’s a great program, and kudos goes to the developers for releasing it at open source.  I’ve also really enjoyed using SNORT, ntop, wireshark (formerly ethereal) and the Shorewall firewall.  System hardening was an interesting task.. locking the system down to as few users as possible.  There’s so many different things to take into consideration – you end up with a 3D network of traffic streaming from one server to another.

I imagine this as being a gravity-less environment, with streams of data passing like skycars across the 3D network.  I then basically put in roads (the firewall rules) that only allow traffic to be passing


  • on ports I know about

  • transmitting packets I know about (stateful inspection)


Then, when I turn the firewall on – the gravity gets re-enabled – and any datastreams that aren’t supported by the firewall (roads) collapse and are broken.

The most important part of it all though, is the monitoring.  Without effective system monitoring – the whole system is useless.  You need status colours, and a easy 1 screen display.  Events which are expected, such as your developer logging into the server, don’t need to trigger a ‘critical’ error – but can be flagged so the project manager can review them.  Sure, it may be easier for a developer to have plaintext lines, spelling out the status – and then expect the Project Manager to read them – but surely it’s more fun to have a screen of buttons and colours in front of them.  They can immediately see any problems.

But, the main thing I’ve learnt about all this, is that at the end of the day it’s not down to the Sys Admin to secure a system.  If the developers don’t write their code right – if the company policy regarding logins doesn’t prevent changes being made to the live server without PM approval (on pain of death) – then securing it to any level is near pointless.

Needless to say, I’m very happy with what I’ve been doing the past few weeks – and learned many lessons that I think will stand me in good stead for the future.

Bring on the next PCI audit!

#IT2008

December 1st, 2008

Hmm.. Having recently discovered #hashtags on twitter, I’m going to be twittering during my imminent trip to India.  Best way to follow it is to visit the http://www.hashtags.org/tag/IT2008 site.

I hope it works !