Haiti journal

While I did not keep a journal while I was in Haiti, I did write several letters about my experiences there. Before mailing them off, I think I will post them here so they can be read by all. In the future I might break them up into separate blog entries with the appropriate dates and associated pictures.

Monday, January 31, 2005 – I am in Haiti now. It’s kinda like Ecuador except that everything’s French or Creole instead of Spanish.
We met at the church at 3:30am and piled in a bus headed for the airport. Checking in our luggage was a busy event because we used nearly our maximum allowance taking clothes to donate and building supplies. It turned out that two of our items were oversize, 2 more were overweight, and packing a used engine will trigger the bomb sensors due to traces of gasoline. The flights went smoothly. Picking up our luggage and getting to the F.O.H.O. guest house was hectic, but we were warned of this. They have lots of porters at the airport who are very eager to help us with our luggage. With about ten carts full of luggage, the ends up being quite a production. I was never quite sure which ones were paid to help us. We put the luggage on the back of two trucks, and most of us sat on top for the ride from the airport. Our compound is at 28B Delmas, which is on one of Port-au-Prince’s biggest roads. They have traffic lights here, but they don’t have any power!

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 – I laid block today. I’m not particularly good at it. Another guy, Scott, is an apprentice bricklayer, and he taught me how to do it. I understand some of what I’m supposed to do, but that’s not the same as being able to do it. There are a couple other difficulties involved in our task. We had to pour some concrete, which involved improvising the forms from blocks and scraps of wood, as well as figuring out how to ask the Haitians to make some concrete. There seemed like only one guy knew what should be doing, and he was only around part of the time because he had other responsibilities. The Haitian foreman liked to stop by and show us how he liked things to be done, which was different from how Scott had been taught to work. I spent a lot of time standing around.
In the afternoon I heard some firecrackers which turned out to be gunfire. Nathan was working on the roof and said he saw people shooting at UN forces. I’m not going to write home about that.
Most of our group is working on different tasks. Many did some digging. I think it’s in preparation for pouring concrete. Others did work on the F.O.H.O. guest house, and at least one person was teaching.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005 – I laid more block today. I did a really horrible job on some of it but got a little better over time. The late morning sun got really hot.
An interesting thing happened last night: it was really quiet. The guest house overlooks one of the busiest intersections in Port-au-Prince. Usually it’s just teeming with tons and tons of people and vehicles. Last night it was abandoned. We watched from the roof, and there was just one car driving through every couple minutes. This would be like seeing Times Square completely empty at 10:30pm. All the streetlights were on, and the traffic lights were out as usual. My best guess is that maybe a curfew was declared because of the shooting. Nobody seemed to know for sure.
Haiti doesn’t have sufficient electric power for Port-au-Prince, so the city has rolling blackouts. We have a generator, so we are not affected, but each night it seems like a different part of the city is black. Tonight it seems to be our part of town.
Today I gave away some of the suckers I brought. One of them was to a little girl sitting by her mom across the street from the guest house. Two more were to the daughters of the Haitian foreman working on the church. He has a Creole name that sounds something like “Eleanor.” In the afternoon – maybe after they get out of school?? – they start quietly hanging around the worksite until they go home with their dad. I took their picture because they were so cute sucking on the candy while their dad took a shower in the bathroom we have been building. (Fortunately, I didn’t get his whole body in the frame.)
After work and before dinner, I was interested in leaving the compound. I had casually discussed this with another guy, Brian, who recalled the rules saying that you had to be in a group of at least 2 when leaving the walls and groups with mixed genders need at least 2 of each. Today I asked Marv, one of our leaders, what the rules were for leaving the compound. He did not answer my question per se, but he did respond that he wants us to be with one of the leaders when we go. None of them were available today. Maybe tomorrow. I don’t have anything specific that I’m burning to do outside the walls, but I feel like it is such a wasted opportunity for me to sit inside and drink a Coke after work when I could be outside in the city. I can sit and drink Coke at home. There are other things I could be doing with this time such as reading the Bible, praying, writing, or hanging out with the other missionaries – but these are also things I could be doing at home. Seeing Haiti – I can’t do that at home. I can’t witness in Creole, but I could in English. And I’m sure there is plenty I could learn about the city and the culture.

Saturday, February 5, 2005 – It has been a few days since I last wrote. The reason is that I haven’t been following any of my regular routines while here. It does not bother me psychologically to interrupt my routine, but there are apparently several things that won’t get done unless I have established a time for them.
In the late morning and early afternoon, our group piled into a van and a truck and drove up the mountain to the Baptist Mission. We drove through a crowded market, enjoyed great views, saw super-expensive mansions, and bought souvenirs from street vendors. This was kinda cool.
Shortly after we returned, a much cooler thing happened. I was sitting in the lounge, and Brian came up to me. He told me someone at the gate named Mackensen was asking for me. This was one of the guys that had a conversation with me the previous afternoon when the group took a walk around the block. I was just going to talk to him through the gate, but Brian went outside to talk to his friend Jean (“John”) so I too went outside the gate. Mackensen had some dolls he wanted to sell me, but I told him I wasn’t interested. So we talked instead. He told me lots of things – I don’t know where to start. He said he was a Christian since May 2003. He said he used to be a bad guy but is now a good guy because he believes in God. I asked him if we were in a good part of town and where the bad parts were, and he said there’s no reason to be worried if you believe in God. After a little while, Brian came up to me. He asked me if I would go with him and Jean to the gas station because Jean needed to buy gas to cook with. This was an exciting question, and I really wanted to say yes. However, I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to do this. We both remember reading the official rules that say you need to be in a group of at least two when leaving the compound, but talking to Marv gave me the impression that they would like things to be much more restrictive. After a moment of indecision I agreed to go with him. I told Mackensen that I bought a book to learn Creole, and he told me that he would be happy to teach me Creole. We went to the gas station. Brian helped Jean buy milk for his baby, and Mackensen started teaching me Creole and even quizzed me.
After we returned from the gas station, Brian asked me if I would like to go to Jean’s home. Would I ever! On the walk there, I asked Mackensen if he had a girlfriend. He said no, he was waiting for God to give him one – it had to be a special kind of girl. At some point, Kenore joined us. He was another guy I met by the basketball court on Friday. We walked up stairs and more stairs to get to Jean’s home. There were lots of shacks along the way except that they were made of block instead of wood. There were many people just hanging around that I exchanged a friendly “Bon soir” with.

Wednesday, February 8, 2005 – I talked with Mackensen again this evening. The last time we talked, I didn’t have much to say, but I promised I would have “some words” for him. I tried to think of something last night, but I couldn’t focus much and nothing came to mind. I finally thought of something cool that Tricia should appreciate. I also showed him some pictures – one of Tricia, one of my parents, one of some friends from college, and one of some friends from home.
My trip is nearing its end. Our flight home leaves Friday morning, so tomorrow is our last workday. It has the promise of being a hectic day because we will be trying to get as much done as possible before leaving, there will be a wedding at the guest house for one of the Haitian workers, we will be packing all of our check luggage, and there will probably be some last minute bargaining with the street vendors. Thursday’s plans were discussed after dinner, but it was brief because it’s not really planned out.

Closing done

I walked to American Title Thursday morning and, after signing my name several times, am the proud new owner of unit #703 at Nelson Towers in Jackson. Well, that plus 10 years of mortgage payments. I moved a few things over after work: kitchen items, chairs, and a card table. I have Friday off work, so I might be able to move enough stuff to start living there right away. I’ve been asked a few times about when I’m planning to move in, and I don’t really have plans…. I’m just going to do it. Since I don’t have many possessions and it is not far away, it should be pretty easy. I suspect this post is pretty boring for most people, but I’m geeked.

Back from Africa

Despite the long time since the last post, I am alive and well. I finished my senior thesis project back in September and early October. Tricia left for her mission in Argentina. I have been travelling for the past 5 weeks: one week in Florida, about a week in California, and a 3-week overland tour through South Africa with Swaziland and Lesotho. (Pictures are online now.) I arrived home yesterday after 25 hours on planes and 8 hours in airports for the return trip. Whew!

I am going with my family to Toronto for the weekend. Other significant events in the near future are starting a permanent position at Consumers on Wednesday, Dec. 1 and participating in commencement ceremonies at Kettering on Friday, Dec. 3. Today I also paid the deposit for my missions trip to Haiti in February.

Software Engineering

This term at Kettering I am taking Software Engineering. I’m pretty geeked about it. I was not previously aware of exactly what software engineering was. I know that the developers at my company use fancy acronyms like SDLC and PMM that don’t seem to really mean much. We have two required texts for the course: The Mythical Man-Month by Brooks and Object-Oriented and Classical Software Engineering by Schach. In the past week, I have read about 150 pages of Brooks and maybe 60 pages of Schach. The term “Software Engineering” seems to have been created because of this problem: large software projects generally run late, over-budget, and create products riddled with bugs. This can be compared with other types of engineering, which appear to have better management, design, and products. (As I am writing this, dozens of engineering failings come to mind ranging from life-ending mistakes at NASA to little things like my car having a rough idle. However, I must admit that engineered building rarely randomly collapse; Windows crashes much more often.)

Brooks concedes that an individual or team of two can write wonderful software. The problem seems to arise when a large project is needed in a short amount of time. The solution is to form a large team to build the software– which is also the source of them problem. Schach seems to implicitly agree, but I haven’t read where he admits small programs could be over-engineered.

Schach repeatedly cites a statistic that 67% of a software budget is spent on maintenance — more than all the other phases combined (requirements, analysis, design, implementation, integration, and retirement).

As I go through this information, I am trying to relate it to my work experience. (As a Kettering student, I have almost two years of fulltime work experience in my field, unlike a typical undergraduate.) Right now I’m thinking the whole software life-cycle idea is very short-sighted. Maybe things will change as I keep reading, but the life-cycle process seems to assume it is operating in a vacuum. The beginning steps are aimed at a client requesting a new software product. While my company has a large IT department, brand new software products are rarities. The only one that comes to mind was the company website created a handful of years ago. Instead of new product requests, we have transformations of existing products and integration of third-party software products. I suppose the transformations are considered maintenance. I do not know what Schach thinks of third-party software products….

Let me digress about maintenance. As I stated before, it seems that the software life-cycle is focused on just new stuff. That means new versions short of complete rewrites are considered maintenance. If we apply that to Microsoft Windows, I guess the requirements, analysis, design, implementation, and integration occurred prior to the 1985 release of version 1.0. Does anybody out there agree with me? I doubt it. From what I have learned so far (which is admittedly relatively small), the software life-cycle does not adequately account for new major versions of software. They are too big to be considered maintenance, but too small to be considered new products. This is a big hole because nearly all software is released in versions. (Some of software life-cycles discussed by Schach accomodate multiple builds of a product, but that is a much smaller scale.)

In my previous work experience, I installed a third-party critical event notification product. It was a small project but still complex; its human and automatic interfaces had to be programmed. The human interfaces involved the way the product communicated with people via pages, phone calls, and e-mails. The automatic interfaces involved how it received events from a separate problem ticket product and later updated the tickets. The problem ticket product in turn interfaced with a network management product.

So far, I don’t see how my past project fits into the world of software engineering. I certainly did not design and program a new software product. However, there were definitely elements of design, implementation, and integration involved. The three big pieces were each “completed&qout; software products (according to the life-cycle), although they all allow for much customization. If the goal of software engineering is to produce a good software product, what do you call it when the goal is to produce a good system of integrated software products? Is it business or information systems or industrial engineering? This work has the same technical demands as software engineering, but the scope is one step bigger.

One possible way to describe this scenario is simply *using* the software products. Despite some work involved in implementing the interfaces, each product was designed to interface with multiple other products after all. So far, I haven’t seen where usage fits in to the software life-cycle. Is it really a good idea to completely ignore it?

Dinner and um…

On Friday I went home during lunch and prepared chili for dinner. I just bought some new spices, and I was looking forward to trying them out. My two choices were chipotle chile powder and jamaican jerk. After careful smelling, the consensus was that these two spices are not to be combined. My dad preferred the chipotle, so I went with that. Before cooking the meat, I heated up some oil with chipotle and minced onions on the skillet. More about that in a minute. I browned the ground sirloin and put it in the crock pot along with 2 cans of black beans, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, a can of tomato sauce, a tablespoon of chipotle chile powder, and a tablespoon of generic chili powder. When I got home from work in the evening, the house had a definite smell. The smell was similar to chipotle but kinda bad… sort of a burnt smell. This was not a good sign for the chili. Fortunately, the chili itself smelled fine and tasted great. The best I can guess is that the smell in the kitched was a result of burning some of the spice while I was heating it up on the skillet. Hopefully the smell will fade before too long.

On a different subject, I’ve been thinking about how Valentine’s Day is such a great opportunity to ask someone on a date. The conversation would go something like this:

  • Him: So do you have big plans for Valentine’s?

Possibility 1:

  • Her: Yeah, I do
  • Him: Really? What do you have planned?
  • Her: Well, I’ll be going out with my boyfriend to such and such……

Possibility 2:

  • Her: No, not really.
  • Him: Really? A beautiful girl like you with no date?
  • Her: Nope.
  • Her: What about you?
  • Him: No, I don’t have any plans.
  • *awkward silence*
  • Him: Want to hang out on Valentine’s? I know this great restaurant…

Either way, you’re better off than you started. In the first possibility, you at least learn more about her. With the second possibility, there is so much upside. First, you don’t have to necessarily call it a date; it’s just spending time together and avoiding being alone on Valentine’s Day. Second, if it does work out, well then it is a date. 🙂 Regardless of the outcome, you leave yourself less exposed than if you asked this any other week; asking someone about their Valentine’s plans is casual conversation, whereas asking them about their Saturday night plans and then suggesting something has no subtlety.

Wondering if it worked? Well, I never got the chance to use this on the person I was hoping to, so I guess we won’t know.