Moscow trip report

The following is the trip report that I’ve written for my Russia trip. Since it is directed to a number of different audiences, it covers things that I’ve already talked about in some of my earlier postings, as well as ommitting some things that I may have told particular ones of you.


Now that I’ve had a little sleep, I’m going to attempt to write up what happened over the last few days.

On Tuesday, I left Lexington, Kentucky, to spend a few days in Moscow, for the Open Source Forum, Russia. I flew out of Lexington, to Cincinnati, to Paris, and finally to Moscow. These flights were on Comair, Delta, and Aeroflot, respectively. I arrived in Moscow at about 17:00 on Wednesday. The time difference is 9 hours, so this wasn’t actually 24 hours of travel, but it felt like it.

The trip was mostly without incident. In fact, I left Lexington about an hour early, since some seats opened up on an earlier flight, which gave me more time in Cincinnati to exchange some money, as well as not have to run across the airport, which my earlier schedule would have required.

In Paris, apart from being very confused about what gate I was to go to, I had no difficulties, and even had a little time for some lunch.

Aeroflot is the russian airline, and their logo is the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Flying Aeroflot was something that I had long wanted to do, for reasons largely relating to reading a lot of James Bond books growing up. It is reputed to be one of the least safe airlines in the world, but I found the trip to be very enjoyable. And the food was great.

There was a driver waiting for me at the airport, with my name on a sign. Unfortunately, we really couldn’t communicate at all. The inability to communicate was probably the most frustrating aspect of the entire visit. The people were wonderful, friendly, and hospitable, and I wish I had been able to communicate.

There was a reception at 1600, I think, for the conference, but I didn’t get there in time, since I got to the hotel at about 18:00. I wandered around for a little while, and ended up at a restaurant called Yolki Palki, where I had a lamb shish kebab and a rice-like grain. There, too, I was largely unable to communicate, and it was pretty clear from the looks I got that I stuck out very obviously.

The hotel served breakfast starting at 0730, and when I arrived there were a bunch of people there who didn’t look russian. Jon Maddog Hall was at a table with some other folks who looked a little familiar. I invited Larry Wall to join me at my table when he came in, and a little later Peter Beckman came in and joined us. We talked about a variety of things, wandering through linguistics, being missionary kids and preachers’ kids, and supercomputing.

It turned out that the convention center was just a few minutes walk from the hotel, and I had been somewhat confused in my map interpretation. So Larry and I walked over the pedestrian bridge to the Radison hotel and convention center.

The conference network wasn’t quite set up yet. There was a hotel wireless network, but it was a bit pricey. I went off to the business center to acquire an international outlet adapter set, so that I could plug things in. When the conference network arrived, I set up a wireless network with my shiny new Airport Express. So, the wireless networking for Open Source Forum Russia was provided by Asbury College, which I thought was pretty cool. 🙂

The opening plenary involved some very interesting dances. (See photos.) And then all of the various major sponsors had about 5 minutes each to welcome people. Everything was in Russian, and everyone had headphones for the simultaneous translation. Everything was translated into English when it was in Russian, and Russian when it was in English. So there was always a few seconds lag when someone told a joke, before everyone laughed.

The tone of the conference was interesting, and distinctly different from most Open Source conferences in the US. Primarily, it was about persuading people that Open Source is good for Russia. So there were a lot of presentations from compaies that have been successful with varions Open Source business models. The message here is that there’s a viable business model with Open Source, where Russian companies can bypass years of development time by going with Open Source, and that there is a valid way to make money doing it. This was, as far as I could tell, very well received, particularly from the small companies.

The conference was sponsored by IBM and HP, but also a significant number of small Russian companies has a presence there, both as sponsors as well as with trade-show booths.

The most interesting session I attended the first day was a press conference, where the press was there in force, grilling the speakers about how Open Source would work in Russia. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a set of headphones in time, so I only heard the answers, and had to largely infer the questions. One of the main points that I kept hearing made was that Open Source allows Russia to keep money in Russia, rather than sending it to a company in Redmond Washington. Also, there was frequent mention of the fact that the US military would *NEVER* consent to running their critical systems on software made in Russia, no matter how friendly the two countries become.

During the course of the day, I had a very interesting conversation with Jon Maddog Hall, the director of Linux International, about regional conferences. I won’t go into great detail here, but will be discussing this at greater length on the Lexington Professional Linux User Group mailing list, if you’re interested in that. Basically, Maddog really wants to see regional Linux conferences be successful, and he’s willing to lend his expertise to make that happen.

At the end of the day, several of us congregated and headed down Arbat looking for a place to eat. Arbat is a wide pedestrian-only street dedicated primarily businesses catering to tourists. There are also numerous street performers who gather here, ranging from ballet to rap to one guy draped in snakes, selling the opportunity to have your photo taken with pythons around your neck.

We ended up at a Georgian place. Fortunately, Henri was with us, and was able not only to translate the menu for us, but also to recommend particular items. And his recommendations were all great. Around the table there was Larry Wall, Henri Bergius, Jon Maddog Hall, Troy Dawson, Michael Sparks, Peter Beckman, and myself.

When dinner was over, it was after midnight, and most folks went back to the hotel. Four of us – Maddog, Pete, Henri, and myself – went to a neighborhood cafe to chat for a little while longer. It was a small place with free wireless internet, and it was quiet enough that we could actually talk. We were tere until about 1am, primarily talking about the interplay of Church and State, in Russia, the USA, Finland, and various other places.

The following morning (Friday), we met for breakfast again, and then got the conference shuttle over to the convention center. Larry gave one of the keynotes, in which he talked about the various tensions within Open Source projects, and how they are generally the same ones that exist within any human relationships. The one that I found most interesting, at least in the context of Apache, is the tension between welcoming people into the community and keeping them out. Both are necessary, and a reasonable balance must be struck in order to create the kind of community that you want. Whatever that means.

Most of the talks at the conference tended to be leaning towards the product pitch, which is unusual for this kind of conference, but worked here, since it demonstrated that Open Source produces several viable business models. This was a message that this audience needs to hear. The other main theme was that Open Source gives a way to be independent of other nations, and not have to send your money somewhere else in order to have the products that you need.

Over lunch, I had a great chat with Henri about the Midgard project. I suppose that Henri should really be the one to tell the story, depending on how it turns out in the end. They are doing some very neat stuff, but I don’t want to give too much away.

There were a few technical difficulties leading up to, and during, my talk. I ended up giving a slightly abridged version, but I think that it was fairly well received. I felt pretty bad about it immediately afterwards, but conversations I had with a number of people over the next few hours made me feel considerably better about it.

Towards the end of the day, Henri needed to go, but wanted to have another chance to chat a little, so we slipped out just a little ahead of time, and took the underground to a cafe on Arbat, where we chatted for about an hour. We talked about a bunch of different things, but one in partcular stands out. I was talking about Geocaching, as well as other applications of GPS technology, including integration with blogging. Henri is talking with the GeoURL people about creating standards for encoding coordinate information in other data. For example, there are apparently cameras now that will encode the coordinates into the image, in the meta-data headers. So then, imagine if you could have a search engine where you could search for all photos taken within 1 mile of a certain location, between certain dates. Or, if people have location information in the blog entries, you could search for blog entries about a particular location on a particular day, and build a composite picture of a particular event from multiple individuals. I think it’s an idea with a ton of potential, if there was an easy way for people to obtain location information. It’s a bit painful right now, and even someone as fascinated with the idea as myself tends not to go through the pain every time.

We went back to the hotel and met up with a few people, and went to Yolki Palki for dinner. I had already been there a few nights before, but wanted to hang out with these folks so went again. Most of us got the buffet, which was excellent, and had a huge selection of different regions and types of food. Henri had to leave to catch the train, but the rest of us stayed for a while longer.

After dinner, we stopped at the hotel to get warmer coats, then walked to Red Square. Unfortunately, due to Victory Day and/or President Bush’s upcoming visit (depending on which version of the story you happened to hear from your respective taxi driver) everything was closed off. So we couldn’t get into Red Square, or Lenin’s tomb, or St. Basil’s, although we were able to get close enough to get some amazing photos.

After seeing St. Basil’s, we went to the Metro and attempted to get back to Smolenskaya, promptly becoming lost and taking the wrong line in the wrong direction. However, after a few changes, we managed to get back to the general vicinity of our hotel. We tried to go back to the same cafe that we’d been at Thursday night, but it was considerably louder, and we found another one nearby, which had good banana splits.

Most of us were still in town on Saturday, and we agreed to go to the Izmailovsky flea market. This is a huge sprawling flea market, apparently more for Russian tourists than for foreign tourists. Although a lot of the boots sell the traditional tourist items, there’s also a huge number of stands selling antiques, paintings, and icons. Thousands of icons. I managed to spend all of my remaining money, including all of my dollars and euros, retaining only 13 rubles for the return trip on the train.

After getting back from the market, I was ready for a nap. However, I remembered a couple things that I had promised to get for some people, so, after a trip to the ATM, I headed back down Arbat street. In one store, I saw a matryoshka portraying all of the Russian leaders, starting with Marx in the center and proceeding all the way to Putin. It was enormous.

When I finally found the items I was looking for, I returned to the hotel and took a long nap.

In my wanderings, I had seen a small local church, and went back there on Saturday afternoon. For those who don’t know, May 1 was Orthodox Easter, and so Saturday is one of the final days of Holy Week. I went into the church, where there was a steady stream of people coming in and lighting candles in front of various of the icons there. In the middle of the room, as part of the Easter liturgy, there was an almost-full-size of Christ, laid out in his burial clothes.

There were various dinner plans for various people. I had dinner with two fascinating individuals, and had a great time. Francois Bancilhon, from Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) and Louis Suarez-Potts, from, and I, went to a Ukranian place just off of Arbat. The food was fantastic, and we talked about a huge number of topics, including the role of Open Source in developing nations. I was lamenting the fact that so many african nations send so much money to that company in Redmond, Washington, which could be so much better used if it could just be reinvested into local software companied. This, of course, is one of the most important things that Open Source enables, and it’s why the argument for Open Source is so much stronger outside of the US than it is inside the US, where it’s primarily a philosophical issue, rather than a practical one.

It came out that I have not been back to Africa since 1989, for one reason and another. Turns out that there is an annual FLOSS conference in Africa called Idlelo, and that this year it will be in either Nairobi or Dar es Salam, and I was strongly encouraged to be there. Well, I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

The next morning at 0530, the driver arrived and whisked off to the airport. Speaking of whisked, it appears that traffic laws in Russia are largely non-existent. The speed limits, according to the driver, are all from the horse-and-carriage days, and bear very little on how people actuall drive. Indeed, he was going about 85 on the way to the airport.

My return flight was also largely without incident. I did arrive in Paris fairly late, and as we were getting off the plane into the bus to take us to the terminal, a gate agent showed up and said for anyone on the Cincinnati flight to get out the other door, and get on this other van, which will take you directly to your gate. That was nice. It seems that Paris is just starting a security screening process, since it was very disorganized and inefficient. We were asked a variety of questions about how, when, and by whom, our luggage was packed, and then we were allowed to board. But it was all very chaotic, with the agents wandering around in the crowd asking people.

So, that’s the whole story. I hope I haven’t left much out. A number of the conversations that I had with various people will hopefully develop into further interesting things. It was, in all, a very successful trip for me personally. I made a few new friends, and learned about some very cool technologies. I hope that these contacts will continue to bear fruit over the next few years.