Computer Technical Conference '08

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Computer Technical Conference, or CTC, takes place every two years. Up until now it has always been held at the JAARS Center in Waxhaw, NC (see the section on JAARS on the Wycliffe and SIL page), although the possibility for change is in the air. CTC is the time when all of us computer geeks in Wycliffe throughout the world get together to share information, learn new things, and eat pizza. A week of day long meetings, followed by two more weeks of technical workshops where we cover topics ranging from remote assistance over the Internet, proper procedures for data backup, and all the way to the latest and greatest linguistic software. It is a time to renew acquaintances, and to put faces to many of the names we see in publications and email.

For me, it is also a time for a brief vacation from the responsibilities of day-to-day life on the field, as well as a break from tropical weather and a chance to enjoy the coolness of fall. Between sessions and on weekends, I took advantage of some local hiking trails to renew my love of the great outdoors. Trips to Wal-Mart were included, and I was able to finish the paperwork necessary in order to renew my Wisconsin driver's license.

And so, it was with all of this in mind that I left my home in Anápolis on the 24th of October…

The Trip Up

I left Goiânia late afternoon on October 24, arriving in São Paulo that evening. From there, I caught a flight on Japan Airlines to New York. I had taken this same flight once before, going home on furlough. One big advantage of it is that it is considerably cheaper than the alternatives. And the flight is quite nice. A big Boeing 747 with comfortable seats and individual TV monitors for each passenger are just part of the amenities (I watched Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull this time!); the food is also excellent. The only thing that made me wince a bit were the announcements in English. One of the Japanese flight attendants gives them in both Japanese and English—and at times I sat afterward wondering just what it was she said. Fortunately, a Brazilian aeromoça then comes on and repeats everything in Portuguese, which I found much easier to understand than the broken English.

The plane landed in JFK International Airport around 7:00 in the morning, and I quickly went through Customs (being the only American on the flight, the line for U.S. Citizens was naturally quite short!). After waiting a few hours wandering around the various terminals (and getting used to hearing English spoken around me again), I caught my final flight on US Airways to Charlotte, where I was picked up and taken to the JAARS Center near Waxhaw.

At the center, I found myself living in a house with two other guys. Fortunately, we each had our own bedroom. But I did enjoy listening to their stories of what they did in the various parts of the world where they worked.

House I stayed in

This is the house where I stayed during CTC

Sunday evening, we had the traditional Pizza Party. Then on Monday morning, the Conference actually began.


In the morning, everyone met in the Townsend Building, which is the main building on the Center. We began each day at 8:00 with a devotional time brought to us by a guest speaker (who admitted that he knew nothing about computers, but was good-humored about it!). Afterward, individual speakers would come to the podium and give presentations about various subjects. This was not a technical workshop—the purpose was to present various topics basically so that we would know what they were, not to make us familiar with details—although the organizers did attempt to put presentations about related topics together.

Here is a shot of the Townsend Auditorium, before the morning session began. The third seat back on the aisle with the olive green sweatshirt draped over it was mine. The orange roadwork cone you see near the back was to “warn” people about cables crossing the aisle.

Before CTC session

People sitting around before CTC Session

Most days in the afternoon, we split into two different “tracks”. One track was geared more toward general computer support, while the other was geared toward language software. Ideally, each entity is supposed to send two people to CTC; one a computer technical support person such as myself, and the other someone who works in language programs, but is also computer-savvy. Unfortunately, Brazil Branch is small enough these days that they only send me. This was one aspect that I wished could have been different; I would have liked to have been able to sit in on both sessions.

Here is a picture of Sheryl Howe, who works at JAARS, giving a presentation. (I chose her because she once spent a few months in Brazil during my last furlough, so there are “connections”).

Sheryl Howe presentation

Sheryl Howe giving Presentation at CTC

One of the most important things at CTC is the “networking”. By this, I am not referring to blue cables and switch boxes connecting computers together. Rather, I'm talking about the opportunity to meet and talk to other computer geeks from all over the world, to get to hear their perspectives and share mine. This mostly takes place during coffee break, meals and after hours. In fact, it was while talking to a guy I met during this CTC that I learned about some things about web sites that helped me to vastly improve this site.

Here is a shot of people networking during coffee break. This is in the Townsend Building dining room, where I also ate lunch and supper. (Yes, the Brazil flag is there, too, but it's on the other side of the room, hidden behind others.)

Coffee Break

People milling about at Coffee Break

And the snack food was very good…

Of course, all good things must come to an end. To be honest, by the end of the week I was ready for a break; I was starting to feel as though someone had stuck an information firehose to my head and opened the valve full throttle. The workshops that followed would also provide a vast input of information, but with considerably less jumping around, and taking a bit more time to digest things.

One of the nicer social events was the banquet, which is held Friday evening. This is an opportunity to relax around a table and talk about anything we want, whether it's computers, critters, clothes, politics or whatever. And the food is very good. Afterward, we gathered in the Auditorium to hear a couple of speakers, and to watch some important people receive awards.

Here I am at the table I sat at for the banquet. The guy on my left, Chuck Liesch, also spent a few years in Brazil, including coming down for 6 months to help set up our very first network, and give me my initial training in the subject.


My table at CTC Banquet

The Conference was over. After a weekend in which I got out and enjoyed the area, as well as gave my brain a rest, the technical workshops began.

Technical Workshops

The technical workshops were sort of like mini-courses in a number of different computer-related topics. One that I attended was on something called “Network Streaming”, which is a type of remote assistance where the techo can take over someone's computer remotely, over the Internet, and help. I had already been doing this for people in Brazil Branch—it had proven especially helpful for remote members in Porto Velho and at least one still living in Cuiabá—and I thought it was time to get a little more official training in the subject.

However, three of the most interesting days were spent getting an introduction to a couple programs that are part of a software suite called FieldWorks. FieldWorks is high-powered linguistic software that allows for easy scripture translation, linguistic analysis, and more. Two of the principal components are Translation Editor and Language Explorer.

Here is a shot of the Translation Editor workshop in session.

Translation Editor Workshop

Translation Editor workshop in session

The TE session was only one day, but it was worth it. Although I am not an actual translator, I saw a tool that would definitely benefit SIL members who do work directly in language programs. And as part of my job is to help translators do their job, this was a piece of software that I felt I needed to learn, at least sufficiently to be able to explain it to others and encourage them to use it.

After TE, we spent two days learning Language Explorer, also known as FLEx (FieldWorks Language Explorer). Like most of FieldWorks, FLEx is still partially in the development stage, although it is sufficiently ready for prime time that linguists can use it for actual work. This is a highly complex program, capable of actually producing dictionaries and first drafts of grammar sketches. Fully Unicode compliant, it makes use of as many different writing systems as the user wishes; all he or she has to do is set them up. And it can directly make use of translated scripture portions from TE, since both programs (and all of FieldWorks) share a common database.

This is a screen shot of FLEx. The instructor was using a projector to display her computer screen for us all to see.

FLEx Screen Shot

Screen Shot of FieldWorks Language Explorer

About my only disappointment with FieldWorks at this time is the fact that it is limited to Windows. This is largely because they are using Microsoft SQL Server for the database, which makes it impossible to port to other platforms, such as Macintosh or Linux. However, while I was at CTC I heard that they are strongly considering changing to a different database program—one that is cross-platform—which will make it possible to migrate this excellent program to other operating systems.

At this point, this limitation is not an issue for us in Brazil. We are able to get Windows licenses at a reduced cost through an educational discount (although I'm not sure what Vista will bring to this). However, there are parts of the world where the costs for Microsoft products are simply out of reach of the people who need to use computers in Bible translation. And as SIL Brazil looks to work more with mother tongue translators (educated indigenous people who actually do the translation while our linguists serve as consultants), this issue may become much larger here. There is a growing community of Linux users in the organization, and we would all like to see more linguistic software become cross-platform. (For more of my position regarding computers and operating systems, see Billiard and Computers.)

Of course, during the weeks of Conference and workshops, I still found it necessary to keep in touch with friends, family and the Branch back in Brazil. So from time to time I would get on a public computer to read my email. Here I am during one of those moments.

Billiard reading Email

Billiard taking a few minutes to check Email

Finally, after three intense weeks, CTC '08 was over. It was time to head home. But it hadn't been “overdrive” all the time. There had been time to relax and do some other things.


As I've said elsewhere, call me whatever you like, just don't call me late for pizza. And so we began that first Sunday evening with a pizza party. But that was certainly not enough; it had been two years since I had last been in the States. Brazilian pizza is good, but it's different. I was in the mood for good old American pie.

And so it was that I ended up going out with Bob and Dottie Wright—a couple who used to work in Brazil; Bob was the computer guru that I took over from when he retired back to the States—to Cici's Pizza. If you haven't heard of CiCi's and you love pizza, well, you should. They offer a very affordable buffet with surprisingly good food. It has been my tradition every time I'm at JAARS to make it over to CiCi's at least once.

CiCi's Pizza

CiCi's Pizza seen from the Front

Of course, after filling my gut with Italian pie, I found it necessary to work some of it off. Fortunately, there are several short hiking trails in the area, near JAARS. During my stay I checked out all of them that I could find. One of them is really short and just goes to a place called Jungle Jump Off, which is a campsite for teenagers who want to have a “village experience” without leaving the States. Here is a shot I took while passing through. (There was nobody camping there at the time.)

Jungle Jump Off

Hiking around Jungle Jump Off near JAARS

And then there was more food. One evening, all of the personnel at CTC who work in the Americas Area got together and went out to a local seafood restaurant. Happily, it was all paid for out of the Area budget, so a bunch of us got to enjoy good seafood and get to know one another better in a relaxed environment. The important thing was to eat “just enough”, so that one walked out stuffed and satisfied, but not ready to explode.

I talked one of the Sweet Young Things waiting our table to take this shot.

Americas Area Banquet

Around the Table at the Americas Area Banquet

And there was more hiking. And there were trips to Wal Mart. And just sitting around and visiting. The weather was pleasantly cool and I enjoyed going out for a walk in the morning without sweating buckets or smelling hydrocarbon emissions.

Overall, a very pleasant experience.

The Trip Home

On the trip up, I had packed my camera in my suitcase. On the way back I decided to keep it in my briefcase where I could easily get to it. So I was able to get some pictures on the way. Without boring you with all the details, suffice it to say that the return trip was basically the trip up in reverse. About the only difference was that I was taking an all-in-one laser printer back with me.

Here are a few shots I took on the return trip. The first one I took out the window of the airplane as we were coming in for a landing at JFK.

Approaching JFK

Coming in on approach to JFK International

This next one I took on board the JAL flight, on our way down to São Paulo. Unlike the trip up, this time we took off in the evening at a reasonable time, and the passengers were definitely more lively.

On board JAL Flight

Passengers on board Japan Airlines flight

After landing in São Paulo, I went through customs, paid the import duties for the printer, then waited most of the day for my late afternoon flight to Goiânia. I could have taken an earlier flight, but previous experience told me that any kind of hangup in Immigration or Customs could cause me to miss it. So why take a chance?

After landing in Goiânia, I took a taxi to the bus station, then took the bus in the following picture back to Anápolis.

Bus in Goiânia

Bus in Goiânia to return to Anápolis

It was late when I got home. I took a taxi to my house, dumped my suitcase and the printer in my living room, took a quick shower, then hit the rack.

The next day it was back to business as usual, except that I now had a head full of new and useful knowledge.

Copyright © 2005-2017 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.