Monthly Archives: June 2009

Quick Updates again

Still living without electricity and still not really caring. Though it’s funny to see people get nervous when they find out, as if it’s an unspeakable shame that the mzungu is living without electricity. “Umesikia? Nyumba ya mzungu ni bila stima!” (Have you heard, the mzungu’s house is without electricity!).

For those who may not recall, my personal laptop died a few weeks ago, but I have been using the school computers quite nicely since that sad loss. Of couse, just 10 minutes ago “my,” computer in the lab just fried. As it stands, since coming here, I have lost 2 computers to RAM failures (most likely caused by humidity), 1 computer to a fried power supply due to irregular voltage or humidity, another computer to a fried power supply due to I don’t know, and a final computer due to a lizard crawling into the power supply, and, well, that’s that. 5 computers down for the count in almost 6 months of being on the job. Kenya is not friendly to computers, especially when the labs are quite open to the elements. Now I know why we air condition everything, and I can very easily see the connection between computer bugs and real bugs.



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Of Mice and Men… and Butterflies… and Bicycles… and Electricity

Hellooooooooo Alll

I am back!  Did you all miss me?  Where did I go?  Well, it wasn’t really me who went away, it was my computer.  I have been doing some upgrades here and there and wanted to get everything up and running and whatnot, and of course the Internet gave me problems, but it seems to be working now, knock on wood.  So some life updates!

These have to be the biggest rats ever.  I am talking monkey sized rats living in my eaves.  I have only seen one, but I hear more.  And it sounds like a construction site.  I don’t know whats going on.  I have two peanut butter laden traps ready to kill the buggers.  No one’s taken the bait as of yet.  These are vicious traps to.  These aren’t your Audobaun Society Friend Hav-A-Hearts!  These are the cartoon bear traps of the rat trap world, metal teeth included.

Have I ever told you all that Mombasa is blessed with heaps of butterflies!  That is correct!  Everywhere I look, all the time, butterflies.  Dark ones, bright ones, spotted ones, striped ones (read that line aloud, it’s almost poetic…).  They love the mangoes like the monkeys and flutter around everywhere.  It’s nice to have so many around all the time.

It’s fixed.  I picked up a nice, stainless steal Allan key wrench and was able to realign the spring on my brake.  I do need to tighten the brakes a bit, but otherwise it is working fine, finally.  No more jumping.  I promise.

Do to some administrative snafus, I am currently without electricity.  Meh.  Not a big loss.  Just means no music over the speakers.  I like using my oil lamp.  And I have my flash lights as well, though I prefer the light cast by the lamp.  My stove is gas powered, so I can still cook… my ramen… fine.  Admin says the power should be on “soon.”  I tell them no worries. 

That’s about it.  Teaching goes on, slowly by slowly.  The network and keeping it running and maximizing what the students can get out of the resources we have continues as well.  We shall see how it all goes!

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A New Battle Every Day

My life is not difficult.  Don’t think it is.  And I am actually quite happy here.  But I like to be dramatic so go with it! 🙂

As if fighting malaria and lack of self motivation weren’t enough.  As if fending off malice-intent monkeys who want to steal didn’t occupy enough of my time.  As if heroically defending my infant neighbour from vicious snakes and spiders weren’t epic enough of a story, I have a new battle to fight.  More as it develops on the tale of Jon vs. The Rat.  Hopefully it will end this weekend with his greedy paws covered in peanut butter and neck snapped by the force of a thousand painful days as manifested by a spring-loaded metal bar.  It’s almost like watching Titanic, except this time the ship might not sink!

Or I could just pull an Adrian and kill it with a spear fashioned from my Leatherman and broom handle…


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Self Motivation

I have a project that I would like to complete, but I am fighting to get over one last hurdle.  But the hurdle isn’t one of the normal hurdles you hear about in development work.  The government isn’t blocking my visa or application.  I don’t need to bribe anyone.  Everyone around me supports the idea.  The only thing stopping me is… me.

Never before have I encountered such a complete lack of self motivation.  But I am finding more and more that its not a general lack (which is relieving), it’s just a lack of motivation to complete a specific project.  The project is to create a series of packets that allow for at least a minimal level of self guided instruction on learning the basics of a computer.  They would include pictures and diagrams and would potentially even be translated into kiswahili.  I have in fact actually ranked them with my highest personal priority for completion.  Yet I cannot bring myself to write them.

At first (a few weeks ago) I was worried that it was a complete lack of self motivation, but since then I have been able to complete a few projects.  Admittedly some other projects, mostly my NYS Daily News Grabber, have fallen by the wayside, but that is more from other lackings, such as internet and an internal server (which should be fixed soon).  Again, this is a bit of a relief because at least I can get some work done.  But why not these packets.

Am I afraid that such work is below me?  That would be terrible to me.  I don’t think that I am above helping at the basics.  I admit, I don’t like it much, but there is a real necessity for these packets and I would like to think that it would overcome any sense of superiority.  Is it that the task seems daunting?  That might be part of it.  If you take at a a look at the ICDL packets, it’s a lot of information packed in there.

I think part of it is that I don’t know what to make.  If I make an intro course only, then those people wanting deep knowledge get left out.  Also, I don’t really know a lot of the information.  My knowledge of Excel and Access is extremely limited.  I just never had to use them.  But here, there are four students who want to know everything about everything, even if they never use the information.  It’s all because they have seen the certificate courses and they think they can get certificates if I teach them and then they go and pass the test.  Except, I actaully don’t have a syllabus for teaching the certificate level coures nor doe I have the vast resources and examples that Polytechnics have, hence the need to make the packets in the first place.

I am just frustrated, because, gah, I don’t know why.  It seems like such an easy request to fulfill: “Teach me Word.” Ok, I can do that.  But apparently I cannot teach enough Word, and nobody actually has any need to learn word yet so they don’t come with a desire to create their own content.  I am just stumped.    And then I fail at teaching something that seems natural to me, but is completely befuddling to my student, like Highlighting or text cursor placement.  As I think about it more and more, I am overwhelmed.  I think I lack the motivation out of fear of missing something, of forgetting to insert a step.  It’s all so complicated, and my students need it all written out explicitly that I am just overwhelmed.  Not a happy feeling. 

I think I answered my own question.  I lack the self motivation to complete these lessons because I myself am overwhelmed at the complexity of the tasks involved.  Not a  happy notiong at all :/


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My Other Blog Home

I have been having a long, internal debate, about the particulars of setting up a blog for the more technical side of my volunteering.  Ya know, the geeky stuff nobody really cares about except for, well, geeks.  And hopefully development workers.  Hopefully they care as well.  I debated setting up a second blog here, under my wordpress account, but realized that it would not really get an audience, and as much as I like talking to walls, sometimes I’d like to think the wall was actually listening.  I know I have an audience for my “zany adventures,” blog, but I have a feeling the geeky side wouldn’t attract much attention.  Instead of operating here on my own, I have jumped my own ship for the ship of a friend.  My tech blogging will occur at  There you will get to read the rantings and ravings of myself as well as other geeky development types.  How great is that!  I know you are all just gonna head over there right now!  Just thought I would keep you all posted.  Don’t worry, I will still be blogging here, no worries 🙂

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Cultural Camouflage

This entry is not about some magical way that I have managed to camouflage myself in Kenya.  That’s just impossible.   Even if I were to say I was a white Kenya, which there are, most people I meet don’t seem to believe it.  Instead, this article is about my camouflage bag.  That’s right.  But don’t go drawing up any mental images of brown and green splotched army bags or anything.  Instead, this particular camouflage is simply a miniature, black, plastic bag, a bit larger than a sandwich baggie, but smaller than one of those gallon zip-locs.

Let me preface this with why I need a cultural camouflage bag.  First, if I carry anything out in the open, especially anything computer-related, it gets stares.  People automatically assume that it is better than what they have, and I should give it to them.  Even a banana! Because I am carrying the banana, it must be better than the banana they are eating at the same moment, which I just saw them pluck from the same bunch.  Thankfully this does not happen often, because I immediately picked up on lesson one of transporting goods in Kenya: cover them.

You cannot just cover them in anything though.  For example, I tried walking from Nakumatt to the ferry holding Nakumatt bags.  That didn’t go over well.  Even if the bags just contained the same sugar or flour people could buy themselves, at the same cost, it was automatically assumed that I had just gone to Nakumatt and bought a TV, or Lawnmower, or that somehow my flour was special and would make me grow 500 feet tall.  Nakumatt bags attract attention, sometimes more than just carrying things outright.  Not good cover.

For the longest time since realizing this, I have just always carried around my faithful orange backpack (the one that I first got to go running around the bush in Australia.)  It has served me well these past few years, and continues to do so.  I still get eyes, but not the eyes of “I know you have something good in there.”  Instead, these are the eyes of “I know you’re a tourist.”  That isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it gets your preferential treatment.  And more and more Kenyans themselves are using backpacks, especially in the city, so I still feel comfortable with it.  The Nakumatt bag-check attendant and I are buddies, and its always a running joke to see if I can fit my weeks grocerys into my bag.  I usually can, thankfully.  The one downside to the bag: it’s just a bit too big for taking on small trips, say, around camp.  Also, because its my bag, people want it.  It must be better than their backpack.

I have since found the perfect bag to use for carrying little things: the little black, plastic, duka baggie.  It’s the same baggie you use for buying bananas or anything else.  There are heaps of them in the country and they produce so much waste that many development organizations are trying to figure out what to do with them.  In ubiquity I have found protection.  I can carry anything in these little bags.  I frequently carry a portable hard drive, my iPod, my USB modem, and people are none the wiser!  For all they care, I have a bag of peppers or bananas.  It’s great!  I bet I could leave this little baggie out in the open and nobody would bother it.  Sorry if I don’t try to prove my anecdotal statement however.

In other news, I will be traveling back to Loitokitok this week to visit the new Trainees that came in, a group of about 30 Public Health Volunteers.  They are getting a Personal ICT training session hosted by yours truly.  We shall see how it goes.  I am hoping for feedback and whatnot, but it will be good to see new blood and to get back to visit my host family in Loitokitok.  Mama does make the best chapati in town.  I wonder if they are hosting again this group?  That’s about it for not.  Any requests on topics for future updates?

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My NYS Teaching Update

My last post, I kindly offered to split into two because I knew that both portions were going to be large.  And then, as sometimes happens, I got distracted by Peace Corps life (mostly reading actually….) and never got around to updating you on what’s been going on at my primary project, NYS Mombasa.

Well, it’s almost all good news actually!!  I know, shocking isn’t it!  I was just as shocked when this ball started rolling as well.  So let’s begin with me getting back from Nairobi.  I had just gotten back sunday night when on monday morning principal talked to me and informed me that we would be moving the computer lab that morning and I would be teaching starting that week.  I believe this was on May 15th or something.  Hold on, let me look at a calendar… May 11th.  So on May 11th, we moved the computers into the new, shiny computer lab.  it’s big!  The ceiling isn’t falling down!  There is minimal dust!  And it even has an office, and space for 24 computers!  And that’s not even cramming.  I could cram another 12 in if I really wanted to!

We moved all the machines, which were thankfully just imaged, and then I began what other would consider boring, but I found one of the most exciting things i have done here:  i began setting up the network!  And dual booting the machines, so now each machine runs Windows XP and Ubuntu 8.10.  They are all networked, and networked to a printer, which the teachers are loving, because before they would have to go to a special single computer to print.  I also got a rudimentary server running, but that hasn’t seen much work since install.  Not enough time.

Why?  Because I am now working 11 hour days in this lab.  I get in at 7am and do about an hour of maintenance before the walk ins start happening.  I am still on a 6 class a week schedule, which is only 12 hours of actual, official teaching, but on top of that I also have two scheduled classes for teachers, and then a policy of “If the door is open, use the computers.”  Foot traffic has exploded from the people who want me to “give them deep knowledge of computer,” to people who want me to teach them AutoCAD (which, sadly, I cannot do aside from finding and making available free CAD software).  I am also running open lab from 4pm – 6pm where I specifically stay to answer any questions people have.  Needless to say, I have been very busy at site since May 11th.  Or was it the 18th?  I forget.  Peace Corps time.

I regret to inform though that the new crop of students has not really affected the teaching experience as related last semester.  These are completely fresh students, whereas before they were end-of-first-year students who had had computer, but nobody told me, not even them when I asked them.  I was hoping that maybe with completely fresh students I could get off on a better footing, so we went outside for all first classes and just talked about ICT.  I am trying really hard to slow my speech, speak simpler english, use kiswahili, but still same results: nobody talks, the blank stares, everything.

I have thus adjusted my curriculum and my own expectations.  Upon reviewing the Internataionl Computer Drivers License (ICDL) syllabus, and realizing it takes 150 hours to complete, whereas I have only 20 hours with them, I have come to the conclusion that teaching to this spec would be impossible.  Thus, I just go slowly by slowly (a kenyan english-ism) and try to be practical, but while trying as much as possible to still teach concepts over specifics.  For example, at the login screen, I try to explain the simple concept of username and password, and how they are very common in all of computing, instead of just saying click here and type this.  But on the other end of the spectrum I have actually dropped the class on hardware vs. software, etc.  It’s just not practical enough to keep them interested.  I don’t quite know how or when I will explain what the Operating System is, but I feel like when I tell them to switch to Ubunutu for the first time, it might be appropriate.

I have also come to the conclusion that I am just not a good “Intro to Computer,” teacher for NYS.  I am coming to terms with this fact: it just does not itnerest me overly so.  I do wish NYS would finish with creating their new curriculum and send all the real computer teachers back to the camps, so that the volunteers could go back to their inital goal which is new-idea generation, as I understand it.  I do like teaching the teachers: they are attentive, seem to be taking notes, and in general seem to appreciate the potential impacts computers can bring to their lives.  And the open lab sessions bring the students who are eager to learn about comoputers, so that can be a very rewarding time as well.

I will end with a list of pieces of tech I am either using, are intrigued in and whatnot, as well as some projects.  I will also try to put up links where appropriate.

  • I plan on using Ubuntu’s apt-cacher to make updating the ubunutu side of the computers far easier.  It allows me to only download something once and then it distributes it to all of the other computers.  It is not working properly at the moment, and I have not come upon a definite reason why not.  I may end up setting up my own repository instead.
  • For free CAD software, I plan on using the Community Edition of qCAD.  It is open source and available in most major Linux Distrobution repositories.  However, I have not fully looked into the best way to compile it for windows.  Also, one of the teachers, Njau (who is loving linux at the moment), needs to sit down and learn it because he knows CAD software and I don’t.
  • I am currently working on a set of scripts that snag full-content RSS feeds from the net, and then generate a “Daily Newspaper” style website on a completlely local server.  I feel this is the best way to provide daily updated information to the teachers, in a networked environment.  By leveraging the standard formatting of RSS, I am hoping to minimize development times of the software, as well as reduce overall size, letting me focus on making it user friendly.
  • Hopefully soon I will be able to sit down with the Italc suite of tools which will allow for an open source means of screen watching and remote-control, though it will also allow for on screen demonstrations to all the computers at once I am hoping, which is the next best thing to me having a projector. 
  • I want to also set up a local authentication and storage server so that all the students can get a networked space to store work and whatnot.  Right now my data policy is, “If it’s on the computer when I image it, sorry.  I will try to give 48 hours before I image a machine.”
  • For imaging, I ended up using PING.  It is small, lightweight, comes with heaps of other low-level disk tools, and just worked when clonezilla wasn’t.  Not to say clonezilla is bad in anyway, and there seems to be a lot of development effort going on there, but it just did not work.
  • I need to start writing up tutorials for basic computer use.  I am just currently torn between writing it up for ubunutu or windows.  I still don’t know if I should switch to Ubunutu, just for practicalities sake.  I think I will do a post on that later.

Ok, this post is certainly long enough.  I hope you have all enjoyed it.  I have been busy, and I am hoping to stay that way until august, when school goes on holiday, and I am sure I will need one too!

Til next time, cheers!


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