Monthly Archives: July 2009

Nairobi Internet is So Slow!

Give me SEACOM! Or at least my 3G modem. Nairobi Internet speeds are so 1999. I am currently in the Peace Corps HQ in Nairobi waiting for a dentist appointment to occur. Don’t worry, my teeth are fine, just trying to figure out a sensitivity on one of them. Better safe than sorry. I blame all the Coke and sukari (sugar) in my liquids diet. I know there’s minimal amount in my solids diet. Yes, I break my diet into liquids and solids. Doesn’t everybody? Man, non peace corps people are weird. Where does soup go?

Last week was week one of my grand central vacation (raesons why I loved the english language: i could hyphenate that previous sentence in so many ways and you would think I was in New York or something…). I spent the week working with two Costa Rican volunteers operating through a partnership between their organization, Strategic Funding and the World Computer Exchange (http://www.worldcomputerexchange.org), as well as one Kenyan volunteer operating through WCE, and five volunteers operating through the Kenya School of Professional Studies. I tried explaining to the school administrators who I work for,

“Well, this week I am with WCE, but normally I am at National Youth Service as US Peace Corps Volunteer…”

[insert blank stares and thoughts of ‘what’s this white guy saying?’]

“Im from America.”

“AHHHHHHHHH”

Of course, the natural course of this conversation would then be handed over to Deilly, who would politely explain that I am from the United States of America, and that America is in fact a whole region, not just one country, and that in fact, she and Walter are also technically American. Some people got this; some people now think Costa Rica is the 51st state in the Union (take that Puerto Rico!), but I will only judge once I can safely assure myself that every American can himself name all the states of the Union. I won’t hold my breath. I’ve learned that people who base their worldlieness simply on their geographic capabilities are silly people indeed.

We spent the week running around the Tetu Constiuency in Central Province trying to prep seven of the schools to recieve internet connections in an attempt to bridge that pesky digital divide. Things I learned include:

1) It’s prononced ROO-ter in kenyan english, not ROW-ter (the word being router).

2) Kenyans do not respond well to “your mama,” jokes, but I’m getting them there polepole

3) Despite an overabundance of semi-intelligent individuals trying to lay hundreds of meters of network cable, the best way we could come up with to get through a concrete brick wall was by smacking it with a hammer and nail. Needless to say, I think Physics just felt bad for us and made the concrete crumble on its own. I hear he values effort (you didn’t think rockets reach escape velocity because they actually overpowered gravity did you?!).

4) Our group can’t tack cable for the life of us. Myself fully included.

5) Not all ceilings are rat and bat infested, just some.

6) Future constituencies should know that we fully accept gratitude in the form of a 50 pound bag of sugar cane.

Most importantly though was that I got to spend time with young Kenyans who share similar interests as myself. In recent months I have been immersing myself a bit more into the tech culture here and am meeting younger techies, but last week I got to spend a whole week with people, in person, not just chatting on mailing lists and swapping troubleshooting advice. It was fun.

And now, after a few nights in Nairobi (I lost my sunglasses… grr), and spending some time with the new volunteers, I am off to Yatta to help my friend David out at another NYS. As long as I don’t get lost in the matatus along Thika road before getting there.

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Off on an adventure… or two… or three…

Ok Folks, this may be the last update you get from me for a while?  Oh, who am I kidding, I always find a way, but just to cover my bases, i’ll pretend like this is it for about a month!  “A MONTH!!!” you shout at your computer screen.  I know you will all survive without me for a month, though I also know it will be difficult, but just think, if I am gone for a month, I will most certainly have heaps of fun stories to share.  So just hang on, and maybe this little sneak peak of my adventures to come will let tantalize!

Next week I will be in the lovely, cooler climate, Nyeri Town.  Myself and two volunteers from Costa Rica will be working under the World Computer Exchange (http://worldcomputerexchange.org) banner in secondary schools in Nyeri town, from what I can guess, doing general computer maitenance, internet, fun stuff like that.  I believe we will be accompanied by Kenyans from the Kenyan School for Professional Studies.  It should be  a lot of fun, and I really liked Nyeri when I was there this past March, so it will be nice to get back.  Of course, don’t go thinking Peace Corps just lets us all go willy-nilly where we want.  Getting this clearance was a give and take.  I tried to take some time off from the end of the semester (all my students stop coming anyways in preparation for finals), and I was given an assignment.  I need to compile a report on my experiences teaching computers to various levels of Kenyans, to be used as a resource by other volunteers.  Fun.  Worth it.

After Nyeri, it’s off to the wonderful city of Nairobi again for a few days of report writing (no laptop yet) and medical.  I have a dentist appointment and just some general check up stuff they like to do while you are in Nairobi.  Whatever.  Anytime you are called in by medical, Peace Corps foots the daily expenses and accomodation for the night, so that’s always nice!  Medical is not really an adventure, but pretty much any time spent in Nairobi is always an adventure, so it gets the classification anyways.

After NRB, hopefully it is off to Yatta.  A fellow PCV, David, works at the National Youth Service there as a computer instructor.  He is basically me, but in Yatta and not on the Coast, though he is also considered much more amicable than myself, has far more patience for the average individual, and is just a generally nicer guy I would say.  But I have more computers.  And we all know what is more important right?  So David and I will be doing any general tech work that usually requires two minds instead of the one, and of course comparing notes from the semester and seeing how we can help one another improve.

Then I am hoping to head back to Nairobi for an evening to see the swearing-in ceremony of the new volunteers.  Hopefully.  I don’t know if peace corps is letting me.  I guess we shall wait and see!

After swearing in, it’s off to a the town of Nanyuki (even cooler than Nyeri I believe!)  The first few nights will be spent visiting PCV Gavin, another friend in my training group whom I have not seen since april, which is just wholly unacceptable in all things concerning Gavin.  Then, it’s off to the Peace Corps Permaculture workshop hosted in Nanyuki (and more nights on Peace Corps dime!!!).  I am not 100% sure what I will learn at this workshop, but I think some topics include soap making, gardening, and other forms of sustainable, earthy, living.  It will be interesting times spent with the few volunteers who are able to make it.  Cannot wait!

Finally, after Nanyuki, it’s back to the coast.  BUT, not home yet.  The coast is a big place, and Peace Corps loves its workshops.  I will be attending the Cross-culture workshop, where any volunteers currently serving for over 3 months are invited, with their Kenyan counterparts from their projects (I don’t have one…), and we basically sit around and bash heads and figure out how we can help one another.  For example, someone might as me, being an ICT volunteer, how to use mobile phones to distribute public health notices most effectively (mmmm, sms aggregation… it’s a current hot topic).  This goes on for like a week.

Then I might come home.  If you can find me!

Until then, stay tuned for little snippets that I might be able to get online!

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I Miss…

I am going to start a series called “I Miss…” Don’t worry, it’s not because I want to come home all of a sudden, I am quite well adjusted over here thank you very much. But to deny that I am missing things would be a bold face lie. And we all know I am not bold in any way, so we just can’t have any of those. And what person, place, or mineral graces the first episode of “I Miss…”?

I miss Blueberry Ale.

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Music is the connection

Before coming here, I wouldn’t say music played an overly important role in my life. Sure, I listened to music quite a lot, I had my favorite collections, I annoyed the passengers in my car with what might be considered a limited selection, I would even go to concerts, but it was always in the background. I can’t even remember all the lyrics to some of my favorite songs, much less their actual titles.

But always being in the background also meant that each song seemed to absorb the memories of that moment. Conversations were recorded, emotions were stored, actions were remembered. And even though the sounds or lyrics of each song never changed, they actually did. You just don’t get to hear it, because, well, now these songs are singing only to me. I’ll give you the jist of what they are singing:
“We remember! We remember what you did! We remember how you felt! Remember that night? Remember those words? Remember that love, that hate, that joy? In case you forget don’t worry friend, we are here to help you remember! We know humans like to forget, you aren’t good at remembering, but that’s why we are here friend. We are here to help you remember.”

I have never been so grateful. Mom always made sure the kids wrote thank you notes to people who had been kind to us, but if I were to write a thank you note to every artist who has helped my time here, well, that would take a lot of postage.

My songs are with me when I am happy and want to keep it going. They are with me when I am sad and want that to keep that going too (sometimes nostalgia is necessary). But more importantly, they are there when I am sad and need to be happy, when I need that pickup that only good times with good people can give you, and if I am sitting there, and there don’t seem to be any good people around (or any people for that matter), well, those memories are all right there.

For this I am grateful.

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A New Theme

I changed my blog theme. I just couldn’t take the happy green rolling hills any more. I felt I needed something more… subdued, professional? I hope you all enjoy it. The overall layout has not changed, just the colouring really. Cheers!

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Open Data Formats and Standards

Good day blog readers.  It’s Wednesday morning and my class of teachers that was supposed to show up has not (which actually is a suprise, usually they are early!  Wait, I have been informed there are some national exams going on…), so I have decided to introduce the layman to a very specific technical issue that plagues Information Technology in the developing world: that of open data formats and other forms of open standards.  Don’t worry, I know it sounds boring, but hopefully you will be interested enough at the end, and maybe you will have even learned something!  I can only hope.

First off, what are open data formats?  What is a data format?  What is data?  Where am I!? Who are you?!  Data in this context is everything created by a computer that is actually important to you, the person using the computer.  I am talking about documents, movies, pictures, emails, all of that jazz.  And while we are at it, we can even throw in other types of data such as websites that you browse on a regular basis.  A data format is the special set of rules that are written along with your data into that Word document file or jpeg photo file from your camera.  They tell the computer, hey, I am a jpeg picture, here’s how you read me.  Without data formats being specified, then those 1’s and 0’s making up that latest Springsteen song on your computer are just that: 1’s and 0’s.  With the proper format, and a program that knows how to read it, all of a sudden you’ve got the Boss pumping out of your Bose and all is well.

The problem with data formats is that the people who create the rules don’t always share the rulebook with others.  This causes a problem called lock-in.  Perfect example, though slightly generalized: a few court systems around the US recently realized that all of their government documents were created using Microsoft Word and other Microsoft Office products.  Well that’s nice, Microsoft Word is a great word processing application, capable of skillfully maniupulating documents from the simplest essay to the largest book.  However, the .doc format is proprietary.  Microsoft Corporation owns the rulebook as to how create and maniupulate documents stored as .doc (which, by default, are all documents created using Word).  Other computer programmers who want to make applications that can utilize .doc documents, must pay royalty fees to Microsoft, and then they are given the rulebook with permission to read it and implement their own solution.  The only other alternative is to reverse engineer the rules by reading them in binary itself, those pesky 1’s and 0’s that are so unreadable to the average human.  This is what the OpenOffice.org team has done, though the legality of reverse-engineering is questionable and the results are not always perfect.  Should Microsoft go belly-up or start doing interesting things with their licensing fees, what would the the courts do?  They were locked-in to a Microsoft-only solution.

Word documents are not the only prolific proprietary formats out there.  .GIF images are in a questionable state at any given time, with the original license being held by Compuserv (though I would need to do some wikipedia searching to know its current status), Adobe Creative Suite formats are proprietary (though PDFs are fairly open now), and the biggest?  MP3’s are a proprietary format, with every program and piece of hardware that legally uses it needing to pay licensing fees.  This also holds true for formats that your DVD movies come in.  Many, many, “everyday,” data formats are proprietary.

How does this harm developing world?  Well, the second part of the term “licensing fee,” is the little world, “fee.”   You could also use “royalty fee,” or my more preferred term is, “stupid fee.”  This fee trickles upwards into software cost.  As many of us know, there are plenty of free software projects out there that can easily substitute paid-for software in terms of functionality, but being free software projects, they are unable to pay the licensing fees and therefore do not always support proprietary formats.  Let’s continue to look at the trickle effect through a case example:

A non-profit in the United States emails a .doc file to an NGO in Kenya. It is their requested application for a grant that would enable to complete a successful AIDS-prevention project.  The organization, in order to open this, needs a copy of Microsoft Word, which only runs on Microsoft Windows (because the organization is unaware of other options, Microsoft being so entrenched in Africa).  They cannot afford Microsoft Windows and therefore get a pirated copy, as well as a pirated copy of Word.  Pirated, as in illegally copied and technically stolen.  They open the document. fill out and return the application and their grant request is fulfilled and they begin collecting all of their data and begin seeing trends that will allow them to seriously assist People Living With AIDS in their area.  A successful NGO!

In possession of pirated copies of software, the NGO is unable to practice proper computer security through updating their software to protect against the latest viruses, and even the simplest such as those transmitted through USB flash drives reap havoc upon systems across Kenya.  Of course, also being low on budget, and barely affording the computer itself, they are unable to purchase hard drives to back up information regularly.  A virus sweeps in and destroys all of their work.  Just to be able to open a .doc emailed from a group in America who themselves did not know better.

There exist alternatives however.  There exist alternatives to every major proprietary format.  Instead of MP3, use FLAC or Ogg.  Instead of GIF, use PNG.  Instead of .doc, use RTF or better yet, the Open Document Format (ODF).  If it’s a document that need only be read, use PDF.  This will have a trickle down effect for developing nation.  People like me can come in and start promoting the use of Open Source and Free alternatives to software, including Windows. 

An alternative operating system called Linux runs fantastically, especially on older hardware, but one of its drawbacks is the inability of its creators to always bundle applications that can read proprietary formats in order to avoid licensing fees (or law suits, which might ensue should they use less-than-legal reverse-engineered technologies).  It seems like a stretch, but I promise you, the effect would be real.  Ultimately people do not care about how their computer operates, as long as it does.  From an infrastructure support point of view, the only thing preventing people in the developing world from switching is a Microsoft lock-in directly tied to a data format lock-in.  We need to break out, because data lock-in is holding back development.  There, I said it.

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I’m telling you, it’s like a cartoon….

I was riding my bike between the library and computer lab today, en route to do some tech support, when the pedal and pedal bracket just fall off. Just like that. Plunk, on the ground and my left foot just dangling. I’m telling you, this bike is like a cartoon bicycle falling apart beneath me as I ride it. I got a chuckle out of it. After 4 days of using the bike “regularly,” I guess it got tired and felt it needed (a)(to) break again.

In other news, I think I have tallied up the latest score card of stomach battles:

Jon 1, Dysentery 0
Jon 2, Viruses 0
Jon 2, Bacteria 0

Let’s keep that record going!!

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