Archive for June 2008

VSO in Ethiopia video has a video showing the work VSO is doing in Ethiopia.

Excuse my language…

Turns out that my Amharic phrasebook may be of less use than I first thought – I’ve now found out that in the Tigray province (Mekelle is the capital city of Tigray) it’s actually Tigrinya that’s spoken! The script looks quite similar to Amharic, but I’m not sure if that’s where the similarity ends… guess I’ll find out soon enough!

This weekend I’ve met 3 more people who have visited Ethiopia, mainly on tours of the ‘historical circuit’ (the towns and churches around northern Ethiopia), so has been great to hear that they all had an excellent time.

I’ve also been finding out more about the IT infrastructure in Ethiopia, emails from other volunteers currently working there have explained that generally the PCs being used are relatively recent and have Windows (XP or Vista) installed – although they may not always be genuine copies, which then causes problems with essential security updates not getting installed – perpetuating virus issues.  However, the networking might be lacking (esp. compared to what I’m used to a the OU), i.e. few servers and no firewalls.

I’m also already thinking about what I need to take with me, what I’ve got left to buy , whether it’ll all fit in my rucsac and whether I’ll still be able to lift the rucsac once packed!

Powdered milk & vinegar makes… cheese

As I posted the other day – I was slightly sceptical about being able to make cheese from powdered milk and vinegar, but apparently you can (from ‘Saving money with powdered milk‘):

Curds & Whey: In a large pot combine 6-cups of fresh water and 3-cups of dry milk powder. Stir to dissolve. Heat the milk over a medium flame until it is very warm, about 120°. This is hot to the touch, but not scalding. Stir in 1/2-cup of plain white vinegar. Allow to stand for 10 minutes. There should be a large mass of curds in an amber pool of whey. If the liquid is still milky, add another 1/4-cup of vinegar. Stir and stand again for 10 minutes. Line a strainer with a clean cloth and drain off the whey. It can be used as the liquid in bread or muffins or biscuits. Rinse the curds under cool water and store in the fridge. This recipe makes about 1-1/2 to 2-cups of curds.

Ricotta or Cottage Cheese: The dry cheese curds from the above recipe will work for ricotta cheese in most recipes. To turn it into cottage cheese add a little evaporated milk or yogurt to “cream” it and stir to combine. You can divide the mixture in half and make some of each if you want to give them both a try.

Recording Video on Asus Eee

I’ve just spent a frustrating couple of hours unsuccessfully attempting to get my Asus Eee (running Ubuntu Hardy Heron) to allow me to record short videos using the built in webcam and mic.

I started off by applying these fixes and have checked that it all works fine using skype. I first tried recording using ‘Cheese’ – this resulted in the video working fine – but no sound ( I also tried with plugged in mic/headphones). So I installed ucview and gave that a go instead,  but his was quite erratic too, most of the time it would appear to record, but then on playback, only the first frame would be visible, and no sound (using either built in mic or a plugged in mic). I also found that sometimes ucview wouldn’t stop recording even after I’d clicked the button and I had a to kill the process to get it to stop.

I then went back to looking at cheese only to find that it now won’t start, the top window bar appears, but with big grey square underneath – no menus or webcam preview. Restarting, removing and reinstalling all made no difference 🙁

Really not sure what is causing these problems, from googling & reading wikis and blogs most other people seem to have got ucview and cheese working fine – so just me then 😉 If anyone has an idiots guide as to what to check then feel free to send on to me

I’ve been trying to get this working in the hope that when I go away to Ethiopia I’ll be able to record short video blogs to post up – but I may have to fall back to just using my digital camera and the video/sound recorder on that, but would’ve been nice to be able to use the webcam and mic.

On a different note, I hope that Ubuntu updates will soon include FireFox3…

News from afar

Over the last few days I’ve been having an email conversation with a US Peace Corps volunteer who’s based in the University Hospital in Gondar, Ethiopia, doing similar IT work that I’ll be doing when I get to Mekelle. He’s sent me some long emails with loads and loads of excellent advice and info about what to take with me, the state of their IT infrastructure, and other general advice about living in Ethiopia. It’s exactly the types of thing that I needed to know, quite odd things like the general dress code at work (do I take a suit with me?) and other similarly random (but also useful) stuff  like that. Another example… learn how to make cheese from powdered milk and vinegar :-/ I never ever knew you could make cheese this way, though I’m not sure how the end result would compare to a nice bit of cheddar!

One thing he did mention, which I knew a little about anyway, was the fact that computer viruses are completely rampant throughout Ethiopia, mainly due to the low bandwidth meaning that virus checkers aren’t reliably kept up to date, plus the use of flash disks spreading the viruses around. His advice was not to let on that you know how to clean viruses off a computer, as if you do, you’ll end up spending the whole time doing just that.  Much better would be to teach a group of people how to do it themselves and show them how to keep their machines virus free in the first place- this, of course, is exactly the sort of thing we (as volunteers from overseas) should be doing, training people how do to these types of jobs for themselves.

Another comment he made about the state of the internet bandwidth was that it’s usually quicker to have someone back home download them for you, burn onto CDs/DVDs and post them.

When I get chance I’ll try to post up a summary of all his advice in case it’s useful for others too.

I had some very sad news today from Irene (the lady in Mekelle who I’ll be taking over from). One of the VSO volunteers currently in Ethiopia, David Evans, was killed in a traffic accident a few days ago  (news story) and I pass on my condolences to his family.

Custom Google Maps & office plans

When I was developing the MSG presence maps we also thought about how we could replace or enhance the BuddySpace custom maps – which give you an office plan and presence icons for who is in the office and where. The original BuddySpace maps worked well, but they were a pain to update when staff started or left – meaning it was often out of date.

As the MSG presence maps were using the Google Maps API, we thought about using a custom Google Map for the office plan. Unfortunately, it remained just a thought and we never got time/chance to actually implement anything.

What reminded me of all this was a posting on the excellent Google Maps Mania blog about a couple of applications using custom Google Maps. The first is a map of the UCL campus, with the buildings overlaid – I really like the option of setting the transparency of the overlay. And the second is an office plan from LaudonTech.

UCL Campus Map:
UCL campus map

Office plan:

Now what would be really good is combination of these 2 apps, so at a certain point of zooming in on a Google Map with the campus outline overlaid, you zoom down to the office plan for each building (would need to think about how to cope with different floors) adding in presence info from MSG. How about something like this for the OU campus?

More IE/CSS/div fun

Not being a designer spending all my time getting to know the ins and outs of how floating divs work, it tends to take me a little while to get my head around how to lay out pages using pure CSS. I thought I’d pretty much got how to do 2 and 3 column layouts with CSS and divs, but today I found a new problem which really had me stumped for a while.

Essentially I wanted an ordered list, then within each <li> element a couple of <div>s which I could float to layout how I wanted. Everything was working fine in Firefox, but not in IE(6), the images below show the output given in Firefox and IE:

IE (6):


HTML code which generated the above images.

The items numbered 1-3 show how I want the output to appear, but my first stab at the code resulted in items numbered 4-6. As you can see, in Firefox it appears fine, but in IE the ‘float:left’ is being ignored, making the div containing the text appear below the checkbox. [Aside: you might ask why I’m using divs and floats for something as simple as just some text next to a checkbox, well, this is just my starting point, my final page will be more complicated than this example!]

The only difference between the working and non-working examples is that the div containing text has width property defined (set to 100%) in the working version. I’m not sure why this should be necessary – my example shows that it’s not needed if the wrapper div isn’t part of an ordered list.

My only explanation is that this is another (frustrating) little IE CSS bug – unless anyone can give me another explanation? Alternatively if there are better ways to do what I’m trying to achieve?

Location sharing with Fire Eagle

This morning I received an invitation to join Fire Eagle – Yahoo’s location sharing application, so I’ve just been having a little play. I’d actually forgotten all about it since I saw a presentation about it at the FOWA last October and must’ve asked for a beta account then.

On it’s own Fire Eagle isn’t much use – but the idea is that you allow Fire Eagle compatible applications and devices to read and/or update your location, so you only have to update your location once for all the applications to know where you are at any time (subject to all the privacy settings available). So to actually try it out I downloaded the Loki toolbar – which can automatically update your Fire Eagle location based on your (wireless) network connection. Though I’ve installed it on my desktop PC so my location is unlikely to change much (I’ve not moved my desktop PC for nearly 2 years!) – but it did pick up my location reasonably accurately for what I assume is an IP based lookup (I’m actually about a mile from where it autodetects).

The privacy with an application such as Fire Eagle is a high priority (as I remember being mentioned in the FOWA presentation) and there are plenty of ways you can allow different applications different levels of privacy (e.g. how exact the locations are) – but then each application (as with Loki) has it’s own set of location sharing privacy options. All of which seems to make for a mind-boggling array of confusing options (in my mind anyway!).

My main reason in looking at Fire Eagle initially was to see whether we could hook MSG up to it, so your MSG location was auto-updated, so I’ll have a look into the Fire Eagle developer section and see how feasible and quick this will be to get set up.

Making the headlines…

… well, on page 7 of my local paper anyway…

“Please don’t hit the horse so much”

… is one of the phrases in my new Amharic phrasebook that hopefully I won’t have any need for whilst I’m away. Hopefully it shouldn’t be too hard for me to pick up some useful phrases, though I think it’ll be harder to get to grips with the Ethiopian alphabet (syllabary)… 33 basic characters, with extra strokes depending on which of the 7 vowels follows, so by my maths that’s 231 characters. Wikipedia has a table showing them, well, I assume it does, my browser only displays ‘?’ for each one – seems a font needs to be installed to display.

In terms of other progress… this evening I had a photographer from the local paper (Northampton Chronicle and Echo) come to take a few pics of me in my VSO t-shirt, for an article that should be in the paper in the next few days. This came about as a result of VSO writing a press release (see below) for me and sending to the local paper – hopefully it might encourage a few people to have a look at my blog and make a donation.

Local man heads to Ethiopia to share IT Skills

Alex Little, 34, of Northampton is about to head off to Ethiopia to volunteer with international development agency VSO. The organisation, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, sends skilled and experienced professionals like Alex to help in countries where their skills are most needed.

Alex first heard about VSO through some friends who had volunteered and were hugely enthusiastic about their experiences. It wasn’t until he did some voluntary environmental conservation work in Romania last year that he decided to apply. “There were two people from the US Peace Corps coordinating the work there for two years,” says Alex, “it was their work that really inspired me to apply.”

The placement will run at Mekelle University in northern Ethiopia for a year initially, with the option to stay on for another year, either in Mekelle or another similar placement in Ethiopia. Alex will be working as an IT advisor and trainer in the computing faculty of the university, and he is relishing the chance to use his skills to help others, “I will be helping to train teachers and trainee teachers in various aspects of IT, but also helping to maintain and improve their IT infrastructure. This fits well with my current job in the UK where I work for the IT team in a faculty at the Open University.”

It’s an exciting time for the 34 year old who has always wanted to spend time living abroad, not just as a traveller, but as someone with the opportunity to experience a different way of life. “I’m most looking forward to living and working in a completely different environment and experiencing their culture and way of life,” says Alex.

Volunteering for Alex seems to run in the family: “All my friends and family have been very supportive, my brother is currently doing voluntary work in the Philippines, and my parents (both now retired) are looking forward to having an adventurous holiday when they visit!”

Though it’s not without apprehension that he Alex heads into his new role. “As with any new job,” says Alex “I’ve thought about how I will I fit in, whether or not I’ll get by with the language and how easy it will be to make new friends.” Luckily for him, he has a strong network of friends and family to support him whilst he is away, “hopefully some will make the trip to come and visit me. I’ll miss cups of tea, cheese and Yorkshire puddings. I certainly won’t be missing the daily commute down the M1 though!”

Alex is also keeping a blog at: and a justgiving page at: where he is raising money to help support the work that VSO does and to ensure volunteers like Alex can continue to do so.

VSO is an international development charity, which works through volunteers. Using the skills and experience of volunteers it helps tackle poverty in nearly 34 of the world’s poorest countries. Currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary, VSO is now the largest organisation of its kind in the world and has 1,500 volunteers working overseas at any one time.

VSO is currently looking for new volunteers. For recruitment information and details on how to support fundraising initiatives, phone VSO on 020 8780 7500 or email: or visit