Archive for January 2009

OLPC for Uni students?

My previous comments about the computing ability of some of the Computer Science students may not have been too generous, however, if they’d all been given a laptop on arrival at Uni, something like an Asus EEE PC or OLPC XO, I’m sure many would not be having the problems I mentioned.

The OLPC project is certainly having some problems and I previously criticised how the OLPC laptops were being used in schools. Looking back now I realise that maybe the project isn’t meeting it’s intended aims, but even if it’s just getting students used to being able to use a keyboard and a computer generally, then surely that’s not a bad thing? I’m dealing with first year computer science students who have little idea about even login names, passwords or keyboards.

In the last week I conducted a mini-survey amongst our Computer Science Uni students about their access to computers and attitudes towards having access to course materials online, almost all (around 90%) said that access to a computer was one of their main problems. Given that this survey was online (OK, maybe not my brightest of ideas for this type of survey!), the total figure is likely to be more than 90%. For info, there are about 10-15 working PC’s per 80-90 computer science students and less than 10% have access to a PC outside the those provided by the university.

I’m sure that giving the uni students a laptop, even just a cheap one, would be immensely beneficial to the next generation of computer science students/graduates. So if anyone is looking to improve the computing capabilities of those in the developing world, you could no worse than providing laptops to university level students. In my opinion, the more access and practise students have with PCs, be that Window or Unix, the better.

As an aside, I’ve been quite surprised by the number of university computer science students who don’t yet have an email address. I hadn’t even thought to ask this in my survey, but it’s come up in training sessions, when students fill in their profile, many have asked what to enter in the email field if they don’t have an email address!

EEE PC as main computer?

For the technically or gadget minded, here’s a little about my experiences with using an Asus EEE PC as my main machine for the last few months. OK, main machine is a bit strong, as I have a ‘proper’ desktop PC at work, but I mean for all my personal computing at home or out and about.

Firstly, here are all the bits’n’bobs I have:

  • Asus EEE PC (700 series)- 4GB drive, expanded to 2GB RAM and with 8GB SD card
  • running Ubuntu 8.04
  • external LiteOn CD/DVD rewriter (USB powered)
  • Freecom 400GB external drive (USB powered)
  • circuit breaker and voltage regulator – although these aren’t strictly computer related they are essential for me here

What I use it for:

  • listening to mp3s
  • watching DVDs
  • downloading and organising photos
  • offline writing of emails and blog postings
  • backing up to CD or DVD
  • copying CDs/DVDs – legally of course!

All of these generally work really well and I haven’t found much I’d like to do but can’t. It might be handy to access the internet on this machine but since it would only be dial up, I’d need a modem. Not having internet at home can be a good thing as it means I don’t spend my evenings ‘constructively’ browsing the web, watching youtube or checking for ‘important’ emails!

I’ve been very pleased with my external DVD rewriter, it’s come in incredibly useful, possibly more so than having a laptop with built in rewriter. When I came out to Ethiopia I had a Freecom 250GB Toughdrive, which unfortunately failed – not quite sure of the reason, worked slowly on Ubuntu, but not at all on Windows. When I reformatted all worked fine – very puzzling (although perhaps a virus?) but by that time my parents had sent a replacement external drive. After this failure I’d recommend having 2 external drives, if only because it makes backing up so much easier than a whole series of DVDs!

My main niggle has been that with plain Ubuntu installed the 4Gb drive is almost totally full, so a larger hard drive would be nice. I know (thanks to Liam) that there are now Ubuntu variants available especially designed for netbooks such as the Asus, but I’ve not had the chance, or fast enough internet connection, to download and play with these.

Another niggle has been the battery life, so much so that I very rarely use my Asus when not plugged into main power – albeit through a circuit breaker and voltage regulator to account for the erratic power supply, which can vary anywhere between 0 and 300 volts. When unplugged, I’m unlikely to get more than 20 or 30 mins from the battery, even when apparently fully charged. This may be due to the external hard drive and rewriter, but even so, it’s not great!

Having had my whinge, I’m pretty sure that both of these niggles have been resolved (or at the very lest reduced) with the more recent versions of Asus EEE PCs. I bought this one in March 08 and have always thought that maybe I should’ve waited until nearer my departure date (Sept 08) to make a purchase and bought one of the Asus EEE PC 900 or 1000.

Sure, I don’t think it would be a suitable set up for everyone, many people have made comments that they don’t think they’d be able to use a machine like this – even for just watching DVDs! But at least I never have to lug around a 3 or 4kg+ laptop and I don’t need a special permit to take it in or out of work. Everyone gets searched on way in and out of work to check no-one is stealing or bringing chat (drug) or beer onto campus, although, being ferengi, the search is quite cursory. To take a laptop off campus a permit is needed to prove that it’s yours rather than belonging to the university, my Asus doesn’t seem to register with security as even being a laptop! The one time I had a problem was going into the bank where they were more concerned that it was a camera.

At work I use a normal desktop PC, so I’m not having to use my Asus for programming, writing documents, speradsheets etc – not sure I’d cope with that, but for everything I want to do outside work, my Asus suits me just fine.

p.s. Looking forward to being able to access my GMail account whilst offline. Recently the internet has been more off than on – more problems with the fibre cable down to Addis.

p.p.s. This has been a much longer posting that first intended, but this has been the first evening for a long time that I’ve spent the evening alone at home – my housemate has gone off to Addis and no-one else has invited me out!

Getting around

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I’m now the proud owner of a bike (pictured). OK it has two flat tyres, is a bit small for me and weighs the same as a small car (I suspect the frame is cast iron), but it came with luggage rack, lock and was free.

It had been left in the store room at another volunteers house, she’s leaving Mekelle in a few weeks and said I could take it to get fixed up.

The next couple of months are going to be a little strange as many of the people (especially the non-VSO people) I’ve made good friends with here are leaving Mekelle. I’ve been really lucky in that many of them have cars (4x4s) and have been willing to take me to visit places which would have been difficult for me to get to otherwise. So many many thanks to Corinna, Tina and Michael. Prem – I know you’re still around in Mekelle so hope I don’t put too much driving on you!

A broken push bike isn’t the greatest replacement for being driven around in a well maintained LandCruiser, but guess it’ll have to do for now!

Update (2 Feb 09): The bike is now fixed, cost me a whole 7 birr (around 50p) to have both the tyres repaired and a couple of missing bolts replaced – the avocado and mango juice I had in the cafe opposite whilst waiting cost the same!

Mysteries revealed

In one day I’ve resolved two mysteries…

Mystery #1: why some machines could connect to the SMTP mail server and some couldn’t?

I’m trying to get our Moodle server connecting to the universities email server, so it can send out forum subscriptions, forgotten passwords and other notifications, making the whole site much more useful.

I spent most of the day yesterday with Girmay in the uni’s ICT dept tryng to figure this one out. We eventually discovered that only unix machines were able to connect, the Windows machines we tried couldn’t. So we then set about looking for a rule on the network, firewall or smtp server which disallowed connections from Windows. We knew it wasn’t an IP based setting as my desktop is dual boot and is set to have the same IP from both Ubuntu and XP and I could connect from Ubuntu but not XP.

I also emailed some of the other VSO IT volunteers about the problem and got a reply that it was probably the Windows firewall or anti-virus program that had been stopping the connection. On investigation all the Windows machines we’d tried were running McAfee and this was preventing outbound SMTP traffic. I’d been looking at the problem from the wrong end in the first place, assuming it to be a network or server issue rather than on the client.

With that resolved I now just have to figure out how to make the SMTP server relay to addresses other than the local @mu.edu.et domain, but without creating an open email relay(spammers heaven!).

This highlights a problem some of the other IT volunteers have been discussing over the last few weeks – the fact that when we arrive in an institution we’re expected to be experts in all aspects of IT – which, quite obviously, we aren’t. As my issue demonstrates, we can each waste a lot of time trying to fix problems others could fix very quickly.

Mystery #2: Why, when the water supply is off, we’re not being supplied from the water tank on the roof?

We’ve been having lots of problems with water supply recently, frequently none being supplied at the weekends. Someone from the water company said that our meter was going to be replaced, but no other explanation.

When the water suply in our area is off, we ought to be supplied from whatever is in the water tank on the roof (until that runs out of course), but this hasn’t been the case, once the water goes off that’s it. At first we thought it may be that the water has been off for several days and as we’ve been using the tanks supply we’ve not noticed – but this isn’t the case.

On getting home from work today, I found the water meter spinning very fast *backwards*, then realised what the problem must be. A valve in the meter must be broken, which explains why the meter needs to be replaced. When our water supply stops, or the pressure drops enough, all the water in our tank empties back out to the main supply. The inlet to the tank is at the bottom rather than the top – for some reason unknown to me.

Turning the stopcock off stops our water tank emptying back out. Just need to remember to turn it back on when the pressure increases again.

Next mystery to resolve is why my Dads PC can’t read the DVD of photos (jpgs) I posted home… even though they opened fine on my laptop…

Chaotic training

Spent most of the last week at work running the training sessions for students in how to use the Moodle website we’ve set up – to fairly mixed results. I’ve had several problems/issues so far, the main one being that although the students have signed up for particular dates/times, these arrangements seem to be almost completely ignored. The day before the training I’ve posted up the list of students and times for the sessions the next day, but this doesn’t seem to have helped.

On Friday I had 20 students scheduled for both the 2:30pm and 4pm sessions. At 2:30, around 30 students arrived, only 3 of whom were the ones who had booked for that session. Given there are ony around 12 working PCs in the training room, it’s difficult having around 3 students sharing one machine – I was also reluctant to send any away, given that at least they’d turned up and seemed keen. I gave the the option of coming back for one of the other sessions, but no-one seemed to take me up on this. For the 4pm session only 20 showed up, but again these weren’t the ones who had booked.

The training during the rest of the week was similarly chaotic – so am expecting the same on Monday – with another 3 sessions each of 20.

The abilities of the students seems worryingly mixed, given that these are 1st, 2nd and 3rd year computer science students, I would expect them to know how to go to a website and enter a username and password they’ve been given – but not so in all cases. During the training I must spend at least the first two thirds explaining how to login, leaving little time for much else. When they first log in I’ve set up the site so they need to change their password, unfortunately many seem to change theirs to ‘123456’ or even ‘123’.

OK, maybe I’m being a little unfair and certainly not all students need much help to get going, but it does surprise and worry me that so many have such difficulty given what they are studying and that in a couple of years (or maybe even only in October) they’ll be teaching computer science or getting jobs as computer ‘experts’.

I spoke to the head of dept about this and basically he agreed with me and that he thought it was mainly just due to lack of experience and practice using a computer. The first years I can partially excuse as they’ve only just arrived at Uni and are unlikely to have even used a computer before, but the 2nd and 3rd years have had relatively good access to computers in the labs – which are quite well equipped and open almost 24 hours.

Something else I’ve noticed is that although most of the female students signed up for the training, only one has actually turned up. Around 20% of the students are female and I’ve had around 150 students attend training, so around 30 should’ve come along.

On the plus side of all of this, 250+ students have logged in and used the site – so maybe I’m only getting the less confident students coming for training and the others haven’t bothered to attend.

I’ve also had a request from Dr Zaid (Dean of the Business College) to train all the business college staff (around 150) in how to use Moodle, with a view to getting the post graduate students using the site. This is really positive for me, it’s good to have someone in the Uni management who is really positive and keen to get the system actually used.

There’s certainly going to be enough work to keep me going for a little while yet!

Waterfall picnic

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An invitation to go for a picnic at a location between the local prison and cement factory doesn’t at first seem like the most enticing of offers – but Romanat waterfall is a really nice place to relax for the afternoon – with the chance to go for a swim (albeit in freezing cold water).

8 of us headed out in two red cross cars (obviously chosen to keep a low profile) and had great afternoon eating, swimming and playing frisbee. Even the local children kept their distance, certainly nothing like the hassle that we had when visiting Chelanka waterfalls a few months ago.
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Having a swim was especially welcome given that our water at home has been off for the last 3 days.

Timket

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Today, 19th Jan, was the Timket festival (Ethiopian Epiphany). I knew there was due to be a precession through town, but wasn’t sure what time, or where it would start and finish. so I headed into town mid morning to do some shopping and asked in the shops what was happening for the festival. By chance I’d arrived at the right time, the precession was due to be starting in a few minutes from a nearby square. Timket is the day when replicas of the Arc of Covenant are paraded through the streets, though no-one is even allowed the see the replicas (being kept under colourful wraps) in case they burst into flames at the sight of the arc (or somesuch fate).

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Over the next 10 or 15 minutes, what must have been most of the town arrived in the square, with priests carrying colourful umbrellas. In my jeans, t-shirt and flip flops I didn’t feel quite appropriately dressed with everyone else wearing their best outfits. I managed to get some fairly decent photos by getting onto a shop roof – which also meant that I got quite a lot of attention from people staring and pointing. Though there were other people were up there taking photos, I was the only ferengi.

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There didn’t appear to be a set route, at one point the precession split up by going down different streets, only to meet up again at Romanat square. After taking way too many more photos I decided to head home – it was also lunch time and I was getting hungry – but then it turned out the precession was going all the way up to near my house, so I kept with them. At the crossroads at the end of my road everyone stopped and the priests seemed to have a bit of discussion about which way to go, ending up coming right past my house – so I needn’t have left the house at all to see it!

Danger! Road Ahead

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On Sunday I got the chance to visit the Tekeze hydroelectric dam, the biggest construction project currently underway in Ethiopia. After 6 years, it’s now just less than a year away from being complete. Three hours drive on unpaved road to get to the $400 million project which will have the capacity to supply electricity to the whole of Tigray. The dam is over 180m high and will generate 300mw of power, though currently they’re using electricity from Mekelle while the project is completed – which may explain the power cuts we’ve been having recently.

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Permission is required to be able to visit providing a letter and showing our residence IDs to prove that we weren’t Eritrean spies! We were also taken down to the turbine area, over 100m underground, accompanied by armed guards, giving the visit a James Bond villians lair feel.

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On the drive there our windscreen was broken by children throwing stones, fortunately the damage wasn’t too bad – just a few big cracks on the top left of the drivers side. The drive home was less eventful, though in Hagareselam we came across this warning sign, not sure whether we should be careful of ghosts or aliens…

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On stopping there for coffee, I was a bit surprised to find that some of the children knew my name, but then remembered that I’d stopped there a couple of months ago when our bus broke down, so they must have remembered from then!

My Ethiopian photo count is now up to just over 3000 (yes, thousand!) – that’ll be well over 10,000 by the end of a year here, so please keep a week free for the photo slideshow when I’m back in the UK ;-)

Down in the Danakil

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Now back home from a fantastic 4 day trip to the Danakil Depression. 9 of us, plus drivers and guides, took 3 4x4s, loaded up with food, water and fuel off to visit the salt mines and sulphur lakes at one of the lowest points on Earth.

The Danakil Depression is in the Afar region of Ethiopia, it’s a difficult place to reach and even harder to live live there (though some people do). During summer temperatures can be over 50c and although we visited during winter it was still 35-40c, with nothing to give any shade. Our trip took a fair bit of organising, you have to go with at least 2 4x4s, taking all water, food, spares, fuel etc for the whole trip, plus extra for emergencies.

The 2 days before we set off were spent trying to get everything ready and checking we had everything we needed. Andy and I took our huge shopping list out on the day before we left, which unfortunately happened to be the Ethiopian Christmas day, so many shops were shut, but fortunately not all! Whilst chatting to one of the shopkeepers (we were trying to find somewhere selling wheat flour), it turned out that he also worked as system admin at Mekelle Uni (it was his fathers shop), and when we explained where we were going and allt he things we needed, he sorted everything out for us. Whilst Andy and I sat on old beer crates at the back of the shop eating bananas, people we running off to other shops for us collecting up our shopping list. After couple of hours everything was sorted out, 200 litres of bottled water, 20kg potatoes, 10kg onions, 10kg tomatoes, plus tins of tuna, pasta, rice, biscuits etc etc was all loaded into a line taxi we’d hired.

The evening before and morning of setting off were a little tense as the driver of our third car seemed to be reluctant to now come along (we suspect he was angling after more money), but eventually he was persuaded. Turned out that he’s a well-known singer in Tigray, but has never driven in Afar. He slightly delayed our setting off as he went around collecting up boxes of tapes and cds to sell in the villages en-route.

Our first stop (after stopping for our first and only puncture of the whole trip) was when we came across a truck load of armed guards stopped by the road who pulled us over. Although they didn’t look it – with their truck bearing an ‘Afar Education Bureau – Donated by Unicef’ logo – apparently they were the official security guards for the area.

In Berahile we paid our ‘tourist fees’ and collected our local guide and two policemen (both armed) who would stay with us for the rest of the trip. Our first night was spent at a waterfall between Berahile and Hamd Ela, we had been hoping to make it all the way to Hamd Ela the first night, but due to the delayed start we wouldn’t get all the way before sunset. I was quite pleased we had to stop as the policeman next to me had his AK-47 resting between his legs, which meant it kept pointing at my chest or head for most of the journey and I had to keep pushing it to point in another direction.

An early start the next morning to try and get to Erta Ale, the volcano we hoping to reach and camp overnight at the top. The road between Berahile and Hamd Ela is almost non-existent, basically following the river bed, rather than any discernable road or path. Another delay in Hamd Ela as we had to pay yet more tourist fees and the guide wanted us to buy sugar – apparently tea is disgusting without several tablespoons of sugar – and we would need 2kg to get him and the guards through the next 48 hours!

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We’d only got a few km out of Hamd Ela when 2 of our cars started to get stuck in the sand every few hundred metres – so we spent almost an hour stop/starting & digging the cars out. Due to the time we spent doing this, and the fact that the ‘road’ got even worse further on, we had little choice but to turn back to Hamd Ela. In a way it ws fortunate that we got stuck where we did, had we gone another 20km and then started to get stuck we might still be there.

We then revised our itinerary somewhat, so rather than seeing the volcano, we’d go up to the hot springs and sulphur lakes at Dallol (the lowest point in Africa) tht afternoon, stay in Hamd Ela overnight, see the salt mines and camel caravans the next morning, then head back to Mekelle.

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To be allowed to go to Dallol, we had to take 6 soldiers with us, for ‘protection’, all well armed – though the hand grenades might have been a little more for show. We drove across the salt flats to get to the hot springs and sulphur pools which were absolutely amazing – from a distance they looked plastic, but all the colours in the photos below are 100% real and natural (no photoshop here!):

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The next morning we got up early to watch the camel caravan (over 5km long) leave Hamd Ela to collect salt from the mines:

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We drove out to see the salt miners in action (again accompanied by our military guards):

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Then we headed back to the waterfall to have a relaxing swim and chill out in the afternoon. It would have been a little more relaxing had our singer/driver bothered to tell the guards that he was going to do pistol target practice further up the valley. On hearing the shooting our guards went running up with their guns to find out what was going on – I guess he was lucky he wasn’t shot by them.

Everyone was much happier once we’d bought a goat from the travelling goat salesman (aka shepherd) – I’m not sure our Ethiopian drivers, guides and guards were looking forward to another ferenji meal!

All in all a fantastic trip and I’d recommend it to anyone :-)

Student Workshops

I started running the student workshops this morning – once again to fairly mixed results. The first one was due to start at 10am, but when I arrived at the room at 9:30 I found that someone had removed most of the network cables and changed many of the proxy settings, meaning that the machines couldn’t access the site (the network cables are quite critical!).

After running around finding replacement cables and getting them all plugged back in, I found that the DHCP on the network has stopped working (for some reason or other), so I had to manually set the IP addresses of each machine in order that they could access the website.

Finally got to 10am and only 1 student turned up, out of the 20 who had signed up. So he had a 1-1 training session on Moodle! Apparently the others might not have realised that the training started today – despite the fact they had selected which session to come to and I had posted the attendence sheet up on the noticeboard.

The session at 11:30am was a little better, about 7 students came (more than the 4 who had signed for this session), and by that time I also had more of the PCs connected up.

On a positive note, quite a few students have started to use the site already. Many becuase two of the courses are now requiring students to submit their assignments using the Moodle assignment module. So this is really great, and hopefully they’ll continue to use the site.