Archive for January, 2011

Search Terms

January 30, 2011

There is an option in WordPress I occasionally look at (contrary to popular opinion I don’t check these every 10 minutes while sobbing “love me, why don’t you love me?”). This tells you how many people have visited (usually one, myself) and more interestingly what search terms they used to get here.

Amongst the ones you might expect and some more general VSO terms (my blog coming up because I have a list of worldwide blogs with a brief bit of their latest posts on my front page) there are some more unusual ones.

My top four favorites are:

when the noght goes down i see the light of where we are today when do you do nothing daily when i do nothing daily for when the night is young and i am young i can see the world tonight faor when the night is dark and cloudy i can see your face

Note they have corrected their spelling down to my level of Namlish.

wade as a young boy reading in a field of grass back when he had sandy brown hair

Yes, indeed.

namibia dries burger ddt health inspector

Though it may be possible I wouldn’t recommend drying your burger or any foodstuff with DDT. Even if you are a health inspector.

And my number one search term favorite of all time:

gloria the hippo wiggleing her bottom to tease the rhino

That Gloria is such a tease! But by now the Rhino should know better than to get its hopes up.

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My Spare Time

January 24, 2011

So I’m sure you’re just dying to know what it is I do with my spare time outside of work in the brief window when I’m not drunk, in the midst of a Mefloquine hallucination or watching crappy TV series.

Well I’ll tell you – writing crappy computer software. Go me. How cool? Oh, not very you say. Fair enough.

So what? Maybe I will die alone but that’s what I always wanted. Honest. Go away now.

Recent waste-of-typing projects include:

REX: Remote Execution Framework for PHP

Have PHP code you want to store and/or execute remotely? Ignorant of the security risks or just desperate to co-ordinate your DoS assaults on multiple hosts without much actual work?

Then REX may be for you.

A web server acts as a code store serving up REX files (basically PHP code with a few odds-and-ends). Your client then pulls down this code from the central store and executes it. Either manually or automatically.

To complete the cycle of remoteness you can also run a webserver on your client through which you can get it to download code from somewhere else, run it on itself and send you the output thanks to the wonders of the interwebz.

iArray: Associative Arrays for JavaScript

Tired of using old-skool index-based arrays in your funkilicious Web 2.442190001 applications?

Look no further than iArray. Providing much the same kind of interface as a normal JS array you can assign keys to your data elements and then reference them by key or by index.

Witchcraft? Yes, probably.

DOAP: Some Sort of RPC-style Wrapper for PHP/JavaScript

Tired of writing your own XMLHTTP/AJAX magic with the whole JavaScript and server-side components? Too lazy to even use one of the many frameworks which does most of it for you?

DOAP (Dave’s Own Access Protocol) is probably not the answer but you never know.

On the server: write a PHP function, include the DOAP Server library, Register that function and set the script to call the DOAP handler.

On the client: include the DOAP JS client, instantiate the object, call the function and… get the result straight back as a JavaScript primitive or array.

Voila et fini.

One Laptop per Child

January 22, 2011

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project has a mission to “create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop”.

OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte a professor at MIT, big player in the world of IT and best-selling author.

They manufacture a ruggedised laptop called the XO which runs a Linux-based custom open source operating system and user interface (called Sugar). The laptop itself is quite striking with the “rabbit ears” WiFi aerials and has gone through a number of revisions.

While I was in Caprivi last easter on loan to the Ministry of Education it turned out one of the schools had a whole bunch of XO laptops that had been organised by previous American volunteers at the school.

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons these weren’t being utilised. Sensing an opportunity to get some IT work going at the school (and of course to get my hands on some cool kit) we went down and visited the school which is near the Zambezi river close to the Botswana border.

After an initial visit and discussion with the principal we took some XOs back to Katima Mulilo to play with familiarise ourselves with and see how they could best be used in the school.

OLPC XO Laptops Charging for a Lesson

A stack of OLPC XO laptops charging for a lesson in Caprivi

The XO hardware is excellent. Well designed (once you figure out how to open it, a source of great amusement for some as the supposed “IT expert” [their words not mine] struggled to find a catch), durable and with a very low power footprint.

OLPC XO Laptops in use in Caprivi, Namibia

Kids Absorbed by Using the XO in an Example Lesson

I do have one or two criticisms which I’ll go into later but first off let me say I think the project is a brilliant idea. As a way to bridging the digital divide and providing future generations with key IT skills there is simply no substitute to allowing hands-on experience. OLPC provides a cost-effective, sustainable and highly effective way of doing this.

Even with a few reservations I think providing XO laptops is a far better option than rooms full of virus infested and over complex for the need Windows based PCs not to mention the ongoing management of such a system. They are a much better option than centrally managed thin clients (regardless of the OS) and of course infinitely better than nothing at all.

Very quickly I had them up and running at my friend’s house, using the interface is very easy and allows you simple access suitable for young children as well as more complex access (up to a shell interface suitable for big children like myself).

The bundled software is superb and this was just the pre-loaded stuff. Time and internet access didn’t allow me to fully explore the massive range of software packages available online for download and install.

As well as the normal things you would expect like a word-processor and calculator there was even software to use the inbuilt microphone (or I believe add-on sensors) as an osciliscope. Lots of other packages allowed pictures to be taken, played with and manipulated; exactly the kind of “fun education” that lets people learn while thinking they’re just playing.

One Laptop per Child XO in an English Lesson in Namibia

XO Laptop Ready for Use in an English Lesson

In the end we went back to the school. I spent quite some time with the IT teacher showing how the XO can be used to fulfil the curriculum requirements. Vivien (my VSO colleague and sponsor of my visit) then taught an example English lesson to a class demonstrating their use beyond just IT classes. We also held a lesson in the afternoon for the teachers to see how easily they could be utilised.

OLPC XO Laptops in Use for an English lesson in Namibia

XO Laptops Used in an Example English Lesson

Now onto the points which I feel (in my humble and worthless opinion) could be improved or refined. Note that we were using old versions of the XO, the originally installed (and out of date) operating system and without additional downloaded packages any/all of which may address some of these concerns.

The Vision: One Laptop per Child

Given that the vision is for each child to have their own individual laptop it may be going against the grain for me to say I’m not sure this is the best solution. The idea is that schools receive and give out laptops to individual children who then keep them, using them in lessons and taking them home.

I can see how if this worked totally it would be for the best and also how it could sound good when presented as a project plan in the US.

The reality is this approach suffers from a few drawbacks.

In the school I have experience of there weren’t enough XO laptops for every child, not by a long shot. There were just about enough for one year. Unless they are universally provided then it means some children have lots of access and others none.

By taking them out of the “computer lab” environment it’s hoped that the children with XOs would use them in every lesson, do their homework on them and even use them at home. Where XOs are not universally available to all this would call for teachers to offer two types of lesson, one based on the laptops and another with pen and paper.

Wear and tear are drastically increased by having them ported around and taken home by the kids. A computer lab suffers from enough damage in a static and theoretically supervised environment (trust me; I remember from school and I have friends who work in schools).

Then of course there is what I like to call the thieving elephant in the room. Realistically you have to accept that no matter how cheap the XO once kids take them home it may become the most expensive (and flashy) thing in the village. At the school we were working at this was a major problem with two being lost on the first night (hence the recall and lack of use since).

Would I like to see kids all with their own laptops? Going home being able to work on their homework, even surf the net through a “mesh network” and perhaps for their parents to gain knowledge through the software and data included? Of course I would.

Given the problems mentioned, specifically the lack of universality would I rather see a school years’ worth of XOs deployed within the school and regularly used by all the children in a supervised, safe and supported environment? Yes I would.

But the XO software (aside from the contractual requirements for them to be distributed which I believe exist) makes this hard with the entire system built upon a single user and single data store.

For the cost of one lab of buggy and problematic thick-client PCs you could equip four or even five classrooms with XOs giving the opportunity to use IT not to one class at a time, or one year for all time but for five classes throughout the entire school all the time.

File Storage

The designers of the XO and interface decided not to have a “traditional” file system but rather use a journal-based approach. Instead of saving files with a name in a hierarchial (fancy name for in folders) store all work is saved all the time and you access a central log of all your activities and then re-open ones at will.

This is meant to be more conducive to a “learning environment” and allow users to access their work in the order they created it.

I am absolutely sure this was done in consultation with education experts and for the best of reasons. Just as sure as I am that it’s not the right way to go.

Personally I found the journal system hard to use and in a relatively short time was struggling to find the right example files I was working on. This may well be just me failing to embrace change and bringing my old school concepts to bear too rigidly. But that is besides the point.

Like it or loathe it all modern computer systems use hierarchical file storage. Whether you’re using Windows, Mac OS, Linux or Solaris (or even a “cloud based” file store like google docs) the basic premise of files organised by structure is there. Someone who has learned to save and load files from the My Documents folder on Vista won’t actually have trouble doing the same from ~/Documents on Fedora.

There is a reason for this standardisation. It works. Organising information by category and in order is what we humans do, the computerised filesystem is just a modernised version of filing cabinets and ring binders.

Further being the accepted standard means that once beyond the education world of XOs ex-children who are now adults will be faced with such a filesystem and those that cut their teeth on Windows will sadly have an advantage over those using Sugar. “What do you mean save it?”.

Of course the standard is not without fault. It’s easy to end up in just such a mess if not more of one using hierarchical storage than a journal system. But there is nothing to stop an interface offering the option to view stored files in date-order or even to provide the ability to tag documents with keywords separate to their storage location.

To my mind providing at least the option of using a more traditional approach to file management teaches key skills for later life, makes it easier for stick-in-the-mud users like me to transition to the XO and doesn’t have to do away with the concept of a “learning journal” at all.

The word processor uses the standard approach with highlighting and a toolbar for changes, exactly the same concept as used by Word, Open Office, Impression or Google Docs. Why can’t the file access?

Networking

One of the big features of the XO is its wireless networking and specifically the ability to create “mesh” networks. These are sort of Ad-Hoc Wifi networks allowing users within range to collaborate on work, share files or chat. You can also access systems “through the mesh” in a kind of peer-to-peer way, you are in range of Bob and he is in range of Ed therefore you can talk to Ed (as long as Bob doesn’t wander off or switch off).

This is a great idea and facilitates easy sharing and exchange of information in the classroom. The visualisation and setup tools are also superb; powerful yet easy.

The problem I found is that it often doesn’t work. Being a simplified interface it was also hard to see why (though if I had time I’m sure I could delve into the depths of the console and dig out some diagnostics). When it did work sharing work was great fun and potentially a very useful tool. When it didn’t it was just frustrating.

Also again here the vision crops up. The mesh networks are designed on an “all are equal” basis. In fact in a classroom environment what you want to see is an easy way to have one XO (say the teachers) publish information, tasks or documents to all the other computers (an “all are equal but some are more equal than others” basis). This may be possible but in the time we had there was nothing obvious.

There is the option to have a server which can be used to manage/update/backup the XOs but on a per-classroom basis it’s not feasible. What I would like to see is a solution whereby the teacher can setup the work, setup a network with some sort of code (to avoid confusion from neighbouring rooms) and then let the children all access it maybe with the option to have their work automatically saved onto the teachers laptop as well for easy marking.

I also think some sort of remote control/remote management on a peer-to-peer basis would be an excellent idea and give teachers the ability to help and support their class on a per-user or per-classroom basis.

Small Issues

In the grand scheme of the project these are small issues.

OLPC is a great project which is already having significant, real and ongoing benefits to some of the most disadvantaged children the world over. In turn this will lead to a more skilled workforce in the emerging world, stronger economies and all the benefits and stability that brings.

In an increasingly technical age access to (and the ability to use) IT and the knowledge, efficiencies and communication advantages it can bring are essential. At least until the end-of-days in 2012 anyway.

OLPC this Larium deranged IT volunteer salutes you!

One Laptop per Child XO Laptops in use in Namibia

Another Shot of the Example English Lesson Using XO Laptops

A Festive Tale of Woe

January 21, 2011

And lo they did see the light shining like a star down upon them. “Hark!” said they, the two wise women and two unwise men, “is that yonder star showing us the way to our saviour?”. “No” came a voice from above, “it is verily the light of the Condor which has caught fire”.

How I Tempted Fate

In the week(s) before the trip I fettled the Mighty Condor; fixed the handbrake (well tightened it), sorted the gauges (replaced a fuse), saw the reverse lights illumate for the first time in six months (mate reached underneath and plugged in the cable I’d missed), got two new tyres (making a total of six good and actually inflated), bought some spanners, checked the many fluid levels including various oils and shock of shocks had it cleaned.

The Plan

Go with John, Emily and Ann (Peace Corps co-vols) to a cheetah farm in Kamanjab and thence to Swakopmund at the coast for festive drinking, frollicking and as much debauchary as can be arranged for 20 whole Namibian dollars.

The Actuality

We set off only slightly later than planned and drove the 2 1/2 hours to the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm just outside Kamanjab.

I’ve previously been to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) which is near Otjiwarongo [EDIT 23/01/2011 *]. For your information the Kamanjab Farm is seems better and cheaper from a purely poor-vol-tourist perspective [EDIT 30/01/2011 **].

For N$150 you get to camp, meet the tame cheetahs, see them fed and then go out to see the feeding of the wild cheetahs.

So at 4pm we were in the farmhouse garden and three tame cheetahs wandered over and started licking us and purring away like some sort of massive and scary version of my cat.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

They were all very well behaved and obviously like human contact, especially licking you with their extremely rough tongues. Once I overcame the natural inhibition with sticking my hand anywhere near their massive teeth or claws it was excellent to pet them.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

After a while their food was brought out and each one took a piece of meat from the bucket and lay down to eat. We were advised not to get too close while they were eating and it was a chance to admire their fangs in action. While they ate we talked to the guys about the cheetahs and these three in particular.

We then headed (via a crazy bar with an elephants ears and trunk mounted on the wall) into the enclosure where the wild ones are. They quickly were stalking the bakkie as it drove to the feeding point.

These were a different kettle of fish, you can see straight away there is none of the softness or gentle plodding of the tame animals. They look and act like wild animals, fighting amongst themselves and calling each other with weirdly high-pitched birdlike sounds. The two guys then get out with nothing but a stick and start chucking lumps of donkey and goat out once all the cats were present.

Wild Cheetah Jumps for Meat at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab Namibia

Cheetah Jumps for Food at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm

The trick apparently (not that I wanted to try it) to getting out of the car with nothing more than a stick is to never bend down as cheetahs don’t attack large prey. Of course they also mentioned that every now and again a very unlucky Kudu jumps the fence and is quickly devoured (given that a Kudu is as tall if not taller than a man this seems to contradict the “you’re safe if you stay standing up” line but they’re the experts).

So after a jolly good time was had by all we drove into Kamanjab for some dinner and then headed back which is where it all went a bit wrong.

The Disaster

The farm is about 8km off the main road and just a few kilos down their track the Condor died the a splutter and failed to magically restart.

I opened the bonnet and quickly used up all my mechanical skills by checking that nothing obvious had fallen off and that the air filter was clean. I waggled a few fuel lines and considered loosening a nut to see if there was petrol getting through but didn’t as I thought I really hadn’t much of a clue what I was doing, the engine was hot and petrol is dangerous.

Having dispatched John and Emily to walk to the farm for help we realised we actually had cellphone coverage so I called the farm, apologised for bothering them and wondered if they could tow us to the campsite.

Soon the guys who had taken us round the cheetahs turned up in their bakkie and with an impressive array of tools and more confidence than me starting looking for the problem. When they got to the fuel system they did loosen a nut on the filter and just had time to say “yep, there’s fuel” when a combination of that fuel and a hot engine led to a whomf and orange flames springing forth.

Emily and Ann were inside the car when this happened and didn’t need me yelling to get out before they leaped clear as I grabbed the water container from the back. We quickly threw dirt (in plentiful supply) over the engine though and the fire was thankfully put out as suddenly as it had started.

Discretion being the better part of valour we decided to call it a day on fault-finding so disconnected the battery in case and tightened the filter back up. As a precaution non-essential personnel (or valuable personnel) went in the farm bakkie so it was just me in the Flaming Condor towed back to the campsite.

In the morning I was up at first light expecting the worst and found wonder of wonders that nothing at all had been damaged in the fire. There was some cool streaks of soot under the bonnet but all the delicate hoses and myriad of electrical cables were entirely unscathed.

We were towed up to the farmhouse and with a cool engine, isolated battery, ample tools and great assistance of the owner tried once again to figure out what was wrong hopefully without a full re-enactment of the night before.

The engine was blown clean with their impressive full on compressor and various bits and bobs tinkered with including blowing back and forth through the fuel system to clear any blockage.

I looked up to find a cheetah had decided to get into the car and was now munching away on my road map. Gallantly I told John he should get the cheetah out of the car which he failed to do as “here kitty kitty” didn’t seem to cut the mustard. In fact when the cheetah figured out we wanted it out she climbed further into the back and started sniffing rucksacks.

Cheetah Refusing to Get Out of the Car at Otjitotongwe

We had to ask the owner of the farm for assistance who deployed the multi-purpose compressor once again to make a hissing noise that sounds like a snake. Just before we’d been standing in front of the open rear door when the realisation we were in the path of a soon to be scared cheetah was made so we moved sharpish. A large dog wasn’t so lucky and was run over as the cheetah bolted (fast like, well, a cheetah).

Taking out a plug met with a hiss of air, the spark was good and the Condor now started on three and then (once the plug was replaced) four cylinders. In a triumphant scene we drove away from the farmhouse thinking about an airlock or temporary fuel blockage only for it to clonk out again 200m down the road.

By now we had narrowed stuff down and it seemed the fuel pump was the culprit. Like a lot of modern fuel injection cars this sits inside the Condor’s fuel tank so is nigh impossible to get at easily. Being Christmas Eve all the local garages were shut but the owners managed to find a mechanic on leave who said he would come and have a look.

While waiting me and John took out a rear seat hoping to find some sort of fueltank access panel but no luck.

When the guy came out he diagnosed the pump in less than five minutes, found the fuse had blown (brief bit of hope but when replaced same story) and then spent a while underneath tapping things with a rock while I turned the ignition on and off when commanded.

Diagnosis: fuel pump shot. Being Christmas Eve there was no hope of getting a replacement sorted so I had to accept leaving the Condor behind until some future time. We left her in a field guarded by two ostriches.

Escape From Kamanjab

Again the farm owners were absolutely excellent and said it was no problem to leave it there and sort it out once everything was open. They then gave us a lift into Kamanjab.

Christmas Eve night we stayed at the Kamanjab Rest Camp which is about 4km out of town. Like everyone else the Rest Camp owners went above and beyond; opening up the closed-for-xmas restaurant so we could have Christmas Eve dinner, letting us buy them out of beer and cooking an excellent breakfast Christmas morning.

We also met a German chap who was coming up for half-way through a motorcycle tour of Africa, starting in Germany he was heading down the West coast and made it to Namibia with the intention to carry on to South Africa then go back to Europe up the East Coast.

On Christmas Day after a hearty breakfast the owners gave us a lift into Kamanjab to try and hitchhike back to Opuwo.

Long story short I left it to my Peace Corps colleagues who “know hiking” to fail to get us a lift. In the end me and John went to the garage to canvass cars and on the third one a couple on their way to Angola said we could all get in if we could fit. Well yes indeed we could.

They dropped us off at the junction to Opuwo and we spent another little while sitting in the shade. A car with two seats came along so being the kind of gentlemen we are the ladies went first. In fact their car made it 100m and then pulled into a bar while me and John immediately got a lift in a combi which overtook the now-stationary car and flew back to Opuwo.

Brief bit of fun at a police checkpoint where, for the first time ever, I had to prove my legal residency in Namibia and we were home free. Home free to sit on our respective steps and wait for our keys which were with the other two as they had left first.

The Aftermath

When things reopened between Christmas and New Year I was able to track down a pump thanks to the excellent Marko Spares in Otjiwarongo. Sadly logistics are not always that straightforward in Namibia.

They could send it with NamPost but I couldn’t pay them the courier fee, it would be paid on delivery. The cheetah farm had been really, absolutely and amazingly excellent to us but I drew the line at asking them to pay for my courier charges.

So I had the pump delivered to Opuwo, paid the fee and had it just long enough to look at it and get a mechanically-minded friend to confirm it was the right thing before going to NamPost and re-couriering it to Kamanjab. Now you may think that with the NamPost truck it came on still idling outside there’d be a good chance it would arrive maybe sameday? No.

It then went back to Otjiwarongo (through Kamanjab of course), sat there for a week and then was delivered to the PO Box of the farm.

Once I managed to get an answer from NamPost it had been delivered I could ring the farm and ask them to collect it when they got their mail and also call the mechanic who came out over Christmas to ask him to go back to the farm and fit it.

He did this last Saturday and confirmed the Mighty Condor was once again purring like a mechanical cheetah.

The Recovery

On Wednesday I hopped aboard the 6am patient bus that went through Kamanjab and after getting dropped off on the main road hiked the 8km to the farm. Profusely thanked the owner for everything and in small token of my appreciated gave them a bottle of whisky (I actually managed to find in Opuwo amongst the dual-use whisky/paint-stipper a bottle of Jamesons).

Of course the battery was totally flat so it took some “jump charging” (not jump starting as was totally dead and the leads weren’t quite up to the job) before the Condor roared into life.

After a little while tinkering with make-work and waiting until I was confident the battery would start it again if I stalled I careened through the mud and back to the main road. Quick stop in Kamanjab to meet the mechanic, more thanks and some exchange of dollars and I was off back to Opuwo safe and sound.

The Condor is now back majestically sitting in front of the house and starts every time again. The only vestige of the trouble is the soon to be washed off sooty marks under the bonnet which I show people with pride.

And Finally…

Thank you Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm, thank you Kamanjab Rest Camp, thank you Adolph the mechanic, thank you Marko Spares and even thank you NamPost who (eventually) delivered the right part to the right place.

Serious disaster averted thanks to the kindness of strangers. I know who my saviours were over Christmas and New Year 2010/11!

Edit Notes:

* The “near Otjiwarongo” text has been changed after feedback from the CCF. They never claimed they were in Otjiwarongo rather it was assumed by me and my companions. I apologise for the inaccuracy.

** I originally opined that Otjitotongwe was “a million times better than CCF”. Following some discussion with CCF I would like to make clear that I was talking from a purely tourst experience point-of-view. CCF exist as primarily as a hardcore research centre offering education rather than tourist experiences (though I should point out that Otjitotongwe’s entire revenue from tourists goes to the costs of keeping their cheetahs housed and happy so they’re not an “in it for the money” tourist cash cow either). CCF do a variety of research (including genetic research which unfortunately isn’t geared towards crossing a cheetah with an elephant, making a warecheetah or a zombie cheetah) and run re-homing project aiming to put cheetahs back in the wild.

VSO IT Do It With Staples

January 20, 2011

Excellent though the approved computer-repair paperclip is what do you do when you’re in an office seemingly without paperclips trying to diagnose and ideally fix a non-powering PC?

Use a multimeter to check power, cables and the operation of switches? No. Use a staple.

The staple is almost as versatile as a paperclip and can be used for;

Fault Diagnosis – a medium staple is just the right size to “short start” an ATX PSU (once you’ve ensured AC power by listening for the crackle as you slowly push the power cord home). It can also be used in tight spaces to “jump start” (or not) a motherboard.

Repair – if you happen to find after staple diagnostics that the 20/24 pin motherboard power socket has a damaged post a quick modification can see the staple fitted as a replacement and happily passing current so all the other gubbins (the technical term for the whirry and/or flashy bits inside) start doing whatever it is they do.

Please note advice on the use of staples is for guidance only and paperclips remain the officially endorsed tool for use in bodge-it-yourself field IT repairs.

OhMyGoodGod WHATTHEHELLISTHAT?

January 10, 2011

Pottering around on a Sunday evening getting ready for bed and suddenly I see SOMETHING legging it through the kitchen.

It was brown and quite big so my first thought was scorpion (am on high scorp lookout as my neighbour had one last night).

Scary enough. But no as I looked closer it wasn’t a bloody scorp. It was a big hairy spider and even from a distance I could see it’s damn teeth.

Mr Cat who had been plodding beside me until then took one look and turned tail bolting out the door (thanks).

So, naturally, I started screaming. For five minutes. But nobody came to rescue me so it was me against the THING which having shot around the kitchen at remarkable speed was trying to get under the cooker BUT COULDN’T AS IT WAS TOO BIG!

My VSO survival training kicked in. So I tried to open a forum with it to discuss mutually beneficial outcomes, how I might advocate for its marginalised position and – most importantly – stick bits of paper on flipcharts. But no luck.

My homo sapien survival instinct kicked it and I whacked it with a pot. This knocked off one of it’s front leg-things but only seemed to make it angrier. With no option but chemical weapons I DOOM’d it a few times (which seemed to have the desired effect), hit it again and put a jug over it.

Once it was (I hope) dead I was able to transfer it into an empty jar of Koo Dill Gerkins (that I keep around for just such an occasion).

Camel Spider in Opuwo, Dear in a Jar

Get a load of that BAD BOY. See it’s teeth? The MASSIVE F**KING TEETH?

Anyway once I was able to operate a computer (and incidentally the cat came back in like nothing had happened) Google told me it was a Camel Spider.

Wikipedia in its usual haughty tones told me it was in fact a Soligufae and not even a spider at all.

Apparently they’re not poisonous but cause a nasty “ragged wound” with their bite which is highly prone to infection. And also of course cause heart attacks when they run through your kitchen.

They seem to be the source of many urban legends about their nastiness which I can understand given that IT LOOKS SO BLOODY SCARY. It’s hairy. And massive. WITH HUGE TEETH! DID I MENTION THE TEETH?

Have to double-shake everything out tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after that. In fact FOREVER.

Here are some more pics of it in the jar for your delight. Sorry the quality is bad but it was in a jar and I am not taking it out in case it comes back to life. What’s worse than a Camel Spider? A Zombie Camel Spider pissed off with you for killing it with DOOM of course.

Camel Spider in Opuwo - in the Jar

Ok maybe not as scary looking in that picture. But this one…

Camel Spider in Opuwo - Closeup

Opuwocalypse

January 6, 2011

For the last few days we’ve been on-and-off cut off from the outside world. No mobile network, internet or even landlines.

This has happened once before but only for an afternoon. As I did then I assumed this was the preliminary stages of an alien invasion or Zombie Apocalypse. We are a small town in the middle of nowhere and if Hollywood has taught me anything it’s that when all lines of communication are cut expect trouble.

In fact I think it was just a problem with the wet string connecting us to the world; it must have been either not wet enough or (given the rains are here now) maybe just too wet.

Here is a graph showing connectivity from our work network to google (generated by some particularly shady piece of network monitoring software):

FreeNATS image showing connectivity to google from Opuwo MoHSS

(Click for detailed version)

It shows connectivity to google from 0:00 on Tuesday to 17:00 on Thursday. Red is bad. Note the brief return in the day on Wednesday allowing me to send text messages from a neverending meeting and again at 3am on Thursday waking me up as text messages from the world came flooding (well, trickling) in.

As a real-life Business Continuity exercise it proved that most of our systems continue to work during a link failure. Apart from our Active Directory which should but, for some reason doesn’t. Nevermind though; use of local accounts and the like got round most problems if not all.

We did send out some messenger goats but never heard back. Luckily, and avoiding riot, Tafel supplies remained high at all times.

Mainly people were just upset they couldn’t access their facebook and blamed me entirely until I pointed out that even my inept systems management probably couldn’t take down the mobile network. Probably.

Challenge Accepted!

Whoops: Spoke too soon. Just as I was writing this it all went off again for 90 minutes. Hmm…. New string methinks.

Herero Wedding

January 4, 2011

In early December I had the chance to attend a colleague’s traditional Herero wedding in Otjokavare. Though the ceremony (that part of it at least) went on for the whole weekend we decided to attend on the Sunday morning.

Originally there were 7 of us from the office to go so I had a full car. On the morning this turned into 6, then 5, then 4, then 3, then 2 and ultimately back to 3.

It took about 2 hours to get to Otjokavare, a village just above the Red Line (i.e. just with us in bandit-cow country).

Decorated Bridal Hut

We found the place easily enough as they had been kind enough to put a big sign on the bridal hut (please note I’m sure this and every other term I wrongly use have proper Otjiherero names and all that but I don’t know them). Muuaa is, I’m assured, our colleague who I know by three other entirely different names.

I was allowed into the Bridal Hut as an honorary relative (the only men allowed inside). The bride stays in the hut for over a week before the ceremony living in a kind of bridal tent inside the bridal hut.

Herero Wedding Bridal Tent

Apparently for the last week the groom had been coming to sleep inside the hut as well but they were not allowed to talk to each other even to answer a simple question like “where are my shoes”.

Lots of family were turning up and in high spirits. Plenty came in and posed with the bride in or out of the tent.

Bride and family inside Bridal Tent

Children Looking at Digital Pictures of a Herero Bride

After a while the proper business of the day began and a procession came up the road of the groom and his family.

Procession of the Groom at a Herero Wedding

The groom is the guy in the middle with the funky white hat on.

Once the groom was down at the holy fire the bride and her family processed down as well.

Procession of the bride to the ceremony

Everyone gathered at the holy fire, the bride and groom sitting next to each other but with eyes fixed downward. A village elder (one of the brides uncles) then led the ceremony which unfortunately I didn’t understand a word of though it was explained to me in dribs and drabs.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony

The memorable bits were a staged argument between the family of the bride and that of the groom over the dowry and how good a wife the bride would make and the spitting.

The uncle drank from a cup (of water I think) then spat it liberally first over the bride and then after another mouthful over the groom.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony - 2

Having not been clever enough to realise there would be a lot of standing in the open at the holy fire and without a hat or sunblock I retreated discretely to the shade of a nearby tree.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony - 3

One of the children decided to come and pull me back into the circle but when that failed was happy to play “Injo, Arikana… Rar!” with me which is my Otjiherero version of “Come here, please… [then when the child approaches] RAR!” (repeat ad nausium or until said child gets bored and decides to start plucking your arm-hair instead).

Child at the Herero Wedding

When the ceremony was finished the bride and groom were loaded up and sent off to the groom’s family home (in Gobabis some 800km away) for another part of the ceremony. There was lots of wheel spinning, blowing of horns and wishing of luck.

It was all excellent fun and a good chance to have a cultural insight and meet new people many of whom I keep bumping into in Opuwo.

Adaptability to Diverse Tasks

January 4, 2011

One of the things VSO drum into you pre-departure is the need to be adaptable and probably deal with a very diverse range of tasks. True that.

I’ve been back from the Christmas Fiasco for a day and a half (well when you consider the first half day was enquiring about people’s holidays, regaling them with my story of woe and greeting people with increasingly elaborate handshakes I’ve been back “working” for only a day).

In that time amongst other things I have:

– Had an hour-long discussion with the Chief Health Program Administrator for Special Programmes about analysing data on ARV patient adherence and outcome rates touching on statistical meaningfulness, relative comparison, data reduction/elimination of extremes, trend prediction, types of average and deviation/variance. Of course I was just sitting beside her trying not to dribble too much and nod at the right moments but at least I was part of the discussion!

– Spent 90 minutes or so crawling around under desks after when relocating the Private Secretary’s desk someone had knocked the fax line socket which was held together only by the grace of god and some twisted cables. In the end with nothing more than a pair of scissors, a nail clipper and my falling apart backup multimeter (all good tools stranded in car) we bodged it using an old modem cable, an unused extension box, masking tape, twist-tied connections (well if they’re good enough for Telecom!) and the grace of god.

In fact while crawling around I was even able to instruct a little bit about how the telephone wiring works even showing the voltage change when ringing (and of course that the standard voltage even when not “open” is around 50V DC so worth being careful around). If we’d had an oscilloscope it would have been actual proper science like.