Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Internet Access, Ahem, Well, Erm, Yes.

June 24, 2011

Some people have said that internet access seems slow over the last few days. I’ve noticed it myself once or twice.

A few weeks back I made a change which only allows web access through a box called a ‘proxy’ which records it. This helps to speed up network access and also allows easier identification of which PCs might be virus infected and making lots of dodgy internet requests.

It’s all part of my mad attempts to get everything cleaned up for when I leave.

The proxy logs are pretty ‘high level’ in that they would record say a visit to gMail but not who was emailed or in any way the content of the pages. A similar proxy runs for our Government Network controlled by the Office of the Prime Minister and possibly even logging to a greater level.

Having been pretty darn busy for the last few days I haven’t had a chance to see if any specific computer is slowing the network down. Today I was in a feedback meeting with a WiFi connected laptop so had a quick browse while TB treatment protocols and other things not concerning me were being discussed.

First I accessed our network tools and the reporting options for our proxy (note in these images stuff is redacted to protect the guilty and also our network details):

Kunene Network Tools Main Menu

Then it was onto the proxy reports (SARG) for today:

Web Access for June 24th 2011 in Kunene Region

So then our top user for the day has downloaded over 1Gb (quite a bit) and been responsible for 81% of all internet bandwidth.

I wonder if it’s perhaps a combination of Windows and anti-virus updates? A rogue virus? New health information from the WHO in massive download format?

Clicking through:

Web Access for 24th June 2011 for Person X

Um, no, it appears to be technicolour grumble flicks.

A closeup of the top 4 URLs if you can’t be bothered to click or can’t see them:

Closeup of Top Web Sites for 24th June for Person X

Erm, well, yes. Bit awkward.

I have never put any filtering in place here (apart from the 30 minutes when I accidentally blocked Facebook testing the proxy – met with much hostility). Everyone is professional staff and I’ve never been asked or told to limit anything.

Only looking for a possible virus I find this. And this is a probable cause of slow internet access.

What to do? Name and shame? Block that site (and/or any other gentlemen’s entertainment sites)? Nothing? Redirect traffic to lolcats? Mention quietly in conversation with X that the internet is slow and I think pr0n is to blame and am investigating the ‘source’? Demand a copy?

I’ll ponder it over the weekend.

VSO IT Do It With Everything: The Faulty Switch

June 24, 2011

In what I hope will be a final post in the VSO IT Do It With… series I’ve had a problem which called upon all my bodging newfound skills using paperclips, staples and masking tape.

To explain this I’ll try and be not overly tecchie and then put the tecchie bit in italic underneath for anyone who cares.

Faulty Switch

The switch is the thing that connects all our computers together and onto the internet.

Yesterday I needed to turn it off and back on. Turned off ok but wouldn’t come back on; either the power light flickered a bit or just didn’t light up.

We have a gigabit switch at the core of our direct-internet network (not the GRN WAN one). The server on that network which does routing and DHCP locked up and needed power-cycled.

Normally after its back up I’ll drop the switch for a few seconds causing Windows to see ‘disconnected’ and then ‘reconnected’ and so ask for an IP address (rather then keeping the auto-assigned one while DHCP was down for a random period of time).

Business Continuity

As I stood thinking “well that’s not good” more people kept coming to the office asking about the internet. Facebook – and occasionally some health sites – being critical.

The original fault had lost us internet for 5 minutes or so and now they were getting messages telling them I’d unplugged cables (as the switch was off).

Realising this wasn’t going to be simple to sort out I scrabled around and raided my office for my desk switch and numerous cables and adapters.

Within 45 minutes of the original failure I had most of the offices connected using various means (and being lucky in that a few of the offices are vacant right now).

Facebook access was saved.

Using an 8-port 100mbps switch normally on my desk, the spare LAN ports on a wireless router we use just as an access point and just the right number of long cables I had spare (long enough to reach the router) I managed to restore connectivity for 9 locations (one of which was our secondary wifi access point serving 4 PCs and many laptops).

Investigations

Using various highly advanced techniques (a box with probes that tells me what’s happening) I found the power was coming into the switch.

Opening it up and probing different bits narrowed the issue down to being the PSU/power board; this is the bit that takes the mains voltage and converts it down to a lower voltage suitable for small electrical use.

To be certain this was the faulty component I bypassed it and connected another power supply directly to the switch.

The power board was giving 12VDC out but when connected to the main switch board the output at the connection terminals dropped to 4.5VDC.

Hoping that the power side was faulty and not the switch board I used a variable supply and a fan connector (to plug into the port) to see if it would power up – it did!

Testing switch with a small variable DC power supply to check circuit

Replacement Power Supply

With the faulty board identified it was just a matter of removing it and finding something else to provide the 12V to the switch.

Unfortunately the variable supply used for testing was nowhere near powerful enough to actually power the switch in operation.

A power supply unit for a computer though did provide 12V and would be. It’s possible to trick one of these into thinking the computer is on and so then use its power for the switch.

Normally you would use a paperclip to ‘trick it’ but after testing it with the paperclip I went one better and decided to put an on/off switch in as well.

The all had the added bonus of clipping lots of wires making me feel like a bomb disposal expert.

I decided to use the 12VDC output from an ATX PSU as the variable supply was rated 500mA and the original internal supply rated to 3A (the ATX supply I used was ok to 14.5A).

Rather than just bridging the ATX connector to short-start I cut a switch off an old AT supply and connected that to some pronged connector I had from an old variable supply which perfectly fitted the pins.

Then it was just a matter of taking the 12V feed from one of the molex connectors to my fan-connector already connected to the DC input on the switch board.

The Fulty Power Supply Unit

Faulty original PSU/transformer-rectifier whatsit

Bridging an ATX PSU to a switch - better than a paperclip longterm

Better than a paperclip - connection to short the ATX supply into working when switch closed

Using an AT switch to control an ATX bridge, held on with masking tape

On/off switch mounted on new external PSU

The Frankenswitch Lives

Closing the on/off switch amazingly now led to the PSU spinning up and the switch itself turning on in a flurry of self-test lights.

I’d disconnected an internal fan that was sticky and may be the cause of the problem so I’ve sat the whole thing on top of some big fans blowing air through it. Though this probably would make a fire worse not better. My on/off switch design through should burn through (and shut off) quicker than a paperclip though.

I’ve started moving people back onto this switch and so far no fires or failures.

Rather boringly though I’m going to get a replacement one as an emergency order instead of leaving the Frankenswitch as my legacy in Opuwo.

Repaired switch on top of rack and working

All plugged in and sitting on top of rack fans for cooling and extra oxygen for inevitable fire (backup switch seen in the background)

Switch working in extended testing

Switch actually working with the first test group of people back on it

A NIDing I Will Go

June 13, 2011

It’s that time again; the National Immunuisation Days are upon us. The yearly NID programme consists of two rounds (cryptically called NID 1 and NID 2) where the Ministry of Health dispatches just about everyone into the field to find children and make them cry (also make them safer).

This will be my third NID (not counting the emergency Measles immunisation drives) and sadly also my last.

It’s a great opportunity to get out into da bush, meet new and interesting people, camp out under the stars like a real man, do good works ™ and as an added bonus make children cry.

Unfortunately for NID 1 I’m tied to Opuwo and so will just be going out on a daily basis then returning at night (or not returning because I’m stuck in mud/water/quicksand/on rocks). Though this has the added bonus of sleeping in my bed every night it lacks the tough real manliness and camaraderie of camping out in the middle of nowhere.

I’m tied to Opuwo thanks to one thing; the naughty modem.

In April we had a lightning-caused power surge on the Telecom network in Opuwo. It took out my ADSL router, my laptop and also the work baseband modem used to connect one of our networks to head office in Windhoek.

This left nobody able to connect to the central finance, HR or intranet systems and rather than being seen as a bonus holiday was met with consternation.

Getting a new modem would take over a week but luckily Telecom had a spare second-hand one in Opuwo and was able to bring it over the next morning and after a little setting-wrangling, prayer and repeated reboots we were back online.

All was well.

But since then and with increasing frequency a red light keeps coming up on the new modem and the connection is lost.

I could bore you with details of what this light may mean or the tests I’ve performed on the line and so on in a veiled and pathetic attempt to look like I might know what I’m talking about but I’ll spare you that (this once).

Suffice to say that on a regular basis the connection to head office is lost. People will then come and see me, usually I’m already in the room with it in cursing, and ask what the problem is (no doubt assuming I’ve broken something).

Usually turning it off and back on will solve the problem (as with 94.8721% of all IT problems) but sometimes, like today, it doesn’t and I’m left trying to find someone on the phone at Telecom or our WAN company who can turn their end off and back on.

I’ve previously pointed to the modem and said ‘it may be faulty’ or explained that the line is down and I’m trying to find out which bit is broken. Mostly this was met with blank stares. Until I pointed generally at the equipment and told someone ‘it is very naughty’ at which their eyes lit up and understanding was reached. So this has now become my formal description of the problem.

“Status report Mister David?”

“It continues to be naughty Meme”

I have now managed to open a fault with Telecom for the ongoing problem (previously they would open a fault when the line was down, when I reset the modem and it was back up the fault would be closed) so I have high (no doubt foolish) hopes we can get it sorted allowing me to get out deep into da bush for NID 2.

Here’s a picture of the GRN network rack. The naughty modem is the white box in the middle:

Rack Open Showing Naughty Baseband Modem

And here it is in close-up with some detailed technical information:

Naughty Baseband Modem Close

See – I know all about the flashy lights and what about those arrows done in MS Paint? Truly I am l33t to the max.

Swakopmund Workcation

June 6, 2011

The other week I was dispatched to Namibia’s seaside resort town of Swakopmund to take my boss to a workshop and also to see if I might help out our colleagues in the Erongo region with their IT problems.

I arrived to find their server locked up and unresponsive (though still serving some stuff). Luckily just as I was pondering exactly which hammer I should use to hit it with a couple of familiar faces turned up; two of the IT guys from our head office had also come to beat Erongo’s computers into submission.

This was an amazing piece of luck and meant they could actually work on complex stuff like our VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure – I think) systems while I posed about, tapped PCs encouragingly with one of my aforementioned hammers and stood with them in the server room interjecting pointless suggestions; “could it be the Dilithium crystals or perhaps the fan-belt?”.

Surprisingly even with my inept getting in the way (actually I am truly brilliant at getting in the way) not too much went wrong and after a day and a half of turning stuff off, then on, then off, counting to five, and finally back on again most of the really important stuff was working.

The guys then left back to home base leaving me to try and finish off the couple of remaining small issues, one of which I actually fixed. I also totally setup a new Active Directory user account which bizarrely enough worked.

Of course all work and no play makes Dave a dull boy so it was my sacred duty on the Friday afternoon after finishing off in the offices and before collecting my boss from the workshop to go Quad Biking in the dunes.

Very expensive but worth it. They gave me an automatic bike and we were off through the sands. I even got to use briefly my dune charging skills and get a few stories out of daring do in the Namib on MoHSS missions. Beautiful scenery and I didn’t get stuck once mainly because I was just shouting “Banzai!” and going full-pelt at the sand.

Random Technical Rant: Proxy Servers

The GRN (Government of the Republic of Namibia) network is a large-scale WAN (Wide Area Network) and encompasses hundreds (if not thousands) of sites around the country.

Because lots of stuff is tied together between Ministries (for example the financial systems for the Ministry of Health are actually run by the Ministry of Finance) this is one big network rather than each Ministry having its own WAN.

The buck stops at the core of the network in the OPM (Office of the Prime Minister) where all the core backbone links from the various Ministries end up.

To get internet access from anywhere in the GRN network you need to use a proxy server in the OPM.

All good.

Now the problem for a long time has been the main proxy server has been overloaded. This doesn’t seem to be some deliberate attempt to slow down internet access (keeping bandwidth free for internal systems) as even proxy error pages and responses take forever if they come at all.

There is a second proxy server which you can also use but this, though faster, seems more unreliable than the main one.

To try and fix this a new super-shiny proxy server has been built.

The only problem now is that all the clients have been manually configured to use a proxy. It seems that using WPAD/PAC (Web Proxy Auto-Discovery Protocol/Proxy auto-config) has been somehow overlooked or decided against.

Argh!

Combine that with the new super-shiny server being down while I was in Swakopmund meant that everyone is still using the old super-slow one and will need a visit to every office to resolve once its up.

The new super-shiny server is on the same subnet (nary a single IP apart) from the super-slow one so another alternative would have been to just use the same IP. But alas this is not to be.

All three (super-slow, randomly-working and super-shiny) are of course various proprietary bits of kit, the super-shiny being some sort of Oracle thing.

I’m sure all this is happening for some reason I don’t understand but for what it’s worth here is my advice: use WPAD/PAC and SQUID for the love of all that is sacred.

Easy, automatic, fast, wonderful and FREE!

Omufitu Training

February 26, 2011

Last week I was out in da bush near Outapi at the Omufitu North Combined School doing some training for the teachers.

Emily is a Peace Corps volunteer at the school and managed to get a suite of 6 new computers donated for their library. In a foolish moment there was an offer of some training so John (fellow Opuwo IT bod) found ourselves committed.

We met up with Emily in Outapi and then had to pick up one of the school teachers to act as guide because thanks to recent heavy rains the usual route (which we got lost on before anyway) was now underwater.

Even the “dry” route was pretty wet but the Mighty Condor churned through. At a few of the larger lakes our guide had to think about whether people had put bricks (for traction) in the water.

Bricks mean you go very slow. No bricks mean you go fast. Going at medium speed would jar stuff loose if there are bricks and get you stuck if there aren’t. Luckily she remembered right and we reached Emily’s home with some quality off-road chic mud splatters.

Emily lives with a family in a homestead a little way from the school. She lives the Peace Corps dream in a hut with chickens scratching around (or rather crapping around). Her host family had agreed to accommodate us for the week and I got my very own corrugated iron shack. Sweet.

On Monday we got in early for assembly where we were welcomed and then got to look at the new PCs.

Omufitu North Combined School Computer Lab

We trained up three groups (grouped by previous experience) with each group doing one and a half hours a day for give days.

All in all considering the pretty poor state of the training staff it went very well. The “beginner” group we got through Word, typing tutors and educational software while the “advanced” group got deep into Excel (not VBA deep but some sweet graphs and formulas).

Computer Skills Training at Omufitu North Combined School Namibia

Topics included: computer rules, word, tux typing, tux math, powerpoint, excel, internet and email.

On Friday we scraped the chicken poo off us as best we could, forded our way back out onto the main road and back to Opuwo.

I Have the Power

February 25, 2011

A gadzillion years ago during my first week in Namibia still undergoing training in Windhoek I bought a variable AC-DC power supply from the Tre Supermarket on a whim (and in the hopes my radio would pick up the World Service and I could power it from the mains, it didn’t and I couldn’t).

This was a shiny white box with all sorts of different outlet connectors and quite decent. It did 3-12VDC at around +3% (12.4V for the 12V setting).

When my mate John’s switch supply blew at the Ministry of Youth I foolishly lent him my shiny supply.

A while later he blew it up. Causing some impressive scorching on the inside.

Luckily I had just been gifted another variable supply so failing to learn my lesson and with the youth of Opuwo facebookless I lent him another.

Which he blew up.

As I was now entirely out of supplies and nobody fancied my suggestion of jury-rigging the 12V bus of a hot-wired PC power supply he bought a replacement for himself and one for me.

Did I mention my original one was quality and gave accurate output?

Today I had potential need for another supply (see below) so took it out of the box and before blindly plugging it into anything tested the output and polarity. The polarity was correct to the setting but the output was a little off.

Dodgy Variable DC Supply - 17.7V on 12V Setting

Here it is on the 12V setting giving 17.7V. Nice.

You don’t just get what you pay for – you get more! Probably too much more.

To be fair though on the 9V setting it gives around 11.8V which should be good enough for 12V equipment.

No AC/DC for the Red Cross

The reason I dug out the supply was because the Red Cross ADSL router wasn’t working, no lights showing (technical term is knacked).

With the recent thunderstorms and spate of PSUs I’ve been replacing recently I thought it was probably just the transformer and planned to use Mr Overvolt as a temporary replacement.

Testing their power supply against VDC caused a brief display and then nothing leading me to conclude it was the supply.

But wait, what’s that on the bottom of the router for the input supply? 12VAC. AC? Surely not, a misprint of course.

Check the power supply that has been working with the router until now and, um, it’s an AC-AC transformer (230VAC to 12VAC).

Put the multimeter on the right setting and the power supply is fine, 15VAC (looks like they’re all at it) but steady AC nonetheless.

So this means the router itself is creamed.

But on the plus side I got to see my first ever (and hopefully last ever) low-voltage AC supply.

230VAC to 12VAC Adapter

Really? What’s that all about?

I get the benefit of AC for transmission and for high-voltage or high-load appliances but at 12V and 1A? Also there is no way whatsoever all the components in the router (if any) use AC so I’d guess the very first thing inside is a bridge rectifier.

Are Huawei just having a laugh? Found a very cheap supplier of the rare AC-AC transformers? Hate people being able to replace power supplies easily when they blow?

Curiously my Huawei router (HomeLife a.k.a. HG520b) is DC as is the work Huawei MT-330. Madness.

VSO IT Do It With Masking Tape

February 23, 2011

Gaffer tape (Duct tape to our colonial brethren) is wonderful stuff. As are staples, paperclips and PVC tape.

But so is masking tape.

HP Laptop Power Supply

Recently my HP power supply started making odd sparking noises and (more importantly) stopped providing power to my laptop.

As the next week my variable laptop supply started getting iffy on 19V (ok of course on all the other voltages) I had to hack my HP supply apart. It turns out that two years of hard Opuwo living had pulled the output wires out of their sheath and into contact with each other.

Judicious cutting of plastic, popping of catches and forcing open of glued bits followed by generous application of masking tape and voila a fully functional supply. Sort of. Don’t pull on anything too hard. If it starts to smoke then run.

HP Laptop Power Supply Masking Tape Repair (VSO IT)

The finished article - as new but with some extreme custom mods

TB CRT in CDC

On deploying to an emergency callout for the Tuberculosis Programme monitoring PC monitor in the Primary Health Care (PHC) clinic Center for Communicable Diseases (CDC) [phew] I found that someone had managed to punch in the power button for their 17″ HP Cathode Ray Tube (CRT – not flat screen) monitor.

IT monkeys like me approach CRT repairs with a little trepidation and a current will. Of all the things we poke screwdrivers into few can kill you quite as quickly and spectacularly as a CRT monitor.

The bits inside (technically known as the magic gubbins) uses all sorts of ridiculous high voltages in excess of 10,000 for some components. With lots of lovely capacitors to keep plenty of current handy to earth through your unwitting hand.

A full-on mains belt is nothing compared to a CRT discharging through you (and actually the opportunities for mains electrocution are less and less these days as most stuff operates at boring low voltages with a well protected transformer).

So I waited the requisite 48 hours and then another 24 for good measure before opening it up.

CRT Opened Awaiting Repair

I was sadly unable to find any children to poke around inside just to be certain everything was discharged so I had to hope that was the case and dive in.

Luckily I found the switch assembly and missing bit fairly easily. With a bit of caressing into place, superglue on stuff held with pliers and of course masking tape it was good to go.

CRT Power Switch Masking Tape Repair (VSO IT)

In fact I was so confident in my work I was able to plug it in at Anika‘s office and after failing to convince her to turn it on did so myself. With a stick. From behind a desk (well from under a desk actually). Covering my eyes and praying to Zeus.

It worked though, much to my amazement, and is now back in the TB office recording data.

After finding the plug in their office had tripped out and playing hunt-the-circuit-breaker that is (eventually found in the operating theatre, obviously).

Doing it For the Kids

February 2, 2011

In addition to my dayjob as a rather bad IT Specialist with the Ministry of Health and my nightjob as unofficial Tafel lager taster and Shebeen reviewer I occasionally, usually by accident, end up involved on the periphery of some good works for the Children of Namibia.

Here are two examples of the aforementioned good works.

Cheshire Home, Katima Mulilo

The Leonard Cheshire Foundation is an international charity who support people with disabilities. Part of their work focuses on helping children with disabilities to access education.

In Namibia they have two Cheshire Homes where children live and are cared for so are able to access schooling that would be otherwise impossible for them to reach.

The Katima Mulilo home is run by a dedicated group of Polish nuns and caters to a large number of children with various disabilities as well as providing outreach services to the local community. VSO have a physiotherapist placed in the home who is a good friend of mine and provides rehabilitation services for the children and the surrounding community.

Last Easter I was in Katima Mulilo (it’s as far as you can go in Namibia being right at the end of the Caprivi strip after which you fall off into Zambia, Zimbabwe or Botswana). My main work in Katima was with the Ministry of Education (arranged by another VSO volunteer) and I went around prodding computers in school and trying to “share skills” with the local technician.

In addition though I spent some time at the Cheshire Home and helped them sort out and setup a computer lab with donated equipment. This involved testing it and then (as most of it worked but the operating system was banjacksed) showing some of the older kids how to install Windows and various cool bits of educational software. We then did a few nights of training/playing.

Cheshire Home Katima Mulilo Computer Lab

Computer Lab at Cheshire Home Katima Mulilo

Katima Mulilo Cheshire Home Computer Lab

Please note of course that I didn’t get the computers (they were already donated), prepare the room (already done), wire the sockets (done by a VSO NVP) or even rearrange the desks myself (done by the kids). I just plugged some stuff in and failed to rewrite an extension cord.

I also did a bit of fault-fixing on the staff computers which led to the bizarre experience of being in a deathly quiet convent trying not to swear at a particularly obstinate printer.

Mother Bear Khorixas

The Mother Bear Project is a US charity that aims to “provide comfort and hope to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations, by giving them a gift of live in the form of a hand-knit or crocheted bear”.

The donation of the bears for the Sunrise Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) home in Khorixas was all arranged by my most excellent Peace Corps two-office-down buddy Anika.

As I was going to Khorixas to fail to fix some computers I acted as a driver for the trip. The rumour that I only got involved because I thought we were giving away live bears is false and I utterly refute it. Though that would be cool.

Sunrise is run as a Red Cross project and provides a lovely hostel and food for quite a number of children.

The kids were all over the moon with their bears, even the older ones who did their best to play it cool.

Anika’s account can be found here on her blog.

Mother Bear Donation at Sunrise OVC Project in Khorixas, Namibia

Mother Bear Donation to Sunrise Red Cross OVC Project in Khorixas, Namibia

Once again please note that I had nothing to do with the arrangement of this excellent donation. I just drove there, handed out a few bears, basked in the smiles of the children and then played catch with a few of them while the adults talked serious stuff.

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

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.