Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Adventures in Schoolnet Computing

How many days does it take to get a computer fixed? So far, I'm on day six in Windhoek. I typed this up yesterday (Monday) while I was visiting Jason's school in Katutura.

Thursday morning September 14th I arrived in Windhoek after an uncomfortable three hours of sleep on the train. (to travel 420k took 10 hours) Remember the Far Side cartoon that had a guy standing in a high vaulted storeroom with shelves near the top, well beyond his reach titled “Inconvenience Store”? Well, these same people must’ve made the passenger cars for TransNamib. Not truly convenient for comfortable travel unless you are Gumby or Plastic Man.


I took a taxi over to headquarters, located in Katutura, a suburb of Windhoek. I’d never been there before and didn’t think to Mapquest it. The driver didn’t know where it was, even though he got directions from someone at the station and then got angry with me when I wouldn’t get out in the middle of this industrial park area with a computer. Sometimes we wonder what the actual qualifications to be a taxi driver are. I’m guessing a dilapidated car, a yellow dashboard taxi sign and a pulse. No working knowledge of the city, town or village necessary.


We flagged down a passing student and she helped me find the place. The entrance to that place was tucked away in the corner of a building - you’d never know it was there! I only had to wait about five minutes before the boss came to open things up.



Aside #1
: People from PST said that he didn’t like PCV’s, resulting from a bad experience with two demanding volunteers. I found him to be a very pleasant person. In fact, he let me go anywhere I wanted to, including the workshop area in the back.


The actual Schoolnet door was tucked away inside this warehouse-like building, actually an arts center. It looked something akin to what you’d expect Jobs/Wozniak’s first place outside their garage to look like. The workshop was filled with rows of monitors, piles of CPUs, hard drives, mice and any components you could imagine. A computer geek’s dreamland. In the lobby area they had a vending machine with three cd burners, and you could get free copies of Openoffice, Openlab, Project Gutenburg books and some other things. I did find it a little ironical that the computer they used to play music was a WINDOWS computer. But that’s all they trusted it to do. Everything else was Openlab (a modified version of Linux) or Mac. Teddy was the guy I talked to on the phone and the man who worked on the server computer. I knew all I needed to know when I talked about a Counter Strike tourney we’re planning in October or November and his eyes lit up. He just spent about six hours the weekend before playing CS with his friends.



Aside #2
: Schoolnet uses a thin-client service. That means that only one computer, the server computer, has a hard drive. The remaining computers use an Ethernet connection and boot from the server - the wave of the future for inexpensive computer labs for those outside of the developed world. However, if the server computer goes down the whole network is down. You can’t even boot the computers.


I spent almost the entire day in the workshop talking to the staff and trying to help with the repairs. The memories of the math lab in college (a Sun Microsystem lab with laser mice and UNIX operating system) – emailing ‘core’ dumps back and forth with clever puns (subject line: “How do you CORE an apple?” ) with Pine and Elm mailing programs. So glad I learned how to navigate with that operating system (ls, cp, mv, cd and such). Knowing DOS helps, especially for getting away from the GUI, but many of the commands are different. I stumped them with a problem, for a while.

I needed to back-up some files on my computer but with the USB port and cd/dvdrom not mounting, it was a problem. After almost an hour of trying they discovered another, easier way to copy files (connecting the computers via cable) with the command “fish”. The other option was to use the console to log in and copy file by file … all 3,000 or so. Only would have taken four hours to do it that way instead of the 45 minutes the GUI way. After re-installing the programs, using a new IDE and 3-in-1, we got it to mount both cd/dvds and USB! Triumph!!!!! Until … then we checked to see if the other computers would boot off of it … failure L just couldn’t get the others to “read” the server computer. I left shortly after that, at almost 5pm. As of today, they are still working on the code in a couple of the files. I’m lucky enough to get the latest version of Openlab installed. Guess we found a bug.

If there were any issues between Schoolnet and Peace Corps, I think they are pretty much patched up. Heck, I got a free Schoolnet t-shirt out of the deal. In fact, we know there'll be at least one employee at the Counter Strike weekend in the future. That’s about it for the adventure with Schoolnet. I’m still Windhoek, with my principal’s and PC’s permission, but it still feels like playing hookey. Jason and I are stopping by in a couple hours to see how things are going. They said it should be ready by Tuesday, at the latest. (as of today it’s now bumped back to Wednesday or later - there's a hardware problem)

More of the adventure soon to come: Daily Show mania, climbing on top of the cone, parliament grounds, pizza, desserts (lots and lots of ‘em) and peanut M&M taste challenge. Click here to see some of the things on Jason's blog.


The picture editing thanks to Jason’s laptop computer and Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0. By far the best picture editor I’ve used so far – sorry PSP.

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