4-16 Installing a server

Gene, configuring a desktop.
So many computers!!

Out on the island, I barely have four working computers in my lab. Here in Santo, the volunteer I am visiting just got 17 desktops and a server donated. It continues to be interesting how different the two towns are compared to the islands. This has also been a reminder of how much I truly enjoy working with servers and networks as well as how much I wasn’t getting to do it on the island.

The installation has gone pretty well. There are still a few things to get taken care of like the server room, an air conditioner, and a UPS, but the network is functional. Gene will also be continuing to tweak settings on the client machines and maybe a few on the server before they really start using it. There will also be a lot of training to do. I, however, am done being the technical consultant and am leaving that to him.
Originally, I was going to be flying in on Wednesday. Then school got canceled for Tuesday (there was a death of an important person at the school) and Monday was a holiday anyway so I decided to get to Santo Monday. I didn’t have my ticket purchased yet. Fortunately, this isn’t really a problem here. I hiked down to the next school as one of the other volunteers had a brother visiting who would be getting on the same flight. Jumped on his truck, got a bit wet, and made it to the airport. At the airport, I bought the ticket with borrowed money and got on the plane. There are times when the looseness of traveling in Vanuatu is incredibly frustrating. This time it worked to my advantage.
Monday was spent mostly re-connecting to the internet. Tuesday is when we really started building the server. After straightening out the hard drives, we installed. I’ve always liked doing completely new networks, they’re so easy. You don’t have any settings to port over. Even re-doing my own network is more of a pain than starting from scratch. Throughout the next few days we configured the server, adding features and determining where all the data should go. Teachers wandered in and out to see what the new setup would look like. Some of them were impressed, others were more confused but will be when they understand it. Gene’s counterpart was here for most of it so that he can learn how it is set up.
As always, when in town there was shopping to do and people to see. To give Gene’s brain a break from all the new information I was stuffing into it, we went into town for lunches or out to drink kava at night. Wednesday we went to a curry buffet which was AMAZING. Seriously some of the best curry I’ve ever had and we were all STUFFED.
After getting the server installed, we started working on the desktops. We are starting with getting one well configured and then making a copy of it to deploy to all the others. This way, we don’t have to install the software separately on each computer and putting in new ones will be very easy. The work is not done yet but we have the process for making the copy down and Gene is perfectly capable of finishing the configuration. I just need to be sure to keep my phone on when possible.
Today, I head back to the island and my smaller network. My teaching is going well, but I am really looking forward to getting back to places where I have more technology available. It’s nice to know I can live without it so much but I also know now how important it is to me.

3-11 My changing relationship with technology

My Peace Corps experience has had a profound effect on my relationship with technology. This is something I had some notion was going to happen but I could never have really imagined quite what the reality would be. For a long time, one of the things which as defined “me” has been technology. I am a computer and gadget nerd. I tinker with computers and gadgets and acquire new ones as often as possible. I can no longer do these things like I did back home.

Pulling myself out of the developed world has forced me to realize just how much I had attached my identity to technology. It has also forced me to detach to some extent because I just don’t have the access. I no longer have a smart phone. My access to replacement parts or new acquisitions is severely limited. I have zero connection to the internet most of the time. Some of the other volunteers are enjoying this disconnection from the distractions they bring. Not that I am actually suffering or depressed from withdrawal or anything. Disconnecting has simply taught me that I really like being connected. I enjoy having a constant stream of news available. I like being able to communicate instantly with people.
I have also learned more about what my healthy relationship with technology can be. I am more comfortable not being in front of a screen for the majority of the day. I do the things I need to do on the computer and then shut it down. When I do have internet, I check the things I need to check and don’t “need” to spend another couple hours on all the time wasting sites. I still enjoy browsing the time wasters when I have the time to but they no longer grab my attention like they used to. When there are other things to do, I don’t have to yank myself away.
Of course, my relationship with technology will change again when I have more electricity and internet access. Will I still be as comfortable unplugging or will I get drawn back in? I can’t know, but I feel like some of it will stick. At the very least, I’ll be more aware of how amazing it is and how different it makes our lives.

6-28 First Community Class

Last week I started my open community classes. I have been working on getting these started for some time but it finally came together.

I had hoped to be starting as soon as I got back from Vila the last time. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen for multiple reasons. Finally making the announcement at church seems to have been the key. After figuring out who to talk to, I was all set to announce and then two people died. This meant staying in the village. Even the announcement itself happened in a very Vanuatu way. When I got to church I thought I was going to go up and toktok smol. Instead, my principal came over to me partway through church and informed me that they would just say that I would talk about it after church. Okay, roll with it as usual. After the service, I talked about the class (when, how much, only 6 computers, etc.) and then my principal repeated it in language and talked small about the internet coming.

Fast forward to Wednesday. Of the 12 or so I could take at one time, I had 8 people show up. This is pretty decent for a society in which being the first to do something is not “cool.” There was even an oldfala in the group. He needed a bit of extra help but fortunately Gaea was there to work with him.

Some previous Peace Corps volunteers found a decent pair of programs for teaching mouse and keyboard use. These programs allow me to get the group started and have some guided practice as I go around giving individual, specific help. The best part of these programs is that they work in multiple languages and are very easily to extend to any new ones. Those other volunteers have already done the legwork of translating most of them into Bislama. These make my life much easier. I found out halfway through one class that the Bislama translation switched to French in the middle. I’m working on fixing that.

I believe the class went well. Everyone seemed to be excited about getting a chance to use the computers and a lot of people have told me they enjoyed it or want to come to the next one.

7-3 Camera and Technology Etiquette

In short, there isn’t any. Technology here is too new and too rare for any kind of limitations to be put on what is acceptable in the picture and what isn’t. They love the idea of photos and seeing those images, so anything we take pictures of is fair game. The only things stopping me from taking pictures is my own sense of etiquette.

Let me give an example. At the funeral of a man in the next village over, I was trying to get a shot of lowering him into the grave. It was crowded and I didn’t want to shove my way to the front. Then one of the oldfala who I really like saw me. He pulled me to the front and pushed two kids out of the way so I could get a better shot of it. This was perfectly acceptable behavior, I just felt rude doing it. It is like that with everything. I recorded the sound of crying at a different funeral, though I felt awkward about it. Here, they want me to do it because it is new and different.

That interest combined with the lack of personal space and personal possessions, means every photo I take has to be shown around. I don’t mind except it means I can’t take more photos and viewing photos on the camera takes up a lot of battery and it is hard to charge up the camera regularly. They are all afraid of actually using the camera, which works to my benefit because I’m a little afraid to let them, but if they weren’t, it would be fair game.

When I say fair game, I don’t mean asking to borrow it for a few hours. I mean just taking it and giving it back when they were bored or the battery was dead. The other day, I was working in the garden with Jason and an aunty and a sister. We went into the garden house to hide from the rain. Jason and I went back out to pick some cabbage to bring home and when we got back, they were unabashedly playing with our cell phones. In America, this is disrespectful and rude and an invasion of personal space. Here, it is expected. They weren’t pranking and changing the language, just scrolling through phone numbers, reading old text messages and checking our credit. Though it still feels like an invasion of my privacy, I have to tell myself that it isn’t and to let it go and laugh it off.

5-18 Cell phone wars!

Vanuatu recently gained a second carrier for cell phones. Recently as in a few years ago. Before that, Digicel was the only one available and it was expensive, unreliable and with poor coverage. The second provider to come in is Telecom Vanuatu Limited or TVL.

According to the map in the Digicel store, we should have “good” coverage here in central Pentecost. In reality, we have had coverage on sunny days in specific spots. TVL has better coverage but no more reliable service. Both towers are solar- and wind-powered. During rainy periods, we lose service. During wind storms we lose service. At night, the service gets flaky. Sometimes, the cell phone gods just hate us and don’t want us to talk to our friends and we lose service. Both providers eat text messages, or deliver them three weeks late.

The economic theory that when business fight, the consumer wins seems to be holding true for us. In an attempt to win more customers, Digicel is expanding its coverage by 30%. One of the new towers they just put up is about a 2 hour drive south of us (driving about 20 mph and stopping frequently to ford rivers). Because this new towers is out on a point and our village is out on a point, when we get Digicel, I can lay in my hammock and talk on the phone! This is such an improvement I can’t even begin to describe it to you. Of course, we still only get service about four days a week and the tower has the hiccups, but still.

The final side effect of this new and improved communication option is the potential of getting email on the island before we end our service. Right now, the target date for internet at the school is November. Digicel has a blackberry type phone that we could possibly use to check email. We are looking into the options to see what is possible and reasonable and fits within our budget. If we get the blackberry, expect more regular, if shorter, updates.

In less stellar communication news, our computer is on the fritz. It is having some hardware-power related issue. We are hoping that it is a combination of needing more silica packs and a better cooling system. We are also looking into warranty, repairs and the expense of a new computer. Stay tuned for updates on this unfolding drama.

In the spirit of honesty and forthright storytelling of our experience here, if our computer goes down completely it will suck big, hairy, monkey balls. We don’t use it a lot, but we use it for things that will be hard to work around. Not impossible, just hard. For instance, we listen to a lot of podcasts. We both use an iPod touch to listen to them. Because of Apple’s proprietary software, we have to have the iPods linked to a specific computer. That is this computer. If it goes down, we can’t put on or take off any new material. Those podcasts are going to get really old, really fast. Before you all start to object, I know we can jailbreak the iPods, but that requires internet which we also don’t have. The same goes for setting them up to a new computer. We’re looking at our options.

We have both started doing a lot of photography. (Hopefully you’ve noticed an improvement in the quality of photos.) We use the computer to sort, weed and adjust the photos as well as for storage. We have a system. If we have to do it on a different computer, it will take a lot more effort, a lot more organization and limit the amount of photos we can take. That would suck.

I have been doing more writing since I got here. I am doing a lot of it on the computer because I don’t like to re-copy my work. I can’t do that if the computer breaks. I will go back to writing long hand, but I still haven’t gotten all of the first round of long hand writing typed up.

Finally and I think worst of all, is losing access to the computer while in Vila. The Volunteer Resouce Center is an amazing thing. There are four desktop computers hooked up to the internet that we can use from 8am to 8pm on weekdays. There are also 80 volunteers vying for time on these computers. The numbers there are just not ideal. A lot of people have laptops, which takes some of the pressure off, but that is only a minor relief for the people trying to use those computers. We also use the computer after 8pm and before 8am to download on the hotel wireless, skype with our family and friends, update the blog and generally communicate. All of that will be taken away if the computer breaks. It will make our already insane time in Vila even more insane and infinitely more stressful.

The last part of the computer breaking is in Jason’s head. He is a tech guy. It is what he has built his career and identity around. He loves gadgets and playing with the newest, latest toys. Being here has cut him off from the newest toys but at least he is learning more about these ones and the challenges of being in this environment. If the computer goes kaput, the last of his tech guy identity goes with it. That will be a struggle for him and one that I can only be supportive while he figures it out.

We’re really, really hoping the computer isn’t totally kaput. If it is, we’ll find some interesting solutions.

4-1 State of Technology

Being here is definitely giving me a new look at some of the expectations around access to technology we have in the developed world.  My job before was to keep people connected so they could work, I did have a decent grasp on how important technology is to life.  Here I’m having certain things I took for granted highlighted.  Technology is coming here very quickly but there are a number of things still missing.
As it seems to be across the developing world, cell phones are booming.  Until the market opened in 2008 there was just one cell phone company in the country (TVL – Telecom Vanuatu Ltd).  Now, it has been joined by a second (Digicel).  From what I’ve heard, the service pre-’08 was limited and expensive.  Competition has spurred a huge boom in the number of towers in country and dropped the prices.  When we arrived on Pentecost we found that, in our area, TVL is available on most hills while Digicel appears in tiny pockets the size of your head.  Our village has a bench down the hill from our house that was about the only place to get it (though unreliably) without a fifteen minute walk uphill.  They installed a new tower a few miles south and yesterday was discovered we can sometimes get texts on our front porch or make calls from the store just down from our door.  Barring that, the previous area seems even stronger in signal.  Peace Corps has a deal worked out with Digicel so that anyone on our “Team Talk” plan can call each other for free.   Having the easier access is huge in keeping us sane and talking with our fellow volunteers.  We’re not positive that this is going to stick but we’re hopeful.
Computers too seem to be swiftly pushing further out into the islands.  People are pretty generally excited and eager to learn how to use them.  Of course, the knowledge of quite what they’re to be used for is not there yet.  That’s part of what I’m here to work on.  At the moment, they’re all too often viewed as more playthings for the boys.  There is a sense that there are better uses and a few people even have some concept of what these might be. 

Unfortunately, the delivery system isn’t keeping up with desire or the speed at which machines break in a hot, humid environment.  In the last month I’ve had three of eleven computers develop problems.  Though one mysteriously fixed itself, two are still out of commission.  As these went down while Gaea was in Vila, I spent some time attempting to contact parts suppliers in town so we could purchase and have her pick them up.  This met with great frustration and general failure.  I needed a couple new motherboards, to get them I had to talk to the technicians to get specifics on what they have.  In more than ten phone calls to three stores, I actually talked to a tech four times.  When I did manage to talk to a tech, my service would give out or there would be a problem transferring the call and it would drop. 

No, I still don’t have the parts.  If I have time while I’m in town I’ll visit some places.  If that goes well,  my Headmaster will be coming in for other business and could pay for/pick them up.  If not, we get to rely on either the slow and only minorly inconsistent shipping system or the wildly inconsistent postal system.
Finally there is the internet.  This is currently an exciting front for me.  I have known since I came out to site that there was supposed to be some kind of project that would bring internet to Melsisi but, I had no details.  Then the telecommunications regulator came to town to explain this project that is definitely coming.  They have recently put together a program to push cheap, reliable, and decently quick internet out into the islands.  The bonus for me is that they’ve chosen Melsisi as one of four pilot sites.  All the pilot sites have a secondary school and a health center for which the government will fund the connection.  Additionally, there will be a community telecenter with at least three computers, printer, and copier. 

I had planned to put together some community education classes anyway, but now there is a lot more interest and the knowledge will be a lot more useful in the long-term.  The community still has to choose a location and the government has to find contractors.  This means won’t be in until the end of the year, we hope. That it is coming eventually is still exciting.  I’m focusing on the fact that this gives me time to teach people how to double-click and maybe even right-click.

3-30 Teaching Computers

Teaching in general is a new experience for me.  I’ve been an assistant instructor of martial arts for a while and unofficially taught computers through my consulting work.  However, this is the first time I’ve officially held the position of teacher with a whole class and lesson plans and everything.  I have been told multiple times and by multiple people that I would be a good teacher and that they think I’d enjoy it.  Here’s my chance to find out.
Currently, I have three classes going with a fourth to start shortly.  Each week I have two hours of class with each of years 9 and 10 during which I can only hold half the class in the lab at a time.  I don’t teach the years 11 and 12 because, as we’ve mentioned, we’re in a French area and I still don’t speak French.  This leaves me teaching in Bislama, a language that is really not suited to the specifics involved in teaching this subject.  I also have two hours of classes with teachers in order to teach them in-depth computer repair.  There are currently two of these with others having expressed interest in at least popping in sometimes.  I have only just talked to the principal and will begin having weekly hour long classes open to the community to teach basic computers shortly.  I have a feeling that these will involve a lot of repeated classes to accommodate all interested parties and likely some separate times for specifically women to make sure they’re not left out.
So, how am I finding the teaching profession?  To be fair, this assessment of the experience is still early on in my service and I’m still getting settled into the swing of being a teacher.  So far, it’s frustrating.  In large part, this is due to the systems here.  Again, I’ve never been a teacher before and I don’t know how to do my job. 
The first system is the Peace Corps has a lot to cover in their training and limited time to do it in.  I’m glad they spent as much time as they did teaching me the language and how to take care of myself here, not to mention what to do with all these natural hazards.  With all that information, there just wasn’t a lot of time for sessions on what the heck I’m supposed to do when I’m suddenly standing in front of a room full of students.  The students seem to expect me to impart knowledge or something. 

The second system here I have to deal with is the Vanuatu Education system.  It is, how to put this, a little on the rough side.  The Ministry is currently putting a lot of work into standardizing training and curriculum but it’s not there yet.  One of my fellow PCVs is currently doing a lot of hard work on some of these issues.  Even then, math and literacy take a higher priority to computers.  In the meantime, what this means for me is that I have very little guidance on what the students should be learning.  I don’t even have end-of-year goals, much less anything approaching a curriculum.  I sat down with the deputy principal who teaches year 12 (he taught year 11 last year) to ask him what the kids are expected to know when they finish year 10.  Getting any sort of an answer to that was a bit like pulling teeth and he was very adamant that I should teach them what I deem important.  Now that I know that they’re trusting in my expertise and leaving things up to me, I’m moving on and just designing the curriculum myself.  Next, I need to have some discussions about what is expected in terms of grades.
The hardest part for me in my classes is remembering just what it’s like to know that little about the subject.  Given that both of my parents were both programming before I was born and I honestly can’t remember not having a computer in the house, this is a little difficult.  I’ve taken to using the analogy with my students of learning to walk on small, slippery footpaths.  I point out that I know how to use computers well because I’ve been doing it all my life but I have to learn how to walk around here because I haven’t.  This generally gets a good chuckle and I think it gets the point across that I don’t expect them to know this stuff.  Self-effacing humor is a useful thing for trying to break down any condescension that I may inadvertently show.
The kids themselves are very eager to learn.  As with any subject there are wide ranges of skills and learning speeds.  One generalization I can make is that students here are very hesitant to make mistakes.  Gaea and I have both been somewhat mystified at times as to how people learn skills here.  Mistakes are quite shameful and shame is a big deal here.  In my classes, I have to confirm just about every action my students make.  “Bae yu prestem lo bigfala red ‘X’ blo klosem window (Click the big, red ‘X’ to close the window)”, I tell them.  They’ll hesitate a bit, hide their face, peek out enough to move the mouse to the right place and then glance sheepishly up at me for confirmation before very hesitantly clicking the mouse button.  They’re learning though.  Shutting down the computers is pretty smooth these days as they all have that pretty well figured out.
Overall, I’m getting the whole process of teaching figured out. I’ve got some outlines for what I want my students to learn and am working out a tentative schedule for classes.  The kids are learning but without any way to practice outside of class, I have to give them plenty of time to refresh old material.  I figure this is one of the topics that will be returned to a few times throughout our service here so I’m sure I’ll update again and let you all know how I’m feeling.  For now, I’m still a bit uncomfortable with the whole situation but getting myself settled.  I’m cautiously optimistic about my time here but not convinced that teaching is something I’ll want to continue doing for a primary job.  We’ll see what happens.

3-16 Best of List from Jason’s First test

The general level of computer knowledge here is zero. Not zero like the in the US where most everyone can use a mouse, type on a keyboard, open a file, double click and check email. At the very least, people in the US have seen a computer, know that it has an on switch and that it does things. The level zero I’m talking about is where Jason has repeatedly told them that when the mouse pad ends, they can pick up the mouse and start over. One of the previous volunteers said, “I spent a year teaching teenagers to double-click.” Double-clicking is an accomplishment.

The school required that Jason do a pre-test to determine current skill levels. He took the questions out of the slide show used in last year’s year 9 classes and again in the beginning of this year’s class so theoretically, these students have seen all of this information before.

Remember, these are year 10 students who have had “Informatics” for one full year. The teacher was the Peace Corps Volunteer before Jason and has a pretty high technical knowledge.

Here are some of the funnier questions and their answers, with the original Bislama spelling.

Lo College Lycee de Melsisi, yumi usum wanem operating system?

At Melsisi College, we use what operating system. (Windows XP)

Operarian XP


Yumi usum jeneretier.

We use a generator

Microsoft PX


Sipos yu no save wanem docie holem ficheir blo yu, bae yu mekem wanem?

If you don’t know what folder your files are in, what do you do? (Run a search from the Start Menu.)

Bae yu askem lo fren blo yu

You ask your friend. (He didn’t get points, but he did make us both laugh for being a smartass.)

Bae mi mas copie lo book leson.

I must copy from the book.

Bae yu jekem everi docie we I stap lo computer.

You check every folder in the computer.

Sipos yu wantem wan menu blo sumting, bae yu usum wanem button mo prestem hamas taem?

If you want a menu for something, you use what button and press it how many times? (Right click once)

Fulap taem

A lot of times.

Technical considerations and travel plans

Well, I suppose its about time that the other half of this adventuring couple makes a post. What better way, I figure, than with my expertise in technology and what I know about its relation to our trip.

Unfortunately the answer is not much. My fantastic company has purchased (and partially decorated) a laptop to bring on our travels, for which we are both very thankful. We will definitely have some amount of internet access while we are in country but it could range anywhere from broadband speeds at home to none unless we travel to an internet cafe or peace corps headquarters. Worst case scenario is that we will write of our adventures offline and post multiple items at once when we have access when we are able. Please do e-mail us any well wishes and updates on your lives which we will read and respond to as we can. We can pretty much guarantee little to no access to the internet during the first few months while we are in training. Once we complete training and are given a final posting we will make an update with more details and, hopefully, further contact information. We have also set up a joint Google Voice account if anyone wants to leave us a voice-mail to check as we have internet access. Just click the “Call Me!” button to the right of our blog, enter your number and Google will call you to record a voice-mail.
The bit I can tell you all about in more detail is our travel plans for getting there. We fly out to Los Angeles on September 9th and have orientation sessions through the morning and early afternoon on the 10th. At 9:30pm that evening, our flight departs to take us out of the country. September 11th doesn’t so much exist as far as we are concerned, being that we’re flying across the date line that day (skipping 9/11 by flying… seems.. appropriate?). September 12th we have a brief layover in New Zealand before we finally arrive in Vanuatu and start to see what this country is all about. We will be sure to post pictures as we are able to, everything we have seen so far looks beautiful! It is also well known for some amazing scuba diving so we are thinking a certification is in our future.
Finally, we are asking for letters we can bring with us and open as we are feeling homesick to help us along. We got a good many at our party this past weekend but would be very happy to add to the collection. Just write something to one or both of us, stuff it in an envelope with the appropriate name on the outside and get it to us. Let us know if you need a mailing address or e-mail it and we’ll promise not to read it ahead of time while printing it out and labeling.