Sunday night I learned that my friend Frederick's phone charger was not working, and we determined that the problem was inside the charger, not with the plug connection to the phone. Unfortunately, the charger is heat-sealed, just like the voltage converter of a laptop charger. I spent about 30 minutes working on cracking it open, then had to leave to eat dinner. When I returned, another one of the guys, Roger, had managed to open up the charger. Upon inspection, I noticed that the transformer or voltage converter inside had been very badly melted. So we decided that Freddie would have to buy a new one since this one was basically destroyed. Apparently he had left it plugged in overnight and I guess the voltage must have been very high at the outlet where it was connected. I've definitely noticed that my laptop and cell phone chargers get very hot when plugged in around here, so we need to get some components that can handle these very high voltages!
Monday morning I was supposed to be picked up by Professor Agong to go to Bondo University for Monday and Tuesday. I met with Tom at about 9 to discuss my schedule for the rest of the time that I will be at the Fab Lab. He agreed to begin setting up some people for me to interview, so he made some calls to get some people to come by the ARO Centre on Thursday and Friday. As we were meeting, I called Professor Agong, who told me that he would be by to pick me up at about 4 in the afternoon, leaving me the whole day to be at ARO. I spoke with Tom about some of the problems that have been happening at the Centre, specifically with internet connectivity. Since I arrived, the satellite internet has not been working. Right now they have a satellite dish that receives a signal from the UK, and they pay about $400 per month for a relatively slow connection. I decided to spend the day thinking about some alternatives for connection. From the research I was able to do using my cell phone, I found several websites explaining how to set up wireless networks using USB modems, and came up with two ideas.
One idea would be to buy a router that you can plug a USB modem into. This is an upfront expense for the router, but it would mean that we wouldn't have to use a computer as a server/router. The other idea would be to use a free software to turn one of the computers in the lab into a wireless hot spot. We would plug the modem into that computer and broadcast the connection to the other computers in the lab. After speaking with Professor Agong today, I have learned that actually the Yu network is the fastest around here. They also have a monthly data plan that is Ksh 1000 per month for unlimited data, which is significantly cheaper than any of the other plans. If we can get several of the Yu modems to the Fab Lab, we could have pretty good bandwidth for either a backup connection or even just rely solely on that network. I'm just wondering if we can create some sort of router that will add together the bandwidths of several modems, say 5-10, then we would have very fast internet for several users at once and wouldn't have to plug a modem into each computer. I'll have to look more into this over the course of my stay here.
I have also been thinking about designing a typing and basic computer course for students here. All of the guys in the lab are fascinated by my typing speed, so it would be great to help teach them and to even get some younger students, maybe those in primary school, into the lab to learn about computers at an earlier age. Having an understanding of IT early on can help inspire more people to become engineers and scientists. It would be great to help Bondo University and the Fab Lab to produce highly-qualified students with advanced IT skills, beyond what other students in the country are able to get. I think especially with typing and basic computer applications, setting up programs with local schools could be very interesting, and I think maybe each school could pay some small amount for the workshop. Having local computer technicians would be really helpful, especially if they were well-versed in mobile communications and internet connectivity, as they could help to set up and maintain some better infrastructure for access to information in the region.
At about 4 pm, Professor Agong called to inform me that he would not be coming to pick me up until Tuesday since his meeting had run very long. So it turned out that I had an evening to spend at the Fab Lab. It turned out that many people were hanging around, including Freddie, Rogers, Tom, Patrick, Kevin (the doctor at ARO), and Lawrence. They were asking me a lot of questions about the U.S., mostly about marriage and education. It was really interesting learning more about the differences between here and home. The time until dinner went by very fast, and we continued afterward, discussing foods and also different appropriate technologies and why they had failed. It was really interesting to hear the views of people who have grown up in the area.
One thing that came up was the debate between giving things away for free versus charging people. Tom said that the people that he is trying to help cannot afford to purchase anything, and that if he were able to give out, for example, several biogas systems, he thinks that 70% will maintain them well and 30% will not. He said that people will take care of something that was given for free if that something really improves their lives. For example, if someone could not afford to buy a mobile phone, and you gave them one for free, they would probably take very good care of it because it would really change their lives. He said the same thing about a laptop.
I have always been against giving these things away for free, but I think he made a really good point here. Just because something is free doesn't mean that you won't take care of it. If that something is very useful and really improves your life, you will take good care of it. So there is some relationship between the value of the product and how you treat it. There is also probably something that has to do with your personality and how you were raised that determines how you treat your possessions. I have yet to read an economics study that looks at things holistically to find out whether it is really the price of the item that matters or if it is actually the value of the item to the user that matters. Of course, this is much harder to measure, but it seems like something that should be explored.
Today I left ARO at about 8 am to come to Bondo. I discussed some potential projects with Professor Agong, as well as worked on firming things up for collaboration of Brown, Bondo University, and the Fab lab at ARO. Professor Agong sees the Fab Lab as a great place for engineering students to do their practicals, and maybe even get some certificate in electronics through the learning that they will do at the Fab Lab. Things seem promising, and I'm looking forward to seeing things develop.
Another thing to think about - the Fab Lab needs computers and laser printers badly. If anyone has an old laptop to donate or is willing to help contribute to sending some computers and printers over to Kenya, let me know. I'll be working on that when I get back to help the Fab Lab be more effective.
That's all for now. Hello from Bondo University! You'll have to wait until I get back to see pictures as the uploading speed here is much too slow to bother. I love hearing about what everyone is up to, so write to me! I'll do my best to return personal emails, but the best way to find out what I'm up to is to check here.