Buried Treasure (Monday, 2010 October 4)

October 5, 2010

Today’s post is titled "Buried Treasure" in honor of some of the weird crap I’ve found in the computer lab in the process of sorting it out. Apparently we’re scheduled to get some more computers in the next week or so, and the prestataire (literally "recipient", but if I understand correctly he’s more like a contractor who the school pays, using fees collected from students, to "maintain" the hardware and the lab) told us that we should sort out whatever’s good in the hardware we’ve got and anything that gives us a headache we should just get rid of. So I’ve been trying to get a handle on what we have, looking at all the PS/2 connectors and seeing which have pins bent beyond repair, trying to find monitors that are less blurry for certain workstations, etc. My favorite discovery so far has to be the two serial mice, which I tried to get working for all of 30 seconds before putting them in the "to jete" (jeter, to throw away) pile. But we’ve also got:


Notice the brand name of this keyboard, in the upper-right. PS/2! I have no idea what the hell that’s about. I’ve also seen a monitor with the brand name "Digital" on it.


This is a rallonge, literally "extension/extension cord" but I would call this a power strip. We have a lot of power cables that are US standard, or something that I’m guessing is German, instead of the Europlug which is standard here, so the universal outlets on these adapters isn’t that big a surprise. What is surprising is the Chinese characters and the fact that someone has removed the actual plug.

I’ve also run across, for the first time here in Africa, some Torx screws. I am so freaking glad I brought some Torx bits for my Leatherman Wave. However, the case is constructed in such a way that the Wave doesn’t really have enough space to turn freely. In order to get the damned screw out, I had to half-insert the bit and be careful not to push in too much when turning. Eventually got it out, though.

We finally had a session of "informatique club" Wednesday, which permitted me to try to explain a little how to troubleshoot a computer. When possible, you make the students do the work here while you supervise. Once we got one hard drive out and put in another, we had to find the screws (vise, screw; tourne-vise, screwdriver). "Is there anyone who has seen the screws?" To this, one student spat out the two screws. "You ate them?" I said. "No, not really ate them." he replied. "You were sucking on them?" I asked. "It’s a good way to keep them, isn’t it?" he said.

In order to buy some equipment, I was told I needed to talk to the prestataire. As I said, the school collects a fee from each student (4,000 CFA — out of school fees totalling about 20-30K per year). This money goes to the prestataire to pay the salaries of certain teachers, to pay for maintenance of computer equipment, and to buy computer equipment. So I was pretty excited to talk to the prestataire last Wednesday, and I had all my papers in order for the equipment to install a local area network, or maybe even get a connection to the Internet, (Both of these things are part of the official curriculum for 4e, for example.) The prestataire basically laughed me off, and this turned into a raised-voices-discussion in which I asserted that the shit they were talking about doing wouldn’t cut it, and they asserted that:

  1. We can’t afford 100,000 CFA worth of networking equipment. That money would have to — have to — come out of the salary of one of the teachers it pays for. Here’s a much more practical idea: we’re gonna make a crossover cable, and connect one computer to one other computer, thereby making a network of two computers. (Digression here about how thirty students are going to play with two computers, and whether I am a criminally negligent teacher for allowing the entire class in the lab at a time. I’ll spare you.)
  2. And anyhow stop trying to teach so much goddamned stuff, Ethan, what do you think this is, Europe or wherever it is you come from? You give the students all that and you’ll overwhelm them.

Which set the stage for stage 2 of a similar fight with Gus. And the damnedest thing is that they may be right. I realized the other day that there’s still so much background and experience that they just don’t have yet.

Example: I tried to show a couple Premières, here are some commands that do stuff with text, but now you’ve got a problem; you added "hello" and "world" and got "helloworld". I asked them: how can you fix it? And they guessed all kinds of things — putting space around the plus sign, deleting the quotation marks, but never tried to put a space "inside" the quotation marks. I guess the concept of a string is just so internal to me that I didn’t even think to try to explain it.

I’m pushing these kids way hard, maybe asking too much of them. Maybe I should scale back, slow down, try to feed them a little bit more with directions: "Read everything." "Start at the top and work your way down." And try to cover only one thing each class.

This week in informatique club, I’m gonna try to give a crash course on Gimp, which should go well because I don’t understand it at all, much less intuitively.

So that fight with the other teachers was Wednesday. Friday there was a seminar at Bafoussam, which I was told was on the subject of changing the curriculum, so I was eager to go. Unfortunately it turned out to be more in the way of training for informatique teachers who were really math or English teachers, and a certain large amount of it was meaningless and stupid. (Ryan sent me a text towards the end which read "I haven’t heard this much BS since stage.") Nevertheless I’m glad I went, because there was a segment where we got to ask questions of the "inspectors" (sort of like a level 20 teacher). M. Domtchom and I discussed, and he eventually asked the inspectors, why we had to teach "algorithms" without any actual hands-on practice, which is very difficult to teach and very difficult to learn. The inspectors kind of pointed out that a lot of informatique teachers really weren’t qualified to teach that sort of thing, and also said some stupid thing about how some schools couldn’t afford programming languages. I was proud to see M. Domtchom show some backbone, so I decided to throw my whiteness, and my carefully-cultivated don’t-give-a-fuck-ness behind him by asking, politely of course, what we could do to make the informatique curriculum match reality. To which they responded "Well, the curriculum hasn’t changed since 2003, and it’s kind of up to the minister." "OK," I said, "Is there anything I can do to help?" "Uh, send your suggestions to the inspectors, I guess."

I’m not sure exactly what my train of thought was, but at some point during the seminar I realized that I had a great opportunity here for a secondary project — to write some training materials for how to write Python, and how to use it as part of a curriculum. I announced this to the room and offered to send it to anyone who was interested in giving me their email addresses, and suddenly found that every single person in the room (except Ryan) wanted to give me their email address. I told them I’d start writing this weekend (which I haven’t), but maybe I’ll get to it Tuesday or Wednesday. M. Domtchom said, "You’ve done an interesting thing today." Which I take to mean I’ve made a difference at least in his life.

https://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/DSCN4613-scale0.25.jpg https://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/DSCN4615-scale0.25.jpg

Posters: M. Dinesso used these during the argument on Wednesday to argue that I was overdoing it with practice and that theory classes are much better, and with teaching aids like these, it isn’t even necessary to show the students a computer.

I got my very own on Friday. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them yet. Like the books Masseu publishes, and indeed like the curriculum itself, there are significant errors, but the essence of the material probably comes through.

In other news: been looking at the following nerd things. OpenStreetMap (traces I’ve uploaded; strictly speaking I’m not supposed to reveal my precise location on the Interwebs for fear of vampire hunters or whatever, but you can probably get a pretty good idea if you didn’t already know). Newsbeuter (which apparently can sync with Google Reader?!). notmuch. Each of these things have given me at least one moment in the last week of pure "the world is full of potential", which is a feeling I sorely miss.

"Get up, get up and get going,
‘Cause things have never looked better
No wasting time at the right thing to do
And no, I have no one that I have to answer to
I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you
But I think it’s going to
Again! And again!"

—Palomar, "Sits Like a Girl"

Other than that, everything’s been really busy, or not busy at all. Still working everything out. Will keep you posted.

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