Once again, computer failure

My computer switched itself off yesterday just after I uploaded the last batch of photos. Now it won’t turn on again. Bollocks!

Just as I was about to get started on a new web site to get people involved in the Brampton-Uru Link back in touch with each other. Now I will have to wait for my computer to be repaired in the UK, or replaced with a nice shiny new higher spec one, to get started on the programming required to make that work. I spent the last week on preparation and planning, so it really bites me on the arse that I can’t get on with the main work now.

Ah well. My computer is endlessly distracting. I easily sink into it and lose touch with reality. This should give me time to get on with other things which are really more important to me, such as writing.

Yuki is off to the US tomorrow. Her friend Sally is getting married next week. Yuki will be away for about 10 days.

I am going to go exploring for a bit while she is away. Not sure where to go. Perhaps the coast, or maybe the interior. We have been here so long, I am no longer sure what would be exciting. Maybe somewhere central like Dodoma. Maybe Lake Tanganyika or Lake Victoria. Getting on the road will surely do me good. Inject a bit of newness into what has become pretty monotonous.

I am having serious doubts about the wisdom of coming out here. When I look back at the time before we came out I was so full of hope and expectation. I felt I could really do something big and important out here. By the time we came back in April I had seen the writing on the wall for the Uru project. On return to Tanzania, the collapse of my involvement with the internet café really pulled the rug from under my feet, leaving me feeling pretty stupid. I was trying to get business designing web sites, but it wasn’t really getting anywhere. The one person I was negotiating with didn’t seem particularly serious about paying for his site, so I ditched the deal. The only thing I had going was a part time job with TechnoServe troubleshooting their computer systems. Not exactly what I had in mind when I came out here. Then I landed a column with the Arusha Times, which I am still writing. I guess that isn’t so bad, but what happened to getting Uru online?

After my initial shock and disapointment at discovering that the computers that had been donated to Uru School were either inappropriate or no longer working I was forced to look at the whole project again. After discussion with the headmaster of Uru school and others, I started to doubt that getting Uru School online was really of great importance

For a start, Uru school is short of basic textbooks that support the curriculum. An internet connection doesn’t feature in the curriculum at all. At the same time, internet access is available in Moshi from exisiting internet cafes. The people of Uru are only a bus ride away from access.

The internet connection required to get Uru online would cost around $180 a month. For the project to be sustainable it needs to cover this at minimum. But in order to do this, the project would have to charge for use of the machines, which in the end reduces it to yet another internet café. When would there be time for the school to use the computers for teaching.

Since the number of computers we would be working with would be reduced I don’t really see how they could be used for teaching – we would have about ten students per computer in any class – how much are they really going to learn in that time?

And finally, which is probably the real crux of the matter, is Uru School really in a position to use these computers? None of the teachers at the school really have much of a grasp on using them. Mansweth has taken some courses, but isn’t really at the level where he can teach. The school has to follow its curriculum as a matter of priority – would there be time for IT lessons? The school would have to be extremely committed to make a success of using any computers that were supplied. Should this be prioritised to the level it would require to be successful? Could it be? I am not sure that the commitment required is proportional to the benefits that would arise. Judging from the fact that most of the working computers are being used administratively (the headmasters secretary has two computers – she multi-tasks by working on different documents on each of them) or just stored in the headmasters office, I am not sure that the school is really capable of making that commitment.

I can’t forget that this was never something that Uru school actually asked for – people from the UK, including me, thought it would be a good idea.

Getting more out of your computer – Excel

So after all this time you finally gave in and bought a computer. You attended a few basic classes and learnt how to create folders and files, use Word and Excel and maybe even PowerPoint. But now, do you ever wonder to yourself whether or not that box and screen on your desk are earning their keep? Do you ever think – this computer, it is nothing more than a very expensive typewriter? During my travels in Tanzania I have seen computers put to a wide range of tasks. All too frequently it seems that businesses and individuals have obtained computers because of an overwhelming sense that they should catch up with the so called modern world. Beyond this there is only a flimsy understanding of what the computer is actually for. For many tasks Tanzanians will still turn to using paper and pencil and calculator, instead of utilising the quite large investment that a computer represents. So how can you really use your computer in such a way that you recoup your investment and get the benefits you rightly expect?

Knowledge is Power

Computers were invented to deal with information or data more quickly than a human can. Therefore, you can use your computer to bring information to your attention that otherwise would be hidden by the complexity of dealing with it.

If you are sitting down regularly with paper, pencil and calculator to work out your business’ monthly accounts and your computer is sitting idle, then you are wasting a valuable opportunity. You could use Excel or another spreadsheet to do all the calculations for you – you just have to enter all the figures, and then hit the sum (?) symbol. Voila! It goes further than making it easy to add up – once the data is in Excel, you can do more with it. If you have entered dates with your figures, you can examine when in the month, week or day money is flowing in and out of your business. This might not just be interesting. You can use the knowledge to adjust your business practices – for example, if you own an internet caf� you might notice that Monday mornings attract few customers. This information could suggest that you reduce your prices on Monday morning to attract more custom, or you close on Monday mornings, saving costs.

Another example – if you run a safari business and use Excel to keep track of your outgoings you might notice more quickly that a particular vehicle is being maintained on a frequent basis – Excel might help you realise that you would
actually save money by buying a new vehicle.

Excel is designed to help you get the most from the information you enter into it. It isn’t just there so you can send accurate returns to the taxman! Once you have established what you want from Excel, you can create templates that will do everything except for enter the data. Once the data is in, the calculations are carried out almost instantly!

Templates for success

You don’t even have to make your own templates – some useful ones come bundled with Excel. If you go the File menu and select New… you will find options to open from a template. In Excel XP this takes place in the New Document workpane that appears to the right of the screen. Click on General Templates… under New From Template. This takes you to a tabbed window. On older versions of Excel, when you click on New… you go straight to this. Clicking on the various tabs will show you what templates have come preinstalled. For example, Excel XP comes with the Loan Amortization template,
which helps you calculate how to pay off a loan, and how much interest will cost you. You could use this to compare different lenders based on their terms of payment.

More templates are available from the Office web site (office.microsoft.com) – not only for Excel but also for Word and PowerPoint. They are organised by topics such as Finance and Accounting, or Orders and Inventory, and subtopics which help you find what you need from the hundreds of templates available.

One thing to note is that to download templates from Microsoft’s site you will need the Office CD that was used to install Excel on your machine. Another reason to make sure that whoever sells you a computer includes installation CDs!

Using templates that other people have made and share means you do not have to reinvent the wheel. However, it is worthwhile learning a little about making templates in case you find that what you need isn’t available. Learning a
little more will also let you make changes to existing templates – a lot of people use the same invoice template for example – you can make your business look more professional.

Originally published in Arusha Times 289